Commanders turn on Tories over defence 'cuts'

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Indy Politics

A key plank of the defence and foreign policy of a future Conservative government is a “fundamental misconception” that will cost “hundreds of millions of pounds”, according to Whitehall officials and eminent former military commanders.

The shadow Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has pledged that a government headed by David Cameron would bring back 25,000 British troops based in Germany. He said it was unjustified for such large numbers to be tied up in Europe while huge demands are being placed on the military by tighter budgets and the Afghan war.

But commanders and Whitehall officials told The Independent that Dr Fox does not understand the deployment in Germany. They argue that bringing back the troops and their families, and then building accommodation for them, would be “highly costly” and would mean that funds needed for current projects would have to be diverted.

They stressed that far from being unavailable for military operations, the troops based in Germany have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The brigade which went into Basra in 2003 was from Germany, and two consecutive deployments in Helmand next year will also come from forces based there.

The commanders and officials also point out that Germany offers the space necessary for large-scale exercises which is not available in the UK, and that the arrival of such a large number of personnel would put massive pressure on existing facilities back home.

It is unclear whether Dr Fox consulted General Sir Richard Dannatt, the recently retired head of the Army who is now a Tory defence adviser, before making his comments about Germany. Sir Richard says that some of the troops returned to this country could be housed in RAF bases expected to be shut down in the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review.

However, the RAF is vehemently fighting against the closures and converting them for army use would require sizeable investment. General Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the Army, said: “Liam Fox appears to think that the troops are in Germany for some operational reason. That is a fundamental misconception. In logistical terms it is just as easy keeping them there as it would be in Catterick. They can be deployed from there and they have the space to take part in exercises there.

“This is a bit of red herring. The capital costs of moving the personnel and their families back, the work needed to accommodate them, would be absolutely enormous and, I would have thought, very difficult to justify in the current economic climate. It is marginally more expensive to keep troops in Germany than here, but we are talking in marginal terms and the cost of transferring them all would far outweight this.”

And Major General Julian Thompson, the former head of the Royal Marines, said: “This is going to be very, very expensive in terms of capital costs alone and the last thing one wants is to put pressure on the facilities we have... This seems to be a rather strange time to propose this. Bringing the force back is desirable in the long term, but we are talking about in 10 years or so. What one does not want is money which had been earmarked for carrying out much needed improvements on existing accommodation to be spent on new accommodation.”

A senior Whitehall official closely involved in planning military operations said: “It will cost hundreds of millions of pounds to carry out what Dr Fox is suggesting. It can be done, but let’s not pretend it will not be pretty costly.”

Dr Fox’s proposals on the troops in Germany are part of what he described as a “wholesale recasting of our foreign and defence policy”.

With an election approaching, a range of Conservative policies have come under scrutiny. Recently Chris Grayling, who is expected to be Home Secretary in a Cameron cabinet, was scathingly criticised by the UK Statistics Office for manipulating crime statistics in a way “likely to mislead the public”.

This followed Mr Cameron himself being forced to “clarify” the extent to which a Conservative government would cut public spending in the immediate future. Dr Fox is due to set out the Conservatives’ “unsentimental” approach to the Strategic Defence Review at a speech at the Royal United Services Institute today.

It was reported at the weekend that he will “serve notice” on defence chiefs that they will need to justify “everyone and everything” in the review. He would overhaul the procurement system which was in a “shambolic state”, but the services would not be merged and the Trident nuclear system wouldwill remain.

Dr Fox is expected to say: “We will have to confront the the harsh facts of the economic climate in which we will have to operate given the catastrophic economic management of the current Labour Government.

“It will be a chance to have a clean break from the legacy and mindset of the Cold War and should be viewed as an opportunity for fresh thinking and change. Make no mistake: we need a step change, not tinkering.”