Suggestions in recent weeks that HM Treasury is pressurising for a further 7.7% cut in defence spending over the five year period 2016-2021 would, if correct, be at complete odds with clear need to increase spending on defence and the unambiguous promise from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, made at the time SDSR 2010 defence cuts were announced, that real time spending on defence would rise by 1% annually through the following 2016 -2021 period.
On current expectations from a total 2015 UK public spending budget of £731bn spending on defence will total £45.6bn. Contrast this with spending by other government departments – £150bn on pensions, £133bn on healthcare, £90bn on education, £110bn on welfare and you will see that defence now comes way down the list. Put another way would be to say that while health, pensions, welfare and education mop up a total 65% of all public expenditure the 35% of rest that includes Defence, Justice, Transport, Trade and Industry, Administration, Culture, Environment, Housing, Environment, Overseas Aid together with the £8.6bn net contribution (£17.1bn gross – exclusive of the requested extra £1.7bn) that we pay to the EU together plus also, an anticipated £52bn interest cost of servicing the national debt.
To think that we spend less on defence today than on servicing the national debt is frightening enough but when we look at how spending on health has spiralled out of control (this has all but doubled since 1997) makes a very bad situation look very much worse.
Back in March this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne told us that spending on welfare will be capped at £119.5bn in 2015/16. But, even without any real increase being allowed which I find at odds with what is being said in other corridors of power, when inflation is added we may expect that health spending will actually rise to as much as £126bn over the following five years. This is as ridiculous as it is unaffordable.
We can all understand and support the need to balance the nations’ books and I genuinely commend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for what he has so far managed to achieve in halving the annual amount of government deficit. But I cannot accept that having already paired UK defence spending to the bone that, in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous geo-political world, be thoughts anywhere in the Whitehall compound that dares to believe we should be talking about cutting spending on defence further. Cut welfare, cut health and cut a number of other segments of public spending but the reality of what is going on in the outside world is that we and others need to spend more rather than less on defence.
Of course I can and do accept that there is always room to achieve greater efficiency in any government department and defence is no exception. Defence procurement is one such area that much attention is being spent to ensure that it is made more efficient. I am in no doubt that there is room to reduce the number of civil servants in defence, and that more aspects of defence could if necessary be privatised.
A tremendous amount of good work and effort has been put in since SDSR 2010 to achieve greater efficiency of operation within the armed forces. The service chiefs are now responsible for their own budgets and the defence spend process is not only accountable it is fully transparent as well. Operational changes in how capability is managed, directed and used have brought benefits too, and I include in this the standing up of Joint Forces Command in 2012. Cynics may like to lambast ‘Jointery’ but as I watch defence change I am in little doubt that there is great advantages to be had across our armed forces by their working more closely together wherever possible.
Industry is doing its bit too and one look at the improvements and greater efficiency in Navy shipbuilding should be enough to convince doubters that industry has kept its part of the bargain. Now though the fear is that ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review that will automatically kick in following the General Election next May, and that will produce the transcript of budget rules that will direct the SDSR 2015 process will attempt to further cut the defence budget as opposed to meeting the promises made in SDSR 2010 that the budget will be raised.
As I look at the situation in UK defence today and contend that the rising level of threats and increased tensions in many parts of the world can no longer be ignored we must recognise that just like the US and other large allies we must remain at the forefront of protecting all that we hold dear. While it may be hard to translate this into the thought that we might soon have an enemy on our doorstep, we must recognise the need for greater vigilance. Russia which has trebled its spending on defence over the past 15 years, should be an object of our concern. Ukraine is an ongoing issues and what is being played out in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere with ISIL impacts on all of us in terms of how we should see the need to be strong in defence.
We also have a duty of care to our NATO allies, to our dependent territories and to ensuring that international law is not violated. Our ability to involve our armed forces in the increasing number of humanitarian based requirements be they caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanoes or as the Royal Navy is doing right now in terms of providing assistance in Sierra Leone to fight Ebola, are typical of what a nation state such as ours and that is still one of the top ten economies in the world should be doing. Of course it is also right that we should be leaning on other NATO states to play a far larger part than they currently do in the defence of Europe, be that within or outside of Europe’s boundaries, but for now we must accept that we are and will likely remain the largest European contributor to NATO for some considerable time yet.
Whilst SDSR 2010 rightly confirmed that the two planned aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy would be built, that the planned number of Astute class submarines would be seven vessels and that development of the Type 23 Global Combat Ship that would eventually replace the existing fleet of 13 Type 23 frigates, the premature standing down of the three Type 22 frigates, the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal, the decision to scrap the in-build MRA4 Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability without putting in place a replacement, retiring the Royal Air Force fleet of GR9 Harrier aircraft, reducing Tornado GR4 capability and worse, the plan to cut the number of fast jet squadrons to just seven, when all the clear advice from those at the heart of defence had said that a minimum of nine squadrons would be required, are just some of the many aspects that have left UK defence capability seriously damaged. We cannot reverse all the damage and neither should we. But we must start to think ahead and realise that serious errors of judgement had been made in SDSR 2010 that now need to be addressed.
I could go on but suffice to say that it is my personal belief that back at the time of SDSR 2010 had the then Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal (now Marshall of the Royal Air Force) Sir Jock (now Baron) Stirrup known that the Mr. Cameron’s promise that following the severity of SDSR 2010 cuts that UK defence spending would increase in real terms by one percent in each of the years 2016 – 2021 might turn out to be an empty promise, he would never have signed off agreement to SDSR 2010.
As already said, whilst there must always be room to achieve greater efficiency in defence there can be no acceptance in my view of further pressure to cut capability. When I say that defence is already paired to the bone I mean just that. Yes, we have some fantastic new maritime and air equipment capability and more still to come but we just don’t have nearly enough of it. True, with UK armed forces having finished the mission in Afghanistan and now almost all back home there may be scope to consider more radical change in terms of Army personnel numbers but even so, I might suggest that this should be limited to perhaps halving the number of Reservists planned from a current 30,000 to say 15,000.
We already know that the Prime Minister has committed that both the planned aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will both now be commissioned and we may hope this does not turn out to be an empty promise as well. But at the same time we must also recognise that in terms of future maritime capability that the three planned Offshore Patrol Vessels for which contracts have now been placed are in addition to the planned number of thirteen Type 26 Global Combat Ships that through the 2021 to 2035 period will replace the existing fleet of Type 23’s. Each and every new ship planned is required just as is the new investment that BAE Systems has proposed for new facilities at Scotstoun. There must also be no tampering with the Successor programme of Trident replacement.
It is not all about spending on equipment capability either. We must invest in people and training too and we must also seek to better incentivise highly qualified service personnel that we need to stay within our armed services. We all need to better sell the concept of defence to the public and do more to bring the public on-side.
We need to put more effort into synthetic based training and without any doubt, a lot more effort into engineering support and training of skills. With aircraft numbers now paired in terms of numbers and availability those that remain are asked to do more and thus the cost of maintaining small fleets of aircraft increases. And yet we have cut and cut again the numbers of people that we need to support capability to the point that across the armed forces I would estimate that we are short of 30% of the engineers that we need.
Nowhere has this been made more apparent to me of late than the shortage of engineering personnel to support Sentry E3D aircraft operation at RAF Waddington. This is not just a problem for the Royal Air Force either as how ridiculous it is that, such is the shortage of available skilled engineering support in the Royal Navy, that a team of 36 highly skilled US Coastguard engineers will soon be working in the Royal Navy dockyard in Portsmouth supporting Type 23 frigates.
For the Royal Air Force, which has so often been the first port of call by the Government to provide conflict capability we must also address the seriousness of shortages faced in terms of fast jet squadrons. Last month 2 Squadron with its fantastic Tornado GR4 capability was given another extra year of life, but the reality is that we cannot do without one less Tornado until at least 2019. I have already written on this previously but the reality is that, as was the promise held out when the then Chief of the Air Staff reluctantly signed up to the SDSR 2010 cuts, that the plan was down to seven fast jet squadrons ahead of building up to nine. Will the Royal Air Force get the planned number of 48 F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ variants? I certainly hope that it will. What I do not want to see is one step forward two steps back. The Royal Air Force will eventually have the finest aircraft capability in Typhoon and JSF and nothing must be done that shifts away from what the Future Force 2020 intended.
CHW (London 4th November 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785