The Sun Also Rises

Dec. 21, 2015

Britain’s new defense white paper signals big changes in that nation’s military posture, calling for significant increases in airpower, intelligence, and special operations capabilities. Ten days after the ISIS attacks in Paris, the UK released the Strategic Defense and Security Review. Then Parliament voted in early December to authorize British air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

These moves marked an abrupt and welcome reversal of Britain’s previous five years’ direction. The last time the UK conducted such a review, it ushered in draconian defense cuts and an implicit withdrawal from the world stage. (See “Washington Watch: The Sun Sets,” December 2010.)

Britain’s reversal is timely, keyed to real-world security demands—and is a promising reminder that military austerity need not be permanent. Nations can and should adjust their defense plans when necessary.

“We can now treat [Iraq and Syria] as one theater and use our expertise against ISIS-Daesh in its heartland,” said UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon Dec. 11 at the Pentagon. “We have brought more planes to the region and we have more than doubled the number of missions that we fly by day and by night.”

Fallon said the British jets would perform “precision strikes against key infrastructure: the oil well heads, the ammunition depots, the logistics, the command and control, the supply routes between Syria and Iraq.”

This is significant because, although the UK was heavily involved in anti-ISIS operations in Iraq, until now targets in Syria were off-limits. ISIS doesn’t recognize international borders, however, and its center of gravity is clearly in Syria.

“We have doubled our strike force in Cyprus, moving aircraft there immediately after the vote,” Fallon said. “We have already been playing the second biggest part against these terrorists in Iraq. We’re providing some 60 percent of the coalition’s entire tactical reconnaissance and up to a third of the precision strike capability.”

The UK will meet the NATO guideline for a minimum of two percent of GDP dedicated to defense. The additional funding significantly bolsters that nation’s airpower. The UK is adding some $18 billion to its defense spending plans over the next five years.

Under the 2010 plan, the RAF was to go down to six combat fighter squadrons by 2020. The SDSR plan buys back three operational squadrons, for a total of nine. It also authorized a service life extension and upgrade program for aging Eurofighter Typhoons and accelerated acquisition of the UK’s first 24 F-35 strike fighters, to be jointly operated by the RAF and Royal Navy.

Plans in 2010 called for the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to be operational by 2023—but with only eight F-35s available to fly off of them. The accelerated program calls for the carriers to have 24 stealthy strike fighters available within eight years.

The UK is also sticking with its plan to buy a total of 138 Lockheed Martin F-35s.

The review reverses one of the most controversial decisions from 2010, when the UK chose to retire its Nimrod maritime patrol and attack aircraft. That decision essentially leaves Britain’s Trident ballistic missile submarines undefended as they head out from port for the security of the high seas. To fill this gap, Britain now intends to buy nine Boeing P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and has renewed its commitment to modernize its nuclear deterrent force.

Other aircraft inventories will stay in service or be enlarged. For example, the SDSR calls for 14 Lockheed Martin C-130Js to remain in service until 2030 instead of 2022, while two additional Beechcraft King Air Shadow electronic intelligence aircraft will be purchased, for a total of eight.

The UK will move to replace its existing inventory of 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft with 20 new aircraft under the “Protector” program, and it will purchase Airbus Zephyr high-altitude RPAs capable of operating at 70,000 feet.

The review smartly reflects what has changed since 2010. At the time, much of the world was deep in the throes of a worldwide financial crisis. Britain decided to balance the books partly by scaling back the military—cutting defense by nine percent and limiting the UK’s role in the world.

British forces in 2010 were “overstretched, deployed too often without appropriate planning, with the wrong equipment, in the wrong numbers, and without a clear strategy,” said Prime Minister David Cameron at the time, describing a “fundamental mismatch between aspiration and resources.”

Five years on, there will be more aspiration and more resources. The UK has witnessed the rise of ISIS and a newly hostile and aggressive Russia that has waged war in Ukraine and illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula. Both counterinsurgency and major state-on-state war seem far more likely than they did just five years ago.

The SDSR’s results “came as a pleasant surprise to generals who feared another round of cuts from a chancellor who has promised to balance the books over the next four years,” noted the Economist.

Britain’s recent decisions reverse much of the harm brought on by the 2010 cuts, bring on tangible military improvements that wisely bolster the nation’s airpower capabilities, and expand an already leading role in the international war against ISIS.

These moves will help ensure the RAF and the UK remain leaders on the world stage.

The Obama Administration is entering its final year and will soon release its last defense budget. It would be wise to follow the UK’s lead by stepping up the air war against ISIS. It should do so while also preparing for major power conflict and putting more money and equipment into the Air Force to sustain the effort.