SDSR: What to expect today

This afternoon, David Cameron will set out Her Majesty’s Government’s second Strategic Defence and Security Review since he came to power in 2010. The report is set to confirm defence spending at 2 percent, but will also paradoxically mean widespread cuts across the board.  Defence for Dummies is listing here (in order of branch seniority) what we think is likely to come up at 3:30 p.m.

The Royal Navy

  • As noted by this site, F-35 orders are to be ramped up to 138, shared between RAF and Royal Navy.
  • Both Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will be placed into commission, with previous mothballing plans for HMS Prince of Wales scrapped.
  • The Type 26 (Global Combat Ship) frigate programme will be cut into two phases. The first will order eight, with a further five to possibly be ordered in a second phase. This will likely result in no like for like replacement of current frigates.
  • To make up for the crew shortfall in the Royal Navy, due to missing manpower targets, redundancies and the requirements of two new aircraft carriers, two surface warships will be placed into mothballs. This is to ensure both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are manned to capacity.
  • The programme to replace the current Vanguard-class nuclear boats will go ahead, once approved by the House of Commons. Extremely unlikely for numbers to be reduced from four Trident submarines.

The Army

  • Bases to face significant cuts and closures. Current bases probably will be merged into ‘mega bases’ with multiple regiments or battalions. Germany withdrawal also to be fully confirmed. Other real estate likely to be ditched, fate of the MoD golf courses is unclear.
  • Creation of two new rapid deployment ‘Strike Brigades,’ that appear to be made of spin. Made up of current forces and a few new Ajax Scout vehicles. These will take 10 years to form (2 SDSRs away).
  • Helicopter replacements, mainly of the older Apache gunships (as predicted by Howard Wheeldon)
  • Personnel numbers likely to be left alone, however there are some battalions that feel under threat, more mergers probably not to be seen today but could come up during this government.

The Royal Air Force

  • Planned retirement of early Typhoons put on hold, to make up numbers in promised two new squadrons. Supposedly a third squadron will be added by 2020 of F-35s, pending their ability to be certified operational.
  • Poseidon P-8s, bought from the US will be acquired to return maritime patrol capability to UK shores. Was originally thought to be a lease from the US Navy, but now looks like nine are being permanently acquired.
  • New phase of Typhoon upgrades in abilities and systems, likely to allow the early builds to keep up.
  • Despite the 2010 SDSR promising withdrawal of the Sentinel R1, it will be retained for the next decade. This is due to its heavy use against Daesh and by NATO. The Sentinel is a surveillance aircraft.
  • Similar extensions will also be given to the E3-D Sentry AWACS, again for use against Daesh. The Sentry is an airborne early warning aircraft.
  • As with the army, RAF base closures can be expected. Squadrons likely to move in with neighbours.
  • With increased special forces activity in the Middle East, several C-130 transport aircraft are to be retained for their use, despite introduction of the newer A400M transports (also as predicted by Howard Wheeldon).
  • The RAF Regiment could face cuts, given its lower profile and a government promise of no permanent service manpower reductions to the Army.

UK SDSR hedges bets on F-35 and SAS

The F-35, not content with being the unloved accident of the defence industry is now set to be the grim reaper for large portions of the British Armed Forces.

Under plans revealed in the Sunday Times today (paywall), Chancellor George Osborne unveiled the government’s intention to buy more than 138 F-35Bs for the Royal Air Force and Navy. This figure had been recently mooted as nowhere near conceivable, with final numbers expected to be in double digits.

The cost of further billions being spent on the cursed aircraft will have repercussions across the defence budget, the details of which will be revealed on Monday in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

It is understood the Armed Forces will say goodbye to even more regiments, battalions and even bases. In return the military will see larger amounts of the management outsourced and training regimes cut back to save costs. Base closure locations are not yet confirmed, but will likely be home to British army regiments set to be amalgamated or disbanded.

One of the biggest losers predicted on Monday will be the Type 26 Global Combat Ship programme. Originally intended to replace the ageing Type 23 frigates on a like-for-like basis, the priority given to projects like the F-35 will mean that final Type 26 numbers will come nowhere near original promised targets. Currently active warships are also expected to be mothballed long ahead of schedule.

Besides the F-35, another segment of the Forces looking at a budget increase will be corps like the Special Air Service (SAS) and other parts of the special forces. Capitalising on post-Paris shock and a love of the special forces in Britain, the government is attempting to use the small budget boost to spin the substantive job and capability losses faced elsewhere across the board.

Despite the widespread scythe set to be cut through the military establishment on Monday, Osborne and the government will still be able to claim a 2 percent overall spend of GDP on defence, due to the inclusion of figures such as war pensions, civilian pensions, and UN peacekeeping contributions.


RFA Wave Knight. Crown copyright

Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker cannot put to sea after £14m refit

RFA Wave Knight is reportedly unable to put to sea after a £14m refit. The fast fleet tanker is currently alongside in Birkenhead, having not deployed since Exercise Cougar 14 a year ago.

The Plymouth Herald reports sketchy details about the auxiliary “not meeting the requirements for Royal Navy military training”. Taken in hand by Cammell Laird late last year, the 16-yr-old tanker has spent about twelve months alongside.

An RN spokesman told the Herald that Wave Knight “is safe”, adding: “Assessment of the required rectification is currently ongoing. It is therefore too early to provide an estimate [for how much more money will have to be spent on the refit].”

It appears that despite the £14m spent so far, something mechanical – and pretty fundamental – has gone wrong with Wave Knight. Further details are not immediately obvious, though from what is available so far it may be the case that the ship has failed some part of her post-refit working up.

Wave Knight has had a varied career with the RFA, visiting ports around the world in support of RN and allied naval operations. A number of operational deployments culminated in 15 months spent on Atlantic Patrol Task North in 2013-14, where her 77 RFA crew were joined by three RN sailors and a detachment from the US Coast Guard. The tanker was employed on anti-drug-running operations, with her American guests carrying out the law enforcement function.

She returned to Portland Naval Base in April 2014 and was briefly deployed on Ex Cougar 14 in September that year.

In April 2015, during Wave Knight’s refit, about 200 personnel working aboard the ship had to be evacuated after an oxy-acetylene gas canister caught fire on the quayside. It is not thought that fire is related to today’s mechanical woes.

Last year the BBC reported that two RFAs were stuck alongside due to a shortage of engineers in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service.

Operational F-35s to be Counted on One Hand

Her Majesty’s Minister for Defence Procurement, Mr Philip Dunne, made a quiet announcement in an answer to a parliamentary question today.

Asked by Labour MP Andrew Gwynne how many F-35 Joint Strike Fighters would be needed to meet initial operating capability, Dunne informed the house that the Ministry of Defence will consider the jet to be operational on the delivery of the fifth aircraft, of eight ordered.

“Of the eight F-35B aircraft that the UK has so far ordered, three will undertake operational test and evaluation flying. The remaining five will contribute to the Initial Operating Capability.”

The F-35’s custom built carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is said to be able to launch aircraft every 30 seconds, which will, by our calculations, allow the £3bn ship to get the nation’s entire maritime fast jet presence in the air in under three minutes. Talk about service.

Of course when HMS Prince of Wales comes into service, that will be an impressive 2.5 planes per carrier.

What are the Letters of Last Resort?

Somewhere out in the North Atlantic, every hour of the day, every day of the year, a lone submarine glides through the ocean with no real destination. Since 1969, one of the four boats of the UK’s Continuous At-Sea Submarine Deterrent has always been on patrol. Its location known to only a handful, even many of her crew will have no idea where they are.

While many Royal Navy captains hold responsibility for their crew, Trident submarine commanders also bear a far more macabre role: the duty to play Britain’s final political and diplomatic hand possible. Within the bowels of each boat lays two safes, an outer and an inner, and within that inner safe sits the letter of last resort.

One of the first tasks of the Cabinet Secretary on the appointment by the Queen of a new Prime Minister, is to have the new leader write that very letter. After the elation of an election victory, the civil servant informs the politician that this letter will lay out the action the Prime Minister wishes to take, should the government and chain of command be totally destroyed by nuclear attack. Tony Blair, according to his cabinet secretary, was said to have gone “quite white” on being told of his options. Options which do allow a great deal of latitude, with varying degrees of widespread destruction of human life:

  1. Retaliate with nuclear weapons without prejudice.
  2. Do not retaliate at all.
  3. Allow the commander to act within his own discretion.
  4. Place the boat under the control of an allied navy, specifically the Royal Australian Navy or US Navy.

Given some time alone, the Prime Minister is requested to decide and write it in a letter addressed to the commanders of each of the Vanguard-class submarines in the navy. The message is then sealed in an envelope and sent to be placed into the boats’ safes. So far, none of these missives have been opened, and the letters are burned at the end of each premier’s term. The only Prime Minister to comment openly on their orders was Lord Callaghan in an interview with historian Peter Hennessy.

“If it were to become necessary or vital, it would have meant the deterrent had failed, because the value of the nuclear weapon is frankly only as a deterrent. But if we had got to that point, where it was, I felt, necessary to do it, then I would have done it. I’ve had terrible doubts, of course, about this. I say to you, if I had lived after having pressed that button, I could never ever have forgiven myself.”

To get to the stage where the letters can be opened is a long and purposefully difficult journey. First, the Prime Minister must have perished or become incapacitated in some way. Then, his proposed alternate decision makers would had to have met the same fate. It is only after that point that the submarine commanders go anywhere near their safes.

If the  Prime Minister or his alternates survive an attack, they will likely be conveyed to a secure bunker underneath the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, without their families. From there, what remains of the government will issue orders to retaliate through the headquarters of Royal Navy Taskforce 345, based in a bunker under the Chiltern Hills.

In a room described as “quite bland” by a previous commanding officer, two people are on watch 24/7 and are in constant communication with the submarines at sea. It is they who pass on all messages, including those to fire. If the Prime Minister decides to do so, he will submit a code which will then, similarly to the submarines, be confirmed by information contained in the bunker’s safe. Should the authorisation be authenticated, the submarine commander is then given permission to fire.

However, the above scenario relies on a crucial aspect: the centre of government surviving the opening plays of an all-out nuclear war. Which is where the letters of last resort then come in. Should a submarine commander not receive contact from his superiors for some time, he will execute a number of checks. One of which famously is to attempt to listen to the Radio 4 Today programme for several days. The latter requirement caused a scare in 2004 when the station went off air for 15 minutes.

If the tones of James Naughtie do not drift into the control room of the submarine for three successive days, the commander and his executive officer will use their individual keys and unlock the outer and inner safes, and find the fate of Britain resting in a No. 10 Downing Street envelope instructing them exactly what, or perhaps not, to do.

Can the F-35 get off the ground?

UPDATE: Today, the MoD released a press release quietly revealing, in an article about carrier engines, that they did not expect the F-35 to be at operational strike capability until 2020 after trials beginning in 2018. As of course predicted by this site weeks ago.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, otherwise known as the American defence industry’s unwanted pregnancy, had its first test takeoff from a ski jump earlier this week. The success of the takeoff highlighted not only the aircraft’s ability to get some sweet air from a £2m ramp, but also that it would be able to launch from the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class-carriers. The test had originally been scheduled for late last year, but Lockheed/BAe cancelled it without giving a reason, and nothing was heard again about it until this video suddenly appeared, because concurrency is a fantastic way of developing military assets.

The Royal Navy, and to a lesser extent the Royal Air Force, have hedged all their bets on this aircraft. With the lack of catapults on the carriers, this is perhaps besides an OV-10 Bronco, the only attack plane they could hope to operate. However, given that the fate of the F-35 lies in a foreign government, the sea lords do not necessarily have a sure thing on their hands. To understand, it’s important to look at the jet’s less disappointing cousin, the F-22 Raptor.

In the 90s the US Air Force planned to buy 750 Raptors, but over the proceeding years, this number was continually cut. As the price of the air superiority fighter ballooned and ended up with the acquisition of only 183 F-22s, at an eventual calculated cost of $412m per aircraft. The project was cancelled entirely in 2011 with an assumption that the F-35 could take up the slack.

Unfortunately the situation has now been entirely replicated in the form of the Joint Strike Fighter, and for a nation with defence spending like the U.S., there is no such phrase as “too big to cancel.” The lifetime cost of the plane is set to be $1.6 trillion, which is equivalent to 25 years of the British defence budget at current levels. Canada has dropped out of the project due to costs, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has heavily scaled down its orders to barely a few dozen, leaving the Americans to pick up the slack. If those numbers continue to drop, as could happen in this year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, the American legislators faced with budget cuts could be left with little choice but to abort the entire project, or at the very least produce the very minimum needed.

If development does continue, the MoD in this country will still have a number of awkward questions to answer. Given the F-35s love of burning through carrier decks like a hot torch, could we see another set of delays to the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to protect its extremely expensive components? There are also concerns over the expected operational capability in the U.K., as the MoD continue to promise on a 2018 date, and refusing to consider any contingencies as was exposed in a recent parliamentary question by Labour MP and leading defence inquistor Andrew Gwynne.

The F-35, besides its ability to melt billion dollar warship decks, has the capacity to be a highly capable strike aircraft, but its genesis has been horrific.