Thursday, December 15, 2016

Defence and Delusion

The defence of Britain is far too important to be used as a football in petty party-political point scoring, but this does not stop people, and never has.

When the people who design and build British military equipment really get their act together they have supplied our fighting men and women with superb world class kit equal to anything that they are likely to face in battle.

But when they don't there has been a tragic catalogue from centuries ago right up to the present day of sending British soldiers, sailors and aircrew into harm's way to fight with guns that jam, radios that don't work, shells which fail to sink enemy ships and battlecruisers which blow up more easily than they should when hit by enemy shells, and indeed a whole array of inadequate protection, from poor body armour to insufficiently armoured vehicles.

For that reason it is most important that those in our parliament who are tasked with scrutinising defence should never be afraid to look into any allegations of problems giving our armed forces the effective and reliable equipment they need and ask searching questions whoever is in government.

That questioning, however, needs to be based on reason and evidence, not on repeating slogans which are great for scoring a political point but bear no resemblance to the facts.

There were good examples this week both of how to do it and how not to do it.

The defence select committee has challenged the MoD on the numbers of ships available to the Royal Navy and whether those ships are adequate to deal with the threats our country faces and the roles the navy is likely to be asked to undertake. They have also asked for action on some serious quality issues with the ships being built such as the ability of the engines on Type 45 destroyers to operate for sustained periods in warmer areas of the planet. It was right for the select committee report to push the Ministry of Defence on these issues because it is more important to fix the problems (which have built up over decades) and protect our country properly than to get good publicity.

Similarly I am all in favour of doing all we can to identify and fix any weaknesses in these ships which may be identified now, or during their trials, or any other part of their operational lives. I hope the MoD is addressing any concerns about them which are based on fact rather than fantasy. This certainly applies to the constructive comments which have been posted by readers of this blog about the carriers.

But if the Select Committee report is an example of an appropriate challenge there is plenty of nonsense being spread around in other quarters, particularly by Labour MPs, who have been spreading ridiculous myths about the new carriers that their own party ordered while in government (that inconvenient fact being one of a number of details they are trying to forget.)

Now, I said that defence should not be a party political football, and I mean it, but when your political opponents start talking nonsense for party-political purposes you sometimes have to respond in party political terms and I will do so.

Some of the things tweeted today by Labour MPs such as Helen Jones are downright delusional.

Let the concerns put forward be based on evidence rather than myths.

For example the new carriers will have aircraft, beginning to operate helicopters and F35B Lightning II aircraft within two years, and by the time they are fully operational in about 2020 they will operate a large number of aircraft. Many of these will be RN Fleet Air Arm although there has been an agreement to co-operate with the US, helping both nations, which will allow US fighters to deploy from the British carriers.

Any US jets which operate from British carriers will augment the carrier's own jet aircraft, not replace them, and the British Fleet Air Arm jets will operate from the carriers first, starting in 2018.

Certain tabloids like to suggest that the maximum number of F35 Lightning II aircraft which will be able to operate from the carriers is 12: this is complete nonsense. When they deploy operationally the minimum number of F35s carried will be 20, and for some missions a lot more. The MoD intends in the long term to purchase 138 of these jets, the majority for active service although some will be training aircraft, and there are two carriers. Even a tabloid journalist or a Labour MP ought to be able to work out that's a lot more than twelve per carrier.

As I have already mentioned, these carriers were ordered by the last Labour government, and Labour was also in power six years earlier when new carriers should have been ordered, along with the aircraft to operate from them.

It is because Labour did not order the new carriers and planes for them in good time that there will be a six year gap between last of the previous generation of "Invincible" class light carriers leaving service and the new carriers becoming fully operational.

As I posted a few days ago, let us learn from this and get on with ordering the Trident successor "Dreadnought" submarines in good time.

No comments: