Libya fighting shows just how idiotic the Defence Review was

Vast fleet of RAF planes delivers just 3 crap missiles

Meanwhile in A'stan ... more than half our troops helicopter lift has to be borrowed from the US Marines

Summing up, the lesson of Libya is that the recent Defence Review was, indeed, a dismal failure. RAF empire-preservation saddled us with the useless Tornado at the cost of our carrier capability. The army insisted on preserving pointless tanks and big guns and as a result we are not pulling our weight in Helmand – a war we more or less unilaterally started in 2005 – and we have no option to intervene on the ground in Libya seriously.

The navy made no real effort to help matters. It might have managed to preserve a carrier capability by making concessions on its pointless frigate flotilla, but this it refused to do.

RAF Eurofighter Typhoons take fuel from a VC10 tanker above the Mediterranean while a Tornado awaits its turn. Credit: Crown Copyright/SAC Taz Hetherington

We're going to be doing an awful lot of this in coming weeks

Most shamefully of all, the Coalition has slashed – and may now cancel altogether – an order for vital Chinook helicopters that would let our troops fight safely and effectively in Afghanistan (or anywhere else). Even though we don't manage to send many troops to war because we keep so many at home polishing tanks, the ones we do send are hamstrung by their lack of choppers.

This is an aside – not really relevant to Libya, not yet anyway – but it's important, so forgive the digression. The helicopter issue really is critical. Just for example, British troops in Helmand last month mounted an airmobile operation into Taliban-controlled territory in which some 300 troops needed to be delivered in one lift. The British officer in charge wrote:

I fully expected that complications would conspire to make {the] plan come to nothing. I was wrong - on my return from the UK the operation was good to go, the aircraft were available ....

The RAF assigned four Chinook and three Merlin choppers – almost all the transport helicopters the UK has in Afghanistan – to the task. However these on their own could never have moved the troops in such tough high-altitude conditions.

As a result the US Marines had to supply four CH-53 Stallions, which provided more than half the lifting capacity used in the operation. The USMC also supplied Cobra gunship escorts – evidently no British Apaches were available.4

On an earlier operation in 2009 no helicopters could be obtained (perhaps nobody cared to beg the Americans for some). The colonel in charge on that occasion wrote:

I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters – we all know we don't have enough.

We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED [Improvised Explosive Device, ie roadside bomb] threat and our exposure to it.

The colonel was subsequently killed by an IED explosion during an unnecessary road movement. Previously there have been the sad cases of Major Matt Bacon in Basra – killed in a road convoy which only set out because a scheduled helicopter flight was cancelled – and many, many others all the way back to the 1979 Warrenpoint bombing in Northern Ireland and beyond. Hundreds of our servicemen have been killed and crippled and injured over the years, all for lack of helicopter lift which we could easily afford; but instead we squander our cash on pointless Tornadoes and tanks and frigates.

Hopefully this illustrates the awful, deadly, embarrassing lack of helicopters our forces suffer from, and the terrible betrayal of Coalition ministers' plans to prevent this being partially sorted out. As for the RAF air marshals who have advised those ministers to cut the new helicopter order in order to keep Tornadoes and Storm Shadows, it's impossible to imagine how they get to sleep at night. No condemnation is too strong for them.

Quite apart from Service parochialism and empire preservation, another and even more powerful factor has been at work. All through the Review the malign influence of the greedy, inefficient British arms industry has been paramount.

After all, the RAF wouldn't at all mind having F-18s instead of Tornados or F-35s instead of Eurofighters, but BAE Systems would lose huge, lucrative maintenance and upgrade contracts if that happened. BAE would lose yet more if the army's tanks and artillery were cut. The crappy £2m Storm Shadow is partly British made, the far superior £1m-and-falling Tomahawk is not. The ripoff megabillion air-to-air refuelling deal is run by a consortium of influential British defence contractors. So the list goes on.

But the chance to change things is not gone yet. So badly fudged were the Strategic Defence and Security Review's figures that more reorganisation remains on the cards; in effect, a review of the Review is now very likely. The chance is still there to scrap the cripplingly expensive Tornado and Eurofighter altogether and replace them with cheap, excellent F-18s – so getting our carrier capability back in just a few years, as well. When the F-35C actually becomes affordable at last around 2025 we can buy some – by that point its Stealth and other new technologies might actually be becoming relevant for wars that might really happen, along the lines of Libya.

We can also scrap most or all of our remaining armour and heavy artillery, and get the helicopters that our combat troops need for actually fighting and staying alive, as opposed to the tanks that generals need to keep their budgets high.

It's a dream world, probably: but a lovely dream, if you're a combat soldier or a taxpayer or someone who would like British clout and prestige to be maintained.

Just a thought. ®


1Colleagues of mine in the bomb-disposal world at the time reported that the Storm Shadow's vaunted British made bunker-penetrating BROACH warhead is excellent at drilling its way deep into heavy reinforced concrete. Unfortunately it then has a nasty habit of failing to explode, creating a very troublesome problem for a hapless Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) operator to deal with later. Thanks, flyboys.

The Storm Shadow's guidance system also proved more than a little bit erratic on that occasion, too.

2This was General Rupert Smith, who later wrote that in his opinion the last occasion on which proper armour/artillery warfare took place was in the Arab-Israeli fighting of the 1970s. He has since confirmed to your correspondent that if he – the last man to command British armour en masse in combat – were placed in charge at the MoD, the current Challenger II main battle tank would not be replaced.

3The UK currently has about 10,000 troops on the ground in Helmand province. The US Marines have 30,000 (and are occasionally on the ground in Libya right now as well). The US Marine Corps has about as many personnel in total as the combined UK armed forces: but very little in the way of tanks, artillery, pure air-superiority fighters, deep penetration bombers etc etc. This may offer a clue as to how it manages generally to be so much more useful.

4You would never know this, as the MoD has sanitised the colonel's account of the operation since it was published – now, you would never realise that the USMC choppers were involved at all. Fortunately we kept a copy of the original release, as did some others. That, combined with the official MoD pictures, allows one to work out what aircraft were involved.

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