UK DEFENCE – STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW OR DEEFENCE STRATEGIC MESS?
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
22 Oct 10. Ahead of my week long US visit next week and where I might hope to better gauge the DC based view on proposed cuts to UK defence capability plus the potential affect this may have on the NATO alliance I will restrict my pure SDSR comments to decisions that appertain solely to air and carrier power. If there was any good news Tuesday it was that Typhoon aircraft will continue to be acquired for the RAF although I note that we have not yet been told of final numbers that will go into service. Great news too that the RAF will retain a large fleet of Tornado aircraft at least through the remaining years that our forces are fighting in Afghanistan although again we are not told how many aircraft or a date when even these will go out of service although we presume this will be around 2014/15. But the worst news for both the RAF and Royal Navy is surely the decision to scrap the whole fleet of Harrier VSTOL aircraft next year, to withdraw HMS Ark Royal from service immediately, to effectively downgrade the other Invincible class carrier HMS Illustrious and finally, given all the above, the extremely dangerous gap that emerges during which time the UK will have no carrier based military aircraft capability up until the first Queen Elizabeth class carriers able to receive and launch military jets comes into service in (circa) 2019.
With HMS Ark Royal (launched 1981) maybe unlikely to leave Portsmouth again as a commissioned Royal Navy ship together with confirmation Tuesday that HMS Illustrious (launched 1978) will lose its Harrier VSTOL aircraft quite soon and that the ship will then be placed into an apparent competition with the existing helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (launched 1995) for a decision to be made on which of the two might serve best as a Helicopter carrier it seems that very soon Britain will for the first time in over seventy years be completely without air power based ‘carrier force’ capability. I regret this and believe we as a nation will too a few years from now. Another way of putting this could be to say ‘mind the gap’ as SDSR did after all give the go ahead for both planned Queen Elizabeth class carriers to be completed and for one to be redesigned to carry arrester and catapult equipment gear so that not only a reduced fleet of none STOVL US built Joint Strike Fighter aircraft can make use of the ship and also that planes from other NATO allies such as the US and France can take off and land. But surely, to go up to nine years without a ship in the Royal Navy that with aircraft on board could be regarded as a true carrier force on its own is far too long.
To say that I was personally very shocked indeed by the government decision to leave such a very large gap before we have carrier based military jet capability would be a huge understatement. I was absolutely shocked when I received the first hints Monday that this would be the case. Notwithstanding that HMS Ark Royal is approaching thirty years old and probably soon due another refit, notwithstanding that on a 2008 basis I would say that the cost of keeping a carrier in full service including refit is probably in the region of £60m to £70m annually I say without hesitation or deviation that I regard these two decisions as the one’s that we are in the immediate future most likely to regret.
Certainly without the Harrier VSTOL aircraft (VSTOL = Vertical Short Take Off & Landing) and without a true aircraft carrier I guess that new alarm bells will be ringing in the South Atlantic. After all it was HMS Hermes (if I remember correctly this ship which was later to be sold to India and was actually just about to be readied for withdrawal at the time) that in 1981 complete with its force of Harrier aircraft on board came to the rescue of the Falkland Islands – along of course with many hundreds of Bri