Of necessity and this being a Tuesday, a short commentary from me today – many of you will have no doubt read the front page and subsequent two-page articles in the Sunday Times this weekend under the headline ‘Revealed: the huge gap in UK defences’ and that raises a raft of issues and suggests that “billions is being wasted on trophy kit” and that this leaves “a big hole in the realms defences”.
It is so easy to criticise of course and whilst I am not about to suggest that some of the claims made within the article lack merit, such as the difficulty that government now has in balancing the defence budget due to the required efficiency savings proving much harder to find, I am bound to be concerned at some of the claims and the unnecessary damage that these cause.
Highlighted amongst a raft of claims in respect of land, air and maritime capability was a claim made that the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers could be heard 100 miles away by Russian submarines. This particular claim, made apparently by Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former MOD director of operational capability, suggested that the Destroyers are “as noisy as hell” under water and could be detected by [Russian] submarines to a distance of 100 miles. Rear Admiral Parry is quoted as saying that they “sound like a ‘box of spanners underwater”.
To such ridiculous, nay dangerous and very inflammatory remarks and for which I am at a loss to wonder why and for what underlying reason they have been made, I would say this – the Type 45 is a destroyer as opposed to a frigate. The job of a destroyer is to protect itself and the ship or fleet that it is supporting. A destroyer is not a submarine hunter – that is the job of a frigate and I am perfectly sure that the thirteen in-service Royal Navy Type 23 frigates have what is required, just as I also am that the Type 26 frigates that will eventually replace them will have all the sound deadening capability that they need.
The Sunday Times article went on to criticise various other capability programmes including remarks suggesting that the P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol aircraft that the UK has contracted to acquire ‘could ’ according to reports the newspaper suggested had emanated from the US, be vulnerable to cyber–attack. To that my answer is what couldn’t possibly be vulnerable to cyber-attack right now and that this is why we have so many specialists and why the government has dramatically increased spending on UK cyber protection.
In another paragraph, the suggestion is made that the Army’s planned new fleet of Ajax ‘reconnaissance’ tanks at 42 tons each, are too heavy for the new fleet of A400M medium/heavylift transport aircraft – without the gun-turret being removed. The article suggests that the aircraft is only able to carry a payload of 25 tons and yet, as far as I am aware, please correct me if I am wrong, the A400M Atlas can carry a normal 33 ton payload with a maximum of 40 tons. So be it and in any case, that is why we also have the larger Boeing C-17 fleet of which the UK has eight.
The Sunday Times report highlights many other areas and points criticism at defence procurement and how this is achieved. It wheels out various senior former and existing academics/members of RUSI to further its case, all of whom are of course more than happy to add negative comment that makes it look as if we never did anything right.
I am not saying that defence procurement in the UK is perfect of course but we have to remember that defence is a political choice and it is one that because, for whatever reason right or wrong, that Governments over the past thirty years have sadly decided that because of the very many other calls to increase spending on health, welfare and the like, defence should fall lower down the priority list. I like that less than anyone else but I do recognise the affordability issue that the UK has.
Right now we are beginning to wake up and realise that we need to spend more on defence but no matter what you and I would like to see occur, Government has no choice but to cut its coat according to the amount of cloth available. Any process of change is gradual. Unless we cut other budgets or raise taxes, the reality is that defence will continue to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. We do need to spend more on defence of course and we do also always need to ensure that we get it right. We also need to recognise the importance of sovereign capability.
Defence has to be affordable and I am in no doubt that we are today very much better than we were at getting to where we need to be. Yes there is a long way to go yet and yes, we are not necessarily doing everything right. Yes, finding additional efficiency savings is a big problem just as is recognising that we cannot have everything that we either need or want in terms of capability and quantity. There has to be a balance.
What we don’t need is more obstacles to progress, damaging hostages to fortune being put in the way of defence. We need to value what we have, support it, make it work even better and whilst accepting that there is of course a need for criticism there is also a need for praise and recognition that the military, industry and government are doing their best to get it right.
CHW (London – 7th February 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785