Liam Fox: the Armed Forces cannot take another five years of Labour
Speaking in today’s House of Commons debate on Labour’s record on defence, Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox said:
“With the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) New Labour got off to a relatively good start with the Armed Forces.
The 1998 SDR was a well respected document. Moreover, it used a foreign policy baseline—not a treasury baseline— as many of its predecessors had done.
I believe that this was, and is, the right way of conducting such a review.
However, failing to have a review for more than 12 years means that our Armed Forces and Government across Whitehall for that matter failed to adapt to the increasingly changing global security situation.
The events of 9/11 fundamentally changed the international security environment and the aftermath of Iraq made the planning assumptions of the SDR largely obsolete.
Looking back we can also see that the review’s ambitions were never matched with funding. This has meant that for 12 years our Armed Forces have been operating well beyond what they were resourced to do.
The truth is that the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, was never willing to fully fund Tony Blair’s wars. This sad same story has been retold, time and time again, during the Chilcot Inquiry.
As the Rt Hon Member for Ashfield stated during the Chilcot Inquiry, within the MoD there was:
‘quite a strong feeling that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was not fully funded’ and that ‘in the subsequent CSR programmes, we asked for significantly more money than we eventually received’.
Sir Kevin Tebbit said that as Permanent Secretary he had to operate in a permanent crisis budget.
Former CDS Lord Walker said that the SDR was ‘underfunded by well into a billion pounds’.
In a final piece of spin of his premiership Tony Blair said that “defence spending has remained broadly stable at 2.5% of GDP - if you take into account Iraq and Afghanistan”.
In other words, much of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan was being carried by the core defence budget. The truth is the Ministry of Defence was fighting two wars on peacetime budget.
The Treasury’s unwillingness to fully fund the MoD’s 1998 SDR meant big losers across defence and a degrading of our capability.
Just look at the Royal Navy.
Time and time again, since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, our Navy has been blackmailed into accepting cuts to its fleet to ensure the eventual addition of the two new carriers.
During the 1998 SDR process, our Navy agreed to cut its fleet of 12 attack submarines to 10 and its fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates to 32 - in return for the promise of the two carriers.
A decade later we find our Navy with only 8 attack submarines (with a possible future reduction to only 6 or 7) and an astonishingly low 22 destroyers and frigates.
Maritime commitments have not decreased since 1998 but have risen at a time when our Navy has been slashed, mothballed, and in some cases, sold off.
There is a similar pattern to be found across all three services—including the Reserves.
Iraq and Afghanistan
The Government’s failure to fully fund their SDR is only one item in a long litany of failures.
The true story behind the invasion of Iraq is now being told. I’m sure the whole country is looking forward to the Prime Minister’s testimony this Friday.
But what is already known is shocking.
Not only did this Government fail to plan properly for post-conflict Iraq, it is now well known—what most of us suspected all along— that troops were sent into Iraq without the proper equipment.
We now know that during the early planning phases of the Iraq war, the then CDS, Lord Boyce, was blocked by the Defence Secretary from organising crucial logistics in case it sent the wrong political message that we were preparing for war.
At Chilcot Lord Boyce said:
‘I was not allowed to speak, for example, to the chief of defence logistics…I was prevented from doing that by the Defence Secretary because of the concern of it becoming public knowledge that we were planning for a military contribution, which might be unhelpful in the activity in the UN to secure a security council resolution.’
Sending troops into harm’s way without the proper kit for domestic political concerns is a serious breach of the military covenant.
You would have thought that the Government would have learned from its failures in Iraq to ensure that we were prepared for our mission in Helmand.
But once again the Government failed to understand the situation and sent our forces into a hornet’s nest without the proper resources to carry out what they were being asked.
An Army Board of Inquiry into the death of Captain James Philippson in 2006 found that there were delays in the delivery of basic equipment and this was partly ‘because the MoD and the Treasury were unwilling to commit funds to Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) enhancements prior to any formal political announcements’.
This Government was sleep walking into Helmand Province by only initially sending 3,300 troops. The Brigade Commander in 2006, Brigadier Ed Butler, has made clear that the 3,300 soldiers were deployed initially as a result of “a Treasury imposed cap”—not as part of an objective analysis of the situation on the ground.
The shortage of key equipment in Helmand, especially helicopters, has been well documented and, in part, has led to a number of high profile military resignations including: Colonel Stuart Tootal, Brigadier Ed Butler, Major Sebastian Morley, and Major General Andrew Mackay.
Procurement and Waste
Perhaps the biggest failure by the Government and its conduct of defence is with its mismanagement of the equipment programme.
The defence and security of the United Kingdom is increasingly being run on a wing and a prayer and, as the money has failed to materialise for the unfunded projects so they are delayed and delayed with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and the military left to ponder their absent capabilities.
The default position should be “spend to save” not “delay to spend”. Speedy procurement saves money. This is something the Government has failed to understand.
Unfortunately, if half of what was reported in the Gray Review is true, the next government will not only have the task of balancing defence priorities between the conflict we face today and wars of tomorrow but will also have the challenge of putting back on track a decade of mismanagement and neglect of the MoD's finances.
Labour came to power with a promise to introduce ‘smart procurement’ which would deliver equipment ‘faster, cheaper, [and] better’ but nothing could be further from the truth.
We don’t know when the election will come. There have been rumours that it could be announced today. I doubt it personally. If the PM was any more of a serial bottler he could start a factory.
The Government in office after the election, whenever it comes, will find itself with a military that is overstretched, undermanned and in possession of worn out equipment.
We know that the equipment programme is underfunded—by exactly how much is anyone’s guess but most estimates measure the total in billions of pounds.
Bernard Gray placed the figure at £16bn over the next ten years. This equates to unfunded liability of £4.4 million per day.
The plunging value of the pound alone has left an estimated £1.3bn black hole in Britain's defence budget.
According to the most recent figures available by the NAO the top 15 major procurement projects are £4.5 billion over budget and are delayed in total by 339 months.
The A400M aircraft is £657 million over budget and will be delayed by 82 months.
The Type 45 Destroyer is £1.5 billion over budget and will be delayed by 38 months.
The Aircraft carriers more than £1 billion over budget. The service entry date for the first carrier has been delayed from 2012 to 2016.
The decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4bn— in the middle of two wars—was inexcusable, irresponsible and irreconcilable with the basic duty to maximise the safety of our troops while carrying out a dangerous mission.
In the words of the former Defence Secretary, the Rt Hon Member for Ashfield, told the Chilcot Inquiry:
“Had the budget had been spent in the way we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now.”
Due to this failed procurement programme billions of pounds have been needlessly wasted—money that could have gone to equipping our frontline troops.
The MoD’s record of waste is staggering:
£2.5 billion spent on external consultants. But they couldn’t find £20 million to train the TA.
£2.3 billion is being spent on MoD Refurbishment. But they couldn’t find £4m for OTC training.
£6.6 billion wasted because of lost equipment which includes, among other things, 3,938 Bowman radios and an untold number of laptops. £113 million wasted on a super hanger for fast jet repair that was never used. £118 million wasted on armoured vehicle cancellations. £8 million lost on training courses cancelled. And almost a quarter of a million pounds on works of art to hang on the walls of Main Building.
How can all this be allowed to happen? It is a picture of serial incompetence and a lack of grip by Ministers on their department.
New Labour’s deluded belief that we could all live beyond our means indefinitely has produced an economic train crash whose effects will be felt for a generation.
The enduring legacy of New Labour’s brand of socialism has been to saddle us with cradle to the grave debt.
They will leave office not only having failed in their duty to properly support our Armed Forces in conflict but the economic calamity they leave in their wake will make the task of rebuilding our security in a dangerous world all the more difficult.
Put simply Mr Speaker, it can’t go on like this. Our Armed Forces cannot take another five years of Labour.
The damage this Government has done to our Armed Forces will take years to put right and will limit our ability to react to the unexpected for years to come.
It should come as no surprise. This Government’s decade of neglect simply reflects the way its leadership views defence.
We have had individual Defence Secretaries who have been both competent and committed to the Armed Forces but we have had four defence secretaries in four years—one of whom was part time even though we were heavily engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current defence secretary in ranked 21 out of 23 in the Prime Minister’s cabinet even though Afghanistan is supposed to be a priority of this Government.
Besides using the Armed Forces as props in a photo shot the Prime Minister has never shown much interest in the Armed Forces.
Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Guthrie described the Prime Minister as ‘the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer as far as defence was concerned’.
In 2004 we now know that the Service Chiefs came close to resigning en masse.
The Prime Minister’s instinctive lack of interest in the armed forces has been compounded by incompetent procurement and failure to fully fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakening of the military covenant with many in the armed forces feeling undervalued.
Perhaps we should have known this back in 2000 when Lord Mandelson described the Brigade of Guards as 'a lot of chinless wonders marching round Horseguards Parade doing incomprehensible things with flags'.
Well, since 2001 63 members of the Household Division have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That senior members of the Government even think like Lord Mandelson is chilling and it gives us a glimpse into how some of them really view our Armed Forces. I doubt if any member of the Government frontbench could defend those views today.
Our Armed Forces are, in the words of the Leader of the Opposition, the “best of British”. That is why the words of the CGS in his recent memorandum echo so resonantly.
“My greatest concern…is the deteriorating experience of soldiers and their families in the period between tours which, the team reports, is disaffecting attitudes, damaging morale and risks undermining our ability to sustain the campaign over the next years. We need our soldiers to be ready, mentally and physically, to endure repeated tours in Afghanistan in a harsh environment, with the real prospect of significant casualties each time. To maintain the necessary morale and cohesion they must see tangible signs between tours that they and their families are valued.”
This is it—they need to be valued. Labour have had 13 years and failed to understand the value, the essence, and the importance of the military covenant.
It is a dangerous world. This Government is tired. The MoD and our Armed Forces need a new vision and new life that only a new Government has the energy to provide.”