Cuts mean Britain can no longer go to war
Robert Fox: The proposed defence cuts mean Sierra Leone and Kosovo will not be an option in future
For once the Jeremiahs of global strategy may be right: very soon the UK will be incapable of mounting an overseas military operation of any credibility. Forget about Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Falklands - the Cold War, even. Britain won't have the forces and resources to do their equivalent in the present day.
The country will be unable to carry out these missions if the government sticks to the target of 20 per cent defence cuts in their slash-and-burn exercise - thinly camouflaged as a strategic defence review - by the end of the year.
In reality the cuts will be around 40 per cent, so wildly overspent are large chunks of the existing defence budget.
The big decisions will be taken in Whitehall in the next fortnight. The Cabinet Office and the National Security Council have looked at a dozen major options to cut defence costs, with its current £36.8 billion budget shrinking to around £30 billion. Trident and the aircraft carriers are 'ring-fenced' meaning that renewing Trident alone will take £20 billion from the operational budget over the two decades.
"They seem to think they can cancel one programme, like a big ship or ground weapon, without a knock-on through the whole system," says a consultant who has seen the first draft of the cuts. "The whole thing lacks coherence – it doesn't add up," agrees another.
Not only will governments be unable, and unwilling - however worthy the cause – but the cuts will also put a greater strain on those already serving, particularly in Afghanistan.
A reduction in manpower will see some 20,000 service men and women lost across the board. Ground commanders are concerned about the long-term effect on morale, retention and recruiting for a long sequence of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the infantry fights on a daily basis, often for weeks on end.
(The Americans are experiencing such strains even more acutely, largely due to longer individual tours of duty, a year and 15 months in some cases. As a result, there were more veterans' suicides in the US Army last year than combat deaths.)
The Tories have form in this area, having slashed the services in 1981, 1991, and now in 2011. They don't seem to have learned much from the past: it may be easy to turn off the recruiting tap, but turning it on is very, very hard.
One plan considered for the Army was to close down the Territorial Army - that is, most of the reserves - and the cadet forces. This would have a drastic effect on recruiting. Already female officer recruiting seems to have dropped dramatically because of family misgivings about Afghanistan.
Perhaps the government should heed the shrewd essay by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in June's Foreign Affairs magazine.
Gates said there would be no more missions like Iraq and Afghanistan for the US – "forced regime change, followed by nation-building under fire". But he also said that America and allies like Britain had to develop "inter-agency tool kits", including a military component, to help failing and failed states to regenerate – instancing Pakistan in particular. He added that Britain "had provided a model for this kind of proposal".
Judging by the way the coalition government here has handled defence and security reform so far, Gates might as well have saved his breath. They seem to be about to strike their colours and surrender. ·
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