Why does Cameron want to raid foreign aid bank? Answer: Syria

PM's new strategy masks the ugly truth – that unless Trident is dropped, we cannot afford these missions

Column LAST UPDATED AT 15:02 ON Thu 21 Feb 2013

THE KEY to David Cameron's suggestion that the government raids the international aid budget to spend on military missions to provide security in foreign trouble-spots is the timing.

The Prime Minister is clearly thinking about "doing something" concerning Syria, which according to some security sources is now an obsession with Number 10.

Very soon we are likely to hear that British forces will be joining a multinational force, sanctioned by Nato and the UN, to "protect" vulnerable refugee communities on the borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The doctrine espoused by the UN in 2005 of "the responsibility to protect" the vulnerable – R2P, as its known in the trade – would be invoked and the mission would perhaps deliver some form of reassurance to the beleaguered King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country has been receiving more than 5,000 refugees from Syria every day.

The public would be assured that it was a band-aid mission, a swift patch-up of very short duration. But, of course, such operations can last for decades – for example, the UN forces in southern Lebanon or those monitoring the ceasefire in Cyprus since 1974.

The idea of raiding the overseas aid bank to pay for defence operations hides a much bigger issue – one that this government is desperate not to confront. There just isn't the cash to pay for current defence programmes and policies for the foreseeable future. Something big has got to give, and pretty soon.

The current annual defence budget of £34 billion is likely to be cut further as we plough into the third phase of a triple dip recession. The Army faces the prospect of its numbers being cut well below the 84,000 already announced. Gloomsters say we could end up with a regular force of as few as 60,000. (We had 105,000 last year.)

Proposals for a new reserve of 30,000 part-time soldiers have already gone up in smoke. The government thought this would be a cheap option to swell the ranks. But it is going to be hard to raise such a force because commercial firms large and small aren't too keen to give up capable staff for lengthy military service.

Then there's the expense. The US National Guard – a favourite model – is a prime porker in US pork-barrel politics, the lavish distribution for patronage from Washington.

The reason the ranks have to be thinned it to help pay for the huge equipment programmes already under way or about to be launched, and which, most sane observers agree, are of marginal use.

Several billion pounds have already been spent on replacing the Trident nuclear ballistic missile system. Complete with four new submarines, the programme will cost at least £38 billion over the next 25 years.

This is a huge chunk of the defence budget – and for a system that can never, in a realistic and humane world, be used. It is unlikely to deter any of the new players in the new nuclear poker game, particularly those being egged on by North Korea and Iran.

Almost as unrealistic is the programme for the two new Fleet aircraft carriers, one of which is now nearly complete in Rosyth dockyard. With their Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, this monster pair will cost around £20 billion in total by the time they both put to sea. Yet they will be of little use because they cannot be fully protected and escorted in an all-out hot war. Furthermore, the range of the JSF planes is restricted, meaning they can be used only for minimalist coastal operations.

Politicians are particularly keen on the UK's Special Forces. But the more they shrink the pool of professional forces from which they are drawn, the less special the Special Forces become.

The next Defence Review is not due until 2015, after the next general election. At that point, Cameron – or his successor – must face the fact that if Number 10 wants to send troops to Syria's border, or the Gulf, or Mali, or wherever, then Britain needs to junk such 20th Century legacy projects as Trident and the Fleet carriers and face up to the real requirements for our security in the 21st Century.

Which means an Army strong enough to provide highly trained and motivated young men and women who can be moved around the globe at very short notice. · 

Disqus - noscript

The Syria premise for use of the aid budget is false Mr Fox.

Until we get politicians who understand what "Defence of the Realm" is all about, we will continue to have disjointed thinking on this - most vital of all - Government responsibility; with little or no coherent national defence strategy.

"Overseas intervention" by the UK is NOT a vital national defence strategy or, even, a priority, despite the scare stories and tactics re Al Quaida and its splinter groups; our foreign policy tends to invite hostility and that foreign policy is unnecessarily antagonistic to many foreign powers.

We should stop to have a long, joined-up, hard think about where OUR OWN (not America's) vital national interests lie, and formulate our own foreign policy, upon which outcome, we should base our defence strategy.