LONDON — Britain is getting a new defense procurement minister after a Conservative government reshuffle that concluded Tuesday.
Guto Bebb, 49, takes over from Harriett Baldwin as undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Defence at a crucial time for British procurement. The government is expected to delay a decision about providing additional defense funding in order to head off potentially major capability and program cuts required to get a budget black hole under control.
Bebb has been a parliamentarian since 2010 and represents Aberconwy in north Wales. He ran an economic development consultancy before he became a member of Parliament.
Like most of his predecessors ahead of their appointment to the post, the new procurement minister has no apparent defense experience. He was previously undersecretary of state at the Welsh Office.
Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting, said not knowing the subject is the biggest immediate challenge for Bebb.
“He’s in a new post at a critical time. It means he is in a six-month-deep learning curve in the middle of what is likely to be a very contentious defense review with high budgetary pressure,” she said.
Lack of defense knowledge, however, didn’t stop recent former holders of the post like Philip Dunn and Peter Luff, who became highly regarded for their skills.
There will be few tears over Baldwin’s departure. She once confided at a dinner attended by Defense News that she was always being compared to Dunn, her predecessor. One industry executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the comparison would not have been favorable.
Ashbourne-Walmsley said Baldwin was “quite enthusiastic, but not so good on delivery. I don’t think she ever got to grips with the complexity of defense procurement.”
The new procurement minister, who has a £14 billion (U.S. $19 billion) annual budget for equipment procurement and support, didn’t lose any time getting to grips with his brief. His first external engagement just hours after his Jan. 9 appointment was to attend an Airbus new year reception in London, where he met several leading industry figures.
But Bebb does face major challenges on the procurement front.
A mini-review of defense and security strategy, which should have been completed late last year, has morphed into something much bigger with the recently appointed defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, becoming embroiled in a bitter fight with Chancellor Philip Hammond over additional funding for the Ministry of Defence.
It is now expected that the announcement on the defense portion of the review could be delayed until later in the year, although the security element could come earlier.
The MoD is reckoned to be short of about £20 billion over the next 10 years to fund equipment, support and other requirements, leading to a potentially lengthy list of capability and program cuts to balance the books if additional money isn’t found by the government.
Delays to the defense review could cause further pain for industry.
Ultra Electronics said in a trading statement last November that a difficult U.K. market was impacting on revenues.
“There are mounting pressures in the funding of the UK defence program and this has resulted in the UK MoD pausing, cancelling or delaying numerous programs. Within the last few weeks a number of our UK orders budgeted for 2017 have been affected,” the company said.
Ashbourne-Walmsley said a lengthy delay to the review could be damaging, especially for small companies.
“Historically, big procurements do not happen during defense reviews. It’s not just the primes who suffer, it’s the whole supply chain, including lots of small companies who are dependent on these orders to sustain their viability,” she said.