Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


210. Delivering Security, building on the New Chapter to the SDR, set out the Government's analysis of the defence and security challenges against which the Armed Forces need to be prepared, structured and equipped. Although we accept much of that analysis, we have been, and continue to be, concerned that its vision of the future is too narrowly confined by the expectation that the experience of recent years constitutes a sufficient guide to the future: that there will be 'a similar pattern of operations in the future, with the emphasis on multiple concurrent Medium and Small Scale deployments'.

211. Many of the key capabilities, identified by that analysis and in Future Capabilities, depend on the introduction of new equipment, and much of that equipment will not be available until the end of the decade or later. For example:

  • Carriers, from 2012
  • Type 45 Destroyers, from 2009
  • Astute submarine, delivery of first in 2009
  • FRES, first vehicles 2009 or later
  • Typhoon, multi-role not before 2010
  • Joint Strike Fighter, from 2014
  • New helicopter capabilities, no date set

A number of these programmes have already experienced significant delays. The possibility of further delays cannot be discounted.

212. On the most optimistic of projections, it will be the middle of the next decade before the UK has the Armed Forces described in Future Capabilities. At that point the analysis of the threat upon which that structure was posited will be more than ten years old. Given the extent of the changes which have been seen in, for example, the seven years since the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, it must be expected that that analysis, in some respects at least, will not have stood the test of time.

213. MoD's response to this risk has been to emphasise the flexibility which the Future Capabilities proposals will provide to the Armed Forces. This flexibility is demonstrated by, for example, the multi-role capabilities of the Typhoon; or by the agility and deployability of the proposed FRES vehicles; or by the range of capabilities which can be provided from the future carriers. While such flexibilities are welcome, they are not all new. Many existing capabilities have proved themselves to be extremely flexible.

214. Flexibility in terms of total military output, however, comes not only from the ability to use one set of equipment for a number of different purposes—or train one unit of personnel to undertake a number of different tasks—but also from having a large enough pool of resources from which to draw an appropriate mix of effective equipment and trained personnel to achieve the range of tasks that may be required. Future Capabilities concentrates on providing the resources needed for particular types of operation: expeditionary, high intensity, network enabled.

215. We are concerned that Future Capabilities places too great an emphasis on providing for high levels of capability across a relatively narrow part of the total spectrum of military activities. The risk involved in doing this could be compounded if some of the key equipment programmes which we highlighted above were either subject to significant delays or failed to deliver the full ranges of their planned capabilities. There is continuing uncertainty over the Carrier programme. There have been problems with the Joint Strike Fighter. And the critical technologies for FRES remain untested.

216. A second area of risk is over the tempo of operations, and the strain which this places on the Armed Forces. In recent years the Armed Forces have operating at or near the limit of their capabilities. General Walker, on his first appearance before the Committee as Chief of the Defence Staff, told us in June 2003, that each of the single service chiefs had raised concerns with him, as the new CDS, about the level of commitments.[242] The proposals in Future Capabilities are not predicated on any significant reduction in operational tempo in the future. Indeed the MoD's analysis for Delivering Security states:

    A major lesson of the last five years is that the Department and the Armed Forces as a whole have to be structured and organised to support a fairly high level of operational activity at all times, not as a regular interruption to preparing for a Large Scale conflict.[243]

217. We are not convinced that that lesson has been learned in terms of what can be reasonably expected of Armed Forces personnel over an extended period. Admiral West described the Navy as being 'very very taut… in terms of numbers'.[244] General Jackson said that an Army of 102,000 was 'just enough to man the force structure'.[245] Air Chief Marshal Stirrup has publicly commented on the painful nature of the reductions for the RAF and there is still uncertainty about the core manpower requirement as the Service adapts to the demands of expeditionary warfare. RAF manpower savings depend not just on reductions in existing force levels, but on the timely entry into service of aircraft and systems which will require fewer people to operate them. On recent operations at least ten per cent of those deployed have been reservists. The total number of reservists, however, has recently been in decline and there have been problems with recruitment. The MoD has admitted that the arrangements for financial assistance for reservists have had an adverse effect on retention rates.[246]

218. Historically the Armed Forces have had difficulty recruiting to their full manning levels. Failure to do so in the future could seriously undermine the sustainability of the force structure set out in Future Capabilities. The MoD needs to recognise that, under its proposals, there will be very little, if any, fat left in Armed Forces manning figures. Full recruitment will be a necessity rather than an aspiration.

219. The Future Capabilities proposals have been driven by a particular vision of future operational requirements. 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.

220. The longer term vision is for an expeditionary, high-intensity and network-enabled package of forces, capable of contributing 'real weight' and thus influence to US-led operations. Its achievement depends on the timely delivery of a range of new and sometimes unproven equipment programmes. 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. The decision to commit the Armed Forces to the realisation of that vision is a demonstration of the Government's confidence in the enduring relevance of the analysis of the future international security environment in Delivering Security.

242   HC (2002-03) 771-i, Q 3 Back

243   Cm 6041-II, p 7 Back

244   Q 568 Back

245   Q 363 Back

246   Changes to the Reserve Forces (Call-out and Recall) Financial Assistance Regulations - Statutory Instrument 1997 No 309: Regulatory Impact Assessment, p 5 MoD, January 2005. Back

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