Leading article: A belated admission that our forces are overstretched

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

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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.

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