Labour and Tories not listening to new thinking on defence

Tuesday night's Newsnight defence debate demonstrated the gulf between Labour and the Tories’ steadfast defence of the status quo and the voices for change.

Tuesday night’s Newsnight defence debate, “A fighting future“, demonstrated the gulf between steadfast defence of the status quo by Labour and the Tories, and the voices for change from outside the political bubble. Veterans, defence experts and third parties all called for a reappraisal in the most stark terms of what Britain’s military mission should be in the 21st century and what resources are required.

Both defence secretary Bob Ainsworth and his shadow Liam Fox reasserted their commitment to the renewal of Trident, but as Newsnight’s defence correspondent Mark Urban said:

“The things the armed forces are least likely to need are the most expensive – Trident is the biggest and best example.”

This in turn begs the question of how can the UK continue to maintain a full spectrum warfare defence capability that covers all eventualities (land, sea, air and nuclear) at a time when both our forces and our budget are severely overstretched?

Throughout the debate the defence establishment struggled to make the case for the status quo as exemplified by former Air Chief Marshall Sir Clive Loader’s plaintive defence of the decsion to invest billions in the Joint Strike Fighter on the grounds that air superiority fighters are needed “to deter the unknown risks of the future” despite his own admission that the last RAF dogfight was during the Falklands war.

Critisicm of the status quo came from both right and left with conservative columnist Simon Jenkins arguing that:

“The game is up: our distorted defence commitment means we have the wrong kit.”

But it was Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey who reframed the Trident renewal debate, saying that rather then a false choice between Britain as a nuclear power today or unilateral nuclear disarmament tomorrow:

“This nuclear deterrent (Trident) keeps us a nuclear power for another 20 years, the decision is whether we want one for 30 years after that.”

Adding to the pressure on Trident renewal was yesterday’s comments by Conservative party defence adviser Sir Richard Dannatt that:

“It [Trident] might not be right in 5 or 10 years time.”

In response, defence expert Ian Kearns, a senior fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, said:

“General Dannatt’s comments are potentially significant because they recognise that we are at a moment of strategic flux. We could move into a world where there are many more states with nuclear capability; or we could be moving into one where there is significant nuclear disarmament.

“What the UK should do is give itself the maximum amount of time and flexibility to judge the situation before it sinks billions into the submarine contracts for Trident.”

The most poignant note of the debate was raised by veteran’s campaigner Dianne Dernie who expressed her concern that the government was making available “huge sums of money for Trident” at a time when:

“‘Help for Heroes’ and other charities are funding the double amputees to go to Oklahoma to get decent prosthetic limbs.”

Mr Ainsworth vigourously disagreed, stating:

“There is first class state-of-the-art prosethics available to our injured personnel at Hedley Court. They deserve the best and they get the best.”

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