I am grateful this morning to my friends at CMS Strategic for nicely summarising one of the most important news stories relating to UK defence – a report from a Sky News in respect of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee warning that:
“The UK’s inability to replenish its dwindling munitions stockpile is putting national security at risk, MPs have warned.
The UK and its NATO allies have allowed reserves of ammunition to fall to “dangerously low levels” while supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russia, according to the Commons Defence Committee. And it could take at least a decade to rebuild supplies after the war has ended, the committee has warned.
It comes after Sky News revealed last month that the UK is to conduct a review of its ammunition stockpiles, amid fears it no longer has enough munitions to secure its own defences.
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said it was continuing to “place orders to replace ammunition given to Ukraine and (we) have an extra £560m to increase stockpiles”.
The Commons Defence Committee has urged the MoD to draw up an action plan to cut the time needed to restore the UK’s munition stockpiles.
“It is clear that the UK and its NATO allies have allowed ammunition stockpiles to dwindle to dangerously low levels,” the committee warned in a report.
The committee’s warning echoes concerns expressed by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has said that armed forces across Europe have been paying the price for years of “hollowing out”.
Whilst I have no wish to claim to have been the first, I would respectfully point out that I had raised this particular issue as long ago as 2017 following a visit to British Forces in Cyprus.
One year later, in 2018 the then Vice Chief of Defence Staff. General Sir Gordon Messenger also expressed serious concerns that UK stockpiles of certain missiles “are too low for comfort”.
This is a very complicated subject area but it has to be one of the most crucial at this particular time requiring that the Government of the day ensures that the UK has sufficient numbers of precision weapon capability ready to deploy. I make no comment here in relation to other munitions requirements and have no detail in relation to this but I would be surprised if we were to be told that the Army for instance, has no shortage of certain munitions. In respect of precision weapons used by the Royal Air Force, extending the life of certain precision weapons – hitherto for instance, apart from age the number of times that a weapon could be deployed onto a Tornado GR4 or Typhoon and then, if not used in that particular mission, removed from the aircraft on its return and stored before then being redeployed onto another aircraft was time and action limited. However, we need to remember that although multi-role, in respect air to ground capability, Typhoon FGR4 is designed to carry specific types of precision weapon capability such as Brimstone, Storm Shadow, Paveway 1V Precision Guided Munitions and in respect of air-to-air, ‘Meteor’ beyond visual range radar guidance missile.
The UK F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capability is currently certified to carry Paveway 1V and air to air missiles such as AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile) and ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air to Air Missile). The UK fleet of F-35 aircraft will eventually carry Spear Air to Surface and Meteor Air to Air Missile capability but not before 2026/7.
Picking up on what General Messenger had said back in 2018, in May last year I raised the issue once again in a specific UK Defence paper entitled ‘Are UK Precision Weapon Stockpiles Sufficiently High?’.
Given the importance of what General Messenger had said and what little appears to have been subsequently done despite promises given at that time in response and also being mindful of the current rather sketchy understanding of where we are in relation to precision air weapon capability stockpiles and finally, because this subject area remains extremely relevant and indeed, crucial in respect of forward planning ability, I am repeating what I wrote last May below:
“Confirmation from Armed Forces Minister James Heappey that the UK intends to supply Brimstone precision guided weapons to assist Ukrainian armed forces in the defence of their nation against Russian aggression has been broadly welcomed and in what follows, I take nothing away from that.
But given concerns expressed by a former VCDS, General Sir Gordon Messenger four years ago [in 2018] whether four years on the MOD has yet made progress in bringing UK stockpiles of precision air to ground weapons to a level that allows us to supply Ukraine without impacting on the specific needs for UK defence remains unquantified.
Numbers of Dual Seeker Mode Brimstone missiles to be sent to Ukraine have not so far been disclosed and whether these weapons will be utilised in an air to surface, surface to surface or as Secretary of State for Defence had earlier hinted, in the form of the Sea Spear naval variant is also as yet unknown. But Mr. Wallace is I believe on record as saying that the House of Commons will be provided with more details of what missiles are to be sent to Ukraine in due course. I would like to think that he would at that time reassure the House of current UK weapons stockpiles.
The subject of weapon stockpiles is not one that surfaces that often and for the most part, for reasons of national security, number of weapons stockpiled in the UK is not disclosed. But given the very high usage of precision guided weapons in Op Shader since 2014, it would be remiss to ignore concerns raised over UK current stockpiles of precision weapons such as Brimstone and Paveway1V or the time it takes to replenish stockpiles.
Since ‘Op Shader’ began back in September 2014 and up until the last figures published in 2017 show that the Royal Air Force had conducted well over one thousand airstrikes over Iraq and Syria using more than 4,300 weapons – these being launched from Typhoon, Reaper and before the superb capability was prematurely withdrawn in 2019, Tornado GR4 aircraft.
But has the UK been replenishing precision weapon stocks at a sufficient rate? The answer is probably not.
In 2012 the MOD awarded Raytheon UK a £60 million contract for the supply of an unspecified number of Paveway 1V precision bombs.
One year later, in 2013, the MOD awarded a five-year contract to MBDA for the supply of an unspecified number of Brimstone precision guided weapons. In 2018 the MOD awarded a £400m contract to MBDA to support Brimstone 2 installation on Typhoon and through life capability sustainment and upgrade in order to extend the service life beyond 2030 and in 2021 MBDA was awarded a contract covering Brimstone 3B advanced software upgrade.
I accept that additional MOD contract awards for replenishing precision weapon stocks may well have been made in the subsequent period.
Paveway 1V and the Dual Seeker Mode Brimstone weapons are superb UK sovereign base manufacturing capability success stories and both Raytheon UK and MBDA are to be praised for what they have achieved.
In writing this commentary today I very much hope that my concerns in relation to current UK stockpile of precision weapons such as Paveway 1V and Brimstone is unfounded but since I last looked at the subject back in 2017, I have seen little that might allay such fears.
The other oft ignored issue is that precision weapons such as these and others have life expiry times – these often being based on the number of times each weapon is transported and ultimately loaded onto an aircraft (and assuming in this scenario that the weapons carried are not launched on the specific mission) and subsequently unloaded off the aircraft when it returns to base.
In the case of Brimstone (Paveway carriage history is covered by MOD 706C and D), each missile has a specific log book (MOD Form 714) which details current expiry date and life extension date, transportation, storage and operational log, standby life log, detailed specific aircraft carriage and mission log details including time flown and cumulative totals, over temperature and humidity exposure, modification, maintenance, firing record and disposal.
Back in 2019 the then Vice Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Gordon Messenger said in an interview with Defense News that “he believes the missiles and bombs currently in stockpile might have a longer shelf life than current standards dictate, and that the Ministry of Defence is working on new ways to use that information”.
Gordon Messenger went on to say that “one of the things that we’re seeking to improve is our ability to understand what the life of a missile looks and feels like in terms of capturing the data of the environmental conditions and the usage of those missiles because that allows you to make risk-based judgments on how long they can safely operate and that I think getting more data from, you know, in some cases almost missile by missile, to understand what the sort of ‘life journey’ of that missile is. It is that sort of data that gives you the ability to make proper judgments as to the continued safe usage of that missile system”.
Since then, I have heard nothing specific in relation to the notion put forward by General Messenger and who very sadly, having been passed over for the top job back in 2018, is no longer a member of the UK military.
Thus one is left to assume that the UK MOD bases the life of its weapons on standards developed by government along with, as already explained, built in safety assumptions about how many times a weapon can be loaded on and off an aircraft such as Typhoon, how long it can remain in a stockpile of weapons and at what point the internal components of the weapon may or may not start to break down.
Regular followers of UK defence matters may recall that when the MOD published its ‘Modernising Defence Programmes’ paper in December 2018 this highlighted the need for the UK to strengthen weapons stockpiles and a promise to do just that.
Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as it sounds to strengthen weapon stockpiles as the process of manufacturing of precision weapons takes time.
But, as Gordon Messenger highlighted at the time, “There are some missile stockpiles that are in relatively good health. There are some that are too low for comfort and that we are looking to either eek out the life of those missile systems or procure more”.
Given that huge numbers of Brimstone precision missiles along with those of Paveway1V and Storm Shadow missiles have been used in Op Shader since 2014 and taking full account of necessary time expiry of weapons within the current UK precision weapons stockpile, the manufacturing time and highly invested capacity required in order to build sophisticated weapons such as these, the hope will be that in sending Brimstone to Ukraine the UK is not leaving its own weapons stockpile at dangerously low levels.
CHW (London – 7th March 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785