Excellent news overnight that the British academic, Matthew Hedges has been pardoned by the United Arab Emirates authorities with immediate effect. I know nothing of the rights or wrongs of the accusations made against him but, media induced or not, I regret the unnecessary and damaging amount of criticism levied at the Foreign Office over its handling of the situation. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt should be singled out for praise over his correct diplomatic handling of this awkward situation.
Just a few days now or hopefully, not much more than a week before, if I am correct, that we can anticipate the more detailed Modernising Defence Programmes (MDP) review proposals to be released by Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson it is good to see that while some contract awards have undoubtedly been pushed back causing angst amongst industry and military alike, UK defence as a whole has not been standing still.
While MDP, when it comes, will be far from being considered perfect and giving all that military and we defence commentators believe that we need and want and that such is the change in the nature of threats, means that to accommodate new technology means that there will undoubtedly be legacy losses, in contrast to views expressed by me three months ago when the original review process had been due to be announced, I now believe that (notwithstanding some timely reminders of past promises made by the chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee last week) that the climate for defence within the overall context of government expenditure has altered meaning that we are now in a better place than we might have been a year ago when the MDP review process was authorised. For that we must thank the hard work and impact that the current Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson has had.
My reference to defence not standing still above is made on the basis of the several positive announcements that have occurred over the past few weeks. For instance, a week ago Secretary of State confirmed that coinciding with the UK having just taken delivery in the US of the seventeenth and last of the current batch of F-35 Lightning ll aircraft that a further seventeen ‘B’ STOVL variants of the aircraft had been ordered. Great news this is.
Together with the huge infrastructure developments that are edging ever closer toward completion at RAF Marham and which I have recently once again visited together with the equally massive infrastructure development underway or about to start at RAF Lossiemouth in order that the base is able to accommodate the nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft on order and those of our NATO allies, the gradually unfolding plan that is emerging to replace Sentry E3-D, those of us who as commentators and advocates of strong defence and who are equally keen observers of investment in air power should be very satisfied that the current UK Government really is stepping up to the mark and attempt to fill some of the huge gaps in defence created by the Cameron/Osborne government.
The same positive argument applies to the plan to replace the current fleet of General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) capability with that of the similarly General Atomics built Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) Protector RG Mk.1 RPAS capability for which the Royal Air Force is the lead customer on what is commonly referred to as the next-generation SkyGuardian aircraft.
However, having been delayed by the MOD presumably for financial reasons, my understanding is that Protector will not enter service until 2024. Whilst the up to three year delay at the behest of the MOD is regrettable (the UK plans to acquire 20 Protector unmanned aerial vehicle capability and the associated ground equipment required in order to replace the existing fleet of ten MQ-9 Reapers) my understanding is that Reaper will be extended.
And then there is ‘Project Centurion’, the work that BAE Systems and its complex weapons partners have been doing to ensure that Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft will be able to deliver a wide range of weapons capability that includes the deep strike Storm Shadow cruise missile, the beyond visual range air to air Meteor missile, the unique low-collateral Brimstone II attack missile and not forgetting of course, the excellent Raytheon Paveway 1V weapon and other capability that the aircraft already carries. The bulk of the Typhoon capability enhancement completion was designed to coincide with the March 31st 2019 ‘Out-Of-Service Date’ of the Panavia Tornado GR4 capability in Royal Air Force service. The latest information that I have is that ‘Project Centurion’ is going very well. Note that the complex weapons capability enhancement work on Typhoon will be followed by bringing in next generation precision stand-off air-to-ground missiles such as Spear Cap 3 (Selective Precision Effects at Range Capability 3) into service along with fitting of E Scan radar.
I am also expecting further positive and crucially important air power related news to emerge within the Modernising Defence Programmes review process but will keep my own council on this for now.
Further afield it was good to see Secretary of State for Defence visiting Oman earlier this month in relation to Exercise Saif Sareea 3 – a huge tri-service training exercise that was in fact the UK’s largest training exercise held in the Gulf region for over 17 years – and that comprised 5,500 UK military personnel being deployed to Oman to work and train alongside 60,000 members of the Omani’ Sultan’s Armed Forces. Running concurrently with the NATO Exercise Trident Junction in Norway in which members of the Army are also involved, Saif Sareea 3 demonstrates quality and strength of the UK military at its best.
As to Said Sareea 3, with eight Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft working alongside Omani Air Force pilots who were flying Lockheed Martin built F-16’s, an RAF Sentry E3-D together with other undisclosed assets and a contingent from 1 Squadron RAF Regiment providing very necessary Force Protection elements, Saif Sareea 3 proved to be a brilliant opportunity for UK and Omani forces to work and train together.
On to other recent events:
Without waiting for the MDP review announcement Gavin Williamson has also made several other important announcements including that the two Royal Navy amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark will be retained. In addition Mr. Williamson also confirmed last week that all three Batch 1 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s) – HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn – would be retained for at least two years in order to treble the amount of fishery protection capability that the UK and the Royal Navy currently has. Given the huge potential change in national security requirement created by BREXIT together with the increased pressure created by Russian frigates passing through the English Channel and other areas around the UK together with fishery protection this is a very important, necessary and welcome move.
With the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier programme continuing with the fitting out of the second HMS Prince of Wales and the first in class vessel, HMS Queen Elizabeth edging closer toward initial operating capability, the Type 26 Frigate programme progressing along with that of the Astute nuclear powered submarine programme, the Dreadnought submarines that will eventually replace the existing fleet of Vanguard class nuclear submarine deterrent capability.
Importantly the MOD has recently confirmed that ordering of the first Type 31 General Purpose frigate will occur before the end of 2019, naval defence looks to be in an increasingly better place. True, there are serious as yet not fully addressed issues relating to manning shortage and retention and there may well be a price to pay for capability enhancement through decommissioning of older Type 23 frigates earlier than planned.
Finally in respect of the Royal Navy at least, it is worth noting that the MOD has this year awarded a £160 million Power Improvement Project (PIP) contract to BAE Systems, who in collaboration with BMT Defence services and Cammell Laird will carry out conversion work on all six Type 45 destroyers in order to rectify design flaws in the original propulsion system.
Having gained a £1 billion boost spread over two years for the defence budget and with the pressure on the UK to increase spending on defence and security Mr. Williamson is to be admired for what he has so far achieved.
In another show of much needed dexterity ahead of the MDP announcement The MOD announced a five-year plan to modernise the defence estate with new build construction and refurbishment of existing military accommodation. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation which has oft been criticised for all the right reasons also confirmed large scale maintenance work to support the nuclear infrastructure capability at HMNB Clyde worth approximately £568 million together with work at the Army’s Bovington Camp in order to support AJAX armoured vehicles which are due to enter service in 2020.
Another plus point that I would mention having recently spent time on the base, is the huge infrastructure expenditure currently under way at Larkhill Barracks where it is intended that several additional Army units and those returning from Germany. I also expect to see confirmation of the Warrior Armoured Personnel Carrier upgrade programme and also continuing commitment to Challenger upgrade.
Of course, there are always some minuses that cannot be ignored and it was disappointing to hear the Secretary of State for Defence warning military personnel should not expect better pay rises despite the government’s declaration that the so-called ‘age of austerity’ was over.
Despite the raft of positive news from the MOD and the expectation of more we should not ignore useful warnings made by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee chairman Julian Lewis and who, writing in The House Magazine earlier this month, suggested that the “extra [£1 billion] for defence is a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.
Lewis suggested that the extra £1bn (£200m in 2017-18 and £800m in 2018-19) allocated to defence within the latest budget is “a welcome sticking plaster on a gaping wound” going on to suggest that “We have made modest progress in the foothills, but we still have a financial mountain to climb if our country’s safety is adequately to be resourced”.
Mr. Lewis said that of the 25 inquiry reports produced by the Defence Committee and its Sub-committee in the past three years, there is one to which I repeatedly return. “Shifting the goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge” was published in April 2016 and mainly examined whether the Cameron government had ‘fiddled the figures’ in calculating the proportion of GDP invested in the UK’s armed forces. It concluded that, although the accounting criteria fell firmly within NATO’s existing guidelines, items such as war pensions – permitted, but previously excluded – were now being used to pad out the data.
Yet, he says that “the report’s enduring interest lay in two annexes, scrupulously compiled by our professional researchers and setting out exactly what percentages of GDP had been assigned to defence and to three other high-spending departments in each financial year from 1955-56 to 2013-14 – the latter comprising the most recent figures available at that time. On page 39, all the findings were plotted on a single chart, reproduced here. The vertical axis shows the percentage of GDP spent on welfare, education, health, international development and defence in each year specified along the horizontal axis at the bottom of the chart. These are the stand-out findings:
The modernising defence programme – wisely removed from the national security capability review process by Gavin Williamson, in order to prevent further cuts in conventional forces to fund necessary increases in the security budget – remains incomplete at the time of writing.
Everyone knows that, if the worst happens and a major conflict involving the UK breaks out, money for defence will become unlimited. Yet, how much better it would be to invest a fraction of such resources, right now, to help deter aggression in the first place.
When “Shifting the goalposts?” was debated in Westminster Hall in October 2016, reference was made to the famous 1909 campaign for more Dreadnought battleships, under the slogan: “We want eight – and we won’t wait!”
The settled view of the Defence Committee is that too little is being spent, in GDP percentage terms, on the armed forces. Today, our banner reads: “We need three – to keep us free!”
My comment on the above? Yes, I can hardly disagree that we need more to be spent on defence but just like Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, let’s be satisfied with what we have got for now and fight for more in the years to come!
CHW (London – 26th November 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785