James Norman is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.
The concerns contained in Liam Fox’s now, very public, letter to the Prime Minister, about the ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), reflect the difficulties faced by one of the Government’s biggest spending departments and the herculean task that will have to be performed to reach an acceptable financial settlement.
As much as both Mr Fox and Mr Cameron, would no doubt like to insulate the Armed Forces from the very tough choices needed to reduce the budget deficit, the sums involved simply don’t allow it. As the National Audit Office noted in December, the MoD has a £36 billion black hole in its procurement budget – contracts having been signed without regard for where the money to pay for them is going to come from.
Defence reviews are difficult enough when the public finances are in the best possible state; let alone when the Government has to borrow £500 million a day. They require foresight and realism in equal measure – the last one, conducted under George Robertson, had to be rapidly updated just three years later after 9/11. So what solutions might the National Security Council adopt when they finalise the SDSR?
In Upgrading our Armed Forces, a report published today by Policy Exchange, two recently retired senior officers, Lt. Col. Richard Williams and Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb, identify the key challenges faced by the Armed Forces and lay out some possible solutions.
For example, a significant increase in the size and role played by the Reservists would allow the Armed Forces to unlock the whole of the nation’s military potential and free up regular troops currently trained to use tanks and artillery for operations abroad. In the UK our use of Reservists is far lower than in other Western countries. Just 19% of our Armed forces are Reservists, compared to 38% in Australia, 41% in Canada and 49% in the US.
The report also considers whether the Armed Forces are sufficiently focused on fighting ‘information age’, rather than ‘industrial age’ wars; such as whether the MoD should be doing more to ensure that the basics of information warfare – like having sufficient bandwidth for operational commanders in Afghanistan and elsewhere to effectively manage all of their increasingly technologically advanced units – are in place or not.
For the Armed Forces, the UK’s enormous deficit might well prove to be a trigger for real transformation- as opposed to the salami-slicing indecision of previous defence reviews.