Election 2010: Party promises | Defence - Chatham House's verdict

The Conservatives have the edge - but only just

Defence policy has not often been influential in British general elections. But judging by their election manifestos, the three main parties seem to think it might be an issue this time around.

Unsurprisingly, given recent experiences, the Labour manifesto has a lot to say about defence; beginning with a summary of the strategy for Afghanistan and a stark prediction of what failure there might mean. Counter-terrorism and domestic security are discussed, and Labour rightly claims credit for the new National Security Strategy. Yet while a good deal is made of a ten per cent increase in defence spending since 1997, no mention is made of inflation in the cost of equipment and personnel, which has consumed this increase and much more. And since the December 2009 defence announcement it can no longer be claimed, as Labour does, that the cost of operations in Afghanistan is additional to the core defence budget and covered by the Treasury Reserve. Labour's manifesto also pre-judges the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) which will begin after the election. The Royal Navy will have "new aircraft carriers" (note the plural); the Royal Air Force will have two fast jet fleets and more helicopters; and the Army will be "vastly better equipped than it was in 1997". Since the defence budget has not been ring-fenced, if these promises are to be met savings must be made by reform of defence procurement and cuts in staff and other costs. But these might at best amount to several hundred millions - scarcely enough. The clue to this conundrum might lie in the way the SDR is described. Rather than conduct a top-down strategic reassessment, Labour's review could be intended more simply to be a cost-reduction exercise which will "equip our armed forces for twenty-first century challenges and support our troops and veterans".

Labour promises to improve the living conditions and benefits of the armed forces and their families and to produce a new "Forces Charter". This theme is taken up by the Conservatives who also acknowledge the need to repair the Military Covenant between society and the armed forces. Generally, Labour's manifesto has a curiously passive tone - as if defence a matter of responding to events rather than of leadership and decision. The Conservatives' language is more purposive. Together with other government departments, defence will contribute to an "active foreign policy" designed to "reverse our declining status". Importantly, a Conservative government will conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which promises to match defence resources to foreign policy requirements. In order to balance the books the Conservatives promise to reduce Ministry of Defence running costs by 25 per cent, but since MoD running costs are not quantified it is impossible at this stage to know how much cash could be saved.

While Labour and the Conservatives are both committed to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats have ruled out a "like-for-like" replacement of the Trident submarine-based system. A Lib Dem Strategic Security and Defence Review (SSDR) will "transform" the armed forces so they can do more things and will refresh the Military Covenant. The Liberal Democrats' promises are light on figures but commitments are made to cancel the final tranche of the Eurofighter procurement and (unlike the Conservatives) to work more closely with the French and the European Union in order to keep defence procurement costs low.

In the battle of the acronyms, what will most impress the electorate: SDR, SDSR or SSDR? Whichever party forms the next government, the fundamental defence challenge is to match foreign and security policy requirements with appropriate resources. The three manifestos differ mostly in presentation, but in this respect the Conservatives at least make the right promise and so the SDSR should have the edge.

Paul Cornish is Professor of International Security at Chatham House

Read the manifesto promises on defence here.