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On 18 December, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for defence, released the second and presumably last part of the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) follow-up and contribution to the National Security Capability Review announced in March 2018.
The response to the MDP documentation has been underwhelming, as the House of Commons’ own brief writers have underlined. The formal MDP document was conspicuously spread over less than 30 pages, many of which were taken up by photographs, blank pages and material summarising current and past activities of the armed forces. Material about the future was addressed in just around seven pages of generously sized and spaced text.
There were, however, three notable elements of the document well worth highlighting.
The first was the slightly mixed picture on the future of the nuclear deterrent. On the one hand there were further assurances that the Dreadnought programme was on track, a matter on which the MoD had earlier reported in detail to Parliament. On the other, there was recognition that the invulnerability of nuclear submarines may be becoming more problematic: there was explicit reference to the ‘growing threats to the security of our nuclear deterrent’ (p. 15) and the first illustration of the planned ‘Spearhead’ innovation programmes is to cover ‘exploring how better to combat sub-surface threats to our submarines using autonomous systems, networked sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning’ (p. 22).
The second was the MDP’s acknowledgement that external threats are not just increasing and that rapid technological innovation could be both possible and needed, but also that the armed forces make-up needs to change, with more emphasis on the value of specialists in areas such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, cyberspace and space. Many of such specialists are expected to come in as reservists. There is a movement away from the stress on the utility of generalists but also perhaps towards recognition that the key, difference-making personnel may not be the ‘front line’ people most likely to be exposed to direct fire.
The third was the commitment to increase ‘the readiness and availability of a range of key defence platforms’ (p. 2) and to re-prioritise ‘the current Defence programme to increase weapon stockpiles and spares’ (p. 13). This must reflect a real concern with conventional deterrence and even the possibility of protracted combat, most obviously in the context of Russia, but it also presents financial issues. In the US it is commonplace to refer to a defence ‘Iron triangle’ in which one side is made up of the size of armed forces (the number of people and platforms). The other two sides are modernity and technological sophistication of systems, and the readiness and sustainability of units and platforms. The money argument is that increasing resources to one side of the triangle must reduce the size of the other two sides unless increased funding is made available. What will give way to enable increased readiness and availability?
So far, the MoD has managed to secure some extra funding from the Treasury, which has obviously helped with the depreciation of the pound and the costs of the nuclear programme. That money is of only a short-term nature, and much hinges on the outcome of the next Comprehensive Spending Review, which in turn will be much affected by the immediate consequences of the Brexit negotiations.
Regarding Brexit, the MDP reiterates the government’s earlier commitment to continued, and even enhanced, European defence cooperation, both in terms of UK participation in European operations and in the generation of capabilities; a ‘future security partnership’ with the EU is envisaged. However, there is a real risk that, in the event of even short-term but significant negative economic consequences from the Brexit choice, the MoD will lose out to other areas including health and social security in terms of resource allocation. Even with the efficiency savings which the MoD always envisages in defence reviews, 2% of a largely stagnant GDP will not fund the current defence programme or the ambitious expansion of the UK role as a global military power envisaged by the secretary of state in a Daily Telegraph interview on 30 December 2018.
Overall, it is appropriate to criticise the MDP for its lack of detail, not least with regard to the management of defence – for instance, ‘we must become a more agile organisation, unencumbered by unwieldy process and structures’ (p. 14) and ‘we are accelerating transformation of the Defence Equipment and Support organisation’ (p. 14). Also, the emphasis on funding for innovation in the MDP does not make clear if this is additional money or simply the re-labelling of extant funding for research and early stage development.
However, it is probably the case that more specifics would anyway have to wait for the clarification of Brexit consequences.
Trevor Taylor is Professorial Research Fellow in Defence, Industries and Society at RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.