George Kerevan: Fighting talk fails to hold line on defence

Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond MP. Picture: Jane Barlow
Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond MP. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The government’s justification for reneging on troop numbers reveals the real weakness in Westminster, writes George Kerevan

What are we to make of Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary? Mr Hammond has been visiting Scotland in a bid to deflect criticism over his decision to renege on a promise by his predecessor, Liam Fox, that 7,000 British troops returning from Germany would be based in Scotland, as a quid pro quo for the financial impact of the closure of RAF bases north of the Border. Instead, we are to get a mere 600 troops.

Mr Hammond has been making a fighting retreat. This consisted of bashing the SNP’s defence policy for an independent Scotland. There’s nothing like changing the argument if you are on a losing wicket. The Defence Secretary also criticised what he termed the SNP’s “obsession” with the number of soldiers stationed in Scotland, claiming the same troops had been based in Germany for the past 60 years because that was where national security needed them.

Actually, the British Army of the Rhine (with around 65,000 troops at its peak) was not there to defend Britain but to act as trip wire should the Red Army drive across the North German Plain for the Channel ports. Quite how long our tanks would have lasted before being taken out by the hordes of Soviet tactical fighters, or nuked by friendly American bombers trying to fry the Reds, is a matter of conjecture. Optimistically, 48 hours; more realistically, 24.

Basing our soldiers in Germany had nothing to do with defending Britain and absolutely everything to do with ensuring that a Soviet incursion into Germany would kill enough Nato troops to ensure that whoever was in the White House would not balk at escalating a ground war into a nuclear holocaust, even if it destroyed American cities. British troops in Germany were nothing more than political hostages.

For the record: the geographical location of ground troops inside mainland Britain clearly has little to do with defending those particular parts of the country. The SNP’s defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, has never argued otherwise. However, where troops are based definitely has economic implications. Flying the flag locally is also important for encouraging popular support for the military and persuading folk they are getting a return for their taxes – which is why the Pentagon spreads its bases across the US continent.

So why does Philip Hammond (whose constituency is in leafy Surrey) think that closing RAF bases in Scotland, and then reneging on a promise to increasing troop numbers in return, is sound policy? Could the increasing concentration of Britain’s military spending in the English south have something to do with the Tories feathering their own political nest?

The rest of Mr Hammond’s arguments, made during a visit to Scotland yesterday, were equally specious. I was flabbergasted by his assertion that soldiers in an independent Scotland would not have “access to the quality of kit and equipment with which they currently operate”. This from the head of a Ministry of Defence that sent British troops to fight and die in Iraq and Afghnistan without decent armoured personnel carriers, radios or infrared night vision scopes, and without sufficient helicopters. What “quality of kit” are you referring to Mr Hammond?

Hammond also tried a weak joke by saying “half a destroyer would be no use to anyone, neither would be one frigate” – inferring that Scotland’s share of UK naval assets would be too small to provide a credible force. But the joke is on Mr Hammond and the miniscule conventional Royal Navy he commands. Britain has no proper aircraft carriers and only five destroyers and 13 frigates – hence the “half” destroyer and “one” frigate due to Scotland on a population basis. True, Scotland’s naval force would be small to start with, but only because the UK’s is already microscopic. That would change. The Norwegian navy, the best comparator for an independent Scotland, operates five frigates, six corvettes and six submarines – far greater coastal protection than Scotland gets from the Royal Navy at the moment.

Hammond’s final argument was that there is no guarantee Scottish personnel serving in the UK armed forces would want to transfer to Scotland’s new military. However, the UK armed forces are shrinking while the new Scottish defence forces would offer full-rank promotion and the chance to serve a new nation. And while the Irish Guards survive because of recruitment from Northern Ireland, I can’t see the British Army keeping the Scottish Regiment after independence. The idea that Scotland, a rich nation with a martial tradition, could not – or would not – defend itself is risible. A more pertinent question is why the MoD has been so militarily cack-handed since the Second World War, despite the bravery and sacrifice of ordinary soldiers, sailors and aviators? The answer lies in the delusions of imperial grandeur of Westminster politicians. Billions are still being wasted on a pointless nuclear deterrent decades after the Cold War ended – meaning there isn’t the cash to kit the troops with proper conventional equipment.

We are also building two expensive super carriers, plus a few dodgy, over-sophisticated American planes to fly off them, as a legacy of New Labour’s rush to be the poodle of whoever is in the White House. Result: the smallest Royal Navy on record. Yes, I know your Type 45 destroyer is festooned with missiles and could outfight the Bismarck. But sadly the MoD ran out of money before it could fit any offensive Tomahawk cruise missiles, so the Type 45s are really only good for air defence. Since there are only six of them and it wouldn’t take more than a few losses to put the navy out of business.

Scotland would actually be better defended if it relied on its own wits. At least we might get some maritime reconnaissance planes back to protect our shipping lanes. After all, Mr Hammond, you are the one who has just told Chancellor Osborne that his cuts are eroding Britain’s military capability.