James Forsyth

Spending restraint in precisely the wrong place

Spending restraint in precisely the wrong place
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The evidence of Ed Butler, who commanded 16 Air Assault Brigade in Helmand in 2006, to the Defence Select Committee yesterday was devastating. As The Times reports:

“Brigadier Butler told the committee that in 2006 the Treasury had “capped” resources available for the operation, limiting funding to £1.3 billion for a “three-year campaign”. The Government has always denied imposing a cap on resources for the mission. “There was a Treasury-imposed cap on the number of troops we could have in Afghanistan,” he said.

With the troops available to him — 3,300 — “we could just about hold the line but we couldn’t sustain a higher tempo”. Brigadier Butler said he was visited by numerous ministers during his tour of command but not once by a Treasury minister.

The financial constraints resulted in a severe shortage of helicopters in the field and seriously hampered the ability of British forces to cover the ground, Brigadier Butler said.

He pointed out that in Northern Ireland there were 70 helicopters for 10,000 to 15,000 troops but in Afghanistan, with casualties rising steeply in the fiercest fighting since the Korean War, there were far fewer.

He said that the Taleban “forced us off the road” when they turned to “asymmetric warfare”, targeting the troops with roadside bombs. But there were not enough helicopters to move soldiers around Helmand province.” We can argue about whether deploying troops to Afghanistan is wise or not, personally I think it is. But once the decision to send them into theatre has been taken it is a moral and strategic imperative that they are given the tools they need to finish the job.

To come back to the story of the day, if the Tories are to make one commitment to increase spending it should be on defence. During the Labour years, the forces have been fighting wars on peacetime budgets. That is simply not sustainable.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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