Fraser Nelson

The cost of saving the Army

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We have led the magazine this week on coming Tory defence cuts, with a brilliant piece by Max Hastings. Look closely at the cover image (our second by Christian Adams) and you can see the guillotine blade will hit he RAF and Navy guys before the Army. This, Hastings argues, will be the effect of the Tory Strategic Defence Review. And even this will leave cuts of up to 20 per cent across the defence budget under the Tories. How could Cameron justify that, in this dangerous world of ours? David Cameron prepares the ground today with an important speech in Chatham House promising “one of the most radical departures in security policy we’ve seen in decades”. He goes on to say that “We need to do much better at stopping wars from ever starting. That means really focussing on the causes of conflicts and then joining all that together to make sure that DfID and the Foreign Office deliver a really tight, tied-up, progressive approach.”

One should not waste too much time wondering how DFiD could have stopped the Rwandan genoide, the Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing, the terror state of Afghanistan – and the other areas where our military has intervened, or ought to have. Cameron’s speech is the logic which a government has to embrace if it has decided to decimate its defence spending (as the Tories will, due to the pressures created by their NHS pledge). The financial pressure for disarmament comes first, the diplomatic logic second. We’ve seen the military chiefs fighting with each other recently, which cannot but weaken  their hand ahead of next year’s Strategic Defence Review. It gets worse, as the MoD is being landed with huge bills – for Eurofighters, too expensive to cancel. And other bills, which Brown has cynically earmarked for payment after the election. Hastings says that logic dictates that the RAF should be abolished - or folded it into the Army – but this would be a bridge too far politically. So what will happen?

The Royal Navy took a perilous gamble by staking its future upon two big new aircraft-carriers, 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.

Britain’s defence needs, he says, are fairly clear. “A future Tory defence secretary should increase the army’s chronically overstretched infantry strength, because foot soldiers are the vital element of every plausible commitment.” But a recent RUSI analysis “suggests that unless large sums are diverted from elsewhere in the defence budget, the overall number of ground combat units — armour, artillery, infantry — could fall from today’s 97 to 79. This would be a disaster.”

So to save the Army? Hastings’ conclusion is stark. “Neither we nor the Tories should be in any doubt that to sustain a serious army within declared spending levels requires cutting the Royal Navy and RAF to the bone.”

Read all of it here.


UPDATE: I say “ought to have” because I believe the British military should have intervened to stop the Rwandan genocide. As someone once said, “If Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1993, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also.” And I think retaining the capacity to do these things trumps the case for jacking up DFID’s budget from £6.8bn today to the £12.5bn £12.5bn which it would be by 2013 under the Labour/Tory target.