The Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR), published in the UK on October 27, emphasises a novel concept called "adaptable Britain". This is political shorthand for a dangerous gamble with the UK's defence capability, based on the threats the country is likely face before 2020, and whether it can react to them in time. The risk for the Royal Navy's carrier strike capability in particular is that it could emerge from a decade in hibernation in a similarly unenviable position to that endured by Russia's fleet within the past decade.
Political eyes are on Afghanistan. The government has commited to that conflict until 2015. The Army will keep its frontline forces intact until then. After that there must be cuts, but it will keep a brigade deployable globally. However, fiscal austerity means until 2015, the country will be capable of no new major operations, aside from any required on our doorstep and those using the MI5, MI6 security services and the military's special forces. These resources have sensibly been boosted against the threat of terrorism. That should see us through against extremist plots against the UK itself, and for launching small precision shows further afield (say an SAS Sierra Leone style repeat).
The RAF has taken a beating in the SDSR, as expected, because of the lack of likely scenarios utilising its fast jets in the sort of Cold War era, Red vs Blue, moustache-flexing dogfight it spent fifty years training for. Still, there's no guarantee we won't need to face (or contribute to) a campaign against a foe armed with decent aircraft and air defences (a full-blown war with Iran, or a brief skirmish with the likes of Venezuela or even Russia over increasingly scarce energy resources). So the RAF has kept its ageing Tornado fleet, while receiving a cut-down complement of the much more capable Eurofighter Typhoons.
The Navy loses its flagship the Ark Royal immediately. Predictably this has grabbed some headlines, and is a blow to pride, but practically speaking, has only fast-forwarded what was set to happen in three years' time anyway. More damaging is the loss of the Harrier fleet. Harriers have been doing much the same job as the Tornado squadrons in supporting ground troops in Afghanistan, but are operated by the Navy's Fleet Air Arm. For political reasons the RAF couldn't be gutted completely. So the Navy took the hit from inter-service politics: the Tornados stay on; the Harriers are being retired.
Unfortunately, politics aside, this decision has serious consequences for how "adaptable" the country can be with its remaining hardware. The Harrier can do many more things than the Tornado. It can operate from a small jungle clearing, provide effective close air support, engage enemy air and land forces, and land on the deck of a ship.
Without aircraft to operate, Ark Royal's solitary remaining sister in service Illustrious will be no more than a helicopter carrier for the next decade. The Ocean, a cheaper, less populous ship (albeit slower and less well protected) also helps fulfil this role within the fleet today. It is likely one of those ships will be retired in 2015, once the first new Queen Elizabeth class carrier comes into service. Even that will only have helicopters to operate for at least five years, until the F35 Joint Strike Fighter is available, in 2020 by the most optimistic estimate, but perhaps several years later.
The new Anglo-French defence treaty claims to address this problem, by presenting a picture of a joint British and French naval task group, with French escort vessels helping replace the destroyers and frigates cleaved by the SDSR. The Queen Elizabeth carriers can also be fitted with catapults, and will operate the catapult-launched, cheaper, conventional version of the Joint Strike Fighter. So far, so good. Before the F35 is ready, the vision is for French or US aircraft to operate from carriers where necessary.
The problem here is whether you really believe the French will put their defence assets - and people - in harm's way for an operation which the UK needs to launch at sea, but is not core to French strategic interests. The possibilities are many, but an energy-fuelled re-run of the Falkands War is an obvious possibility, made more likely by the potential for a scramble for oil or gas resources under the South Atlantic. For all the talk of a new Entente cordiale, the Élysée would probably only offer support at arm's length in such a scenario.
The problem then, is that the SDSR is taking a great gamble for the next decade, when another review will take place. The "adaptable Britain" concept is only adaptable to a point. It would not be flexible enough to send a UK task force to the South Atlantic in 2016.
Whether capabilities can be rebuilt in a decade is also in doubt. The Russians have already discovered this problem after a collapsing economy led them to allow their Cold War fleet to rust in inactivity for a decade. Will the Fleet Air Arm be able to operate effectively with fast jets after a decade idle? There is also great uncertainty as to whether the second new carrier, Prince of Wales, will join the fleet, or might be sold off in 2020. The need for two carriers in order for one to be operational seems obvious, but not necessarily to politicians.
The Economist last week suggested that this second carrier be operated on a time-share basis with the French, as I have proposed in a previous blog post. The timing of the next SDSR in 2020 could improve the prospects for the second carrier's survival, based on the threats faced and the state of the nation's finances. It would still mark a poor man's solution to bluewater capability, but having one-and-a-half carriers in 2020 would be a lot better than having only one.
UPDATE (10/11/10): Admirals write letter opposing the decision to scrap the Harrier force; say Falkland Islands left vulnerable to Argentinian attack: