A Question of Balance? The Deficit and Defence Priorities

The deeper the immediate budget cuts that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has to make, the greater the risk of reduced capability without commensurate financial gains, argues the latest Future Defence Review Working Paper from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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Download Paper: 'A Question of Balance? The Deficit and Defence Priorities'

'A Question of Balance? The Deficit and Defence Priorities' warns that, if the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) focuses primarily on balancing the MoD's books over the next 3-4 years, it will be a 'tragically missed opportunity'.

Although the extent and timing of reductions in the MoD budget will not be revealed until the autumn spending review, a 10-15 per cent real cut over the next six years remains a 'plausible, if perhaps optimistic' scenario according to report author Professor Malcolm Chalmers. 

The  magnitude of likely reductions is such, the paper argues, that the pain will have to be shared across a range of ground, air and maritime capabilities.

Illustrating the consequences of such a 'balanced reductions' policy for the medium-term, the paper  estimates that  the MoD could face a cut in total service personnel numbers of around 20-25 per cent by 2019, together with reductions in ground force formations from 98 in 2009 to around 80 by 2019, aircraft falling from 760 to 550 and major vessels from 57 to 45.

Chalmers argues that  the SDSR will need to examine whether sustaining the ability to repeat the scale of current Afghanistan operations is compatible with preserving capabilities needed for serving other defence needs. The paper also highlights other capabilities that would need to be assessed further to ensure 'balanced reductions' including the size of the fixed-wing combat aircraft fleet, the need for a second aircraft carrier, and the timing of Trident renewal.

'A new government, with a full parliamentary term ahead of it, creates the opportunity for a fresh look at defence policy and management, unencumbered by the need for consistency with the accumulated decisions of its predecessors. The fiscal crisis creates the necessity for such a fresh look, for all agree that things cannot go on as they are,' writes Chalmers.

'But the greatest efficiency saving of all would be to put the defence budget back onto a sustainable path, in which plans are realistic, and commitments (once made) can be honoured. One of the central problems that has bedevilled past defence planning has been that it has always seemed to be either too early or too late to make tough decisions on procurement and future capabilities. Ministers have been happy to postpone politically difficult decisions where they can, while suffering the consequences of the non-decisions (or under-costed decisions) made by predecessors...

'...there is now a real opportunity to buck the trend and make the hard decisions necessary to balance the books for the next two decades, and not just for the next three years.'

The paper concludes by arguing that, although the UK will remain one of Europe's leading powers, its military capability is likely to continue to decline in relative terms compared with rising Asian powers,  resulting in increased dependency on multilateral alliances to ensure its national security.

To view in full 'A Question of Balance? The Deficit and Defence Priorities', and learn more about the Future Defence Review series, please visit www.rusi.org/fdr.


1. For all enquiries please contact Daniel Sherman daniels@rusi.org

2. A copy of 'A Question of Balance? The Deficit and Defence Priorities' can be viewed online at http://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/FDR7.pdf

3. Malcolm Chalmers is Professorial Fellow in British Security Policy at RUSI, as well as Visiting Professor of Defence and Foreign Policy in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London. He was a member of the UK Defence Secretary's Advisory Forum on the 2010 Green Paper 'Adaptability and Partnership'. www.rusi.org/malcolmchalmers

4. The next RUSI conference assessing the Future Defence Review 'Time for Trade-Offs: SDR 2010' is on 14 June 2010. For more information, please visit http://www.rusi.org/events/ref:E4BE420B71D43A/

5. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.

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