This week’s main defence and security-related news has been sourced from the 2015 Budget, which was delivered by Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday. The Evening Standard reports that the budget saw Britain's intelligence and security services given more than £66 million in emergency cash to bridge a funding gap. The money is being allocated from Treasury contingency funds as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ step up their operations to protect Britain from the threat posed by hundreds of jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. Mr Osborne authorised the move, after delays in a funding Bill going through Parliament, to ensure support for the agencies is delivered on time to supplement their £2 billion-a-year budget. The emergency funding includes £34 million for revenue, £28 million of extra capital and £4.3 million in cash. The advance of more than £66 million will be repaid once the security services receive their normal funding.
No major defence announcements were made during George Osborne’s speech. However, a number of pledges of additional funding relating to veterans support were unveiled, including:
· An additional £8.4 million over the next five years to allow the NHS across England to significantly enhance current mental health and support services to the most vulnerable veterans in the community
· The commitment of £75 million of LIBOR fines over the next five years to support military charities and other good causes
Details of future departmental spending – including that for the MoD – will not be forthcoming until the post-election Comprehensive Spending Review. However, it would appear from early analysis that the Chancellor has abandoned plans for the type of drastic (and, realistically, unworkable) cuts that were laid out in last year’s Autumn Statement. The Daily Telegraph reports that, based on the figures given in the budget, the Conservatives would have to find an extra £8 billion over the course of the next parliament if they want to meet NATO stipulated target of spending two per cent of national income on defence. As a result, unprotected government departments would see their budgets cut by £26.6 billion, rather than the £18.3 billion under current plans.
British trainers deploy to Ukraine
The BBC reports that British military personnel have started training members of the Ukrainian Army, which is currently fighting pro-Russian rebels. The 35 trainers are working in the southern city of Mykolaiv and will spend about two months in the country. They will train forces in eastern Ukraine in medical care and defensive tactics, and deliver non-lethal equipment. The Ukrainian PM said he “truly appreciated” the support, while the deployment was criticised by Russia. The deal was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron last month. It is the first time a Western nation has conducted a long-term military training programme in Ukraine since its war against pro-Russian rebels began last year. The British government is also supplying first aid kits, sleeping bags and night-vision goggles as part of its pledge to provide assistance, and more British teams are expected to arrive in Ukraine over the coming weeks.
MPs identify potential £5bn shortfall in MoD equipment plan
The Financial Times reports that MPs have warned that the UK defence budget is facing a potential £5bn black hole because the government has underestimated the cost of buying weapons. Margaret Hodge MP, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the MoD had admitted the cost of its £163bn 10-year programme for buying military equipment “could be understated by at least £5.2bn — a figure that could grow as it develops a better understanding of the support costs involved.” The committee said it was also not confident the MoD could save what it had promised on future equipment plans. Ms Hodge urged ministers to improve the skills of staff at the Defence Equipment and Support unit that buys and maintains MoD equipment. The committee also warned that the Department was not doing enough to recruit reserve troops — numbers were supposed to rise from 19,000 to 30,000 by 2020.
Soldier forced to retire claims age discrimination
The Daily Telegraph reports that a 61-year-old soldier, who claims he is fitter than most men half his age, has said that he is the victim of age discrimination after being forced to retire. Kevin Fulthorpe says he can still run a mile-and-a-half in just over ten minutes – fast enough to qualify as a reservist paratrooper if he were a young recruit. The sergeant in the Army Reserve, who has been a part-time soldier for 25 years, was told he was too old to serve when he reached his 61st birthday in October. The usual retirement age for non-commissioned officers to retire is 55, but Mr Fulthorpe, from Cardiff, has been given a series of one year extensions because of his fitness. He still trains for two hours each day and can easily pass the military fitness tests for young recruits.
An Army spokesperson said: “While we cannot comment on specific cases, the normal retirement age for Regulars and Reservists is 55, and on occasion units can extend an individual’s service yearly up until the age of 60.”
MoD accused of undermining Smith Commission over Trident
The Herald Scotland reports that the MoD has been accused of displaying a “deep lack of respect” for the devolution process, after it emerged that its officials had expressed fears that transferring powers from London would compromise Trident. Documents obtained by The Herald show the MoD expressed concern to the Smith Commission that devolving control over health and safety and the Crown Estate could affect its activities, saying it would be “helpful” if the final report included the point that “anything which impacts on the operational effectiveness of conducting defence business should be excluded”. Military officials also told the Commission that the creation of a Scottish Health and Safety Executive may lead to a different inspection regime which “could have implications for the delivery of defence outputs, including the nuclear deterrent, and could affect the ability of the MoD to discharge its UK defence and security obligations, both now and in the future.”
Iraqi families gain right to sue MoD over shootings
The Daily Mail reports that families of Iraqis killed or injured on the battlefield by British soldiers could sue the MoD for human rights violations after a High Court ruling. A judgment stated that cases in which an Iraqi was either shot dead or wounded fall within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights Act. The landmark ruling could lead to over 1,200 claims, represented by Phil Shiner’s controversial Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), being investigated in UK courts. Last night the MoD said they were ‘concerned’ the court had taken such ‘an expansive view of the ECHR jurisdiction’ and would take the case to the appeals court. They also said it would likely encourage ‘large numbers of opportunistic’ claims, which would have to be investigated at heavy costs to the taxpayer.
West Midlands Police unveil drastic reforms
The Guardian reports that one of Britain’s biggest police forces is planning to scale back the number of officers walking the streets and to introduce ‘self-service’ digital policing because of large budget cuts and the changing nature of crime. West Midlands Police, which serves Birmingham and Coventry and surrounding areas, plans to reduce dedicated neighbourhood officers in nine of its ten areas. The move could prove politically sensitive, but Chief Constable Chris Sims says it is justified because a proportion of crime has moved off the streets and into the home and online. West Midlands, which is Britain’s second biggest force, believes that a move to more centralised units and digital policing will deliver a better service by 2020, despite expectations that its funding will have been cut by 40 per cent by that time.
Royal Navy unveils 'modern' uniform
The Daily Telegraph reports that Royal Navy sailors will soon be asked to don US-style uniforms likened by one disgruntled seaman to a “garage mechanic's overalls”. Previously, the MoD described the new design as “cool and more modern”, but reaction to Thursday's announcement was mixed at best. According to the Navy, however, feedback from sailors so far has been “mostly positive”. The crew of the Portsmouth-based HMS Lancaster, which will head out to the South Atlantic on Saturday on a nine-month deployment, will be the first to wear the new No4s. It is only to be worn during operational duties, and will not replace more formal uniforms or the berets and old caps seen by families when sailors return home from deployment. In the initial rollout, about 22,000 sets of the uniform are being issued to sea-going ships.
RAF delivers aid to cyclone-hit islands
The Daily Express reports that an RAF plane carrying aid has flown out to Vanuatu following calls for “immediate help” in the wake of a devastating tropical cyclone. The package, containing 1,640 shelter kits and 1,900 solar lanterns with phone chargers, comes after the UK government announced a £2 million donation towards the United Nations' humanitarian aid efforts. Category five Cyclone Pam tore through the archipelago of South Pacific islands last weekend, with winds of up to 155mph and heavy rainfall causing widespread destruction.