UK defence – uncertainty breeds contempt

Comments from Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond on Monday that the UK may get to use both the currently under build Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers as opposed to the Royal Navy taking just one as had been proposed in SDSR 2010 will be particularly welcomed by those who recognise that you can hardly run a ‘carrier force’ with a single ship. But is this just political rhetoric or real political speak? With SDSR 2015 due less than two years away and launch of the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, not anticipated until 2018 plenty more muddy waters have yet to flow under the creaking defence bridge. To add insult to injury Mr. Hammond has also been reported saying that the £70m annual cost of operating a second ship was a ‘snip’ but that the money to operate the second aircraft carrier would have to come from somewhere else.

If this last remark is a hint that the Royal Navy must look for further savings it is somewhat at odds with reality. Most agree that in terms of manpower and equipment capability the Royal Navy cannot ‘afford’ to reduce capability further. In terms of maritime I suspect that but for some tinkering around the edges if the existing domestic, international and NATO mission is to be fully maintained there is no further scope for cuts. To say that the Royal Navy is stretched would be far more than just an oversight it would I believe be tantamount to treason!

Earlier this week, whilst attending the Tory Party Conference in Manchester, the Secretary of State for Defence took time out to visit BAE Systems site at Warton in Lancashire. This place is home amongst other things to Britain’s large and hugely important manufacturing contribution to the Eurofighter Typhoon military aircraft programme. This was a good and much welcomed visit and I see that Mr. Hammond is reported saying that the defence aerospace industry in the North West was critical to the future of Britain and that high technology, skills and expertise within the industry is key as the UK prepares to exit the recession. So say all of us but while it is nice to hear the Secretary of State uttering such words is he really sincere in his understanding of the importance and value of what the defence industry brings in to the UK economy in terms of value, jobs and the help it provides to our burgeoning trade deficit?

I wonder whether Mr. Hammond took on board that not only does BAE Systems employ 40,000 people in the UK but that it also supports another 55,000 jobs across the supply chain and indirectly supports 25,000 jobs across the wider economy? I hope that he did and that he is well aware of the crucial importance and contribution that companies such as BAE Systems make to UK exports and that with the superb contribution that Typhoon and Hawk T2 aircraft already make to exports and the potential for more export success that both these aircraft have over the next few years that he really will be as supportive to industry and in assisting the export cause as he would have us believe from his remarks.

With defence in all its many aspects be it military or industrial having been dogged by so much uncertainty since 2010 what none of us need now are politicians playing to the gallery. What the military and industry need and what they deserve now more than ever is honesty.

Back on the issue of potential for more cuts the same is true of the Royal Air Force as it is for the Royal Navy meaning very little if any scope for further cuts. Arguably available front line air power capability is now at its lowest level for two generations in the Royal Air Force. Of course they still manage to get the job done as exampled today by confirmation that 617 Squadron GR4 Tornado aircraft are once again on their way to Afghanistan for the last time before the squadron is stood down ahead of an eventual standing up as the front line F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadron serving jointly with the Royal Navy based at Marham in a few years time. It is true that despite SDSR 2010 and earlier cuts both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force still have considerable power at their elbow. In this new world of ‘jointary’ the bottom line in UK defence today is still about quality as opposed to quantity. Adjustments to levels of manpower and equipment capability had to be made and just like everyone else affordability has needed to be recognised and reemphasised in defence as well. Today affordability really is well recognised and with the three individual Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force chiefs holding responsibility over their budgets affordability has become the primary word.

But what happens when due to timing issues or genuine savings having been made rather than money being held over to acquire additional and may be urgently required equipment for our armed forces that money finds its way diverted back to the Treasury? I have no answer other than to suggest that rather than divert under spend back to the Treasury this money should be allocated to provide Typhoon with the additional equipment that it requires to be fully multi-role capable such as improving the radar and missile launch capability plus and also to provide more money for fast jet training which would in itself provide a significant boost for industry and potential for more fast jet exports. Of course it won’t happen – you and I both know that and as far as the Coalition Government is concerned all that they wish to do is to get more out of less!

Our political masters are constantly reminding us that we have the fourth largest spend on defence of any country in the world. Well I suspect that is right and that we do in actual money spent but certainly not in terms of fast jet plus other aircraft and rotorcraft, capital ships, ground equipment and troop numbers. Indeed, according to Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon and Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham in a recently published UKNDA paper they say that since 1989 the core defence budget has fallen from 4% of GDP to just 2% today. That is certainly true and even given the ending of the ‘cold war’ spending 2% of GDP on defence is too small. Having in the past written on ‘Carrier Striker’ I am not going to repeat the exercise again here. Suffice to say that just as the huge political battles that emerged in earlier carrier build programmes are now buried deep in history so too should the politics of decisions that relate to the present Queen Elizabeth class carrier programme. Like others I am somewhat tired of the old arguments and whilst I can recognise failings in past decisions such as the premature standing down of Royal Air Force maritime capability, the premature withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal and Royal Air Force GR9 Harrier capability and continue to hope that at least some lessons will have been learned we must now somehow attempt to move on. If only it was as easy as that and having stuck my neck out and dared to suggest that we might move on I am immediately reminded of the old navy saying – order, counter order, disorder!

More importantly perhaps is that assuming the Coalition Government commitment to holding a Strategic Defence and Security Review every five years runs true to its form it is now just about two years before the ‘next’ Government publishes SDSR 2015. Mindful that Prime Minister, David Cameron has made a ‘commitment’ to a real 1% increase in defence equipment spending on an annual basis between 2016 and 2020 should we be overly concerned that SDSR 2015 might cause further damage to UK defence? Yes we certainly should. Whilst ‘Future Force 2020’ will likely remain largely intact I am very fearful that despite seemingly reassuring words from Secretary of State for Defence [enough is enough in terms of cuts already made] that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy capability will be further cut. Leaving aside uncertainty over numbers of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that will need to be ordered to support ‘Carrier Strike’ my immediate fear in terms of air power capability is that SDSR 2015 will confirm a premature running down (by 2016) of Tornado GR4 multi-role capability.

At best I can only envisage that Typhoon which is the effective replacement for GR4 will not be fully multi role capable until 2018 at the earliest. Hence my fear is primarily based on expectation of there being yet another capability gap to manage. Of course, having departed Afghanistan and there being no other expectations of conflict arising in which our armed forces might be required to serve in support of our NATO allies and with no specific threats to the UK or our dependent territories our political masters might be entitled to believe that further cutting back wouldn’t matter. We as either constant observers or as members of Her Majesty’s armed forces I think know better. We know that of the last twenty occasions that our armed forces have been engaged in conflict that there had been little if any prior notice, warning or even expectation of a likely event.

True, geo-political events and conflicts have a tendency to flare up when one least expects them as opposed to when one does! That is not an issue to waive a stick at Government and it is a problem suffered by all politicians and all armed forces chiefs. But with a third the number of capital ships today than it had thirty years ago are we to believe that the Royal Navy which plays such an incredibly important role across the globe should be expected to operated with even less that the nineteen capital ships that it has today? I hope not but beware as this is exactly the sort of thinking that will be under discussion within SDSR 2015. Make no mistake no matter what the external innuendo might be, no matter what the public political rhetoric is be assured that the aim of SDSR 2015 will be to enable less rather than more to be spent on defence.

Turning to the role of air power I am afraid that our political masters are still of a view that in terms of air defence that as the UK has not fired a missile in anger over our shores for decades this activity probably needs to be looked at too. You know and I know that in defence you do not have to use capability to justify having it. What matters most to a potential enemy is the very threat that the capability exists. The unknown element and the dark shrouds of secrecy are as much a part of the actual deterrent capability as the real capability is itself and it is this that leaves the potential adversary doubting the reality and whether the risk is worth achievement of the ultimate goal.

Winston Churchill told us seventy three years ago that control of the air was not only pivotal but vital. He wasn’t the first and those words are as frequently used today as they were when the Royal Flying Corps transformed to become the Royal Air Force. As we also celebrate one hundred years of what we now call combat ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) control of the air has never been more important than it is today. He who sees, wins!

Air power covers a very wide horizon of activities and perhaps the most important of all is force protection. It wasn’t by accident that the Royal Air Force realised during WW2 that it required a robust force to protect its people and assets when on the ground – it was because through experience the powers that be realised that once equipment was on the ground it was exposed and thus vulnerable to attack. The Royal Air Force Regiment was the result and today its exceptionally well trained people are well equipped to prevent and protect against enemy attack of forces and equipment on the ground. To all those engaged in the air power component the RAF Regiment is considered a vital force element and one that through the mass of experience gained over two generations is respected for the very specific air power related role that it undertakes. It must be left to get on with the important role that it undertakes.

Can a Royal Air Force of say less than one hundred fast jet aircraft be expected to be at permanent high readiness to go wherever it is wanted? I doubt that it could. Can a Royal Air Force devoid of the now critical role that its Sentinel/R1 Astor aircraft continue to play in the full ISTAR role and as they so clearly demonstrated in Libya and in supporting French troops in Mali be expected to do the same role without them? Yes, soon we will have the three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft acquired under the £1.4bn ‘Airseeker’ contract with L3 Communications. Air Marshal Stu Atha, Officer Commanding No. 1 Group summed concerns over future retention of Sentinel recently saying that without Sentinel, the RAF’s other ISTAR assets “would just be a range of soda straws, with, admittedly, high-resolution capability”. The point behind this is that it is no use trying to fight an enemy that you can’t see. We need all our ISTAR assets whether these are Sentry E-3D, Sentinel, Reaper, Shadow or Rivet Joint. And we need something else as well – we urgently need maritime patrol capability to fill what is possibly the most dangerous of all gaps in UK defence capability to fill the void left by scrapping Nimrod MRA4.

I have not touched on the myriad of other air power assets such as transport, air to air refuelling, fixed wing training, rotor and various others. The sum of the parts is always worth greater than the whole. My title was uncertainty breeds contempt and so it does!

Just by the way to update what I said yesterday when indicating that I did not anticipate that the Prime Minister would make a single mention about defence in his address to the Tory Party Conference yesterday I was I am sad to say correct. Not a mention of the word did Mr. Cameron make. I might have hoped that he would have praised the armed forces and the defence industry that supplies them but not a jot of a word was to be heard. I would have liked to hear him explain why we need strong defence and deterrent capability and why when we have fallen so very far down the league that we still expect to have the same level of voice in geo political matters and defence diplomacy. To finish I repeat and copy what I said yesterday: The reality should be that it should not be all about affordability but what the nation needs to defend itself, its dependent territories and to play the hugely important role in NATO that it does. It should as I said yesterday not be about pontificating using both aircraft carriers currently being built but only at the expense of other parts of defence it should be deciding defence capability on the basis of true national security requirement and of where and what in the world Britain wants to be! “Britain needs strong defence – see to it” had been very direct words addressed to me personally by the late Margaret Thatcher on the last occasion that we met at Admiralty House during the 50th birthday celebrations of the then Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox in September 2011. I have never forgotten them and never will.

Of course I do recognise affordability is an issue that has to be addressed within defence as well but I would say that so too is ensuring that we have sufficient capability and sufficient clout to hold our political and economic weight. With SDSR 2015 on the horizon and coming as it will before National Security or Foreign Policy has been decided is it any surprise that I am desperately concerned. On Sunday during the first day of the Tory Party Conference we witnessed heckling during a speech being delivered to conference by Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond. This came from a couple of retired army officers who had been Royal Fusiliers. They told Mr. Hammond in no uncertain terms that he was a “disgrace” and accused him of “betraying” the armed forces. “This is denial not defence” they said adding that “you’re a disgrace” and that “the public must know the truth”. It is not for me to make any further comment on this but if we believe that defence cuts have already gone too far then we will surely not disagree the sentiment of what they attempted to express. The pity is that just like the cost of living issue shouting either across the rooftops won’t make any difference because there is no one ‘listening’ on either the fifth floor of Main Building and fewer still in the Cabinet Office and Number 10. Mention the words capability and procurement and as likely as not before you have drawn breathe you will hear the words ‘there is no more money’. Well if that’s right in UK defence then there may not be a Britain in the decades ahead let alone the hoped for land of opportunity!

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785

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