Yesterday the Prime Minister delivered yet another hammer blow to defence in the UK by announcing that the defence budget would not be off limits if further cuts were needed after 2015. Such is the nature of coalition politics that the Conservative party must give some leeway to Liberal Democrat views, which is probably the most likely explanation as to why health and education have been ring fenced for the time being. Perfectly valid arguments about the law of diminishing returns and the danger that the Conservatives are alienating their political base (by continuing with what will hopefully be the last occurrence of coalition politics in my lifetime) have been cast aside in favour of appeasing Nick Clegg and co.
This comes on the back of deep cuts already made in the defence budget over the course of this parliament. It's obvious then in this climate that the MoD needs to find ways to save cash, not least because the more it can save by removing wasteful expense then the less money it will have to be cut from genuinely highly capable and useful areas.
This has been the back drop to defence discourse for the last five or more years now, and so inevitably every discussion about new pieces of equipment or current formations eventually comes back around to the question of cost. And as each year passes and the treasury applies yet more pressure, the discussion surrounding cost becomes more acute and takes up more and more of our time.
But I have a new question today, one which I've been trying to ask for about the last week or two, before I kept getting pulled in other directions; is money really the main thing we should be concerned about when making decisions about defence?
So maybe on a grand scale we have to accept that budget cuts are inevitable. That still leaves scope for discussion on a smaller scale, mainly about what things should be protected regardless of cost. But it also prompts us to think about whether the case can be made back to the treasury that certain things are simply too valuable to the UK to be cut.
"Trident", the catch all name for the provision of the UKs Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD), could be presented as one such example.
My general opinion is that the CASD is a very, very handy thing to have around. If the power were mine to do it, I would like to ring fence the spending on the CASD as a separate program of national importance, with the MoD responsible only for training the crews and exerting operational control and support for it. The cost of the crew; the cost to train them, the cost to pay them, the cost to house and feed them, plus the cost of the construction and immediate support of the vessels would all be paid for outside of the MoD budget.
This to me is something that really ought not to be a cost issue. Unfortunately the government has decided to rope almost the entire costs of replacing the current CASD into the MoD budget, forcing the MoD to make cuts to the conventional forces if it is to accomodate this new spending. It's for that reason alone that I sometimes question whether we could deliver our nuclear deterrent ability in other ways.
Another example of this has been the draw down from Germany. I highly doubt that there is any longer a major risk to the continent of a Russian drive across the Northern Plains. That's not what irks me about the draw down. What makes Germany appealing is the vast areas of training space that it offers. In saving money by bringing forces home (indeed there is a double economy to be had because those forces will now spend their incomes in the UK), I wonder if we are going to lose regular access to significant training areas like those at Sennelager and Bergen-Hohne?
These training areas are very large and provide UK forces with the ability to practice and hone a significant array of capabilities. Do we really feel comfortable then saying goodbye to them in order to save a few quid? It could be argued that the reduction in size of our forces (particularly the armoured aspect) no longer warrants access to this kind of training area, not least because we still retain access to the BATUS facility in Canada, though I'd argue that the distance to BATUS combined with fact that its annual time of use is limited by weather would make it more of a prime candidate for cutting than the training areas in Germany.
Indeed while we're talking about a draw down in armoured forces, there is another area where cost becomes a questionable motive. I've been reading a book that was suggested by a commentator on Think Defence, which contains this very interesting quote, which I think is very apt to our current situation; "Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer, but what wise man pulls down his chimney when his almanac tells him summer is at hand?" (William Cecil, Lord Burghley, 1555).
Quite. The implication being that just because soldiers are of limited value in times of peace, does not mean we can just wholesale rip our armed forces to shreds each time the fighting ends. Like Cecils' Chimneys (catchy nickname), the armed forces are highly likely to be needed again at some point and as such need to be equipped and ready to deploy.
Armoured forces in particular have seen plenty of action in the last few decades, even proving their use in counter insurgency operations. Tearing them down because our politicians cannot envision their future potential smacks of economics being put ahead of recent history.
This question about money also goes right down to the equipment level scale. Think about the Type 45 destroyers for a moment. "Fitted for, but not with" is a common phrase attached to them, as a result of decisions to save money by not equipping the destroyers from the start with Close In Weapons Systems (CIWS), Harpoon anti-shipping missiles, or the 16 Mk.45 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells which they have room for.
As a result the ships were left without a close in defence capability against air attack (that was one of the prime lessons taken from the Falklands experience), they were left without the ability to engage other surface ships at long ranges, and were left without the ability to fire the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), which has been a weapon that has seen significant use across the world since its development.
Now we could go into the cost arguments for these. The threat of a close range air attack was considered quite minimal. The need to fire a missile at another surface ship was considered minimal. And the need to contribute TLAM strikes when we have other strike platforms, including other assets capable of launching TLAM, was deemed less important. Fitting for, but not with, allowed the potential for upgrades in time while reducing initial cost.
But is that really the right way for us to go about an important business like defence? Is it acceptable for example to constrain the ability of our Navy to conduct land attack missions, or to put them at slightly increased risk of attack from the air, just to save a couple of million quid here and there?
When you consider how low our overall stocks of weapons like TLAM are reported to be (under 70 rounds, exact official figures not surprisingly (and thankfully) kept secret), despite the fact that this a weapon system that nearly always forms the vanguard of western military operations in the modern era, you have to wonder whether we are taking this whole money saving thing a little too far?
The military has always been an odd child as far as finance is considered. A point I've made in previous posts is that the economy of defence does not always sit well with modern accounting and management practices, as what would be considered wasteful hoarding of war stock by a private sector company is considered prudent maintaining of reserve munitions by the modern military.
Of course there are certain items on the military books that we have to think twice about. The various parachute display teams of the armed forces might be considered a good start. But in an age of cutbacks and wind downs, we have to start seriously asking ourselves whether saving money is really always the right reason for getting rid of perfectly adequate military personnel and equipment, or to stop us bringing newer, better equipment on board.
Just how much capability are we prepared to sacrifice on the altar of government spending cuts and general "efficiency", especially when other departments get away Scot-free?