Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/16/mod_xmas_present_for_troops/

MoD does everything right for once in Xmas shocker

Freak ceasefire interrupts endless cannonade of cockups

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 16th December 2009 14:55 GMT

Comment It doesn't happen often, but just for once there's good news out of the Ministry of Defence - good news for British troops in combat overseas, and good news for British taxpayers too. But it's bad news for the UK arms biz, and bad news for certain regional communities who rely on the MoD to bring them government money they wouldn't otherwise receive - and don't particularly deserve.

So what's the government done?

In essence, they have cut down massively on military things which we don't - and almost certainly won't - need, and ordered a lot of things which we are desperately short of.

First up on the cuts side, the RAF Harrier force is being reduced by one squadron and RAF Cottesmore will be closed. You could argue that the Harrier - as Britain's only dedicated close air support plane - should be last in line for reductions when cutting fast jets. But we certainly have too many fast jets, and in fact almost any jet can do close support if required.

The only unique thing the Harrier brings to the party is its short-takeoff-vertical-landing (STOVL) jumpjet abilities, and the main genuine reason these are required is for operations from the Royal Navy's present pocket-size carriers at sea*. The Harriers of the Naval Strike Wing remain untouched, so this handy tool remains in the national bag.

Even better, defence minister Bob Ainsworth said yesterday that the fast-jet force would lose another "one or two" squadrons in future, probably to include Tornados.

The ageing Tornado was originally designed as a Cold War low-level deep penetration bomber. This concept has nowadays been thoroughly discredited by the decimation of the RAF's Tornado force - at the hands of quite feeble Iraqi point defences - during the 1991 Gulf War; not to mention the lack of any valid deep strategic targets in almost all wars. The emergence of smart precision weapons has made the Tornado's design even more obsolete, and eroded the case for a large force of jets able to drop large numbers of bombs.

There's certainly no need to fret about losing Tornado bombers, then. There is another version, the F3 air-to-air fighter variant, but this was a laughingstock from the outset and it is now being replaced at last by the Eurofighter, so getting rid of F3s is an excellent move too.

More sensibly yet, the MoD plans to scrap the Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol planes earlier than planned - another sound plan. The Nimrod MR2s are no particular use for anything except hunting submarines, which is scarcely a very likely mission for the British forces right now. If some enemy subs should appear from somewhere nonetheless, the Royal Navy has lately acquired a great deal of expensive sub-hunting equipment - Merlin HM1 choppers and low-frequency active sonars, for instance - which should do the job handily.

* The RAF formerly liked to push the idea of using STOVL to move Harriers away from big airbases to quickly-improvised field strips. This might have been a cunning plan in the Cold War, when your big airbase might have come under attack by enemy bombers or missiles. It looks a lot less cunning nowadays, when any such forward base would require massive perimeter security and frequent enormous supply convoys loaded with munitions, fuel, parts etc.

SNP voters will get a taste of the independence they asked for - in the form of an airbase closure

Quite apart from all that, the Nimrod MR2 - being a flying antique - is horribly expensive to run, both in money and in lives. The MR2's extensive use above Afghanistan in recent times as a flying spyeye and to relay radio messages between ground units in no way justified its continued, very expensive existence; far less could such unimportant work possibly have justified the known risks of refuelling these aged birds in mid-air.

So getting rid of the MR2s loses us nothing important, and will make our service people noticeably safer - the Nimrod has actually killed one of our people for every 15 killed by the Taliban. Better still, this will permit another pricey airbase here in the UK to largely close, saving money to be spent at the front line. As a fringe benefit, the base in question - RAF Kinloss - is in a Scottish National Party constituency, giving people there a taste of the independence from the UK that they have voted for. (Strangely the local SNP member of parliament still isn't happy**.)

Sadly RAF Kinloss will come back to life to some extent when the horrifyingly expensive rebuilt Nimrod MRA4s come on line in a few years, but - again, sensibly - the MRA4's planned operating budget has been cut this week, so this will at least be kept contained.

All these savings will allow the MoD to buy 22 new Chinook transport helicopters, plus the two it was already buying to replace recent combat losses. This, at last, is real backing for our troops in Afghanistan. The Chinook is the only helicopter which can carry significant loads to and from many locations there, due to the high altitudes and summer temperatures. The new aircraft will mean fewer road convoys, less need to move through minefields, more effective combat ops. They will save lives and win battles.

The MoD will also buy another excellent, useful C-17 heavy transport to join its existing small fleet, which will provide welcome strengthening for the UK's creaky "air bridge" to the deployed force. Our boys and girls will spend less of their hard-earned leaves waiting for planes, and will get critical supplies, reinforcements etc. from home faster.

There's also more cash for efforts against mines and bombs, in particular for more Reaper drones.

** “Over recent years £4.3 billion less has been spent on defence in Scotland than has been contributed by taxpayers in Scotland," says Angus Robertson.

Actually, Scots contribute about 8 per cent of the UK's taxpayer revenues. With the Defence budget running at about £35bn in recent times, they would qualify for around £3bn of annual defence expenditure on a pro rata basis. The UK's nuclear deterrent - almost all situated in Scotland - would account for most of this sum on its own. Scotland also has much of the rest of the submarine fleet and some surface ships, two major dockyards, large parts of the Army and three major airbases. The idea that Scots taxpayers are getting a raw deal from the MoD is comically unrealistic.

Helicopter-factory MP: Rather than 22 Chinooks, why don't we have 5? Or none at all?

This is all excellent news for our people on the front line, then. But it's damned bad news for British industry, as the C-17, the Chinook and the Reaper are all made in America. Rather excellently, it seems that Whitehall for once managed to keep its plans secret from the bloodsucking British arms biz - notably by failing to inform the Parliamentary Defence select committee of them. The committee's chairman, James Arbuthnot, is a tireless advocate for the British weapons industry. Had the plans reached the committee, they would almost certainly have been leaked giving the arms biz time to exert its huge behind-the-scenes influence.

But they weren't told and the plans are now set in motion. He's spitting mad, of course: splendid.

Needless to say, the rearguard action has already begun. David Laws MP, representing the town where Blighty's last military helicopter factory is situated, thinks the Chinooks should be built there, not in the States. He also thinks the UK ought to buy more Merlin HC3 troop carriers and less Chinooks.

Just for reference, the idea of building American choppers under licence in Yeovil has been tried more than once. The last time - funnily enough this was a decision taken when James Arbuthnot was defence procurement minister back in the '90s - saw most the British Army's Apache attack helicopters assembled there.

The end effect of this was to make them slightly better than American-made ones - the Brit Apache has more powerful engines, for instance. However, each UK-assembled Apache wound up costing roughly five times as much as an imported one and taking far longer to arrive. Your correspondent recently asked a British Apache pilot whether he'd rather have one UK Apache or five American ones.

"Five American ones," he said unhesitatingly.

As for buying more Merlin HC3s, one should recall that the Yeovil-designed cabs cost significantly more than Chinooks - but carry less than half as much, and have much lower serviceability rates to boot. We shouldn't have bought any in the first place, and we certainly shouldn't buy any more.

If Mr Laws is listened to, rather than 24 Chinooks we would get 5 at most - or even fewer, if some of the painfully-saved cash were indeed diverted into Merlins. Let's hope everyone ignores him as he deserves. Yeovil already has a vast order for shockingly overpriced Lynx "Wildcats", after all - he and his rapacious constituents should be very grateful that hasn't been axed in favour of cheaper, better copters from Sikorsky.

Summarising, then, it's been an excellent week for Blighty's fighting troops and an excellent week for us taxpayers. It's very seldom we find ourselves saying this, but Well Done MoD - and well done politicians for approving these plans.

With a general election coming up, however, we would like to note that this late burst of good work really isn't enough to counterbalance the long sequence of awful defence-procurement decisions by the Brown government. We would, though, point out that the Tories' record over time is every bit as bad, and that Liam Fox - Tory defence spokesman - has failed to give these latest plans the cross-party endorsement they deserve. This indicates that he and perhaps the Tory party as a whole care about the election first and Blighty's defences a long way second.

No matter - for once it's nice to feel, as a taxpayer at this time of year, that one is buying a nice Xmas present for our boys and girls risking life and limb on our behalf far away.

Merry Christmas to any of ours out there who might be reading this. ®