07 Mar 22. Having observed the many calls for HMG to increase defence spending and reverse some of the many misguided elements announced a year ago in the ‘Integrated Review’ process, it is time for me to come off the fence.
Firstly, notwithstanding the huge publicity afforded to new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announcing that Germany will raise defence spending to 2% of GDP – a truly massive increase by any standards – let me say that although very useful as an historic guide to how much we have spent on defence and of how this has declined, apart from intervention by Mrs. Thatcher which attempted to reverse the process , almost unbroken since the infamous Duncan Sandys Defence Review in 1955. Using the percentage of GDP as a forward guide serves little purpose. A controversial view maybe, but far better to look at what we have and what we may need rather than allow us to be confused by the efficacy or otherwise of percentage figures.
Secondly, let us not forget that defence is, was and will probably always remain a political choice – until and when the enemy is at the door. Whether we like it or not, affordability will remain an issue and we should not kid ourselves that economic growth will pay for increased spending on defence. No, I have not been ‘got at’ and my view purely relates to common sense. To raise spending on defence would require financial budget restraints being placed on other government departments. Media would have a field day attacking government. Remember too that the UK is laden with massive national debt and this has to be paid for. Servicing that debt cost £1.6bn alone in January 2021 but in January 2022, the Treasury spent £6.1bn in debt interest payments alone.
Thirdly, realisation that procurement of defence equipment is a very long-term business. The Royal Navy may well be short of surface ships, the Royal Air Force short of military fast jets, airlift and ISTAR capability, the Army short of vital ground equipment and facing a cut of 10,000 personnel.
And just how should we spend the 25% increase in defence spending that Tory MP’s such as the former Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon and former Brexit Minister Lord Frost have called for? The list would be massive and catching up and making good the damage caused by years of slash and burn defence policies also means that we would have to spend massive amounts on training – something that in the airpower domain alone would require a radical rethink let alone a huge hardware procurement process, infrastructure investment and so on.
Fourthly – reversing existing cuts announced in the Integrated Review (IR) process? Sentinel had already gone and sold as far as I am aware.
Sentry E3-D AWACS? A couple of the aircraft have already been sold to Chile and one to the US.
And what about the ridiculous decision to dispose of Tranche 1 Typhoon air to air capability? Over half have already gone and many of the rest cannibalised for parts.
Please do not take what follows as being absolutely up to date figures but they do demonstrate a clear need for the UK to order more Typhoon jets. As of last week, following delivery of three more Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to RAF Marham and leaving out Tranche 1 Typhoons because those that remain are earmarked for withdrawal, the UK has 107 Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoon aircraft and 24 Lockheed Martin F-35 B STOVL aircraft. That is close to half the amount of fast military jet capability that we had in 2006 and while I well accept that because of leaps forward in technology of what these aircraft can achieve and in the munitions they carry, that we don’t need nearly as many aircraft today as we did back in 1989, contrast that number with the 800 plus fast jet aircraft we had back in 1989 and you will quickly realise the scale of change.
Sadly, due to the determination of the MOD to rid the Royal Air Force of its remaining three squadrons of Tornado GR4 by 2019, we scrapped soe very fine aircraft which, as the old adage which remains as true today as ever, were never better than the day they were withdrawn. Tornado continues to fly in the German and Italian air forces and will likely continue to do well into the 2030’s.
True, Typhoon is absolutely brilliant capability but typical of MOD, we have dragged our feet investing in the capability. A typical part of this has been radar upgrade and while I accept that having delayed the process for as long as it could, this particular investment is now underway, it will be many years yet before some RAF Typhoon aircraft have the full capability that they require.
I will not repeat my concerns over tactical airlift capability and which in regard of withdrawing all C-130J aircraft by next year, my belief is that even with all eight C-17 heavy lift capability and issues related to the RAF A400M fleet being fully resolved, the UK is dangerously short of airlift capability for certain crucial requirements.
The Cameron administration decision in SDSR 2010 to cut RAF pilot training by 30% and having faced serious issues around retention means that the RAF found itself short of pilots. Some of these issues have been resolved but the point is that even though through the increase in synthetic based training, pilots no longer take as long to train, it seems that having come this far the MOD is now showing reluctance, presumably on cost basis, of acquiring additional features that can make the process of training even faster and better for the individual concerned.
Throughput all the many cuts that we have witnessed over the past decade, our Service Chiefs have acquiesced rather than object and fight for their respective forces. True, past 1SL’s have said that the Royal Navy needs a minimum of at least 30 frigates/destroyers (down from what used to be sixty not so many decades ago) in order to fill routine tasks, allow sufficient time for maintenance and refits and to have something in reserve.
Today, there is no reserve warship capacity to guard against the unexpected and even if all Royal Navy Frigates and Destroyers were all in service, the total number is just 18 ships. True, the Royal Navy has some excellent Offshore Patrol Vessels and it also has two superb Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. But with Type 45 Destroyers moving through a long and complicated process or remedying propulsion issues and allowing for necessary ongoing Type 23 refits, the number of active capital ships available is maybe only around 12. Yes, new Type 26 and Type 31 capability is under construction in order to replace the excellent Type 23’s, but there can be no question of speeding the process up
The Royal Navy role includes fishery protection, coastal patrol and mine countering and just thirty years ago it had no fewer than eight vessels for these purposes. The migrant crisis together with the situation in Ukraine and a resurgent Russia highlights the woeful position in regard to capabilities that the Royal Navy no longer has. It is almost as if the MOD cannot get rid of minesweeping vessels fast enough and although I well accept the virtues of technology mean the that unmanned and autonomous systems that will replace these offer excellent potential but I remain concerned that the River class OPV’s that conduct coastal and fishery patrol along with a few smaller RN surface vessels are, because of a shortage of Frigates, being called upon to conduct work that they are not necessarily designed for.
That we have been assured by the MOD that the assault ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion will remain in service until th early 2030’s is reassuring but the Royal Navy is short of support vessels. We await decisions related to the build of three Fleet Solid Support ships and the scrutiny in regard of contract award to ensure that these are completely UK manufactured will be intense.
The previous RAF view was that it required at least 12 combat air squadrons in order to retain critical mass, but sadly this has been allowed to decline into single figures. As I have said before, while the Tempest development paves the way for a very interesting combination of manned/unmanned capability and that alongside the investment in Protector which will replace existing Reaper unmanned capability, we do need to invest in more Typhoons and speed up the process of investment acquiring more F-35’s.
The MOD’s ‘Future Soldier’ report published last November talked of yet more reorganizations and, in meeting the objectives of IR, reducing the number of soldiers by 10,000 through what it termed as an Army that would be leaner, more agile and more adaptable. The trouble is that Army modernisation has been a same subject for years if not decades. No blame attached for crass MOD decisions such as pulling all troops out of Germany, an issue that has subsequently partially been reversed, but I am bound to wonder how the SAS and Army as a whole will be served by withdrawal of C-130J’s, Sentinel, Warrior AFV’s and so on. Yes, the Army will get Boxer and that appears to be excellent proven capability but with Ajax tracked capability plans in limbo, the forward position in regard of enhanced rapid reaction requirement, has been ill served by IR.
To the onlooker observing how the Army has taken over so many former RAF bases such as Lyneham, Kinloss and Leuchars in order to accommodate the bringing back of soldiers from Germany and the huge investment at Larkhill and other Army barracks, the decision to cut numbers of personnel by 10,000 doesn’t look that misplaced. The debate continues but at least the Army is getting a new fleet of Apache attack helicopters albeit that it appears woefully short of other rotary power
To Be Continued……