Britain can fight again - but as a featherweight

Robert Fox examines Britain’s first strategic defence review in 12 years

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:00 ON Wed 20 Oct 2010

In the end it has been a very British defence review - high on theatrics and aspirations but quite short when it comes to the detail, particularly the crucial detail of money. Britain still intends to punch its weight in the world was the message from the Prime Minister yesterday - but the forces with which we will do it will be even smaller.

In the next five years the forces are to lose 17,000 personnel - 7,000 from the Army, 5,000 from the Navy and 5,000 from the RAF - with the Ministry of Defence losing 25,000 civil servants. A total of 42,000 jobs gone.

All 20,000 troops currently in Germany are to be brought home over the next 20 years. The Army is to lose up to 40 per cent of its tanks and 30 per cent of its heavy artillery. Special Forces are to be given extra funds and equipment, but not increased in number.

The RAF is lose the force of Harrier aircraft, though the Tornado is to be kept. The big cancellation is the ending of the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft - including the nine MrA4 variants due to enter service next year. This is a write-off of around £3.9 billion to the taxpayer.

The Army is to operate with five multi-role brigades of about 6,600 troops each, instead of six, and will be able to commit a brigade to sustained open-ended missions like the current one in Afghanistan. At the same time it can deploy up to 1,000 troops for action elsewhere along the lines of the Sierra Leone operation in 1999.

At a pinch, it could put 30,000 troops into the field for a short one-off operation. This is two-thirds the size of the force sent to Iraq in March 2003. It is exactly the same strength the French say they can field in an emergency since their defence plan of two years ago.

The main problem with the new Defence White Paper - 'Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty' - is the same as the 2008 French policy and the last UK strategic defence review in 1998 under Tony Blair. It's the money. Final figures will not be given until today when George Osborne sets the new defence budget allowance in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

However, the Prime Minister did say yesterday that roughly eight per cent is to be cut from the defence budget of around £37 billion over the next four years. Yet, despite warnings from William Hague to the contrary, UK defence spending will not drop below the Nato target of two per cent of GDP.

At the same time, the government says it will cure the £36 billion overspend on the equipment budget over the next ten years; that is to say there are £36 billion worth of orders for which there were no funds available even before the present round of cuts.

At this point we come to the smoke-and-mirrors part of the story - the Navy's ambition to acquire two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers plus a full replacement for the Trident ballistic missile system complete with four new submarines.

The trick apparently is that the new aircraft - the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - is not likely to be available for another eight years, and could only enter service in 2020 at the earliest.

They will be deployed on one carrier only - the other being mothballed in reserve - and only 12 planes at a time, not the wing of 35 originally intended.

The cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35 JSFs is rocketing - currently estimated at £140 million each - and, since they are to be ordered for both the the Navy and the RAF, many analysts in the UK and America don't think Britain will be able to afford the planes.

In the meantime, the existing aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal (pictured, previous page), and its Harriers are to go - and very rapidly. So the Navy won't be able to launch attack planes from its decks for the first time since the First World War.

More important, the Navy will be without attack jets for about ten years. So if they can do without them in the next dangerous and 'uncertain' decade, why are they needed so badly for the 2020s? Some fear that the cost of the carrier project will have escalated out of sight by then.

Like the 1998 strategic defence review, the present review does not seem to have been funded in detail, leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre and argument. Major studies still have to deliver detailed recommendations on the future of the Army, the whole procurement system and new surveillance systems like drones and equipment to combat cyber-warfare.

Each major defence review of the past 35 years has been overtaken by events within a year to 18 months - the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. Will this one be any different?

But at least the Prime Minister showed a recognition that the argument and debate is far from over - which makes him different from Tony Blair in 1998. And look what he did after his review in that year - he went to war, and never seemed to want to stop. ·