LONDON — Britain’s seemingly perpetual defense review showed no sign of coming to a conclusion July 19 when the government published what it referred to as an ‘update’ on progress toward completing its Modernising Defence Program, but not the real deal.
The government has been saying for a while they would only be publishing headline conclusions of the review aimed at adapting Britain’s defense sector to a fast changing and increasingly complex international security situation.
The five page document released in Parliament had next to no detail and talked in generalities about the way ahead.
As one political lobbyist said, “the government has only published this now because they said they would; it doesn’t take us a whole lot further forward than where we were yesterday.”
Jon Louth, the director of the defence industries and society program at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, agreed it was all very generic.
“I’m not surprised they have taken this approach," he said. “The key is in the word ‘program.’ For a program you need to understand the budget numbers. Obviously that’s the missing ingredient. I think we will all have to wait for the government’s Autumn spending review to see what meat is added to that bone.”
He added: “It looks very much like there has been no recent discussion about money between the prime minister, the chancellor and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson money as far as I can tell."
In the worst scenario, albeit unlikely, the MoD has a black hole of more than £20 billion in the equipment plan over the next 10 years, according to the National Audit Office, the Government spending watchdog. To bridge the spending gap, Williamson has been trying to wring extra cash out of a largely unsympathetic Chancellor Philip Hammond, an ex-defence secretary, and Prime Minister Theresa May.
Having missed their original deadline of announcing the headlines of the review in time for the NATO summit in Brussels earlier this month, the Conservative government here released a written statement to Parliament just a few days ahead of when lawmakers head for their summer recess.
The MDP headlines are part of a long cycle of reviews of strategy documents that have been underway at the MoD for more than a year and look likely to go on for a few months yet.
In early July ex-defence procurement minister Philip Dunne published an MoD commissioned review of industries role in the economic prosperity of Britain.
At the start of this week the MoD unveiled a combat air strategy, the centerpiece of which is to have a British-led sixth generation fighter ready for action by around 2035.
The government minister also said this week that a defense space strategy, which has been sitting around awaiting publication for a while, will see the light of day later this summer.
The MDP itself was originally part of a wider national security capability review which got underway last year. Defense was split out at the tail end of 2017 into a standalone review dubbed the Modernising Defence Programme. To that can now be added what the MoD is calling a Defence Technology Framework, which will set out the department’s technology priorities to focus efforts and guide strategy, investment and plans across defense as a whole, according to the statement.
The document said the MoD would invest more on innovation, science and technology and launch a series of what it calls ‘spearhead’ initiatives on key new technologies.
"Hinting at a technology strategy is a good thing, but for that strategy to take wings with the future combat aircraft, missile defense and all of the other things, is dependent on the financing being available,” said Louth.
“The idea there will be a focus on science and technology is dependent on the private sector being at the heart of that," he added. “The private sector can’t really mobilize until it sees the program lines. That’s the missing piece. Money is the elephant in the room. if there is no new money for defense in Autumn, they will have to make cuts.”
The MoD statement said the MDP has reviewed the changing strategic context and how the U.K.’s military needs to be able to respond.
“We have reviewed our existing capability plans, and begun to shape new policy approaches and identify investment priorities, and through work streams, we have developed a blueprint for a major programme of top-down transformative reform to defence,” said the statement.
It seems the detailed conclusions of the MDP work could be announced piecemeal.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the Parliamentary statement that he would keep "the House updated as decisions are made.”
A spokesman for the MoD said no decision on exactly how it will be published have been finalized.
"As we continue to work through the next phase of the MDP we will decide on how best to share it," he said.
Louth said he didn't think they will tie the whole thing up in a big bow and present it.
"That could change if the MoD gets a reasonable financial settlement. If that does happen then they will possibly make a grander announcement, but that’s a big if,” he said.