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Tories Hawkish on Defense?

The British Tories are absolutely right to blast Prime Minister Gordon Brown for “dereliction of duty” for sending troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan without the kind of equipment –”kit” as the Brits would say — needed to keep them safe. British forces don’t have nearly enough helicopters, which forces them to travel on heavily mined roads in lightly armed Land Rovers that have no hope of protecting troops from a powerful IED blast. Clearly, British forces need more helicopters and MRAP vehicles that can better protect them.

The larger story is that Tony Blair expanded British defense commitments by (rightly) sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq without at the same time expanding defense spending. At roughly $52 billion and 2.5% of GDP, British defense spending is relatively high compared to other European nations — but that’s not a good standard to judge by since most of Europe has effectively disarmed. Compared to past British spending or the requirements of today, the trends are ominous.

As this Daily Telegraph article pointed out, “troop numbers have fallen from 101,360 full-time personnel in 1997 to 9,460 in 2007 while the Royal Air Force has seen offensive squadrons fall from 16 to 11, and the Navy has lost eight destroyers and six rigates. Soldiers’ leave and training has also been squeezed.”

Part of the problem here has been a Labor Party willing to open the aps on domestic spending while being parsimonious with the military. (We are seeing the same trend with the Obama administration.) But the Tories have not exactly distinguished themselves. They have not made much of an issue of defense budgets and they have not promised to raise spending if they gain power. As this Daily Telegraph article pointed out last year:

Spending commitments are forbidden as the Tory leadership tries to resent the party as being disciplined enough for power.

Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, may say, as he did last night: The critical situation our Armed Forces face is the inevitable result of Labour’s failure to match commitments with resources.” He is not
yet pledged to spend a penny more on our forces because George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, will not let him.

[David] Cameron [the Conservative leader], too, has met and been heartily impressed by the former defence chiefs, who are rightly furious with the Government. The problem, he has said to his colleagues, is simple: “I don’t hear an idea that doesn’t involve me spending more money.”

Even today, after the problems in Afghanistan have been revealed, the Tory platform, while blasting “a decade of neglect by Labour” that has left the armed forces “overstretched, undermanned, and in possession of worn-out equipment,” does not commit to any specific increase in defense spending. All it says is:

A Conservative Government will match resources with commitments by launching a Strategic Defence Review and introducing a U.S.-style system of quadrennial defence reviews. It is completely unacceptable that the last Strategic Defence Review was conducted a decade ago…. [A] Conservative Government will repair the broken Military Covenant, respect our Armed Forces, and ensure that Forces’ families and veterans are taken care of.

In the absence of a pledge for more defense spending, the Tories are, I fear, giving the impression that they are opportunistically attacking the present government without offering a real alternative.