MPs slam ‘over-ambitious’ defence review

By Alex Stevenson

Britain's influence in the world is being hurt by the drive towards savings in the armed forces, MPs have concluded in a damning report.

The Commons' defence committee found that the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) completed last October was an unconvincing response to the challenges facing the military.

Its report even doubted that the armed forces will be able to do what is asked of them after 2015, given spending cuts and decisions on aircraft carriers and Nimrod MRA4.

Labour called for the SDSR's decisions to be reviewed, but chief of the defence staff General Sir David Richards insisted "we will remain a formidable fighting force on the world stage".

Committee chair James Arbuthnot expressed serious doubts that this would continue to be the case.

"If the UK's influence in the world is to be maintained, the government must demonstrate in a clear and convincing way that these reductions have been offset by identifiable improvements elsewhere rather than imprecise assertions of an increased reliance on diplomacy and 'soft power'," he said.

"If the government cannot do so, the national security strategy is in danger of becoming a 'wish list' that fails to make the hard choices necessary to ensure the nation's security."

The SDSR outlined the government's vision of the shape of the armed forces in ten years' time, known as 'Future Force 2020'.

This appeared to be both a 'wide spectrum' force capable of dealing with a number of different kinds of tasks at the same time as being regarded as the "critical mass" of the armed forces, MPs said.

"The two views are not compatible," Mr Arbuthnot added.

The report called on ministers to state from the outset where new operations fit within the 'defence planning assumptions' outlined in the most recent defence review.

Britain's decision to commit to an open-ended conflict in Libya appears to have postponed the decision to bring commitments and resources into line, it found.

Defence secretary Liam Fox said he had announced the military equipmwnt budget would rise in real terms by over £3 billion from 2015 to 2020.

"Our future equipment programme is no longer an unfunded aspiration but one that provides real money for real equipment," he commented.

"We continue to have the fourth largest military budget in the world and the SDSR has put defence back on a stable footing with highly capable armed forces and certainty for our personnel and their families.

"I am pushing through radical reform to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated."

Dr Fox blamed Labour for putting off the defence review, but shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said the report had revealed "the mismatch between policy ambition and the resources provided by ministers".

"A defence policy which put a drive for rushed cuts ahead of real security strategy means our armed forces are at the very limit of what they are able to do, with no contingency," he said.

"In an uncertain world this is increasingly dangerous.

"The decisions made in the review now clearly need themselves to be reviewed. The government must either change their ambition for Britain or change course on defence."