Progressive preview of tonight’s defence & foreign policy debate

Tonight’s foreign policy and defence leaders' debate on Sky News looks set to focus on Trident, Liberal Democrat defence policy and the war in Afghanistan.

Tonight’s foreign policy and defence prime ministerial debate on Sky News looks set to focus on Trident, Liberal Democrat defence policy and the war in Afghanistan. Labour’s record in government and manifesto plans for the future represent strong ground for the party in that debate whilst Lib Dem ideas on defence are already helping shape the debate.

Trident and nuclear non-proliferation

The government is already considering a 25 per cent reduction in the number of warheads and has previously considered dropping the number of new Trident-bearing submarines from four ships to three.

Beyond Trident, Gordon Brown has made non-proliferation a key foreign policy priority of his tenure with the appointment of Baroness Shirley Williams, a Liberal Democrat, as the leading advisor to the Prime Minister on non-proliferation.

The Liberal Democrats’ poll surge means their proposal to retain a nuclear deterrent but reject a like-for-like near-£100bn replacement for Trident will come under increased scrutiny. Progressives will be cheered by support for such a move in terms of both public opinion – with Trident’s renewal being opposed by two in three voters – and expert military analysis, including five senior generals who yesterday expressed “‘deep concern’ that the future of Trident has been excluded from the Strategic Defence Review that will follow the election”.

As Left Foot Forward has previously reported, the Trident debate must avoid a false choice between Britain as a nuclear power today or unilateral nuclear disarmament tomorrow. As LibDem defence spokesman Nick Harvey told Newsnight in February:

“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.”

The Strategic Defence Review

The SDR, which Labour introduced as the chief means to determine defence policy and the implications for procurement and planning in 1998, is now set to be held after the General Election. Since 1997, defence spending under Labour has increased by 10 per cent in real terms with spending for Iraq and Afghanistan over and above this increase.

Looking to the future, the combination of strained public finances and a changed strategic environment means that a post-election Labour government would face strong pressure to consider major procurement spending on Trident, the Joint Strike Fighter and the super carrier project in the context of the next SDR.

Afghanistan and The Forces Charter

Labour’s manifesto opens with fulsome praise by the Prime Minister for the service of British forces in Afghanistan. Since 2006, the government has doubled the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, spent 1.7bn on 1,800 new vehicles and worked closely with the Obama Administration to recast NATO strategy to focus on civilian population protection and Afghan security force training.

The introduction of the Forces Charter  last Saturday was a welcome and vital development in ensuring troops and veterans are guaranteed world class care and support. The Charter ensures service men and women are guaranteed housing, education, health and compensation rights.

These include: ensuring access to shared equity and a new transferable housing allowance; free further and higher education for Armed Forces personnel who have served six years; the best NHS medical care in a military-run ward and priority access to NHS treatment for mental healthcare; and a regular independent review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.

The progressives’ view

Summing up Labour’s contribution to the defence debate, ippr security expert Andy Hull said:

“Labour’s manifesto commitment to codify the modern military covenant in a Forces Charter is welcome. But its determination to press ahead with a Strategic Defence Review in isolation from other aspects of national security, and to exclude from that review major items such as Trident, aircraft carriers and fighter jets, represents a missed opportunity and an avoidable mistake.”

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