Leading article: An irresponsible rush

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The Independent Online

The irony is rich. Liam Fox was one of the most vocal deficit hawks before the election, arguing constantly that the most pressing priority for the next government was to cut back public spending. But now, as Defence Secretary, Dr Fox is complaining about the impact of the cuts that he himself so loudly demanded only four months before. A leaked letter from Dr Fox to the Prime Minister shows the Defence Secretary advising Mr Cameron that he will refuse to support any substantial cuts to the armed forces and warning of "grave political consequences" if they are imposed.

Mr Cameron and George Osborne deserve some credit for accepting that there is no reason for defence spending to be protected as Britain seeks to get to grips with its deficit in the coming years. The traditional Conservative instinct would have been to ringfence spending on the armed forces in the present economy drive in the blind belief that this would be the patriotic thing to do. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have, rightly, resisted that.

There is unquestionably scope for savings in military spending. As last year's report on defence procurement by Bernard Gray revealed, the Ministry of Defence has been guilty of presiding over colossal waste in recent years. The Gray review found that up to £2.2bn a year is being wasted simply because the MoD has not been paying for projects on time.

Yet Dr Fox is justified in complaining about the hasty manner in which this necessary process of finding savings is being carried out, and also the fact that it is being run in tandem with a Strategic Defence Review into the future of Britain's armed forces. The Defence Review, the first since 1998, began immediately after the election in May. But Dr Fox, like all the other Coalition department heads, is being asked to offer savings of more than 20 per cent of his department's budget by the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review, due on 20 October. To demand decisions on such large cuts will, in all likelihood, make a nonsense of the Defence Review. Options will be closed off before they have even been given proper consideration.

Present circumstances risk distorting decisions too. The British mission in Afghanistan is at an acute phase. This makes an emotionally compelling case for shielding the Army from any cuts and scrapping, instead, new aircraft carriers and new jets. But it is far from certain how long this mission will last. The danger is that our defence planners will be bounced into planning for the last war.

This is not a sensible way to decide the future of our armed services. And this foolish haste to cut defence spending goes to the heart of the recklessness of the Coalition. There is no need to rush the entire deficit reduction process in this way, for defence or any other department. The idea that the bond markets will panic unless there are swingeing cuts to public spending is a fiction. Labour's plan to halve the deficit over the Parliament was more than adequate for investors. The Coalition seems ready to postpone the decision on renewing Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent until the next Parliament. The same realism needs to be shown by the Coalition on other forms of defence expenditure.

History shows that there is never a perfect time to hold a review of a country's defence spending or to demand savings. A nation's future defence requirements are always unclear. And vested interests will always resist economies. But history also shows that when important decisions are unduly rushed – when decisions are taken through ideology, rather than pragmatism – they tend to turn out badly. Defence will be no exception.