It’s been a tumultuous year at MoD but as the ministerial team looks back on what’s been achieved, we all feel we’ve laid the foundations for a much more stable future for Defence.
It can’t be said too often that we inherited a grossly over-committed budget that meant we would have had to make cuts to programmes and capabilities just to live within our means. But the need for Defence to make a contribution to deficit reduction meant those cuts had to be sharper still. I know there are many people who feel Defence should have been exempt from reductions, but to them I simply say that there is no point in trying to defend a bankrupt country.
So in the last year we have had a Strategic Defence and Security Review that began the process of aligning our resources with our commitments. We always knew that, after so many years of neglect, it would take more than one SDSR and one MoD annual planning round to get things into balance, but we are making real progress.
And we’ve done much more than the SDSR. We are all especially pleased to have incorporated the Armed Forces Covenant into law. We’ve also launched a range of initiatives, most importantly the Levene review, that will transform the way MoD works. I’m particularly pleased with the new Major Projects Review Board that will keep a careful eye on those big projects that go over budget or over time. And the new forum for Small and Medium Sized businesses I’ve established will give them a real voice in MoD’s thinking for the first time.
All that, taken together with Liam Fox’s recent statement on the basing review, the reserves review and the government’s commitment to increase the MoD equipment budget in real terms after 2015, means we can now say for the first time in decade or more that our plans are in alignment with our resources.
That’s not to say we don’t have more serious work to do to complete the process. Things remain very tight – that’s the product of years of Labour indifference to the need to balance MoD’s budget – but we can now plan with real confidence.
For me there are two central challenges. With the various reviews behind us I now need to get on with the White Paper on Equipment and Support for Defence and Security. We couldn’t publish it until all the other issues were settled, but now, working with my good friend James Brokenshire in the Home Office, we can finalise this important document.
While the White Paper is about what we buy, the other major piece of work – Bernard Gray’s “Materiel Strategy” – is about how we buy it and support it. The real problems with major defence programmes have been caused by politicians and top military personnel in London. Over committing the programme has meant pushing buying things into the future at much greater cost, and always striving for technical perfection has driven up costs far to far. We need a balanced budget that ends delays, and a culture of “good enough now, not perfect later”. But when we’ve done all that, we still need to make sure we have the skills and structures to buy and support equipment well. That’s what Bernard Gray is sorting out next.
So after fourteen months I think I can honestly say that we’re turning the MoD supertanker round, but it’s going to be a while yet until we can say that all the problems have been solved.
Despite all the difficulties and challenges, the troops in the front line in Afghanistan and all those on service in the Libya campaign are getting the equipment and support they need. This is a tribute to many hard working civil servants, scientists, military personnel and private sector contractors who, together, are providing an outstanding service to our armed forces on the front line.
And that’s my last challenge. Seventy five per cent of our armed forces say their equipment is what they need to do the job they’ve been entrusted with – and given the high standards they rightly set for their kit, that’s a high figure that I’m determined to make even higher. But only twenty per cent of the public think the kit is good enough. We need to do more to show to the British people that, although we still have many issues to deal with in MoD, we are firmly on the right track when it comes to the one thing above all others that we must do well.