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Defence Cuts - The Falklands - 23rd June 2011

Published: 25 Jun 2011

The Falklands: an article from the Daily Mail by Stephen Glover published on the 23rd June 2011.

Forget the fighting talk. The Prime Minister will be dead meat if he loses the Falklands.

The Argentinian Government had another go at Britain yesterday over the Falkland islands. Foreign Minister Hector Timerman accused this country of acting like ‘bully boy thugs’.

This was a variation on the abuse handed out a few days ago by the Argentine leader, President Cristina Kirchner. She described Britain as ‘a crude colonial power in decline’. She may be limbering up to a second presidential campaign in a few months, and anti-British invective goes down well with the electorate.

So it’s all for show? I wouldn’t say so. Argentina remains obsessed with regaining the Falklands, and the prospect of lots of oil around the islands has added vigour to her ancient claim.

Other things have changed. The U.S. government, a staunch ally of Britain when we re-took the Falklands in 1982, now appears to side with Argentina. At any rate, a couple of weeks ago the Obama administration signed a declaration calling on Britain to enter negotiations over the sovereignty of the islands.

But something else, even more important, has also changed. As a result of last autumn’s strategic defence and security review, this country may well be unable to defend the Falklands from Argentinian attack. Don’t just take my word for it.

Admiral Sir John ‘Sandy’ Woodward, who was the head of the Naval task force in the Falklands war, recently wrote in the Mail that as a result of defence cuts Britain could do nothing to defend the Falklands. We no longer have a single aircraft carrier capable of defending the islands.

According to the Admiral, we have four ‘ageing and ineffective’ Tornados based at Mount Pleasant airbase in the Falklands. He thinks that even with one aircraft carrier it would have been uphill work protecting the islands.

Without one — and with no prospect of American help — it would be impossible.

President Kirchner knows this. But does David Cameron? Last week he told the Commons that the islands should remain British as long as its inhabitants want to — ‘full stop, end of story’.

Fighting talk. I hope he is right. We fought a war to regain the Falklands, in which 254 servicemen and a much larger number of Argentinians lost their lives. I need hardly say that any British government which presided over the forced loss of the Falklands would be dead meat, as would Mr Cameron were he still Prime Minister.

And yet our forces are so overstretched that even without thinking about the islands our top brass are complaining publicly. Last week Sir Mark Stanhope, the head of the Royal Navy, claimed that Britain’s security would be at risk if the Libyan conflict lasted more than six months.

Earlier this week, Sir Simon Bryant, the RAF’s second-in-command, declared that fighting simultaneous conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East was placing ‘huge’ demands on airmen and aircraft.

In the old days — by which I mean until about six months ago — if the top brass were unhappy with government policy they would leak their criticisms to friendly newspapers. From an early age it is instilled in them not to attack politicians openly. It is unprecedented for two very senior service chiefs to make public attacks within so short a period of time.

Some have suggested that a disgruntled Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, is behind these interventions, though there is no evidence that he is. Whatever the truth, many servicemen, from generals to privates, are bewildered that a government which cut the defence budget by 8 per cent last autumn should be expecting the armed forces to do more, not less.

Following the rushed and ill-considered defence review, the Army lost 7,000 men to 95,000, as well as 40 per cent of its tanks. The RAF said goodbye to many aircraft and several front-line squadrons. The Navy gave up several ships, and two aircraft carriers.

Mr Cameron attempted to justify the Libyan intervention yesterday by saying that it is being funded from a special reserve. But he misses the point. We have fewer aircraft and ships to do the job. And the service chiefs can be forgiven for wondering why a government which cut back the armed forces nine months ago should have so soon embarked on a war against Col Gaddafi in which the British national interest is scarcely crystal clear.

By the way, full marks to Ed Miliband for probing Mr Cameron’s inconsistencies so well during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The Labour leader was also surely right to question Mr Cameron’s coarse response on Tuesday to criticism from service chiefs: ‘You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.’

My belief is that when he became Prime Minister just over a year ago Mr Cameron knew very little about defence. He had spent his adult years as a political adviser, PR man and rising politician mostly preoccupied with domestic issues.

I suspect that in the helter-skelter rush of the spending review he did not register the full significance of the defence cuts, particularly the absence of an aircraft carrier carrying airplanes (admittedly one vessel will carry helicopters for a while) until 2018. After all, he did not pay much attention to the unpopular and unworkable proposals dreamed up by the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley for the NHS, which institution he has said was close to his heart. Why should we expect him to follow, or even understand, the full ins and outs of the defence review?

According to the aforementioned Sir Mark Stanhope, Britain’s mission in Libya would be cheaper and more effective if we had an aircraft carrier with Harrier airplanes on board.

But HMS Invincible is being picked to pieces in a Turkish scrapyard, no use in Libya, and no use should Argentina decide to re-take the Falklands.

Even as things stand, our armed forces are evidently unable to fulfil all the tasks that politicians throw at them. Imagine what would happen if those tasks suddenly included fighting the Argentinians eight thousand miles away.

It does not bear thinking about, either for this country or Mr Cameron’s future. If he cares about either — which I am sure he does — he should take another, closer look at our defence expenditure, and think twice before embarking on questionable foreign adventures which we can probably never win.


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