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Austerity in defense

Cutbacks will affect military spending, but they must not affect security abroad

On Wednesday, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero attended his last Armed Forces parade as prime minister. The booing from a part of the public was less extreme than in other years, but the usual extremists were there, prepared to disregard the official character of the occasion. As a farewell, the Socialist government opted for an austere celebration, with less troops appearing than on previous occasions. This was a sound decision that forestalled possible criticism owing to the country's difficult economic situation.

The sobriety apparent in the parade was not the government's only gesture of austerity. Defense Minister Carme Chacón announced a reduction in the Spanish contingent in the international mission over Libya. Next Saturday, the four Spanish fighter planes now deployed at the Italian base of Decimomannu, as well as a submarine, will return to Spain. But other forces will remain there; one frigate, two refueling planes and a sea patrol plane. Chacón emphasized that this partial withdrawal will take place in agreement with the NATO command, which was previously informed of the Spanish government's decision. The minister was at pains to dispel the specter of Kosovo, evoked again in recent days by the sudden decision that Spain will join the initiative of the "anti-missile shield." Although the Libyan civil war is still going on in Gaddafi's bastion of Sirte, it does not appear that the military situation now demands the continued presence there of the whole international force, especially when, as in the case of the Spanish fighters, their role is limited to that of patrolling the air space.

Coinciding with Wednesday's celebration, the Defense Ministry announced it was having difficulties in maintaining present plans for the purchase of armaments. Although the decision to alter the plans or not must be made by the next government, the ministry under Chacón has complied with its obligation in considering a readjustment of defense needs in line with available financing, leaving the road clear for the new government. Official continuity in this area is necessary, not only because of the importance of the matter concerned, but also owing to the risk that any false step may affect the security of the country or, at the very least, its image as a reliable partner in the international missions where Spain is present.

The Defense Ministry can hardly remain exempt from the reduction of public spending. It is important that discussion of this matter take place in a context of responsibility, and not of demagogy. There is broad public agreement about preserving the quality of the public-health and education systems, so much so that parties such as the PP do not venture to reveal their real plans. Defense does not enjoy an equivalent consensus, but it is necessary to seek that point of equilibrium at which it shoulders its load of austerity while preserving its effectiveness in its mission.