I am not often in the habit of defending the UK Ministry of Defence but this morning with certain elements of the press raking up once again the issue of Norwegian, French, German, US and Canadian military aircraft providing requested assistance to the UK in regard of tracking an increased number of Russian submarines sailing around the shores of Britain over the past year I am hardly about to criticise any decision taken by the MOD or UK Government asking our allies for assistance.
That the UK made a decision to scrap Nimrod MRA4, a capability which had been designed from the outset to track down Russian submarines, is history. I am not here and now going to get involved in that particular debate other than reminding that at the time the decision was made considerable financial and other risk remained in respect of MRA4 capability viability.
Today I read that “Martin Docherty-Hughes who is the SNP Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire has attacked the Government for the embarrassment of needing to ask to borrow military capability from foreign countries. Quoting a figure of seventeen times that the UK has requested assistance form our NATO allies, the MP is reported as saying “These figures reaffirm how disastrous the decision to chop up – quite literally – the RAF’s Nimrod fleet in 2010 was.
Adding that “While we are always grateful for support from our allies, they must be acutely aware of the hollowing out of UK defence capability that this maritime patrol deficit highlights” and that “Coming in the same week that we hear the MoD is delaying the security review yet again, we have to ask if the Tories are taking the decisions to address the real threats we face”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Docherty-Hughes neglected to mention that with its Raytheon Sentinel R1 long range wide area battlefield surveillance capability that provides critical intelligence and target tracking information and its Boeing C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift capability, the UK through the Royal Air Force has been supporting the French military in Mali and other locations for several years.
The point behind Mr. Docherty-Hughes raising of this issue was I assume in the hope of receiving a restatement of commitment by the UK Government to the planned purchase of 9 x Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft of which, at the time of writing, my understanding is that so far 5 have been ordered.
Allow me to reassure him as the MOD response to his expressed concern has been to say that “We have robust, multi-layered maritime surveillance including both RAF and international allies’ aircraft, as well as sonar-fitted frigates and submarines” and that “For the future, we are committed to investing £3 billion into nine new P-8 Poseidon aircraft to patrol the seas from 2020.” For now and without being in any way complacent that is quite enough to satisfy me the point being that the Government gets the importance of having MPA.
Of all the various theoretical and actual additional capability announced in SDSR 2015 the addition of Maritime Patrol Capability is I am sure considered by the majority of those engaged in defence as being the most important and most urgent capability requirement. Expensive though this is and notwithstanding the Brexit currency related issues that have pushed up the cost, whilst I can see the MOD pushing various other programmes back and cutting aircraft, ship and vehicle numbers, the MPA programme is the one that I really do believe they must and indeed will leave as is.
The wider issue related to the innuendo and implied criticism behind Mr. Docherty-Hughes remarks is whether we should be sharing capability with our allies. To that I say of course we should. In a world in which defence must now be as affordable as anything else, it makes absolute sense for us to concentrate on what we are best at and let others do exactly the same. While UK military air power and indeed, maritime and particularly nuclear deterrent capability must all be areas to be regarded as sovereign capability sacrosanct that does not mean that certain aspects of this cannot or should not be better provided by some of our NATO allies, just as we can share our capability with them.
Sharing capability with our NATO allies is nothing new. For some time now we have been relying on NATO and French owned E3-D AWACS aircraft capability whilst our own aircraft were either grounded or out of service for technical reasons. I suspect that in the longer term we will be doing more of that. The Royal Navy and the French Navy have been working closer together and the notion of alignment and sharing certain aspects of maritime and air capability and making sense.
The most important thing to me is that rather than bleat on about the issue of abandoning capability that we ensure we have access to capability. Our US allies have provided brilliant support to us particularly in the process of training Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots and maintainers on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme and indeed, RAF ‘seed-corn’ crews have over the past four years been embedded in the US training with US Navy personnel in order to ensure that the UK maintained sufficient skills required to operate Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) requirement in the P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability that the Royal Air Force will be operating in the UK in a couple more years. RAF seed-corn crews have also been embedded in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The NATO view on sharing capability is straightforward enough –“In these times of austerity, each euro, dollar or pound sterling counts. Smart Defence is a cooperative way of thinking about generating the modern defence capabilities that the Alliance needs for the future. In this renewed culture of cooperation, Allies are encouraged to work together to develop, acquire, operate and maintain military capabilities to undertake the Alliance’s essential core tasks agreed in NATO’s Strategic Concept. That means harmonising requirements, pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities and coordinating efforts better”.
Using the term “Smart Defence” NATO doctrine sees pooling and sharing as being a cooperative way of generating modern defence capabilities that the Alliance needs, in a more cost-efficient, effective and coherent manner. There is nothing wrong with this and it can embody many forms of critical defence capability ranging from maritime and air assets, precision guided weapons, cyber, logistics and perhaps the most important of all, the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) component.
It isn’t just the UK that is looking more at pooling and sharing and a good example of this within Continental Europe comes in the form of various NATO alliance and European air forces signing an agreement in regard of the Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet (MMF) acquisition contract with industry and that was recently amended to include both Germany and Norway as participants along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
We all agree that European members of NATO need to spend more on defence and it is clear that the US which provides 70% of current NATO funding requires that Europe takes on a larger share of the burden. In a structure based on collective defence for each NATO member to attempt to retain all individual capability and function is no longer viable.
I have previously written negatively in relation to the separate European based PESCO (Permanent Structured Co-operation) initiative and my view on this has not changed. In my view, nothing that might get in the way of strengthening the NATO alliance is tolerable and while I admire the 23 nations that have supposedly signed up to it I fear that the bill will be enormous.
But being against PESCO does not mean that I am not prepared to support more pooling and sharing in NATO.
CHW (London – 11th January 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785