Britain facing a £16.9bn shortfall in military spending plans for the next decade

30 January 2024

The latest UK National Audit Office (NAO) report on MOD Equipment Plans (2023-33) was published in December, and the headline is grim: Britain faces a staggering £16.9 billion shortfall in its military procurement plans for the next decade.

Following a 15-year period in which the MOD has already been pretty heavy-handed with its machete, the options for further cutbacks now – while still maintaining a semblance of a sovereign defence capability – are few and each, highly impactful.

In January’s edition of Aerospace magazine, Tim Robinson FRAes, Editor-in-chief comments: “From a combat air perspective, there could, therefore, be difficult decisions over cuts today to fund tomorrow’s capabilities – especially the strategically, operationally and economically vital GCAP project.”

However, there is little room for further RAF fleet reduction, and that wouldn’t deliver significant saving anyway; not without a total erasure of the logistical support, infrastructure and people that sustain the fleet. The commercial airline sector faced a similar conundrum in the 1980s. Back then they solved the problem with dramatic rationalisation of their fleets (Boeing and Airbus emerging as the victors); but the process transformed the price-point of commercial aviation.

A similar paradigm shift is what is needed now. If the current cost-trajectory of military aviation is not addressed, we’ll simply be back here again in the near future, and likely with even fewer options. GCAP necessarily continues, but what’s the point if its in-service potential can’t be fulfilled because we can’t afford to properly support it with relevant training, efficient maintenance and FCAS’s system-of-systems?

The ‘dangerous decade’ is now upon us

As Tim Robinson FRAes summarises: “The ‘dangerous decade’ is now upon us, and just at the time that rearmament is more critical than in 1938, Britain’s armed forces could be looking at an empty cupboard.” If the cost of military aviation continues on its current trajectory there is a risk that the GCAP consortium will only be able to afford a constrained fleet spread thinly across the partners.

We don’t need more ‘difficult decisions’ that simply tighten the death spiral. We need visionary decisions that tackle the root cause. The urgency is real, and we must respond; but with quick brains, not a swinging blade.

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