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Drayson locks Forces chiefs out of Defence budget carve-up

Arms biz gets unfettered access to MoD coffers

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The champagne will be popping tonight at BAE Systems

As for the idea that this colossal waste of money - and waste of our soldiers' lives as a result - is made up for by valuable export sales, that's a fantasy. Defence manufactures amount to £1-2bn of exports in a normal year - a fraction of a percent of the total - and are counterbalanced by three-quarters of a billion or more in imports (for instance the foreign parts used in "British made" systems). The benefit to our balance of payments, a few hundred million pounds, is minute compared to the annual multibillion subsidies required to obtain it.

But still the same decisions are made, and inferior equipment is purchased at triple price with long delays. The vast revenues which result enable the deployment of an army of lobbyists both overt and covert, infesting Whitehall and Parliament like a murmurous plague.

Foremost among those lobbyists is Lord Drayson himself, who from his earliest days in parliament as MoD purchasing minister has been known as British industry's friend. It was he who drafted the infamous, completely unaffordable Defence Industrial Strategy, effectively a guarantee to the UK military-industrial base that it would continue to exist in perpetuity no matter what it did.

But Drayson's huge raid on the military coffers eventually ran into trouble. His plan to divert the army's new supertank budget into resuscitating the moribund British armoured-vehicles industry was scuppered by determined opposition from the soldiery, who wanted a cheaper American-supplied vehicle and said so in public. Drayson resigned in a rage, claiming that he wanted to spend more time racing his biofuelled car.

But he didn't stay away long. Nowadays he wears two ministerial hats, one from the biz ministry and a strange specially-created MoD one which seems to make him just as powerful as the Secretary of State for Defence. In effect, Drayson's former undisclosed role as the British arms industry's man in the MoD has now been formalised and upgraded.

The squabbling admirals, generals and air-marshals are tiresome indeed. But locking them out of the room while leaving the arms industry's point man inside - to be restrained only by the compliant Sir Jock and a comparatively unknown general - is very bad news indeed for our armed forces.

We can expect to see the Eurofighter madness go ahead unimpeded, as it offers plenty of cash for BAE Systems and is dear to Sir Jock's heart. The army may get its highly questionable new supertanks, provided it agrees to have them made at least partly in Britain at vast cost - and also to wait years while the UK tank industry is rebuilt from scratch.

But the new F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjets to fly from the planned, catapult-less carriers will be in line for the axe, as they are made mostly abroad. This isn't the end of the world in itself, but it imperils the carriers: even though it would not cost much (in this context) to add catapults to them, and so permit the purchase of hugely cheaper aircraft.

Those aircraft too would be imports, though - either F-35C tailhook stealth planes, or extremely affordable and capable F-18 Hornets, plus Hawkeye radar platforms - so Drayson is unlikely to smile on such a plan. And as there will be nobody at all in Navy blue on his new committee, he'll probably get his way.

It's to be hoped that this new committee won't survive Drayson's likely ministerial demise at the election and go on to influence the following defence review, but that may be too much to wish for. ®

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