Leading article: A belated admission that our forces are overstretched

The high cost of Britain's military operations is starting to hit home

Related Topics

The announcement made yesterday by the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said one thing, but implied many others. What it said was that the Government is to upgrade equipment for troops in Afghanistan, to include the purchase of another 22 Chinook helicopters, and that an air base, RAF Cottesmore, is to be closed to help pay for them.

This is tantamount to an acknowledgement that, despite many denials, long-standing complaints about equipment in Afghanistan and, in particular, a shortage of helicopters, were justified. Slowness to admit this means that the first new helicopters will be ready only in 2013 – by which time, if President Obama's timetable is met, the international operation should have been wound down. That, of course, is a hope rather than a certainty, so the order for new helicopters should not be condemned on that count. If anything, the Government's decision is tardy.

But the fact that no additional funds are being earmarked and the military is being expected to live within the current budget – even though British troops are engaged in protracted combat operations overseas – speaks volumes about the inadequacies of the procurement system, the extent to which current military commitments are stretching the budget, and the place of defence in this Government's thinking. There are profound questions here that should have been addressed much sooner and, it appears, will not be until after the election.

That the Ministry of Defence has been living far beyond its means emerged starkly from the report on procurement by Bernard Grey, which was initially kept under wraps, then hastily published this autumn. Mr Grey found an ossified system fraught with delays and cost overruns, lacking the flexibility required by modern armed forces. This is one reason why complaints about poor equipment and a shortage of helicopters were so embarrassing for the Government – and so hard to tackle.

The decision that the new purchases must be paid for out of the existing budget demonstrates how strapped for cash the Government is, but also how many hard choices await. The closure of RAF Cottesmore and the cancellation, or delay, of several defence orders is likely to be fiercely resisted. But the British military and defence establishment has a smaller proportion of its staff on active service than most of our allies do. Much rebalancing is needed, of which this trimming is only a very small start.

Mr Ainsworth admitted yesterday that the Ministry of Defence faced "acute cost pressures". The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is put at £14bn thus far – a huge outlay at any time, but doubly so at a time of recession and general economic stringency. With some programmes unrelated to current operations now being cut or curtailed, it is reasonable to ask whether future flexibility is not being held hostage to the quite specific, needs of today's war in Afghanistan.

Which opens the much broader question of what Britain's defence and military capabilities should look like in the near to medium term. The last defence review was conducted in 1998 – three years before 9/11 transformed the international strategic landscape, a time when the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not dreamt of. The new review, now scheduled for next year, is long overdue. It must consider not only immediate defence needs, but what sort of power Britain can realistically aspire to be – and acting on its conclusions should be a priority for the next government.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: E-Commerce Manager - Fashion Accessories

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Senior / Assistant Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Exciting new position available at an independ...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Credit Controller

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful candidate will h...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior / Assistant

£7800 - £13455 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A career opportunity has become ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
V&A museum in London  

Celebrating the cultural impact of PR at the V&A

Danny Rogers

Daily catch-up: will this be the election result? And other Questions To Which The Answer Is No

John Rentoul
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn