Magazine article The Spectator

The Tory Defence Policy Will Be Simple: Cut, Brutally

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tory Defence Policy Will Be Simple: Cut, Brutally

Article excerpt

The British military has been horribly overstretched by the wars of the Labour years, says Max Hastings. But the Tories' only option will be to cut further still. Hideous decisions lie ahead

Britain's armed forces sometimes suppose that they get a better break from Conservative governments than Labour ones, but their recent experience suggests otherwise. After 11 years of Margaret Thatcher, it proved necessary to cannibalise the entire armoured resources of the Rhine Army to deploy a weak division for the First Gulf War. Today, the services welcome the prospect of a Tory government after a long period of policy paralysis. But they are also braced for bad news. They know the Tories intend brutally to reduce defence spending.

David Cameron has committed himself to protecting the health and overseas aid budgets, while reducing government expenditure elsewhere by at least 10 per cent. A new defence secretary will take over a department with a huge accumulated deficit. Budget cuts will be rendered more painful because for the past two years the current government has cynically pushed back payment of some big bills until after the election, when they will arrive with 'final demand' stickers. The core annual defence budget is around £34 billion. A further £10-20 billion is adrift on programmes authorised but unfunded.

Thus there is a crisis, which cannot possibly be resolved by efficiency savings, salami-slicing or the familiar expedient of distributing pain between all three services. Some very big programmes must be axed. When the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review is complete, and cuts implemented, Britain's armed forces are certain to look quite different from what they are today. The only issue at stake is where the axe will fall most heavily.

At the heart of bitter current dissention among the top brass is the belief that they are now fighting for the viability, even the existence of their own services. Politicians of all parties urge service chiefs that they would better serve the interests of the armed forces by presenting a common front. This is a wholly unrealistic expectation when so much is at stake, even before personality clashes are added.

This week, Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute offered a projection that, if the MoD takes its share of pain in the new world of Britain's colossal fiscal deficit, numbers of uniformed service personnel might fall by 20 per cent to 142,000 within the space of six years. He also believes the defence budget will fall by between 15 per cent and 20 per cent over the same period. As General Lord Guthrie points out, the armed forces are already so shrunken that further cuts will be imposed upon a perilously low base.

Even if a new Tory defence secretary - almost certainly Liam Fox - displays the wisdom of Socrates, he cannot escape doing harsh things. He is stuck with some massive commitments. The RAF is buying 232 Typhoon Eurofighters at a cost of £20 billion.

Many are likely to go straight from the factory into mothballs, for lack of cash to man or fly them, but the contract is too expensive to cancel.

The Royal Navy took a perilous gamble by staking its future upon two big new aircraftcarriers, with 150 American-built F-35 aircraft to fly off them, at a total cost of over £20 billion. The money is simply not there to finance two behemoths without crippling the army. For present and likely future tasks, combating piracy not least among them, the navy needs more small, cheap-and-cheerful frigates. The most obvious single step towards closing the defence funding gap is to cancel the carriers and accompanying aircraft.

Opponents of draconian cuts in navy and RAF strengths cite the importance of a balanced strategy, which addresses potential future threats as well as current commitments, dominated by Afghanistan. The problem with this approach, admirably sensible in theory, is that it threatens to leave Britain's forces balanced only in inadequacy. …

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