Michael Dugher: Britain will pay a price in the future as rushed defence cuts reduce our role in the world

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AS a result of the events unfolding in Libya, combined with the latest announcements of redundancies to our services, the debate around what role the UK should play in the world, and what kind of armed forces we need in order to meet these ambitions, has been reignited.

It is now widely accepted – both inside and outside the Ministry of Defence – that the Government failed to answer these key questions sufficiently in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) last October.

Few serious commentators would deny that the review was rushed – taking less than half the time to complete than the previous defence review in 1998 – and that it was fundamentally a spending review.

This failure to conduct a proper defence review was a major missed opportunity. The process should have been used to reshape the UK’s defence capabilities for the future, but the Government began by asking what could be cut now instead of what needed to be done to meet our strategic security goals.

This approach was destined to fail and has ultimately led to a number of gaps in our military capacity with dangerous long-term consequences.

David Cameron told the House of Commons this week that the success in Libya vindicated his SDSR decisions.

He is right to say that we should be extremely proud of what our Armed Forces have achieved – they have done a fantastic job carrying out many successful missions, once again demonstrating their professionalism and bravery.

But the truth is that they have managed to do this in spite of the SDSR, and not because of it. If the crisis had started only a few months later, things could have been very different.

Equipment that the SDSR stated was surplus to requirements has turned out to be vital. HMS Cumberland, for example, was due to be decommissioned before it was sent back into action to evacuate British nationals from Libya.

The Government wanted to scrap two Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft back in March, but was forced to give them a stay of execution. And the number of RAF Tornados, which have been used extensively in Libya, is set to be reduced.

There were also important resources that could have been extremely useful if they had not been decommissioned before the start of the operation.

For example, HMS Ark Royal (the UK’s aircraft carrier) and the Harrier fleet were scrapped as part of the SDSR, leaving Britain – unlike the French, Italians and the Americans – unable to position a carrier-strike capability off the coast of Libya.

The RAF has had to rely on using forward bases in Italy and even resorting to long-range sorties from the UK. As well as slowing down response times, this has made the British operation much more expensive. It has been calculated that the long-range sorties from RAF Marham to Libya – a 3,000-mile round trip lasting eight hours – cost around £200,000 a time.

The SDSR has clearly been exposed by events and it is important that we now reassess our ability to respond to future threats. After 9/11, Labour produced a “new chapter” to the 1998 defence review. The Government needs to do the same now and re-open the 2010 SDSR so that we can face up to the shifting strategic landscape.

But as well as ensuring that we reassess how we better equip and prepare for future threats, the Government also needs to reflect on how it is treating the men and women that serve our great armed forces.

Morale is at a real low with widespread uncertainty over mass redundancies. In opposition, Liam Fox said that the Army was too small and promised “a bigger Army for a safer Britain”.

Now in government, the Defence Secretary has laid out plans to cut the size of the Army by one-fifth and the RAF and the Royal Navy by 5,000 each. These redundancies, which are a direct result of the Government trying to cut the deficit too fast, have been criticised by the former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, and could put our capabilities at risk.

Last week, 930 RAF and 920 Army personnel were told that they were being made redundant, many of which had been working on frontline operations as ground crew or support staff. And at the beginning of the year, a number of senior military personnel were even sacked by e-mail. This kind of treatment is just not good enough – our forces and their families deserve better.

Britain and our Armed Forces have a proud history and we still have a key role to play in world affairs. However, the SDSR is putting this at risk.

The Government still insists that the UK must be able to fight in any possible future conflict, but the SDSR just does not support these ambitious military goals. In reality, the Government must either change its ambition for Britain or change course on defence.

In his leaked private memo to the Prime Minister on the eve of the SDSR’s announcement, Liam Fox warned that “our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments… this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR”.

He was right then and the Government is wrong now.

Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East, and a Shadow Defence Minister.