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The day of reckoning has arrived for the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
By Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Senior Analyst at RUSI
The leaked letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Prime Minister David Cameron has outlined in detail some of the cuts now being considered in Britain's armed forces - sharp reductions in the frigate fleet, the 'deletion' of the Royal Navy's amphibious capability, and the scrapping of the new Nimrod MR4 maritime patrol aircraft (the first of which entered service, at great expense, only this year).
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Because the defence plans inherited from the last government is unaffordable even at today's budget levels, the 10% spending cut now being demanded by the Treasury is likely to require reductions in personnel and front-line equipment numbers closer to 20% over the next four years. Sharp reductions in numbers of fast jets and armoured regiments, together with postponement of the Trident renewal programme, are all on the agenda.
Some within government continue to argue that most of the required savings can be made through 'efficiency' measures, cutting out waste and restrictive practices without affecting the front line. But such an argument can all too easily be used as an excuse to avoid making choices that are politically difficult. The last government fell into this trap, and - despite an overall defence budget that was growing by around 1% per annum - found itself forced into an annual round of wasteful and costly delays in order to balance the books. Defence cannot afford to maintain this illusion.
Doctor Fox's letter also emphasises the need to maintain military capability across 'all three environments of land, sea and air'. Pressures to protect personnel numbers in the Army, as long as it is heavily committed in Afghanistan, are entirely understandable. Without corresponding budgetary relief, however, such a policy risks placing the burden of spending cuts on the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Yet the UK already has 62% of its military personnel now in ground forces (including Marines and RAF Regiment), compared with 55% in the US and France. Does it make sense, once withdrawal from Afghanistan has taken place in 2015, to move further in this direction? It might make sense if the government, as a result of a proper strategic assessment, makes a conscious decision to prioritise ground forces at the expense of other capabilities. It would be much harder to justify an Defence Review that was seen to be driven primarily by the immediate political imperatives of the Afghan campaign, at the expense of preserving the range of capabilities that, many believe, are needed to hedge against an uncertain and potentially dangerous future.
Perhaps the worst outcome of all, however, would be for the Government to pretend that no difficult defence choices need to be made. They do, and Liam Fox's letter has offered us a hint of just how hard some of those choices could be.