Like much else about New Labour, its rhetoric on Defence has never been matched by the reality of budgets. From 1997 to
2007 these were set by Gordon Brown during the era of fantasy economics and stealth taxes when he was a tight-fisted
Chancellor of the Exchequer, keen only to spend money on The Great Socialist Project (a habit he still has not kicked as Prime Minister).
Today, thanks to lack of proper investment, stark choices face the British Ministry of Defence. A broadside of reports and articles
by think-tanks and a lobbying group in the past few weeks has laid siege to the Brown administration, which is dead on its feet
and seeking to put off tough decisions on military matters until after the next election when its ministers can sail off into the deep
red sunset discarding all liability for their disgraceful mismanagement of Defence. As happened in the late 1970s, after the last
period of catastrophic Socialist misrule, the Conservatives will be left to clear up the mess and reap the whirlwind. Typical New
Labour spin-doctoring in recent announcements about the new Daring Class (Type 45) destroyers has claimed all the necessary milestones have been passed to bring the ships into service, the first one by late 2010. But this ignores unpleasant truths. The first
of class, Daring, is three years late, the programme £1.5 billion pounds over budget. If that is not bad enough, the original intention
of ordering 12 ships has been whittled down to just six. Meanwhile, 13 Duke Class (Type 23) multi-role frigates intended to have a service life of around two decades (tops) will need to be kept in commission for nearly twice as long. The RN’s other frigates - four Broadsword Class (Type 22) - have been neglected for several years, due to lack of cash, their considerable capabilities allowed
to wither, mainly due to rampant uncertainty over whether or not they would remain in service - despite being powerful and highly capable platforms. Only now are they being properly upgraded, but even so they will probably still not be all they could be,
especially in the area of sonar and surface/land-attack. Meanwhile, while the Type 45s get to grips with bringing their Sea Viper missile systems on-line, Britain’s seaborne area air-defence relies on a handful of elderly Type 42 destroyers. No other new
frigates or destroyers are planned until after the new carriers have been built. Billions are being spent on creating new carriers,
and have already been spent on a helicopter carrier and six large amphibious assault ships. All of the latter were ordered by the Conservatives who preceded New Labour, while, on taking office, the latter has wrecked the carefully laid (and soundly justified)
plans to protect such large, expensive and vulnerable assets from threats many times more lethal than anything experienced in
the Falklands. As we have said in this magazine before, Labour has stripped ‘Jack’ (and by extension the UK) virtually naked
of its maritime forces, the real first line of trade protection and security.
However, the current government’s financial smoke and mirrors seeks to create optimism about alleged ‘unparalleled investment’
in the Navy. It is claimed, for instance, that there has been sustained growth in the budget during its stewardship of Defence, but
this conveniently ignores that historically inflation in defence procurement runs several points higher - and in bad years is as
much as 10 per cent per annum. The miserly Treasury (let’s not forget, under Gordon Brown’s direction) has in recent years allowed just 1.5 per cent. As the recent report by the UK National Defence Association makes clear the consequence is not, as Brown’s government claims, that British defence spending is among the highest in the world. Investment in Britain’s naval and military
forces lags behind Japan, China, India, France, and Saudi Arabia - and risks slipping even further down the league table. A clear
sign that things are wrong in government and between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury is the growth in the system of
Urgent Operation Requirement (UOR) - by which units can get urgently needed battle upgrades at short notice, outside normal budgetary schedules - and which started before the 1990-91 Gulf War, had blossomed. Last year, UOR requests cost £2 billion,
so the Treasury has demanded that UORs should be capped. Then there are conflicting future equipment programmes all chasing
the same pound, including the Army’s Future Rapid Effect System (FRES, a battlefield vehicle), the Army/RN Future Lynx helicopter programme and, of course, the RN/RAF Joint Strike Fighter and the Navy’s new carriers. Somewhere not too far away is a bill for
£20 billion to regenerate the UK’s sea-based nuclear deterrent force. All this must come after paying for current programmes, like
the hugely expensive and wasteful third tranche of Typhoon jets for the RAF, which cost at least £30m each. And then there is the small matter of the financial crisis and the fall in pound sterling on the world markets. It’s a mega train smash. Clearly all these
major equipment items cannot be afforded, and so there is a pressing need for a Defence Review, whether this is conducted by
the present administration or, much more likely, by a new, Conservative government after a General Election in 2010.
The review must determine what sort of war the British are likely to fight in the next few score years. Are the occupation of Iraq and campaign in Afghanistan models of the future of warfare, or are they exceptions to the norm, which is war between states? The
choice is similar to the one presented to the British armed forces in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then global commitments were abandoned with undue haste to bolster the British Army of the Rhine and RAF Germany at the expense of the Royal Navy.
Britain’s voice in the world, its ability to help shape Western security policy and even protect its own citizens and global interests
were all diminished. Then the unexpected happened and Argentina invaded the Falklands. The lesson of history - a deeply
unpopular subject for ‘progressive’ socialists like Blair and Brown and their acolytes - is that we should expect the unexpected.
In the next debate on UK Defence the only logical outcome is ‘back to the future’. The Strategic Defence Review of 1998 decided
upon expeditionary warfare as the rationale for UK strategic defence, hence the emphasis in the last decade on the new carriers
and the full refurbishment of the amphibious fleet. Expeditionary warfare must be the rational choice for the future too. It was only Prime Minster Tony Blair - and the so-called ‘Blair’s Wars’ - which led to Britain’s disastrous involvement in continental campaigns
in the Middle East and in high Asia. It is these campaigns that have so seriously unbalanced and overstretched British forces. The combination of endless campaigns and underfunding of defence has, according to the Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, created a situation where Britain has already suffered minor defeats (in both Iraq and Afghanistan) and now potentially faces a
major defeat at some future date. However, forces trained and equipped and poised for expeditionary warfare are flexible, ready
for the expected and capable of reacting to the unexpected. Such forces reflect the reality of Britain’s resources, strategic posture, military expertise and, above all, the nation’s reputation and dynamic security needs as a maritime power, regardless of EU membership, or the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA. Furthermore, coherent expeditionary armed forces will be less expensive to keep and maintain and maybe, just maybe, not all the UK’s costly equipment programmes will be salami-sliced or cancelled. The main Defence challenge for Prime Minister David Cameron, Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox and Chancellor George Osborne, will be whether they can place their country’s true strategic needs ahead of pork barrel politics and commitment
to wars which are unwinnable and just sap the morale, energy and resources of the UK Armed Forces. Will the Tories be daring enough - pardon the pun - to restore the Type 45 requirement to the full 12 ships? Will they be bold enough to ring up full speed
ahead on the frigate replacement programme? Will the Tories be brave enough to finish batch one of the Astute Class SSNs and
order an additional batch of cheaper, but highly capable, attack boats modelled on the US Navy’s Virginia Class? Cancelling plans
to cut even more frigates and destroyers would be a welcome start and ensuring the future Fleet Air Arm has the right mix of strike
jets and Airborne Early Warning aircraft would also be good news for the Navy and Britain (even if it means buying F-18 Super Hornets instead of F-35s and also a squadron of Hawkeye AEWs). Hopes are high, but one thing the UK cannot stand is more
‘Locust Years’ in which a new government carries on Labour’s disastrous defence and foreign policies.
The Vanguard Class ballistic missile submarine HMS Vanguard arrives at Plymouth for her first major refit. A huge bill to replace the UK’s current sea-based Trident missile force looms on the horizon for future British governments, whether Tory or Labour.
Photo: Iain Ballantyne.
Starved of investment while question marks hung over their future, Type 22 frigates like HMS Chatham (pictured here in the Gulf, summer 2008) will soon need to be replaced, another challenge for a future UK administration.
Photo: Iain Ballantyne.