Pre SDSR Perspectives



Although it is not yet in the public domain, the ink is now dry on the 2015 SDSR. As its looms, the rumour mill is in full chat. I thought it might be interesting to provide a summary of the component key issues trending on this topic.

By way of introduction, I think it is important to note that the over-riding political strategy of the Government remains to address the deficit. The justification for cuts imposed by the 2010 SDSR was that Britain’s finances were in such a parlous state that defence had to take a back seat. If the 2015 tries to follow the same line of reasoning to impose further reductions in our military capabilities, the Government’s credibility as well as its popularity will be sorely tested.

Few people in government would dispute that the world has become more unstable and volatile since 2010. If that is the case, then we need to carefully analyse the nature, likelihood and potential impact of existential threats and configure our armed forces accordingly. The political reality is that, in the interests of being re-elected and despite careful budget planning across all areas, the Government will be forced to spend an unexpected extra £2 or £3 billion here and there to plug gaps and placate its critics. While there seems to be an apparent commitment to spending 2% of GDP on Defence, this may only be 2% at today’s level of GDP. When defence spending falls below 2% in two years time, the Government will feign surprise that the “Economy grew faster than expected”. In any event, growth predictions will be deliberately understated so that additional cash above established budget levels can be invested where needed. This makes it possible that the defence budget will again be plundered to create that contingency fund.

One thing that truly misrepresented the extent of the cuts imposed by the 2010 Defence Review was taking the Trident replacement out of the Treasury budget and placing it in the Defence Budget. This is what has so negatively impacted the size, equipment and capabilities of our conventional forces over the last 5 years. So, the overwhelming pre-2015 SDSR impression is more of the same, then penny-pinching at every level is a given. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter riding around in a Skoda with a diesel engine, rather than a Jaguar or a Range-Rover probably tells you everything you need to know about the UK’s future procurement strategy.

The RAF’s plans for the F-35 appear to remain largely unchanged, although there is bound to be slippage in total numbers due to unexpected cost increases. Tornado is starting to show its age and while it might be reasonable to suggest that we supplement our F-35Bs with a few squadron’s worth of F-35As, our existing air defence Typhoon Eurofighters will have an additional strike role attached to them. It might make much more sense to partner with the USA in its Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) programme to replace the ageing B-52 and B1B fleets, but at an estimated cost of $500 million per aircraft, the chances of the UK acquiring such an exquisite asset seem remote. Maybe we will revisit this aircraft type after 2020, assuming Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t become Prime Minister. Much has already been discussed on the MPA requirement, which represents a loss of capability that simply wasn’t addressed by the last SDSR. The new MPA was previously thought to be a straight fight between the Boeing P8 Poseidon and Kawasaki P1. Now a host of other Skoda analogues are being considered. Overall, however, the RAF will emerge from the SDSR relatively unscathed.

The Navy is also going at full speed ahead as newer vessels such as the Astute Class of Hunter / Killer submarines and Type 45 Destroyers show their mettle. The aircraft carriers are on track and the Type 26 Global Combat Ship plans seem to offer a useful set of upgrades over existing our flotilla of frigates. Could we do with a few more River Class OPVs? Undoubtedly, but again there simply isn’t sufficient cash available to purchase them.

The two most significant defence equipment programmes are obviously F-35 and CVF. The problem with both is that they suck-up such a large percentage of total available resources, that there is little left for anything else. Other less obvious, but expensive capability upgrades, such as improved missiles and electronic systems, also tend to hoover up cash, but are nevertheless essential.

Inevitably, the force most likely to suffer the effects of continuing austerity measures is the Army. It is unlikely that manpower levels will be cut further (as if there was any leeway to do so anyway!), but new vehicle programmes seem likely to fall victim to further cuts. As things stand, the Army’s combat vehicle strategy is in poor shape as key programmes are delayed or reduced in scope.

There is no escaping from the fact that Challenger 2 is starting to show its age. The Life Extension Programme (LEP) has been curtailed to such a degree that it offers no fundamental improvements to lethality, survivability or mobility. Given that the scenarios in which they are likely to be deployed are fewer and further between than before, there must be considerable pressure to cancel the LEP altogether or turn it into an obsolescence management programme that maintains the CR2 fleet until we can afford to replace it. At least we don’t have Liam Fox suggesting that we retire all of our tanks immediately.

Despite rumours of the death of the MBT being exaggerated, tanks with large guns firing kinetic penetrators remain one of the most certain and reliable means of neutralising enemy AFVs. Putin’s recent exploits in the Ukraine have re-focused attention on heavy armour since he has so much of it. For this reason, our tank regiments with MBTs mounting 120 mm guns remain the pinnacle of our heavy armoured capability. We must maintain it. Sooner or later, however, we will need to bite the bullet and replace Challenger 2. The merger of Nexter and Krauss-Maffei and the intention to develop a new European battle tank to replace Leopard 2 and Leclerc provides an ideal opportunity to acquire a new and highly effective MBT within a 10-15 year timetable.

Warrior is also old and obsolete. While the proposed Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) will deliver worthwhile increases in firepower and protection, we simply don’t have enough hulls to fulfil the total ABSV requirement beyond the current 445 vehicles. If we need to manufacture new hulls, the cost of doing so may make a new IFV a more attractive long-term prospect.

The Scout SV family (now named Ajax, Athena Apollo, Ares and Argos) represents a significant step-up in capability versus the legacy fleet of CVR(T) reconnaissance vehicles. The evolution of the basic ASCOD 2 platform into Scout has been impressive. However, Ajax has grown substantially in both size and weight versus Scimitar making deployment by air problematic, even in an A400M.

An alternative to the Warrior CSP might be to maintain Warrior in service unchanged until its original out-of-service date of 2025 and then to replace it with a new IFV based on the Scout SV / ASCOD 2 platform. This shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive since the donor ASCOD 2 platform started life as an IFV.  Production would simply continue once all Scout SV vehicles had been delivered. We would have a universal platform across armoured reconnaissance and armoured infantry regiments which would reduce total through-life costs for the fleet.

A question mark still hangs over Ajax and Warrior CSP in terms of the vehicles’ armament. Both are destined to have the 40 mm CTAS cannon firing case telescoped ammunition. While barrel life, ammunition feed and turret configuration issues still need to be resolved, ammunition affordability is a major worry. The APFSDS round is reported to cost as much as 10x more than an equivalent round for the 30 mm Mk44 Bushmaster II cannon.

The Multi-Role Vehicle-Protected (MRV-P) or armoured Land-Rover replacement programme also seems to be under threat. The PQQ was meant to be issued a few weeks ago, but seems to have been delayed, a sure sign that the programme is under review.

The saga of FFLAV, MRAV and FRES UV has been well documented by Think Defence so needs no further amplification here. The latest incarnation of a much needed 8×8 Wheeled Medium Weight Capability is called Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV). No official details have been released on this yet, but CGS referred to it at the 2015 DSEi as a key enabler of his Army 2020 vision, so the programme is expected to be re-animated during 2016.

The US Army, Canadian Army, Australian Army, Armée de La Terre, Bundeswehr and other European armies have all discovered that the utility of modern 8×8 vehicles allows them to substitute traditional tracked APC platforms across many roles. Indeed, the French Army, which used the VBCI to great effect in Mali in 2013, will use this wheeled platform to replace all of its tracked IFVs. Similarly, the US Army Stryker Brigade concept has fundamentally changed the structure and composition of its ground combat units. In all cases, the ability for wheeled units to self-deploy by road over longer distances is a much-prized capability.

The other essential characteristic of 8×8 APCs versus tracked ones is that the acquisition and through-life maintenance costs are significantly less than equivalent tracked vehicles. If the UK decided to prioritise the acquisition of a fleet of MIVs, initially to replace Mastiff (which has no cross-country capability) and then the 60-year old FV430 family, it would do much to modernise the fighting ability of the Army. it would also reduce the pressure to replace CR2 and Warrior in the short-term.

It will be interesting to see whether the Army’s proposed £2 billion upgrade of its Apache attack helicopter fleet remains untouched. Even if it is left alone, it could still do with more helicopters. (The US Marine Corps has more helicopters than all of the UK’s services put together.) The Puma Mk 2 upgrade is another prime example of penny pinching. A good helicopter in its day, the Puma has been in service since 1971 and is well overdue for replacement.

Other Army equipment plans on the horizon are the need to replace both the 105 mm light gun and the AS90 155 mm SPG. The increased range and precision of 120 mm breech-loaded mortars, which can fire in both direct and indirect modes make them worthy of consideration. Mounting a 155 mm M777 gun on an 8×8 high mobility platform similar to Archer or Cesar could also be interesting. New artillery is unlikely to be on the agenda before 2020.

When we get to SDSR 2020, it’ll be fascinating to see how the world has evolved and whether our plans developed this year were prescient or unfit for purpose.  As the cost of weapons and equipments continues to rise above inflation, many of the UK’s European allies are adopting a new tactic of buying second-hand kit. Finland’s acquisition of the Dutch Army’s almost new Leopard 2A6 fleet at about €1 million per vehicle seems to have been a very wise purchase. We might soon be forced to go down the same road.

In summary, the future capabilities of Britain’s armed forces look as if they will be dictated more by what we can afford than what we believe is necessary. That said, F35 JSF, CVF, Type 45, Astute Class subs, Type 26 GCS and Apache all represent “exquisite” choices that give us unmatched capabilities in their respective roles. While we have been forced to cut our cloth according to the size of our pockets, by 2020 we should have sufficient reserves to start spending a little extra in areas where our kit is deficient. That could be wishful thinking. If we are content to continue enjoying a capability holiday in so many areas, we just have to hope that we don’t get embroiled in a major conflict between now and the next SDSR.

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