UK DEFENCE – SQUARING SDSR CIRCLE
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
17 Nov 10. What is done is done and despite many voices of concern it would probably take a prime ministerial decision to reverse what eventually emerged in the final round of SDSR horse trading just a month ago this week. Down goes the defence budget by about 8% so we are told though in reality we may better imagine this as a plan for the average budget spend to stand still at maybe near £33.5bn a year. As has already been detailed with the proposed budget ‘cut’ we may expect to see considerable reduction in the number of front line personnel along with huge change in the operational structure of each of the three armed forces. With a planned reduction of 10% to 15% of front line personnel we will also see ships, aircraft, tanks, much other equipment and bases decommissioned over the coming months and years. Adding all this up overall we may see SDSR as the most radical shake up in UK military and defence spending since the Denis Healey cuts in 1966.
Like many others I was absolutely shocked on hearing that the Strategic Defence and Security Review had concluded that the UK would from next year effectively be devoid of Carrier Force capability until possibly as long as 2019/20. I was immediately reminded of the 1966 cuts that demanded withdrawal of all existing through deck carriers including HMS Eagle and the former HMS Ark Royal within five years. Thankfully relying on parts supplied from Eagle meant that Ark Royal remained in commission until 1978. Like others I was also somewhat taken aback at the seemingly un-strategic decision that hastened premature withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal next month and particularly that all the remaining near eighty strong force of Harrier VSTOL aircraft including the excellent and heavily upgraded GR9 version would likely be withdrawn in just weeks. Naturally I disliked the thought that when the Harriers are gone and when the remaining Invincible class carrier, HMS Illustrious is likely downgraded to helicopter carrier Britain will have lost what we regard as true carrier force capability. The point though is that I will have to live with it just as we all will until we realise that what we have done in the 2010 SDSR cuts is perhaps recognised as having gone several steps to far and too fast. In the meantime I am left to worry greatly about the huge capability gap that has emerged before a planned much reduced number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft entering Royal Air Force service maybe in 2020 and that are by then hopefully able to use the currently in build HMS Prince of Wales that will be fitted with catapult and arrester gear that is as yet undefined. By that time we will have needed to rely on the good offices of the US Navy and Air Force to ensure that we have a sufficiently well trained force of pilots that are able to land planes on our single through-deck carrier.
Like former Royal Navy chiefs and other signatories to a letter published in ‘The Times’ last week and that was in effect an appeal to reverse some of the SDSR decisions I do share considerable doubt that the process that led to some SDSR conclusions was flawed. For all that somehow I do not share the view that attempts to question the ongoing ability to adequately defend UK interests in the South Atlantic. Great aircraft that Harrier is I also understand the reasoning why the Royal Air Force has preferred to operate Tornado rather than Harrier capacity in Afghanistan although as I said earlier in this paper I feel that the decision to end Harrier GR9 service so quickly presumably so that these aircraft can be sold to another Harrier user is something that we will live to regret.
As regular readers will know apart from appealing for Warrior upgrade I rarely talk about Army operation and procurement. However, it appears that we may hear soon that the Army is to have what we may call a super-base that I understand