The Warthog Lives! (The Weekly Standard Jan. 25, 2015)

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Happily, the Air Force has failed again in its crusade to kill off a great plane

This December saw the climax of one of the more peculiar conflicts in Washington. It was a battle over an Air Force plane. But it was not one of those standard-issue Washington procurement battles in which congressional bean counters seek to kill off a hugely expensive project that the relevant military branch insists is vital for American security. It was almost the opposite: The politicians were trying to save a weapon system, and the service brass, together with one of America’s aerospace giants, were trying to get rid of it.

The ungainly but effective A-10 Warthog

 

The weapon in question is the A-10 ground attack plane, officially the “Thunderbolt II” but widely known as the “Warthog.” It has been around for more than three decades. It’s one of the outstanding successes of modern American military aircraft, and its effectiveness in recent wars has made it beloved by American and allied troops.

The effort of the Air Force to retire prematurely this storied plane has few parallels, not just because it has faced dogged, and ultimately successful, resistance from well-informed members of Congress, but because it has lasted 25 years and has its origin in what looks like a troubling moral and intellectual crisis among Air Force leadership.

Every service has its cultural eccentricities, its strategic fashions, its technological fetishes that cause it to see defense priorities in terms of its parochial interests. But the obsessional Air Force campaign to get rid of the A-10 suggests an especially perverse set of priorities. After all, the A-10 has been one of the great airborne success stories of the last two wars, and even now is enabling the United States to battle ISIS in Iraq in a way that is not just far more economical than flying fast jets from distant aircraft carriers or bases at the other end of the Gulf, but highly effective.

Ask anyone who has served on the ground—or worked near ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—what aircraft they would prefer to come and give them close air support and they will say the A-10. They don’t just love the Warthog because it is deadly, though the distinctive “Brrrap” sound of its 30 mm cannon is dreaded by the likes of the Taliban. Ground troops prefer it because planes like the F-16, the French Mirage, and the British Typhoon are just too fast to carry out genuine close air support efficiently and safely and are much more likely to kill them—or civilians—by mistake.

Even early in the Iraq war when U.S. forces called for air support, some 80 to 90 percent of the requests specifically asked for the A-10. In 2006 a leaked email from a British Army officer involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province prompted a political storm in the U.K. by talking about near misses of his own troops by RAF fast jets and praising the Warthog. “I’d take an A-10 over a Eurofighter [Typhoon] any day,” said Maj. James Loden of the Parachute Regiment. U.S. soldiers have similar stories. One experienced NCO in Afghanistan told National Defense magazine, “The A-10s never missed, and with the F/A-18s we had to do two or three bomb runs to get them on the target.”

The pilots of fast jets, no matter how good they are, simply have less time to see what is happening on the ground. They are more reliant on technology that can go wrong, and there is little question that they are more likely to inflict friendly fire and collateral damage casualties.

USAF brass don’t like to admit this. That’s partly because they tend to look down on both the A-10 and the mission for which it is so suitable, but also because it implicitly undermines their massive, desperate public relations campaign on behalf of the troubled, hugely over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a high-tech multirole plane that they claim, unconvincingly, will be able to replace the A-10 as a close air support aircraft.

Quite apart from the unlikelihood that the Air Force would ever want to risk a fragile $200 million stealth jet “down in the weeds” on low-level missions against ISIS, the Taliban, or their equivalents, it makes little sense to replace a plane designed specifically for a task with one that may be fundamentally unsuited for it. As Pierre Sprey, who played a key role in designing the F-16 and the A-10, has written, “As a ‘close air support’ attack aircraft to help U.S. troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over U.S. forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground.”

This is not to say that there are no valid arguments for replacing the A-10 at some point—especially if America’s armed forces start facing different enemies using more effective antiaircraft technology than the Taliban or even Syria have at hand. But it’s surely bizarre to go to the mattresses to get rid of an aircraft without having anything in the pipeline that can truly replace it.

The A-10’s original purpose was to give U.S. forces a chance of stopping vast Soviet tank armies if the Warsaw Pact invaded Western Europe. Accordingly, the engineers at Republic-Fairchild built a uniquely rugged aircraft around a powerful automatic cannon. The plane is ugly and ungraceful, but it can take off and land on rough airstrips close to the combat zone and requires relatively little maintenance. It has a long “loiter time,” making it ideal for search and destroy missions. It can take an astonishing amount of punishment from ground fire, its cockpit offers unparalleled visibility, and its pilot is well protected by a titanium armored “bathtub.”

The USAF, however, never embraced the A-10. It hadn’t really wanted the plane in the first place, but it had to field something like it or face the probability that the Army would demand the right to field its own fixed-wing aircraft. (Theoretically the Army has been forbidden to fly fixed-wing planes since the so-called Key West Agreement of 1947, which divided permission to field aviation assets between the older armed services and the new U.S. Air Force.)

As the Cold War came to an end, the Air Force saw an opportunity to mothball its 300 A-10s. But then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the A-10 was deployed against Saddam’s armored divisions. Its success was so dramatic—even as other, faster, more expensive jets like the British Tornado failed—that its retirement had to be postponed.

The A-10 then turned out to be equally useful in the Balkan bombing campaigns, during which primitive Serbian air defenses were able to shoot down one of the latest, stealthiest, most expensive U.S. aircraft.

By 2003 the USAF had managed to hand off its A-10 fleet to the Air National Guard. Once the second invasion of Iraq had begun, however, there could be no question of not using the Warthog to provide close air support to coalition ground forces.

In the next few years, A-10s, mostly flown by Air National Guard pilots, became the mainstay of these missions both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force and Navy used plenty of other aircraft types, and the Army and Marine Corps used their Apache and Cobra attack helicopters in support of ground troops, but the A-10 turned out to be the ideal counterinsurgency tool.

Even more frustrating for those who wanted to get rid of it, efforts to dismiss the A-10 as merely a “single-mission airframe” have been undermined by its surprising utility for other missions besides tactical ground attack.

In the Balkans it proved to be useful for combat search and rescue. During the first Gulf war, besides shooting up thousands of Iraqi tanks, the A-10 also shot down enemy helicopters, making it a star of what the military calls -“Battlefield Air Interdiction.” In Iraq and Afghanistan the A-10 turned out to be excellent for Forward Air Control (guiding other aircraft and artillery fire) in the tradition of Vietnam-era planes like the Mohawk and Bronco.

Right now in Iraq, A-10s are carrying out not just close air support but also the search and destroy sorties that the Air Force calls strike coordinated armed reconnaissance (SCAR) missions, for which it is ideally suited, unlike fragile, fuel-guzzling F-35s or even F-16s.

In 2013 the Air Force brass thought they could exploit the sequester to finally retire the A-10. Sure there was still fighting in Afghanistan, and mothballing the A-10 would mean using fast jets in its place, with all of the attendant downside, but the political opportunity was too good to miss. Indeed, it looked for a while like the A-10 was doomed. It didn’t help that the plane has no big aerospace lobby behind it, the last A-10 having been built in 1984 by a company that no longer exists. But Senator John McCain, supported by the Army and veterans’ groups, began a congressional insurrection on its behalf.

It was an uneven struggle. The Air Force and the Pentagon as a whole, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pushed for the plane’s mothballing. Again and again they assured Congress that the A-10’s retirement would be no great loss as the soon-to-be-ready F-35 is more than capable of doing everything the A-10 does. Of course, the Air Force knows perfectly well that supersonic jet fighters are not well-suited to the down and dirty jobs that the A-10 does so well. But admitting that might mean admitting the shortcomings of the troubled F-35.

Certainly the ruthlessness of the USAF’s efforts to retire the A-10 during the last two years seems to be a byproduct of the service’s ardent commitment to the F-35 and its terror that the latter might be canceled or cut. You can see this in the way that the Air Force has dishonestly redefined “close air support” so that the term includes dropping bombs from high above the clouds, and also in its shiftiness about when the F-35 will be deployable.

The Air Force, like the Navy and Marine Corps, has plenty to be nervous about when it comes to the F-35. It is not only already the most expensive weapons project in history and late by almost a decade, there are many people within the defense establishment and even the Air Force who think it a misconceived and wasteful procurement catastrophe. 

Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

Perhaps the Air Force should have realized this earlier, and fought for a top-of-the-line plane without a fat waist that makes it slow to cross the sound barrier and all but incapable of agile maneuver. Instead it has put all its trust in the F-35’s “stealth” characteristics—i.e., its low observability by certain kinds of radar, and the way its sensors enable it to engage enemy aircraft beyond visual range. If everything works well, the F-35 can spot an enemy far away and then destroy it with a long-range missile and not have to worry about being slow and ungainly.

However, the F-35 is only stealthy from the front, and even then its cross section is readily observable by old-fashioned low-frequency radars, still used by the Russians and many other countries. Moreover, while stealth technology was exciting and seemed as unbeatable as a Harry Potter invisibility cloak back in the 1980s when the F-35 was conceived, in the 30 years since, adversaries have been working on clever countermeasures and/or developing their own stealth planes.

But even before the F-35 program, with all its implications for the reputations, promotions, and future employment of USAF brass became publicly problematic, the Air Force disliked the A-10, for reasons that had little to do with mission effectiveness and much to do with considerations like aesthetics, self-image, and interservice rivalry.

The A-10 is an ugly, unglamorous aircraft and therefore unappealing to those whose world is steeped in the “knights of the air” mythology of air-to-air combat. It is relatively simple and inexpensive—and therefore has little added value for officers who might want to curry favors with the aerospace industry.

Moreover, despite its age, the A-10 is relatively inexpensive to fuel and operate. That sets a bad precedent for an organization that has struggled to justify the purchase of fragile high-tech aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 that often need days of repair after each mission.

Finally (and perhaps most damning of all), the point of the A-10’s existence is to support personnel from rival services: The Warthog does the grubby job of assisting soldiers and Marines in their work. But the USAF is traditionally and primarily interested in two missions far removed from such tasks—strategic bombing and air-to-air combat.

It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.

Last fall, the Air Force tried a final gambit. Its spokesmen claimed that the F-35 program would be even more over budget and delayed if the A-10 weren’t “divested.” The latter’s defenders responded that getting rid of all 280-odd A-10s would save enough money to buy just 12 F-35s.

But the USAF wasn’t done yet. It claimed in November that the F-35’s crisis was a matter of maintenance personnel shortages and that the program could not flourish without the 800-odd maintenance people who currently work on the A-10. This was not true. As the well-informed War is Boring website quickly pointed out, there are thousands of maintenance personnel working on other aircraft types (including rarely used B-1B bombers and F-15 interceptors) who could easily be diverted to support the F-35.

Fortunately, Congress wasn’t gulled, and the latest National Defense Authorization Act forbade the USAF from retiring the A-10. It helped that the politicians fighting for the A-10 included not just McCain but also Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, whose husband flew A-10s in Iraq, and Representative Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who herself flew A-10s in combat. 

ISIS also played a role in saving the A-10. A single squadron of Warthogs would have been enough to stop the ISIS blitzkrieg into northern Iraq—especially given that during the summer the Islamist force moved in long, vulnerable convoys of pickup trucks. Though it will be harder to dislodge ISIS forces now that they are hiding in Iraq’s towns, the Pentagon has deployed an Indiana National Guard A-10 air wing to Iraq, where it has been in action supporting Kurdish forces.

While the A-10’s supporters have won for now, the underlying problems with the Air Force remain. There’s an argument to be made that if it is institutionally unwilling to take seriously the mission of delivering close air support to American troops, as seems to be the case, then it would make sense to abolish its near-monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft and hand the A-10 over to a resuscitated U.S. Army Air Corps that would be pleased to have it.

 And perhaps the USAF should also give up other unglamorous tasks that are about supporting soldiers, sailors, and Marines. It could become a smaller force that operates interceptors, strategic bombers, tankers, and America’s strategic missiles. It’s a solution that could keep the fighter jockeys happy (at least until they are all replaced by unmanned aircraft) without undermining the effectiveness of America’s military as a whole. Of course, it would be far better if the service simply came to its senses and made the national interest, rather than the promotion of the F-35, its first priority.

Labour's Defence Opportunity (Demos Quarterly, April 2014)

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The Coalition’s mishandling of Britain’s defences presents the opposition with a political opportunity, argues Jonathan Foreman.

The Conservatives were once seen as the party especially supportive of defence priorities; this should no longer be the case. The Cameron Coalition’s apparent indifference to such priorities and its willingness to diminish the armed forces capabilities and capacity offer Labour an opportunity to demonstrate that it is the party of responsible, adult, forward-thinking government.

If you compare Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) with the Tories’ 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the former was ‘strategy driven’, with a clear vision of what the UK’s armed forces were expected to be able to do and what they would need to perform their tasks. The latter, on the other hand, seems to have been almost entirely ‘deficit-driven’—a hodgepodge of rushed cuts that avoided serious thought about either the UK’s expectations of its forces or serious consideration of potential threats and tasks over the coming decades.

Moreover, the Coalition’s 2010 SDSR and subsequent decisions, including the controversial Army 2020 plan are increasingly said to be hollowing out and demoralising the UK’s armed forces. They have led to cuts and forced redundancies that will strip the services of capacities that would be extremely difficult to restore in the case of a military emergency. As Professor Gwyn Prins has written, with reference to the scrapping of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier and the fire sale of the UK’s Harrier jets:

For the sake of relatively small savings the SDSR has ground to dust most of the key enablers for the sovereign projection of British power.

The Coalition’s cuts also mean that even by the appalling standards of British military procurement, the public is getting poor value for money. Meanwhile, the government’s attempts to depict the cuts as ‘reforms’ that will give Britain greater military flexibility for less money have been contradicted by the Commons defence select committee and more significantly by worried US officials, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defence SecretaryRobert Gates, who have indicated that the cuts imperil the ‘special relationship’.

Yet the short-sighted destructiveness of the SDSR turns out to be in a Tory tradition. After all, few governments in British history have done as much damage to the armed forces as the Conservatives did with the ‘Options for Change’ review in 1990: the British forces taking part in the 1991 Gulf War were so underequipped that allied forces nicknamed them ‘the Borrowers.’ That was followed in 1994 by the swingeing cuts of ‘Front Line First’. And it is often forgotten that naval cuts by the Thatcher government played a role in causing and then almost losing the Falklands war.

Although Labour has rarely trumpeted its own quiet tradition of responsibility about defence matters, including its commitment to decent wages and conditions for service people, it is actually hard to imagine a Labour government doing as the Coalition has done and leaving Britain without a carrier strike capability for at least a decade. Certainly Labour’s defence ministers have often been better informed and better liked by the forces than their Conservative equivalents.

Moreover the most damaging defence policy and defence procurement choices of the past three or four decades have been made by Tory governments, such as the decisions to build the Nimrod MRA4 (finally cancelled in 2010 after a loss of £3 billion – the price of a new aircraft carrier), and to buy the Eurofighter Typhoon instead of the less expensive, combat proven F-16.

Some of the Government’s dubious defence decisions appear to be determined by a belief that the forces are a politically cost-free area of state activity from which to make cuts. Others are apparently prompted by unthinking commitment to privatisation, and still others by the excessive and unhealthy long-term influence over procurement policy of BAE, the London-headquartered multinational that has become Britain’s quasi-monopoly arms supplier, most of whose employees are now based abroad.

Among other errors, the Coalition has left this island nation without maritime patrol aircraft. Such aircraft, though designed for anti-submarine warfare, are also essential, especially given our shrunken Navy, to protect offshore infrastructure like oil rigs, detect pollution, interdict smugglers, patrol the sea lanes on which our prosperity and food supplies depend, escort our nuclear submarines and to carry out the kind of search and rescue operations that Asian nations have carried out in search of the missing MH370 plane.

Then there was the decision in 2012 to reverse one of the few wise recommendations of the 2010 SDSR, namely to fit catapults and arresters on the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. This renders both vessels a colossal waste of money, even if you accept the argument for two super-carriers rather than several smaller, cheaper ones. The accompanying decision to sell all of Britain’s Harrier jets to a baffled but grateful US Marine Corps for just £180m and leave the Navy with no ship-borne jets until at least 2020 was an unqualified disaster.

The most controversial of the Coalition’s measures is the proposed shrinking of the British Army from 102,000 to 82,000 regulars. Although this would leave it at a smaller size than at any time since the early nineteenth century, and although experts worried that 82,000 is too small a number from which to recruit the elite special forces operators on which the government proposes to place greater reliance, the Coalition argued that the cuts would be compensated for by the doubling of the reserve force to 30,000. However the army was already struggling to fill the ranks of the 15,000-strong Territorial Army even before the demoralising effect of redundancies and cuts. Furthermore the privatisation and outsourcing of recruitment has so far proved a tragicomic failure and seems unlikely to find enough recruits even to fill the shrunken requirements of the regular army.

The UK needs armed forces whose abilities are commensurate not just with the size of our economy or population, but with our current global influence, our alliances, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, our democratic ideals, and the sacrifices we have already made for those ideals.

Properly equipped armed forces enable the UK to uphold the rule of law to which we are committed, to enforce no-fly zones, to prevent or end mass atrocities as in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and to take part in large scale humanitarian operations. During the recent Philippines disaster, the US Navy with its carriers and helicopters turned out to be, once again, the world’s most effective emergency aid organisation, bringing vital food, water and medical assistance to villages cut off from road transport.

Maintaining armed forces at this level is theoretically achievable if the UK keeps to its NATO requirement of spending a minimum of 2 per cent of GDP on defence. But not if billions are repeatedly wasted on projects that represent a short-termist and half-baked industrial policy, and that support remarkably few sustainable jobs while subsidising the appetite of Britain’s monopoly arms supplier for making acquisitions abroad.

It certainly would not be hard for the opposition to cut through some of the rhetoric surrounding coalition defence policies: for example the dubious claim that despite current and future cuts the UK will still have ‘the fourth largest military defence budget in the world.’ Even if this were true all it would really illustrate is the UK defence establishment’s ability to get minimum bang from maximum bucks. Countries with smaller defence budgets—such as France and Israel—manage to field larger numbers of advanced aircraft, armoured vehicles and trained servicemen. The great and perverse achievement of Britain’s political-military-industrial complex is that despite funding the fourth or fifth largest defence budget in the world the UK fields the 9th or 10th strongest armed forces.

The military analyst who blogs under the name William Forbes likes to use the term ‘Bullingdon Defences’ to describe the misguided priorities of Coalition defence policy. In his words:

Bullingdonism… involves dressing the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force in new expensive, embroidered, exquisite equipment (e.g. F-35B strike aircraft)…whose alternatives would be much more economical and useful, then trashing perfectly good assets (e.g. the Harriers and HMS Ark Royal), then looking for small opponents to bully or even to fight (eg. Libya and perhaps Syria), demoralising the staff (in all the services but especially in the Marines and the Army) and then leaving the chaos and damage for others to repair and recompense.

Some of the Coalition’s actions may be attributable to the influence of the Liberal Democrats, but the current Conservative leadership has a profoundly different approach to defence than that of its predecessors. It has little apparent affinity for or interest in the armed forces; it believes that there are no votes to be won or lost in defence, and it seems to assume that the military vote is anyway in its pocket.

Moreover, the Tory modernisers’ obsession with the good opinion of the metropolitan media and their need to portray themselves as ‘cooler’ and less tradition-bound than previous versions of the Conservative party, evidently makes them allergic to too much association with the forces (except of course for ritualistic expressions of sympathy for casualties and praise for the fantastic job they do).

Certainly George Osborne, in his dual capacity as Chancellor and chief party strategist, has felt little hesitation to push for ever deeper cuts in the defence budget. Like many British leaders in the 1920s and early 1930s he seems to see defence spending as an expensive frippery, a form of insurance that has become unnecessary in the modern world.

All of this may reflect a lack of military experience in the cabinet that is unique in the history of modern conservatism. However, that in itself would not explain the fact that the Coalition’s National Security Council, the body that produced the SDSR (and which will carry out the next review in 2015 if the Government is re-elected) does not actually include the Chief of Defence Staff, or anyone from the armed forces, or for that matter anyone who has ever served in the military. (The CDS and other military officers only attend ‘as required.’)

Of course there is much less military experience in the Commons in general than there was 30 years ago thanks to the end of national service. But such experience or the lack of it are no guarantee of good or bad decision making: George Robertson who had no military experience was one of the best defence secretaries of recent times, while Denis Healey who had been a beachmaster at Anzio and finished the war a Major, was responsible for the disastrous Defence White Paper of 1966.

There is a strong argument that the Chancellor’s complacency about military as opposed to financial dangers to national security is a naïve, historically ill-informed attitude, akin to previous governments’ incorrect assumptions that peace is and will continue to be the norm in human affairs. (It is no surprise that we no longer hear much talk of the End of the History or the Peace Dividend, those mythical beasts whose arrival was supposedly portended by the collapse of the Soviet Empire.) Since the invasion of the Crimea by Russian forces its callowness has become more apparent.

To be fair, over the past two decades there has been considerable continuity in defence policy, with successive Tory and Labour leaders ordering cuts that presume an ever-less threatening international environment, and both parties making procurement decisions that expensively subordinated the requirements and desires of the armed forces to other government interests such as industrial policy, pork barrel politics and European integration.

Neither party has been willing or able to challenge the unhealthy influence over defence policy of BAE, or its ability to extract contracts that disadvantage the forces, the Exchequer and British national interest. The defence procurement process that was criticised so devastatingly by the Commons’ Public Administration Select Committee in 2013 has long been spectacularly inefficient, taking 50 per cent longer than that in France or Germany.

Nor has either party been willing or able to reform a top-heavy Ministry of Defence that is manifestly unfit for purpose—an organisation choked by a toxic stew of incompetence, careerist box-ticking and managerial jargon, and in which generalist civil servants vastly outnumber and dominate those with military and technical expertise. Both parties have blindly pursued privatisation and outsourcing: it was a Labour government that saw the sell-off of the Defence Research Agency (DERA) to Qinetiq; it is the current Conservative-dominated government that has privatised army recruitment with awful results.

Finally, neither Labour nor the Conservatives have understood the need to reform military establishments which are absurdly top-heavy, with far too many officers of “OF-4” rank (Wing Commander, Lieutenant Colonel, Commander) and above, and which seem unable or unwilling to perform the self examination that ought to follow what were arguably strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, politicians of both parties can be excused for getting so much wrong on defence, given that media coverage of the subject is so limited and inadequate. In general the defence establishment undergoes much less independent public scrutiny than other government activities (as Lewis Page pointed out in his important critique Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, there are no weekly defence supplements in the newspapers as there are supplements for education and healthcare).

So what should politicians – or more specifically, the next Government – do to repair this damage? One way would be for Labour to cancel the proposed mothballing of the UK’s second aircraft carrier and instead upgrade it with a carrier and arrester wires so it can do the job it was designed to do. The first carrier, on the other hand, without ‘cats and traps’ could be fitted out as the world’s first carrier-sized emergency/humanitarian aid vessel. It would be convertible to a warship if necessary and be available for loan to the UN and other organisations.

Labour should simply cancel the F35B and weather the upset that will cause in Washington. With the money saved from that ruinous purchase the RAF could buy maritime patrol aircraft off the peg from Bombardier, Airbus or Boeing. It could also purchase unglamourous but genuinely useful second-hand A-10 and AC-130 ground attack planes that the USAF is mothballing. Further savings could be gained by cancelling the purchase of the troubled, long-overdue and massively over-budget Airbus A400M transport plane and, like the Australian Air Force, buying more of the C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft that have been among the RAF’s more successful purchases.

It would also make sense given the diminished state of the forces after so many years of cuts, and given the UK’s unique military skill sets, for future British humanitarian and peace support operations to be paid for out of the UK’s increasing, uniquely generous but often poorly-utilised international aid budget.

In general there is plenty of room for thoughtful, considered reform by an incoming government, and the 2015 Defence Review could and should be a radical one. After all, as countries as small as Spain, South Korea and even Denmark and Norway have shown, it is possible to maintain some defence industrial capacity without spending billions on white elephants as per recent tradition.

This requires some common sense and a willingness to learn from the history of recent projects. For example, building a modern ‘air warfare destroyer’ from scratch as in the case of the Type 45 Daring class, rather than taking the path of buying a proven design from abroad, not only turned out to be spectacularly expensive but also landed the Royal Navy with less capable ships in smaller numbers than was hoped. In the field of procurement, government relations with suppliers must undergo a sea-change. If future British governments are ever going to buy British again, it should not be under coercive conditions.

Even the current chief of general staff, a political general par excellence who is not known for challenging the assumptions of his masters, has called for change, and remarked pointedly in a December 2013 RUSI lecture that ‘the defence budget does not exist primarily to subsidise the defence industry or promote defence exports. It exists to maximise defence capability’. It is worth noting that in the US, defence contractors and Defense Department procurement officials have been forced to testify before Congress about cost overruns and delayed deliveries, and the former face financial penalties for failing to meet contractual obligations. A new government should introduce such democratic accountability and an effective penalty regime into the procurement system.

It might also be useful for the next government to point out that British arms suppliers have been nationalised before and the outcome was arguably no worse for the public purse and for military effectiveness than the current system under which the forces, the defence budget and the British public have been repeatedly taken for a ride, and British arms manufacturing jobs moved offshore. The often morally if not legally corrupt role of senior officers who leave the services to become executives at contractors needs to be closely examined and monitored.

Any government intending to reform defence spending and procurement must also face the fact that almost without exception efforts at EU collaboration on big arms projects have been financially disastrous and led to UK purchases of overpriced and/or inferior aircraft and equipment (see the A400M transport aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon etc.) It clearly no longer makes sense to give each of the forces an even third of the defence budget, or to share cuts equally between them regardless of need or operational tempo. No government has yet had the foresight or political courage to end this practice.

Finally the armed forces have been so irresponsible in their battles against each other—the RAF’s successful campaign to destroy the Fleet Air Arm being a case in point—that it may be time to consider root and branch reorganisation, such as the re-absorption of the RAF into the Army and Royal Navy, or the establishment of a single UK Defence Force.

Government’s first duty is defence of the realm. It is not clear that the Coalition understands that. Its apparent failure to take seriously the requirements of defending the realm offers a golden opportunity to opposition leaders to present themselves as adult statesmen looking out for the long-term interests of the British people.

http://quarterly.demos.co.uk/article/issue-2/labours-defence-opportunity/