It is quite depressing and alarming to be navigating towards an uncertain election with even greater uncertainty about what will be left of the armed forces afterwards, even while the events in the world most certainly signal that the assumptions of the SDSR 2010, and the belief that State on State warfare was (kind of) no more, were both wrong.
It is also quite embarrassing, and there can't be another word for it, that the UK seems set to miss the 2% defence spending target barely months after rightfully and wisely campaigning for the NATO members to strive to achieve that level of investment. Not the Tories nor Labour are giving assurances about maintaining the 2% line, and they aren't even giving real assurances about sticking at least to a flat in-real-terms budget with a 1% increase on equipment spending, which is the absolute minimum level of spending the MOD was promised when Future Force 2020 was devised. With the extremely significant caveat, by the way, that the flat-in-real-terms budget has to be calculated, of course, starting from a base amount. And the base MOD budget has been falling significantly each year since 2010. Depending on which fiscal year serves as base for the calculation, the budget over five years changes by several billion pounds.
Even worse, there seem to be almost certainty that there will be new, vast cuts to the budget. Something that, inexorably, would entirely wreck Future Force 2020, changing yet once more the plans, imposing new cuts even before the last ones are completed. And putting a very big nail in the coffin of Britain's role as a military power. If not the final nail, close to it.
The british GDP has been growing at a rather imposing rate, so the 2% budget target would indeed equate to a significant increase in defence spending, something that is supposedly not doable due to the need for more austerity. Curiously, the same isn't said of the 0.7% target for Aid Budget. In 2013 aid spending soared above 13 billion pounds, and it will keep growing. While the armed forces will be gutted to save a few billions. Effectively, more than closing the deficit, part or all of the money removed from the armed forces will just head completely out of the country, spent in "aid".
I think it is nothing short of criminal, but you are free to think whatever you want. Just, please, don't say that Britain can't afford to keep its soldiers employed. It could. The money is there. It is just going to be used in other ways. And not even at home. Not for education, or the NHS, or even welfare. No. For aid programmes which, often, don't even work, and at times are actually counterproductive.
The 2% target's greatest importance is in its serving as a sort of rock bottom. For decades it has been the barrier supposed to prevent the complete dismantling of the armed forces. What i fear the most, is what happens when even that "rock bottom" is smashed through. There is no anchor left afterwards. The risk is that it becomes a true free fall. Especially because there most evidently isn't the maturity to set out a strategy, articulate what the minimum range of capabilities needed are, and stick to it for more than a few months. Future Force 2020 is already an exercise in a definition of the bare minimum force which can still serve the political purpose of keeping Britain militarily relevant. It is a very bare minimum target in some ways, something that many do not understand. The current level of ambition requires, for example, the ability for Britain to deploy a brigade-sized force enduringly. It takes five brigades taking 6 months tours to do that without completely wearing out men and equipment, and Army 2020 delivers those five brigades. Just. In theory. In fact, already as it is, the last two brigades of the 5 are pretty weak, very light in terms of vehicles and protection and firepower, and somewhat bare of the support elements needed. There is a recognized shortage of Logistic support and, even more, of Signals support. All Light Role Infantry battalions now are understrenght by design, and need a company's worth of reservists trained and available for deployment just to achieve a complete, standard structure on three rifle companies of three platoons each.
And there are other rather dramatic capability gaps as well. The most unacceptable is the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft, ASW capable. The SDSR also badly damaged CBRN resilience dismantling the Joint CBRN regiment and withdrawing the Fuchs recce vehicles from service. A very bad decision, which i questioned from the very beginning (and i wasn't alone in doing so, i'm sure) and which eventually was reversed. 9 Fuchs are being returned to active service, albeit with significant challenges to be faced still, due to lack of money and loss of skills and knowledge. They haven't been gone for a very long time, but i'm told that the dismantling of the Joint Regiment resulted in a severe loss of know how in several ways.
Even scarier is, i believe, the awareness of just how much more capability seems to be hanging by a thread due to budget shortages and aging equipment which might go out of the door without being replaced. The defence spending stories that appear on the press are often not taken seriously due to how they seem to talk of imminent war against Russia, or other major crisises that do not sound realistic, that get downplayed easily. I've already written about this problem, and about the not very helpful input of defence top brass which only seem to speak once they are retired.
I was often warning people about Russia in discussions already back at the time of the war in Georgia, if not earlier. Unlike too many others, i do not undervalue Russia. And i think it must return to be a serious element to consider in strategic planning. But i wouldn't suggest using Russia in a too direct way to write stories which otherwise end up almost ridiculed as scare tales. Besides, there is no need to. Hard realities, numbers and facts are more than enough to sound the alarm. Actually, they do it better.
I think it is pretty scary that the Royal Navy has a young LPD tied up in port, in controlled humidity seal-down, because there are not enough men and pennies to let it sail while her sister ship also serves. But this isn't the worst. It is scarier that much of the army's mechanisation still depends on the FV432 vehicle, which dates back to the late 50s and early 60s and has an official out of service date set for 2030. And the worst part is not even the 70 years career of this vehicle, but the fact that it could go out of service earlier than planned, and anyway without being replaced. The army has a programme (kind of), the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle (ABSV) to replace it by removing turrets from surplus Warriors and convert them in APCs, mortar carriers, ambulances and other sub-variants needed. But uncertainty and shortage of money rules supreme, and who knows what will actually happen. Even in the best case, ABSV will replace the FV432 Bulldog just from the armoured infantry battalions. A number of other FV432s will keep soldiering on, as ambulances in Armoured Medical Regiments, in HQs of other mechanised units such as brigade and division HQ, but also command battery of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, for example. Their replacement will be a problem once more left for later. In the uncertainty. And this, as of today, is assuming that ABSV can be funded and delivers.
Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme, another one up for much uncertainty. There are 227 tanks left, enough for 3 decent regiments plus training fleet. But the number could fall further, or anyway only a part of those might get the LEP. And even the best case scenario left on the table, anyway, has long lost any ambition of fixing the rifled gun issue, or replacing the engine.
The Warrior CSP programme itself has not reached the point of contract signature yet, so is quite exposed as well. And the numbers circulating regarding how many vehicles get the upgrade are depressing, since they would suffice, at most, for 4 battalions plus training fleet allocations. So, on paper the british army has 6 armoured infantry battalions. In reality, it might soon enough have enough vehicles for four at most. Even before new cuts eventually happen.
Wherever you look, a little bit of scratching the surface reveals potential gaps just about to burst open. I will make some more examples. A very big one is the fact that both the major vehicle depots of the Armed Forces, Ashchurch and Ayshire Barracks in Germany, are heading towards closure in the coming few years. They have already appointed the company tasked with planning the redevelopment of the Ashchurch area. Very little is known, instead, about where the forces will be supposed to park their vehicles after the current depots close. In 2014 the army made it known that they envisage building a new "UK Vehicle Hub". Inevitable, really. The vehicles need a place where to stay, in controlled humidty storage, looked after, protected and maintained. They must be in a well organized depot from which they can pulled out quickly and efficiently, and carried, by rail or truck, or driven towards their parent units and the ports and airports from which they will move onwards to the crisis zone. The problem is that there is no MOD decision on how, when and where to proceed with such a new hub. No plan in motion. I don't even know how it is possible to plan for closure before setting out a plan for relocating the vehicle fleets in a logistically sound way.
F-35, a major programme where uncertainty rules. Will there be 48? Will the hoped-for additional purchases ever happen? Or will even the meagre 48 number be slashed even further?
Tornado GR4 will be soon gone, and while i can only welcome with a huge sigh of relief the fact that there is now a contract to integrate Brimstone 2 on Typhoon (although just 2 launchers, for 6 missiles, at least for the moment), i must point out that any delay in integration (or a speeded up Tornado GR4 withdrawal, say) would still leave yet another gap. Moreover, there's at least two other areas where a capability loss is, at the moment, assured: bunker-busting, and tactical reconnaissance. With Tornado, both the RAPTOR recce pod and the Paveway III 2000 lbs bunker buster will be gone. And there is no recce pod in sight for Typhoon; while the bunker-buster variant of Paveway IV (which by the way, being a 500 lbs weapon, fails to convince me that there won't be a capability loss, even accounting for much more modern warhead design) is not yet on contract either.
Not to mention the ability to suppress enemy air defences: the ALARM anti-radar missile is gone from 2013, and with it much of the kinetic part of the RAF's SEAD capability. A key weapon, SPEAR 3, which is supposed to partially remedy to this weakness and also keep alive UK design and industrial capability in the sector of complex weapons, is another one of those bits at risk. SPEAR could be sacrificed to save the development money, settling for the US Small Diameter Bomb 2, which is cheaper but a glide-only weapon. SPEAR 3, having its own engine, can be launced from a greater distance and with less limitations due to weather, altitude, flight profile. All these things make a huge difference to the ability of SPEAR to serve as SEAD/DEAD weapon and destroy enemy missile batteries. With ALARM gone, it is important to have that kind of capability.
Type 26: contract signature target date widely missed, a "demonstration phase" gimmick launched which contains long lead items for just 3 ships, leaving all the uncertainty about how things will progress. MARS Solid Support Ships: who the hell knows what the status of the programme even is. The equipment plan documents, as i've already explained, are deliberately bare of any detail and specific programme indication, so things can appear and disappear without proper tracking of changes.
At times my warnings get played down by "what are you saying, we have 6 Type 45s, 2 carriers, best kit in the world, Typhoon...". And it is true. In part. But there is too much hype, and too little realism. The carriers aren't yet safe. Two are being built, but will both make it into service? Will they be blessed with a decent airwing? So much could still go wrong.
Type 45 is a great ship, but with its own very clear limits. Very single role due to missing equipment fits, which second-hand Harpoon (for 4 ships only) is only partially fixing. Harpoon itself hangs by a thread: it could go out of service in 2018, and the road to a replacement is a huge, floating question mark right now.
Sea Skua will go out of service with the Lynx MK8, in 2017, and it'll be at least three years before the replacement starts being available. Come 2018, the Royal Navy could be, at least for a few years, completely without anti-ship missiles of any type. Which is quite amazing, in a bad way.
On paper, Future Force 2020, especially after the 2014 U-turns and adjustements (Fuchs resurrected, Sentinel R1 and Shadow R1 extended to 2018, Reaper extended to 2019) is still a good force, with some world class capabilities. But much of Future Force 2020 exists only on paper and depends on key programmes which are almost always exposed to huge risks in the coming review. Other capabilities remain, effectively, tied to a time-bomb. For example, Sentinel R1, which is an immensely effective and precious bit of kit, is still at risk, only having gained a life extension out to 2018, not that far away.
Future Force 2020 is quite decent, and could be good if some major weaknesses in it were fixed (and i will write an article setting out such an "Adjusted Future Force 2020" as a second part to this piece). But Future Force 2020 is very much at risk of being torn apart by the new SDSR. A huge number of key components face risks and extreme uncertainty. Numbers which look decent now could be dramatically revised downwards, or anyway be badly compromised by the cancellation of some key programmes.
This is the big issue.
I wouldn't worry about the 2% per se, if there was a mature approach to defence and a firm committment to stick to the plan for once. But that maturity is nowhere to be seen, and so arbitrary spending levels must be advocated, so that at least there can be, finally, a bit of stability over which building is then possible.
Mind you, there is still room for efficiencies (the real ones), and more must be done to squeeze more buck out of the MOD's bucks, because the budget is indeed still sizeable, but quite often does not seem to deliver as well as the french budget, which is the most closely comparable. The MOD definitely has a role and a responsibility in spending better. The SDSR 2010 has introduced some welcome financial discipline and improved several habits and methods, and the good trend must continue.
But it is really, really important that the armed forces are given a stable and reasonable budget, if they are to stay effective and relevant.