UK PM Johnson sets sights on MOD spending

Harry Lye 16 December 2019 (Last Updated December 16th, 2019 15:22)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top advisor Dominic Cummings is set to overhaul spending and acquisition at the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

UK PM Johnson sets sights on MOD spending
Ministry of Defence Main Building Headquarters in London. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top advisor Dominic Cummings is set to overhaul spending and acquisition at the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

According to The Times, Cummings, who oversaw the Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the European Union and has worked as an advisor to Boris Johnson since he entered Downing Street, will make procurement an overhaul of top priority.

In its election manifesto, the Conservatives made several pledges on defence, saying: “We will modernise the equipment and improve the capability of our world-class Armed Forces and intelligence agencies.”

Cummings could play a significant part in an upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which Boris Johnson committed to on the campaign trail. Detailing the first 100 days in office, the Conservative party said it would launch “the biggest review of our defence, security and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War”.

Cummings has in the past taken aim at the MOD in his personal blog, claiming that corrupt and incompetent staff led the procurement process, while also taking aim the £6.2bn cost of the Royal Navy’s two newest aircraft carriers, calling the purchase of the ships a farce.

He wrote: “I wrote in 2004 about the farce of the UK aircraft carrier procurement story (and many others have warned similarly).

“Regardless of elections, the farce has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists.”

Cummings’ scorn towards the UK’s aircraft carriers and could revive concerns that one of the ships will be sold off or leased to an ally. In November, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was forced to refute reports that senior defence officials were drawing up plans to reduce the British Army to between 60,000 to 65,000 troops and lease one of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers to the US, along with mooted cuts to the Royal Air Force.

At the time Wallace responded by tweeting: “For the record: there are no plans to shrink the army. In fact, my direction to the army has been to improve recruiting and retention levels.

He added: “In the Manifesto, there will be new policies to help. This story is nonsense.”

Cummings’ post went on to say: “Scrutiny by our MPs has been contemptible. They have built platforms that already cannot be sent to a serious war against a serious enemy. A teenager will be able to deploy a drone from their smartphone to sink one of these multi-billion dollar platforms.

“Such a teenager could already take out the stage of a Downing Street photo op with a little imagination and initiative, as I wrote about years ago.”

Cummings blog posts show an interest in emerging technologies including drones and AI. In the same blog, Cummings details the advantages of cheap drones that “have a combination of exponentially increasing capabilities, exponentially falling costs, greater reliability, greater lethality, greater autonomy, and anonymity.”

Cummings goes on to discuss ‘swarms’ as a way of advancing the capabilities of these systems and praised the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a model of success for developing new technologies.

The UK is due to undertake a new SDSR in 2020, following the custom of reviews taking place every five years.

Speaking before the election in December at his annual speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter said the time for a new SDSR had come to help the MOD answer strategic questions.

Carter said: “I suggest that our starting point for a review should be a proper assessment of the threat and this should take the form of a net assessment that determines where our current trajectory will take us in 2030 relative to those of our competitors.

“We might deduce from this that our approach to deterrence needs updating, for the form of authoritarian political warfare that we are confronted with requires a more dynamic approach.”

Under plans drawn up by the Conservatives, a new SDSR will likely include the creation of a UK Space Command, acting on a manifesto promise to help the UK “adapt to new threats”.

A defence modernisation black hole has plagued MOD Procurement for some years, with its equipment plan estimated to be anywhere between $2.5bn and $14.8bn above the projected cost already.