The Future of British Armed Forces

This second part in a series examines the effects which Britain’s defense review will have on procurement.

This is the second part in a series of reports on the effects of Britain’s latest Strategic Defense and Security Review. The first entry focused on the announced changes in strategy. This article discusses the consequences for procurement.

The cuts on equipment and manpower outlined in the Strategic Defense and Security Review are now clear and months of speculation and worry have been replaced by mixed emotions amongst senior servicemen and their juniors. Depending on one’s position and service, or what one might think of as the key elements of British defense, the news is relieving, bad or terrible.

Cynics like myself didn’t foresee the RAF losing out so badly, and the Royal Navy still afloat. As mentioned, the Royal Navy will lose 5,000 personnel, according to the SDSR. Each service has taken a serious cut, with an overall defense budget reduction of 8 percent. The aims of the review seem to be at least somewhat in line with the last SDR, as far reshaping of services is concerned. Further steps have been taken to shed the Cold War role, although this is undoubtedly a Treasury, not strategy led review. The future, according to the document, will be a mixed bag of threats from cyber attack, terrorists and failed states.

The language of the review lacks the optimism of its predecessor, the 1997/1998 SDR. It is also more defensive and yet it maintains some of the ambitions of a global role and the desire to maintain applicable forces capable of international action. The cuts in capability, i.e., materiel of specific kinds for specific duties, may suggest otherwise however. There’s also a designed ruthlessness and relationship to efficiency in the words of the review which, although appealing to the pragmatist, may remain unfulfilled. Promises are made of rigorous tests within procurement and prioritization of what is needed and what is not and value for money in line with high standards and “best equipment for our troops.”

Much was made in the run-up to the review of a streamlining and modernization process, much in keeping with the kind of ideas expressed by General Sir David Richards. A move away from the “Cold War role” was desired and to some extent, one supposes, achieved. Armored vehicles and self propelled guns — the weapons of a conventional military — have been cut by 40 percent in the new review. This will see a reduction in the number of new, highly effective Challenger II Main Battle Tanks. A lighter role for the Army is predicted and prescribed, with a loss of 7-8,000 personnel. New Chinook helicopters (or perhaps the ones which are on the ground doing nothing) will be brought to play.

In keeping with the shift from a “Cold War” conventional role and the personnel reductions, the British Army will be withdrawn from Germany in entirety. The SDSR maintains that, in the future Britain will be able to perform one stabilizing mission of brigade level (up to 6,500 men) with maritime and air support as required. This is much smaller than the current commitment to Afghanistan (by approximately 3,000), a commitment which is comparatively minute compared to the American and even former British deployments. General Richards will certainly be pleased with the emphasis on rapidly reacting, lighter forces geared toward interventionist, dare one say, and counterinsurgency roles. Though, too, understandably bitter about the reduction in personnel his service has endured. Longer terms of service in operations, maybe even on the American style one year deployment, are a possibility.

Better protected land vehicles will replace the present soft skin fleet, presumably due to lessons learned in Afghanistan concerning IEDs. The Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) fleet of armored vehicles will, it seems, come online in the form of the “Scout” ASCOD AFV, Terrier engineer vehicle, and a utility vehicle.

Unmanned munitions delivery vehicles have been mentioned, along with precision missiles, as alternatives to the destructive capability of heavy armor. Within the Army, it is organization and doctrine which looks to get the best facelift. A restructuring into multirole brigades should increase the ability to act with the right forces, but, with the loss of a whole brigade, will reduce the manpower brought to bear. The likelihood is a slimmer force divided into more capable blocks instead of different brigades being better at different operations. It may not change Army organization as seen in the public eye; regiments and corps being split up or amalgamated is not the necessary repercussion, although never off the cards.

The review also mentions the repeated mantra of better C3 (command, communication, control ) and ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) but this has been an Army focus for years now.

The Royal Air Force is to lose the Harrier jump jet, a reliable if old airframe famed for its vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities. It is this which allowed the design of the small “scoop deck” carriers which formed the backbone of the fleet dispatched to the Falklands in the 1982 war. This is a loss of highly versatile air-to-ground capability in favor of keeping the ageing but not-so-versatile Tornado ground attack aircraft and the expansive fleet (300) of Eurofighter Typhoons. The latter aircraft, serving no other use than as an air-to-air interceptor fighter to protect the United Kingdom mainland, has been one of the great tragedies of British defense procurement.

It is worth noting that the RAF has not shot down an enemy aircraft in combat since the Second World War and, with the situation as it is, is perhaps unlikely to do so again. The “logic” of the review, although renewing emphasis on interventionist low intensity operations does make strides to keep an all round defense; perhaps why these late, overpriced, single role pariahs are to be kept. The RAF stands to lose 5,000 personnel and the costly, outmoded Nimrod reconnaissance craft are to be scrapped. Their maritime role seemingly to be transferred to a derivative of the Lynx helicopter known as Wildcat.

Some endurances put upon the Royal Navy seem the most unusual. The nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident system, launched from Vanguard class submarines was included in the defense review, although only in by saying that real decisions about it will be delayed for six years. The class, however, will be reduced from four to three boats, with economies of service to be imposed. Deployed missiles and warheads are also to decrease.

Maritime reconnaissance, as mentioned, will move from fixed-wing to small rotor-wing, carrier-based aircraft and not the American Hawkeye like some of us dared to dream. Also in this department we come across some of the more unusual decisions within the SDSR.

The Royal Navy fleet is to be reduced by four frigates. Nineteen destroyers and frigates will remain consisting of the Type 45 Anti-Air Destroyer and the Type 23 Frigate, the latter to be replaced eventually by the Type 26, the design of which is still a mystery, although increasingly a smaller, T-45 looking modular vessel is likely. This all leaves a relatively small fleet for global operations which should still provide enough to support a small, relatively weak carrier battle group based on the new CVF Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier.

For many months, nay, years, the carrier project seemed to be under the sword of Damocles, and yet the SDSR has confirmed it will progress and that both vessels will launch. This fits the kind of strategy the SDSR paints as the future, and follows the facts that modern conflicts have relied on carriers (including Sierra Leone, the Falklands War, and Afghanistan, where over 90 percent of all airstrikes have been carrier-based). It is, however, still likely that the second carrier will be sold.

One carrier shall be kept in “extended readiness” however which means in store for emergency and not otherwise deployed. The issue of the carriers’ aircraft complement has been solved with robust efficiency. The F-35C, the STOVL version, has been dropped as the frame of choice in favor of the F-35B; the same model to be used by the US Navy. Given the advantages the F-35B has over the other craft, and the problems which have dogged the progress of the STOVL version, this can only be a sensible option. This had meant, however, a reconfiguration of the carrier’s deck to allow catapults and arrestor wires. Again, not a bad thing.

The only issue here lies in timing. With Harrier, the current at-sea aircraft of the British forces, to be immediately scrapped, there will be no British fast jets at sea until the F-35B enters service as the Joint Strike Fighter at some vague point in the near future. The carriers themselves will enter service in 2020 instead of 2016. The loss of Harrier is coupled with the loss of HMS Ark Royal, to be retired immediately, and the potential loss of HMS Illustrious to leave no power projection capability till 2020 at the earliest. The reconfiguration of the deck will also, it is specifically mentioned, allow interoperability with American and French navies, who will be the only allied people with fast jets anyway. Unmanned vehicles and helicopters are also mentioned as viable alternatives, to be based on Illustrious or Ocean and Invincible.

Amphibiosity is to be maintained minus one Bay class landing dock. Pending a review of efficiency, HMS Ocean might also be axed. She competes with HMS Illustrious for the role of helicopter carrier, which presumably will also be the fate of HMS Invincible due to the retirement of Harrier.

The upshot of all this is a general reduction in numbers while attempting to maintain capability (which will perhaps be the epitaph of the British armed forces), particularly the Army and Air Force. On the other hand the Navy has lost most of its capability almost overnight and this is an unusual thing for British defense reviews, which have followed the do the same with less policy since the withdrawal from east of Suez. For many years the Royal Navy, and thus Britain will lack any real ability to project power, even on the feeble basis they had in the post-Falklands navy. This has dire implications for British interests abroad which are usually protected by the Navy’s strike ability. The downscaling of the Army in favor of C3 ISTAR and a greater reliance on technology suggests an acceptance of fourth-generation warfare while still forgetting the necessity of troop numbers in counterinsurgency campaigns. That could be part of the plan though, with politicos and public alike unwilling to venture on such conflicts again.