Kim Sengupta: Afghanistan is the only game in town

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In a recent speech titled “ Beyond Afghanistan” the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, vociferously argued that defence strategy should not become too Afghancentric. Britain, said the First Sea Lord, would face other challenges and this would need the nation keeping all its options open on weaponry.

The “reprioritizing” announced by Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth today showed however, that, in reality, Afghanistan is the only game in town. The measures announced were almost entirely focused on the needs of that particular campaign with the implicit acceptance that future conflicts are likely to be similar counter-insurgency operations.

In broad terms the government is addressing the pressing needs of the Afghan war, in particular the relentless toll from roadside bombs and mines which have been responsible for 85 per cent of recent British and allied casualties. Twenty-two extra Chinook helicopters would allow much more movement by air rather than the increasingly vulnerable road convoys. Around £ 160 million will also be spent on counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) equipment and training is designed towards the same end.

None of this comes free and with no extra funding available others would have to bear the £ 900 million cost. In the immediate period it is not Admiral Stanhope’s Navy but the strike wing of the RAF who will be the most to suffer with the Harrier jets phases out of service earlier than the planned date of 2018, the Tornado fighter jet force based at RAF Lossiemouth, in Moray, and RAF Marham in Norfolk expected also expected to lose one squadron and cutbacks due at RAF Kinloss. There will also be job losses due to these and other measures affecting both civilian and military staff.

However, although the Navy has not been too adversely affected in this particular round of restructuring the writing appears to be on the wall that the senior service, too, will have to make sacrifices at the next round with the two new aircraft carriers looking particularly vulnerable.

The Army, which has been doing the vast bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan had felt short changed in the defence budget. However, most of the funding from the Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) have been spent on equipment such as armoured vehicles and the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review is likely to see more money heading in their direction.

Today’s announcement does not provide immediate answer to the problems of Afghanistan. The extra helicopters are not due to be ready until 2012/13, at a time, according to ministers, when British troops should be in a position to start withdrawing from the conflict with Afghan security forces taking over.