Slashing defence must avoid burning soldiers

17 06 2010

Liam Fox may be a foreign policy hawk, but his comments on the forthcoming strategic defence review this week indicated that even he realises the need for a seismic shift in Britain’s defence spending (Trident infamously excluded).

While cuts to the military’s final-salary pension schemes is firmly off the agenda (unlike the rest of the public sector), Fox refused to rule out cuts to troop numbers.

This is little surprise. The most recent figures suggest Britain has more than 197,000 full time personnel and according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Britain’s military expenditure is the fourth highest in the world.

It is no longer just those on the Left who are asking: what for? Following the ‘world power’ delusions of the Blair years, the financial crisis and difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan are leading many to question whether Britain can any longer afford to try and stride across the world stage.

In 2008/09, the Ministry of Defence spent £44.6bn, out of which Iraq and Afghanistan cost £5bn. Operational costs for that year ran to £27bn. Defence spending was nearly double the entire budget of the old Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

British troops are deployed in such national security hotspots as Germany and Ascension Island. Expensive fighter jets and aircraft carriers are procured to fight Cold Wars against non-existent enemies. All this for a country whose only real national security threat are terrorists who cannot be fought with tanks and frigates.

There was much to nod along with in Simon Jenkins’ recent article calling for Britain’s defence spending to be slashed, even if you don’t want the entire military to be put into reserve. The government won’t go anything like as far as that, but clearly even the Conservatives can see that our defence spending is illogical and unsustainable.

So what’s the problem with defence cuts? Not the cuts themselves – but what happens afterwards.

It is a depressing reality of Britain’s Thatcherite economy that the military is able to position itself as one of the few meaningful career options available to young working class men (women make up around 10% of the military). Already, a disproportionate number of ex-servicemen end up in jail or even taking their own life. Readjusting to civilian life can be a difficult process.

British soldiers will need jobs to go to if defence spending is cutIf and when the government takes the axe to military spending – and for what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the camp that says it should – the job losses among servicemen and women could be significant. A 10% cut in full-time staff numbers would mean 20,000 job cuts, many of them working class people.

There are organisations that work to assist ex-servicemen and women in returning to employment – the Royal British Legion being one obvious example, the Career Transition Partnership, co-administered by the MoD, being another.

Rather than brazenly rejoicing in wholesale defence cuts and military redundancies, the Left will need to campaign for these to be accompanied by an increase in government resources for organisations that help those leaving the military to readjust and find work. The need for economic growth to provide jobs for them to go to bears repeating.

It is not a cliché to say that many laid-off servicemen and women will have directly risked their lives in conflict zones, no matter how wrongheaded the conflicts themselves may be. The mental scars are well-documented. Simply drop them off at the local job centre with a bus fare for the nearest hostel and we set in train a social tragedy.

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