An open letter on defence

This is the text of an open letter to the prime minister signed by former senior officers, decorated service personnel and others, expressing concerns about the UK's current defence expenditure.

The nation hopes June's election will produce a government strong enough to conduct the tough Brexit negotiations, promote wider trading partnerships and maintain our security. Only in a secure environment can we develop new relationships and thrive. Sadly, that security is threatened in almost every corner of the globe.

The newly elected prime minister will be confronted with the need for a brutally honest appreciation of the budget for and capabilities of the UK's armed forces. A number of issues lead to this conclusion, not least the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on defence equipment procurement of 25 April.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) went a long way to restore the damage inflicted on Britain's defences by the 2010 Review. SDSR 15 charted a praiseworthy path towards our future security which, post referendum, with the need to seek wider world trading agreements, is ever more essential.

But, while the policy remains in place, events have shown that the necessary funding is simply not there to give it substance. Responses by the MOD to questions about the adequacy of the defence budget raised by respected and informed commentators have been disingenuous, evading the issue by the relentless quoting of irrelevant financial statistics.

The following issues must be addressed:

  • Global threats continue to intensify. They range from nuclear sabre rattling over Crimea to risks to the very existence of NATO. A failure to protect the Baltic States adequately and Turkey's open flirtation with hostile powers undermine this cornerstone of our national security. New extremist cells have emerged at home and added to Middle East chaos. China's assertiveness and N Korea's unpredictability pose existential threats to allies and to international trade.
  • Funding SDSR 15 relied on unidentified and economically questionable savings. Government boasts of spending 2% of GDP on defence are widely criticised as an accounting deception. Most analysts now agree core defence expenditure for hard military power is well below 2%.
  • The fall in the pound threatens the purchase of meaningful numbers of aircraft for our new carriers, the new Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the upgrading of Apache helicopters and the purchase of missiles for the replacement strategic deterrence submarines. While dollar expenditure has been hedged for this year, for future years it has not. The PAC report makes clear, that some $28.8bn of our foreign military purchases are exposed to currency fluctuations.
  • The PAC report states: "The affordability of the Equipment Plan is at greater risk than at any time since its inception." Nearly all the contingencies money has been exhausted, yet much of the programme involves essential new equipment whose cost, experience shows, is likely to grow.

The armed services are having to seek further very damaging savings in manpower, support and training at a time when the likelihood of combat operations is increasing. These realities of the security situation must be faced. They have been largely kept from public debate despite the efforts of the media and the valedictory messages of recently serving senior officers, pointing out how equipment and manpower shortages undermine Britain's ability to fight even a local war. Recent Royal United Services Institute war gaming confirms this view.

There may be a temptation to call for another Defence Review. We urge you not to do this. SDSR 15, as is widely recognised, set the right path for our long term security. The Labour government's excellent review of 1998 was later weakened by budgetary infighting involving the then chancellor. Let us not go down that devious political path again. The solution is simple: fund the review properly and if this means a commitment to increase expenditure over the lifetime of the Parliament, then do it. There can be no better foundation for a future which demands an outward looking and globally trading United Kingdom. Reversing any part of it will damage our international credibility, weaken our chances of forging strong global partnerships and further erode our ability to defend ourselves and our allies.

Yours sincerely,

General Sir Richard Barrons

Vice- Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce

Professor Michael Clarke, Former Director General, Royal United Services Institute

Professor Paul Cornish, Chief Strategist, City Forum Ltd

Chris Donnelly, Director Institute for Statecraft

Lt Gen Sir Robert Fulton

Major James Glancy CGM RM

Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon

Antony Hichens

Air Cdre Andrew Lambert

Frank Ledwidge, former Military Intelligence Officer and Author 'Losing Small Wars'

Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason

Professor Gwythian Prins, Emeritus Research Professor LSE

General Lord Richards

General Sir Michael Rose

Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Professor International Relations, University of St Andrews

Major-General Julian Thompson RM

Cayle Royce MBE (Cpl - Army)

Edward Argles MBE (Capt)

Peter Dunning RM (LCpl)

Clifford Kamara (Maj - Army)