Rifts open up on defence
By James Blitz and Alex Barker
Published: September 17 2010 23:00 | Last updated: September 17 2010 23:00
Serious rifts have emerged between ministers and service chiefs over Britain’s military priorities as David Cameron’s government enters the final days of intense negotiations over its Strategic Defence and Security Review.
As the prime minister prepares to take the most difficult decisions on military policy since the end of the cold war, Liam Fox, defence secretary, has drawn up a comprehensive blueprint to meet the Treasury’s minimum demand for a 10 per cent cut in his department’s budget over the next four years. Mr Fox is proposing that Britain sticks with its plan to build two new aircraft carriers at a cost of more than £5bn, while buying just 70 Joint Strike Fighters, half the number originally planned. His proposal rules out an extended delay in the replacement of the four submarines that can launch Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.
But Army chiefs are launching a last-minute assault on Mr Fox’s plans, demanding he goes further in slashing high-tech platforms for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force which they believe the UK does not need.
One senior Army figure said: “We’re within two weeks of a decision and we don’t have any vision of how our armed forces should be configured in 2025 unless you think we’re only going to be fighting World War Three. We are in a right bugger’s muddle.”
The Army says Britain should build only one aircraft carrier, using it mainly for training and keeping it on “extended readiness”. In addition, Army chiefs argue the MoD should abandon plans to buy the F-35 jet for the carrier, restricting itself to purchasing the land version after 2020 while investing in unmanned combat air vehicles.
However, senior defence figures told the FT that the Navy and RAF will fiercely resist any change to Mr Fox’s plan, which was finalised at a meeting of the defence board at the MoD last Tuesday. It will be presented to the prime minister’s National Security Council in 10 days’ time. Senior defence officials fear fierce inter-service rivalry is standing in the way of a sound strategic outcome. “The Army is putting forward a vision that is uncompromisingly army-centric,” said one. “What is the point of going through a joint process if they break ranks to propose something unbalanced and incoherent?”
Navy and RAF chiefs said Britain needed the carriers and jet fighters to maintain a major military presence around the world. They also fear that demands of fighting in Afghanistan will excuse the Army from the need to make budget cuts.
But Army figures are incensed at the way Mr Fox has backed the other two services. “The idea that we should purchase two carriers is strategically illiterate,” said one planner. “Fox has based his strategy on giving Britain lots of big guns without knowing what to do with them.”
Asked whether Mr Cameron would defy Mr Fox and opt for just one carrier, this figure said: “I believe the prime minister may well do that. It makes military sense, it makes economic sense, it fits with current thinking on the nature of warfare and it fits with what the US military would want.”