To all intents and purposes, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should be inline for a bumper next few years. Following the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the plans Secretary of State Sir Michael Fallon (knighted in David Cameron’s resignation honours list) laid out should begin to take shape.
For the Army, continuing investment in a massive relocation programme has seen the start of building work right across Salisbury Plain, preparing accommodation and infrastructure to house the thousands of soldiers and their families relocating from Germany. Indeed, a November newsletter reported that “82% of troops based in Germany at the time SDSR 2010 have been relocated”.
The Royal Air Force could expect to do well out of the next few years. A new military flying training Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is beginning to take shape, ready to make use of brand new aircraft for its first students in 2019. The RAF will also regain a maritime surveillance capability in the coming years, with the delivery of its first P8 Poseidon, as well as boast to the UK’s drone fleet. On top of that all, despite President Trump’s best efforts, the UK will form its first operational F35 Lightning II squadron in 2019 as the Tornado is slowly wound down from its long term deployments in the middle east.
The first of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be delivered and will begin sea trials prior to its first deployment next year. Upgrade contracts have been announced for the Fleet Air Arm’s Merlin Mk2 fleet to be fitted with Crowsnest radar, replacing capability currently provided by the venerable Sea King Mk7. The transfer of the RAF Merlin fleet into the custody of the Commando Helicopter Force has been also been a success, maintaining a rotary winged naval heavy lift capability with a first class, familiar airframe. And of course, Trident is to be renewed; or is it?
To the men and women of the armed forces, to journalists and commentators, academics and to Joe Public, it seems like the MoD, after years and years of poor leadership, ineffectual procurement plans and mismanaged finances, could have finally got itself into a strong position. Alas, it was all an illusion, thanks to the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent.
One of the first acts carried out by Theresa May’s fledgling government back in July was to win a vote on the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Yet now, the Sunday Times reports that a Trident missile suffered a major navigational error during a training exercise which took place prior to the vote, calling into question the wisdom behind the decision and angering Trident’s growing band of critics. The Prime Minister quite embarrassingly refused to answer any questions on the subject.
One of the UK’s largest employers (when you include the three services and vast numbers of civilian staff), one of the largest government departments by budget, the organisation tasked with keeping the nation secure and our overseas interests safe; despite this vital task and stats in its favour, the Ministry has always been racked with problems. Just when it looked like it had the next three or four years sorted, with an upgrade programme and developments in military capability that would allow the UK Armed Forces to keep pace with an ever changing global situation, thanks to catastrophically bad management, the MoD again looks about as competent and in control as a US President with a twitter account.
Would this incident, if it had been reported at the time, really have influence the outcome of the parliamentary vote? On balance, probably not. However, to focus solely on Trident is to misunderstand the issue with this alleged fiasco.
Yet again, the Defence Ministry has made a rod for its own back and, yet again, interested onlookers are sighing with despair. The list of crises the MoD has apparently shrugged off is growing, from false predictions and cancelled programmes in the late 1950s, the Westland Affair during the Thatcher Years through to the procurement cock ups of the noughties.
To add insult to injury, on Monday 23rd January Sir Michael Fallon faced an urgent question in the House of Commons. Numerous times, MPs stood up to ask him whether this was a cover up, who ordered the news blackout and why was this story kept from parliament. Each time, the Secretary of State rose to his feet and responded by claiming such details were beyond the remit of what he can discuss about the submarine fleet.
At the same time, CNN reported that a US defence official had given them a blow by blow account of the incident and had explained the missiles apparent trajectory of veering towards the US as part of a self destruct sequence if the missile malfunctions. By not commenting on this incident at all, even in the face of facts presented by multiple sources, has created a vacuum that has allowed that ever present political poison, speculation, to develop. Speculation that has yet again put the MoD to shame.
It is a damning state of affairs when we have to rely on the officials of a foreign power to provide us with updates on our own defence issues, when our own defence ministers can’t be trusted to tell the truth, nor balance the books or secure key equipment; will it ever change? I’m afraid to say that the existential crisis of the Ministry of Defence looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.