Photo by Artur Widak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The case for a British military-industrial complex

Deindustrialisation will cost the UK dearly in 21st century warfare

Artillery Row

Eleven months before Russian paratroopers appeared outside Kiev, the people of Texas found themselves at the mercy of a mysterious foreign invader. To their relief, the plucky men of the British Army’s 3rd Division were soon on-scene to help repel the unidentified intruders. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their besieged allies, the British troops put up ferocious resistance but, after eight days, were forced to call it quits — having used-up the entire ammunition stockpile of the United Kingdom. 

Mercifully, the Battle for Texas was a training simulation. The shortcomings it illuminated, however, were very real. At the height of the recent fighting in Donbas, Russia was expending more artillery shells every two days than Britain has in storage, whilst Ukraine was firing-off the equivalent every week. In the first month of the war, Russia fired eleven to twenty-two times Britain’s ballistic missile stockpile.

The US cannot sustain the current rate of attrition

A clear lesson from the 21st century’s first major European conflict is that quantity is king. In future state-on-state wars, we should expect high-tech equipment to be used up within the first couple of weeks, with success thereafter determined by each side’s ability to churn out “dumb” ammunition at pace. 

This moral has been somewhat lost on many observers. That fact that Ukraine went in the opposite direction — first exhausting its national (and then the Europe-wide) reserve of low-tech Soviet-style ammunition before being forced to absorb high-tech US equipment stockpiles — has given us the impression that sophisticated weapons can be used a lot more sustainably than they can. As Russia has been forced down the opposite (normal) path — moving to progressively lower-tech options — the visible juxtaposition of technology has left many believing that expensive offensive kit is the key to victory.

In reality, the US cannot sustain the current rate of attrition and will be forced to curb support through next year. Russia uses the equivalent of the US’s annual production of shells every week (and sixteen times the equivalent production of high-tech Excalibur rounds a day). The Ukrainian Army uses the equivalent of the US annual production of Javelin missiles every four days, and doubling output is anticipated to take years. 

This summer, we were given a glimpse of the horrific reality of an ammunition shortage, when dwindling European shell stockpiles saw Ukraine lose the equivalent of a British Army regiment every day to unanswered Russian firepower.

All this is bad news for the Ministry of Defence, whose current procurement strategy entails blowing budgets on shiny toys without batteries. Recent MoD ventures include spending £9bn on 48 cutting-edge fighter-jets without air-to-air missiles, £8bn on aircraft carriers without modern air defence and a surface fleet without ship-to-ship or ship-to-land missiles. 

To re-learn the art of war, Britain must look to its past

A key problem for Britain’s spooked military planners is that the complexity of modern ammunition means production cannot simply be ramped-up on demand. This is partly due to international supply chains. Attempts by BAE to boost ammunition production, for example, have been undermined by Chinese lockdowns disrupting the supply of computer chips. Just as critical is the inability of the private sector to provide spare capacity in a market of one-off contracts. For-profit companies cannot afford to keep large numbers of idle workers on the payroll, nor can they maintain large unused factories. Instead, highly specialised workers and machinery must be purpose trained and built for each additional order — increasing production times.

In the age when munitions were relatively simple to make and Britain had a large industrial base, this was not such a problem — workers and production lines were quickly repurposed to churn out munitions during WWII. Complexity and deindustrialisation change the picture, draining Britain’s well of convertible talent and machinery. Even the United States would take years to set its civilian industrial base on war footing. 

To re-learn the art of war, Britain must look to its past. State-owned Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) used to provide the spare capacity the military required, but these were sold off in the 1980s. Britain should work to rebuild a significant strategic reserve of ROFs. After the initial production runs needed to boost stockpiles, such factories could be kept running at a tiny fraction of capacity, with each full-time employee rotated to work only a few shifts a fortnight. This would be attacked as expensive, but so is maintaining full-time military which almost never goes to war — the point is that national defence requires both. A full-time army is an unjustifiable expense if it is unable to fight for more than a few days. 

If Britain’s strategic objective is to maintain a fancy-looking military, then we might as well dust-off HMS Victory to patrol the North Sea. If we want the ability to fight wars, it’s time to invest in sustainable lethality. Only then can the people of Britain (and perhaps Texas) sleep soundly.

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