No sooner, it seems, had Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace warned in an address to the two day long ‘Atlantic Futures Forum’ on board HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth last week that “Our adversaries would not wait for the UK to sure up its economy” and that “defence cannot be paused in the face of financial uncertainty” than the Treasury in its infinite wisdom announces that the ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’ (CSR) will now be based on a one year settlement rather than three.
For the MOD the Treasury decision effectively means that despite all the promises made that the ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy’ process would be based on long term strategic thinking in relation to our future requirements, for yet another year the MOD will again be restricted to a single year budget settlement with its hands tied behind its back.
This decision makes a mockery of the ‘Integrated Review’ process, one that unless the Treasury changes its mind and provides a necessary guarantee of a three-year settlement, will even if it is published in November be cast aside as being unfunded. Arguably, in terms of timing at least, this is the Treasury taking back full control of something [Integrated Review] that it may have felt it was losing control.
While the single year CSR settlement for defence would not rule out a handful of Treasury approved MOD procurement decisions that were considered as being crucial being made, failure to provide an effective three-year settlement will send a dangerous message to our would-be adversaries that the UK is no longer prepared to prioritise defence requirement and to ensure that it has sufficient capability and capacity to meet the increased level of threats.
This is no way to treat UK defence, no way to treat military personnel and no way to treat the UK defence industrial base. Unless a better funding outcome emerges for defence, just as the Drayson Defence Industrial Strategy of 2005 was killed off by Gordon Brown who refused to fund it, the Integrated Review may well be another seemingly well-intentioned document that gets buried.
While defence will always react to immediate requirements, sound defence policy can only be made possible by long term strategy, long term thinking, planning ahead in order to ensure that as a nation we are, when it comes to all the many facets of defence and security, fit for purpose. A single year settlement means that already long delayed procurement decisions will be all the more difficult to make. We know that future wars will be technology led but that does not mean that we should cast legacy equipment aside as being no longer required.
While it is easy to regard the CSR one-year settlement as yet another extraordinary error of judgment another way of looking at it would be to say suggest this is the Treasury taking back full control. Another would be to suggest that despite suggestions that the Treasury decision has sparked an internal row between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, is a useful stunt that draws the attention away from the very negative realities of such a decision being made. I hope that is not the case.
The official line from No 10 is that the government is considering the implications of a one-year spending review settlement and that an update will be provided in due course. And shortly after the Treasury announcement Boris Johnson was reported to be still demanding a three-year guarantee for defence spending in order that the commitment made to raise the annual defence budget by 0.5% above inflation continues.
Without such a commitment from the Treasury any attempt by the MOD to publish long-term strategic planning intentions within the already delayed ‘Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review’ will be rubbished by many as being unfunded.
No-one should be under any illusion that the Treasury decision to force through another single year settlement for defence is extremely damaging and that until we finally know what Integrated Review process is recommending defence will remain moribund.
There is no good news in any of this and even small scale reassurance provided by the chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood that he had subsequently received confirmation from the prime minister that “there would be no delay” in integrated review publication cuts no ice with me.
The Treasury is always in charge of defence spending agreements along with those of all government departments. While there have been howls of anguish from the Secretary of State for Defence there has, not surprisingly in this silenced age, been no comments from any of the three service chiefs and as far as I can see, nothing from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter.
Hopefully, by the time you read this, the Integrated Review will have been published but don’t bank on it. Due for publication originally in September but delayed due to COVID-19, awaiting publication it would not be remiss to suggest that defence has been moribund for much of the past year. That in itself has been very damaging and any further delay can only make a bad situation worse!
CHW (London – 26th October 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785