Thursday 5 July 2012

Reading the Small Print: The Consequences of Contracting Out Our Defence Industry

Christopher Wood

Uncertain Skies – The End Of British-Made Naval Aviation? : The last Harrier Jump Jet takes off from HMS Ark Royal, 24th November 2010. Photo Source

The UK is the fourth-largest procurer of military hardware in the world, spending nearly $63 billion in 2011. This equates to approximately $1000 per person in the UK. At this level of expense to the taxpayer, and given the rationale and requirements of maintaining national security, it is perhaps natural to assume that an overwhelming majority of this money is spent through indigenous ‘home-grown’ defence contractors to both boost the national economy and to assure an adequate measure of national independence during wartime. 

In many respects, this is the case. The UK’s largest defence contractor BAE Systems (which also ranks as the second largest globally) fills the MoD order books for projects ranging from the provision of small arms to the potential development of a replacement for the aging Trident nuclear deterrent. However, with the end of the Cold War, the past two decades has witnessed a shift away from ‘made in Britain’ defence products in a series of efforts to reduce defence expenditure and balance the books. In the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable and growing trend towards the multilateral development of key defence projects as well as outright procurement from foreign defence firms – particularly within the United States. 

The case for direct procurement
Direct defence procurement can provide Britain with some benefits. Our privileged position in our ‘special relationship’ with the United States gains us access to a vast mail-order catalogue of high tech death dealing devices. We are able to benefit from the vast amount of funding that is poured into military R&D in the US, a result of the some $711 billion that the US spends on defence every year. In the US defence industry we can find a natural and well-equipped ally to suit our requirements in some sectors of the defence market that the UK has never truly gained purchase in. Take, for example, helicopters. All the major helicopters used by our armed forces are licensed from American designs, yet are assembled in the UK. The Chinook, Sea King and Apache designs are all prominent examples of US designs adapted for use by UK forces. Developing a separate airframe for the roles met by these designs would be costly, but well within our capabilities should extraordinary need arise.

Lightning out of the blue

This contrasts sharply with the continuing farce that is the inclusion of the Joint Strike Fighter (or F-35) into our Fleet Air Arm. If this project symbolises the future of UK defence procurement, we should all be deeply worried. 

With the introduction of the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, it seems logical that a new fleet of carrier-based aircraft be purchased to replace the prematurely retired Harrier GR9 component. The MoD opted for the developmental American F-35 project, to be purchased directly from the US. The UK Government has dithered between the two available variants, the F-35B and F-35C, due to the spiralling cost of the programme that has arisen from development issues in the US as well as limitations to the budget for the new aircraft carriers imposed by the UK Treasury.

Under the current plans, the aircraft carrier will be completed two years before there are any planes to fly from it. There exists a degree of irony in that, had we opted for the F-35C and implemented a catapult system on the new aircraft carriers, it would have allowed us to fly most types of fighter off the aircraft carrier during this interim. In the determination to integrate further with the US military we have alienated other militaries in NATO – with the catapult system, we would have been able to work in closer concert with French and other NATO nations who are not in possession of VTOL-capable craft. There are also persuasive arguments to the effect that the F-35B is a less capable craft than the C variant, with a shorter operational range and a longer ‘turnover’ time that limits the number of possible sorties from the carrier within a given length of time.

Thus we are left with an aircraftless aircraft carrier that will effectively act as a large floating target for a period of two years. This is a planning fiasco of the worst order that has cost the public hundreds of millions of pounds whilst continuing to expose the UK to the stratospheric costs of mistakes being made across the Atlantic - even before a single plane has been delivered.

The best form of Defence?

The F-35 procurement project has left us out of pocket and the Navy out on a limb to operate effectively in times of war – a more effective example cannot be found than the intervention in Libya in 2011. Direct procurement renders us liable to the foibles of foreign governments – especially those of the US Department of Defence who have a tendency to tinker restlessly with designs and overshoot budgets. Direct procurement also fails to bring a single manufacturing job to the UK, or enlist any British engineering expertise other than in maintenance roles. It is also highly detrimental to our security. The Trident missile system is perhaps the most worrying – the delivery missiles are a US-leased design, and, legally speaking, the UK does not possess any missiles of its own. Other missile technology – particularly cruise missiles and other ground attack weapons vital to high intensity warfare with a history of rapid depletion in the opening stages of a war – are procured directly from foreign firms. Through our engagement in such programmes we are losing the indigenous expertise necessary to developing the new technology vital to maintaining our position as a world-leading exporter of defence equipment. What is more, Britain is damaging its ability to defend its national interests.

The practice of direct procurement contrasts sharply with a number of joint ventures the UK shares with our NATO partners in Europe. Possibly the most prominent example in recent years, the Eurofighter Project has seen the joint development of a world-beating interceptor that has re-affirmed Britain’s place at the top table of aerospace manufacturing. Successfully marketed to several foreign nations by BAE and the UK Government, the Eurofighter Project has yielded vital manufacturing jobs for the UK and bolstered our exports sector.

The UK should seek to engage with multilateral development projects such as Eurofighter where we lack the domestic capability. It is perhaps increasingly unavoidable that the UK coordinate its foreign policy and pool resources with other members of NATO in order to safeguard our national interests - however, we should not do so at the expense of rendering ourselves incapable of independent action through a dependence on procuring foreign defence equipment. We should be nurturing and taking advantage of our proven ability to develop high-end defence technology to the benefit of not only our economy, but our greater national security. Should fate deal us a cruel hand and we are left to defend ourselves without allies, our defence establishment should not be found lacking. After all, it would not be the first time.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Diego Garcia: Just a Tropical Paradise?

Sophie Stewart

A paradise island? Captain’s choice.
Diego Garcia-an island in the Chagos Archipelago, is a footprint-shaped atoll in the Indian Ocean, a tropical paradise in a vast ocean. Situated over 3000km from the east coast of Africa and over 2000 km from the southern tip of India, it is part of Britain’s Indian Ocean Territory. This is the point where its description as a pleasantly isolated and undisturbed tropical island ends. The British forcibly expelled the 2000 Chagossians who called the island home in order to enable the US to establish a military base on the island. Today the island is more associated with cases of extraordinary rendition, US military action in the middle east, and the war on terrorism. As the Chagossians push for recognition that their forced exile was illegal, even the original sin has become another unpleasant association for Diego Garcia, the British government and the British people. 
A history of the islands’ transformation from plantations to America’s biggest Indian Ocean base is possibly the best way to understand how it has acquired its current controversial status. Purchased by Britain by (from?) the newly independent Mauritius in 1956, the intention was always that it would serve as an American naval and military base for operations in the Indian Ocean arena. Such an eventuality arose from the situation in the early 1960s when the UK sought to withdraw its military presence from the Indian Ocean arena and agreed to allow the US to establish a Naval Communication Station on one of its island territories there. Diego Garcia was selected because the US sought an unpopulated island in an attempt to avoid political difficulties with newly-independent countries. Diego Garcia was deemed suitable by both the US and the UK, though the continued opposition by those removed from the island suggests that it may not have been the ideal choice it appeared to both militaries in the late 1960s. On the 30th December 1966 the US and UK formalised the agreement which would allow the US to use the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes for 50 years, up to 2016 with the optional extension of an additional twenty years which must be agreed upon by December 2014. Over the decades that the US have been based at Diego Garcia, its expansion into a fleet anchorage and airfield from the initial Naval communications station have not been insignificant. In the late 1970s it was enlarged to include  two parallel 12,000-foot-long (3,700 m) runways, expansive parking aprons for heavy bombers, 20 new anchorages in the lagoon, a deep water pier, port facilities for the largest naval vessels in the US or British fleet, aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings and an air terminal, a 1,340,000 barrels (213,000 m3) fuel storage area, and billeting and messing facilities for thousands of sailors and support personnel. 
Given that a decision on the future use of the island by the US must be made by the end of 2014 it is perhaps time to reassess if this continued partnership, whereby the US makes extensive use of British sovereign territory in its global military activities remains, as it initially appeared in the mid-1960s, in Britain’s best interest. 
Of the current concerns facing the coalition government, the possibility of a further war in the Middle East, particularly that between Iran and Israel, might not appear at the top of a domestic agenda burdened as it is by economic woes and a concentration on the European crisis. Yet the future of the British territory in the Indian Ocean ought not to be forgotten. It was used as a base for the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan by the Americans and its use by them in future operations is not just possible but likely. While the exact terms of the UK lease of Diego Garcia to the US have never been fully revealed it is unlikely that under those terms Britain retains the right to object to any action taken by the Americans from their base there, up to and including joining Israel in the bombing of Iran’s nuclear programme. 
Events in Syria, attracting more attention currently than the continued tensions over Iran nuclear power and continued tensions with Israel, do nothing to reduce to potential use of or contentiousness of Diego Garcia. As the Middle East spirals somewhat into a heightened level of chaos and borders bleeding guns between conflicts and street protests from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and beyond, the island’s strategic importance for the US only grows. Of the options for intervention by the US and allies or the international community more broadly in the Middle East, even in the limited capacity of blocking the strait of Hormuz to Iran rather than a full scale ‘intervention’ in Syria the island would be all too key to any such plan. 
US planes on Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean, used for rendition of US terror suspects. Photograph: USAF/AFP.
The use of the Island by the US in the event of such a calamity as war between Israel and Iran is highly likely, as its use would be in any regional dispute looking both towards to Middle East and out across the Pacific. What is not certain is the position that Britain remains in. Sovereign British territory Diego Garcia might be in theory, in practice the presumption must be that even in the unlikely event that Britain chose not to support the US in its foreign adventure it would not have the capacity to demand the US not use British territory to act. 
Press attention on Diego Garcia has focused on its past use in the controversial extraordinary rendition and on current debates regarding British efforts to create a marine reserve, one consequence of which is that such environmental protections, while not precluding the continued use of the island by the US military, serves to prevent the possible return of the Chagos Islanders who assert their continued right of return. In 2010 a wikileaks cable revealed that the push for the marine reserve was effectively aimed at preventing the claims by the islanders, all of whom were forcibly expelled within eight years of the British purchasing the archipelago. 
While the plight of the islanders and the concerns to protect the unique ecosystem of the archipelago are worthy of attention on their own merits, their significance is only enhanced, but also complicated by the fact that more than ever the base at Diego Garcia is strategically significant for the Americans and for the foreseeable future will continue to be used in their operations throughout the Pacific and the Middle East. 
The unpopularity of joint US-UK interventions in the Middle East, particularly Iraq but also Afghanistan, as well as the tainting of the British military through association and direct accusation of torture and complicity in Extraordinary rendition have certainly not strengthened Britains domestic security nor, arguably, directly furthered British interests so far as they are defined as anything other than to be a staunch ally of the US. Ultimately whether or not the UK choses to reassess the position of the British Indian Ocean Territory, it is unlikely that anything will change in its partnership with the US in the immediate future. But it is interesting to consider, what if the UK wanted to stop the US bombing Iran from Diego Garcia? What if the decision was taken to not extend the lease in 2014? It won’t happen but such a scenario sheds an interesting light on exactly what the balance of power is between the US and the UK and how much that limits an independent assessment of what is in British as opposed to Anglo-American interests.