Last week, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling presented the budget for 2009-10. The news for Britain’s hard-pressed armed forces was grim. Labour’s record is already a terrible one. Under the guidance of Gordon Brown, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and now as Prime Minister, the forces have been consistently starved of money and manpower. The most recent budget ensures that this lamentable failure will only become more glaring in the years to come.
For 2009-10, the budget of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) will rise by 850 million pounds, an increase of about 2.2 percent. Even on its own, that increase, after taking inflation into account, would amount to no more than holding the line. But that 850 million pound figure must also be judged against the cuts the Treasury has imposed, cuts that will collectively result in the MoD having less to spend in real terms in the coming year.
First, the Treasury is demanding that the MoD create 315 million pounds in efficiencies in the coming year. As Defence News points out, “efficiency savings targets are not always met and often are grossly overestimated.” If the MoD does achieve this target, it will do so only by selling off assets; if it does not, it will be punished by the Treasury. That is a no-win situation.
Second, the Treasury has declared that, in future, the MoD will be responsible for meeting most the cost of urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan out of its own budget. In 2009-10, this will cost the MoD at least an additional 265 million pounds, and that is before taking the increased expenses that will result from the Anglo-American surge into account. This shameful arrangement means that the MoD faces another invidious choice: sacrifice the troops in the field, or cut into the core of its budget.
The result is that there will be more procurement cuts and delays in the coming year. Not all of these cuts will be wrong: Britain has made so many unwise procurement decisions (usually as a result of a desire to play nice with Europe) that cancelling some programs would be a positive step. But inevitably, good programs – like the F-35 fighter, jointly developed by Britain and the U.S. – will be cut along with bad ones.
All this is bad. But in 2010-11, bad turns to worse. Next year, the Treasury promises to cut the MoD’s budget by two billion pounds. That is a cut of over 5 percent. There is simply no way that the MoD can sustain a cut on this scale without losing further essential capabilities. If Britain goes on this way, it will very soon be reduced to a second-tier, regional power, which would pose grave risks to the defense of its interests and values around the world, and to the future of Anglo-American cooperation.
In its latest issue, the Economist describes the budget as an “outright falsehood” and “a dishonest piece of pre-election politicking.” That is harsh language. But it is well past time for commentators to realize that Britain’s armed forces, like its public finances, have suffered grievously under Brown’s stewardship. The next government must not repeat his errors.