What defence toys really cost us

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Tony Blair has just announced that he is to purchase a fleet of 232 magnificent Rolls-Royces for his government. Each one of them is so state-of-the-art that they cost more than pounds 60m. "What does the Government need them for?" you might ask. But no one is asking. The extraordinary thing is that such a question just isn't on the agenda. Oddly enough, there are no rumbles of protest at this extravagance - not a whisper, not even from the Treasury. These dream machines are justified on the grounds that building them will provide thousands of jobs. The Rolls-Royces have been redefined as a job-creation scheme, no problem.

Alas, these Rolls-Royces are no figment of the imagination. The EJ200 Rolls-Royce engines are to be fitted inside the Eurofighter, a flying machine of an exquisite sophistication Squadron Leader Biggles could only dream of. "Totally carefree handling," according to its makers. The cockpit computer has a woman's voice which rises to an urgent timbre when the blip of an enemy appears on her radar. The weapons are voice-operated and the pilot has only to look at his enemy to shoot him down. It needs only the tiniest finger movement on the joystick. Oh bliss!

The Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, last week were pressing the Germans to put up their share of the pocket money for this ultimate toy. The Germans have been dragging their heels since the prototypes flew last September at the Farnborough Air Show. The Germans, so much richer and bigger than us, are only buying 185 to our proud 232, and yet even they find paying out the money a bit difficult.

Last week, BBC radio news set the tone of reporting on this issue: "The Government has become alarmed at continual delays by Germany in approving its share of funding for production of the multi-national aircraft. Thousands of British jobs depend on the project." No quizzical voice was heard - how many jobs? At a total cost of pounds 15bn, the planes would create, according to the Ministry of Defence, some 14,000 jobs. That works out at nearly pounds 1.1m per job - the most profligate job-creation scheme ever devised.

Alarm bells should ring everywhere if this disingenuous appeal to the plane's job-creating potential is the best headline the Government can produce to sell it to the nation. Compare the Eurofighter's cost per job with the Government's welfare-to-work plans: the 250,000 young unemployed will cost pounds 3bn to get into work, which is pounds 12,000 per job. If the Eurofighter money was spent on welfare-to-work, 1.25 million new jobs could be created.

The Government announced its promised defence review within days of coming into office. It is to be wide-ranging and free-thinking, we were told. It will ask fundamental, even existential questions. Who are we? What is our role in the world? What do we want to be? What can we afford to be? Now the Cold War is over, what are we defending against whom? They need urgent answers. So why is the Government hastening to confirm its commitment to Eurofighter before deciding what it is for?

The plane has had a chequered history. It was designed as a fighter in the late 1970s in the days of East-West permafrost. But after the Wall came down, we didn't need a fighter anymore. Who were we likely to meet in the skies for whizzo Red Baron dogfights? (There was no aerial combat in the Gulf war or Bosnia). The design for the wings was then strengthened to take a greater pay-load so that the plane could double up as a bomber. On average, eight of them will crash a year in training, wasting pounds 480m a year.

There are far cheaper planes to be bought off the shelf. Okay, so it would not put us in the Top Gun league - we'd be driving Mondeos, not Rolls- Royces. A shame, maybe. But what are these wars we plan to fight all on our own? And don't be bamboozled by talk of the Eurofighter keeping us in the hi-tech business. These days, the key hi-tech developments happen in the electronics industry and spin into the defence industry, not the other way round.

No, the real reason for our phenomenally high defence expenditure is to compete with the other boys. Forget enemies; the arms race now is with our friends - the French and the Americans. If we want to stay in their gang and "punch above our weight", we have to show that our conkers and knuckle-dusters are just as good as theirs. Otherwise, we would lose our seat on the UN Security Council. Now that seat may be nice to have, but what is it worth to us in hard cash? To keep it, Britain spends twice the European average on defence - 3.1 per cent of GNP. Germany spends 1.7 per cent.

We are buying hardware like shopaholics in Harrods - 386 new Challenger tanks and 64 EH101 battle helicopters. At pounds 22bn a year, we could halve the amount we spend and still put our fair share into European defence and peace-keeping duties. This isn't old pacifism, but new realism.

It is doubtful that the British public has any idea what sacrifices they make for our defence status. After all, there are no politicians to make the case. The deafening silence that greeted George Robertson's support for Eurofighter last week was eerie. Is this the new politics or the dawn of the Pravda mentality? Did no one on the Labour back-benches wriggle with discomfort as they thought of the desolate housing estates back home, or some of their blighted schools and hospitals?

This is what the public does not know. If we halved our defence spending and saved pounds 11bn every year, that is a huge sum. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it could increase education spending by 30 per cent - we could reduce class sizes to 20, obliterate illiteracy and transform prospects for children. It would add another 25 per cent to NHS spending - the equivalent of 10 years of annual growth in one go. These are the two areas that will suffer huge cuts in the next two years under current Treasury plans, so the people ought to know what defence is costing them.

Or we could double the transport budget - swap the Rolls-Royces for deluxe public transport. We could increase the decimated capital expenditure budget by 60 per cent, restoring all the dereliction of the past 18 years. Or up the basic pension by a quarter. Think what could be done to get no-hope families on their feet and attack the roots of crime.

There are reasonable arguments in favour of our high defence status, but punching above our weight means paying beyond our means. Politicians have conspired to hide the true extent of that cost. Given the choice, would most people choose our UN seat or good schools, hospitals and public transport? It may be too late to stop the Eurofighter, but the defence budget could still be slashed and redistributed without leaving us any more defenceless than the rest of our European allies. But where are the strong pro-Blair voices to make the case? They need to come not from the old disarmers, but the new economists.

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