On the eve of the UK's 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, TIM ROBINSON provides a quick checklist of key highlights and themes to watch for.
Will the much anticipated defence review see the UK finally close the gap left by Nimrod? (US Navy)
As pixel goes to page, the UK Government is set to release its highly anticipated defence review or SDSR — the first in five years.
And what a difference those five years make. The previous SDSR in 2010 had all the signs of a panicked and rushed document — driven by budget constraints. Industry was left out of much of the discussions, while a U-turn (the cats and traps decision) left the Government looking embarrassed.
Cynics might argue, that after this review set expectations low, the 2015 will no doubt provide a shot of good news for the UK armed forces after austerity. Indeed, it is promised that this review will be strategy, not resources-driven.
A changed international environment
It's a changed world since 2010 - Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers over Syria. (Russian MoD).
It has of course been helped by outside factors – the UK weathering the economic storm better than some European countries. But the tough decisions taken in 2010 have also paid off. While questions still remain about 2% GDP commitment to NATO, and how affordable the nuclear deterrent renewal is (and who pays for it) – the UK MoD budget is now balanced. Ministers and commanders are now out of the fire-fighting phase, poring through budget lines to see what can be saved, and are now able to plan for the future. With the budget known and set, MoD is now, (as one senior officer alluded to), not playing cards against the Treasury where equipment is asked for while the civil servants mandarins conceals their cards of the actual money available.
Another outside factor has been the changed international environment. Russia's hybrid warfare in Crimea and Ukraine, the shootdown of MH17, Baltic air policing intrusions, and the rise of ISIS across the Middle East as well as this year's European migrant crisis have all changed the international situation completely from five years ago. Indeed, the latest move by Russia to deploy air power in Syria to support the regime also demonstrates the unpredictable nature of world events.
But if the outside strategic (and financial environment) has concentrated minds, this has also been helped by a bit of smart thinking within Government. As well as a more solid foundation, the rules for saving money by MoD have now been changed – so that any savings can be kept in-house and re-invested into front-line capabilities. As one senior officer noted, this is 'game changing'. Commanders now can plan ahead with confidence and know that money saved today can be used for tomorrow.
Thus the defence budget going forward now not only has 'contingency' funding allocated, but also 'headroom' for predicted cost growth. Smart commanders therefore will be able to prioritise future capabilities or needs as required.
There are other changes too – especially in oversight and controlling cost growth. New Joint Requirements Oversight Committees in each of the services (and at MoD) level are empowered to look at equipment projects and ask "can this be done cheaper". They are also tasked to look at the most critical areas for procurement and ask programme managers "what is the major cost driver and if this requirement is relaxed or modified – how much can this save". These JROCs then will act as a major brake against gold-plating solutions, seeking to simplify and control costs by these simple questions. The previous system of an Initial Gate and a Main Gate, meant that requirements could change in this extended period and push costs up.
An eye on exports
Thales Watchkeeper X at DSEI. Innovation and exports will be theme in SDSR.
Other themes for this review to watch for this are innovation - particularly with an eye to defence exports. The Defence Growth Partnership and the shifting of responsibility for defence exports back to MoD from the UKTI means the Government is keen to see equipment bought for UK forces also win sales success around the world. Tensions still remain in this - particulary in off-the-shelf vs UK sovereign procurement choices - but this SDSR should provide a welcome boost for the UK defence sector in the highly competitive global marketplace.
While the review will require a more in-depth analysis and consideration once published, it is worthwhile to take a look at some of the air power issues that we can expect to see in the review. And, more importantly, if they are not in the review, why not?
Some of the turboprop contenders - from left: AirbusDS C295MPA, Lockheed Martin SC-130J, and Alenia Aermacchi MC-27J.
Probably one of the highest profile issues in this SDSR will be whether the review reconstitutes the UK’s Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capability which was lost after the Nimrod was retired in 2009. It is an open secret that a Nimrod replacement (or capability since allegedly the phrase ‘Nimrod replacement’ is banned in Whitehall and officially the line so far is: ‘There is no requirement’) will be announced, but the devil is in the detail. For a start the MoD now says it is looking for a MMA (Multi Mission Aircraft), hinting that it does not just want a dedicated ASW sub-hunter. The rumoured front runner, has been, of course, Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon — in service with the US Navy, India and being procured by the RAAF.
However, rival OEMs have been determined to open up the upcoming decision to a competition and are fearful that the MoD’s mind has already been made up. They point to the procurement savings of cheaper platforms like the Airbus DS C295MPA, Alenia Aermacchi MC-27J or Lockheed Martin SC-130J, the multi-role factor (hauling cargo one day, hunting subs the next) and the industrial footprint whereby UK industry could maximise its potential content. Lobbying for the ‘UK jobs’ angle and sovereignty with systems thus could be a useful strategy to convince politicians that a full contest is needed. Cheaper aircraft, they note, could mean more platforms for the same money and a bigger combat mass (see below). However, it is worth noting it could backfire. Loading down a cheap and cheerful turboprop MMA with excessive custom UK-specific equipment is a sure-fire way to increase the costs, extend timescales and defeat the object of getting more airframes for your buck. Nimrod MRA4, it must be remembered was also the ‘low-risk/affordable solution’. There is also Japan’s Kawasaki P-1, whose appearance at RIAT in the summer was no accident as well as an Q400-based solution from L-3.
Another detail to look for is how many and it what manner will they be procured? Even if P-8 is selected, those hoping for a big announcement of 12-18 aircraft may be disappointed. Instead it could be that any P-8s are acquired in ones and twos over a period of time. The vast US Navy support network (as well as ubiquitous 737 spares worldwide) mean that operating a tiny fleet of one or two aircraft to begin with to gain experience and rebuild the MPA cadre (with a ‘core’ of Seedcorn veterans) might be less of problem than first imagined. However, P-8 would not be fully ‘off the shelf’. As the initial procurement cost of the aircraft, the UK will also have to decide whether to integrate UK weapons (eg Spearfish torpedoes) adding additional costs or simply use US weapons.
Whatever the choice of MMA (and method by which it is acquired — one veteran observer predicts a short, sharp competition) the reconstitution of this key capability will mean that not only the UK can protect its coastal waters more effectively, contribute to coalition operations and the like, but also puts back in place a key part of the nuclear deterrent ecosystem that makes submarine-launched ballistic missiles (and the Successor submarine) a credible threat.
Combat mass strengthened
Combat mass of the front-line fighter force wil likely be increased with three extra Typhoon Tranche 1 squadrons. (MoD)
Second — another issue to watch for is whether the UK will boost its combat aircraft mass – after a realisation that cuts have gone too far and depleted frontline squadrons. In particular, the previous plan to dispose of 53 early Tranche 1 Typhoons in 2018 is now under review. The Tranche 1 cannot be brought up to the Tranche 3 full multi-role standard without considerable investment. However, these jets can fulfil the busy QRA air defence requirement. While this would create ‘fleet within a fleet’ issues, it would retain combat mass and allow the Tranche 2/3 Typhoons to be dedicated to multi-role, high-end operations, rather than using up airframe hours chasing down Bears and non-squawking airliners. Should this happen, this could allow the number of RAF fast-jet squadrons to be boosted to nine or even ten. Indeed on the 16 November the PM himself said in speech that "We know we need the ability to carry out airstrikes so this money will provide for more fighter aircraft.". This has been followed by report from The Times which said that 36 Tranche 1 Typhoons will be brought back into service for air defence, to form three extra squadrons (two frontline and one OCU).
Additionally, there may be a stay of execution and a life extension for the Tornado GR4 fleet — currently due to be phased out in 2019. Already, one squadron has previously been brought back due to operational demands and, while integration of new weapons with Typhoon is proceeding apace, any additional demands or increases in operational tempo may require it.
Will SDSR see more commitment to F-35 numbers unveiled? (MoD)
Third, also on front line combat mass, SDSR could provide more clues or even commitments to the final number of F-35s that the UK will order. So far, only ten F-35Bs have been actually signed for, out of an initial batch for 14 and an overall requirement for 48 (severely reduced from the total of 150 that was originally talked about). With deck trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth set to begin in 2018, leading to a carrier IOC in 2020, time is fast ticking on. Conversely, some might argue that F-35 is a long-term project and the UK has plenty of time to acquire aircraft (and perhaps at a cheaper price). However, the PR ‘optics’ of the UK’s new supercarrier intitially taking to sea with a tiny handful of F-35Bs (or even USMC aircraft) are not to be ignored.
The RAF's AWACs fleet has fallen behind the upgrade path of other operators. (MoD)
The fourth issue to watch for is regarding ISR capability. Some of these announcements have already been leaked. Earlier this year, Airbus (and the MoD before in its own in-house magazine) revealed that the UK was looking at pseudo-satellite technology — with flight tests to begin in 2016. While still a demonstrator research programme, a mention of this is likely to be ‘name-checked’ in SDSR as an example of UK innovation. The leaks are not confined to industry or MoD either. The Prime Minister himself revealed that the RAF would be doubling its Reaper UAV fleet with a Predator B derivative now called Protector, previously a requirement known as Scavenger. So far, so good.
]But other ISR news to watch for in SDSR will be whether the RAF’s Sentinel R1 will be given a stay of execution to enable this hard-working asset to serve until 2025. Previously it was originally supposed to be axed after the withdrawal from Afghanistan — but has now currently been extended to 2018. Should it be extended by another seven years — Raytheon is proposing that a couple of low-risk updates could enhance its usefulness (especially in the maritime realm).
There is also a decision to be taken about the RAF's E-3D AWACs fleet, which has now seriously lagged behind the rest of the world in upgrades and modernisation. While still effective platforms, the longer it is left, the more expensive it will get to upgrade these to other operators' standards and take advantage of common upgrades. The alternatives are do nothing and use the money saved to put towards a brand new AEW platform — or even to get out of the airborne early warning business completely.
Aviation security and special forces
C-130Js may soldier on in their Special Forces support role. (MoD)
The fifth and final issue to watch for in the SDSR, counter terrorism and aviation security, has been given new focus very recently as a response to the Metrojet downing and the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November. This will, according to Whitehall, see teams of UK aviation security specialists assess airports around the world, training, equipment as well as extra funding for research into screening and security technologies. Additionally, the Prime Minister has also announced a £2bn boost to special forces and counter-terrorism. In air power terms this may see the C-130J extended in service to provide SF support as well as new helicopters for special operations.
General Atomics is set to be a winner in SDSR - with its Certificated Predator B to be the UK's new Protector UAV. (General Atomics)
Of course, not all these wishes may be fulfilled. Tough questions still remain, for example, over who pays for Trident and whether the NATO 2% GDP defence commitment includes intelligence and security services. But as a defence review that is facing ‘prosperity’ rather than ‘austerity’, the services are in a far better place today than they were five years ago. Pressures still remain — but at least now commanders can plan for it.