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Hutton robs forces, pours MoD cash into UK arms biz

Carriers into touch, copters & vehicles go porkbarrel

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Analysis A long-awaited announcement regarding the British forces' ongoing equipment programme has just been made by Defence Minister John Hutton. As had been expected, Mr Hutton has decided to pour cash into the lame-duck UK helicopter industry and to postpone spending on the Royal Navy's planned aircraft carriers. He has also decided to have a new competition for the Army's vehicles budget, as the last one was won by a non-UK company.

Mr Hutton says that the carriers will be delayed by "one to two years", but that the programme will still definitely take place.

That's not actually good news. It will save money in the short term, perhaps helping to balance the MoD's massively overbooked budget this year, but the bills will still have to be paid sooner or later if the carriers go ahead - and the longer they are left, the bigger those bills will be. The nature of defence projects is to cost more as they last longer.

From we taxpayers' point of view, this is a bit like paying your gas bill using a credit card. It postpones the problem, but it costs you a lot more in the end. It's bad management by the government, using our money.

There's another downside to postponement on the carriers - it makes them more vulnerable to being cancelled. At the moment, though the Navy has made what it considers to be huge sacrifices to preserve the carrier plan, it is really only Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour who are keeping it alive. This is because it will channel work and money into the shipyards of Glasgow and Rosyth, which otherwise would not long survive.

One may be sure that there are those in Whitehall and the arms biz calculating to themselves that in two years' time Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour may be headed out of the national picture. Following today's announcement, at that point the carriers would still not yet have had that much money spent on them - it would be possible to cancel without throwing away too much cash.

In the meantime the present Harrier jumpjet force could be quietly got rid of; such schemes are rumoured already to exist. This would kill off the Navy jet community. The upcoming test and evaluation phase of the new F-35B stealth jumpjets might produce unfavourable results, or could be made to seem as if it had.

The RAF might then decide that actually it didn't want any jumpjets for land operations after all - it would rather spend that money on something else, notably its desired enhancement package to the Tranche 3 Eurofighters, turning them into the deep-strike bombers the airmen crave.

The Navy would be unable to fund anything like two carriers' worth of F-35Bs alone - and might find it very hard to argue that this should be done, if it turns out as some suspect that the F-35Bs will struggle to land back on a ship without dumping weapons beforehand. (This would prevent them putting up standing air patrols.)

Arguments for proper carriers with proper carrier jets could be even harder to push through. Such a plan would save money and provide much better capability overall, but more cash would need to be spent early on - on enhancing the ships - and the desperate cry in the present overbooked MoD budget is all for postponement of spending today at almost any price tomorrow.

An incoming Conservative government might then decide to cancel the carriers altogether in 2010, caring little about job losses in Scottish constituencies where nobody votes Tory anyway. In public, ministers would argue that the project had been hopelessly botched by Labour, essentials must be focused upon etc etc. (Some of us still remember the early 1990s, when the Conservatives cynically shifted Trident submarine refit work south at huge cost, abandoning a partly-completed drydock in Gordon Brown's stronghold north of the Forth bridges.)

And the UK would wind up with a Navy which had shrunk seriously in order to get its carriers - and then didn't get them anyway.

More seriously, Britain would find that whenever a crisis erupted in a warzone somewhere, there would be a need to establish a secure air base ashore nearby. This would mean weeks spent getting diplomatic clearance, concessions made to unsavoury regimes - assuming approval was forthcoming at all - then more time and danger putting troops in to secure the base and guard its perimeter. Surface routes for locally-sourced supplies like bulk fuel would need to be established.

Eventually, the base would hopefully be there - a primary target for attack by suicide bombers, rockets, mortars and so on. Its supply convoys would be easily hit by roadside bombs. Every flight in or out would be at risk from shoulder-fired missiles. But it might be there.

The job then might get done, but it would be a lot harder, cost more to do, and we'd be a lot slower to get started.

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