Election ‘shock’ just means more of the same for defence

Contrary to predictions, the 2015 General Election has delivered a small majority for the Conservative party who will continue to govern but are now no longer reliant on Liberal Democrat support. Mr Cameron remains Prime Minister and has quickly re-appointed the same Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary while Michael Fallon will continue as Secretary of State for Defence. Instead of the horse-trading and uncertainties of minority government, this seamless transition means we can make some assumptions about the future defence planning based on Tory pre-election statements.

For the RN this will almost certainly mean more of the same, further overall funding cuts, some new equipment but in smaller numbers and continued slow decline.

The good news

Dodging the Labour/SNP bullet. Tory record on defence is generally poor but at least we have been spared an administration reliant on support from the SNP who are intent on axing our deterrent & destroying United Kingdom. The Tories are at least clearly committed to building the Trident successor submarines and maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.

Stable Government. There are multiple strategic and foreign policy challenges facing the new government, in particular the threat from Russia and the turmoil in the Middle East. In the face of this perhaps it is better to have a stable majority government that can be decisive (even if frequently wrong) than have a fractured, rudderless administration forced to negotiate multi-party deals on every small issue. The Prime Minister may have to face challenges from within his own party and hopefully a growing core of backbenchers who may rebel at planned defence cuts.

Less wasted money? While the Tories have cut defence spending, they have at least introduced some improved accounting practices in the MoD and have a slightly better management track record than Labour. There has been some reduction in late and over budget defence procurement projects although still much work to be done.

The bad news

The MoD budget can only go one way. Whatever vague promises made in the Tory party election manifesto to “Keep our defences strong“, unfortunately their sums on public spending simply do not add up and make significant defence cuts inevitable. Additional Tory spending pledges made during the election campaign will only add to pressure on the MoD, notably another £8Bn a year promised for the NHS, an already ‘ring fenced’ department. We are now in the run up to the Strategic Defence and Security Review due in October 2015. Unless there is a dramatic change in outlook, this will be just another round of treasury-driven cuts. By 2017 only extreme creative accounting would get the UK even close to the 2% of GDP spent on to defence that David Cameron recently urged his European allies to commit to.

Ironically many European nations are now actually increasing defence spending, with the UK one of the few nations where it looks set to fall.

Strategic ineptitude. As much as proper financial backing, what is desperately needed is an over-arching grand strategy for foreign and defence policy. We need a restructuring of the shambolic National Security Council that has minimal representation from the armed forces and is a reactive organisation lacking in the ability to proactively develop long-term plans.

Those in Whitehall must cease confusing politics with strategy, face up to reality, admit Russia is a serious threat, asses what’s need to defend ourselves and fund it accordingly.

The long shadow of Scottish Nationalism. The 56 Scottish Nationalist MPs now heading for Westminster are sure to be a vocal and belligerent opposition to the Tories. Bitter over their failure to win independence in the referendum the SNP represents a toxic force in UK politics. They are likely to actively ferment division between Scotland and England, aiming to force another referendum and break up the union with all the damage to UK defence interests that independence would entail.

The SNP leadership are obsessed with axing Trident. Despite the jobs and security it provides Scotland, they seem to think the money saved would solve all their public spending problems. The supposed “£100Bn cost for Trident renewal” relentlessly banded about by the SNP and swallowed by much of the media, is not only inaccurate (actually around £75Bn), but is the entire cost calculated over the 30-year life of the deterrent. To put this in perspective, over the same period we will be spending around £5 Trillion on the NHS. Although significant, the £2.5Bn per year (less than 10% of the defence budget) spent on our deterrent is actually very good value for the protection it provides.

SDSR – expect a round of cuts that won’t look dramatic but will continue the hollowing out of the RN. Barring an unexpected turn of events, there will be no major cuts to the equipment programme although rumours persist that the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales may not survive the review. Otherwise the art of ‘salami slicing’ will be exploited to the full. ‘Soft targets’ such as old RFAs will go without replacement, orders for new equipment will be delayed or not placed at all, programmes slowed down, stocks of spares & ammunition reduced, establishments merged and manpower remaining inadequate.

Michael Fallon has already started to prepare the ground for an order of less than 13 Type 26 Frigates. On a pre-election visit to Portsmouth he claimed the “Tories will not make any more cuts to the navy” but then suggested that although 13 Type 26 would be ideal, they are “more powerful than the Type 23s they will replace”. This infantile excuse has been used by a succession of defence ministers to justify a reduction in the numbers of every new generation of defence assets. Of course such claims ignore the fact that potential adversaries also have a new and more effective generation of equipment. In addition to the many tasks the RN’s over-stretched surface fleet is already committed to, it actually needs to find more escorts to form the carrier battle group. Ordering anything less than 13 Type 26s amounts to cutting the RN surface fleet. Politically this is much less tiresome than axing existing vessels (as in 2010) because simply ordering fewer new ships attracts far less unwelcome headlines.

In some ways there may not have been much difference in impact on defence if Labour had formed the new government as their defence policy was as vague and financially suspect as the Tories. There is still a small chance we can avoid the dangerous emasculation of the Royal Navy and our armed forces but the political will and moral backbone seems to be lacking.

Let us hope that among the newly elected MPs in parliament there are those with courage to stand up against this malaise and ensure our nation is properly defended.