Lack of Maritime Patrol Aircraft Reinforces British Defense Flaws

A Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft flies over RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, July 3, 2010
A Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft flies over RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, July 3, 2010 (Jonathan Kershaw)

In 2012, a House of Commons Defense Committee meeting on future maritime surveillance discussed the threat posed by Russian intelligence gathering efforts against Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The committee heard that the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft, a shortage of towed-array equipped escort vessels and the possible retasking of attack submarines could result in a reduced anti-submarine capability. As a result of these shortcomings, “a resurgent Russian navy can now threaten our SSBN fleet and operate with confidence around our shores.”

This seemingly prophetic warning has now been thrust into the headlines.

In late November, a suspected periscope was spotted by a trawler west of Scotland in an area where British ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are believed to transit en route to their patrol areas.

With no way of finding and identifying the alleged intruder, the British government was forced to rely on its NATO allies to patrol its territorial waters.

First to arrive at Lossiemouth was a French Atlantique aircraft, followed the next day by a pair of American Orions and a British Sentinel R1. A Canadian Aurora also joined the search.

There has been no report that the elusive submarine was ever found, suggesting that it successfully, if not unsurprisingly, evaded the efforts of this multinational search party.

This is all rather embarrassing for the Ministry of Defense given that Sir Peter Luff, the minister responsible for defense equipment, assured the House of Commons in 2010 that a combination of the Type 23 frigate, the Merlin helicopter and C-130, as well as reliance on allies and partners, “would be able to mitigate the capability gap” lost through the cancelation of Nimrod MRA4.

The absence of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft dates back to the decision in the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service.

That the sole Royal Air Force aircraft available to participate in the search is not deemed capable of maritime surveillance is evidenced by a Ministry of Defense’s £198 million plan to upgrade the software of the five Sentinels. This is expected to enable them to carry out a rudimentary maritime patrol role as part of a service life extension plan to keep the modest fleet operational until 2018. However, the company that makes the Sentinels has said “the aircraft would not fit a maritime patrol aircraft role” even after this upgrade so the undertaking may prove fruitless after all.

The Royal Navy managed to contribute one of its thirteen remaining frigates capable of undertaking anti-submarine operations, a job soon to be carried out by only eight “tail-equipped” frigates of the Type 26 class. In doing so, however, it demonstrated that the “fleet” is stretched to the limit and that the fallacy of more capability on fewer hulls would be laughable were its implications not so serious. With the Fleet Ready Escort searching for a mystery submarine, a cannon-equipped patrol boat was all that remained to shadow a quartet of Russian warships through the English Channel.

For an island nation that is dependent on importing food and energy from abroad, the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft is little short of a national disgrace. Through the fifty years of the Cold War, the Royal Navy’s primary mission was the plugging of the GIUK gap to prevent Soviet submarines terrorizing the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. Now neither the Royal Air Force nor the Royal Navy seems capable of fulfilling their primary role — ensuring the security of the United Kingdom.

Search for Yacht Crew Exposes British Defense Gaps

A Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft flies in the vicinity of RAF Waddington, Nottinghamshire, England, July 12, 2011
A Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft flies in the vicinity of RAF Waddington, Nottinghamshire, England, July 12, 2011 (Jerry Gunner)

The disappearance of four British sailors in the North Atlantic following the loss of their yacht, the Cheeki Rafiki, demonstrates that the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) undertaken by Britain’s coalition government led by David Cameron is not fit for its purpose.

The SDSR opted to “not bring into service the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft” as well as cutting the Royal Navy surface fleet to just nineteen frigates and destroyers. These decisions have placed both British security and the lives of British sailors at risk — and the loss of the Cheeki Rafiki is unlikely to be the last time that this is proved.

The Nimrod MRA4 had a troubled development, plagued by delays and cost overruns that are all too familiar to British defense contracts awarded to BAE Systems. A contract for 21 aircraft was originally placed in 1996 following an international competition but the project ran into a series of problems which resulted in contract renegotiations in 1999, 2002 and 2003 and a further contract amendment in 2006.

The 2010 National Audit Office Major Projects Report found the MRA4 to be £789 million over budget and projected to be nine years late, having been forecast to enter service in April 2003. This was pushed back to December 2010 but when it became apparent that this would not be possible, October 2012 was seen as a more realistic date.

Furthermore, the initial order for 21 aircraft was reduced first to eighteen aircraft, then twelve and finally to a mere nine, tripling the unit cost in the process.

In delaying the MRA4, the National Audit Office reported that the Ministry of Defense had retasked other aircraft, both rotary- and fixed-wing, to perform Nimrod missions but that this had resulted in a reduction both anti-submarine and search and rescue capabilities. The aircraft was finally culled in 2011, and described by Liam Fox, then the defense minister, as something that “is not to happen again.”

In an open letter to The Telegraph, signed by six former defense chiefs, the decision to scrap the aircraft was described as opening a massive gap in British security. They repeated the concerns raised by the National Audit Office about the reduction in capability but identified further roles that the British military now had no ability to fulfill. These included long range maritime reconnaissance — something of importance to an island nation with potentially vulnerable sea lanes — and overseas territories and supporting the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines as they enter and exit British waters which was now left to frigates, helicopters or Hercules transport aircraft, depending on availability.

In May 2014, four years after the coalition came to power and more than three and a half years since the SDSR was published, there has still been no decision taken to replace the aforementioned gap in British security. We are now led to believe that a decision will be taken in the next defense review, sometime in 2015. Assuming this is the case, a further competition will take place and an aircraft will be selected. It is likely that rather than purchasing an off the shelf aircraft, an Anglicized variant of something will be purchased. This will inevitably push back the delivery of whichever aircraft is selected, meaning the maritime patrol capability gap could have lasted for over a decade by the time a replacement for the MRA4 finally enters service.

But this doesn’t only have national-security implications. The loss of the Cheeki Rafiki in May highlighted bigger gaps in British capabilities.

Three American and Canadian aircraft and several merchant vessels abandoned their search, having braved challenging conditions for two days. After a break of almost three days, a further search is underway. It took six days before British assets were committed to the search. A solitary aircraft will now participate but no Royal Navy warship has been dispatched to the area to search with its helicopter.

It is apparent that the government’s insistence that the search and rescue mission previously undertaken by the Nimrod would be covered by the C-130 has proved to be false: no Royal Air Force C-130 was committed to the search during the period when the Americans and Canadians ceased their efforts. The former defense chiefs who wrote to The Telegraph believed that frigates and helicopters could fill in the gaps but it is unlikely that they were expecting the surface fleet of the Royal Navy to be savagely cut.

The mantra of “more capability on fewer hulls” is often recited whenever criticism of the current fleet numbers is made. But the search for the crew of the Cheeki Rafiki provides a perfect example of there not being enough ships to go around. The search area is within four days’ sail for a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer departing Devonport yet no ship has been dispatched. A helicopter on the scene, working in tandem with British, American and Canadian maritime patrol aircraft, would greatly enhance the search for the crew while a ship on station could provide medical assistance to a crew exposed to the elements for several days.

Predictions for the 2015 general election are still shifting. For some time, Labour was in the lead but Cameron’s Conservatives now seem likely to come out on top. Whoever wins a year from now, the decisions they take when conducting their defense review must look at more than the obvious security implications. It must also factor in the ever increasing gaps in the capabilities of the British armed forces to deal with a mission as low risk and affordable as search and rescue.

Arguments For, Against Renewing Britain’s Submarine Deterrent

A British Trident submarine departs Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, Scotland, August 15, 2007
A British Trident submarine departs Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, Scotland, August 15, 2007 (JohnED76)

Britain’s inevitable renewal of the Trident II system, the sole weapon in its nuclear deterrent, is perhaps the most contentious issue in British defense policy.

At a time of budget cuts across nearly all government departments, the Ministry of Defense has faced difficult decisions. Among a myriad of cuts, it has phased out the Harrier and Nimrod aircraft without replacements; is in the process of slashing the numbers of serving personnel and has overseen the reduction of the Royal Navy to a similar size as maritime heavyweight Italy.

The commitment to Trident was never at risk, however, despite Liberal Democrat involvement in the coalition government.

Independent system

The continuous at-sea deterrence posture has been in place since the first Resolution class boats, armed with Polaris missiles, went on patrol in 1968.

The system relies on four submarines rotating between patrol, refit and maintenance and training. This has become the basis of the British deterrent. At least one ballistic missile submarine is always at sea, ready to rein fire and brimstone on those who have struck British interests, presumably with the weapons of mass destruction that we should all stay awake in fear of.

The first Vanguard submarine armed with Trident II undertook its maiden patrol in 1994. Three more submarines followed and each is armed, while on patrol at least, with sixteen Trident II missiles. They are believed to carry a maximum of 48 warheads per boat, ranging in yield to allow a flexible response to all eventualities.

This assumes that the United Kingdom has an independent launch capability. There is some speculation as to the independence of the deterrent and while there is no confirmation on whether Britain could use the missiles at will, it is widely believed that systems exist to prevent launches that might conflict with American interests.

So does Britain need to renew the Trident system, would it be better off adopting a different deterrent posture or should it unilaterally disarm?


Supporters of the renewal argue that Trident offers a guaranteed second-strike capability and that, as a result, it would be foolish in an ever uncertain world to abandon its deterrent.

Concerns over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon program and scaremongering over its potential missile developments are often at the forefront of this argument. Prime Minister David Cameron also used North Korea’s latest test as evidence to support this case. Others yet argue that China and Russia are developing newer and more advanced weapons. Britain, then, cannot fall behind.

Among numerous counterarguments to this stance, one must question why any of the aforementioned “pariah states” should wish to launch a nuclear attack on Britain, why it is assumed that Britain’s NATO allies would opt to sit back and accept the attack and not respond and what the effect of Britain’s measly 48 warheads in response could be — assuming that it can respond independently?

It is also argued that Trident is far superior to any other deterrent option. A submarine silently operating at sea could lurk within thousands of miles of any potential target and remain completely undetected prior to launching its payload. The missiles are allegedly immune to countermeasures as well as anti-ballistic missile technology while alternate forms of delivering a nuclear warhead could be countered.


While it is undoubtedly a capable system, Trident is not without its flaws.

There is nothing to say that China or Russia won’t develop a competent and robust anti-ballistic missile system in the future that will negate Britain’s meager deterrent, undermining a multibillion pound investment and rendering the country impotent to respond to threats from those countries.

At this point Britain could always carry out a Chevaline-esque update, though based on the experience of this Cold War project it would likely deliver minor improvement at significant cost.

Moreover, there is no way to recall or self-destruct Trident missile after launch, meaning any mistake on launch is irreversible. With cruise missiles or aircraft there would be a way to prevent a disastrous accident.

British jobs

Perhaps the most important reason for renewing Trident, in typical British fashion, is jobs.

With the Astute submarine program coming to an end after what seemed like an eternity of problem plagued design and construction, British submarine building will be at a loose end.

While France and Germany have highly competitive products on offer for export, Britain has chosen to build for its domestic requirements alone. As a result, obscenely expensive, long-delayed, error-strewn designs have sufficed through a lack of alternatives and BAE Systems has a monopoly in the national submarine industry. Thousands of jobs depend on the company churning out boats for the Royal Navy. If the government decided against renewal, the industry would die.

This is not unusual.

Rather than buy its Apache helicopters direct from America’s Boeing, the British government decided to pay more than three times the market price for the helicopters in order to employ less than a thousand workers.

The A400M transport aircraft swallows up vast sums of taxpayers’ money for little return but crucially employs less than a thousand workers at Filton.

When it comes to safeguarding jobs in manufacturing, cost and capability mean very little. One need look no further than the Eurofighter project for proof.


So we have seen the arguments for Trident and some of the counterarguments. What of the arguments against it?

Largely these revolve around cost. Realistic figures for the project haven’t been published. Estimates range from £15 to over £100 billion.

However, a lawmaker recently claimed that the deterrent costs 5 percent of the current defense budget, or £1.7 billion per year. A replacement will remain in service for at least 32 years, although this assumes there are no delays — and there probably will be.

Operating costs alone are thus at least £54.4 billion. Factoring in the costs already paid, designing the boats — likely to cost several billion pounds — this figure begins to creep closer to £80 billion.

In the United States, price escalation is threatening the Ohio replacement project. Quite how Britain expects to be able to do what the United States is struggling to financially justify is mystifying. Perhaps both countries could cooperate in a bid to drive down costs.

Other options, such as inserting a missile compartment into an Astute, cutting the fleet down to three instead of four submarines or basing the deterrent on cruise missiles have all been discussed, however, the government is keen to have a like-for-like replacement, presumably to safeguard jobs at Barrow.

Moral questions

Other arguments against renewing Trident are the moral and legal aspects. Under what legal justification could Britain possibly use its deterrent? There is no justification to undertake a first strike against an enemy, there is no debate on this and it is abhorrent to suggest that there ever could be.

Moreover, Britain is committed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move toward disarmament. By deciding to renew its deterrent, it may undermine the very treaty that it is so keen to hold Iran to account over. Why should it listen to another country that is saying nuclear weapons are dangerous and unnecessary when it refuses to disarm itself?


The most commonly discussed alternative to Trident is loading nuclear cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. Tomahawk is the missile of choice for the Royal Navy. It can also be fitted to the Daring class destroyer and perhaps the upcoming Type 26 frigates.

However, cruise missiles are easily countered by modern air defenses, are known to crash into terrain, miss their targets or be spoofed by ever-advancing countermeasures.

Developing a new missile would be expensive and fitting a British-designed nuclear warhead to a Tomahawk may prove problematic.

They also wouldn’t safeguard the thousands of jobs at Barrow and Britain’s submarine-building capability would be forever damaged.

There is also the option of the so-called “bomb in the basement” stance whereby all the components required to produce a nuclear weapon are safely stored ready for assembly as and when the situation requires it. Critics might argue that this undermines a deterrent posture as the assembly facility could be destroyed in a first strike or that an assembled weapon must then be transported to theater for use, something that could prove time-consuming.

The other alternative is unilateral disarmament. This would save Britain tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in the long term. Its security situation wouldn’t be unduly affected. No longer feeling the need to interfere in foreign countries, the threat to Britain, assuming one even exists, dissipates and nobody’s lives are ultimately affected, except from the workers at Barrow and the shareholders of BAE.

British Transport Aircraft Procurement “Disaster”

An Airbus A400M transport aircraft lifts off from RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, England, July 7
An Airbus A400M transport aircraft lifts off from RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, England, July 7 (Peter Gronemann)

I would like to hear anybody else in your Lordships’ committee talk to me about the “limited success” of the A400M. It is a disaster. […] The A400M is a complete, absolute wanking disaster and we should be ashamed of ourselves. I have never seen such a waste of public funds in the defense field since I have been involved in it these past forty years.

This was the description of the Airbus A400M given by John Gilbert, the former minister for defense procurement, last week in the House of Lords. Is this a fair assessment of the transport aircraft for the needs of the Royal Air Force?

The origins of the aircraft can be traced to a collaborative replacement project for the aging Transall C-160 and the Lockheed C-130 in 1982. As one would expect from such an arrangement involving a group of European nations, all that was achieved over a period of seven years was much political wrangling and many alterations to the design requirement that led to little to no real progress, culminating in Lockheed withdrawing to pursue the Super Hercules as an alternative. Ten years later, when the C-130J was entering service, the engine for the A400M had yet to be decided.

The United Kingdom issued an original requirement for 45 A400Ms anticipating an in service date of around 2005 at a unit price of $80 million and with a thirty year life cycle cost of $200 million, at the time thought to be the lowest and a major selling point of the aircraft when compared to its rivals.

By contrast, the unit price of a C-130J was $67 million while life cycle costs were around $213 million. Both aircraft came in at the same price of $280 million and the A400M seemingly looks a better deal as it can carry a greater load a longer distance.

The delays of the A400M have seen cancelations and reduced orders across the board which in turn have pushed costs up.

Italy canceled its order for sixteen aircraft in 2001. Then Italian defense minister Antonio Martino told the Italian TV Network RAI, “This aircraft will not be of use to military aviation” and opted to purchase 22 C-130J and twelve C-27J.

Soon after, Portugal withdrew from the program and in 2008, Canada opted to take a C-17/C-130J combination over the A400M. South Africa also pulled its order of eight aircraft in 2009 due to continued delays.

At a crisis meeting early in 2010, the entire program looked like it might collapse owing to further technical issues. Airbus required €3.5 billion from the recession gripped European governments. Britain again cut its order, two 22 planes, in return for not having to stump up any more cash, this despite a Commons Defense Committee session on Strategic Lift in 2007 which revealed that General Andrew Figgures, technical director at the Defense Procurement Agency, was not satisfied that 25 aircraft would be enough and the committee recommending that the Ministry of Defense “consider acquiring additional A400M aircraft to ensure that the pool of 25 available aircraft is maintained.”

The cut to 22 aircraft also increased the unit price to £141 million according to the National Audit Office Major Projects Report from 2011, though this only covers the main production contract cost.

As 2005 arrived, the Royal Air Force found its tactical airlift capabilities stretched. Years of hard work in Afghanistan and Iraq had taken their toll on the most heavily worked Hercules fleet in the world. The A400M, however, had seen its in service date slip to 2011, the air force order cut from 45 to 25 and tens of millions of pounds spent extending the lives of the C-130Ks then in service.

Additionally, the C-130Js have been almost run in to the ground since entering service and as a result have seen their service lives reduced by the additional strain placed upon them by continued operations in hostile environments, a factor compounded by the absence of A400M.

Why then is the ministry persevering with such a farcical procurement? The A400M does have several benefits when compared to both the C-130J and the Boeing C-17. Compared to the venerable Hercules, its payload is much higher. It was originally designed to carry a load nearly double that of the C-130J but it has since been reduced to a 50 percent higher payload. It can carry the same load as either variant of the C-130J 1,500 miles further as well as faster.

Yet the Hercules has its advantages over the A400M. The smaller size of the aircraft makes it less of a target and in turn a more favorable aircraft for the special forces community. The Hercules can land on a smaller airstrip and its engines and tires are less susceptible to foreign object damage than the bigger A400M.

The Hercules is also in service with dozens of countries, making operational support far easier to come by in more far flung regions of the world. The A400M, by contrast, being ordered by only a handful of nations won’t have this luxury. The unit price of the A400M also makes attrition replacement higher.

Comparing the A400M to the C-17 is a bit more difficult. The two aircraft perform vastly different roles, the C-17 being capable of carrying almost twice the load of the A400M but not able to put down on austere airstrips quite as short as the A400M. It can also fly faster and further than its European counterpart as might be expected in a jet aircraft.

The A400M will undoubtedly be a capable aircraft once it eventually enters service but nothing is known of its true operating costs.

To begin with, its engines are unique to the airframe and have already encountered many teething problems, compared to the engines of both the C-17 and C-130 which have an established support and user base. It will require the training of flight and ground crews and add another aircraft to a fleet that already operates on a near shoestring.

With the cons far outweighing the pros, what is the rationale for going ahead with the A400M instead of purchasing additional C-17s or C-130Js? Does the ministry fear that withdrawal might see Britain excluded from future collaborative projects? Doubtful. Is it a bad thing not to participate in extortionate European vanity projects? Might it see British industry suffer? Equally doubtful though perhaps the eight hundred jobs the program is expected to create a deemed worth the costs.

It appears that the best outcome for the Royal Air Force would be to cancel its order so what credible argument for the A400M is there? The current combination of aircraft has served the air force well over the last decade. It’s doubtful that had A400M entered service on schedule, it would have brought any additional capability.

Instead of waiting for 2015 to pass by and run the risk of the A400M being further delayed, it would make more sense to order additional C-130Js and C-17s now and have them in service.

However, with Treasury officials chairing defense committees, defense requirements seem to have taken a backseat to the need to cut back regardless of the implications on the servicemen and -women who have to make do and keep their heads down lest the swinging axe fall on them.

Liam Fox Successor Faces Fiscal Challenges

The resignation of the British defense secretary caused Prime Minister David Cameron to carry out a swift, albeit minor, reshuffle of his cabinet last week. Liam Fox found his position untenable after allowing the “distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred.” In his place former transportation minister Phillip Hammond has been appointed. But what, if any, impact will this have on the British armed forces?

Phillip Hammond’s background is in business and he was elected to Parliament in the 1997 general election. Since then he has served in a number of departments until making a name for himself as shadow secretary of the treasury where he helped George Osborne, now chancellor, draw up the future plans for public spending. He has been described as an architect of what was cut from each government department.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the new defense minister will be the time it takes him to get to grips with the complicated structure of the Ministry of Defense. Having got used to this way of doing things he will then have to oversee the shift to the new management structure that has been drawn up for the ministry as the 2011 Defense Reform which includes major staff reductions from over 85,000 today to 60,000 by 2015.

One area that he may be well suited to is keeping tabs on the accounts of the defense department. As a numbers man he should prove more than capable of crunching the figures of the complex procurement projects and he may well prove to be the man to finally take control in this area, a failure of former defense ministers.

With only three and a half years of this Parliament to go there are few decisions to be made so his lack of military experience is unlikely to count against him. It is unlikely that any changes to the draconian Strategic Defense and Security Review will be considered, short of any drastic events taking place.

Whether Hammond will be able to stamp his mark on those programs going forward from the SDSR and get them delivered on budget and on time may be asking a lot of him but it would be a huge achievement and one of which only somebody with experience of business and finance might be capable. Major decisions on new projects will need to be made on whatever the Army decides the Future Rapid Effect System project is to become, the replacement frigate program and the Trident replacement during this parliamentary term.

From a political perspective, the resignation of Liam Fox could be seen as marking a shift away from the Thatcherite right wing of the party. There will now be only three “real disciples” of the Iron Lady in government. With Ken Clarke’s position being called into question over recent months it could be the case that David Cameron is attempting to move his party to a more centrist position in a bid to attract more voters. The replacement of Hammond with Justine Greening also brings another woman into the cabinet, thus going someway to addressing an imbalance for which the prime minister has been criticized.

Could the Harrier Have Made a Difference?

In May 2011, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, told a parliamentary defense committee that the retention of Britain’s aircraft carrier capacity would be his top priority if the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) were rewritten. Had this been the case, the carrier would in all likelihood be participating in operations against the regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi right now.

Today in an interview with The Telegraph, Sir Mark argues that had HMS Ark Royal and her Harrier aircraft been available, they would have made the mission in Libya more effective, faster and cheaper and allowed Britain a more reactive force. But just how valid is his argument?

While the Harrier is a capable aircraft, it is unable to use the Royal Air Force’s latest air to surface munitions, the Storm Shadow and Brimstone, both of which are being used by the Tornado and in the case of Brimstone also by the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Harrier also lacks a standoff anti-radiation missile and even air to air radar. It would therefore have been forced to rely on American or French strikes against Libyan air defenses to permit any operations. The French and other NATO allies would have had to enforce the no-fly zone while Harrier craft carried out ground strikes.

The Harrier would have allowed a faster reaction time — twenty minutes as opposed to an hour and a half because the current aircraft operate from bases in Italy. The Harrier is slightly more expensive per hour to operate than the Tornado however and the deployment of an aircraft carrier with an escort and support vessels could cost a significant sum in fuel, supplies and wages at a time when the Treasury and Ministry of Defense are desperate to cut costs.

The Tornado and Eurofighter require the deployment of support personnel from Britain, the support of tanker aircraft en route to Libya, the leasing of Italy’s Gioia del Colle air base and the movement of munitions from Britain to Italy so operational costs are also high, especially when the use of Tornado aircraft based in Britain flying directly to strike targets in Libya is included.

Having Harrier available would have made little or no difference to the campaign itself. It would have been unable to participate in the opening strikes due to the threats posed by Libyan air defenses, unable to enforce a no-fly zone owing to its lack of anti-aircraft and air defense capability and its contribution to supporting Libyan rebels with ground strikes would rely on hitting tanks inside Misrata with Paveway bombs; a recipe for collateral damage!

Sir Mark is quite right that Britain cannot maintain its operational tempo in Libya. However this is as much due to the fact that after almost three months of sporadic bombing there are few targets that can be “justifiably” bombed to pressure Gaddafi as it is due to government cost cutting. No amount of aircraft carriers or strike aircraft would have altered this. As Sir Mark goes on to say, there is no going back and we have to look forward, presumably to next month when he tells us again of his desire for an aircraft carrier capability.

Perhaps if Sir Mark had been as determined to retain the Royal Navy’s carrier capability before the SDSR had taken effect, he might still have had it? As it is, Sir Mark joins a long list of British military chiefs who have failed to stand up to the government to the detriment of the service personnel they command.

Britain Has Multiple Objectives in Libya

On March 19, 2011, the British military began attacking Libyan government targets under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. As a leading advocate of the no-fly zone, Britain’s anti-Gaddafi stance became apparent quite early on when leading members of the cabinet publicly condemned the actions of the Libyan regime.

Britain is contributing various airborne assets from the 1970s vintage Tornado and handing a debut to the “state of the art” Typhoon as well as surveillance, transport and tanker aircraft.

The Navy, in its first aircraft carrierless action since World War I, has managed to scrape together two frigates and a submarine while the use of ground forces not been ruled out. It would be safe to assume moreover that special forces are on the ground following the capture of a team earlier in the crisis.

The protests in Libya had been going on for almost five weeks before the Security Council resolution so why has Britain taken action now?

From a domestic perspective, launching military action makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, it is well publicized that the coalition government’s cuts to the British armed forces have been heavily criticized from all quarters. A successful campaign by what is left of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy could be seen as proving that Britain is still a potent and capable military force in the wake of its latest Strategic Defense and Security Review.

This week also sees the announcement of the 2011 budget and a parliamentary vote on the salaries of Members of Parliament. Although perhaps a cynical view, with headlines about Libya and Japan guaranteed to fill numerous column inches, there will be less space for coverage and comment on either of these issues should there be bad news that needs to be hidden deeper inside the tabloids than usual.

There is also the issue of poll ratings. The Conservatives lag behind Labour by almost ten points according to some polls. A short, sharp victory could boost the ratings of the party months before local elections take place in May.

This is a gamble however as the longer the conflict drags on with no clear result the more negative an impact it may have. Polls are already very close as to the support among the public for military action, the intervention in Libya being less supported than the war in Iraq initially was.

Lastly, but perhaps most significantly, Britain has oil interests in Libya. The release of the Lockerbie bomber was thought to include exploration rights for British firms in Libya. Initially Britain withdrew its oil workers and hedged its bets that Gaddafi would tumble as his fellow dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had done, presumably confident that it would be readmitted once the government collapsed. Once it became apparent that Gaddafi could remain in power and would be unlikely to allow the British back in, something had to be done to remove him.