The Ministry of Defence (the Department) develops and operates military capabilities in order to meet its strategic requirements and objectives. A military capability is not simply a piece of equipment such as a tank. Rather, it is a tank with a trained crew that: can communicate with others on the battlefield; can meet identified threats; and can be properly maintained and repaired during its lifetime. The Department estimates that around 20,000 civilians and military personnel within the Department are involved in delivering such defence capabilities.

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The military capabilities are intended to meet the strategic requirements that underpin UK defence policy, as set out in the National Security Strategy and five-yearly Strategic Defence and Security Reviews. Supporting this work are processes for identifying strategic threats and continuously analysing the UK’s ability to meet them. Where the Department concludes there are current or future gaps in its ability to counter these threats, it must decide whether to fill the gap or carry the risk. However, once the Department has decided the gap must be filled with a new or replacement capability, it has historically struggled to deliver fully functioning capabilities to schedule.

Content and scope

The focus of our study is on the delivery of defence capabilities, from the point at which the Department sets the requirement and starts the acquisition process through to the capability being declared fully operational.

To do this, we examined:

  • the extent and causes of delays and shortfalls in bringing capabilities into service (Part One);
  • the completeness of the Department’s system to monitor the delivery of capabilities (Part Two); and
  • whether the Department is putting in place appropriate arrangements to transform its capability delivery in the future (Part Three).

The study does not examine why and how the Department derived a particular user requirement. We have also not looked in detail at the role of delivery organisations, such as Defence Equipment & Support, which act on behalf of the Commands (the customer).


The Department delivers complex, long-term capability programmes to meet the threats which it has identified. However, at a time of fast-paced technological and political change, it is essential that it can make swift and full use of these capabilities as planned. Failure to do so is likely to undermine the Department’s ability to carry out its key tasks, and lead to existing assets being used for longer and additional costs. To achieve value for money, the Department must deliver capabilities to performance, cost and time consistently within a challenging funding envelope. While the Department may be able to deliver some individual capabilities in ways that deliver value for money, the frequent delays, problems with the quality of what is being delivered and poor monitoring information mean the Department has not achieved it for the portfolio as a whole.

In response to the challenges, the Department is currently implementing changes to its acquisitions and approvals systems. For these to be successful, the Department must change the culture around capability delivery in a number of ways, including ensuring that pressure to be seen to deliver capabilities quickly does not distort accurate reporting of progress. The Department also needs to address the affordability gap in the overall defence budget, as this affects its ability to maintain and enhance capabilities.

“It is essential that the MoD improves the way it introduces important new defence capabilities into service. This includes ensuring that pressure to be seen to deliver quickly does not lead to it accepting incomplete projects, and making decisions on the basis of incomplete reporting.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (18 Mar 2020)

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