U.K. military planners are cobbling together a new road map to bridge capability gaps that emerged from last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) even as they brace for further cuts to plug funding shortfalls.
“The whole force is about £1 billion [$1.59 billion] down in cash terms for the next few years” with a gap as large as £2 billion per year possible, says Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “If the objective [of the SDSR] was to balance the books, they are not balanced,” he tells a RUSI conference reflecting on the review unveiled in October.
The issue is coming to a head with Planning Round 11 in its final stages and due for completion around April. Finishing PR 11 “is already a nightmare” due to the financial situation, Clarke says.
The SDSR “significantly reduced the underfunding” in the defense budget, says Nick Harvey, minister of state for the armed forces. However, he acknowledges that “we are not there yet” in terms of balancing the program. A senior Defense Ministry panel is slated to convene this week to discuss the issue.
Given the heavy commitment of all services to Afghanistan, there’s little flexibility in finding near-term savings to plug the gap, notes a senior military official. “Our room to maneuver is clearly limited,” he adds.
The Defense Ministry is looking at infrastructure divestitures and personnel cuts to help fill the residual hole of roughly £4 billion. The savings target is seen as “ambitious.”
Parliament’s defense committee also plans to examine the funding situation as part of a series of hearings investigating various elements of the SDSR.
As for the long term, defense officials stress that achieving the planned force structure in 2020 will require the government to boost the budget in real terms during the second half of the decade. However, officials acknowledge, that is contingent on economic recovery taking hold.
Program-specific issues on the Defense Ministry’s near-term planning agenda include how to transition carrier-strike capability in the absence of a fully operational aircraft carrier, and whether the planned Scavenger medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft program can take on missions associated with the canceled Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft and R1 Sentinel, which is due to be withdrawn from service once Afghanistan operations wind down.
The Scavenger system—which is slated to be developed with France under an agreement signed last year—is still in the formative stage. Early plans called for a nominal 2015 in-service date, but 2018 is now seen as more realistic.
Although the exact mission for Scavenger has not been finalized, Air Commo. Malcolm Brecht, director of the Air Staff, notes that with the decision to retire the R1 Sentinel, “we will look to mitigate its loss as part of the Scavenger program.”
Scavenger also could serve as a gap-filler in the maritime patrol realm, although the British military is already exploring the extent to which some of the roles the Nimrod was to perform can be reallocated. For example, C-130s could be used for search-and-rescue missions, E-3Ds for sea surveillance, and helicopters and ships for anti-submarine warfare.
The Defense Ministry faces another thorny question as it completes PR 11: How can aircraft carrier operating skills be maintained now that planners opted to have a capability gap until the new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier arrives around the end of the decade? “Transitioning to future carrier strike is challenging but manageable,” Royal Marines Brig. David Hook, the head of Navy resources and plans, tells the RUSI conference.
Top Royal Navy and Air Force officials are now working on a strategy to address those concerns. A series of agreements is being finalized to ensure that both piloting and deck-handling skills are maintained, which includes securing agreement from the U.S. and France to embed U.K. staff on their carriers.