Lack of Maritime Patrol Aircraft Reinforces British Defense Flaws

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. Read more “Lack of Maritime Patrol Aircraft Reinforces British Defense Flaws”

Search for Yacht Crew Exposes British Defense Gaps

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. Read more “Search for Yacht Crew Exposes British Defense Gaps”

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?

Deterrence

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.

Flaws

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.

Expensive

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?

Alternatives

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”

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? Read more “British Transport Aircraft Procurement “Disaster””

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. Read more “Britain Has Multiple Objectives in Libya”