LONDON – Another piece of evidence that Britain’s conventional defense capabilities are on the brink of a major shock is a speech by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on December 11th.
The British Armed Forces are facing some tough decisions about whether to compromise their capabilities and cut legacy programs as part of a transformation effort made possible by the recently announced larger multi-year budget increase for the Department of Defense, Wallace said at the Royal United Virtual Event of the Services Institute.
“There are still some tough decisions to be made. However, these choices allow us to invest in new areas, new equipment, and new ways of working. … Sometimes it means quality over quantity or the good rather than the perfect. Or just let go of some functions. Too often we cling to sentimentality when we have to look for alternatives, ”he said.
UK Permanent Secretary of Defense Sir Stephen Lovegrove spoke a similar language earlier this week.
In presenting evidence to the Parliamentary Defense Committee, he signaled that the Department of Defense would have to cut legacy programs if it wanted to move to more relevant capabilities in the cyber, space, underwater, unmanned and other high-tech sectors.
More details on what goes and what remains in the capabilities area are expected to be revealed in the next few weeks before a government review is published in late January that integrates defense, foreign, security and development policies.
Howard Wheeldon of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory said the cuts will be substantial if they happen.
“We could well see some pretty big and very questionable changes being announced that may or may not include medium and heavy lift airlift capability and either of the two non-contracted armored vehicle programs,” the adviser said.
The British Army is already on a major upgrade of its armored forces. The ARTEC Boxer 8×8 passenger transporter and the General Dynamics Ajax reconnaissance vehicle are already under contract for production.
As things stand today, a program to upgrade the Challenger 2 main battle tank will be carried out in front of Defense Department’s investment approval officers over the next few days, while Lockheed Martin plans to upgrade the Warrior infantry combat vehicle for production approval in 2021.
“I welcome the planned increase in Royal Navy and marine equipment spending and the various new planned programs in digital, cyber and space technology. All of this is very positive, but it does not mean that we can get rid of conventional defense equipment in the way I fear is planned, “said Wheeldon.
The budget increase announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month adds more than £ 16 billion to the Department of Defense’s coffers. That’s an 18 percent increase over the next four years, an increase that has not been seen in decades. The budget is now around £ 41.5 billion or $ 55 billion.
However, Wallace pointed out that the budgetary regulation that went into effect in fiscal year 2021/22 did nothing to increase the pressure on spending for the current years.
“Tomorrow’s deal will not relieve our more immediate financial pressures. You will not get out of a decade of deferral and underfunding overnight,” he noted.
Earlier this week, it was reported that the Department of Defense curtailed training, temporarily shutdown the Royal Navy’s reserves, and took other cost-cutting measures to offset the books in the current fiscal year.
The government’s treasury watchdog, the National Audit Office, has forecast for years that the UK’s ten-year budget for defense equipment worth billions of pounds is prohibitive.
The existing funding gap for the black hole needs to be addressed, and the Department of Defense needs to make cuts in legacy programs to allow scope for transformative changes in the way things are sourced such as spacecraft, future warplanes and unmanned vehicles.
Wallace’s RUSI speech painted a bleak picture of the ministry he had taken on as Secretary of Defense nearly 18 months ago.
“The decades of postponement in funding were about to hit the buffers. False efficiency, savings targets, erosion and the lingering effects of fighting the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are all things that continue to consume valuable resources long after the political leadership that led them left the stage, ”he said.
Wallace said the British and others would need to adjust their approach to develop exactly how to respond to a changing global security picture, with potential adversaries outmaneuvering the West on equipment and other fronts.
“They are fluid, we are static. They employ willingness, innovation and presence while we remain completely predictable in our processes and attitude, ”he said. “The truth is, they dominate the sub-threshold as we get caught up in self-imposed risk matrices, conflicting legal frameworks and often bureaucratic obstacles,” warned Wallace.
The use of a Turkish drone, the Bayraktar TB2, the attack on armaments and air defense formations in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, and the development of hypersonic weapons by Russia were examples of “we are no longer leading and innovative enough,” he said.
“We run the risk of just being prepared for the great fight that will never come, while our opponents might choose to outperform it even if they do.”
At the same time, Wallace said Britain would not abandon the idea of ”large scale warfare” or the use of armaments.
“Old capabilities are not always redundant, just as new technologies are not always useful,” said the Defense Minister.
Wallace said he had three priorities for the UK Department of Defense. “I want a defense policy that meets my three department priorities and is threat-based, proactive and sustainable.”
The first step in UK defense reform will be the establishment of a net evaluation and challenge function in the Department.
It is known as the Secretary of State’s Office of Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC) and includes war games, doctrine, red teaming, and external academic analysis.
“It will focus and enhance existing efforts, work closely with Defense Intelligence, and cover all areas of defense, especially doctrine and the equipment choices we make,” said Wallace.