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Realigning the strategic and the urgent in defence spending

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Paul Mason | 22:38 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Two things struck me about today's ministerial statement on defence spending. This was a major announcement, reprioritising the MoD's resources to provide 22 more Chinook helicopters, doubling the number of Reaper drones available to troops in Afghanistan, plus tooling up the army with the kit they have been presumably been asking for: more body armour, night-vision sensors, robot devices for detecting and defusing roadside bombs.

The first thing that struck me was the speed with which the Labour back benches cleared as Bob Ainsworth rose to speak. I did not spot any other cabinet minister alongside him and in background was a sea of green leather. The opposition benches were swarming with MPs all too ready to lay into the government and the Treasury, which has asked Mr Ainsworth to cut from core spending to meet urgent requirements in Afghanistan.

Mr Ainsworth, the fourth Defence Secretary since 2006, is finding out how lonely it is to be making these tough decisions. But in truth he is only trying to deal with a long-term legacy: Britain has been trying to run an army, navy and air force at the scale of a major global power, equipped for big war - at the same time as fighting counter-insurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, peacekeeping in various parts of the world, and maintaining commitments to NATO in Germany, and the European Union.

Successive governments have recognised the problems for defence procurement this dilemma poses - but struggled to do anything about them.

Today a NAO report flayed the governement for "saving" money by delaying projects, which then end up costing much more. It showed that the MoD faces a potential gap in funding of £36bn - between what it's decided to buy and how much money it has to spend. And that's only if the next government does not actually cut defence spending.

Everybody I've spoken to today recognises that there's an urgent need for a Strategic Defence Review. All parties are pledged to having one - but it will not be the same kind of exercise as Labour's initial review, in 1998.

Today some very tough choices are being posed acutely, as demonstrated by the issue of what kind of wheeled armoured vehichles the army needs, and when.

The Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles rushed into service in Afghanistan represent, at one level, an effective response to a new threat - the Taliban's turn to IEDs. But at a strategic level, as it committed troops to Helmand, the MoD was also in the middle of a long-term project to re-equip the army with a whole new range of wheeled vehicles, known as FRES, and based on a system popular in European armies known as the Piranah 5. In May 2008, General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the defence staff said:

"Whilst our Protected Personnel Vehicles such as Mastiff are a very successful addition to meet specific operational requirements in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is the FRES medium weight capability which will allow the Army to conduct a considerably wider range of operations in an uncertain and changing world. I am therefore delighted that we are maintaining progress on this vital programme."

But progress has stalled. The main phase of FRES has been scaled back, indefinitely, with only the most urgently required "Specialist Vehicles" (engineering, recce and ambulances) now in development. In part it was due to disagreements with contractor, General Dynamics: but in part, as John Hutton implied in a commons statement last December, it was a victory of the urgent over the strategic:

"We have concluded that, in the context of current operations, and bearing in mind the considerable recent investment in protected mobility, the highest priority should now be accorded to delivering the Warrior capability sustainment programme and the FRES scout vehicle as quickly as possible." (the Warrior being the army's existing tracked armoured fighting vehicle).

The fate of the wider FRES programme will be decided in the Strategic Defence Review, but note the change of emphasis: a year ago the chief of staff was saying - Mastiff good, big new next-generation vehicle designed from scratch much better. One armour brigadier was quoted on the MoD website proclaiming: "FRES represents the equipment heart of the future Army". Now the emphasis is make do and mend: "good-enough solutions" as they are called in business.

I have often wondered why it is so difficult for military planners and politicians to make these tough choices in the context of geo-political, strategic and military priorities. But that question was partially answered by the other thing that struck me in the Commons today.

At a certain point during the debate on the MoD budget the House of Commons filled up again. MPs on both sides were keen to speak. What they were keen to speak on was the future of specific projects that guaranteed jobs in their own constituencies - the Conservatives tending to be worried about RAF bases; Labour - and above all Scottish Labour - tending to be delighted at the assurances that the aircraft carrier building programme is safe.

It was a reminder that, for successive governments, defence procurement has been about jobs - and the retention of strategically vital skills in the UK. The idea that the UK should buy more off-the-peg equipment and reinvent the wheel less has been seen as heretical. Yet in Afghanistan - with the Mastiff, the Reaper drones and now with the new Chinooks, which will not be built in the UK - off the peg is what we've got.

As for the future of the Queen Elizabeth II Class carriers, the Joint-Strike Fighter, Trident and various other big-ticket bespoke items: these are certain to become major political flashpoints as politicians face up to the reality of the gap between taxation and spending.


  • Comment number 1.


    (1) Brown has calculated that appearing to back the squaddies will win votes.

    (2) Brown has calculated that appearing not to back the squaddies will lose votes.

    Either way, saintly Manseman Brown is being coldly calculating. It is all about power. Not power to do good for us, but power for power's sake.
    The party system will ALWAYS elevate the 'wrong stuff' - and we are stuffed. SPOIL PARTY GAMES.

  • Comment number 2.

    My views


    I don't want to go against grain, but looking at the delivery dates for the helicopters , it's staggered , I would suggest these are no more than replacement helicopters given the harsh environment (heat and sand) and the doubling of hours they are being flown for on current operations.

    So,if the helicopters are being replaced early due to them being flown at a higher tempo, in a harsh environment on operations, why is the Treasury Contingency Fund not paying for the replacements ?

    Extra Equipment

    All very needed and good , but at what long term cost to the other branches of the armed services ?

    Procurement and Limited Resources

    You might like to look at the requirements we have to meet for the EU's industrial , foreign and security policy , here's a good starting point.

    I am sure there are advantages for European Defence cooperation, but politicians do get carried away with their political ambitions (dreams) which tends to lead to extra red tape and higher costs rather than the readiness, effectiveness and price of supplied services or equipment.

    Just a thought.

  • Comment number 3.

    should the uk be fighting liberal interventionist wars with no plan, no funding and no intellectual architecture or science of nation building?
    which is what we have been doing?

    the purpose of defence is to defend the uk. no engage in vanity if not illegal projects driven by middle east politics agendas.

    the neocons want to sabotage the uk army by making it an 'endless war against muslims' machine. a kind of global IDF.

    which means turning the army from a fighting force of manoeuvre into an occupation force [sitting in big armoured vans waiting to be blown up].

    the uk has the right equipment if it stops fighting liberal interventionist wars. Didn't A RAND report show [posted on here a while back] 'anti terrorist' activity is a police and counter intelligence matter and not a military one?

    sure people wish to look at the liberal interventionist wars of iraq and afghanistan and say we don't have the right equipment. we shouldn't have.

  • Comment number 4.

    What we need is a strategic review of our foreign policy and our subservient relationship with America first. UK needs to adjust this to reflect the realities of our global status and of course our current and future economic strength. An excercise in escaping from denial and fantasy. Strategic defence review logically follows.

  • Comment number 5.

    In retaining our permanent seat on the UN Security Council we implicitly and practically commit ourselves to punch above our weight on the world stage in security operations. We need to ask ourselves whether we can continue this. When, as with the debate on Europe,opinion-formers say : unless you sit at the top you wont influence the new international institutions to protect our national interest - we need to ask ourselves, can our economy afford and justify super-power commitments or should we be more modest and pare-down to the role of loyal servant to a pan-european/nato commitment properly authorised.The deal will be that others take a larger role ( France, even Germany maybe).

    Closer to home,the MoD has a substantially overheated equipment programme with too many types of equipment being ordered for too large a range of tasks at too high a specification. It systematically underestimates the costs of its equipment needs and over-orders. As it almost never cancels an equipment order, those doing the ordering do not have the constraints to disincentivise their behaviour.When the inflated costs hit the annual budget limits the response is to slow down spending across the programmes. These are the conclusions of the Gray Review.Astonishing! This is a serious flaw and could explain why the right stuff has not been getting to the lads in Helmand.

    If "off the peg" equipment does the job, so be it. Our lavishly endowed defence industries should sharpen their pencils to make sure they can provide and deliver in a competitive framework.

    Thanks for raising the issue, Paul.

  • Comment number 6.


    #5 "In retaining our permanent seat on the UN Security Council we implicitly and practically commit ourselves to punch above our weight on the world stage"

    To put that another way: If Britain's political posturers are so desperate to sit at the GLOBOPOLY table, and play with the big boys (to feed egos, not nurture the state) there will be a cost - paid by the ordinary people, deemed FALSELY to be DEMOCRATICALLY behind the charade.

    We are still LIVING WITHIN THE LIE.

    Until we dismantle the Westminster ethos (monarch to close Palace of Westminster, or incandescent Military Moguls to gather disaffected squaddies, and march on London) this will go on - and on. At the next election, we proles can do our bit if we elect INDEPENDENTS to


  • Comment number 7.

    I was in the Korean war which at the time seemed worth fighting. However if we look at Vietnam and what a success that Country has become after the withdrawal of foreign adventurers it begs the question should we ever become involved in any Countries internal affairs. We need to just protect our own borders to prevent over population etc, and yes, keep our nuclear deterrent, so that we can take out any Country that attacks us. Tough but essential.

  • Comment number 8.


    yes the big lie is that if we pull out everything will go to chaos [what is it now?]. there will be initial blood letting but after that it'll settle down.

    but the FO is a neocon castle so its more war without end.

  • Comment number 9.

    'THE HARPY PRINCESS' (A Christmas Tale of shrill dominance.)

    Harperson proved herself a prize performer of party games at PMQs.

    Almost every answer became "na na na-an nah" WE are not like THEM LOT.
    Is this what we want? Small wonder no one with half a marble votes. Where is that ABSTAIN box on the ballot paper?

    SPOIL PARTY GAMES. (Wipe the smile off a Harpy in 2010.)

  • Comment number 10.

    Asymmetric Economic Warfare.

    1)Irregular army armed with "off the peg" AK47's, mopeds, IED's,flipflops, and a resolute ideology is funded by profits from illegal drug trade, and handouts from oil rich malcontents.

    2)Post Imperial regular army, armed with state of art, hi tech killing technology, founded on dissolute and contingent ideology, funded by debt.

    Who will break first ?

  • Comment number 11.

    SUPER INDEED! (#10)

    Nothing to add.

  • Comment number 12.

    I always find it amazing how so little is made of the non lethal technologies now available for 'warfare'.

    It would appear we would rather invest in killing each other rather than temporary incapacitating each other followed by some attempt a re-education followed by release.

    Humans are so wierd in that the second option seems more frightening than the first..why is that?...

    Most people dont want to accept the answer to that question.

    These things run much deeper than most realise.

  • Comment number 13.


    "These things run much deeper than most realise"

    Did we all hear Bob Marshall Andrews mention Geneva at PMQs?

    In the space full of absent hear-hears, that followed, you could just pick up: "Geneva, Schgeneva!"

  • Comment number 14.



    Deliberately so, I did not want to remind everyone what life under labour is like, it is bad enough as it is without rubbing it in.

  • Comment number 15.

    Drat, I caught the last 10 seconds of Paul's report on Greece - wished that Newsnight had better signalled that it was on the programme tonight. Probably will have forgot about it by tomorrow when it may or may not appear on the iplayer.

    Sorry, but every time you have your nice Green correspondent come on and tell us how he has given up his car - lives in London with a public transport system that every other part of the UK envies - then I simply switch off Newnight. I simply can't take any more of well-paid luvvies in the media with 'Notting Hill lives' telling people in Swansea, Bradford, Dundee, etc, that we need to give up cars and get on bikes - have you seen the size of the hills in Wales, Scotland and the North of England!?

    Frankly, the sovereign debt possibilities for Greece, Eire and the other Southern European countries is the more immediate danger. If they go then we will be the next in line and if we have a sovereign debt crisis then no one is going to be worrying about the planet in 2010 when the country has gone under.


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