The UK’s Ministry of Defence Delivers a Bland Update on its Modernising Defence Programme

Main Image Credit Harrier GR7s and Sea Harrier FA2s waiting on the deck of HMS Invincible at sunset. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence. Crown Copyright

Haziness on future MoD funding is likely the reason for an update on the Modernising Defence Programme that is rich in platitudes but lacks substance.

The update on the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) provided by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to Parliament on 19 July might well be viewed as singularly unimpressive, replete with commitments to undertake what any responsible government should be doing without incurring the cost and effort of a defence review, and while avoiding difficult choices.

To offer a headline conclusion that our Armed Forces need to be ‘ready and able to match the pace at which our adversaries now move’ is trite; when was that not the case? Similarly, the Secretary of State said that the UK forces should be ‘fit for the challenges of the 21st century’; no government is likely to say the UK forces should not be fit for such challenges. Thirdly, the statement spoke of the envisaged transformation of Defence ‘to deliver a robust, credible, modern and affordable force’. Yet again, stating the obvious.

The implication that defence needs to be ‘transformed’ was the closest Gavin Williamson came to recognising the shortcomings of the past, since his relevant paragraph listed a number of desired attributes within Defence that must be presumed not to be present today: ‘we are re-setting and re-energising the way MoD is led, organised and managed, with clearer responsibilities … to deliver better value for money’. Thus, we may suspect there is some serious thinking underway about the reforms that were introduced as a consequence of the Levene Report in 2011.  Hopefully as far as this author is concerned, a much stronger central defence and military staff will be set up to direct and constrain the development of the individual services, but observers should not hold their breath on that one. Predictably and optimistically, there is a continued stress on efficiency. This traditionally involves money-saving measures to deliver savings and thus make affordable the global scope of the government’s defence ambitions.  However, interest is also being devoted to efficiency changes that would not necessarily save money, but would strengthen defence capabilities. Procurement and support are two areas of major expenditure which could see changes. No defence review would be complete without a commitment to increased efficiency.

There were some specific elements of potential positive significance: the commitment to a strategy for space underlined the UK’s recognition that surveillance from space is now so affordable that reliance on certain allies can be reduced. Also, the fallout from Brexit on the Galileo project needs to be addressed. There was expressed readiness to take more risk to promote technological innovation, to articulate some key ‘spearhead’ technologies, and to spend more on science and technology. Of course, these measures will likely require more rather than less funding. Finally, there is to be a ‘more collaborative and demanding approach to our relationship with industry’, a reiteration of the thinking that is reflected in the naval shipbuilding and, more recently, the combat air strategies that the government has released.

But in terms of ignoring the difficult, there was no mention of the costs of the nuclear programme, nor of the significant warnings recently issued by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority about another four of the MoD’s major programmes.

Moreover, reducing the scope of UK defence ambition seems to have never been on the table. For, as the document inviting consultation on the MDP concluded, Britain’s Armed Forces must be able to:

  • operate in the full range of combat environments and across all domains (land, sea, air, space and cyber), and to respond rapidly and globally;  
  • play a central role in an integrated, cross-Government security apparatus, contributing to domestic security and resilience alongside civil authorities, and providing escalatory and de-escalatory options, crisis response, and support to global defence engagement priorities;
  • provide leadership as a framework nation in NATO, European formations, and coalitions, or operating independently alongside the US.

Moreover, since the MDP exercise was announced, any internal suggestion that some elements of current capability might have lost their relevance and utility appear to have been leaked to the media, with the resultant public response making cuts to amphibious or parachute forces more difficult. However, the contentious term ‘Tier One’ forces did not appear in his statement.

But a balanced assessment would also recognise that the MoD was not responsible for many of the issues that have generated its problems, notably the financial crisis after 2009, the consequences of the Brexit referendum and, arguably, the results of the most recent US presidential election. So the defence secretary’s statement was probably as far as the MoD could go, given the uncertainty about future financial provision for defence at a time when the only question concerns the amount of over-commitment in the defence programme.

No one doubts that the current programme is unaffordable at the currently envisaged funding levels. Next steps must put the chancellor of the exchequer – the UK’s finance minister – centre stage.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Trevor Taylor

Professorial Research Fellow

Defence, Industries and Society

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