Hello Grayness, My Old Friend…

Louis Reynolds

The recent rumours of Philip Hammond’s leadership ambitions have brought renewed (and perhaps unfamiliar) attention to the Secretary of State for Defence and his accomplishments since his appointment in October 2011. Yet Hammond’s tenure is a difficult one to judge, not least because of the fact that to him more than any other minister an enduring political truth applies:

Ministers are not omnipotent.

The final Minister of Defence and first Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, not only played a major role in the most significant post-war reorganisation of Britain’s defence apparatus, but also contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear policy of the United Kingdom and NATO as a wider whole. Yet while Thorneycroft was an intelligent and ambitious man, his tenure in charge of British defence policy was shaped largely by forces outside of his control. Unforgiving economic necessity brought forth the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms, seismic developments in the global political landscape drove the hasty advancement of British nuclear policy and acute political embarrassment forced through the establishment of the UK Polaris programme.

The myth of the Minister as the master of a department’s destiny obscures the more nuanced truth. Events, expediency, context and any number of other unseen forces conspire to steal direction away from Ministerial agency.  As was the case with the dramatic tenure of Peter Thorneycroft, so it is with the perhaps equally historical if less vivid stewardship of Philip Hammond.

Hammond was perhaps created for the role he currently performs; a fiscal golem to carry out the unforgiving cuts that political necessity has forced upon the Ministry of Defence. A competent, prudent administrator, it is fair to say that before Liam Fox’s fall from grace Hammond had been characterised by quiet efficiency. Andrew Grimson recently opined, with regards to the rumours of Hammond’s leadership ambitions, that it would be far easier to see Hammond as an able Chancellor than a Prime Minister. Certainly Hammond has not captured the hearts of the people, being apparently easily confused with Julian Assange in the eyes of the general public.

But what can be expected? Hammond’s job has been to downsize the MOD significantly, and the scale and grim nature of the task drains both popular-political capital and attention from other endeavours. Moreover Hammond, despite recent and much misunderstood protest, is guided (or dragged along) by the weighty hand of the Chancellor, and perhaps more importantly the internal dynamics of the Coalition. All the significant facets of recent military reform have been shaped almost wholly by fiscal requirement. Surely no one can seriously contend that Future Force 2020, under which not-yet-fully-existent TA soldiers will perform critical front-line duties to make up for a dearth of full-time professionals, does anything but critically undermine British capability to save a few billion in the short term?

If Hammond is necessarily more a Chief Financial Officer than a visionary Minister, he performs admirably in that function. His planned reforms to the defence procurement system are long-overdue and bold, while the cuts already undertaken have been managed well and applied intelligently. The foundations laid by Liam Fox can be regarded as critical to the overall process of bringing martial law to Britain’s belligerent defence ledgers, but it was Hammond who in 2012 presided over the first balanced MOD budget in a decade.

The context of Hammond’s career as Secretary of State for Defence has been the Government’s policy of drastic reductions in state spending, and the accompanying reality has been the ring-fencing of large sections of the overall budget, as well as the spirited defence of Welfare by the Liberal Democrats. Controversial cuts to Defence have been the result, and financial pressures have, in the eyes of the Coalition, trumped military requirements. In such a situation expediency requires a loyal, competent, financially astute and trustworthy manager to preside over a difficult department. All the better that such a man, with an awkward and potentially volatile brief, be rather grey.

In other Governments and in other decades, he might have been unsuitable. When Philip Hammond was first appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, Aaron Ellis criticised the decision in these pages and suggested a number of alternative candidates, many of whom would have represented excellent choices if the role had been that of a conventional Secretary of State rather than that which Hammond has fulfilled.

Hammond, more than the distracting and sometimes awkward Thorneycroft, was truly built to meet the needs of his government and of the realities that have confronted him. Hammond has so far played a very straight role from a position of much less power and influence than is often assumed. Serious rebellion against the further MOD cuts was never a realistic prospect, and Hammond took on the task specifically in order to enforce them. Whether the policies that he has so ably carried out are in themselves in the interests of the United Kingdom is a wholly different matter.

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Drones are lethal on the battlefield and gentle on the wallet

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Crispin Burke

In March of this year, Wired Magazine revealed that an armed drone from the Royal Air Force - controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire - fired ordnance at enemy forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, in support of British troops. It was the first drone strike controlled from British territory, and represents the latest success in the Britain’s ever-emerging Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.

The successful use of armed drones by British forces is a positive development for the UK for three reasons. First, armed drones are an emerging technology which will play a vital role on the 21st Century battlefield. Second, Britain’s ability to employ armed drones reduces its dependency on the United States to provide the same capability. Third, and most importantly, in an era of dwindling defense spending, drones are an inexpensive - and proven - alternative to manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.   

The United States has long been the global leader in armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs quickly proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, where their sensors, endurance, and laser-guided missiles gave American forces an edge previously unimaginable. America’s drone capabilities have only continued to improve, both in terms of the quantity and quality of the machines themselves, as well as the people who operate them. 

Today, nearly one-third of all US military aircraft are unmanned, with aircraft ranging from the hand-held Raven, to the Global Hawk, whose wingspan rivals that of a C-130 Hercules. The United States even has a handful of drones with stealth capabilities, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel, one of which crashed in Iran. Still, according to recent reports, the accident rates for drones such as the Predator are roughly compatible with those of general aviation aircraft. Perhaps most striking is the US Air Force’s investment in the people who operate these vehicles: in 2011, the US Air Force trained more UAV operators than fighter pilots and bomber pilots combined. 

America’s superiority in unmanned flight—especially with armed, Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) platforms—has greatly benefitted NATO. So much so, unfortunately, that NATO has become overly reliant on American drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 

In the aftermath of the bombing campaign in Libya, US officials - including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis and former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - chided NATO for their inability to collect intelligence, and process it into targeting data - a capability provided almost wholly by US forces. This sense of frustration over Europe’s inability to field sufficient UAVs has been echoed throughout the ranks within the US military. In a memorandum sent to the Secretary of the US Army, one brigade commander in Afghanistan expressed frustration when British forces were given priority of support from American-owned and -operated UAVs. Britain could indeed rectify this imbalance by acquiring armed drones and training sufficient operators.

Additionally, though America’s commitment to Britain is strong - both through NATO and the so-called “special relationship” - it has, regrettably, not been the most reliable partner.  In such instances, British forces may have to call upon the unique capabilities provided by drones, operated by their own forces.

In order to do so, the UK must invest not only in the machines themselves, but also the facilities to operate them, as well as the personnel to maintain them, fly them, and process information into targetable intelligence. Like the US military, Britain must continue to assess its policies regarding training, manning, promotion policies, and even organizational culture for those who work with UAVs.

Most importantly, however, is that armed drones perform many of the same functions as fixed-wing fighter-bombers at a fraction of the cost. For instance, though Britain’s planned F-35 fighter is a stealthy, capable dogfighter, most of the combat British forces have seen in the past decade has taken place in uncontested airspace, rendering these features superfluous—calling into question the F-35’s £124 million price tag. Not to mention, the F-35B has been plagued with design problems, and will not enter service until at least 2019, according to some estimates.

General Atomics’ combat-proven MQ-9 Reaper drone, on the other hand, is a proven design, which can carry over 1700 kg of munitions and loiter for up to 14 hours while fully loaded. For less than £35 million, Britain can acquire four Reapers, plus the ground control stations and satellite links to operate them. Furthermore, forward-deployed drones require a much smaller logistical footprint than their manned counterparts. Indeed, fiscal realities make armed drones an attractive military option, considering the cost of manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.

Drones are not a silver-bullet weapon. The Ministry of Defence has noted that UAVs have critical weaknesses. Drones are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and are easy targets for enemy fighter aircraft; the data links which control them are susceptible to jamming, hacking, and viruses. Yet, despite these weaknesses, drones have been a game-changing weapon for NATO. A continued investment in armed UAVs and operators will help keep Britain’s Armed Forces relevant on the 21st Century battlefield, allow them to contribute to multinational operations more effectively, and provide many of the same capabilities as manned aircraft at a fraction of the cost.

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator and Iraq War veteran, who has served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division.  His views are his own, and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter.

The UK carrier programme flies backwards

Alexander Pannett 12.30 pm

On Thursday the UK government reversed plans to buy the conventional version of the F-35 fighter plane and instead opted for the vertical take-off and landing version.

A plane is needed for the prohibitively expensive carrier programme and in the 2010 Defence Review the Coalition had originally reversed the Labour government’s selection of the STOVL F-35-B, opting instead for the F35-C.

It has now back-tracked on this as Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, has claimed that the costs of building the catapult system needed to launch the F-35-C version have risen to £2 billion. Moving back to the F-35-B STOVL version would therefore save this money at a time when the MOD is facing a budgetary black hole of £38 billion.

The decision has been met with severe criticism, in that it removes deep strike capability from the carriers, which was the main reason for spending the billions needed to construct the largest ships in the Royal Navy’s history.

The lack of deep-strike aircraft and catapult systems will make it much harder to use the carriers in conjunction with the deep-strike US carriers or allow French fighters to use the carriers, undermining the major pillar of the new Anglo-French Lancaster House defence treaty.

Most importantly, the F35-B STOVL version is more expensive to buy and maintain than its F35-C variant. It faces its own budgetary concerns and the previous US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, had threatened to cancel the entire F35-B programme. If this were to happen, the cost implications for the British government do not bear thinking about.

What is clear, is that a more expensive F35-B will mean less planes that the government can afford. The MOD has claimed that the money saved on the catapult system will mean that both carriers can be used rather than one being sold or mothballed as was envisaged in the 2010 SDSR. However, as the real cost of the programme will be the price of the planes at £150 million per F35-B so far, the saving of £2 billion on the catapults will at most pay for 12 aircraft. Not the 40 or so needed to operate an additional carrier.

Despite the above concerns, the major benefit of the decision to switch to the F35-B is that it will bring forward the date for an operational carrier to 2020, at least three years earlier than planned. Considering the recent bellicosity from Argentina, actions in Libya and tensions in Syria and the South China Sea, this crucial capability cannot come soon enough. There is no point waiting for the perfect weapon if the perfect time to use it has passed.

The loss of capability and operability with allies should be balanced against our short-term strategic requirements. In this regard the decision to select the F35-B has been a correct one. The catapult system itself may have led to further delays and costs and further setbacks may have ended the UK’s purchase of the F35 entirely having severe consequences for British aerospace industry which is a lead partner in the programme.

It is also highly likely that future deep strike capability will rely on drones armed with cruise missiles as these pose no risks of human costs. This is already happening in Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan. In which case the need for vast expenditure to ensure human pilots carry out deep strikes rather than cheaper drones may seem a very myopic measure. Whereas, for the foreseeable future, human pilots will remain far better than drones for ensuring air supremacy and protecting the Royal Navy’s surface combatants. Which is why the F35-B is still vital for this role.

The MOD is infamous for its cost overruns and delays, which means that any decision that brings an operational carrier into service sooner rather than later should be applauded. For that reason, this latest government U-turn was a wise one.

Unfortunately, that is not to say that the next one will be.