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UK Defence – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.




Due to my planned visit to the Gulf Region having been unfortunately postponed, ‘Commentary’ resumes this morning with a few reflections on press articles over the weekend and also on defence related events at DVD last week:

With the authors of ‘White Flag? An Examination of The UK’s Defence Capability’ writing a preview article of the book in the Daily Mail on Saturday, a book that we are informed will be published on October 2nd coinciding with The Sunday Times choosing to publish a heavy report under the heading ‘Warships in danger as defence cuts repeat ‘blunders’ of Falklands’ in which the authors of the piece chose to dig out quotes from a couple of long ago retired Royal Navy Officers, suffice to say that those looking for articles on defence to read this weekend have been spoilt for choice.

Not surprisingly, both these articles imply that our armed forces are struggling in the face of ‘remorseless cuts’ and that they struggle to meet day to day commitments including playing our role within NATO. Is this a true or false statement I wonder?

In respect of defence it is true that we have made a number of large mistakes over the past eight years – mistakes that we are paying the price for now. The gap in Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability from 2010, a capability gap that is at least being rectified through the purchase of nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon Mk 1 aircraft that are due to begin entering service from 2020  is one that always springs to mind.

As the Sunday Times article highlighted, yet another capability gap is unfolding in front of our eyes with the premature standing down of the Royal Navy’s fleet of Sea King Mk 7 helicopters complete with its airborne early warning radar capability that warns of potential missile attack. Sadly it will be another 18 months before a small handful of the Royal Navy Merlin helicopters will have been fitted with the Crowsnest capability replacement. It is madness in my view to retire Sea King Mk 7 capability before Royal Navy Merlin helicopters fitted with ‘Crowsnest’ airborne radar are ready.

The list of mistakes in relation to UK related defence is certainly long but we are not alone in that. While, as I have said many times before, members of the House of Lords really do ‘get’ defence it is sad to reflect that part from a small handful, too few members of the House of Commons do! Like voters, politicians are fickle too and when it comes to defence who could forget David Cameron’s commitment, one that was actually announced to the media without any prior consultation with the MOD or those with defence knowledge, to maintain Army strength at 82,500 strong. The bottom line was that the Army was probably left with more manpower ability than it had actual tasks for its people.

Back to the weekend press articles and I could hardly argue that either article lacks relevance. However, while I agree that the Royal Navy has insufficient surface capability – this being before two or maybe three of the oldest Type 23 frigates being potentially stood down ahead of their Type 26/Type 31 replacements entering the fleet – I do not hold with the view that the Royal Navy needs the level of surface or sub-surface capability that it has back in 1982. Because the capability that we have today is so much more efficient and sophisticated the same argument applies to fast jet capability.

Even so, when the authors of ‘White Flag’ book claim in the article that “we are woefully unprepared for conventional war with Russia should that arise” I do take issue. True, UK defence capability might in the great scheme of things look small compared to that of Russia and China, but we would never fight a conventional war alone. The point is that we are not only part of NATO but also its largest European contributor. While that is not to suggest that we should not retain sufficient capability in areas that we choose to specialise, in respect of a future war, it is NATO strength that plays into that argument and thus it is a pity that the authors of the book chose to look at the UK, a small yet still economically powerful nation, rather than NATO in respect of collective defence. Had they done so they would have been reminded of what since April 1949 when the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington DC can be summarised as:

That the Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty:


(Note: Original NATO Articles – No’s 1 to 14 can be found at the end of this piece)


Of course, we all know that as far as the UK is concerned there is a mismatch between defence resourcing and ambition. The Secretary of State for defence, Gavin Williamson has made his views that the defence budget needs to rise very well known. We know too of the fundamental mistakes that were made in SDSR 2010 by the then National Security Advisor that created dangerous gaps in capability.


UK defence and security has quite definitely been placed at risk and we know too that as successive Governments have failed to prioritise these in the way that they are mandated to do we are paying a price of that risk. History has a habit of repeating itself but next time the enemy appears at the door we will need to remember that it takes rather longer than it used to do to produce sophisticated technology that we will need to fight wars of tomorrow.


The Mail article also questions that while Britain considers itself a ‘Tier 1’ military power (this is defined as possessing high end globally deployable forces, trained and equipped to fight in the most intensive types of conflict, having credible air power, maritime power and land forces and the expertise to bring them all together) whether this is actually any longer a sustainable claim given the level of cuts already seen?


I would answer by suggesting that the ‘Tier 1’ military power conceptual claim is a sustainable one not only because of the modern equipment and trained manpower capability that we have but also because of what NATO collectively has. Yes, we have capability gaps, skills and capacity shortages across defence and yes, we have failed to spend enough on our people. Yes, we do need to spend more on defence and security in all the various forms that they exist including cyber and other technology forms but I also believe that we should move away from the silly David Cameron concept of relating defence spending to GDP.


Yes we have also decided that we wish to retain influence in the world and credibility with our allies and we say, albeit rather tongue in cheek, that we wish to enhance our current status on the world stage and that we are ambitious to so do. Well, if that is true it cannot be done without strong defence.


Of course, rather like anything else that the State is responsible for, defence has to be affordable and we need always to remember that, outside of war, defence will be a political choice.


Sadly, we are not about to see the defence budget rising in my view and for another year at least, I fear that hidden in process, the status quo of pushing back and delaying decision making in defence will remain. Indeed, the ‘Modernising Defence Programmes’ review process may already be dead in the water and never even see the light of day ahead of yet another review process starting next year. Bottom line, there may be trouble ahead.


And yet, as the Daily Mail article (authors of which and the book itself are Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott) rightly stated, the UK still has the sixth largest military budget in the world. So, no matter that we may well be seen to be cutting above our weight in regard of defence on the international stage, the point is that we are still strong, our armed forces are brilliant in what they do and we also have, albeit not enough of it, superb equipment capability.


It isn’t all bad news though. Returning from Arnhem in the Netherlands where, over the past five days, I have had the honour and pleasure of observing various 74th anniversary commemorations in regard of UK, US, Polish and Canadian armed forces involvement in ‘Operation Market Garden’ and of which I will provide separate commentary in due course, it was good to see that Artec, a joint venture company formed by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Rheinmetall MAN Military Vehicles and Rheinmetall Military Vehicles Nederland,  had been given the green light ‘to now invite British companies with their new contractible proposals in regard of the Boxer Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV) project’.

Just as programmes such as the A400M have been managed by OCCAR, so too is Boxer managed through OCCAR of which organisation the English translation would I suspect be ‘Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation’. Comprising six member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) OCCAR is responsible for managing collaborative defence equipment programmes and many other nations participate in OCCAR related programmes without being a member.

Warrior and Challenger 2 upgrade plans apart, it is rare that I comment on specific Army related fighting vehicle requirements or capability programmes preferring to stay well inside my self-imposed predominantly air, maritime and ‘defence political’ mandate. However, as I well accept the need that the Army also has to re-equip and that this is no less a priority than air and maritime procurement requirements, it is good to be able to say that some degree of progress, albeit still at a relatively slow pace by government, is now being made.

In respect of land systems equipment build, the UK still has significant sovereign based manufacturing capability. For example, BAE Systems facilities at Telford which I visited last year are exemplary in terms of what we still have in respect of large vehicle manufacturing build and upgrade work facilities. So too are the superb Lockheed Martin facilities in Ampthill, Bedfordshire where work on the Warrior upgrade and AJAX turret build is conducted.

Many other UK based companies whether from domestic or international subsidiaries are involved in build and upgrade work – Thales UK in Scotland is responsible for the sight systems work which includes 245 x DNGS-T3 stabilised day/night gunnery sights and ancillary equipment on AJAX, Rolls-Royce supplies for the diesel engines, Meggitt Defense Systems for the 40mm cased telescoped linkless Ammunition Handling Systems and Cannon, BAE Systems and Nexter for the Turret Drive Servo Systems, Cook Defence Systems for the vehicle tracks, Smiths Detection for chemical agent detectors, QinetiQ for evaluation of the Active Protection Systems and Marshall’s for the Ajax crew space risk assessment work. And while it is perfectly true that General Dynamics is or will be assembling and undertaking integration and test work at a former fork lift truck making facility in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, the major ironwork for Ajax is being imported from Spain and Germany.

Boxer, a new 8×8 armoured protected mobility troop carrying vehicle of which the intention is believed the Army intends to make an initial purchase of 500 vehicles, has roots going back to 1998 when Germany, France and the UK agreed to work together on the development of a vehicle able to meet demanding mobility requirements and one that was suitable for hot, dry and arid terrain in the Middle East. To that end, the project enjoyed significant UK involvement within the design and development until the UK dropped out in 2003. At that point the Netherlands joined the programme and earlier this year, the UK decided to re-join.

Note to that in January this year when the ARTEC consortium signed agreements with BAE Systems, Thales UK and Pearson Engineering for the production of Boxer, the intention is that 60% of the vehicle value together with final assembly would be conducted in the UK.

Boxer is already proven in service with Germany and Lithuania and the plan is that the Army will receive latest advanced design and that this will enter service in 2023.

Announcing the next stage in the intention for Boxer at DVD 2018 held at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire last week, Defence Procurement Minister Stuart Andrew said that production of the £4.5 billion Ajax programme for the Army was beginning to ramp up and the Lockheed Martin which is charged with manufacturing, testing and certifying 245 Ajax turrets has delivered the first eight of these from its highly invested Ampthill facility in Bedfordshire to General Dynamics which has the contract for the armoured vehicle. Trials are also believed to be about to begin on the first upgraded vehicles in the Warrior Capability Sustainability Programme.

CHW (London – 24th September 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



Below are the 14 Articles ratified by the original twelve NATO member states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom and the United States of America. Greece, Turkey, Spain and Germany joined subsequently.

Article 1

The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

Article 2

The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.

Article 3

In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.

Article 4

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

Article 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Article 6 (1)

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack: on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France (2), on the territory of or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer; on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.


Article 7

This Treaty does not affect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting in any way the rights and obligations under the Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Article 8

Each Party declares that none of the international engagements now in force between it and any other of the Parties or any third State is in conflict with the provisions of this Treaty, and undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.

Article 9

The Parties hereby establish a Council, on which each of them shall be represented, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The Council shall be so organised as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The Council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary; in particular it shall establish immediately a defence committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5.

Article 10

The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.

Article 11

This Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes. The instruments of ratification shall be deposited as soon as possible with the Government of the United States of America, which will notify all the other signatories of each deposit. The Treaty shall enter into force between the States which have ratified it as soon as the ratifications of the majority of the signatories, including the ratifications of Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, have been deposited and shall come into effect with respect to other States on the date of the deposit of their ratifications.

Article 12

After the Treaty has been in force for ten years, or at any time thereafter, the Parties shall, if any of them so requests, consult together for the purpose of reviewing the Treaty, having regard for the factors then affecting peace and security in the North Atlantic area, including the development of universal as well as regional arrangements under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Article 13

After the Treaty has been in force for twenty years, any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.

Article 14

This Treaty, of which the English and French texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Government of the United States of America. Duly certified copies will be transmitted by that Government to the Governments of other signatories. The Treaty came into force on 24 August 1949, after the deposition of the ratifications of all signatory states. Appropriate changes have been made subsequently to accommodate nation status.



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