Monday 26 January 2015

Defence: tough questions and harsh realities

HMS Ocean

Policy is one of those things that seems easy in principle until you have a crack at it yourself. Knowing where to start is half the battle won, but that requires an intimate knowledge of the subject and the complications therein. The Green Party have now crashed into this wall in an absolute cavalcade of comedy. Notably on defence it's clear that the Greens just have no instinct for it. But it's also an area Ukip doesn't really dare wade into. Ukip have made no clear indication what their defence policy is on their "Policies for People" material.

No area of policy can be approached with a clean slate, and that especially applies to defence where decisions made ten years ago are pretty much what we're stuck with. For instance, the costs of scrapping F35 and the QE carriers at this stage in the game would have massive ramifications on inward investment and the national credit rating, not to mention pissing off just about every other customer of the F35. Were there no complications, I would not hesitate in scrapping both carriers and F35 and instead lease a couple of carriers from America. But that is wishful thinking. The damage is already done and the money is already spent.

We are now lumbered with what we have and even though I would happily cancel the Airbus A400M, there are massive ramifications in doing so for industry and foreign relations and so that isn't a realistic proposition either. Therefore, our defence policy needs to make best use of the remaining budget and deliver maximum value and capability.

In terms of what constitutes useful spending, we could very well say that Trident is not value for money, but it's the price we must pay for a seat at the top table, and if we want to be a leading voice in the world, punching above our weight and maintaining the global balance of power, then that is the entry fee. Whether or not we desire this as a nation comes down to a more basic matter of foreign policy. You can't really equip your forces if you don't have a well defined foreign policy.

Some would have it that we disarm and look to the EU for defence resource pooling, others take a more internationalist approach, in which Trident is part of the deal. I take the latter position. So with much of the defence budget already committed to vanity projects that doesn't leave us much to play with.

Where almost all parties are concerned, most are agreed that we must retain a high mobility response force for international interventions, some humanitarian, others under UN peacekeeping pretenses. As much as we hear a great deal of hyperventilation about defence cuts, mainly from special interest groups and lobbyists, things are not nearly as bad as they seem. We have HMS Ocean and a strong fleet of auxiliary ships which would be central to any expeditionary operation, where the helicopter is central to the operation. We have a fleet of Lynx helicopters which could be better but are adequate and British built, along with the EH101 Merlin and a hugely capable force of Royal Marines.

We still have the capability to mount sophisticated operations which will be augmented by the carriers. The missed opportunity was to have a carrier capable of multiple aircraft types such as the Super Tucano for close air support, but now that isn't going to happen, the focus must go onto a cost effective programme for carrier launched Close Air Support UAVs. The F35 will provide adequate strike capability (eventually) but there is still a capability gap for supporting ground troops which we have never really had an adequate aircraft for since before the Falklands War. Also, the lack of carrier launched airborne early warning lead to the loss of seven ships in the Falklands which ought to be considered an embarrassing loss.

We also suffer from a major capability gap in Maritime Reconnaissance in the absence of Nimrod. Clearly the answer is to procure a shared platform on a commercial airframe such as the P-8 Poseidon.

Meanwhile we're stuck with another legacy decision in that the MoD has chosen not to use the Super Tucano as a close air support aircraft, instead opting for the Texan 2, when we already have a fleet of Tucanos as advanced trainers which, built in the UK, should be replaced with more of the same - since we already posses the technical expertise and infrastructural support. This most basic value for money lesson has been missed entirely by the MoD - and that's the kind of thinking that needs to come first. It should never be about jobs and trade. It should be about having the right kit for the right job and prices we can afford, with costs we can maintain.

Instead we are locked into big ticket items because politicians are more concerned with which jobs will be lost where and foreign relations. The result is a mishmash of expensive toys that the military didn't ask or and can't make good use of. The worst offenders being the Royal Air Force.

If you'll excuse the pun, we need some blue sky thinking on the RAF. Does it still serve a purpose? If we are re-equipping for rapid expeditionary forces, does it still add value? I would argue not. There is no reason why a logistics and reconnaissance command (expanding on ISTAR capability) could not be broken off and given to the army while the Royal Navy operates F35 and UAVs. Insomuch as we need interceptors, and  air superiority fighters, the RAF, if it is to remain ought to be concerned only with domestic defence. We should by rights be using F16s since they are cheap, with readily available components and about as capable as Eurofighter at a third of the cost. But again, we're lumbered with that. So again we must swallow a bitter pill.

As to the army, the Greens once again right for the wrong reasons. The notion of a home defence force is not one out of keeping with modern ideas. Ironically, this is quite close to Tory policy of shrinking the army and augmenting with the Territorial Army. A standing army is an expensive thing. It's better to maintain a central military core that knows how to teach warfare than to have men standing idle. The result being modern soldiers with all the right civvy street skills to effectively administrate an occupation or peacekeeping force. A skill the modern army lacks.

So long as you have full time special forces and a highly mobile rapid reaction force like the Royal Marines, there's not much need for a standing army. After all, by the time D-Day came, most army regulars had been killed. D-Day, in the main was an army of civilians in uniform, trained to bayonet sandbags.

As to equipping our soldiers, we have finally settled on some procurements that are not entirely unsensible, but only after we tried everything else. At the forefront of any vehicle procurement must be troop safety. Because not losing soldiers needlessly is central to maintaining public support for military adventures. Not only that, troops are expensive things to replace.

It seems to me that the most cost effective solution is more often than not also the correct solution in terms of strategic need. In approaching any defence policy one would have to find ways to break the stranglehold of politics and lobbyists and the relationships between the arms industry and senior commanders. We must move beyond our obsession with high tech expensive toys and apply our procurement to the realities we face rather than the war that exists only in the imaginations of fantasists. Industrial policy must come second. Buying British is important, but not if it comes at three times the cost. Every job the industry creates is another killed elsewhere since the pound out of our pockets stops us creating jobs ourselves by way of spending it.

It's all very well for Ukip to come out with the usual motherhood and apple pie stuff about looking after veterans, but nothing thus far addresses the deep shortcomings of the MoD, nor the folly of our procurements not the spending we are already locked into. Any party that causally claims they would scrap F35 and A400M without mentioning the obvious repercussions is simply not one to be taken seriously. As to the Green Party, I would be surprised if the could tell a Spitfire from a B52 and should not in any circumstance be taken seriously. There is a huge gap in the market for an intelligent and well costed, pragmatic defence policy, but I suspect that gap in the market will stay vacant for a long time to come.

That said, there are first choices to be made about which direction the nation is going in. We have more existential questions to ask first before we can really address what our foreign policy is, and only then can we make informed decisions about which toys to buy. Any defence policy which does not speak to that is merely a shopping list - and should be ignored.

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