UK ministers ‘arrogant and unwilling to learn’ on military strategy

Boris Johnson’s government has been accused by MPs of leaving Britain unprepared for crises such as the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the Ukraine war and of being “arrogant and unwilling to learn the lessons”.

In a scathing report on military strategy, the House of Commons defense select committee warned that Britain’s armed forces have a capability gap and that the war in Ukraine had exposed a mistake in cutting the army’s heavy armor.

The MPs urged the government to reconsider its integrated defense review to learn the lessons of Afghanistan and Ukraine, but said both events were “being seemingly dismissed as insignificant”.

Although the committee welcomed Johnson’s decision to announce a four-year cash uplift in the defense budget in 2020, it said inflation and new threats meant it was no longer enough.

The committee also expressed concern about the use of the armed forces to “backfill” for workers on civilian tasks because the relevant Whitehall departments seemed unable to respond themselves.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defense committee, said facts on the ground had changed since the government published its integrated defense review in March 2021 but that strategy had not evolved.

“With open war raging in Europe, widespread economic instability and the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal underscoring the government’s lack of preparedness for international crises, we must be clear eyed about the challenges ahead,” he said.

Ellwood clashed with Johnson in November last year over the reduction in Britain’s tank force. The report said Johnson’s assertion that the days of “big tank battles on the European landmass” were over had been proven wrong in Ukraine.

While they said that investment in new technology was vital, the MPs expressed serious doubts about whether untried new systems could compensate for dwindling troop numbers and outmoded equipment.

The Ministry of Defense in March last year announced cuts to the army of 9,500 over the next four years to bring it to 72,500, making it the smallest full-time army for many years. The committee called the cuts “perverse”.

The entire fleet of more than 700 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles was identified as being for the axe, along with a third of Challenger II tanks. The remaining 148 Challengers would be upgraded, the department said.

The committee has also been highly critical of the botched procurement of a new Ajax armored fighting vehicle and on Thursday it said the MoD’s “track record in large and complex programs is abysmal”.

In 2020-21, defense spending amounted to £42.4bn in cash terms. Johnson in 2020 announced the budget would increase by £16.5bn over four years above the Conservative manifesto commitment to boost spending by 0.5 per cent above inflation.

That would leave the defense budget £6.2bn higher in cash terms in 2025 compared to 2021, but the committee pointed out that soaring inflation meant more money was now needed.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss have both committed to higher defense spending during the Tory leadership contest.

Johnson last month claimed the “logical conclusion” of various military commitments would be that Britain spent 2.5 percent of gross domestic product on defense by the end of the decade.

In response, the Ministry of Defense said it was “delivering our vision to support and equip our armed forces, including the need to invest for the long term in vital capabilities such as future fighter jets, nuclear submarines and more advanced tanks”.

“We are acutely aware that our nation’s resilience is crucial and we will continue to adapt our strategy and response to meet emerging threats and challenges,” it added.

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