By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 03/07/08):
Today the government will officially announce the go-ahead to build the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, two new aircraft carriers, the biggest and most expensive ships in the long history of the Royal Navy. They are due to enter service in 2014 and 2016, and are estimated to cost £3.9bn. That does not include the multibillion cost of equipping the ships with US Joint Strike Fighters. But, as ministers will doubtless point out, the deal should guarantee thousands of jobs at English and Scottish shipyards for years to come.
While the navy is purring over the prospect of sailing large new carriers, a new fleet of destroyers, and nuclear-armed Trident submarines, and the RAF gets 144 long-delayed and increasingly costly Eurofighter/Typhoon jets, with the prospect of 88 more, the army is desperate.
These huge new projects for the navy and the RAF come at a time when the Ministry of Defence’s budget is under enormous pressure and when the army has been bearing the brunt of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the navy and the RAF press ahead with schemes planned long ago, the army faces the prospect of having to get rid of its heavy weapons, notably tanks and artillery.
Lack of intelligence and foresight, but also events that were difficult to predict, has meant that since 2001 the armed forces have had to put in 1,500 “urgent operational requirements” for equipment, at a cost of £3.5bn. Coroners at inquests into the deaths of British soldiers have castigated the MoD for failing to provide troops with adequate equipment. Soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan while patrolling in lightly armoured Land Rovers designed for counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland. Des Browne was quick to order armoured vehicles when he was appointed defence secretary two years ago, but they were not enough. Only now is the MoD developing replacements for Land Rovers – the Ridgback, an upgraded version of the US Cougar 4x4s.
British military commanders badly need more helicopters to ferry troops and equipment around, and to carry out special forces and emergency rescue operations. Yet, to accommodate prestigious projects like the carriers, defence officials are considering abandoning plans to equip the army with 70 updated Lynx helicopters to replace its ageing fleet, an investment that would give our soldiers much-needed help. Cutting numbers of, or downgrading, a long-planned armoured vehicle for the army, the so-called Future Rapid Effects System (Fres), is also on the cards.
Meanwhile, soldiers taking leave have to rely on old RAF TriStars to fly home from Iraq and Afghanistan. There are frequent reports of troops spending hours at the start of their leave at airfields waiting for their planes to be repaired. It is little wonder that General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the army, has publicly raised concerns about the pressures being placed on the men and women under his care. As a result, Gordon Brown appears to have dashed Dannatt’s chance of succeeding Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup as chief of the defence staff.
Brown publicly pays his respects to brave British soldiers. The MoD is told to get on and sort out its (very serious) budget problems. Military officials describe the decision to build the new carriers as “political”, as though the heads of the three armed forces have no views of their own or, if they do, they are irrelevant. At the same time, ministers ask miliary chiefs what they want. Unsurprisingly, they have different priorities. As a result, the buck is passed around. Hard choices are avoided, and soldiers become victims of disastrous decision-making paralysis.