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Fox's spending axe threatens UK programmes

With less than a month to go before the UK's coalition government reveals the outcome of its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) process, military, political and industry officials have voiced fresh alarm over the speed and likely severity of its resulting spending cuts.

To be announced on 20 October, the SDSR results will have a major impact on the UK's three armed services, each of which can expect reductions in equipment and personnel.

Sniping between former Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and British Army figures has been well covered in the national press, but with defence secretary Liam Fox having previously said that decisions would be made "in September", is it already too late for such action?

© Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features
Fox backed UK products at Farnborough. Now some could face the chop

Clearly some work had been conducted while its parties were in opposition, but the speed of the coalition's review process has alarmed many, with savings of 10-20% having been forecast.

In a report published on 15 September, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) voiced its concern over the process.

"The rapidity with which the SDSR process is being undertaken is quite startling. Mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious," it says. "The department could end up with only short-term priorities, misaligned resources, a barely reformed acquisition process and a structure short of manpower to deliver good performance and improperly configured for its tasks."

Fears also exist over the extent to which the review may discard capabilities not central to today's fight in Afghanistan. "It would be short-sighted to allow current operations overly to determine the nature of future capabilities, manpower levels or training needs," the HCDC says.

Air Chief Marshal Simon Bryant, commander-in-chief of the RAF's Air Command organisation, highlights the prospect of a future air-to-air engagement with an adversary. "We would be unwise to assume that we will always fight in a permissive air-to-air environment," he says. "I challenge you to imagine a day in Afghanistan without control of the air."

Speaking at London's Royal United Services Institute, Bryant argued: "No other lever of national power can match the potential range of options that air and space offers, or the speed at which they can be delivered. No soldier of sailor can now fight without air power. That's not marketing, it is a fact."

The RAF has placed the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at the heart of its future combat aircraft capability.

While there has been widespread media speculation that the UK could withdraw from the JSF programme, one source close to the SDSR process comments: "I do hear discussions about numbers, but I haven't heard of the 'nuclear option'." A cancellation would deliver a "very significant blow" to the UK's future operational capability and industrial interests, the source adds.

© BAE Systems
Numbers cuts for both the F-35B and future aircraft carriers are possible

Acquiring the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B is also linked to the RN's roughly £5 billion ($7.8 billion) programme to field two future aircraft carriers. Changing to another aircraft type now would result in increased build costs for the vessels, and a massive training burden linked to operating a conventional fast jet. While army advocates have suggested that the UK could make do with half its planned fleet, RN officials point to the operational limitations encountered by the French navy's lone carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

The Ministry of Defence's private finance initiative deal for the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme has also been widely criticised, but remains a high priority for the air force. "If the SDSR takes down things like air-to-air refuelling then our force multipliers will disappear," a service source warns.

 RAF A330 tanker, Airbus Military
© Airbus Military
The RAF's first A330-based tanker is already in flight test

Beyond such equipment concerns, the fact that a new Green Paper on sovereign capability will not be published until late this year and a delayed update to the Defence Industrial Strategy will appear only in 2011 has also left many feeling apprehensive.

"An SDSR that takes no account of what the defence industries can provide in this country, in terms of skills and capacity, and which does not explore fully what sovereign industrial capabilities are required, would be a folly," the HCDC says.

The wording from an official at one of the UK's leading equipment manufacturers is equally strong, and highlights a growing disappointment felt since the high-profile support given by the government's entire defence ministerial team when it visited July's Farnborough air show to promote export business.

"Industry will get a say only after SDSR concludes," the official says. "DIS was good for us all, but DIS 2 won't happen until next year. That's too late."

The UK's CBI business lobby echoes such fears, and has urged the government to "set out a clear defence strategy for dealing with identified threats, and ensuring priority areas have adequate resources".

But noting that the SDSR is being conducted in parallel to the government-wide comprehensive spending review, Fox says: "Had we not been left with a consolidated public debt of over £900 billion we might have had the luxury of a little more time."

However tough the outcomes of this SDSR may be, sources warn that service and industry pain is unlikely to felt for the short-term only. "I think you can expect to see another defence review in the next five years," says one official. "This is not the end of the process."

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