The Future Capabilities announcement of July 2004 set out how the policy analysis of previous white papers would be implemented in terms of force structure, equipment and personnel. It was made against the background of year-on-year real terms increases in the defence budget and an ambitious programme of major procurement programmes many of which have already delivered substantial advances in capability. We welcome the Government's commitment to modernising the Armed Forces and to equipping them to face the security challenges of the future.
The announcement included the withdrawal earlier than previously planned some defence equipment. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) argued that these withdrawals reflected changes in perceived threats or improvements in capabilities (allowing more to be done with less) rather than financial constraints. But they may lead to reductions in what the Armed Forces can do. Fewer frigates and destroyers mean that several of the Navy's standing commitments will have to go. The early withdrawal of the Jaguar squadrons by 2007 will leave a capability gap before the multi-role Typhoon enters operational service around the end of the decade.
Across the Services equipment is being withdrawn over the next two to three years, but new (and significantly more capable) equipment in the same areas will not enter operational service until after 2010. Some of the replacement equipment has already encountered difficulties with its development (eg the Joint Strike Fighter and the Future Carrier) or is dependent on unproven technologies (eg the Army's Future Rapid Effect System (FRES)). We are concerned that these programmes may be delayed or may fail to deliver the full range of planned capabilities. Other important requirements (eg for new helicopters) seem still to be some way from crystallising into specific programmes.
The Army is to be restructured, firstly to allow the development of a medium weight capability (to be delivered through FRES) and secondly to enable it to meet the demands of more concurrent but smaller scale operations. Infantry units have traditionally changed their roles and their locations over time in a process called arms plotting. This is to be ended. As a consequence the infantry will move to a structure of large multi-battalion regiments, where individual battalions are fixed in role and in location. Ending the arms plot will bring benefits in terms of family life, career development and unit deployability. We strongly endorse and welcome the decision to end the arms plot.
At the same time, however, four infantry battalions are to be cut freeing up some 2,500 posts. Together with other posts which have been found from elsewhere in the Army, this will allow some 3,000 new posts to be created in support capabilities. We support the strengthening of these capabilities but we are concerned that it has been achieved by reducing the total size of the infantry at a time when many units have been facing and continue to face a very demanding operational cycle.
Future Capabilities lays great emphasis on the potential of network enabled capability (NEC) to transform the effectiveness of the Armed Forces. A number of programmes are being introduced to improve the connectivity of different force elements, but the real challenge lies in moving from that to the integration of force elements, which MoD aims to do by 2015. We recommend that MoD sets out how it plans to meet that target.
The Future Capabilities proposals have been driven by a particular vision of future operational requirements. We believe that that vision takes a somewhat narrow perspective on the range of demands which our Armed Forces might be expected to meet in the future. Furthermore it may take another decade before the capabilities to deliver those requirements are in place. In the meantime equipment withdrawals and personnel reductions may leave gaps in capability. Those gaps, in turn, may create risks. Some of those risks, in our view, need not have been taken.