Barely a handful of the 90-plus pages in the government’s strategic defence and security review 2015 are devoted to the armed forces.
And the ones that are, are long on promises and short on specifics. They contain huge question marks, not only about the cost of a new fleet of four Trident nuclear submarines but about another expensive project that is pretty irrelevant to the main threat to Britain’s security – violent terrorism – which David Cameron says will last a generation.
Monday’s document refers to the two large aircraft carriers – the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales – the largest ships to be built for the Royal Navy, whose cost is now more than £6bn, almost double the original estimate. These, says the document, will enter service from 2018 – but they will not play an active role in the navy’s fleet until well into the next decade.
The carriers, says the document, “will transform the Royal Navy’s ability to project our influence overseas” – that, it seems, is their main role. The ambition is still to buy about 138 F-35 Lightning fighter jets for the carriers, at an unidentified date in the future. The US-made fighters have had big problems with their weight and software, and their cost has soared, now estimated to total some £100m each.
While the navy will be equipped with these two expensive platforms – new Trident subs and two supercarriers – the recent commitment to replace its existing fleet of frigates with 13 new ones, to be built in Glasgow’s shipyards, has been dropped. Now we are told only that the new frigates “will start to replace” the existing fleet. A “concept study” will be set up to see if the Scottish yards will be able to build a “a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigates” by the 2030s.
The emphasis throughout the document is on the need for more flexible and agile forces. Certainly, the army should have them, with two new “strike brigades” and more special forces. Yet the most flexible and agile naval surface ship – the frigate – is being downgraded. The government, meanwhile, has conceded that the carriers will not just carry aircraft. They will provide a platform for such flexible units as marine commandos as well as drones and helicopters. But, as an increasing number of defence analysts warn, the carriers will be increasingly vulnerable to long-range missiles, and even small, fast, possibly unmanned boats operated by potential enemies, including terrorists – craft which agile frigates could deal with rather more easily, and at markedly less cost.
Monday’s document is a useful essay in that it spells out all the potential threats Britain will be exposed to and how our forces will – or should – be able to deal with them.
Trident and the carriers, with the planes destined to go on them, will cost well over £150bn over their lifetime. The document also refers at length to cheaper ways Britain could increase its influence. It refers to Britain’s cultural influence, its role as a global leader in science, technology, medicine, energy and the creative industries. The UK, it says, is “the world’s leading soft power”.
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