IT’S BEEN a hectic week for defence. Following last week’s Global Britain paper, in which the PM set out his vision of how the UK will interact with the world militarily, diplomatically and commercially, Monday saw the publication of the defence part of it, followed by a flurry of more detailed (but still far less than full) documents. Russia is the threat, China (to the surprise of many, given its aggression in the South China Sea) is merely a strong competitor.
The net result reveals many anomalies. For example, the PM sees the UK as a global trading nation, supporting the freedom of the seas while also containing nefarious Russian activity in the Atlantic with Nato. Fine, but there are no more ships – indeed the Navy has accepted reality and accelerated the retirement of worn-out frigates. Sure, there is the new Type 32 to be designed and built, but that will take a decade. Surely it would be more expedient to extend the current Type 26 and Type 31 production runs?
The RAF similarly accepts reality with the retirement of its oldest Eurofighters – although apparently they’re already being scavenged for spares to keep others flying. It’s also accelerating the end of its Hercules tactical transports, the role to be covered by the A400 Atlas (although no more of them are on order).
The Army is, at last, upgrading its tanks, but will have fewer of them. Its Warrior infantry fighting vehicles will be scrapped and replaced with more of the new Boxers. This is novel: as the Russian armed forces are very much armoured, one would normally counter that with armour. However the British Army is instead rapidly to develop a sophisticated deep strike capability, using lots of drones and long-range artillery.
There are several challenges here. Firstly timing – the threat exists now. The only current counter is the Challenger 2, and there are hardly enough of them to be credible.
Secondly is the current lack of artillery. The venerable AS90 needs upgrades (or replacement), as does the MLRS – although this is less of a problem as the US have their own upgrade programme. Absurdly, four of the seven close support regiments still operate the 105mm light gun. Its lack of mobility, limited range and small calibre (the AS90 and the artillery of every other Nato country use 155mm calibre) render it obsolete for non-specialist roles. The sum of £800million has been set aside to fix this, although no solutions have yet been suggested.
Thirdly is the Army’s lamentable track record of procurement. It is seeking to develop new technologies, organisations and tactics using a procurement system (I use the word lightly) whose history, in the recent words of the Select Committee on Defence, is ‘bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude, which have continually bedevilled attempts to properly re-equip the British Army over the last two decades’. Worse, much of this will rely on software – as ‘Track and Trace’ has shown, the government is not very good at this.
Overall the announcements are to be welcomed: they have finally put the sorry state of the nation’s defence into the public arena. The measures envisaged are inadequate, but at least they’re starting to fix the mess. It’s going to take more though, and of course that comes down to money.
We’re currently spending £1billion a day on Covid. Ending the lockdown a month early would free £30billion from the public finances which would go a long way towards solving the defence problems more quickly. Unfortunately, much as all politicians parrot the saw that ‘the Defence of the Realm is the first priority of government’, the reality is that the entire country has been deceived into self-immolation on the altar of the NHS.
I fear that the defence reviews are too little, too late. I hope that I am wrong.