The Prime Minister wants the Ministry of Defence to spend more on spy planes, drones and the Special Forces. David Cameron has told the chiefs of staff to look at how the capabilities could help Britain do more to counter the threat posed by Islamic State.
In the past decade huge resources have already gone into expanding the Special Forces, building all-new spy planes and buying drone systems.
One driver of the change was the very nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly there was a need to snoop not on an industrialised enemy, but on vast rural areas while soldiers prepared to act on the intelligence, going in to kill or capture high value targets.
At the same time, technology was transforming what was possible.
Ten years ago the UK had no large drones, but that’s all changed. The heavily armed Reaper is the Britain’s biggest Remotely Piloted Air System, as the RAF would insist it were called. The army’s Watchkeeper, meanwhile, unarmed and very much a drone, is also far bigger and better than the system it replaces.
The change isn’t just limited to unmanned aircraft though: the Rivet Joint is so new to service that so far only one of a planned three aircraft has been delivered. A second is being converted at the moment, while the third is being used for safety tests to prove that the other two are safe to fly. All are based on converted 1960s airframes.
The fleet of Sentinel spy planes, recently reprieved from early retirement, can track moving targets on the ground from high above. Stable mate the R1 Shadow is a Special Forces only capability, replacing the R1 Nimrod of old.
All of these systems work hand in Kevlar glove with the brave souls of the Special Forces far below. They’ve grown massively in the last decade, with the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment and Special Forces Support Group freeing up more of the SAS and SBS to concentrate on carrying out operations, rather than just supporting them. Expanding much further would be hard, we understand, with the cuts to the regular army already reducing the pool of talent they can recruit from.
More drones, then, seem likely from the prime minister’s comments today. Although he may struggle to find a long range unmanned aircraft that can hover to land on the HMS Queen Elizabeth.
There’s also the tantalising prospect that, just maybe, money might be found for a plane to plug Britain’s biggest capability chasm. A Maritime Patrol Aircraft to protect the Royal Navy, and to finally replace the Nimrod MR2 and its doomed successor the MRA4.