The popular press in the UK today is shouting out against the government, with headlines like “Army Reduced to Lowest Level Since the 1700s” and “Armed Forces Now Too Small to be Credible.” The Defence Command paper released by the MoD yesterday certainly cuts Army manpower (by 10,000) to 72,500 by 2025, guts the RAF’s fleet of manned aircraft in favour of unmanned solutions and invests further in the Royal Navy, as the current government’s chosen instrument of power projection.
So the headlines are true – to a degree. It’s also true they miss the point. This Integrated Review has been an inevitability since the get-go and – despite the government’s voluble and repeated protests to the contrary – is driven by money or, rather, the lack thereof. Were that not the case, the cuts would not have been as severe as they appear to be, and the switch to “innovative technologies” would have been rather better funded. The truth is that this government – and, to be brutally honest, just about any other government of any alternative political hue – cannot manage to continue to fund defence in the way it should, faced with a panoply of unforeseen items of expenditure and extreme uncertainty regarding a return to a ‘normal’ tax base. The £37 billion spent (for which read “wasted”) on a failed and ill-conceived “Test and Track” programme as a measure designed to curb COVID infection rates equates to almost a year’s funding for UK defence. The government borrowed more money in January this year than at any other period in history.
The defence enterprise has not helped itself, either. The litany of failed programmes and monumental waste of resources, rejection of advice and refusal to consider alternative methodologies is, unfortunately, coming home to roost in the form of a lack of MoD credibility in the eyes of Treasury – and, indeed, those of much of government. That is not meant to be an overly harsh indictment, rather a reflection of defence realpolitik à la 2021. No matter how you dress up former programmes as having “informed” or “underpinned” current initiatives, the unconscionable waste of resources – in armoured vehicles, for instance, the TRACER, FRES and MRAV programmes spring to mind, as does the off-again, on-again approach to MIV/BOXER – has a price. And that price is now being paid, at the behest of a government that insists on characterising the review as an investment in innovative, technological defence – another example of the contract between rhetoric and reality.
We are to believe that the review has been driven by an analysis of the threats we currently confront or expect to see emerge. And that has certainly been a component of the thinking that has led to the measures published yesterday – no question of that. But the entire defence enterprise now has the mindset “we must make do – we have to do more with less – we can’t actually afford what we need to mount a comprehensive defence.” Whether it is the disappearance of more “boots on the ground” or “wings in the air,” the inability to refight past conflicts, so beloved of the armchair commentator (the ability we need to have is how to fight the next conflict – of whatever scale and nature) or the fact that we are ridding ourselves early of equipment whose price we previously justified on the basis of its extended service life, the driving force behind the Defence Command paper is economy.
And it should surprise nobody that this is the case. This train crash has been happening in slow motion for over a decade. And – just like the concept of “an adequate defence for all eventualities” – nobody has had the will, the vision or even the knowledge to do anything about it. In the interests of fairness, there are a number of initiatives contained within these measures that are laudable and worthy of support. Some of them may even survive the next review!
Defence is an insurance policy – and Great Britain has just announced to the world that it can’t afford the premiums.
Tim Mahon – Editor-in-Chief, Military Technology