Do we need all these toys for our troops?

It is through old-fashioned forensic work that we stand the best chance of containing terror
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The Independent Online

Soon after originally taking office, the Labour Government produced a radical defence White Paper, claiming that it was the first time that defence had been integrated with foreign policy, and proclaiming a new doctrine of fast and flexible armed forces. "In the post-Cold-War world," said the then Defence Secretary, George Robertson, in 1998, "we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us."

Five years later we have a new white paper, promising the same lean and mean machine, arousing the same old arguments about faulty equipment, mothballed ships and troop shortages. Only this time it is not being directly connected to the foreign policy white paper published only last week. (Don't worry if you missed it; it sank without trace, despite its promise of setting our foreign policy strategy for the next 10 years.)

One can feel sorry for Geoffrey Hoon, George Robertson's successor, as he delivers his white paper today. Since the Hutton inquiry he has become a defeated, not to say pathetic, figure. The Whitehall machine is filled with speculation over his prospects of surviving the inquiry's findings (odds heavily against). The Commons has already written him off. The media is only interested in how well he can manage himself as he stumbles towards oblivion.

He has a story to tell on defence. But no one will listen to it. And if they do it will be only to indulge in the age-old parliamentary slanging match over "defence cuts" - which regiments, which ships and what tanks will be dropped in the drive towards a hi-tech mobile force.

But the truth is that today's report should have been presented alongside the foreign policy review, and by a minister committed to its importance. The events of 11 September have changed the nature of the defence debate. The move from static defence, heavy weaponry and attack aircraft aimed at knocking out Soviet airfields and missile systems to one based on rapid reaction, global outreach and precision weaponry was taking place well before al-Qa'ida's attack on the Twin Towers. The real moment of truth had come with the Balkan crises and the humiliation of Srebrenica.

But you only have to read last week's foreign policy strategy document to see the impact of 11 September. Gone is all the talk of making the Foreign Office an instrument of British commercial interests and a means to increasing British influence abroad. Gone too is the belief in an ethical foreign policy. Instead, in comes the concept of foreign policy as essentially aimed at security, protecting the country, not just from terrorism but from illegal immigration or the interruption of energy supply. It's a hunkered-down view of Britain in the world, a vision of a country protecting itself from foreign threats rather than one that is embracing a world of opportunities.

Ironically, the defence policy, in contrast, is based much more on outreach: the vision of British armed services going anywhere and doing anything according to the circumstances. In hard military terms of what we are doing - the troops we now have deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland - it makes sense. For the future the Government assumes that any major fighting will be in association with the Americans - with their heavy lift capacity and heavier firepower. For most other wars and peacekeeping operations we need a lighter, better equipped and more highly trained force that can act alone or in association with others as the need dictates.

But what exactly are these needs? If the primary British interest is in its own security - as it surely must - then it could be argued that any increase in expenditure would be far better directed to intelligence-gathering and police operations, not on more toys for the boys (and girls?) in the forces. It is through old-fashioned forensic work that we stand the best chance of containing terror, and through the sharing of information and the co-ordination of activity at an international level that we stand the best chance of defeating it.

Only recently, the UN was warning how far behind we are in the pursuit of money trails in the hunt for al-Qa'ida, while this week the Centre for European Reform was warning of the gaps in European co-operation. Its suggestion of a European Security Commission to move things along is just as potentially important as anything in the defence white paper.

Even on strictly military grounds, the Iraq invasion has shown there is far more to meeting the defence needs of the future than Donald Rumsfeld's doctrine of speed and mobility, which the British are now following. The intelligence gaps were abysmal, and there is nothing in the evidence before the Hutton inquiry that should give any confidence that they will be better on future occasions. If this is the kind of operation we will be involved with the US, we had better be prepared for far more men, not fewer. And all the sophisticated weaponry in the world will not help us much.

But is this the kind of operation we will have more of and should it be? As Geoffrey Hoon today plods dutifully though his array of Future Integrated Soldier Technology (Fist), Networked Enabled Capability, Effects-Based Operations and all the other high-flown concepts that the ministry use to give an air of modernity, someone needs to ask: "what is it all for?"

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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