Defence news this week has focused on continued public and parliamentary scrutiny and criticism over the level of UK defence funding. A number of national newspapers noted over the weekend that Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood (who has responsibility for the MDP) had threatened to resign if cuts to the Royal Marines and the UK’s amphibious landing capability were enacted. The revelation was exacerbated by suggestions that a high-profile review of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which is being undertaken by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor, could eschew further funding for the Armed Forces and instead focus on cyber warfare capability.
Meanwhile, new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson faced his first defence questions in the House of Commons; while Prime Minister Theresa May declined to make commitments on MoD funding when quizzed by journalists during a visit to the Middle East.
Defence Secretary answers first defence questions
The new Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, went before Commons for his first defence questions this week where questions on funding dominated. Mr Williamson was asked about his failure to press for additional MoD funding from the Chancellor before the Budget last week. Responding to oral questions from Members, Mr Williamson said that he has “always seen 2 per cent as a base as opposed to a ceiling,” referring to the NATO GDP spending requirement, but that “We have to ensure that we understand the needs of our defence and armed forces.”. Mr Williamson also made clear he intended to assess the outcomes and recommendations of the SDSR review being led by Mark Sedwill (Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor) before making requests for further funding from HM Treasury.
Mr Williamson also faced continued pressure from his own backbenches following public demands last week for more funding for the Armed Forces, and criticism of proposed cuts. James Gray MP (a member of the National Security Strategy Joint Select Committee and former Member of the Defence Select Committee) warned that Mr Williamson needed to secure more defence funding in order to prevent a “significant rebellion,” after 25 MPs wrote to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget demanding more funding. His views were echoed by Defence Select Committee member Jonny Mercer (who led backbench Tory criticisms last week). Defence Committee Chairman, Dr Julian Lewis, highlighted “In the cold war years we spent 5% of GDP on defence. Now we spend barely 2% of GDP on defence and perhaps a target nearer 3% of GDP on defence might prevent our armed forces being further hollowed out.”
Mr Williamson was also asked about the National Security Capability Review. He said, “We are making good progress: evidence has been reviewed, analysis conducted and options developed.” Mark Francois, a Tory back bencher and former defence minister, also told Mr Williamson: “The defence of the realm is the first duty of government above all others.”
Mr Williamson appearance at defence questions was much anticipated following criticism of his appointment as Defence Secretary. His comments, while echoing those of the MoD Permanent Secretary last week (made in evidence to the Defence Select Committee) that funding requests would be made after the SDSR review, will do little to quell criticism from prominent Conservative backbenchers. Various newspapers had speculated that Mr Williamson might make representations to the Chancellor this week, but it is likely the Defence Secretary will press his case in the New Year. However, with the Budget now announced and the Chancellor having limited flexibility, the Defence Secretary will face a considerable challenge to secure further funding for the MoD.
Defence spending cuts put the UK’s place of the UNSC at risk
The capability of UK defence forces was also debated in the Lords at the end of last week, with Labour’s Lord Soley warning that a failure to boost defence spending could put the UK’s position as a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council at risk. Lord Soley also insisted that defence spending should rise from two per cent of GDP to three per cent.
Former First Sea Lord, Lord West, supported Lord Soley, saying that Britain’s military might was the reason it was welcomed into so many defence alliances and that the continual reduction in spending since the Conservatives have been in Government put these in doubt. He said, “Yesterday was the Budget, and we saw no plans to increase defence spending – it was not even mentioned. The Government do not seem to care about the damage being done.” Conservative Lord Selkirk said, ““The Government should not take any steps which could lead to the United Kingdom losing its permanent place on the UN Security Council.” Lord Soley received additional supportive comments from peers including General Lord Richard Danatt, Lord Hutton of Furness, Lord Lee of Trafford and Lord Owen.
Responding for the Government, Earl Howe (the Defence Minister in the House of Lords) congratulated Lord Soley for securing the debate, also agreeing with the principle of the UK considering its place in the world. Earle Howe noted the challenges facing the Armed Forces and the UK’s allies, also noting the issues on NATO’s eastern flank and threat of particularly Russian cyber-attack. However, in response to suggestions the UK should be spending three percent of GDP on defence, Earl Howe insisted the UK was already exceeding the NATO target, and disputed comments made by Admiral Lord West that the UK’s Armed Forces were being ‘hollowed out.’ Earl Howe additionally suggested that no decisions on changed to the Armed Forces (e.g. possible cuts to the Royal Marines) were being considered pending the conclusion of the review of the SDSR.
The DPF will follow up with peers participating in the debate, a number of whom are expected to attend the Federation’s parliamentary event on 5 December. The content of the debate highlights the level of pressure on government to increase defence spending; however, at least prior to the conclusion of the SDSR review ministers are unwilling to make firm commitments over future funding and allocation of resources.
Defence Minister prepared to resign over proposed funding cuts
The Daily Telegraph has reported that Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood has informed colleagues that he is prepared to resign in response to military spending cuts that could reduce the MoD budget and particularly army numbers to below 70,000. Were Mr Ellwood to resign, he would be the first Defence Minister to do so since 1966.
The Minister’s comments have been prompted by stark concerns at the MoD’s effort to find efficiencies and reduce costs in order to remain within its £36 billion annual budget, while also facing a budget shortfall believed to be in excess of £10 billion over the next decade. The challenge for officials has been made more acute by the projected £600 million cost to upgrade the nuclear deterrent, leading to speculation that the likely of the Royal Marines, army numbers and the UK’s amphibious landing capacity could be reduced.
The mere threat by Mr Ellwood to resign will have reverberations across the MoD and wider government. The Minister is highly respected as a former army reserve and received a police bravery award earlier this year for attempting to save the life of PC Keith Palmer during the Westminster terror attack. Mr Ellwood is scheduled to address the DPF’s parliamentary event on 5 December and we will update members in future reports on outcomes of that event.
Prime Minister refuses to rule out further defence cuts
The Daily Mirror has reported that, in the first visit to British troops stationed in Iraq by a British Prime Minister since 2008, Theresa May refused to rule out further reductions in defence spending,. Mrs May said, “What we are doing is looking at the threats that we face and the capabilities we need in order to be able to meet those threats.” She also refused to guarantee that the number of troops in the Army would not fall below 70,000.
Mrs May’s comments will attract significant criticism and likely prompt further demands for increased MoD funding. However, in the context of the Budget and, more importantly, Mark Sedwill’s review of the SDSR, they should be viewed as unsurprising, with the Prime Minister unlikely to pre-empt the recommendations Mr Sedwill is expected to make in the New Year.
As noted previously, the DPF is working to confirm a meeting with Mark Sedwill’s team.
Armed Forces denied funding in favour of funding intelligence
National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill is likely to call for any increase in defence funding to be allocated to cyberwarfare, rather than to the Armed Forces, in recommendations to form part of the Cabinet Office’s review of the SDSR that he is leading. The Daily Telegraph reports that the SDSR Review will not result in any extra funding for the Armed Forces. Instead, it will bolster the intelligence services in light of the terrorist attacks earlier this year and alleged cyber warfare conducted by hostile states such as Russia. The Guardian reports that the MoD is planning to move towards projects that will make the UK’s defence capabilities more relevant to modern warfare. Maintaining the nuclear deterrent will not be under consideration.
If accurate, the speculation about the outcomes of the SDSR review will create an additional obstacle for Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in balancing funding restrictions coming from outside the MoD with defence chiefs demands for investment into traditional branches of defence.
Defence chiefs in trouble for budget leaks
The Times has reported that the MoD’s Permanent Secretary, Stephen Lovegrove, has met with the heads of the Royal Navy, RAF, the Army and the Joint Forces Command to reprimand them over stories reported in the media in recent months, including the proposed cuts to Royal Marines, the Navy’s amphibious capabilities, and more broadly the funding shortfall of £20bn. The MoD source who revealed this story told The Times that “The problem for the chiefs is that they get held to account for this but they have no idea how it is happening.”
Scottish policing considered in crisis
After a string of high profile suspensions in the Scottish police, the Justice Minister in Holyrood, Michael Matheson, has been forced to deny that Scottish policing is experiencing a crisis, The Guardian reports. Four officers, including an Assistant Chief Constable, have been suspended pending a criminal inquiry following a string of misconduct allegations; a Chief Constable is also on special leave. The Chief Constable, Phil Gormley, stands accused of three allegations of bullying, all of which he denies.
Mr Matheson said, “Michael Matheson said: “Our ongoing scrutiny of Police Scotland has consistently shown that police officers and police staff at all levels remain committed to delivering policing into our communities that I believe is the match of policing anywhere in the world.” Scottish Labour’s Justice Spokesperson, Claire Baker, said, “this has been a bad year for leadership and governance at Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority, full of suspensions, resignations and early exits.”
Two detained under Terrorism Act as UK arrests reach record high
Counter-terror arrests in the UK reached 379 in a year, The Guardian reports. This is the highest rate since records began in 2001. Of those arrested, 123 were charged, including 105 people on terrorism offences, 67 were bailed pending further investigation and 189 were released without charge. 12 arrests were directly linked with the Westminster attack, 23 were in connection with the Manchester attack, 21 with the London Bridge attack and one with the Finsbury Park attack.
Questions about Faslane and Coulport answered
Defence Minister Harriet Baldwin has answered a range of questions relating to Faslane and Coulport this week. Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central) asked what the expenditure was of planned nuclear infrastructure projects at Faslane and Coulport. Ms Baldwin answered that Faslane Nuclear Infrastructure Continuous Availability Project was costed at £507 million; Coulport Infrastructure Continuous Availability Project was planned to cost £289 million; and Faslane Nuclear Support Hub Project was estimated at £76 million. Ms Stevens also asked whether those costs would be allocated in the budget for Trident, to which Ms Baldwin has answered that they are funded separately from the budget for the Dreadnought programme.
Ms Stevens asked what recent assessment has been made of the safety of Trident. Ms Baldwin referred to a previous answer in which she said “Overall, the Defence Nuclear Programme achieves the required standards of nuclear and radiological safety. Nuclear safety has not been compromised.”
Answering Ms Stevens’ question on when the findings of the SDSR Review would be published, Ms Baldwin said the extent to which findings were published were down to the discretion of individual ministers. She also clarified that the nuclear deterrent was not under consideration as part of the SDSR.
Mr Stevens asked whether defence spending would be reduced in order to fund the replacement of Trident. Ms Baldwin said that the Dreadnought submarine replacement remained in budget.