'Random. Fallacious. Arrogant.': The Government's confused defence strategy

Today, we publish a letter (see below) – signed by 50 senior military figures, politicians and academics – which warns that in its rush to save money on defence, the coalition has made a profound error

It took months of agonising discussions between worried politicians and fearful military men to map out Britain's military strategy for the coming generation.

And when David Cameron set out the conclusions of his Strategic Defence and Security Review to a restless House of Commons last autumn, he appeared confident that all the sweat and fears of the previous five months had been worth it.

For Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians who had spent years in opposition attacking the previous government over its failure to honour the military covenant and ensure the armed forces were sufficiently resourced and recognised, this was the chance to put things right.

Grandly billed as "Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty", the SDSR mapped "a clear vision for the future structure of our armed forces", according to the Prime Minister. Yet the most telling assertion was that it was not "simply a cost-saving exercise to get to grips with the biggest budget deficit in post-war history".

The review, which faced a £38bn "black hole" in the MoD's accounts, and Treasury demands for cuts of at least 7.5 per cent this year, has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. More than 500 ships, aircraft, tanks and armoured vehicles are being axed. The scale of cuts means that Britain would have to confine itself to playing a reduced role in future conflicts, with a force of no more than 6,500 – around a third smaller than the force currently in Afghanistan. Only in special circumstances would there be a bigger deployment, and even then it would be capped at a 30,000-strong force.

Rear Admiral Scott Lidbetter, chairman of the Fleet Air Arm Officers' Association, said: "You couldn't make it up. Conduct a so-called Strategic Defence and Security Review to save a lot of money quickly and make a number of random cuts throughout defence based on fallacious, last-minute departmental advice."

Five months and one contagious North African uprising later, and the whole strategy already appears dangerously out of date.

The SDSR runs to 76 pages and almost 40,000 words, but three words are conspicuously absent: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The only mentions of Africa are passing references to the African Union and the West African gangs who smuggle goods into the UK.

Major-General Julian Thompson, former commander of the Royal Marines, condemned the planners' "arrogance" in declaring that: "In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy air power from the sea will be essential." He added: "Well, the short term in this case has been very short indeed – five months after SDSR."

He is one of 50 leading military, political and academic figures to have signed a letter in The Independent on Sunday today, which warns how the "security landscape has radically changed" as a result of events in North Africa.

A number of Tory MPs, including defence committee member Penny Mourdant, did not sign the letter but voiced their concerns. Bernard Jenkin said the Public Administration Select Committee, which he chairs, had "pointed out the strategic mismatch at the heart of SDSR, between the Government's ambitions for Britain to play a global leadership role and the decision to cut defence capabilities".

The defence review has weakened key air and sea capabilities, with the scrapping of the Harrier jets and HMS Ark Royal one of the most controversial decisions. Senior military figures are so concerned that they have produced a briefing now being circulated within the Cabinet which contradicts Mr Cameron's optimism that Britain could play any meaningful role if a no-fly zone was needed over Libya. It warns: "The resources required in terms of land-based fighter aircraft and supporting units for the enforcement of such a zone are significantly greater than those available within the British military inventory." It adds that if the Harriers and Ark Royal had been kept in service, "Britain would now be in an incommensurably better position to assist in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya."

Admiral Sir John "Sandy" Woodward, commander of Britain's taskforce in the Falklands War, accused the former chief of the defence staff Lord Stirrup of privately lobbying Mr Cameron to axe the Harrier. Lord Stirrup rejected the "completely false" allegations yesterday, claiming that "the whole issue of which aircraft to reduce was debated extensively".

The disagreement vividly illustrates the in-fighting between the three armed services which compromised a defence review that many believe was rushed through and motivated by a desire to cut budgets.

The crisis in North Africa has also opened political divisions within the Tory leadership over the world-view that underpinned the review. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has complained forcefully in Cabinet about the failure to foresee the crisis – but also about the need for an aggressive response to it, to discourage dictators around the world.

Mr Cameron and his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, are more cautious, opposing any action that could be seen as "meddling" in another country's affairs. Yet the troubled airlift of Britons out of Tripoli, and confused talk of no-fly zones over Libya, have damaged confidence in their argument.

No matter. The SDSR may already have settled the argument over what the Government should do by imposing limits on what its forces are capable of achieving.

Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, who fought bitterly against the scale of the cuts levied on his department, has privately ruled out any large-scale military effort in Libya. He told MPs that the forces did not have the resources even to mount the kind of humanitarian operation the Prime Minister is now debating.

Dr Fox said last night that the coalition had been left with a £38bn shortfall by a government which "failed to have a defence review for 12 years and presided over financial mismanagement where the MoD was spending more than its budget". He added: "The SDSR has allowed us to reshape the armed forces to face future threats, making our military more adaptable... We have the fourth-largest military budget in the world and are investing in modern, cutting-edge equipment such as the Joint Strike Fighter, new submarines and new aircraft carriers."

But even General Sir Richard Dannatt, a Conservative adviser and former chief of defence staff, backed the call for a rethink: "There are moments in history when any government might wish to re-evaluate its security and defence policies and priorities – recent events in North Africa and the Middle East constitute one such moment. Even though the Government's SDSR is only months old, its conclusions should now be tested against the world as it looks today – last year seems a long time ago."

The letter...

Dear David Cameron,

We accept the need for savings to be made in the defence budget, against a background of the wider economic situation and the history of overspends at the Ministry of Defence.

However, the Strategic Defence and Security Review seems to have been driven by financial rather than military considerations. Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have highlighted the unpredictability of global security – there was no mention of North Africa in the SDSR at all.

The security landscape has radically changed and some of the assumptions on which the review was based should be reconsidered.

The irony of HMS Cumberland, which faces being decommissioned, playing a key role in evacuations from Benghazi is not lost on those who take an interest in the future of the Royal Navy. The announcement of redundancies in the RAF on the same day as speculation about enforcing a no-fly zone was also regrettable.

Britain's ability to play a role in the event of military action in Libya has been called into question in recent days. In light of the new potential threats posed by unrest in North Africa, we urge David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, to reopen the SDSR and ensure the forces are properly structured and adequately funded to meet the nation's requirements.

Signed: General Sir Michael Rose; Admiral Lord West, former First Sea Lord and Labour minister; Rear Admiral Scott Lidbetter, chairman of the Fleet Air Arm Officers' Association; Commodore Steve Jermy, former strategy director, British embassy, Kabul; Colonel Clive Fairweather, former SAS Commander; Commander Nigel 'Sharkey' MacCartan-Ward DSC AFC; Sir Michael Graydon, former Air Chief Marshal; Major General Julian Thompson; Sir Paddy Hine, former Air Chief Marshal; Baroness Brenda Dean, chairman, House of Lords defence group; Lord George Foulkes; Colonel Peter Walton; Sir Nicholas Bonsor, UKNDA vice-president, former Foreign Office minister; Rear-Admiral Jeremy Larken; Col David Benest; Capt Michael Clapp RN; Cdr Graham Edmonds RN; Lt-Cdr Richard Little RN, UKNDA life member; Randolph Churchill, UKNDA vice-president, former naval officer; Andrew Roberts, journalist, historian and author, UKNDA vice-president; Peter Caddick-Adams, military historian; Bruce Dalton, retired Army officer; Azeem Ibrahim, UKNDA vice-president, businessman; Kees van Haperen, UKNDA chief executive; Andy Smith, journalist and military historian, UKNDA board member; Stuart Notholt, journalist and author, UKNDA board member; Michael Codner, director of military sciences, RUSI; Bob Ainsworth, former Labour defence secretary; Jim Murphy, shadow defence secretary; Gisela Stuart, Labour MP; Mike Hancock, LibDem MP; Sandra Osborne, Labour MP; Admiral Sir Jeremy Black GBE KCB DSO, former Commander in Chief naval home command; Dr Anthony J Cumming, author of 'The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain' and winner of the Julian Corbett prize for research in modern naval history, 2006; Professor Greg Kennedy, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King's College London; Sir Benjamin Bathurst GCB, former admiral of the fleet; Dr Duncan Redford, Centre for Maritime Historical Studies, University of Exeter; David Hobbs, former commander Royal Navy; Captain Alan Hensher RN; Admiral Sir John Forster 'Sandy' Woodward; Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike, KCB, DSO, MBE; Baroness Ann Taylor of Bolton, minister for defence procurement 2007; Baroness Helen Liddell of Coatdyke, SoS Scotland 2001-03; Dr GH Bennett, naval historian, University of Plymouth; Julie McCarthy, chief executive, Army Families Federation; Sir Peter Squire, former chief of air staff; Major General Patrick Cordingley, commander of the Desert Rats during the first Gulf War; Professor Eric Grove, professor of naval history at Salford University; Lord Williams of Elvel, member of Lords EU sub-committee on defence and foreign affairs; Sir Patrick Duffy, former navy minister.

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