Our priority target should not be capabilities per se but the capacity to generate capabilities we need when we need them: equipment which is effective and cost-effective. A more adaptable acquisition model is one that is able to provide for changing circumstances, not one that delivers projects for scenarios that may never come to fruition. Much of the development needed for these technologies is necessarily experimental and therefore risky. The Government needs to be able to support innovation where companies cannot do so on their own.
A large proportion of this investment in technological innovation is sold abroad or used in other sectors and generates jobs and revenue for the UK. Maintaining our defence manufacturing capacity and financial arrangements that extend beyond the length of a single Parliament would also better support our industries and our Armed Forces.
The loss of key technical and scientific knowledge in these sectors cannot be easily recovered. The lack of Ministry of Defence capacity to deal directly with industry forces the MoD to contract this out to defence prime contractors that now dominate our industry but add to our current inflexibility. The smaller engineering firms that our politicians so often celebrate, should be supported directly through the MoD and would provide much greater value to the UK economy.
This is the lesson from recent military campaigns. Through the Northern Ireland campaign, the Falklands conflict, two Gulf wars and into Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the battle-critical equipment was developed during those campaigns, drawing on both defence research and technology and investment made over previous decades, and people in the MoD and industry with their own decades of experience.
Just take Afghanistan: counter-IED capability, armoured vehicles, drone technology and communications infrastructure were constantly being adapted along with tactics, techniques and procedures to try to protect our servicemen and women.
Military capability is only at one end of the spectrum of capabilities that ranges from trade, diplomacy, aid and all the soft power capabilities that the UK should employ in all the mostly peaceful campaigns it must pursue to secure our national interests and to contribute to global security. We also know that work has already identified gaps in maritime reconnaissance, cyber and defence intelligence and capability, ahead of this autumn’s Strategic Defence and Security Review. On the current trajectory, like its 2010 predecessor, the next SDSR is likely to be another savings package rather than a genuine strategic review that generates value for the UK.
The Chancellor has recently announced the MoD will need to find another £500m in savings. The news that the MoD is trying to find ways of including pensions, peacekeeping and part of the international development budget in our defence budget does nothing to disguise the real shrinkage in the UK’s military capacity over the last five years and which senior military officials are constantly warning us about.
Even if we were to commit fully to Nato’s required two per cent of GDP, one of the announcements in Wednesday’s Budget, the way that we organise and equip our armed forces needs radical change. Our method for supplying the military remains the same: as though we were going to fight a war of national survival, but without the necessary resource. Our acquisition model needs to change to meet the sad reality that we are no longer willing to spend the sums which that would require.
The problem with our present defence equipment programme is that it has now overtaken defence policy. It is therefore essential to identify which assets must remain under national ownership and control.
The United Kingdom is going through a period of deep soul searching. From the relationship between the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, through to our relationship with our European partners. Having an active involvement in foreign affairs is part of who we are as a country, and defence and therefore defence acquisition is a far more crucial component of who we are than most people realise.
If we are going to maintain a national arsenal, then we need to find a different model, given the limitations of our defence budget, of our R&D and of our defence industry in today’s service sector-dominated economy.
• Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. He was Shadow Defence Secretary (2001-2003) and sat on the Defence Select Committee (2006-2010). He is the editor of a report, ‘Defence Acquisition for the 21st Century’, that has been published by the Civitas think-tank.