Fox Pledges To Realign Defence Policy

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Financial Times
June 17, 2008 By Alex Parker and George Parker
The likelihood of inheriting “unpleasant, unpaid bills” at the Ministry of Defence means Conservatives must resist the temptation of promising tax cuts, said Liam Fox, shadow defence secretary and standard bearer for the party’s right wing.
The warning about an “unfunded liability” came in a Financial Times interview setting out plans to realign UK defence policy, shifting further away from Europe, reviving arms exports and opening the door to buying more “off-the-shelf” equipment from the US.
Rather than simply relying on “preferential treatment” to support a UK defence industrial base, a Conservative government would throw support behind selling UK arms to the world by reinstating the Defence Export Services Organisation, he said.
Mr Fox slammed Gordon Brown’s decision last year to axe Deso as an “act of industrial vandalism” that must be reversed, with the trade promotion role brought back under the MoD in the interests of “national security” and jobs. He stated this would have no budgetary implications. The appeal of British arms to foreign buyers would be one of five new tests – capability, affordability, adaptability, interoperability and exportability – applied to all defence procurement contracts by a Tory administration as it reshaped the MoD to address its cash crisis, he said.
Mr Fox, a darling of the Tory right, has been uncharacteristically mute on the case for tax cuts because he fears the Tories will find a “defence budget that has been badly squeezed” by sticking to outdated planning assumptions that take no account of the wear and tear of equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That is why I take every opportunity, despite being an ardent tax cutter myself, to warn my colleagues that we may find a number of unpleasant unpaid bills left behind by Labour on taking office,” he said. “I would not go as far as to call it a scorched earth policy, but we have big worries about the size of this.”
In spite of these fears, Mr Fox commits himself to keeping the three most costly defence equipment programmes: aircraft carriers, the “future rapid effects system” armoured vehicles and the nuclear deterrent. This pledge fits a pattern where Mr Fox has spoken more of the equipment and commitments he would keep for the “overstretched military”, rather than the cuts or extra funding needed to rebalance its budget.
“There hasn’t been a shadow defence secretary in history that hasn’t wanted to increase their buying power but it is extremely uncertain what the fiscal position will be,” he said. “It is one of the riders I keep on telling my colleagues – many of whom want an increase in defence spending – that we’ll have to decide it in the light of the hard numbers that we find.”
As soon as they are elected, the Tories will launch a strategic defence review, which was last undertaken in 1998, and introduce a US-style system of quadrennial defence reviews. This process will provide a “robust” definition of sovereign capability, which Mr Fox believes will allow more procurement “off the shelf” from overseas companies.
“Our own defence industry is so widely integrated into multinational companies, many of those shelves would be British,” he said.
There is little doubt, however, to which side of the Atlantic Mr Fox is looking. “We see the massive American defence industrial base as offering an economy of scale that Europe could never offer us.”
An example of the different approach to buying equipment would be in the specifications for the Future Surface Combatant, a new generation of navy frigate. Mr Fox believes this needs to be more adaptable, with a wider range of roles, to boost exports and avoid the situation where “the only people who can afford it are the people who make it”.
Mr Fox has little truck with the European Defence Agency, the Brussels-based body that aims to co-ordinate European Union defence spending, promising to make sure the primacy of Nato is not “undermined by any organisation”.
But he also bluntly challenges Nato partners, saying that the alliance risks collapse unless the situation where countries that do the fighting in Afghanistan also pay the bills is addressed.
“That is not a sustainable model for any alliance,” he said.
“It is unacceptable for us all to have the same insurance policy but for only some of us to pay the premiums.”