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Thursday 29th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Britain spends £37.4 billion on its military budget, the fifth largest in the world. But the public has been kept in the dark about the expensive disaster that is defence policy and the need for radical change. In the first of two articles, TIM WEBB provides some illuminating facts

LABOUR decided to postpone a decision on the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system by shuffling it off the agenda at its annual conference.

Subsequently, shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle criticised Jeremy Corbyn for asserting that he would not authorise the use of nuclear weapons.

The question of a credible defence policy has been a long-standing problem that has unnerved the party leadership and led to mixed messages that have been savaged by the Tory party and the media.

However, there is now a clear opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues to move away from Labour’s traditional timidity and expose the government’s negligence in a key area of spending.

The fusion of government and corporate defence interests that US president Dwight Eisenhower termed “the military-industrial complex” has robbed the British taxpayer of billions of pounds by producing weapons that didn’t work to fight an enemy that no longer existed.

The Ministry of Defence has facilitated this deception and the public has not received the clear message that defence policy has been an expensive disaster and needs radical change.

Britain spends £37.4 billion on its military budget, the fifth largest in the world.

Of this, £19.5bn is with British industry but less than half of new contracts are put out to competitive tender.

BAE Systems, Britain’s largest manufacturer, is the main supplier. In 2014 only 8 per cent of its contracts with the MoD were competitive.

Over 60 per cent of British arms sales are to the war-torn Middle East. Since 1945, British forces have carried out armed intrusions in foreign countries on 25 occasions — more than any other nation, including the US and Russia. Syria awaits.

Over the past 25 years Britain has spent £34bn on such interventions, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the army suffered significant military defeats.

This sum increases to £42bn if compensation for injury and death is included, plus a further £30bn on long-term care for veterans.

The consequences for the people of those countries are now only too visible, with thousands of refugees leaving their homes to seek respite in Europe from bombing, shelling and starvation.

For several decades, the record of the Ministry of Defence has ben littered with examples of overspending, performance failure and delivery delays.

The Eurofighter Typhoon is a product of the cold war era. Designed to intercept incoming Soviet bombers, its history has been defined by huge cost overruns and production problems.

Thirty years after conception, expenditure of £18.2bn (original estimate £7bn) and eight years late in delivery, it has no clear role. It cannot be used on the new aircraft carriers or for ground attack, as it is unable to carry Brimstone missiles.

Saudi Arabia ordered 72 but threatened to call off the deal unless the inquiry into bribery in a previous order was cancelled. Tony Blair halted the Serious Fraud Office investigation.

Corruption has been an integral part of MoD sales efforts since Denis Healey founded the Defence Export Services Organisation in 1966.

In 2008 the Labour government ordered two new aircraft carriers at a cost of £3.9bn. This rose to £5.2bn in 2010 and then to £6.2bn in 2013.

Originally planned for its F-35 planes to be used in a short take-off capacity, this was changed to the catapult launch system.

That doubled in cost, so the MoD hurriedly reverted to its first choice.

Crewed by 1,600 people, these ships will need almost the rest of the Royal Navy to support them when they venture forth to support US overseas interventions.

It is now admitted officially that Britain cannot act independently in major conflicts. The 2003 Defence White Paper said “the most demanding expeditionary operations against state adversaries can only be plausibly conducted if US forces are engaged.”

The MoD has placed an order from the US for 48 F-35 Lightning II aircraft at £70 million each for the new carriers. With a total project cost of $1.01 trillion, it is an all-weather, electronically controlled stealth fighter armed with the latest missiles and promoted as the ultimate airborne fighting machine.

However it has also become a byword for military gold-plating, due to its unplanned costs, cock-ups and performance failures.

In a staged dogfight with an old F-16, it came out second best. It couldn’t complete tight manoeuvres and the pilot’s helmet was too big to turn inside the cockpit. Its software has failed and is being rewritten. At the current rate of progress it is likely that Britain will possess aircraft carriers without aircraft.

The British nuclear-powered Astute submarine (£1.2bn over budget and four years late) was hailed as the undetectable hunter-killer when it was launched in 2010.

Despite its state of the art technology, it failed to detect a mud bank off the Isle of Skye. It was stuck there until eventually hauled away, but not before it was rammed by a rescuing tug.

The damage repair cost many thousands of pounds. Since becoming operational, many flaws have been discovered, the main one being that the boat cannot reach its supposed top speed, thus being unable to catch up with, or escape from, an enemy.

One expert said “it has a V-8 engine with a Morris Minor gearbox.”

The history of Britain and the bomb is characterised by secrecy, failure and forced changes of policy.

Britain and the US collaborated to produce the first atom bomb in the Manhattan Project, the one that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

After the war the US passed the McMahon Act, which prevented the sharing of such secret information.

Prime minister Clement Attlee was angered and declared that Britain would go it alone “to show them [the US] they don’t know everything.”

He formed a secret committee of five Cabinet ministers that would oversee the production of the bomb. The rest of the Cabinet were kept in the dark, as were Parliament and the public.

However, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was kept fully informed, thanks to the spy Klaus Fuchs, who was employed at the Aldermaston weapons establishment.

The first British atom bomb test took place in 1952 and the H-bomb followed four years later. The means of delivery of the bomb was based on the three V-bombers (Victor, Valiant and Vulcan) but this policy was abandoned after the US U2 spy plane was shot down at high altitude over the Soviet Union.

Britain faced a huge political and military problem: it had the bomb but not the means to deliver it.

The sensible option would have been to withdraw from the arms race, but a decision was taken that our nuclear strike force should rely totally on the US.

It remains the situation today. The US had produced Skybolt, an air-launched missile and Britain pleaded to be allowed to buy it. The US agreed readily as it locked Britain into their command.

However it developed technical problems and was abandoned by the Pentagon. Britain was left bereft again and had to buy Polaris, a sea-launched missile and forerunner of Trident.

  • Tim Webb is a former assistant general secretary of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance trade union (now part of Unite) and dealt with the British defence industry for over 25 years. Read Part II here