Saturday, December 18, 2004

Threat scenarios

It was always inevitable, I suppose, that we would have to buy more of the great white elephant of the skies, the Eurofighter – which the RAF now insists on calling the Typhoon but forever should be known as Heseltine's folly.

Having bound up the Germans so tightly in cancellation penalties, to stop them pulling out of the project, Hoon has been hoist with his own petard and has been forced to buy another 89 of the beasts (see link). The costs of cancellation were so great that the alternative would have been have no new toys for the RAF and stumping up mega-zillions of dosh to keep our European partners happy – and HMG out of the law courts.

The day after savaging the Army, therefore, Hoon travelled up to RAF Coningsby in Lincs, to surround himself with "steely-eyed killers" (as we used to call ourselves) exuding confidence in the new toy. Of course, after driving around in clapped-out old Tornado F3s, even flying a Tiger Moth might seem exhilarating, so it is hardly surprising to see the lads trilling over their new piece of kit.

By all accounts the Eurofighter is now a superb aeroplane, from a boy-racer point of view, but that does not make it any more or less of a white elephant. It was originally designed as an air superiority fighter in the days of the Cold War and its original function is largely redundant.

On the other hand, the latest tranche is the ground attack version, which is more suited to current tasks except that, at £60 million a piece, the aircraft are far too expensive to risk in a high-threat environment, against low-value targets. And that is precisely what they will be used for, as we pointed out in a previous posting.

It is the economic equivalent of doing the shopping in a Formula 1 racing car, with the added hazard of the local hoodlums taking potshots at you as you drive to the supermarket.

The whole debaƧle, however, raises the broader question of what we want our armed forces to do. As with the Army, we should be asking ourselves what we need the RAF to do, and whether we can afford it.

Here, the United States has been doing some heart-searching in a way that does not seem evident over here. The Pentagon has been building a catalogue of "threat scenarios" which is guiding the thinking on what kind of weapons and technology will be needed to meet future demands.

Trimmed down to its essentials, they have come up with four separate scenarios: the "irregular", comprising the threat of terrorism, insurgency and civil war in areas of strategic interest to the US; the "catastophic", such as a repeat of 9/11, terrorist use of WMD or a rogue nation missile attack; the "traditional", amounting to a conventional air, sea and land war; and "disruptive", which include such elements of "cyber-operations", attempts to disrupt major computer systems of economic or operational importance.

Taking the four categories, each is assessed in terms of probability and vulnerability. Only one, the "catastrophic" threat scores highly in both realms, while conventional war scores low on both.

If we apply this sort of threat assessment to a UK context, the precise mix may differ slightly but the probability of a conventional war, for which the Eurofighter was designed, is equally unlikely. Thus, whichever way you cut it, the primary threats are unlikely to be those for which the Eurofighter is best equipped to deal.

It seems, therefore, that the larger proportion of our defence budget is being spent on the least important threats – all in the interests of European co-operation which long since ceased to have any meaning.

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