Saturday, 10 October 2009

A Fox in the hen house

Tory shadow defence minister Liam Fox has said that he is determined to hold a Strategic Defence Review as soon as he is sat behind his desk at the MoD.

He also ominously says that what will govern the Review will be “the budgetary constraints within which we will have to operate”.

We know what that means: stringent cuts in the defence budget can be expected soon after a Tory government is installed.

Mr Fox has already promised a cull of civilian personnel in the MoD along with vague references to other "efficiency savings". But we've heard all this many times before; we know empirically that the defence bureaucracy always seems to escape the knife.

No, it will be frontline services - in the true sense of the word - which will again have to suffer the deepest cuts and the pressure will be on the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to surrender large chunks of their budgets in favour of the Army.

Although the Army has been doing most of the fighting, bearing the brunt of the consequences of recent foreign policy initiatives, it has actually been on the receiving end of only 10% of the total spending on military equipment (based on actual and planned spending between 2003-18).

When it comes to new equipment it is the RN and RAF which get the lion share with £billions allocated to aspirational projects (Future Aircraft Carriers, SSBN nuclear subs, Eurofighter Typhoons) which have little relevance to the type of conflicts in which UK Armed Forces are currently engaged, or likely to be engaged in in the foreseeable future. The RN and RAF may be supporting the Army in Afghanistan, but they haven't been fully involved in a major operation since the Falklands in 1982.

Under both Tory and Labour governments the Armed Forces have seen their budget whittled away year on year so that in real terms it is now stands at just about half of what it was at the end of the Cold War (from 4% to 2% of GDP). In today's economic climate and with current social and educational imperatives, the military can only expect their finances to get worse. Nor can they rely on other departments' continued acquiescence in the exceptional transfer of state funds (the Urgent Operational Requirement programme).

What is clear is that there is an imbalance between the aspirations of politicians on the world stage and their willingness to provide the resources to match these aspirations. What is compounding the problem is that military budgets are still operating within the framework determined by the last Defence Review carried out some ten years ago. At that time UK's foreign policy was about the long-range projection of British influence around the world and, as a consequence, behemoths tramped over any calls their might have been for regiments and battalions.

A lot has changed over the last ten years. Now it is all about counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism and, as is obvious in Afghanistan, what such conflicts need are boots on the ground, in large numbers.
A general election is a good time for a real public debate on defence policy. The guys risking their lives on the frontline deserve clearly defined war aims, the resources to carry them out and the knowledge that the public supports them.