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Daily View: Defence spending

Clare Spencer | 09:32 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

David Cameron and Liam Fox in Afghanistan in 2009


Commentators discuss defence spending as a leaked letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Prime Minister David Cameron said he refused to support substantial cuts.

Leo McKinstry insists in the Express that Liam Fox is "absurd" to claim that savings can't be made in the defence budget:

"With a budget for the armed services of more than £44billion, Britain has the third highest level of defence expenditure in the world after the US and China, both global superpowers. Yet even with all this cash the MoD still struggles to deploy a single well-equipped brigade to an overseas war zone. The reason is that the Ministry, like so many public sector bodies, is gripped by a destructive culture of waste, profligacy and incompetence."

Professorial Fellow in British Security Policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies Malcolm Chalmers says in the Telegraph that Liam Fox's letter hints at how difficult the choices that have to be made:

"Some within government continue to argue that most of the required savings can be made through 'efficiency' measures, cutting out waste and restrictive practices without affecting the front line. But such an argument can all too easily be used as an excuse to avoid making choices that are politically difficult."

Author of the Gray Report into Defence Acquisition Bernard Gray suggests in the Times [subscription required] that savings could be made from scrapping Cold War weapons such as expensive aircraft carriers and focusing on "cyber warfare":

"Change is always painful, but using this crisis to reshape Britain's Forces, recast the centre of gravity of the defence industry and boost trade would provide some benefit from an unpleasantly tight corner. It would require setting aside vested interests, and a statesmanlike approach from ministers, the military and industry. From outside, that does not seem to be where we are today. But if the system can rise to the challenge, something may yet be salvaged from wreckage."

Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and author of The Audit Of War, Correlli Barnett argues in the Daily Mail that the UK should stop trying to police the world:

"My solution is simple: let us opt for a minimalist foreign and defence policy suitable for the fifth-ranking economic power - even if it means that our government ministers will no longer able be able go around the world posing as important international figures."

Ex government advisors on industrial policy Nick Butler and Jeffrey Sterling say in the Financial Times [registration required] that Liam Fox's complaint ignored the effect on the engineering industry:

"Some equipment such as armoured vehicles can be bought on the open, international market. But in other areas indigenous industrial capability is essential. The integration and protection of complex information and cryptography, for example, are not skills that can be outsourced. Nor can some advanced weapons systems. Such activities provide huge spin-off benefits from a sector that represents Britain's largest remaining investment in advanced manufacturing and high-level engineering skills."

The Independent's editorial says decisions about defence cuts shouldn't be rushed:

"Dr Fox is justified in complaining about the hasty manner in which this necessary process of finding savings is being carried out, and also the fact that it is being run in tandem with a Strategic Defence Review into the future of Britain's armed forces. The Defence Review, the first since 1998, began immediately after the election in May. But Dr Fox, like all the other Coalition department heads, is being asked to offer savings of more than 20 per cent of his department's budget by the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review, due on 20 October. To demand decisions on such large cuts will, in all likelihood, make a nonsense of the Defence Review."

Conservative MP John Redwood says in the Guardian that Liam Fox's letter exposes the climate of rumour about cuts occurring over the last few months:

"The government has allowed a long period to elapse over the summer when rumours circulated of large and sometimes unacceptable cuts in various budgets. The government itself cannot deny these stories, and will not know the outcome until 20 October, when the chancellor tells the Commons the outcome of the review.
"This allows the opposition to claim that the Tories are just interested in deep and damaging cuts. It allows many working in public service to campaign vigorously to keep spending programmes that may or may not face any real threat. It gives the unions ammunition to plan a campaign of action against changes they do not like."

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