Portillo backs crime-fighting role for forces

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Defence resources may be diverted to help fight drug trafficking and international organised crime as they become more of a threat to national security, the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said yesterday.

But he added that such a move would not prejudice the traditional roles of the armed forces and that they needed to retain the ability to fight full-scale wars as well as taking on new roles.

Because future conflict could arise anywhere and for many reasons, intelligence would be the key to defence in future, he told service chiefs and top civil servants. Although weapons technology will continue to be be transferred to Third World countries, Mr Portillo said it was vital that Western countries retained their superiority in intelligence, using modern information systems.

Mr Portillo was giving his own views on British security in 2010 to an expert audience. He softened the view on European defence co-operation which he had expressed at the Conservative Party conference, but stressed that individual nations, and Nato, remained the "most credible" defensive organisations. Sources at the Ministry of Defence stressed the speech was his own work and not been written for him.

Mr Portillo said the growth of crime and "inner-city alienation" might diminish the self-confidence of democracies and make them more introspective. "At the same time," he said, "drug trafficking and international organised crime will be seen as a greater threat to national security even than they are today. Defence resources may be diverted to combating them."

MoD sources said that the defence resources to be diverted would be mainly intelligence and communications, although Navy and Air Force units could be involved in the interception of smugglers - a role for which they have always been available.

The move would be consistent with recent proposals to involve the security service (MI5) more in tackling organised crime. The need to use defence forces might arise as international drug cartels became better organised and more heavily armed, MoD sources said.

Mr Portillo stressed the need to develop automated battlefield command and control systems, which would be "the key to success, and the key to minimising casualties". The need to minimise friendly casualties was particularly acute as people would become less tolerant of mistakes, he said. He added that Britain would therefore need to continue to work closely with the United States.

Mr Portillo said the age of deterrence had not ended but that deterring people had become much more complicated in a more "diverse" world. "The nation state remains the most credible unit of deterrence," he said, citing the examples of Britain in the Falklands war and of Israel. He added that "deterrence" might also be used to counter state-sponsored terrorism - in other words, a terrorist attack on London might be answered by a massive strike on a foreign target known to be responsible.