Caroline Wyatt: Political challenges of defence future

RAF Typhoon pilot entering cockpit Action over Libya has followed long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq

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Prime Minister David Cameron made little attempt to disguise his irritation with the warnings - private and public - about overstretch which have emerged from both military and political sources over the past months.

Downing Street would like defence chiefs and the MoD to get on with the business of implementing the strategic defence and security review (SDSR)- and the defence cuts within it - without a running commentary on the front pages about low morale or fears for the future.

The worry is that warnings about military overstretch - and the challenges for the armed forces if the campaign in Libya stretches beyond September - are sending the wrong signals to Colonel Gaddafi, who has held out for more than three months despite a vigorous Nato bombing campaign.

However, the campaign in Libya has re-ignited the debate that raged during the SDSR as to how the government could deal with the overall budget deficit and a black hole in the defence budget over the next decade without harming current operations and the armed forces' ability to deal with future contingencies.

Public popularity

As the previous Labour government found to its cost as UK forces fought on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, amid front pages about overstretch and an army "running hot", defence can become an explosive political issue.

Not least when those in uniform tend to be more popular with the public than politicians trying to balance the books or make cuts to public spending.

The then Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition parties helped to highlight the emerging fissures between the military and their political masters under the previous Labour government, such as the row over whether there was a shortage of helicopters in Helmand.

Some former figures in that government now feel those two parties are reaping what they sowed while in opposition in encouraging senior officers and their allies to speak out on defence.

Rising tensions

The coalition in turn is having to deal with the legacy of a military that has spent the best part of a decade doing rather more than it had planned for or the tasks it was funded to deliver, as well as the financial and military consequences of a future MoD orders list of expensive equipment that was not necessarily budgeted for.

Behind the headlines, though, there are real concerns among many in the forces about the resources that will be available to deal with unexpected future crises while operations in Afghanistan and Libya continue.

The tensions that are rising to the surface come over what many perceive as an imbalance between how much is being asked of Britain's shrinking armed forces and the resources available to them over the coming years to achieve those aims.

Among those worries are the fact the UK has an ageing RAF transport fleet which is stretched almost to capacity until replacements are ready, while the ability to fly warplanes from a British aircraft carrier will not be regenerated for almost a decade.

Strategic shocks

The key intelligence capability once provided by the Nimrod R1 will not be replaced for some years, while other potential gaps include a coherent future armoured vehicle programme to replace the current variants being used in Afghanistan.

Cuts to personnel, both uniformed and in the civil service, are also affecting morale in many parts of the services and in the MoD itself.

If a new crisis were to emerge out of the blue in which the UK had to intervene, the warning from many parts of defence is that there will be little left in reserve without careful planning and - by 2015 - a real uplift in defence spending.

By then, either the UK's ambitions on the global stage may have to be scaled down, or the UK's armed forces may need more resources to fulfil those tasks.

Even though the UK remains the fourth largest defence spender in the world, it has used its military forces relatively heavily for some time, and a period of regeneration will undoubtedly be needed if those forces are to be ready to successfully counter any fresh unexpected strategic shocks.

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