Dr David Blagden, of the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute

Reaction to the Publication of the Modernising Defence Programme – Dr David Blagden, Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter

The Ministry of Defence has finally published an outcomes report from its long-awaited Modernising Defence Programme (MDP). 

This report is intended to refine and update the UK military capability commitments originally made in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and will therefore impact the capabilities available to Britain’s Armed Forces in their efforts to provide security for British citizens and allies out to 2025. An explanation and analysis from Dr David Blagden, a UK defence and international security specialist with the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, follows below. The MDP Report is available here:

Dr David Blagden, of the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, said:

                “The ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP) was originally spun out of last year’s Cabinet Office-led National Security Capabilities Review because the Ministry of Defence did not want its Equipment Programme wrapping-up alongside other areas of national security spending (intelligence, diplomacy, aid, etc). It has been necessitated by a set of changed circumstances compared to the time of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the conclusions of which were supposed to last until 2020 and which set the Defence Equipment Programme out to 2025. Partly, those changed circumstances are strategic: UK and NATO relations with Russia have deteriorated even further since 2015, ISIS is much diminished, and new military technologies are advancing. Predominantly, however, those changed circumstances are economic. The lower growth trajectory induced by Brexit has reduced the resources available to the Armed Forces – the Defence Budget is set at 2% of GDP, which means that if GDP is smaller than it might have been, so too the available budget for military capabilities is smaller – while the pound’s depreciation since the Brexit vote has raised the real costs of non-sterling-denominated defence equipment (such as the US-sourced F-35 combat jet and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft). All of this has added to the pressure on what was already a financially optimistic 2015 SDSR.

                The consequence of those changed circumstances has been the MOD – led by Gavin Williamson MP, a more strident Defence Secretary than has been seen for some years – pleading for more money from the Treasury to ensure that neither current nor planned military capabilities receive further cuts. The Treasury, for its part, recognises that Britain’s security environment has deteriorated to a worse condition than at any point since the Cold War, yet (a) is attempting to avoid major new spending commitments until the full fiscal shock of Brexit becomes clear and (b) has long been sceptical of the MOD’s budgetary requests, viewing the Department as a perennial financial ‘black hole’ that struggles to align its resource means with its policy ends. With a full cross-government Spending Review now scheduled for post-Brexit 2019, and a new SDSR supposedly due in 2020, today’s MDP Report therefore represents multiple levels of compromise. Partly, the MDP was intended to buy time to convince the Treasury of the need for further money for Defence – and to the extent that it has staved off major cuts to the 2015-25 Equipment Programme, it has been successful in that. Partly, it has provided a ‘good news’ item, in the form of modest amounts of new funding to important areas of emerging capability, such as high-technology research (unmanned/autonomous systems, etc) and regenerating UK capacity in Strategic Net Assessment, via a new MOD Net Assessment Unit (akin to the US Office of Net Assessment). Partly, it has provided official recognition of other emerging requirements in UK Defence, such as the need to increase the ‘lethality’ of existing equipment if we are to pose a credible conventional deterrent against Russia (e.g. by ensuring adequate numbers and varieties of munitions for ships, aircraft, and so forth). But partly, it has also dodged some of the hardest forthcoming choices, i.e. if more money is not eventually forthcoming from the Treasury to support the planned 2015-25 Defence Equipment Programme – and all of the people and infrastructure that turn such equipment from mere ‘stuff’ into effective fighting capability – how will it be paid for and/or what will need to be cut?

                These ‘micro’ politics are all ultimately occurring against a backdrop of ‘macro’ change in Britain’s strategic environment. The post-Cold War ‘unipolar moment’ of unrivalled American – and therefore Western – power is arguably coming to an end, with the rise of China and (partial) resurgence of Russia. All of Britain’s closest alliances are simultaneously in flux – with the major European powers, due to Brexit, and with the United States, thanks to a combination of President Trump’s mercurial temperament and a longer standing US requirement to pivot towards containment of China in Asia. The United States, in particular, is becoming increasingly unwilling – and may eventually become unable – to shoulder all of its allies’ security requirements simultaneously, Trump’s whims notwithstanding, as it faces in Beijing potentially the greatest rising peer-competitor of its own period as a superpower. At the same time, the European NATO states once again face a hostile great power in their own region, in the form of a Russia that sees good reasons to weaken and ideally break NATO. Patterns of Russian naval activity, bomber patrols, cyber activity, political subversion, and chemical/radiological weapons use in and around Britain can all be associated with Moscow’s desire to weaken the UK commitment – as the European state with the greatest combination of capability and resolve to use military force – to NATO defence as part of that strategy. Yet at the same time, political demands for UK military commitments in other regions still remain: in the Persian and Arabian Gulfs, in the Mediterranean, in the South Atlantic (because of the Falklands), and increasingly in East Asia too (under the Government’s ‘Global Britain’ initiative). This combination of deteriorating threat environment, straining alliances, and ever-expanding political demands explains the MOD’s determination to secure the funds to provide the rebuilding to UK military capability that the 2015 SDSR promised. After twenty years of predominantly focusing on counterterrorism and humanitarian intervention, the 2015-25 Defence Equipment Programme is more focused on the warships, combat aircraft, heavier ground forces, intelligence capabilities, logistical enablers, munitions, and so forth required to deter – and fight if necessary – a hostile major power in the European and North Atlantic theatres while still having enough left over to do a bit of all the other things that are asked of the Armed Forces. Without the budget to fulfil SDSR 2015’s promised future force posture, the MOD is not at all confident that it can meet Britain’s defence needs – hence why they have played for time via the MDP, in the hope of a deteriorating security environment ultimately forcing the Treasury to release more resources for Defence once the initial shock of Brexit has been and gone.

                In summary, then, the MDP has – to an extent – achieved its aims. A bit more funding for advanced technology research and the regeneration of an institutionalised Net Assessment capability (defined as the systematic measurement of relative military balances in certain scenarios under given conditions) is clearly no bad thing. A recognition that Britain needs more robust stockpiles of fuel, spares, munitions, and expertise if it is to fully optimise the fighting potential of its existing military assets was long overdue. And, from a political tactics perspective, it has delayed the 2015-25 Defence Equipment Programme’s day of reckoning with the Treasury until after the initial fiscal shock of Brexit has become clearer (assuming that Brexit does indeed happen in March 2019). Nonetheless, today’s MDP Report does not yet provide the substantial uplift in funding and/or the cuts to planned capabilities necessary to place the 2015-25 Defence Equipment Programme on a sounder budgetary footing – so a hard day of financial reckoning could still be to come.

Date: 20 December 2018

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