In the wake of the Paris attacks, the UK government launched a spending review on defence. This saw a number of U-turns on previous policy (as it became obvious just how silly and unworkable such plans were), but also a number of attempts by the government to spin itself out of trouble. It also raised some serious questions about the future of the UK armed forces. While they might be getting more hardware, it might not be the sort they need.
10,000 troops for anti-terror support
The government announced the formation of two “rapid reaction” brigades to deal with, amongst other things, “terrorist threats”. However this will involve no new recruiting of troops, just some more up to date equipment and some organisational changes. Clearly this announcement was just spin to counter the fact that cuts in policing means that the UK would not be able to respond to a Paris style attack in the way that the French have.
However, let us analyse what Cameron proposes. Now while a couple of SAS guys are the best solution if a terrorist attack is under way, but in the lead up to such an attack or the period afterwards we are talking about seeing sandbag emplacements at train stations and armoured vehicles parked outside schools, effectively turning the UK into something resembling a tin-pot dictatorship.
The army are good at doing one thing, fighting, being a defacto police force isn’t something they are trained for. And there are good reasons for them not to be used in this way. Clearly, Cameron should have taken the hint after Paris and realised that austerity will have to be abandoned and more resources going the way of the police, NHS and other first responders.
Black Friday impulse buys
I’ve previously commented on the decision to abandon the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft back in 2011. The controversy here wasn’t so much that it was cancelled. The seeds of that train wreck were laid along time before (actually under the Major government back in the 90’s). However it was the decision to scrap the aircraft without anything to replace them in this role, leaving a massive gap in the UK’s defences. Consider that even the Irish air corps (and were hardly a country known for the prowess of our military!) has maritime patrol aircraft, yet the Tories neglected all the warnings and saw fit to leave the UK without such aircraft.
Consequently it fell to the UK’s NATO allies to patrol British seas. Hence the embarrassment when it was French and Canadian forces who found a Russian submarine in Scottish waters (apparently snooping around subsea cables) earlier this month. This led to a hasty order for several Boeing P-8‘s.
This order seems to defy all normal military procurement protocols. There are several other obvious candidates, the French Atlantique or the Japanese P-1 for example. Normally a government would get all these companies to submit a bid, which would then be scrutinised by parliament (along with the media), who would then advise the government and MoD as to which one was the preferred bidder. I’m assuming the P-8 won because after hearing about the Russian submarine, Cameron googled “maritime patrol aircraft” and the P-8 was the first one that came up!
So this is but another example of Tory government bungling, ignoring the advice of experts, then running around with their hair on fire when the inevitable happens.
The F-35 gamble
The UK remains committed towards the F-35B as the only aircraft that will operate off its carriers. One of the few decisions of recent years the Tories made that I agreed with was the decision to swap to the F-35C, with the Carriers adapted with cat’s and traps to launch and recover them. This to me seemed sensible, as the F-35C was cheaper, has a longer range, a larger payload and CATOBAR capable carriers can support a wider variety of aircraft, which could be important as I’ll explain in a moment.
Unfortunately when it was pointed out to the Tories that this change might cost them money, something that Scrooge Mc Osborne will not part with, the Tories cancelled the plan and went back to the F-35B. The problem with this is we don’t know what sort of performance we can expect out of this aircraft. So if the F-35 turns out to be a very expensive lemon the UK will have spent an awful lot of money on both carriers and aircraft that offer very little strategic value.
The history of aviation is full of examples of aircraft that seemed to offer much promise on paper. However the aircraft actually delivered wasn’t up to the task. In the Pacific war of world war II three US planes the Brewster Buffalo, the Avenger and the Curtiss Helldiver all performed well below expectations. In Europe both the Fairey Battle and the BF-110 were built in large numbers before the war, but hastily withdrawn from frontline service when their deficiencies let to significant losses in combat.
In more recent times the F-4 Phantom, while it eventually matured to become an excellent multi-role fighter, its early experience of dog fights in Vietnam saw it struggle against obsolete Russian built MIG-17’s (the early versions lacked a cannon, something the MIG’s exploited by fighting in close quarters). The F-111 was envisaged as both a bomber for the US air-force and a long range interceptor for the Navy. However its initial experience with the Air force led to the Navy cancelling its role with the F-14 hastily deployed in its place.
And on the Russian side, the MIG-25 with its mach 3 top speed seemed to offer performance that NATO could not match. However, it had poor manoeuvrability, limited armament, a very short range and a ridiculously high rate of fuel consumption. While it was retained in large numbers to deal with American nuclear bombers should the cold war ever get hot, it was quickly replaced in front line service with more practical and capable aircraft.
So there is every chance that the F-35 might be good at one mission, e.g. dropping bombs, but crap when it comes to air defence, as this commentator suggests. Indeed an F-35 recently lost a dogfight in training to a F-16 (an aircraft designed 40 years ago!). And keep in mind, that its short range would push the British carriers much closer to an enemy shore, so they will be first in the firing line if the F-35 isn’t up to the job.
Hence why I’d argue for hedging ones bets. Building the carriers with the ability to support other aircraft and put navalised Typhoon’s, or the already carrier capable French Rafale, onto the decks to provide air cover for the F-35’s.
There is a possibility of adding STOBAR capable aircraft on the carriers. However this is entirely dependant on whether said aircraft can be adapted to this role. Furthermore STOBAR aircraft have a very limited payload and range (generally limiting them to short range air defence of the carrier).
Doubling down on the Typhoon
And speaking of the Typhoon the UK has committed yet more money to try and get the Typhoons to be able to undertake bombing missions. We are talking about an aircraft that’s now been in service for two decades and it still can’t fulfil one of its key mission requirements.
The Typhoon’s problems go back to the dying days of the cold war. Back then, the Europeans had fallen behind both the Americans and the Russians when it came to fighter technology. They had plenty of generation IV aircraft, but they needed a fighter that could guarantee them air superiority over Europe. Hence while the eurofighter Typhoon was designed as a multi-role plane, its job as a fighter took priority. While most agree its the 2nd best fighter aircraft in the world after the American F-22, most accept its performance as a bomber has been substandard.
To me the decision should have been made some time ago to accept the reality – Keep the Typhoon as a fighter and replace the Tornado bomber squadrons instead with a cheaper and proven aircraft in this role. The American F-16, Saab Gripen or French Rafale are all obvious off the shelf candidates, with the F-35A another one on the horizon (if it proves itself of course). Instead, the government have elected to keep throwing good money after bad on the Typhoon.
And speaking of throwing away good money, we have the money pit to end all money pits – the replacement of Trident. I object to Trident’s replacement for two reasons. Firstly, the usual moral issues surrounding nuclear weapons. And secondly the enormous expense on a weapon system the UK will likely never use.
Many of the other defence programs discussed could be easily funded just by ditching Trident, quite apart from being able to reverse a host of Tory cuts. That doesn’t mean going without nuclear weapons, as there are cheaper alternatives. But certainly the idea that we’re supposed to be hard up for cash yet the government still manages to find £40 billion down the back of the sofa to pay for Trident (or the likely final cost £97 billion!) does kind of stretch credibility.
If the UK can afford Trident, then we can afford a lot of the other things the Tories have cut recently.