In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Britain can no longer afford all-round defense: defense secretary

Posted by smeddum on July 24, 2010

“Labor has left us with such a car crash that next year the interest on the national debt will be nearly one and half times the defense budget. That is not sustainable.”, I think this sentence is highly remarkable. Why on earth do they think that any military presence abroad is sustainable?

LONDON, July 23 (Xinhua) — British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said on Friday that Britain’s armed forces faced a budget cut which would mean the country would no longer be able to counter every potential military threat.

Fox said, in an interview with the national daily newspaper The Daily Telegraph, “We don’t have the money as a country to protect ourselves against every potential future threat — we just don’t have it.”

Britain has a strategic nuclear weapons system, based on its four-strong Trident submarine fleet, and maintains a shrinking but powerful navy with the capability to fight globally.

It also has an army with an expeditionary capability, as demonstrated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and still maintains 25,000 troops with regiments of tanks on mainland Europe.

The air force operates with sophisticated fast jets, but Fox’s frank warning comes against the background of massive budget cuts across all areas of British government, except health and foreign aid.

Government departments have been told to prepare for cuts of up to 40 percent in spending, to tackle the record public spending deficit, which this year is set to reach 153 billion pounds (about 240 billion U.S. dollars).

Fox’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) faces cuts of up to 20 percent, and has been a consistent over-spender in the past.

Fox pointed to specific areas where he thought Britain no longer needed a military capability, “We have to look at where we think the real risks will come from, where the real threats will come from and we need to deal with that accordingly. The Russians are not going to come over the European plain any day soon.”

Britain’s heavy tank regiments are largely deployed in barracks in Germany along with other troops totaling about 25,000 men, and Fox’s explicit reference indicates that there is a debate going on about whether they should stay in Germany and whether the army needs as many tanks as it has got.

Fox queried “I would say, what do Challenger tanks (Britain’s main battle tank) in Germany and the costs of maintaining them and the personnel required to train for them, what does that contribute to what’s happening in Afghanistan?”

Fox was also critical of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

“If I had a criticism of the navy it is that it’s been too centered on a high specification end and not had sufficient platform numbers (ships) in a world that requires presence,” he said.

He criticized the air force for operating two different types of heavy transport aircraft, with a fleet based on an expensive third type on order. Do we have to have all these different fleets or can we reduce them down? “Fewer types means less training and fewer spare parts,” Fox said.

The coalition government, formed in the wake of the inconclusive general election of May 6 which saw the Labor party’s 13-year rule ended, has set as it’s main task the cutting of 100 billion pounds (about 150 billion U.S. dollars) from the government budget over the next four years.

This affected the military too, said Fox, “The country is in an economic crisis, defense cannot be exempted from it.”

“Labor has left us with such a car crash that next year the interest on the national debt will be nearly one and half times the defense budget. That is not sustainable.”

The last Labor government initiated a debate about defense at the start of this year that will culminate in a Strategic Defense Review (SDR) that will report before the autumn.

It is the first defense review for 12 years, and will set the path to follow for the coming decades. It is certain to see a radical recasting of Britain’s military capabilities and objectives.

It was revealed at the weekend that Fox is fighting a budget battle with the Treasury, Britain’s Finance Ministry, over who pays the build costs for the replacement of the nuclear-missile- carrying fleet of Trident submarines.

The annual military budget is 37 billion pounds a year (about 60 billion U.S. dollars). Costs of replacing the fleet of four submarines are between 10 and 20 billion pounds (about 30 billion U.S. dollars) over a 10-year period, and the Treasury wants to break precedent and make the MOD foot the bill. This would increase pressure on MOD budgets considerably.

Fox warned military contractors at the Farnborough International Air Show earlier this week that the numbers of warships, aircraft, and armored vehicles would be reduced to save money.

“We must reduce fleet numbers that provide any one capability because we cannot afford the luxury of multiple supply chains and the associated training and infrastructure costs,” he said.

He added “The defense program is entirely unaffordable — especially if we try to do what we need to do in the future while simultaneously doing everything that we’ve done in the past.”

Also earlier this week, the National Audit Office (NAO) released figures showing that the MOD had consistently overspent its budget and was “living beyond its means”.

Amyas Morse, auditor general and head of the NAO, said “A crucial question for the MOD is whether it can use strategic financial management to stop living beyond its means.

“The current strategic defense and security review will provide an opportunity for the MOD to balance its books in the short term. The greater challenge will be to keep spending plans affordable in the longer term.”

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