19 Oct 2010

Defence review: Kemp calls for merger of three services

A former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, tells Channel 4 News the Strategic Defence and Security Review should have considered combining the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses military staff at Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood

Channel 4 News has talked to representatives from the three services.

Col Kemp said: “I wouldn’t disagree with the priorities, but a more radical approach needs to be taken. I would look at combining the three armed services into a single fighting force.

“We have one of the most inefficient armed forces in the world in terms of the number of people running things rather than fighting.”

Col Kemp said the cuts were bad, but “understandably bad because we have such a terrible economic situation”.

“We have one of the most inefficient armed forces in the world in terms of the number of people running things rather than fighting.” Colonel Richard Kemp

The announcement was “more like a holding operation than a fully-fledged defence review; it’s intended to save money while keeping priorities like Afghanistan going”.

Col Kemp said savings would be made in frontline troops, but Mr Cameron had failed to address the issue of overheads, which had driven up costs. But the Army’s role had been appreciated.

“Because the Army is bearing by far the overwhelming brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan and in all recent conflicts, the Army’s role has been recognised.”

“The future is unknowable, as we know from the 1998 defence review.” Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge

Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, former Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command, said he was satisfied with the thrust of the defence review, but was “nervous” about the decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 reconnaissance plane programme.

“That makes me nervous, not only because I spent the early part of my career flying it in the Cold War.” Nimrods had been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to support special forces, and “in an ideal world no-one would have wanted that”.

But the overall strategy was “plausible” and the review was a “job reasonably well done”.

Sir Brian said the Prime Minister was right to decommission the Harrier fleet in favour of the Tornado, which was “an insurance policy” because of the weapons it carried, its reconnaissance role and the intelligence it was able to gather.

“The future is unknowable, as we know from the 1998 defence review, when we didn’t expect to be fighting in Iraq, to be still involved in Afghanistan. The sort of insurance policy that the RAF has to provide is air superiority, control of the air.”

Sir Brian defended the decision to commission two new aircraft carriers, saying they were “very useful”.

Royal Navy
Michael Codner, a former Royal Navy commander and director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, said the strategic defence and security review was short term and the “real strategic choices” had been put on hold until 2015.

In an article for Channel 4 News, he said defence spending had been reduced by less than expected – 7.5 per cent – but the cuts announced in the White Paper did not save enough money.

“Top of the cuts list is the decision, which has taken up a vast amount of the debate in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence in spite of relatively modest savings, to hold in ‘extended readiness’ – ie mothball – one of the two carriers to be built, and to equip the second with catapult-launched rather than short take off Joint Strike Fighters.

“Another big unanswered question is the role of the Army in particular back at home in countering terrorism and assisting with natural disasters. Special Forces are a capacity that will be expanded. So it is ironic that there could well be cuts in Royal Marines numbers as part of the 5,000 the Royal Navy must lose.

“And Royal Marines are the largest contributors to both the Special Air Service as well as their Special Boat Squadron.”

US reaction
The reaction from the other side of the Atlantic was mixed.

The former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Army, Van Hipp, said the key word was “interoperability” – ensuring that armies can rely on one anothers systems when budgets are tight.

“That way you can have cost savings without endangering national security. He’s [Cameron] trying to make cuts where he can take advantage of interoperability. That’s making sure systems and equipment work together, whether it’s the French forces or the US.

“Whenever, Prime Ministers have to make cuts they will more than likely be in consultation with Nato allies on the most practical places to make cuts.

Cutting deeper
“In 1992 Britain had 152,000 troops, today you have 102,00. Now he wants to take that to 95,000. I’m concerned that your really starting to cut into the bone and the muscle.

“You can have all the specialist technologies but you need the troops on the ground to finish the job, as you’ve seen in Iraq. It looks a bit like they (the UK) are depending more on the US.”

Colonel John Warden, an expert in airforce strategies, said the UK approach to developing future forces was similar to that of the US.

“They are going in the same direction, looking at threat detection and prevention rather than conventional wars like the current ones.

“Placing the focus on future high end technologies can put you at a disadvantage when fighting an enemy like the Taliban, one on one.

Tomorrow’s wars
“The tone is similar to that of our Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates). He talks about thinking about tomorrow’s wars and not today’s, which strikes me as a dangerous approach.

“I don’t see, in the medium term, that this will have any adverse affects on the US and British relationship. But it puts us on a course for the future which it makes it difficult to change or adapt to new circumstances that may come up – which I find troubling.”