Wavell Room
Image default
Capabilities and Spending Opinion

Defence Spending

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

No matter how gloomy the economic forecast for Great Britain is, more money is more money.  As a team of editors who care about the future of British defence, the announcement of an increase in defence spending hit like a sugar rush. 

The promised increase is significant.  Minds raced through possibilities.  What new capabilities can the U.K. develop now that more money will be made available for defence? A bigger army? 6th Generation remotely piloted fighter jets? A more formidable fleet? Inflation matching pay rises?

Stop Stop Stop

The war in Ukraine shines a light on what happens when you have a gap between a paper capability and real capability.  The Russian military has been found wanting in Ukraine. For many, this has been a shock.  There has always been a gap between how military analysts understand Russian military capabilities, and how academics and think tanks who study Russia understand them.  But the size of the gap has hit us like a fish in the face.  Generally speaking those in uniform have looked at line diagrams of formations and counted pieces of equipment and overstated the threat.  Whereas civilian Russian experts have looked at education levels, life expectancy, corruption and capability, and come to different conclusions.  But what does this mean for spending more money?

Improve what we have first

Before Defence Chiefs reach for the military Argos catalogue and start writing their Christmas lists, they need to learn from the setbacks that the Russians are facing and commit more money to what we already have. 

If more money is coming, how should it be spent? Our Land, Air and Space editors share their view. 

Send Ammo State! 

Before Defence even begins to think about buying anything new, it needs to ‘bomb up’. Defence needs more bombs, bullets and widgets for what we’ve already got. To be more precise – we need large stocks of anti tank guided missiles, rockets, artillery rounds and tank tracks. Jack Watling goes into great depth here about the ammunition usage rates in Ukraine. This is where spending starts. There is a strong argument that stock piled resources could be the key indicator of military strength in the aftermath of Ukraine.

Army: 

No matter how you cut it, the Army needs to be able to do combined arms manoeuvre at an expert level. If you can’t, you’ll see your infantry killed and your scarce resources destroyed. That means training battle groups together properly, over large training areas and more live firing. Time under armour- armoured battle groups need to train in their armoured vehicles. More track time, more fuel, more maintenance costs. Not doing it means that mistakes will be amplified. Historically, the Army has used Canada and Germany to do this. Closing large training areas was short sighted at the time, these problems will need to be reversed.   

Logistics. Defending the logistic tail is vital. That means training it properly. Exercising formations should be forced to integrate fully with their logistic support, and consider how the protect them. It must become second nature to a battle group, soldiers need to understand how important their logisticians are.

Meanwhile, brigades, and maybe even a warfighting division, need to move to places.  It’s all well and good inheriting a training fleet when you arrive at a training area. But that teaches staff nothing. The Army must own its vehicles with the embuggerance that brings.  It is more expensive, and time consuming. It’s difficult and inconvenient.  But when the war starts, stuff doesn’t just magically appear at the start line. The prolific use of open source satellite imagery during the Ukraine war shows us that large formations moving can be spotted from the rear area very easily. We need to train how to avoid this. 

On that note, cutting logistics and signals regiments also seems short sighted. They need to be reinstated. The scale and distance of a high intensity war – or any operation – shows that they are needed. Amateurs talk tactics, after all, the Army needs these units to walk the walk. 

Despite this, if all that happens, the fundamental question for the Army is weight. Heavy armoured units have been cut from the line leaving really light infantry. The medium armour dream hasn’t been invested in sufficiently. As one of our editors pointed out, it doesn’t really matter what design the Army chooses, but it has to decisively commit to a heavy, medium, or light order of battle. The tension between Challenger 3, Boxer, Ajax (*cough*) and our belief that soldiers will walk to the next war must be settled. 

Air

The RAF is committed to a number of US-led procurement programmes such as the P8 Poseidon, the Protector Uncrewed Air System and the F35B.  Recent fluctuations in the foreign exchange (FOREX) markets have seen all of these programmes become more expensive.  Francis Tusa has indicated that the additional cost to the F35B programme could mean the UK receives 4-5 fewer aircraft for the same price.1 That mythical figure of 148 aircraft seems even further away.  The recent uplift in the budget could well see that cash being used to shore up these expensive, non-discretionary commitments.

Aside from FOREX issues, there are a number of challenges the RAF faces if it is to fight not just on Day one but on Day 31.  Precision weapon stocks are a particular concern.  Operations over Libya in 2010 and more recently against ISIS highlighted the need to increase production of air launched weapons such as Paveway IV and Brimstone.  The Russian Air Force exhausted its precision weapon stockpile in the early stages of the war; the RAF cannot afford to be in a similar situation.  The new kid on the block, the 140km range SPEAR 3 will enter service in a few years under a £550M contract.  It will be interesting to see what that delivers in terms of numbers as well as capability. 

The RAF’s recent return to dispersed operations is one way of maintaining operational output should its main operating bases come under attack.  Moving from large hubs with their in-place contractor logistics will be a challenge as the Service seeks to relearn lessons from the Cold War in terms of dispersal and resilience.  It remains to be seen whether the spares packs and servicing contracts can support this initiative without additional funding but being agile in the air will be of little use if your operating bases are fixed and easy to target.

Perhaps the most concerning capability gap the RAF is faced with is inability to suppress enemy air defences (SEAD).  The ALARM anti-radiation missile was taken out of service almost a decade ago.  The Ukrainian Air Force took delivery of the US High Speed Anti Radiation Missile and integrated it into its fleet of Migs in a matter of weeks.  Apparently this level of innovation is something the RAF is incapable of matching or unwilling to do.  It may well be that for the time being, the destruction of enemy air defences is now handed over to the Army’s recapitalised M270 multiple rocket launch system.  No matter what, SEAD is critical to gaining control of the air and it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Space

The announcement earlier this year that £1.4Bn would be spent over the next 10 years on surveillance and communications satellites was welcome news for the recently formed UK Space Command.  This is welcome news and comes at a time when the use of commercial satellite imagery in the Ukraine conflict has received a considerable amount of interest.  To put that £1.4Bn uplift into context, it would not be enough to cover the costs of the US’ National Reconnaissance Office contracts for commercial satellite imagery with Maxar Industries and Black Sky – reportedly worth just over $3 and $1Bn respectively.  However, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, is correct when he says that ‘the importance of space to Defence is irrefutable’ and almost everything we do depends on having freedom of action in the space domain, one could suggest that this is one area of Defence that is being under-funded. 

The Wavell Team

The Wavell Room team has a host of experience. From the Green Zone in Helmand Province, to the Prairie in Canada, to the smoke filled rooms of Whitehall.

Footnotes

  1. @FTusa284 23 Sep 22

Related posts

The British Army and the Prosperity Agenda

Paul Beaver

Learning from the Civil Service

Steve B

Retention – ‘Improving the Offer’ in Three Easy Steps

Andy