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ANALYSIS: MDP - Another Shake-Up For The Armed Forces?

The announcement in January of the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP) raised the prospect of another shake-up for the Armed Forces...

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By Forces News Defence correspondent, James Hirst

Although it’s not being called a ‘Defence Review’, the announcement in January of the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) raised the prospect of another shake-up for the Armed Forces.

For the men and women who serve, and their families, a possible shake-up means unwelcome uncertainty.

Any delay to the MDP means that uncertainty will drag on, probably until the end of the year.

That won’t help morale, which in in some parts is already at its lowest for many years.

For defence as a whole, delaying the MDP is more of an irritation and less of a crisis.

This was always going to be about long-term transformation in the years ahead, so any delay shouldn’t affect operations that are underway or currently planned.

Indeed, some in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) might be relieved to have been given more time to work on the difficult questions of how to reshape Britain’s military capability for the future, with the possibility of no new cash on the table.

The MDP wasn’t due to be complete at this point but the government told us repeatedly that headline conclusions - which implies the big decisions - would be announced by this month.

So something seems to have gone wrong.

In June, the papers were claiming there had been a ‘showdown’ between the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister, that Mrs May had refused to commit to keeping Britain as a ‘Tier One’ military power.

Theresa May

Those headlines were denied by the government but this delay suggests the Financial Times claim that the Prime Minister sent the Defence Secretary back to rethink his plans has some basis (Picture: PA).

But there are other factors at play.

Brexit may mean Brexit, but it also means Downing Street has limited time to work on anything else and while the MDP may be led by defence, it ultimately has to be signed off by the Prime Minster and funded by the Chancellor.

The financial shackles on defence were loosened a couple of years ago, with its budget increasing at 0.5% a year in real terms.

But Conservative defence ministers have been very public about their push for more on top of that, while the Chancellor is believed to have told all departments there’s no extra cash because of a promise of an extra £20bn for the NHS.

In the last few weeks, the Whitehall mood-music suggested the Prime Minster would still try to have something new to say to fellow NATO leaders at next week’s summit, but events seem to have pushed it off the table.

That could be diplomatically awkward for Mrs May when she meets the likes of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Donald Trump in Brussels on Wednesday.

But it shouldn’t stop her making immediate commitments, expected to include more British troops to Afghanistan and future deployments for NATO air policing.

European leaders are also more worried about how Donald Trump talks and behaves at the summit, so concerns about whether Britain has a grip on the future of its forces may largely get lost in the noise.