Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Cameron's Defence Cuts

Yesterday, David Cameron announced the defence cuts facing Britain's armed forces. Military missions such as the Falklands campaign will be a thing of the past. Britain will never be able to fight another war alone.

Over 17,000 military personnel will go. The expectation is that 15,000 jobs will be axed when Britain withdraws from Afganistan. Not a great show of thanks for the military's work there.

For the future Britain will become highly dependent on allies, who can afford things Britain can't. This is passed off as the benefit of interoperability. In particular, apparently France has agreed make available its aircraft carriers Vichy and Mers-el-Kebir to work with the Royal Navy. The situation's come about because Britain is about to scrap flagship HMS Ark Royal and probably Illustrious, and will spend two years without any carriers at all.

Cameron can't take all the credit for this remarkable turn of events. A “bilateral carrier group interoperability initiative” was proposed back in March 2008 by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, during discussions with Gordon Brown in London. The Ministry of Defence susbsequently described the talks as "aspirational". Whatever would Nelson have said?

But the British Navy will eventually receive two replacement flat-tops of its own. The first will arrive by 2016 if the timetable is to be believed, the second by 2019 when the first will be mothballed. This bizarre plan is felt cheaper than amending the programme in any way, or axing it.

That said, there's no great rush to get the new carriers into service, which will suit the dead hand of MOD's procurement arm. Fixed-wing aircraft won't be available until 2020. For the decade to come, Britain will have no carrier strike capability.

Because next year, the Navy's Harrier jump-jet carrier-borne fleet will be scrapped. These aircraft have been praised worldwide, developed and exported successfully, and are combat-proven. They're also less expensive than the Tornado, which is being retained. When in turn the Tornado shuffles off, it will be replaced by the Typhoon, another RAF type. Royal Air Force 1, Royal Navy 0.

Aircraft carriers without jets; who came up with that? Hard-drinking Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who's warned the cuts will be made "ruthlessly and without shentiment."
But Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, said last night it would be "nonsensical" to scrap the Harriers before their replacements were delivered.

When it finally arrives, the new carrier jet force will consist of just forty Joint Strike Fighters rather than the 130 previously stated. The JSF is currently under development by an international team - like the Typhoon, which was completed years late.

The RAF's Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft is also a casualty of the cuts, but a deserved one. Lumbering and shockingly overspent, the project to upgrade the old aeroplane has finally been put to sleep. The updated aircraft would have come into service nine years late. How's that for benchmark management? Both MOD and BAE Systems should hang their heads in shame.

A decision over the Trident replacement programme has been put off. In five years' time, when it's planned the dusty file will be re-opened, Britain's defence budget will be so small the nuclear deterrent may slip away once and for all. Is this the secret hope of some Coalition members?

Fall-out caused by the announcement has been international. America's blonde bombshell Secretary of State has hinted that because of the cuts, the 'special relationship' between Britain and the USA may come under strain. But never fear. David Cameron has reassured Barack Obama Britain will remain "a first-rate military power." The Falkland Islanders' views have yet to be heard.

Cameron's also cheered us with news that recently, Nicolas Sarkozy has moved to "engage more with NATO." France is in the throes of rejoining NATO after forty years of self-imposed exile.
For a putative military partner this seems a good thing. Then again, maybe Sarkozy's broke too.

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