THIS INTERVIEW WAS FIRST PUBLISHED LAST YEAR AND HAS NOW BEEN UPDATED
“Do you understand your Prime Minister?” the General asked me. “Have you seen the news from BAE Systems? It’s a picture of his new peaceship. The First Sea Lord says it’s designed for ‘humanitarian and disaster relief work around the world’, but just look at it. It’s not built for the North Atlantic, not with that hull it ain’t (look at the flare), but it’s painted North Atlantic grey to make it look stealthy. Very fashionable, stealth. If it’s to run around the world doing good as the SDSR tells us, the Prime Minister will want people to see it, won’t he? So it shouldn’t be coloured for stealth – it should be painted vividly in highly saturated fluorescent red, white and blue.”
“Yes,” I said, “but this is the Type 26, the new Global Combat Ship. It’s going to be in combat against pirates and drug runners. That’s why it’s grey. Not exactly stealth, but ‘low observability’. Look, it has a gun.”
“A gun!” he said. “You call that a gun? When I was a toddler I had a cowboy suit with a bigger gun than that. Matelots used to know how to cover their rear, but they can’t here with that, can they? A Somali in a skiff with an RPG could approach from astern and sink it.”
“Yes, if it could get near enough to use an RPG, but there’s a helicopter to look after the rear.” But only one, I thought, and that might be a Merlin even if they plan on an updated Lynx. And how often would a Merlin be serviceable in 2020?
“Six years ago, in the Gulf, HMS Cornwall had a chopper but it couldn’t even defend the cabin boy’s iPod. D’you see there are no rails? A rough sea swamping the deck and stealth will be destroyed by a trail of sailors washed overboard. No davits for the lifeboats. No lifeboats. I can see only two cells for launching missiles – perhaps there are more astern – but it really doesn’t look like a warship, does it? It’ s a peaceship. What’s it actually for?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They plan on it coming into service in 2020, so …”
“2020!” he interrupted. “It’s a BAE Systems contract commissioned by the MoD, for heaven’s sake. And it’s for the Royal Navy, which is still governed by tradition. That means it will be vastly over budget, too expensive to fully equip, and years late, years late. We’ve been sending ships to sea without their missiles ever since that lunatic Brown decided missiles were unnecessary so long as our ships were actually capable of putting to sea with missiles if they had any, so having no missiles because we have no money is the tradition we must now follow. (The current Deputy Prime Minister is pushing that as the new Naval doctrine. He even says the Vanguard submarines should go to sea without their Trident missiles! It’s called LibDem Duality. That means having a deterrent that can’t deter.) Forget 2020. That date was chosen for PR reasons because the first new carrier is due to go to sea then – without aircraft, of course, because we can’t afford the ones for which it was designed, and those will be tactically useless anyway.”
“Well, it’s not really that bad,” I said. “When the peaceship does eventually come into service, it will be basically a new type of frigate. Our admirals insist on having a destroyer-frigate navy. That’s what they understand. They can cope with aircraft carriers, but they don’t really like them.”
“Yes, you’re right,” he said, “and that’s the problem. A destroyer-frigate navy. The frigates are there to defend against submarines, and the destroyers against air attacks, but the submarines the frigates once fought successfully were diesel-powered. They can’t fight nuclear subs. Only other nuclear subs can do that. Helicopters could sometimes, perhaps, but I doubt it for the future. The destroyers might do point defence against some incoming missiles, but not against crossing targets, and not against the existing supersonic surface-skimming cruise missiles heading for the carrier – and by 2020 new hypersonic anti-ship missiles will have put this Type 26 Global Combat Ship out of business, and the carriers, too, of course.”
“Perhaps you have a point,” I admitted.
“I’ll tell you what’s behind this,” he said. “By the target date of 2020 the carriers, even if they are ready, won’t have the strike aircraft their designers intended, and they will be far too vulnerable to put to sea in a war. But they will have hospitals and helicopters and large kitchens they call galleys, and hangars full of Red Cross and Red Crescent parcels, so that they can run around the world ‘doing good’ in crisis areas, droughts, tsunamis and earthquakes. The same goes for the new Type 26 GCS alias frigates, which also will be far too vulnerable to expose to actual warfare. It’s all in the subtext of the SDSR. And why?”
“Search me,” I said. “I don’t understand my Prime Minister either.”
“It’s his ‘Soft Power’ theory,” he said. “Someone told him of the ‘fleet-in-being’ doctrines developed by Lord Torrington and Admiral Mahan that allowed the Royal Navy to rule the seven seas while staying safe in port, and then he coupled those to Brown’s lunacies about it being sufficient to have unarmed ships so long as they are capable of being armed, and then he realised that if the Royal Navy remained unarmed and also stayed in port the MoD would be able to reduce its personnel by half. So this ‘Soft Power‘ idea was initially about saving money to fund the International Aid budget he had ringfenced. It’s the same strategy he’s used with education. If there are to be no grammar schools it’s not possible to educate modern youth, and if you can’t educate modern youth you don’t need to spend the money trying. I know that doesn’t work, but neither did he until he tried it.”
“Hold on,” I said. “That’s absurd.”
“Of course it’s absurd,” he said. “You know that and I know that, but he doesn’t. Now watch the Army. It’s fighting wars with inferior equipment and as its morale drops the lads queue up to leave and ancient regiments cannot find new recruits. So then he disbands the regiments because they’re undermanned, and suddenly we find we have an army which is no longer an army, just a collection of 82,000 extremely unhappy men and women with capability consistent with ‘Soft Power’. We can’t fight a war with an army of only 82,000. It’s not possible. And we can’t fight anything with ‘Soft Power’.”
“What about the RAF, then?” I asked.
“He followed his predecessors and took orders from Brussels. We had to agree to buy 250 Eurofighter Typhoons. That was twenty-odd years ago. We now plan to have in 2017 only 107 of them and they will cost us three times what we were told would be the price. To pay for them we first took a complete and fully operational attack wing of Jaguars offline and scrapped them, and more recently we decommissioned all our Harriers (and then, not having any Harriers to fly from the through-deck cruisers he decommissioned those too and scrapped them). Now we are told that these wonderful Typhoons won’t do the job the Jaguars did because they cannot integrate their computer software with the weaponry software. That’s why the Typhoons attacking Libya needed Tornados to fly alongside them to aim their bombs for them.”
“Yes,” I said. “I knew that.”
But as we had only eight pilots capable of flying those Typhoons, it was all a nonsense anyway. Having the Tornados fly all the way from Norfolk each day in order to help the Typhoons work as simple bombtrucks must be the most bizarrely uneconomic arrangement in RAF history, and it was all done in an attempt to hide the stupidity of decommissioning the Harriers and scrapping HMS Ark Royal. And then, after all this unnecessary expense, and after the failure to hide from the world the Typhoon’s inadequate ground attack capability, the operation was claimed to be a huge success that justified the SDSR decisions. What cynics call spin, older judgement describes as blatant dishonesty.
It is dispiriting to think back to the Second World War when in 1940, still suffering from the lack of preparation, we could yet launch, just, enough fighters each day to defend us against very large fleets of well-escorted bombers, and then later to when we could send, each night, raids of a thousand bombers flown by a thousand pilots to attack the enemy factories, and then to appreciate that there were only eight pilots to fly the RAF’s shiny new frontline fighter-bombers against Libya.
And the cost of all this? When a representative of the MoD told the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons that the Typhoons were costing only £72 million each, one of the committee members told him that if we divided the full programme cost by the 107 Typhoons we would have accumulated by 2017, then we were paying £186 million each. Ah, yes, but for that figure, he was told, it was necessary to include the cost of research and development. One wonders who he thought was to pay for that. The tooth fairy or the taxpayers?
This fundamental incompetence in the interpretation of the numbers pushed around in the MoD has been well illustrated with the decommissioning of the Harriers and their sale to the US Marine Corps, with which they are planned to remain in use for several years, and for even longer if the F-35B, their theoretical replacement, fails so badly that even the White House must recognise it. No one knows how much the F-35B will cost the Royal Navy, nor even how many will be bought, but the price will not be less than £125 million each. This means that the sum received by the MoD for the sale of 72 Harriers plus spares plus support equipment, £110 million, is less than the currently forecast price the MoD will pay for one F-35B, one single F-35B without spares, in whose performance independent aviation defence analysts have no faith, absolutely no faith at all.
“You know what I think,” said the General. “I think it started with the Typhoon and the scrapping of the Jaguar attack wing. That was in the same continuum that is planned to end with the Armed Forces cut to the bone and unable to fight a war alone for British interests. Our frontline ships will be too vulnerable and too few to fight, the RAF won’t have sufficient aircraft or pilots to operate, and the Army won’t have sufficient men to field a brigade for an overseas campaign. That is the ‘Soft Power’ that can be provided for pennies so that the pounds can be spent on International Aid.” He paused to pour the remainder of the Glenlivet into his glass while I recalled the Jaguar stupidity. In 2004, the MoD decided to retire the ground attack Jaguar aircraft early (although it was eventually delayed until mid-2007) and to spend £119 million to install ground attack upgrades on early Typhoons to cover the resulting capability gap. The MoD thus took offline a fully operational attack wing, long before its life was over (the Indian Air Force is to continue flying upgraded Jaguars for another twenty years), in order to fund an overdue aircraft it could not afford, and then made that overdue aircraft even more unaffordable by upgrading it at great expense to do the work of the proven and splendidly efficient operational aircraft taken offline to help fund the newcomer that was supposedly replacing it.
“Think of the continuum as a flexible hose,” the General continued. “At one end, before the Berlin Wall came down and our lords and masters were burbling on about imaginary ‘peace dividends’, we had Armed Forces that could defend our national interests. Now we do not. One end of the hose was in Westminster back in 1990, and the other end is in Brussels in 2020 when the ‘Soft Power’ will ooze into the EuroForce to become its ‘Soft Power’ element – to operate peaceships, air ambulances, and stretcher bearers.”
He emptied his glass and turned it down.
“Sic transit gloria mundi,” he said.
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