The Express reports today that the Royal Air Force has recently conducted its largest air defence exercise in over thirty years, in response to the increasing frequency of Russian incursions into British air space and spheres of influence:
Operation Rising Panther, the first of six proposed air defence operations due to take place every year, will “show Vladimir Putin in no uncertain terms” that Britain is ready, willing and able counter increasing Russian aggression should the need arise, say military sources.
More than 30 aircraft, including 20 Typhoons and Tornado fighter jets as well as a range of ED-3, AWACS, Sentinal and Shadow surveillance aircraft took part in the mock attack-and-defence wargames over the North east of England, as well as ground-based command teams.
At first glance, this sounds like a positive development – like maybe the British government has finally woken up to the fact that history did in fact not end at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that future threats to our national interest and national security will remain, and be unpredictable, for many years to come. Given the circumstances, a show of force by the British military might be no bad thing.
And so it is, until you read the small print:
The Ministry of Defence played down Rising Panther’s significance, maintaining that it was merely the first opportunity since the end of hostilities in Afghanistan to hold an air exercise of this scale.
“Due to our continuing commitment to operations overseas, this is the first time we have had the full spectrum of our capability operating together at the same time in a realistic, opposed, environment,” said Wing Commander Andy Coe in the Ministry of Defence-run RAF News.
He added that this was the first time that the RAF had used AWACS and Sentinel together because they have been “in such high demand” in theatres abroad.
It is the facts that are implied, rather than those which are stated, which are most significant here.
Like the fact that the RAF had not been able to assemble a collection of thirty aircraft over home skies for anything more serious than a fly-past, in over thirty years. Or the fact that due to “continuing commitment to operations overseas”, we have, for all this time, effectively been forced to choose between foreign military adventures or adequate defence of our home nations – and continually chose the former above the latter. Or the fact that the Royal Air Force has not even been able to test how the various component parts of its capability might work together until now, because deploying any resource overseas has meant that there is none left at home.
Of course, the RAF do the best that they can with the resources that they are given. But clearly they are not being given enough resources, and have not been for a significant length of time. Some might argue that this is not important, that any gaps in our capability can be plugged by European and NATO allies. But this is foolish wishful thinking – expecting the 27 other nations of the EU to agree to come to our aid would require that organisation to come to a quick decision, something that it has never once done since it came into being. And relying on any other country for vital national defence would effectively give that country a veto over our foreign (and even domestic) policies, an intolerable position.
Others argue that we should cut military spending to the bone in order to fund unreformed public services, with the airy assumption that we could simply re-arm if the global situation or national threat became sufficiently perilous. But this stance is dangerously naive, as this blog explained earlier this month:
The truth is that with advances in military hardware and technology, hoping for the best simply doesn’t cut it any more. Even as recently as the Second World War, when Britain was caught short and had to quickly re-arm to face the Nazi threat, it was possible to regain lost ground fairly quickly. When more fighter planes, ships and tanks were needed, we could simply melt down the nation’s iron railings and repurpose suitable wood in order to churn out another few spitfires. In 2015 and beyond, we will not have the luxury of scrambling to make up lost ground in the face of an unexpected new threat because the technologies are more complex and the lead times exponentially longer.
If, say, the worst were to happen and Britain’s two aircraft carriers (when they eventually come into service) were to be sunk or disabled in some future war, that would be our ability to project force gone, done and dusted. The only option left to us would be to write a strongly-worded diplomatic cable to our antagonist, promising revenge in fifteen years’ time when we finished building a replacement. The same goes for military aircraft, infantry equipment even the increasingly specialised skills of our soldier, sailors and airmen. In any future confrontation, we will have to go to war with the armed forces we have available on the day, and woe betide us if these prove to be insufficient.
The British government clearly hoped that Operation Sleepy Feline would send a signal to Russia and other potential foreign aggressors, but primarily to Vladimir Putin. And a message will have been received loud and clear, though perhaps not the one that we would have wished to send.
Russia has been duly informed that the United Kingdom now considers it a newspaper-worthy accomplishment when our Royal Air Force manages to assemble enough aircraft for defensive wargames to avoid coming out worse in any comparison with an amateur Battle of Britain re-enactment club.
There are many areas in which the British state can, and should shrink back from its current bloated size. But as Operation Rising Panther shows, our defence spending is most certainly not one of them.