Defence green paper asks right questions even as the Government suggests wrong answers

Today’s defence green paper asks the right questions on the future of defence policy even as Secretary of State Bob Ainsworth gives support to the wrong answers

Today’s defence green paper, “Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for a Strategic Defence Review”, asks the right questions on the future of defence policy even as Secretary of State Bob Ainsworth gives support to the wrong answers.

Mr Ainsworth called today for “tough choices” in defence spending and warned that in the future Britain would not be able to “insure against every risk”.

Director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Michael Clarke praised the paper for asking “the big questions” about the armed forces’ futures, saying the paper asks:

“What sort of country does the UK want to be in the world? How do we adapt to all the very new challenges?”

He added that:

“The war of 2003 in Iraq was very different to the war in 1991 and the war in Afghanistan is different again. So it’s an attempt to say ‘how do we adapt to these things?’ and what are we trying to do?”

But the paper deserves criticism for its failure to, at the very least, signal a willingness to follow through on these big questions with big answers and so runs the risk of ducking the very “tough choices” that Mr Ainsworth rightly says lie ahead.

Whilst the green paper should not be expected to have detailed what should be cut in the future and what should be kept, the government has already indicated a determination to maintain the major procurement projects like the Joint Strike Fighter, the super-carrier project and Trident.

As Liberal Democrat frontbencher Sarah Teather said on “The World at One” this lunchtime:

“Isn’t it ridiculous to have a strategic defence review and have the only thing not under consideration be the most expensive item – Trident.”

Furthermore, the Government’s fixation with big-ticket spending comes at a cost to less glamorous but nevertheless vital spending like that represented by the Defence College at Shrivenham.

The programme also reported the Government was planning deep cuts down to “just three junior researchers” at the College’s much admired Research & Assessment Office, which has played an impressive behind-the-scenes role in conflict analysis from Russia to the Middle East.

On a broader scale, as a recent RUSI report has said, a failure to address defence spending on large scale procurement projects in a responsible fashion could lead to a 20 per cent cut in the number of armed forces personnel.

Beyond mere talk of “tough choices” and “big questions”, the defence discussion must now move on to detailed answers.

In short, what is now needed is a major debate on Britain’s defence future in which threats, resources and choices are considered in an open and honest fashion and all options and programmes are on the table from future force structure to major procurement spending.

As ippr security expert Andy Hull told Left Foot Forward:

“The Government’s defence green paper properly reflects the evolving global security environment – what is important now though is that the post-election Strategic Defence Review should take place as part of a wider Strategic Review of Security.

“And it should precede multi-billion-pound decisions on the purchase of military hardware – not be pre-empted by them.”

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