The SAS likes to demonstrate its hostage rescue skills to important visitors to its Herefordshire HQ. In 1983 Diana, Princess of Wales, was forced into an urgent haircut after an errant “flashbang” grenade set her tresses alight.
Whether Dominic Cummings has enjoyed a similar pyrotechnic welcome on his tour of the special forces and other military facilities is unknown. Hair is anyway unlikely to be a concern as the Prime Minister’s chief adviser familiarises himself with the defence capabilities ahead of a review that is expected to trigger a massive shake-up of the £40bn military budget.
Defence is a Cummings obsession. His blogs have sketched out thinking on how kit is acquired and worried parts of the defence establishment and its industry partners. A January entry on procurement referenced “flawed incentives so big powerful companies continue to loot the taxpayer”.
A few weeks later at a “heated” meeting on the forthcoming review, according to sources, Cummings set his sights on defence companies BAE Systems and Babcock for allegedly “ripping off the taxpayer”. He advocated buying equipment off the shelf rather than commissioning pricey bespoke kit.
Cummings also blogged about the “farce” around how the UK was buying new aircraft carriers. Building the two ships cost £6.2bn, twice the estimate. The process, Cummings said, saw billions “squandered, enriching some of the worst corporate looters”.
Traditional military capabilities, such as expensive manned fighters and tanks, could also be a target for Cummings who has opined on the advantages of drones and artificial intelligence.
“What is to stop someone sending a drone swarm and bombing Parliament during PMQs?” Cummings wrote after attending a Google-backed conference in 2014 that covered “autonomous lethal drones”.
Last year, he returned to both targets, saying with the carriers the military had “built platforms that already cannot be sent to a serious war against a serious enemy”. He also questioned their viability as new technology presents new threats. “A teenager will be able to deploy a drone from their smartphone to sink one of these multi-billion dollar platforms.”
While he will be taking on deeply entrenched practices and relations, Cummings also has allies in his crusade to reform defence spending. Last week the influential public accounts committee attacked the MoD for its “lamentable” budget management and inability to get projects delivered on time as it ripped into the military’s decade-long, £181bn equipment plan.
Cummings has an unlikely comrade in Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who heads the committee. Releasing the report, she said: “The MoD knows what it’s getting wrong. We know what it’s getting wrong… and here we are again, with the same gaps in our defence.”
According to one Whitehall source, the visits are at the request of Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary. The former Army officer wants Cummings to understand UK defence capabilities before driving changes.
“It’s a good idea to find out what we have before trying to kill it off,” says defence analyst Howard Wheeldon, who thinks the visits will be enlightening. “It’s amazing how people change when they realise industry’s value.”
Not working with Cummings is not an option. At a defence select committee earlier this month, General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, was warned by MP Mark Francois that unless the MoD “sorted itself out… Cummings is going to sort you out his own way, and you won’t like it”.
Military and defence industry leaders won’t talk publicly about what they fear the review might bring because of a perceived risk of reprisals from Downing Street. However, senior sources warn cutting back, or even axing, massive programmes will come at a cost.
Companies have invested heavily to be able to deliver and service these multi-billion, multi-decade projects, and radical reform would mean a long battle with corporates who work under tightly written contracts. One industry source warns: “We’re following his progress with interest, but what we do is not easily replaced and we have long-term commitments.”
Many believe the Army could be the hardest hit. It is already about 10,000 personnel short of its 82,000 target strength and there is speculation this could be extended to a permanent cut of 20,000. Wheeldon says the multitude of small Army bases could also see closures, with consolidation into bigger centres: “A radical rethink is needed of what the land forces do.”
The Navy is proud of its new aircraft carriers, but there are doubts whether the UK will buy enough F-35 jets – the notional requirement is 138 – to equip them. Mothballing, or even selling, one carrier is seen as politically untenable.
More likely to go are two amphibious assault ships, along with new support ships required to back up carriers on extended deployments, harming “global Britain” ambitions. Others ships may be retired early.
A smaller fleet would harm Portsmouth, the Navy’s home. Local Labour MP Stephen Morgan warns of the fight this would cause. “The review is meant to solidify Britain’s place in the world, instead it seems government is using it to allow an unelected adviser with no military expertise to hack bits off services essential to keeping us safe.”
Britain’s aviation capability also faces a mixed future. There are no major procurement projects under way, with the next big one the Tempest future fighter currently under development. Tempest could be a model for Cummings. Not expected to enter service until 2035, industry is working with government to decide exactly what the aircraft needs to do. Possibilities include unmanned versions, and adapting existing commercial technology, which could appeal to Cummings.
Pulling back on existing projects seems unlikely, but future ones are where the political adviser could make a real difference, according to Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of the defence think tank RUSI. Despite Covid, he thinks the Government will keep to its manifesto promise of increasing the defence budget by 0.5pc every year.
“It’s a question of how radical he can be,” says Chalmers. “Industry’s instinct is to replace what we have with something similar, but better and more expensive.”
Instead, the MoD should consider autonomous combat systems, possibly using commercial technology, to fight battles unlike those of the past.
Perhaps the best result Cummings could achieve is reaching an honest assessment that the UK is a medium power that simply can’t afford to do everything and focuses its military ambitions accordingly.
“The sensible thing is to accept that cutting-edge technology usually costs more than you expect, so budgeting realistically with reserves for this and not overcommitting is vital,” Chalmers says. “It’s an illusion to think there’s a magic bullet to unlock savings.”