My Lords, the gracious Speech barely touches on defence. Only “strengthening the Reserve Forces” and improving,
“the way this country procures defence equipment”,
get a mention. There is little else. Why indeed, is “this country” rather than “my Government” or even “my Ministers” given the task of improving procurement? It is tempting to consider, pace the other place, an amendment regretting the poor coverage of defence issues, a principal responsibility of government, in the gracious Speech.
Of course, much depends on what tasks and commitments the Government of the day will expect or wish to undertake. It would be helpful if there were unity of vision on this. Is thought being given to re-energising past attempts to find cross-party consensus on these issues?
Two and a half years have passed since the strategic defence and security review was published. We are approaching a third of the way to the goals set out for Future Force 2020 and the three services. It is timely to take stock of what has gone well, what is worrying and what cannot be achieved in the coming seven years. I expect the Minister to cover what has been going well, so let me highlight a few of my worries as we look towards 2020.
My principal concern is that the funding required to match the force levels for 2020 is not assured. Indeed, it seems from the trends in defence budget squeezes of the past couple of years that there is no longer any realistic expectation that Future Force 2020 is financially achievable. Added to that are the delays in future equipment delivery with carriers and F-35, for example, the latter now possibly further affected by the sequestration issues in the United States. There is still no provision for the maritime air capability lost when Nimrod mark 4 was abandoned. Combat air was almost halved in 2010, when the Harrier force and some other front-line squadrons were disbanded. The mooted projections of yet more force reductions in combat air further weaken a vital capability mounted with impressive speed and professionalism in the Libyan campaign two years ago, or in the ongoing work of the Tornado force in Afghanistan. The paucity of naval surface ships has created well rehearsed difficulties in meeting global commitments. Army regular force levels are to shrink by 20%. The prospect of relying ever more on the reserves has yet to be achieved or put to the test.
The cumulative effect seriously diminishes the putative scale and endurance of any future expeditionary commitment, but senior Ministers seem to be in denial about this. They still sound minded to strut their military stuff on the world stage. They rightly sing the praises of today’s Armed Forces but mass, too, counts in conflict. Do the Government realise that today they carry more of a sharp twig than the big stick of yesteryear? Moreover, as numbers are scaled down the resilience of the remaining forces is compromised. A favourable air situation and our operational and tactical skills, which have generally outmatched the opposition’s, have been providential but some future operation might not enjoy the benefits of such air and tactical supremacy, and low own-side losses.
There is a variety of the unexpecteds that could also involve serious numerical loss—losses that could be the equivalent of a 20% or 30% cut of the total strength available or even more, not a more manageable 5% or 10% attrition. Unexpected major risks might be: a serious loss of key passengers in an air transport accident; a major hangar fire with maybe six, a dozen or more airframes, engines and other critical kit lost in the bonfire; or even an extreme weather event which, as the Minister will know, can cause major damage to aircraft caught by it. I have not dreamt these risks up. They have happened. Is it not foolhardy to presume that they will never happen again? Is the Minister satisfied that enough allowance is being made for unlikely but catastrophic loss—for the unexpecteds of life—other than in combat operations?
Size is its own insurance. The Royal Air Force was almost 100,000 strong when the first Gulf conflict began in 1991. Today, it is not much more than 30,000. Aircraft numbers have similarly shrunk, and with them the resilience of the force to cope with the unexpected.
As regular personnel numbers reduce, the intention is to make good gaps in skills or shortages by drawing on reservists. We seem stuck in the mindset that they can be mobilised only by means of ministerial authority. We need to look again at an outmoded system which does not take account of the new and greater reliance on the reserves, in some cases when only two or three individuals with specialist knowledge or capability may be immediately required. A more flexible system attuned to the new policy for using reservists is now essential.