Sunday, January 07, 2007

Not on the agenda

One tiny bit of the all-pervading veil covering that most secretive (and dishonest) of organisations, the Ministry of Defence, was lifted for us this weekend by defence correspondent Sean Rayment (pictured), of the Sunday Telegraph.

But what he thinks he might have seen, he may or may not actually have seen. And it is a moot point – given his lacklustre track record – whether he has actually understood what he did see.

Even with that, you cannot be sure he has painted an accurate picture. This depends on whether he was allowed to see enough of the game to form a clear view – which is extremely unlikely. He will have been shown only what some of the players wanted him to see – or were able to show him, notwithstanding that none of the players themselves have a complete picture.

If you are beginning to suspect this is a laborious way of my admitting that I have not the faintest what is going on in the MoD, then you are partially right. But it is also a reminder that no one else does. What we are getting, therefore, is a confused picture. In the final analysis, it may be completely misleading - with the possibility that that is the real intention.

Not for Sean Rayment and his MSM newspaper, however, are there any doubts or caveats – and nor would you expect them. Rayment, under the headline, "Armed forces face Brown's fury" is telling us that Defence Chiefs believe that the Armed Forces are now viewed by "senior Labour figures" as a "Tory organisation", leaving them at risk of incurring the wrath of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.

Senior officers, we are then told, fear that relations with Labour are so bad that the Chief of the Defence Staff will have to issue official orders at senior level, banning the leaking of stories damaging to the government. The months of unofficial briefing by senior commanders have sparked increasing fears that the Ministry of Defence will be left the "poor relations" of government spending, with defence budgets slashed during this year's Comprehensive Spending Review.

That, of course, is what it is all about – the comprehensive spending review. This is the current "bun fight", the outcome of which will determine whether the different Services will get all the toys they want or whether some of the treasured projects will have to be cut back to pay for ongoing operations.

For all the complexity, once you have sussed that, you have the essence of the game. What you must not do is run away with the idea that the Defence Chiefs are actually interested in the performance of their respective services or even care about the current commitments in Afghanistan and - especially - Iraq. These are simply irritating side issues which are distracting them from the task of building "proper" armed forces.

The current concern about these operations thus stems not from any heart-searching about best to fight them but from a greater concern that the spending on them might eat into the finance available for longer term projects, like the Navy's carrier programme and the Army's £14 billion Future Rapid Effects System (FRES). The "war against terror" is regarded as a temporary and unwelcome aberration which must not be allowed to distract from the longer-term development of the armed forces.

Reading between the lines, this is why there is now real alarm within the MoD. The recent publicity about the under-resourcing of troops in the field has been too successful and has gone badly wrong. The message has gone to the Treasury that it is there that the bulk of spending must be concentrated, rather than on the grandiose headline projects to which the Defence Chiefs are so wedded.

What has caught them out is that they largely believed that stoking up public concern over current commitments would bring them extra (i.e., new) money. Instead, Gordon and his hard-hearted (and largely bankrupt) Treasury chums are simply planning to re-allocate existing funds, diverting them to service the immediate operational requirements.

Hence do we get another piece from Rayment (with the help of political editor Patrick Hennessy) in the inside pages, picking up what he has seen but not understood, under the headline "The big guns are ordered to hold fire".

What this amounts to is Defence Chiefs and the MoD establishment, having suddenly realised that their publicly-expressed concern for the troops in the field might actually cause money to be diverted to them rather than the favoured projects, are desperately clamping down on the publicity to ensure that their ambitions are protected. The rest is fluff.

What is rather amusing, in a pathetic sort of a way, is how little Sean has been recruited as the willing but unknowing agent to promote the Defence Chiefs' agenda. Not for him nor the MoD, and especially not the Conservative opposition, will you get any ideas that the Army – in particular – should be properly equipped for the tasks it is currently undertaking.

That defence money should actually be spent on defence is most irregular - and most definitely not on the agenda if the Defence Chiefs - with the help of the Sunday Telegraph - can keep it that way.

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