No defence for the status quo

Labour promises to review defence spending and procurement. But whoever wins the election will need to take some hard decisions on Britain’s priorities

The defence industry is looking at the implications of a possible defence review under Labour should the party win at the polls. It could lead to major changes in how weapons are procured.

Labour’s defence procurement spokesman, John Spellar, has said the MoD `needs to be clearer about its medium to long-term view of forces requirements’ and `to be more open with industry’. The process should be streamlined, with the policy of endless requests for `best and final offers’ in bidding reassessed, he believes.

Labour has said a lot about the rationale for a review. Shadow defence secretary Dr David Clark has denied suggestions that it would be led by the Treasury, rather than an assessment of Britain’s position in the world. He believes a review agreed by the whole Cabinet would strengthen his hand.

Spending levels for the next two years, set by the Conservatives and accepted by Labour, would include defence. Labour leader Tony Blair has said: `It would be dishonest to promise to reverse the cuts in defence spending which the current Government has made.’

Clark has tried to nail a Conservative accusation that Labour’s commitment to Eurofighter 2000 is not firm by writing last week to German defence minister Volker Ruhe. He said that under Labour Britain would acquire at least 232 Eurofighters. It seems that he wanted to leave the Germans in no doubt as to Labour’s commitment and not give them an excuse for further delays.

This may have served the purpose of keeping Germany on board, but how will Labour justify buying 232 aircraft when only nine squadrons of Tornado F3s and Jaguars need to be replaced? The figure seems high and might well come in for critical examination under a review.

Besides Eurofighter, Labour has been careful to avoid making specific commitments to this or that project. It says maintaining Britain’s peacekeeping capabilities is essential. This might suggest Labour would maintain spending on mobile forces. Outstanding decisions affecting these forces include proposals to rebuild two amphibious landing ships – jobs which are potentially worth £40-£60m each.

Another pending decision affecting mobile forces is whether or not to buy, or lease, a squadron of McDonnell Douglas C-17 transport aircraft for the RAF. Clark has made generous statements about the now nearly moribund European FLA transport. He will have a tough job trying to balance acquiring a few C-17s now, versus maybe 25 or more FLAs later.

Clark has referred with some warmth to the Anglo-American Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which might provide a replacement for the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers. He may be keen to stay in JSF – Britain is so far committed to £200m of development funding – in order to impress the Americans and keep up Britain’s end in `two-way street’ procurement deals.

While Labour has committed itself to peacekeeping, and hence mobile forces, Britain remains weak in this field, says Brigadier Bill Kincaid, former director, operational requirements land at the MoD, and now a defence analyst.

`We have a defence budget of £22bn, but what can we put in the field – a few brigades, the units in Northern Ireland, a few RAF squadrons and a few frigates and submarines? We’re not getting value for money.’ Kincaid believes many senior officers might even welcome a defence review.

Labour is not alone in its fears that Britain is spreading itself too thinly. Commander Michael Chichester, looking at defence options for a fifth Conservative term, suggested in a paper for the UK Defence Forum think-tank that Eurofighter orders might be cut. He also suggested ending the commitment to keep an army division in Germany.

Labour insiders say this commitment will be the subject of rigorous review, with potential implications for the size of future orders for army requirements such as the Tracer and MRAV armoured vehicles. It is known that its defence team has received proposals for a new army division with five brigades, which would be better suited for the kind of mobile warfare likely in the post-Cold War world.

Beyond this, there are several pending headaches for Labour if it comes to power.

One is how to cope with the uncertainty surrounding the Project Horizon frigate. A longer-term worry will be how to balance funding for the proposed replacement for the RAF’s Tornado strike aircraft with continued long-term funding for plans to replace the navy’s aircraft carriers.

Clark will certainly have his work cut out for him if his next stop is the MoD.

By George Paloczi-Horvath