Monday, 27 February 2012

To house, or not to House, that is the question.

The media are today reporting that thousands of forces personnel will be kicked out of their homes, doubtless by evil bailiffs who will cackle manically whilst they throw poor Tom Atkins onto the street, where he and his family will slowly starve to death in a quasi-Victorian manner,  while the MOD gets rid of military housing. As always, reality is far more complex, and seemingly far less worthy of being reported on in any depth.

 The situation at present appears to be as follows. The MOD is conducting a root and branch review of the whole of the employment model for the armed forces, which includes how people are managed, the support provided and the way that careers develop. This is designed to inform a lot of the groundwork going into the Force 2020 construct, which is the SDSR aspiration –namely that if the changes laid down in SDSR are seen through, then in 2020 the UK will have a globally deployable armed forces, which are based overwhelmingly in the UK, which offer stability on postings plots and where personnel have very different social expectations of the sort of career that the military will provide.

 The driver for this work is the reality that the current employment model and structure is over 40 years old. Since the withdrawal from East of Suez, the armed forces have run what some may see as an almost socialist state, slowly eroded over the years, whereby a new joiner is quickly brought into an all-encompassing society which provides for all their needs, from clothing, to housing, to medical and dental facilities. The model provided for cheap subsidised housing, which acknowledged that in the 1970s people would often move locations regularly, often globally, and that it was impractical to offer wives a career in the same way, reducing earning power for the family. Similarly, the model was built on the social values of the time, where people married far younger than they do today, and often had children in their early twenties and not thirties. This resulted in the provision of housing for soldiers with young families, the growth of the so-called ‘married patch’ and the emergence of a generation of forces personnel who grew up within this world.

 Today, the provision of cheap housing to enable a secure family life is still a key part of the forces compensation package. It is possible, as a married member of HM Forces to enjoy a very heavily subsidised package which provides access to accommodation, often of highly varying quality, despite the best efforts to upgrade it over the years. However, what is now occurring is that the MOD is trying to review this, and identify whether this model continues to make sense in the likely future demographic makeup of the forces.

 Humphrey has never worked in housing policy, and has seen no statistics, so these comments reflect his personal opinions on the matter, rather than informed observation. That said, several facts appear to be coming clear.

 Firstly – the demographics of society are changing. People are marrying later, and having families later on in their careers. Generationally it feels (although he could be completely wrong), that the age for marriage and families for many people appears to have shifted 7-10 years to the right, as people now seek to leave university and spend time in  relationships or being single prior to making a more substantial commitment.

 Secondly, people are joining HM Forces at a later age, and are joining with different expectations. The days of going into a careers office at 18, completing 22 years and leaving at 40 as a lifetime soldier continue to have a place, but for many people, service in the military is seen as a short – medium career. People join for some reasons, but either stay on, or leave, for very different reasons. It would seem fair to argue that the Military is no longer seen by many in it as a job for life anymore. People will often leave at different stages – for instance, some claim that many people leave at the 9 year marker, which means that the manning profile requiring accommodation is also different.

 Thirdly, there is significantly increased social mobility, both practically and personally. This means that unlike in the 1970s, where car ownership was lower, people were less able to fly, and people stayed in a more local area, today, it is far easier to live in one location and easily commute across the country on a weekly basis. The means exist to do this, and it is not (despite petrol prices) prohibitively expensive to do so. The rationale for providing cheap accommodation because people need to move where a unit is based seems to be less of a driver now.

 There is also the factor that pay has increased dramatically as well – in the 1970s; the military were considerably lower paid in real terms than they are now. As such, provision of cheap social housing was a key driver to ensure people could afford to stay in – even a low salary still provided a house and accommodation. Today people in the forces are relatively well speaking far better paid. The average salary in the UK seems to fluctuate between £21-£24K per year depending on the various statistics out there. It’s really important to notice that for all ranks of the forces, apart from Private (OR1), the initial salary package exceeds this average. Therefore people in the forces have far more spending power than before, and arguably more spending power than much of society. While home ownership is not guaranteed, it is still a goal which many in HM Forces can realistically aspire to.

 Finally people’s wider expectations have changed. Partners of Forces personnel can now aspire to have a career in a way which was not possible before – moving through lots of married quarters may not necessarily be what every partner wants.

 This situation then presents a quandary. Should the Forces continue to provide social housing in the same way as before? Humphrey would suggest that the time is right to consider this – after all, people’s social mobility, income and career posting has changed considerably and will continue to change. In 2020 it’s highly likely that all three services will be based around a small number of super garrison or base sites, and that the regular churn of movements between locations every two – three years may well cease. Instead, while there will be exercises and deployments, it’s unlikely that there will be regular moves between fixed locations in the same way as there is at present – particularly not for more junior personnel.

 So, relatively static Forces, in which people are not serving full careers, would imply that people could consider alternate living patterns if possible. One point to consider is that someone joining at 18-21 and serving 9-10 years is arguably far less likely to marry or require a service quarter now than in previous years. This means then that the quarter provision needs to be considered for people in their late twenties and early thirties onwards, e.g. most likely to be the SNCO and SO3s and above, rather than junior personnel. There is an argument which would suggest that in your twenties, it would not be unreasonable for the MOD to provide high quality single rooms in the Mess, and that it is up to you as an individual to own / rent a home location as you deem appropriate.

 Many people would then leave prior to the point in their lives where marriage occurs, or if they do marry later on, they may marry people with fixed careers and lives which they are reluctant to uproot. Therefore, single accommodation in messes can continue to be provided for people throughout their career, with allowances paid to enable weekly commuting between a fixed home location, and a duty location.

 A much smaller number of married quarters could be retained as a housing option for the smaller number of people settling down with children at various points, and this could then be provided for a fixed period of time – e.g. 8-10 years is reportedly being considered, which provides some stability for early family life if required, but equally gives plenty of advance notice that a house needs to be sorted at some stage. Arguably, someone in their late 20s moving into a quarter for 10 years will be practically at the stage of leaving the Forces, or at least considering a second career by the time they’ve been in quarters for 10 years, so it doesn’t seem an unreasonable proposition to make – namely, the MOD will support you for the period when your family is at its youngest, and needs people the most, but that you have to be expected to take a responsibility for sorting housing at some stage.

 This is a hugely emotional issue, and will highlight the stark divide between the different generations of service personnel and their attitudes to support. Someone coming up to the conclusion of their 22yr engagement today would have joined in 1990, just as the end of the cold war approached, and the UK began to move from a static, to a far more mobile military posture. It’s only right that these people are looked after as their lives have been built around flexible moves, and access to housing was part of the deal. Someone joining in 2020 though will have come from a totally different generation, one which job changes are a way of life, where marriage is far less likely in their 20s, and in which the armed forces will be static, but in a very different manner, and where weekly commuting to an ideal family location is a real possibility.

 Humphreys view is that these changes will take many years to come into force, and it’s unlikely that many of the people serving today will still be in the military to see them come into effect. The New Employment Model changes though represent some extremely exciting thinking – a chance to try to rejig the Armed Forces away from the 1970s model, and towards implementing a model in the 2020 timeframe which reflects the society, values and apparatus that the Forces are intended to defend.

 Humphrey has yet to form a personal view on this situation – his own view to a point is that there is a requirement for some form of housing, both to cover those personnel in posts which do require post moves, and also to cover those sent to overseas posts. However, there is equally an opportunity to rejig the forces away from vast isolated council type estates, to putting forces families back among the UK community as a whole. Arguably moving forces families into these estates caused much of the isolation and estrangement from UK society as a whole that occurred in the 1970s onwards. Instead, there could be a chance to invest in good quality barracks accommodation, ensuring that people have a chance to live and work during the working week in a place where mess life is reinvigorated, and where people become part of a team again. At the same time, the MOD seems to be considering taking the view that for many personnel, the location of their private permanent residence is an entirely personal matter.

Doubtless there is much more to be said on this issue.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What have the 2*s ever done for us? (apart from lead, manage and command the military?)

As a continuation from the earlier piece regarding the DT's article on the reduction in 2* plus officers from only 137 - 130, the next piece of analysis tries to examine what it is that senior officers are meant to do (in theory) and why, despite much complaining to the contrary, there is certainly not a glut of them.

The initial complaint of the Telegraph appears to be that it is unacceptable that there are still 130 2* officers in service, despite the downsizing that is occurring to the rest of HM Forces. A search back of the excellent DASA website (www.dasa.mod.uk) helps review the broad strength of senior officer’s numbers since 1996. A quick search shows two things - firstly, it is hard to get an accurate figure as the statistics round to the nearest 10 - not handy when you realise you are talking about a tiny number of people, and almost certainly misleading. Secondly, the figures show that there has been a general fluctuation between around 110-150 senior officers over this time period.

What then do these officers do all day, and why are there (in the mind of some) so many of them? At its simplest, the tasks of senior military officers could be broken into three distinct areas.

                Single Service Duties

                Joint Appointments

                Representational duties / NATO Posts.



Single Service Duties

The single service role represents the pinnacle of those individuals charged to manage the service. It is a role though that has got smaller in number over the years. Taking the example of the RN, as recently as 1991, there were four permanent 4* positions assigned to the command of the RN - 1SL, CINCFLEET, 2SL, CINCNAVHOME. There were a further series of 4* roles in NATO, and also on the service chiefs committee - theoretically, it could have been possible for there to have been at least  six 4* officers in service at any one time. Today though, in the post SDSR environment, the RN is reduced to just one 4* officer - the 1SL post. CINCFLEET is soon to be renamed FLEET COMMANDER, and drop to 3*, while the 2SL/CINCNAVHOME posts have long merged into one 3* post.  This is a pattern seen across the board - while numbers may remain similar, the level of representation has dropped substantially, with many posts merged or combined into one job.

In general terms, the role of service posts at 2* is to act as either the professional heads of the various fighting arms (in the RN), or alternatively to head up the various training or personnel areas. It is common for most of these posts to have more than one role, and also for them to merge over time. 20 years ago the RN had a series of three sea going 2* officers heading up each of the surface flotillas, complete with staff support, which was echoed through the existence of squadrons to administer ship types. Today the flotilla commanders have been replaced by a single 2* officer who in addition to other jobs handles the lead for the surface fleet. Similarly, the squadrons roles and associated lower levels of command have all been abolished – despite perceptions to the contrary, a lot of the command has been stripped away.

There are a small number of staff jobs - essentially acting as deputies, or assistants - this isn't to make out that these individuals are in any way second rate individuals. In fact, some of the busiest and most pressured posts out there are the Asssistant Chief of the (Naval) Staff posts, in which high flying 2* officers are required to oversee the strategy of their service, deputising for the 4* service chiefs, who are all too often focused on other matters.

Other posts which exist oversee the RN's capability development - a terribly business sounding process which can be summed up as the means by which the Service identifies what equipment, vessels and capabilities it needs in the future, and works out how to deliver them. There are also posts looking after our regional naval footprint, and broader development.

There is a range of war fighting posts too, although the increasing complexity of operations, and the requirement to work in information dominated environment means it is unlikely that you will see many Admirals choosing to fly their flag from the sea in future. Instead, it is likely that command at sea will be delegated out to 1* level at best, with the Admiral remaining ashore at a maritime headquarters where they can oversee the hugely complex maritime campaign as a whole.

In total, there are, including the 1SL, 2SL and CINCFLEET posts, a grand total of 16 Admirals or Major Generals (RM) overseeing the modern Naval Service - Two (soon to be one) 4*s, three 3*s and 10 2*s (including a very senior vicar...). This represents well under 0.01% of the entire Naval Service, and gives a lie to the tired old cliché that the RN has more Admirals than ships.

Joint Posts

The role of Joint Posts is where the services seek to put senior officers into posts to work in either joint positions alongside the other services, or to head up areas which sit outside their traditional service. Some posts are known as 'tied posts' which means that they are filled on a rotational basis by each service, in order to ensure no one service achieves dominance, and some would suggest more cynically to ensure that all three services wish to keep funding intact to an organisation in order to justify their senior position.

Joint posts emerge as, and when the need is there. This will often be a range of different roles which rotate between the three services, and for which there is a need for a senior officer to command. There are some posts headed up at senior levels where military officers could, theoretically, be replaced by civil servants – the head of Defence Estates (currently a 3* role) seems a good example.

These posts sit in a range of areas, mainly in what is known as 'The Centre' or MOD London, and also in PJHQ in Northwood. At present the RN occupies 11 'joint positions' which range from running the directing staff at the Royal college of Defence studies (a position which despite its seemingly anachronistic title, is an incredible influence generator for the UK and an unsung jewel in the crown of UK policy), through to the Chief of Defence intelligence.

It is likely that as further joint organisations emerge, and structures change, we will see more joint posts established. For instance, it may see merging of two or three different single service structures, and instead creating one structure of increased size and importance – on paper a net gain of a single 2*, but in reality offset by a loss of several command appointments and staffs at lower levels. This pattern is likely to continue for some time to come.



Representational Posts

A key complaint is that many of the senior posts are reportedly Defence Attaché roles, or NATO posts. In reality, this is a complete exaggeration. Humphrey is aware of one (1) post at 2* level which is a Defence Attaches role, and that is the military head of BDS Washington. Given the importance attached to the UK/US relationship, and the very complex nature of the UK presence in the US, which encompasses representational work, liaison jobs, exchange positions and operational roles totalling well over 600 personnel at all ranks / rates, it is not unreasonable to have a sole UK 2* as representation over there. Beyond this post, the remainder of the senior posts overseas in DA roles are all 1*s.

The reason why 1*s are often needed in DA roles, and senior officers in NATO roles, is often down to the host nations value and perceptions of rank. While in the UK it may be fine to say ‘speak to the subject expert, who may be an SO1’, in many countries, rank is seen as directly equivalent to experience and importance – regardless of what the individual actually knows. Junior officers will often not get access or the ability to meet more senior host nation officials if the host nation doesn’t perceive them to be of a certain standing.

While the natural response in the UK may be to say ‘so what, it doesn’t matter if they don’t want to talk to our SO1, we’ll wait for them to come to us’, the reality is more complex. The UK has influence to a point, and has influence in more countries than some might expect. But this influence only extends so far, and is often reliant on dealing with people who respect rank and hierarchy as part of their culture – a junior officer delivering a message from London is not going to be accorded the same respect and more importantly, discrete face time as an equal, with senior figures in a foreign nation. In some cultures, if you are not perceived as an equal, you will not get any real time with the decision makers. This means that when the UK needs a favour, or over flight rights, or basing, or wishes to put a sales pitch forward, it may have to do so from an inbuilt disadvantage.

If nations think that a downgraded representational post reflects the UKs attitude towards them, and then contrast that to other nations which either upgrade, or maintain their representation at a certain level, then the UK is going to struggle to keep up. This can have a real impact on the UKs power, influence, economy and prestige. Bluntly, we may not be concerned about whether it’s a 1* or a SO1 as our DA, but other countries are. This author knows personally of one case where during a recent war, an NCO in theatre had to be temporarily local acting SO1 in order to get to talk to the host nation. Ignore the fact that he was the subject matter expert, ignore the fact that he knew exactly what he was talking about – until he was seen to be a fairly senior officer, he was of no interest to the host country. Had this not been done, then there would have been significant strategic consequences to the UK in that particular area (and the author does not use that phrase lightly). Whether we like it or not, to others, rank matters.

The other reason why we need senior military officers in posts such as NATO is to ensure that the UK retains influence, and can direct, rather than be directed on certain matters. It is fair to make the argument that much of the UKs NATO strategy could be seen as being built around retaining sufficient representation at the senior posts, where real decision making is made in the alliance.

The UK naturally wants to see its officers exercise command over certain missions, and also command certain HQs. These posts are not given out naturally, and there is fierce competition between all NATO countries who all want to get the same posts. If the UK does not manage to portray itself as a wider NATO contributor, providing personnel to HQs at all levels, and funding to match, then it is much harder to make a strong case to retain the permanent holding of certain plum NATO jobs. If the UK loses these jobs, then they are assigned to other nations, who may then use those posts to push through policy or operational changes, which the UK may fundamentally disagree with.

To that end, it is perhaps better to see the use of 2*s and above in NATO/EU posts as more of a political or foreign policy role, albeit conducted by a uniformed person. While the end result may be the delivery of military capability or commitments, the reality is that the level of horse-trading, deal making and political machinations attached to senior posts makes this a key reason to keep senior officers in these posts – a need to look after the UKs national interest.  

The Myth of the Retinue

One of the key public images that opponents of senior officers try to create is that of an isolated individual, living in a luxury house and surrounded by servants, assistants and sycophants, all of whom exist to make the incumbents life as easy as possible – in other words, the 2* officer is no longer seen as a military officer, but instead becomes part of the establishment.

This image is drawn on many outdated views from years, if not decades ago. It is hard to find any senior officers now with an extensive support team. At best they may have a Flag Lieutenant (essentially bag carrier, timekeeper, note keeper, and indispensable aide), a military assistant (senior officer lead, and true gatekeeper to the Officer in question), and in some very rare cases there may be a more senior figure (OF5 level) heading up the wider staff – but this is primarily for service chiefs. On a good day, there may be a secretary too, although this is becoming an increasingly rare perk – indeed Humphrey has heard that in many areas now, even 1* officers no longer have a PA, and are responsible for managing their own diaries. So, most senior officers are expected to have a direct office staff of two, perhaps three people to handle all their business from travel to decision making, which can encompass a vast range of issues from strategic military affairs, to scrutinising billions of pounds worth of public expenditure.

A very small number of officers have access to what is called a ‘retinue’. This is a group of staff designed to support senior officer’s household and wider domestic issues. This is not intended as a perk, it is designed to provide them with the ability to handle a very busy diary, which may necessitate multiple uniform changes per day. It also enables them to host a range of lunches and dinners, which are also held for visiting dignitaries and VIPS. While some may sneer at the idea that senior officers are being cosseted in this way, to the authors mind, it makes a lot of sense. Having seen how busy very senior officers are – a typical day often begins before 7am, and will often not finish till north of 9pm, there are very few points in there for them to take charge of their personal affairs.  It is surely far better to provide a small support staff to ensure their domestic arrangements are sorted, rather than expect them to squeeze in time to sort their washing, shoe polishing and cooking out. Similarly, for formal suppers, it is unlikely that the senior officer has time to cook directly, meaning there is either an expectation that their wife does it – which seems stunningly patronising and naive to assume that their wives have nothing better to do than cook for a business supper, or alternatively get in private contractors, which would cost a lot and also raises security concerns.

The days of drivers are well and truly over for most seniors. A small pool exists through which the majority of them can call for support, but this is essentially a taxi service that cannot be guaranteed. Only the most senior officers still have dedicated drivers now. Bizarrely, this author has heard of personal friends in the army at SO2 level command appointments still having dedicated drivers – the chances are that this is still the case, and that they have more perks than some 3*s!

Culling the herd?

One suggestion often made is that senior officer numbers should be reduced, and that only a tiny number of officers should occupy these slots, with the majority instead working at lower levels. In theory this sounds like a good idea – minimal senior officers, and plenty of hard working mid-level ranking officers. There are several challenges to this, which will be tackled in order.

Firstly, if it were announced that senior officers were to be culled, and that in future work was done at one rank level lower– say 1* as the replacement for most 2*s, and OF5 as the new 1*, this in theory would reduce the number of Admirals considerably.

However, the challenge is how do the Forces continue to offer a credible career structure which matches this aspiration? There are two glaring problems that need to be considered – pay and seniority.

Jobs in the Forces are designed to provide experience at each level, to build the overall experience of the individual and ensure that by the time they reach senior levels, they have sufficient exposure to do well and take on a broader strategic leadership role. This takes time – 25-30 years is not an uncommon time from entry to gaining 2*, and requires a great deal of work along the way.

If you downgrade posts, then you have to either lengthen the promotion times in each rank band, which means lengthening pay scales (wiping out most of the financial savings accrued from reducing senior numbers), or alternatively promoting people at the same career points, but having to post them into these jobs at an earlier point than expected. The author expects that what would happen is that the ex 2* and 1* jobs would actually become subtly delineated in the appointments plot, and reserved only for senior officers in rank – essentially maintaining the rank hierarchy, even if the ranks are lower.

It also raises the issue of where to stop downgrading jobs – there are essentially three main ‘working’ officer grades (SO3-SO1), which the vast bulk of Officers exist in. These are staff appointments or military appointments which occupy increasing responsibility as careers develop. While it may seem a good idea to drop ranks across the piece, this may lead to things like Majors commanding Regiments, and Captains commanding Companies. This wouldn’t work if you appointed and promoted people on the same timelines as at present, as people would be too inexperienced to do the jobs. To downgrade jobs at 2* level would actually knock the wider structure out of kilter too, and cause major problems to the manning plot.

So, if there is little money to be saved from doing this, the next problem is that of how one exercises leadership over peers in the same rank. If it was decided to appoint people to fill jobs normally done at the next higher level, then the challenge is to ensure that the incumbents are able to exercise authority. The key strength of the forces is the inherent discipline brought about by a rank based structure – people will defer to more senior officers as a matter of course. People are less likely to defer to people of the same rank at any level regardless of title, and that is something that has occurred at lower levels and higher levels (look at the issues involving UK generals such as Monty in WW2). Of course one would hope that people would be professional about this, but that cannot be taken as an assumption.

Therefore, at senior levels, relying on a gaggle of Captains or Commodores to accept the principle of ‘primus inter pare’ is probably unlikely – it’s much easier to rely on the concept of having one person on the site holding the highest rank in order to exercise the leadership that is actually required.

Summary

What this article has attempted to consider is the fact that of the 130 odd 2* officers in HM Forces, despite popular tabloid opinion, many of them occupy hugely important roles or carry out work of critical national importance. Downsizing is an inevitability, but it is not the case that there are more Admirals than ships, and hopefully readers now understand that commanding Divisions is important, but so is delivering leadership to the many complex parts of defence.

2* Officers do not have a particularly cushy lifestyle, despite what some think, and the so called perks they receive are in keeping with those of their peers in industry, and in reality are probably much worse, and certainly the salary level is far, far lower than industry peers.

Restructuring by shifting responsibility downwards would only work if there was a wholesale change in the manning policy and structure of HM forces, and also would not save money by the time that the extended pay spines to cover increased seniority in each rank was introduced. If anything it may damage retention if promotion hungry officers saw their chances of promotion disappearing, and instead took the option of the job in the city. Keeping the pool of talent in the game in the late 30s – early 40s age bracket is crucial – you need to offer a career and remuneration package sufficient to make the right number of officers of the right quality want to stay on. By late 30s – early 40s, most officers know roughly where their career trajectory is likely to take them – people are naturally rank hungry and career keen, and reducing jobs in rank bands will make it harder to convince the good ones to stay on.

The challenge is to generate a pool of officers with sufficient talent that they feel the wish to stay in HM Forces, and see their career through to the very pinnacle of command. Reducing the promotion prospects and career plot too far will only see the very best leave – and that in turn hurts HM Forces and the UK as a whole. It is essential to retain a clear career plot, lest your pool of promotable officers only comprise ones that at present would probably not reach the starry heights of greatness!

In summary, they are much maligned and misunderstood, but the senior leadership in the military play a critical part in looking after the MODs and wider UK interests. Giving into demands to reduce the rank structure would probably be a mistake that could have damaging consequences for the UK as a whole.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The chances of life on MARS were a million to one, yet somehow its come…



Humphrey was absolutely delighted today to read that the long awaited order for 4 new replenishment tankers has been given to Daewoo. This project has had a long gestation, and gone through multiple revisions, changes, reductions and even recently it was looking as though less than 4 vessels were to be ordered.

The MARS project has long confirmed to this author that to many, logistics are not sexy, cool, nor a useful source of allocating scarce planning round funding. The project has repeatedly been delayed, and has put the UKs maritime strategy at risk through the possibility of life expiry of existing tankers. The news that the four new tankers have been ordered is genuinely a very good news day for the RN.

 On initial examination, it appears that the RN has secured an absolute bargain – Four large (37,000 tonne) tankers for barely £400 million is a genuine result. These ships will be vastly more capable than their predecessors, and mark a shift away from the previous ‘three tier’ tanker strategy of fleet tankers, light fleets and support tankers, which in itself necessitated some complex programming and running of multiple supply chains to keep ships going. Instead the RN is essentially ending up with six large tankers, each of which will be able to do a range of roles, and by the looks of things provide wider military functionality as well. This is absolutely brilliant news for the RN, and this author is sure that there will be real delight in the RFA and RN at the news of fleet regeneration finally going ahead.

 The project also serves as a wider wakeup call to British industry – the days of the UK Government placing orders for warships with UK yards should no longer be taken as a given. That these ships have been ordered from Korea not only bolsters our relationship with the far east, but also sends a shot across the bows. In future, if the price is not right, then the contract will not go to the UK yards. Although BAE did not bid for the final project, this will definitely be of concern to them – why invest in shipyards when the UK government shows no inclination to order from these yards? This order appears to be the first visible manifestation of the new defence industrial strategy, in which orders will go to the best bidder, not the British bidder.

 Finally, the author must note with resigned frustration the utter hypocrisy of the Opposition attacking the award of this contract to a foreign shipyard. When the current Opposition were in power, they were responsible for launching the competition and going to external bids in the first place – to claim otherwise is just plain denial and politics at its most hypocritical.

 Let that not detract from a very good news day for the RN though – this coupled with the deployment of the T45s, and rumours of funding confirmation for T26 means that the RN regeneration programme continues, and that by investing in this capability, the RN is now moving forwards to a much brighter future.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys (or rockapes...)


The Telegraph is running a story claiming that a civil service member of the Defence board is currently receiving an annual bonus of £85,000. Apparently the default implication of this is that all civil servants are money grabbing bankers, and that we are all claiming every last penny owed to us (as noted by the way the article referenced claims in the Daily Mail that the Civil service can apparently claim for worn clothing).

To put this in context, let’s take a look at what may or may not be going on here. The Defence Board is the most senior organisational grouping in the MOD, comprising Ministers, CDS, VCDS, PUS, 2nd PUS, CDM and non-executive directors. This group is designed under the revised Levene Review to monitor the financial performance of Defence, and function as the Departments management board, structured in the same way as other government departments are being organised.

There are three possible Civil Servants who could have received this bonus. The PUS, Ursula Brennan, DG finance, Jon Thompson, or the Chief of Defence Material, Bernard Grey. Both Ms Brennan and Mr Thompson are career civil servants, and highly unlikely to have received bonuses of this size, which would be almost double their salary. While the senior civil service enjoy good bonus levels, (relative to wider civil service pay scales), their remuneration package is still extremely low compared to their peers in industry. This author suspects few leaders in industry, responsible for running a portfolio of operations in multiple continents, encompassing a procurement arm, financial arm, nuclear energy, hugely complex logistics roles and so on, would accept a salary of barely £100,000 per year. Looking at the remuneration package of some of the directors in companies who the author holds in his portfolio, in fact much smaller companies pay much larger sums of money for a far less complex job.

It is this author’s view that the bonus is likely to have been paid to the Chief of Defence Material, Mr Bernard Gray, who is not a career civil servant. As CDM he has been brought in as an outside appointment to try to resolve many of the woes in the procurement world, and shift the organisation to try to make it more adaptable to the challenges it faces. It is highly likely that when applying for the position, he would have held out for payment of a bonus, partly to make his salary more realistic commensurate to his experience in the private sector, but also to compensate for the lack of pension contributions that he would have received as a senior civil servant relying on 40 years of service to provide a reasonable pension in retirement. It is not unrealistic then to assume that CDM is on this package, which was designed to try and tempt a captain of industry into the organisation.

While some may be outraged at this, personally this author sees it as vindication of the argument that if you want to bring talent into reform defence, you have to be prepared to pay market rates. Let’s be really clear here –you can try to tempt captains of industry to join the department, but how many really successful captains of industry are going to leave well-paid jobs, which come with stock options, sane travel budgets permitting travel without seeking CDS approval or flying in the back of a sub Easy jet style flight, and which pay far more money than the MOD can provide? The answer is very few – particularly not for the likely £100K per year salary (EDIT - further research has shown he is on around £200K per year plus bonus reportedly) that would have been on offer. Humphrey has many friends in the private sector in a range of jobs, many of whom would love to come across to the public sector and help reform it, but who make clear that they cannot afford the permanent loss of income that such a move would have on their lifestyle.

Every time that people on internet forums start the ‘and I’d reform the MOD by doing X,Y,Z’ list, at some point someone usually pipes up with the comment, ‘bring in private sector leadership to sort it all out’. The problem is that the MOD has done just this – brought in an experienced private sector individual to do this, and it is finding that getting this expertise doesn’t come cheap. Naturally it is now being lambasted for doing just what self-proclaimed experts have demanded it do, because they can’t see that if you want good people from industry, then you have to pay the going rate for them.

A key thought worth noting here is that this appointment would almost certainly have required ministerial scrutiny to approve. It is inconceivable that a 4* post would have been appointed without having a Minister approve the appointment, and confirm their support for the salary package. It will be very interesting to see which Government minister approved the deal, and whether they willingly signed off on an £85K bonus at a time when a pay freeze was being imposed for all CS. Humphrey is picking up the minor whiff of a political scandal here, and will watch with great interest to see where this goes.

As for the other claims made this weekend, Humphrey is delighted to discover that he can apparently claim for wear and tear on his clothes. It is incredible though to see how every CS posting on the media websites covering this story is pointing out that it isn’t their department where this is allowed. Personally Humphrey would love to know which department allows him to claim for wear and tear – it would make a change from working for a department with a stupidly low accommodation ceiling cap, where 1* approval is needed to sign off for a road journey of 80 miles, where expenditure on tea and coffee is forbidden for all internal visitors, and where even providing a sandwich lunch requires ever more senior officers to approve the food. Every fiscal aspect of life is under immense scrutiny, and requiring ever higher levels of power to approve – the idea that civil servants are wandering around claiming for tights is pure fantasy. The problem is though, that even though it is, as ever, the lack of robust responses to shut down this silly season story means that once again, the CS are the target of public anger for a poorly written story bearing no resemblance to reality.

EDIT (20 Feb) - The MOD is now denying that the payoff went to a member of the defence board - the defence blog claims "The article also suggests that the individual who received the latter bonus may be a member of the Defence Board. There is no truth to this last suggestion."
This author is trying to work out which civil servant could qualify for an £85K bonus who wasn't on the Defence Board at the time.

What this author found more frustrating was the lack of clear support from senior military and political figures to stand up for the CS - he strongly suspects that had the Army been attacked for pay or allowances, then a strong and robust defence would have been mounted of their case. What is frustrating is that either no one came into bat for the CS, or that they were prepared to do so, but that no media organisation was interested in carrying it. Either way, it is little wonder that many CS appear to have such low morale at the moment when their own senior leadership seem to show no inclination to stand up for their workforce.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Calling time on Trident? The possible impact of US nuclear weapon reductions on the UK.

There has been a raft of coverage recently about the range of budget proposals to significantly reduce the United States nuclear weapon holdings, one option of which may see a reduction to around 400 warheads. This in itself is a newsworthy item, in that it demonstrates how significantly the nuclear stockpile has been drawn down since the 1990s, that a 400 warhead limit can now seriously be considered as a feasible target. Whilst this author strongly suspects that the actual intended target is more likely higher than this, and that the 400 figure has been drawn up in order to make the higher figure appear a compromise which actually delivers the preferred option, it is worth considering for a moment the implications for this.

The first point to note is that these figures demonstrate the sheer scale of cuts that the US is looking to impose on its armed forces in the post Iraq, last days of Afghanistan era. Humphrey strongly believes that many people have yet to grasp the sheer size and enormity of the cuts that the US military are facing. It would not be hyperbole to describe this decade as the United States ‘East of Suez moment’, the period at which all global empires are forced to no longer assume global presence as a default option, and instead start to recall the legions to focus on just one or two areas of the globe.

Already it is clear that the US is likely to massively reduce the footprint in Europe, and that instead future scarce resources will be focused elsewhere – most likely the Asia Pacific region. While some  may see this as an overdue move, akin to the UK withdrawing the Army from Germany, it is a watershed moment as it marks the end of US pretensions of global power and the ability to fight wars on multiple continents at a time and place of its choosing. The future US military is being restructured in a similar way to the UK military of the late 1960s was – a focus on one primary theatre of operations, with limited detachments beyond to other areas of interest.

Within this, the reduction in strategic nuclear forces is hugely significant. At present, the US nuclear ‘triad’ of land, air and sea based assets reportedly contains around 2200 warheads, of which 550 are land based, 500 air based, and the balance assigned to the Trident force at sea. A reduction of this size essentially removes the requirement for two thirds of the triad, which could generate enormous savings by decommissioning the missile fields in the mid-west, and decertifying the nuclear capable aircraft from nuclear operations. Maintaining aircraft in a nuclear role is an expensive and time consuming business, and it is likely that if a reduction to 400 warheads were considered, then chopping the air launched capability would be an easy way to remove aircraft fleets, support infrastructure and also missile fields with little impact on the wider defence budget. It is likely that any future nuclear force will be based heavily (and possibly exclusively) on a maritime strategy, which relies currently on 14 SSBNs, which collectively are assigned a total of up to 1152 warheads and 288 delivery vehicles (Trident missiles).

The current US deterrent fleet is built around the 14 Ohio class SSBNs, which have been in service since the early 1980s, carrying a maximum of 24 Trident missiles, and a theoretical maximum of 192 warheads per boat under current treaty limits. The boats operate on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In reality, it is likely that each boat will deploy with a different payload and warhead configuration to prevent a potential opponent being able to second guess US deterrence plans. The SSBN is widely seen as the most invulnerable of all deterrent functions, being almost impossible to detect (a classic example being the collision between a UK and French SSBN where the two vessels reportedly did not detect each other during the collision, each suspecting that they had collided with shipping containers). This means that any seagoing deterrent is likely to be able to ride out a first strike, and provide an assured 2nd strike capability against an adversary. Ultimately, the ability to destroy an opponent, even after they have conducted a surprise decapitation strike against you, is what makes sea based deterrents so effective – if you can’t track them, then you have no means of being able to stop them.

A future fleet in which the US is reduced to 400 warheads is likely to be vastly smaller in size than it is now. In future, two single Ohio’s could put to sea carrying the entire US deterrent force. While it is unlikely in the extreme that this would occur, in these cash strapped times, a reduced nuclear force would seem to make reductions in SSBN numbers a hugely tempting cost savings measure. While we are into guesswork territory here, Humphrey would make the following assumptions that a future US maritime based deterrent would need no more than 8-9 boats, allowing for 3 in refit, 3 working up and 3 at sea in a patrol. These boats would likely carry a reduced payload (potentially 100 warheads each), and allow some warheads for use as spares. This means the US deterrent requirement massively falls to just three on call vessels at best.

At present these vessels are split roughly evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but it is possible that in cost conscious times, the logic of running two separate SSBN operations will be questioned. A fleet of only 8-9 SSBNs does not really require two entirely separate shore base and support networks, and this is an area where major savings could be made – and this is where the UK problems start.

The UK’s main issue in all of this would appear to be the fact that as a co-operator of the Trident D5 missile, it is reliant on a large number of US facilities to maintain the missile pool, of which the UK currently has around 50 missiles. Despite many dire warnings, all of which seem to emanate from people who, by all accounts, have never actually been indoctrinated into the highly secretive world of SSBN operations, that the UK cannot fire missiles without US approval, and which remains utter rubbish, the fact remains that the UK is reliant on the US support for Trident. Under the current arrangements, the UK and US have a common pool of missiles, of which the UK has paid for ownership of 58 in total (making the total Trident fleet some 350 delivery vehicles strong), and these missiles are shared between the two nations.

If the USN were to reduce its Trident operations, and if it were to focus resources on the most likely nuclear threat, then it may well be the case that the Pacific is the future operating area for the SSBN fleet, at the cost of reducing the Atlantic. Despite the inevitable congressional battles that would be fought, Humphrey doubts that any real consideration will be given to UK concerns about Trident, as the ultimate decision rests with US lawmakers, who naturally put the interests of their own ahead of others. It is easy to imagine the shutting down of the Atlantic SSBN operations and loss of all the facilities to which the UK currently participates.

The implications of this are severe – the UK works closely with the USN on many aspects of nuclear issues. This is a relationship built during the cold war, and expanded on over the post cold war years of operations around the globe. One reason that it works so well is that both navies are able to work in a seamless manner, integrating effectively with each other when required. The reality is though that the wider political context of the UK/US relationship is changing – the cold war years of close co-operation against the USSR, particularly by people who had fought on the same team in WW2 are now gone. The UK has political cachet in Washington because of efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this will diminish over time, and become a fuzzy warm memory. In the post 2015 environment, the combination of a recuperating UK military, and a US military focused predominantly on the Far East means that the UK is likely to have ever less influence in Washington compared to before. While there may be close co-operation at the professional level, the political links will weaken, and it will be hard to persuade lawmakers to look after the UKs interests in this area.

The loss of the Atlantic facilities could have a major effect on the UK ability to support and service trident missiles, possibly to the point of making the deterrent uneconomical to run – particularly if it meant conducting routine cruises to the Asia Pacific region with SSBNs to load / offload missiles. Similarly, it would add a heavy burden to the SSN and escort forces which escort the SSBN, and provide maritime support to it – the UK would struggle to ensure that an SSBN transiting to the pacific would be adequately protected.

In the medium term, the reduction in SSBN numbers will increase the burden on the costs of replacing the USN SSBN force, both the new missile compartments, and also the new missiles. The unit costs will rise as a result, which may place higher than anticipated budget costs on the UK to continue to participate in the SSBN programme. There is no guarantee that the shared missile compartments which both SSBN classes currently use will continue to be affordable to the UK if the USN reduces its SSBN programme.

Paradoxically, a shift purely to the Atlantic, or a continued operation with reduced assets in the Atlantic would make the ASW risk increase proportionately. Any potential adversary would know that investment in first class SSN and ASW capability could, with a large outlay and a significant amount of luck, present the opportunity to track an SSBN and potentially take it out in wartime. The massively reduced SSBN fleet would mean the loss of a single hull would have far more of an impact now than before, potentially eliminating 30-50% of the US deterrent forces. Ironically such a move may make nuclear conflict more likely, as no US leader is likely to view the loss of half their nuclear deterrent as a good thing, and in the early stages of a conflict, this could lead to a reduced nuclear threshold, with leadership pushed into a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality.

The impact on the UK could be that increased investment in SSNs by other nations could put the UKs own deterrent and ASW forces under greater pressure, as they seek to protect SSBNs from increased interest from nations hostile to UK / US interests. The result could place real pressure on already overstretched hulls.

The logical follow through from this is that if the USN reduces its warhead force to the size suggested, then potentially it could jeopardise the short and long term sustainability and viability of the UK nuclear deterrent. Such a move will occur regardless of UK views and that in the medium term; the continued viability not only of the UK future SSBN programme, but more fundamentally the entire nuclear programme may be called into question. Unless the UK is willing to fund a greater share of the joint nuclear burden, it may well soon be approaching the point where time is called on Trident.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Whither Syria - a personal reflection on the likelihood of intervention.

The recent bloodshed in Syria, caused by a revolution against the long standing Assad regime have thrown into sharp contrast the willingness of the West to intervene in Libya, compared with a seemingly deep reluctance to consider the employment of military force as means of conflict resolution.

This has caused discomfort in the West, with many observers being deeply dismayed at the apparent reluctance of the West to consider intervening in support of what is commonly being seen as a massacre, of security forces willingly slaughtering thousands of civilians in direct contravention of international law, and the norms of civilised behaviour. This stands against the willingness of the West to participate in operations in Libya in an effort to overthrow the deeply unpopular Qhadaffi regime, despite wider opposition to such a move.

Today, the author wishes to provide his own strictly personal perspective, based on his own academic, and not professional background, as to why this reluctance is so visible, and to ask what could be done in this appalling situation. It is important to emphasise that this is purely a very personal view, based on reading of the worlds media, and websites.

The sharp reality is that Syria does not present a credible scenario for intervention by external forces. There is no meaningful opposition to the regime, which can present itself as a Government in waiting, and that some discretely applied missiles will enable it to occupy Damascus and become deliver a new era of benevolent leadership. In reality, the opposition appears to be comprised of small, near factionalised groups lacking a common leader or vision as to what they wish Syria to become. It is hard to justify intervention when you don’t have a clear succession plan in place – as management gurus note, never enter a period of major strategic change without a vision of what you want the organisation to look like at the end. Right now, it's not remotely clear what the vision for change is, nor what the end result would look like.

This may sound incredibly callous, applying basic change management techniques to a human catastrophe, but the reality is that if one wishes to see the application of force, essentially justifying an armed conflict with a sovereign nation state, then it is helpful to have a clearly articulated end state. Saying that intervention is justified because people are dying is a dangerous precedent – it can then be cited by others, seeking intervention in any manner of countries – should the West intervene in Africa, or Pakistan, or China, as a result of massacres conducted by state sanctioned forces?

It is critical to note the lack of willingness for major international engagement in the region. The West (particularly NATO and the EU) managed to remain in loose concord over the operations in Libya – and this was where a fairly clear split was emerging which provided a clear faction to ally oneself too, and a clear territory to defend. Even then, the Alliance was tested, and the lack of willingness for material commitment was noticeable from some member states.

In reality, there is no clearly defined ‘government in waiting’ occupying a tangible swathe of Syrian territory. It is hard to spot a battle being fought for new Syria, particularly as unlike in Libya where defence of one or two key cities was crucial to supporting the new regime, there is no easily defined line on the map. Instead, a range of cities, often hugely isolated from each other are rising up in isolated and uncoordinated protest – how does one protect cities which can be easily encircled by armed forces loyal to the Government? No matter how powerful airpower is, it cannot prevent an encirclement by the military without an exceptionally lax set of rules of engagement being imposed, and sufficient munitions being available to defeat such a move.

This is a critical challenge in Syria – it appears that the bulk of the Army have remained loyal (or at least not in open revolt) and willing to at least make the effort to try to follow the regimes orders. Unlike in Libya where the armed forces appeared to split, the opposition (such as it is) lacks a credible armed force to defend it. Any Western intervention is going to have to take on the might of a relatively potent power, which is still loyal to its Government.

The Syrian armed forces are not an inept bunch of individuals. Libya was a classic case of an oil rich regime with far more money than men, and where many of the individuals in the forces were reportedly mercenaries. It was relatively easy to take out the working equipment, and to intervene in support of those military elements loyal to the opposition. In Syria the military are relatively well equipped by regional standards, and at least right now, have no open conflict of loyalties. Any airstrikes would need to tackle the armed forces as a whole, which currently do not appear to have crumbling morale, nor a reliance on foreign fighters.

To achieve the goal of preventing further massacres, any intervention would need to consider how to deliver sufficient effect by airpower so as to prevent widespread attacks by the Syrian military across a number of areas. This would require a significant commitment of resources, more than the West is likely to have readily available, and risks major escalation of the situation. To stop the attacks, a series of prolonged airstrikes would be required – this needs precision weapons, a large number of ISTAR assets, and a potential willingness to put troops on the ground as forward air controllers. It is hard to imagine many countries being willing to do this, at least not now.

While it is illogical to argue that the West is no longer capable of sustained bloody conflict, as both Iraq and Afghanistan point to the opposite, it is fair to argue that the West remains less keen to see regular sustained conflict. Libya was a short, easily winnable war, fought against a third rate opponent in the middle of a civil war in which many elements of the regimes arsenal were not used against intervening forces. Attacks in Syria would not enjoy such a luxury – it is likely that any conflict would have to be sustained, slowly wearing down the apparatus of the state to conduct its offensives against dissidents. This would require major air strikes to remove the threats, and also potential damage to infrastructure, on a scale not seen since the first Gulf War, as efforts were made to deny the Syrian state the ability to harm its own people. It is also fairly clear that any such commitment would also require a long term boots on ground presence in some form. The idea that a conflict can be solved by airpower alone is, in the authors view a myth.

The author has personal doubts that the West has either sufficient willpower, resolve, or weapons to carry out such a role, particularly whilst Afghanistan remains an enduring commitment. The only nation with the ability to carry out such a role is the US, with limited support from the UK and some other NATO nations. The US has spent several years seeking to extricate itself from Iraq, and already appears to be in the process of considering likely contingency operations against other nations. It is hard to see a willingness on the part of the current US leadership, particularly in an election year, to engage in yet another conflict of choice in the middle east.

The military assets required for such an operation are also in short supply – in the UK, were airstrikes to commence, then they would be drawn from the same pool of assets previously used for Libya, and which remain on operations in HERRICK. In other words, the Tornado GR4 and Typhoon fleet would be called on to play the same roles as before. This would place yet more stress on a hugely over committed fleet of aircraft, further breaking planning assumptions on flying hours and deployment of personnel. This in itself could cause retention issues, and also longer term problems for the UK military to regenerate for contingency operations elsewhere. There would probably be a significant requirement for ISTAR and tanking assets, which again are in short supply.

The US could theoretically provide such assets, as could some NATO nations, but given the heavy use of smart munitions in Libya, it is likely that in many NATO countries munitions supplies have been denuded, and that there are less smart bombs than before. The result is a reliance on less advanced weaponry, and an increasing likelihood of the use of older ‘dumb’ bombs, which could cause increased civilian damage. The beauty of modern weaponry is its incredible accuracy, but its curse is that it’s incredibly expensive and time consuming to procure – it takes time to regenerate from even a low level conflict such as Libya, and its entirely possible that most NATO countries simply aren’t in a position to carry out such an operation at present.

The other major issue in carrying out any form of airstrikes is the location of the bases from where they would fly. The only friendly Western airbases near Syria are either located in Turkey, which even as a NATO member is unlikely to welcome such an overt act of intervention from its soil, or alternatively from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. There is simply not sufficient room at Akrotiri to accommodate the levels of aircraft and support that would be required to run this form of campaign.

This ties into the other wider point – any intervention from the air will eventually need some form of ground presence. It is hard to see how training opposition forces can be done otherwise – at some stage, if a side has been taken, then the West will be required to see this through to its bloody conclusion. Morally, if the West is unprepared to offer support to the opposition, then it has to accept that if air strikes fail to achieve the desired effect, then they must either commit ground forces, or watch as their chosen partners are destroyed by the Syrian regime.

The utterly disparate nature of the opposition means that there is no credible location to coalesce around – no rallying point, nor likely final bastion. The West cannot easily commit ground troops without access to a port, or some form of logistics site, and it is unlikely that they’d be willing to deploy even SF troops without having some form of extraction plan. Any effort to put troops on the ground will require support, and resupply and eventual withdrawal. The UK put troops on the ground in Libya, not only as escorts during the early stage of the conflict when seeking to establish alliances, but also later on as military advisors. These were risky deployments, but at least could be done via a proper city, which was emerging as a credible alternative capital. There is no such location in Syria, and it is hard to see one emerging.

As such, any proposed intervention in Syria has to consider the following – who will it target, what is the appetite for risk (particularly of friendly casualties), where will it operate from, what is its desired end state, are there sufficient munitions to achieve this, and what is the exit plan?

Ultimately, it is easy to call for intervention, particularly when one sees the utter tragedy emerging on our tv screens day in day out. In reality though, no matter how tempting it is to seek this, the reality is that air strikes are likely to achieve little beyond such western nations into the morass of an emerging civil war, damaging relations in the region, and not genuinely helping the cause of the rebels. When added to the sharp reality that such a move would have the potential to undermine the wider international relations picture, emboldening Israel, potentially causing Iran to consider further options to retaliate, and placing the entire region onto a shaky ground, it quickly becomes apparent that the most sensible option is to avoid a military entanglement as sometimes doing what feels right, isn’t actually the right thing to do.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Falklands - What does Argentina gain from going to the UN?

The news has been full recently of the fact that the Argentineans intend to make a formal complaint to the UN about the so called 'militarisation' of the Falklands - which appears to come down to the fact that a Type 45 may, or may not, be sailing in that general direction, and that the Heir to the throne is serving there. What though does Argentina, or rather President Kirchner and her advisors,
intend to gain from this course of action?

The UN is not in a position to solve the dispute - ultimately the problem boils down to the UK saying it will only hold talks if the inhabitants wish them to do so, and Argentina insisting on talks. Given the intense mistrust with which Argentina is viewed in the islands, it is highly unlikely that the Islanders would willingly support sovereignty talks. So, what will be gained from going to the UN, particularly given that the inevitable calls to negotiate will be met by a response from the UK noting that the islanders do not wish the Government to negotiate on their behalf, and that we respect their position?

The UN offers the chance to Argentina to grandstand on the world stage, and try to claim some form of moral victory. It is unlikely that many nations outside of South America know much about the details of the dispute, nor, bluntly, are they likely to care. But, there is a deep reluctance to endorse the principles of imperialism, and there is a mistrust of colonial powers, and particularly the west, borne of many years of poor relations.

A vote in the UN General Assembly would not be binding, but would represent a diplomatic coup for Argentina, which would claim to have the world support on its side. While the UK could make a clear, and strongly justified case that the UN is ignoring the wishes of the indigenous people, it would be terribly embarrassing for the UK if it were to lose such a vote. In addition, in votes such as this, it is likely that the UK would find itself diplomatically isolated - the author is willing to place a very large bet that the US abstains from any vote, for fear of damaging its relations with either party.

If the topic managed to work its way onto the UN Security Council (UNSC), then things become more interesting. Argentina knows full well that any vote that threatens the UK position will be vetoed by the UK, and possibly France depending on how they view their colonial interests at the time. This would be a PR coup for Argentina, which would be able to mount an aggressive PR campaign suggesting that the UK is abusing its position in this dispute, and that if it werent for this, then world opinion would be turning against the UK.

This is the worst possible situation for the UK, regardless of the moral position of its argument, by being forced into a position where it has to use the UNSC veto to stop a resolution going through, it weakens the UKs position.

In reality, any UNGA vote is likely to be non binding, and in the eyes of most of the world community, a near irrelevance. If the UN did choose to vote on this, once the initial firestorm of angry media coverage died down, then nothing would change and nothing would alter the UKs position on the islands. There have been plenty of odd UN votes over the years in the General Assembly, and the reality is that they gain headlines, but change little. The UNSC is where it matters, and while the UK retains a permanent veto, there is no chance at all of a damaging resolution going through.

So why is Argentina doing this? Were the author cynical, he'd suggest that it owed a great deal to the needs of the President to avoid diverting attention away from internal politics, the growing disputes with the media, the poor economic situation and the wider problems that Argentina has. International affairs are fantastic for diverting attention away from inconvenient local problems. President Kirchner would benefit greatly from diverting attention away from her woes, and also perhaps gaining a popularity boost to boot.

This author would go so far as to say that if one looked beyond the emotional strength of the argument, a truly rationale Argentine leader would emphatically not seek the recovery of the Falkland Islands, for the simple reason that it deprives them of the one true outlet for diverting political woes, and unifying the public. The moment the islands became Argentine, then there is no 'in case of political emergency, push glass to break' fire alarm that they can activate in Buenos Ares.

In short, bluster, smoke, mirrors and nothing to change the status quo.  

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Straits of Hormuz (or how to sail in international waters with the USN)

The Telegraph had a wonderful story about its favourite bête noirs today - the decline of UK military power, the waning special relationship, and the fact that France appeared to get one over on us. The story of course, is the supposed revelation that the UK had to 'beg' to participate in the international flotilla that transited the Straits of Hormuz recently, and which only occurred due to Sarkozy interfering.
Without wishing to comment on the merits of the report, this author would suggest the following - that the story appears to have all the hallmarks of a massive exaggeration by what is now rapidly becoming a tabloid newspaper in order to sell print. The fact that it portrays the French as being responsible, and some internet sources have appeared to indicate that this story appeared in Russian press first, indicates to his mind at least, the potential for mischief making.
Looking at the international stage, there is a clear desire by elements within France to try to push the French leadership and influence piece, even to the detriment of other nations. Recently, a number of stories have appeared which have tried to malign the UK in some way, and this feels similar - an effort to try to do the UK down and play up French influence.
It's worth noting that the UK remains in an intensely close relationship with the US - it's a relationship built on trust, and mutually converging policy goals and objectives, and underpinned by the ability to project power through a variety of means, both hard and soft, to further these goals. While the RN may be smaller now than in the past, it's worth remembering that the USN is also downsizing too - the US military budget is being reduced by the equivalent of the UKs annual defence budget each year for the next ten years at present.
There has been a continual RN presence in the region for over 30 years, and the RN works closely with both the USN and a range of other maritime forces in the area. The RN regularly passes through this region, as the UK (along with other allies) routinely demonstrates the right to freedom of navigation.  At present an RN 1* is the second in command of the maritime component command, a permanent position for the UK, and there are a wide range of UK military assets present in the region. In other words, the UK and USN are so closely integrated out there, that in reality, the fact that an RN vessel was, or was not, with the USN at the time of the transit is irrelevant. The beauty of sea power is that it can be wherever you want it to be, when you want it to be there.
What is perhaps being forgotten here is the inherent flexibility offered by a maritime capability - it may be the case (and the author has no knowledge at all on this issue) that the UK was not intending to transit with the USN, but the fact that there is a strong UK maritime presence in the region, and that the UK is able to operate so closely with the USN means that if this was the case, then it was quickly able to change its position. This is the beauty of sea power - it lets you change your mind two or three times and still lets you preserve your options for the future. Landpower and airpower lack this flexibility, as once committed to a course of action, it is inherently more difficult to retrieve them without a visible change in posture.
What should also be taken from this is the depths to which the UK and MN vessels were truly integrated into the USN battle group. This author would venture to suggest, based on the opinions of people he has known who have worked in USN CVBGs that the RN ship was almost certainly a fully integrated component of the battle group, and able to contribute to it. The French ship may have been there in physical presence, but its ability to work as a fully worked up integrated vessel is perhaps open to question (supposedly). Presence isn't always the be all and end all to being part of a battle group. You need to be there in body and electronic spirit!
The authors point is this - it is easy to quickly concoct a story claiming that the UK is somehow losing influence or face because it allegedly chose to do something, or not do something. However, the relationship with the US remains exceptionally strong, and the reality is that this story may owe much more to efforts to subtly denigrate the UK and bolster French positions, than anything else. One website to which the author is a long time subscriber noted that the UK and France are in a mutual sales battle at the moment over future vessel orders (FREMM and T26). It is, of course, immensely advantageous to France to portray their own vessel as more easily integrated into a USN group than an RN one, as it plays easily into the sales pitch of their industry.
While without doubt the relationship will evolve over time, this feels like a story knocked up quickly and not necessarily one which takes into account the full situation. This author suspects that there is far more than meets the eye to this situation.