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  • Michael Owen

Defending the Defence Department?

The UK’s defence, foreign and security policies need updating and clarifying, particularly given the current global situation of lux and uncertainty. Thankfully, a comprehensive integrated review has just been launched.

Recently, the Prime Minister officially announced the beginning of an anticipated ‘Integrated Review’ into the UK’s defence, foreign, security and international development policies. Since 2010 the government has published quinquennial defence, foreign and security policy reviews outlining the main challenges the UK faces in these areas, and how it will tackle them. However, this review is different. Occurring at a time of unparalleled uncertainty in Britain’s place and ambitions on the world stage since perhaps 1945, it has the potential to seriously alter Britain’s short- and long-term policy direction. This is compounded by the many concurrent challenges occurring on the world stage including the resurgence of great-power competition and attacks on core elements of international order (eg WTO). This is not to mention the myriad of short-term issues such as a global economic slowdown, exacerbated by the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus.

It is also much broader than previous reviews in 2015 and 2010, incorporating several government departments including the Department for International Development and the Home Office. Finally, also unlike previous reviews, it is being conducted directly by the Cabinet Office and Number 10, thus under the supervision of the PM’s personal staff. Whilst his influence is perhaps sometimes overstated, it is clear that Dominic Cummings, the brain-child of much of the Government’s policy agenda, will have a key role to play. He has on many occasions criticised the Ministry of Defence, and indeed government and the Civil Service overall, of being too bloated and inefficient; risk-averse but too accepting of failure; and particularly for the MoD, of having a grossly wasteful procurement regime. With a strong and ambitious government in power driven by a potentially iconoclastic outsider, and a particularly unstable international context, this review could lead to major changes after its release in August.

What major problems with current policy, and challenges to British security and influence, might the report examine? One is the perceived inefficiencies and budgetary costs in government ministries, or in the PM's words, implementing “necessary reforms to Government systems and structures” to achieve policy objectives. This could include radical shake-ups of the government Whitehall machine, with rumours that the Government wants to subsume the Department for Trade within the Business Department, and the Department for International Development within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There would likely be backlash against this from sections of the Civil Service, Parliament and civil society, however. It is unclear whether the Government would actually implement such changes, let alone if the Review would call for them. Certainly up for review though will be the MoD’s budgetary responsibility, pa

rticularly its procurements regime - the process by which contracts are awarded to firms to provide Armed Forces equipment.

There is an irony in this being raised now, when austerity is largely starting to come to a close and the spending taps once more being turned on. Indeed, the MoD was relatively unscathed by the austerity programmes of the Osborne years. There is certainly evidence of the Ministry’s failings in this area, however. A recent report by the National Audit Office – the independent Parliamentary body for auditing government departments – heavily criticised the MoD for failing to prioritise and plan for the long-term, jeopardising its long-term budgetary capabilities. In its view, the MoD isn’t utilizing its funding efficiently for the long-term, spending too much on meeting non-essential short-term goals. Dominic Cummings has similar views of the Ministry, reportedly referring to the handling of the UK’s two aircraft carriers as a “farce,” as their cost rose from an initial estimate of £3.9bn to £6bn.

However, there are pitfalls in trying to implement efficiency savings in the MoD. As a Department spokesman pointed out, every recent government has tried before and failed to make much of an impact, suggesting there isn’t much saving to be found. A more pressing concern is that whatever the MoD spends money on, it needs to fit into an overall strategy of defence, security and foreign policy. Five years after the Strategic Defence and Security Review, it is unclear whether Britain wants to be a fully-fledged military power - exhibiting all elements of a modern armed forces – or only a complementary force as part of a larger coalition/alliance. While most would instinctively prefer the former, that would require more funding as well as efficient savings, and more personnel given every branch of the Armed Forces currently faces recruitment shortages.

It is true the UK has the fifth largest defence budget in the world, and is one of the few NATO members to meet the 2% of GDP funding target. However, part of this is due to a change made in 2015 which shifted schemes previously covered by other departments (eg Armed Forces pensions) into the MoD’s remit, partially inflating the figures. Whatever the conclusions of the review, it must be realistic in matching calls for efficiency savings and clearer priorities for the MoD with a linked overall framework for the Department to follow. This means not just an overall defence strategy, but an overall strategy to maintain Britain’s security, prestige and influence at home and abroad. As this is the primary point of the review – to provide an overall coordinated strategy – this should come about, making the review a welcome prospect. However, we will have to wait for the review’s publication in August to see just how much strategic vision, coordination – and radical change – it provides.


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