LONDON – Further evidence that Britain’s conventional defense capabilities are in line for a major shakeup has come in a speech given by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on Dec 11.
Britain’s forces face some difficult decisions over whether to junk capabilities and make cuts in legacy programs as part of a transformation effort made possible by a recent announcement of a major, multi-year budget hike for the Ministry of Defence, Wallace said at a Royal United Services Institute virtual event.
“Some tough choices will still have to be made. But those choices will allow us to invest in new domains, new equipment and new ways of working. … Sometimes it will mean quality over quantity or the good rather than the perfect. Or simply letting go of some capabilities. Too often we cling to sentimentality when we need to explore alternatives,” he said.
Britain’s permanent secretary for the Ministry of Defence, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, used similar language earlier this week.
Giving evidence to the parliamentary Defence committee he signaled the MoD would have to cut legacy programs if it wanted to pivot to more relevant capability in cyber, space, underwater and unmanned and other high tech sectors.
Further details of what goes and what stays on the capability front are expected to emerge over the next few weeks ahead of the publication of a government review integrating defense, foreign, security and development policy expected lateJanuary.
Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said that when the cuts do arrive they will be substantial.
“We could well see some fairly big and very questionable changes being announced that may or may not include medium and heavy-lift air transport capability and one of the two not already contracted armored vehicle programs,” said the consultant.
The British Army already has a major upgrade of its armor forces underway. The ARTEC Boxer 8x8 personnel carrier and the General Dynamics Ajax reconnaissance vehicle are already under contract for production.
As things stand, a program upgrading the Challenger 2 main battle tank goes before MoD’s investment approval officials in the next few days, while a Lockheed Martin upgrade of the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle is planned for production approval in 2021.
“I welcome the planned increase in spending on Royal Navy and maritime equipment plus the various new digital, cyber and space technology programs planned. All this is very positive, but that doesn’t mean we can do away with conventional defense equipment in the manner that I fear is being planned,” said Wheeldon.
The budget increase revealed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month adds over £16 billion to MoD coffers. That’s an 18 percent rise over the over the next four years, a scale of increase not seen for decades. The budget today stands at some £41.5 billion, or $55 billion.
Wallace pointed out, though, that the budget settlement, which takes effect in the financial year 2021/22, has done nothing to lift the pressures around the current years spending.
“Tomorrow’s settlement doesn’t relieve our more immediate financial pressures. You don’t get out of a decade of deferrals and underfunding overnight,” he remarked.
Earlier this week reports emerged that the MoD was cutting back on training, temporarily standing down Royal Navy reserves and taking other cost cutting measure to balance the books in the current financial year.
The National Audit Office, the government financial watchdog, has been forecasting for years that Britian’s ten-year, rolling defense-equipment budget is unaffordable to the tune of several billions of Pounds.
That existing funding black hole will need to be fixed as well as the MoD making cuts to legacy programs to give headroom for transformative changes in the procurement of things like spacecraft, future combat aircraft and unmanned vehicles.
Wallace’s RUSI speech painted a grim picture of the ministry he took over as defense secretary nearly 18 months ago.
“The decades of funding deferrals were about to hit the buffers. Bogus efficiencies, savings targets, hollowing out, and the lasting impacts of fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are all things that continue to drain away precious resources long after the political leadership that directed them have exited the stage,” he said.
Wallace said the British and others had to adjust their approach to developing exactly how they respond to a changing global security picture where potential adversaries are out-maneuvering the West on equipment and other fronts.
“They are fluid, we are static. They use readiness, innovation and presence, while we remain entirely predictable in our processes and posture,” he said. “In truth they are masters of the sub-threshold while we tie ourselves up in self-imposed risk matrixes, contradictory legal frameworks, and often bureaucratic barriers,” Wallace warned.
The use of a Turkish drone, the Bayraktar TB2, attacking armor and air-defense formations in Syria, Libya and elsewhere and the development of hypersonic weapons by Russia were examples where “we are no longer leading and innovating enough,” he said.
“We are in danger of being prepared only for the big fight that may never come, whilst our adversaries might choose to outflank it even if it does.”
At the same time, Wallace said Britain wouldn’t abandon the idea of “war-fighting at scale” nor the use of armor.
“Old capabilities are not always redundant, just as new technologies aren’t always useful,” the defense secretary said.
Wallace said he had three priorities for the British MoD. “I want to see defense policy that delivers my three priorities for the department, becoming threat-focused, proactive, and sustainable.”
The first step in Britain’s defense reform will be the establishment of a net assessment and challenge function in the ministry.
Called the Secretary of State’s Office of Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC), it will encompass war gaming, doctrine, red teaming and external academic analysis.
“It will focus and enhance existing efforts, work closely with Defence Intelligence and look across all areas of defense, especially doctrine and the equipment choices we are making,” Wallace said.