Alex Massie

The Chopper Wars

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CHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: A soldier of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh waits for a Chinook to land during an exercise before deployment to Afghanistan. Members of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, who are based in Chester, are to be deployed following Prime Minister Gordon Brown's announcement on Monday of an extra 500 troops for Afghanistan. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

The omnishambles at the Ministry of Defence is such that, astonishingly, it may have supplanted the Home Office as the government department least fit-for-purpose. This is no small achievement and, one suspects, owes little to any improvement on the Home front. It's been apparent for some time that defence policy is being made on a reactive basis and that this owed as much to media pressure upon a beleaguered Prime Minister as it did to the Taliban's efforts in Helmand Province.

Nothing about the announcement that 22 more Chinooks would be purchased to provide additional hevy-lift capacity in Afghanistan did anything to persuade one that this wasn't a political rather than a military decision. After all, the new choppers won't be ready for deployment until 2013 by which time, the PM has also assured us, he envisages British forces leaving Afghanistan. Furthermore, they'll be paid for by cutting other parts of the defence budget, including the scrapping of yet more parts of the Royal Navy.

As other folk have noted, a major flu pandmic would not, one imagines, be paid for by cutting other parts of the NHS budget. So why is the MoD subjected to rules that wouldn't apply to other government departments?

Then again, even allowing for the complexity of modern avionics and the need for retraining and solving compatability issues, how on earth can it take three whole years to purchase fewer than two dozen helicopters?

The truth is that we no longer take defence very seriously. I wouldn't go quite as far, perhaps, as this post at Think Defence, but it's general sentiments are spot on. I particularly appreciated his point about parliamentary attendance at defence debates: it is pitiful. Nor was the chamber packed when the hapless Bob Ainsworth made his latest announcement.

Broadly-speaking we have two ways of reviewing our defence ambitions: decide what we want to be able to do, then find ways of paying for the necessary kit and personnel or, on the other hand, decide how much money we want to spend on the armed forces and let that dictate the kinds of mission we can realistically expect to take part in and the level of equipment and wight of punch we can bring to the party.

But, I think, until we answer some of these issues, our defence policy, regardless of the party in government, is likely to be of the back-of-a-fag-packet type.

PS: Apologies for the lack of posts here in recent days. A punishing trip to Glasgow was followed by a spell in the arena of the unwell.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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