Hammond courts disaster with ‘unsentimental’ view of defence
With US and France cutting back on armed forces, UK’s defence review is already out-of-date
DEFENCE Secretary Philip Hammond, for reasons not fully explained, has decided to leak his own defence review and cuts in The Daily Telegraph - though some of his decisions are yet to receive final approval from the National Security Council, the government's ultimate arbiter on such matters.
In an interview with the Telegraph's deputy political editor, Hammond has said that infantry regiments with a large compliment of Commonwealth soldiers face the axe - and there is "no room for sentiment" when it comes to culling famous regiments with famous names and cap badges.
Hammond has also decided to reverse the decision of his predecessor Dr Liam Fox and opt for the cheaper but less capable version of the new aircraft carriers. Instead of having the catapult-launched, more powerful, long-range F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the government is to opt for the jump-jet version of the F-35.
The defence secretary also confirms what has been known in Whitehall for months now. Despite the Prime Minister's pledge to increase the defence budget after 2015, as compensation for taking an eight per cent cut in the current four-year term, there will be no increase or respite for defence planning and expenditure between now and 2020 at least.
This raises serious questions. There seems much less than meets the eye about Hammond's thinking on defence - at least as declared to The Daily Telegraph (the rest of us will have to wait until the official announcement of 'Planning Round 12', which was due sometime after the local elections). Hammond prides himself as being an outsider in the defence and military world, defining his role - in the Telegraph's words - as "a management consultant given the task of saving a much-loved but troubled company".
Hammond likes to talk the accountancy talk of 'bottom lines', 'efficiency curves' and 'lower inputs and greater outputs' - though quite what this would mean to a 19-year-old rifleman caught up in a Taliban IED strike is hard to fathom.
The trouble is that we have heard all of this before. The defence policies and practice of the Major and Blair governments were bedevilled by business school MBA-speak, and the doctrines of 'smart procurement' and 'balanced forces' for 'agile response'. After the Balkans and the wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has led to a grossly overstretched army and an equipment budget which is still out of control.
In the name of efficiency, the defence secretary says he is prepared to ignore the local and community ties of the infantry regiments - the heart of the expeditionary army - in other words, the army we're going to need to use at home and abroad. "It is not the case that all army units as they once did have strong geographical recruitment ties," he tells the Telegraph.
This attitude courts disaster. The surprising thing about the British Army, based on my 40 years' of close acquaintance, is just how local it is - even in artillery and armoured units. Mates join up together, fight together and occasionally die together. Two years ago I spent a week with 3rd Battalion the Rifles in the cauldron of Sangin on the Helmand river. The soldiers were predominantly recruited from Newcastle, Sunderland, Tyne and Teesside, and it was their closeness as a community that kept them going through a very tough and in many respects incomprehensible ordeal. Even Tesco recruits locally.
As puzzling is the policy on the aircraft carriers, which the government decided to continue on the argument that it would be more expensive to cancel. Factually, this appears increasingly not to be true. Hammond wants to buy the F-35 jump jet, which would be cheaper, though of questionable tactical value. The Pentagon is trying to cut back its order for this version to only four fighting squadrons for the US Marine Corps.
The carriers are now looking like a £25 billion project which may well be largely outmoded by the time the ships are ready in ten years' time or more. In addition, the government is facing at least the same sort of expenditure to replace the Trident ballistic missile system. Unlike the present arrangement for Trident, the money will have to come from the defence budget itself.
The government's defence plans still look strangely incoherent, for all Hammond's tough and unsentimental talk in today's press. The blueprint of the Strategic Defence and Security Review of October 2011 was based on the assumption that the MoD bureaucracy could be overhauled in short order, and that more could be done with and by close allies like the US and France.
None of this has come to pass. The US is cutting back, and President Hollande has pledged massive cuts in defence, including the shared carrier project with the British. The MoD has shrunk in numbers but is still largely stuck in its old Byzantine ways.
Hammond prides himself in the cold efficiency of his forensic accountancy skills. But even such a self-proclaimed cold fish must realise that cold efficiency has to deliver real success, hot or cold. And revenge will be a dish served very cold indeed by the services, their communities and the voters, should he fail.