The high offices of the police, the medical profession and the universities have fallen under ever more scrutiny and suspicion in recent years, but the media has largely ignored the Ministry of Defence. If the former naval officer Lewis Page has his way, all this is set to change.
Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs is a Fast Food Nation for the armed forces. If your flesh crawls at what McDonalds puts into a chicken McNugget, your heart will stop when you find out how the MoD spends your taxes. Although it's only January, it is very unlikely that anything this entertaining or important will be written on military matters this year. It deserves to be a bestseller, and perhaps it will be if red-faced civil servants are sent out to buy up every copy before the public can get their hands on it.
£30bn of our money goes on defence each year, and most of it, says Page, is "wasted, stolen or diverted to other purposes". To take an example, when the MoD decided we needed a fleet of Apache attack helicopters, we could have bought them retail from the US for £12m each. Instead, an entire production line was set up at Westland in the interests of creating jobs, at the cost of £40m per unit.
According to the MoD's figures, the man-hours worked on the project were equivalent to lifetime employment for 755 people. However, for the extra cost we could have simply given 755 people a million pounds each, and still saved a billion. When the machines were ready there were no pilots to fly them, because we also refused to buy American simulators on which to train them. One might expect this episode to have had repercussions for the careers of those who made the decision, but the Minister for Defence Procurement at the time is now Chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, John Arbuthnot MP.
Man for man, the British Army is fiercely competent. By all accounts, the standard of leadership on the ground has been extremely high in recent conflicts. Yet, for some time now, consumer electronics have outstripped the Army's equipment. If guns, tanks and missiles were available in the British high street, no doubt they too would be far better than the Army's versions. Technology moves too fast these days for lumbering procurement agencies to keep up.
However, this does not explain why soldiers have to make do with shoddy boots, dud radios and rifles that won't fire. When the kit does work, it tends not to be for any terribly useful purpose. So an armada of Eurofighters are on order without the realistic prospect of anything for them to dogfight against. And there are too many Challenger tanks and not enough Warrior armoured vehicles more suitable for the low intensity conflicts. This is partly the military's own fault. Job safety in the Officers' Mess is put above personal safety on the battlefield. It is also down to political priorities in which jobs in British industry have always taken precedence over the wellbeing of servicemen and women.
It seems that no one has the will to cancel procurement programmes intended to fight a Cold War turned suddenly hot. The operational upshot is that our armed forces fight wars in a way suitable to their capabilities, rather than according to what is required. So we must watch as horribly expensive jet aircraft are used to destroy bridges and power stations, which must then be rebuilt at our expense by engineers who will then be shot and kidnapped by relatives of those killed as collateral damage in the initial strikes.
One objection stands out. According to Page, we are preparing, as ever, to fight the last war and not the next. But this mistake always begins with a concern to fight the current war. The new Eurofighters, main battle tanks and Type 45 destroyers will still be in service 10 or 20 years from now, and no one truly knows what kind of threat they may have to face in the future. A prudent policy is to advance on all fronts rather than only those most obvious today.
The lesson of this excellent book is not that the UK is no longer a world power and that we should reduce our overseas commitments, but that we should give up being an industrial military power. We have already done this in part by collaborating with the EU to build various items, but this has only made the problem worse, as our European partners are just as eager as British Aerospace to take the UK taxpayer for a ride. Instead, we should buy as much as we can off the shelf from the Americans, who build most things better and cheaper. Then we can concentrate on the things we do well, which is training the world's best pilots, sailors and elite infantrymen. British manufacturing industry will suffer but, as in war itself, it is us or them.