For several years there has been a slow and steady drift into greater collaboration with European allies in matters of defence. Collaboration then becomes resource sharing, then integration and before you know it we will have slid into a state of affairs that leaves us unable to deploy military capabilities alone.
The carriers are an obvious case in point. Since their inception it was always a firmly held view that the STOVL F35B offered the lowest cost of ownership. Study and study confirmed that whilst it would always be the most expensive capital option, over the lifetime of the aircraft the savings would be significant when compared to the more traditional CATOBAR arrangements as found on US and French carriers.
Nothing in this has changed despite the SDSR confidently predicting that the F35C will offer a cheaper solution. Given the half baked costings and vague notions of saving money, the SDSR does not inspire any confidence in this at all so those assertions will have been largely based on best estimates, or guesses to you and me. The UK has almost no reliable data on which to base such decisions, it has been more than 40 years since we operated CATOBAR carriers/aircraft.
In an interview with BBC Scotland during a visit to the Govan shipyard, Liam Fox said:
“There are estimates of the cost, ranging upwards from £500m. There are a lot of studies going on, which will determine exactly what system, what costs and where”
So yet again, we are adding more cost into the programme but aren’t really quite sure about how much
What has suddenly changed?
The switch to the CATOBAR F35C has absolutely nothing to do with saving money and nothing to do with specifications; it is all about European and Anglo French politics. The SDSR mentions interoperability with allies as one of the driving factors for the switch but this provides absolutely no benefit for the UK.
Whilst we are busy flogging off the Harriers to the Indians or Americans, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy will meet in London tomorrow to confirm and announce the details of greater military cooperation.
French defence minister Hervé Morin, speaking at the Euronaval 2010 conference last week, confirmed that greater cooperation concerning the two nations’ carriers was being investigated.
“Beyond joint exercises, we are in favour of sharing the accompanying of aircraft carriers, a British frigate could perfectly well participate in the protection of the Charles de Gaulle and vice versa. I’ve asked our military command to consider the feasibility of stationing British aircraft on our aircraft carrier and vice versa. The British have decided to equip their aircraft carriers with catapults, we can have joint exercises, but also arrange to have a Rafale squadron make use of the British platform”
Earlier this month it was suggested that French nuclear facilities could be used to maintain the warheads on the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent. The French are also said to be offering the UK use of their Bréguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft following the announcement that the Nimrod MRA4 would be scrapped.
Morin said restrictions on sharing carriers “in the case of a conflict or crisis where our respective interests diverged” were likely, and any treaty agreed during Cameron and Sarkozy’s meeting must cover the difficult issue of how and when the UK and France might deploy shared carriers.
I think a deal on the FSTA transport and refuelling aircraft is also on the horizon and suggested this some time ago.
Other likely outcomes will be shared training and maintenance for the A400, nuclear warhead maintenance, carrier maintenance and even a joint brigade.
Writing in the Telegraph, Liam Fox said
It makes little sense for the two most powerful armed forces in Europe to be spending more than necessary on duplicate capabilities which could be delivered in a more cost effective manner
It makes perfect sense if we are a sovereign nation with control over the means of our defence, we are Great Britain, not Europe.
The spin will be that this is an arrangement with France not the EU but we all know where this is going.
The reality is, the UK and France have many shared interests and greater resource sharing on non combat capabilities (maintenance and training etc) is not wholly unreasonable but a joint brigade and almost symbiotic relationship on carriers is a step too far.
The 1998 SDR was lacking in any form of commitment to making a clear choice between NATO, the US and Europe in matters of defence. It fudged the issue but still crept closer to Europe, trying to maintain the illusion that we could be all things to all men. This simply does the same but yet again, actions and words are not the same thing, we talk about the US and NATO but edge ever closer to Europe.
This makes the decision to change from the F35B to the F35C look 100% political and the operational and cost issues can go hang, the important thing is to secure a joint UK/French, and by extension, European, carrier capability.
We are on the glide path, it starts with cooperation, then a spot of common capability sharing, then joint equipment programmes and before you know it, we no longer have independence and have therefore arrived at a de facto EU Defence Capability.