CSR analysis: cuts and confusion are the reality behind the Tories’ tough talk on defence

by Andy Bagnall

The strategic defence and security review was cleverly timed. By publishing it the day before the comprehensive spending review, one day of bad headlines about defence cuts was quickly eclipsed by reports of the wider savagery being unleashed against our public services.

Casual observers might remember little more than the Tory-Lib Dem government’s perverse plans to build new aircraft carriers but retire the Harrier planes that fly from them, ten years before buying replacements. More interested analysts might even have been musing on the last time a Tory government decided to dispense with carrier strike capability, in 1981. (A year later, Argentina invaded the Falklands and the policy evaporated). But then we were deluged with the news of welfare cuts, arts cuts, housing cuts, any-kind-of-cut-you-can-think-of cuts. And the plane-less carriers disappeared from the horizon.

The announcement this week of greater defence co-operation with France in both the nuclear and conventional spheres, while actually a very sensible move, acts as a further smokescreen to divert attention from the diminution of the UK’s own capabilities.

But security of the nation is the first priority of any government. So it is important that, as the weeks go by, Labour’s shadow defence team continues to probe the detail of the SDSR, starting with the defence debate this Thursday. In addition to the obvious question of whether our forces are correctly balanced for the variety of threats we might face in the future, there are two principal areas where Labour needs to hold the government to account politically.

First, the conduct of the operation in Afghanistan. We must ensure that the government’s cuts do not undermine our ability to bring stability to Afghanistan and greater security to the UK. And we must not allow the Tory-Lib Dem government’s ideological drive for a smaller state to put the lives of service personnel in Afghanistan at greater risk than is necessary.

To reduce service numbers by 17,000 while our forces are engaged in the toughest fighting they have faced certainly since Korea and probably since the second world war, is a risky move. The SDSR assures us that there will be no changes “to army or royal marines combat units involved in Afghanistan”, and that changes to other capabilities will be postponed as long as they are required for the operation.

But no guarantees are made that the proposed 30% reduction in MOD civilians who support the forces in the field won’t have an impact. As the SDSR itself acknowledges, these are not pen-pushing bureaucrats, they “perform a range of vital roles in front-line support to operations”, from logistics to intelligence.

Similarly, reductions in training programmes – less visible than cuts in service personnel numbers – reduce the effectiveness of, and increase the risks to, those deploying. The SDSR does not go into this level of budgetary detail, but Labour ministers must establish exactly what training programmes are being reduced to make the coalition sums add up.

In the run-up to the general election, the Tories were relentless in their allegations of helicopter and other equipment shortages. Their imputation was that the Labour government’s penny-pinching in defence spending had cost brave soldiers their lives. Yet in government they have reduced Labour’s order for new Chinook helicopters from 22 to 12. Although this won’t affect operations immediately, it is symbolic of the difference between this government’s words and its actions. They must be pressed ruthlessly on their efforts to get the right equipment at the right time to the forces on the ground. The troops deserve nothing less.

The second area where the government must be held accountable is the upholding of the “military covenant” – the obligation of the nation to look after those who have served on our behalf. Labour introduced the first ever cross-government approach to forces’ welfare. It included improvements in care for the wounded, specialist mental health care, upgrades to forces’ accommodation, higher education for service leavers, increased access to housing for veterans, and the introduction of armed forces day to raise awareness of the role of our forces past and present. But before the election, the Tories repeatedly suggested that the covenant had been broken and that it would “not be easily repaired or restored”.

And yet, despite several pages of warm words, the SDSR contains very few firm commitments in this area other than the repackaging of existing Labour programmes and a promise of 30 new mental health nurses. Even their much trumpeted doubling of the allowance for those on operations has been paid for by freezing the pay of the majority of service personnel currently between operational duties. The SDSR also masks considerable savings made to welfare budgets in addition to the higher-profile cuts to personnel and equipment. For example, it must be established how far the programme of improvements to forces’ accommodation has been slowed as one of the few areas of “flexible” expenditure in the defence budget.

It is right that Labour in opposition supports changes that are necessary in a tight fiscal climate and also wholeheartedly supports our troops while they are deployed. But we must not let the SDSR pass without testing the Tories’ ability to match action and rhetoric in these two important areas for defence.

Andy Bagnall is a former special adviser at the ministry of defence.

Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “CSR analysis: cuts and confusion are the reality behind the Tories’ tough talk on defence”

  1. Last I checked, two thirds of the population opposed our involvement in Afghanistan.

    I tend to think we should be able to speak for at least some of them.

    We’ve been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, and our involvement has largely been limited to the south-east, surely this focus needs to be stressed?

    And surely current operational parameters need fighting? Every minute of fighter cover could be a life saved. If we want a popular Iraq/Afghan policy, we need a promise to bring homr every trooper we can alive, followed by an ironclad promise not to invade Iran without a clear casus belli. Apologies if you find that tiresome, but I’m fed up to the back teeth of talking natural Labour voters out of a Lib Dem tactical vote.

    If that’s too much to ask, I should’ve started asking (and a lot louder) two to five years ago.

Leave a Reply