19 September, 2016
In an article which appeared in Saturday’s (17 September) Financial Times a retired general, Sir Richard Barrons formerly the head of Joint Forces Command, evidently stated in a memo to defence minister Michael Fallon that the armed forces could not defend Britain against a serious military attack; had no military plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict; that a Russian air campaign could quickly overwhelm Britain; that navy ships and RAF planes are often deployed without adequate munitions and protections; that the army is not tooled to fight against a rival professional land force; that small numbers of very expensive pieces of military equipment make the UK’s capabilities extremely fragile; and that manpower across all forces is dangerously squeezed.
This is a damning indictment of British defence policy and we can validate much of what was said. The navy has six excellent new destroyers of the Daring class which have a highly effective anti-aircraft capability at a cost of £1BN each. The problem is, they keep breaking down which means they can lose all power to the engines and weapons systems leaving them completely vulnerable. These problems with the intercooler will require a significant refit which means that over a period the navy will have less than the full fleet operational. Given that these ships are among the workhorses of the navy and that two are required to protect each of the new aircraft carriers, currently under construction, the navy is unlikely to be able to meet its full destroyer deployment requirements unless, of course, the aircraft carriers are stood down. This in turn raises the whole question of why buy the carriers in the first place if we are unable to operate them. At £2BN each, it would be a considerable waste of money if they were idle. There must also be a necessary requirement for them otherwise they would not have been built. We are also told that their aircraft, the F35B, will not be ready for several years even though the US Marine Corps has already achieved initial operational capability on the type and plans to have some deployed on board ship in 2018. In summary, the naval operational requirements appear to lack clarity but it appears that the navy will not be able to fulfil its obligations if it is required to operate its carriers. My key concern though, as far as the navy is concerned, would be its ability to protect the UK’s coastline as this does not appear to figure very highly in its operational priorities.
The RAF would certainly struggle if the Russians launched an air campaign against Britain. RAF planes would be vastly outnumbered and would be up against very sophisticated opposition. If the RAF survived, it is quite likely that it would run low on ammunition within a few days. On the other hand, just how realistic is this scenario? The UK is a NATO member and an all-out assault by an enemy would (or should) trigger an immediate NATO response so the RAF would be supported by the air forces of NATO as soon as these could be mobilised. This would even the odds considerably. I doubt that the Russians would even consider such reckless action which would clearly lead to considerable losses of their own.
A more likely scenario would be a variation on the “little green men” campaign that worked so effectively in the Crimea. By using special forces, espionage and a disinformation campaign, an enemy could feasibly create an “insurgency” within the UK. Such a campaign would require meticulous planning over a period of time and would work better during a period of uncertainty (Brexit?). Given that we are now in a period of drones and robotics, such an attack could have quite an inventory to call on. In this scenario the RAF would be lucky to get any planes off the ground. Depending on the level of opposition encountered by the insurgency, all major bases would either be destroyed or would suffer significant damage within the opening minutes of the attack.
It is here that a plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict would come into its own. If significant forces could be deployed to support those areas under pressure within the first few hours, then the insurgency would be nipped in the bud. If not the consequences could be very serious indeed. The losses suffered by UK forces in sophisticated equipment could be catastrophic. Some level of replacement might be obtained from factories, maintenance depots and training establishments but it would be unlikely to make good the losses suffered. This also assumes that command and control capabilities (where they exist) have not been compromised to the extent that they no longer function effectively. For the perpetrators behind the insurgency, any level of success would be a masterstroke. They could effectively eliminate the UK as any sort of military power without committing major resources and without risking serious losses. Total success might involve installing a client government. Even failure of the insurgency might be enough to destabilize the UK. General Barrons is right, it would take years to make up the losses in sophisticated equipment even if we could afford it.
Is the “little green men” scenario likely? No, but such scenarios are becoming more plausible. Key countermeasures, such as intelligence gathering and analysis, are already in place but in the event that these do not operate as intended or are compromised, we must have a fallback plan. Some expensive equipment, such as Eurofighters and other sophisticated aircraft, can only be operated effectively so long as they have secure bases to operate from. If these become compromised, we could have problems. What could be even worse would be if much of this equipment were to fall into the wrong hands. The F35B may be an interesting exception as it is feasible that it could be operated from unsophisticated satellite bases for short periods of time due to its short take-off and vertical landing capabilities. Would NATO not come to our aid? Not necessarily because, on the face of it, this could be an internal civil conflict. It could take NATO, and the UK government itself if it had no plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict, some time to decide what was going on and to decide how to act in the circumstances. By this time, of course, the damage could have been done.
So General Barrons may have written a rather pessimistic memo but we should be glad that he did. All the issues he has raised can and should be addressed, if we are to maintain an effective military. There may be a price to pay but this could be much less than simply accepting the risk. The government should not be allowed to forget that the key role of the armed forces is to defend the UK and all planning and capabilities should be designed around this primary objective.
What has all this got to do with devolution? Well this is just another illustration of the government not realising the consequences of its actions. We seem to lurch from crisis to deeper crisis and yet nobody seems to understand what is going on. The other problem is that this is not something new. We have had the Iraq war, the Afghanistan intervention, the Scottish referendum and now the European Union referendum, all high risk ventures with huge costs attached and yet nobody seems to learn any lessons. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Our politicians must become more professional at what they do and must plan properly for the outcomes, like they didn’t in 1974. The Scottish referendum was a lucky escape (because if it had gone in favour of independence, separation could not have been achieved according to the timetable without serious consequences for the UK as a whole). One of these days an existential risk that was not planned for is going to materialise.