Leading Article: A big bang but still no answers

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The Independent Online
MALCOLM RIFKIND, the Secretary of State for Defence, showed his grasp of public relations yesterday. Had he simply announced details of the cuts he has made in military budgets and the bases he has closed in order to find the pounds 750m demanded by the Treasury, Tory backbenchers might have accused him of putting Britain's defences at risk. But by simultaneously publishing the details of tenders for billions of pounds' worth of tanks, missiles, aircraft, submarines and frigates, he made his point clear - the national bang will remain the same.

The apparent miracle embodied in Front Line First, the document he published yesterday, is less impressive on closer inspection. The figure of pounds 750m represents only 3 per cent of the pounds 23bn defence budget. Many of these savings were, in any case, long overdue. Among the horrors revealed in the study are a chain of 219 recruiting offices whose job the Ministry of Defence now believes can be done by job centres; a fleet of 28,500 cars and minibuses that makes no use of the leasing systems commonly used in British industry; a military music training school that costs more than pounds 300,000 for every bandsman it trains; and an annual spend of pounds 180m on staff travel and subsistence.

Now for the good news. Most importantly, the study has resulted in sweeping changes to the way the armed forces are managed. The Ministry of Defence head office in Whitehall is to be trimmed from almost 13,000 staff in 1990 to fewer than 4,000 in 1998.

In keeping with modern management thinking, budgetary responsibility is instead to be devolved to officers and administrators further down the line. And the budgetary needs of the front line and the back-up services that sustain it are to be considered separately for the first time. This should result in greater efficiency - at less cost to the taxpayer - but should leave the military's fighting capability undiminished.

The question now is when the next round of cost-cutting should start. The military's top brass and the ministry's civil servants believe they have done so well with Front Line First that they deserve a pause for breath.

Sadly, waste has its own dynamic. The search for savings is rather like the job of painting the Forth Bridge: as soon as the work is finished, it is time to start again. To allow the process to be monitored, the Ministry of Defence would do well to include with its defence estimates from next year onwards a section on waste reduction and efficiency.

Yesterday's review leaves the biggest question unanswered, however: what exactly are Britain's defence needs in the new, disordered world that has followed the Cold War? Options For Change, the White Paper that addressed the issue in 1990, was no more than an early sketch at an answer. The Government must come back to the issue - and preferably within this parliament. The uncertainty until it does so can do Britain's defence no good.