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Defence cuts described as "unforgivable" by retired military chief in Lords debate

The Coalition's Defence Review came under attack in the Lords yesterday. Some highlights below.

Baron Craig of Radley, former Marshal of the RAF, described the cuts as "unforgivable":

"Regrettably, yet again, defence is viewed by a Chancellor as a soft option for belt tightening. That was understandable in the years of the Cold War, but unforgivable when we have had forces fighting hard in Afghanistan for eight years, with the prospect of being heavily committed there for a further four years. The Prime Minister and other senior Ministers say that they wish Britain to continue punching above its weight in the world and that they have no less ambition for this country in the decades to come. I do not cavil at this aspiration, but is it not totally wrong not to fund the forces that may be necessary to fulfil that ambition? The withdrawal of HMS "Ark Royal" and the remaining Harriers squanders the Fleet Air Arm's future in the fixed-wing carrier role. Scrapping the Nimrods even before they had entered service and reducing frigates and destroyers to a mere 19 vessels, collectively blows an enormous hole in national maritime capability which we shall be living with, on present plans, for the next decade and beyond. This gap in capability could endanger national security more than any reduced commitment to land operations."

Admiral Lord Boyce, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy and Chief of the Defence Staff, attacked the decision to scrap the Harrier jump jet:

450-Harrier_GR7_Farnborough"The underlying rationale in the review for disposing of this aircraft, which gives the carrier its strike capability until the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter, is this:

"The Government believes it is right for the UK to retain, in the long term, the capability that only aircraft carriers can provide-the ability to deploy airpower from anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential".

What a desperate expression of hope over bitter experience. The people serving on the National Security Council must have been asleep for the past dozen years or so. We have no problem today because we have no emerging crisis. That can change in days, as it did for Sierra Leone, as it did in 2001 and as it did in 2003, to take the most recent significant examples where some so-called friends and allies, let alone neutrals, prevaricated endlessly over or even denied our overflying rights and host-nation support. We cannot even fly direct from Cyprus to Kandahar today. The review goes on to say, "that is why we have taken the decision to retire the Harriers early", but that absolutely does not stand up to any serious analysis or judgment of history. The reason, pure and simple, is to save money. The Government should have the moral courage to say so and admit to the enormous gamble that they are taking."

Boyce continues. defending the usefulness versus the Tornado:

"The Harrier GR9 is a relatively modern aircraft, not 40 years old as deviously implied in the review. It is significantly more modern than the Tornado - for all its virtues mentioned by my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig - against which it is compared and which will cost around £2.5 billion to modernise. So far as the close air support role in Afghanistan is concerned, if you speak to those on the ground at the very sharp end, especially the forward air controllers, as I have done recently, there is no question but that the Harrier is their aircraft of choice, not least because of its speed of response and reliability. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lee, was right to say that we need both the Harrier and the Tornado in the interim before 2020."

Defence Minister Lord Astor concluded the debate with a number of defences of the Government's position:

On the Harrier and defending the Falklands: "Retiring the Harrier is not something that any of us wanted to do-I am sure that that is true of all noble Lords-but tough but fair decisions had to be made in the SDSR. Retaining Tornado allows us to sustain operations in Afghanistan and maintain contingent airpower capabilities, in addition to the role of UK air defence. The Tornado fleet will gradually draw down over the course of a decade, phased to ensure that there is no impact on operations in Afghanistan and linked to the build-up of the Typhoon. It is simply not the case that decommissioning the Harrier and HMS "Ark Royal" will impact on our ability to defend territories in the south Atlantic. We are not complacent about this. We maintain a wide range of assets to ensure the defence of the Falkland Islands and are able to respond to any and all threats."

On aid spending: "Several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Sterling, Lord Chidgey, Lady Tonge and Lord Bates, mentioned conflict prevention and overseas aid. By 2015, one-third of the aid budget will be spent on conflict prevention. We will provide support for fragile states whose instability has consequences for the safety of the United Kingdom. If we do not tackle the root causes of pandemics, climate change and conflict, we will spend far more in the future trying to deal with the consequences. Delivered effectively, aid is good value for money. Each £1 spent on conflict prevention generates more than £4 in savings on conflict response."

Overall: "The SDSR is not a cosmetic exercise; it contains many tough but fair choices that are essential if we are to have a coherent and affordable strategy. The campaign in Afghanistan has been protected, and the decisions that we have made will ensure that we maintain our strategic influence and also provide us with the capabilities that we require for the future. Above all, they guarantee that the United Kingdom continues to play a proud and active role in shaping a more stable world."


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