Jonathon Carr-Brown and Peter Almond
By The Sunday Times Online
THE government is preparing a radical reshaping of the armed forces, including plans to cut the number of nuclear-powered attack submarines by almost half.
The move, which has alarmed some senior commanders, is expected to mark a shift in defence spending, with conventional weapons such as tanks, artillery and ships cut back to make way for a new "digital" arsenal.
More investment will go into smart bombs, unmanned aircraft and computer systems that allow commanders to control a battle in "real time" from thousands of miles away.
Ministers are said to believe that radical change is needed to keep the British armed forces effective and compatible with those of the United States. But the changes are being planned within existing budgets and will necessitate deep cuts in many areas.
In a white paper to be published later this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is expected to propose the scrapping of at least two and possibly three of its nuclear-powered attack submarines in addition to the two vessels already due to be scrapped under the 1998 strategic defence review. This would reduce the fleet from 12 to just seven. Britain will, however, separately retain its four Trident submarines, which provide the country's nuclear deterrent.
The army has been told to look at cutting 42 Challenger 2 tanks and at least 15 AS90 self-propelled field guns. The RAF may have to reduce its order for 232 new Eurofighters by at least a third. Air force and navy orders for the joint strike fighter could fall from 160 to 110.
The navy is being told that the programme to replace Type 42 frigates with new Type 45 ships could be curtailed. In addition, only six Type 23s will be given new sonar designed to detect diesel-electric submarines, deployed by countries such as Iran.
The knock-on effects would see corresponding cuts in maintenance and logistical personnel, shrinking Britain's military even further. It is already known as "the best small army in the world".
The push for change started after the September 11 attacks on America, with planners arguing that Britain needs a lighter, more flexible army. "Military punch" is out, in favour of "effects rather than numbers".
The war in Iraq has provided ammunition for new thinkers and traditionalists alike. It was won in short order with relatively few troops, with a vanguard of high-tech special forces supported by drones and smart bombs. But heavy tanks proved vital.
Advocates of a lighter military want to see investment shifted to the purchase of more unmanned aircraft. They also want soldiers equipped with "mini-drones" so that they can survey the battlefield. The US Marines already have a drone called Dragon Eye that can be carried in a backpack.
In the future such aircraft could be as small as 6in long; drone helicopters are also being developed to avoid the need for landing strips.
Military planners think that Apache helicopters can replace much of the tank's firepower. Heavy tanks such as the Challenger 2 are thought to be too cumbersome to transport. During the Iraq war 10 huge C-17 aircraft were needed to transport just 10 65-ton M1-A2 tanks to an airstrip in the north of the country.
The MoD is expected to announce in the coming months a contract for a much lighter armoured vehicle that can take almost as much punishment as a heavy tank. The US has commissioned and is considering replacing at least a division of heavy tanks with Stryker light tanks and armoured vehicles.
British platoons were able to talk to one another on the battlefield in Iraq using new Bowman personal radios; but they are still a long way behind the Americans in terms of military communications. Every tank in the "digitised" US 4th Infantry Division can display a real-time video map of the battlefield, drastically reducing the probability of friendly fire incidents.
The Royal Navy is looking at a similar communication system which co-ordinates the defences of ships against attacking aircraft.
However, there is widespread concern among all the armed services that reconfiguring the military into smaller, high-tech forces will mean Britain does not have enough of anything to make a real difference in future campaigns.
Some senior army officers are convinced that the war has shown that we have already given up too much heavy punching power. "It was tanks and artillery that pushed us forward in Iraq," said one general. "Even when it is not knocking out other armour, a tank at a crossroads in town sends a powerful message of control."
Britain spends £24.5 billion a year on defence. This will climb to £27.4 billion by 2006, but in terms of gross domestic product, investment will slip from 2.5% to 2.2%, according to Treasury figures.
This means the MoD has to choose between technology and size. General Wesley Clark, the American former supreme commander of Nato, said last week: "The British force [in Iraq] is badly in need of increased resources. Already it is perhaps a generation behind the best available technology in some areas."
What do the military type people think? Is this a good move?
Edited by Certifiably Cait, 27 August 2012 - 02:25 PM.