Updated plan on size and strength of UK armed forces delayed

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The release of an updated plan on the size and strength of the UK’s armed forces has been delayed at a time of mounting cost pressures, Sky News understands.

A defence minister, James Cartlidge, told MPs last month the aim was to publish the defence command paper “refresh” by the end of June.

But multiple sources now say the timeline has slipped and the document will not be released until after the UK and its NATO allies meet for a major summit in Lithuania in mid-July.

A number of sources said the delay was caused by bureaucratic and logistical reasons rather than anything more serious, with it taking longer than anticipated to ensure relevant ministers or chiefs were available to read and discuss drafts and implement any changes.

“I would not read too much into it,” one defence source said.

Other sources, however, said – away from any bureaucracy-induced delays – the process of assessing the affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s ambitions to transform the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force over the coming decade had thrown up very tough questions on what capabilities might have to be scrapped to make the plan affordable.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace rides on a training tank during tanks and armoured fighting vehicle trials and development tests at Bovington Camp, near Wool in southwestern Britain, February 22, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville

There is a tension between the immediate need to free up cash to rebuild the army given Russia’s war in Ukraine and committing vast sums to major long-term programmes to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent; build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with Australia; and create next-generation combat jets in an agreement with Japan and Italy.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, secured an additional £5bn for the armed forces over two years in Rishi Sunak’s first budget as prime minister in March.

But this increase – while welcomed – was less than half the amount needed. In addition, most of the extra money – £3bn – was earmarked for the UK’s nuclear weapons enterprise, while most of the rest was to be spent on replenishing stockpiles of ammunition after the military gave much of its supplies to Ukraine.

Hawk training jets are seen overhead as aircraft from the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force conduct a practice flypast from RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire, as they rehearse for the Queen's Birthday Parade. Picture date: Tuesday May 24, 2022.

A delay in announcing the results of the updated defence command paper could save the UK the embarrassing spectre of talking tough on defence on the global stage at the NATO summit in Vilnius on 11 and 12 July, having just announced plans to cut its own capabilities even further at home.

Another possible outcome is that a genuine refresh is deemed too difficult given what the spending challenges might mean in terms of curbing ambitions. That could lead defence chiefs to water down the content by not specifying exactly how they will deliver their plans.

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Such a move would knock the really tough decisions about the future shape and size of the military back until after the next general election.

The update to the command paper is a follow-on piece of work from a sweeping refresh of UK defence and security police that was unveiled by the prime minister three months ago.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “We will set out the future vision and priorities for our Armed Forces in the coming weeks through our updated Defence Command Paper.”

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