Army cuts cast shadow over future of QEC carriers?

The Army cuts announced by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, which will see personnel fall from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020, have “increased uncertainty where clarity was needed” according to Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy.

According to Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent at the London Evening Standard, these cuts are entirely “political… [the Army is] living on a wish and a prayer of the most doctrinaire Tory policy that private industry will succeed.”

Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence took a more muted tone, suggesting that decisions should not be made in purely military or business terms, but should also “make societal sense.”

Whilst a lot remains open to speculation one big question is whether the future of the two Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers that are being built are safe in either Tory or Labour hands?

The announcement today has led to fears that not only the Army but also a major programme will be cut, with some fearing it will be the two QEC carriers that are sacrificed.

At a conference today Mr Fox warned, “One or two major equipment programmes will go” and recommended people “take their shares out of aircraft carriers.”

Cancelling the contract of the carriers would be a massive decision, one that should not be made lightly. The consequences would go far beyond “throwing good money after bad money,” Mr Murphy said.

As Rees Ward, CEO of defence industry association ADS noted, “When we lose capabilities, regenerating them takes more than just building and buying – it will take a generation to rebuild.”

This is certainly true; history has taught us that strategic culture can not simply be bought. This is technological determinism at its ugliest. When a capability is lost, the knowledge and experience of the previous generation goes with it.

Mr Fox strongly criticized how “doctrine [has been] ossified into dogma.” He continued, contesting that the general education of our leaders is “impoverished” because it focuses “too much on instruction rather than wisdom.”

So to lose any ‘wisdom’ would be a major blow to the capabilities of the British Forces. It could lead to a dearth of wisdom that could be vital in the next 10-20 years.

To paraphrase Mr Murphy, “the coalition of cuts will prevent bringing together the coalition of the capable.”

It would be foolish to throw away generations worth of experience, especially in the case of the UK’s carrier strike capability.

Professor Trevor Taylor of RUSI gives another angle, believing that the “carriers are rock solid safe”. He reasoned that it is necessary “to take in the wider factors” aside from cost savings alone. One of the key factors preventing the cancelation is the damage it would cause to Anglo-American industrial and political relations.

Cancelling the aircraft carriers will mean the cancelling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter contract, Taylor argued. Apart from the obvious strategic implications this would have, the move would as also suggest the UK had lost significant faith in US industry to provide world-beating capabilities.

The rhetoric coming from the Labour camp shows no sign of lacking faith in the F-35B. Labour MP Alison Seabeck stated “the F-35B is an incredibly capable piece of kit … it is the right one put forward.”

A view unsurprisingly supported by Mr Ward: “The F-35B is likely to offer the best capability.” For Ward, ensuring a sense of confidence in the market for industries to come to the UK and invest seemed to be a priority.

The UK is currently the second largest defence exporter in the world, providing over 300,000 jobs and contributing billions to the economy. To lose the confidence of the market would be a disaster; as one of the panellists at today’s conference said “R&D and S&T are vital to this country. We can not turn it off like a tap – it would be death for this nation.”

Whilst Mr Fox’s prophesy is yet to be proved or dispelled, the belief of this writer is that at least one carrier will be flying the Union flag in a few years time. The question is then: Which major programme will be cut?

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