What’s Wrong with the MoD? | Andrew Trovalusci

This month the government published the 2021 Integrated Review – its defence and foreign policy vision for the decade. The broad, top-level paper is already out and can be found here, with individual departmental papers to follow. Of particular interest is the Defence Command Paper which revealed a number of devastating cuts to the Armed Forces despite last year’s headline-grabbing £16.5 billion cash government injection. Britain is the only country in the world where an increase to the defence budget still results in painful cuts. It’s rarely acknowledged how impenetrable the world of defence policy is to civilians; discussions are saturated with confusing acronyms, technical terminology and complex concepts. Here I hope to provide a clear, simple and concise summary of what is wrong with the Ministry of Defence. 

We’ll start with money. The National Audit Office published a thorough report of the MoD’s finance plan for 2020-30 and found a budget black hole of between £2 billion and £17 billion. This is the fourth year in a row the NAO has found the MoD to be deep in the hole. The report criticises the MoD for making ‘over-optimistic and inconsistent judgements when forecasting costs’ as well as for not doing enough to ensure that cost forecasts are ‘evidence-based’. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier MP has already warned that the aforementioned £16.5bn threatens to be swallowed whole. According to the report, each command (Army, Royal Navy, RAF, Strategic Command) has a funding deficit that they have responded to by either stopping equipment projects or just deferring expenditure to later years. Put simply, the MoD is terrible with money and with equipment procurement in particular. Rife incompetence results in delays, which lead to enormous cost overruns. If the MoD was a bucket of money, it wouldn’t have a hole in the bottom – the bottom simply wouldn’t exist. 

Naturally, this puts a squeeze on the funding available for new equipment. Each service must justify its slice of the pie, and the army has been struggling to justify its existence anyway now that we’re no longer at war. The Royal Navy sells itself as the main instrument of ‘Global Britain’ as well as the senior service of an island nation and the custodian of its nuclear deterrent. The RAF points to the emerging cyber and space domains and claims those to be natural RAF territory and restates that overwhelming air power is core to the Western way of war. The Army, however, has no such special selling points, so it finds it difficult to pitch for big, shiny equipment programmes. The years of investing blood and treasure in the Middle East came to an end almost a decade ago, and the British Army finds itself at a loss for how to move forward. 

‘Obsolescent and Outgunned’ is the title of a report on Britain’s armoured vehicle capability published a week ago by the Defence Committee. The central thrust is that the British Army is at very serious risk of being overmatched by near-peer adversaries in the future. According to the Chair of the committee, Mr Tobias Ellwood MP, ‘the Ministry of Defence has allowed our Armoured Fighting Vehicle ability to atrophy at an astounding and alarming rate,’ which has led to a ‘severe and sustained erosion of our military capabilities.’ A chart displaying the Army’s armoured vehicles next to (among other things) the Christmas number one from the year they entered service derisively underlines just how outdated the Army’s equipment is. The FV430 armoured personnel carrier, for example, sits on the same row as Return to Sender by Elvis Presley. 

The Army’s Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle entered service in 1984 and hasn’t received a single major upgrade at all over its lifetime. Its upcoming upgrade programme (‘Warrior CSP’) has been axed in a devastating but altogether unsurprising move given the programme’s troubled history. The Warrior CSP was initially planned for 2017 before being re-forecasted for 2024 with a cost overrun of £227 million. It seems the £800 million already allocated to the project will be unable to save it. Here, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the MoD. 

The rest of the Command Paper reads more like the disarmament clause of the Treaty of Versailles than it does a review geared towards ‘modernisation’. The Army, already 2000 men under-strength, will be cut by 12,500 over ten years and a third of our Challenger II’s will be retired. The RN and the RAF fared a bit better, although Britain will only initially receive 48 F-35B fighter jets, as opposed to the original order of 138 and this will come at the cost of the C-130 Hercules. This list of cuts is by no means exhaustive. Britain will also lose helicopters, cargo planes, surveillance aircraft, artillery and jets – too numerous to go into detail here. The argument is always made that Britain’s strength lies in quality rather than quantity, but this would be to deny the fact that quantity has a quality all of its own.

In the interest of balance I think it’d be fair to point out where the money is going. The money will (largely) go to expanding our nuclear deterrent, investing in a new class of fighter jet, the procurement of Boxer and Ajax armoured vehicles, upgrading of our remaining Challenger II’s into ‘Challenger III’s’, laying down of new warships and investment in lots of new (particularly electronic) technology. An incredibly welcome £1 billion will be used to upgrade the Army’s long-range firepower with Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and Mobile Fires Platforms. Good things are happening in the Royal Marines as well – the ‘Future Commando Force’ just used helicopter drones to outmaneuver and defeat a US force many times its size

The warships sound promising, although the timetable for their delivery seems like more of the same MoD over-optimism. The existence of our nuclear deterrent is itself controversial given the enormous expense of maintaining it, but more warheads? The Integrated Review makes the case that the rise of potentially adversarial nuclear-armed nations calls for the boosting of our own nuclear capabilities, but given that the stockpile we already have is meant to be big enough, what’s the use in more? The loss of our Warrior IFVs and their replacement with Boxer APCs is also greatly troubling – the two vehicles are not equipped to carry out the same role. While both vehicles are troop carriers, Warrior mounts a large gun on top whereas Boxer does not, making the latter considerably less lethal (with the troops inside thus more vulnerable) than the former. 

The Review also betrays questionable elements of top-level MoD philosophy. It repeats ad nauseum the mantra of soft power, multilateral operating and international cooperation. The HMS Queen Elizabeth II-class aircraft carriers, by now old news, provide an example of this in action. Our surface fleet is so limited and our fighter jets so few that we are unlikely to ever operate them without US assistance (and thus, US permission). Of course, the Strike brigades too might end up working only as forward reconnaissance elements for allied NATO brigades. We’ve all but given up our ability to go to war on our own, so one must wonder what the plan would be if Argentina were to capture the Falklands and the US refused to lend us its support. We have either adjusted to our role as a middle-power in a world of alliances, or allowed our Armed Forces to be completely subsumed into the US military, depending on who you ask. 

For a while Britain has had to choose between relevance and independence. Relevance means spearheading the defence of the ‘rules-based international order’ with specialised and high-tech capabilities at the cost of our ability to act in our own interests, while independence means accepting that our place in the world is considerably smaller than what it used to be and configuring our armed forces towards more humble, but sovereign, ends. Perhaps the government’s obsession with ‘Global Britain’ and projecting our liberal values abroad might be putting the cart (power projection) before the horse (defence). 

So, what is wrong with the MoD? MP Tobias Ellwood says it’s ‘a mixture of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude’. Scarce funding exacerbates cap-badge politics as the Services fight for scraps, tugging at the seams of the MoD’s procurement process. Conventional war-fighting capabilities are being neglected in favour of shinier ‘cyber’ and ‘information warfare’ projects. The IR acknowledged the end of the Pax Americana and the rise of China as a ‘competitor’, but stopped short of naming China a ‘threat’ like it did with Russia. Upon us is the rebirth of ‘great power’ competition and the dawn of a new multi-polar world. The era of counter-insurgency in the Middle East and of NATO playing world police has come to an end. Liberal democracy hasn’t managed to stop the wheels of history and may now have to defend itself from serious external threats for the first time since the Second World War. The rise of non-state actors, the dawn of war in new domains and more complex technology than ever all mean that very little is certain about what large-scale warfare in the 21st century will look like. With all of this in mind, all we can do is hope that the Armed Forces are prepared and that our leaders know what they’re doing.

“Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid,

Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”

“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,

“But Iron, Cold Iron, is master of them all.”

Photo Credit.

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