Leading article: A Green Paper that starts to ask the right questions

Whoever forms the next government, defence will be in the firing line

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A few months before a general election is a strange time for a government to launch a defence Green Paper, especially one designed to be the opening stage in a full-dress Strategic Defence Review. The whole exercise positively asks to be dismissed as a scandalous waste of time and money on the part a government conspicuously short of both.

And there is much, over and above the release date, that is wrong with this Green Paper. Swathes of spending are treated as protected and so effectively excluded in advance. In fact, no actual spending figures are mentioned at all. The decision by the Ministry of Defence to release its long-awaited response to Bernard Gray's scathing review of defence procurement on the very same day should also raise eyebrows. We thought we had left behind the days when attempts were made to bury bad news, but apparently not. The Strategy for Acquisition Reform was also published yesterday.

Yet the Green Paper is not quite as bland or free of content as might have been feared. It is hardly a cornucopia of specifics, but it asks more questions of a more fundamental nature than was widely expected. Not all the questions are explicitly set out in the Green Paper. Some are asked implicitly. Others were "spun" in advance; yet others had to be teased out by reporters. But in one form or another they are there.

The stage is being set for one of the more searching strategic defence reviews for a very long time – one in which some of the most hallowed assumptions of British defence policy could be in play. One of the potentially biggest changes is the emphasis on partnerships. There seems to be an understanding here not only that resources for defence will shrink, as public spending cuts start to bite, but that this will force examination of alternatives, such as "coalitions".

What is more, the coalitions being broached go beyond the traditionally "special" transatlantic relationship. While it is insisted that defence relations with the United States will remain undiluted, it is proposed that more cooperation be sought with our European partners, in particular with France. Such a prospect is likely to fall on receptive ears. In recent years, the French and Germans have called openly for closer integration of the British armed forces into Europe. And with France, thanks to President Sarkozy, now returned to full participation in Nato, closer defence relations with France should have lost some of their sting, even if a Conservative government comes to power with more than a Eurosceptic tinge.

There are also hints about restructuring within the British armed forces – a delicate subject if ever there was one. But the open campaigning observed recently from the chiefs of the Army and the Navy, while not unprecedented when austerity threatens, is undignified and speaks of a national defence effort divided. Any change would be fiercely contested. But whether two services might be amalgamated or joint military-civilian operations given greater priority, there is agreement that our top-heavy defence establishment could do with streamlining.

At this stage, these are only ideas, very preliminary ideas, which need to be considered within the context of a much bigger question: what should be Britain's future place in the world? That the Green Paper has paved the way for just such a profound discussion means that it might not have been such a waste of time after all. The next government, whoever forms it, should resist the temptation to put it in the shredder.

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