Great Britain’s Defense Options
The United Kingdom, much like most Western militaries, is shaped in the image of the United States superpower except in miniature. Her fine Army is built around heavy Challenger II tanks, and swift Warrior armored infantry carriers. Her historic Royal Air Force is well equipped with new Typhoon air superiority fighters, older Tornado fighter bombers, and Harrier V/STOL close support fighters. The Royal Navy’s composition makes it still one of the world’s mightiest, with soon-to-be-built Queen Elizabeth supercarriers, ballistic missile and nuclear attack submarines, new Daring anti-missile destroyers, Duke anti-sub frigates, and large Ocean and Albion class amphibious ships.
Not surprisingly and much like in America, the British have found the cost of sustaining an all-high tech military with such exquisite platforms nearly untenable, as she fights a different kind of war in the Third World that requires different sorts of weaponry. New Hybrid Wars, which involve a mixture of robot guided weapons and low cost platforms have increasingly allowed seemingly minor threats such as Islamic terrorists like Al Qaeda, or “state within states” such as Hezbollah, to stand up to the heavily mechanized armies of the West.
Also not so surprising, is UK Defence Secretary John Hutton seeking solutions from her Continental cousin, notably the planned military reforms instigated by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. From Defense News we read:
Britain should follow the U.S. and refocus its military strategy on combating the threat of terrorism, Defence Secretary John Hutton will tell a conference in London on April 27. The strategy change proposed by Hutton would see Britain reprioritize its spending on equipment and force structure over the next 10 years to better focus on special forces and other counterinsurgency investments.
The Hutton plan for a “major rebalancing” of the armed forces would pose big question marks against some of Britain’s conventional equipment programs.
What these changes will eventually consist of is up to the Minister and his superiors, but we have a few suggestions that should make the best use of static or shrinking military funds, that also will not decrease the nation’s ability to wage war or protect the peace:
- Scrap the Trident replacement. Savings here would amount to £21bn (US $31bn). In its place, the RN could equip Tomahawk missiles for the nuclear role, as her excellent sub fleet is already so armed with conventional cruise missiles. By spreading the deterrent around in more numerous (see below) attack submarines, they would also be more survivable and effective.
- Scrap the Royal Air Force. This was proposed recently as a cost saving measure considering the decreasing number of aircraft and the continued sad state of the historic air force. Her remaining Tornadoes and Harriers, transport planes and Nimrod patrol jets should be spread among the Army and Navy which has good use for them. As for the Typhoon…
- Trade Typhoons for more useful fighter bombers. The cornerstone of the RAF is this Typhoon air superiority fighter, whose mission has outlived its usefulness in an age of multi-mission fighters and the increased importance of close air support and strategic strike against heavily defended airspace. Scrap or sell the expensive Typhoon, each plane which costs about the same as an American F-22 stealth without being nearly as capable.
- Increase Ground Forces and Restore the Territorial Army. Plans to raisethe importance of the long-ignored Territorials is welcome news. By amalgamatin it closer to the British Army, similar to the US arrangements with its Reserves will give welcome relief to the overworked ground forces. She should also seek to beef up the active strength, perhaps to 150,000, given the increased importance of ground troops in today’s insurgent-type conflicts.
- Reduce the Number of Fres Vehicles. Again taking the nod from Sec. Gates proposal of dramatically cutting the purchases of Future Combat System vehicles, the UK should halve the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) buy, purchasing only the Piranha family, which is very similar to the highly successful US Stryker, totaling 1700 utility vehicles. Savings would amount to about £6bn or half the entire program. For the medium armor replacement vehicle, we recommend keeping some well-proven Challenger tanks around.
- Sustain and Increase the Attack Submarine Force. Britain’s small force of nuclear attack submarine makes her a potent naval power of the first rank. Some have insisted with its unmatched stealth the submarine is today’s capital ships, so the RN should take advantage of this unique capability. By increasing her Nuke subs to 12 total, adding a new class of conventionally powered AIP (air-independent propulsion), she should field from 25 or 30 boats, for homeland defense, and long-range littoral warfare. She would fund this new unmatched force with savings from the following:
- Cancel Supercarriers. More of a jobs program than a real national security requirement, this would save the Navy £3.9 billion and several early warship retirements. The giant new budget draining battleships would be replaced by:
- Building A Second Ocean helicopter carrier. While not enjoying the capabilities of a large deck supercarrier, HMS Ocean has a unique troop and aviation capability few navies possess. With some modifications, the design could be adapted into a V/STOL carrier, since the vessel itself was adapted from HMS Invincible. A second ship should be purchased with such a role in mind, equipped with former RAF Harriers (see above) or potentially the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
- Scrap the PAAMs missile ships. Without the need for large supercarriers to protect, these over-costly and very complicated Type 45 destroyers are so much overkill and should be canceled, saving up to £6 billion. The older Type 42 should be allowed to expire with the excellent Duke frigates updated to enhance its proven Sea Wolf anti-missile defense. The latter should soon be complemented and eventually replaced with a new type of missile corvette, often advocated here as the “new destroyer“.
- Sell the Albion and Bulwark dock landing ships. These huge and hugely expensive warships would make excellent command ships for small navies like Canada, who is seeking just such a craft. The Bay class LSDs should be kept for now, and eventually replaced with the type of high speed vessels currently used by the US Navy, of a type the British are familiar.
For the future, we think the transformation will be complete. Unmanned Combat Air Systems will dominate the air as the once manned fighter and bombers ruled supreme. At sea, the naturally stealthy submarine armed with cruise missiles will drive larger surface vessels into port, leaving only small shore-clinging corvettes able to carry on the surface warfare mission. On land, the infantry riding into wheeled battle taxis and armed with increasing lethal manned portable guided weapons will end the reign of the tank, which will be unable to carry the amount of defenses required to make it survivable in the precision era.
Until then we think our modest proposals for investment in affordable Hybrid Weapons is Britain’s hope for sustaining a practical and capable military force well into this new century, just as such changes will renew the still dominant US Armed Forces.