With events in North Africa taking many of the headlines of late, what is the future for Britain's Armed Forces? Can the Forces continue as they are presently configured? Is tri-service rivalry really an issue? Or is there a third way?
To most politicians in the Westminster bubble, loyalty and support for the Armed Forces is second to none. The key questions surrounding future capability and structure of the Armed Forces is something the Government has outlined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review. The news that a clear plan is in place for the MoD, in conjunction with a positive aim of reducing the department's budget deficit, is to be congratulated.
With the latest images of RAF aircraft flying sorties over North Africa, some defence commentators have questioned, and to some extent rightly, the logic of the decision to deploy the RAF. Why, you ask? Air superiority is a priority to any operation, although Close Air Support (CAS) as we see now is another matter. Could it be done more effectively, possibly via another means? Answer: Possibly yes. The decision taken in the SDSR to continue building both future aircraft carriers is a welcome one – many in the Royal Navy have long waited the arrival of these highly capable vessels (despite what some would argue as fiscally unsound contract negotiations).
Expeditionary warfare is something we hear from time to time: some argue the benefits of a defence posture adopting expeditionary warfare at its heart mean that a government of the day can deploy a strong naval presence along with highly mobile air power off the coast of a country within days, at relatively minimal cost (Not to mention, the support and 'convenience' of having such powerful assets so readily available). 'Basing rights' are not always easy to arrange/obtain and the logistical headaches of having to shift vast amounts of kit and manpower can take time, in some instances up to six months and generally is expensive.
The limitations of the aircraft currently in theatre could suggest that the era of single role aircraft is over. Whilst our American allies can provide multi-role aircraft capable of fulfilling three roles, most RAF aircraft can unfortunately only fulfill one. This does not detract in anyway from the professionalism and bravery of our pilots; rather, it suggests that this could be an area worth reviewing in future.
Moreover, given the fundamental shift in US policy regarding defence in Europe, particularly as the US turns to more of a 'supportive' role, does this suggest that European nations may need to review their defence posture and spend over the next decade or more? Probably yes.
In terms of the 'politics' of the Forces, the possible argument for removing one of the arms of the Armed Forces is potentially growing ever stronger, particularly as budgets are rationalised. In the early part of the 20th Century, the UK had only two major services, the Army and the Royal Navy. Pretty much most of the functions of the RAF could be transferred to the Army/RN respectively over the next period if the vision to implement it could be adopted. To some this might cause upset, to others this is nothing new and is in fact becoming ever more plausible by the day.
Equipment like the heavy lift helicopters and transport aircraft could be transferred to the Army, with Early Warning, Maritime patrol, Intercept aircraft and smaller helicopters going to the RN. Ground based protection could be also transfered to the Army, along with Rapier units, with training units joined up respectively.
Politically, some might argue the RAF is an institution in its own right, yet the reality is that much of the new equipment being procured for the Armed Forces this next decade is primarily aircraft, designed to support ground forces/expeditionary warfare. From the FSTA, A400M, Hawk, to F35 – the fact is with such heavy investment, the need for reform and rationalisation could be an acceptable course of action.
Furthermore, the structure of the Army has also had many commentators considering how best it can operate, given that so few of the Army actually represent the 'combat soldiers' compared with the 'support' units. This means that the strains put on a relatively small number of personnel is far higher, particularly as operations increase.
Some have suggested that there needs to be more of a balancing act at play, and the move to substantially increase and invest in special operations forces is most welcome, not to mention further investment in UAV airframes & technology.
Summing all of this up in the context of the UK's current operations, we should remember the wise words of former US General MacArthur who once said that anyone who commits an army to Asia or the Middle East 'should have their head examined'. Let's hope that the current pragmatic foreign policy the British government is displaying prevails long into the future…