This week's most important UK defence news has been the commencement of Britain’s air campaign against Islamic State fighters in Iraq, following last Friday’s approval of action by the House of Commons. Although RAF patrols commenced the following day, it was not until Tuesday that the first attack took place, with further strikes occurring on Wednesday and Thursday. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has estimated that the operation could take two to three years, and the debate in Parliament indicated that there may be support amongst MPs for extending the operation into Syria. It has also been announced that a Tornado squadron that was originally due to be disbanded in April 2015 will now remain in service until April 2016, meaning that three squadrons will be available to take turns in supporting operations for at least the next 18 months.
This week’s other leading UK defence story has been the awarding of a £3.2bn contract for the maintenance of the Royal Navy’s fleet of 56 surface ships and submarines. Four thousand jobs at Devonport, more than 2,000 at Portsmouth and about 1,500 at Faslane – home to the UK's Trident missile carrying nuclear submarines – have been secured.
In other news, the RAF has handed over its fleet of Merlin support helicopters to the Royal Navy. The Army’s Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle has been deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. And a major military exercise, Joint Warrior 142, is scheduled to begin in Scotland on 7 October.
Defence at the Conservative Party Conference
The Daily Telegraph reports that this week saw the Conservative party conference take place in Birmingham. Aside from the customary thanks to members of the armed forces deployed on operations at the beginning of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech, military issues were primarily left to Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary. During his speech, Mr Fallon insisted that Britain would continue to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence until 2014-15, although he did not commit the UK to keeping expenditure at the two per cent level after next April. However, in an apparently unscripted remark, Mr Fallon called for the current spending level to be maintained in light of the threat from Russia and ISIS. This is likely to be the opening blow in a MoD battle to protect its budget that will not be settled until the next Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Speaking shortly before the Prime Minister took to the stage for his speech, Mr Fallon also attacked Labour. “Labour left a terrible legacy,” said Mr Fallon. “A £38 billion budget black hole, the Covenant broken, our Reserves neglected, accommodation unfit for our heroes.” However, he also attacked the Conservatives’ own government partners, criticising the Liberal Democrats for failing to support the Tories on defence policy, particularly with regards to sustaining the current posture of the Trident system.
Unlike Labour or the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have yet to release their pre-manifesto, meaning that little is yet known with regards to the defence policies they will adopt in the run-up to the general election.
Cuts may continue for five more years, warns outgoing head of civil service
The Guardian reports that Sir Bob Kerslake, who stepped down as head of the civil service as part of a Whitehall shake-up ordered by David Cameron in July, has stated that public sector spending cuts may continue for another five years, whichever party is in government. Speaking to the Institute for Government think-tank, he warned: “Suffice it to say that under any government, we face up to a further five years of austerity in public sector spending.” Sir Bob further elaborated by saying that the next five years are likely to prove more challenging than the previous five, as: “Firstly, the easier savings have already been made. Secondly, we are likely to be doing it against a background of a growing economy and greater competition for good staff. Thirdly, the sense of urgency that underpinned the first savings programme will be reduced.”
Sir Bob was replaced as head of the civil service by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.
Plans to protect Armed Forces from European Human rights legislation announced
The Daily Telegraph reports that the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has said that he had agreed with Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, to include the military in manifesto plans curtailing the influence of European courts on domestic law. Last year, judges decreed that the European Convention on Human Rights applies on the battlefield, prompting fears that military chiefs would be unable to carry out vital missions as they would be ‘living in fear’ of being sued. A recent report by Policy Exchange found that the MoD has faced 5,827 claims since 2012, with litigation costing the ministry £36m a year.
Soldiers warned about the dangers of sharing intimate pictures
The Daily Telegraph reports that British soldiers serving abroad are being warned about the dangers of swapping intimate “selfies” with loved ones. The Army Families Federation (AFF) said that because many serving soldiers often found themselves separated from their loved ones for long periods of time, they may well be tempted to ask for or send personal images on their mobile phones. But the independent families' group said they could fall into the wrong hands, compromising security. The MoD issued guidance to defence personnel on the use of social networking sites, stating that: “Pictures are powerful and often revealing assets that can also pose a risk to personal and operational security if placed in the wrong hands.”
MoD Police rescue two men after boat sinking
The Plymouth Herald reports that two men have been rescued on the River Tamar after they abandoned their sinking boat. Two officers, who were on routine patrol on the river, were alerted by Brixham Coastguard to two people in the water near the Tamar Bridge on Wednesday morning. The MoD police team responded and found the two men at Saltash Quay on the slipway. One was standing on the slipway and the other lying face down, half out of the water. The police officers helped the distressed man to stand, and he was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure.