Armed forces face 'tough choices' ahead, says minister

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The Independent Online

Britain's armed forces will have to co-operate more closely in future with international allies such as France to provide the full range of defence capabilities, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said today.

Publishing a Government green paper laying the ground for a full-scale strategic defence review after the general election, Mr Ainsworth warned that the forces face some "tough choices" in the years ahead.

The paper did not refer to specific programmes - apart from confirming the decision to go ahead with the £20 billion update of Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent.

But Mr Ainsworth said the "likelihood" was that the Royal Navy would still get its two planned new aircraft carriers, although he refused to be drawn on American-built Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) intended to fly from them.

He said the immediate priority for the forces remained the campaign in Afghanistan, with funding from the Treasury reserve set to increase from £3.5 billion this year to £5 billion next year.

In future the forces would not be able to "insure against every risk" and decisions would have to be taken on where the most important priorities lie.

"Tough choices will lie ahead and we need to rebalance our budget to better reflect our priorities," he said at a Ministry of Defence news conference.

"Defence must be more adaptable, able to respond quickly to the changes in the security environment and the character of conflict.

"We must increase our co-operation with our international partners to deliver defence more effectively and efficiently in order to make the best of our combined resources."

While the green paper emphasised that the United States remained Britain's most important ally, the UK would in future have to look to co-operate more widely with other countries.

"In Europe, the return of France to Nato's integrated military structures offers an opportunity for even greater co-operation with a key partner across a range of defence activity," it said.

Mr Ainsworth signalled that the commitment to the Navy's new aircraft carriers was unlikely to change as a result of the strategic defence review (SDR).

"While the whole of defence is in the review, we understand the commitments that we have already made and the likelihood that this will continue to be required in the future," he said.

"We ordered them a couple of years ago. We are already cutting the steel. That to some degree closes down our options."

But pressed on the JSF, which is running over budget and behind schedule, he refused to be specific, speaking only of the need for "enhanced" air support.

"We have seen in Afghanistan the need for adaptable capability in the Army but also the aviation and air support that is necessary to conduct this kind of operation," he said.

"I don't believe that any strategic defence review would not want to see that capability enhanced. Some of the tough choices and some of the issues that we are going to have to confront will be about trying to enhance that so that we can actually get more capability, not less.

"That is in the air domain as well as on land."

Mr Ainsworth sought to distance himself from reports earlier this week that Gordon Brown wanted to use the green paper to challenge the Conservatives to match Government spending on defence.

"I have tried to avoid narrow party political interests. I don't think it is appropriate to the strategic planning of defence," he said.

The paper called for legislation requiring periodic defence reviews to ensure that the forces are able to respond to evolving threats as they develop.

It makes clear that the forthcoming SDR will take place against a backdrop of tightening budgets as the Government tackles the £178 billion deficit in the public finances.

"The wider financial context means resources across government will be constrained. We should not underestimate the scale of that challenge," it said.

"We cannot proceed with all the activities and programmes we currently aspire to, while simultaneously supporting our current operations and investing in the new capabilities that we need."

It identified the three most likely threats which the forces will have to respond to as coming from terrorists such as al Qaida, hostile states, and fragile or failing states.

It said that while in the "foreseeable future" no state would have both the intent and capability to threaten the independence and integrity of the UK, a "major shift" in the international security situation could not be ruled out.

It said that in future, the UK and its allies would not necessarily maintain the "technological edge" they had become accustomed to over the past 20 years as other nations closed the technology gap.

It warned that this would have a "profound effect" on the way the forces operated, making future operations potentially more hazardous, with casualty rates "expected to increase markedly".

The paper also warned of the threat of "cyber attack", as the forces became more reliant on hi-tech capabilities.

"Cyberspace is critical to much or our military effort here and overseas and to our national infrastructure," it said.

"We have to be able to defend against intelligence-gathering or more malicious activities, not just to protect our routine business, but also our ability to conduct high-tempo operations."

Asked if it was "plausible" that Britain would still have three separate armed services a decade from now, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, insisted it was, although he said there were issues to be debated.

"Certainly it is plausible," he told the MoD news conference.

However, he went on: "There are interesting issues to be debated here.

"Any very large organisation has to be broken down into certain elements. So there are separate issues here.

"There is the issue of the organisation and the way you do that, but then also the issue of making sure that, despite the fact that you need different bits in your organisation, they work together seamlessly to one end."

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox questioned how much Britain could afford to rely on European allies such as France.

"We also agree that France and the United States are likely to be our main strategic partners. For us there are two tests: do they invest in defence? And do they fight? Sadly, too few European allies pass both these tests," he said.

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said the omission of Trident from the review had left the green paper "unbalanced".

"Surely the manner, the scale and the timing of any replacement of the Trident deterrent has profound opportunity cost implications for the entirety of the rest of the defence budget," he said.