Political

Helicopters and Trident face cuts as financial squeeze hits the MOD

Both Conservative and Liberal Democrats made plenty of justified political hay out of helicopter problems faced by our armed forces back under the Labour government. Now it looks as if both parties will be having to perform a sensitive political change of gear as the Ministry of Defence turns to making helicopter cuts.

Apart from the need to save money, there are good substantive policy reasons for this change. One is that the previous shortages have been tackled. As Paul Waugh recounts it in the Evening Standard,

When a newly-elected Prime Minister Cameron held his first meeting with defence chiefs in Number 10, he was clear what his priority was. “Right, first thing’s first. How many more helicopters do you need?” the PM asked the military top brass.

I’m told that he was taken aback by the reply: “Well, we actually have enough helicopters now, sir. That problem has been sorted.”

Another is that there are some defence experts saying that the planned new helicopters are no longer a smart option. The upgrade of the Lynx Mk9As has gone well, so why not upgrade more of them rather than bring in the new and expensive Lynx Wildcats, especially as the cost of an upgrade is about one-fifth of the cost of a new Wildcat?

Options for replacing Trident

Meanwhile, on the question of renewing Trident there are increasing questions about whether the current policy of always having one submarine ready to fire off nuclear weapons at moment’s notice is still required. The so-called ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrence’ (CASD) policy is at odds with the defence review being carried out for our conventional forces, which is being done on the basis that a military threat to the UK itself will not suddenly appear. Instead, it would be the outcome of a period of increasing tension. If that is the logic for conventional forces, why not also for nuclear ones?

The respected Royal United Services Institute last month published a report on replacing Trident which argues,

Given the severe costs that Trident renewal could require… there is now a strong case for a re-examination of whether alternatives to current CASD policy could yield significant financial savings while continuing to meet this agreed objective. The fiscal situation facing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is significantly worse than was assumed in 2006, when current renewal plans were drawn up by the previous government.

All this is good news from the Liberal Democrat position within the coalition on Trident’s replacement, as the party has been persistently sceptical of the financial case for the sort of replacement Labour was planning – a point that Nick Clegg has recently repeated.

When it has come to the crunch at conference votes, the party has not taken a unilateralist line on nuclear deterrence, but has consistently been sceptical of the amounts of money and total nuclear firepower the other main parties have insisted on.

During the election Nick Clegg raised alternatives to replacing Trident on a like-for-like basis and was often criticised by the Conservatives for this. It may yet turn out that the coalition delivers what the party was pushing for after all, though that also depends on how the Cameron versus Fox tensions over defence are resolved.

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