Richard North, 06/04/2005  

Although I included defence in my lighthearted "fantasy politics" post yesterday, I by no means jest when I declare that defence should be higher up on the list of those issues discussed in the general election campaign.

Certainly, to judge from the number of comments posted in response to my two most recent forays into the area, on Michael Howard’s speech and on the MoD decision to buy German trucks, defence is something our readers take very seriously indeed.

As regards the election, The Telegraph provides as good a starting point as any, with the following summary of the main parties (I have ignored the LibDems – they are irrelevant):

Labour: Press ahead with Army restructuring plans to reduce the number of battalions by four and merge or abolish some historic regiments, as part of wider plans to create a more up-to-date, flexible army. Resist privatisation of the Met Office and other MoD support agencies.

Conservative: A Conservative Government would spend £2.7 billion more on frontline defence than the amount planned by Labour. The regiments being lined up for abolition would be saved. Three Type 23 frigates that Labour wants to cut would be retained.
Taking this at face value, the central issue is the reorganisation of the Army, and that is probably the issue of most concern. For sure, there are other issues, such as the fate of the carrier force, the Joint Strike Fighter and the scale of the Tranche II Eurofighter purchases, to name but a few, but we tend to agree that it is the Army reorganisation that is the most politically contentious.

In this context, what Labour is promising are "wider plans to create a more up-to-date, flexible army", while the Conservatives are promising to retain the traditional regiments, and to increase front-line spending, but is stopping short of specifying what the Army would look like, and how it would be equipped, under a Conservative government.

In the absence of detail from the Conservatives, we cannot judge their policy, but, with the benefits of the many comments from readers of this Blog and the continuous research we ourselves have conducted, the one thing of which we are now certain is that the Labour plans for the Army are wrong, dangerous, and expensive.

We have written of these plans many times, identifying the concept with which the government have been toying, as the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), about which we wrote first last July when we asked whether the government was making another blunder of Eurofighter proportions

To recap briefly, what the government is proposing is to re-equip the spearhead formations of the Army around a family of medium-weight, wheeled armoured vehicles, suitable for airborne deployment anywhere in the world, as part of a rapid reaction force.

Inevitably, although this has not been clearly set out, this is part of the overall plan to harmonise with the European Defence Identity and to enable Britain to contribute to what are known as the "Berlin Plus" Headline Goals.

But even in July, we were expressing our reservations about the wisdom of deploying lightly armoured vehicles in high-threat environments, not least because of the widespread availability of hand-held anti-tank weapons (RPG 7s, and the like).

Later in July, we also explored the political implications and by early August were concerned that the government was mortgaging existing capacity to fund a future project of uncertain validity, citing Gerald Howarth, the Conservative shadow defence minister for procurement, who observed that: "We are cutting today's proven capability for jam tomorrow – when we don't even know what the ingredients are or how to cook it".

Our own analysis of the Fallujah battle further reinforced our doubts on the wisdom of running down our conventional forces – and in particular our heavy armour – and then, courtesy of one of our readers, we came across an extraordinary document (long - 166 pages), which largely confirmed our fears.

In particular, the US is already testing the concept on which FRES is based, with the use of wheeled armoured vehicles known as the Stryker, and all objective reports indicate that equipment is flawed, both in concept and in execution – as well as being extremely expensive.

However, if FRES is not the answer, then Labour plans are in disarray. If they are committed to global expeditionary warfare, working as an integral part of the European Rapid Reactionary Force, they have no alternative – no "plan B". They are committed to massive expenditure for something that almost certainly will not work.

The problem for the UK – and also for the Europeans – is that shifting complete formations by air to world trouble spots is not a feasible option. In any serious campaign, there will continue to be a need for heavy armour, and that will require specialist shipping, air support, and a massive logistic train.

That requires more money that the European are prepared to expend, as evidenced from the German defence plans and the more general European attitude towards defence.

In effect, the defence ambitions of the Europeans are "smoke and mirrors" and the Labour government is falling in with them, re-equipping the Army not only for a job it cannot do, but for a job that cannot be done.

That then leaves the central questions – what can the Army do, and what should it do? Beyond its traditional tasks of Home Defence and support of the civil authorities, do we want to participate in expeditionary warfare and if so, are we prepared to pay the price to maintain an independent capability, or will we work only with one or more allies?

Almost certainly, we cannot – or will not – afford an independent capability, in which case our choices and policy options are constrained by the objectives of potential allies, and their own commitment to this kind of warfare. In essence, that boils down to a choice between working with the ill-equipped and wholly inadequate Europeans, or working with the more capable US forces.

However, they also have their own limitations and faults and while we have commonalities of interests with the US, we also have our differences, which means that the "special relationship" must be reviewed in the context of our own national interest.

The general issue of the special relationship I raised in October, as going to the heart of our defence planning, about which, we have observed, there has been all too little debate.

With a general election campaign now on, we should be having that debate. Somehow, I suspect that this Blog is the only place where we will get any serious input. But then, I could be wrong.

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