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Under-reported: Successive defence cuts aren’t just endangering the UK military’s frontline

Theresa May with the UK's outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach. Credit: PA Images.

Theresa May with the UK's outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach. Credit: PA Images.

December 29, 2017   2 mins

Lieutenant-General (Retd) Sir John Kiszely MC was a former Director General of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

With reported threats of ministerial resignations and possible back-bench revolts, the prospect of deep cuts to the UK’s defence budget to fill a £20billion ‘black hole’ have attracted much media attention in 2017. But speculation has largely focused on threatened eye-catching items in the shop window…

  • Army regiments…
  • the amphibious landing capability…
  • Royal Marine manpower, and…
  • F-35 fighter aircraft on order for the RAF.

All of these capabilities are high-profile and emotive issues with which the public can readily associate.

UK defence spending
The UK is only one of five of Nato’s 28 member states that meet the minimum recommended spending commitment to defence: 2% of GDP.

Britain only meets the commitment by what the House of Commons Defence Committee has called “creative accounting”.

A significant chunk of Ministry of Defence spending will be used to renew Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent – meaning Britain isn’t spending the Nato target on conventional capabilities.

UnHerd’s Allan Mallinson has written: “At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Britain’s defence spending was over 5% of GDP; today it is just short of 2%, and further cuts threaten, including entire capabilities such as amphibious assault. There is no margin for error.”


Largely unreported, however, have been other less glamorous but essential elements of defence capability which are also under threat…

  • Training has already been cut this year, and a further significant reduction is almost certain…
  • Officer education is an easy target when times are hard…
  • Cutting corners with logistics support is unlikely to attract attention…

But all of these impact on the capability, effectiveness and morale of our armed forces.

The MOD’s preferred method of saving money while preserving the frontline is through efficiency savings, but when these have been stringently applied – as they have been – and are applied year-on-year over a long period of time, the ability to do more with less becomes highly questionable. ‘Efficiency savings’ can become no more than a convenient label for cuts in effectiveness.

So what? Preserving frontline capability is highly important, but so is preserving the essential elements which underpin it. The danger is that budgetary decisions are driven by what grabs the headlines, and that we end up with a facade – a hollowed-out defence capability which looks the part, but lacks substance and resilience – and that we only discover the fact when it’s too late.


Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.

A contributor to UnHerd’s ‘under-reported’ series, published at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018

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