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October 17, 2007 12:01 AM
In Defence Management

Defence has never been a more topical issue than it is now. With our forces deployed in two major theatres, it is evident that the need for a coherent and clear vision for our armed forces is essential. We cannot predict what the future will bring; strategic planning is built on uncertain scenarios. But as we look set to remain in Afghanistan for many years to come, and face a withdrawal in Iraq over the next year, we must assess our current status and look at what capabilities we need to meet our future objectives in a new international, and domestic, climate.

A new Strategic Defence Review (SDR) must be the starting point of any future planning. Since the SDR of 1998 we have come to face different threats and fresh challenges. No one could have foreseen the scale of international terrorism, or the extent of our involvement in the aftermath of 9/11, but we must respond to these new realities. What is more, with our forces fighting on two fronts we have witnessed increasing overstretch both of manpower and equipment, to the extent that our armed forces are now at a critical breaking point.

The Liberal Democrats have persistently been a lone voice in calling for a phased withdrawal from Iraq. Such a move will be a key step in reducing the strain on our forces - though by no means a magic solution. Iraq has not been the swift success that people were led to believe, with the death toll of personnel and civilians rising month on month, and around 90% of insurgency violence targeted at allied forces. We have to recognise also that our efforts in Iraq are doing little to lessen the sectarian violence. As we approach the next parliamentary session, Iraq will undoubtedly remain a significant issue as troops are gradually drawn down and we look to the end game. But attention will move to Afghanistan where we have more troops than in Iraq and are still far from an adequate solution.

The signs increasingly show that we will be in Afghanistan for many years, if not decades, to come. It is therefore essential that greater efforts are made to maintain our commitment, reinforce our troops with essential equipment and kit, and encourage our allies to provide the vitally needed support. We cannot win Afghanistan alone, and as a recent report by the NATO Assembly rightly stated, "NATO still lacks a clear strategic objective in the region and the continuing use of national caveats and a severe lack of financial and human resources will have dramatic consequences, not only for the theatre of operations but also for the Afghan people." The international commitment to the effort needs to be reaffirmed and a renewed focus brought to the mission to ensure the objectives are achieved. Our Government should be instrumental in putting these issues at the top of the international agenda.

It is evident that the future of our operations and interventions will undoubtedly be based on our membership of NATO, but we should also look increasingly to working with the European Union. Such cooperation does not imply a relinquishing of national sovereignty, but a strategic and effective partnership to alleviate some of the national planning and budgetary constraints, particularly in the way of procurement. Indeed, we should perhaps be slightly more ready to contemplate off-the-shelf purchases or the hiring of equipment when needed, especially when it means our frontline troops get vital equipment in a matter of weeks rather than months, or indeed years. We should assume that there will be a continued need for equipment and readiness for expeditionary warfare and we have to be able to meet those demands. The Defence Industrial Strategy has gone some way to improving partnership between the MOD and defence industries, but we should be doing more to protect smaller companies whenever possible and encourage diversity in the defence industry.

The Comprehensive Spending Review at the beginning of October was not a generous settlement, despite its packaging. Its 1.5% increase is no real improvement on recent years and in light of the current operational demands. We need either a reduction in commitments or additional resources. We need to match short term priorities with long term vision. Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) play a vital role in providing rapid and essential support and equipment for current operations, but we need to also look at where planning is failing and address it to avoid unnecessary overspend and make sure that we rectify inefficiencies and delays in the MOD. Should the Treasury clamp down on UORs, we need guarantees that frontline commanders will still get financial support for what is most needed.

Ultimately, the future of defence depends on the state of our armed forces. It is the men and women of the services that make it possible for us to be an effective fighting and peacekeeping force around the world. The Defence White Paper of 1999 recognised this when it said: "People give us the critical edge that leads to success," yet we are still not providing the investment that is so essential. Notably, welfare issues did not feature prominently in the CSR, despite a lacklustre effort to invest more in housing. More would be achieved if the defence budget were ring fenced to provide a set amount each year specifically to welfare needs so that the budget for accommodation, healthcare or support is not curtailed when there is overspend in other areas.

As a party we want to see people put at the heart of defence policy. Our personnel should be at the centre of any new SDR and we need to restore the military covenant and prioritise welfare so that we can make future commitments in the knowledge that our men and women feel they are valued, respected and supported at home and abroad.

There is a lot at stake for the future of defence. We are at a critical juncture in which our personnel, our equipment, and our approach need a radical rethink. At present we are on an unsustainable course; our forces are in two theatres, severely overstretched and under-funded. What is more the future of our armed forces and our role and objectives in the international arena lack a clear vision. If we are to fulfil our desire to play a key role in international affairs and be a positive force for good around the world then at the very least, a clear foreign policy, an efficient and effective fighting force and a rational and up-to-date view of the challenges we face have to be the essential foundations for the future of our defence.