LONDON – The British government has promised an integrated security, defense and foreign policy review which it says will be the most “radical reassessment” of the country's place in the world since the end of the Cold War.
Funding Brexit and the National Health Service got top billing as the new Conservative government laid out its policies and legislative proposals for the coming parliamentary session in the Queens Speech Dec. 19, but defense figured in its plans as well.
In briefing notes provided by the government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would lead a security, defense and foreign policy reset this year covering international policy ranging from defense to diplomacy and development.
The commitment to hold the review was signaled by Johnson ahead of last week’s general election when he promised a “huge technological upgrade of security forces to keep Britain safe and strengthen NATO.”
But the briefing notes contained more than a hint that the government intends to implement some fundamental changes to costs and the way the department does business.
“The MoD will continue to invest in making radical reforms to modernize the way Defense does business, enable next-generation military capabilities, and sustainably reduce its cost base in the long term,” read the briefing notes.
Johnson may be leading the review but it’s his senior advisor Dominic Cummins, one of the principal architects of the general election victory, who is expected to actually drive the assessment.
Cummins has an uncompromisingly tough view of the MoD’s performance, particularly on the question of money-wasting procurement.
The potential impact he may have is causing great concern across the department.
One industry executive, who asked not to be named, said Cummins arriving at the MoD was a bit like having Vlad the Impaler paying a visit.
Defense consultant Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said if Cummings is asked to lead the review process, “my advice would be that he remembers that every newcomer to defense procurement starts on an assumption that it must be possible to save money and do better than the past incumbents that have presided over years of cuts.
“Oliver Letwin thought that when he led the disastrous 2010 strategic defence and security review from the Cabinet Office. But the reality is very different,” said Wheeldon.
In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on Dec. 6 the chief of the defence staff, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, had his own advice about a review. He said it needs to be upfront about the state of the UK military and pointed to the government having previously taken risks with readiness and resilience in order to pursue efficiency gains.
Wheeldon said the government’s priority in defence should “above all else be to ensure not only that defense is properly funded but also that the importance of strong defense means that it is placed much higher up the government agenda.”
Britain’s creaking defense budget has again hit the headlines with reports Dec. 19 that a critical shortfall in funding could impact deployments and other commitments next year.
According to a Financial Times report, the Ministry of Defence sees the increasingly fraught debate over the future of Britain’s military take a new twist with a £1 billion budget shortfall in the offing in the next financial year.
The newspaper says military chiefs held a crisis meeting recently to consider funding constraints which could ground aircraft and restrict deployments of support ships.
Recent leaks have seen the media report a mounting list of potential cuts to the military resulting from shortfalls to funding.
Mothballing or leasing out one of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers and reducing the size of the British Army are among the targets that have been in the crosshairs of officials looking to balance the budget, say reports – moves denied strongly by the MoD.
The defense budget financial year 2020/21 is set at £41.3 billion, or $53 billion.
Officials at the MoD have been conducting their annual budget cycle discussions to balance spending and requirements for the coming year starting in April.
The department recently secured an additional £1.9 billion in funding from the Chancellor for next year, but that was short of requirements.
A spokesman for the MoD said the department does not comment on speculation but pointed out the “MoD manages the biggest defense budget in Western Europe and, like any large organization, regularly conducts prudent financial planning exercises.”
Talk of budget overspend will hardly come as a surprise.
The National Audit Office, the Governments financial watchdog, has been reporting for some time that the MoD’s rolling, ten-year equipment plan is unaffordable by several billion Pounds.
It’s a problem that the new defense procurement minister, James Heappey, will have to grapple with as a priority; assuming he is in post long enough to make a difference.
Heappey, is the fourth procurement minister since Harriett Baldwin left the office in January 2018.
In his favor is the fact he was parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to his new appointment.
An ex-infantry officer who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Heappey takes over from Anne-Marie Trevelyn, who has been promoted to Armed Forces minister.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.