Liam Fox: The way we treat our armed forces is a national disgrace

Despite everything, the MoD was able to find £2.3bn for refurbishing its HQ
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The Independent Online

I must admit that I was not surprised by General Sir Richard Dannatt's recent remarks regarding the state of our Army and the result the high operational tempo is having on welfare, morale, and family life. However, while not surprised, I am afraid that his comments are only the tip of the iceberg.

A decade of Labour's neglect has left our Army overstretched, undermanned, and in possession of worn-out equipment due to the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unfunded liability associated with this will total billions of pounds. This is not an assumption, but a fact.

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop with the Army. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are in similar dire straits. In total the armed forces are short of 5,790 personnel. These figures are exacerbated by a retention crisis that has seen resignation rates for junior officers increase in each of the past five years.

Yet these figures simply scratch the surface of a broader and deeper manning problem. For example, the Army is suffering huge shortfalls in key areas, such as helicopter pilots, at a time when our military desperately needs helicopter support in Afghanistan. There is a 39 per cent shortfall in Merlin helicopter pilots. There is currently a 33 per cent shortfall in intelligence operators in the Army at a time when good intelligence has never been more vital. The Royal Navy is suffering similar problems with its shortage of intelligence analysts.

The crisis doesn't stop at manning. In 2004, the Government decided to reduce the number of infantry battalions – the tip of the spear in terms of force – from 40 to 36 battalions. The same year the Government cut the helicopter budget by £1.4bn – all of this at a time when our military was heavily engaged in two conflicts that had a level of intensity not experienced since the Korean War.

Welfare is another major issue that needs to be better address-ed. We all too often hear about substandard housing, a mental health crisis that this Government fails to understand, or family members losing places on the NHS waiting list because of a required move.

The Government has a responsibility, and a moral obligation, to ensure that when it sends troops into harm's way, they are the best trained and best equipped troops in the world. Yet, this Government's procurement programme has failed. The top 19 major procurement projects are £2.5bn over budget and have been delayed by many months and, in some cases, years. The heavy reliance on the Urgent Operational Requirements process, the process that is supposed to get much needed equipment quickly to the front line, has transformed into an ersatz procurement programme that could end up costing the MoD's core budget more in the long run.

The depreciating pound means that many major procurement projects will end up over budget and costing the taxpayer more than originally intended. Costs have gone up by £131m in 2008 and that was before this recent run on sterling.

Defence spending for science and technology has been cut recently by 19 per cent. This is tantamount to strategic suicide, and is testament to Labour's short-sighted approach to defence policy – especially during the current economic crisis since science and technology companies employ thousands of people throughout the UK.

We all see the shortcomings in defence and the list of indictments runs long: family accommodation; lack of helicopters; cuts in the Royal Navy; and lack of kit for frontline forces. Yet, with all these shortcomings, the MoD was able to find more than £2bn to pay external consultants and £2.3bn for the refurbishment of the MoD headquarters.

The 1998 Strategic Defence Review which stated that, "we must match the commitments we undertake to our planned res-ources" is an anachronism in the post 9-11 world. Without a new Strategic Defence Review (SDR) this will never happen.

This is why the Conservative Party has pledged to launch a Strategic Defence Review after returning to government. In addition, we will introduce a US-style system of quadrennial defence reviews and put this requirement into legislation in order to ensure that any future SDR is taken out of the political cycle. This is the only sensible course of action. The fact that the last SDR was in 1998 is completely unacceptable.

Our troops and their families deserve better.

The writer is the Shadow Defence Secretary

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