This week’s main UK defence news has been the end of the campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, effectively marking the conclusion of Britain’s thirteen year war in the country. Camp Bastion – the UK’s central facility in Afghanistan since 2006 – was handed over to the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps on Sunday, with the final British troops departing a short time later. Helicopters and aircraft from the UK and US moved personnel to Kandahar Airfield in preparation for their return home. It is anticipated that a team of British training staff will remain to support Afghan Forces at an officer training school near Kabul.
Meanwhile, it was reported that the UK is considering deploying Apache attack helicopters to participate in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. There is a great deal of caution around such a move, however, because of a desire among ministers to avoid allegations of mission creep. On the ground in Syria, 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and between 50 and 200 Free Syrian Army rebels are moving into the border town of Kobane to help defend it against ISIS militants.
Also this week, the MoD signed a £1.5bn contract to sustain air traffic control facilities in the UK and overseas, including Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island. The Royal Navy seized £10m of cocaine from a yacht in the Caribbean. RFA Argus arrived in Sierra Leone on a mission to support efforts to counter the recent Ebola outbreak. And the RAF intercepted a Latvian cargo aircraft after communications were lost with the aircraft.
Reports of Treasury plans for further major defence spending cuts
The Sunday Times (paywall) reports that the MoD is braced for cuts of about seven-and-a-half per cent between 2016-17 and 2020-21 as part of a renewed austerity drive, according to several well-informed sources. A team of Treasury officials is believed to have visited the MoD two weeks ago and informed senior military figures and civil servants of the likely spending horizon after the election. Senior officers were said to have been left shocked by the news and morale in the department is understood to be low. Until now, the MoD was planning on a tiny real terms annual increase in the defence budget after the election.
Given that the Government is already committed to a one per cent uplift in the MoD’s equipment budget – which makes up around forty per cent of spending – the cuts would have to be largely sourced from the personnel budget. Such a fall in personnel spending would significantly reduce the numerical strength of the UK Armed Forces and possibly eclipse even the numbers lost as a result of SDSR 2010, as well as making Future Force 2020 impossible to establish. Cuts of this scale would likely meet substantial domestic political opposition, and prove to be an embarrassment to the UK internationally given its promotion of the NATO two per cent of GDP defence spending target. As a result, it would seem likely that the spending reductions outlined by The Sunday Times represents the Treasury’s ‘opening bid’, and that any eventual reductions will prove to be less severe.
The DPF is in the process of meeting with a range of parliamentarians to maintain awareness of the MDP and importance of its role. This includes discussions as to how further cuts might affect the security of key assets and establishments.
Government responds to Defence Select Committee’s Defence and Security Review report
The government has issued its response to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO report. Whilst no direct reference to the DPF was made, the response contained some interesting comments on spending levels, including this passage on the spending agreement reached at the recent NATO summit in Cardiff:
“For Allies currently meeting the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of two per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence will aim to continue to do so… Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level will; halt any decline in defence expenditure; aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; and aim to move towards the two per cent guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO's capability shortfalls.”
It is interesting to note that the NATO members who currently spend more than two per cent of GDP on defence are only obliged to “aim” to continue doing so. In contrast, members spending at below this level “will” halt any further decline in expenditure. Given the UK’s membership of the former group, this wording leaves the way open for UK defence spending to fall below two per cent of GDP.
Armed soldiers deployed to protect ceremonial colleagues outside Horse Guards Parade
The Daily Telegraph reports that in the aftermath of the shooting dead of a Canadian soldier guarding a war memorial by an Islamic extremist in Ottawa last week, armed soldiers have been stationed in Whitehall amid fears that terrorists will try to attack ceremonial guards. The entrance to Horse Guards Parade is part of the Buckingham Palace estate, and is usually guarded by two ceremonial guards on horseback and two on foot. However, since Monday, soldiers in combat fatigues have been stationed at the entrance as part of a more “overt” presence. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The MoD routinely reviews the security arrangements at all of its establishments. Clearly we do not comment publicly on the substance of these.”
Chief of the General Staff claims reserves are ‘not for routine use’
The Daily Telegraph reports that General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of General Staff (CGS), has said that Army reservists are only to be used in a national emergency and should not be “routinely” called upon for active service. This comment is remarkable, in that it contradicts both well-established government policy and detailed planning carried out by the Army itself with regards to the future utilisation of Army Reservists on routine operations. General Carter, who took over as CGS last month, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the Reserves are a separate force tasked with responding to national emergencies.
“It doesn’t really matter how large your Army is, the nation would be the worse for not having a Reserve. A Reserve is what it sounds like; it's there for worst-case,” he said, adding that: “The sense that there is an obligation to be routinely and regularly used is not how I would see this being used. It is there for worst-case. It's certainly not there to mitigate the reduction in Regular numbers.”
Over three hundred nuclear safety incidents reported at Faslane Naval Base in last five years
The Daily Record reports that figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request have revealed that between 2008/09 and 2012/13, a total of 316 “nuclear safety events” and 71 fires were recorded at the Faslane base. There have also been more than 3000 industrial accidents, classed as 'near misses', a positive test for illegal drugs and a series of difficulties with wild animals. The MoD said none of the incidents had caused any risk to staff or members of the public. The MoD's last four annual health and safety reports covering 2009-10 to 2012-13 show the number of nuclear safety events reported increased fifteen per cent from 59 in 2011-12 to 68 in 2012-13. Incidents involving nuclear weapons rose from seven to eleven, while those involving submarine reactors rose from 52 to 57.
MoD reaches agreement over order for four F-35Bs
The MoD has announced that it has reached an agreement in principle on an order for the first production batch of four Lightning II stealth combat aircraft. The contract will form part of the MOD’s investment in Lightning II over the next five years to procure an initial 14 of these multi-role fifth generation aircraft, together with the necessary support arrangements and infrastructure.
Plans to speed up Typhoon aircraft upgrade
The Daily Telegraph reports that the MoD is planning to speed up the integration of the Brimstone precision guided onto its Typhoon fighter aircraft as a result of fears it will begin to run short of fighter aircraft should the campaign in Iraq prove to be an enduring commitment. The MoD is now in talks to speed up the upgrade, but defence analysts say it could still be 2017 before the Typhoons are ready.
Warning of terrorist threat if UK leaves European arrest warrant system
The Daily Telegraph reports that the UK security services have warned that leaving the European arrest warrant system will result in Britain becoming a terrorist safe haven. The concerns have been voiced as David Cameron faces a back-bench rebellion over plans to opt in to the European arrest warrant, which has to be put to a vote before 1st December. As many as 100 Tory MPs are expected to rebel against a commitment by Britain to opt in to 35 EU home affairs rules, including the European arrest warrant. Conservative critics of the arrest warrant say it gives other countries’ legal systems unacceptable power over British citizens, exposing them to extradition requests over trivial cases elsewhere in Europe. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, had earlier warned that opting out would make Britain a “honeypot” for foreign terrorists, murderers, rapists and paedophiles.