Leaked letter reveals Fox’s defence review panic

By Alex Stevenson

The strategic defence and security review (SDSR) will have “grave political consequences” for the government, defence secretary Liam Fox has warned David Cameron.

A leaked letter marked ‘for the prime minister’s eyes only’ published by the Telegraph newspaper has revealed Dr Fox’s concerns about the “current trajectory” of the SDSR, which is nearing the end of its work.

Shadow defence secretary Bob Ainsworth called the letter “incredible” and said it reflected many of Labour’s concerns about the review.

The letter was written before yesterday’s national security council (NSC) meeting in which Mr Cameron and other senior coalition figures addressed the dilemmas facing the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

“Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR and more like a ‘super comprehensive spending review’,” the defence secretary wrote.

“If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years.”

The letter’s publication has inadvertently revealed a number of the “draconian cuts” under consideration by the MoD.

Reducing overall surface ship numbers would see Britain withdraw its presence in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean or Gulf. The Royal Navy’s amphibious shipping capabilities could be scrapped altogether. So could the Nimrod MR4 transport.

“The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated,” Dr Fox added.

He has called for an approach which sees Britain maintain its flexibility to respond to sudden emergencies like the Falklands war or high-conflict interventions like Sierra Leone.

Referring to an NSC paper called Adaptable Britain he laid out his own desire to see Britain’s military “ensuring the maintenance of generic defence capability across all three environments of land, sea and air”.

With budget cuts for the MoD expected to be between 10-20% Dr Fox was never likely to secure this goal without ‘salami-slicing’ across the services.

As the completion of the SDSR and the comprehensive spending review approaches today’s leaked letter reveals his reluctance to accept this fact.

His letter concludes: “Even at this stage we should be looking at the strategic and security implications of our decisions.

“It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package.

“Cuts there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.”

Mr Ainsworth responded by outlining a dilemma faced by the prime minister.

“The question now for David Cameron is what he is going to do about it. Listen to his Defence Secretary or sit back and let George Osborne continue to call the shots?” he commented.

“He needs to finally show some leadership and take control. There is too much at stake to do anything else.”

Police are searching the MoD in response to the leak.