Defence concern as cuts loom

Features editor

D-Day is approaching for public sector cuts: the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review is due in little over a month’s time. Speculation is, of course, rife over where the axe will fall: will projects be trimmed little by little, or are entire big-ticket schemes at risk? Today’s comments from the Commons Defence Select Committee reveal that concerns over the way the review  is being conducted are running even to high levels.

Conservatives tend to be on the side of the cutters, but the head of the select committee, Tory MP James Arbuthnot, has gone public with his group’s worries over the review. It’s being carried out too quickly, he said; its criteria are driven by money, rather than retaining defence capability in the light of current and future operations; and mistakes are likely to be made.

The Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and purchase of Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters could be at risk in the CSR

Defence, of course, isn’t just a matter of military operations. Although many would rather it were otherwise, it’s a major part of the UK’s industrial base and intimately bound up with the country’s engineering sector. And, equally obviously, defence engineering is expensive. This could make it a quick and easy target for the Treasury’s cuts. Stop developing new technology: save a few million.

But these cuts should not be quick or easy. There are important questions of sovereignty — the ability of the UK to be self-sufficient in defence — in these projects. They help industry to retain a leading position in certain technologies, such as the working of titanium and advanced manufacturing techniques. Trimming back might help in the short term with Britain’s deficit, but the price could be paid in the future as expertise and facilities move overseas.

There’s a difference between costs and investment. Rather than being seen as a drain on resources, engineering and technology should be seen as a seed to keep resources coming in. That’s as true in the defence sector as in any other.