Even before the credit crunch the MoD’s budgets and equipment plans were little more than wishful thinking, as they so often had been. In the past the MoD has muddled through, a cut in numbers here, a de-specification there, a bit of last minute deal or two and business proceeded as usual.
What we have witnessed in recent weeks is the result of a perfect storm of contributing factors
- Ongoing operations
- Cost over runs
- Economic environment
- Potential change of government
Ongoing operations latterly in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan are extremely expensive. Without any end in sight, very little strategic direction or objective setting and continuing demands on both the military and civilian aid budgets these costs are beginning to be questioned. Although the cost of operations and Urgent Operational Requirements come directly from the Treasury reserve and not the main MoD budget there are obvious costs that are borne by the MoD. Changing rules concerning Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) funding also mean the cost of these equipments used for operations in Afghanistan may increasingly be born by the MoD.
Despite the so called Smart Procurement reforms, DE&S continues to preside over a number of capital equipment programmes that with a depressing inevitability go wildly over budget and delivery time. However much the MoD tries to shift wooden dollars around, change its accounting practices, de-spec equipment or simply buy less, the fact remains we seem incapable of getting value for money across a range of capabilities. All three services have skeletons in their procurement closets. The needs of the armed forces and the needs of the defence industrial base seems often to be at odds with industrial factors often ‘winning out’ against basic common military sense. The Treasury has consistently viewed the MoD as one of the most profligate wasters of money and whilst this is not always the case it is easy to find sympathy with their view.
Public spending is always under pressure and defence is no different. The percentage of GDP the UK devotes to defence has been steadily eroded over recent decades by different governments despite an almost constant drumbeat of operational deployments. There is a misconception that there is little political capital in defence spending and whilst it is true that for most voters the issue of health, wealth and education are more important, defence issues have the ability to galvanise opinion should individuals perceive the nation is not fully supporting the armed forces. Even with that said, the does not exist a strong domestic political imperative for increasing defence spending. The obvious pressure on public spending bought about by the credit crisis and general prevailing economic conditions is likely to hit discretionary spending departments like the MoD harder than most. Unemployment and associated benefits rise as recession bites resulting in pressure on the more predictable spending departments. Despite the political rhetoric about ‘Tory Cuts’ almost everyone with any grasp of reality understands that cuts in public spending are inevitable.
Although nothing in politics is ever certain it is looking increasingly unlikely that Labour will be returned to power after the next general election in 2010. The obvious favourite to form the next Government of the United Kingdom is the Conservative Party. One of the central themes of their campaign is that of public sector spending restraint and reduction. The Conservatives have already publically stated that Defence will not receive a free pass. Although they have committed to a long overdue strategic defence review, no such review since the end of World War II has resulted in an increase in spending so whatever talk of optimising or reprioritising the underlying message has always been, do with less.
Put these four factors together and it becomes obvious that the MoD is in for a tough time. There is simply no fat to trim in the usual manner of ‘salami slicing’
Something big is going to have to go.
The recent very public spats between the service chiefs is simply, from their perspective, getting their shots on target early, setting the agenda and protecting their own sacred cows. Despite the recent trend, both by design and necessity to joint or ‘purple’ operations when it comes to cuts, the services rarely think along the lines of joint capability or contribution but the usual tribal loyalty.
In the mainstream media the story is one of evil tight fisted politicians against the saintly armed forces who can make no mistakes yet are forced to soldier on with a scarcity of resources. Critical analysis on the strategic choices we face, its underpinning doctrine and supporting resources is as rare as hens teeth. It seems obvious that a long overdue defence review should first analyse our place in the world, what we aspire to and what we can realistically achieve but these seems absent.
Make no mistake, the Armed Forces are being squeezed and the pips are squeaking.
The situation we find ourselves in today is that of a complete mismatch between what our armed forces are expected to do, what they actually do, what`resources they have and crucially an almost complete absence of sensible debate.
But hey, I bet you know that the crew accommodation in the Type 45 Destroyer has iPod charging points!