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Reshaping our Armed Forces to meet present and future challenges

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 12:09

Dr Liam Fox in Helmand, August 2010. Photo: MOD.

By Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence

There are three priority tasks I have as Secretary of State for Defence.

The first is to ensure that our Armed Forces have all they need to fulfil their task in Afghanistan.  Success is vital to the national security of the UK, the US, our allies and to international security more widely.  The presence of ISAF is preventing al Qaeda and the Taliban regime from returning, while we train Afghanistan’s security forces to take over the task for themselves.  The Prime Minister has made it clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in the numbers they are now in Afghanistan by 2015.  This is entirely consistent with the internationally agreed objective. We have the right strategy and enough time to achieve it.

The second task is to help deal with the deficit as part of the coalition cabinet, which understands that without healthy finances we can create neither the public services nor the national security we desire. I didn’t come into politics wishing to see a reduction in our Defence budget, but we must confront the ghastly truth of Labour’s legacy. Next year the interest bill alone for Labour’s debt will be over £46bn – more than the entire Defence budget for the UK. The cuts that we are facing are Labour’s cuts. There is an unfunded liability in Defence of around £37 billion over the next 10 years. The equipment and support programme alone makes up over £20 billion of this – that is equipment Labour planned without ever having an idea whether the budget would be able to afford it. The price of this irresponsibility will ultimately be paid for by short-term reductions as we try to return Defence to a sound footing.

So in my third priority task, carrying out a long overdue Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), we face unavoidably constrained finances. It is a disgrace that Labour allowed 12 years to elapse without conducting a Defence review despite committing our Armed Forces to conflicts in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan and with the enormous changes in the global security picture. This Government will not shirk our responsibility however hard the task may be.

There are three ways to conduct a Defence Review in the circumstances. First, you could just cut a bit of everything – the equal pain option across the Services. It is a lazy option that does not differentiate between capabilities or assess real risk. The second is to protect current capabilities within a tight financial envelope and trim away any other spending. This would merely fossilise what we are currently able to do at the expense of capabilities we will need for the future.

The third option means looking ahead to the end of the decade and deciding what we want our Armed Forces to look like at that time based on the foreign policy goals we have set ourselves, our assessment of the future character of conflict and anticipating the changes in technology that we will need to incorporate. The National Security Council has agreed that the overarching strategic posture should be to address the most immediate threats to our national security while maintaining the ability to identify and deal with emerging ones before they become bigger threats to the UK. This flexible, adaptable posture will maintain the ability to safeguard international peace and security, to deter and contain those who threaten the UK and its interests, and where necessary to intervene on multiple fronts.  It will also, crucially, keep our options open for a future in which we can expect our highest priorities to change over time.

For Defence this means we need to invest in programmes that will put our Armed Forces on a sound footing for the years ahead and divest ourselves of the capabilities which we are unlikely to need in a world where the moral climate demands precision weaponry and where the battle space increasingly embraces the unmanned and cyber domains. So the SDSR is not simply a random selection of cuts but the objective process by which we will shape the Armed Forces we will need at the end of this decade.

But that does not mean the decisions will be easy or uncontroversial.  Far from it.  But it will represent a radical, positive agenda for change. It will reshape the MOD and the Military for the challenges of the future and give greater certainty to those who depend on our defence industries. It will be clear example of how we will govern, not in our own interest, but in the national interest.