“Britain still aspires to deploy a full spectrum capability on a global scale but is unwilling to pay what it takes to make that role credible”

Republished from the Birmingham Perspective:

The news that the National Audit office has estimated that the UK defense budget is underfunded to the tune of £20 billion for the next decade should come as no surprise. Attempts to do defense on the cheap since the end of the cold war have squeezed the capabilities of the armed forces without making the uncomfortable choices that such underfunding demand.

The immediate cash crisis is the result of the fall in the value of the British pound, making purchases of US equipment such as F-35 jet aircraft more expensive, and the requirement for unrealistic efficiency savings; however, the larger problems are structural. Britain still aspires to deploy a full spectrum capability on a global scale but is unwilling to pay what it takes to make that role credible. At the same time, the ability to contribute to American military missions is a key element of UK foreign policy and this has driven defence procurement and strategy.

The decision to try to maintain “organic” carrier-based airpower without allocating sufficient resources to make that a reality are a clear case in point. At £3 billion, building the two new aircraft carriers has been so expensive that the budget for the air defence destroyers necessary for their protection has been cut. The initial plan for these Type 45 destroyers was to build 12. When their cost soared to a billion pounds each, the Royal Navy was asked about the minimum capability. Their reply was that they could manage with eight at a push. Instead they were given six. So there are insufficient escorts for even one of the Queen Elizabeth carriers to operate without the assistance of allied navies.

The cost of thedDestroyers is also indicative of another structural problem, the use of the defence budget as part of an industrial strategy. The destroyers, like most of the UK’s equipment, are produced domestically and expensively to support the UK arms industry. Had the UK bought the equivalent American destroyers in the Arleigh Burke class, it could have done so at half the price, thus getting twice the capability of 12 at the same cost.

Meanwhile, the carriers will sail with a small amount of aircraft on them, as the F-35s cost $100 million each. This will be an independent naval air arm only in name.

Britain’s nuclear deterrent system is a hugely expensive component of the defense budget that draws resources away from the other fighting arms. Its lifetime costs are estimated at £205 billion, with plans to replace the existing Vanguard submarines with the Dreadnaught class contributing to a projected overspend. These systems are renowned for overrunning their allocated budgets and roles.

Underfunding of defense has raised the question of the operational security of the current nuclear fleet after cuts made in the 2010 defense review. Both existing and planned Maritime Patrol Aircraft, deployed in part to give the submarines vital top cover support, were scrapped.

The irony of the decisions to buy new carriers and nuclear submarines is that the Royal Navy is now being asked to consider what it can cut to pay for these new procurements. Having paid for and brought into service relatively new and recently refitted Amphibious Assault Ships, there is speculation that this role will be cut and the Royal Marines merged with the paratroopers to make further savings. There is also talk of reducing the Army by another 14,000 troops. bringing it to its lowest level since before the Napoleonic wars.

To avoid the cuts and postpone these choices, at least another £2 billion is needed each year for the next decade. The alternative will be armed forces that present the appearance of full spectrum capability, but in reality are a hollowed-out illusion of a defense posture.

The UK likes to think of itself as a global player, an indispensable ally, and an influential actor. But its unwillingness to pay what it takes to fund that role or to make the choices necessary to consolidate resources and make good capabilities, leaves its forces overstretched and not fit for purpose.

As Britain contemplates its role as “Global Britain” outside the EU, it would do well to consider the consequences of an approach of trying to “have your cake and eat it”.