Realigning the strategic and the urgent in defence spending
Two things struck me about today's ministerial statement on defence spending. This was a major announcement, reprioritising the MoD's resources to provide 22 more Chinook helicopters, doubling the number of Reaper drones available to troops in Afghanistan, plus tooling up the army with the kit they have been presumably been asking for: more body armour, night-vision sensors, robot devices for detecting and defusing roadside bombs.
The first thing that struck me was the speed with which the Labour back benches cleared as Bob Ainsworth rose to speak. I did not spot any other cabinet minister alongside him and in background was a sea of green leather. The opposition benches were swarming with MPs all too ready to lay into the government and the Treasury, which has asked Mr Ainsworth to cut from core spending to meet urgent requirements in Afghanistan.
Mr Ainsworth, the fourth Defence Secretary since 2006, is finding out how lonely it is to be making these tough decisions. But in truth he is only trying to deal with a long-term legacy: Britain has been trying to run an army, navy and air force at the scale of a major global power, equipped for big war - at the same time as fighting counter-insurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, peacekeeping in various parts of the world, and maintaining commitments to NATO in Germany, and the European Union.
Successive governments have recognised the problems for defence procurement this dilemma poses - but struggled to do anything about them.
Today a NAO report flayed the governement for "saving" money by delaying projects, which then end up costing much more. It showed that the MoD faces a potential gap in funding of £36bn - between what it's decided to buy and how much money it has to spend. And that's only if the next government does not actually cut defence spending.
Everybody I've spoken to today recognises that there's an urgent need for a Strategic Defence Review. All parties are pledged to having one - but it will not be the same kind of exercise as Labour's initial review, in 1998.
Today some very tough choices are being posed acutely, as demonstrated by the issue of what kind of wheeled armoured vehichles the army needs, and when.
The Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles rushed into service in Afghanistan represent, at one level, an effective response to a new threat - the Taliban's turn to IEDs. But at a strategic level, as it committed troops to Helmand, the MoD was also in the middle of a long-term project to re-equip the army with a whole new range of wheeled vehicles, known as FRES, and based on a system popular in European armies known as the Piranah 5. In May 2008, General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the defence staff said:
"Whilst our Protected Personnel Vehicles such as Mastiff are a very successful addition to meet specific operational requirements in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is the FRES medium weight capability which will allow the Army to conduct a considerably wider range of operations in an uncertain and changing world. I am therefore delighted that we are maintaining progress on this vital programme."
But progress has stalled. The main phase of FRES has been scaled back, indefinitely, with only the most urgently required "Specialist Vehicles" (engineering, recce and ambulances) now in development. In part it was due to disagreements with contractor, General Dynamics: but in part, as John Hutton implied in a commons statement last December, it was a victory of the urgent over the strategic:
"We have concluded that, in the context of current operations, and bearing in mind the considerable recent investment in protected mobility, the highest priority should now be accorded to delivering the Warrior capability sustainment programme and the FRES scout vehicle as quickly as possible." (the Warrior being the army's existing tracked armoured fighting vehicle).
The fate of the wider FRES programme will be decided in the Strategic Defence Review, but note the change of emphasis: a year ago the chief of staff was saying - Mastiff good, big new next-generation vehicle designed from scratch much better. One armour brigadier was quoted on the MoD website proclaiming: "FRES represents the equipment heart of the future Army". Now the emphasis is make do and mend: "good-enough solutions" as they are called in business.
I have often wondered why it is so difficult for military planners and politicians to make these tough choices in the context of geo-political, strategic and military priorities. But that question was partially answered by the other thing that struck me in the Commons today.
At a certain point during the debate on the MoD budget the House of Commons filled up again. MPs on both sides were keen to speak. What they were keen to speak on was the future of specific projects that guaranteed jobs in their own constituencies - the Conservatives tending to be worried about RAF bases; Labour - and above all Scottish Labour - tending to be delighted at the assurances that the aircraft carrier building programme is safe.
It was a reminder that, for successive governments, defence procurement has been about jobs - and the retention of strategically vital skills in the UK. The idea that the UK should buy more off-the-peg equipment and reinvent the wheel less has been seen as heretical. Yet in Afghanistan - with the Mastiff, the Reaper drones and now with the new Chinooks, which will not be built in the UK - off the peg is what we've got.
As for the future of the Queen Elizabeth II Class carriers, the Joint-Strike Fighter, Trident and various other big-ticket bespoke items: these are certain to become major political flashpoints as politicians face up to the reality of the gap between taxation and spending.