February 26, 2010

UK Defense ‘Shackled by the Past’

26 Feb 2010


The UK armed forces face tough challenges amid a budget crunch and the difficulty of divining the future of conflict and the role it must play, Thomas Withington writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Thomas Withington for ISN Security Watch

“We are shackled by the past and never has the future been more difficult to divine,” Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, chief of the Royal Air Force’s Air Staff, told an audience at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on 15 February, where he presented an address on Dominant Air Power in the Information Age: The Comparative Advantage of Air and Space Power in Future Conflict.
He was borrowing from a 1947 speech by one of his predecessors, Lord Arthur Tedder, and his presentation came 12 days after the British government published a green paper entitled Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, which was tasked with discussing some of the issues that the UK’s forthcoming Strategic Defence Review (SDR) will address.

Although Lord Tedder's words came two years after the most costly conflict in human history, as the air chief marshal noted, his words were highly relevant to the strategic situation in which the UK finds itself today: facing both economic and strategic uncertainty.

The SDR is expected to be written shortly after the next UK general election, which must be held by June this year. The last SDR was published in 1998, and since then, British forces have participated in operations in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The future of fighting

The green paper has outlined some basic assumptions as to how the UK's armed forces may fight in the future. The document places strong emphasis on the UK's participation in coalitions and the importance of fighting alongside allies, stressing that “Our international relationships will become increasingly important to our security.”

Britain's armed forces are no strangers to military alliances and coalition operations. The country has been a member of the NATO since its founding in 1949, and has fought in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq as a constituent part of larger multinational coalitions.

The green paper’s suggestion in this regard has not been without controversy, particularly as regards the wish of UK Secretary of Defence Bob Ainsworth, to deepen the British defense contribution to EU defense initiatives. Dr Liam Fox, the opposition Conservative Party's Shadow Defence Secretary, replied that his party had two concerns regarding the collaboration on defense matters with other EU nations: “Do they invest in defense? And do they fight?”
“Sadly, too few European allies pass both these tests,” Fox said in an interview with the BBC.

Tackling the defense budget

The other vexing question that the SDR will have to tackle will be the defense budget. Despite a very modest growth factor of 0.1 percent announced in late January, the UK economy is still arguably in a precarious position.

At the same time, UK military operations continue in Afghanistan alongside other foreign commitments, such as the UK's continuing military presence in the south Atlantic to protect the Falkland Islands. This latter issue was bought sharply into focus on 17 February following a renewed sovereignty claim over the islands by Argentina in December 2009.

Added to the expense of overseas deployments are personnel and equipment costs. UK defense spending is expected to fall by up to 15 percent in real terms by 2016 if expected public spending cuts follow the next election. Despite whichever party, either the center-left Labour or the center-right Conservatives, forms the next government, both are expected to reduce public spending.

The government may decide that a reduction in defense spending is preferable to a large reduction in the health or education budget; two areas of spending traditionally dear to the hearts of British voters. This could be all the more likely if UK forces have left Afghanistan by then and have not been called upon to perform another major deployment abroad.

That said, any spending cuts could have serious consequences for the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) ability to adequately furnish its armed forces with the personnel and tools that they require.
“The MoD has probably been operating with insufficient resources for the tasks it has been asked to do for many years,” Mark Stoker, a defense economist at the IISS, told ISN Security Watch.

“The fundamental mismatch is that the armed forces are basically being asked to do more than the resources they've been given. If the UK wants to maintain its global position, and for its armed forces to perform similar operations in the future, the next government will have three options; the first is to give the MoD more money, the second is to cut the money, but you will have to cut the level of ambition, and the third is a sort of fudge by which you try to do as much as you can to save some funds here and collaborate there, in order to allow the armed forces to continue performing these missions.”

The price of preparedness

Defense is an expensive business. A pair of night vision goggles for a soldier can cost in the region of €2,949 ($4,000) , while the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers that the Royal Navy is due to receive by 2015 will cost up to €2.8 billion ($3.8 billion) a piece, not including their embarked compliment of aircraft.
Military equipment is expensive to develop. Yet simply cancelling certain programs may not be an option if the forthcoming SDR insists that Britain's armed forces maintain the ability to be adaptable to the type of conflicts that they might encounter. Far from being a luxurious emblem of global power, ships such as aircraft carriers can be highly flexible and have proved their worth in recent years.
“You only have to look at a spate of recent natural disasters over the last few years to see how a large deck carrier can have use. The Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and of course Haiti are three major examples of natural disasters where the devastation ashore was such that no access, or very limited access only was possible by land, to the point where the relief effort had to be mounted from the sea. In all cases either aircraft carriers, or flat top amphibious assault ships were used,” Dr Lee Willett, head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute, told ISN Security Watch.

“The aircraft carrier issue is a classic case of where too much emphasis is placed on price and not enough on value,” he added. “Sir Stephen mentioned in his address that such a ship is ‘one of the clubs in the golf bag of options available to us.’ Yes, the opportunity cost may be high, but [is essential if the UK] wants to have the ability to demonstrate its will and capability to engage on a global scale.”
Contemplating change

One expectation of the forthcoming SDR that has circulated in the British media is that the UK's armed forces could merge. Some countries have moved in this direction; for example, Canada's armed forces are organized into various 'commands' under the control of the Armed Force Council, which is chaired by the chief of the defense staff.
However, this seems to have been ruled out by Ainsworth, who has said that he does not envisage any “major structural change” for the country's armed forces.
Indeed, it is hard to see how such a merger could guarantee any cost savings. At the macro level, these forces would still need to be equipped, and such equipment is likely to remain expensive because of the cost factors outlined above.
What might be seen instead is a move to consolidate the capabilities of the UK's armed forces within the existing services.

Andrew Brookes, director the Air League (an organization promoting British aviation), believes that there could “be pressure for the RAF to take over the operation of aircraft owned by the Army and the Royal Navy.

“The question will have to be asked as to whether we can actually afford to have a separate Army Air Corps, Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force?” he told ISN Security Watch.

Divining the future

Ultimately, the SDR will have to determine what the UK armed forces’ role will be in the future world.

Willett cautions that the ongoing operations in Afghanistan should be an issue, but not a touchstone vis-à-vis the shape of tomorrow’s British armed forces.
“If we are going to take the view that Afghanistan is something that we want to sort out and sort out quickly, why do we want to use that as a prism through which to plan for the future?” he asked.

By its very nature, the SDR is tasked with looking forward to up to 15 years. Afghanistan may, by then, have been replaced by other major concerns for the MoD, such as global warming, large-scale cyberattacks or conflicts over natural resources.
International crises have a nasty habit of turning up unannounced. Few people would have expected Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, just two years after the world had witnessed the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and a major improvement in relations between Russia and NATO, and seemed to be on the brink of a more peaceful epoch compared to the preceding years of the Cold War. Those drafting the UK's next SDR will need to keep such factors in mind as they put their pen to paper.
Thomas Withington is an independent defense consultant, writer and analyst based in Toulouse, France. He is a Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London and an Associate Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

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