UK Politics

War on waste as government overhauls MoD

Few are in any doubt that the MoD needs reform; as one defence source puts it, "nothing could be worse" than the current system.

It has helped land the MoD in the centre of a constant round of headlines about poor financial planning, weak management of equipment projects, inter-service rivalries and a system that does not seem to deliver as much as it should in terms of equipment and forces, despite the UK having the world's fourth largest defence budget.

It is a department which in recent years seems to have lost respect across much of Whitehall, not least for an apparent inability to control its spending or account for what was being spent each week or month - until very recently.

It is, though, a department with a unique remit, in which world events and the enemy have a vote in even the most carefully-laid plans, which can throw spending and personnel or equipment decisions into question, as a strategic shock emerges or new war is embarked on.

It is also a department in which several different constituencies often do battle - sometimes in public, sometimes in private - for primacy or their share of an declining pot of cash.

Toxic mix

The different visions and sometimes competing interests of the individual services, civil servants, politicians, as well as the tensions between the MoD and other government departments such as the Treasury, can make for a toxic mix which is not good for defence as a whole.

The stated aim of these reforms is to try to streamline, slim down and make Britain's forces and the MoD work together more jointly in the way they conduct defence.

They are also part of wider reforms at the MoD - following on from the strategic defence review - with a basing review; a reserves review; the "three-month exercise" - a financial review of how much more remains to be done to square the circle on defence funding in the coming years; and a procurement review, all due to report back in the next few weeks and months.

All this comes at a time of immense upheaval amongst MoD civilians and uniformed personnel, as the defence cuts announced in the strategic defence and security review last year start to bite - getting rid of 25,000 civil servants and 17,000 servicemen and women by 2015.

So implementing these complex reforms, not least while the UK is at war on two fronts, will be a challenge.

Their outcome also depends on the spirit in which they are put into practice.

Taking the single service chiefs off the defence board to be represented by one joint uniformed voice in the person of Gen Sir David Richards, while upping the number of politicians and civilians, may be acceptable as a streamlining measure, but only as long as the individual chiefs genuinely are empowered to run their own services and have more control over their own budgets.

If they are not, and this is later perceived as a way of exiling the chiefs from Whitehall and the heart of the MoD's decision-making, it could lay the foundations for more trouble ahead.

The government also needs to be aware that not all the problems have been caused by the MoD's own structure, but also by the armed forces consistently being asked to do more than had been planned for since 1997.

Many in defence say it is time the current government looks seriously at making sure it does align the UK's ambitions on the global stage and as a military power with the resources it is giving to the armed forces and defence as a whole - otherwise the same mistakes risk happening again.

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