My Once-in-a-Generation Cut? The Armed Forces. All of Them

     

I say cut defence. I don’t mean nibble at it or slice it. I mean cut it, all £45bn of it. George Osborne yesterday asked the nation "for once in a generation" to think the unthinkable, to offer not just percentage cuts but "whether government needs to provide certain public services at all".

What do we really get from the army, the navy and the air force beyond soldiers dying in distant wars and a tingle when the band marches by? Is the tingle worth £45bn, more than the total spent on schools? Why does Osborne "ringfence" defence when everyone knows its budget is a bankruptcy waiting to happen, when Labour ministers bought the wrong kit for wars that they insisted it fight?

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Osborne cannot believe the armed forces are so vital or so efficient as to be excused the star chamber’s "fundamental re-evaluation of their role". He knows their management and procurement have long been an insult to the taxpayer. The reason for his timidity must be that, like David Cameron, he is a young man scared of old generals.

I was content to be expensively defended against the threat of global communism. With the end of the cold war in the 1990s that threat vanished. In its place was a fantasy proposition, that some unspecified but potent "enemy" lurked in the seas and skies around Britain. Where is it?

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Each incoming government since 1990 has held so-called defence reviews "to match capabilities to policy objectives". I helped with one in 1997, and it was rubbish from start to finish, a cosmetic attempt to justify the colossal procurements then in train, and in such a way that any cut would present Labour as "soft" on defence.

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and George Robertson, the then defence secretary were terrified into submission. They agreed to a parody of generals fighting the last war but one. They bought new destroyers to defeat the U-boat menace. They bought new carriers to save the British empire. They bought Eurofighters to duel with Russian air aces. Trident submarines with nuclear warheads went on cruising the deep, deterring no one, just so Blair could walk tall at conferences.

Each weekend, the tranquillity of the Welsh countryside is shattered by inane jets screaming through the mountain valleys playing at Lord of the Rings. With modern bombs, no plane need fly that low, and the jets are said to burn more fuel in half an hour than a school in a year. Any other service wasting so much money would be laughed out of court. Yet the Treasury grovels before the exotic virility of it all.

Labour lacked the guts to admit that it was crazy to plan for another Falklands war. It dared not admit that the procurement executive was fit for nothing but appeasing weapons manufacturers. No armies were massing on the continent poised to attack. No navies were plotting to throttle our islands and starve us into submission. No missiles were fizzing in bunkers across Asia with Birmingham or Leeds in their sights. As for the colonies, if it costs £45bn to protect the Falklands, Gibraltar and the Caymans, it must be the most ridiculous empire in history. It would be cheaper to give each colony independence and a billion a year.

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June 10, 2010