UK Defence (7) – What Next?

Really great news this morning that Babcock International, a company that has for a great many years managed Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde, and the Devonport Naval Base at Plymouth, and BAE Systems, which manages the Royal Navy Dockyard at Portsmouth, have both been awarded contracts worth £2.6bn and £600m respectively to continue maintaining and repairing British warships and submarines at the respective bases. The two awards which cover a period up to March 2020, and are built around individual Maritime Support Delivery Framework (MSDF) agreements designed to incentivise savings in the region of £350m (£250m from Babcock and £100m from BAE Systems) during the contract lifetime, are likely to support in the region of 7,500 highly skilled engineering and support jobs.

Following on from the announcement that the UK intends to acquire up to 589 Scout armoured personnel vehicles at a cost £3.5bn shows that, despite the pressures the government is under, it is not turning its back on defence. The NATO Summit was both a challenge and a success but we must remember the old adage of mean what you say and say what you mean. In another interesting development this week it was confirmed that the Army’s next generation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle known as Watchkeeper and developed by Thales is now fully operational in Afghanistan.

As I had done just a few weeks ago when looking at future capability in the form of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship and again last week when I looked further at CAE’s RAF Benson based military helicopter synthetic training operation I intend to look in more detail and more often at specific air, maritime power and joint force related defence issues in the weeks and months ahead. I am as many of you know a long-time supporter of NATO and I am very positive about what was agreed and achieved at the recent summit in Wales. We must get behind NATO and that the Alliance has got the message about response shows that it is both listening and adapting to changing needs. And I will also always support ‘jointery’ in the UK military believing that this is the way to go forward.

This being the final commentary piece this week due to my once again being away on defence related business for the next three days I will use it merely to touch on a few aspects I intend to look at in the ongoing series of defence papers. The brilliant work done by Joint Helicopter Command and the UK Chinook Force, joint enablers and the whole concept of ISTAR and which we do such a brilliant job in the UK with such limited resource. What does the future hold and with the looming prospect of SDSR 2015 being something of an unknown quantity to most except perhaps for a not misguided belief that it will emerge with a requirement for further savings in defence?

I also intend to look across the various force elements that we have and at the issues that are impacting on them most and particularly those that are hurting. Naturally I will look at the positive news as well and that despite of many serious problems and issues relating to capacity and capability sustainment it can at least be said that we do have a very well-equipped military in terms of equipment assets. True also that despite our known weaknesses our armed forces are held in very high respect by our NATO allies. They continue to look up to us. We do a lot very well here in the UK and we punch above our weight simply because we have to and there is no other choice. Our armed forces may be stretched but they always deliver. But can that always be so?

Certainly we have a great many problems and issues in relation to defence to resolve and over the coming weeks I will be emphasising and debating many of these issues too. Not least amongst them and within the Royal Air Force will be the lack of capacity and resilience that needs to be discussed.

The lack of resilience comes in many forms both in equipment capability and in manpower. Today the service chiefs are also responsible for their own budgets and in part it is there that are given a fuller responsibility as to how these are directed. They face the wrath of many of their predecessors too and I sometimes wonder not only how damaging this is but whether talking to them is even worthwhile. The issue of restraint isn’t restricted to the Royal Air Force alone, it is an issue right across defence. It can be related to people, training, deployment, capability and many other aspects including the way that the military do there PR. On the latter I can hear you say appallingly and what’s more, I tend to agree.

But it is manpower and equipment capability restraint that tops the list. As I highlighted just a week ago, the multi-role Panavia Tornado GR4 is once again the fast jet capability of choice to deploy on the new Iraq mission. It remains as it has done since it took over from the Harrier GR9, the aircraft of choice in Afghanistan. In recent years there is no conflict or mission that has failed to involve Tornado and yet, years before Typhoon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capability will be mission ready in terms of air to ground and/or multi role capability we will on the existing SDSR 2010 policy basis fall from three RAF Marham based front line Tornado Squadrons (plus the Operational Conversion Unit [OCU] XV (Reserve) Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth) to just two next March. Given the requirement being placed on Tornado GR4 capability to allow a further diminishing of Tornado force capability ahead of Typhoon and JSF replacement stand-up capability being not just ready but also mature would be sheer madness.  I also mentioned my worry that given that we have been involved in so many conflicts of late and that these come on very long lead times whether we have been replenishing our precision weapon stocks quickly enough?

I will again look at the falling number of front line fast jet Royal Air Force squadrons and that will, on present SDSR 2010 policy, mean that soon we will have just seven front line squadrons compared to the thirty six we had a couple of decades ago. I will also look at this in the context of FEAR capability (Force Elements at Readiness) and whether rather than looking at aircraft numbers it may be better to look at this in terms of numbers of squadrons. I may well look at FinMilCap (Financial and Military Capability) as a process and that is designed to be optimised to provide force elements at readiness and to plan for the future defence capability requirements within a balanced and affordable framework.

As mentioned, I will also look further at other aspects of Royal Air Force equipment capability including current and future ISTAR including Reaper, and the mind the gap capability in the form of proposals that might relate to the UK having either a Maritime Patrol Aircraft or Multi Mission Aircraft capability. In doing so I will look at the existing Sentry E3-D, Sentinel and Astor capability, the brilliant Air Seeker capability that the UK is acquiring. I will look at the future needs of training aircraft and MFTA. I will not ignore the positive impact that Voyager air to air refuelling aircraft have already made to RAF capability as a whole or that this month will see the arrival of the first A400M and I will also look at the future for C130J capability.

Moreover I will look at the narrative not just of equipment capability but of manpower and the increasing lack of resilience. There are many issues underlying this not least lack of incentive to stay in the military and the massive amount of competition out there looking to ‘steal’ those who have learned their skills in the UK military. Over deployment is another serious issue but on the other hand we probably do have to also recognise that many believe the military is still far from being lean. I am obliged not to ignore the fact that there are political choices to make and that affordability, despite my long held belief that national security should best be observed through conflict risk analysis, foreign policy objectives and of what deterrent capability shows to a would be enemy, should always come before issues of affordability.

During the Autumn I will again look at the Red Arrows and of what is or is not required in terms of future commitment. I well know the virtues of the Red Arrows and of what they bring in terms of benefit to Britain but even here we cannot ignore that political choices have to be made. The same applied to Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Search and Rescue capability, which in less than a year from now will start to reduce ahead of this whole mission being privatised. I will not depress myself further on this matter, a battle that I long fought but sadly lost.

I hope that gives a flavour of what may be to come. This week Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Graydon, former Chief of the Air Staff between the years 1992 and 1997 said that the Royal Air Force was at “rock bottom after years of cuts”. He added that” sustaining air strikes against Isil would be quite a stretch”. I am not sure about the latter but I couldn’t agree more about the former. In terms of manpower and equipment capability, when set against the requirement and need, the comment he made is very appropriate. I would like to believe that it may even be helpful but I fear there will be no-one listening. I know Sir Michael well of course just as I do many other former Air Staff Chiefs and while I can both understand and acknowledge the points that he makes I would have to remind that if we can’t better sell the message of defence to the public then how on earth can we expect the government to listen. I certainly agree that we are running on empty and have previously said so but we must find better ways of getting the message across.

Commentary returns on Monday


CHW (1st October 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

Comments are closed.