DN - Defence Notes

Former UK defence chiefs warn of significant capability gaps

14th November 2017 - 04:11 GMT | by Alice Budge in London

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Assumptions made by the UK Ministry of Defence during the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR) could leave the country exposed to significant capability gaps, experts have argued.

Air Marshal Barry North, former deputy commander (personnel) at RAF Air Command, told the House of Commons Defence Committee that assumptions relating to the capabilities of the UK’s allies, which were made in 2010 and 2015, now needed to be reviewed as part of the government’s latest national security capabilities review.

While the debate continues to rage around the government's defence spending and acquisition programmes, North emphasised that a fundamental part of the review should focus on the reasoning driving decisions on where cuts to sovereign military capabilities fall.

Decisions relating to the UK’s maritime surveillance capabilities was one instance identified by the air marshal as exemplifying the potential risks in assuming that allied capabilities can mitigate a gap in UK strategic assets.

He explained that the decision to scrap Nimrod in the 2010 SDSR and expose the country to a gap in its maritime surveillance capability was supported by assertions that allies would support the UK while it awaited the first of nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft to enter service in 2019.

However, NATO and European allies are suffering similar fiscal challenges and threats as the UK and have also experienced reduced levels of investment across a range of military capabilities.

‘Consequently, the assumptions that were made in 2010 and then in 2015 in terms of what would be provided by allies as we reduced capability in certain areas do need to be refreshed, in terms of what our allies will actually bring to the party,’ he said.

When pressed on whether the nine P-8 aircraft would be adequate, North stated that based on the assumptions made at the time, in 2015 when the first order was made, the number was adequate. However this must now be reviewed.

The committee heard similar concerns from Gen Richard Barrons, former commander of Joint Forces Command and Adm George Zambellas, former first sea lord and chief of the naval staff, who echoed North’s warning of emerging capability gaps

Barrons was vocal in his criticism of the MoD’s lacklustre support for the modernisation of UK forces, stating that the army is 20 years out of date as the forces have failed to keep pace with their adversaries and the rate of innovation.

According to the general, the UK is fielding a 'hologram of capabilities' that was ill-equipped for modern warfighting as a result of a policy of denial, which has allowed the government’s defence programme to fall apart.

In order for the review to adequately address the rapid pace of innovation and the unpredictability of the threat environment, a wider range of actors need to be involved in the conversation, he said. This must include the defence industry and the technology industry.

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