Thursday, 21 October 2010

UK defence cuts will skew Royal Navy

Pirates, drug runners and terrorists may be toasting the UK defence cuts as an early Christmas present, for the cuts will skew and emasculate the Royal Navy's defence capability. The strategic defence and security review will cut spending on the armed forces by 8% in real terms over the next four years, a cut much less than the Treasury wanted.

Much more worrying, however, is that Britain has confirmed it will complete the two new large aircraft carriers, at nearly £6 bn, even though some military chiefs reportedly urged the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to scrap at least one of the carriers. The outgoing chief of defence staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, argued that pressing ahead with the two carriers would skew Britain's defences because of the huge expense, which over 10 years, with running costs and aircraft, would reach about £35 bn, close to matching the black hole already in the incompetent Ministry of Defence's (MoD) budget.

The justification seems to be that it would cost more to cancel the carriers than build them owing to contractual obligations but there is a specious ring to this. Hard-strapped taxpayers might well fume at such crass and onerous contract conditions yet it still would have been cheaper to cancel the carriers owing to the overall, much higher lifetime running cost of the two ships. The likelihood is that one of the carriers will be immediately mothballed, while the other is altered to fit an electromagnetic launching system to take the conventional JSF jets, but the scrapping of the harrier jump jets will mean the carriers will go to sea without any UK planes for the next 10 years. But if one of the carriers can be quickly sold at a sensible price then the waste will not have been so huge.

Horse-necked admirals?

The carrier programme is worrying most of all because of its impact on the rest of the Royal Navy, which could see the number of its surface ships fall from 23 to 19. These types of vessels do splendid work in the Caribbean, seizing drugs, and in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf protecting oil installations and fighting piracy. "Almost everybody in the navy sees the calamity of this," said an MoD official, "except the people in the top half of the service." Another senior military figure added: "We should never have bought them in the first place. We've got better ways of spending our money. We could have had more frigates, more money for cyber, more special forces. It's £5 bn of lost opportunities."

But what about the need to project power globally as only carriers can and ably did so in the Falklands' campaign? The problem with this argument is that the world's security issues are changing and will stem from intangible threats, such as cyber warfare, international terrorism and pandemics. Carriers are only for state on state warfare that is well down the government's risk assessments. Moreover, carriers are useless for work like anti-piracy, drugs running and terrorism. The navy's argument that it would not be able to defend the Falklands without the carriers is breathtakingly fatuous. A permanently stationed, adequate air force and troops, to be paid out of any future oil revenues, would deter subsequent invasions.

Perhaps their lordships of the Admiralty still believe in the carriers because they could defend St Helena, Tristan da Cunha or that hotbed of tax evasion, the Cayman Islands. Arguably, the carriers can only be justified for use in a world war but are they not going the way of the battleship? A strong, belligerent power could sink these costly, highly vulnerable leviathans at the press of a few buttons. It took only 12 bombs to sink the four Japanese carriers at Midway, a battle that turned the tide of war in the Pacific.

It would be charitable to think that the admirals' lucubrations were inspired by over indulgence in horse's neck cocktails and pink gins. The reality is, alas, that the military mind is rarely original, often lacking in a comprehensive view and tinged with vanity.

Alas, vanity also afflicts politicians, not least at the top. It should worry observers when they hear a British Prime Minister remark: "Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less an ambition for our country in the decades to come." A more sober response came from a senior Whitehall official: "We will punch above our weight? Well, we will punch our weight." Long suffering taxpayers will hope so but David Cameron has promised that defence spending will increase in real terms in the years after 2015 if he is re-elected, much to the relief of defence chiefs but to the potential dismay of voters who thought the coalition government would be fiscally responsible, unlike the profligate labour government it replaced.

The Royal Navy will also be pleased in some quarters that the Trident submarine replacements will go ahead, albeit delayed by up to five years to save money. It seems that they are to have fewer launch tubes and that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has won his battle with the Treasury to have the Trident renewal programme ring-fenced from the MoD's core budget. Yet this programme is far more costly than the two aircraft carriers, with lifetime costs of £100 bn, and possibly very much more if America cuts back on the number of its nuclear-armed submarines to be ordered.

In economic terms the scrapping of Britain's submarine-based nuclear deterrent makes sense, though that does not mean it would be wise to drop the deterrent entirely, at least for the present. There are much cheaper alternatives, like land, sea and air-launched cruise missiles, the velocities and ranges of which can reach over 3,000 mph and 2,500 miles respectively, which would put all cities in belligerent nations within reach.

Ultimately, however, it may be a far off, land-locked country which knocks economic sense into UK politicians and military chiefs. It seems that the UK will not be able to undertake a military deployment of the kind seen in Iraq and Afghanistan for some time owing to defence cuts that will see some 42,000 job cuts by 2020. That far off land is Afghanistan, where logistics, economics and an ideal guerrilla warfare terrain all work together in the Taliban's favour. That war has already cost Britain well over £11 bn, with nothing to show for it, and as explained in my earlier blog headed "Logistics will be Britain's Afghanistan Calvary" the resolution of that struggle can only leave the coalition forces exiting the country less than fulfilled.