Comment: Defence review, or strategic error?

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So, the long-awaited (and much-leaked) results of the UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) are now known, and several high-value programmes have fallen victim of Prime Minister David Cameron. But with the news having come just one day before his government announced plans to axe up to half a million public sector jobs, did most people really notice what happened to the armed forces?

With the battle for Afghanistan to remain the Ministry of Defence's primary focus until at least 2014, several key capabilities have been sacrificed. The Royal Navy's prized carrier strike role will be lost next year, when its flagship the HMS Ark Royal will be retired, along with the UK's remaining Harriers. A replacement aircraft carrier will come online only around 2020, with Lockheed Martin's F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

 
© LA (Phot) Kelly McAlinden/Royal Navy
Out with a bang: the UK will retire the Fleet Air Arm's current carrier strike capability

Some will welcome the government's decision to return to big-deck carrier operations; a skill last used by the RN in the late 1970s. But can this be sensibly achieved with a small number of aircraft and just one flat-top? Looking across the channel to the French navy's experience with the Charles de Gaulle the answer is a firm "non". Closer co-operation with Paris will be vital if Europe is to retain a meaningful capability here.

Also gone is the Royal Air Force's BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft, an ill-fated 14 years after contract award. Lost amid the volume of the SDSR's cuts, the more than £3 billion ($4.7 billion) spent on this programme ranks it right alongside the shambles of the failed Nimrod airborne early warning programme of the 1980s. But the MRA4's demise represents as much a calculated risk as a technological flop, with its maritime patrol and long-range search and rescue role no longer viewed as essential. That's a harsh call for a maritime nation, and the jury is firmly out on its long-term wisdom.

For the RAF as a whole, plans to cut its personnel strength to around 31,500 by 2020 raises fresh questions about how small the service can go and still deliver a wide range of operational activities. Similarly, until so-far undisclosed cuts to its Tornado GR4 force and F-35 purchase numbers become clear, the true impacts of the SDSR cannot be fully gauged.

But one message rings clear through the SDSR: the RAF has not lost its love of "Gucci kit". Where capability falls now, it believes unmanned air vehicles could later step in and do the job better and cheaper. Get ready for more tough chat with the Treasury, chaps.

Have your say on the SDSR's conclusions by visiting Flightglobal's AirSpace Forum