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Antonia Cox: What the aircraft carrier delays tell us about Labour’s defence failures

Cox_antonia Antonia Cox is a leader writer at the London Evening Standard, author of the Policy Exchange defence publication The Best Kit, and on the Conservative Candidates List.

The biggest ships the Royal Navy has ever ordered will enter service at least a year or two late. Despite MoD promises of “minimal implications to jobs”, the announcement by Defence Secretary John Hutton yesterday must have been a painful one for Gordon Brown. Back in July, the Scottish media were told of a “dream come true”; £3 billion order for the two aircraft carriers. This would secure or support 10,000 jobs in the Clyde yards, where the Prime Minister’s father once ministered to the poor, along with 1,600 at Rosyth, next door to the Prime Minister’s own constituency. Now, the estimated £1.5 billion hole in the MOD budget means the announcement -  which also included some bad news for other projects - could be followed by further delays or cutbacks. The shipyard unions will not be happy with Mr Brown.

More importantly, the news highlights both Labour’s failures in defence and also the scope for the Conservatives to offer a much better thought out defence policy that would support our armed forces as they deserve, despite intense spending pressures.

Labour cannot deny the aircraft carriers are essential. In a world of changing threats to British interests, the ability to conduct expeditionary warfare is vital. Terrorists and threats to the shipping that still carries much of our trade can come from anywhere, not necessarily places where there are allies nearby to offer airbases or passage through air space. Anyone who heard how the Somali pirate attacks drove up the oil price can see that.

So we need carriers. Delaying one or both is as much of a betrayal of our security in the future as is the Government’s inability to equip the army properly for the wars it is fighting now. That chronic underinvestment prompted the resignation most recently of Major Sebastian Morley, commander of D Squadron, 23 SAS, as well last year’s “winter of discontent” among generals led by Sir Richard Dannatt.

What would the Conservatives do instead? On entering office, they would immediately conduct a Strategic Defence Review, something which, despite the world-changing events of 9/11 and more recently the Madrid, London and Mumbai bombings, Labour has not done since 1998. A “New Chapter” update took place in 2002 but, shamefully, not the root-and-branch rethink demanded by service chiefs.

This is particularly damaging for the supply of the equipment on which modern forces depend. Modern weaponry, satellites and other equipment is so complex that lead times for design and production are many years long. The defence industry needs some idea of priorities or it will neither invest nor train enough experts to build what the military needs.

Another part of the strategic planning task is also to decide which allies matter most. Tony Blair spun fantasies of European co-operation in defence. But EU countries spend much less of their budgets on defence than Britain does, while some countries’ aspirations to sell their defence industries’ output to China and other potentially hostile powers creates huge obstacles to sharing technology. A Conservative government would use joint procurement to get better value for money, but on a intergovernmental basis, not an EU-wide one.

Another part of the task is deciding what military know-how needs to be retained within the UK because we cannot rely on buying it from allies, and separating that from equipment needs that can put out to global competition.  This must-have know-how – supporting “sovereign capability” -  includes encryption and nuclear technologies. The category may include much other know-how  which we need in order to operate and upgrade planes and weapons even if they are built elsewhere. Labour’s Defence Industrial Stategy failed to produce a proper definition of appropriate sovereignty. However, Liam Fox is well aware that this must be done at an early stage. He has devised ways of incorporating the sovereign capability question into MOD procurement procedures. If there is no such requirement, then any defence supplier can compete to offer the best performance and value for money for the taxpayer.

The Conservatives would also place a formal duty on chiefs of staff to keep forecasting what they need in terms of equipment and when. That would it politically harder to get away with the kind of delays and cost over-runs Labour has presided over on the Type 45 destroyer and the Astute submarine.

Labour is spinning the carrier decision as merely an adjustment to a programme most people don’t realise we need, covering it up by announcing an order for Future Lynx helicopters even though, as Douglas Carswell MP has pointed out, these are probably the wrong choice. But I suspect Conservative activists won’t be fooled. Most I meet know very well that defence matters, and so does energy security. I don’t think they will miss the significance of Mr Brown’s latest retreat.


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