Flightless Bird: The Coalition's Defence Review has seen Harrier jets scrapped
Closing the Commons debate on the French Treaty on November 2, the Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox declared: "We live in a world in which our national and overseas interests are likely to be threatened in more places and by more people than at any time in the past." That being the case, the idea of a deliberative process that reviews all risks and threats to national security, translates them into priorities and then into capabilities, is to be welcomed. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked this time.
The Commons Select Committee on Defence says that the process leading to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is deeply defective. In informed circles, the SDSR is coming to be seen as the least coherent and most risky defence review of modern times: a successor of the ill-fated Nott Review of 1981, only worse. This review threatens to cut capabilities in ways that will be lost forever. Like the Nott Review, it will not stand. Either events will overtake it, or a courageous decision will be taken to revisit and rescind the most dangerous elements before it is too late. I hope for the latter.
To help this, I shall explore further the unprecedented warnings given by Lords Boyce and Inge, the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, by Lord Craig, former Chief of the Air Staff, and a line of former Defence Secretaries and other experts in the SDSR debate in the House of Lords on November 12. In that extraordinary debate, the Government's decisions were comprehensively savaged. But many episodes in this story, not only this one, are extraordinary.
To be clear, I am no enemy of the Coalition. I firmly support its commitment to dealing with the fiscal incontinence of the Blair and Brown governments. But neither deficit reduction nor the difficult short-term preoccupation with Afghanistan should drive a strategic defence review. A strategic review is an act of government unlike any other. The silent principles of national security — the deep structures of geopolitics and enduring British geostrategic interests seen in that frame — should drive a strategic review. And exactly the opposite of that has happened. How so?
There are clues. On November 27, in his West Dorset constituency, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin explained frankly that in his opinion the only justification for building two large aircraft carriers was to maintain jobs in shipyards, and that the Chiefs of Staff had told the National Security Council that by choice they would not buy them either. As a taxpayer, I do not understand how this can be acceptable. Continuous carrier operations I can understand; dispensing with carriers and enlarging the rest of the surface fleet I can understand; but the present decision to do neither, I do not. Mr Letwin added that there were no votes in defence and that the Coalition had done as much as it could in a "politically hopeless" area. Furthermore, he expressed his opinion that money spent on the aid budget to address the causes of conflict (assuming that aid money does that, which is a bold assumption poorly supported by evidence) is better spent than on armed forces. Senior officials in the MoD share Mr Letwin's view on the value of aid over armed forces; one told me so, in terms on November 29. Yes, the SDSR was rushed. But, as the views of Letwin and the MoD officials indicate, its problems are not just a product of haste.
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