Tag Archives: defence review

Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on – knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960’s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940’s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines

Army says it need 20,000 more soldiers

The Daily Telegraph has obtained a British Army Document stating that it needs 20,000 extra soldiers in order to meet its commitments.

One of the most telling comments concerns the trade-off between equipment and manpower:

“We should be mindful of the fact that our US, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand allies have all recently increased the size of their Armies by approaching 20 per cent. Indeed defence may need to prioritise manpower over equipment if that is what we require to fight wars in the 21st Century.”

The Army spends dramatically less on equipment on the Royal Navy and the RAF. By presenting the upcoming Defence Review in terms of this choice, the Army is placing itself very well for what will be a very tough process.

The Army currently has 101,000 men and women serving in its ranks. It consists of 37 Battalions of Infantry (Light role, Mechanized, Armoured, Air Assault and Special Forces support), 10 Armoured Regiments (Formation and Recce), 16 Artillery Regiments (Air Defence, MLRS, Armoured, Light Gun, Surveillance), 15 Engineer Regiments, 10 Signals Regiments, 21 Logistics Regiments and 6 Army Air Corps Regiments. Modern Warfare calls for such a plethora of supporting services.

The fall in the numbers of Infantry units has been most marked. In 2004, with the end of Operations in Northern Ireland, the Treasury forced the Army to cut its Infantry strength by 4 Battalions. Supposedly not needing to base Battalions in Northern Ireland meant that the Army needed less of them. This is despite the fact that the Army had too few Battalions at the time anyway. As traumatic as they were to regimental identities, the 2004 reforms were right to establish larger Regiments with more Battalions.

The Options for Change review in 1990 set the current tone for Army cuts. With the end of the Cold War it was felt that the Army no longer neeed to to base such large forces in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine. Throughout the 1990’s successive cuts sliced away at the Army’s strength. Now, even though the Army is fighting a strenuous war in Afghanistan that is at present involving 6 Infantry Battalions, the cutting mentality is still there – Politicians, as ever, are obsessed with peace dividends. Yet the other combat arms and supporting corps’ seem to have escaped the severity of cuts.

Perhaps it is a case of the Army looking at its structure? Whilst it is unwise to plan only for the current war, when the armed forces are looking at having such limited budgets, it is more important to win a war we are fighting now than to sacrifice it for a war we know nothing about. The Infantry time and time again have been the key force in wars, and the war in Helmand right now is very much an infantryman’s war. The Taliban and other asymetric forces fight in an old fashioned, guerilla manner, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that large numbers of troops are needed to hold and secure ground in this context.

Perhaps also it is time to look beyond the narrow specialised roles of infantry? The Cold War in particular led to a large number of armoured and mechanised infantry Battalions sat in Germany. Such units then took almost a year to retrain to serve on the streets of Northern Ireland. In my opinion the primary role of infantry should be exactly that, to fight as foot soldiers. Specialist roles such as armoured and air assault should be an additional flexibility that all are capable of. The British Army has an Air Assault Brigade, yet infantry units that are not part of this Brigade regularly take part in helicopter assaults.

If only the RAF can be persuaded to invest in troop-carrying helicopters and close-air support…

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, defence, Uncategorized