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December 19, 2018 | International, Aerospace, Naval, Land, C4ISR, Security

Britain eyes a more lethal force in newly revealed defense modernization review


LONDON — Britain is to rebuild weapon stockpiles, strengthen Joint Forces Command and earmark cash to rapidly innovate as part of a long-awaited defense modernization review revealed Tuesday by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.

The defense secretary told Parliament on Dec. 18 that the review, known as the Modernising Defence Programme, would improve the lethality, reach and mass of the armed forces. However, he stopped short on detailing where the cash would coming from and who the long-term winners and losers might be in regard to capabilities and programs as priorities change.

Although Williamson told lawmakers he would do “everything within my power to make sure that the U.K. remains a tier-one military power,” his statement disappointed some in the defense sector for its blandness.

Labour, the main opposition party in Britian, called the statement “waffle” and said Williamson had done nothing to address a funding shortfall of between £7 billion and £15 billion (U.S. $8.8 billion and $18.9 billion) in equipment budgets over the next 10 years.

Some analysts also felt the yearlong review had failed to deliver.

“It's an announcement about future announcements, it's the [Ministry of Defence] keeping lots of option open, “ said Jon Louth, the director of defense, industries and society at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. “It's all about seeing what can be achieved in next year's governmentwide departmental spending review."

Howard Wheeldon, a British-based defense commentator, said the review had “hardly a specific detail of anything that really matters other than some minimal strategic intentions to be found amongst the prose. Perhaps the best that can be said is that while it contains many strategic positives, loads of ambition and intent, at the very least it doesn't contain any new specifics in relation to planned cuts.”

Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting said the review was an “anti-climax.”

“We have waited all year for this, and what we have is a very thin document. It's hard to fault the aspiration, but making it a reality is a different matter. Where's the money coming from?” she said.

Ashbourne-Walmsley and Louth agreed the MoD's success, or otherwise, in securing additional funds when the government's departmental medium-term spending plans are agreed sometime next year is the key.

“For the MoD, it's all about next year's departmental spending review. It's unfortunate that the moment the review came on the horizon, that invalidated most of the things that the modernizing defense review could have hoped to achieve,” Ashbourne-Walmsley said.

“A lot of these plans are hostage to fortune in terms of the spending review [known as the comprehensive spending review], economic damage from Brexit and even a change of government,” she added.

The MoD has secured an additional £1.8 billion in funding this year from the Treasury for spending on items like the nuclear deterrent, anti-submarine warfare and cipher capabilities, but the department still has considerable work to do to balance the books on a total budget slated to top £39 billion next year.

The National Audit Office, the government's financial watchdog, reckons the MoD is at least £7 billion overcommitted on its 10-year, £186 billion equipment plan. But, the office admits, it could be a lot more.

Williamson acknowledged the MoD had to create “financial headroom for modernization,” but told Parliament this could be achieved through efficiencies. “Based on our work to date, we expect to achieve over the next decade the very demanding efficiency targets we were set in 2015, including through investment in a program of digital transformation,” he said.

Analysts here reckon that's an optimistic target without capability cuts; although there was no mention of any reductions in the statement.

“We all know that you cannot [achieve efficiency targets] without taking the knife to something. So what we may be able to deduce or fear is that hidden out there somewhere is a chapter of probable announcements of what might yet be to come,” Wheeldon said.

One thing appears: Spending priorities are set to change as the MoD reacts to the growing threat from potential adversaries. That includes rebuilding depleted weapons stockpiles.

“To improve the combat effectiveness of our forces, we will re-prioritize the current defense program to increase weapon stockpiles. And we are accelerating work to assure the resilience of our defense systems and capabilities,“ Williamson said.

“We will improve the readiness and availability of a range of key defense platforms: major warships, attack submarines, helicopters and a range of ISTAR platforms,” he added, without concrete details.

Williamson also said Joint Forces Command capabilities are set to be upgraded. “A major new step will involve an improved Joint Forces Command that will be in a better position so that defense can play a major role in preventing conflict in the future and improve our cyber operations and capabilities across the armed forces, but also across government as well,” he said.

“Our adversaries and competitors are accelerating the development of new capabilities and strategies. We must keep pace and conceive of our joint force as consisting of five domains — air, land, sea, cyber and space — rather than the traditional three,” he told lawmakers.

The review might have been short on details, but the MoD is pledging to drive the military modernization effort with funding, albeit a small amount, for innovation.

Britain already has a small defense innovation fund, which this year has £20 million to put toward projects in areas including unmanned air systems, virtual reality training and enhanced digital communications. The fund will grow to £50 million in the next financial year.

New “Spearhead” innovation programs will apply cutting-edge technologies to areas including subsurface threats to submarines; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; and command and control in the land environment.

For now, the MoD is investing £160 million to create a transformation fund, but additional money may be available in the upcoming comprehensive spending review if Williamson can make the case for it.

“I will ring-fence £160 million of MoD's budget to create this [transformation] fund available for innovative new military capabilities. I will look to make a further £340 million available as part of the spending review. This fund will be available for new innovative military capabilities, which allows us to stay one step ahead of our adversaries," Williamson argued.

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