“One of the things that will mean is making sure we will have the drones, the spy planes, the special forces, the unique capabilities that make sure we can deal with [Islamist extremism] at its source.”
– David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted what he says are his government’s list of priorities ahead of the forthcoming defence review. Despite his government’s promises of being committed to the armed forces and the recent promise to maintain the 2% GDP on defence spending the British public has had very little information as to how their armed forces will look in the coming years. Mr Cameron’s words today therefore offer an interesting and unique insight in to what is being discussed behind closed doors in Downing Street and at the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Deciphering politician’s words can be a task worthy of the Bletchley Park codebreakers but in this instance Mr Cameron was quite clear as to how he viewed Britain’s future defence situation and needs. In the wake of the Tunisia shooting and the promise of more direct British action it is clear that Cameron’s government are stepping up the fight against Islamic State and its supporters. Almost certainly the armed forces are going to be morphed in to a new configuration to meet the needs of such a conflict but how will that look?
- Drones – It is interesting that David Cameron specifically mentioned unmanned aircraft first. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) as they are known to the RAF offer numerous advantages over manned combat aircraft especially in the fight against terrorism. In the relatively low-tech arena they are stealthier, cheaper and in many ways just as capable as manned combat aircraft. They also have the advantage of not running the risk of having pilots captured and paraded on Islamic State websites.
- Spy planes – This is an interesting one. In the previous Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats Cameron put plans to scrap the RAF’s three most important intelligence gathering aircraft – the Nimrod MR.2, the Nimrod R.1 and the Sentinel R.1. In the time since, the RAF has sourced a replacement for the Nimrod R.1 in the form of American RC-135 aircraft while the Sentinel somehow remained in service but the RAF still lacks a Nimrod MR.2 replacement. In previous statements the government has said that it is reviewing the current anti-submarine capabilities of the British military and that a decision on whether a replacement will be ordered soon is currently being debated but again we have heard very little since. If David Cameron’s government views IS as the biggest threat to Britain’s security rather than Russian submarines then it is possible this replacement could be delayed even further.
- Special forces – The last thing in the world this government wants is to put British troops on the ground in Syria or Iraq the same way as in Afghanistan. The strong but recovering economy would be put at risk from another prolonged ground war but as every defence analyst and former senior military officer has said in the last few years; Islamic State cannot be defeated by air power alone. In order to meet in the middle the government has talked extensively in the last few weeks about the use of special forces such as the SAS and the SBS. These elite units can conduct reconnaissance, rescue and even assassination operations if required without the “mess” of an air strike. There is also a psychological factor in using the SAS/SBS; their reputation could discourage extremist activity while at the same time reassuring the British public that the very best are at the front of the ongoing war on terror. On the other hand it would be a political disaster if a number of SAS/SBS troopers were killed or captured.
- Unique capabilities – It is possible David Cameron is simply referring to the professionalism of the British military as a whole as British soldiers especially have a reputation for thinking on their feet and doing the most with very little (something they have had to learn from defence cuts as well as being in the field). However it is also likely that he is referring to a number other factors that the MoD has invested in particularly the fight against extremisim in cyberspace. Earlier this year the Army formed the 1500 strong 77th Brigade whose sole purpose was to locate and monitor extremist websites and even engage in online psychological warfare by trying to discourage extremism through both positive and negative ways. As the threat from home grown terrorism especially stems from the internet it is likely we may see this effort expanded.