The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been hit by a round of spending cuts.
The Portsmouth Evening News reports that one minesweeper and one survey vessel will be decommissioned. There are also strong rumours that the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance, which needs extensive repairs after almost sinking a year ago, may not be replaced. Whilst it will be sad if Endurance does go, the UK does have a permanent patrol ship in the Falklands, HMS Clyde, as well as a Frigate or Destroyer and RFA vessel on station all-year round.
The BBC News website reports that RAF Cottesmore, the base for the Joint Force Harrier, will be closed and all Harriers transferred to RAF Wittering. The Harrier force, however, will be taken out of service earlier than planned. This will almost certainly be before its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be available, leaving a huge gap in ground attack and naval air power capabilities. Might this also lead to the Invincible Class Aircraft Carriers being phased out earlier than planned, as there will be no planes capable of operating from them?
The Tornado GR Force will also lose one Squadron, from either RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Marham. The Tornado’s are due to be phased out in favour of the Eurofighter in coming years. There may also be cuts in the Nimrod reconaissance aircraft fleet.
The cuts are being made in order to fund the purchase of 22 new Chinook Heavy lift helicopters, bringing the RAF’s total fleet up to 70. The Chinook is an incomparable aircraft and has proved invaluable in Afghanistan. Cynics have questioned why the contract has been given to Boeing, a US Company, but the answer is that no UK company is capable of building a similar size aircraft.
These cuts, whilst demonstrating that the Ministry of Defence has as lot of work to do to get its house in order and can expect no increase in funding, must be welcomed as refocussing on our priorities and taking account of financial realities. When you have limited funds you have to prioritise.
Andrew Brookes, a former RAF pilot and director of the Air League, told BBC News: “If you cut back the premier league capability of the UK forces in order to just win a counter insurgency campaign against the Taliban, which has no air force and has no tanks and has no warships, when you finally do pitch up against a state that has those capabilities you could seriously end up losing a conflict that really matters to the UK in future in order to win one in Afghanistan today.” The almost sneering reference to a ‘counter-insurgency campaign’ is most unhelpful and based more on partisan loyalties than wider UK defence interests. The Cold War finished 20 years ago, yet some seem determined to keep fighting it.
The RAF has historically eschewed combined operations, and has for many years seen its independence as a service based in fast Jets. In comparison, it has given a low priority to supporting the Army with transport or ground attack aircraft as these roles undermine its independence. That the Army has to have its own Apache helicopter gunships says a lot. The reason that the RAF has had to be strong-armed into buying more helicopters now is that it has neglected its helicopter support role for many years in the first place.