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MoD budget train crash behind Brown v forces rumpus

PM's choice: Outsource arms makers or squaddies

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Comment A complicated battle is going on behind closed doors in Whitehall at the moment regarding the British armed forces' budget. Some of those involved are making public statements; others are briefing the media off the record; others still are saying nothing at all.

The players include the upper echelons of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), civil servants and uniformed both. Des Browne, the UK defence secretary, and his junior ministers are also embroiled - though Paul Drayson, Baron of Kensington and until lately MoD purchasing boss, has lately quit.

Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister, and his old Treasury subordinates are of course intimately involved. From the sidelines - and often enough from within government buildings - the arms industry tries to keep as many fingers in the pie as it can.

It is a fairly open secret that, as usual, the MoD's finances cannot be made to add up. This is because the UK is committed to huge kit purchases over the coming years. Hundreds of exorbitantly expensive Eurofighter jets will arrive, and a dozen airliner-sized MRA4 Nimrod subhunter planes which - horrifyingly - are to be even worse value. Now the MoD has also pledged firmly to buy two big new aircraft carriers and a whole different fleet of jump-jets to fly from them. At the same time, a fleet of billion-pound air defence destroyers is building, and the MoD seriously needs to make up its mind about replacing large parts of the Army's antiquated combat vehicle fleet.

Quite apart from all that, there are two large wars going on overseas, which mostly call for entirely different things: most notably infantrymen, but also unmanned surveillance and weapons drones, satellite bandwidth, close air support and - above all - transport aircraft, both helicopters and fixed-wing. Of all the new multibillion pound projects currently in the pipeline, only the carrier jump-jets and the new Army vehicles have much relevance to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hard-pressed fighting commanders right now would probably swap even these for more troops and more aircraft to move them around in.

Meanwhile, as ever, ordinary British service personnel remain very badly paid and often abominably housed. Where they are also fighting hard - as in the infantry, and certain other arms - there is a very serious recruiting and retention problem, which is not totally out of control only because of a significant influx of overseas personnel.

Now five former chiefs of staff - that is, ex-heads of the army, navy, air force or perhaps overall boss of all three - have stood up in the House of Lords and heaped damning criticism on the new Prime Minister, saying that he has never been a friend to the armed forces and that he continues to starve them of cash.

Lord Charles Guthrie, a former SAS officer who rose to be Blighty's top uniformed serviceman, was especially scathing. He said the only time Chancellor of the Exchequer Brown had ever been seen at the MoD was "when he came to talk about the Rosyth dockyard, which was in his constituency”.

(The Royal Navy had four dockyards in the early 1990s but only wanted three. The Tories unsurprisingly decided to close Rosyth, in the Labour stronghold north of the Forth bridges. Then Labour took power, and as a result Rosyth remains an unofficial fourth naval base to this day. Porkbarrel politics relating to the Rosyth shipyard is also a major factor behind the recent decision to buy the new carriers.)

Meanwhile, it is no secret that the MoD is short of a large sum of money in the annual budget now being planned - perhaps a billion pounds - with which to pay the bills it is committed to; let alone doing anything serious about soldiers' pay, helicopters, transport planes etc.

The exact details are especially obscure, as in late years the MoD has been getting significant amounts of extra money from "conflict resolution" funds set aside at the Treasury while Mr Brown was Chancellor. Brown would perhaps have intended this cash more for peacekeeping and development-type efforts, but in the event much of it is going on the expenses of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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