UK Defense Spending, a lesson in consequences

One of the talking points in the last year is that the UK needs to spend wisely on defense, not just arbitrarily meet the 2% of GDP spending goal. This is a true statement. One thing you can say about the former British Empire is that pound for pound they have a damn good military. It is small, but professional and does maintain an expeditionary capability. The biggest problem facing the MOD is simply budget, and choices made in the past are going to make it very difficult to get out of the spending rut.

The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have some seriously tough choices to make, and I think that they’ve already made the wrong choice on the F-35. Not that the UK doesn’t need new aircraft, it does, but that the given the defense needs of the UK it doesn’t need the F-35. As an outsider looking in, let me explain.

The Royal Navy can justify two new aircraft carriers because there are still territories (such as the Falklands) that require defending. However completely retiring the Harrier fleet to go full in on the F-35 was penny foolish and pound foolish. Requiring catapults on the two new carriers would have opened up a large number of cheaper carrier capable aircraft such as the Super Hornet and Rafale. Simply put, putting stealthy aircraft on an non-stealthy aircraft carrier isn’t exactly going to stop the enemy from seeing you coming…

So the Royal Navy needs an expeditionary capability, and it chose STOVL aircraft that might as well fly off a reinforced top deck welded onto a commercial cargo ship (something that the Harrier did in the Falklands war) instead of two very expensive brand new non-catapult aircraft carriers. The F-35B is so damn expensive that the air wing will cost much more than the ship they ride on. But no matter how good hindsight is, the F-35B is the platform that will supply the Royal Navy with expeditionary capabilities because there is no other option based on their decision to retire the Harrier and not put catapults on the new carriers. It is done and the only thing left to do is choke down the cost or give up on having an expeditionary capability and rely on NATO Article 5 to get America and French help should a distant holding be attacked by say, Argentina.

The Royal Air Force really needs to defend the home islands, and while the Eurofighter Typhoon is a very good aircraft to do that, it costs a lot per flight hour. The Saab Gripen E costs much less to fly per hour, and so you can either fly more planes for the same hours, or more hours on fewer planes, for the same cost per hour. This would be a good transition from the older Tornado aircraft which have been facing maintenance issues lately, and not just in the UK but all across Europe. Meanwhile the Gripen is so cheap to operate that the Czechs can afford it over former Soviet aircraft. This would allow the Tornadoes to be sold to other countries that maintain the legacy Tornado fleet (such as Germany which recently cut its Typhoon order and now plans on relying on the Tornado for longer than expected).

The problem with all of this is that there isn’t enough flex in the budget to do the transition smoothly. The British Army is sucking hind tit and functionally doing the most to support the NATO alliance right now, but is doing so in equipment that is no longer qualitatively better than Russian equipment. I know that it goes against British sensibilities to use German or American tanks, but it makes monetary and logistic sense to settle on something with a much larger user base than the Challenger II. Considering the cost per mile of an Abrams, the best tank for Britain going forward will probably be the next generation of Leopard.

Now none of this will really fly though, the UK like any first world nation views its defense procurement as a domestic jobs program first, and a national security activity a distant second. But the choice of the F-35B locked the UK into keeping legacy Tornadoes and BAE is busy slashing jobs from the Typhoon production line without transferring those over to the F-35 production line because it’s not like the orders for the F-35 are increasing. The problem with very expensive systems is that they are very expensive systems and fewer get purchased because of that.

A Gripen E costs about 13 million dollars more than a Korean FA-50, but it is much more capable in terms of air to air combat, and at 43 million, is about half the cost of a new F-16 or a third the cost of a new Typhoon. When the biggest threats are Russian aircraft, the extra 13 million makes good sense for the capability purchased over the next cheapest fighter option. But, there isn’t money in the budget to do this because the F-35B is a huge gaping monster that demands currency, even the cost per flight hour is over six times that of a Gripen E. For the cost of one F-35B the UK could be flying six Gripens per hour. But that can’t happen because there isn’t enough money in the budget to actually replace the Tornadoes.

Because as much as it was a good statement last year to spend wisely instead of just spending, decisions made two decades ago have consequences. So spending to spend just to keep what they’ve got is the order of the day.


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