When the defence review was hived-off from the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) in January 2018, and given the engaging title Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said that he hoped it would report in July. In a statement to Parliament on 19 July, Mr Williamson was able only to give an update on the review – an update that showed that work was still at a very early stage, that there was no end-date in sight, and that the only decision taken had been to kick the can firmly down the road.
Back in January there was some relief in defence circles that the defence element of the NSCR had been postponed. There had been much speculation that the NSCR would be making major cuts to the defence programme, and some observers concluded that the newly-installed Defence Secretary had shown nifty footwork in achieving a postponement. It became clear that he was keen to be seen as a champion of Defence, rather than as the man who was going to balance the books – Philip Hammond`s proud claim when Defence Secretary. Williamson seemed to have judged the mood of the Conservative party well when MPs queued up in Parliament and in the media to support the case for more money for defence.
In the MOD there was some optimism that the outcome of the MDP could be a good one, perhaps even closing the gap, reportedly around £20 billion, between the defence budget and commitments over the next ten years. Then came the decision in June from 10 Downing Street that the NHS, clearly a much higher political priority than defence, was to receive a `birthday present` of an extra £20 billion per year. It also became clear that not only was the MOD going to be the loser, but that the Treasury would be looking to the defence programme to help pay for the present.
In the circumstances, the last thing that an embattled Prime Minister needed was the result of a defence review. Whatever its outcome spelt political trouble, either promising large sums of money that manifestly did not exist or cutting the defence budget and enraging her backbenchers (not to mention her Defence Secretary). Hence, kick the can down the road.
There may be some relief in the MOD and in the armed forces that the MDP result has been postponed indefinitely. Unpleasant cuts to defence programmes and force structures were, indeed, in prospect. But delay and postponement leave the MOD and its defence review badly in need of strategy – that is to say balancing the ends to be achieved with the ways and means available. The gaping hole of around £20 billion shows just how badly that strategy is needed. Logically, if the necessary ways and means cannot be provided, the ends to be achieved should be reduced to match the ways and means available – the latter course requiring a high degree of vision and moral courage. The only course of action left for MOD is to muddle-through as best it can, with all the inconsistencies, incoherence and, ultimately, waste of money that that entails. As the Public Accounts Committee commented in January, without a realistic overall plan the MOD is `bound to end up scrapping or delaying projects haphazardly`, adding, `this is not a sensible way of looking after our national defence`.
Of more immediate concern for MOD is the need to balance the books in the short term. This will place much reliance on achieving annual efficiency savings – the old staple of a cash-strapped MOD. The trouble is that after many cumulative years of stringent efficiency savings, such savings are increasingly efficient in name only. They become, in practice, purely cost-cutting measures – measures that actually reduce capability and cost-effectiveness. Arbitrary savings targets (invariably described as `challenging but achievable`) are imposed on budget holders with little or no regard to their practicality. Typically, the result includes reductions in activity levels, with ships tied-up alongside, aircraft grounded and army units prevented from training. Particularly vulnerable, since it`s hard to measure the output, is any form of professional military education, so, unless wisdom intervenes, expect cuts (sorry, efficiency measures) at, for example, the Defence Academy. Needless to say, all of these measures have an adverse impact on the morale of members of the armed forces.
In summary, indefinite postponement of the outcome of the defence review may be welcomed by some: for 10 Downing Street it avoids yet another damaging battle and an unhelpful distraction from Brexit; for the Treasury it avoids the probability of having to give more money to defence; for some in the armed forces it comes as a reprieve, albeit temporary. Politically astute it may be, but procrastination is bad news for defence and it is hard to see it as in the national interest.