Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Half Sense On Defence

FRES- Airfix is cheaper
According to the Times, the Treasury wants to cut £35bn from the MOD budget. It's not clear to what period this applies, but the noise is coming from this year's rancorous Comprehensive Spending Review which covers 2008-09 to 2010-11. That would mean a stonking cut of about one-third.

At a time when the army has never been more stretched, cuts like this sound the height of irresponsibility. But to anyone who's read Lewis Pages' excellent Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, the Times list of projects facing the axe has considerable logic:
  • "The next batch of Eurofighter Typhoons, to be built by BAE Systems. The RAF has already bought 144 Typhoons, which cost £65 million each, and has another 88 on order. The Treasury’s view is that the MoD does not need Tranche 3, as the supplemental order is called, as well as Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation fighter currently under development." Page makes the point that the Typhoon is a grotesquely expensive cold war weapon no longer needed for fighting the sort of enemies we now face. So a tick.

  • "The Royal Navy is expected to lose at least two destroyers, and possibly even four, but will at least get its aircraft carriers. The Treasury is understood to have signed off the £3.6 billion to £3.9 billion cost of the two carriers." Page, a Navy man himself, expounds at length on why destroyers are virtually useless in today's circumstances, but cheap carriers are vital for supporting our boys in distant lands. Another tick.

  • "The Army could be the biggest loser as the Treasury is thought to be unhappy with Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), a £14 billion project for up to 3,000 armoured vehicles. The Treasury is understood to favour buying a replacement off the shelf, possibly from a US company, rather than have the UK develop its own." The financial and performance arguments for buying proven off the shelf kit have been rehearsed in BOM several times, and Page covers them in detail. The ever dependable Christopher Booker also wrote recently about the FRES "boys toys" here. A third tick.

So the cuts sound sensible.

What continues to sound much less sensible to us non-military types is the government's continued belief that the army can fight two bloody ground wars on a relative shoestring.
One of the real shockers in Page's book is his estimate of the paltry numbers of "men with guns" we can call on- ie the ground troops who can actually be sent in to fire rifles and stuff. He reckons that out of the 200,000 odd people in the forces (plus the further 100,000 civvies on the MOD payroll), only about 20,000 are actual "men with guns". Plus maybe 6,000 "tank-and-horse soldiers", such as Prince Hal.

Which sounds a ludicrous state of affairs, and explains why the wholly unconvincing Des Browne has to juggle a few hundred troops out of Iraq only to reassign them to Afghanistan 48 hours later.

Of course, if MOD was a private company, they'd have been forced to grip the problem long ago. They'd have staunched the cash haemorrhage on Typhoon/Nimrod and all that other cold war kit, and switched the funds to recruit, train, and equip our men with guns.
But MOD is not a private company. So they continue to avoid the real issues, spreading the budgetary pain pro rata between the three services. Even though everyone can see it's actually only the army that's any use for fighting the modern "low intensity" land wars our politicos insist on dropping us into.


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