The Labour party will warn on Wednesday that it can offer no guarantees that it will be able to reverse any of the coalition's defence cuts in light of Britain's tight public finances.
In what is described as a gear shift in Labour's approach to defence, which may encourage other members of the shadow cabinet to follow suit, the party's defence spokesman Jim Murphy will say he even agrees with some of the government's cuts.
"Labour cannot make commitments now to reversing any cuts in defence spending," Murphy will tell a Value for Money conference organised by the centre-right Reform thinktank.
"We are simply unable to make commitments now because we are not in a position to know what the health of the finances will be in 2015. In the same way that families and businesses worry about the uncertainty of their future financial stability and spending power, so too do all policy-makers."
Murphy hails from the Blairite wing of Labour whose supporters believe the party must show it is prepared to accept – and make – tough decisions on spending. In a Guardian interview last January, Murphy rejected what he called "shallow and temporary" populism as he pledged to accept £5bn of the government's planned cuts in defence.
In his speech, Murphy will put "meat on the bones" of his thinking after his pledge at the Labour conference last month to close the multibillion-pound hole in the defence budget by imposing a 10-year programme that would be subject to annual independent oversight.
The new approach is designed to end the practice, known as "pushing to the right", in which costs that cannot be met from the annual budget are pushed forward.
Murphy will give some specific examples of areas for savings when he says Labour agrees with some cuts in equipment programmes and selling assets. He will say: "Some decisions we simply could not reverse, for example the loss of Nimrod. Others we agree with, which is why the shadow defence team has been clear about where we would make multibillion pound savings if in government, including in reform to Ministry of Defence structures and personnel, the equipment programme, selling assets and reform of the army's non-deployable regional structure."
But he will also outline his priorities for a future equipment programme for the first time:
• An improved IStar (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance). "Strategic warning capabilities and intelligence will be essential to provide early indicators of threats and potential crises."
• Two "state of the art fighter fleets", unmanned vehicles which support all three services and strategic air lift.
• Highly trained service personnel and reservists who can use "niche civilian skills in military contexts".
Murphy is framing Labour's defence policy under what he describes as "four pillars". They are affordability, an advanced equipment programme, co-operation with allies and a defence and industrial strategy in which domestic economic factors will be taken into account in procurement decisions.
Murphy, a former Europe minister, will say: "[There] must be a greater focus on international alliance-building. Shared threats and financial challenges demand that we pool resource and expertise. The UK-France accord can lay the ground for a landscape of multiple discrete bilateral or regional arrangements between European nations.
"More widely, Nato is the primary military grouping through which action will be taken, and Europe's focus should be on greater deployability and burden sharing within the alliance, not on new EU headquarters for a joint force the UK will continue to oppose. As the US pivots, it is vital that European nations work together towards meeting military objectives, not naval gazing on our own structures."
He will say: "In Scotland, the largest single workplace is Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, which employs around 6,500 people. The 4,500 strong workforce at shipyards in Glasgow and Rosyth are sustained by MoD work. Independence would shut these yards, an act of economic vandalism putting families' futures at risk, not just Scottish security."
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