Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/10/20/comment/

Cameron cocks up UK's defences - and betrays Afghan troops

Cuts vital helicopters, fails to grip MoD. Abysmal

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 20th October 2010 12:23 GMT

Comment Prime Minister David Cameron has taken personal charge of sorting out the UK's defences. Not only has he cocked it up more than somewhat, he has also slashed vital helicopters for our troops fighting in Afghanistan - and then lied about it.

If you want detail on that last bit, skip to the last page. Otherwise, we'll take it point by point.

First up, make no mistake, these are Cameron's own personal cuts. The just-concluded review process was sufficiently contentious that Defence secretary Liam Fox could never have handled it himself: in any case the structure of the British government forbids this, as the head of each of the armed forces has direct access straight to the Prime Minister. This in effect cuts their nominal superiors - the Chief of Defence Staff, the Defence ministers, even the Chancellor himself - out of the loop. Not to mention the fact that it was Cameron's decision to ring-fence the much larger NHS budget: a 4 per cent cut at the NHS would not only have matched the savings from yesterday's 8 per cent MoD cuts, but paid to sort out its budget crisis as well.

Thus it was entirely appropriate that Mr Cameron announced the Defence cuts himself yesterday. The need for them was a direct result of his policy. Furthermore he will have had to make many of the difficult decisions himself, as many of the figures involved would effectively take orders from nobody but the Prime Minister.

This was certainly a tough brief, though not all the problems the Coalition government had to face up to at the MoD were - as Cameron and Fox have repeatedly insisted - Labour's fault. The disastrous Nimrod MRA4 subhunter* plane, now cancelled just as it approaches delivery, was actually ordered by Tory Defence minister Michael Portillo. The decision that the UK would order the jumpjet version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which Mr Cameron yesterday explicitly blamed Labour, was actually taken by the Tories in 1995, looking for a future Harrier replacement.

Nor was the terrible MoD budget black hole entirely a Labour creation. Much of it was caused by Nimrod: much, much more by the Eurofighter, a Tory project originally. Sure, Brown in his final months locked the MoD into a contract for aircraft carriers which has meant the Coalition being unable to cancel them - but it was the Tories who locked the MoD into its insane order for no less than 232 Eurofighters, which is still grinding on and costing money to this day. (In the end we will get many less, but only because the programme's horrific cost overruns have breached a cost ceiling. No money has been saved.) The Tories have cost us far more with Eurofighter (£20bn+) than ever Labour did with carriers (£5-6bn).

Certainly Labour's stewardship of the MoD since 1997 has been abysmal. The insane "conspiracy of optimism" was allowed to run out of control even further than under the Tories. No project was ever cancelled: rather, things were simply slowed down and allowed to mushroom in total cost so as to win some short-term savings and shoehorn still more bloated programmes into the budget. Kit was invariably purchased on porkbarrel lines, channelling work to UK companies regardless of price, capability or time. No proper control was ever taken of the armed forces themselves - everything was run according to the three-way "cake split" system, sharing out jam or pain equally between navy, army and air force.

Even so, it ill behoves Cameron - heir to Major and Portillo - to point the finger when it comes to the chaos at the MoD. He should simply get on with sorting it out. It's his first big chance to show what kind of Prime Minister he is - how able he is to dominate Sir Humphrey and the vested interests, how interested in value for money and actual modernisation. How's he done?

Bluntly, not very well on most counts.

First up, Cameron has failed to muster up enough gumption to end the three-way cake split. The plans announced yesterday have spread the financial losses in the next ten years just about evenly across the Services.

Secondly, proper modernisation - movement away from the Cold War scenario which still holds the armed forces in such an iron grip twenty years on - has proceeded at a creeping pace or not at all.

Yes, the army's tank juggernaut has been trimmed by about 40 per cent: but that still leaves an awful lot of tanks and heavy artillery, forces which are cold meat under hostile skies and unnecessary under friendly ones - hence more or less useless. A bold and modern-minded Prime Minister would have got rid of the tanks altogether. A sensibly prudent one might have retained a single regiment to act as the core of an armoured brigade just in case. The timid Mr Cameron has retained three.

Likewise the RAF has been allowed to retain its Tornado bomber fleet, which (despite cunning half-truths offered by a senior RAF officer lately) have nothing to do with controlling airspace, ours or someone else's. Nor are they appropriate for Afghanistan - an 8-figure Tornado is no more use than a Reaper unmanned roboplane which costs an order of magnitude less.

The Tornado was built for the Cold War mission of punching into heavy Soviet air defences in a (probably doomed) bid to knock out air bases or critical supply routes far behind enemy lines: it is insanely over-spec'd for what it is doing now in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it was only ever necessary to do this sort of thing with manned jets back in the era before the smart weapon. You had to drop shiploads of dumb bombs back them to actually hit anything, so it made sense of a kind to have a huge fleet of bombers able to deliver shiploads of bombs twice a day (assuming they survived).

Nowadays, though, to penetrate the air defences of non-nuclear nations, you simply pop off a few cruise missiles from nuclear submarines offshore. Nearly all will get through and hit their targets precisely, allowing just a few missiles to do the work of squadrons of bombers. Not many countries have such missiles - the Israelis don't for instance - but we do. For us, penetration bombing is largely obsolete and in any case good targets for it are very rare.

'My advisors told me to'. What, you mean those guys with a massive conflict of interest?

So a modernising Prime Minister would surely have shut down the Tornado bomber fleet, saving colossal sums right off. Any bombing we need done in Afghanistan for the next decade could have been done by the Harrier (we know this is true, as until recently the Harrier was the only jet we had there) supplemented by the Eurofighter, some examples of which can now drop smartbombs perfectly well.

But "the advice" was to scrap Harrier and keep Tornado, Mr Cameron tells us. This advice will have come, of course, from the outgoing chief of defence staff - an RAF man - and the head of the RAF. This is like taking advice on how much insurance you need from a telesales operator, and speaks poorly of Mr Cameron's ability to resist being manipulated by the Sir Humphreys (in this case the Air Marshal Sir Humphreys) of Whitehall. It's another case where the armed forces will not, contrary to what Mr Cameron says, move into the modern world and leave the Cold War era behind them.

The cake-slice and jobs-for-boys appeasement approach has continued into the Royal Navy part of Mr Cameron's plans. The Royal Navy will retain no less than 19 largely pointless frigates and destroyers, and its witless plans for new Type 26 frigates - basically retreads of existing Type 23s - will move ahead.

This will have been immensely popular across most of the RN, whose wildly overmanned officer corps is dependent on there being plenty of frigates and destroyers for any hope of promotion - or indeed continued employment. But it's not just Cold War thinking - it's early Cold War thinking. As soon as capable antisubmarine helicopters came into service in the 1970s the antisubmarine frigate was obsolete: as soon as capable sea-skimming missiles appeared in the 1980s the case for air-defence destroyers was fatally weakened.

Far from developing new frigates a bold, modernising Prime Minister might well have laid down plans to supersede such ships altogether with cheap pocket heli-carriers armed with cruise missiles. A sensibly prudent one might have retained as many as 10 in the meantime, just in case. The timid Mr Cameron, unable to face down Admiral Sir Humphrey, has done almost nothing other than get rid of a few antique Type 22s and 42s, long overdue for the boneyard in any case.

What the navy actually needs for real wars of every type - as opposed to the Cold War of the 1960s - is proper aircraft carriers and amphibious ships. Both new aircraft carriers will be built, as Mr Cameron had no option to cancel them. But the first, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will go straight into mothballs as soon as she is built. The second, Prince of Wales, will be enhanced to include catapult launch and arrested landing, and a force of F-35C tailhook stealth jets will be bought to operate from her.

Mr Cameron implied in his speech yesterday that there would be "an operational carrier", and the accompanying documents also imply this - in effect stating that the Royal Navy will always have a strike carrier up and running, ready to respond to events around the world. So far so good.

Sure there'll be a carrier. With 12 planes. In 2020. Maybe

But in fact none of this will happen until 2020, and meanwhile the existing Ark Royal and her Harriers are to disappear immediately. There will be no carrier capability at all for a decade, and we are explicitly told that the new fleet air arm may well be cancelled before it can appear, or be cut down to a single ship which will naturally only be available to operate some of the time. The written statement says:

Our current plan is to hold one of the two new carriers at extended readiness. That leaves open options to rotate them, to ensure a continuous UK carrier-strike capability; or to re-generate more quickly a two-carrier strike capability. Alternatively, we might sell one of the carriers, relying on cooperation with a close ally to provide continuous carrier-strike capability. The next strategic defence and security review in 2015 will provide an opportunity to review these options as the future strategic environment develops.

So in fact we may well see just one carrier or none: it will be the next government's decision.

Furthermore, while an F-35C tailhook jet is indeed cheaper and more capable than an F-35B jumpjet, it isn't cheap enough for the MoD in the coming decade. As planned, the new carriers were each to carry an air group of 36 jets, which would have meant buying around 150 once some were set aside for the RAF to use in landbased operations and more for training, in deep maintenance etc.

We now learn that the Prince of Wales will set sail in 2020 - if she isn't scrapped, mothballed or sold off at the 2015 review - carrying just 12 jets, indicating that the UK will buy no more than 50 F-35s in the near future. Far from an arse-kicking national flagship able to take on an enemy air force alone, we will have one which can barely provide herself with fighter cover - and one which may not be there when the call is sounded.

And it gets worse. At the moment our amphibious forces are quite well served, having both the former Harrier-carrier Illustrious and the purpose built HMS Ocean dedicated as bases for helicopters and marines - meaning that one is always available, and we can always land troops anywhere in the world should we choose to. Mr Cameron plans to get rid of one of these ships, ensuring that often we won't be able to.

A bold Prime Minister would have cut the pointless naval frigate/destroyer force down to 12 or even 10, overruling any protests so as to get the nation the capability it needs rather than the one the Navy's uniformed bureaucrats need to develop their careers. He would have preserved our amphibious ships (easily - each one costs little more than a frigate to run). He would have used the cash thus saved to fit both the new carriers with catapults - and he would not have planned to buy any F-35s at all in the coming decade, as no matter what type we buy they will be early in their production run and very expensive.

Instead this notional bold, decisive and modernising Prime Minister would have bought or leased cheap F-18 Hornets as operated by the present day US Navy. A force of 100+ Hornets would cost no more than the planned 50-odd F-35Cs, and would be more than good enough against any likely enemy. There would probably be cash over for some Hawkeye radar planes, too - if not the latest E-2Ds, surely the more economical export E-2C versions. Our fleet would thus at last have proper airborne radar, the lack of which is of far more importance than the presence of Stealth and other snazzy gadgetry in the F-35: most of our dead sailors and soldiers in the Falklands died for lack of airborne radar to pick up low-flying Argentine attackers, and the present radar helicopters are a poor stopgap at best.

That plan would have got us proper carriers and proper air groups in a few years at most, finally shifting the Royal Navy away from its focus on battling the Soviet submarine and bomber fleets of the 1960s using the weapons of the 1960s. If Mr Cameron were a proper, innovating Prime Minister that's what he would have done. If he'd managed to chop the RAF's bombers and/or trim some more tanks, it would have been even easier.

But no. With his back against the wall, Cameron has at last managed to give the abysmal Nimrod the mercy bullet it has been begging for so long. The only other things he has managed to get rid of are carrier strike and amphibious warfare - neither of them Cold War items, both very useful in all our recent real-world wars** - while the obsolete armoured juggernaut and heavy bomber forces carry on.

It can't be a coincidence that the outgoing chief of defence staff is RAF and the incoming one is Army - in effect Cameron's plans look rather as though the Army and RAF wrote them, indicating that he and his Cabinet have no more control over the MoD than their predecessors: maybe even less.

Still, perhaps Cameron has managed to tackle the even more severe scourge of porkbarrel procurement. Perhaps he has moved to end the purchasing of kit so as to create very limited numbers of UK jobs at horrific costs in terms of money, capability and time? Perhaps he really meant it when he said that the MoD will no longer be ripped off by UK and European contractors all day and every day?

Again, no. The idiotic, wildly expensive A400M transports will continue - when much more cost-effective C-17s and C-130Js are to be had for the asking. The expensive, useless Future Lynx (aka "Wildcat") light chopper, partly UK made, will live on. And perhaps the greatest boondoggle of them all, the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) deal, remains untouched.

FSTA, one might note, is a PFI deal like the Skynet comms sats. UK defence contractors allied under the name AirTanker will buy and operate some Airbus tankers, with a guaranteed income from the RAF. Naturally they expect to make a profit out of this, and within limits that's fair enough - but everyone in the aviation industry knows that this particular profit is going to be more suitably described using such terms as "outrageous", "gouging" or "profiteering". The deal is set to cost at least £10.5bn and will probably provide no more than 9 A330s. Making the usual calculation of support vs acquisition this is to price those planes at £400m each - far and away more than even the ridiculous Nimrods cost, for far simpler planes!

And on top of this, the MoD doesn't even own the aircraft - when FSTA ends they will have nothing. Even while it is going on, the chuckling AirTanker firms can rent the planes out for even more money when the RAF hasn't got any spare cash to book them.

Mr Cameron might more suitably have spent his time inveighing against Labour for signing this cretinous deal rather than the comparatively tiny carrier contract. But he didn't.

There will be no cuts in Afghanistan. Oh - except in helicopters

We're almost done. But there is one final point to note here. Mr Cameron and other Coalition politicians have repeatedly assured us that in fact all their decisions are aimed at support of our heroic troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan - but in fact, in one hugely important respect, they are slashing support for our boys and girls.

Last Christmas, regular Reg readers may remember, in a freak outburst of common sense Labour defence ministers announced plans to buy no less than 22 more desperately-needed Chinook helicopters. The powerful Chinook, only helicopter able to really overcome the tough hot-and-high conditions of Afghanistan, is the single greatest desire of our hard-pressed troops in Helmand. Lack of Chinooks is the worst handicap their commanders face. Say what you like about Labour, but in their last months they did the right thing and ordered a good big number of these vital machines. They planned to pay for them, sensibly, by cutting some Tornado bombers among other things.

Good old Mr Cameron, though - the soldier's friend - has cut this order to 12, almost halving it. He received massive cheers yesterday from ignorant MPs yesterday, saying:

There is no cut whatsoever in the support for our forces in Afghanistan ... we have been and will be providing more for our brave forces in Afghanistan [including] crucially, at last, the right level of helicopter capability.

That is perilously close to being an outright lie, we'd suggest. No matter what you think of the rest of his plans, Mr Cameron's decision to cut the Chinook order (to preserve Tornado bombers, too!) is an unforgivable betrayal of our fighting men and women at war right now - and then he has the gall to try and pretend that he's actually decided to order some helicopters rather than cutting an existing order!

We here on the Reg defence desk could possibly forgive Mr Cameron all the rest of it - who knows, we might be wrong about bombers and carriers and amphibs and the rest. There may never again be a war like the Falklands or the Balkans or Sierra Leone or Timor or Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps instead the future will see us mounting tank battles and antisubmarine campaigns and bombing raids against nuclear-armed well-equipped nation states. Perhaps there's some good reason to be buying paltry numbers of jobs at millions of pounds per head here in the UK with the money that ought to be providing proper defences for the realm.

But cutting our troops' vital lifesaving helicopters in the middle of a desperate, bloody shooting war and pretending it isn't a cut is beyond the pale. It's hard to think of something that Mr Cameron could do to redeem himself on this one. ®

Bootnotes

*Generally referred to by the BBC for some reason as a "spy plane", probably a legacy of the RAF's successful effort to convince the media that predecessor Nimrod MR2s had been doing something useful in proportion to their cost (in money and lives) above Afghanistan in recent years.

In fact the Nimrods - large airliner-sized planes crewed by more than a dozen people - were mainly employed relaying communications between units on the ground and providing basic aerial spyeye capability, tasks easily carried out by much smaller unmanned aircraft at a tiny fraction of the cost.

The only time you actually need a Nimrod or something like it is when up against a big, powerful force of enemy submarines. The only such forces now in existence are operated by the US, UK and France, so this is an unlikely situation.

**Carrier jets have operated extensively over Afghanistan and the first line troops we sent in were Royal Marines. We had marines based at sea in the Gulf from the earliest days following 9/11, and carried out a full-dress amphibious landing into Iraq in 2003.

One should also note that every time a British fighter has shot down an enemy plane since WWII, the fighter took off from a carrier to do so.