Friday, 7 July 2017

Preferred vs Imposed position

In my last post I talked about the Type 26 vs the proposed Type 31(s). Some might have found it odd reading that article and seeing me arguing in favour of more Type 26 at the expense of Type 31, only to seemingly reverse directions in the comment section and agree with a poster who bemoaned the Type 26. This apparent contradiction - coupled with a rather interesting chat I've been having on Twitter with some folks about aircraft carriers - offers me the opportunity to talk about something I've been meaning to get around to for a long while; the difference between the 'preferred position' and the 'imposed position'.

I like to think of this in terms of general elections. Most of us I'm sure will seldom find that we agree totally with one political party or the other when an election comes along. I suspect most of us have in our heads an idea about what we would consider to be our perfect or near perfect political party, given some realistic constraints. This we can identify as the 'preferred position'. Alas, all too often we find ourselves holding our nose and picking the lesser of two evils. We may not especially like or agree with the party we voted for, but rather them than the other lot. It's a choice that we don't like but it is forced upon us by reality. This we can identify as the 'imposed position'.

To take this back to defence, and specifically aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, allow me to talk you through my preferred position and my imposed position on the matter.

My preferred position would have taken us back to the original planning for what would become HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. At this stage I would have preferred the carriers to be designed and built to launch conventional aircraft instead of V/STOL. The reason for this is simple; flexibility. It would have given the UK some options in terms of what ultimately went on the carriers, such as being able to fall back on something like the F-18 Hornet or - in truly dire straits -  the Rafale, if needed. 

Far more pertinently it would have opened up the much wider gamut of carrier borne capabilities outside of just the primary combat aircraft. The ability to carry the E-2 Hawkeye for Airborne Early Warning (AEW) for example, or even possibly (but granted, an outside bet) the EA-18 Growler, the electronic attack version of the Hornet (which would have been a combined buy for RN and RAF). Going with a conventional carrier capability would have also provided a little more flexibility for what might come after the F-35, presuming the carriers are kept in service that long, as well as the potential for operating some of the various drone proposals that have come forward in recent years.

Similarly, when the crunch decision came in the mid-2000s to drop the Sea Harrier, my preferred position would have been to upgrade them and keep them going, along with GR.9 when that otherwise finally met its demise in 2010. The two would have served together as long as was feasible or until the new carriers were up and running, which ever came first. There would have been no "carrier gap" for the Royal Navy if it was possible in any way to avoid it.

That position however relies on having the purse strings and the ability to make a difference. The Labour government of the '00s was in no mood to be funding such things however, nor were the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Thus we come to the imposed position, a choice we make, albeit one essentially forced on us by circumstances.

In the real world I opposed the carriers and I thought picking Tornado over Harrier was the right choice. Not because I actively wanted this to happen, but because that point of view was essentially imposed upon me by the budgetary decisions made by government.

Given the strains place on the MoD's finances I wasn't convinced a pair of carriers and their associated costs were the best use of those limited funds. Not that the two carriers will not be capable and versatile platforms, just not what the MoD really needed. And if we really had to build them, inside of that same constricted budget, I would have rather seen the carriers be more "austere" I guess, which is a polite way of saying smaller and less expensive.

As for Harrier vs Tornado, again, given the financial position imposed on the MoD at the time I think picking Tornado over Harrier was the right choice for those circumstances, given the overall greater capability provided by Tornado. It's not a knock on Harrier, which has delivered stirling service for the UK over the years and will sadly not live on it seems in any kind of historical flying example here in the UK. More it was a pragmatic choice between two options, imposed by the conditions of the time.

And here is where we get back to Type 26. I'm not a big fan of the program to put it mildly. It has ballooned well over the original price estimates and only seems to keep getting more expensive as time passes (inflation notwithstanding). What was originally supposed to be a Type 23 replacement, primarily an anti-submarine frigate but with some added punch, has now morphed into something that older generations would perhaps classify as a cruiser. 

Quite why it has ended up with 24 cells for launching weapons like TLAM is a bit of a mystery, though this might be part of some grand plan to try and make it more exportable to other nations that use weapons compatible with those cells and/or make it upgradeable in the future should the UK opt to use Type 26 as a platform for US munitions that are not currently in UK service.

In this case my preferred position would have been for something a little less, shall we say "extravagant", from the Type 26 program. But it is what it is, it's coming and that's that. We are going to end up with Type 26, hopefully eight of them, but given the history of various governments it's entirely possible we'll end up with just 6. And while I'm not the biggest fan of Type 26 it looks to me to be a far more preferable option than the proposals coming out for Type 31. As such I support additional numbers of Type 26 over Type 31, not because I especially like the Type 26, but because the position has been imposed on me.

Have a think then; what's an imposed position you hold on defence, and what's your preferred position?

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