Jeremy Hunt, one the two Tory candidates for the PM’s slot, has declared that he would increase defence spending to from 2% to 2.5% of the budget over the next five years. That would mean an increase of some £15bn over the same period.
Mr Hunt has a track record of supporting increased defence budgets and has repeatedly stated that that is wrong to expect the US to shoulder the burden of NATO’s effort. Currently, other than the US budget of 4%, the UK is the only major power to have achieved the agreed 2% minimum spending on defence, with many countries, such as Germany, struggling to even get to 1.5%.
The reasons for his most recent statement are of course linked to his campaign to be the next PM, but also the recent Iranian threats to UK shipping in the Gulf. In the latter case, Mr Hunt will be acutely aware of the paucity of UK naval assets with which we could effectively protect our vessels.
In a radio interview this afternoon, Admiral West confirmed that of the 19 surface vessels suitable for escort duties, one third are likely to be in dock for maintenance at any time, and half of the remainder are either returning from, or going out on patrol or some similar task. According to our maths, that leaves about 6 ships to cover the UK’s worldwide interests.
His comments came just after the Navy said it was sending a second ship to support the Montrose. The Duncan, a destroyer with considerably greater capability that the Montrose, a frigate, is to move from the Med where it is at present, to the Gulf and specifically the Straits of Hormuz.
Mr Hunt’s comments have been endorsed by the new Defence Secretary (a Hunt-supporter), who said: “The first duty of any prime minister and any government is to protect the United Kingdom and further her interests. The British public want us to have clout in the world. We must give the men and women of our armed forces what they need to do the job we ask of them.”
Two questions will immediately come to mind:
A. How are we going to pay for this?
B. Will it make any real difference given that the MOD is already facing a major shortage of cash? Might not all that money simply be used to fill in the holes in an already overstretched defence budget?
According to Mr Hunt, he will take the money from funds already set-aside by the current Chancellor. This might be worth as much as £27bn, but it is based upon an assumption about future growth after a soft-Brexit of some sort; a no-deal Brexit could, presumably, have a serious impact upon the amount available.
The answer to the second question is rather more problematic. Defence equipment is expensive because, in part, it is very complex. And that complexity, coupled with increasingly stringent laws governing safety etc. means that we are not likely to see any real change in major equipment levels for many years.
That said, the quickest way of getting new kit into service might be to bring forward existing programmes such as the next generation of frigates or destroyers – but none of that is going to effect the current situation in the Gulf. The same goes for the submarine programme..
A potential solution might be to significantly increase funding for the support, maintenance and upgrade of in-service kit. This could rapidly increase the availability of current ships and aircraft, as well as ground vehicles. Coupled with Mr Hunt’s suggestion that rapid deployment or quick reaction forces would be boosted, this might have the desired effect on potential aggressors with an eye on British ships or indeed any other overseas assets.
At another level, it could also be a major improvement to the day to day running of the Forces, reversing years of cuts to training and similar programmes. Many readers will remember the days of limited track-miles, dues-out on anything but the most critical parts, no training ammo, and a general sense of boredom that sets in when the money runs out. It also starts to affect people when the kit they are issued is outdated and even worn-out.
Get the small things right and the rest follows. Indeed, in many respects its a variation on the theme of “Look after the pennies and pounds will look after themselves”.