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Fox: The price of success in Afghanistan maybe high, but the cost of failure would be catastrophic

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox said:

"This year, here, in the United Kingdom, we will spend only 2.5% of our GDP on defence. Let me put this in perspective. This is the smallest proportion of our national wealth that we have spent on defending our country in any year since 1930.

By the time the new Wembley Stadium is finished, we will be able to seat all the other ranks of the British army inside it. The Royal Navy is now smaller than the French navy. And the RAF Museum at Hendon now has more attack aircraft than the RAF.

Since Labour came to power the Army has been cut by 9,000, the Royal Navy has been cut by 10,000 and the RAF has been cut by 16,000.

Yet our armed forces have seldom been under such a strain. They have never been asked to do so much, with so little.

It leads us to an unavoidable choice for both our country and our party. Do we reduce our commitments to match the size of our resources or do we increase our resources to match our commitments? The choice we make will have the most profound consequences for our country.

Under Tony Blair, there has been too little strategic thinking about our foreign policy. So defence policy has constantly had to play catch up with overseas commitments made in the latest summit communiqué. This is no basis for a sound defence policy for the United Kingdom.

That's why under David Cameron's leadership, William Hague and I are determined that the Conservatives will have a properly integrated foreign and defence policy so that the shape and size of our armed forces will properly reflect the strategic interests and defence requirements of this country.

VALUING OUR FORCES

This year I have had the opportunity to visit our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe that they are the best in the world. And I believe that their families and we, their country, have every right to be proud of them.

But pride alone is not enough. Our troops are our greatest asset. They should never be sent into combat without being properly equipped. To see British soldiers killed, because there was not enough body armour to go round, would have brought resignations from more honourable governments than this one.

And let me tell you another scandal: To have our troops return home wounded and put them in civilian wards is simply unacceptable. For those who have been traumatised in combat, healing of the mind is as important as healing of the body. The best place for this to happen is in a ward which is exclusively military, where they can recover along side their comrades who understand what they have gone through. We owe it to those who have risked their lives on our behalf to treat them with dignity.

There is no point in Ministers standing up in the House of Commons saying we have the best forces in the world if they don't treat them properly.

And it's not just about money. It's about attitude. I recently had a letter from a young South African who has served twice in Iraq as a soldier in the British Army. He was told that, on leaving the Army, not only would he not be granted UK citizenship but that he would not be granted the right to remain in this country either. How, he must wonder, can it be that we have had people openly preaching hate against the British state allowed to remain in Britain but someone who has sworn an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown and risks his life for our security is rejected. Just what sort of values does this Labour Government have?

IRAQ

Earlier this year I visited our forces in Basra in Iraq. The situation there is a clear example of the need to understand the complexities involved in dealing with areas like the Middle East. We can learn lessons from our own history. We are a liberal and democratic country. But we were liberal before we were democratic. We abolished slavery 100 years before women got the vote. It took us 150 years to get from Adam Smith to universal suffrage. Democracy is not simply the exercise of electoral mechanics. It is about the rule of law, human rights, market systems and property ownership. We will not build these things overnight in Iraq and the mistakes that were made - the under-deployment for the post-war reconstruction and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army - will make our task more, not less, difficult.

I went out with our troops on a Snatch Land Rover patrol and on a foot patrol in 50 degrees heat. I know how difficult it is for them. They understand the dangers they face as a result of the lack of political progress. But I made a promise to them, that I would raise the following question: "Why do we never hear about the good things our troops are doing?" Rebuilding bridges. Repairing sewerage. Restoring water. Do you know what they said to me? They said: "You only hear about Iraq if we are killed or injured. We just want people to know we are helping as best we can. Why can't the media be more balanced?"

I had one very positive experience in Iraq which I would like to share with you. I visited the field hospital at Shaibah logistics base and was hugely impressed by the quality of care being given on the front line. We sometimes forget the medical and support staff who make it all possible.

But I wasn't the only one impressed. I spoke to a Consultant who was in the Reserves. So impressed was he that he gave up his NHS job to work full time for the Army. Why?

He said "I can practise medicine the way I was trained, see the patients when I want, there are no managers and there are no targets. And what's more, in a field hospital they haven't had a single case of MRSA in 3 years".

Maybe Patricia Hewitt should take a break from patronising us all and go to Iraq and learn something.

AFGHANISTAN

During the summer David and I visited Afghanistan. It represents an enormous challenge that we simply have to face up to. Let me be blunt with you. The price of success in Afghanistan may be high but the cost of failure would be catastrophic.

We have to succeed for three reasons.

Firstly, NATO's reputation and cohesion are on the line. Failure would embolden all those who threaten our security.

Secondly, if Afghanistan becomes a failed state again, it will once more become a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda and we have seen in London, New York and Madrid what that can mean.

But the third reason is that we must not abandon the people of Afghanistan themselves who have endured so much in recent decades. I sat at dinner in Kabul beside a woman who had been savagely beaten by the Taliban for taking another woman to see a doctor. She became an underground teacher for girls under the Taliban and then a journalist. She is now proudly a member of the National Assembly with a democratic constitution.

Don't let anyone tell you that we can't make a difference.

Those of us who have so much and take it for granted should stand beside those who have shown such courage to get the little they have.

And let me tell you, it wasn't the social commentators of the Guardian who liberated the women of Kabul, it was the brave actions of our armed forces.

That is why NATO must succeed. That is why it is so frustrating that some of our NATO allies are simply not pulling their weight, especially in the difficult south of the country. It is our common security that is at stake. We must all remember that if we do not fight the terror of al-Qaeda abroad we will end up having to fight it at home.

But if NATO is having a testing time it doesn't mean that we should embrace an EU- based defence programme instead.

EU DEFENCE

I referred earlier to how Labour are spending only 2.5% of our GDP on defence. Yet it is much more than many of our European partners spend. Austria spends just 0.7% of its GDP on defence in 2005. Spain spends only 1.3%, and even Germany spends only 1.4%.

The idea that any of the current EU states would ever be willing to contemplate spending on a scale that would match the level of protection afforded by the American defence umbrella is frankly laughable.

The crisis in the former Yugoslavia exposed the gap between EU rhetoric and EU action. In the end, it was the United States - whose presence in NATO some Europeans so resent - that was the prime mover in saving the Balkans from catastrophe.

But the biggest issue is one of democratic accountability.

The decision of any government to commit its troops to combat is perhaps the most difficult, important and serious decision that can be taken. For these reasons that decision must always be made in the full knowledge that the government will, ultimately, be held to account by the electorate.

So we can never allow the decision to send British troops into action to be taken by any supra-national body, still less one with no democratic accountability. This cannot, therefore, ever be a role for the European Union.

ENERGY SECURITY

Finally, let me say a word about energy security.

There are those who think David Cameron's emphasis on the environment and renewable sources of energy is just fad or fashion. Let me tell you that it is an issue of profound importance to our security. Until we wean ourselves off our addiction to oil we will have to pay whatever price producers demand.

In the last 5 years alone we have stuffed over $95bn into the Iranian economy and almost $250bn into the Russian economy and that is only for crude oil.

And what do they do with the money?

In both Russia and Iran this windfall has been used to finance military build-up.

With the help of North Korea and Russia, Iran has been building ballistic missiles which are capable of targeting all Gulf States, the Arabian peninsula, Israel, and U.S. and British forces in the region with little warning.

Just imagine how much worse it would be if Iran had a nuclear bomb.

And what of Russia?

In May President Putin spoke of "substantially upgrading the strategic nuclear forces over the course of the next five years with modern long-distance aircraft, submarines and launching facilities for the special missile forces".

Perhaps more worryingly, he also spoke of having "armed forces capable of fighting, if necessary, a global, a regional, and a few local conflicts".

This year, Russian defence expenditure is set to rise by 25%.

Perhaps most worryingly, it was reported this summer that Russia was preparing for a possible transfer of the Black Sea fleet to the Mediterranean. If that shift were to go ahead, Russia's Mediterranean fleet would outrank anything the Soviet Union ever achieved.

We live in a dangerous world and we cannot ever afford to drop our guard.

And there are some basic truths that we have to accept. We cannot have security without paying a price. We cannot have wars where no one gets killed. We cannot have armed forces where we do not take casualties.

We have to realise that we face a permanent choice. We can either shape the world around us or we will be shaped by the world around us.

Freedom doesn't come for free. Generations before us paid with their lives for that freedom. Building on their sacrifice to protect future generations is the challenge we face. We cannot and we will not fail."

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