Few Prime Ministers like being confronted in public about the human cost of their decisions. Particularly not by an Afghanistan veteran with a war hero for a father.
David Cameron was taken to task yesterday by Lieutenant Commander Kris Ward, a 37-year-old Harrier pilot, about plans to scrap the jets and the HMS Ark Royal.
“I have flown 140-odd missions in Afghanistan, and I am now potentially facing unemployment. How am I supposed to feel about that, please, sir?” he asked the Prime Minister, who was visiting the Permanent Joint Headquarters in north-west London.
Mr Cameron thanked the serviceman for “everything”, but insisted he had to “make decisions for the future”.
Lt-Cdr Ward later said after the question and answer session that he understood that cuts were necessary — but he was not sure that these were the “right” cuts.
Lt-Cdr Ward's father, Nigel — who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross as a pilot during the Falklands War — said his son was “absolutely right” to question the cuts.
“I think this is an absolutely appalling decision which reflects one thing, and that is the intent of the Royal Air Force to take away the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and supplant it with their own land-based capability, which of course it cannot do. So Kris is absolutely right,” he told the BBC.
The defence cuts announced yesterday effectively mean that in future Britain will be unable to undertake missions on the scale of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and will need aid from her allies in mounting a major operation like that of the Falklands War.
The numbers of troops which can be used for a deployment overseas would be restricted to 30,000 — one-third of the size of the Iraq invasion force — and then only for a limited time, during which there would be nothing spare for other military operations. A smaller-scale deployment, like that in Afghanistan, would be limited to 6,500 — Britain currently has a force of 9,500.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review signals a fundamental change in defence and foreign policy and the end of “wars of liberal intervention” that marked the Tony Blair era. The likes of the Falklands War in 1982, where victory saved Margaret Thatcher's premiership, also appear to be in the past.
Referring to that conflict, the review acknowledged: “Should we need to conduct major operations overseas, it is most likely that we will do so with others.”
David Cameron and his ministers have been forced to repeatedly assure the Obama administration that Britain will continue to play her part as a military partner.
Announcing the conclusions of the review yesterday, the Prime Minister insisted the UK would remain a first-rank military power, saying: “Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the years to come.”
He faced an immediate Tory attack for postponing a decision on the nuclear deterrent, with senior MPs accusing him of bowing to pressure from Liberal Democrat ministers who oppose the replacement of Trident missiles. Mr Cameron claimed the economies would make vital savings in the defence budget of 8%. However, the sum involved, about £3bn, is less than what has been written off on a single project — the £3.6bn already spent on Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft, which were due to come into service next year.