This isn't a new topic of course, but it never really goes away: adapting Britain's armed forces to fight the wars of today, not the past, while trimming the British defence budget a little more as well.
Lately, the media has been building up a sort of inter-service struggle for survival, with the Army surely seen has favourites since they are the focal point of today's war - Afghanistan.
It's been a popular stance in the blog-o-sphere that the British military is stretched to the point where further cuts won't just reduce capability capacity, but will simply remove capabilities altogether. Big targets in any upcoming defence review will certainly be high-end conventional weapon systems like jet fighters, aircraft carriers, subs and tanks. I know helicopters, UAVs and body armour are good things, great things for Afghanistan, but where do you draw the line?
If we take a step back; what is the purpose of a national military? How about defending a country and it's national interests from aggression? Ensuring the free passage of a country's trade on the high seas (I'm not just talking about pirates here, think Straight of Hormuz, etc)? Allowing a country to exert its will and influence onto another country (the Balkans and Iraq are recent examples)?
What do these have in common? They require conventional forces which are substantial enough to overcome the threat. Afghanistan is now essentially a war of political choice for the UK. I won't get into whether that choice is good or bad, and the consequences one way or the other, but it is fundamentally a choice, and the UK government has chosen to stick with it. Of course it shouldn't ignore the needs of the troops fighting that war; but the problem is that now more than ever, it looks as if the UK government is going to mold it's armed forces around this war, giving large priority to weapons needed for asymmetric warfare. But when you look back at the fundamental purpose of a military, how does a military designed around the fight in Afghanistan actually defend the UK from international aggression, ensure the free passage of trade on the high seas, and allow the UK to exert influence on other countries? It really doesn't.
The whole essence of why a military exists is down to it's conventional capabilities. That's why they are called conventional. By cutting away at capabilities like subs, capital ships, heavy armour and fighter jets, the UK armed forces cannot fulfill their ultimate raison d'etre. The next time a conventional threat comes along (which seems to happen almost every decade or so...), the UK armed forces will be unable to bring the overwhelming superiority to the battlefield that we have come to expect, whether as part of a coalition or going it alone. And that poses another problem, the deterrence value of large conventional forces. If an aggressor thinks it will be overwhelmed by the UK's armed response, it is much more likely to think twice about acting at all, and sadly the opposite can just as easily be true.
Afghanistan is one war. The UK should not loose sight of that. If it wants to fight for it, then it needs to pay for it without sacrificing it's own defence and international influence. The armed forces must be sufficiently equipped to meet all of the threats, for today and tomorrow. In the end, the conventional threats will be the most damaging and costly to the UK if they cannot be countered.
The year 2009 wasn't a great one for the A340. Etithad chose not to replace the -600 that was written off in a 2007 Toulouse ground-test accident, Kingfisher cancelled one of their orders for a -500, and on December 30th, Virgin Atlantic chose to transfer its outstanding order for six -600s to A330s instead. The A340 suffered a net order deficit of seven aircraft last year. When you consider that those seven aircraft had accounted for HALF of the order backlog, that deficit becomes even more depressing. With only 125 aircraft delivered to date, the second generation -500/-600s of the A340 model have had a mediocre commercial presence at best.
When launched, the A340-500 and -600 were pitched as the future of air travel, offering unprecedented route options, passenger comfort and airline economics. It was Airbus's response to the very successful Boeing 777 which had been aggressively eating away at the market share of the legacy A340s.
Despite some early market gains, in reality the four-engined A340-500 and -600 just weren't good enough to compete with the economic advantages of the twin-engined 777 (particularly the -200LR and -300ER). Compared to Airbus's 125 A340-500s and -600s delivered to date, Boeing has delivered 260 777-200LRs and -300ERs, and still has a healthy backlog of 206 unfilled orders.
Airbus tried to improve the A340 to compete with the 777 but they simply couldn't pull it off. The 777 was a fundamentally better aircraft for the airlines to operate. What Airbus really needed was a twin-engine airframe with the capacity and range performance beyond what the A330 can do, but they didn't (or couldn't?) invest in one, with so many resources being focused on the A380 at the time.
Now zoom forward a few years into the middle of this coming decade. Airbus will have the A350-1000 available. Provided it works as advertised, this will be a great plane and the first real threat to the Boeing 777. The existing 777 types will be outdated and outclassed by the end of this decade, and Boeing needs to do something about that in the next couple of years. However, with the financial drain of the 787 and 747-8 programs, Boeing could find itself in the same position as Airbus was in ten years prior - unable to meet a market threat with full force.
There has been plenty of chatter about giving the 777 a new wing and a new engine, but will this really be enough? The A340 couldn't compete with the 777 because it had a fundamental disadvantage - four engines instead of two. In the coming years, the 777 is going to run into it's own fundamental problem with respect to the A350 - a heavy, non-composite airframe. Examples of airlines looking beyond the 777 are already here - United Airlines' (the company that launched the 777!) chose not to replace their older 777s with new ones, option for A350s to cover the high capacity end of their fleet.
An mere enhanced 777 may appear to be an attractive, cheaper option for Boeing, but will they simply end up with a lackluster aircraft that just won't be able to compete with the composite A350? The 777 has been hugely successful for Boeing, and it has given them an overwhelming share in a very lucrative market. But unless the 777's replacement is a new, composite aircraft taking full advantage of all the 787's development, then large chunks of that large widebody market will start disappearing to Airbus.