Labour is insisting it would meet the UKs defence needs if elected to government on 7 May, despite its austerity plans, but will not rule out budget cuts or commit to Natos minimum spending target.
Vernon Coaker, the shadow defence secretary, told IBTimes UK in an interview that Labour would launch a strategic defence review after being elected to assess what are the countrys capabilities needs.
He said those needs would be funded in a comprehensive spending review. The spending review by the Treasury sets out the spending limits for each department, which depend on government resources. Labour plans to cut spending and raise taxes to eliminate the budget deficit by the end of the parliament, meaning a tight belt will be put around public finances.
Coaker has said before that following the defence reviews conclusion on the UKs capabilities needs, he would have to make his case to fund it all to the Treasury, which may not give him all of the resources he wants.
When asked by IBTimes UK whether that meant a Labour government could not commit to meeting the UKs defence needs, as highlighted by the review, Coaker said:
Im not going to pre-empt here what that [defence] review will say, but I dont shirk either from the tough choices that will have to be made.
It takes place within the context of an overall budget. Weve heard both the leader of my party and the shadow chancellor talking about the need for us to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament. That gives us some flexibility, but I dont deny the tough choices that will face us.
There are already plans afoot to slash the number of armed forces personnel by 2020, meaning swathes of redundancies. At the end of the current government plans, there will be just 82,000 people in the regular army alone, down from 102,000.
And there is a fierce debate about the £100bn cost of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Conservatives are committed to keeping the existing fleet of four submarines, which provide a continuous at-sea deterrent.
Labour said it will commit to keeping four submarines if that is what is needed to maintain a continuous deterrent, but would look at if a cheaper three submarine fleet would be viable. The Conservatives argue this is not possible without diminishing the UKs global power and putting the countrys security at risk.
A letter published in The Times by a number of former defence chiefs, among them the former senior RAF commander Lord Stirrup and a former Nato secretary general Lord Robertson, said it would be irresponsible folly to reduce or abandon the UKs nuclear deterrent because the safety of future generations cannot be guaranteed.
And General Richard Shirreff told IBTimes UK in a previous interview that those who oppose the renewal of Trident, which includes the Scottish National Party (SNP), are living in a fools paradise.
The Labour manifesto highlights the importance of Nato given recent events in Ukraine, which has been partly annexed by Russia, and that the UK must strengthen its ties with the alliance. But Coaker would not commit to meeting Natos recommended minimum level of defence spending of 2% of GDP past the 2015/16 financial year:
We believe in ensuring that we have the capability to meet the commitments we have with respect to Nato.
Id remind everybody [...] that Britain remains the second largest contributor to Nato. We understand the importance of that. We understand the importance of the relationship with America. So our commitment to Nato remains strong and it remains firm.
When pressed on whether he was playing down the importance of the 2% target, Coaker said:
Its saying we will spend what we need to spend, but that will be a matter for the spending review later this year.
Labours manifesto also highlights the need to fight for freedom and human rights across the world. But the Labour party has been criticised for its track record in government of allowing the sale of British-made arms to repressive regimes, such as in Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Coaker said:
You have to understand that it was the last Labour government that introduced the Human Rights Act, weve actually continued to commit to the European Court of Human Rights, weve also said that all of that remains important to us [...] we remain committed to human rights legislation.
But we also understand the importance of defence exports and we will do what we can to promote those and support industry, and support them in the export market as well. I dont see necessarily a contradiction between the two.
Obviously there are difficult choices with respect to that, but theres nothing wrong with defence exports and theres nothing wrong with also supporting human rights.
When asked about Saudi Arabia in particular, which has a poor human rights record, and whether it would be better to stop the sale of arms in order to better stand up for human rights, Coaker said these are decisions you make in the context of regional and global interests and decisions that you make.
Saudi Arabia is a really important partner for the UK. Its a really important stabilising influence in the region.
So we will work closely with Saudi Arabia, we will also continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but also as a friend of ours we will continue to discuss with them issues of mutual concern.