Liam Fox is right (and George and Dave are wrong), says Michael Dugher

In defence circles it is sometimes unfairly said that the real enemy of our armed forces is not the taleban but the treasury. The recently leaked letter from defence secretary Liam Fox to the prime minister warned of the threat to our defence capabilities if the government presses ahead with severe cuts to the defence budget in the forthcoming review. During the row that has followed, Downing Street reportedly said that David Cameron was “untroubled” by Fox’s letter. But he should be. The prospect of deep cuts that undermine our defences, and especially those that weaken the army, should worry the country too.

In his uncompromising letter to Cameron, Fox set out a dire warning that the government risks failing in its first duty if the treasury is allowed to cut the MoD budget too deeply. Fox has long been a cheer-leader for the Tory right. As such, he believes in less government and, central to that, less government spending too (though not, it would seem, when it comes to his own budget). Fox described the current strategic defence and security review (SDSR) as being like a “super comprehensive spending review”, and one driven by financial and not strategic requirements. Indeed, he said the cuts were “intellectually and financially” indefensible. He warned that if “it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences”.

No one should doubt the scale of cuts that will come. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, Cameron said that Britain would “go on having one of the largest defence budgets in the world”. But ministers now refuse to deny that the overall cut to the defence budget will mean that defence spending, as a proportion of GDP, will fall to below two per cent. Under Labour, it was roughly stable at around 2.5 per cent. Under Labour, defence spending rose by nearly a billion pounds a year in cash terms, ending up over 10% higher in real terms than in 1997.

There are also lessons from the last major cuts to the defence budget. Between 1992 and 1997, under the Tories, defence spending was cut by half a billion a year in cash, and overall by 20 per cent in real terms. The cuts of the 1990s – less swingeing than those being mooted by Cameron and Osborne today – were deep and the damage long-lasting. The sell-off of defence accommodation was one of the worst privatisation deals in history. With a shrinking budget, the Tories were spending less on helicopters and armoured vehicles, cutting the army by 35,000, while pressing ahead with expensive legacy programmes. As a result of the long lead times in defence procurement, the armed forces were still recovering from the indiscriminate cuts of the 1990s when they started the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Take some examples of what cuts today might mean in practice. A major reduction in surface ships will require the UK to give up the Royal navy’s permanent presence in priority regions, dealing with everything from piracy to drug smuggling. The loss of amphibious landing capabilities could mean that the UK will no longer be able to mount a small scale, but vitally important, humanitarian operation like that conducted in Sierra Leone, let alone being able to support a larger scale operation with anything more than light armour. A deletion of the Nimrod MR4 capability might leave both the nuclear deterrent and indeed the Falklands vulnerable. In his letter, Fox also warned about the effect the cuts could have on civil contingencies ahead of security for the Olympics, or if the UK suffered a Mumbai-style attack.

The cuts may also include a substantial reduction in the size of the army. Equipping, supplying and supporting front line personnel accounts for a massive part of the £36 billion defence budget. As the largest of the three services, it is easy to see why treasury would focus in on the army as a particular source for major savings. Ministers regularly talk of the need to “do more with less”. In the Army, this does mean increasing ‘force generation’ ratios that determine the total number of troops required to support a specified front line force. Currently, an army of almost 100,000 is required to sustain a force of about 10,000 in Afghanistan, partly due to the time required for training before each six-month tour and recuperation time afterwards.

But some reports have suggested that the government is looking at a 20,000 reduction in forces manpower in order to save around a £1 billion in the first year, with more saved in later years from reduced wages and pension costs. Soldiers might have to serve for longer on the front line in Afghanistan, and be given less time to recuperate between tours. There have similarly been noises that the territorial army – always vulnerable in a spending review – and even the number of Royal marines may be cut.

Of course, defence should never be exempt from the need to make efficiency savings and trim its often escalating cost base. Indeed, the previous Labour government did much to improve efficiencies at the MoD and to reduce the number of MoD civil servants. The number of civilian staff was cut by more than a third since 1997 – some 45,000 (23,000 in the last four years). Last December, Bob Ainsworth announced a further package of tough decisions and savings, stopping or slowing down lower priority areas and pushing down hard on headquarters costs and overheads. He found savings in travel and subsistence, external assistance, consultancy and non-essential training. When the SDSR comes, Labour will not be able to credibly oppose all of the government’s cuts.

But this is also one of Liam Fox’s problems: the scope for major savings in ‘efficiencies’ is actually quite limited. Much of the fat has already been trimmed, without the drastic cuts that now seem to be on the agenda. Cutting the army may be the most straightforward option financially, but it is the wrong thing to do. It is much harder to deal with the challenges associated with the equipment programme and with procurement. Inevitably, costs escalate, lead times are long, the technology involved is complex and subject to change, and then there is the almost ever-changing nature of our defence needs. As Sir Jock Stirrup has said, “don’t forget the enemy has a say in all of this”.

All governments prefer to ‘push things to the right’ – saving money now even when to do so pushes up the long run cost – rather than risk cancelling programmes or painfully scaling back big ticket items. But the equipment programme is like a rose bush: not just a thorny problem, it also always needs pruning.

Fox and the Conservative defence team said much before the election about the need to protect the front line and even to increase the overall size of the British army. Now, every signal from the government is that reductions in overall manpower will reduce the numbers we are able to deploy at any given time. It is not like before when the peace dividend from Northern Ireland, for instance, meant that we could further rationalise the infantry without affecting our capability. In his letter to the prime minister, Fox himself argues that the morale of the armed forces would be seriously damaged if cuts are made at a time when they are taking heavy casualties in Afghanistan.

George Osborne’s interview on Saturday, also with the Telegraph, the paper that has done so much to cover the threat to defence, showed a breath-taking ignorance of the country’s defence spending. He likened the equipment programme to “a bunch of kit that makes us extremely well prepared to fight the Russians on the north German plain”.

That is palpably not true. The priority for spending in recent years has been on operations, predominantly in Afghanistan, and the specialist equipment we need to do the job there – whether it’s more helicopters (and helicopter flying hours), specialist equipment to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and communications kit, or vastly improved medical services. Even the much-maligned Eurofighter Typhoon is a completely transformed aircraft now, in terms of its multi-role capability, than that devised in the 1980s.

This week, Ed Miliband paid a full and moving tribute to our armed forces in his first speech to the Labour party conference. He should make an early visit to Afghanistan and arrange to have an urgent briefing from the chiefs of staff. Ed Miliband told the conference that Labour would be a tough but responsible opposition, taking on the government when they got it wrong but supporting them when they get it right.

Prioritising finite resources for defence is never easy and Labour will have to get its response to the review right. But supporting and protecting the brave men and women who risk their lives in the service of our country should be central to what Labour does in opposition – even if it means, for the moment at least, supporting Liam Fox in his war with the battalion of bean-counters at the treasury.

The truth is, as Dr Fox and his colleagues are finding out, when it comes to defence, and certainly when it comes to the army, you don’t get more for less. You get less for less.

Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East.

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Liam Fox is right (and George and Dave are wrong), says Michael Dugher”

  1. Jeff Jones says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice for a Labour politician to actually discuss what the UK’s role should be in the 21st century and the defence capabilty necessary to support that role. Meeting the Chiefs of Staff will achieve nothing when they can’t agree amongst themselves and are often fighting the last war rather then the next. What is required is new thinking by Labour on defence not a rehash of arguments that would have been supported by Ernie Bevin. The two aircraft carriers,for example, and the expensive F35 aircraft which will sail on them will probably never see action. If they did and it was against a major power they wouldn’t last five minutes without the protection of a task force. We need a real debate and not a knee jerk reaction against everything the Tories propose in every area of government. Fox was wrong on so many issues in opposition and he is wrong on what is required for defence now that he is government. Labour needs a smarter better thought out response than the ideas set out in this article I’m afraid.

  2. I agree with that. But the article is also nice, it has also a point about our armed forces. Indeed, I agree with Jeff on his point about labor.

  3. John says:

    “last major cuts to the defence budget”

    That’d be the period between 1997 and 2010 then? After all, the Strategic Defence Review was never funded and the government deployed forces far in excess of the planning assumptions anyway. Meanwhile Afghanistan and Iraq were so adequately supported that the MOD had to repeatedly make cuts elsewhere (including those announced last December) to fund operations. You state the fact that defence spending remained stable around 2.5% GDP (actually it fell from 2.9% to 2.3%) as if that was a good thing – never mind that over the same period the Armed Forces were deployed intensively.

    You complain about the possible loss of MRA4 yet are silent on the current capabiity gap due to MR2 being withdrawn early and MRA4 delayed on financial grounds. What about the other 6 Type 45 destroyers? What about the perilous state of the Royal Navy in general?

    What about the disasterous procurement reforms and failures of leadership, culture and priorities that lead to the loss of XV230? Or the bow wave effect (Bernard Gray) on the procurement budget that saw the cost of the carrier project increase by £700 billion?

    Why did charities like Help 4 Heroes have to be established?

    You state that Fox will find you get “less for less” – why didn’t Labour learn that either instead of demanding far more and providing even less?

Leave a Reply