Our correspondent, Mr P, has commented on the #19 episode of TWATMP. Very learned and here for your delectation:
As ever, you produced a most thought-provoking WATM this week. I just wanted to comment on the first item: the National Security Strategy and the SDSR.
I think the esteemed Mr Tooms was right to say this was “willing the ends and not the means”. There was no question of reducing our ambition to play a role in world affairs, but our capability to do so has been greatly reduced by the coalition’s obsession with cuts. The SDSR was primarily about cost-savings and had nothing to do with strategy. The NSS is a joke from start to finish.
The MoD procurement budget was over-committed and reductions in the number of programmes would have been required whoever was in government. However it is important to note that the size of the over-spend is not known. The Coalition keep talking about £38 billion, but the National Audit Office could only produce a range of £6 billion to £36 billion. More importantly, the Coalition – specifically the Treasury – is interested in savings that are realised now, rather than taking Labour’s approach of a slower, more considered, long-term savings programme. The problem with the Coalition’s approach is that it cuts capabilities to the bone in the short-term, so that the Treasury can rinse a few extra pounds out of defence, whilst in the long-run delayed programmes end up costing more. The Coalition is repeating the mistakes the Tories made in the 1990s. One excellent example is the replacement of Trident. By delaying the decision the Treasury realised savings of few hundred million. But is the long-run they will pay a much higher price on the build of the replacement and massive costs will be incurred in prolonging the life of the current Vanguard-class subs. By the way, I hesitate to disagree with Tooms on this, but the delay of Trident is a victory for the Lib Dems and their unilateralism-in-all-but-name approach to nuclear weapons.
Mr Page made a good point about buying things with our partners. There are potential savings here, but also potential pitfalls. Nobody will say Eurofighter or the A400M represent good value for money. The Joint Strike Fighter we’re developing with the Americans will be an amazing piece of kit but expensive nevertheless. The UK needs to maintain a sovereign capability in defence manufacture, whilst also making kit that interoperable with our allies. That won’t always be cheap.
All Defence Reviews are guess work, which is why they should be about strategy primarily, not cost savings. I would say the coalition put cuts before strategy and, as a result, have probably made some mistakes that will have serious consequences for the UK and our interests. Back in the ‘70s the military historian Sir Michael Howard said: “I am tempted indeed to declare dogmatically that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is the capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives.” The Coalition’s cuts have reduced our ability to respond to the unforeseen and reduced our standing in the world at time when new threats are emerging almost monthly. Cameron is right to say that without significant above-inflation investment post-2015 the UK will no longer be a front rank power. It remains to be seen whether, having won the election, Labour will deliver that investment.