The Pentagon has continually warned the UK Government that if you expect to retain your current level of credibility do not allow troop numbers to get any smaller but that, in this glossy if less than spectacular third stage Integrated Review White Paper dressed up as a ten year strategy, is just what the MOD in its infinite wisdom has chosen to do. Former UK Army Generals who are all too frequently wheeled out have been suggesting that if Army numbers were cut back further the UK would be unable to support the US in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq and that in respect of our combat readiness, may well be proved right. While as our would-be enemies the Russians and Chinese are probably laughing, my big fear is that the Americans are shaking their heads with disgust.
It is not often that I talk much about underlying defence strategy preferring to leave those important aspects to the likes of RUSI and IISS. I have not yet completed reading all 76 pages of third episode of the Integrated Review process entitled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ but I have read enough to provide me with an initial view in relation to planned changes in capability. There is undoubtedly much to commend it particularly the elements of investments in space, cyber , artificial intelligence and in the manner that it also attempts to address the vastly wider list of threats be these actual and known such as state based threats or issues relating to bio-security, climate change, violent extremism, CBRN, global security post C-19, weakened global institutions and so on. But there is also a mismatch between the realism and the pretence, one that does nothing to provide motivation for members of our armed forces or indeed, the defence industry that is charged with providing the competitive advantage that it references with such positivity with clichés such as sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology, strengthening security and defence at home and overseas, shaping the open international order of the future and building resilience.
For future battlefield read resignation. For playing a larger role in protecting crucial space assets against anti-satellite weapons and for investing in this and in cyberspace and artificial intelligence, full marks. For the approach taken to warfare or should I better say the potential of future warfare and in filling the gaps in our many vulnerabilities, adapting in respect of skills that we need, the examiners remark is that a lot more work needs to be done. Yes, in respect of delivery we need to be integrated across all five domains – space, cyberspace, maritime, land and air. Yes, we do need to prepare to fight tomorrows wars but that should not mean that we should expect the next war in which we deploy and engage to be different from the last one.
That said, I do welcome the intention to have a larger, professionalised cadre of permanently deployed personnel, delivering defence diplomacy around the globe and that this will include increasing the global network by a third, expanding the network of Defence Attachés and UK Defence Staffs in order to co-ordinate activity across all regions. Persistent engagement overseas is crucial not just for defence but for UK trade.
Naturally I welcome the specific commitment to maintaining of a ‘Continuous at Sea’ independent nuclear deterrent and to replace the four Vanguard class submarines with four new Dreadnoughts. More on this in due course.
My work for you is primarily to look closely at personnel and equipment capability and on that score I fear that ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ fails on a number of aspects. Reading through those aspects It is to me important for what it has attempted to gloss over and say nothing as it is for the confirmations of intent provided. For instance, buried on the attractively drawn page relating to Integrated Force 2030 one notes that while the Landing Platform Dock (LPD) is included aside that of a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ‘Bay’ class ship which is to be upgraded to become what has been termed as a ‘Landing Ship Dock Auxiliary’ – this appears to me to signal the end of either HMS Bulwark or HMS Albion, one of which will most likely be sold.
That the number of Royal Navy mine hunting vessels will be replaced by a new autonomous based remote system for hunting and destroying mines comes as no surprise but note that only the Batch 2 Offshore Patrol Vessels are mentioned as forward capability – this implying that not only will the two oldest Type 23 frigates be decommissioned but so too will the Batch 1 OPV’s.
Of course, I welcome the plan to build a multi-role Ocean Surveillance Ship in order to protect cables that we rely on for 90% of our communications – but note that words multi-role meaning that one ship is being planned to protect the oceans around the UK and its dependent territories from a potential attack when the reality is that with the sensors required it probably needs at least three ships.
Type 26, Type 31, Type 32 plans are thankfully unchanged and welcome long term thinking and planning in respect of the ultimate Type 45 replacement at the end of the 2030’s is all good news. The proposed fleet of three Fleet Solid Support ships is mentioned briefly but with emphasis that these will all be built in the UK as opposed to merely assembled here.
As to Army capability, it is absolutely shameful that after so much work and development success that Warrior upgrade plan has just been dismissed putting at risk 2,000 British jobs across 260 companies. Secretary of State Ben Wallace’s refusal to budge on this issue, a hugely important element of required Army capability preferring to believe that an untracked vehicle (Boxer) and which was to be acquired for a different set of purposes is an absolute disgrace. Warrior armoured fighting vehicle that have served the Army so well will now all be scrapped. I venture to suggest that at some future point the Secretary of State who along with the current CDS will no doubt have moved on by the time the Army finds out that it lacks sufficient tracked capability to protect personnel will hold his head in shame.
Similarly, Mr Wallis should hold his head in shame in regard of his determination to scrap the still superb and hugely important Lockheed Martin C-130J capability. Yes, the A400M can do part of the job that the C-130J does but it cannot yet do all and neither has it been cleared in RAF service to do all the mission activity required of C-130J. At leastC130J will remain in service until 2023. Another crass decision and one that we will live to regret.
At least the rumoured intention to scrap six of the RAF fleet of heavy-lift Boeing C-17 aircraft is no longer being planned. But, as I wrote when the plan to cut the number of Boeing 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control Wedgetail aircraft that will eventually replace the obsolete fleet of RAF Boeing E3-D Sentry aircraft first became known from 5 a/c to 3, I cannot for the life of me see how only three aircraft will be able to meet the UK’s AEW&C commitment to NATO. Another crass decision made by the Secretary of State for Defence and his team in my considered opinion.
A replacement for the ageing fleet of Puma helicopters is envisaged in the report but no specific details are provided and no dates for either withdrawal of existing capability or replacement. I fear another capability gap. Similarly, we are told in today’s report that the Army (I thought it was Joint Helicopter Command) will see the older Chinook heavy lift rotary capability being withdrawn. I will not question that decision other than to remind that in respect of rotary capability capacity such a decision puts us back to where we had been when Gordon Brown was PM and we found that we did not have sufficient numbers of heavy-lift lift rotary capability in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Typhoon Tranche One aircraft are all to be withdrawn by 2025 along with Hawk T1 (date unspecified). As the RAF Red Arrows do get scant mention in the document, I suspect that as they fly T1 Hawks this opens up the door to replacement – perhaps by the Aeralis jet which the MOD recently signed an agreement (through the RAF Capabilities Office) in order to refine the jet trainer concept perhaps?
It is pleasing that at long last RAF Typhoon capability is being enhanced through integration of new weapons such as the UK-developed ‘SPEAR Cap 3’ precision air-launched weapon and invest in the Radar 2 programme to give it a powerful electronically scanned array radar. The document confirm the intention of the MOD to integrate more UK weapons onto Lightning II and invest to ensure that its software and capability are updated alongside the rest of the global F-35 fleet. However, while the commitment to acquire 48 Joint Strike Fighter STOVL aircraft remains intact the ‘at least 48 aircraft’ has no further elaboration in the document. Lack of clarity over intention, particularly given the original line of acquiring 138 aircraft, remains a serious issue.
The IR document confirmed once again that the strategic investment of more than £2bn spread over the next four years in the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is continuing apace. FCAS is planned to deliver an innovative mix of crewed, un-crewed and autonomous platforms including swarming drones. It will deliver an advanced combat air system capable of fighting in the most hostile environments. The development of novel technologies, the step change in use of simulators for mission rehearsal and training will, as the document reminds, enable the Royal Air Force to continue to be one of the technologically innovative, productive and lethal air forces in the world.
That confirmation is made in the document that the four ageing BAe 146 aircraft are to be withdrawn next year comes as little surprise but why is there no mention of a replacement?
I will cover other aspects including personnel and how we need to provide more support to all members of our armed forces and their families, along with cuts to Army personnel numbers together with the issues relating around combat jet capability and capacity, training and many other aspects of discontent in due course. For today – enough is enough!
CHW (London – 22nd March 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785