However, it is the Government’s direct lack of support for British aircraft manufacturing which could threaten the future of the Red Arrows. With the current Hawk T1 jet used by the squadron coming to the end of its life; some recent accidents and a lack of commitment from Government to buy a replacement for the Hawk, the future of the display team has now been cast into doubt. With the lack of Government interest in buying new variants of the Hawk, there is also the potential that a future Red Arrows squadron may be forced to fly an aircraft supplied by either Germany, the US or South Korea.
As for the much-vaunted Lockheed Martin F35 programme, serious issues with the aircraft remain even after entry into service, with the director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the US, Robert Behler, branding the platform, not “operationally suitable.”
In fact, according to US defence website, breakingdefence.com, “the F-35B being used to see if the plane will survive the 8,000 hours it’s required to last pretty much fell to pieces last year and needs replacing.”
This was corroborated by Behler who wrote, “the effect of the failures observed and repairs required during the first two lifetimes of testing on the service life certification of the F-35B aircraft is still to be determined. The service life for all three variants is planned to be 8,000 hours; however, the F-35B service life may be less than that, even with extensive modifications to strengthen the aircraft already produced.”
This is worrying for a platform that is going to provide the backbone of RAF strike capacity over the coming decades, especially when added to the already well-recognised engineering and combat performance problems.
So, Could We Retake the Falklands?
The frank answer to this question of whether the UK could retake the Falklands today has to be no!
Mounting an operation with the same size and strength as that seen in 1982 would be an impossible logistical and military exercise for our armed forces today. Bearing in mind the UK currently has no operational aircraft carriers – and would be reticent to use them, even if they were available – and following the sale of HMS Ocean, the RN no longer even has the capabilities of a helicopter landing ship or a platform from which to launch the strike aircraft that played such a critical role in 1982. Add to this the potential sale of the ships used by the Royal Marines for amphibious landings, and not only would an invasion have to be made without vital air cover, the UK would have no way of landing troops by sea.
However, more critically for an island nation, the RN now stands at a mere 26 combat capable vessels. Bearing in mind that 50% of these vessels are likely to be in maintenance or on training duties at any one time – rendering it incapable of putting an operational ‘task force’ to sea – and an operation to retake the Falklands from the sea is rendered entirely impossible.
In fact, if MoD planners were honest, we are today hard pushed to protect our home waters from unwanted visitors.
This situation was highlighted in a speech last year by First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, who said, “the degree of superiority at sea which Western navies previously enjoyed post-Cold War is diminishing.”
Admiral Jones continued, “you don’t need to look very far to see rising and resurgent powers flex their muscles. It’s now clear that the peaks of Russian submarine activity that we’ve seen in the North Atlantic in recent years are the new norm. The same is true of the steady stream of vessels passing the UK on their way to join the Baltic, Mediterranean and the Black Sea fleets.”
In 2016, cover of the UK’s coastline by the Royal Navy was so depleted, the emergency response ship was forced to race from the south coast to Scotland to cover a potential incursion by Russian naval vessels into home waters.
In terms of personnel numbers, the UK’s armed forces have lost approximately 50% of the personnel enlisted at the time of the Falklands War, before taking into account those who have not completed phase 1 & 2 training. This leaves the UK’s land forces at a low ebb, especially after years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Regarding aircraft, we no longer have the assets or capability to mount an operation like ‘Operation Black Buck,’ the raid carried out by Avro Vulcan aircraft on the airfield at Port Stanley; without a land base within a reasonable striking distance of the Islands.
With issues surrounding the F35B aircraft and many of the new RAF platforms not likely to be available for some years leaves the RAF facing years of capability gaps, despite increasing demands for airstrikes on Syria.
The RN could no longer even count on being able to mobilise commandeered vessels, as the size and composition of the UK merchant register has changed significantly in the past 36 years. In fact, the RN is today so overstretched, the UK no-longer maintains a standing warship patrol around the Falklands, as had been the tradition since the recapture of the islands in 1982.
When Britain’s precarious military situation is applied to current global security challenges, the picture is even more troubling. With Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of the Crimea and involvement in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Assad; a belligerent North Korea under Kim Jong-un; continued IS activity across the Middle East and North Africa; the rise of al-Shabaab; Iran’s nuclear aspirations and China’s rapid expansion of its armed forces, the Ministry of Defence’s £178bn equipment plan to transform the services seems to pale into insignificance.
Growing intervention in Syria and the threat posed by a resurgent Russia are to be, in my opinion, the two great conventional military challenges of the next decade.
A clear sign of how ill-prepared the UK is for yet another armed conflict came two weeks ago, when Prime Minister, Theresa May ordered strikes on Syria. While our French and US partners pounded suspected chemical weapons sites with ship-launched cruise missiles, the UK could only contribute four ageing RAF Tornado strike jets accompanied by four Typhoons for defence.
However, the RN could only spectate while US and French warships of similar size and composition launched round after round of cruise missiles from their decks, the launchers on the British vessels having been scrapped at the planning stage for budget reasons.
With a belligerent Russian President acting as a power broker in the Middle East, where he is aiding the forces of Assad to win a vicious civil war, NATO and the UK in particular face a range of conventional security challenges in the coming decades, even before the threats posed by terrorist activity is added.
NATO as a whole and the UK, in particular, should take heed of Putin’s words on the annexation of Crimea – an act akin to Hitler’s actions in the Sudetenland – when he stated, “if you press the spring, it will release at some point.”
With a build-up of troops on both sides in Eastern Europe, we now face a flashpoint not seen since before the Second World War. The UK is totally unprepared for the eventuality of a quickly escalating state-on-state conflict.
However, here we are with a Conservative government to make yet further reductions in equipment and personnel.
Put simply; we are not learning the lessons of history!