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The growing costs of UK defence capabilities, combined with cuts in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget as a result of the nation's fiscal crisis, will make it impossible to preserve current numbers of service personnel and front-line capabilities, according to a Future Defence Review Working Paper from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
'Capability Cost Trends: Implications for the Defence Review', a new RUSI report written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, suggests the UK's number of trained service personnel is projected to fall by around 20%: from 175,000 in 2010 to around 142,000 in 2016. This is the probable result of a projected cut in the defence budget of around 10-15% in real terms, together with continuing real annual unit cost growth of between 1% and 2% for UK defence capabilities.
'In the absence of a fundamental change in strategic orientation, and even allowing for further efficiency savings, projected reductions in budgets and personnel will require large reductions in the number of front-line capabilities', writes Chalmers.
'If cutbacks are evenly spread, ground formations (including infantry, armour, artillery and support regiments) would have to fall from 97 to 79, available aircraft (fixed wing and rotary) would be reduced from 760 to 615, and major vessels (submarines, carriers, escorts and major supply ships) would fall from 57 to 46. The central question for this year's defence review will be whether some of these capabilities should be protected at the expense of deeper cuts in others.'
'If Britain's defences are to be put on a sustainable footing, efficiency savings will not be enough. In addition to the likelihood of significant real reductions in the available budget, defence planners need to take account of continuing growth in the unit costs of defence capabilities. The combination of these two trends means that the next six years are likely to see a reduction of around 20% in numbers of service personnel, and a commensurate reduction in numerical military capabilities (major vessels, aircraft and ground formations)', writes Chalmers.
With the UK committed to intense operations in Afghanistan until, at least, 2011, the paper acknowledges the 'strong temptation to postpone the hard choices' in the 2010 Defence Review by focusing only on short-term balancing of the defence budget. The report warns that such an option would probably mean that the MoD would face a further 'mini-Review' during 2012-2013, with all the uncertainties this would create.
'Politically, the choice between these two options may depend on an assessment of whether it is better to incur the political pain of defence cuts all at once, or in successive smaller doses. In strategic terms, the choice may hinge on whether longer term defence priorities can be agreed while the broader consequences of the Afghanistan operation remain so uncertain', Chalmers concludes.
Released ahead of RUSI's Future Defence Review conference assessing the MoD's forthcoming Green Paper, the latest report draws on official data from by the MoD, HM Treasury, National Audit Office and political parties, analysing the budget projections and implications of proposed efficiency savings on defence.