Farnborough Air Show

UK defense cuts will be deep but smart

 - July 21, 2010, 12:39 PM
Airbus Military’s A400M will fly home from Farnborough, having impressed show-goers with its performance, but it still needs to convince cash-strapped governments like Britain’s that it is a must-have item in the future defense inventory.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) will emerge from the current UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) with only two types of airlifter, two types of fighter and two types of helicopter. That much was confirmed here Tuesday when Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), spoke to journalists after delivering a presentation on Combat ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance). A few hours earlier, British defense secretary Dr. Liam Fox told his Farnborough audience, “The current defense program is entirely unaffordable.”

These comments are bound to generate a fresh round of chalet chatter on the last trade day of this year’s Farnborough show. Will the government dare to cancel the A400M airlifter in favor of the RAF retaining both the C-130J and the C-17? If not, when exactly will the C-130Js be retired? The two fighters must surely be the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the long term. But will the Harriers be chopped immediately, and what about the Tornado GR.4 force?  The helicopter choice is already made: the RAF’s Merlins will be transferred to the Royal Navy, leaving the service with Chinooks and upgraded Pumas.

“We cannot afford the luxury of multiple supply chains and the associated training and infrastructure costs,” said Fox. “With only two types, we’ll save money upfront and ongoing, while preserving capabilities,” said ACM Dalton.

Fox echoed the sober conclusion of a report into defense procurement that was commissioned by the last British government. “There’s no doubt that there has been a culture of mutual over-optimism on costs, timing and performance,” he said. The new Defence Secretary called for “better value for money to the British taxpayer” from defense procurement.

But he offered a “deal” to the UK defense industry. “We will reform our acquisition processes, including a ten-year planning horizon agreed with the Treasury, audited every year,” he promised. Fox confirmed that a new Defence Industrial Strategy would be published after the SDSR. He also promised a renewed government commitment to support defense exports, including a more efficient licensing system. A pledge to ensure that exportability is a criteria when devising the requirements for UK defense equipment, plus “innovative training and exercise support.”

ACM Dalton spoke for 30 minutes on UK ISTAR capabilities without once mentioning the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, which has also been employed for overland surveillance. The service last year retired the old Nimrod MR.2 fleet without waiting for the new MRA.4 version to enter service. So had the RAF offered up the MRA.4 fleet for sacrifice in the SDSR, as some rumors suggest? The CAS denied this.

A similar capability gap will arise next year when the RAF’s small fleet of Nimrod R.1 SIGINT aircraft are withdrawn. To replace them, the RAF plans to acquire three new RC-135 Rivet Joint conversions from L-3 Communications. The plan has been controversial, with some arguing that the U.S. would exercise ultimate control over how these aircraft are used or modified. Moreover, the first RC-135 won’t enter service until 2014.

Could this plan be scrapped or cut back? ACM Dalton said that this is “a critical national requirement. I have no sovereignty concerns. We will have the capability to add our own urgent operational requirements to the aircraft,” he added. L-3 Communications told AIN that the letter of offer and acceptance for the River Joints had been signed last March, and that a series of contracts were being progressively concluded.

So the debate continues, and the rumors multiply. We suggest that for the meantime, you sit back and enjoy the show. Especially the Red Arrows. You may never see them again.