This is a quick post about the more obvious reasons UK involvement with military intervention in Syria is a bad idea. The world has been sickened by the use of chemical weapons on 21st August and this brutal civil war has already been slaughtering civilians for sometime. There is an understandable pressure to “just do something” to stop this evil but Britain would do far better to learn from our recent mistakes, exercise caution, pursue diplomatic channels and focus direct action on humanitarian support, not least for the huge refugee crisis created by the conflict. The UK should not be tempted to use it’s rather limited forces for the following reasons: (most reasons are also applicable to the United States).
- We have no common cause with either side in the conflict. We do obviously not want to support Assad’s murderous regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah but more importantly we do not want to assist rebels some of which have with links to Al-Qaeda who want to create a militant Islamist state. This is not a simple case of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and there are also sectarian issues we don’t even fully understand. We cannot even be sure the chemical attack was carried out by the regime – it could be a desperate ploy by rebels to produce exactly this response.
- Whatever level of action we take, whether it’s firing off a few Tomahawk missiles or sending in troops it will result in further civilian deaths. Although we may aim at ‘military’ targets there is always ‘collateral damage’ in fact the regime may even force civilians into military installations as ‘human shields’. Will the long-suffering people of Syria welcome yet more ordnance raining down on their country, however carefully targeted?
- The most obvious lessons from the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we should not get involved in a war without a planned exit strategy and a realistic hope of post conflict nation-building that serves both the people of Syria and long-term regional stability – a very tall order.
- We will not be thanked. Our motives for involvement maybe honourable – to protect the civilian population and end the conflict but the Arab world and probably most Syrians won’t see it that way. To them it will be another Western invader melding in their affairs and seeking to gain more influence and power in the region. We will probably emerge even more hated and despised – further western interference in the Middle East is also another recruiting cry for terrorists.
- We may trigger a much wider conflict. After the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the Middle East is already very unstable. Like all cynical Arab leaders under pressure, Syria is threatening to attack Israel in the event of western intervention. How far the conflict would then spread beyond the borders of Syria is hard to say.
- We are broke and over-stretched. We face a large national deficit and another military intervention, even if it proves to be as ‘simple’ as Libya will cost £ Billions we cannot afford. After lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq our forces need time to recuperate and restructure. (Laughably the 2010 defence review promised “no new conflicts before 2015″. Rather like reducing your house insurance on the basis you don’t plan to be burgled in the next 5 years). Further fanning the flames of conflict in the Middle East is also likely to push up oil prices further impeding the economic recovery.
- It is not in our national strategic interest. Apart from the humanitarian concern and desire to stop the war, there is no direct benefit to getting involved. To be pragmatic, in Iraq part of the reason we were involved was to safeguard oil supplies. In Afghanistan we were supposedly confronting terrorists who threatened the UK. In Syria we may even end up assisting those with similar ideology to those same terrorist groups.
- Syria is a properly armed nation. Syria is not like Libya or Afghanistan. Although it has virtually no navy, the country is well defended with modern weaponry, up-to-date air defences, mobile missile batteries, a large army with heavy armour and of course, a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Going to war with such a nation should not be done lightly.
- We risk serious conflict with Russia. Stuck in his ‘Cold War’ mentality, President Putin sees Syria as a ‘client state’ and key to their influence in the region. They maintain a small naval base at Tartus and want to keep Assad in power. The Russians are the main obstacle to diplomatic progress at the UN and don’t care about the sufferings of the Syrian people so long as they keep their foothold. They will not be happy with Western intervention and have a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean. Whether Russian forces would actually fire on Western forces is not something we want to put to the test.
- Defence cuts mean any UK military contribution would be ‘token’ rather than decisive. (see below).
UK military options
Obviously to have much effect, any military action in Syria would need to be led by the US with the UK as a very junior partner (Sound familiar?). So what could the UK bring to this ‘party’? Not much.
Since 2000, submarine-launched cruise missile strikes have been the initial way conflicts involving the UK have begun, usually against air defence and command facilites. Despite being one of the most effective and relevant weapons, we only have submarine-launched Tomahawks available. Our tiny submarine force allows 1, probably 2 SSNs deployed in the area. We have been saying for the last 5 years that government should be prioritising fitting of this most potent and critical weapon to the Type 45 destroyers. We need to invest in a large stockpile of Tomahawks and a diverse range of firing platforms. If the cost of fitting them to Type 45s is too much then mounting them onto the decks of an RFA or merchant ship might even be a cheaper temporary alternative.
Despite the Cougar 13 task group being conveniently positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean, it has limited potency. HMS Illustrious carries only helicopters and, thanks to axing of the Harriers has little offensive power other than to support an amphibious operation. Even if we still had Harriers, their lack of stand-off missiles would involve very dangerous conventional bombing in the face of effective air defences. The Cougar task group is really optimised for a small amphibious operation or maybe a civilian evacuation, rather than striking inland. If we were mad enough to send in troops, an Amphibious operation on Syria’s 100 miles of crowded coastline would be near-suicidal, never mind than Syria has mobile coastal anti-ship missiles .
It would seem that the Cypriot government is apparently lukewarm about allowing British aircraft to be deployed to RAF Akatori to launch strikes on Syria. This again demonstrates the limitation of land-based airpower, often being dependent on permission from unreliable foreign states to get near the scene of the action. The restoration of RN carrier strike capability around 2020 can’t come fast enough. Maybe like in Libya, we will be treated to the ridiculous circus of small numbers of in-flight refuelled RAF aircraft making 5,000 mile round-trips from the UK to launch Storm Shadow missiles.
Dave please don’t do it!
- Navy ready to launch first strike on Syria (Telegraph)
- UK Gathers Warplanes, Military Hardware In Cyprus Base Near Syria (eurasiareview.com)
- Expert expects Syria attack from ships, not Cyprus base (famagusta-gazette.com)
- Syria, 2013 – Iraq, 2003: Along The Same Lines (voiceofrussia.com)
- Hague threatens to bypass UN Security Council – Irish Times (irishtimes.com)
Today in the much-anticipated new episode of the hilarious black comedy “Carry on Carrier” the government announces it shall reverse its decision to fit at least one aircraft carrier with catapults (EMALS) and angled decks for launching conventional aircraft and revert to the original plan to purchase vertical take-off and landing F35B aircraft.
Yes David, all around the world they are laughing at us.
While the media is focussed on the political embarrassment of David Cameron’s ‘U-Turn” on this issue, no one is paying much attention to the damage to the capabilities of the carriers, supposed cornerstone of UK defence policy. Despite the hysteria in political circles when someone changes their mind, there is nothing wrong with making U-turns, it is wise to admit ones mistake and seek to correct it before compounding the error. However this U-turn is away from common sense makes us the laughing-stock of the world. The hasty 2010 Defence Review was a massive series of errors with one good decision – the change to F35C and cats and traps for the carriers. This government’s track record on defence can now stand completely ‘unblemished’ by any good decisions, consistent solid 100% cock-up. This is a strategic mistake and a failure of leadership. David Cameron seems personally far more excited about the return of some RAF Spitfires – WWII relics, from Burma than ensuring that the future Royal Navy is equipped with the best aircraft to serve the nation’s interests.
The F35B is really an advanced Harrier replacement and represents a lost opportunity to have fully capable strike carrier – the carrier programme is now seen as a monumental fiasco, damaging to the RN’s reputation and embarrassing to the UK. This is no longer a ‘deep strike capability’, more close support for an amphibious landing and fighter cover for the fleet. Better than nothing but a massive unnecessary come-down from what could have been. Why build very large strike carriers when they can’t operate true strike aircraft and a fully balanced airgroup?
Why the U-turn?
Temporary ‘book-balancing’ is the primary driving force behind this decision. By saving the (disputed) upfront cost of fitting EMALS to the carriers and loading the extra costs of operating F35B onto future governments, Phillip Hammond and the Treasury can make savings now, claim to have reduced the deficit and make the MoD’s finances look a bit tidier. However the financial arguments don’t add up in the long term. Not only will the RN have a less capable aircraft, but the more complex F35B is at least £20million more expensive per aircraft and costs 25% more to maintain than the F35C. Assuming the RN gets 50 F35Bs (Being wildly optimistic) that’s and extra £1Billion in purchase cost plus a much larger on-going maintenance and fuel bill throughout the 30 or so years the planes are in service. Over time this will exceed the supposed cost of fitting EMALS to both ships.
We can only speculate but it would seem that instead of the respecting the views of the naval staff, academics, historians & former officers, government is listening to ‘special advisers’ and a toxic mix of land-based airpower and aerospace industry lobbyists. The First Sea Lord is now excluded for the Defence Council which advises on these matters. The only military representative is the Chief of Defence Staff (who is currently an Army General Sir David Richards who is not best qualified to argue case for naval aviation) Of course military advice is probably largely ignored anyway as political concerns about jobs backed by the powerful noise of arms manufacturing always come first.
We are not privy to all that has gone on behind the scenes in this decision but it is plain to see that it is not in the commercial interest of BAE Systems for anything other than F35s to fly from the carriers. Despite the very strong practical & financial case for buying F18 Super Hornets or even French Rafales (at least in interim until F35 proven). Those aircraft are definitely ‘not invented here’ with no fat profits to be had and no attractive British jobs headlines. BAE quoted £1.8 billion to fit EMALS to HMS Prince of Wales. It does not take great expertise to recognise this as suspiciously high (the US Navy has stated the cost of EMALS system is approximately £400m and they are so keen that the UK carriers have them they even promised to underwrite the costs).
Phillip Hammond recently wrote; “The UK is committed to JSF (rather than, for example, F18) because we are partners in the project and, so long as we remain in, UK companies are entitled to a share of approximately 15% of the industrial work of the entire project, likely to comprise some 3,000 jets over a thirty year period – worth many high-quality jobs in our aerospace industry.” Effectively admitting that commercial profits and the employment benefits of the F35 are far more important than what is actually best for UK defence and the Royal Navy. The RN will have to make do with the F35B, however late, insanely expensive and deficient it maybe.
The RAF fear that if F18s or Raflales were purchased this might delay or mean the abandonment of UK F35 purchase. The RAF are now jolly keen on the F-35 because the generation of aircraft beyond them could be un-manned. (This does not go down well with the fast-jet jockeys who want to keep up their giddy aerobatics for as long as possible). The RAF really want their hands on a 5th generation aircraft and see the purchase as a replacement for their crummy Tornadoes. In the decisions about procurement and operation of the carrier aircraft, the views of RAF are irrelevant and should not be required by ministers. In an ideal world it should have been purely a decision for the naval staff.
Further twists and U-turns to come?
The colossal cost, unsolved engineering challenges ahead and delays surrounding the F35 have been highlighted extensively already on this blog and by many commentators elsewhere. There would have been many advantages to having an aircraft carrier with EMALS, most significantly the ability to operate a much wider range of aircraft.
The government is gambling – the carriers are now totally dependent on the successful development of the F35B. There is a very real possibility that the US will cancel the F35B as they will to have to start to address their colossal national debt. If the US Congress fail to agree a new budget soon then there could be “sequestration” in 2013 which will mean automatic widespread cuts to the Pentagon budget with F35B top of the list of expensive programmes ripe for axing. Should the F35B be axed then the UK carriers would be in serious trouble. How much more embarrassing and expensive could be for this or the next government to have to do another U-turn and return to plan to fit EMALS!
This carrier debacle encapsulates Britain’s terrible inability to manage its defence. Our national decline is more about lack of leadership than lack of funds. Phillip Hammonds’ acountancy-driven approach to defence procurement offers a short-term ‘feel good’ factor but is a strategic disaster. We must live within our means but we must define affordable national objectives first and then buy the appropriate equipment. If we are building carriers because we have (wisely) decided we need carrier strike capability (A cornerstone of UK defence policy) then we need true strike aircraft. The defence budget is too small but the more serious problem is the lack of - planning or strategy, too much money allocated to land-based airpower, poor management of big programmes, further undermined by the interests of business.
“Always look on the bright side of life”
- In the words of a Royal Navy officer “at least we still get fast jets at sea”
- HMS Queen Elizabeth may not have to be immediately mothballed on completion and could embark F35Bs as soon as 2018 (if they are not canceled and the development programme delivers on its promises)
- The carriers are at least being built and without cost of EMALS there is a better chance of keeping both carriers
- F35B will hopefully be a purely Fleet Air Arm asset and fully under RN control. (Everything must be done to ensure the RAF do not interfere in the operating and tasking of these aircraft as happened with the “Joint Harrier Farce”)
- STOVL aircraft have additional flexibility as they can operate from small ships and land on rough terrain or restricted landing areas
- There maybe some advantages in air-air combat due to additional maneuverability
- Interoperability with US Marine Corps (although this is far less useful than being interoperable with USN strike carriers)
- A few more British jobs in Bristol are secure making additional vertical thrust engines
- The carriers could last 50 years and if ever a climate of sanity were to return to defence procurement one day the possibility remains they could be upgraded to be true strike carriers.
Despite this setback we remain firmly supportive of the carrier programme and continue to support the embattled Naval staff. As in so many times in the past, the Fleet Air Arm will undoubtedly make a success of the project even if hamstrung by the wrong equipment. The carriers are at least being built and but the battle over the aircraft that fly from them may not yet be over.
- About-turn on new variant of carriers’ fighter plane (Daily Telegraph)
- U-turn over fighter plane choice (BBC Video)
- Reversion to the F-35B would be wrong for Britain. (Sharkeys World)
- F-35 U-Turn is a Huge Mistake (Sharkeys World)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War