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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

John Augustus Essberger

Britain is a maritime nation. It almost goes without saying that having maritime patrol capability should be a key part of our defence and security policy. Yet in November last year, the UK once again had to call for allied help (French and Canadian) in monitoring a Russian submarine thought to be off the coast of Scotland.

This was the third such incident of external help being called for during the course of 2015, against a background of NATO warnings around Russian submarine activity being at its highest level in a decade. This worrying situation of the UK being dependent on others for help was entirely predictable and dates back to the UK Government’s crass decision in the ‘Strategic and Security Review‘ (SDSR) of 2010 to scrap the RAF’s Nimrod fleet which had previouslly performed maritime patrol duties, with no planned replacement.

At that time, the relatively new Prime Minister David Cameron sought to explain the Review outcomes as an attempt to be “more thoughtful, more strategic and more co-ordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security”. While the UK’s finances were in serious poor health in 2010, and there was an accepted need for spending constraints, there was widespread criticism at the time of the Nimrod decision and also the the astonishing likelihood of the two “Queen Elizabeth“ class aircraft carriers being built and ready for service in the latter part of this decade, but with no suitable aircraft ready to be deployed on them. In other words, the UK’s defence policy would be anything, but co-ordinated. I have made these points on a number of occasions in previous Messages from the Bridge.

If the shortfalls caused by these short-sighted decisions were entirely predictable, a policy u-turn at some point was likely too; and so it came in the 2015 version of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, announced as part of the Government’s wider Spending Review in late November. An order for a new generation of Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) was confirmed. A fleet of nine Boeing P-9 Poseidon aircraft, which were developed initially for the US Navy, will be based at RAF Lossiemouth on the Moray Coast, a part of Scotland which received a devastating setback after the 2010 review with the scrapping of the Nimrod fleet meaning the end of RAF activity at the nearby Kinloss base.

Also in the 2015 announcement was a commitment to ensuring that the two “Queen Elizabeth” class aircraft carriers will be built and brought into service “fully crewed“ (how bizarre to think that other options were being considered, given the current state of world security); and a confirmation that BAE’s Scotstoun and Govan shipyards on the River Clyde will build a new fleet of Type 26 frigates. The frigate announcement had a sting in its tail with only eight being commited to instead of the planned thirteen, although the Government is also considering an order for a new class of at least five lighter, general purpose frigates.

These commitments and the entirely sensible u-turn on maritime patrol capability are to be welcomed. The review was shaping up to these conclusions, but its good sense was confirmed by the continuing threats to world security represented by tensions over the situation in Syria, the terror attacks on Paris in mid-November, and the continuing flexing of Russian muscles over most issues in world affairs.

Even with this latest announcement, it is worrying to ponder why the UK Government got itself in such a mess in the first place. Was it a lack of co-ordination between foreign policy and defence policy? Or a naive approach to maritime and therefore national security. Perhaps it was an all-powerful and dogmatic Treasury deciding such desperate measures were needed in times of ‘austerity‘?

I can’t help thinking though, that the 2010 decision was conceived by politicians and advisers far removed from reality. For many years between the 1960s and 1980s, it seemed that every Secretary of State for Defence in the UK Goverment had also experienced life in the armed forces at the ‘frontline‘ - from political luminaries such as Denis Healey, Peter Carrington and Francis Pym, through to lower profile holders of that post such as Fred Mulley and George Younger. This must have injected a reality- check into decision making, or at the very least, ensured some degree of empathy with the Defence Chiefs and their task in keeping Britain secure.

Sadly, it would seem that defence policy is as much a political football as any other issue of the day, rather than being an area which requires close co-operation and long term strategic planning (given the lead time on any major fleet investments). A defence policy which is victim to short term political and General Election cycles is likely to continue to leave Britain exposed again in the future.

As we enter a new year, the Sea Breezes team extend our very best wishes to all our readers for a happy and healthy 2016, and our appreciation of your support in the year past.

HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR

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