The MoD is busy fighting an increasingly difficult war overseas. But the defence review and Trident decision are equally important, setting priorities for years to come. Joshua Chambers reports
Finding spending reductions was always going to be a challenge for the MoD. As Liam Fox noted last month while speaking at the Chatham House think-tank, the MoD is looking at “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review”. Recently this was made more difficult: while the department had thought the Treasury was going to pay for Britain’s replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system – as has become conventional – the chancellor announced that the MoD will have pay for the deterrent out of its own core budget.
A 2006 white paper on Trident estimated the total cost of renewing Trident to be £15-20bn across 15 years, and it may cost more. Last year the MoD’s budget was £37bn, and this was already stretched – not least by the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan. Trident puts an increased cost of three per cent on the department’s budget at a time when it is looking to find 25 per cent cuts.
In some form, the department will fund a nuclear deterrent. The coalition agreement states that: “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.”
This wording does leave room for a reduction in the UK’s nuclear deterrent; it may not be a continuous at-sea operation, as is currently funded. Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute recently argued that fiscal pressures, combined with the reduced threat of a surprise nuclear attack, mean that the government should consider cheaper ways of maintaining some form of nuclear deterrent.
Meanwhile, the department must decide its conventional long-term spending priorities in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Traditionally this would have been managed by the MoD, but oversight now lies with the Cabinet Office team supporting the National Security Council. This means that the Foreign Office, DfID, the Home Office and the Treasury will all be involved in the SDSR.
Currently, the MoD is faced with stark choices on where to cut back – it may lose squadrons of fast-jet aircraft such as the RAF’s Tornado, or the Royal Navy’s Harrier – and also on whether to reduce military personnel numbers. The department could cut back on bigger investment projects such as new aircraft carriers, but there are clauses in the contracts which make them expensive to cancel.
The ministerial team
Defence secretary Dr Liam Fox is on the right of the Conservative Party, and ran against David Cameron in the leadership contest of 2005. He caused waves shortly after joining the MoD by announcing in an interview with the Sunday Times that the chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and permanent secretary Sir Bill Jeffrey would leave their posts in the autumn following the SDSR. It is unconventional to declare the retirement of long-serving figures as part of an interview, rather than through a formal announcement.
Fox’s minister of state for the armed forces is the former Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey. He has opposed many of Fox’s stances – including on the renewal of Trident – and wrote a policy paper with his former leader Sir Menzies Campbell on the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons, in which he called for a delay on the decision to renew Trident until 2014 at the earliest. He also said that the UK no longer requires continuous at-sea deterrence.
The remaining four ministers in the department are Conservatives. Gerald Howarth is the minister for international security strategy, and was a shadow defence minister from 2002-10. Andrew Robathan is the minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans. He was in the Coldstream Guards from 1974-84, and then served five years in the SAS.
The minister for defence equipment, support and technology is Peter Luff, who was chair of the business select committee before the election. The under-secretary of state and Lords spokesman on defence is Lord Astor, who served in the Life Guards from 1966 to 1970.