Britain will this year spend more than £50billion on its military, making us the sixth-largest defence spender on the planet and the biggest in Europe.
It’s still not enough in these increasingly dangerous times, with wars, hostile dictatorships and security threats on all fronts. But there is now a welcome consensus on the mainstream Right and Left that we need to spend more.
Yet even those most enthusiastic about bigger defence budgets are troubled by a nagging question: where do the billions we currently spend actually go?
On the face of it we don’t seem to be getting (as the Americans would put it) much of a bang for our buck.
After all, despite being a big spender on defence, we somehow have a navy — which once laid claim to rule the waves — with fewer frigates and destroyers than its French, Japanese or South Korean counterparts.
The British Army, which is the smallest it’s been since Napoleonic times, is about to get even smaller (soon barely big enough to fill some Premier League football stadiums) and would currently struggle to deploy one fully-equipped armoured division.
Meanwhile, the RAF, which 30 years ago could boast 31 fast-jet squadrons, can now muster only seven.
All three services are crippled by serious shortages of skilled manpower.
America, our most important ally, regards us as a declining military power with limited resources that are spread too thin. So do many of our other Nato allies. They fear our forces are now so small that they would lack ‘critical mass’ in any major military confrontation.
A recent report by the House of Commons defence select committee concluded that our military is ‘hollowed out’ and seriously ‘overstretched’. Not a great look for £50 billion a year.
So what are we actually getting for that money? The answer is not nearly enough.
And it’s all thanks to the waste, incompetence, mismanagement, stupidity and reckless squandering of our money by those at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) responsible for the procurement and servicing of the military equipment and weapons systems our forces need to defend us and project British power.
The MoD’s default modus operandi on just about every major defence project is to deliver late (sometimes very late) and over budget (often way over budget).
There’s nothing new about this. It is how it has operated for decades. The MoD should be renamed the Department of NOTAAB: Never On Time, Always Above Budget. Nothing ever seems to change. Despite bromides that ‘lessons have been learned’ the department is populated by congenitally slow learners — if they ever do indeed learn.
The culprits never face any penalties for their incompetence or extravagance. Nobody is ever demoted, disciplined, humiliated, much less fired. It’s just on to the next disaster or through the revolving door to a lucrative job in the private sector with a defence contractor who’s no doubt been complicit in some botched programme.
The whole farrago is a public-private sector cosy club of failure funded by the taxpayer.
Three years ago the National Audit Office reviewed 20 defence projects costing a combined total of £120billion. In nine of them, costs rose substantially between the moment the initial case was made for them and the decision was taken to proceed — in other words before they even got off the ground!
Thirteen of them showed cumulative delays of 254 months between contract signing and entering service. The longest delay was for the A400M transport aircraft — 79 months late.
The litany of recent disasters stretches as far as the horizon and beyond. It’s hard to know where to start.
So let’s begin with something very visible, the Royal Navy’s pride and joy, its two new massive aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Pride, joy — and embarrassment.
Costing £3.5 billion each (excluding the expensive aircraft to be deployed on their decks), naturally they were delivered late and over budget. They’ve also been bedevilled by problems, usually to do with their propulsion systems. The Prince of Wales has spent more time during its short life in repair docks than it has on the high seas.
The Queen Elizabeth did make it out into the North Atlantic and the seas off Norway last autumn as part of a Nato Carrier Strike Group. But, though it has capacity for 36 F-35B fighter jump jets, it boasted only eight, minimising the lethal force it should be carrying. But it was better than the year before, when more often than not it went to sea with no fighter jets at all.
Going to sea, with or without jets, is currently not an option. ‘Big Lizzie’ was meant to lead the maritime arm of Steadfast Defender, perhaps Nato’s biggest ever exercise involving 40 allies.
But she’s unable to leave Portsmouth because of, you’ve guessed it, propeller shaft issues and, yes, you’ve guessed it again, they are the same issues which took the Prince of Wales out of service 18 months ago.
Last autumn was not the Royal Navy’s finest hour. It was revealed all five of its nuclear-powered Astute class attack submarines were docked awaiting repair, as was its Trafalgar class sub.
With all six out of action the Kremlin was basically given the freedom of the North Atlantic. Two new Astute class subs are on their way. But not before 2026 — late, of course. When asked about this the MoD sniffly stated it ‘did not comment on submarine operations’. Fair enough, for how could it since none of the subs under discussion was actually operating?
Sometimes matters descend into farce. Two Royal Navy minesweepers managed to bump into each other while in port in Bahrain, making them unable to continue the vital work they were doing to keep the sea lanes in the Gulf, through which much of world’s oil moves, open and safe.
No wonder our allies sometimes despair.
But perhaps most significant in terms of naval waste and inefficiency was the recent experience of Vanguard, one of our four nuclear-armed submarines, the very core of our independent nuclear deterrent. It was taken out of service for a major refit. It took 89 months, longer than the 83 months it took to build her, at a cost for £500 million.
All four of our nuclear-armed submarines will eventually be replaced by a new class of Dreadnought sub, which are already subject to delay and huge cost overruns — up an incredible 62 per cent in one year.
A third of the MoD’s £305.5 billion budget for its Equipment Plan over the next 10 years will go on the future nuclear deterrent, which starves our conventional forces of investment.
It is probably right the UK remains a nuclear power but it cannot do so at the cost of undermining our non-nuclear capabilities. We boast of spending over 2 per cent of GDP on defence, among the highest in Nato. But take out the nuclear spending and it is only about 1.75 per cent.
When it comes to delays, cost overruns and squandering of scarce resources, however, the British Army takes Olympic gold. The sorry story of Ajax, its troubled armoured vehicle project, is emblematic of all that is wrong with British defence — and indicative of why it goes wrong.
Ajax was meant to be an off-the-shelf replacement for the aging Warrior armoured vehicle, based on an existing Austrian-Spanish platform and in service by 2018.
But the top brass and the MoD added 1,200 additional requirements, including a unique 40mm gun, during its development, basically turning it into a bespoke project.
As a result, after 12 years and more than £3 billion spent of a £5.5 billion project, led by the UK arm of General Dynamics, a US defence giant, not a single Ajax is yet fit to be deployed — and none is likely to be ready for a couple of years yet.
True, some have been handed over for training. But the noise and vibration inside them was so bad that crews suffered various ailments, including hearing impairment, so none was fit for the battlefield.
As one squaddie recently remarked in a defence journal: ‘It would be nice to have an armoured vehicle that did more damage to the enemy than to us.’
The grim saga of Ajax is revealed in all its gory detail in a devastating and damning 172-page investigation entitled ‘Lessons Learned’, which is optimistic since lessons are never learned when it comes to defence procurement.
With China and Russia currently developing hypersonic missiles which can travel at speeds of 6,500 miles an hour, we need to work with our allies to develop the technology to stop them. But it hardly instills confidence in our ability to do so when we can’t even get an armoured vehicle right.
The lessons are quite clear. It is the propensity of the British top brass, with the MoD’s complicity, to want everything gold-plated, customised precisely to their needs, that is at the root of the problem.
It is its constant fiddling with the specifications or insisting that because ‘the Americans have it, so must we’ that pushes up costs and causes delays. All kit has to be high-end — and then they complain when we can’t afford enough of it.
Poland is in the midst of a massive rearmament programme, given fresh impetus by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which it is buying hundreds of tanks and fighter jets ‘off-the shelf’, mainly from South Korea. Such a prospect for Britain would give our military and the MoD a fit of the vapours.
Yet Poland will soon have the most formidable land forces in Europe, having purchased over a thousand new tanks and 600 artillery pieces. We are upgrading our Challenger tank but at such expense we can only afford 148 of them and they will be delivered from 2027.
The cost rose 60 per cent. So we cut the numbers. A familiar story of British defence procurement.
Likewise, Poland will soon have 1,000 new fighter jets. So far we have ordered only 48 F-35Bs. They are hugely sophisticated, state-of-the-art jets. But they are also very expensive and 48 isn’t even enough to give our two carriers a full complement of fighters.
More will no doubt be ordered, slowly, in the years ahead. But it is these sort of measly numbers which make US generals wonder if, even as a small military, we are any longer a top fighting force.
For the foreseeable future our carriers will depend on F-35s provided by the US Marine Corps.
In the past two decades there have been five attempts to reform defence procurement. Most have just involving rearranging the deck chairs. None has made a demonstrable difference. It is time for radical action.
The largely useless Defence Equipment and Support unit within the MoD should be scrapped and replaced with a new powerful Procurement Agency, at arms’ length from the MoD (which should lose power over procurement), and run by people — professional project managers— whose careers, positions and remuneration would depend entirely on overseeing projects on time and on budget.
Promotions for doing well, sackings for business as usual.
There is no time to waste. In 2021 the Government decided to reduce some of our military capabilities, including the early retirement of Typhoon fighter jets (so they could be cannibalised for spare parts), phasing out the C-130 heavy lift aircraft, on which special forces had often depended, and inexplicably cutting the number of new early warning aircraft from five to three — even though they are a vital part of any deployment in a war zone.
To the disgrace of this Government, none has been reinstated despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing threats across the globe.
We need to do better than this and rapidly increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP. But only if that is accompanied by the radical reform of our terrible procurements processes.
Any political party that does not have a clear plan about how to do this in these perilous times does not deserve to govern our country. It is that serious.