Running on empty


If the Government was taken by surprise by the criticisms made in last Thursday’s defence debate in the House of Lords, that can only be because it had not been listening. Serious criticisms have been made in the Lords by very senior retired officers for months past. Similar criticisms have been made by serving officers, including General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army. The crisis of overstretch and underfunding of the defence forces is not a new subject, but it is extremely grave.

The Lords has far greater defence experience than the Commons; it is normal for five or six very senior retired officers to speak in its defence debates. There is no member of the present Government who has served in the Armed Forces.

Admittedly, Lords debates are often under-reported, though last Thursday’s was fully covered. In any case, one expects the Ministry of Defence to read Hansard, particularly when retired heads of the Armed Forces have been speaking. I was certainly aware of the concerns of these senior officers, simply by listening to the questions they had been asking.

Anyone who also meets more junior members of the Armed Forces knows that these anxieties run from the top to the bottom. Private soldiers know that the Army is overstretched and underfunded, just as well as generals. Indeed, private soldiers and their families inevitably suffer the consequences more directly than the generals. It is they whose wives and children are liable to land up in slum accommodation, with water running from the walls and rats in the kitchen.

Why is this happening? There is no doubt that things have gone seriously wrong in recent years; one only has to count the number of soldiers leaving the Army, including promising young officers, to know that. Recruitment and retention of trained soldiers are an objective test of morale. Perhaps the closest parallel is that with the National Health Service, where excellent young doctors have been leaving the country.

Both the defence forces and the health service were underfunded when Labour came to power – the NHS because of the spiralling cost of treatment, the forces because of the “peace dividend” that was expected to follow the end of the Cold War. In 1997 no one contemplated that the Labour Government would fight five wars in its first ten years, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars were not in the long-term plan; there was neither manpower nor equipment in the budget when the challenges came.

In the first Labour Parliament, from 1997 to 2001, the Government followed its commitment to keep expenditure inside the outgoing Conservatives’ spending plans. This meant in practice that expenditure was lower than it might have been if the Conservatives had won in 1997; Kenneth Clarke, as Chancellor, had made his own spending plans, but he had not put handcuffs on himself.

After 2001 Labour recognised that there had to be a surge in spending on health; this expenditure proved wasteful, but it went some way to improving the funding of health.

There has been no comparable surge in defence. Spending has been increased by minimal amounts, but at a much lower rate than the rising cost of equipment.

When large public services are underfunded, the process can take years to impact fully on their performance. At the beginning, there will still be a flow of equipment in the pipeline. There may also be some redundancies of staff. However, when the underfunding has gone on for some time, shortages begin to appear. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started when the slack in the system had already largely been exhausted. It is inexcusable that there has been so little change in four years of war on two fronts.

The RAF is still using Nimrods, although the basic design of the airframe goes back 50 years to the Comet, the first jet airliner. The Army is still using snatch vehicles designed for the back streets of Belfast, though they are belatedly being replaced. There is a notorious shortage of helicopters.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars depend on helicopters, both for fighting and for ordinary transport purposes. Yet one cannot simply buy Chinooks on demand, like buying cars from a showroom. If the Ministry of Defence were now to place an order for Chinooks, it would probably have to get in the queue.

The helicopters might actually be delivered and deployed by 2009 or 2010. The missing equipment of the Afghan war should have been ordered four years ago, but the budget did not then provide for such a purchase.

Whichever deficiency one looks at has taken years to develop and will take years to put right. For instance, the recruitment and retention of soldiers calls for higher pay, but also improved welfare, particularly for the families and the injured.

Equipment has to be budgeted, ordered, delivered, put in training and then brought to the battlefield. There is no button to be pressed to produce an immediate supply, or an immediate rise in recruits, though it might be a good idea to bring recruits’ pay up to the levels of the police.

There is a problem of personalities. The best defence procurement minister for years, Lord Drayson, has just resigned, to enter a qualifying motor race in America. He was frustrated by the lack of funding for defence. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, is a likeable conciliator, probably better suited to his other job, Scotland, than to the crucial battle for defence funding. The Prime Minister has been reluctant to give defence the financial priority he gave health, though he talks of national security as his “first priority”. When the generals give their warnings, Downing Street snarls back at the criticisms. The Government wants to fight its wars on the cheap. That is a shameful mistake.

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