DANGERS OF REDUCING U.K. AIR POWER CAPABILITY
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
18 Oct 11. Almost a year since SDSR [Strategic Defence & Security Review] paper was published by the Coalition Government and little over a year now since Air Marshall (Timo) Anderson presented the 2010 Slessor Lecture entitled ‘The Royal Air Force in the 21st Century’ what follows is I hope a timely reminder reasoned by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that in terms of defence capability and deterrence there can be no holiday from history.
I have certainly not been alone condemning the manner in which the SDSR process was conducted or the subsequent perception that the process has condemned far too much UK defence capability to the scrapheap. Others with much greater entitlement than me have expressed severe doubt and used similarly harsh words to condemn many aspects of ‘SDSR’ as they rightly feared devastating consequences for Britain’s air and sea power capability. The warning was clear for all to see and yet for all the concern that we have expressed our ill advised government has stuck firmly to the long held boots on the ground myth.
Shortly before SDSR was formally announced the Royal Air Force through Air Marshall T.M. (Timo) Anderson gave what was most probably the most serious warning to be heard in the lead up to SDSR of the danger of playing down the role that air power plays within the overall defensive capability of the UK. The message was as simple as it was also stark – play down national air power defence capability too far and the Royal Air Force might soon find itself unable to defend our air space, unable to counter threats from hostile states, to conduct foreign military campaigns either as part of our wide NATO commitment or maybe even to defend the rights of those in our overseas territories and elsewhere to whom we also have a duty of care to protect.
Since then as we already know to our cost and due to the apparently ruthless nature of ‘government’ in terms of airpower capability we have in terms of defence capability moved from one geo-political crisis to another. And yet for all the damage that the government has done to strategic air power capability it is true that whatever the nation has demanded the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy has somehow been able to meet. That in itself is a miracle but in doing capability has been stretched to the bone. We take our hats off to all that have engaged in Libya just as we do those serving in Afghanistan, on the High Seas defending UK trade routes, our dependent territories including the Falklands, our wider role within the NATO alliance and of course, defending the United Kingdom itself. Today dependent on where we choose to look across our armed forces structure we see devotion to duty undaunted combined with motivation destroyed.
The stark message that was given by Air Marshall Anderson in the Slessor lecture last year (AVM Anderson is former Assistant Chief of the Air Staff and currently director general of the Military Aviation Authority) at the annual Slessor Lecture given to the Air League in the House of Commons in October last year should have been warning enough. Moreover the speech was delivered with a combination of stealth, knowledge, deep seated sincerity and first-hand experience. In my own long personal experience covering and supporting defence and military capability, the defence industrial base and defence exports I can say that I have never known a more stark warning to government by a senior member of the RAF over the perceived consequences of potentially damaging cuts to air power capability.
The speech itself was in essence a plea to government that we should avoid going down a road that we might later regret. That message was as real and necessary as it also was very timely in my view – a bleak warning of the level of risk that we might take should we allow air power capability to be devalued further than it already