The cost of Afghanistan to UK Defence

Bring on new Chinooks. But the defence budget can't cover the needs of a long-term occupation

By Michael Codner, Director, Military Sciences Department, RUSI

The statement in parliament today by Bob Ainsworth, secretary of state for defence, focuses on enhancements to military capability in Afghanistan and the penalties elsewhere in defence: twenty-two new Chinooks there, one less RAF base here. While no money is to be cut from the 2010-11 defence budget, it is not being increased as necessary to maintain levels of capability. Most important, the £900m of enhancements for Afghanistan are to be funded from the defence budget, and not from the central reserve – a major change, with serious implications for the longer term.

The deal is broadly that the budget pays for standing military capability while the reserve funds operations – and this should be a crucial factor in a decision to commit forces. Deciding instead to fund operations routinely from the defence budget implies Britain's commitment to Afghanistan is becoming "garrisoned", like UK forces in Germany during the cold war – and exposes the acute problem of affordability.

Eating into the defence budget stores up serious problems. Beyond 2014, the much-quoted date for a draw-down in Afghanistan, Britain's security needs are difficult to predict. But it is most unlikely any government will commit to military choices involving regime change, and the consequent responsibilities of occupation and stabilisation.

The defence review that will follow the 2010 general election must define a force structure that can be used in the national interest against a range of uncertainties, from domestic security and protection of air space and adjacent seas to rescue of civilians from combat zones abroad – and indeed protection of UK overseas territories, most of which are island communities. Whether we will face a major state power in a more traditional war or whether such disputes are fought through proxy wars, the UK will need a high level of capability to prevent bullying and blackmail by emergent or re-emergent military powers. What our contribution will be alongside our allies depends on whether we are prepared to afford major power status, what influence we hope to project, what autonomy we need.

The enhancements for Afghanistan make absolute sense: better equipment for troops on the ground, including equipment to combat the threat of roadside bombs and mines; more Husky and Jackal fighting vehicles; 22 more Chinook helicopters and helicopter fleet improvements; another C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft and Hercules upgrades for operational and strategic mobility; improved communications for troops; and better surveillance capability. Cuts to finance this spending are at this stage largely the paying-off of ageing capability. They include reductions in the Harrier attack aircraft force, the closure of the Harrier base at RAF Cottesmore and the early withdrawal of the old Nimrod MR2s pilloried in the recent Haddon-Cave report.

Army training is to be reduced where it is not relevant to Afghanistan. This could mean that some sections will be less well-prepared to deal with other emergencies that might arise, that risk is increased and flexibility is reduced.

Much is made of the planned reduction of MoD civilians and the significant cuts that have been made since 1997. These have in part been brought about by outsourcing to the private sector: money has still to be spent for these services and aspects of duty of care have been neglected through outsourcing.

Hard choices remain about the navy, Eurofighter numbers, and main battle tanks – decisions more appropriate for a defence review than a book-balancing exercise. But that will be at least a year in delivering answers, and the Treasury will not be able to wait that long.

This article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper.


Michael Codner

Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

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