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A defence industry strategy that is found sadly lacking

If Labour is the party that traditionally has been trusted by the public over the NHS, the Conservatives can make the same claim about defence.

No longer, it seems. Today's report on Defence Acquisition from the Commons Defence Committee, chaired by Tory MP James Arbuthnott, is a devastating critique of the Coalition Government's mishandling of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

In one particularly critical passage the committee declares it "does not believe there can be confidence in a national security strategy which does not show a clear grasp of what is needed for the defence of the United Kingdom and how this can be ensured". It also accuses the Government of putting thousands of UK defence jobs at risk.

The single most important decision made in the review was to change the Joint Strike Fighter that would fly from the next generation aircraft carrier. Labour's choice, the F35B, was derided as "badly wrong" and a switch made to the F35C, which the Prime Minister promised would be "more capable and less expensive". It proved to be neither and to describe it as "this flawed decision" is something of an understatement.

As this report shows, the decision was taken too fast, with insufficient consultation or understanding of how it could be implemented. It emerged the F35C could not have landed on French aircraft carriers, so would not have provided year-round operability, and was considered a high-risk option. Last May the Government paid for its hubris with a humiliating U-turn, which cost the public purse an estimated £100 million. Meanwhile, to help pay for it, Britain's Harrier fleet was sold to the US for spares at a knockdown price and HMS Ark Royal was scrapped, leaving the UK without carrier cover.

And, though it was decided to build both the planned new carriers, it is clear Scotland came perilously close to losing work on the second carrier, with serious implications for the Clyde and Rosyth. Thousands of jobs and the UK's largest modern apprenticeship scheme could have been lost.

This is a sorry saga. "It is to be hoped the MoD will learn the appropriate lessons from this flawed decision," concludes the report. The ministry is a byword for incompetence when it comes to procurement and cost control. But in this instance, it is surely not the MoD that is at fault but politicians making precipitate decisions that could affect Britain's defence capability for decades to come.

Business is the other area of government where the Conservatives traditionally have held more of the public's trust. Yet here, too, the Coalition has been curiously inept in its disregard for the UK's defence industries, including the thousands of small and medium-sized companies that depend on them. There are issues about the loss of vital skills and export opportunities in the proposal to entrust defence acquisition to a Government-owned, contractor-operated company. Whatever happened to the UK's defence industry strategy?

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