Speech by Dr Liam Fox MP, Conservative Shadow Defense Secretary,
at the Conservative Party conference
Manchester, October 8, 2009
Right now there is a young corporal in Afghanistan who will be making on the spot decisions that will be literally life or death. There are sailors and marines patrolling in the Gulf, whose every move is being watched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Someone may be waking up in a field hospital wondering if they will ever walk again.
We must never take our security and safety for granted so today we pay tribute to those who have volunteered to serve in the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.
We pay tribute to all our reservists—some 18,000 of whom have served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and can find themselves manning a machine gun in Helmand on Friday and driving a bus in Bristol on Tuesday.
We pay tribute to the civilians and support staff—many of whom have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
We pay tribute to our Veterans. Without the bravery and dedication of those who served and fought in our Armed Forces in the past, we would not have the freedoms and security we enjoy today.
And we pay tribute to the service families, some of whom have lost loved ones, and the service widows who bear their loss with such great dignity.
Most importantly, we pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. To the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and MoD civilians who have laid down their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The whole nation is indebted to them and we will never forget the sacrifices they made for our sake.
Global Security Challenges
Today the British Armed Forces are participating in 15 NATO, EU, UN and OSCE. We have 41,000 troops in 32 countries and overseas territories.
We live in dangerous times.
-- The threat of international terrorism is ever present.
-- North Korea has developed a nuclear weapon and Iran is trying to do the same.
-- We see piracy on the high seas.
-- A resurgent Russia.
-- Instability in the Caucasus.
-- Tensions in the Arctic.
-- The challenge of energy security.
-- And the emerging dangers in cyberspace.
Yet with all of these dangers, unbelievably, Labour have not carried out a defence review for twelve years— so the Armed Forces are working on assumptions based on a world before the 9/11, before the Iraq War, and before Afghanistan.
After a decade of neglect they find themselves overstretched and under-resourced.
As a country we need to better define our foreign policy objectives and determine the size and shape of the Armed Forces we need now and in the future.
That is why a Conservative Government will launch a Strategic Defence Review immediately upon coming to office. Let me tell you how it will operate.
First, it will define Britain’s strategic interests and where they exist at home and abroad.
Secondly, it will then assess the threats to those interests as far as we can reasonably predict them.
Third, we can then determine the military capabilities we need to protect our interests.
Then, fourth, can we look at specific programmes and the shape of the Armed Forces we need.
And of course, fifth, the budgetary constraints within which we will have to operate.
History tells us that it is very hard to predict the next war so our challenge is not only to equip our forces for the current conflicts but to remain balanced, flexible, and capable to deal with whatever threats might emerge.
That is why a Conservative Government will go further and conduct regular defence reviews, every four or five years to bring much needed stability and predictably to both our Armed Forces and the defence industry which supplies them.
The most immediate challenge we will face is Afghanistan. David Cameron put it so well last week when he told the Sun that our military is at war, but Whitehall is not.
If we want to retain political support at home we must tell the British people clearly why we are in Afghanistan, what the consequences of losing would be, and how we define winning.
Labour’s inability to define the strategy in Afghanistan is an appalling failure which risks confusing the public and diminishing support for the mission.
So let’s be every clear. We are in Afghanistan for reasons of national security.
We cannot afford a failed state to once again become a base from which international terrorists plan and launch attacks against us.
And we cannot afford the instability and danger that a failing Pakistan would bring—a Pakistan with its 180 million people and its nuclear weapons.
If we were to leave Afghanistan prematurely it would be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally.
Is that what we want?
Because we would be sending out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believe to be a matter of national security and we can only guess at the consequences at home and abroad.
It would also make clear that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas to combat terrorism, did not have what it takes to see the mission through and it would be deeply damaging, if not catastrophic, for NATO’s cohesion and credibility.
But if we need to spell out the cost of losing we must also better define what we mean by winning and how we get there.
Success will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan to exercise its own sovereignty and to manage its own internal and external security free from outside interference.
Key to this strategy will be the Afghan National Security Forces themselves.
The quicker we are able to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to manage their own security the faster we can bring our own troops home.
And a successful counterinsurgency must begin with better protection for the population of Afghanistan. 80 percent of civilian casualties come as a result of the actions of the Taliban.
Unless we give the Afghan people the protection we promised we will not be able to win their trust, and we will not be able to achieve our military objectives.
In these terms, and by these measures, I believe the goal of security is achievable and the war in Afghanistan is winnable.
Of course, there are many noble aspirations for the long-term future of Afghanistan: for better education—especially for girls;
-- for better human rights—especially for women; and
-- for better democratic governance— making authority more accountable to the people.
But let’s be clear, these are complementary to, but not the same as, our military mission.
The long-term social and economic development is likely to involve the international community for years to come.
It will require the leadership and diplomatic skills of William Hague.
The understanding and competence of Andrew Mitchell.
And the experience and knowledge of security brought by Pauline Neville-Jones.
Success is possible but it will not be easy. It will require clarity, patience and resolve. All three we find in David Cameron—the leader of our Party.
Labour’s toxic legacy
Labour will leave office not only having failed in their duty to properly support our Armed Forces in conflict but the economic calamity they leave in their wake will make the task of rebuilding our security in a dangerous world all the more difficult.
Labour have created a defence black hole that is not only impacting on current operations in Afghanistan but threatens to provide an on-going defence crisis for years to come.
The procurement process has failed to deliver on time. The top 20 major procurement programmes have a cumulative delay of 483 months.
The expected cost overruns in the next 10 years alone amount to £16bn. This equates to an unfunded liability of £4.4 million per day.
The simple truth is that Gordon Brown as Chancellor was never willing to fully fund Tony Blair’s wars.
How can it be that after eight years in Afghanistan we still can’t get enough equipment to the front line?
Why are troops seeing equipment for the first time on the battlefield rather than in training?
And what kind of madness was it to cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter budget in 2004—while British Forces were engaged in two wars?
When I raise legitimate equipment concerns in my role as Shadow Defence Secretary, I am not harming morale—not having the equipment when you need it— that is what harms morale!
And it is not just in equipment where we face problems.
On a historical note, when Frederick Duke of York was preparing for the Napoleonic threat between 1792 and 1804 he increased the size of the Army from 50,000 to nearly 500,000. And he did it with 38 staff at Horse Guards.
Now we have 99,000 in the Army and 85,000 civilians in the MoD. Some things will have to change—and believe me—they will.
But some things cannot change. In a world where unpredictable and rogue states are developing nuclear weapons it would be indefensible for Britain to give up its minimum nuclear deterrent.
We cannot know what risks we might face in the future. That is why a future Conservative Government will never leave this country open to nuclear blackmail and we will guarantee a round the clock, submarine based nuclear deterrent for as long as it is needed.
As Shadow Defence Secretary I have been lucky enough to visit our Armed Forces around the world. I have never failed to be impressed by their professionalism, courage, and dedication.
In return we will have to mend the military covenant that has been broken by this current government, to ensure they are fully equipped for the tasks we ask them to undertake.
We must do all we can to improve the welfare of their families and the service veterans.
In particular, I want us to deal with the invisible wounds of war as well has the visible ones. In the Falklands War 255 service personal were killed in action. But an even great number, 264, have committed suicide. This is an inexcusable loss.
We cannot allow the same tragedy to be repeated for those who have served in the Gulf, in Iraq, or in Afghanistan.
We must defuse the mental health time bomb and our duty of care must extend beyond the point at which our personnel leave the Armed Forces.
That is why we are committed to developing a through life mental healthcare system which tries to identify those at risk before tragedy strikes.
This Government has brought us to the brink of a defence crisis of unprecedented scale in modern history.
And make no mistake where the blame lies.
You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.
Labour Ministers are to blame for the failings at the Ministry of Defence—not the Civil Service or the Armed Forces.
For too long defence has been at the bottom of this Government’s priorities.
We have had four defence secretaries in four years, one of whom was part-time.
We now have a defence secretary ranked 21 out of 23 in the cabinet and a part-time procurement minister during a time of war.
Our Armed Forces deserve so much better. And they need a new vision, fresh thinking, and new leadership that only a new Government has the energy and confidence to provide.
We do not underestimate the difficulty of the tasks ahead but we will take up the challenge with the humility, commitment, and resolve that our country deserves.