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Great Britain’s Defense Options

May 4, 2009

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:
  7. 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:
  8. 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.
  9. 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“.
  10. 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.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2013 11:48 am

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  3. May 6, 2009 4:58 am


    the essay’s are not tough – they are soul destroying some of the answers…you just don’t want to go there

    and you made my point for me, Suez, Falklands, Al Faw, Afghanistan, and more recent counter drugs opperation in caribean all have one thing in common – british Amphibious forces; I put to you it would be very expensive and nye on impossible to build them/get them ready when we needed them if we did not already have them in stock; maybe in an ‘enhanced’ reserve capacity; although I would prefer to have ready to go at a moments notice

    and my argument against the subs ruling is still the same – a Swordfish Biplane from WWII armed with a MAD could put a torpedo in a sub; let alone the P-8 (737 ASW) or a Nimrod. So until you can defend against aircraft the Sub is always going to need a little back up in order to rule.

    yours sincerly


  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 5, 2009 9:35 pm

    This is true on the fast transports, but real beach landings (there have only been 2 since Korea and Britain performed them both) are so few and far between as being a significant drain on naval resources without showing much of a requirement. But the need may increase if we become serious about the littorals, which the cruise missile is driving the Big Ships away from. So we must think carefully about our needs here.

    I still insist the cruise missile armed fast attack sub would be adequate for our Blue Water requirement. Some would argue “what about projecting air power on land”, but to me that falls into the littoral role, again where the aircraft carriers have no business in missile, aircraft, and mine infested waters. This too is a future mission which needs a drastic rethinking.

    Not naughty, Alex, but nice! Those essays are tough and you deserve a break!

  5. May 5, 2009 7:41 pm

    Mike here is the answer

    you do not need a lot of the big ships – the RN would need 12-18 depending on how many carriers/amphibous escort groups were needed, but it would need 48 corvettes (no frigates, they are pointless.

    mike even you know that the fast transports can only land them on friendly shores – into ports, the LPDs carry 4 LCU’s (each capable of taking to Challenger II’s at a time) and 4 LCVP’s. The new LCUs having better range and sea handling capabilities than the american hovercraft.

    and mike, there is also the saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” – throwing away blue water capability is always going to be stupid becuase the important thing is not sea control but sea use – however the latter can not be done without at least a measure of the former and in today’s all arms conflict it requires an all arms navy to be even able to contest it, let alone maintain it long enough to gain any advantage from it.

    yours sincerly


    p.s. sorry to not have been doing much lately – it is my hand in essay, and marking season…so currently am being very naughty by doing anything online at all

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 5, 2009 7:25 pm

    “LPD’s they are necessary to land tanks”

    Good to hear from you Alex! My money is own fast sealift which is how we got the 7th Corps to Desert Storm in 1991.

    Corvettes will be the new destroyers in the shallow seas, since involving large missile ships in such waters risk creating another “Philadelphia Incident” as in our Barbary Wars. It is a woeful waste of ships designed to combat the Soviets in the open oceans, and as both Britain and America are discovering, such large warships are increasing unsustainable even when the money is flowing, which is certainly isn’t now.

    This is the problem I have with Big Ship advocates, Alex. they don’t seem to have any answers in how we can solve the death spiral in numbers of Western Navies, except more Big Ships?

  7. May 5, 2009 4:44 pm


    thankyou, for waiding into this issue without your usual fore thought, you like Sven have forgotten something, well two things;

    one) There is this thing call the commonwealth which is an older military alliance than NATO, though of a unique form; this is why the Royal Navy is required to assist in its defence it will need air cover, so at least enough LHDs to maintain two capable of opps- and don’t go after the LPD’s they are neccessary to land tanks, and whilst I know you do not like MBT’s…they are still very useful to have along, and LPDs are how we get them where we need them.

    two) there is this thing called the Falklands Islands, which it turns out have a lot of oil under, and whilst an SSN might be fun to have to stop ships getting their, they can’t stop aircraft, and as it has only one runway at Mount Pleasant…so one runnway buster and its out of commission and who cares how many subs you got without a nice aircraft carrier to fly even a limited air defence, the fleet you will have to send down their to get it back from argentina will be shot to pieces, espeically if it is composed of just corvetts and LHDs, neither of which are known for their large numbers of weapons reloads – corvettes having not enough space, and LHDs using it for other things, like helicopters, soldiers and their supplies (or even if one is converted to carry just fighters).

    Mike, I will most of the time agree with you on so much you say, as you often talk a lot of sense, but I will never agree that Corvettes alone can do this, they need the destroyers…not many just enough to provide the ‘big boy’ fire support that will be needed for this level of operation. Whilst I also agree that more SSNs, supplemented by some SSKs, would be useful, do not expect the Minister of Defence who three years ago shouted at the top of his voice at a anti-nuclear rally ‘no more subs! no more subs! no more subs!’ is going increase their number.

    As for scrapping the air force; you are talking to the person who has practically made his accademic career by talking about the 1918-1940 period of the royal navy’s history.

    yours sincerly


  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 5, 2009 7:01 am

    Heretic, I was just going by the official specs on the Tomahawk. 90 boats? You’re killing me! But 30 subs is still better than 4, how ever many can be at sea at once.

  9. Heretic permalink
    May 5, 2009 12:03 am

    Hate to tell you this Mike, but unless there’s been some serious upgrades to the Tomahawk SLCM, in the last 20 years … the last I heard they were limited to a 600 km range, not 1000 miles. This point had been negotiated by treaty with the (now defunct) USSR.

    Secondly, in order to have “30 or so boats” at sea with nuclear SLCMs, you’re going to need to have at least 90 boats in the inventory (1 at sea, 1 in transit, 1 at the pier) if not 120 to support the operational rotation of assets.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 4, 2009 9:39 pm

    Moose, here is a justification for placing nuclear Tomahawks on SSNs:

    The Tomahawks possess a 1000 mile range which is equivalent to the old Polaris A-1 FBM. Though not great it is at least adequate.

    During the Cold War, you may recall, tactical nukes were carried on warships as standard armament (including nuclear torpedoes on subs) that “takes up space but which will likely never be used”.

    Having nukes spread out on 30 or so boats would be far more survivable than 4, which the Navy could only guarantee having one in service at a time with the rest undergoing training, refitting, or even having its core replaced, etc.

  11. Mrs. Davis permalink
    May 4, 2009 3:54 pm

    Core question: Europe – yes/no.

    thus United States – no/yes.

    Almost everything else flows from here.

  12. Moose permalink
    May 4, 2009 3:15 pm

    Sorry, but using SSNs with TLAM-N as a replacement for an SSBN deterrent force is an awful idea.

    -The range of a Tomahawk is far too short, you either sacrifice the immediate response portion of your deterrent force (nuke us and we’ll nuke you….in a couple weeks!) or you make it exponentially more vulnerable (and politically inflammatory) by forcing it to sit close to it’s assigned targets.
    -Cruise missiles are, as you are fond of pointing out, the threat du jour of modern militaries. Cruise missile detection and defense are likewise areas of heavy focus, relying on them as a deterrent force in the face of ever more capable defenses could easily mean not having a deterrent force at all.
    -SSNs have an extremely limited amount of space, RN SSNs which lack a dedicated VLS especially so. Every nuclear Tomahawk is a weapon which takes up space but which will likely never be used. That’s space which conventional weapons, sensors, or Swimmers won’t have to use.
    -The insane incompetence displayed recently by the USAF aside, nuclear-armed ships, subs, and aircraft are often treated in a very risk-adverse manner these days. Nobody’s going to want a nuclear-armed SSN sneaking up to a shore with an SBS team on board if.

    So pawning off the Nuclear Deterrence mission on the SSNs is crippling their ability to work effectively in the real shooting wars of today, while producing a Deterrent force which is that in name only.

  13. Distiller permalink
    May 4, 2009 1:56 pm

    That’s a huge topic, should have split it. Just a few things telegram style:

    Core question: Europe – yes/no. Almost everything else flows from here.
    And assuming that Britain will not abjure her global ambitions.

    ad 1: Strategic nuclear weapons. Real toys for real – men. The ace in international “relations”, a political symbol of the first order. Four is the number. There are strong signs that the Ohio and the Vanguard replacements might be identical, or at least amount to “badge engineering”. The unknowns include a future SALT treaty and its influence on U.S. hardware design. A far distant Euro missile option: M51/TN75 combo.

    ad 2 & 3: No and yes. Twice too many Eurofighter indeed, as Tornado replacement only the F-35A/C is in sight, and the CVF is in need of F-35B/C. Go figure! All in all max 12 front line strike fighter squadrons (manned) – sorry, not more! The rest will go to UCAVs like Predator C and J-UCAS.
    And: GET MORE STAND-OFF ISR CAPABILITY! And try to keep up to date in the whole unmanned sector. Also get prepared for the dawning age of electromagnetic warfare, keeping up with the U.S. — *absolutely* critical! Stick to the U.S., Europe has *nothing* to offer in that upcoming game-changer area (something that will also hurt the Eurofighter badly).

    ad 4: A quantitative increase of the ground forces is improbable looking at demographics and economic situation. Better go for a truly modern, flat, and modular organisation, Auftragstaktik and all. A hundred thousand men under arms should be enough in peace times!

    ad 5: Go for a CV90 (cavalry) and BvS10 (mot/mech inf) based ground maneuver force. FRES is a wheeled monster. Wheeled monsters are good for constabulary duties, not for fighting. Stryker is an APC, not an IFV. For colonial warfare a medium tank platform with various versions is more than enough.
    The classic MBT is dead for 95% of warfare, their current “don’t-count-me-out” use as sturmgeschutz and combat engineer vehicle notwithstanding. Mechanized formations can’t survive the multiple layers of smart/brillant combined arms WITHOUT being part of such a formation themselves. Meaning heavy mech formations against a talented enemy only in division strength and upwards = major war = not very probable, since in no way sustainable except when fighting for national survival.
    Question how to move the stuff. Sealift looks ok, also every conflict will need all the ships. Get more C-17, forget about the A400M.

    ad 6 – 10: An own chapter! Principal approach:
    Blue Water Battle Force — 8 Astute SSNs, 2 proper fleet carrier 50.000 tons (not the supersized LPH aka CVF) , 8 Darings (nothing wrong with them, except maybe a little short of missiles and over-worked with the dual job as AAW and ASW escort), get 2 fast fleet replenishers that can keep up with the carriers;
    Expeditionary Warfare — Ocean class (build another one!) as helicopter assault carrier, the two Albion LPD as amphib assault vehicle carrier, the four Bay Class to reinforce and initially sustain the whole lot once ashore;
    Presence & Big showing the flag — 8 Daring-based large frigates, two helicopters, two slips for CB90, some light UAVs, lotsa ISR gear;
    Small Wars/Colonial Littorals — some fast cats JHSV style, some Skjolds, some CB90;
    Aeronavale — get what the USN gets: P-8, EP-8, BAMS, stay compatible and interoperable, no more dicking around with bizjet platforms.

    Another thing not mentioned: More satellite capability, especially smllish formation flyers in MEO, avoiding GEO and LEO as they might well become unsave quite soon. Stick to whatever the U.S. will do here.

    Where to save? Nowhere. Lots of things would be more or less cost-neutral.
    Where to spend? Satellites, UAVs, ISR, electronic and electromagnetic warfare.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 4, 2009 12:33 pm

    “Strykers don’t give that against a competent and well-equipped opposition”

    Not sure what you base this on, since the Strykers have faced astonishingly powerful land mines in Iraq that have also taken out M-1 tanks. Still, I did mention they should keep some Challengers around, perhaps even reopening the recently closed armory:–Britain-ends-tank-production-93-years–future-models-GERMAN-guns.html

    The best selling point for the new wheeled vehicles which will be essential for modern wars, is the troops love them!

  15. May 4, 2009 12:18 pm

    Typhoons cost about 2/3 as much as a Raptor if you consider all the expenses of the Raptor.

    Moreover, the costs of already bought Typhoons are sunk costs and entirely irrelevant. The operating costs are much lower due to less fuel consumption and less RAM coating.

    The Typhoon isn’t less capable than the Raptor; it has different capabilities. The U.S. has quite some hype about the Raptor, but the ground attack capabilities that can be added to Tranche 1 Typhoons at low cost (because they’ve already been developed for later Tranche) are good.
    FRES/Piranha: That’s quite pointless, the British Army needs a real fighting capability and the Strykers don’t give that against a competent and well-equipped opposition.
    Additional expensive SSNs? SSKs with AIP seem more cost-effective to me. The existing SSNs are enough for the SSBN escort role and already too large for shallow waters.


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