LONDON — Britain faces a defense and security review dominated by budget issues instead of rather than strategy, according to analysts here just hours after the Conservative Party secured power for a second term in the May 7 general election.
Ahead of the election, the Conservative Party pledged it would put a triple lock on the shape and power of the British armed forces were it to win. secure power for a second term.
Now analysts and others are watching how the Conservatives square that in the upcoming strategic defense and security review (SDSR) with likely budget cuts expected to be demanded by the Treasury to help balance still ailing public finances.
Jon Louth, the director of the Royal United Services Institute's defense, industry and society program, says the future of armed services will be decided by the gGovernment spending review and not a defense review dictated by strategy .
"The real horse trading will be done when they settle defense budgets for the coming years as part of the comprehensive spending review. So the defense review will be budget driven in much the same way as it was in the 2010," he said.
Louth The RUSI analyst said he expects the SDSR under the Tories will be more of a stock take to measure progress towards the future force 2020 plans originated in the 2010 review rather than a root and branch look at the situation.
Consultant Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic, agrees the coming SDSR will be driven by the available cash.
"Sadly, I think SDSR is going to be budget-led. The Tories have made extensive promises during the election on spending in sectors like health so they have limited their freedom to operate. Defense is remains an unprotected area [of spending] – it is extremely worrying," he said.
The then dDefense Ssecretary Michael Fallon said during a speech to industry executives, Defence Ministry officials and others at the RUSI think tank that the SDSR and the spending review would be "top of the in-tray after the election."
The extent of possible cuts on the £34 billion defense (US $51.8 billion) budget beyond this financial year remain unclear.
Some of the figures being bandied about before the election put the cut in double figures, but a big pre-election media campaign to halt the cuts and strong interest in defense among a number of Conservative members of Parliament may mitigate against such reductions.
Defense got off comparatively lightly in the 2010 cuts compared with other departments that who failed to have their budgets ring-fenced.
Only health, education and overseas aid were ring-fenced as at it will be the same for the new spending review.
Other departments, including defense, will have to find cuts of nearly £20 billion between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates.i
It's possible the same could happen this time round but nobody is nobodies banking on it, and most people here think defense will take a hit of some kind particularly with the Conservatives' refusal to commit to meeting NATO spending targets.
"Even though we may consider that the situation for defense has been stabilized to an extent with the Tories remaining in control the road ahead for defense will be extremely tough," said Wheeldon.
The SDSR of 2010 conducted soon after the Conservative-led coalition came to power was widely criticized for being more about money than strategy.
Budgets were hacked and unfunded defense commitments erased or put on hold as part of government austerity measures.
Armed forces and civil service personnel numbers were slashed, capabilities like maritime patrol aircraft axed and programs abandoned.
This time round though the Conservatives promised in their pre-election manifesto that some things would be different.
Fallon told the audience at RUSI that the government guaranteed it would increase the equipment budget in real terms by 1 percent a year for five years, build four new Trident nuclear missile submarines and not make further reductions in regular troop numbers.
How that will be achieved in an era of likely overall budget decline is unclear.
Analysts point to reduction in reserve forces, civil service numbers and further efficiency drives as some of the methods for dealing with any budget cuts.
Louth thinks it may be time for the military to start thinking about moving away from a full – but thin – layer of capability and focus instead on areas where the armed services can excel.
One of the big unknowns he said is what might happen on the world stage to impact matters .
Wheeldon though wonders just how much global events will affect the defense debate here
"While the level of threats may have increased significantly over the past two years I am not sure that any of our politicians are prepared to listen," he said.