Cloud Cuckoo Land

One of the greatest problems with UK defence and security policy is the complete and utter disconnect between aspirations and reality.

Having successively cut the UK defence budget and failed to control the inexorable rise of defence equipment costs the actual capability we have may be perfectly formed with the very best of equipment, but it simply does not match the aspiration of politicians.

The current debate on ISIS You Know Who in Iraq and Syria shows this writ large for all to see.

This is from my new favourite newspaper, a quote from Julian Lewis, chair of the Defence Select Committee;

I think how I vote [on whether the UK should join US-led air strikes over Syria] will depend on whether the prime minister, instead of making this up on the hoof as has been the case I’m afraid up till now, presents parliament with an integrated strategy, approved jointly by the heads of the armed forces, as something that could produce a decisive result.

A decisive result.

Now that is the funniest thing I have heard all year.

With what?

Crispin Blunt, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee also said;

The contribution of the Royal Air Force and the whole coalition operation flying about 5% of the missions now over both Iraq and Syria is not exactly the central contribution to defeating Islamic State

With the elderly Tornado looking likely to receive another service life extension and crews at the ragged edge, commitments to QRA taskings in the UK and the Falkland Islands, air policing in the Baltics and the task of managing the belated improvements in Typhoon capability, what is Mr Blunt expecting?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with carrying a medium sized stick and talking a medium sized fight, but our politicians seem to be intent on embarrassing themselves and placing unreasonable demands on service personnel by thinking they live in 1930’s.

If you want to talk softly and carry a large stick you have to pay for a stick, not a twig.

Whilst we are at it, let’s just remind ourselves, 2% is actually a reduction and considered to be the bare minimum, not something to crow about, no matter how you have cooked the books.

UK GDP Defence Spending

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July 19, 2015 8:27 pm

You’ve nailed it with that one! I know money is limited but you are correct in identifying our politicians while talking of cuts and economies do not seem to have lowered their expectations.

John Hartley
John Hartley
July 19, 2015 8:40 pm

Of course there is an anti-IS/Daesh strategy. It is do the minimum possible, drift along, until the Americans/Saudis/Israelis/Martians, go in in force & really sort it out. Then just turn up for the victory parade & TV soundbites.

July 19, 2015 8:51 pm

It goes against my natural instinct but I feel it may be wise for us to withdraw from this type of conflict. I don’t see a realistic military victory on the horizon. I think by our continued presence in the region we are giving them something to fight against and gain support.

Should we not consider the same approach of dealing with a naughty child and not give them the satisfaction. It is a ME problem that I believe the ME nations should be looking to resolve.

However I change my opinion like the wind on this subject.

July 19, 2015 9:05 pm

I think you are a little harsh

All he is saying is that he wants there to be a strategy (not necessarily *our* strategy)
And he wants the lords militant to have reviewed the strategy
And he wants said lords militant to stand up and say “yep, this will probably work”

There are a couple of possibilities,
The Strategy” could be a Coalition Strategy, of which the UK plays a minor part.
Or The Strategy could be a UK strategy

ISIS have had quite a lot of success fighting badly trained conscripts who want to go home, but they’ve taken their share of beatings fighting people who’ve been up for a scrap.
A UK strategy of backing their enemies wouldnt require much in the way of help from anyone else, Jackals are £400k a pop, a few dozen of those would give the Kurds a light cavalry brigade and would hardly qualify as a rounding error in UK Plcs accounts.
A UK strategy of scorching the earth is less likely but would stand a fair chance of toppling ISIS, (Yes, I know, its very naughty, but), it would be fairly easy to create a humanitarian crisis in ISISistan, water seems an obvious target in the area. how many irrigation systems need to be bombed before ISIS cant feed its army, I doubt its very many.

July 19, 2015 9:23 pm
Reply to  TrT


The Other Chris
July 19, 2015 9:30 pm


What does the defence budget amount look like for the same period, adjusted to 2014/15 sterling?

A Caribbean Perspective
A Caribbean Perspective
July 19, 2015 10:35 pm
Reply to  TrT

@TrT – how many irrigation systems need to be bombed before ISIS cant feed its army, I doubt its very many

They don’t call it the Fertile Crescent for nothing! I know that they are usually left off the maps showing the Daesh Area of Influence, but it does include large sections of both the Tigris and the Euphrates, not to mention a fair number of natural lakes. My memories of Iraqi Irrigation systems usually involve some wooden buckets on a wheel, a very bored donkey and gravity. There are a few dams that could be broken, but I think that might hurt our regional allies more than Daesh

Jeremy M H
July 20, 2015 12:06 am

As an even more practical issue to the totally unreasonable scorched earth solution is that the militants would get food and water. Everyone else would starve and die.

In those regimes those with the guns and who are useful will survive. History tells us this is so.

July 20, 2015 12:53 am

The polish foreign secretary ( educated in England) in bugged transcripts, called Cameron an idiot on EC policy.
It seems that on affairs beyond the borders of the EC Cameron is just as incompetent.
Its like watching Dancing with the Stars, you have to wonder what made capable people think they can do something they neither have the skill nor temperament.

July 20, 2015 2:04 am

Bombing plus SF plus training plus various degrees of foreign policy influence needs to be tightened, not simply increased each step of the way.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
July 20, 2015 5:50 am

Capacity, capacity, capacity. I have been banging on about this for ages. The bunch of idiots we have elected (the lesser of two evils) still see the military as a tool for generating sound bites via their substantial Department for “Spin”. If you listen to any interview in the media the format is always the same. An “Expert”, is interviewed who will paint a usually worrying picture of the state of Britain’s military capability then a member of the Government usually replies with the same script as always, “We are building two carriers, buying more armoured vehicles”, etc. and of course to this we can now add “We have committed to maintaining the Defence Budget at 2% of GDP”. The media should run these interviews the other way around, get a statement from the Government and then interview an expert to knock holes in it and have the last word.

Is there a small chance that in the SDSR (Has a date been set yet?) we may see an increase in capacity? The additional OPVs, if delivered would go some way to help the Navy if they can find the manpower to man them. Until there is an increase in capacity I agree that we need to reduce our commitments, or at least the MoD need to grow a pair and tell the Government what it can and cannot do effectively with its current resources.

The National Security Strategy needs to clearly lay down what our role in the world is to be. The SDSR needs to list what is needed to match these goals. That is how it should be. If the Treasury cannot fund the level of expenditure needed by the SDSR then the NSS needs to be revised and so on. The precedence set by Gordon Brown after the 1997 SDR, where funding is detached for the SDSR needs to be trashed.

The biggest problem I see is that even though we suffered casualties and had major problems with equipment in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of UORs and large amounts of spin forestalled any major political fall out for the Governments and allowed them to still reduce defence spending even in a time of war. Given the lack of public reaction, except for the small number of reported inquests, it is no wonder Politicians see that Defence holds no real votes. It is also important to remember that the current Government is a two man affair with the cabinet pretty much side-lined. David Cameron and his Heir Apparent George Osborne have their eyes fixed on the economy and shrinking government to save money. They have no interest in Defence except for sound bites and have no knowledge on the subject what so ever. Just look at the PM’s recent statements, basically telling those working on the SDSR where he wants the money spent, with no idea what it would entail!

So as it seems that we will never match our capacity to our aspirations, those doing the work on the NSS and SDSR need to seriously look at matching our aspirations to our capacity. The Department of “Spin” will have a fit as our true position in the world is revealed but at least the public would realise the truth (If they actually care that is).

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
July 20, 2015 5:52 am

Why does the edit function keep vanishing?

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
July 20, 2015 5:53 am

Ahh, it seems to only work for small posts and cannot cope with longer ones.

July 20, 2015 7:24 am

There’s nothing wrong with life extensions for the tonka… An effective aeroplane. The only issue is there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent SLEP- These are old airframes, converted from GR1’s. Of course if the then government had done what the RAF wanted (use the then in production F3 airframe as a basis for the GR4 programme) there wouldn’t have been a problem.
Mind you they certainly couldn’t have used the ‘spare’ F3’s as a certain defence services company, in a previous incarnation, f**ked up a modification programme by using the wrong tolerances (not the specified drill sizes- but a FITWD size) for the wing pivot assembly, and deciding not to do any QA until the twentieth aircraft- twenty aircraft knackered, there only use has been as spares for the rest of the fleet.

stephen duckworth
July 20, 2015 7:40 am

@Lord Jim
The SDSR2015 went back to the drawing board after the election with a 100 day rewrite timescale based on new government requests. After that it will be reviewed and passed back and forth for rewrites for final publication at the end of October , beginning of November . This when the T26 numbers will be announced ( remember the English votes on English laws still hasn’t been passed yet :-) so no bung at BAE Marine to build the Frigate factory yet etc. It will be more management speak of ‘work smarter’ ‘do more with less’ which is fine but there isn’t anyone in charge with the capability to make it happen. A suggestion could be we bolster the pensions of retiring senior officers and Defence minister s and civil servants in exchange for signing away their right to work in the defence industry or related industry for ten years after retirement disconnecting the gravy train .

July 20, 2015 8:11 am

The National Security Strategy needs to clearly lay down what our role in the world is to be.

I read this several times a week on here and elsewhere.

The problem is, interests are contingent, interests differ depending on perspectives and world views, and interests conflict. It is therefore very challenging to define the “national interest” in anything more than the broadest terms.

We have to accept that the future is uncertain, our interests are contingent from one development to the other and any sort of “grand strategy” by its nature will be something of a cross-cutting, wide-ranging and very far in the background affair – it may not even have defence as its central theme.

What this means is that we have to be adaptive and flexible. We do this by the twin track strategy of keeping long-lead core capabilities and at the same time building a force structure that works for the day to day operations we are engaged in – ie air-enabling capabilities, ISTAR capabilities, precision strike capabilities, naval littoral capabilities and light infantry and SF with precision strike capabilities.

And above all we just need to bloody well accept that the “national interest” is actually barely worth defining and stop using this as a potential panacea and acting like its the core-root of our problem.

Nobody agrees on our role in the world and nobody agrees how to get there and what we do will change depending on political expediency. So the job of the service chiefs is to accept this and plan for it and structure themselves accordingly.

Challenging in an environment of ever lessening budgets but at least the 2% commitment gives some order of stability.

July 20, 2015 8:59 am

Phil – wholeheartedly agree. The grand strategic intent can be little more than a statement of Armed Forces’ strength & scale with a list of threats and scenarios in support. The task of MOD in its widest sense is to work out how to fill up the toolbox with enough personnel, platforms, systems and equipment to be able to act at the required level and against the broadest array of imaginable threats. History has never failed to demonstrate that the shape of warfare is unpredictable years in advance, and yet every administration considers itself uniquely able to foresee exactly how world events will develop, which geographic areas the Forces will be fighting within, and exactly what shape of warfare will be involved. To only prepare to meet these specific predicted futures may be economically attractive but it leaves defence of the nation extremely thin should the unexpected occur.

Its a matter of spin; the politicians will bang on without pause for breath about efficiency as if its something of a Holy Grail. Another term for efficiency is the removal of contingency. I’m a bit old fashioned in this regard but I want there to be plenty of contingency in the Armed Forces defending my country.

Brian Black
Brian Black
July 20, 2015 10:04 am

Despite the boasts of the UK being the number 2 contributor to the anti-ISIL operation, the small percentage of strikes performed by the RAF show how irrelevant the issue is of whether we conduct airstrikes in Iraq only or in Iraq & Syria.

Unless the RAF were performing all the airstrikes in Iraq, and still had capacity for escalation, then whether we bomb targets in Syria or not is not an altogether important question. Nevertheless, I think it’s right for Cameron to have committed to a parliamentary vote before conducting war-like operations in a sovereign country. There is no urgency to the decision that requires an immediate executive decision.

We are very light on airpower, but didn’t the SAS already get a hefty pruning as Afghanistan wound down? If you’re planning to rely on special forces and airpower to win our wars, after developing cold feet about deploying major ground units, then probably best not to cut those assets too.

The Other Chris
July 20, 2015 10:09 am

Are we still the largest contributor to air cover for Kurdish operations in Northern Iraq? How has the impact been there?

July 20, 2015 10:13 am

Hezbollah supports Assad in Syria.
UK/USA would (yes/no), prefer change in Syria.
Iran supports Hezbollah.
Hezbollah holds Israel in check.
IS/Daesh holds Hezbollah in check.
Iran and the Shiite Militias hold IS/Daesh in check in parts of Iraq.
The Kurds supported by UK/USA, are pushing ISIS for territory.
Turkey probably wants the Kurds in check.
Iran appears to support Yemen’s Houthis.
The Saudis attempt to hold the Houthis in check.
AQ are, apparently, against IS/Daesh.
UK/USA is against AQ.
It’s chaos in Libya.

Help with understanding the ‘mosaic’ would be appreciated.
Do we have a clear objective that is within our resources?
How about the unknown unknowns?

July 20, 2015 10:22 am

The most charitable description of UK’s piss poor efforts is ‘extreme tokenism’. Drop a few bombs maybe deploy a few ‘magic’ special forces. Totally useless effort. There is no prospect of defeating ISIL by such means, or even significantly inconveniencing them, even if several nations are doing it. Makes you wonder about the quality of military advice being given by senior officers, a charitable explanation is that they are telling the pollies what they want to hear.

The Other Chris
July 20, 2015 10:34 am

These are the inidicative cash amounts for Defence over the same 1985 to 2015 period listed in 2014 adjusted figures (source noted on image):

Brian Black
Brian Black
July 20, 2015 10:38 am

Chris, I think that planning to counter “the broadest array of imaginable threats” is exactly the opposite of what we need to do.

If we do not identify a narrow set of priorities to plan towards, then we’d be in no position to do anything at a useful scale.

This has been our problem for years. The irrational desire to want to play a major role in every conceivable type of operation simply means that everything becomes a diminished capability.

At some point, someone needs to exercise their judgement and say that certain remote contingencies will just need to be dealt with using whatever capabilities have been developed for our core tasks.

We are not a major independent power any more; we should accept our role as a competent coalition partner – whether that’s as part of NATO, or some ad hoc coalition.

Currently, the government boast about our level of defence spending in relation to other countries; but without focusing on priorities, we never get the economies of scale, we never get the best return on our massive investments. Defence priorities drift from one fantastically expensive project to another; and the previous fantastically expensive project is routinely cropped, hobbled, and scaled down in order to pay for the next one.

What needs to be done is to set priorities, and then stick to them. And if we can’t do everything as a result, or can’t be the second place partner on every mission, then so be it.

And government and the services need to find an agreement as to what our priorities should be; always deciding that each service should have their fair share of funding, or fair share of cuts, is not a sensible way to progress.

July 20, 2015 10:45 am

Toppling Assad in the current Syrian political climate would create a power vacuum into which the most powerful/aggressive factions would rush – this will not be the Syrian general population but the likes of IS and Hezbollah. The carnage would continue but the last vestiges of the nation’s duty of care for its population (tenuous as it is in Syria) would have been obliterated. Libya’s chaos would be recreated on the borders of Turkey Lebanon Jordan and Israel.

Its noticeable that the country at the moment that seems to have emerged from its Arab Spring with greatest stability is Egypt, and that has largely been accomplished by re-establishing the pre-revolt government under a new President.

July 20, 2015 10:51 am


All that has been going on for decades. Prioritisation. Going to war with the Army you have etc

It’s a simple fact of the world that the armed forces don’t have the same narrative to hang their capabilities off of as they did before 1990. And even then there was a great tension between the NATO commitment and AOA operations.

I can’t get two offices with a staff of less than 50 to agree on anything other than the broadest terms, and I am sure we all work in similar environments.

We need to stop whining that there isn’t some magical focus (there often is in a contingent, temporal sense like HERRICK post 2009) but we often just don’t agree with that prioritisation or focus and therefore often choose to simply ignore it and declare there isn’t one) and accept that we need to maintain a broad set of capabilities, albeit smaller in volume.

That said, those capabilities might be smaller in size but this must be seen in the wider context of alliance operations. This is nothing new, never has been. If you add up NATO it’s bloody massive. We’ve never had the political will to fight independently in a serious way except for a few brief years in the 1940s. So I don’t see what the massive problem is. The same people who bemoan we are un-focused also seem to refuse to acknowledge the contribution of allies and instead argue they are unreliable and fickle.

The irony is, the fact we do maintain a broad spectrum of smaller sized capabilities is precisely because we recognise that we are not an independent power. And its precisely because we don’t know what is coming around the corner – there is no tangible narrative anymore other than “be ready for pretty much anything”. Not very satisfying but there it is. The world is at it is and anyone who tried to impose some conception of order that does not in reality exist is on a fools errand.

July 20, 2015 11:14 am

BB – I believe it depends on the tools being put in the toolbox. I also believe the way the defence budget is spent affects public support for defence. MOD (and some commenters among us) cannot consider anything but the most complex best-in-the-world solution for every part of Defence, as if equipping UK forces with stuff considered adequate for our allies’ and piers’ forces would be tantamount to murder. Joe Public I will bet believes the proud boasts of Defence Ministers and service chiefs that the new XYZ platform is the Best In The World are just typical spin, therefore sees a vast amount of taxpayer funding buying two vast carriers with 12 aircraft to carry, four big submarines and their updated missiles, six destroyers, a number probably less than 12 frigates etc as not particularly good value. The press will have informed said Joe Public that the new armoured vehicle has taken decades to select burning billions of taxpayer-pounds in the process, and each costs a fortune. At the same time MOD is spending another fortune updating a vehicle that on the face of it looks exactly the same. Our man J Public will also wonder why our own defence corporation that he recalls being called British Aerospace is not supplying the next generation pointy-jet to the RAF, the business instead seemingly gifted to Lockheed Martin without competition for their vastly expensive quite late combat aircraft. From Joe Public’s not particularly well informed viewpoint the defence budget doesn’t do very much either for keeping the nation’s defences at strength nor for UK PLC’s prosperity. Its no wonder he’d rather see the cash spent on NHS and schools.

If on the other hand the defence budget was seen to be delivering useful stuff in numbers Joe Public could believe were significant and adequate, and delivering jobs and export potential along the way, I would bet there would be much greater public support for defence budget growth. Public support would very quickly become Government commitment. Obviously.

July 20, 2015 11:37 am

not defending the current policy but could anyone here realistically come up with a strategy to defeat ISIL. Even with fantasy budgets it’s hard to kill an idea in cyberspace and thats all they really are.

July 20, 2015 11:48 am

Martin as I said in the Guardian thread, ultimately it needs to be rendered impotent by members of the Muslim community here or in the middle east; any action taken by anyone other than Muslims will instantly be branded racist victimisation of Islam and would therefore increase not decrease their recruitment as more would feel the need to ‘defend the faith’.

July 20, 2015 3:03 pm

I agree Chris, does not sound like a job for the MOD though.

July 20, 2015 3:22 pm

Fixing ISIS is easy.

1. When nobody is looking, parachute in a moderate, inclusive and liberal government into Iraq who takes the reigns instantly.
2. When nobody is looking parachute in a moderate, inclusive and liberal government into Syria who takes the reigns instantly.
3. Wait.

Bit like a Haynes manual – first, remove the engine.

Personally I am leaning toward letting them build a proper state and then destroying it like any other country.

The Other Chris
July 20, 2015 3:33 pm
Reply to  Phil

Ahh, straight out of the pages of the Ellen Ripley Playbook?

July 20, 2015 7:28 pm

The media like to harp on about the 8 GR4s, but the UK does have around two dozen aircraft deployed in support of Op Shader.

903 EAW:

8 Tornado GR4
10 Reaper RPAS
2 E-3D Sentry
2 Sentinel R1
1 Shadow R1
1 Air Seeker
1 Voyager
1 C-17
1 C-130J

The French only have 6 Rafales deployed at Al Dhafra in the UAE, and 6 Mirage 2000 in Jordan, plus
a tanker, MPA etc. CdG supported the air campaign for about 6-8 weeks, but was withdrawn in April.

The RAF as of 30th June had released nearly 450 weapons against ISIL targets ie 200 Paveway IV, 82 Brimstone, 155 Hellfire, 4 GBU-12, that is probably the third largest number of strikes after the US and surprisingly the Dutch. The UK is also making worthwhile contribution to the operation through it’s ISR and reconnaissance capability, and nodoubt special forces.

July 20, 2015 8:37 pm

Has this been adjusted for the items currently included in the Defence budget that were previously funded elsewhere such as the cost of operations?? What was used to calculate inflation, the price of baked beans and puppy food or fast jets & bullets?

July 20, 2015 8:39 pm
Reply to  Chris

So more spin should be applied to defence spending in order to impress Mr Public?

July 20, 2015 9:24 pm

Has an air campaign on its own ever been decisive? I can only think of one.

Can one ever again? I think not.

July 20, 2015 9:25 pm

Ref more spin – sadly yes. It has become clear the primary driver for political decision-making is no longer the good of the nation or the continued democratic freedom of the western world, but public opinion. For public opinion equals votes, and nothing – nothing at all – is more important than votes in the eyes of the career politician.

But I doubt spin can convince our general populace – no matter how you spin a Navy of 20 combat vessels its going to look inadequate to protect even home waters, let alone our overseas and international responsibilities – that’s before pointing out that time in port, maintenance and other duties reduces the number of active combat ready vessels to nearer 10. Similarly as discussed a couple of weeks back the RAF has just 70 combat jets (Typhoon & Tornado) it can fly; where it may be recalled the RAF lost an average of 68 fighters each week of the Battle of Britain. And when it comes to land forces, recent news reports from Russia noted the recent order for 2300 brand new T-14 MBT while UK holds 277 Challenger 2. And so on. As I noted before the Minister’s assurances that we have the ‘best XYZ in the world’ and so don’t need more than a handful of each have been flounced in the face of the electorate at every defence down-sizing – sorry – defence review, to the point that its not got enough spin left to convince the voting public.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
July 20, 2015 9:47 pm

“Grand Strategy”, is what the Department for “Spin”, will turn both the SDSR and NSS into. What I see the NSS highlighting is more simple. I needs to list the areas of concern to our country, for example;
The expansion of Islamic Fundamentalism and ISIL.
The threat posed by an increasingly belligerent Russia.
The threat of terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom and its dependencies.
The threat if Cyber-terrorism.

It then need to look and what type of response we are aiming to make against each one, and what priority on resources it should have. With the former we need to examine whether we intend to continue to deploy forces overseas and what sort of forces they should be. Against ISIL for example should we concentrate of air and SF assets or also consider conventional forces. What unconventional forces would also be of use. With the latter, which capabilities are required and in what numbers.

Above is an oversimplification, but the role of the NSS is to guide the SDSR, and provide it with a firm foundation that can be used to defend its recommendations when scrutinised. Its recommendations need to tie in resources from numerous Government Departments, not just the MoD. The NSS should not be for raising aspirations better suited to a fantasy novel.

Moving on, the aspiration of the UK retain a full spectrum of capabilities for all eventualities will remain an unachievable aspiration. Even within NATO we need to look at what we need to provide to support the organisation. For example, NATO already has sufficient heavy ground assets, so do we really need to add more? Would we be better developing medium weight formations better able to support NATO’s out of area operations? Of course these being easier to move make them more flexible and useful in general. Our light Rapid Reaction forces are only surpassed by the USA and only equalled by France. Our ISTAR assets are only second to the USA, the list could go on and on. Each service needs to restructure itself to finally put to bed the old BOAR, RAFG and ASW in the Atlantic mentalities. The Navy has made the most progress in this but has given up too much to get its new Flat Tops. The Army has continually made a hash of its equipment programmes as it has lack a clear idea of where it has wanted to go. The RAF has been held hostage by political intrigue which have caused inexcusable delays to the Typhoon programme and has had the monster tanker PFI hoisted upon it.

The last SDSR was a back of a fag packet affair to square the circle. This SDSR and NSS must be used to lay a proper foundation for our future armed forces, and that foundation must be set in reality.

A Caribbean Perspective
A Caribbean Perspective
July 21, 2015 2:16 am
Reply to  Ron5

@Ron – are you thinking of Pink’s War?

July 21, 2015 3:10 am

Interesting to note that despite our half hearted effort in the fight against IS that fully 30% of all ISTAR flights have been made by the RAF and 70% of tactical recon has been carried out by Tornado. that’s on top of having the third highest weapon release tally and apparently matching the U.S. For drone flights. arguably with weapons like Paveway IV and Brimestone in use the RAF strikes may also be some of the most useful to the coalition.

This article would also seem to hint and possibly moving RAPTOR pods to typhoon as well.