MoD lacks ‘credible plan’ to fund UK’s armed forces, MPs warn

The Ministry of Defence has no credible plan to fund the armed forces the Government wants, leaving the UK increasingly reliant on its allies, MPs have warned.

The gap between the MoD’s budget and the cost of the UK’s desired military capabilities has ballooned to £16.9 billion, its largest deficit ever, despite an injection of £46.3 billion over the next 10 years.

But the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned that the real deficit could be closer to £29 billion as some parts of the armed forces only included capabilities that were affordable rather than all those the Government had requested.

Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the cross-party PAC, said: “In an increasingly volatile world, the Ministry of Defence’s lack of a credible plan to deliver fully funded military capability as desired by Government leaves us in an alarming place.”

Labour said the report was “more proof” that the Conservatives had failed to “deal with the deep problems in the MoD”.

But a Treasury minister said he did not “recognise” the findings.

Gavin Williamson visit to HM Naval Base Clyde
Prioritising the Defence Nuclear Enterprise risked further squeezing budgets for conventional capabilities, the Public Accounts Committee warned (James Glossop/The Times/PA)

In a report on the MoD’s Equipment Plan published on Friday, the PAC warned that gaps in military capabilities had left the UK more reliant on its allies to protect its own interests, while the credibility of Britain’s armed forces had been “undermined”.

The MPs pointed to “widely reported” recruitment issues, with more people leaving the armed forces than being recruited, and the mothballing of Royal Navy vessels due to crew shortages.

In January, ministers had to deny reports that assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark would be mothballed ahead of their planned retirement dates in the mid-2030s due to a lack of available crew.

The MPs said: “With the support of its allies, the UK’s armed forces continue to fulfil a crucial international role. However, many of its allies are facing similar challenges to the UK, which might affect their ability and willingness to continue providing extensive support.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Delays in procurement of new kit, such as the troubled Ajax armoured vehicle, had left gaps in military capability, the PAC found (Ben Birchall/PA)

The PAC urged the Government to develop plans to mitigate the impact on the UK of the risk that allied support might be curtailed or withdrawn.

MPs also renewed their criticism of the MoD’s procurement processes, saying that slow delivery of new systems had caused gaps in military capability.

Only two of the MoD’s 46 equipment programmes are currently rated as highly likely to be delivered to time, budget and quality, while successful delivery seems unachievable for five projects including nuclear submarine reactors, new communications technology and missiles.

The report accused the MoD of dodging “major decisions” about cancelling procurement programmes it cannot afford, relying too much on an assumption that defence spending will rise to 2.5%, in line with the Government’s long-term ambition.

HMS Albion in Belfast
Ministers have been forced to deny that the assault ship HMS Albion, and its sister ship HMS Bulwark, were being mothballed due to a lack of crew (Paul Faith/PA)

It also highlighted that the decision to prioritise the Defence Nuclear Enterprise, which manages the UK’s nuclear deterrent, had increased the deficit and risked further squeezing budgets for conventional forces.

Dame Meg said: “This problem is not new. Year-on-year our committee has seen budget overruns and delays in defence procurement. A lack of discipline in the MoD’s budgeting and approach has led to an inconsistent plan that just isn’t a reliable overview of the equipment programme’s affordability.

“We’re disappointed that not only are the same problems we’re used to seeing on display here, but they also appear to be getting worse. Despite a budget increase, this year’s plan shows a clear deterioration in affordability. The MoD must get to a better grip, or it won’t be able to deliver the military capabilities our country needs.”

John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said: “Conservative ministers might talk a good game on defence but this report is more proof of their failure to deal with the deep problems in the MoD.

“Ministers have lost control of the defence budget, failed to fix the ‘broken’ defence procurement system and wasted billions of pounds of public money.

“With war in the Europe and conflict in the Middle East, ministers risk leaving our armed forces without the equipment they need to fight and fulfil our Nato obligations.

“Labour has a plan to defend Britain better. In government, we will establish a new military strategic headquarters and appoint a national armaments director to make sure our forces are ready to fight and defend Britain.”

Treasury minister Gareth Davies said he did not “recognise” the findings, adding there was “record funding” going into defence.

He told Sky News: “We have got, I think, over £50 billion being spent this year on defence, it was uplifted by £11 billion at the last spring budget, so money is going into our defences.

“But the nature of conflict has also changed in that we need technology and a different way of tackling conflict and being ready to do so.”

A Number 10 spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister has overseen the largest sustained defence spending increase since the end of the Cold War and a £24 billion uplift in cash terms over the spending review period.

“We are ensuring that we have the largest defence budget in history, increasing spend and ensuring that we have the funding that we need to protect UK national interests.”