This week’s main UK defence news has been the commencement of UK drone strikes in Iraq. As reported in The Daily Telegraph, the Ministry of Defence has said that an RAF Reaper drone fired a Hellfire missile at ISIS forces laying homemade bombs north of Baghdad. The air strike near Bayji, which took place over the weekend, came as RAF Tornado jets based at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus also continued to hit targets belonging to ISIS. Meanwhile, the US has announced plans to send an additional 1,500 soldiers to Iraq on top of the 1,400 already deployed on a mission to train and support the country's military. However, the deployment will not take place until the US Congress votes to provide $5.6bn to support the mission.
The week also saw the commemoration of the anniversary of the armistice that effectively ended World War 1. On Sunday, the Queen led proceedings at the Cenotaph in central London. Before the ceremony, Scotland Yard said there would be “appropriate and proportionate” policing after four men were arrested on Thursday in west London and High Wycombe over an alleged Islamist terrorism plot on British soil.
Also this week, the final RAF Tornado detachment returned from Afghanistan. A London-based think-tank produced a detailed study of recent increases of Russian military activity around Europe. And it was reported that Ministry of Defence officials have been warned against becoming involved with beautiful women from Russia or China, as it is feared that intelligence agencies from those countries may attempt to stage “honey trap” operations.
Chief of the Defence Staff claims that David Cameron ‘opposes further cuts in troop numbers’
The Daily Telegraph reports that General Sir Nick Houghton has said that the Prime Minister David Cameron opposes cutting the number of British soldiers after the next election. General Houghton admitted financial pressures would remain when the next government takes office, but pledged to oppose cuts to army numbers from “inside the system”.
The comments, which came during an interview on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show on Remembrance Sunday, are likely to reignite a row over the Conservatives' protection of defence spending after the election. The party has so far failed to promise that two per cent of Britain's GDP will be spent on defence beyond 2015 – a key commitment by NATO members. Conservative MPs and retired generals told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Cameron must put a promise to keep defence spending above two per cent of GDP in the Tories' manifesto, saying anything else would be “dangerous and deplorable”.
New research suggests post-election public spending cuts to be harsher than expected
The Financial Times has reported that its analysis of Britain’s public finances has found that a further £48bn of public spending cuts will have to be made after the next election if public finances are to be in balance by the 2018/19 financial year – almost double the estimate of a few months ago made by the Prime Minister. If the next government continues to ring-fence health, schools and overseas aid, the non-protected departments face real cuts of an average of 33 per cent, compared with the 21 per cent average cuts they faced between 2009-10 and 2014-15. The MoD budget – which is not ring-fenced – is being cut by around nine per cent during this parliament.
The level of cuts are nearly twice David Cameron’s £25bn estimate because that figure does not include planned cuts for two years out of the nine – 2015-16 and 2018-19 – and takes no account of the effect on departmental spending of rising numbers of pensioners and increases in pension payments. The Institute for Fiscal Studies last month criticised Mr Cameron for omitting the first and last year of the next parliament when calculating the size of the cuts to be made.
Question on defence spending asked in House of Lords
This week has seen an oral question regarding whether the government intends to ring-fence the defence budget in the same manner as the international aid and National Health Service budgets asked by Lord West (Lab).
Answering for the Government, Lord Newby (Lib Dem) stated that no departmental budgets are currently set beyond 2015-16, but that the Government is committed to ensuring that the UK has properly funded Armed Forces and to growing the defence equipment programme at one per cent above inflation each year until 2020-21.
Lord West subsequently asked whether the Minister could assure the House of Lords that the UK would stick to the two per cent spending commitment to NATO. Lord Newby responded that the Government was committed to that two per cent target for the remainder of this Parliament and into the next Parliament and to keeping the defence equipment budget growing, but that any commitments in the medium term beyond that are a matter for party manifestos.
Funding problem reported to be delaying Type 26 frigate programme
DefenceNews.com reports that efforts by the MoD to award a construction contract for the next generation of Royal Navy frigates prior to the end of this year appear unlikely to succeed. Industry executives and others have said affordability and BAE’s ability to control cost are among the key sticking points as the two sides try to lock in a deal ahead of three major events: the 7th May general election, a Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015, and a possible new round of defence spending cuts starting in 2016. Indications are that the MoD might not be in a position to approve the anti-submarine/general purpose frigate program before at least the second quarter of next year, with some saying even that date may be optimistic.
The Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) organisation, the MoD’s procurement agency, recently extended a contract with consultants McKinsey to undertake an independent cost review of the Type 26. BAE has said it wanted to cut the first metal on the frigate in 2016 at a new £200 million facility it hopes to build at one of its two shipyards on the Clyde in Scotland.
The Type 26 programme has also been in the news this week following comments by the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, which insinuated that the MoD could opt to build its next generation of warships abroad, as opposed to in shipyards in Scotland. The Daily Telegraph reports that this suggestion was immediately shot down by the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP – in part out of a desire to avoid providing the SNP with more ammunition for its arguments that voters were misled regarding the benefits of maintaining the Union in the lead up to the referendum earlier this year.
New medal for Armed Forces members who never saw action debated
The Sunday Telegraph reports that the issue of a National Defence Medal, intended to be awarded to all individuals who have served in the Armed Forces for more than two years regardless of whether they saw combat, has been revived by a senior Lib Dem MP. A review earlier this year dismissed plans to award the medal as too expensive, but Stephen Gilbert, the MP for St Austell and Newquay, told The Sunday Telegraph: “I am presenting it in Parliament on Armistice Day and as much as anything I want to shame the powers that be into looking again at this issue.” Mr Gilbert criticised ministers for accepting the review’s decision to block plans for the National Defence Medal and said that its introduction will be in the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the next general election.
Upper age limit for Army Reserve recruits raised to 52 for soldiers and 57 for officers
The Guardian reports that the upper age limit for former regular army soldiers who wish to join the Army Reserves has been raised from 43 to 52 and the limit for former commissioned officers is now 57 rather than 35. The changes have been made to reflect the demographics and health of the population, and “consequently widens the potential recruitment pool”, according to the MoD.
There were an additional 590 recruits to the army reserve in the year to October compared with the previous 12 months, bringing the total to 3,840. However, attrition meant the total number of reservists rose by just 20 to 19,310 despite a multimillion-pound television and online advertising campaign to attract more recruits to the three armed forces’ reserves.