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Talking point – UK defence: what would you do?

Imagine you are the Secretary of State for Defence and tell us what your UK defence forces would look like.


The Tornado F3 will be phased out of RAF service in 2011 - but what else needs to go in a Strategic Defence Review? Key archive

The UK is faced with some tough choices on defence this year – a Strategic Defence Review has been promised by all major political parties after the General Election this spring. The defence budget is expected to take a big hit to safeguard the National Health Service, education and social security. So, what would you do to bring about around £6 billion of saving?

Imagine you are the Secretary of State for Defence and tell us what your UK defence forces should look like, assuming there are just three political constraints: 1, we must maintain a nuclear deterrence; 2, we must maintain an adequate air defence of the UK; 3, we will be committed to Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

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Michael Leek said on the 13-Jan-2010 at 21:02

In addition to taking a strategic view, someone needs to look at the detail within all three armed services. For example, the RAF is far smaller than it was between 1940 and 1945 yet there are now far more - expensive - Group Captains than during the period cited. Why? What do they do? I suspect the same is true of the RN and the Army, though probably in the latter's case to a lesser extent.

The above is but one example amongst many and, as someone has already pointed out, there is a real need to substantially reduce bureaucracy, both MoD civilians AND those in uniform. The ratio between genuine active service personnel and administrators, and their ilk, needs to redressed. Get rid of the pen pushers.

Whilst the above doesn't answer the question that leads this thread, they are REAL issues which together would add to substantial savings.

Thatcher's privatisation led to massive defence cost increases and overspends which are still with us today, yet no politician or party has had the courage to deal with these issues (nothing new here - just go back to the 1950s and it's the same then, regardless of party, though the Conservatives have the record for making the most drastic cuts in defence expenditure). The defence industry itself is allowed to hold the MoD to ransom, operating on a basis that an MoD contract is a licence to print money (e.g. the recent Nimrod enquiry; the overspend on the less than adequate Typhoon - still not cleared for the ground attack role; the masssive overspend by DML and their subsidaries in managing and building the nuclear submarine facility at Devenport, and the expensively inadequate non-tracked vehicles delivered to the army).

We need a balanced armed services that reflect the world we live in today AND can also be effective enough to respond to future senarios where a more strategic need may be called upon. This means retaining the SSBN nuclear deterrent, developing a REAL, fit-for-purpose fighter-ground-attack aircraft (or, to use the current mis-nomer: multi-role aircraft), or buy a proven one from elsewhere (cheaper option), and an army with REAL flexible resources.

We should be able to cope with more than one Afghanistan 'campaign' at a time, yet now we couldn't raise sufficient resources for another Falklands or even provide a limited army presence in Northern Ireland with sufficient helicopter support if the situation in the province were as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet the politicians in Westminster are now protected by a police force with far better equipment than what they provide for our troops in Afghanistan. Interesting how they - the politicians - can find the resources for their own needs. And was it not our un-elected PM who cut the helicopter budget back in 2005...???

Sorry not to have answered the question, but there are so many underlying faults with our political leadership - or lack of - that to come up with a rational answer as to what our armed services should look like is easily side-tracked! Maybe I'll have another go once I've calmed down!

drabslab said on the 14-Jan-2010 at 15:49

I guess that any intelligent enemy will always use the tactics of which it knows the defence is weakest.

The cost of current military technology is huge and stioll we can't deal with a bunch of insurgents with clever tactics.

Could part of the answer be to accelerate R&D, constantly improving "the weakest link", but only fielding it in minimal numbers to ensure business continuity? This, of course, followed by massive production when a concrete conflict defines exactly which tools are needed at that moment.

Gary Watson said on the 17-Jan-2010 at 19:41

Could we not 'hire' military aircraft in the form of 'fighters' from the likes of British Aerospace and Boeing etc ? we had the C-17 on a similar deal, so why not fighters ? All major overalls, carried out by the 'contractors', all 'wear and tear' (wipers and brake-pads) by RAF groundcrew.
Let the defence contractors do the 'donkey'work for a change. And the engines ? well let them who's names on it, look after them too, if they don't already. Time that the MoD said 'what deals have you today' ? or we will look elsewhere for the best VFM, yes, tax-payers money that is !!

Andy Medcraft said on the 18-Jan-2010 at 14:16

The leasing of the 4 initial C17's turned out to be a very expensive way of acquiring the aircraft. The deal cost £771 million for 7 years but in 2010 the unit cost for the C17 was around $200million (about £120 million) so for the same money, we could have in fact purchased 6 aircraft and still had change. Boing are keen to keep the Globemast production line open and gain further orders so the MOD could have got a really good deal (as it has since done with the 5th, 6th and 7th airframes. PFI is not always the way to go and certainly would not work with fast jets.

Andy Medcraft said on the 18-Jan-2010 at 14:25

I don't agree that privatisation led to huge cost increases - the idea to develop increased competition in the sector was sound. The problem has been with shrinking defence budgets which has led to a consolidation within the industry to the point where we now see a monopoly in the UK (BAE). If we want to ensure competition, we now have to go abroad which has a knock on effect for the defence industrial base in this country - we lose skills and capabilities. It is a vicious circle of our own making...

Michael Leek said on the 18-Jan-2010 at 22:06

If you look at the detail, comparing pre privatisation costs with privatisation, on a pro rata basis, you'll see that this process DID lead to huge cost increases. And let's not forget that a significant number of senior Tory politicians were also directors or major share holders in these then recently privatised companies...!

However, this doesn't justify the excessive wasteage endemic in the MoD through gross incompetence and mis-management.

drabslab said on the 19-Jan-2010 at 09:11

mis-management seems to be the key term to describe the situation in the UK MoD (and even in the armed forces?).

Maybe the UK does not need a defence review but rather an audit into the ethics and behaviour of its political class.

Michael Leek said on the 19-Jan-2010 at 10:06

drabslab: I agree with you, particularly in respect of an audit into the UK's political class. Problem is, who would carry it out? Who would have the level of objectivity and impartiality required?

drabslab said on the 20-Jan-2010 at 09:00

Michael: A lot could change if the British public would systematically boycot corrupt politicians during elections.

But that is just a dream i guess.

I see the same in Belgium. The french speaking socialist party is (for the last 20 odd years now) involved in one corruption scandal after another and still, they get 34% of the french speaking votes.

I do not understand that.

unfortunately, democracy is a show where popularity is more important than competence and integrity.

Michael Leek said on the 20-Jan-2010 at 12:23

The impending defence review is now, inevitably, generating serious and probably destructive inter-service rivalry. This rivalry will only feed the ill-informed politicians into making dangerously irreversible cuts to our three armed services, particularly in the RAF and RN (the Army is 'protected' for as long as there's a ground commitment in Afghanistan).

A few days ago we had the chief of the army espousing a future senario without the need for fast jets or high tech warships, including carriers, yet with enhanced and increased resources for the army. Surprise, surprise!

In response, the chief of the navy (I can't be bothered with their formal titles), will today give his response, though that part that was published yesterday made it clear that he will obviously be arguing that the Daring class, Astute submarines and the carriers will be essential for the future, flexible defence needs of the UK in a global setting. In his defence of high tech naval equipment he mentions the Falklands, yet conveniently ignores or forgets the fact that the Bristish Merchant Navy is now so small there is no way it could provide the level of logistical support it did during the Falklands conflict. not only is the merchant fleet that much smaller, but many of the ships that would be useful are now registered under flags-of-convenience which means the UK government couldn't even requisition them without infringing international law. This means that if the Argentinians re-invaded the Falklands there wouldn't be much we could do about it. Four Typhoons, a destroyer and an RFA support ship aren't going to stop a determined aggressor.

And as for the chief of the army stating that we don't need manned fast jets why is he not listening to the guys on the ground in Afghanistan? In addition to being provided with appropriate, fit-for-purpose personal kit and equipment, and additional transport helipcopters (now, not in 2012 or 2013), they all want more Apache helicopters and continued, if not increased, ground attack fast jet support (close air support), from Harriers and now Tornados! Yet what is cut: one Harrier squadron and probably, by May/June a further Harrier squadron (if not all), and probably one or two Tornado squadrons.

And if our respective chiefs of the three armed services are so informed, why do they ignore the US armed services long term thinking, or indeed what is happening in Russia? Regardless of the cuts being proposed and made in the US Army, USAF and USN, there is still a commitment to real carriers (plus support vessels), manned next-generation bombers and manned fast jets.

Come the day after the general election in May and we'll have nothing to be thankful for regardless of which party is 'elected'.

James said on the 31-Jan-2010 at 10:37

It would be a more realistic and sensible option to have ordered the Mil 8 Hip H, rather than the Chinook, given the basic fact the government have blown the budget on vastly overpriced programmes.

The Service is a sham. Just look at the transport aircraft. VC10's and Tristar, I ask you. There are plenty of low hour Airbus/Boeing airframes available that would have given the Service the ability to move personnel or be converted to tankers for a fraction of the price of the MRTA A330's.

It's not rocket science but the backhanders/incentives have led the way rather than common sense.

I can't realistically see how this country will fulfill it's NATO duties in years to come

Harry McColl said on the 21-Feb-2010 at 09:43

I agree with Penny on certain points, scrap the nuclear deterrent and accept that we are no longer a major player on the world stage and will always require allies to support us whether this be through the EU, NATO, or the UN.

I think you would also need a third force for National Assets which would be assigned to but not always under the command of the theatre commander. ie Special Forces, Strategic Airlift, Long Endurance UAVs, satellites, etc.

I do not believe that any department should be exempt from audit to save taxpayers money, but the following caveat must apply; you cannot give an amount of money and decide what you want to achieve. That is the wrong way round, you must decide what you require and then provide the funds and resources to achieve it.

In this respect the UK Government is asking too much of our Armed Forces without giving them the resources to do the job, more helicopters in the dim and distant future is an example of this as they should have been available before we went into Afganistan.

Dave B said on the 21-Feb-2010 at 13:05

In my opinion the first thing they should do is get rid of NHS 'Managers'; that would save a lot of money. Second, they should get rid of 'Teaching Assistants' etc; who are surplus and un-necessary expenditure. Third, they should get rid of all the quangos, health 'experts' who tell us something's bad for us one week then good for us the next. All the un-necessary paperwork for everything and; last but not least the leeches in parliament who just exist to bleed the system dry. I'm sure this would save more than enough money to leave our already stretched military alone; and possibly let them have the kit they need to do the job.

Harry McColl said on the 21-Feb-2010 at 13:27

Three cheers for Dave B, put most succintly.

Penny said on the 2-Mar-2010 at 15:04

On the basis neither I nor my colleagues in government can predict the future, I'd send a message to the world as follows....

"I will protect my sovereign interests against any aggressor who attacks me individually. In return, I will only support aggression against others where this is supported by UN Mandate". (And yes, there is a whole debate to be add about what it means to be in the UN and what you should have to sign up to if you do and what you can expect if you don't!).

Thus I would...

1. Create two forces - the British Defence Force (concerned with homeland security only) and the British Deployment Force (available to support UN and NATO run engagements).

2. Reduce the management overhead in these 2 new services - pare back the top jobs to a more sensible ratio of "bosses" to "workers".

3. Tell British Defence Industry the days of blackmailing Government about protecting jobs are over and seek best kit from wherever it can be sourced - preferably teaming up with other NATO allies to improve purchasing power, combining maintenance and support options and generally avoiding the non-compatibility issues.

4. No equipment to be purchased where full and perpetual rights to use are not negotiated (e.g. not as in s/w for JSF).

5. Cancel trident and replace with a tactical nuclear system (3-4 subs is useless against the big boys and overkill for anything else).

6. Reduce troops in Afghanistan by 50% by December 2010 and require UN and US to enter into dialog with a confederation of Muslim leaders to find a way that we can co-exist without killing each other. (We stop imposing our values on them and vice versa.) As hinted above, countries that don't play by the rules need to have sanctions placed on them, enforced where necessary through military action.

7. Move unnecessary jobs in the MOD into other Government services through redeployment and retraining.

8. At a detail level, look at bases, equipment etc that are passed the shelf life (or not as the case may be) and see how they can be better used.

Michael Leek said on the 2-Mar-2010 at 15:42

A response to Penny's contribution:

1. How would this work? Would it not create conflicts of interest? How would the needs of one over-ride those of the other? What would the criteria be?

2. Agree entirely! Example: there are more Group Captains in the RAF than there were during WWII. Problem is these 'bosses' are the ones who dictate intertnal policy and therefore they'll protect themselves, much as politicians do.

3. Agree entirely, particularly about the defence industry's thinking that a government contract is a licence to print money. Yet why will this be difficult to implement? Because many senior politicians and senior ex-servicemen find extremely lucrative jobs sitting on the boards of these companies. Self-protection again.

4. Agree entirely. (By way of interest, look at who's on the boards of the companies that have determined JSF development...)

5. Do NOT agree. Who are the 'big boys'? If 3-4 subs are useless, how can they also be over-kill too?

6. Too simplistic in relation to Muslim fundamentalism. And sanctions are ineffective because covertly signatories break the rules for their own ends.

7. NO - sack them outright! Three MoD civilians for every serving man and woman is unacceptable.

8. Agree - but realistically, objectively AND strategically. But NOT as per the usual political short-termism.

Dale Marsh. said on the 1-Jul-2010 at 23:24

Sorry but I think it's the wrong question.
We should be funding the MoD fully. Cuts should be made in all three government departments that you mention above. This is simple to achieve by simply cutting the red tape, un-necessary proceedures, administration, bureaucracy, quango's etc. We can afford defence, it's politicians that haven't got the guts to pay for it!!!!

drabslab said on the 1-Aug-2010 at 14:02

As Secretary of State for Defence ad-interim (only imagining it for the sake of this exercise) I can not answer that question here and now.

First I need an answer from the Strategic Defence Review on a few very important questions:

1. what do you need the armed forces for:

option 1: as a defensive force (in its true meaning) to defend the integrity of the homeland

option 2: as an aggressive strong arm of foreign policy to go and shoot renegade countries to pieces

2. Does the UK intend to continue playing lone ranger or will we insist that other NATO / EU countries do their fair share as well.

3. If we go for better cooperation with EU, are we really prepared to build consensus with those nations and act jointly, or do we prefer to act on basis of poor information, or individual political ambitions, and get involved in a war on basis of false evidence from time to time.

4. Will we continue to do everything ourselves, or is cooperation with EU on training, transport, aircraft carriers... not such a bad idea after all.

A reply to those questions would give a good idea of what will be expected of the military in the future, which would allow identifying the tools needed to do that job.

drabslab said on the 1-Aug-2010 at 14:24

O, something else:

@Dale Marsh

If you cut the National Health Service, education and social security (which are, according to the UK citizens I know personally, not very good right already), you are cutting away your very society itself and you will have nothing left to fight for.

Andy Medcraft said on the 1-Sep-2010 at 00:30

Hang on a second...the NHS budget has doubled sice labour came to power. Can it be said that it is now twice as good as it was then? No i don't think so. There is most certainly a lot of fat that could be trimmed from most government departments including the NHS. A friend of mine works for the NW Regional Government and regularly attends meetings in london by train. He has to book his train tickets through the Government system and pay full the full fare of instead of booking himself and potentially saving a small fortune! This is just one example of how we have become overrun by beaurocracy.

What we need to ensure is that we maintain a balanced force structure and do not become too blinkered by current operations in afghanistan. We need our heavy armour, aircraft carriers, SSN's, frigates, destroyers, fighters, helicopters and all the other tools that allow us to operate independantly (if there is political will) and at a time and place of our choosing.

The next 50 years of this century will witness the rise of a number of new great powers to displace the old order. This will also coincide with a scramble for scarce resources such as oil and gas. We need to invest in our forces now in order to protect our way of life tomorrow. The armed forces are, after all, the most important insurance policy this country posesses.

drabslab said on the 1-Sep-2010 at 17:58

@ andy

Ik agree with each of the three points that you are making.

But this does not alter anything to my questions;

Before determining what the armed forces need you must first establish what their role and functions are. Pointing out that e.g. you must maintain nuclear deterence or stay in afghanistan for the foreseeable future is not enough.

Politics need to decide if UK walks alone, or whether it is (a real) part of an alliance which also means sharing resources and decision power.

David Crouch said on the 14-Sep-2010 at 19:45

It,s getting beyond a joke, to think whats happened to the UK,s military since the 2nd world war.
And not least very embarrassing, and its now time to bury our glorious passed.
And modle our forces on the SWISS model, a bit like the boy scouts, that should sattisfy our stupid Government.

Michael Leek said on the 15-Sep-2010 at 14:42

As we fast approach the findings of the National Security Council (NSC) through their Strategic Defence Review the inter-service rivalry for resources increases exponentially! Almost daily we hear senior officers subjectively and unprofessionally argue their corner without once looking at the wider picture in terms of UK defence needs or, indeed, how the UK government wishes to project itself internationally in times or regions of crisis.

From where I'm writing this the debate in the press is about RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth, and the impact closure would have on the local economy. There have even been suggestions that the two bases be converted into housing estates, indusrial units and retail parks, without anyone researching the validity of such proposals. If the former RAF Binbrook and RAF Upper Heyford are anything to go by, then there wouldn't be much future in taking these ideas for the Moray Firth any further. And this regardless of the fact that the Moray Firth region provides better flying conditions, on average, than RAF Marham, the other GR4 base.

More relevant, it is my belief that the Tornado F3 will go by December, if not sooner - even though to retain it for at least five more years is a cheaper option than the Typhoon, in all respects.

The talk of scrapping the Tornado GR4 fleet early seems to be coming from leaked sorces within the MoD and/or RAF, regardless of any work already completed to extend their service life. This proposal is obviously supported by senior officers in the RN (surprise, surprise!). And this in favour of keeping the Harrier GR9 because by so doing they - the RN - are also supporting the two proposed carriers (even though it's already been published that one will be built as a replacement for HMS Ocean and not as originally designed). The argument put forward by the blinkered RN officers fails to take cognisance of the fact that the Harrier is older than the Tornado - regardless of recent updates to both - and that, all things considered, not the least operational capability - the Tornado has more years left to offer (there are also more of them which means they can be deployed more widely).

The JSF F35 Lightning II is, not surprisingly, rarely mentioned in the current debate, but this could be because it would be equally as expensive to cancel this questionnable project as it would be to proceed. Assuming it will go ahead where will it be based if not RAF Lossiemouth - about which an announcement has already been made? Which other region of the UK would be prepared to put up with what will in effect be the noisest aircraft to enter service with the RAF?

I've probably already touched on it before (see above) but will the UK get value-for-money in terms of maximum operational useability with two carriers? It didn't take long before the RN realised it couldn't operate with just two through-deck-cruisers (as the Invincible class were originally known), but because of refits etc, they needed three to ensure one at least was available at any one time. The USN have proven this extremely well which is why they have such a large carrier fleet - they can ensure at one carrier is operational in all major oceans/locations at any one time.

What happens if there's a major international crisis and both RN carriers are out-of-service, even if one is actually built as a replacement for HMS Ocean?

And what exactly is the intended role for the new Type 45 destroyers? If it's to protect the carriers then they're not going to 100% busy! Is this value-for-money?

As for the UK's nuclear deterrent I'm not sure I've made up my mind. I'm still inclined towards keeping it. The debate on this particular issue hasn't exactly been informative in respect of the pros and cons for me to change my mind.

The Army costed units still based in Germany. It transpired that it's cheaper and more cost effective to keep them there rather than rotate as in the days of the Cold War. This is now probably an anomaly that should be rexamined, with the units brought back to the UK on a permanent basis. Intially this might add to the defence bill, but longer term it could be a massive saving, especially in terms of hidden costs.

First and foremost the MoD should be cut, with immediate effect. This has to be a priority. Year-on-year for over three or more decades this government department has proven itself to be incapable of managing procurement and everything else connected to defence. Why we do we need 86,000 MoD civil servants? What do they do?

In connection with cuttting back on civil servants in the MoD there should be an examination, followed by appropriate action, of MoD properties and land, some of which is hardle ever used - if at all - with some sites being nothing than derelict sites, not fit for anyone or anything. This real estate could generate much needed revenue - so long as it's not swallowed up by bureaucrats elsewhere in government.

In fifteen to twenty years time the RAF will no longer exist. There's a size below which they cannot drop if they are to survive as a separate arm.

By the way, the problem with bringing NHS managers, teaching assistants and others into the debate is that the NSC will not be looking at these issues. There is sufficient evidence since 1945 that proves governments are completely incapable of looking at the global picture before making decisions that affect the future security of the UK, or, as but one example, how we want our children to be educated. any attempt at joined-up thinking on the part of cabinet is anthema to senior policticians, but then few have ever worked in the real world...!

Mike Yates said on the 17-Oct-2010 at 23:07

When you consider we only have 10 Tornado`s in Afghanistan, which replaced 8 Harriers you can see an argument against the need for hundreds of fast jets needed by the RAF. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the opposition put up very limited air
to air combat and most of the actual fighting is done by the army, so we have to keep up the army numbers, as this is the type of war we are fighting. What is needed,it seems to me,are more dedicated close air support aircraft. a single engined harrier type of c.a.s. no hovering required
but 1.5 mach, smart bomb capability,.no expensive fly-by wire just seat of the pants flying skills needed. Oh! this is almost a description of the Jaguar. Remember them, they were cut in the last big round of M.o.D cuts, just as they were needed in the desert. Good decision Government, and thats the point. Cuts for the sake of it,without the thought of what`s needed, or what is coming in the years to come. Can someone please tell me why we don`t have Typhoons doing the job in the desert if only to say they have seen some action, even if it is only ground attack.

Bob Griffiths said on the 2-Nov-2010 at 14:32

I shudder at the thought of the Army taking over the RAF.The whole ethos of the two services is completely different. The Canadians tried it and it hasn't worked. The problem is that the RAF is "top heavy" reduce the hierarchy and put the savings into hardware.

James said on the 2-Nov-2010 at 16:32

Penny is going along the right track.

We are involved in an illegal war with our occupation of Afghanistan. A war we cannot afford economically and a war we are ill equipped to fight.

Whats really scary is neither of the oppostion leaders can see where this is heading. Very shortly we'll have one service covering everything.

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