‘Carry on regardless’ is not good enough from Ministers
By Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Defence Secretary
On issues of defence and national security we should, where possible, always instinctively aim for political bipartisanship. But Labour’s support will always be matched by scrutiny.
For that reason I expressed concern today at the skills and capabilities being lost from the Army in light of the Prime Minister’s statement on the threat the UK now faces from North Africa.
The Government has said that the UK must respond to the threat in North Africa by working “across the region”, providing intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to Algeria, a close security partnership with Nigeria, building effective security forces in Libya and appropriate training and support in Mali. This represents a potentially significantly increased role for our Armed Forces across the world. We support the approach outlined, but we question whether such an expansion in responsibilities is compatible with cuts to personnel when there is no clear government plan to rebalance our Forces to enable them to respond to and deliver this new strategy.
Labour has previously argued that the Defence Review should be re-opened after capability gaps such as carrier strike were exposed by the conflict in Libya. But while the SDSR did not mention Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, striking given the events of the Arab Spring, neither did it mention Mali, Algeria or Nigeria. A strategy which was flawed in 2010 looks hazardous in 2013.
The SDSR committed the UK to an Army of 95,000, a cut of 7,000, but while the threats we face have increased personnel numbers are being cut further to 82,000, a total cut of 20,000. The MoD itself has revealed that specialist skills, such as in intelligence and linguists, are lacking, yet there are no clear plans for their regeneration. In light of this we believe it is now right to reconsider the conclusions and priorities of the 2010 Defence Review, which world events have revealed to be flawed and limited, driven more by the need for immediate savings than a thorough global threat assessment.
In today’s world the prosperity, security, liberty and civil liberties of those at home cannot be separated from events beyond our borders. A belief that you have responsibilities overseas is not, as some would have it, ideological, but a rational response to the world in which we live. We have seen in the cases of Libya and Mali that events may necessitate a military response. The configuration of such a response will be individual to circumstances, but there are characteristics of these conflicts which maximise the achievability of strategic goals – training local forces, aiding them to expel hostile aggressors and facilitating political reconciliation are all essential.
To help achieve this, our Forces will need advanced skills in areas such as intelligence, training, languages, cultural awareness and counter-insurgency and counter-radicalisation strategies, to name but a few. There will be consequences for our equipment programme and expeditionary capability, too, demanding sufficient naval resources, unmanned technology, helicopters, close air support, airlift and refuelling. At a time of savings and as the conflict in Afghanistan rightly continues as our main mission, tough decisions must be made.
While the Prime Minister has told the nation that “we are in the midst of a generational struggle”, however, he has not sufficiently reassured us how the new security strategy can be realised.
Added to this, gaps in the regular Army capability arising from redundancies are to be filled by a doubling of the Reserves. Progress, however, is concerning. A recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses showed that one in three employers said nothing would encourage them to employ a reservist, while 9 out of 10 said they hadn’t heard of the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Awareness Events, and the TA is facing recruitment shortages this year. Without incentives to hire Reservists and protection of Reservists’ employment rights so they don’t face discrimination this plan could fail, leaving our Army with a significant shortfall in capability.
Today is a day when we should all focus on those who may lose their jobs and their families. The personal impact will be enormous and all must be done to ensure they can transition to civilian life and find a new source of income, with the highest levels of support and care provided.
We must also be open, however, that the threats our country faces are enormous and ‘carry on regardless’ is not a strategy. Today was a missed opportunity to reassure not only about the future strength of our Forces, but how they will be reformed to meet the threat on the new front in North Africa.