David Blackburn

A Whitehall cabal has Fox by the short and curlies

A Whitehall cabal has Fox by the short and curlies
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The Defence Select Committee delivers a familiar litany this morning. The Strategic Defence Review (a structural reform of Britain’s defence establishment) is being driven by savings not threat, consultation has been insufficient and cuts will be implemented at terrifying speed. The committee’s report concludes that the review will be to the detriment of Britain’s defence capabilities.

Liam Fox’s summer battle with Downing Street has been overshadowed by IDS’ belligerence. In truth Fox has already lost. The National Security Council, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office have put him in a strait-jacket and hijacked his review. The opportunity to reform procurement and phase out obsolete heavy merchandise and training, both of which would make very substantial long-term savings, is being lost amid the mad panic to make easy immediate cuts. The lobbyist triumphs; the squaddie, and Britain, lose.

Britannia won’t even rule its own waves. The new aircraft carriers are far from secure; the army faces cuts in personnel of up to 40,000 by some reports; the air force could see its strike aircraft destroyed on the ground.  You don’t have to be Clausewitz to see that Britain’s armed forces are already over-stretched. At the same time, this Treasury-led review has decreed that Trident remains the MoD’s £100bn responsibility. Regardless of its renewal, Trident will not deter Argentina, genocidal despots or Somalian piracy.

Precise strategic defence plans are something of a misnomer: modern wars are generally unexpected. The 1998 review did not predict Britain’s commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, as General Sir Richard Dannatt and Rear Admiral Chris Parry who oversaw the review note, it asked the crucial question: what is Britain’s place in the world? The MoD can’t provide for the unexpected unless it is answered. The current review is yet to pose the question.

UPDATE: The commenters David Bouvier, David DP and Mark Cannon raise some interesting issues, and I agree that vested industrial interests have Whitehall in their pockets; that is my point. The government will continue paying for overpriced materiel at the behest of an industrial establishment that says we need x at y £s, and no one even furrows a brow in dissent.

Meanwhile, the government makes easy cuts: troop numbers, aircraft carriers, submarines, strike aircraft, helicopters etc. This wouldn't matter if Britain weren't committed abroad and weren't a maritime power; but it is. The lobbyist wins; the squaddie loses his job, which affects Britain's security capability.

Yes Labour is to blame, but they're not in government - the coalition is responsible and it's making the wrong call. That's not to say there shouldn't be materiel and personnel cuts: the army's deployment in Germany should be reviewed; heavy tanks are near obsolete; the RAF doesn't need the number of strike aircraft and bases it currently has; and I doubt Britain needs four active nuclear submarines. But it is a question of proportion. There are long-term financial gains in structural reform than the immediate emasculation of the armed forces.