Having previously written on the now perceived impossibility of the defence budget rising much above the current 2% of GDP over the next few years I will add little to what the Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace had little choice in saying in front of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee yesterday that the commitment made by former PM Liz Truss to increase spending on defence to 3% of GDP was now merely ‘aspirational’.
As one of probably only two government departments where, because of defence equipment capital purchase requirements in the case of defence and for medical equipment, drugs and other supplies in respect of the National Health Service, the rise in inflation hurts, Mr. Wallace will have his work cut out to save money through pushing back and delaying already planned equipment purchase.
Saying that he would be meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt today in order to fight his cause for raising the defence budget and indeed, raising the whole area of defence and its requirements up the agenda. Such aspirations on the part of Mr. Wallace are indeed worthy and commendable but facing up to Jeremy Hunt who knows all too well that the new Prime Minister was no fan of defence when he was Chancellor, I fear that we should best conclude that what Mr. Wallace was doing yesterday was the beginnings of a political ‘climb-down’ on his previous expectation that by the end of the decade defence would be receiving a little more funding which it genuinely deserves.
For all that, only the previous day Mr. Wallace was saying that discussions are now going on that could see the plan to reduce army personnel numbers to 73,000 could well be scrapped in favour of maintaining numbers of full-time personnel to 77,000, a figure that I estimate represents the current number of army personnel on the MOD books. Mr. Wallace suggested that in order to achieve a higher number of retained personnel numbers he had requested that the Army should look at the potential of affording this through changes in salary scales of personnel and at how the Army organises itself.
The latter idea would certainly be welcome and in doing so Secretary of State should look very closely at just how many of the current numbers of army personnel we have are ‘front line’ trained and capable – in effect ready to go wherever the mission is. I think, although do not know what the actual numbers are but I fear that they are much lower than perceived or should be. The bottom line is that the Army is well overdue reorganisation.
Meanwhile the update review of the 2021 Integrated Review process which is due to report in December or January continues. I live in hope rather than anticipation that it emphasises the need to strengthen air power and maritime and place less emphasis on land. That is not to suggest that the Army doesn’t need new equipment – it certainly does – but it is to remind that what the Army cannot afford to take on is equipment risk.
In my above comment I am predominantly referring to the £5.5bn Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle procurement programme and which Wallace rather surprisingly told the Defence Select Committee yesterday that this long overdue capability had completed user validation trials and would over the next three months move forward to a process of reliability and growth trials. Sadly, from my perspective and from the information garnered in relation to weight, vibration and noise issues, no amount of convincing that some problems may have been resolved will satisfy my natural instinct to believe that even if Ajax is commissioned into army service eventually, it will not be without further trouble ahead.
Separately and I am grateful to CMS Strategic for highlighting this, I note that in response to the following question:
Warrior Armoured Vehicle: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what contingency plans he has made if no replacement for Warrior is ready when it is retired in 2025. (Chris Evans, Shadow Minister (Defence))
Answers from Alex Chalk, The Minister for Defence Procurement, Ministry of Defence:
“Under Future Soldier and the Land Industrial Strategy, the Army is conducting widespread modernisation of its capabilities in order to maintain its operational outputs and to contribute to the defence, security and prosperity of the nation.
The intent remains to withdraw Warrior from service from 2025. Current capabilities, which include Warrior, will remain effective until new concepts and capabilities are introduced into service throughout the decade.”
My response: Whilst I accept that the army will be receiving large numbers of new and proven in service multirole Boxer wheeled armoured fighting vehicles over the next few years I am bound to be concerned that assuming that it could be 2030 before Ajax or a successor bought off the shelf tracked vehicle enters service with the army, scrapping of Warrior too soon could have calamitous consequences. I my view and for safety and security purposes in regard taking no gap in capability that is much needed, an unspecified number of Warrior vehicles should be upgraded and given a ten-year additional lifespan.
The above leads on to the planned disposal of the UK’s fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft and which, as I have previously written, is probably the worst MOD/Government decision that I have ever come across in all my years of following defence.
Following new C130J purchases by France and Germany in recent years, this week the Australian Department of Defence confirmed a deal to acquire no fewer than 24 new C130J-30 of these superb, reliable, efficient and battle proven tactical transport aircraft from Lockheed Martin.
Although the origins of the C-130 go back over sixty years, the UK was the first to acquire C130J capability during the late 1990’s. These aircraft, most have now already undergone Enhanced Service Life Centre Wing Box Replacements by Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge, could and should be retained. Due to be retired and disposed by March next year, despite the UK having acquired a fleet of A400M’s, the C130J remains the backbone of UK air mobility.
The SDSR 2025 review made the decision to retain 14 C130J aircraft and fund a £110m centre wing box replacement programme in order to extend the life of the capability to 2035. Thus, I and many others believe that the decision that emerged from the 2021 Integrated Review process to dispose of the remaining RAF Brize Norton based fleet of C-130J aircraft is incoherent with UK special defence capability requirements just as it also is inconsistent with proven air mobility capacity that the UK desperately needs to retain.
I hope that those undertaking the review of IR strategy take views such as those above into full account and ensure that the UK and its special forces retain capability that no other aircraft in service with RAF is fully signed off and able to provide.
CHW (London – 3rd November 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785