British defence budge bust

A reality check for Britain's defence strategy

As UK troops risk becoming sidelined in Afghanistan, John Hutton must push for an urgent defence and security review

A senior brigadier's candour about the prospects of beating the Taliban in Afghanistan must have given the new defence secretary John Hutton a bit of jolt just days into his new job. But he should welcome the remarks of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith about British strategy as a cue for a reality check.

It isn't the only urgent problem in the new minister's in-tray. In fact, it is one of several that will need addressing sooner rather than later – and by that I mean in the next few weeks. It isn't that his predecessor, Des Browne, didn't care. He is said to have been privately anguished by the level of deaths and injuries of British servicemen and women in a conflict in which they have been involved over a longer period than the second world war.

The problem is that both Browne and his prime minister avoided public pronouncements about the aim of British strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, what it might realistically achieve and when the troops could come home.

The problems now facing Hutton are that British forces and their equipment are facing exhaustion after five-and-a-half years in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan. Though most of the troops will come out of Iraq next summer, they will do so with little sense of success and with the opprobrium of the Americans, the ally whose cause took them there in the first place.

The British division will pull out of Basra by midsummer, to be replaced by a US divisional command. In theory this should save between £500m and £750m from the UK budget. But it probably won't. Replacing their kit, training and redeployment – most likely to Afghanistan – will eat up a large slice of that saving........................"Increasingly the allies, even the ones doing the fighting like the Canadians, Dutch, Danes and Brits are becoming bit players – a sideshow," a British commander told me recently. "This is now an American mission."

The new American commander for US forces across the region, General David Petraeus, believes he can use the same tactics he has just employed in Iraq. He wants there now to be a surge of allied forces into Afghanistan in the way he believes that the surge of 35,000 extra American forces into Iraq have turned round security there – though some say the picture isn't as simple as that. He is preparing to dispatch a further 15,000 US forces to Kabul by the spring. On his visit to London last week he was evidently seeking the UK government to match this by sending the bulk of the forces being pulled out of Iraq next year of around 3,500 to Afghanistan.

The most Britain can send now is a few hundred extra specialists, engineers, signalers, logisticians and the like. There is an unspoken reluctance to commit further because of misgivings about the American approach to spreading the war into Pakistan and because the British defence budget is bust – or even worse than bust. In July, Bush signed an unpublished operational order authorising American ground forces as well as drones and aircraft to raid into Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuary zones inside Pakistan....

For British ministers like Hutton, the picture is made darker still by the disastrous state of defence finances. Equipment programmes that should run at an average of £16bn over the next 10 years are now expected to soar to more than double that at £35bn. There are problems with big-ticket items such as the new Nimrod surveillance plane and the recently installed Bowman communications system (at £2.2bn) that cannot meet today's requirements for battlefield and strategic communications. The extra £3bn for the Astute submarine programme for this year and the next has already been blown, according to defence industry sources and more funds will be required to get the programme up and running fully. Some in-house MoD analysts and critics are warning that Britain cannot afford to run all three armed services at their present premier division level – some even say that the navy may have to choose between running aircraft carriers and submarines.

"Things are really about to implode," a senior MoD advisers said privately this last week. Gordon Brown had hoped that he could put off a proper defence and security review until after the next election. Now he and his new defence secretary may find they are forced to carry one out very soon. It cannot be the usual "carry on chaps" approach of so many recent policy utterances from MoD in recent years.

This time it will have to assess what Britain really needs and can really do for its own security – and that doesn't necessarily mean treating America as the senior partner at all turns.

This time the review will have to be properly costed – which the last one, in 1998, was not. For it to have any realistic and lasting value it will also have to examine what we have learned from our mistakes and shortcomings since we went piling into Afghanistan and then Iraq since 2001. It is too late for protecting tender egos: a grown-up inquest into the Afghan and Iraq campaigns may avert even worse disasters ahead.

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