Alistair Thompson was Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.
Today I will be attending the decommissioning ceremony of HMS Ark Royal. As this proud symbol of British Maritime power is consigned to history I worry that we might have botched the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which could have consequences long into the future.
Last year, in an attempt to clear up the mess left by the previous Government, the Coalition undertook the SDSR. The Ministry’s budget, under Labour stewardship, had been managed so disastrously that on an annual operating budget of about £13 billion, commitments on equipment and overspends totalled £36 billion, or nearly three years worth of funding.
This could have possibly been justified if our armed forces were the best equipped soldiers, sailors and airmen in the world, but they are not. Vital equipment was all too often simply not available to the men on the ground. While US soldiers travelled around in heavily armoured trucks, our boys and girls had to make do with Snatch Land Rovers designed for the streets of Belfast, not IEDs in Helmand.
There has also been wide reporting of helicopter shortages, body armour and other items (that should have been in plentiful supply) forcing our troops to make do with what is available and sometimes relying on clothing sent from concerned family members. Is it any wonder that our US allies refer to the army as "the borrowers"?
And because of the political tinkering and interfering with projects, this has led to an average 5-year delay of the in-service date of the equipment the MOD has ordered.
On top of these inherited problems the Government also wanted a reduction of eight per cent in the MOD’s budget. Set against this back drop the Government had a near impossible job of conducting our first SDSR for 13 years. Don’t get me wrong, I had hoped that the resulting report would meet all of these competing demands, but it has not.
In broad terms the Government’s policy agenda could be summed up by the phrase ‘Advancing UK Interests’ and in military terms this has two clear policy implications:
- Defending current UK interests, territory, trade/goods and citizens. This could be defined as everything we do currently, or own.
- Secondly a more proactive or even offensive capability, which allows our Government and armed forces to exploit opportunities. This in simple terms means having the ability to respond to situations and crises.
Our armed forces have always played important roles in both, which was why I was disappointed at a number of the proposed cuts which were announced. So let me explain why the current round of cuts have removed our ability in the short to medium term to carry out these two functions.
One of the most immediate and visual cuts was the loss of both the Invincible Class aircraft carriers and sea harriers that flew off of them. These allowed the UK to project its power, quickly fulfilling the second role of the military and in enough of a concentration to act as a deterrent to most nations fulfilling the primary role. And before this statement is dismissed by those cynics out there, we only have to look at their vital roles in recent conflicts including those in the Middle East and their pivotal role in 1982 in the Falklands War.
Then there is the decision to axe Nimrod. To many unfamiliar with the work of these planes there loss will mean little, but this aircraft has, in various forms, served with distinction since the early 1970s. It was originally designed to combat the threat of submarines from the USSR, but also had vital secondary roles of maritime surveillance and surface warfare.
More recently the RAF has used the Nimrod R1 variant to gather ‘electronic intelligence’ through a vast array of classified gadgetry. This has allowed our forces to target and deal with enemy radar and missile sites and other key enemy electronic networks. This greatly speeds up that all important goal of air superiority and its loss make us massively dependent on the US, or other NATO allies.
I will not write at length about the contract clauses which mean that we, the taxpayer, are going to spend a further £200 million on not building the nine new nimrods the previous Government ordered. This is on top of the three and half billion we have already spent on building them.
Finally there are the cuts in the numbers of personnel. While I have no problems with cutting the numbers of pencil pushers flying desks in Whitehall, cutting the number of sailors, soldiers and airmen only stores up massive problems. Our forces are already over stretched and until such time as the number of commitments are reduced we simply cannot cope with fewer personnel, unless when the next conflict happens, or a hurricane hits the Caribbean, we simply say "not our problem."
Do not get me wrong; I applaud some of the other elements of the SDSR, including greater resources to combat the threat of cyber-warfare and attack from an EMP, but some of these cuts seem to be driven by the Treasury and not by strategic need.
I do not mean to be overly critical of the coalition as in many areas their work is vital, and the policies they are putting forward both progressive and radical. But I wonder if in hindsight the history books may well compare some of the decisions made in the SDSR with the decision to remove the Royal Navy’s only presence in the Falklands in 1981. A decision that was as short sighted as it was wrong.