BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
« Previous | Main | Next »

Cuts in the best traditions of the Conservative party

Mark Urban | 20:46 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

The Conservatives have a great history of cutting the armed forces - from Duncan Sandys' review in 1957, to John Nott in 1981, Tom King in 1990, and Malcolm Rifkind in 1994.

It's true of course that in the intervening years, the Tories were often cheerleaders for defence, and that Labour made its own cuts - most famously Dennis Healey's review in 1967. But the point remains that the Conservatives have never hesitated to wield the knife, and that it generally has not caused them any great political difficulty.

A notable exception to this was Mr Nott's White Paper of 29 years ago which caused fury in the Royal Navy, and led to the resignation of his Navy Minister. The plan in 1981 involved scrapping a carrier programme, selling the first off the production line, HMS Invincible, and stopping construction of the other two. Less than one year later, the Falklands were invaded, and the carriers reprieved.

Today the government announced the pensioning off of HMS Ark Royal (sister ship of the Invincible) and the last of the three, Illustrious, faces an uncertain future. From now until the expected the anticipated commissioning of the Prince of Wales and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - at least 10 years - the UK will lose the ability to launch jets at sea.

The decision resulted from a tangle of legal and financial considerations whereby the ships must be built because of punitive cancellation charges, the forces must retire the Harrier as soon as possible and the F-35 will not appear for at least a decade. It's a mess that even those close to the decision agree could never be justified on pure policy or strategic grounds.

If the country thinks it is important to be able to launch attacks from its own floating airbases then why lose the capability for the next decade? And if we are able to make do with shore-based aviation in the meantime won't that sink HMS Prince of Wales sooner or later? What chance is today's assessment that such a capability won't be needed for 10 years, likely to survive, when John Nott's didn't even hold good for one?

The carrier issue is just one of the myriad problems facing the MoD in carrying out the Strategic Defence and Security Review. So many other issues have had to be tackled, not least dealing with a £38bn gap between what the ministry had committed itself to, what it can actually afford, and the transformation of the armed forces to meet future threats.

When viewed through the conventional prism - of avoiding cuts - the services have not done as badly as some feared they would. The Army will lose around 7,000 soldiers over and one brigade the next 10 years, coming down to a strength of 94,000. The Royal Navy and RAF will take a proportionately greater cut of 5,000 each and the MoD civil service 25,000.

Hopes though that the review might bring some bold re-deployment of resources towards developing areas of warfare have barely been met. True, there will be an MoD element (as well as a GCHQ one) to the government's new commitment to cyber warfare, and true also that Special Forces will get more money for communications and surveillance.

However the type of bold blueprint called for, for example by Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb and Lt Col Richard Williams (two recently departed officers with enormous operational experience) has not been met. They wanted a wholesale change to the structure of the forces, creation of a new communications architecture, and transformation of the role of the reserve forces.

The future of the reserves, like several other important issues, has not been resolved by today's paper. There is more work to be done - the government's aim of producing a multi-departmental review so soon after its election has in that sense proven too ambitious.

Prime Minister David Cameron signalled today that he had both a greater reluctance to deploy forces operationally than has been the case in recent years, and a desire to restore real increases to the defence budget, assuming an economic upturn from 2015.

What the government needs now is good luck - an absence of events that might expose their judgements to the same scorn as those of John Nott's team in 1981.


Jaunty - your point about the difficulties of ensuring cyber security given the ownership of various telecomms companies and ISPs is very interesting. As we cover this field we will be sure to ask questions about this.

Clusterbombunit - like you, I find the plan to retire the Sentinel surveillance aircraft - bought recently at such great cost - hard to understand. These aircraft fit well with all the current thinking about increasing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance capabilities. At the Whitehall briefing yesterday many questions were asked (about many important and valid issues) but nobody had the chance to ask about the Sentinel decision. Perhaps they don't work as well as was hoped...


  • Comment number 1.

    ..the ships must be built because of punitive cancellation charges, ..

    yes the usual MOD sabotage to ensure the ships are built. However it would still be cheaper to scrap them when you factor in all the sailors required to man them, their training, the berthing and running costs of these white elephants that no one can see a strategic use for.

    MOD procurement has a long history of catastrophes that cannot be mere 'bad luck' but organised sabotage. In the same way people excused the fact MI6 for 20 years never caught a communist spy and all theirs behind the iron curtain were rounded up [because of Philby] as 'bad luck' you do not have 30 years 'bad luck' in procurement. Who is the common thread of 'bad luck' in MOD procurement?

    The dismantling of the UK rhine armoured might encourage the Germans and other EU countries to start pulling their own weight?

  • Comment number 2.

    "The decision resulted from a tangle of legal and financial considerations whereby the ships must be built because of punitive cancellation charges"

    Seems to me that one of the biggest threats to Britain is the military-industrial complex and BAE Systems in particular ... this is plain daft!

    Tail wags dog resulting in completely incoherent and eccentric defence
    'review' .... somebody needs to get a grip and some need to go to jail

  • Comment number 3.

    As for the cyber threat: surely that is an argument for keeping The Royal Mail in public ownership? I also seem to recall that the only
    serious threat to GCHQ in recent years came when the Trent flooded?

    Labour Cabinet Office Minister Douglas Alexander's civil contingencies review had omitted to heed the warnings from the Chief Constable of the
    county in which GCHQ is located that the spooks might need an emergency
    power generator if the river flooded the GCHQ's electricity sub-station.

  • Comment number 4.


    the uk telephone exchanges are run by machines provided by a company run by an 'ex' chinese military intelligence officer. the uk communication system is 'owned'. SIS warned about it a while back but the govt is deaf as usual. Maybe they thought it was them being 'rcist' and 'anti hayek'

    defence against cyber attack is pointless as the uk can never be secure enough given its is nearly the only country in the world that allows strategic services to be in foreign government hands as a hayekian 'good', the plan should be 'lets assume all power, satellite, internet mobile phones are down and no fuel is getting in because other states with bigger navies have diverted it to their countries, how do we manage without them and build up a system from there.

  • Comment number 5.

    this defence review is a ill thought through shambles!
    after waiting ten years we will get one Carrier designed to carry a 35-40 plane air group, but only carrying 12 fixed -wing JSF's? hardly better than the current "Invincible" class carriers and because they have decided on the F-35C, it will take years for the Navy to master the art of CVA operations, whe haven't had a conventional Carrier since the mid seventies.
    the scapping of the Nimrod MRA4, just as it enters service is idiotic, not only is the aircraft a first-class ASW platform and a excellcent long-range SAR plane, but has been designed to operate as a over-land recce aircraft, in the same vein, the withdrawl of the R1 Sentinel Radar Aircraft after military operations are completed in Helmand, denies the RAF a asset that is vital in COIN and Conventional war. Britain was one of the only countries in NATO to have such a capability.
    Likewise the withdrawl of the C-130 ten years early in favour of the A400M is nonsense, the airlifter is too slow and lacks payload to be useful as a Strategic transport, but is to big and expensive to risk as a Tactical troop-carrier!

    The slashing of the Royal Marines in both numbers and amphibious capability last used in 2003, while at the same time retaining the full 3 Parachute capable Regiments, who last conducted a combat jump in 1956 is absurd.
    Despite all the talk of rerolling the Army as a light equipped intervention force, the 3 billion pound FRES order is to go ahead,
    combat vehicles designed for a Mechanized battlefield.
    All in all it seems the defence review is a cost-cutting ploy , dressed up as Strategic Defence Review , heavily influenced by the Army's General staff.
    It will lead to a Armed Forces , overly Army orientated, lacking the ability to protect this Countrys vital interests.

  • Comment number 6.

    the Gaurdian columnist on NN last night was spot on....why do we want to fight everyone?

  • Comment number 7.

    If the government does indeed have a commitment to cyberwarfare then one would hope that this includes an offensive cabability as well. Now that the Navy is losing it's jet cabability for 10 years then we need t be able to wreck the command and control capability of any enemy that threatens our remaining overseas possessions. Israelis used to say that "The best place to defend Israel is in the skys over Cairo" in view of the appalling decisions taken on Tuesday the best place to defend the Falklands may now be in the computers of the Argentinian military.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.