by Matt Cavanagh
David Cameron’s Downing Street machine may have endured its biggest crisis so far over phone hacking, but at least its media strategy is working well in one area: defence cuts. As with October’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, bad news in defence is only cleared for release when there is enough other bad news to bury it. The SDSR announced the biggest defence cuts for 20 years, including cutting 7,000 soldiers, but with the spending review setting out even bigger cuts elsewhere the next day, the defence settlement didn’t make a single front page, and broadcast coverage was similarly muted. Likewise last week, when Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced that 10,000 more soldiers would be cut, even Telegraph readers had to turn past ten pages of hacking coverage before they saw it.
How much attention an announcement gets will always depend on what other news is around, and it would have been hard for any story to compete with the hacking scandal. But it is a shame for defence, because the Government’s treatment has been both dishonest and shambolic, and deserves greater scrutiny.
Fox’s dishonesty on Army numbers goes back many years. In opposition he repeatedly lied that Labour had ‘cut the Army by 10,000’: in fact, numbers remained fairly stable, and the Army was bigger in 2010 than 1997. He also promised that a Conservative government would give the Army ‘three new battalions’, a promise which Cameron endorsed in his Conference speech in 2007 at the end of another hard summer in Afghanistan and Iraq – a predictable move from a party which has long seen defence as an issue to be milked for maximum political effect. Some in the Army may be wishing they had paid less attention to these speeches and more attention to history. The bean-counters in the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury have always wanted to cut the Army – it is so much easier than dealing with the bigger problems in the defence budget – and generally it has been Conservative ministers who give them the go-ahead, perhaps because they think they can get away with it. In the 1990s, they cut the Army by 35,000, alongside deep cuts in the defence budget and reductions in military capability. The script has changed – then it was the ‘peace dividend’ after the Cold War, now it is the deficit – but from the Army’s point of view, they could be forgiven for thinking history is repeating itself.
Even now, with the Government’s real agenda for the Army exposed, ministers are still not being honest. In early July, Labour’s Dan Jarvis, a former Parachute Regiment major, confronted Fox at the despatch box and asked him whether he had any plans for further cuts to the Army. Fox replied that ‘nothing has changed since the SDSR’. This was two weeks before he announced further cuts of 10,000 soldiers. When he did finally announce the cuts, he attempted to preserve some semblance of consistency with the SDSR by claiming that none of this would happen before 2015, and that when it did, it would be offset by more generous funding. That was contradicted yesterday by a leaked letter in the Telegraph from the head of the Army, suggesting that 5,000 more soldiers will indeed be cut before 2015, biting deep into the combat units which have been serving in Afghanistan.
We should not deny that there is a funding crisis in the MOD – even if its true nature tends to be obscured by the ministerial rhetoric rather than illuminated by it. There is also a case to be made for a smaller Army. In the continuing absence of an existential threat of the kind we faced in the Cold War, and with the nation losing its appetite for manpower-intensive counter-insurgency, ministers could have come out and argued for a redistribution of resources away from a standing army and towards new threats and new capabilities – like cyber security, or drones and other surveillance. But they haven’t had the courage, or strategic vision, to do so. Fox did try to use the Reserves Review to put a strategic spin on last week’s cuts, arguing that overall ‘deployability’, across regular and reserve forces, is the key – with a reformed and more deployable T.A. offsetting cuts to regular soldiers. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Fox objecting to Labour questions about overall numbers (“they talk about total numbers all the time”, he complains, “but they do not talk about deployability”) given his own approach in opposition, this is an dangerous tack for a Defence Secretary who has announced a radical cut of one-third in, precisely, deployability. (This was tucked away on p19 of the SDSR document, glossed over by Fox and Cameron in their statements at the time: the admission that in future, in a one-off operation like the invasion of Iraq, we will be able to deploy 30,000, rather than 45,000; and that in an enduring operation like Afghanistan, we will be able to deploy 6,500 rather than 10,000.)
Unfortunately the blithe assertion by Fox and his colleagues that they can slash budgets and Army numbers without reducing deployability and capability is no more credible than the assertion of their Home Office colleagues, in the same week, that they can do the same in policing. (There is another, neglected parallel in the approach of the two departments: the strategy of replacing full-time professionals with part-timers. Just as the regular Army is being cut, and we are told the T.A. will take up the slack, so too police officers are being cut, by 16,200, while the numbers of volunteer Special Constables is being increased by 7,000. It seems the Army and police are to be in the front line of Cameron’s Big Society experiment.)
The underlying reality is that, as with the SDSR, it is money rather than strategy which is driving the decisions. There is no good reason why these two sets of cuts, two of the biggest decisions affecting the Army for decades, should have been decided and announced in such an uncoordinated way. Ministers now argue they had to wait for the Reserves Review before they could announce the second set of cuts, but it would have been relatively straightforward either to speed up the Reserves Review, or slow down the SDSR, so that the two were properly coordinated. The more likely explanation is that at the time of the SDSR Cameron vetoed deeper Army cuts for political reasons – there was even some No10 briefing about him having ‘stepped in to save the Army’ – and then kept on vetoing them, until his hand was forced by another budget crisis. The crisis came to a head when the Permanent Secretary, in governance terms the ‘accounting officer’ of the MOD, refused to sign off any significant spending. Important programmes remained frozen since the election, and decisions made in the SDSR were not progressing. Reserves are far cheaper than regulars, and the simple fact is that neither ministers nor officials could find any way of making the sums add up. This finally forced Cameron into the choice he had been hoping to avoid, of authorising further deep cuts to the Army, or overriding George Osborne and giving the MOD more money.
He opted for the former, even if Fox tried to present it as the latter, boasting of a ‘deal’ with the Treasury that would see rising defence spending after 2015. But everyone close to the process knows that when it came to lifting the freeze on current spending, the Army cuts were far more important than the Treasury deal. Everyone also knows that Fox’s ‘new’ equipment announcements were in almost every case just unfreezing programmes which had been frozen since the election: Chinook helicopters, Rivet Joint surveillance planes, and an upgrade to Warrior Fighting Vehicles (the exception being the catapults and arrestor gear forthe aircraft carriers, a decision made in the SDSR). The Chinook programme was not only frozen for 15 months, but also cut by more than a third. With this downsizing and delay, the Government has ensured that these helicopters are now extremely unlikely to come into service in time to be used in Afghanistan, as well as ensuring that this order will no longer correct the decades-old structural shortage of troop-carrying helicopters. You could be forgiven for wondering why exactly this is supposed to be good news.
The same applies to the funding deal. From the way Fox talks about it, you would think it was the answer to all the MOD’s problems. But if you look at the small print, it actually says only that the MOD can ‘plan on this basis’, rather than offering any kind of guarantee. It is also restricted to equipment spending, so could be undermined by a less generous settlement for the rest of the MOD budget. And it isn’t exactly generous: it merely returns to previous spending trends, after four years of deep cuts. One per cent real terms per year was the average growth in the MOD budget during the Labour years of 2000-2010, which of course Fox argued at the time was totally inadequate. Whether it will be adequate after 2015, as the military limps out of four years of austerity, will depend on whether the slew of reviews and strategies Fox has announced over the last year actually tackle the real drivers of the MOD’s problems: the bureaucracy, the inter-service haggling, the tendency to spend money on the wrong things, and the ever-increasing unit cost of fast jets, surface ships, and submarines. Come 2020, if these problems have been tackled, then the sacrifice in the Army’s deployable capability might appear justified. If they haven’t been tackled, the sacrifice will seem futile – and worse, the bean-counters will be back to ministers, urging a further cut in Army numbers. If it’s a Conservative government, I wouldn’t bet on them saying no.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on defence under the last Labour government