Tuesday, 7 July 2009
The UK government's announcement today of a Defence Review can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who had read the House of Commons Defence Committee's scrutiny of the Defence Estimates for the military budget for 2009-10, covering both Iraq and Afghanistan, published a week ago.
That report showed that the total amount requested this year by the MoD is £39.7bn, of which £3.495bn will be spent in Afghanistan. This latter figure represents an increase of 36.6 per cent on last year. (In Iraq, in contrast, defence costs have decreased by 55.2 per cent as troops have been withdrawn.) Overall costs for operations in both countries added together show a slight decline by 3.2 per cent.
The committee berates the government for the late delivery of the Estimates this year, saying that they have barely had time to look at them properly and asking for an explanation. "We expect the Government in its response to this Report to set out the reason for the delays and the actions it intends to take in future years to ensure such delays do not happen again", they say.
A Memorandum from the MoD explains the increase in costs thus:
"Operations in Afghanistan include the additional security costs required for the local elections, and the costs of around 200 personnel providing counter improvised explosive device (IED) expertise. Capital costs for Afghanistan include Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) such as further force protection (e.g. tactical support vehicles and surveillance equipment), and ongoing further modifications to military equipment for use in the operational environment (e.g. further adaptations to Tornado aircraft and Lynx and Merlin helicopters). UORs by their very nature reveal a capability gap in a specific operational environment and are therefore sensitive. We therefore cannot provide precise details. There is also an additional capital provision for increased airfield and associated support infrastructure in Afghanistan.”
The report helpfully provides a table showing UK defence expenditure in Afghanistan for the last five years. As the figures below show, spending has risen dramatically - by about a billion pounds a year over the last two years:
2009-10 (est): £3,495m
The large increases in costs in Afghanistan, combined with extra government spending because of the financial crisis, means that defence spending faces a cut of 10-15 percent over the period 2010-16, or about £6bn a year according to one analyst. Writing in Future Defence Review, published by the Royal United Services Institute, analyst Malcolm Chalmers makes the point that much of this saving may have to come from operations in Afghanistan. He continues:
"It is still entirely possible that, at some stage during this period, the conditions for a useful UK (or indeed US) combat presence will no longer exist, and an honourable transition to a support role will become possible. At the margins, increasing financial stringency at home may give UK leaders a further reason to restrain the continuing costs of the operation (in both human and financial terms), while also seeking solutions that allow such an exit to take place. This pressure will increase to the extent that the Treasury insists on the MoD funding part of the additional operational cost from its own core budget. But it will be developments within Afghanistan itself (including the success of Taliban reconciliation efforts and the strengthening of local security forces), together with strategic decisions taken in Washington DC, that will be the most important drivers of UK withdrawal."
It is clear that from next year onwards the British government will be under enormous pressure to reduce its spending in Afghanistan. It will not be long before signs of this - possibly in terms of greater support for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban - become apparent.
Today the Ministry of Defence announced a Defence Review to identify where savings can be made. Work is to begin immediately on the consultation process and the results will be published in a Green Paper early next year with the review to be launched after the general election.
In a written statement to the Commons Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the review would be designed “to ensure that we develop and maintain Armed Forces appropriate to the challenges we face and the aims we set ourselves as a nation”.