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NAO says £190bn Defence Equipment Plan 2020-30 is unaffordable

21 January 2021: The National Audit Office (NAO) says additional funding provided in the November 2020 Spending Review will still not be enough to plug shortfalls in the 10-year Defence Equipment Plan.

The NAO has issued a report on the £190bn Defence Equipment Plan for the 10 years from 2020 to 2030. For the fourth consecutive year, the NAO reports that the plan by the Ministry of Defence (MoD or the Department) to procure and support defence equipment is unaffordable.

The Equipment Plan is a rolling 10-year set of programmes that currently comprises £87bn in planned procurement, £97bn in support costs and £6bn for contingencies, with the total of £190bn representing a £9bn increase over the previous year’s plan. Excluding contingencies, the plan includes £44bn for the Defence Nuclear Organisation, £35bn for Air Command, £33bn for Army Command, £31bn for Navy Command, £29bn for Strategic Command and £12bn for Strategic Programmes.

The MoD’s forecast assessment is that the 2020-30 plan will cost £214bn if delivered as expected, with £17bn in adjustments and planned savings to bring that down to £197bn, some £7bn more than the allocated budget. The NAO also notes that the Equipment Plan is fully allocated to existing and planned programmes, with no headroom for potential new projects that may be identified over the next few years, although there may be £9bn potentially available from other parts of the MoD’s budget between 2025-26 and 2029-30. 

The primary finding of the report is that not only is there an identified budgetary shortfall of £7bn, but there are potential cost pressures of at least £20bn that put delivery of the plan at significant risk. This includes significant uncertainty as to whether planned efficiency savings can be achieved as well as concerns about escalating costs on major procurement programmes and the impact of fluctuating exchange rates on long-term forward purchases.

The NAO states in the report that the Department “has still not established a reliable basis to assess the affordability of equipment projects and its estimate of the funding shortfall in the 2020–30 plan is likely to understate the growing financial pressures that it faces. The plan does not include the full costs of the capabilities that the Department is developing, it continues to make over-optimistic or inconsistent adjustments to reduce cost forecasts and is likely to have underestimated the risks across long-term equipment projects. 

“In addition, the Department has not resolved weaknesses in its quality assurance of the plan’s affordability assessment. While the Department has made some improvements to its approach and the presentation of the plan over the years, it has not fully addressed the inconsistencies which undermine the reliability and comparability of its assessment.”

Additional funding of £16.5bn over four years announced in the Spending Review in November 2020 should, in theory, plug the gap. However, the MoD has indicated it intends to use a substantial proportion of this new money to invest in improving military capabilities, with investments in cyber warfare and drones at the top of the list. This likely means the Equipment Plan remains under significant pressure, with several major new procurements expected to be added this year, many of which will involve untested new technologies with their own set of risks.

This will require some tough decisions to be made as part of the Integrated Review expected to be published shortly. There are rumours this may see cuts in the size of the Army to free up resources for other priorities, with MoD officials informing the Defence Select Committee they were actively looking to “disinvest” from a number of existing capabilities they considered would not be needed in the future.

The NAO concludes, “The Department faces the fundamental problem that its ambition has far exceeded available resources. As a result, its short-term approach to financial management has led to increasing cost pressures, which have restricted top-level budget holders from developing military capabilities in a way that will deliver value for money. The growing financial pressures have also created perverse incentives to include unrealistic savings and to not invest in new equipment to address capability risks.

“The recent government announcement of additional defence funding, together with the forthcoming Integrated Review, provide opportunities for the Department to set out its priorities and develop a more balanced investment programme. The Department now needs to break the cycle of short-termism that has characterised its management of equipment expenditure and apply sound financial management principles to its assessment and management of the Equipment Plan.”

Martin Wheatcroft, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented, “The Ministry of Defence has made significant strides over the last decade to improve how it procures and supports defence equipment, but there remain significant weaknesses in financial management that need to be addressed. It is concerning that issues highlighted in four successive NAO reports are still not resolved.

“However, even the strongest financial management at the MoD would struggle to deliver on the UK’s current ambition to be a global military power on a limited budget. Managing complex procurement programmes effectively will continue to be extremely challenging without a major change in strategy – either to scale back the UK’s defence capabilities to a more modest level or to allocate a much larger share of public spending to defence.”