(Following on from a suggestion made some weeks ago that I might update and maybe revise my original ‘No Holiday from History – Dangers of Reducing Air Power’ paper written in October 2011, one year after SDSR 2010 was published, I am persuaded that with geo-political tensions increasing, particularly in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, now might be an opportune moment to look back and remind ourselves of grave errors of judgement made in relation to air and maritime power and of what I said at the time. I now do this below in a slightly revised and updated form although one that stays absolutely loyal to what I said back then.
The weakness of overall UK air power capability and the clear lack of resilience remains as large a concern for those of us engaged in defence commentary as it had been when I had presented the original address under the same title ahead of SDSR 2010 publication and to what I remember being an extremely crowded fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham on October 5th 2010. Just a couple of weeks later, following actual publication of the National Security Policy and SDSR 2010, our worst fears were proved absolutely correct. With SDSR 2015 looming a year from now I hope that you find it of some interest:
Almost a year (now four years) since SDSR [Strategic Defence & Security Review] paper was published by the Coalition Government and little over a year (four years) since Air Marshal T.M (Timo) Anderson presented the 2010 Slessor Lecture entitled ‘The Royal Air Force in the 21st Century’ what follows may be a timely reminder reasoned in part by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that in terms of air power defence and deterrent capability there can be no holiday from history.
I am not alone in having condemned the manner in which the approach to SDSR 2010 was conducted or that the subsequent process threatened to condemn far too much UK defence capability to the scrapheap. Others with much greater entitlement than I expressed severe doubt about the whole process too using similarly harsh words to condemn what they feared could be devastating consequences for UK air and sea power capability. The warnings of what SDSR 2010 had been around for months but when the news finally came of the extent of the planned devastation suffice to say that all those engaged in defence be it within the military or in industry were shocked.
In his Slessor Lecture Air Marshal Anderson gave what was many us would conclude was the most serious warning to date of the danger of playing down the role of air power within the overall defensive capability of the UK. The message was as simple as it was also stark – play down national air power defence capability too far and the Royal Air Force might soon find itself unable to defend our air space, unable to counter threats from hostile states, to conduct foreign military campaigns either as part of our wide NATO commitment or maybe even to defend the rights of those in our overseas territories and elsewhere to whom we also have a duty of care to protect. The same of course could equally have been said for the Royal Navy and involvement of the Fleet Air Arm on the two remaining Invincible class aircraft carriers.
Since the speech was made the extent of planned devastation to air power capability has been made very clear. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will lose Harrier force, the Royal Navy will lose HMS Ark Royal and while the two new planned carriers will be built the gap in true carrier strike capability could be as much as ten years. In addition the Royal Air Force will also see further cuts to its front line fast jet capability with planned Typhoon numbers being cut and Tornado Squadrons also being cut.
The Royal Navy would lose all three of its fine Type 22 frigates and the Royal Air Force would lose its Merlin helicopter capability to the Royal Navy. Royal Sea Kings would be withdrawn in 2016 and both services would see their activities in UK Search and Rescue privatised. There was to be much more included in SDSR 2010 as it supposedly looked forward to what was called Future Force 2020 including more base closures and large scale planned cuts in military personnel numbers.
As the world moved from one seeming geo-political crisis to another the ruthless nature of cuts to airpower and maritime capability appeared out of context with what was happening in the real world. And yet, for all the damage that the government has done to strategic air power and maritime capability it remains true that whatever the nation has and will demand of both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy has and will somehow continue to be met. Be in no doubt that capability is now paired to the bone.
We may indeed take our hats off to all that have engaged in Libya just as we do for those continuing to serve in Afghanistan, on the High Seas defending UK trade routes, our dependent territories including the Falklands, providing humanitarian aid, our wider and hugely important role within NATO and in defending the United Kingdom itself. Today, dependent on where we choose to look across our armed forces structure, we continue to see sheer devotion to duty as motivation is destroyed.
What Timo Anderson said should have been warning enough but like too many others before it this one also fell on deaf ears. Delivered with a combination of stealth, knowledge, deep seated sincerity and first-hand experience we may yet rue the day that we ignored the passionate plea. In my own long experience of supporting defence and military capability, the defence industrial base and defence exports I have yet to hear a more stark warning to government by a senior serving member of the military over the perceived consequences of potentially damaging cuts to air power capability.
The speech itself was of course a plea to government that we should avoid going down a road that we might later regret. The message was as real and necessary as it also was timely. A bleak warning of the level of risk that we might take should we allow air power capability to be even further devalued than it already had. Moreover, this was a detailed reminder by the AVM Anderson of the value of air power plays in terms of deterrent capability and defence diplomacy, of conflict avoidance and of how best to keep potential aggressors at bay before a shot has been fired in anger.
That the real value of air power as a deterrent capability may be less easy to quantify as it is not always visible does not hide from the importance of having it. Air power is about far more than just fast jet capability and Quick Reaction Alert of course. It is also about mass and other sophisticated support capability such as ISTAR (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) tanker refuelling, transportation and search and rescue to name but a few. But even if the deterrence angle may sometimes be difficult to quantify or measure it does not take more than a moment to see how air power has acted as a deterrent capability in terms of maintaining peace and stability in the UK and the rest of Europe over the past two generations.
Walk away from maintaining air power as a deterrent capability and you might as well walk away from the whole idea of defence. Walk away from holding appropriate levels of deterrent capability in the form of air and maritime power now and I am left to conclude that the ultimate price to be paid will be very serious for not only we in the UK but also for NATO. Indeed, given the expectation that government resources are likely to remain weak for at least the next ten years and most probably well beyond the dreamed of Future Force 2020, we may soon be left with resources so stretched that we could no longer defend our own islands.
This paper concentrates on air power but I take nothing away from the vital role that maritime capability as a whole plays in defence, our commitment to play our part in the world internationally and within the NATO alliance. We ignore at our peril the vital role that the RAF and Royal Navy plays (today I would also add the importance of Joint Forces Command and in the air power component Joint Helicopter Command) and that this is not just related to defence of our own realm.
We are come what may and however bad the finances left behind by the last government a nation that is perceived to be rich, that seeks to play on the international stage, that is a member of the Security Council of the United Nations and that is also a nuclear power. We have influence and we seek continued influence in the world but without strong defence and deterrent capability we will not be able to continue doing that.
The so called Arab Spring should at the very least have taught us the importance of maintaining sufficient levels of capability but sadly, it seems that our government has preferred to ignore the lessons of history. Experience teaches us that no one can ignore the lessons of history and Libya (Afghanistan and now Iraq) should be object lessons of this.
They should also be timely reminder to doubters that what has emerged in SDSR 2010 risks seriously endangering air power capability to the point of no return. (this was intended as a view that suggested if we run down the Panavia Tornado GR4 force too early, that in terms of ISTAR capability the idea of losing Sentinel when we pull out of Afghanistan would risk seriously endangering overall defence capability, that rotor capability needs to be further enhanced, that Sea King replacement within the SAR (Search and Rescue Helicopter project) operation should be retained and operated as now jointly by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and so on.
During 2011 having lost two more Panavia Tornado GR4 Squadrons, with the decision to withdraw remaining Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harrier aircraft meaning over eighty aircraft (some now resting up in Lincolnshire on a care and maintenance basis ahead of a proposed sale to the US to be merely broken up for spare parts) having over the past year alone (2011) witnessed withdrawal of the total fleet of Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance aircraft, the two remaining Nimrod R1 reconnaissance aircraft plus the decision to scrap the proposed fleet of rebuilt Nimrod MRA4 fleet and having been told in SDSR 2010 that post Afghanistan the whole fleet of Sentinel aircraft that had only been acquired a relatively short time ago will be scrapped following the end of our involvement in theatre (this decision later rescinded and with a reduced number of aircraft and crews to remain until 2018) we are left to conclude that RAF Air Power capability will soon be reduced to its lowest level in three generations.
I suspect that if the SDSR 2010 process is followed all the way through to the letter we will, under Future Force 2020, have far less fast military jet capability in the UK as a whole than might be found on a single Nimitz class aircraft carrier in the US. That said, may I remind that the US Navy has (currently) eleven aircraft carriers and that we are talking here US Navy fast jet capability. This ignores massive air power capability held by the US Marines and US Air Force.
I said before that air power is not just about fast jet capability and I have mentioned other air power related elements that SDSR 2010 seeks to eliminate. Of course there are some positives, Voyager will come in to replace ageing Vickers VC10 and Lockheed TriStar aircraft in the air to air refuelling and military personnel transport role.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will emerge as the aircraft of choice for planned UK carrier strike capability although the decision to move away from the previously preferred choice of STOVL aircraft and to retrofit cats and traps onto the two in-build UK carriers seems very odd. The Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have other force elements too – the RAF Regiment and the Royal Marines are excellent examples. Both have or will be impacted adversely by SDSR 2010. Today air and maritime power and each force element linked to it can be found serving the nation be this in Afghanistan, Libya, in protecting UK airspace, in our dependent territories such as the Falklands and elsewhere and in various Humanitarian and other missions.
I may view that our already weakened and depleted air power capability was already stretched as we entered 2010 following withdrawal of the Jaguar force not so many years earlier and the premature run down of Harrier and Tornado F3. Typhoon is increasingly being stood up of course it place of this capability, given that in terms of multi-role capability Typhoon still had a long way to go before maturity would be established was dangerous)
Sitting within the Cabinet Office the National Security Council who under the hand of Sir Peter Ricketts (now the UK Ambassador to Paris) we can blame for much of what emerged from SDSR 2010. DSR was writ. Ricketts would soon be walking away as he moved on to pastures new leaving devastation of defence capability in his path.
Left behind at the Cabinet Office are another two arch-deacons who see defence merely as a cost – Francis Maude MP and Oliver Letwin MP. I also said at the time (following Liam Fox’s resignation as Secretary of State for Defence) that while we may rightly wish the new Secretary of State, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond MP who I might add has no past experience in defence and has very quickly been dubbed a number/analysts man the best of luck, I fear we may just need to wish our military chiefs who are now charged with responsibility for their own budgets, a lot more than luck.
Meanwhile we fight on with one half of our still crucially important Tornado GR4 fleet committed in Afghanistan and Libya and the brilliant Typhoon aircraft and crews stretched of training resources and yet through the Libya campaign having proved the aircraft in combat and the air to ground role that it has also been designed to play now back home for a well- deserved rest. The training capability at RAF Coningsby may have improved a fraction since I last wrote on Typhoon but it is still a long way short of being considered desirable.
In his speech last year Air Marshal Anderson detailed the extremely wide range of RAF operational capability and requirements that ISAF forces in Afghanistan call on. He reminded that the RAF Regiment continues to provide force protection and to enable operations at Kandahar and Bastion airfields to continue just as they still do now both in Afghanistan and Libya.
Anderson also reminded his audience that “the RAF contributes disproportionately to the delivery of air operations and the provision of intelligence to operations in Afghanistan and to RAF officers command in the joint and Coalition environments” – a reference that constantly reminds how much Britain pushes above its weight in the commitment to NATO whilst so called allies such as Germany do so little with vastly greater quantities of capability.
On the occasion of the 2010 Slessor lecture Anderson chose to list a great many operations that the Royal Air Force is currently or has recently been engaged or involved in and stressing always the value and necessity of maintaining strong ISTAR capability.
It is a pity that such a vital message fell on deaf government ears and that they failed to grasp the vast array of defence related engagement that the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army undertake on behalf of the nation and in supporting our ideas. Anderson reminded that “high end capability is not synonymous with Cold War ‘white elephants’ no matter how many screeds of populist copy might profess otherwise”.
One year on (four years on) with Libya (and now Afghanistan, supporting NATO members in Eastern Europe and also supporting our allies in Iraq) fresh in the mind those words hold a prophetic message for all of us. Anderson concluded by saying that “they [high end fighter capability] are an essential component of any fighting force that aspires to operate within anything other than comparatively benign environments”. These facts although unarguable contain a difficult message for those of us attempting to bang home to an ill-informed ‘public’ that still sees the Royal Air Force as being about huge and unnecessary cost.
Time and time again our air power capability has served the nation very well and I am in no doubt that it will do so again. Dare we allow our government to squeeze the air power capability and the deterrence power that it also provides to proportionately much lower levels held by some of our European partners and allies?
I think that history tells us that the answer is that we cannot. Dare we ignore that as we stand now nine years before the situation gets even worse in the perceived Future Force 2020 we have such limited and stretched levels of air power capability that soon with the loss of ISTAR capability we will not even be able to know where our enemies are let alone from where new potential enemies and conflicts might in future emerge? Is the real defence of this nation not equally bound up with naval power and are we not ignoring history that tells us future conflict is inevitable?
CHW (London – 17th November 2014
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785