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Defending the Future not the Past

February 21, 2014 12:49 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Dr Julie Smith, chair of the recent Lib Dem Defence policy paper and member of the Manifesto Working Group, shares her views on the threats the UK faces in the 21st Century, and how to address them:

Defence is a crucial attribute of the state and Liberal Democrats take this very seriously. We recognise, however, that the threats the UK faces in the 21st Century are very different from those of the past. Yet too often debates on defence seem to reflect old, Cold War thinking. Too often Labour and the Conservatives seem to seek a role for the UK that is no achievable even if it were desirable - the capability for the UK to rule the waves, playing the deputy to the US sheriff.

At a time of global financial crisis and economic austerity at home, which has put significant pressure on the UK's defence budget, the time has come for the UK and Liberal Democrats to rethink our attitudes to defence. What are we seeking to defend? What can we afford to do? And what is the best way to deliver our ambitions?

Liberal Democrat Defence Manifesto Policy

In Glasgow in Autumn 2013, Conference adopted a policy proposing precisely that we should reassess the UK's place in the world and the military capabilities to enable us to achieve it. In times of austerity particularly, there is a need to ensure defence spending is targeted effectively. Defence procurement needs to be reviewed, with an end to the revolving door between the Ministry of Defence and Defence industries being essential. In some cases it will be sensible to procure jointly with our partners and allies in the EU and NATO, at times pooling and sharing equipment will be appropriate.

The UK needs defence capabilities fit for purpose and fit for the 21st Century not the 19th Century. This includes forces as well as equipment. Our Armed Forces have served us well for many years and have been called upon far more in the post-Cold War era than we or they could have expected. It is crucial that the UK recognises their contribution and ensures forces' welfare is a key priority - adequate housing is vital, as is access to education both for the children of servicemen and woman, and for young service personnel themselves in some cases. Access to mental healthcare should be improved. The Reserves also play a vital role and their needs are often rather different from those of the regulars. In particular getting access to military doctors may be difficult.

Liberal Democrats are concerned that the approach of cutting the numbers of Regulars before adequate numbers of Reserves have been recruited leaves the UK vulnerable, as Philip Hammond's own Defence White Paper acknowledged. This places additional pressures on current service personnel, not to mention the loss of morale that is likely to result because of the changes, which have not been adequately planned. The Tories seem cavalier on this issue - Liberal Democrats by contrast won't play fast and loose with our country's defence.

In 2010, we committed to making Nuclear Weapons History. In Glasgow we agreed to take a big step down the nuclear ladder by ending continuous-at-sea-deterrence, an unnecessary hangover of the Cold War. This will give significant leverage in global nuclear weapons reductions talks in 2015 and will help us move toward s nuclear-free world.

Julie Smith