UK Defence – Lacking ambition

18. Mar 2014. The worsening situation in Ukraine – Russia’s unsurprising decision to annex the Crimea together with distant voices wondering whether we might be returning to a rather different but equally dangerous style of ‘cold war’ politics – question whether Britain has pulled defence expenditure back too far.

One of the biggest criticisms I had of SDSR 2010 was that it appeared to stand completely apart from the UK’s foreign policy ambitions. In this context, defence cannot in itself be subjective; rather it should be built around foreign policy objectives. (However I remain unconvinced that the current crop of politicians know or understand what our foreign policy objectives are and what our ambition should be). My point is that when it comes to strategy we lack leadership. The Defence Select Committee put it another way a few weeks ago when they said that in SDSR 2010 they could see no strategy. It seems that we may still have the wheels and that we may even still have the cart but when it comes to level, ambition and strategy we are missing the horse.

In the USA last week I was reminded that it was Winston Churchill who said long ago that “not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundation of national freedom and independence”. These words still resonate today – or at least they should.

Today, as it has for the past seventy years, NATO is tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the peace and stability of Europe. At the core of NATO is the belief that if one member state is challenged then in effect, all are affected; unfortunately this umbrella of collective security does not yet encompass the Ukraine – leaving NATO somewhat impotent regarding the current crisis in the Crimea.

However there are those that might take a different view. Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond said that the UK would send Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to assist the Polish Air Force in providing additional protection to the handful of former eastern bloc nations that are now within the NATO family. I welcome this as being exactly what Britain should be doing; but, by the same token I am entitled to ask where are the voices in Germany or France offering similar levels of support?

The central question remains what are our future ambitions? At the very least, one hopes they are to maintain the status quo; to maintain our NATO commitment in-full and ensure that we play our part in assisting our allies wherever they may be – we do, whether we like it or not, have a large scale international role to play in policing and protection. Have we cut back too far on defence? Our Secretary of State for Defence has stated a belief that Britain will not be engaged in another conflict for some considerable time following our departure from Afghanistan. He is entitled to such a view but – given that we had no long-term, strategic desire to go to war in the last twenty conflicts in which British forces have been involved – I find such words both worrying and limiting. They also epitomise the absence of strategic vision at the top of Britain’s defence establishment.

As to the defence budget having been cut back, Mr. Hammond is on record as saying recently that he believes we have not cut back defence too far, saying that:

“It requires hard work and careful management, but it is sustainable. We can deliver the outputs that we have mandated to deliver in Future Force 2020. The budget will allow us to do that. We are having to pedal very hard to make savings, deliver efficiencies that make it possible to have that capability within the budget envelope”.

I beg to differ of course, believing not only that ‘Future Force 2020’ will be deemed inadequate for Britain to meet all of its current objectives – let alone the ability to meet future ambitions.

I note that Mr. Hammond conveniently ignores the matter of the £3bn budget under-spend achieved in FY2012/13 and the £1bn plus under-spend that I would envisage emerging from the current FY2013/14. Has this money been pushed back into additional military and defence spending? Sadly not, HM Treasury must be pleased.

I will not dwell on the ridiculous plan to raise levels of reserves to replace full time Army soldiers, or the latest idea to use an increased level of financial blackmail to entice numbers of new reserves. However I think it is important to point out that I believe huge efficiency savings could be made across the British Army; an organisation, to my mind, characterised by a lack of leadership and strategic direction.

In terms of the Royal Navy I agree that both the new carriers should go into service and that they should be equipped not only with the full intended compliment of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft (132 in total) but also with sufficient numbers of Merlin helicopters. This will require more of the latter to be ordered. I wish to see no short cuts being taken in regard of Type 26 development or numbers and I am pleased to hear of ongoing Government investment into BAE’s Barrow facility in order to develop next-generation submarines.

However I believe Britain has seriously underestimated its requirement for fast jets. Even with the shared joint capability that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will offer, both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will find itself short of fast jets. The existing Tranche 3 Typhoon numbers are far too low and my perennial worry is that in order to create further savings, the existing Panavia Tornado GR4 squadrons will be stood down in 2016/17 rather than at the end of their natural service life (2018/19). For me, yet another capability gap would be inexcusable.

Britain has now lacked any form of dedicated Maritime air patrol aircraft capability for three years and it is clear from both a NATO and Royal Navy/Royal Air Force perspective that the capability cracks are now very serious. This must be properly addressed in SDSR 2015 and it must not be at the expense of other air power related capability.

To this I would add fears that the future of ‘Sentinel’ retention beyond 2016 has not yet been secured. It may sound trite but if you cannot see your enemy there is no use trying to fight him. These aircraft along with our early warning ‘Sentry’ aircraft are our eyes in the sky in terms of intelligence and surveillance. Both have proved themselves to be hugely valuable even if Remotely Piloted Air Systems will play an increased role in the future ISTAR environment.

Whilst on the subject of ISTAR’s future it is worth pointing out that communications on the move and true connectivity will dominate the battlefield of tomorrow. Our existing ISTAR capability is too low on SATCOM capability and this too needs to be addressed. We do have the means and we have the proven capability to achieve far more than we sometimes understand. Take the brilliance of UK designed, built and operated ‘Skynet 5’ satellite capability.

Britain needs strong defence and especially in an uncertain world. We must stand by our allies at all times and we must also ensure that others in NATO share the burden of responsibility. We need defence strategy and we need real leadership but most of all, as a nation, we need some ambition.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 (0) 7710 779785 

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