As the NHS Suffers, Billions Are Wasted on the Armed Forces
The government is squandering money on weapons systems that are irrelevant to the threats the UK faces
While the NHS is desperately short of funds – and will remain so for many years, despite Theresa May’s latest promises – while there is a shortage of decent housing, while cuts are threatening access to justice, and public transport is deprived of much-needed investment, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are being wasted on projects that are untouchable, seemingly immune from rational debate.
Chiefs of the armed forces, the navy in particular, have been shamelessly indulged by successive governments. Not with equipment they actually need – as Iraq and Afghanistan so clearly demonstrated – but with the most expensive weapons systems, which will either never be used or are irrelevant in dealing with current and future threats, as well as being increasingly vulnerable to attack.
This year alone, the Ministry of Defence will spend more than £5bn on nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines. The MoD does not dispute estimates that Britain’s Trident nuclear missile programme, with a fleet of four new Dreadnought submarines, will cost more than £200bn over 30 years (including the ever-increasing cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors and warheads and protecting one of the world’s largest radioactive waste dumps in the Lake District).
Meanwhile, the flight decks of the two largest ships to be built for the navy – the aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which cost over £6bn, significantly more than the original forecast of £3.9bn – will remain largely empty of the American F35 fighter jets due to fly from them. The MoD has agreed to buy just 48 of these planes for the RAF and navy, at a cost of more than £90m each. Serious questions remain about their weight, how far they can fly with their weapons before having to refuel, and the vulnerability of their software to cyber attack. The 48 aircraft are estimated to cost £13bn over the next 30 years. No defence minister or official is prepared to say whether the rest of the 138 fighters the RAF and navy originally wanted to buy will be forthcoming. In a devastating report published today, the Commons defence committee said the MoD’s refusal to disclose the full cost estimates for the F35 programme was “unacceptable and risks undermining public confidence” in the programme.
The cross-party committee warns that the navy is so short of ships that it is unlikely to be able to support the carriers with the two destroyers, two frigates, an Astute nuclear-powered submarine, and other vessels needed to protect them. “Operating aircraft carriers without the sovereign capability to protect them is complacent at best and potentially dangerous at worst,” it says. Independent analysts warn that the carriers will be increasingly vulnerable to Russian and Chinese “hypersonic” missiles, which are also being developed by other potentially hostile countries.
While taxpayers are funding a nuclear weapons system that is not a realistically credible deterrent – and certainly not a usable one – and large ships more useful for flag-waving diplomatic or trade missions than protecting British security, the defence committee reports that ships are being kept in port when they should be on patrol, the RAF’s flying hours are being reduced, and cuts are being imposed on training and exercises across all three branches of the armed forces. Meanwhile, the MoD also faces a shortfall of £8.5bn in its housing budget.
In a joint letter to Theresa May, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence committee, Julian Lewis, and the Labour chair of the Commons public accounts committee, Meg Hillier, recently pointed to what Britain’s armed forces really needed, including skilled personnel and decent homes. “The existing affordability gap affecting traditional defence equipment and support programmes, combined with the intensification of new threats such as cyber, chemical and biological attacks, risk undermining UK national security as well as our ability to play an effective role in the world,” they warned. They pointed to an “extremely worrying decline in morale” reflected in surveys of military personnel. The army in particular is facing a serious shortage of recruits. New ships, planes, missiles, nuclear weapons and submarines and other weapons that the MoD wants to buy over the next 10 years will cost between £4.9bn and £20.8bn more than its existing £180bn equipment budget. “The equipment plan is not affordable,” is the stark conclusion of the National Audit Office, parliament’s independent financial watchdog, which also points to a worrying shortage of skilled personnel available to provide essential tasks throughout the armed forces.
The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, grabs every opportunity to indulge in aggressive rhetoric aimed in particular at Russia but more generally at any conceivable putative threat to Britain’s national security from anywhere, including North Korea. But while the NHS and other public services struggle to protect the real needs of the British population, his ministry is allowed to get away with scandalous profligacy.
Richard Norton-Taylor writes for the Guardian on defence and security
Source: The Guardian