This piece was written on 25 June 2011
From today’s media reports, it appears that the MoD has identified another black hole in their finances – another £10 billion over and above all the cuts and savings already announced. We have all become so used to quoting costs in billions of pounds (and the Americans of course now regularly talk of trillions of dollars). £10 billion sounds much more impressive, and worrying, when you realise that ten billion is the same as ten thousand million. Perhaps this Government thinks that Armed Forces Day is a good day to bury bad news?
I don’t think that our Government (or the previous one) really understands the way defence works. Because of the very long lead times for supplying new equipment and newly-trained personnel, the smaller the overall pot of money, the more important it becomes to establish once and for all the defence aims. In the past there always seemed to be enough money in the defence pot to keep the three Service chiefs relatively happy with their portion. That is no longer possible, and it should surprise no-one that the Service chiefs are now taking the desperate measures of ‘leaking’, or perhaps more likely, allowing to be leaked, their innermost worries.
The time has come when the Government has to stop moaning about the legacy left by their predecessors and start making decisions between, for example: aircraft carriers; a selection of fighting ships of various size and capabilities; modern aircraft to meet different requirements – ground attack, air defence, helicopters and transports etc; the best and most modern equipment for our land forces; and the so-called independent nuclear deterrent. Yes, let’s not forget that! Do we really, really need it when all it does is guarantee the Government a place at the top table.
If the Government tries to share out an ever-reducing pot of gold to feed the three Services' competing requirements, the end result is that none of them will have sufficient resources to do their job – and resources, of course, includes manpower. That is the way, sooner or later, to disaster.
I am surprised that the media is making a fuss about the number of colonels in the British Army who are applying for voluntary retirement: apparently there are about 4 colonels applying for each of the vacancies the MoD is offering. On the other hand not enough ‘other ranks’ are applying for voluntary redundancy so most of the cuts amongst them will be mandatory. None of this should be any surprise. Colonels, because they have reached senior rank, are old enough and have served long enough to be entitled to generous redundancy payments in addition to a reasonable level of retired pay. Whether or not they can get a job in civilian life is probably largely academic: some may have a job lined up (a growing number of retired officers seem to be getting elected as MPs - and I welcome that) - while others will be happy to retire gracefully. Whatever the reason for their wish to leave, it's clear that those colonels are now disillusioned with the Services they have served with such distinction. Will there be a commensurate reduction in the number of star-ranking officers, I wonder?
Many of the lower ranks who are going to be made compulsorily redundant will not have served long enough for a pension and are young enough to be anxious about the prospects of employment after casting off their uniforms. Their redundancy payments are unlikely to be generous enough to compensate for the careers they thought they had. How many of the young RAF pilots who had completed much of their extremely expensive flying training before being made redundant will find employment in civil airlines – or anywhere else? And what a kick in their teeth it is to hear that their instructors and the training aircraft will be utilised to train foreign students!