Andrew Wilson: The choice is indefensible

The Queen names Royal Navy's biggest warship in ceremony at Rosyth. Picture: TSPL
The Queen names Royal Navy's biggest warship in ceremony at Rosyth. Picture: TSPL
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THE choices we make reveal us as people and as a society. This is one of the core truths in life that we should teach our young and the ­under-informed not so young.

Like teeth cleaning, regular bathing and not dropping litter. Like listening (a lot) and learning to breathe. Like stretching and exercise and eating our greens. Like phoning our mums and looking our kids in the eye when we talk. And we should talk. Much more.

These are all things that matter. But come to think of it they are all choices in themselves. Which brings us back to the core point that choice is, well, everything.

Understanding that “we are our choices” is one of the most important things we need to “get” as individuals. It is liberating because it teaches us we are in charge of ourselves and how we feel and hopefully the same is true of us all collectively.

Of course the opportunities we enjoy vary far to much for us to declare the civilisation process complete. But within that too many of our number are drawn to look outside for what they could find within.

How we defend ourselves against aggressors foreign and domestic is one of the most fundamental choices that any state must make. Many of the jobs we ask government to do on our behalf are subject to daily debate and disagreement.

But there are very few of our number who do not look to our elected government to defend us, and all that entails.

The legitimacy that goes with that reality confers huge trust and status on the people who make choices on our defence. We depend on them to understand the reality of threats we can only imagine and our options on how best to look after our interests and co-operate with our friends in the world to protect one another. They have a difficult job, but their choices should be scrutinised closely.

Three of those choices found sharp relief in recent headlines. The first is the decision not to equip our fast ­Tornado jets with collision warning systems.

This would cost some tens of millions of pounds and offer our RAF pilots the same protection as every civilian aircraft. Last week marked the second anniversary of a collision that saw three die over the Moray Firth nearly a quarter of a century on from the recommendation to install the system that could have prevented it. Their lives were apparently a price worth paying for a less than £70 million saving in the defence budget. I don’t make that point lightly but to point up the gravity of the choices ­being made.

Meanwhile we launched a new aircraft carrier with great pomp and ceremony. The craftsmanship is not in doubt. But again, what about the choice?

The budget when contracted in 2006-7 was £3.6 billion. The final bill will come in at over £6.2bn, a cool £2.6bn overspend. And for our ­money?

The first carrier will be operational with currently no planes to fly from it, another awful story we need not rehearse in detail here.

The second carrier has been built and fitted but cost pressures mean no decision has yet been made to bring it into service. So we just built two of the biggest ships ever and decided we can only run one of them for the moment. Remarkable.

Which brings us finally to our ­“independent deterrent” of Trident nuclear submarines. Its replacement was encouraged by the Trident Commission this week at an estimated lifetime cost of £100bn.

I needn’t rehearse the arguments on the efficacy of this save to reflect that our deterrent didn’t deter General Galtieri, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, al-Qaeda, Isis, or, for that matter, the Russians in Crimea.

So it’s a troubling set of choices, I think you will agree. And do they leave us better protected and better able to contribute to joint international missions?

The squeeze on the Royal Navy’s ­resource appears very significant as so many eggs appear to have gone into the basket of very impressive carriers, one of which sits mothballed while the launched one has no ­current aircraft to fly.

Meantime we appear set to allocate tens of billions to nuclear weapons we must never use and that seem not to deter. And yet we can’t afford to ­offer our fighter pilots the same protections as a passenger on EasyJet. Curious.

And all of that is before we consider the deeper question of how much we should be spending on defence 
in the first place in an age of hard ­choices.

But choice is what it is all about. The ones made on our behalf appear to be spending inter-generational billions on weapons designed to impress on a world stage but of very dubious practical utility, procured by a system that appears world-class at over-spending scarce public resource.

And presumably our “enemies”, whoever they truly are right now, are able to figure all of this stuff out. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW