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Defence Select Committee warns that defence cuts are causing "strategic shrinkage"

By Tim Montgomerie
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He may have given everything he had - jeopardising relations with Cabinet colleagues in the way he fought to limit defence cuts - but Liam Fox faced close to mission impossible when he agreed to be Defence Secretary. Ingredient one of his mission was a military exhausted by the Iraq and Afghan campaigns. Ingredient two was the fact Labour had made our armed forces fight those wars on peacetime budgets. Ingredient three was massive over-runs and inefficiency in procurement budgets, adding up to a £43 billion black hole. Four was the huge budget deficit bequeathed by Labour. Five was the Tory leadership's decision to ring fence big budgets like the NHS and many universal pension benefits, meaning cuts would fall even more deeply on non-protected budgets. Six was the Coalition's controversial decision to undertake new campaigns, notably Libya.

This morning, in a hard hitting report the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons has decided that Fox's mission impossible is indeed impossible. The Committee's Chairman, James Arbuthnot MP, has concluded that the need for savings has overridden "the strategic security of the UK and the capability requirements of the Armed Forces." On Comment today, John Glen MP, one of the Committee members, tells ConservativeHome readers that he fears co-operation with allies won't be enough to fill the gaps left by the funding squeeze. In their most memorable phrase the Committee warns of "strategic shrinkage" in the years ahead. There is direct criticism of the Prime Minister with the Committee stating "The Prime Minister's view that the UK currently has a full spectrum capability is rejected by the Committee."

The newspapers, as the headlines above attest, are gloomy about the strategic future of Britain's armed forces but Liam Fox perseveres. Rather naughtily The Telegraph quotes very little of his statement on the DSC's report. In fact the Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, gets slightly more space. Here is Dr Fox's statement in full, including reference to the £3bn extra equipment spend that the MoD will receive after 2015:

"The Labour Government negligently failed to conduct a Defence Review for 12 years, resulting in an equipment programme that was woefully unaffordable. A multi-billion pound deficit was plaguing Defence and tough but necessary decisions had to be taken. As the Committee rightly acknowledges, dealing with the deficit was a national security imperative.

“The Committee is also right to say that Future Force 2020 is only achievable with extra funding. That is why I announced two weeks ago that the military equipment budget will rise in real terms by over £3BN between 2015 and 2020, with new helicopters being ordered, new money for our armoured vehicles, the Carrier programme and guaranteed spending on the Joint Strike Fighter. Our future equipment programme is no longer an unfunded aspiration but one that provides real money for real equipment.

"We continue to have the fourth largest military budget in the world and the SDSR has put Defence back on a stable footing with highly capable Armed Forces and certainty for our personnel and their families.

“I am pushing through radical reform to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

“As we have seen in the U.S., no country is immune to the global financial problems and even the world’s biggest military power is now grappling with how to make Defence cuts and reform for the future.”

This is clearly not a happy time for the government. It is doing good things in education, welfare and local government but most grassroots Tories will be unhappy that a Conservative Prime Minister is presiding over the smallest army since Victorian times and the biggest government and tax burden since Attlee.

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