Con Coughlin

Blame the generals

New Labour’s defence ministers are not the only ones responsible for military overspending

Blame the generals
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When Dr Liam Fox talks about the ‘ghastly’ inheritance he has been bequeathed by New Labour on the defence budget — which is expected to be butchered further in next week’s spending review, he is not giving us the full roll call of shame.

Certainly, there were a succession of clueless Labour defence ministers, who allowed the Ministry of Defence to run up a staggering £36 billion overspend on a variety of contracts. Perhaps some of them believed this financial chicanery was the only way of fighting wars on a peacetime budget, but they must take their share of the blame for the current mess. But so, too, should the service chiefs who commissioned the projects in the first place — knowing full well that there was no money to pay for them.

As the Strategic Defence and Security Review approaches what promises to be its apocalyptic conclusion, much of the political debate has focused on New Labour’s failure to provide adequate funding for the armed services while at the same time requiring them to fight a succession of deeply controversial wars.

But what about the role played by all those generals, admirals and air marshals whose wanton profligacy has brought the entire defence establishment to the brink of bankruptcy? The fast jets and aircraft carriers that have blown a massive black hole in the defence budget did not suddenly appear on the whim of some passing politician who was briefly given responsibility — if that is the mot juste — for overseeing the defence portfolio.

Nor can we blame the politicians exclusively for the fact that, after nearly a decade of fighting a bitter counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, we still have an army that is wonderfully configured to prevent the Russians from swarming across the German plain, but has only recently managed to acquire the levels of manpower and equipment that are required for the successful prosecution of the Afghan campaign.

The fact that the armed forces find themselves in this parlous state is nothing short of a national disgrace, and the senior officers bear as much responsibility as the politicians for letting it happen.

Indeed, given the unimpressive calibre of the majority of Labour’s half-dozen defence secretaries during the past decade, it could be argued that the senior ranks had a moral obligation to seize control of the sinking ship themselves, rather than hastening its drift towards the rocks.

The New Labour era got off to a reasonable enough start under the no-nonsense George Robertson, who co-operated effectively with Lord Guthrie, the then head of the armed forces, to produce a coherent defence review in 1998 which set out a workable blueprint for restructuring the forces within a realistic budget. Indeed many of the problems afflicting all three services today may well have been avoided if they had received the funding stipulated by the ’98 review, rather than falling victim to Gordon Brown’s parsimony.

It then went quickly downhill. Geoff Hoon — who held the post, remarkably, for six years — was temperamentally unfit to work with the military, having a visceral aversion to men in uniform. Defence fortunes briefly revived under the combative Dr John Reid (ignore his doctorate in economic history at your peril). But it was already clear by the time Reid reached the Ministry of Defence that he was losing his bitter personal battle with Gordon Brown over the Blair succession. After that, it should have been all hands to the decks as Brown’s three-year tenure saw three hapless defence secretaries come and go — in case you’ve forgotten, they were Des Browne (who also, bizarrely, held the Scottish portfolio), John Hutton and Bob Ainsworth. Not surprisingly, by the end of the disastrous Brown term the defence portfolio had sunk to a lowly 23 in the Cabinet rankings.

All the more reason, or so you might think, for our senior officers to come to the nation’s rescue and take a firm grip of one of our most important departments of state. But no, rather than providing wise counsel on how best to manage the defence budget at an acceptable level, they went on a mad spending spree that would be the envy of a bunch of wags on a Harvey Nicks freebie.

Take the much-discussed £5 billion aircraft carriers, which now lie at the heart of the current defence review debate. I fully appreciate the arguments advanced by the Senior Service that they were originally commissioned in a time of plenty. But why, pray, were they commissioned without the catapults that have been standard issue on all our previous carriers? The omission is all the more baffling as the whole point of the carriers is to enhance our co-operation with our naval allies in the US and Europe, all of whose aircraft require ‘traps’ to function off these vessels. The main reason for excluding the catapults from the original design was so that the navy could get its hands on the American-made, state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighters which cost a whopping £100 million each, rather than the cheaper, catapult-launched option.

The RAF is no better. At a time when the military is crying out for more helicopters and transport aircraft, the fighter jocks cling to their obsession with fast jets, which are brilliant at intercepting rogue Russian nuclear bombers but have yet to prove their effectiveness against the Taleban.

The army, meanwhile, which continues to insist it should be immune from government cuts because of its lead role in the current combat mission, has similar hang-ups about ditching its heavy armour, not to mention the 3,000 horses and dedicated troopers to ride them that remain the pride and joy of our elite cavalry regiments. There again, perhaps we are missing a trick in Helmand. Perhaps a good, old-fashioned cavalry charge is just what is required to put the wind up Johnny Taleban.

Con Coughlin is executive foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph.