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Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, has announced deep cuts in military personnel and equipment to fund a £900 million boost for the Afghanistan campaign. However the figures may not stack up. Something is going to give and in a big way. Defence is living through a slow motion road accident while it waits for the political wheel to turn and give it some strategic direction.
By Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI.org
The immediate economic trade-off sounds reasonable enough if you say it quickly. £1 billion of new helicopters (eventually) for Afghanistan has to be balanced by over £1billion of cuts elsewhere in the defence budget. Few would disagree that Afghanistan cannot become a bottomless pit of defence expenditure.
But there are two other realities behind this announcement. One is that for the first time, and explicitly, major war expenditure is coming straight from the current defence budget and not from the Treasury’s contingency reserve – which is there precisely to fund the sort of “contingency” that war represents. There is some justification in this since the Afghan war is not a one-off conflict, but an increasing part of our “defence normality” for the next few years. Nevertheless, the expense of even small wars can throw long-term defence planning into chaos.
Secondly, the apparent balance in this statement disguises the fact that there is already some immediate and unavoidable cost-cutting going on which is shaping Britain’s defence before the long-awaited Defence Review of 2010 has begun. Pity the Ministry of Defence in this situation. It will not get any high-level strategic direction until late next year about how the country sees its role in the world and what it is prepared to pay for defence.
In the meantime, it has somehow to balance the books year on year, maintain the strategic direction that was laid down 12 years ago in circumstances that are now very different, and run defence at a time when public expenditure is to be severely cut and all the political parties assume that defence will take more of a hit than other areas.
The famous withdrawal from east of Suez saw the defence budget fall by 4 per cent between 1964 and 1970. The peace dividend at the end of the Cold War saw it fall by 14 per cent in the decade between 1988 and 1998. The present defence budget is likely to fall between 10 per cent and 15 per cent in a six-year period between 2010 and 2016. It is already so over-committed on equipment and personnel costs that it would require a real terms increase of over 4% a year from now to 2020 to deliver all that is currently planned.
In announcements like this, the MoD has to embark on an ad hoc defence review while it waits for the election and the next steps. But it’s worse than that. The figures don’t stack up. Something is going to give and in a big way. Defence is living through a slow motion road accident while it waits for the political wheel to turn and give it some strategic direction. This is a 1945 moment; even a 1918 moment, but no one yet wants to grasp it.