PARIS --- The British coalition government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, unveiled in Parliament Oct. 19 by Prime Minister David Cameron, finally proved to contain cuts far less savage than feared by military chiefs.
But if the armed forces avoided outright disaster, the Review and Cameron’s statement to Parliament show a worrying lack of understanding of military matters that does not bode well for the future. And some of the decisions to be implemented over the next four years are so contradictory to their stated goals that they inevitably cast doubt on the government’s overall vision of Britain’s future armed forces.
The first, massive misunderstanding is that the government will be able to reverse some of the announced cuts when and if the economic situation improves. This appears as a watermark throughout the Review, which even states that Britain will “maintain collectively the ability to reconstitute or regenerate capabilities we might need in the future.” And it was clearly voiced during the debate by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative defense secretary, when he asked Cameron to confirm that “…even though reductions in defense capability are inescapable at the moment, we will be able to reverse many of them if our economy improves and resources increase.”
Never mind that, by answering in the affirmative and thereby confirming that the present cuts are due to a lack of money, Cameron admitted what he was at pains to deny only minutes earlier, when he began his statement to Parliament by saying that “First, this is not simply a cost-saving exercise to get to grips with the biggest budget deficit in post-war history.”
It is no doubt intellectually comforting, and politically attractive, to think or pretend that drastic decisions to axe units and equipment can be easily reversed. But units and equipment cannot simply be mothballed until needed; the men that operate them get older and retire, and all of a sudden a capability has disappeared.
The most famous illustration of this phenomenon, well-known in military circles but obviously not in Conservative ones, was when Sweden sacrificed its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities in the 1970s to save money, only to wake up one morning to find a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine grounded only a couple of miles from its largest naval base at Karlskrona. It took Sweden over a decade to catch up with ASW technology, to procure new equipment, to recruit and train new personnel to operate it, and to regain sufficient operational proficiency.
So, whatever Cameron, Rifkind and others say, a military capability withers and dies if cut, and restoring it generally means starting again from scratch if the interruption lasts more than a year or two.
Other misunderstandings evident in the Review are more technical in nature, but they are perhaps more grievous because they support what are clearly questionable decisions.
Cameron obviously does not know that Nimrod’s main – if unpublicized - mission is to protect the Royal Navy’s nuclear missile submarines from enemy attack as they transit to and from their bases. Nobody knows how this vital mission will be carried out in future, since the Nimrod MR2s were retired in March and the MRA4 is now cancelled. The Review simply states “We will depend on other maritime assets to contribute to the tasks previously planned for them.” Further down, it names the Hunt- and Sandown-class minehunters, but these are incapable of protecting against submarines or surface vessels, and the sad fact is that there are no other assets to replace Nimrod in this role.
Bob Ainsworth, a former defense minister in the previous Labour government, made this very point during the Parliamentary debate. Having “cancelled the Nimrod aircraft, rendering our nuclear deterrent less than invulnerable. How is that sensible, never mind strategic?” he asked, and the answer he obtained shows that the Prime Minister had no idea what he was referring to.
The Review also contains a number of contradictions that tend to support the idea, voiced a few weeks ago by the House of Commons Defence Committee, that the Review was hasty and carelessly drafted.
The first contradiction concerns ISTAR capabilities. Both the Review and Cameron during the debate made a big point of stressing the importance of ISTAR; the Review states that the “future character of conflict…will place a premium on particular military capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR)."
Yet the Nimrod R1 intelligence-gathering aircraft are due to retire in 2011, the MRA4 have been cancelled, and the Review says Britain will even “withdraw the Sentinel airborne ground surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan.” Although the Review claims ISTAR capabilities for most military assets, the fact is that Britain will no longer have dedicated fixed-wing assets for this vital mission.
The second contradiction concerns fast jets. Experience in Afghanistan has shown that low-flying fast jets are simply too fast to be very effective in accurately identifying and hitting their targets. “Slow and low” US Air Force A-10s have proved to be the most effective fixed-wing aircraft for close air support, and the US is even evaluating the AT-6A, an even slower turboprop trainer, for attack missions.
Yet, in justifying the decision to keep the Tornado GR4 attack aircraft and retire the Harrier fleet, Cameron said that “in Afghanistan, the Harrier did great work, but the Tornado is more capable and carries a bigger payload, which is vital.” This is wrong; payload is not an issue in Afghanistan, and the Harrier can fly lower and slower than Tornado while still carrying enough weapons to neutralize personnel, unarmored vehicles or mud houses that are the usual targets. Clearly, if there is not enough money to keep both, one must be retired, but the logic for retaining Tornado is not convincing.
This brings us to the third contradiction, which was voiced during the debate by Labour leader Ed Milliband when he asked whether Cameron “will also reassure the House that the best strategic decision for the next decade really is for Britain to have aircraft carriers without aircraft?”
This entire carrier business shows a lot of confused thinking. The government’s reasoning goes like this: Both new carriers must be completed because cancelling them would cost more, but their intended aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter, will not be available (or affordable for Britain) before 2019. Since the Harriers must be retired, one (because the other will be mothballed) new aircraft carrier will operate for a decade with only helicopters. And HMS Ark Royal, the last Invincible-class light carrier still in service, will be decommissioned immediately because when the Harriers are retired it will have no aircraft to carry.
The Review does attempt to explain by claiming that “Even after 2015, short-range Harriers – whether operating from HMS Illustrious or HMS Queen Elizabeth – would provide only a very limited coercive capability.” This ignores the hugely impressive capabilities the Harrier – in earlier, much less capable versions than today’s GR9 – demonstrated during the Falklands War, when they kept Argentine fighters at bay, protected the naval task force, and provided close air support to troops on the ground. It is hard to understand how carrier-borne, very short-range helicopters would offer better “coercive capability” than Harrier. This is another instance of how the Review ignores very basic military realities.
The fourth contradiction also concerns the carrier strike group. Many observers, including James Arbuthnot, the chairman of the House of Commons Defence committee, have questioned how the government will be able to pay for the JSF in the face of those “who say, as they will, 'If we can get away with no fast jet aircraft carriers for 10 years, why do we need them at all?' "
Cameron’s answer seems an implicit admission that, indeed, they are not needed. “We have air-to-air refuelling, the friendly bases, our allies and overfly rights,” he answered, adding “It is not easy to see in the short term the need for that sort of carrier strike, but we cannot rule it out for the longer term.” Hardly a resounding endorsement.
This is not to say that the entire Defense Review exercise is a failure; on the contrary, the government did make considerable progress in reducing what Cameron called the "£38-billion black hole in our future defence plans inherited from the previous government." That, he noted, is bigger than the entire annual defence budget of £33 billion, quite rightly adding that “sorting this out is vital not just for tackling the deficit, but for protecting our national security.”
Other, more specific decisions are commendable. One is the planned increase in Special Forces manpower, and another the planned order for 12 new CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which Cameron said is necessary because the order for 22 Chinooks announced by the previous government was never awarded.
The Review is also very welcome in that it provides industry with the long-term visibility it lacked under Labour governments – if, of course, the present government does what it says it will do. The Review confirms many new programs, such as the Astute-class nuclear attack submarines, Lynx Wildcat helicopters, A400M transport aircraft, “up to 14” FSTA tanker aircraft, Type 26 future frigates, new classes of minehunters, armored vehicles and retaining 110 Eurofighter Typhoons in service by 2020.
Cameron refused to say whether the final Eurofighter Trache 3B would be bought, saying “we now have to make decisions between the Joint Strike Fighter and the final tranche of Typhoon,” but he added that the shift from JSF’s STOVL version to the simpler and cheaper carrier version will allow savings of 25% over its life-cycle.
So, if there are a lot of good facets to Britain’s long-delayed Strategic Defence and Security Review, its misapprehensions and contradictions mar a much-overdue “reality check” for British defense, which to some extent detract from its overall credibility.
(This article was edited for style after having been posted on Oct. 25)