The govt must swallow its pride and adapt to the Arab spring

by Michael Dugher

The foreign secretary, William Hague, has said that the impact of the Arab spring is potentially greater in significance than even the attacks of 9/11. After 9/11, Labour in government produced a “new chapter” to the 1998 defence review, precisely to face up to the shifting strategic landscape and emerging threats to the UK. A new chapter to the 2010 SDSR is desperately needed today.  This would bring the review up to date and make a full assessment of the impact of the Arab spring on UK security.  As Jim Murphy has said: “It’s not about looking backwards, but about turning hindsight into foresight.”

Lord Levene’s more managerial review into MoD reform was published last week. As far as it goes, it is good. Labour welcomed many of its recommendations. Indeed, Bob Ainsworth, Kevan Jones and others deserve much of the credit, as several ideas in the report stem from the defence green paper, adaptability and partnership, which the previous Labour government produced in February 2010. As the official opposition, it is as much our responsibility to support the government when its proposals are right as to oppose when they get things wrong.

Changes such as a smaller defence board inside the MoD, and greater clarification of responsibilities and the accountability for the individuals within the department, are much needed, not least to overcome the sometimes fractious command structure that has too often been based on inter-service rivalry. As Labour suggested in the 2010 green paper, the creation of a joint forces command in particular should help to change the face of our armed forces for the better and play a crucial role in helping them combat future threats to the UK. It will encourage more joint operations and enhance our ability to integrate out activities across land, sea and air, enabling joined up logistics and better communication.

Elements such as intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition and reconnaissance, as well as command and information systems, are currently split over many areas and between the services. Combining these elements will provide a more focused approach, enabling operational efficiencies (in both cost and effectiveness) to be exploited more easily.

Indeed, Lord Levene was right when he said – in a near direct quote from adaptability and partnership – that

“an effective MoD is one which builds on the strengths of the individual services and the civil service, and does so within a single defence framework that ensures the whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

But while Labour welcomes these proposed reforms as a step in the right direction for the structure of the ministry of defence, there still remains a fundamental credibility gap at the heart of the MoD’s budget, and a real danger of continued capability gaps too, both of which flow from the government’s rushed and ill-thought through strategic defence and security review (SDSR) last year.

Liam Fox and David Cameron have both argued that our response to the conflict in Libya has demonstrated the success of last year’s defence review. But they are conflating two issues. It is true that our armed forces are doing a good job in Libya. Our forces are, once again, carrying out their operations with characteristic bravery, dedication to duty and consummate professionalism. But this is very much in spite of some of the deficiencies of the SDSR, not because of them.

In reality, as Jim Murphy has repeatedly said, the SDSR has failed its first contact with events. Our forces are using equipment that the government previously said it was OK to scrap. Unlike the French, we no longer have an aircraft carrier in place – we are blessed with friendly countries nearby, specifically Italy, who have allowed us to use their territory as a forward operating base, but this will not always be the case. We have just sold the Americans our harrier fleet – on the cheap – for them to break up and use for spare parts, plus the number of RAF tornados is also set to be cut (with the base that operates them, RAF Marham, set to close).

Just ten months after the SDSR was published, it is patently clear that the assumptions on which it was based have been completely overtaken by events. As Ed Miliband pointed out at prime minister’s questions recently, the review did not even mention Egypt, Tunisia or Libya once and it did not plan for two missions exceeding six months. The overwhelming case for a “new chapter”, as after 9/11, has been made by events.

Relations between the military and this government have undoubtedly soured. The failure of Fox to bring home the bacon from the treasury has perhaps fatally undermined his credibility with the top brass. Defence ministers barely deny any longer that last year’s so-called strategic defence and security review was little more than a spending review. It was rushed and consequently it contained within it a number of botched decisions that were never properly costed, and were based on efficiencies which have simply failed to materialise. This itself has led to further affordability problems down the line.

Current unhappiness by the generals, admirals and air marshals has spilled over into the media, with the juiciest leaks heading on a regular basis to the Daily Telegraph. The government underestimated the number of compulsory redundancies they would have to make to the armed forces and the “sackings by emails” will have left a particularly bitter taste in the mouths of our service personnel. Add to that, Cameron’s response to sincerely held anxieties by the service chiefs was simply to say “you do the fighting, we’ll do the talking”. Can you imagine what the Sun newspaper would have made of those comments if they had been made by a Labour prime minister?

So when defence questions take place today in the House of Commons, Labour will offer our support for the important reforms to the MoD announced last week. But we will also say that the proposals contained within Lord Levene’s report last week are no consolation for a properly thought through strategic defence review. The Arab spring does present a much-needed opportunity to revisit the review and to write a new chapter to the SDSR. Ministers should take up that opportunity. To mangle my metaphors, it’s time for the government to both bite the bullet and swallow its pride.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, a shadow defence minister and parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband.

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