Cameron cocks up UK's defences - and betrays Afghan troops

Cuts vital helicopters, fails to grip MoD. Abysmal

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Comment Prime Minister David Cameron has taken personal charge of sorting out the UK's defences. Not only has he cocked it up more than somewhat, he has also slashed vital helicopters for our troops fighting in Afghanistan - and then lied about it.

If you want detail on that last bit, skip to the last page. Otherwise, we'll take it point by point.

First up, make no mistake, these are Cameron's own personal cuts. The just-concluded review process was sufficiently contentious that Defence secretary Liam Fox could never have handled it himself: in any case the structure of the British government forbids this, as the head of each of the armed forces has direct access straight to the Prime Minister. This in effect cuts their nominal superiors - the Chief of Defence Staff, the Defence ministers, even the Chancellor himself - out of the loop. Not to mention the fact that it was Cameron's decision to ring-fence the much larger NHS budget: a 4 per cent cut at the NHS would not only have matched the savings from yesterday's 8 per cent MoD cuts, but paid to sort out its budget crisis as well.

Thus it was entirely appropriate that Mr Cameron announced the Defence cuts himself yesterday. The need for them was a direct result of his policy. Furthermore he will have had to make many of the difficult decisions himself, as many of the figures involved would effectively take orders from nobody but the Prime Minister.

This was certainly a tough brief, though not all the problems the Coalition government had to face up to at the MoD were - as Cameron and Fox have repeatedly insisted - Labour's fault. The disastrous Nimrod MRA4 subhunter* plane, now cancelled just as it approaches delivery, was actually ordered by Tory Defence minister Michael Portillo. The decision that the UK would order the jumpjet version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which Mr Cameron yesterday explicitly blamed Labour, was actually taken by the Tories in 1995, looking for a future Harrier replacement.

Nor was the terrible MoD budget black hole entirely a Labour creation. Much of it was caused by Nimrod: much, much more by the Eurofighter, a Tory project originally. Sure, Brown in his final months locked the MoD into a contract for aircraft carriers which has meant the Coalition being unable to cancel them - but it was the Tories who locked the MoD into its insane order for no less than 232 Eurofighters, which is still grinding on and costing money to this day. (In the end we will get many less, but only because the programme's horrific cost overruns have breached a cost ceiling. No money has been saved.) The Tories have cost us far more with Eurofighter (£20bn+) than ever Labour did with carriers (£5-6bn).

Certainly Labour's stewardship of the MoD since 1997 has been abysmal. The insane "conspiracy of optimism" was allowed to run out of control even further than under the Tories. No project was ever cancelled: rather, things were simply slowed down and allowed to mushroom in total cost so as to win some short-term savings and shoehorn still more bloated programmes into the budget. Kit was invariably purchased on porkbarrel lines, channelling work to UK companies regardless of price, capability or time. No proper control was ever taken of the armed forces themselves - everything was run according to the three-way "cake split" system, sharing out jam or pain equally between navy, army and air force.

Even so, it ill behoves Cameron - heir to Major and Portillo - to point the finger when it comes to the chaos at the MoD. He should simply get on with sorting it out. It's his first big chance to show what kind of Prime Minister he is - how able he is to dominate Sir Humphrey and the vested interests, how interested in value for money and actual modernisation. How's he done?

Bluntly, not very well on most counts.

First up, Cameron has failed to muster up enough gumption to end the three-way cake split. The plans announced yesterday have spread the financial losses in the next ten years just about evenly across the Services.

Secondly, proper modernisation - movement away from the Cold War scenario which still holds the armed forces in such an iron grip twenty years on - has proceeded at a creeping pace or not at all.

Yes, the army's tank juggernaut has been trimmed by about 40 per cent: but that still leaves an awful lot of tanks and heavy artillery, forces which are cold meat under hostile skies and unnecessary under friendly ones - hence more or less useless. A bold and modern-minded Prime Minister would have got rid of the tanks altogether. A sensibly prudent one might have retained a single regiment to act as the core of an armoured brigade just in case. The timid Mr Cameron has retained three.

Likewise the RAF has been allowed to retain its Tornado bomber fleet, which (despite cunning half-truths offered by a senior RAF officer lately) have nothing to do with controlling airspace, ours or someone else's. Nor are they appropriate for Afghanistan - an 8-figure Tornado is no more use than a Reaper unmanned roboplane which costs an order of magnitude less.

The Tornado was built for the Cold War mission of punching into heavy Soviet air defences in a (probably doomed) bid to knock out air bases or critical supply routes far behind enemy lines: it is insanely over-spec'd for what it is doing now in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it was only ever necessary to do this sort of thing with manned jets back in the era before the smart weapon. You had to drop shiploads of dumb bombs back them to actually hit anything, so it made sense of a kind to have a huge fleet of bombers able to deliver shiploads of bombs twice a day (assuming they survived).

Nowadays, though, to penetrate the air defences of non-nuclear nations, you simply pop off a few cruise missiles from nuclear submarines offshore. Nearly all will get through and hit their targets precisely, allowing just a few missiles to do the work of squadrons of bombers. Not many countries have such missiles - the Israelis don't for instance - but we do. For us, penetration bombing is largely obsolete and in any case good targets for it are very rare.

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