Britain Defenceless in the 21st-Century.

Summary: The British defence programme is in an extraordinarily bad state. All current procurement programs are running very late and very overbudget. Many of them appear not to fit well with other programs, past or current. Systems that have been specified and over specified thoughtlessly are proving unreliable and inappropriate for defence in the 21st-century. This piece tries to look at the state British defence is in. A serious strategic defence review needs to be carried out since the most recent one published at the end of 2015 seem so impossibly out of touch with reality.

The UK trumpets the fact that it spends around 2% of GDP on defence. That apparently makes everyone in NATO happy. Unfortunately nobody in the UK should be mildly content with that. There is a massive problem with the British military and its approach to procurement. Military chiefs approach procurement like Arab princes going into a supercar showroom. They ask for the best with all the extras you could imagine. If in doubt, a bit more goldplating would be splendid! Like the military through the ages they are keen to arm themselves to fight the last war and have remarkably little idea what the next one might actually be like. Many of the major procurement programs of the British military are remarkably misguided. They clearly have very little idea of what the next war might look like. They are buying capital ships such as aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines which seem pointless in a 21st-century war. Vast numbers of aircraft are being bought that perform poorly and are eye-wateringly expensive. I will quickly run through the list of the main procurement programs already underway by the Ministry of Defence. At the end of the piece I recommend a book that tries hard to imagine what the next world war might well look like. It is rather scary but strongly to be recommended.

  • Let’s start with the aircraft carriers. When the Tories came to power their obsession with cuts forced the only British aircraft carrier (the Ark Royal) to be scrapped and the Harrier aircraft on it got rid of. Now they are building two more carriers which are well over budget and well behind schedule. They don’t have the capacity to catapult launch a fighter aircraft because the catapult hardware came out to be far too expensive. The programme cost is currently estimated to be £14.3 billion including the aircraft but unfortunately there are not actually enough engineers to get the carriers running properly and anyway they will barely have enough pilots to fly the aircraft before 2026. Each carrier has 24 of the F-35B aircraft. The big problem with aircraft carriers and indeed with many capital ships is that they are now desperately vulnerable to high-performance cruise and ballistic missiles. For example, China is developing the DF-21, a carrier killing ballistic missile with a range of 1100 miles and a top speed 10 times that the sound (2 miles per second). None of our ships have any serious protection against such a weapon. One single hit gets rid of the whole carrier and its aircraft and its crew.
  • Fighter aircraft for the carriers are being purchased from the US. These are the F-35B lightning aircraft capable of near vertical takeoff and landing. They need this because the carriers have no other way of launching aircraft. Although the aircraft carriers only need 48 aircraft we are ordering 138 in total all of which are the short takeoff variant. The remainder are for conventional operations. This variant is unfortunately more expensive, heavier, can carry less load and has a smaller range than the basic F35 aircraft. It is far from clear why all are being purchased in that -B variant. Each aircraft costs about £100 million including engine and avionics. Unfortunately the performance of the F-35 is rather poor. One was recently outperformed in a mock dogfight over the Pacific by a 40-year-old F-16 aircraft. The test pilot described the F-35 is being too slow to hit an enemy plane or dodge gunfire. Not such great value for money after all! Last year major problems were found with the avionics systems with 5 out of 6 of the jets unable to take off during testing because of “immature systems and software”.
  • The next area of concern are the six Type 45 destroyers. In a remarkable oversight it turns out the engines cannot manage being in a warm sea and they breakdown in waters such as the Persian Gulf. All the engines need to be refitted. Another serious problem is that these destroyers are extraordinarily noisy. Any Russian submarine can detect one of the destroyers at a range of over 100 miles. Even the crew of a Type 45 think they are noisy. The former director of operational capability at the MoD claimed that these ships sound like a box of spanners underwater. Very reassuring for those serving on such boats. Even 40 years ago destroyers were made to be as quiet as possible. It is not clear yet whether the new engines will improve things but their replacement will take a very substantial amount of time not to mention being very expensive. It also means these destroyers will be out of service for a long time.
  • A good example of the way that the military top brass likes to gold plate their pet projects is the Type 26 global combat ship. This pretentious name disguises the fact that it is basically a submarine hunter/killer. Navy chiefs insist that it must hold 4 of 39 foot boats, drones or 11 shipping containers and have a deck capable of landing an Apache helicopter for SAS type missions. The basic weight was originally 5400 tons but now, fully loaded, the vessel is expected to weigh more than 8000 tons. The initial cost estimate of £350 million is believed to have been exceeded substantially already. These prices don’t include any significant weapon system for the ships, and that is an expense which does not appear to have been budgeted for.
  • The Royal Navy insists we have a “world-class fleet” of submarines that “continues to meet all of its operational tasking”. This is despite the fact that all seven are currently out of action. Some are apparently on their last legs having been built as recently as 1986. Three built more recently cost nearly £4 billion with construction delayed by more than four years and costs 50% over budget. They are also in dock and likely to remain there for some time.
  • The current Trident submarines continue to plod along perfectly well, although recent missile tests that misfired suggest all may not be well with the Trident missiles themselves. New submarines are to be built at a total cost of about £40 billion. This must surely be a good case for “making do and mending” to cut back on expenditure until everything else is running properly. More on this at:
  • Watchkeeper drones were intended to enter service six years ago. The costs have gone up from £700 million to £1.2 billion.
  • Plans to buy a fleet of 50 Apache attack helicopters for the British Army are being delayed because of the collapse of the pound relative to the US dollar by 21% since the EU referendum. The software in these helicopters can only be upgraded by the US because of “military sensitivity”. The UK is increasingly reliant on the US defence industry.
  • The Ajax scout vehicle program will cost about £3.5 billion to deliver 589 of these armoured vehicles which are essentially mini tanks with a Caterpillar tread. Unfortunately they are too heavy to fit into the RAF’s A400M transport planes and have to be taken to bits first before shipping. What on earth 589 of these immovable objects might be needed for is almost impossible to imagine. I suppose they can buzz around on Salisbury Plane blasting clumps of heather to kingdom come.

The overall British defence programme is extraordinarily expensive but above all of little help in defending us. Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers approaching UK airspace can fire missiles at London while circling over Moscow. Modern weapons systems are completely different from anything that the UK is really thinking about. We really should be thinking much more creatively about the way that modern lightweight compact weapon systems are likely to completely dominate in the future. Very fast unmanned fighter aircraft will shortly massively outperform any manned aircraft. Already the highest performance drones (unmanned aircraft) cost between $6 and $15 million. They don’t have the capacity in combat of an F-35 but they could have. They would have many advantages over a manned aircraft, be able to tolerate much higher G-forces and be able to fly in zones where increasing risks of being shot down would make the use of a manned aircraft unacceptable. Sophisticated software on board weapon systems will be what makes or breaks a systems effectiveness. Increasingly wars will become a battle between software systems and not between heavy pieces of equipment that are vulnerable so easily to modern attack weapons. This is not something that the Ministry of Defence appear to have thought about at all.

And then there is the whole business of cyber warfare which is beginning to be taken seriously but needs to have very substantial investment. The individuals who are able to take part in this need a very considerable amount of training and are not people that can be simply turned on like a tap. Getting this right is extremely important and a long-term strategy is absolutely essential.

We desperately need to completely rethink what is happening in our military. Most of the systems we are buying and have bought are remarkably inappropriate. There are not really able to fill any useful future military role. We may be using 2% of our GDP to keep our NATO allies happy but we are totally dependent on the defensive shield of the US. US sales us our equipment, give us permission to use it, takes responsibility for upgrading it (at our cost) and trains our people to use it. It is far from clear how much innovative development is going on in the much vaunted British defence industry but it is clear that without the US and the British capacity to manufacture some of these American goods under licence it would be pretty dead.

What is needed now is a Strategic Defence and Security review that actually looks at a realistic concept of what future defence capacity might actually include. The latest one, published at the end of 2015 reads well, sounds plausible and might be satisfactory if we were still fighting the Cold War. But we are not, we are facing rapid technological change across the world and we are simply not keeping up with it. Defence is important and value for money is critical. However we must ask for weapon systems of all sorts that are economic, appropriate for use over the next 20 or 30 years and above all actually work and keep working.

Finally, it may be rather strange to recommend a novel in support of a highly technical factual piece but if you want to get some idea of what the next world war might actually be then the book “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War”, by PW Singer and August Cole is well worth a read. What it tries to do is to think through the sort of scenarios that the British MoD are completely unaware of. This was written three years ago before any of the current problems in the South China Seas had developed. Nevertheless it imagines that that might indeed become the flashpoint for a future battle. It only talks about weapon systems and technology that either are in existence or are very close to being completed. The book is full of detailed references to each of the weapon systems discussed. It is very, very scary! But definitely something you should read if you are concerned about our defence in the 21st-century. You can find it here:

3 Replies to “Britain Defenceless in the 21st-Century.”

  1. Good article. It should be Salsibury PLAIN. Also, while it was a Coalition government which continued with the carrier contracts this was in large part because the previous Labour government had placed the contracts and made them virtually impossible to cancel .

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