Past decisions by the British government to delay maintenance of its Trident nuclear submarines have rendered the program "not fit for purpose," according to a new report by the Public Accounts Committee.
The report's authors also make the argument that Trident could be negatively impacted upon by Brexit, due to the system's reliance on imported materials from other EU countries, as well as possible difficulties in bringing in much-needed skilled engineers from the continent to work across the 13 sites that house the nuclear submarines.
In order to maintain the UK's current deterrence capacity, the MOD must reportedly come up with funding of at least £2.5 billion to spend on improving the system.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee who penned the report is quoted as saying that, "the MOD must now bridge an affordability gap running nearly £3 billion, fill critical skills gaps and ensure its supply chain is maintained effectively — all at a time of significant uncertainty in international politics and trade," in a nod to the difficulties compounded by Brexit.
"I am particularly concerned that the infrastructure available to support the nuclear enterprise is not fit for purpose," she added.
Yet, Trident-related concerns make up only one group of many issues that plague the UK's withering defence industry. Here are some of the top challenges facing Britain's armed forces today.
Over the past few years, there has been a steady stream of reports detailing the UK's struggling fleet of so-called 'warships,' with some breaking down halfway through missions and others never actually taking to the high seas.
One of London's most sophisticated warships, the £1 billion HMS Diamond, has been forced to abandon mission at least twice after breaking down at sea. In one rather humiliating incident reported on at the end of 2017, the crew was on a mission with allies in the Persian Gulf allegedly to protect shipping lanes when one of the ship's propellers broke. The issue had been made worse by the presence of a television crew onboard, who reportedly documented the whole debacle. The Diamond then broke down again in July 2018 while sailing off the coast of southwest England.
On top of that, Britain's entire fleet of six Type-45 destroyers, often described as "the backbone" of the Royal Navy, reportedly spent 80 percent of 2017 in dock, rather than ruling the waves. Worse still, reports say that the fleet's engine systems tend to malfunction and conk out in warm waters, leaving sailors standard out at sea. Allegedly, the engine-makers, Rolls-Royce, claimed that the MOD never told them that the vessels would be spending prolonged periods of time in warm waters, so they were never designed to function efficiently in the heat.
Crisis of Morale
According to the UK's Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS), there has been a precipitous decline in morale across the entire spectrum of Britain's armed forces, with more than half of servicemen and woman reporting low levels.
The trend has been particularly prevalent in the 'Royal Marines' — the main amphibious fighting arm of the Royal Navy. Reportedly, frustration is rife over low wages in particular — the consequence of funding cuts by the ruling Conservative government — often causing soldiers to leave the forces as soon as their obligatory three-year terms are over in search of higher paying work. This in turn means that the MOD is struggling to retain fighters. According to the AFCAS research published in May 2018, the number of Royal Marines reporting high morale had declined from 62% in 2016 to just 23% in 2018.
Throughout 2018, it has been reported that the Britain's forces are experiencing one of the biggest staff shortages in decades. A report by the National Audit Office concluded that the number of full-time military personnel was 8,200 people short of the required national level. This is said to include a shortage of about 2,400 engineers, 700 intelligence analysts and 800 Royal Air Force pilots.
Officially, the conventional ground-based British Army should have 82,500 soldiers trained and ready for combat. However reports say that it currently maintains just over 60,000. Yet, despite these chronic shortages, Britain's Daily Telegraph found in an investigation that applicants to the forces, and the Army in particular, were bizarrely being rejected for having minor physical ailments, such as back pain and eczema.
A Threat to Trans-Atlantic Ties
Finally, and perhaps most concerningly for the MOD, US Defence Secretary James Mattis authored a letter in July 2018 to his UK counterpart, Gavin Williamson, in which he expressed concerns that London's military power was being severely undermined by cuts to defence spending. To add insult to injury, Mattis cautioned that France could replace Britain as Washington's closest military ally in Europe as a result. "As global actors, France and the US have concluded that now is the time to significantly increase our investment in defence," Mattis highlighted. "It is in the best interest of both our nations for the UK to remain the US partner of choice," he added.