The next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is due in 2020. The Defence Secretary will have to get to grips with an “unaffordable” equipment plan, whilst ensuring the services remain an attractive career option for new and serving personnel alike.

The decade ahead sees some significant milestones, including the first deployment of the UK’s new aircraft carrier in 2021. Proposals to provide legal protections to serving personnel and veterans are likely to attract considerable attention. And the UK’s future defence relationship with the EU should become clearer.

What is a defence review?

A defence review enables the Government to set out its ambitions for the armed forces for the years ahead. It examines the defence and security landscape, and identifies current and emerging threats. It then decides how to best organise and equip the armed forces.

The Coalition Government established a five-yearly cycle with the 2010 and 2015 SDSRS, but the 2020 date is not set in stone. Uncertainty over Brexit and the timing of the next spending review may delay the next SDSR.

An “unaffordable” equipment plan

Successive governments have committed to meeting NATO’s pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) spent £38 billion on defence in 2018/19. A significant proportion of that money goes on equipment: over the next 10 years the MOD will allocate more than 40% of its total budget to equipment and support programmes.

A major issue is the affordability of the equipment plan. Each year the MOD publishes its equipment and support budget for the next decade. The National Audit Office said the 2018 plan is “unaffordable,” with forecast costs exceeding budgets by £7 billion. These figures are likely to change when the 2019 plan is published.

How the MOD buys equipment is a perennial issue that divides the parties. Labour and the SNP strongly criticised the Conservative Government’s shipbuilding strategy and this row is likely to reappear early in the new Parliament. Just before Dissolution the MOD halted the international competition for new support ships.

An attractive career option?

Recruitment continues to be an issue, particularly for the Army, whose much criticised 10-year recruitment contract with Capita ends in 2022. The Army is 10% under strength, with around 73,400 personnel compared with the target set for 2020 by the 2015 SDSR.

UK Armed Forces trained strength
Full-time trained UK Armed Forces personnel against the 2015 SDSR target, 1 October 2019
  Army RN/RM RAF Total
2015 SDSR target 82,000 30,450 31,750 144,200
Trained strength 73,472 29,013 29,858 132,343
Surplus/Deficit -8,528 -1,437 -1,892 -11,857
% of target -10% -5% -6% -8%

Source: Ministry of Defence, UK Armed Forces Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics: 1 October 2019

Retaining personnel is also a concern. The effect of service on family life is the top reason for leaving the service. The MOD has introduced flexible working, a Families Strategy and spousal employment support to address some of these concerns. All the main parties pledged to improve the conditions for personnel. The Conservatives promised extra childcare and a new veterans’ railcard. Labour pledged to improve support for forces children, and to provide better housing and better wages. The Liberal Democrats wanted to waive leave to remain fees for armed forces personnel born outside of the UK.

Where personnel live will be a major issue for the next Government. The piloting of a scheme to promote private renting and reduce the reliance on Service Family Accommodation, the Future Accommodation Model, is causing uncertainty. The MOD’s plan to reduce the defence estate by 30% by 2040 will see a number of sites and bases close over the next decade.

Support for veterans was a significant area of focus under the last Government. The first Veterans’ Strategy was published in 2018, and in 2019 Boris Johnson created a new Office for Veteran Affairs in the Cabinet Office shortly after taking office.

An Armed Forces Bill and other legislation

In July 2019 the May Government consulted on proposals to provide greater protection from the threat of prosecution for alleged historical offences that occurred outside the UK. Prompted in part by the number of legal actions arising from Iraq and Afghanistan, the proposals also sought to address the rise in civil litigation by placing greater restrictions on the time limit for bringing civil claims for personal injury and/or death in relation to historical events outside the UK.

However, the May Government’s proposals did not address offences alleged to have occurred in Northern Ireland, a subject of considerable debate in recent years. The Conservative party is suggesting amending the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to incidents which took place before the law came into force.

The Labour manifesto pledged to introduce a War Powers Act within the first year of government.

An Armed Forces Bill is needed by May 2021 when the Armed Forces Act 2016 will expire.

Defence and Brexit

The UK will continue to have sovereignty over its defence policy and the armed forces after Brexit. How defence co-operation with the EU develops will be informed by the manner in which the UK leaves. Library briefing paper ‘Brexit and UK Defence: An Explainer’ discusses what this means in more depth.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: 45162618 / Ministry of Defence / Open Government Licence