Right, apology's for the delays, but we're finally here.
Now, about three or more weeks ago I sat down with the intention of reviewing the defence policy of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). They had just done pretty well in the county council elections, were being splashed across the front pages of many newspapers, and generally causing a few political waves. Inevitably when a small party starts to rise up the polls its members and its policies will come under greater scrutiny. That was my intention.
Till things got rather hectic for me personally. A warning perhaps about the dangers of unexpected circumstances?
In that time, UKIP converted their defence policy from a downloadable document to page on a website, so if you want to read the whole thing (take you about 10-20 minutes, depending on the number of distractions you face!) then you can read it here; http://www.ukip.org/index.php/issues/policy-pages/defence
Otherwise, read on for the summary version.In summary, UKIPs' defence policy is... a summary.
Let's face it, it's a political policy document. And like all policy documents by political parties, it's light on substance and big on sound bites. There's very little detail and a lot of broad sweeping gestures and talk about changes in very open terms that allow the reader to fill in some of the blanks with their own prejudices. For example, on the section about the military covenant there is very little detail about what will actually be done or how the policy will be delivered. It simply talks about doing more for veterans and to properly look after those who are injured in the line of duty, to which each person will naturally attach their own view on what constitutes "a fair pension" and "employment support for life".
But we can remove some of the bigger sound bites and study them in a little more detail. We'll start with the budget.
At one point UKIP was talking about a 40% increase in defence spending and three new aircraft carriers. That has since been revised to an estimated budget of £50bn (and just the two aircraft carriers), though that doesn't provide a breakdown of how much will actually be spent on Defence Capability, or in other words the bits of the military that are easily recognisable as providing the fighting capability, as opposed to things like foreign military aid.
Perhaps the biggest point to discuss is UKIPs' plan to dispose of the MoD and replace it with.... I'm not really sure what? There's talk about a separate procurement body and a separate body for strategy and policy, but that sounds an awful lot like what happens anyway. There's your usual talk about getting rid of civil servants and leaving defence policy to the professionals, but that ignores the reality that defence policy is tied very closely to the civilian body otherwise known as "the government".
Does UKIP really intend to leave all strategic planning to a group of Joint Chiefs? You're telling me they're not, under any circumstances, going to get involved themselves in such planning, or appoint people to meddle on their behalf? I smell something, and it's certainly not roses.
The reality is that while every military operates under a variety of constraints, they also operate under the whim of their contemporary government. If the government of the day cuts the levels of funding, then "strategy" changes. All of a sudden the things considered critical to UK defence can be brushed aside to fit the new economic reality. I'm always suspicious of people promising something that they have little chance of delivering on, thus I treat these claims with scepticism.
I also wonder quite what sort of body UKIP hopes to create? Unless they're going to fill the chairs of the new organisation with service personnel, then inevitably they're going to end up with a fresh hoarde of civil servants, potentially ones with less experience than those cast aside before them. I also find the idea of involving shadow defence ministers to be one that sounds good in practice but is unlikely to bring about any benefit. It assumes that the shadow government will a) not use such access for political gain and b) agree to all of the plans proposed by the then government, following through on all of them if and when they achieve office themselves.
Moving on, UKIP views the army as rising to around 100,000, supported by three reserve divisions. Or is it four? Or five? They can't even seem to agree with themselves about how many reserve divisions there will be; "... supported by 3 well trained Territorial Divisions with a further divisional reserve would suffice for normal operations. A third full-time division will be maintained as an operational reserve based upon the Regular Reserve."
So is that three TA divisions with a fourth in reserve (how do you have a reserve, reserve division?)? Is the third full-time division based around the Regular Reserve, a reserve division for the regulars? Or a reserve for the reserve? Is it included in the three TA divisions or separate? How do you have a full-time division made from regular reservists? I have my reservations about how well thought out this policy is.
I'm also not sure how well the regular forces will take to the idea that they will be facing a mandatory three year exposure to call up after they leave. Also of concern is a statement about young people being a national resource that should be utilised. That sounds a little too much like the potential for conscription for my liking.
On to the Navy and UKIP plans to bring both carriers into service, though it seems from reading between the lines of their document that they're not happy about the decision to go with the 'B' version of the F-35, instead looking for alternatives. With the increased size of the proposed defence budget that could be a possibility, but it does smack a little of causing yet further delays to a project that has already seen more than its fair share of them.
There is also a vague comment about increasing the number of surface combat vessels. Presumably that means Type 26 frigates, because there is no time or capacity for any other option. Unless UKIP is planning to head out and buy goods from abroad?
On to the RAF, and it would appear UKIP plans to turn Tornado into a reserve aircraft. There is mention of developing a reserve force that would train together and then be declared operationally capable, but again, lots of questions are left hanging. How many aircraft? How many men? How are they going to maintain their levels of readiness? It's one thing to keep an infantry soldier on reserve and refresh his skills now and again. It's quite another to keep the pilot of an advanced jet aircraft on reserve and attempt to requalify him on a regular basis.
The only other mention in the air is about Maritime Patrol Aircraft, though it's not clear whether UKIP sees this as a joint asset. Nor is it clear which solution they favour. Or how many. The reference is literally just that maritime patrol is important they'll restore it. Somehow. In some form.
Perhaps the policy point that will draw the most attention is their ambition to replace Trident and the continuous at sea deterrent with some as yet undeveloped solution based on high speed, stealthy cruise missile, apparently based around Storm Shadow.
The plan is to have air launched, surface launched, and sub-surface launched systems. There is a precedent I guess in the form of things like Frances' ASMP air launched weapon, which could probably be adapted for surface or sub-surface launch if required.
Conceivably you could bodge a nuclear warhead into Storm Shadow, and we already know that Tomahawk can be adapted for nuclear weapons, but given that UKIP is planning on investing a significant boost into UK defence I just don't see the point? Ideas built around cruise missiles are really a solution to providing a nuclear deterrent on the cheap, in a budget constrained environment. If the budget is going up then surely Trident would be a more than manageable expense, especially when you consider the degree of guaranteed retaliation that it offers?
To end then, I don't understand what UKIP is really going for. They're planning to pump around £10bn extra into the defence budget, but seem to have no real idea on what to spend that extra money. There is talk about the importance of defence against cyber terrorism and the need to keep sea lanes open, but no real analysis of how those threats my manifest themselves, where they might be more likely to come from (though we can't expect them to be anymore psychic than previous governments), or how the rather vague statement about increased numbers of warships helps. Or even what form this increase would take.
It's classic political policy work. Heavy on tough talk and pretending to understand the need, but without any real concept of what the need is or how to tackle it. It basically boils down to a promise for more money and very little else.