We need more money for defence. The message from defence secretary Gavin Williamson as he was quizzed by MPs on the Defence Select Committee on Wednesday could not have been clearer. To be fair, this is a drum he has been beating ever since his surprise appointment late last year, and the defence sector has been warning of the impending funding crisis for even longer. This question is, is the Treasury listening?
The facts should make them sit up and take notice. The most recent damning assessment from the National Audit Office found an eye-watering £21bn black hole in the defence equipment plan and described it as “unaffordable”, despite the significant cuts to our defence capability that have already been made. The armed forces are the smallest they have been since the Napoleonic wars, we have halved the size of the fleet since the 1980s, and our only aircraft carrier does not have any planes. A former First Sea Lord has described the current situation as “on a precipice” and argued that under the current government “defence is being screwed”.
Yesterday, defence workers from across the UK, along with Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham, will be meeting in Westminster to speak to MPs about their experiences and concerns. As a leading defence sector union, Prospect members have seen the pressure on defence every day. Pay restraint for defence staff, delays to procurement orders, purchasing of cheaper foreign equipment to cut costs – all have been features of the way the Ministry of Defence has been run under the Conservatives in recent years. With billions of pounds of “efficiency savings” left to find, the future looks like it may well be more of the same.
While our defence capability is diminishing, the global security situation is deteriorating. Renewed Russian aggression, the prospect of a nuclear North Korea, tension in the South China Sea, continued conflict in the middle east, international terrorism – all of these are challenges we must face in the coming years and it is vital that our defence is up to the task. The government may say it is meeting the minimum NATO target but the reality is that the annual defence budget has been cut by 14% in real terms since 2010.
Labour’s shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith has been strong on the issue, with clever attacks on the equipment plan, the size of the forces, as well as the pay and conditions of defence staff. She has also moved fast to close off any uncertainty about her party’s commitment to the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Yet, the sense remains, that some in Labour’s leadership feel uncomfortable talking about defence, despite the importance of national security and the British jobs the industry supports.
The message of Prospect members to MPs of all parties is that we need a serious debate about defence. We want a consensus to provide the resources and attention necessary to maintain credible armed forces, secure highly skilled defence jobs, and end the indecision about key procurement challenges.