Armed forces need sweeteners – but expect fudge

The Ministry of Defence must save £2bn over the next two years. But rather than cutting back on spending, could the MoD make better use of its resources? Or does it simply need more money?

Due to the "unhappy coincidence" of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and plans for several big spending programmes, the Ministry of Defence has money problems, says John Waples in The Sunday Times. It must save £2bn over the next two years.

With regular stories appearing about soldiers entering battle with insufficient equipment, spending less on current campaigns is "unthinkable". The alternative, cancelling future projects, is politically sensitive due to the job losses that would entail and would probably trigger penalty payments designed to prevent such a move. "The solution will be to reach for the fudge", which will either involve delaying the delivery of expensive bits of kit or using "sleight of hand" to keep spending off the books for a couple of years.

The demands to trim an "already insanely small budget" are shameful, says Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph. As our last 800 troops are sent to the Balkans, it emerges that it costs as much to service the national debt as to pay for defence. It is "inconceivable" that from within the "wasteful quango state, awash with staff, glossy brochures and publicly funded websites", savings could not be found and re-directed to the Services, said Iain Martin, also in The Daily Telegraph.

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But the reality is that our Government has been better at getting us involved in wars than at looking after those sent off to fight, and none of our political parties appears interested in the "erosion of our defence capability". The public don't seem to realise there is a direct link between Afghanistan and the terrorists that blow up Tube carriages.

The problem isn't the budget, it's the way it is spent, says Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror. For its size, the UK has the second highest defence spend after the US - £32.6bn in 2007/8. If only the MoD could spend money wisely instead of incurring huge cost overruns on every project, our soldiers might be properly equipped. "Grotesque cost indiscipline" exists, agreed Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times, but it is born out of concern for political image, sovereignty of supply' and the protection of British jobs. That is why the army must wait until 2011 for their new British-built Lynx helicopters (at £14m each) instead of buying the bigger American Sikorsky (at £6m) available this year.

Britain is also spending huge sums on weapons of little or no relevance such as carriers, destroyers and submarines instead of on "the poor bloody infantry", the backbone of modern warfare. Yet as the British Army fights a losing battle in two countries against forces whose equipment is primitive, the "brass hats continue to squabble to protect their precious toys and politicians lack the guts to bang their heads together".

This is the heart of it, says Philip Stephens in the FT. There is more to the confusion in Whitehall "than a mismatch of commitments and resources". The debate is an "argument without a context". Brown's government still hasn't decided what the armed forces are for. Tony Blair wanted Britain to remain a big military operator, but "Brown's instincts, reflected in the rapid expansion of the overseas aid budget, have long suggested a preference for soft power". But if the mood in Downing Street is one of military retrenchment, the commitment to Afghanistan and the "supersize procurement programmes" strike a discordant note. What we really need is someone to set out the Government's view of what Britain's defence forces are for.