Despite the rather pathetic political fighting about the word ‘cut’ it is obvious to everyone that the public sector is going to be facing tough times and defence isn’t going to be any different. All three parties are starting to lay the ground, put out tentative feelers to gain reaction and generally drop heavy hints about what their plans might be. As the argument moves on from whether there will need to be cuts or not to what and how fast to cut the need to try and make some sense out of their positions becomes important for anyone with even a passing interest in defence matters.
It’s no secret that the Government and opposition defence teams are not of a particularly high calibre and so we should not expect too much in the way of considered thought from any of them. A flurry of announcements from think tanks and MP’s has given rise to the usual sensationalist nonsense in the mainstream media but in fairness to them, the source material was hardly inspiring.
In a report on how to tackle the UK’s deepening financial crisis Vince Cable published a report using the think tank Forum as a vehicle. In the wide ranging report Vince Cable suggested cancelling Typhoon Tranche 3, MRA4, A400, the Defence Training Review contract and the proposed Trident replacement. The report also recognises that as a percentage of GDP the defence budget is likely to remain stable at about 2.7%
Blundering into the debate this week, George Osborne (Shadow Chancellor) made an ill conceived comment about possible defence cuts. After a speech about a possible future budget he was asked about specifics and to the dismay of many he cited the Typhoon, CVF and A400 as potential areas for cuts. It is evident that Defence, traditionally perceived as having strong support from the conservatives (although the reality is actually far from the misty eyed perception), is not immune from cuts, unlike health and international development.
Singling out equipment projects for cuts pre empts the Conservatives already announced Strategic Defence and Security Review and the comments must have come as an unwelcome surprise for Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary.
As the party in power Labour have to be more circumspect and won’t discuss specific programmes but in what was billed as a major speech this week, Bob Ainsworth, the Secretary of State for Defence, stated the importance and priority of Afghanistan and that he could not exclude major shifts in how the budget is used following the governments announced strategic defence review.
Looking at a report from Greenpeace you know before you get past the front cover what the thrust of the argument is going to be but jumping on the same bandwagon as the others the report highlights the so called hidden costs of the Trident replacement and CVF. The report is titled ‘In the Firing Line’ and is endorsed by former Defence Secretary, Michael Ancram. In fact, it is actually a well researched report and well worth a read, even if you might not agree with its conclusions. I wholeheartedly agree with some of its arguments but not others.
Because Trident is a strategic decision whose costs will substantially fall outside the conventional defence budget I have decided to leave comment to another post.
The Typhoon, CVF and A400 are easily the most high profile and therefore draw more fire than other programmes which are equally problematical. The Typhoon Tranche 3a order for 40 airframes (including replacements for the 24 we diverted to Saudi Arabia) has been placed and represents the last of our order. Therefore only Tranche 3b can be cancelled, even though it hasn’t been ordered and is not likely to be either.
If we cancel the A400 we would still have spent hundreds of billions of pounds and the requirement for tactical transport aircraft isn’t going away any time soon as we have covered in a number of posts, neither the C17 nor C130 meet the need.
All three parties recognise the need for a dramatic performance improvement in the performance of the equipment acquisition process but as is typical of the uninformed arguments on this subject they tend to concentrate on the same old hobby horses like cutting civil servants.
One thing is certain, there are hard times ahead.