Opinion - Odin’s Eye

The strike carrier HMS Ark Royal, alongside at Portsmouth April 2010

HMS Somerset, one of the more modern Duke Class (Type 23) frigates remaining in service after the SDSR, which decided to cut the major surface combatants in the RN to just nineteen. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

What Prime Minister David Cameron said when he explained the verdict of the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to Members of Parliament (and the British nation) was fascinating, and in some ways deeply worrying. He made four main points.

1) That SDSR is not just a cost saving exercise - though hardly anyone can believe this, given the rush to judgment, the lack of consultation, and worst of all the strategic illogicality of the results.

2) It is about projecting power and influence - yet within a few weeks the Cameron coalition signed an unnecessary defence agreement with the French that serves only to dilute British power and influence as well as its ability to do so. A true review of Britain’s most important defence partners on the front line would deliver the sensible verdict of stronger links with the Commonwealth (namely Australia and Canada), as well as the Americans.

3) Mr Cameron stressed there is no cut in support for the war in Afghanistan. Later in the debate he also reaffirmed that the UK was aiming to be out of that benighted country by 2015. He had already gone on record to say: “We can’t be in Afghanistan for another five years, having been there for nine years already.” The PM told Parliament: “By 2015 we should not be in Afghanistan in a major combat role or there in major numbers.”

4) Mr Cameron said that SDSR is very different from previous reviews. It certainly is, not least because unlike the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 1997/98 and other mini-reviews under the New Labour government, SDSR lacks coherence and common sense.

The very first point to challenge in the SDSR is the idea that the UK can delay bringing the Army home, or parts of its remaining garrison, from Germany until 2020. Why are the Army and the RAF still in Germany 16 years after a previous Conservative administration, under the Options for Change defence review, took the decision to run down the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR)? It is a surprise to learn that British Forces Germany - as it now calls itself - with its civilians and families and RAF hangers-on still musters nearly 55,000 people and costs, in foreign exchange alone, £250 million per annum. What now is the logic for keeping these people in Germany? Surely they should all be brought home now or at least within the lifetime of this Parliament and save at least £1.25 billion.

Will anyone face the music for the Nimrod programme? It cost the British taxpayer more than £3 billion, while the number of aircraft to be procured fell from 21 to nine and the cost of each aircraft rose by more than 200 per cent, with the programme more than eight years overdue before SDSR scrapped it. A further £200 million would have brought the aircraft into service. Instead the UK must be the only leading economic and military nation on the face of the planet not to have a Maritime Patrol Aircraft. That is truly shocking for an island nation.

Under the SDSR the Army will be “large and well equipped”, numbering around 95,500 by 2015. But has anyone asked about the efficiency of the Army? It currently takes 102,000 soldiers to field a force of 9,500 in Afghanistan, of whom 7,500 are in the administrative tail and only 2,000 are ‘bayonets’ on the front line.

The decision to decommission Ark Royal and the Harrier GR9s seems oddest of all. Who was the source of the briefing given to the Prime Minister, which prompted him to say in Parliament: “There is no gap in our flexible posture. With our air-to-air refuelling and our fast jet capability, we have the ability to deploy force around the world, but I accept that there is going to be a gap in carrier strike.” There is of course, no such air-to-air capability and a huge gap in UK capability. The last time the RAF tried to mount such an operation, it took 11 Victors and two Vulcans, which consumed a quarter of million pounds of fuel (enough for over 200 Harrier missions) to land one bomb nearly on the runway at Stanley airfield during the 1982 Falklands War. No matter what spin the RAF puts on that mission, it was an utter failure. When the RAF tried to repeat this operation they were forced to land in Rio de Janeiro and were lucky not to be interned for the duration of the Falklands War.

There were things to welcome in the Prime Minister’s speech. He committed his government to building both new carriers: “We will build both carriers, but hold one in extended readiness. We will fit the ‘cats and traps’ - the catapults and arrester gear - to the operational carrier. This will allow our allies to operate from our operational carrier, and it will allow us to buy the carrier version of the joint strike fighter, which is more capable, less expensive, has a longer range and carries more weapons. We will also aim to bring the planes and the carriers in at the same time.” He acknowledged: “Our fleet of frigates is hugely influential in building relationships the world over.”

The Prime Minister also told Parliament “The Royal Marines are here to stay. They do a fantastic job and will go on doing so.” He sort of promised a new class of escorts: “When one looks at the tasks that we want our Royal Navy to perform in the future, which include combating piracy and drug running, and undertaking other patrol duties, there is a case for saying that the future frigate programme should be less expensive and more flexible.” No one seems to have briefed the Prime Minister that even though a Type 45 might cost £1 billion, it too is extremely flexible, and with a single Typhoon fighter costing about £100 million, you could have one Type 45 for ten Typhoons. The majority of Typhoons will never see any active service at all, due to their inability to operate from anywhere except the UK, but the Type 45s, like all frigates and destroyers in the RN since WW2 and beyond, will be constantly deployed and will probably see combat action of some form.

The best news in the whole of SDSR and its debate in Parliament is the confirmation from the Prime Minister that the campaign in Afghanistan is funded through the Treasury reserve. Presumably in the background the Navy is now orchestrating allies and academics, retired officers and other friends, authors and journalists, and preparing to make a powerful case in the 2015 Defence review for a restoration of Britain’s naval capability. You can bet, especially with Chief of Defence Staff General Dave Richards being as ruthlessly partisan in favour of the Army as his lamentable predecessor was biased in favour of the RAF, that the boys in khaki will be planning to ensure that absolutely none of their precious regiments are cut. The RAF will fight tooth and nail to undermine and destroy the Royal Navy’s hopes of fielding a fixed-wing Fleet Air Arm, too. If the Naval Staff does not keep up the pressure relentlessly over the next five years - and fight as dirty in the corridors of power as the other two services did for their own cause during SDSR - then Britain’s maritime forces will be cut to ribbons in the 2015 review.

Jointery is something that the Royal Navy enthusiastically embraced over the past 15 years and while it may work on the front line, back home it is nothing but an Achilles Heel for the RN. The RAF must be shut out of the carrier fast jet squadrons (and the F-35s owned by the RN must have NAVY in very big letters on their fuselages). The RAF must never regain the MPA role - that is something a navy should handle, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

The Army’s plans to take over the commando amphibious role must be stifled, with any add-on units of soldiers balanced by a boost to the Royal Marine commando strength. And a robust case for two operational aircraft carriers must be made, explaining over and over why they are needed to ensure Britain remains safe. Every attempt by sea blind-and-dumb George Osborne, by the deeply tribal Dave Richards and his cronies as well as the RAF’s agents must be counter-attacked. Attack is the best form of defence.

The assault carrier HMS Ocean

HMS Bulwark, in Plymouth Sound on entering service less than a decade ago. Now, her equally new sister ship, Albion, looks likely to be mothballed as part of the UK’s current defence cuts. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

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