Dark clouds for UK defence in SDSR15

Despite rising threats and an uncertain world, there is increasing concern that UK’s planned strategic defence review in 2015 will be bleak indeed for the defence sector and especially those on the front line as austerity bites deeper. Tim Robinson reports.

Last week saw the Raytheon Technology Conference in London – a one day showcase of the latest technology and innovation for the aerospace and defence sector from the UK arm of this US corporation. Attended by a good number of media, industry, academia and military representatives, the conference was also notable in that it not only looked at Raytheon’s wares (see below) – but also facilitated high-level debate on the coming Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) in 2015, UK defence in general and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) spending priorities.

Bleak house at Main Building

Indeed, a keynote presentation from aerospace and defence analyst (and AEROSPACE columnist Howard Wheeldon) set a grim mood for UK defence and C4ISR noting that:

“I am worried that Sentinel capability, soon down to four aircraft and with a huge cut on number of trained crews, is being undervalued by those at the top of UK defence.

I am worried that Sentry E3-D capability is creaking in respect of engineering and worse, is crying out for new investment.

I am also extremely worried that now that the hoped for Maritime Patrol Aircraft/Multi-Mission Aircraft capability has been thrown back into the melting pot of SDSR 2015 by the current Secretary of State, reversing the intentions of his predecessor on the grounds not only of process but also of cost and worse, that once again the question of whether we want it and if so, can we afford it means that this may yet end up being another pot of crucially important capability permanently lost.”

Critical C4ISR neglected?

It is worth looking at these points in slightly more detail. Sentinel R1 was originally planned to be axed after the Afghanistan draw-down, but its usefulness (in flood mapping, Libya and Mali) has extended its service life, with it now planned to get a maritime mode upgrade to its already highly capable radar with a contract set to be signed in spring of 2015. Whether this will be a temporary stopgap pending the acquisition of a dedicated MPA – or whether other capabilities could be added to it (such as EO//IR sensor turret) over time is another question.

Meanwhile another RAF C4ISR asset – its E-3D AWACS Sentry is facing a crisis due to having fallen significantly behind the other operators upgrade cycle. With the US, France Saudi Arabia all having upgraded their E-3s, the UK must at some point make a difficult choice between outright retirement, an expensive major upgrade or buying an entirely new platform.

Finally there is the Nimrod MRA4 replacement question. It was widely known that previous Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond was in favour of reconstituting this lost MPA capability – although the exact platform (and whether it would include UAVs) was not specified. The smart money, from many defence observers was on the Boeing P-8 Poseidon – with competition from rival Airbus Defence and Space in the form of the C295MPA, L-3 with a Q400-based solution and potentially Saab with a Saab 2000 derivative and Lockheed Martin with a C-130J solution. Other platforms mooted in the media were potentially Northrop Grumman’s Triton UAV and Boeing’s new low-cost bizjet-based MSA.

However, any MPA acquisition now seems to be back in limbo – despite the worries over Russian resurgence, continuing global instability and Britain’s obvious concern about monitoring and protecting a large expanse of open water.

The neglect then of these key C4ISR assets, then – which as ‘enablers’ play a vital role in todays information-age warfare is a worrying development – especially for country whose air force has been championing ‘Combat ISTAR’. As one questioner put it to a select panel of media, industry, MoD and academia – what is the 2 minute ‘elevator pitch’ to persuade CAS to invest in C4ISR over new fast jets?

A fast and glib answer (and one raised at the conference) was that new platforms – especially F-35 (but also the Royal Navy’s T45) are now C4ISR assets in their own right – performing better in some respects than dedicated platforms – as well as having a kinetic attack function. That may be so, but here critical mass comes in. With fewer T45s than originally planned and F-35s set to trickle into service, these new Combat ISTAR platforms – even if they represent a leap in capability – cannot be everywhere at once.

£9bn cuts on the way?

Defence budgets will always be under pressure, but the situation has been made worse by the recent revelations that despite Hammond’s efforts to plug the UK MoD’s budget ‘black hole’ – defence is still set to suffer deep cuts. Last week it was estimated that MoD would need to find £8bn worth of saving between now and 2018. This week, after the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the figure is now reported to be £9bn. Whether £8-9bn this amount of cuts on forces that have already been trimmed to the bone in many places (only seven fast jet squadrons remain) will inevitably lead to more loss of capability and procurement decisions to be deferred or cancelled outright. Indeed such is the need for austerity that public spending plans will mean the smallest government spending relative to the rest of the economy since the 1930s. For example, the UK's Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that the MoD, after already implementing 40% of necessary cuts, will see another 60% needed (along with other non-ringfenced departments) over the course of the next ten years – a staggering amount.

Equally, with so much contractually committed to the naval sector, there must be some risk of an unbalanced military posture emerging into the 2020s.

Industry hates uncertainty and another variable after 2015 will be the make-up of the new Government. Will it be more of the same – or will it be a new untried and inexperienced team? The rise of UKIP and the passions aroused in the Scottish independence referendum means even veteran observers are in the dark about any likely outcome. It could well be, as one observer has noted, a ‘perfect storm’ for the defence sector.

The global environment

Incredibly these budget cuts are coming at the time of the biggest geopolitical shake-up since the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Afghanistan may have almost wound down (except for the RAF's Chinook force now retained to support training and laision)), but UK forces (in the form of RAF Tornado, Voyager and Reaper) are now flying back over Iraq combating the spread of ISIS. Meanwhile other Tornados have been sent to Nigeria to look for abducted schoolgirls and C-17s and C-130s involved in airlifting relief and medical teams to help halt the Ebloa epidemic. All these though, may be sideshows compared to the worsening relations with Russia after Ukraine and Crimea. With the rouble in freefall and the economy collapsing, there are serious worries that a cornered and unpredictable Moscow could lash out.

The comparisons then between the 1930s then and today are thus more that the budget cuts. However, a key difference between then and now is that whereas the realisation in the 1930s that Germany was on a path to war, allowed the UK time for rearmament, such as shadow factories and the development of the Spitfire and Hurricane – the long development times of todays weapon systems means there is no chance now – even if the danger becomes clear. It will thus be a case of making the best of existing forces, rather than a crash rearmament programme.

Technology solutions on show

This high-level defence debate though, only made up part of the day. During the event, Raytheon also highlighted a number of their technology solutions – including Raven – an intelligence analysis platform on a laptop for deployed intelligence analysts. This packs what would normally require large boxes of computer equipment into a single laptop, to allow an intelligence analyst to fuse maps, overlays, videos, Wikipedia-style reports and even electronic warfare emissions. Crucially for the deployed analyst it can do this with a minimal footprint, and because it searches only for metadata of the imagery or video – it thus avoids huge bandwidth demands – a key limitation for today’s C4ISR operators.

Reverse-engineering Stuxnet

Another interesting presentation was from one of the winners of Raytheon’s SPARK Innovation contest – which seeks to harness the power of SMEs and academia by setting them technology challenges. This particular SME winner – MASS, in conjunction with the University of Kent had addressed a thorny cybersecurity challenge – how do you determine what the ‘trigger’ is for a computer virus or malware? With cyberweapons like the Stuxnet virus now feasible, (which could potentially in the future be targeted at infrastructure, industry, government or military computers,) MASS’s toolset solution in being able to assist a software expert to quickly ‘reverse-engineer' the virus’s code to determine its ‘trigger’ is thus a major breakthrough against hackers, whether they be criminals, spies or saboteurs.

Locking on to SPEAR 3

While C4ISR and cyber were major themes – Raytheon also took the opportunity to brief the audience on its proposal for the UK’s SPEAR 3 air-launched weapon capability requirement – where it will battle rival MBDA. Raytheon is offering the Small Diameter Bomb II (SDBII) a long range (40nm) unpowered precision weapon with a tri-mode seeker – above to engage moving or static targets in all weathers and features a datalink. For carriage by the F-35, each weapon bay can cit four SDBIIs plus an AMRAAM, giving a loadout of 8 x SBD IIs and 2 x AMRAAMs. Already selected in the US as a weapon for F-35s, Raytheon is hoping to repeat the industrial model of its Paveway IV by engaging potential UK suppliers for this programme – which could see 17,000 weapons acquired by the USAF.


Listening to the high-level debate at the conference, it was clear that austerity then will set the landscape for next years defence review. The hopes that defence might be on a more stable footing since the last cuts which saw the axing of Nimrod, and retirement of Harrier, now seem to have evaporated – with fresh pain expected – just at the time of massive geopolitical uncertainty.

Stark choices thus lie ahead. Will any possible procurement programmes such as the MPA replacement be deferred or even cancelled completely? Will a new incoming Government reconsider the Trident deterrent replacement? Will more role sharing with Europe or NATO be needed? (see AEROSPACE magazine – December 2014). One suggestion mooted by a panellist was the UK should look more to the Commonwealth and in particular Australia, Canada and New Zealand for deeper defence co-operation. Finally there is the place of C4ISR and its role as an enabler. As Howard Wheeldon notes: “I am still not sure that our Government gets the message about the vital need to strengthen ISTAR capability”

One thing is certain, is that there are stormy clouds ahead.

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