Cuts in the best traditions of the Conservative party
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.
18:50BST WED 20 OCT 2010 - ADDITION FROM MARK URBAN RESPONDING TO SOME OF YOUR COMMENTS:
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...