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UK Lessons for America’s QDR

January 28, 2010

The American Quadrennial Defense Review, due this coming Monday will likely reemphasize how Defense spending today is so politicized. Long past the demise of the Soviet Union, US politicians have joined with the Pentagon in keeping Cold war era weapons systems or their type in production for some 20 years. This is all the more amazing in that for the past decade, these needlessly expensive programs have been ongoing while we have been fighting another type enemy on two fronts, where the high tech conventional platforms have been superseded by less costly but equally effective hybrid equipment.

One place where the advocates of Big Wars and Small Wars are meeting on common ground are shrinking budgets and growing deficits. Right and Left, despite ongoing divergent rhetoric that one is less concerned over defense issues than the other, will soon be forced to deal with dramatic changes in spending which will do what a new World War has failed to bring about, and the QDR probably will fail to do: end Cold War era procurement policies.

The British are in the same boat. Just read Max Hastings in the Spectator to get my meaning:

Britain’s armed forces sometimes suppose that they get a better break from Conservative governments than Labour ones, but their recent experience suggests otherwise. After 11 years of Margaret Thatcher, it proved necessary to cannibalise the entire armoured resources of the Rhine Army to deploy a weak division for the First Gulf War. Today, the services welcome the prospect of a Tory government after a long period of policy paralysis. But they are also braced for bad news. They know the Tories intend brutally to reduce defence spending.

It will be the same over here. Republicans are poised to take back Congress this fall, or at least a big chunk of it. Despite their best attempts to save exquisite defense programs which bring jobs and votes to their districts, the reality is we can no longer afford the all-high tech military.

Even if a new Tory defence secretary — almost certainly Liam Fox — displays the wisdom of Socrates, he cannot escape doing harsh things. He is stuck with some massive commitments. The RAF is buying 232 Typhoon Eurofighters at a cost of £20 billion. Many are likely to go straight from the factory into mothballs, for lack of cash to man or fly them, but the contract is too expensive to cancel.

In no way imaginable can we build 1500 -2000 technically deficient warplanes like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which even if you cut the numbers you still don’t get savings because the individual cost per plane rises dramatically.

The Royal Navy took a perilous gamble by staking its future upon two big new aircraft-carriers, with 150 American-built F-35 aircraft to fly off them, at a total cost of over £20 billion. The money is simply not there to finance two behemoths without crippling the army. For present and likely future tasks, combating piracy not least among them, the navy needs more small, cheap-and-cheerful frigates. The most obvious single step toward closing the defence funding gap is to cancel the carriers and accompanying aircraft.

Neither can we afford to build traditional Navy ships, when a Low End escort without proper armament surpasses a Half-billion dollars each. The shallow water mission of the LCS can be done with off-the-shelf patrol ships, even Coast guard cutters. The pirates are less particular about what type of vessel they use and are expanding their influence, while we are declining in numbers.

My own strongly held view, shared by some much cleverer people on both sides of the Atlantic, is that the only credible way forward is to undertake a drastic restructuring, which explicitly prioritizes ground forces. We should plump for a properly funded fighting army with appropriate support, including helicopters and transport aircraft, and a big commitment to unmanned drones. In a rational world the RAF, already smaller than the US Marine Corps’s organic air wing, would be integrated with the army. Politically, this is probably a bridge too far. Imagine the headlines: ‘Cameron achieves what the Luftwaffe could not’; ‘new Battle of Britain lost on the playing fields of Eton’.

For most of the last century, airpower has been the West’s first line of defense, just as seapower was in past centuries. Today, the balance is clearly shifting to need for ground troops. I don’t believe the requirement for plentiful airpower has declined, but certainly the practice of only deploying very expensive warplanes, and neglecting COIN aircraft or failing to replace vital transport planes, makes us question where the air generals’ priorities are. They have set themselves up for decline and irrelevance, while the need for some kind of air support  remains.

The other big commitment is, of course, replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent at a cost of at least £20 billion. There is a powerful strategic case for the UK to abandon its symbolic ‘big willy’ nuclear role. The Tories are unlikely to accept the political pain of doing this. It is likely, however, that they will examine possibilities for a cheaper minimalist deterrent.

This also echoes the USN’s own difficulties replacing its Trident Fleet. Recent reports suggest the Navy should “spread the pain“, by seeking funding outside their own shipbuilding budget. It is acknowledgment that few increases can be expected, as well as a wakeup call for the service to live within its means.

It would be naive to harbour extravagant hopes of an imaginative Tory new-broom defence policy.

Equally here in the US, it must be remembered that the Republicans were in charge for 12 years before losing Congress in 2006. President Bush’s first Def Sec Donald Rumsfeld cut deep into Army modernization plans, canceling the Crusader artillery vehicle and the Comanche stealth chopper. Currently Obama’s top man in the Pentagon is Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration. So, if conservative ideals are ongoing at Defense, it does seems this will involve more cuts.

The expectation is that a new government will swiftly show the door to [Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock] Stirrup, identified with both poor war management and the Labour government. His most likely successor is the current head of the army, the impressively radical General Sir David Richards.

Richards wants a major overhaul of the armed forces. He said in a recent speech: ‘We cannot go back to fighting as we might have done ten years ago when tanks, fast jets, fleet escorts dominated the doctrine of the three services. Our armed forces will try with inadequate resources to be all things in all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risk is such that it’s too serious any longer to be accepted.’

Those who advocate we only deploy large conventional forces miss a vital lessons since the Fall of the Soviet Union, that the enemy will likely not fight us as we plan for. The world has since learned how to bypass our impressive conventional capability by using the simplest forms of asymmetrical warfare, which is really just a return to basics in combat. The terrorist insurgent, pirates, and Muslim Fundamentalist can now purchase off the global arms market weapons we spend decades and many trillions trying to perfect. They are less picky about resources or possessing the perfect platform. In other words, they are ever so frugal while we try to do many more missions with declining assets.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 4:21 pm

    Fighting piracy isn’t war. At sea I see limited firefights between expensively equipped micro-navies being the norm. A la Tom Clancey!!! Piracy can be combated at sea with the platforms we have got. As you say we need more, but won’t get them. Piracy can only be solved by going ashore. One of the American armed services sings about this in their corps’ song.

  2. Chuck Hill permalink
    January 28, 2010 1:49 pm

    Post 9/11 the US hurt itself far more by overreaction, in the form of the Iraq invasion and the excesses of “security” than Al Qaeda ever did. Let’s not make the same mistake again by tearing down a good defense organization that has assured the survival of the nation to deal with what is more of an irratant than a real threat.

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