Leading article: Strategic self-interest

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The Independent Online

With spectacularly poor timing, senior officers of the Army and Royal Navy have chosen the week in which the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain is commemorated to suggest that the Royal Air Force should be abolished.

The backroom whispering is distasteful and dishonourable, not merely because of the extraordinary valour, self-sacrifice and commitment displayed by that handful of pilots of whom Winston Churchill declared that "never was so much owed, by so many, to so few".

A new strategic defence review is imminent, and no options should be closed off in advance of these discussions. There are a range of radical possibilities which must be considered, including whether or not to maintain Britain's expensive Trident nuclear deterrent programme. These decisions represent the very definition of the national interest and must be made with proper reflection.

Cost-cutting – so central to the Coalition Government's programme – will be an important determinant, not least because the Ministry of Defence regularly overspends its budget. But the changing nature of the world in which we live and the threats our nation may face in the future must be the primary criteria. For leading military figures to be positioning their services in this way ahead of such a major rethink smacks of self-interest.

On the face of it, the suggestion that the RAF's tasks could be divided, with the lift and delivery components going to the Army and the strike capability to the Navy makes sense. But there might be all manner of hidden costs in terms of training and equipment. Even if long-term savings could be produced, these might only be achieved by incurring significant additional expenditure at a time when the public purse is under unprecedented pressure. It is important to guard against the assumption that a conventional attack on the UK homeland is no longer conceivable because our potential enemies do not have the reach. The truism that generals are always preparing for the last war rather than the next one should be borne in mind.

Times of plenty, rather than those of austerity, are more suited to radical restructuring exercises. The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, should be banging the heads of the top brass together and ordering them to scrutinise their own budgets, instead of seeking to protect them at the expense of someone else's.