Saturday, 16 May 2009

Sound words on defence spending

Lewis Page writes sharply and well on defence procurement. He's a sample:
defence manufacture brings us a measly billion or two in exports each year – and our arms industry requires the great bulk of the £15Bn defence materiel budget in spending to win us this rather paltry amount of trade.
Put that way, the claim that we need our massive - per capita larger than any other EU state - defence budget to support exports is clearly ridiculous. Does this spending provide credible independent capability? Page says no, and gives detailed examples:
the Prime Minister can fire his American-made Trident missiles without asking Washington frst. But he cannot expect his supposedly ‘Britsh’ or ‘European’ systems to keep operatng through a normal-length war if US support is cut of. No, seriously. The Eurofghter contains so much US equipment that American consent is required for us to export it to Saudi Arabia, for goodness’ sake. EADS tells us openly that “the A400M will beneft from use of American content”. The command system for the Nimrod is being made by Boeing. The Future Lynx uses American engines.
On a day when the shameful truth of defence procurment - that British soldiers are dying because we can't get them the kit they need - is once more emphasised, it is time to face the truth. Defence spending isn't just absurdly high in the UK: despite that, it does not give the ordinary soldier, sailor and flyer what they need and deserve.

If you want to subsidise exports, then support the most efficient exporters. They are not defence companies. If you want capable weapons systems, then buy the best ones that you can afford*. And if you want to send men out to fight, then you have a moral obligation to kit them out properly: that imperitive over-rides any possible national interest in a particular manufacturer or procurement process. We don't just need to cut defence spending: we need to spend smarter and more ethically.

*Subject of course to acceptable 'will they support it' risk. One might like to consider for a moment in this context whether the Sukhoi-30 is a better bet for the RAF than the Eurofighter...

Update. A correspondant with considerable knowledge of the defence industry points out that even when UK defence companies can meet a procurement objective, they are more expensive than their civil equivalents because they cannot meet the same timescales and margins. A combination of the shelter provided by captive defence spending and the overhead (both in cost and in putting off some staff) of security means that they simply are not lean and mean enough. If you want a van, go to Ford or Toyota or Renault - don't go to someone who makes tanks.

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