A gaping hole in UK defences exposed by Russian planes and submarines over the last two years is to be plugged with the purchase of new reconnaissance planes, David Cameron will announce in the Commons.
The new planes are an admission that the government made a serious blunder in the budget-crunching 2010 review when it scrapped Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft that provided cover in the North Sea and elsewhere round the UK.
There was major embarrassment for the UK last year when the Ministry of Defence had to seek the help of the US, France and Canada to try to find a Russian submarine spotted off the west coast of Scotland, possibly tracking UK nuclear submarine movements from the Clyde.
Incidents involving Russian jets buzzing around UK airspace have also increased, with two Typhoon jets scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth as recently as Thursday to confront two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack aircraft approaching UK airspace.
A government review, which will set out UK defence and security priorities for the next year, will be heavy on intelligence and counter-terrorism, in particular the threat posed by Islamic State. It also tilts the balance away from conventional forces towards new forms of warfare such as the use of drones and puts a greater emphasis on special forces.
While Cameron and defence secretary Michael Fallon will talk up the UK’s defence capability on Monday, much of the detail will confirm the UK’s slow decline as a military power, with the navy’s shrunken surface fleet to remain at the same level, with orders for new Type-26 frigates only replacing existing ships.
The review offers an overview of British strategic thinking, identifying as major threats Isis, al-Qaida and Russia in the wake of the Crimea crisis, but also the underreported threat still posed by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland.
The MoD has a ring-fenced budget of 2 % of GDP – £38bn. About £170bn has been earmarked for equipment over the next 10 years.
The planned purchase of reconnaissance planes comes in the wake of the resurgence of Russia. While Russian pilots have routinely tested British defences since the cold war by flying as close to British air space as possible, the RAF has reported concern about the number of such incidents since the Ukraine crisis and the failure of Russian pilots to use transponders, offering no warning of their whereabouts.
There have been incidents too involving not just submarines but the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.
The MoD will look at a range of possible replacements for the Nimrod that will include the Airbus Military C295 and the Boeing P-8 Poseidon.
The review will confirm the UK commitment to four new nuclear-powered submarines and missiles with nuclear warheads to replace Trident by 2028. The Trident programme is one of the most expensive parts of the defence budget.
The review is likely to include a revised estimate for the cost of the Trident replacement, a figure that could be highly controversial given the wide gap in estimates between the MoD and anti-nuclear campaigners.
In little-noticed evidence to the Commons public accounts committee recently, the MoD’s top civil servant, Jon Thompson, said that Trident was the programme that most kept him awake at night.
“It’s the single biggest future financial risk we face,” he said. “The project is a monster … [an] incredibly complicated area to estimate future costs.”
Other big budget items are the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Elizabeth, due to come into service in 2020, and, afterwards, HMS Prince of Wales.
The MoD has been struggling to find the money for planes for the two aircraft carriers. Anything less than at least 20 planes for each carrier would be viewed at Westminster as a political embarrassment.
The way around this for the MoD is to stress that only one carrier is likely to be operational at any time, with the other being used for training or being refitted, so planes would only be needed for one.
The MoD originally wanted 138, then slashed it to 48. The plan is to buy an initial 16 F-35s and reassess the position when the carriers are in service.
The big winners will be the special forces, the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS). There is no plan to expand their numbers, conceding the argument of the special forces that too many recruits might mean a drop in standards.
The £2bn extra for them over the next five years announced by Cameron earlier this week is to be spent instead on planes, helicopters, other equipment and weapons.
The whopping increase for special forces reflects the changed nature of conflict, with irregular forces being needed against non-state forces such as Isis or to respond quickly to crises around the world.
The number of drones is to be doubled to at least 20 of a new generation of drones.
One of the buzzwords during the review was “international by design”, putting a stress on collaboration not just with the US but with France and other European countries in areas such as cyber-warfare.
George Osborne earlier this week announced a doubling of investment in cybersecurity to £1.9 billion by 2020.
The announcements had been on the way, but were made early in response to the Paris attacks.
The Commons defence select committee, in a report published Saturday, questioned whether the review was sufficiently flexible in identifying and ranking potential threats.
The main threats are: cyber-security and espionage; growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa; non-state actors and hybrid warfare; potential for conflict in the South and East China Seas; and potential Russian aggression in Europe and the Extreme North.
Defence committee chair Dr Julian Lewis said: “Any worthwhile defence review and security strategy ought to cater for the potential dangers on our checklist. Yet, there is overconfidence in government that it can reliably predict which threats will transpire. History has proven that this approach does not work.”