Two cheers for Hoon

The defence review will modernise our armed forces, but depending on the US for new technology could mean a fall-out with Europe and a less rosy future for the UK defence industry, says Fiona Harvey.

Faster, lighter, smaller. These are to be the key characteristics of the UK’s armed forces in future, as set out in the government’s new defence review. One of the implications is that the forces should also be cheaper, but the government has played down that aspect in favour of emphasising the need to modernise troops using new technology.

It’s a good argument. For decades, the emphasis on defence spending has been on firepower, the sheer weight of numbers of aircraft, naval vessels, and weaponry. But as defence secretary Geoff Hoon said in introducing the review: ‘That [emphasis on numbers] might have been appropriate for the attritional warfare of the past, but in today’s environment, success will be achieved through an ability to act quickly, accurately and decisively, so as to deliver military effect at the right time.’

That means investment in precision technologies, in place of the investment in firepower that characterised past expenditure. So the army will lose many tanks, the RAF will have fewer planes, and some of the Royal Navy’s older ships will be withdrawn. The number of armoured brigades in the army will fall from three to two, and a new light brigade will be established. The aim is that the UK could fight two serious operations and one smaller operation at a time, or one very big operation and a smaller one.

As a result of the review, we are likely to see more unmanned aircraft, more advanced communication equipment and more long-range fighting capabilities. The review also refers rather vaguely to unspecified new technology that will beef up forces’ mobility. Better surveillance and intelligence will also be key to backing up such precision instruments of war.

Where are we to find these new technologies? The government seems to view the US – acknowledged as the world leader in advanced defence technologies – as a likely source. Recently, Tony Blair asked the US authorities to let the UK into some of its defence secrets, sharing knowledge, software and hardware and technologies to harmonise the two countries’ fighting forces and make us a more valuable ally. However, the US is wary of giving away its secrets, even to a valued ally, and we have yet to see what the outcome of the government’s requests will be in practice.

Whatever it says about the need for new technology, the review also has some serious flaws. At a time when the US and Europe are growing apart in defence terms, with the plans for an EU defensive force drawing fire from the US government – which fears such a force would threaten the central position of Nato – the review should make clear where the UK stands. In a veiled fashion, it does, clearly favouring our future as a junior partner to the US over the alternative, a fully integrated member of Europe’s separate defence plans. But it tries to keep a foot in both camps, mentioning the European plans, too.

Amid all this, our defence industry risks falling between two stools. If the government fails to persuade the US authorities that UK companies should be privy to its closely-guarded defence technology secrets, and simultaneously upsets the European defence establishment by following what it regards as a slavishly pro-US line, then companies on both sides of the Atlantic may be reluctant to see UK companies as a good bet for collaborative efforts. This could isolate our defence industry at a time when collaboration is increasingly becoming essential to smaller players on the world stage. While companies in other countries benefit from their close relationships with the US and Europe, UK firms might find themselves out in the cold.

In addition, the US government and others also appear more willing to support their own defence industry than ours has in the recent past. The stand-off with BAE systems that saw post-dated redundancy notices issued to a number of workers, intended as a warning shot across the government’s bows, marked a low point in the relations between the two.

We can look forward to more such episodes of brinkmanship as more contracts come up for negotiation following the implementation of the review. BAE does not appear able to complete its preferred strategy of acquiring one of its big US rivals, and the government has made it clear it would look on with equanimity if the company were to be the acquisition target of a US company instead. Yet even that does not seem likely, as BAE looks less attractive as such a target.

Does it matter? Yes – defence specialists and firms supplying them play a vital role in the engineering economy. They drive cutting edge research, new technologies and the training of engineers, and are a vital market for many small engineering suppliers.

So what will happen? As a strategy for the UK’s armed forces, the review strikes the right note. We need to rely more on technology than on sheer weight of numbers. But as a recipe for keeping a thriving UK defence industry, with all the positive knock-on effects this would have for our whole engineering and technology sector, the review looks less rosy. Only two cheers, then, for Mr Hoon.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.