The Better Part of Valour

There is a glossary of terms in Appendix 1

A year later than planned the UK Government published a strategic paper Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ On its heels, came a supporting paper Defence in a Competitive Age, which revamps the armed forces to achieve this. Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace commented: This Defence Command Paper ensures our Armed Forces are threat-focused, modernised and financially sustainable. Our military will be ready to confront future challenges, seize new opportunities for Global Britain and lay the foundations of a more secure and prosperous Union.”

Making UK armed forces more nimble to deal with technical aspects of conflict in the 21st © is a laudable goal. But such focus begs the question: with whom will such  conflicts occur? For Britain to have a global role in which it “punches above its weight” (as ministers are fond of saying) requires analysus of threats needing to be met, not bluster about ‘global Britain’ as PR to justify Brexit. Otherwise, “repurposing” armed forces may be delusional, if not downright dangerous.

Consider conflicts since Britain’s former stance as a superpower came down around Eden’s ears with Suez in 1956. From EOKA on Cyprus and Mau-Mau in Kenya through to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, the bulk of deployment has been against unsophisticated, elusive enemies in “brush fire wars”. Conventional conflicts were always against second-rate powers, like Argentina, Serbia, Iraq and Syria. And in most cases, the effort was American-led and we could lean on their technology. Whether the streets of Belfast or the wastes of Helmand, most effort was dogged infantry actions. Where Britain excelled was in special forces: the SBS on West Falkland; the SAS in the Iraqi desert.

Not only has major conflict alone against superpowers (i.e. Russia or China) is insane. Even following an American lead is questionable. Which puts Trident, or its replacement, in the dock as impractical, as well as immoral. It is no deterrent if you regard Armageddon as self-defeating. The four boomers and their MIRV cargo have cost billions and been useless in every conflict in which Britain has been involved. Another 60 warheads to add to the 180 already in storage is squandering more money for yet another new wardrobe for the emperor.

Emasculation of the rest of the RN is being contradicted by the apparent surge in investment in surface ships. The two carrier will be joined by more frigates to bring the number of ocean-going escorts to 25. This number will be required to supply an adequate protective task force around each carrier deployment.

But will such deployment make any sense? The USN runs a dozen carrier groups, each built around a Nimitz-class super-carrier (100,000 tons: 50% larger than the Queen Elizabeth class), with 40 bases around the globe to operate from. Each deploys an air group of 60+ aircraft, including specialist AWACS and electronic counter-measures. To the RN’s two Albion class amphibious assault ships (19,000 tons) and four marine battalions, the USMC fields eight Wasp class (41,000 tons) and thirty marine battalions. The USMC alone has twice as many active personnel as the entire British Amy and a budget bigger than Britain’s entire defence budget. Despite government flag-waving bluster, Britain is simply not at the races when it comes to global muscle.

And, speaking of the British Army, which has taken by far the brunt of the fighting and casualties since WW2, reduction to 72,000 active personnel begs the question of how it can continue to be an effective and literal front line when Britain’s global—as opposed to national— posture remains unclear. Vague reference is often made to the “Russian threat” or Chinese violation of human rights. But, with 150 tanks, taking on 319,000 Russian regulars with their 15,300 tanks seems rash. Britain raised barely a whisper over Russian strong-arm action in Chechnya, Crimea or the Donbass. Taking on a 1.4 million-strong  People’s Liberation Army is military lunacy. Technology and training may be key to defence, but cannot bridge such disparities. In more limited conflicts, like Iraq or Afghanistan, American “Shock and Awe” led coalitions, of which Britain played a minor part. Even here, leading-edge technology and training offered poor defence against motivated guerrillas or amidst hostile civilians.

To put all this in context, thee are five basic levels of conflict in which Britain might find itself involved:

  1. All-out Global War involving superpowers would find Britain’s nuclear arsenal an irrelevance that would simply make the rubble bounce as mankind obliterates itself.
  2. Regional War (e.g. the two Gulf Wars) would be beyond Britain’s capacity to wage alone, so would be led by NATO or the USA, who would direct forces. Even if Argentina were to re-occupy the Falklands, Britain would be incapable of repeating the 1982 success alone.
  3. Brush-Fire Wars  modelled on French intervention across the Sahel or the Paras in Sierra Leone, propping up the forces of a friendly minor power is within planned capability. Yet this begs the question why you would bother. The French are resented as still acting like a colonial power. Britain’s trivial intervention in the Syrian civil war (some sorties by pairs of RAF Typhoons from Cyprus dropping a couple of 1,000lb Paveway bombs) did more to stir up Muslim resentment than help Syrian rebels.
  4. Special Ops is where Britain might make the most effective contribution. Beside the SAS and SBS, the Marines and possibly the new Ranger Force are capable of highly effective, low-key intruder operations. Yet, by definition, none of the ‘big ticket’ forces (boomers, aircraft carries, MBTs, APC,s, strike aircraft, etc.) are any use to small, covet teams.
  5. Home Defence which is what this should be all about. GHQ, surveillance and the proposed cyber-security are a necessary part of this, as is a UK-based army around the size proposed. But projecting Britain’s forces globally means this basic element is neglected. North Sea oilfields are virtually unprotected. When the Russian carrier group built around the Admiral Kuznetsov appeared in the Moray Firth a few years back, it was detected well inside UK waters by  fishing boat. Britain had scrapped the £4bn Nimrod LRMR replacement and the nearest RN unit of any size was a frigate docked in Portsmouth.

Despite a declaration by the UK government that it wishes to increase Britain’s influence on the Asia/Pacific region and will be sending a carrier group thee, the purpose of this is unclear at best and delusional at worst. Intervene in technically under-developed Myanmar to prevent people being butchered by generals usurping democracy is beyond Britain’s ability, carrier group o no. Intervention in Northern Mozambique, Tigre, Yemen, let alone Syria, are well beyond British forces—present or planned. The days of British global gunboat clout are long gone.

Even the ability to support global action is being hollowed out. In the Falkland War, all fifty C-130 Hercules transports in the four squadrons of the Lynham Transport Wing flew over 500 missions to Ascension and beyond. These aging workhorses are to be replaced by Airbus A400M Atlas. With only 22 are on order, another Falklands, or anything like it, would be impossible from logistics alone

If Britain were to focus on the mutual defence of Europe though NATO, an army reduced by another 10,000 and its seven divisions merged to four could make sense. Formation of a four-battalion ‘Ranger’ regiment, plus a reinforced 16th Air Assault Brigade provides a respectable rapid response force in such a role.

If the morally indefensible and militarily useless nuclear ‘deterrent’ were cut, rather than augmented, conventional defence could be properly funded. Trident, plus the four Dreadnought class boomers to carry them cost £49bn to build—more than Britain’s total defence spend in a year. The government claims it must “reserve the right of nuclear retaliation in response to acts of aggression, including chemical and biological and even cyberattacks.” Events over the last half century have proved this wrong.

Discretion, not hubris, is the better part of valour.

Appendix 1: Glossary

  • APC = Armoured Personnel Carrier (carries infantry, currently in Warriors)
  • AWACS = Airborne Waning and Control System
  • Battalion = a force of soldiers, usually around 600 strong
  • Boomer = nuclear-powered submarine, armed with multiple nuclear-tipped missiles
  • C-130 = four-engined Hercules long-range transport aircraft
  • EOKA = Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston—Greek-Cypriot guerrillas
  • F/A-18 = McDonnell-Douglas Hornet main USN shipboard fighter aircraft
  • F-35B =  Lockheed-Martin Lightning main RN shipboard fighter aircraft
  • GHQ = General Headquarters—Britain’s cyber-warfare centre
  • LRMR = Long-Range Maritime Reconnaissance
  • Mau-Mau = Kenya anti-colonial guerrilla force, led by Jomo Kenyatta
  • MBT = Main Battle Tank (currently Challenges)
  • MIRV = Multiple Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicle
  • NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • Nimrod = obsolete LMR aircraft of the RAF, based in the 105-s Comet jet.
  • RAF = Royal Air Force
  • RN = Royal Navy
  • SAS = Special Air Service
  • SBS = Special Boat Squadron
  • USMC – United States Maine Corps
  • USN = United States Navy

Appendix 2:  Overview of proposals in Defence in a Competitive Age

Royal Navy. This is the arm that seems to be favoured for their ability to deploy globally, if sometimes requiring the support/permission of friendly nations. The plan here involves:

  1. A new “Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability” will be acquired, tasked to deal with protecting critical national infrastructure, such as undersea cables.[4][5]
  2. Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels and Sandown-class minehunters will be replaced by autonomous minehunting vessels
  3. A Bay-class landing ship will be converted to a forward-based littoral strike role for the Royal Marines.[5] The Royal Marines themselves will form the core of a Future Commando Force.[1]
  4.  Type 83 destroyer will be developed to replace Type 45 in the late 2030s.
  5. Two Type 23 frigates will be retired early, before an increase in numbers with the introduction of the Type 26 frigateType 31 frigate and Type 32 frigate.[1]
  6.  Harpoon will be retired and replaced by the interim Surface to Surface Guided Weapon; the Type 45 destroyer will also receive upgraded air defence weapons.[5]
  7. The “next generation of subsea systems” to replace the Astute-class fleet submarines will be developed and enter service in the 2040s

British Army

The British Army will be reduced in establishment, to 72,500 regular personnel by 2025, with no change in reserves.

  1. 79 Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks will be retired, with the remaining 148 upgraded to Challenger 3
  2. The planned Warrior upgrade will be cancelled, and instead the vehicles will be retired upon the introduction of Boxer in the mid-2020s.
  3. £250 million will be invested in Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS)
  4. £800 million will be invested in a new automated fires platform.
  5. The Infantry will be restructured into four new divisions.[1]
  6. A new four-battalion Ranger Regiment will be formed, from the Royal Scots Borderers; 2nd Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment; 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; and 4th Battalion, The Rifles The new regiment will sit within the Special Operations Brigade – formed from redesignation of the Specialised Infantry Group.
  7. A new Global Readiness Force will be formed, consisting of a newly formed 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, and 16th Air Assault Brigade, the latter of which will be reinforced by a further infantry battalion.
  8. The British Army will be re-organised into 7 self-sufficient Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) – two heavy, both affiliated to 3rd Division, two light, one deep strike, one air maneuvre, and one combat aviation.
  9. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Mercian Regiment will be amalgamated.[5]
  10. A Security Force Assistance Brigade will be formed to assist and train partner nations.[1]
  11. Manning will increase in the areas of electronic warfare, air defence, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

Royal Air Force

£2 billion will be invested over the next 4 years, into the Future Combat Air System.

  1. The Boeing 737 AEW&C “Wedgetail” order will be reduced from five to three.[5]
  2. The Lockheed C-130 Hercules fleet will be retired by 2023.[5]
  3. The order of 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II will be increased. However, the 2015 commitment to procure 138 F-35s is not referred to. On 23 March, the First Sea Lord estimated that the final fleet will total between 60 and 80 aircraft.
  4. 16 Protector UAVs will replace the current 9 Reapers.
  5. All Tranche 1 Typhoon fighters will be retired by 2025. The remaining Typhoons will be upgraded
  6. The Hawk T1 aircraft will be retired by 2025.[1]
  7. £200 million will be invested in enhanced electronic warfare & signals intelligence capability. £6.6 billion will be invested into space over the next 4 years

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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