Final SDSR submission – An indefensible argument

Posted on 18 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

A round-up of the weekend’s speculative reports on the Strategic Defence and Security Review, by Howard Wheeldon.

SDSR won’t legislate for invisible threats

Ahead of the two separate white papers of National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review that are expected in the next two days, the detail provided in the quality weekend press sums ups the likely scenario that will evolve. Devastation is the word that best sums up the likely outcome of SDSR 2010, and I fear that in time we will live to regret the severity of cuts being proposed.

Even though one suspects that Britain will somehow still be able to claim that it is spending slightly above 2% of GDP on defence – thus meeting the NATO guideline – it is clear to me that the government is going to ignore threats that it cannot see and to ignore the lessons of history that tell us future conflict is inevitable. Threat is omnipresent and to believe that the future is one where Britain requires less deterrent power than now tells me not only that the government is taking extreme risks with regard to the national security, but also that it has determined to push Britain in a direction that will not allow it to play the effective role in NATO that it has done to date so successfully. SDSR is possibly the event that marks the end of British determination to lead and the final turning point towards our nation becoming a second rate [international] power.

This 15th and final paper in the defence sequence will comment on the individual cuts listed by the press this weekend. I believe for the most part these reports are most likely correct. However we should not expect SDSR to contain all the clarity that we should perhaps have liked to see or indeed, to be the full and final account of how the government intends to ensure that it meets the national defence requirements and those of our NATO allies to whom we rightly say that we remain fully committed. There will of course be more to come and the devil of this SDSR may yet be in the detail of what is to come as opposed to what is there.

We are also promised that a Defence Industrial Strategy will follow and it is here that we will see whether the government is prepared to ensure that we retain the skill base that should surely be a minimum requirement for the UK. I doubt that SDSR will reassure those that live in our dependent territories and yet I am in little doubt that it will be seen as music to the ears of existing and would-be future enemies. Suffice to say that the 7% to 8% cut in defence spending proposed by SDSR from an existing £37bn annual budget indicated that the strategy to cut the defence budget will be achieved by an across-the-board reduction in personnel across the three armed services of about 20,000, as well as massive equipment programme cuts.

Navy Cut
For the Royal Navy SDSR adds up to a further huge reduction in the number of fighting and support vessels plus cuts to the existing nine-strong nuclear submarine fleet – I think it likely that some Astute submarines will be put out of service. Balanced against an agreement to go ahead with the acquisition of the two planned aircraft carriers (of which only one will be built to support full air power capability) we believe the government intends to go ahead with the purchase of forty Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft to be shared with the RAF. It is as yet unclear what the government’s plans are for the Royal Navy (Culdrose and Prestwick based) Sea King helicopter fleet, although we expect these to be withdrawn. On Carrier Strike, we believe that both new ships (Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales) will be built but only the first (Queen Elizabeth) will be designed to have full air power capabilities. HMS Prince of Wales is likely to be pushed back in terms of delivery date and emerge as a helicopter assault amphibious ship although still able to carry Joint Strike fighter aircraft if necessary. Just 40 of the ‘B’ variant Joint Strike Fighter aircraft will eventually be ordered – these to be shared with the RAF.

For the Army we believe that the government will announce an intention to pull out of Germany by 2020 and that SDSR will confirm an intention to reduce the size of the Challenger tank fleet by more than half. Additionally we believe that some artillery-based regiments will be cut along with some equipment and that the long troubled FRES armoured vehicle project will be scrapped.

As regards the RAF, the existing fleet of 120 Panavia Tornado GR4 (and remaining F3 aircraft) will likely all be withdrawn over the next four years – very much earlier than the current planned 2025 GR4 out of service date. Tornado numbers are likely being halved over the next two years. We believe that the government intends for the already much reduced fleet of Harrier aircraft to be retained for at least another eight years – a decision that assumes that these will eventually be replaced by ‘B’ variant Joint Strike Fighters for use on the new Queen Elizabeth carrier after 2018. Clearly if the plan is for only 40 JSF aircraft to be acquired the number of aircraft available for RAF squadrons will be far less than had originally been hoped. We expect that when deliveries finally end, the number of Typhoon aircraft in service with the RAF will total 160. We suspect that the MRA4 Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft will be immediately cut, that programmes such as the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft will be reduced in cost by sharing aircraft with the French, that training programmes such as MFTS will be further reviewed, that the government will continue the policy of acquiring the A400M transport aircraft (though possibly reducing the numbers), that the government will retain the existing fleet of C-17 Globemaster aircraft but withdraw the fleet of Hercules C130J aircraft after 2014. Clearly if both Tornado and MRA4 aircraft are to be withdrawn then this would signal the end for both RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. However, given the geography and the value of both bases to the respective local economy (they are close to each other and probably account for around 25% of local GDP) closure will not only be costly but will need to be handled with very great political care. Other bases at risk are RAF Benson (Joint Helicopter Command HQ) and RAF Odiham and the status of RAF Marham could eventually change. Lastly we believe that the government has probably decided to withdraw the venerable fleet of RAF SAR (Search and Rescue) Sea King HAR4/3A Helicopters, but will retain the plan to rebuild 33 Puma helicopters that had first entered service with the RAF from 1971. We would seriously question the wisdom of such a plan. At this stage we do not expect the government to cancel the existing plan to acquire additional Chinook Helicopters from the US although we would regard these as replacements for existing aircraft rather than additions to the helicopter force.

The level of proposed SDSR related cuts are the most devastating for the RAF out of the three armed services. The pity is that the government and those involved in SDSR appear to have taken the view that alone amongst the services the RAF is, in terms of fast jet capability, still configured for the Cold War. This is absolute nonsense as it ignores the massive front line value and support that the RAF has provided in two separate Gulf Wars, in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone and that it still does today in Afghanistan. This view also ignores the value of air power as the most effective deterrent form that we have available and the role that the RAF plays in protecting the skies above our islands and seas and those of our dependent territories. Last but not least it ignores, in my view, the vital role that the RAF plays in providing NATO with support. Let us not forget that that has helped to retain peace in Europe for the past sixty-five years. If the proposals of the SDSR White Paper are all put into effect Britain will become just another bit player in Europe unable to ever again play a full and effective role within NATO.

Whilst most will welcome the increased efforts on security that will be contained and particularly the identification that in all its forms cyber warfare and cyber terrorism must be better addressed and funded there is very little good news to be found in the too hastily produced White Paper. As always the devil will be in the detail and I suspect that the white paper will contain little in the way of clarity, detail and specific proposed timings. Nevertheless, as we already know that the government will do nothing to damage the ongoing Afghanistan campaign we may be able to assure ourselves that what SDSR will propose will be based on what the government believes we will need in the periods 2015 to 2020 and 2020 to 2025. However, be in no doubt that what the government is proposing in terms of cuts to UK defence forces is absolutely ruthless and that over the coming weeks and months alarm bells will be ringing in various quarters.

To put the Tuesday SDSR announcement in context, I would venture to say that these are probably far worse than those imposed by the Wilson government in 1966, despite their being the largest level of cuts since Duncan Sandys similarly wielded the axe in the mid 1950s. It must be said that without the considerable support of the Secretary of State for Defence, the very hard work done by the three service chiefs and their respective senior staff, the rather late interjection of the Prime Minister himself and the many others that have constantly warned government of the dangers of cutting too deep at a time when our armed forces are still fighting a war in Afghanistan, the devastation to be formally unleashed Tuesday might have been very much worse!

It will be for our service chiefs to decide whether what is being proposed is manageable. As professionals they will do their utmost to work within the parameters that government has laid down. There can be no question that they will carry out the policy directed by government no matter how much they may disagree with it. However, that does not mean that those of us that look at defence from a very different professional perspective must say that we like what we see. Far from it. But I am afraid that given the level of inherited deficit all parties in this debate realise that we can no longer do all that we might have liked to do in terms of continuing to play out a full international role. It is no wonder that the US is alarmed at the level of UK defence cuts: it is they who will have to pick up the slack.

We do not ignore that a great many costly procurement mistakes have been made, that the MoD has not been the paragon of virtue that we might often have believed it to be and that a very large part of what we are about to do now in the form of cuts must be blamed on failures by the previous government. Now we must pay the price of New Labour and in so doing we must inevitably take huge risks with our defence.

Strategic Defence and Security Review (2010 White Paper to be Published on Tuesday afternoon)

Overall Defence Budget (Currently £37bn) – Intentions based on achieving a permanent reduction in overall budget beyond 2015 but to seek to achieve approximately 7% cuts in the short term. Aim to cut numbers of Army personnel by 6,000, Royal Navy personnel by 7,500 and RAF personnel by 7,000.

We suspect the overall thesis will based on options for strategic change – looking at what the government believes should be our defence equipment and resource requirements covering 2015-2020 and 2020-2025 periods although it will be read by most as cuts expected to be delivered between now and 2015. We also expect to hear that future defence reviews will be held on a five yearly basis:

National Security Strategy (White Paper to be published Monday afternoon)

This should be a self-explanatory heading though I would not be at all surprised to see some matters related to UK foreign policy included, possibly including comments related to the United Nations and UK membership of Security Council. Otherwise this White Paper can be expected to be restricted to guidance and intentions related to specific domestic defence and security strategy requirements, the increased nature of the terrorist threat, and a sizable increase in funding to be made available for cyber protections etc. This white paper will reaffirm full UK commitment to NATO alliance but include tough calls for better sharing and financing of the NATO role by Britain’s European partners in NATO and, now that France is a full member of NATO command again, possibly emphasising an intention to forge a stronger alliance between the UK and France for the purposes of better sharing the defence burden of NATO responsibility. We assume also that there will be some comment in this White Paper with regard to what the government believes should be the UK’s future role in the world, our future ambitions in that world and maybe UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office strategy including perhaps suggestions that we will scale down of some UK embassies abroad, reducing the number of British attachés and staff.

Finally in this first White Paper, I suspect (as this was always intended to be kept outside of SDSR) there will be some kind of reaffirmation of UK nuclear deterrence strategy: Trident will be replaced, though the original scheme will probably be pushed back another two years.

Howard Wheeldon is the Senior Strategist at BGC Partners