Today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that the Equipment Plan remains unaffordable for the fourth successive year, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) estimating that equipment costs will be £7.3 billion higher than its budget between 2020 and 2030.
The MoD’s Equipment Plan sets out its intended investment in equipment over the next decade, and assesses whether it will be affordable.1 The 2020–2030 Equipment Plan (the Plan) shows that the MoD allocated £190 billion to equipment projects, 41% of its overall defence budget, which it needs to manage effectively to ensure the armed forces can secure and maintain the equipment they need to meet their military objectives.
In the Plan, the MoD estimates that costs will be £7.3 billion higher than the budget, although in a worst-case scenario, the funding shortfall may be as large as £17.4 billion. However, the NAO continues to have reservations about the Plan’s cost forecasts.
The MoD has presented the equipment budget on a different basis to previous years, which means its estimated funding shortfall for 2020–2030 is not directly comparable to previous years. The 2020–2030 Plan also excludes the full costs of replacing equipment that is becoming obsolete, such as the Navy’s mine hunting capability. The MoD has also started major procurement projects, including new submarines and combat aircraft, and is intending to develop new capabilities such as space capabilities, but has not included the full costs of these in the Plan.
The MoD continues to make over-optimistic and inconsistent judgements when forecasting costs. In the Plan, the MoD reduced its overall cost forecast by £25.1 billion to reflect adjustments for expected savings and its ability to deliver projects in line with original timetables. The MoD has made some improvements in its approach to estimating these savings, such as introducing a new process for estimating efficiency savings. However, it has not made enough progress in establishing a consistent and evidence-based approach to adjusting cost forecasts.
Affordability pressures have grown since 2015 and are increasingly restricting the ability of military commands to develop their capabilities.2 The funding shortfalls are most acute in the next five years, with an estimated deficit of £8.3 billion, although this could be higher if the military commands do not achieve £8.4 billion of forecast savings in these five years. All of the military commands have funding shortfalls in their 10-year equipment programmes, with the Royal Navy reporting the largest shortfall of £4.3 billion (12% of overall costs). The MoD has no contingency for 2020-21, restricting the military commands’ ability to act on any unexpected demands or cost increases. As a result, the commands have again responded to funding pressures by stopping projects or deferring expenditure into later years.
The MoD produced the Plan prior to November 2020, when the government announced an additional £16.5 billion to support the development of military capabilities. This funding is intended to allow the MoD to modernise and invest in new technologies, including its cyber and space capabilities. It presents the MoD with an opportunity to develop a more affordable programme to develop the military capabilities that it needs. As it decides how to allocate this funding, the MoD will need to ensure that long-term decisions on equipment projects are based on a realistic assessment of costs.
“To date, the MoD’s fundamental problem has been that the cost of delivering its ambition far exceeds its available budget. Faced with an unaffordable equipment programme, it has adopted a short-term approach to financial management that restricts the military commands from developing the equipment they need and leads to increased costs in the longer-term.
“The government’s announcement of additional investment gives the MoD an opportunity to develop a more balanced equipment programme. It now needs to make tough decisions on its priorities, if it is to avoid a continuation of the increasing cost pressures we have seen in recent years.”Gareth Davies, head of the NAO
Read the full report
Notes for editors
1. The Department introduced the Equipment Plan in 2012 after a period of weak financial management. Its original intention was to assure Parliament that its spending plans were affordable. The Secretary of State for Defence invited the NAO’s Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the robustness of the Plan’s underlying assumptions. Each year since then the NAO has published a parallel report examining the Department's assessment of the Plan's affordability and its response to the financial challenges.
2. The phrase ‘military commands’ refers to the MoD’s four Front-Line Commands (Navy, Army, Air and Strategic Command), the Defence Nuclear Organisation and the Strategic Programmes Directorate.
3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
4. The NAO’s lessons learned reports bring together what it knows on important recurring issues to make it easier for others to understand and apply the lessons from its work.
About the NAO
The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO.
The NAO audits the financial accounts of DWPs and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent. In 2019, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £1.1 billion.