Thursday, 2 October 2014

More Cuts?

I wanted to wait for David Cameron's big speech before going with this article, just in case Cameron announced some cunning plan to help cut the deficit. He didn't, which means only one thing.

UK defence is about to take another hit.

If re-elected then the Conservatives need to make significant cuts to the spending of Whitehall departments in order to make their potential budget ends meet. Labour - the only other party likely to win control (and indeed the most likely to win at the minute) - have slightly less drastic plans in store should they win, but even they will have to make some cuts, and you're kidding yourself if you think that defence will be spared in the austerity drive.

Now before anyone starts on about Europe, the International Development budget or anything of that sort, forget it. Those budgets are not realistically going to be cut. You can talk for days about how you'd save £12 billion over here and then pump that into the Navy etc, and I agree, but it's not happening.

Which begs the unfortunate question; what's up for the chop?

Something is going. The Red Arrows are likely safe for the immediate future, so where is a future government going to find savings that will probably top £1 billion annually? That's a hell of a lot of money to find down the back of the sofa. And with the draw down from Afghanistan nearly complete, I suspect that there will be some very twitchy seats in the offices of the General Staff. 

The army looks almost certain to bare the brunt of any cutbacks. With Afghanistan out of the way and "boots on the ground" a dirty phrase in political circles, it's difficult to see how any colour of government will resist the urge to make more savage cuts to the army, this time without any further increases in the Army Reserve.

What might such cuts look like? You're guess is as a good as mine. If push absolutely came to shove and you made me choose them, I'd say that probably 3rd Division would take a hit, moving from 3 brigades with 9 infantry battalions and three recce units down to two brigades, with 5 battalions (with Warrior) and just one or two recce units for the whole division. Keep the three armoured regiments for the punch mind.

It would see the loss of 4 infantry battalions and 1 or 2 recce regiments, but still leaves the core of the division for the next time a PM decides to have a re-run of Iraq and send an armoured division somewhere. While it might seem like a lot to ask to send the whole division somewhere with no armoured reserve, in fairness we expect the Royal Navy to be able to chuck everything it has into a task force without any real backup. Hard times indeed.

Then you have the 15 infantry battalions of the adaptable force (plus another 5 on public duties/Cyprus/Brunei). Designed to provide upstream engagement and, if necessary, a pool of manpower for an enduring operation, the adaptable force is looking very vulnerable when the axe falls. Once again that "boots on the ground" phrase comes back to haunt.

Imagine you're a politician for a second (you can have a shower later). You see a large pool of soldiers whose primary purpose aside from the aforementioned engagement tasks is to provide manpower for another Afghanistan. Then you repeat that to yourself; "... another Afghanistan". It looks like a recipe for political suicide. Trying to explain to the general public that the reason you kept so many troops around instead of investing in more nurses was so that you had a sufficient pool of manpower to run another Afghanistan.

I challenge you to find me a politician who would support that. Just reading it back myself it looks a little difficult to justify. Slashing numbers back to leave perhaps a divisions worth of troops, maybe 8 battalions with Foxhounds and Mastiffs for mobility, does unfortunately look like a real prospect. As far as politicians are concerned it's "easy", at least in the sense that the loss of political capital is minimal (and oddly they might gain some).

But the army alone won't deliver the savings. In April this year this popped up in Hansard;
Mr Nuttall: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what the annual saving to the defence budget will be from the disbandment of the Second Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. [193518]

Mr Francois: The annual cost of a Regiment will depend on that Regiment’s size, role and manpower mix and will comprise a combination of personnel, training, infrastructure and equipment. This information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost. However, based on manpower capitation rates, the average annual cost of a Light Infantry Battalion is in the region of £27.5 million.
By "manpower capitation rates" the government includes only the cost of pay, NI contributions and pension contributions. One might think (if one were in posh mode) that it's very odd for the government to not have a sound idea about how much the average infantry battalion costs including things like training and equipment. Not even a high/low estimate. Sometimes it strikes me as nothing short of a miracle when the MoD manages to get its accounts signed off.

Based on the number of infantry battalions we "cut" above and using that annual capitation rate as a guide, there is still a significant shortfall from the savings needed. And by significant I mean, erm, around 70% of the estimated £1bn savings still need to be found. Clearly with all the other costs included that figure would come down more, but there is still a sizable black hole that needs stuffing.

Looking at the Royal Navy for answers, suffice to say that wiggle room is extremely limited. At a guess I'd say the second carrier coming into active, simultaneous service is unlikely. Assuming the government doesn't contrive to sell it off to someone, I suspect the two carriers would be run alternately in the same manner as the Albion-class LPDs are currently.

Beyond that the opportunity for savings across the course of the next parliament is pretty slim. The only real options open are perhaps to end the Astute class submarine build at 6, accepting that some long lead items for the seventh boat have already been purchased and simply writing that off as a sunk cost. Or alternatively giving the nod to the seventh boat while procrastinating further on the deterrent replacement, which doesn't seem particularly viable.

The only other way to extract savings out of the Royal Navy would be to hit either the Royal Marines or the Type 23 fleet. I can't see any politician agreeing to take the political hit of downsizing the Royal Marines beyond perhaps a reduction by one Commando (battalion). That leaves the Type 23 fleet as the last viable remaining target for any kind of RN cuts. 

Conceivably the number of active Type 23s could be reduced, but in doing so an already stretched fleet gets stretched just that bit thinner, putting more pressure on an escort fleet that consists of just 19 ships as things stand now, and in turn jeopardises the future order numbers of the Type 26, which are due to replace the Type 23 on a one for one basis (so 13 in total).

As for the much maligned gap in Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) coverage, it certainly looks possible that this capability might continue to be gapped for another 5 years, which really is one of the more worrying potential developments out of any future budget cut.

That then just leaves the Royal Air Force. At this point I think it would be safe to assume that the Typhoon fleet is safe and that the F-35 will be ordered as expected, otherwise those carriers are going to look very bare. If something has to go from the RAF to help make the books balance then I think Tornado is probably most at risk. 

With Typhoon due to be cleared to use Brimstone and Storm Shadow next year, it's probable that in the event of cuts Tornado will be deemed as surplus to requirements. It's already just a few years away from being retired in RAF service as it is, so it's likely the RAF would be asked to bite the bullet and make do without it, especially as the F-35 should (he says) be coming into service within the life of the next parliament as well. Hell, the government has tried gapping just about every other capability, why not one more?

Further cuts would also raise questions about the future of the Sentinel system. Having dodged the axe at the last SDSR and been worked hard since in a variety of operations you'd think that Sentinel should scrape through the 2015 SDSR, but at this stage nothing seems safe and Sentinel always seems to be a name that crops up anytime the subject of cuts rears its head.

The transport fleet might be another area of vulnerability. With Afghanistan almost done the need to support the air bridge will largely disappear. This will free up the fleet of C-17s, in addition to the Voyager tanker/transports and the new Atlas (A400M) aircraft which are due to begin deliveries shortly. With all this available capacity it's possible that the fleet of 24 Hercules aircraft may get the chop even earlier than expected. 

The only other place to go looking for real reductions is likely to be with the DE&S organisation. Although the governments initial attempt to farm out military procurement to the private sector failed, now that it has become a trading body DE&S looks increasingly likely to end up in private hands. I suspect even a Labour government would follow this course that has already been set by the coalition, and although any privatisation contract would be on the basis of saving the government money, the recent history of private contractors taking over government services has not exactly gone well (including staff from said companies admitting openly that the only way for them to do it cheaper is to cut wages and cut corners, as the justice system has found out the hard way).

So where does all this leave the UK. Well, kind of where it is now. Certainly not on a par with a huge military like the US, built still significantly more capable than most of its other allies, especially in certain areas. What it might require is for the UK government to actually consider developing a slightly more coherent strategy than it has now.

Considering the amount of work UK forces have done with NATO allies of late, both in terms of peace time frameworks and operations such as those over Libya, that would seem to be the obvious starting point. Although the UK might have to cut back the armed forces again to meet new government spending targets, there should still be more than sufficient forces left to start taking a more active leading role in NATO.

I mean this in the sense of an idea I've advocated for a while now, that of the UK adopting a sort of "lead nation" role, forming a core onto which smaller, active NATO allies bolt on their forces. In the maritime environment for example the UK, even with the cuts as outlined above, could still easily form the basis of a NATO carrier group that then takes on single ships from countries like Holland, Denmark, Italy and other allies to form a potent force.

In the air it would take the form of the UK deploying multiple squadrons plus command and control elements, onto which other nations could bolt some of their own squadrons. On the ground... well you get the picture. Using the UK's experience, capabilities and position in NATO to provide the basis for various task forces, in all three environments, would allow the UK to make the best use of its own assets while also allowing smaller allies to weigh in effectively to campaigns that they may support but not otherwise be able to effectively get involved with.

Whatever happens though, the future certainly looks a little glum. The persistent approach of politicians to the armed forces, using them as an easy source of budget cuts, look set to continue for at least another five years. We can only cross our fingers and hope that the damage done is limited.

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