Defence review

Defence review

The Integrated Review: Fighting the Last War But One

Rather than actually deliver the 2020 Strategic Defense and Security Review the government took the innovative view that the nation’s strategic goals and security needs could be better met by delaying it a year and giving it the pithy title of The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development. The review has now been scheduled, with a high degree of precision, to be delivered in ‘early 2021’.

Part of this delay must be attributed to Johnson’s recent and fulsome urination on the roots of the Magic Money Tree. This irrigation caused its boughs to be laden with £16.5 billion of extra defence spending spread over four years. Part of this munificence was simply and finally an acceptance of reality over the state of the MoD’s spending plans. With a previously identified shortfall of £13 billion, 80% of the new sorcerous arboreal bounty is already accounted for with providing existing and planned capabilities – if nothing else goes wrong.

Narrator’s voice: something else went wrong.

Johnson does deserve credit on this issue as previous governments have either wilfully ignored this chasm between intentions and reality or deluded themselves that it could be fixed with efficiency savings that didn’t and could never exist.

There is precious little left, on an MoD scale, for new capabilities but £400m is being found over the four years to update the RAF’s Space Command – for reference the United States Space Force has an annual budget of $15 billion. In a proclamation that was reminiscent of Williamson’s breezy assurance that the RAF would be fielding autonomous swarming drones by the end of 2020, we are assured the UK Space Command will be launching spacecraft by 2022.

Lesser countries with an insufficiency of grit but greater regard for the laws of physics would choose to do their launches as close to the equator as possible with open seas to the East. Following a science led and evidence based investigation that, in no way was informed by the imminence of any elections to a devolved parliament, the UK will apparently be launching from Scotland. Next year.

So what are the specifics likely to be addressed in the IRoSDFP&D?

Army: By God They Frighten Me

The Challenger 2 Life Extension Program is now entering its sixth year having produced not very much of anything. It was initially marketed within the MoD and to the Treasury as a limited sensor upgrade that ignored the shortcomings of the obsolescent gun and inadequate powertrain. Suddenly, in September 2019 the scope of the LEP was dramatically increased to include both the gun and the powertrain. Seasoned MoD watchers know a project being fattened up for the kill when they see it.

The Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle is in similar peril with its Capability Sustainment Program similarly mired in delay with no production contract issued. The wheeled faction of the army has been ascendency over the tracked vehicle aficionados for some time now. With 523 under contract the 8 wheeled Boxer MIV is the main reason the army’s budget is under such strain. With the first production vehicle due to be delivered in 2022, a mere 24 years after the program started, the venerable Warrior IFV may have to bow out.

Tracked armour of any kind is not going to be a priority for the army for a long time as the 523 contracted Boxer purchases are absolutely insufficient to form the two planned Strike Brigades. Quite how this circle may be squared will probably be left for a future review with a longer name.

RAF: Check In, Not Dig In

Despite being the youngest of the armed services the RAF does have some foundational traditions. Chief among these is wildly underestimating the cost of an equipment acquisition programs to get them approved then hoping that it’s too important to cancel once the true cost is apparent. Sometimes this works, as with Typhoon, and sometimes it doesn’t as in the case of Nimrod MRA4.

This tradition is being honoured in fine style with the E-7 AEW&C aircraft. It was initially contracted for 5 airframes in March 2019 at £1.5 billion. A scant 11 months later in February 2020 the costs were being projected at £2.1 billion. If Boeing and the US government can be suitably mollified the E-7 program may be reduced to three aircraft. This would allow one for one aircraft to meet the UK’s commitment to the NATO AEW&C component, one for expeditionary deployment to the apparently eternal war in the Middle East and one to be broken or otherwise unavailable.

The RAF’s other major issue is F-35. Having fully committed to Tempest as a national vanity project the reality is that every pound spent on F-35 is one pound less from the many, many billions that are going to have to be spent on Tempest. The stated intention to buy 138 F-35 is now widely recognised as the fantasy it always was and now F-35 buys may be capped at 70 or just the 48 that are under contract.

Historians of both military aviation and irony may recall that the Sea Harrier fleet that was deemed too small to be either effective or supportable was 52 jets.

Navy: Make Mine a Tot of Pusser’s

Apart from a lack of suitably qualified personnel the Navy is probably in the strongest position of the services all all of its future programs (T26, T31 and Dreadnought) look to be adequately funded.

The carriers continue to be a massive drain on crew far in excess of the optimistic projections mooted when the program was started. Ironically the sea gods themselves have helped the Senior Service by subjecting the HMS Princess of Wales to massive seawater flooding while in dock. This caused catastrophic damage to the Integrated Electric Propulsion system meaning the Kuznetsov, as Admiralty wags have taken to calling her, will be in repairs for much of 2021 delaying F-35 qualification and entry into service but reducing the demands for crew.

One possible area of vulnerability are the Fleet Solid Support ships which are regarded as key enabler for carrier strike. They will now be built in the UK; almost certainly at H&W in Belfast. As this yard has less than 100 employees and has not built a military ship for over 40 years costs are expected to be high and the number of hulls may be trimmed to two from three.

The political impact of all this will not be significant. The underlying issues are too complex for the voting public to comprehend and too deep seated for the government to really address in a 5 year term. As long as the symbols of nationalism such as the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight endure then any political fallout from defence cuts will be both minor and transitory.

The deeper and more fundamental issue is that the nature of warfare is changing so quickly that even changing the name of the review doesn’t help. The British defence establishment was absolutely bewitched by the mobility, integration and effectiveness of the US Marine Corps in the 2003 Iraq War. They have been trying, with some success and some failure, to do a cut price version of that concept of operations ever since. Meanwhile, just weeks ago, Azerbaijan wiped out the Russian backed Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh using Turkish and Israeli EW and UAS technology.

Unless the government and MoD are prepared to make some rapid and genuinely difficult decisions the UK is going to find itself very well placed to fight the last war but one.

Dura Ace

Dura Ace is a regular and once had a 1/48 Hasegawa F6F-3 featured in Scale Aviation Modeller magazine.

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