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A defence review by another name?

Mark Urban | 18:26 UK time, Wednesday, 15 October 2008


People in Whitehall are expecting the financial crisis to produce spending cuts in several departments. For the Ministry of Defence this promises to be another difficult episode in which prestigious projects may be axed or delayed and critics denounce it as a 'Treasury-led' exercise, i.e. one designed to produce savings rather than to re-think Britain's military needs.

Even before the recent stock market rollercoaster, many people at the MoD were expecting a bloody spending round. Projected equipment costs for the next ten years are said to be something like £35bn over the available budget, creating a huge gap that must be addressed.

Add to this that many senior officers are intensely frustrated that they have been operating for years outside the department's Defence Planning Assumptions - the tasks set out by the last major defence review ten years ago which the forces were financed to perform - and it is clear that some of the top brass would even welcome the chance to cut back commitments or equipment projects as part of a coherent rethink of what missions the forces are required to perform.

Now though the Government is girding itself for recession, with its plunging tax revenues and for a huge rise in its borrowing, these arguments have become more pointed in the corridors of MoD.

"All options are now on the table", reports one senior insider, meaning that prestige projects previously thought safe (such as the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers, future batches of the RAF's Typhoon fighter or the Army's plan for a future family of armoured vehicles) may now be cut back.

Those who would prefer the axe to fall upon the Royal Navy's Trident submarine replacement plan note ruefully that their new boss, Defence Secretary John Hutton, represents Barrow in Furness where Britain's nuclear subs are built.

In fact, the problems are so profound that constituency interest is hardly likely to prove decisive, and indeed that axing the Trident replacement plan would not in itself be enough.

Many Whitehall defence policy types would like there to be a full blown review in which the Defence Planning Assumptions are rewritten and the forces' duties redefined in keeping with these cash starved times.

People close to this debate tell me, however, that this type of exercise is not likely to happen. Both because the amount of MoD staff work required to do this could take anything up to 18 months, and the Government does not wish to cut defence in this way as it runs towards a general election. Many had hoped indeed to postpone a defence review until after the election (which must happen by June 2010).

Now the signs are that the public spending position is too desperate and the MoD too over-committed to leave things for that long. So stand by for a 'rethink' in the first half of next year.

The withdrawal of British combat troops from Iraq (expected in May-June next year) will allow commitments to be trimmed a little. At the same time something will have to give on the equipment budget leading to the inevitable 'hard choices' between future projects.

Some think this may have to be given a philosophical or policy gloss of a shift away from preparing for high intensity, inter-state conflict with its expensive weapon systems - and acceptance that 'stability operations' such as the Afghanistan deployment will define future equipment needs for many years to come.

The thinking therefore is moving towards a defence review by another name, something that will most likely produce howls of outrage from Conservative politicians because, they might argue, it has been based on the need to save money rather than on the right kind of military rethink.

In truth though, cutbacks in defence now seem inevitable, with all of the bad political waves that could create when the forces are fighting and dying overseas.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's not just the military. Britain's universities are really worried that their funding, particularly for research, is going to be slashed

  • Comment number 2.


    How much of the defence industry is non-OFFensive - one way or another?

    Does 'civilisation' have a definition? Is it: "You are either with us or against us. If the latter, we will destroy you, your women and children, your works (of millennia) and safe movement in your lands' for centuries to come - just in case."

    What is the value of poverty summits, aid summits, climate summits, trade summits and monetary summits (beloved of JGB) if we are going to lay waste, to the rest of the world, with our defence weapons FOR WANT OF SANITY SUMMITS?

    That swaggering, hubristic Britain is a centre of monetary craft AND hideous weaponry design-and-deployment, should be of primary concern to SOtM, World Saviour J Gordon Brown. That it is not, must give pause. But I doubt if there is even one think-tank lifting a sponge finger in pursuit of eradicating this obscene national stance.

  • Comment number 3.


    So Labour refused to hold a SDR when they commit our forces into two concurrent wars from a (post Berlin Wall) peace time funding of the late 1990's , to when now (Boom has been and gone) Bust comes along (and what a Bust it is), it's "Quick, slash the defence budget yet more" !

    Labour would have you believe that spending our money on defence procurement doesn't fund dual use research projects or provide jobs or provide hard export currency or even keeps us and our interests safe ?

    All the time we see the Olympics (being bailed out how many times ?) , EU rebate given up, ID Cards (because of EU open Borders policy),foreign aid increases, abuse of the benefit system, general waste in the public sector, the list of Labours waste just goes on and on.

    Brown and co are dangerous ,after the 1929 crash the clock started ticking towards world war 2 and showing weakness now is a sure way to repeat the same mistakes our forefathers made all those years ago.

    This smell of desperation by Brown and probably a acknowledgement that the £790 billion he has used to support the banks in recent months, we are not going to get all of it back !

  • Comment number 4.

    The idea that the UK military is going to have to or want to annihilate great tracts of the planet in the foreseeable future is pure fantasy. It follows that investment in Trident is a complete waste of public money spent purely to perpetuate the illusion of great power status for an age of brinkmanship that has long gone.

    Your point about cutting Trident not being enough on it's own is well made but it is a good start. If the Royal Navy is going to continue to have a major role, give it the aircraft carriers which are genuinely useful and forget all this doomsday scenario weaponry.

    As to Barrow-in-Furness, while I do not want to see people put out of work, it is preferable to wasting many millions on securing Mr. Hutton's electoral prospects.

  • Comment number 5.

    #4 threnodio

    I am actually for an independent nuclear deterrent. But as Trident isn't that independent (we need US permission to shoot back) I tend to agree.

    Without sounding hysterical about it there is also the factor that if Scotland should go independent in 2010 where would we put it? Plymouth in the Channel?

    Scottish independence is actually another factor in the spending review as I assume some Scottish regiments would disappear. Perhaps some radar bases and the new RAF base.

    Probably the Scots would do a temporary lease but I would think that that factor alone complicates the hell out of a defence review.

    The fact that Brown signed up for the aircraft carriers and before the ink was barely dry is thinking of canceling them shows he had no idea whatever that the economic crisis was coming.

  • Comment number 6.

    I know that a week is a long time in an economic crisis but last night's political interview suggested increased (maintained) defence spending as part of the 'new Keynsian model'.

    But defence contacts, while good for unethical shareholders, actually provide comparatively few jobs, for the govt money spent; and it is a govt money going into an unknown hole, with the double opacity bind of 'national security' and 'commercial confidentiality.

    And even worse if it's for overseas sales, at risk to UK taxpayers under Export Credit Guarantees ( 51% in UK are for arms exports).

    So , unless Brown can think up another life and resource wasting, earth detroying war -maintaining or increasing Defence spending is pretty hard to justify, at this point.

    Perhaps you could question this.

  • Comment number 7.

    #5 - thegangofone

    The Scottish Independence issue is one I raised on another blog some time back. I can only imagine that the rump UK would have to try and negotiate something along the lines the Russians did for Kaliningrad in order to have a base for the Baltic Fleet - small enclave around Holy Loch ('There is some corner of a foreign field . . .' etc?)

    I have always rather assumed that there would be some kind of common defence accord but whether that could extend to nuclear capability is another question.

    I must confess I did not know we needed permission from the States to use a weapons system we had bought and paid for. Do they have some control over the arming codes or is it just protocol? (Mr. President would you mind if we just . . . ?).

  • Comment number 8.

    Comrade Brown should get his priorities right.
    The reason 10 RAF men are dead is we would not spend the money to fit the safety measures to the planes.
    The MOD has now pledged to retrospectively fit all RAF Hercules with ESF - at a cost of about £500,000 per plane.
    That’s lot of money...
    But then we have plenty of money.

    According to the BBC.
    Comrade Brown has announced a new package of development aid for India, worth £825m. This money is primarily to educate Indian girls.
    Very Laudable.

    However, in light of the decision by India's space agency to send its first unmanned space probe Chandrayaan-1 to the moon, (at a cost of 80 million dollars) it is questionable whether they need our aid.
    It is legitimate to ask why we are paying to educate the children of a country that can afford a space program, when we can not protect our military people because of a lack of resources.
    It’s a matter of priorities.

  • Comment number 9.

    I have seen those stories about job creation through increased 'Keynsian' spending too and it suggests to me that there is a vigorous argument going on about where to cut and by how much. I believe there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that defence spending is not a particularly efficient way of creating jobs - high speed railway links and the government's school building programme are suggested as more efficient ways of turning pounds into employment.

    we don't need American permission to use our nuclear weapons but the UK is dependent in a broader sense on US techonology and cooperation - eg our missiles come from a common pool run by the Americans in Maine, and the nuclear warheads check their position by GPS satellites shortly after launch. All of this suggests the US could throttle British capability if they wanted to, but not that they could stop Britain from firing a missile at, say, Iceland, tomorrow if it wanted to.

    Prof Valdiny
    I believe the UK foreign aid budget may be cut too. I think your questions about aid are perfectly fair - perhaps you should fire them off to the Dept for International Development !

  • Comment number 10.

    I think there will be many cuts in the UK foreign aid budget and right across the departments in the United Kingdom.


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