A former Head of Britain’s Armed Forces has warned that the Ministry of Defence is not fit for purpose. In a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank considered the options for the looming Strategic Defence Review, due after the General Election.
Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff during the last Strategic Defence Review in 1998, and thus has much experience of working through the trying process of a Review.
Guthrie outlined three options:
- to give the defence budget a large increase (unlikely)
- to make large cuts, particularly to equipment programmes, and ruthlessly to prioritise
- Third to do nothing (impossible)
Guthrie said, “The second option is the only realistic choice. There is actually a very good case for increasing defence spending although alas there appears very little hope of this happening whatever Government appears after the next election.”
Like all other Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, Guthrie advocates his own service. This is not un-natural. The key thrust of his speech seems to be that the Army must be protected at all costs, as current and future threats point to a need for more troops, not less. In Guthrie’s opinion, savings should be found in ‘nice to have, but non-essential’ assets such as the huge purchase of Eurofighters, 2 large new aircraft carriers and the need to renew the Strategic Nucear Deterrent. While the Admirals and Air Marshals will cry foul, in hindsight (always a wonderful thing) they set themselves up for cuts by ordering such expensive programmes at all.
I believe that Guthrie is correct with his ‘nice to have, but not essential’ theory. It would be nice if we could a vast fleet and an air armada, but in challenging economic times we cannot afford to be all things to all people. In the same manner, we cannot afford to plan accurately for every future threat that we may face, and we should especially not try to do this at the expense of current conflicts. The irony is, that failure in current conflicts would seriously affect the future wars in any case.
Aside from talking about the Armed Forces, Guthrie also posed serious questions about the MOD itself. “Dr John Reid, when he moved from Defence to the Home Office questioned whether it was fit for purpose. Could he have asked the same question about the MoD?” The mishandling of procurement in particular does suggest that large parts of the MOD are unfit and inefficient. And if the ‘front-line’ services have to face cuts, surely the MOD should contract in line with them?