The UK is to conduct a new Strategic Defence Review from next year, with newly installed defence secretary Bob Ainsworth bowing to pressure from opposition politicians and industrial groups to reassess the nation's military priorities.
"To ensure that our forces are ready to face the challenges of the future we are announcing a process for a Strategic Defence Review in the next parliament," Ainsworth said on 7 July.
Prime minister Gordon Brown has until May 2010 to call a general election, and Ainsworth says work will start now on a Green Paper which will outline the scope of a review process to be launched should the Labour party retain power.
The opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have over recent months called for such an activity, while voicing concern over a budget crisis that has threatened numerous major procurements.
The Ministry of Defence says key elements of the new study work will include assessing lessons learned from recent conflicts, plus technological advances and acquisition reform. But Ainsworth notes: "My current priority is to ensure that UK personnel in Afghanistan have the equipment and support they need to face current and future threats."
Traditional procurement activities have in many cases been replaced by the MoD's recent reliance on urgent operational requirement deals, which rapidly acquire and field equipment such as unmanned air vehicles, but ordinarily with only short-term support arrangements. Such spending has already topped £2.2 billion ($3.5 billion) for operations in Afghanistan, with the funds drawn from outside the traditional defence budget of £35.4 billion this year.
The pace of such projects is also in marked contrast to major capital investments, such as those for the Royal Air Force's Eurofighter Typhoon and the Royal Navy's two 65,000t Future Aircraft Carrier vessels.
But any move to reduce or even cancel these deals, among others, would hold major implications for the UK defence industrial base, which employs more than 300,000 people, according to the Society of British Aerospace Companies. "The UK defence industry's potential for investment will accelerate the UK economy, not drain it," argues chief executive Ian Godden.
It is unclear whether one of the fundamental elements of the UK's current defence posture - its retention of an independent submarine-launched nuclear strike capability - will be excluded from the review process, or whether the government's plans to replace Trident could also be placed under the microscope.
The UK's previous Strategic Defence Review was published in 1998, and chief of the defence staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup has welcomed plans for a new review process. "Much has changed, and it is right that we address with urgency the challenges facing defence in the future," he says.