Imagine if you will for a second that since the lasts SDSR the United Kingdom’s major potential adversary had increased its defence budget by 43% in three years. Now imagine that the same potential adversary had gone from a nominal democracy to an outright dictatorship and at the same time that potential adversary had invaded not one but two of its neighbours.
Indeed it’s not hard to imagine because since the last defence review this is exactly what has happened. Now imagine a new government coming in in 2015 actually cared enough to spend some more money on defence and attempt to rapidly regain some of the major war fighting capabilities we have lost.
Would it be possible for a new government to regain the UK’s military strength or is it lost to us forever?
Following the assumption of the previous SDSR that “we won’t have a war before 2015” and that “we will never fight a peer adversary” the RAF and FAA fast jet numbers have been cut to the bone. The UK will have just seven fast jet squadrons comprising 5 Typhoon Squadrons and 2 F35B squadrons. While these are more than sufficient for chasing the odd airliner or stray Russian Bomber or even bombing the occasional failed state into submission they would be woefully inadequate if tasked with fighting a major war.
However for a new government with a bit of cash to spend in 2015 things would not be all that bad. Firstly the UK is continuing to buy Typhoons. Whilst it may be a cold war relic there is probably nothing better for chasing down large numbers of Mig’s than the Typhoon. The UK is due to scrap its tranche 1 Typhoons in 2016 with the loss of 54 aircraft.
So if sufficient funds could be found we could probably hold onto another two squadrons and bring our number of Typhoon squadrons up to 7 by around 2018.
In addition to the Typhoons we will also be losing the Tornado GR4’s in 2018. Another cold war relic but still an immensely effective aircraft. Other nations will be retaining Tornado until at least 2022 and possibly much longer. Given our large amount of spares and redundant aircraft there is probably no reason why we could not keep the current three squadrons in the air for some time to come.
In addition to these aircraft we will likely be joined by two squadrons of F35B by the early 2020’s. Once the purchase of the 48 F35B’s had been made the government could potentially purchase additional F35B’s or even F35A’s to replace the Tornado’s still in service.
None of this would come cheap. The annual running cost of an FJ squadron is around £250 million a year. So moving up to 12 FJ squadrons from 7 would cost at the very least an extra £1.25 billion a year plus additional equipment spending to maintain, upgrade and purchase additional aircraft but is that such a vast cost for a government that spends £700 billion a year.
A dozen FJ squadrons is nowhere near the 30 or so we had at the end of the cold war but then the threat posed by Russia or anyone else is also nowhere near that level. In addition to greater numbers we could also devote increased funds to arm these aircraft. Putting Brimstone on Typhoon stands out as a clear example of better equipping our air forces to deal with a major adversary.
As many such as Sir Humphrey have pointed out it is not just as simple as adding more jets to the RAF to get extra squadrons. Pilots and engineers have to be found as well as extra airbases. However given the funds these challenges are not insurmountable. Additional pilot training can be done and if we lack the facilities we can always opt to train air crew in the USA. We can opt for a lower level of readiness in FJ squadrons at least initially. We could follow the French lead and use staff officer’s or follow the US lead and use reservists.
Engineers and maintenance staff are also an issue but it could well be possible to rely on civilian contractors for more of this work. Especially if the jets are not to be deployed to far flung distant conflicts but be used much closer to home.
Maritime Patrol Aircraft
SDSR 2015 may well address this gap in the UK’s current defences. If we are looking to plug this gap rapidly then the P8 will be available and getting Boeing to tap a few more on to USN orders before 2020 should not be too difficult. It also comes with the added benefit that many of our former Nimrod crews are already training on the P8 as part of the seed corn initiative.
With the retirement of Sea Eagle from Harriers and Typhoons and Harpoon when Nimrod left service the UK lacks any real ability to strike enemy ships at sea from fixed wing aircraft. The situation could be easily remedied with the purchase of the Joint Strike Missile which will already be integrated on the F35 and could also be adapted to fire from Typhoon.
Fortunately the Royal Navy has maintained a qualitative edge with its ASW frigates. However with just 13 Type 23 Frigates at its disposal it can hardly be seen as a credible force if had to engage a peer enemy.
The Type 26 frigate design appears to be rapidly maturing and is due to begin production around 2016. Currently plans are for the T26 to replace the T23 however it should probably be possible to extend the life of at least some of the T23’s.
With the closure of Portsmouth the UK has only two dedicated frigate building yards however in 2015 it would probably still be possible to reopen Portsmouth. If cleared of other work the three yards could probably churn out Type 26 frigates much quicker than currently planned.
There are several other yards in the UK with experience of building ship blocks for the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers including Appledore in Devonport, Cammell Laird in Liverpool and A&P on Tyneside. Type 45 destroyers were built in blocks in different yards and I can’t see why yards able to work on parts for aircraft carriers could not also use the same principal for frigates. With 6 yards churning out blocks the T26 program could be scaled up to almost any level the government was willing to pay for. It would certainly seem possible to get back above 20 frigates by the early 2020’s.
We currently have Merlin HM1 helicopters that are surplus to requirements that could conceivably be upgraded to the HM2 standard and we could always order more. If we are lacking for Merlin’s then an increased build of Wildcats may also be worth exploring. Especially if we incorporated dipping sonar which I believe is possible as part of the current design.
Increasing the navy’s number of SSN’s would be incredibly difficult but not impossible. Fortunately as with our frigates well we are lacking in quantity we have retained and even improved on quality. We currently have a very capable design in the Astute Class Submarine which is under construction. Current build rates are around one boat every two years. At that rate it would be impossible to increase the Royal Navy’s fleet as new boats won’t even come off the production line fast enough to replace existing vessels.
However the US navy has recently increased production of its Virginia Class SSN’s from one per yard every two years to one per yard every year. So it’s at least conceivable that the same could be done at Barrow if given time and money.
Another issue would be the need to start to build the Successor SSBN’s in 2028. However I remain unconvinced that the life of the Vanguard Class SSBN’s cannot be significantly increased with a major life extension as opposed to the currently planned five year life extension. Ohio Class SSBN’s have operated much longer than the Vanguards and have in many respects endured a harder life. Moving the successor Submarine program back would allow us to continue building Astute’s after 2026.
The other option to increase the SSN force would be to extend the lives of the Trafalgar Class boats however my understanding of this is that the Trafalgar’s probably won’t last much longer even with a refit.
It would take a significant amount of time to increase the size of the RN’s SSN force but if we got into a position where the USA is chugging out two boats a year and the UK one boat a year then, we could likely comfortably out build the rest of the world combined and maintain a strong qualitative edge.
The Army is soon to drop to a force of around 82,000 men. Much of the Army’s heavier units are in the process of being removed or reduced. Equipment like Apache, Challenger 2 and AS90 are likely to be scaled back in numbers or removed completely. However much of that heavy equipment still exists and is perfectly good for the task. While I don’t for see a need for us to go back to the days of the BAOR with 155,000 soldiers taking the Army back above the 100,000 mark is certainly doable. Adding in a force of 30,000 reservists on top gives us a fairly credible force that could if required generate almost a Corps level force in Western Europe if required in an emergency.
If a government in 2015 recognised the increased threat level that has evolved since 2010 then it would be possible to substantially increase the UK’s military forces. The UK still retains the design and technical expertise to create world beating military platforms. We may lack some of the manufacturing capability but with creative use of the civilian sector much of this could be overcome.
Fortunately our forces have retained a high degree of training and professionalism and it’s probably easier to increase the size of a small highly capable force than it is to bring a larger badly trained and equipped forced up to a higher standard.
Training and personnel numbers will be an issue but again it’s always possible to train new people and in many instances we may be able to fill some gaps with civilians or reservists.
This would not come cheap. For increases of this scale we would be looking at adding at least £10 billion a year to the defence budget. However even an increase of this magnitude would still only represent an increase of 1.5% on government spending.
With the growing list of threats faced by the UK and our allies it is perhaps time we start looking at our armed forces as something more than a capability to intervene in other people’s problems. Our armed forces can and should be designed to protect our nation and our way of life.
When even the pacifist BBC is asking the question ‘have we gone too far with military cuts?’ perhaps it’s time the government woke up and realised that just because they assume we won’t be having any more wars does not mean our enemies will be making the same assumption.