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The MOD's bad habits run deep – it's time for the government to deliver on defence

Shadow defence secretary John Healey says there is a real risk of government throwing good money after bad in defence | Adobe Stock

4 min read

The government’s integrated review (IR) was billed as the most radical reassessment of the UK’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War.

We needed a strategic stocktake because the last two Conservative defence reviews weakened the foundations of our armed forces – cutting our full-time armed forces by 45,000, cutting the defence budget by £8bn in real terms, and cutting critical defence capabilities and upgrades, largely to deal with budget pressures. 

The Prime Minister promised an end to this era of retreat, yet I fear the government is set to repeat many of the same mistakes; on the size of our forces, on finances and ultimately on meeting the challenges of an increasingly dangerous world. 

The Prime Minister said at the launch of the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign: “We will not be cutting our armed forces in any form. We will be maintaining the size of our armed forces.” Yet the strength of our armed forces is being cut again, alongside crucial military capabilities. 

The IR is clear that threats to Britain are increasing, and our forces will be forward-deployed further from home, yet their plan is for fewer troops, fewer ships and fewer planes in the coming years. Our armed forces are rightly respected worldwide for their professionalism and all-round excellence, but size matters. Our full-time forces are already nearly 10,000 below the strength that ministers said in 2015 was needed to meet the threats Britain faces.

Lord Richards, former chief of the defence staff, set out the consequences starkly when he said that “further cuts to the army would mean the UK was no longer taken seriously as a military power,” and “this would damage our relationship with the US and our position in Nato”. 

The government is right to spell out that grey zone warfare, terrorism, climate change and organised crime mean threats to our national security and international stability are becoming less conventional, less predictable and more continuous.

But full-spectrum society resilience requires training, planning and exercising that must be led by the government and involve private industry, local agencies and the public. Some countries are ahead of us with such civil-military strategies for the grey zone. We need to see greater leadership from ministers in meeting this challenge. 

This is true also on space and cyber, which are now rightly recognised as operational domains of warfare, with equal status to land, sea and air: but they’re domains in which we, as a country, cannot rely on centuries of tradition and experience. We’ll need to compete hard to maintain parity with potential adversaries, and we’ll have to collaborate closely with chosen allies. 

Labour welcomed the extra £16.5bn in defence capital spending but there is a real risk of government throwing good money after bad. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) budget was balanced in 2012, but the National Audit Office (NAO) has now judged the defence equipment plan “unaffordable” for four years in a row, and it reports a black hole of up to £17bn. This has ballooned by £4bn in the last two years alone.

Ministers like to talk about the rise in capital funding, but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next four years. That is the Achilles’ heel of the government’s defence plans. There will be consequences in revenue funding for forces recruitment, training, pay and family support as well as the maintenance and support work that industry provides to keep vital defence capabilities in full working order. 

The MOD’s bad habits run deep. Only three of its 30 major projects, together worth a staggering £162bn, are on time and on budget. It is no good in two years’ time if the NAO still says the military equipment plan is unaffordable and there is a black hole in the defence budget. More of the same is not an option. The challenge for the MOD now is delivery, delivery, delivery. 

John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, and shadow defence secretary


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