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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Will Trident sink blue sea Royal Navy?

The current wrangling between Britain's Treasury Department and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over defence cuts will decide the fate of the Royal Navy's blue sea capability, and by extension the safety and rule of law on the high seas. The stakes have been raised recently because the Treasury ministers are now saying that the MoD must fund Britain's nuclear deterrent, embodied in the £20 billion renewal of the Trident submarine defence system, from within its own core budget, currently running at about £35 billion a year.

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, insists that the Treasury must stick to a commitment made by the last Labour Government, that the nuclear deterrent is of special strategic significance and that the cost of renewing it, therefore, must be ring fenced from spending on conventional defence equipment. If not, then the MoD claims that within 10 years the Trident replacement programme will absorb a huge chunk of the equipment budget, about 25%. This would mean a hugely skewed defence structure, dominated by two aircraft carriers, fast jets and Trident.

The problem is not just a shortage of money brought on by the credit crunch, oxygenated by a global, casino-style environment. It is also a function of a globalized economy in which money moves at electronic speed and punishes those deemed to be financial delinquents.

For Britain, in some ways still cursed by its imperial legacy, the problems are greater than for other countries. It must decide if the wellbeing of the economy and the approval of foreign creditors, who could so easily pull the plug on Sterling, are more important than a defence commitment to replace the ageing Trident nuclear submarines. If the decision to go ahead with the costly Trident replacement prevails, then the Royal Navy's blue sea capability will almost certainly be seriously impaired, if not reduced to a brown sea navy status confined to protecting home shores.

The jury may still be out on whether Britain still needs a sea-borne nuclear deterrent in a post cold war environment but what cannot be in doubt is that such a costly project, if approved, will cost far more than current estimates. Such huge capital projects involving taxpayers' money invariably over run substantially and the MoD is the least reliable department to trust on estimates. A department that has had its accounts qualified for three successive years and has lost track of over £170 million of battlefield radios, can surely never be trusted to come clean.

Other bodies, like Greenpeace, believe that the Trident replacement bill will be at least £34 billion once costs like VAT are factored in. Nick Clegg, the coalition government's number two, claims that the lifetime cost of Trident will be £100 billion for a defence system that he claims no longer meets Britain's needs.

There is, however, another costly fly in the ointment. Critics argue that Britain is so technically dependent on America that, in effect, Trident is not an independent system. The British Tridents, for example, are serviced in a Georgian port and the warhead components are also made in America. But the United States Government, like Britain's, is also looking at its defence budget because its own economy is, in some ways, messier than Britain's. The US navy plans to build 12 new submarines to replace the Ohio class nuclear submarines that carry the Trident missiles but the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, is expected to challenge these plans, which could cost up to $80 billion. Up to another $120 billion could be spent on 60 of America's latest guided missile destroyers. If cuts are made to America's proposed submarine nuclear deterrent then, owing to Britain's dependence on the US, this could raise UK costs hugely.

Given the parlous state of Britain's economy, logic suggests that the case against replacing Trident is overwhelming on economic grounds and therefore economics should overrule politics.
There are precedents on what harm profligate military spending can do to economies, from which not even super powers are immune. Was it not the threat of an American star wars defence shield which finally forced Russia into a rapprochement with America because the cost of developing its own such shield would have been cripplingly expensive? And did this not lead to a partial dismantling of its nuclear capability?

Britain's former First Sea Lord, Sir John Slater, believes that submarine-borne nuclear weapons are the best means of deterrent because they are almost undetectable under water. If that was ever true it is far less so today, as some nations have sea bed listening devices capable of tracking submarines over vast areas. There are also other weapons, extant or under development, in national arsenals capable of killing whole populations but at far lower costs than nuclear weapons, such as biological* and weather warfare through projects like HAARP.#

This is not to argue that Britain should relinquish all of its nuclear weapons now. Rather, it should examine ways and means to a much cheaper nuclear stance, perhaps based on cruise missiles launched from mobile platforms, despite being much slower than Trident, of shorter range and more prone to effective counter measures.

The problem for the Royal Navy in parlous economic times is that if Trident is not scrapped, whether ring fenced or not from the MoD's core procurement budget, it is hard to justify a Royal Navy without a reduced blue sea reach. The two costly aircraft carriers now on the stocks will preserve some of that reach but they will have no impact on the navy's splendid work, for example, curtailing the Caribbean drugs trade or piracy wherever it rears its ugly head. That would be tragic for safety issues on the high seas. The go-ahead for Trident could also spell the end of at least one naval dockyard, with Portsmouth and Devonport the most likely contenders for closure.

*Although biological weapons are subject to a global ban, many countries have not signed up to it.

#High-Frequency Active Aural Research Programme. Run by the US air force and navy, it is the Pentagon's main weather warfare programme. It constitutes a system of powerful antennas capable of creating controlled local modifications of the Ionosphere.

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"When might is right money takes flight"

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Logistics will be Britain's Afghanistan Calvary

Afghanistan is a harsh, arid, unforgiving land, prone to temperature extremes, two thirds mountainous and honeycombed with caves -- ideal guerrilla warfare terrain. As if these natural advantages were not enough for any home-grown insurgents, the Taleban have one other great advantage -- their enemy's logistical problems, the cost of which could break the coalition forces' will at a crucial time when nations must tighten their belts as the world faces another, possible financial meltdown.

Earlier this month, Britain finally came clean on the cost of its 9-year Afghanistan war. Between April 2001 and March 2010 Whitehall figures show that tax payers stumped up £11.1 billion for Afghanistan and currently about 30% of Britain's £35 billion annual defence budget is devoted to that country. Such a staggering cost, however, does not include troops' basic salaries or long- term care for the seriously wounded. And the payback for such a war? Over 300 British dead, many permanently maimed and traumatised, with suicides certain to follow, and a conflict that is worsening almost daily, along with commensurate cost rises.

Wars are often sparked by unexpected international incidents and the reactions hasty and poorly thought through. If the American and British governments had carefully considered the logistics of fighting in a distant, land-locked country, surrounded by friendly neighbours or others suspicious of America, and recalled the lessons of history then events might have taken a more sensible turn.

History is important but only if its lessons are learned by subsequent generations. Over the last 170 years Afghanistan has humiliated two super powers, Britain and Russia, by sending their invading armies packing with their tails between their legs. In both cases, the combination of natural and logistical forces crucially forced their humiliation. In 1842, the British retreat of 16,500 during a horrendous winter, harried by Afghan attacks in the passes, massacred all but one survivor. Would a British public tolerate such losses today? Hardly. In the 1980s, attacks on Russia's stretched supply lines in perfect, mountainous, ambush country played a major role in their defeat, helped, admittedly, by stingers.

Land-locked but sinking the Royal Navy

The military mind, alas, is rarely original and often blinkered on subjects outside their remit and so we have fatuous cases of top service chiefs griping, for example, about cutbacks in the Royal Navy while insisting that Afghanistan must still be the MoD's top priority. The former First Sea Lord, Sir John Slater, berated the outgoing labour government for a decade of underinvestment which "has left the Royal Navy with a serious shortage of ships."Any further cuts, he warned, would lead to "an enormous strain on the service." He was particularly concerned at the decision to halve the number of type 45 destroyers. Labour said it had to make Afghanistan its priority and could not afford to pay for the number of ships in service. Sir John agrees that Afghanistan must be Britain's top defence priority but seems unable to grasp that Afghanistan is part of the Royal Navy's underfunding problem. Can Britain really afford an Afghan war while at the same time properly funding the navy during severe financial belt tightening?

The incumbent First Sea Lord, Sir Mark Stanhope, is similarly fighting his corner for a properly funded navy, arguing that: "Maritime capabilities are not a luxury, they are a necessity."Agreed, but he, too, should recognise that you cannot have it every way with limited resources and a worsening economic climate. The British electorate is being asked to make huge sacrifices and as Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union said, ministers could not cut jobs and services while the "grotesque waste of money in Iraq and Afghanistan dominate spending priorities."

The grotesque waste of money can be gauged by a look at the logistics of the Afghan war, but first the military reality. The occupation has failed to suppress an insurgency that has significant popular support. Even with the extra 17,000 US personnel promised there will still be less than 90,000 US and Nato troops. Given the size and population of the country, military analysts estimate that a force of up 500,000 would be needed.

President Obama has admitted that the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan. Even in Pakistan, the operations of 100,000 Pakistani troops have failed to break the Taleban's grip.
The coalition forces cannot hope to engage the Taleban in pitched battles, much as they would like to. It is not that kind of war. This means that the use of superior weapons, which in some wars was decisive and even changed the course of history, like the needle gun and Krupp steel cannon, is not an option.

The $105 billion bill so far

The logistical scope of resupplying US forces in Afghanistan is immense. There are currently nearly 400 US and coalition force bases in the country. The Pentagon has said that there are now 87,000 US troops alongside 47,000 troops from 44 other countries. The number of contractors to the US military is a staggering 107,000. By the end of 2010 fiscal year, Afghanistan will cost nearly $105 billion.

Examples of obscene waste can be judged at specific levels. The cost of airlifting one Stryker brigade of 3,900 men and all its vehicles is $210 million at a cost of $14,000 per tonne for all the 15,000 tonnes needed. Transport by rail through Russia would only be $500 per tonne, or just $7.5 million.

America is looking at other supply routes than through Pakistan, where currently 75% of supplies pass through the port of Karachi. But this involves a treacherous, 1,200-mile road journey taking in the Khyber Pass. In just one attack in 2008, 42 oil tankers were destroyed. "The idea that you can wage an effective military campaign in this land-locked country without safe and dependable logistical support is crazy," one US Defence Department official at the policy-making level was heard to have remarked.

But whatever 'safe' routes may be negotiated it is clear that a determined, fearless, war-hardened Taleban, whose per capita support costs are less than one tenth of American troops, with logistics problems working in their favour, will stymie a coalition victory. National cohesion will only come through a political process. The recent announcement of up to $2 trillion worth of mineral reserves in Afghanistan may only serve to lengthen the endemic conflict. But if all Afghans could agree to adopt good governance of the people and by the people as one unified nation, eschewing petty sub nation differences, then a golden age would beckon.
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"Before the fighting proper, the battle is won or lost
by quartermasters" -Erwin Rommel