Britain's security, Labour's missed opportunity

Corbyn's party changed and won the argument on austerity. It could do the same on defence – but it doesn't want to try.  

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 March 2018

HMS Defender moored at Greenwich in London, 2015. Wikicommons/Hammersfan. Some rights reserved.A highlight for many visitors to Portsmouth on England's south coast has long been a boat trip round the harbour, taking in fine views of the port, historic ships such as Nelson’s Victory, and the large naval dockyard.

In recent years the dockyard has been unusually full, not least of the Royal Navy’s most advanced destroyer, the Type 45 or Daring-class. These six warships are the navy’s primary air defence escorts, costing around a billion pounds each and completed over the past nine years. They are the only destroyers now in service: the ministry of defence (MoD) describes them as “part of the backbone of the Royal Navy, committed around the world 365 days a year hunting pirates, drug runners or submarines, defending the Fleet from air attack, and providing humanitarian aid after natural disasters.”

The trouble is that as far as the Type 45s are concerned, almost all of them are likely to be moored in the harbour rather than being part of “the backbone of the Royal Navy". Fifteen months ago, the Daily Mail could even report that all six were moored up there and none at sea 

The Type 45 is a large warship, its displacement of 8,000 tons is not far short of a cruiser (the US navy’s Ticonderoga-class is 9,500 tons), but its short history is an engineering and financial mess. Moreover, it is just one of a number of examples of UK military projects that have gone badly wrong in planning, development and execution: yet there is little change in attitude and virtually no improvement in experience. It is a situation that leads to a lot of frustration and even anger among the serving military, not least middle-ranking officers, but there is little sign of things changing.

In the case of the Type 45, the problem is with the main propulsion system, the Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines that power the Integrated Full Electric Propulsion System (IFEP). This proved to be unreliable, especially in hot weather (which is a bit of a drawback in the Middle East). Even worse, there have been multiple occasions when the ships have lost all power (see Conrad Waters ed, Seaforth World Naval Review, 2018). 

This fundamental problem has been known for two years. The Seaforth Review states:

“The first official confirmation of the problem was a letter dated 3 March 2016 from Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon to Dr Julian Lewis MP, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee. In subsequent remarks to the committee, the First Sea Lord acknowledged that the WR-21 was unable to operate effectively in hot temperatures and that instead of ‘graceful degradation’, the engines were degrading catastrophically’”.

After years of effort, the MoD has now signed a contract with BAE Systems which essentially involves reconfiguring the whole propulsion system. In addition to the WR-21 gas turbines at the root of the problem, the Type 45s also have two MW diesel alternators which provide power for harbour operations and the like. The plan is to remove these and replace them with three MW alternators (see Richard Scott, “BAE team to deliver power improvements for Royal Navy Type 45 destroyers”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 28 March 2018).

These will become the main means of propulsion up to cruise speed, while the original main propulsion system – the gas turbines – will just be available for boost on (hopefully) rare occasions. Precisely how three larger alternators will be shoe-horned into a space designed for two smaller ones is not clear. But it is expected to take until 2024 to retrofit all six ships, under a new contract costed at £160 million - which, oddly, is barely half the figure naval analysts have been anticipating. Only then will the Royal Navy have this part of its “backbone” back.

A systemic failure

The case of the Type 45 may be a glaring example of a project going seriously wrong with UK weapons procurement, but is far from being the only one. A range of comparable problems and failures – of planning, technology, cost, integration – has bedevilled the area in recent years. Here are just three:

* The Astute-class nuclear-powered attack-submarine programme is way behind schedule and grossly over cost, and even when the boats are completed there are problems of reliability. A year ago, for example, the Naval Review reports, there were just four of the older Trafalgar-class boats and three of the new Astute-class boats available. But a combination of a reactor fault in one of the older boats, a collision with a merchant ship by Ambush, as well as other problems, meant that there were probably no attack-submarines available. One of the functions of such submarines is to provide “deterrence support” for the Trident nuclear-missile submarines, so if there were none available even that protection was missing (see " Britain's deep-sea defence: out of time?", 3 March 2016).

* There is a ten-year gap in the Royal Air Force’s having available any long-range maritime-reconnaissance aircraft

* A decade-long attempt at a comprehensive plan to procure 4,000 armoured fighting vehicles  – under the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) programme – has ended in failure.

Above all the detail of individual projects, there are larger questions: what the UK’s armed forces should be about, and how defence fits into a much wider understanding of security. These are now being addressed, but mainly by think-tanks and non-government outfits, with little evidence of any such exploration at governmental level (see Celia McKeon, "The UK’s National Security Capabilities Review – another missed opportunity?" (23 March 2018); and "Britain's security: time to rethink", 15 March 2018).

In turn this invites two further questions: why is even current defence planning and implementation so incompetent, and why is there so little new thinking? There are several ways of responding. To start with, Britain still has a near-mythical self-image and associated culture as a world power, of which the armed forces are a key part. Any questioning of the defence posture seems to strike at the heart of this deep desire to cling on that imagined status. It reaches its extreme when any critiquing is seen as unpatriotic. What is curious is that this sense persists when, while the armed forces may be generally popular, the recent wars they have been called upon to fight (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) most certainly are not (see "Britain's global role: fantasy vs reality", 5 October 2017).

Moreover, these are not only British problems: elements of the situation are shared with other countries. Five are most apparent:

* The remarkable power of the military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex, with its considerable cohesion and very strong lobbying power

* In turn, this is strengthened by the notorious “revolving door” of recently retired senior military and defence-sector civil servants, where they almost immediately enter lucrative consultancies and even memberships of company boards

* The way in which defence corporations have progressively consolidated into a handful of very large groups, often making effective competition almost impossible

* The role of much of the media, which is often unrecognised. Defence reporting more frequently comes up against issues of secrecy than other areas (education, transport, agriculture, or health, for example). This alone makes it more difficult for investigative reporters, but there is the related problem of the reliability or even the availability of any sources from within the system that don’t follow the party line.

A missed opportunity

A final factor is more particular to present-day Britain: the matter of political opposition and scrutiny. Many of the equipment and related problems that have plagued the British defence posture cry out for effective parliamentary critiques, and these would frequently by welcomed by many in the military too (see "How Labour can make Britain secure", 20 July 2017). But the current electoral situation means that for now the Labour Party simply will not touch this subject. Its rationale is straightforward: defence is one of the very few areas where the Conservative Party feels able to beat down Labour opposition, so it is better for Labour strategists to focus on areas where they have much stronger angles of attack.

The counter-argument is that the MoD has so much to answer for, and that a Labour opposition providing valid and persistent criticisms might well have a great positive effect. Labour could change the prevailing view of the issue by cogently arguing against the Conservative government's record on defence and exposing its failures. There is a precedent here in the way that, thanks to a Jeremy Corbyn-inspired political-educational process, austerity is no longer seen as an economic necessity but rather as a highly questionable ideology.

For now, though, there seems no chance of Labour making this case (see "Making Britain Great Again - in a different way", 16 November 2017). The unfortunate absence of forensic opposition in this crucial area is one reason why Britain continues to waste large sums of money. At the very time when calls are being made to increase the defence budget, Labour could also be showing that existing resources could be much better used.

The establishment's defence thinking is stuck, and a genuinely forward-thinking security stance for Britain is much needed. Yet a real opportunity to improve something fundamental is being missed. That makes outlining what this policy should really be, rather a frustrating and lonely and uphill task.


Construction of blocks of Dauntless at Portsmouth, 2007. Wikicommons/Steel city ady. Some rights reserved.

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