The intense public lobbying by all three services, leaked letters and the parade of unacceptable options for cuts amidst a culture of secrecy does not make for a good review. Given the need for a wide ranging debate about the UK’s needs, options and capabilities, it might have been better to have called for evidence and invited public hearings to look at the main issues before Ministers came to make conclusions. Alternatively, the documents needed to be held secure and confined to just a few people if the aim was to have a review conducted in secret without leaks.
It will be a pity if the defence Review is driven by current needs in Afghanistan. Of course this government must provide all support and equipment it can for the remaining months of our troops in the Middle East, but it should not regard fighting a war there as normal or an essential future requirement. Better still, we should be seeking to accelerate the transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces, and getting our troops out of combat duties well before the deadline of 2015.
UK defence should have three main aims. The first is to be able to defend the home islands against any possible attack. The second is to make a contribution to expeditionary warfare, peace making and policing through NATO. The third is to ensure maritime protection of our main trade routes and our overseas territories and less powerful friends.
Defending the UK requires a nuclear deterrent, as all three main political parties believe. It requires a substantial navy with air protection, to ensure that no-one can threaten invasion by sea or air. Modern defence may come to rely more on unmanned weaponry and on smart and stealth weapon systems. The UK should retain its involvement in the development of sophisticated weapons systems that rely less on men and women risking their lives to offer credible defence.
The second and third also require a substantial navy with air support. The expeditionary capability requires a mixture of carrier based task forces with possible long distance air support operating from appropriate bases. Maritime patrolling relies on sufficient ships, sometimes needing carrier assistance,sometimes just needing helicopters carried on board smaller vessels.
Of course a highly professional and well trained army with special forces is also important. The army units provide the core of any Uk defence on land, and provide the bulk of the fighting force taken on any expedition. It is difficult to see why we still need an army of 20,000 in Germany as part of this pattern.
These issues need to be thought through before the question of money comes up. Fortunately the defence budget is one of the smaller ones, and the overall level of public sepnding is rising, so it should be possible to support strong defences for the UK built around a realistic view of what we can and should do.