Almost fourteen years since he wrote of the scandalous state of our armed forces back in 2007 claiming that British soldiers were being sent into conflict areas with some of the worst guns around and six years now since he called on those writing the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review to stop wasting money on tanks, frigates and pilots and that they should also, break the dominance of the UK’s largest defence manufacturer and stop buying British, this former member of the Royal Navy published another expose in the Sunday Telegraph in which he suggests not only that the already announced four year £16.5bn extra funding for defence is hardly transformative but worse, has chosen to take another shot at the brilliant four nation Eurofighter Typhoon programme of which Britain is part, calling the decision to buy and now keep operating as ‘cripplingly expensive’ and adding insult to injury saying that this, along with its predecessor Panavia Tornado F3, is (was)a disaster.
Normally I would not waste my time responding to articles written by Mr. Lewis Page or indeed, other particularly biased individuals with a single service mentality. To be fair, the former Lt. Page who as far as I am aware would have been classified as having been non-aviator/non Marine and spent much of his time as a diver, resigned from the Royal Navy after eleven years in 2004 because of a belief that the number of 32 Destroyers and Frigates that the Royal Navy then had in the fleet could no longer perform a serious function in combat.
He went on to suggest back then that although the Navy did have anti-submarine warfare frigates it had, in his view, no submarines to hunt and that the destroyers it had and that were supposed to be able to protect the fleet from air attack were armed with missiles which he described as being “almost museum pieces”.
Thankfully, his views hold little credence or value but nevertheless, in terms of public perception they are to be regarded as dangerous and beyond the pale. When he last published a bitter attack on how defence is managed and his loathing of maintaining sovereign manufacturing capability I was asked by the newspaper if I would write a response for the following day. I declined on the basis that I had no wish to respond to what are clearly, very biased views.
Leave aside whether or not the UK had sufficient maritime capability back in 2004 (the answer is that it probably never has nor will do) we should I fear be very concerned that someone who one may hope that in writing this was doing so from a position of knowledge has chosen to ignore all the lessons of history. His dislike or maybe, lack of understanding of air power capability is astounding to say the least. What would he intercept and chase Russian Bear Tu-142 F aircraft coming so close to our shores with I wonder – a Royal Navy frigate?
As long ago as 1917 Lt Gen Jan Smuts said: “The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate”
Even Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery admitted that: “if we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and lose it quickly” while Winston Churchill made many important remarks in support of the need to build have air supremacy including: “Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence” and finally “The Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it”.
I am of course not suggesting the Mr. Lewis believes that we should abandon air power but his flagrant and unjustified attack on Typhoon and which remains the backbone of UK air power capability and will continue to do so until F-35 capability builds to a sufficiently high level in respect of capacity and numbers and to lambast Tornado F3 which was indeed designed as a Cold War air to air capability for which it did a superb job until it was deemed to be no longer needed, is as unbelievable as it is also sad.
It was Gen Omar Bradley who reminded that
“Airpower has become predominant, both as a deterrent to war, and in the eventuality of war-as the devastating force to destroy and enemy’s potential and fatally undermine his will to wage the war” and that is, as far as I am concerned, as true today as it was when first said.
Notwithstanding Mr. Page’s failure to understanding that air power, air supremacy is paramount and his other criticism in yesterday’s Daily telegraph article – that of defence chiefs in his view still being “locked into cold war mentality” thinking it is the combination of these with inuendo that the UK should buy everything off the shelf – presumably from the US – and that ”our decision to buy and now keep operating the cripplingly expensive Eurofighter” that I find most offensive.
Just as its predecessor partnership-built Panavia Tornado GR achieved through 38 years of unbroken service deployed on various conflicts with our NATO allies so it is that Typhoon has performed brilliantly in service as the formal replacement for RAF Panavia Tornado GR4 capability. Typhoon has also achieved considerable export success but just because we in Europe cannot hope to achieve the level of exports achieved by US fast jet capability should and thankfully, does not mean we throw in the towel.
Maintaining UK sovereign defence design and manufacturing capability allows us to retain control over our future destiny. We work with our allies and we have proven the benefits of partnerships be these in Jaguar with the French, Panavia Tornado with the Germans and Italians, Eurofighter Typhoon with Germany, Spain and Italy. The Lockheed Martin F-35 in which we are a Tier One partner with UK owned companies producing 15% of each aircraft built.
And this is not only in respect of air power capability either – one look at the partnerships that have evolved around the Type 26 Frigate design in Australia and Canada add other very interesting dimensions. Neither should I ignore the massive investment in manufacturing Astute and Dreadnought class submarines at Barrow in Furness.
Seems to me that Mr. Page who has been peddling a similar message for the best part of two decades now would wish to do away with all of this in the belief that we should buy all the capability we need off the shelf. That view is most likely based on a mistaken belief that buying capability from abroad is cheaper. Some capability that we require may well be cheaper in respect of actual purchase but the cost of support has a nasty tendency to spiral upwards in the through life period.
Can you really imagine a nation that says it wants to extend its reach, trade with a wider market in the post Brexit world whilst at the same time attempting to play a much larger role in international affairs abandoning its sovereign defence design and manufacturing capability? Yes, the MOD may have to pay a higher price for some capability that it acquires from the UK particularly if it seeks to add its own specific mark in the capability requirement that is different from that being offered.
Companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Lockheed Martin, Thales, Raytheon, Leonardo, Cobham, Babcock International, Meggitt, Marshalls Aerospace, Leidos, Boeing, Airbus and others have invested heavily to ensure that the UK has the capability to design, manufacture and support the equipment we need and export.
The wider argument, as I have written many times before, is that in the post Brexit arena we need to manufacture more of what we consume here at home, reduce imports and export more.
In recent years and despite procurement delays and a host of other issues to face, the UK defence industrial base has been continually strengthened through new investment. Despite C-19, it has through this past year continued to build the skill base offering many hundreds of new places for graduate and apprentice schemes in order to ensure that we have the designers, engineers and technicians we need for the future.
I am not for one moment suggesting there have not been procurement mistakes or that capability programmes have gone awry due to changed MOD requirements and specifications or design and development problems. Each and every country involved in defence equipment manufacturing faces obstacles to progress although we in the UK appear to have had more than our share of originally planned numbers being cut – a situation that ironically often increases the cost of the programme rather than reducing it.
And yes, although I would not use similar words to those used by Mr Page in the past, the A400M has had many unforeseen issues to resolve and the cost to partner governments has indeed been very much high than envisaged. But the point here is that most if not all have now been resolved and that the ultimate capability will deliver what the carious armed forces require.
It was Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart who wrote in his book ‘Thoughts of War’ in1944 that “If one lesson stands out clearly from the history of modem wars it is that the commerce and prosperity of civilized nations are so closely interwoven and interdependent that the destruction of the enemy’s economic wealth recoils on the head of the victor.”
CHW (London – 4th January 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785