Who will defend our Armed Forces from enemies at home?
The Armed Forces are the most admired institution in Britain. How strange, therefore, that the Armed Forces should have so few friends among our masters. The Prime Minister declares his admiration for our Service people, as well he might, considering how often he turns to them for help in furthering his foreign policy - in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East - and to rescue him from domestic difficulty, as over the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the fire fighters' strike. When, however, they need his protection as they do in the present cost-cutting climate, he is nowhere to be found.
Instead, he defers to Gordon Brown. The Chancellor is apparently in charge of domestic policy and assuring the national defence, once judged an especial responsibility of the head of government, has become merely a budgetary matter. Former Chiefs of Staff relate how, after visiting the Prime Minister to persuade him of service needs, they have won his agreement but been told that they must persuade the Chancellor.
The Chancellor is difficult, if not impossible, to persuade. National defence is not one of his interests, although he protests he has visited the Rosyth naval base.
His protest is not very plausible, since Rosyth lies inside his constituency and ceased to be of any strategic importance soon after the First World War. He also argues that he has recently increased the defence budget, which he has, by a little over one per cent, the smallest increase of any major department. He says he has made £6 billion available to fight the war on terror, but he has held much of this back, saying existing resources should be used first. He has consequently forced cuts in the number of uniformed personnel, of fighting ships, of Army regiments and of Air Force squadrons.
One of his justifications is via a new Treasury system of accounting, that penalises the Services for the capital value of the property they own. The Services, particularly the Army, own a lot of property. They need it for training areas. It is difficult to see how the barren acres of Dartmoor might be mobilised to defend the White Cliffs of Dover.
If the Prime Minister is elusive and the Chancellor indifferent or even hostile, the Services might hope that their own minister, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, would go in to bat on their behalf. Some hope. He does not even put on his pads, let alone emerge from the pavilion. Indeed, like so many of today's sports supremos he deploys fancy language to disguise his failure to maintain his team's position in the league table. Under his care, each of the Services will decline to a size lower than ever before. He calls the process "restructuring" and "rebalancing". His justification is that the nature of modern warfare requires lighter, more agile and more easily deployable forces. In practice, that means an Army with fewer armoured vehicles, a Navy with fewer ships and an Air Force with fewer aircraft.
The prospects for the Navy are particularly alarming. Because it has been promised two large aircraft carriers, to come into service after 2012 (they have still not been ordered), it must now lose six of its escorts and all its seaborne fighters. Even if the Government stands by its promise to build the aircraft carriers, the resulting fleet would be an oddity - too many big ships, too few small to support them. Other countries have been there before. In the Dreadnought era, Brazil, Argentina and Chile bought state-of-the-art battleships from British yards as symbols of national pride. The rest of their fleets were obsolete and the new battleships had to be kept in home waters because they were too vulnerable to risk on the oceans. Already the Chief of the Naval Staff is warning that Hoon's smaller Navy will have to withdraw from the Atlantic. Where will the big carriers go?
The Air Force is in almost as parlous a state. While it is probably unavoidable that the squadrons of old Jaguar aircraft should be pensioned off, what will replace them is unclear. The Tornados are getting old and the Eurofighter, years behind delivery, is not a satisfactory substitute. The Air Force should have bought American aircraft, as the Navy will have to do if the carriers appear. Not having done so, it is in a mess, committed to buying a European fighter it does not want and about to lose aircraft it likes because they are near the end of their lives.
The Army's condition is, however, what should really worry a government committed to strong national defence. Here the role of the generals must be examined. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, defers to ministers and civil servants. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Mike Jackson, is the opposite, a clever soldier of strong personality who has a personal agenda. Originally an intelligence officer, he transferred to the Parachute Regiment and embraced its ethos. He wants to remake the rest of the Army in its image. The Parachute Regiment is the largest infantry regiment in the Army, with three identical battalions, between which officers and soldiers interchange. General Jackson wants to force the Army's traditional regiments of the line into a similar mould. He argues that career management and posting patterns would improve if small regiments were reorganised into five or six large regiments of several battalions each.
The trouble is that a Hoon-Jackson Army would almost certainly prove inferior. Hoon's restructured Army would lose its armour at precisely the moment when tanks and armoured infantry vehicles are proving their worth in urban combat in Iraq. Jackson's more logical Army would lose its local connections and the creativity for which the small regiments are notable. The little Devon & Dorsets is heavily over-represented among generals and the special forces. The small regiments also stimulate exceptional local pride and are important vehicles of community, one of the Prime Minister's most cherished values.
We are now a heavily taxed nation. A lot of the tax is wasted, on dirty hospitals, rowdy schools and ineffective state employees. Defence economies merely save money to be wasted elsewhere. It would fall on deaf ears to plead that the recent defence cuts be reversed. The pride of ministers and generals is now involved, defying appeals to reason.
Nevertheless, reason argues that, in the midst of a worldwide military and security crisis, it is not sensible to weaken the nation's defences. That is particularly so when national leaders, including generals, blithely accept an extension of our commitments. Immediately after the announcement of New Labour's reduction of our Armed Forces, General Jackson promised that a brigade would go to the Sudan to check atrocities in Darfur.
Brigades are not easily come by. Five thousand soldiers, properly organised and supported, are a scarce commodity, and will be all the more difficult to find after numbers have been reduced to fit General Jackson's image of what the Army should be. Moreover, every time servicemen intervene for humanitarian reasons far from home, a new responsibility is created. The expectation that Tommy Atkins will always appear to confront tribal militias or Islamic dissidents brings back the idea of the British Empire. That is scarcely what New Labour wants. If it does, it should be ready to pay.