This week’s UK defence news has been led by the potential consequences of Scottish independence, as two opinion polls published at the beginning of the week showed the Scottish ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps in a statistical tie. This resulted in a flurry of activity that saw Prime Minister’s Questions cancelled as the leaders of the three main parties travelled to Scotland. Whilst a further poll published on Wednesday evening calmed the situation somewhat by showing a ‘No’ lead of 53 per cent to ‘Yes’ 47 per cent, it is likely that the now frantic campaign will continue until the vote on 18 September.
With the end of the NATO conference and a ceasefire apparently holding in Ukraine, attention has once again turned back to the situation in Iraq and Syria. This week, the British government has gifted heavy machine guns and half a million rounds of ammunition to the Kurdish Regional Government. It also seems likely that British involvement will escalate rapidly once the Scottish referendum vote is complete. However, the end of this week saw some confusion over the scope of military campaign against the Islamic State that the UK is contemplating: whilst Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was “very clear” RAF planes would not strike targets inside Syria, Number 10 then overruled him by stressing that David Cameron “has not ruled anything out”.
Also this week, it was announced that British military and humanitarian experts are to set up an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone. Prince Harry opened the Invictus Games for wounded service personnel. Finally, in a sign of how long modern military equipment has to last given funding constraints, it was announced that three Fleet Air Arms Sea King helicopters have clocked up 45 years of service.
Defence spending has fell 7 per cent from 2011 to 2013
The Financial Times reports that spending on defence fell faster than any other area of government between 2011 and 2013. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) disclosed that it fell seven per cent between 2011/12 and 2012/13 to £37bn, which the ONS said: “was the largest decline in spending out of all ten functions of government”. It fell again, to £36.4bn, in the following financial year. As a share of total public spending, defence has fallen from 6.7 per cent in 2001/2002 to 5.3 per cent in 2013/14. The number of people employed in the military decreased from 223,000 to 175,000 between 2003 and 2013, or from 3.8 per cent of total public sector employment to 3.1 per cent. Despite pressure to maintain defence spending at a level above two per cent of gross domestic product, analysis of data commissioned by senior military personnel shows that spending will slip to 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2016.
Warning from Thales over job losses in event of Scottish independence
The Daily Telegraph reports that Jean-Bernard Levy, chief executive of the French defence group Thales, which employs 7,500 people in Britain, said the company could reassess its commitment to the UK if Scotland breaks away following a “Yes” vote in the referendum on 18 September. Thales operates out of 35 locations in the UK, including its optronics facility at Govan in Glasgow, which makes submarine periscope systems and employs about 500 staff. Last year the company had revenues of about £1.3bn in Britain.
SNP defence plans deemed “crazy” by former defence secretary
The Scotsman reports that former NATO Secretary General and UK Defence Secretary Lord George Robertson has warned that the SNP would “run the white flag up beside the Saltire” if Scots support independence. Speaking to The Scotsman after an event in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, he asserted that: “Just seven days ago, Vladimir Putin reminded the world that he has nuclear weapons and the SNP want us to get rid of them and force a founder member of NATO to disarm. That’s just crazy.” He also claimed that Alex Salmond’s aspirations of an independent Scotland joining NATO, but banning nuclear weapons and not meeting the minimum two per cent of GDP on spending meant it would not be welcome in the defence organisation.
Second Royal Navy aircraft carrier to be brought into service
The Daily Telegraph reports that the decision has been made to bring the second Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales into service, as opposed to it being sold or placed in permanent reserve. However, on closer inspection, it is clear that the plan is to rotate the two carriers, with one in service and one in refit or reserve at any one time. Whilst this will mean that at least one aircraft carrier is always available, there is still no realistic chance of both ships being operated simultaneously as a result of cash and manpower shortages.
Incident reported at UK facility training Libyan soldiers
The Daily Mail reports that Libyan troops at a UK base have staged a ‘mutiny’ over the right to go to Tesco. The disturbance began when three North African soldiers stationed at barracks in Cambridgeshire were detained after breaking orders not to go to the village supermarket. Subsequently, up to 20 of their comrades stormed the area where they were being kept to demand their release. The British corporal in charge of the guardroom was jostled and shouted at during the angry confrontation and eventually defused the situation by releasing the tree men, who had earlier been picked up by police after leaving the barracks without permission. They are among more than 300 Libyan cadets who are being trained in infantry and leadership skills by soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland at Bassingbourn Barracks.
Last squadron vacates RAF Leuchars
The Courier reports that following a decision to concentrate all Scotland-based fast jet squadrons at RAF Lossiemouth, the final Typhoon squadron has now departed RAF Leuchars. The station is now due to be transformed into an Army base to house units returning from Germany. As a result, RAF Leuchars will soon become home to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, 2 Close Support Battalion of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and 110 Provost Company of the Royal Military Police in 2015.