Britain’s national security strategy is being eroded by a failure to plan for Brexit, MPs and peers have warned, in a scathing assessment of the UK’s potential to defend itself from future threats.
The joint parliamentary committee on the national security strategy (NCS) said the lack of a backup plan suggested the “prioritisation of political interests above national security” at a time when Europe is facing sizeable security challenges, including an “emerging domestic terrorist threat” and the migration crisis.
The MPs and peers on the committee also warned that the capabilities of the armed forces could be undermined because Brexit might see the defence budget reduced in real terms.
Highlighting analysis showing that Brexit would induce significant falls in GDP, the report said that even if the new government were to commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, a stagnant or contracting UK economy might mean the defence budget being notably reduced in real terms.
It would, it concluded, challenge David Cameron’s announcement last year of £12bn extra defence spending.
The committee had expected the government’s strategic defence and security review (SDSR) unveiled last November to articulate what action would be required in the short term following a Brexit vote. The failure to do so demonstrated that “political interests were deemed more important than national security”, members said.
“If the national security strategy is to be credible, it must prioritise the maintenance of national security above political expediency,” the committee said. “Planning for a new security review, starting with a detailed analysis of the changed security environment, should begin immediately.”
When setting out the government’s strategic defence review last year, Cameron announced plans for investment in two 5,000-strong “strike brigades” that could be deployed in the event of a major terrorist attack, additional F-35 jets, maritime patrol aircraft and high-altitude drones.
During the announcement, Cameron said ministers wanted to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent, but the estimated cost had risen and completion been put back until “the early 2030s”.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister revealed that there would be a House of Commons vote on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent on 18 July.
The Brexit-related concerns arrive on top of the committee’s existing scepticism about the government’s ability to fulfil the requirements of its defence planning. The committee thinks it “questionable” that future projections for military capability will meet the national security challenges faced by the UK.
The report says that despite the government’s commitment to maintain the size of the regular army at 82,000 and to increase the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force by a total of 700 regular personnel, the manpower fielded by the UK armed forces is inadequate bearing in mind the “range, complexity and potential concurrency” of tasks expected of them.
In addition, a planned 30% reduction in the number of MoD civilian staff could undermine the effective use of the state-of-the-art equipment to be purchased as a result of last year’s strategic defence review.
It recommends that the government should consider creating a ministerial post within the Cabinet Office with oversight of national security. This would strengthen the leadership on national security at the centre of government, a function which is currently fulfilled by the prime minister.