It’s Not Just Hercules; The Procurement Problem Is Systemic | Will Cooney
The 2021 Defence Command Paper, despite being published just a year ago, now feels anachronous when viewed through the current geopolitical lens. Since its publication we have seen the illegal invasion of Ukraine, US Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, spurring tensions across the Taiwan strait, and the most credible threat of a nuclear exchange in decades. Something the war in Ukraine has made abundantly evident is the importance of logistics and a well-connected, integrated force.
The Command Paper was championed by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson: a comprehensive examination and modernisation of our Armed Forces, better suited to the modern age, but its relevance just one year and six months later has now been called into question. As General Sir Patrick Sanders eloquently concluded: “you can’t cyber your way across a river”. This isn’t just a flashy phrase: combat mass remains vital moving into the 21st century when near-peer conflict has become the major threat to British national security, moving away from the decentralised counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations which dominated the dawn of the century.
The fourteen C-130 Hercules aircraft in the Royal Air Force fleet make up the “primary tactical transport aircraft, capable of airdropping a variety of stores and paratroopers into areas that would otherwise be unsafe for all on board” according to the Defence Equipment Sales Authority brochure outlining the RAF’s sale of the aircraft. It would therefore be unsurprising if you found yourself curious as to the reasoning behind selling them off. The promise made in the 2021 Command Paper was that their missions would instead be carried out by the larger ‘A400M Atlas’ aircraft but this places the position of elite special forces units such as the Special Air Service (SAS) at risk. It was only 2019 when the Ministry of Defence announced that the Hercules End-Of-Life date was to be pushed back to 2035, bringing hope that the Armed Forces would not be left with yet another capability gap, as they have been with the retirement of the E-3D Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft (AEW&C) platform in 2021, with its replacement: the E-7A Wedgetail’s initial operating capacity having slipped to 2024.
Last year, the Conservative MP and Chair of the Commons defence committee Tobias Ellwood sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace outlining his grave concerns about the Government’s decision. The Bournemouth MP said:
“Grounding the C-130J will endanger our troops and threaten the success of operations they are undertaking overseas. Scrapping this aircraft, 14 years ahead of its retirement date, would be a serious strategic error and will land poorly with NATO allies who look to Britain for leadership in the domain of elite operations. The C-130J offers significant operational advantages – it is lighter, more agile, better defended and can land and take off in hostile environments far more effectively than the A400M”.
Alas, the decision has now been finalised and the aircraft are to be sold despite wide-ranging protest. According to the Aviation Geek Club, an MoD spokesperson refuted claims of loss in capability by saying: “As threats change our Armed Forces must change and they are being redesigned to confront future threats, not re-fight old wars”. The interpretation of this vague statement is of course open however it doesn’t rule out abandoning essential Special Forces capability, providing disruption, deep behind-enemy-lines insertion, and force multiplication operations which would be critically necessary in a near peer regional or global conflict.
Thus, the systemic impediment in defence procurement appears terminal. Wallace has voiced concerns over such procurement patterns: abandoning capability now, with a mere promise of capability later in the decade, however, little appears to be happening to remedy this diagnosis. It is due to reach its worst in the middle of the decade, but with rapidly adjusting global threats, this is simply not acceptable. The cure to this problem is simple, while Rishi Sunak refuses to adhere to what he describes as “arbitrary targets” when it comes to Defence spending, the only way to fix the MoD’s problems is through providing more capital to the department.
However, in a national landscape where budgetary cuts across most departments to fund increased public spending are imminent, the prospect of this being resolved any time soon is, unfortunately, bleak.