Eric Grove: Time Britain got serious about defence

THE coalition’s irresponsible defence policy has been exposed by two recent devolopments which are likely to be significant factors in this year’s election.

First, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee issued a challenging and timely report entitled Rethinking Defence To Meet New Threats.

It clearly and accurately stated that “the United Kingdom’s current defence assumptions are not sufficient for the changed environment” created by Russian bullying and annexation in Europe and the rise of “Islamic State” (IS) and its affiliates to add to the Jihadi threat throughout the Muslim world.

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The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which expected the future threat to continue to be intra-state conflicts requiring ground force heavy intervention operations against ill equipped opponents, has been shown to be as intellectually bankrupt and strategically shortsighted as its critics said at the time.

The abolition of maritime patrol aircraft has created a major gap, as shown by the appeals to allies for assistance when Russian submarines began their probes into waters close to the UK as part of Vladimir Putin’s ‘keep off’ strategy covering his aggression.

The lack of a British carrier strike capability had been made apparent in the Libyan intervention, when both France and Italy deployed their warships.

France has also deployed its carrier against IS, an significant addition to the only US carrier strike group at sea and operational.

The Cyprus-based Tornado contribution to the air campaign against IS has been very limited, hardly surprising from an RAF with only seven operational combat fast jet squadrons, a number it is not intended to increase in the near future. In 1990, there were 33 squadrons, making a post-Cold War reduction of no less than 80 per cent.

The Defence Committee calls for a rebuilding of conventional capabilities – including a “full manoeuvre warfare capability” on land, an enhanced Royal Navy and RAF and the restoration of a carrier strike capability.

The discussion of carriers is, however, the one area where the committee’s analysis falters a little.

It misunderstands the Royal Navy’s plans, which are not calling for two full carrier groups but a “continuous carrier strike” capability maintained by two 
hulls – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

The committee’s able chairman, Rory Stewart, has made some unhelpful statements that demonstrate that his members were not properly briefed on the Navy’s actual plans.

He cast doubt on the costs of funding a two carrier force with sufficient personnel, escorts and, most important of all, aircraft. Only 14 F-35B short take off/vertical landing carrier aircraft have been ordered, barely enough for the first RAF operational squadron 617 (let alone the Second, Naval, squadron 809).

More will not be officially sanctioned until the post-election defence review.

This brings us to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s announcement about augmenting the defence of the Falklands. The enhancements were only marginal, notably the return of Chinook transport helicopters withdrawn to Afghanistan in 2006, and work on enhanced facilities.

This is an adequate response to Argentina’s recently more assertive line. The situation is different from 1982, with a significant British presence and a much reduced threat, despite Argentina’s proposed barter deal for Russian Su-24 aircraft. Its amphibious capability is much reduced and its warships suffer from mechanical problems and a shortage of spare parts.

Nevertheless, it is important that there be no misperceptions about British resolve, like those that General Galtieri’s regime made 33 years ago.

Similarly, President Putin in Russia needs a clearer demonstration of potential Western opposition than a major Nato ally dithering about maintaining defence expenditure at two per cent of GDP.

This proportion may be cut by up to 25 per cent by the decade’s end. There are disturbing similarities between the current situation in eastern Europe and the situation in 1938. In terms of defence preparedness, we are still at 1931, if that. Wars usually begin with misunderstandings about resolve. Unless we begin to get serious again about defence, we may be heading for a major disaster.

Professor Eric Grove is a naval historian and international security analyst formerly of the Universities of Hull and Salford.