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RAF F-35Bs flying over the East Coast of the UK. Courtesy of the Ministry of Defence

Decision Time: The National Security Capability Review 2017–2018 and Defence

Malcolm Chalmers
Whitehall Reports, 6 February 2018
Armed Forces, Defence Spending, Equipment and Acquisitions, UK
This report looks at the implications of the UK government's decision to take the defence elements out of the National Security Capability Review, which has been underway since July 2017. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has made clear that his 'hope' is that the 'Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP) will be published before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess in July 2018.

Executive Summary

The government has decided that the defence elements of the National Security Capability Review (NSCR), under way since July 2017, will be the subject of a further review (the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP)), which is expected to reach its conclusions by the summer of 2018. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has made clear that his ‘hope’ is that the MDP will be published before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess in July 2018.

In the 2015 Spending Review, defence was protected from the cuts being made in most other government departments, and spending is due to be 5% higher in real terms in 2020/21 than in 2015/16. Spending as a proportion of GDP is stabilising at 2.2%, significantly above NATO’s 2% target. The Treasury is resisting a substantial further allocation to defence.

Yet the 2015 SDSR, held at the same time as the Spending Review, made more commitments than the MoD could afford from this 5% real-terms increase. As a result, and in the absence of additional resources, the NSCR was set to announce significant net cuts in the MoD’s forward programme. Public discussion of the NSCR has been dominated by prolonged, and well-sourced, speculation that these would include reductions in amphibious capability, Army personnel numbers and other areas.

Significant delay in concluding the MDP risks damaging consequences for the country’s international credibility, especially if it has not been concluded before the NATO summit in July 2018. The period up to October 2018 is also a crucial time for the negotiation of a new defence and security partnership with the EU.

The MDP will have four strands of work. It will work to ‘optimise how the MoD is organised and is operating’. It will ‘identify further efficiencies … including through an aggressive programme of business modernisation’. It will ‘improve our performance on the commercial and industrial issues’. Finally, it will examine the capabilities that defence contributes to national security, and will ‘move quickly to strengthen further our capabilities in priority areas and reduce the resources we devote elsewhere’.

The MDP will therefore need to consider some or all the following:

  • Maintaining capabilities able to respond to possible conflict on at least two fronts, contributing to NATO’s deterrent capability against Russia while retaining the ability to respond robustly to crises in the turbulent neighbourhoods to Europe’s south.
  • An increased focus on the new technologies, capabilities and doctrines (including cyber and electronic warfare, robotics and artificial intelligence, air and missile defence, anti-submarine warfare, hardening and rapid dispersal) that are likely to be key in maintaining UK military credibility over the next ten to fifteen years. 
  • Additional resources for the remuneration packages and employment flexibility that will be needed to attract the best people into defence, including through greater use of reservist and part-time personnel. 
  • Rescheduling selected major procurement programmes, for example those for F-35B aircraft and Apache helicopters, spreading their costs over a longer period. 
  • A readiness to cut back on lower-priority capabilities whose contribution to defence objectives no longer justifies their cost, taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by new technology and new systems to mitigate the effect of their loss.

Banner image: RAF F-35Bs flying over the East Coast of the UK. Courtesy of the Ministry of Defence

Author

Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). His research is focused on UK... read more

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