Friday, 30 March 2012

CVF and the quiet success of UK shipbuilding


The author was lucky enough to visit the CVF assembly hall in Portsmouth recently and see first hand sections of both HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS PRINCE OF WALES slowly take form. The result, to put it mildly has left him feeling genuinely impressed. Put to one side the on-going debate about whether CVF will be STOVL or CTOL, and ignore much of the argument in the press about whether we need carriers or not, and suddenly several things become extremely clear:

a.       The CVF project is a clear demonstration of the skills of British Shipbuilding
b.      CVF has probably saved British shipbuilders from oblivion
c.       Whisper it quietly, but the CVF build looks like it is going extremely well.
d.      Whisper it even more quietly, but UK military shipbuilding is looking dangerously healthy right now…

For those less acquainted with the programme, a quick recap is probably in order. The Future carrier programme was initiated in the late 1990s following the then Labour Governments Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which took the initial feasibility studies for Invincible replacements and converted this into a clear requirement for two new large carriers. Based on the required sortie generation rate, the design grew into a 65,000 tonne project, which is too large to be built at any one UK yard. Construction has been underway now for several years, although a final decision on whether it will be a STOVL or CTOL design has yet to be made – current rumour control (if you believe the media) indicates a decision after Easter. If all goes to plan, the first hull enters service in roughly 2016, and the second in the 2018-2020 time frame.

It is this authors genuine belief that CVF represents a genuinely impressive endorsement of UK shipbuilding skills. This is not an easy project to assemble – as noted, the design is simply too large to be built in one location, and no one yard could cope with the workload required. Instead, the design is being assembled from various UK yards, which are jointly working together to assemble the design in the manner of the worlds most complex 3D jigsaw puzzle. The final assembly is being conducted in Rosyth, where the ships will be put together, almost in the manner of an airfix kit!

The level of project management, design and oversight required to see this project is staggering. This isn’t just a case of putting the plans into one yard, and then letting them get on with it, its requiring hugely complex work to make sure every part is able to marry up with one another as required. This alone is testament to the need to keep warship design skills in the UK  - without a world class design team, the UK could not have built CVF, its as simple as that.

The scale of the project is also stunning – the ship is being assembled from a range of what are known as ‘superblocks’ or large components which are being merged together to form the final hull. Lets be clear here, this isnt’ just a case of building some small parts – the block Humphrey saw that is nearing completion weighs in excess of 6,000 tonnes and is already running on its own electricity generation. The sizes too is phenomenal, these blocks only go up to the hangar flight deck, but are already taller than your average office block. By the time these are merged with the top of the vessel, and then the island is added, you are looking at a vessel almost as tall from keel to mast as Nelsons column, if not taller.

One thing that really struck the author was the sense of positive attitude from the construction team. There is a clear view emerging that the CVF project is generating enough work to keep all the core UK military shipyards in a healthy order book for several years to come. While its easy to look at the build programme and say that with only two carriers, and two DDGs under construction, the ship yards look empty, one has to remember the scale of work required to build these vessels. In pure tonnage terms, the work on the CVF project is the equivalent to building almost 20 Type 45 destroyers at once. When you consider the use of the superblocks, this means that all the UK yards working on the project have essentially got a guaranteed order book out for the next 5-8 years as work ramps up for both QE and the POW.

This is one reason why the MARS tanker programme award had to go overseas – UK military shipbuilding at the moment is going through something of a renaissance – there is almost too much work to be had in pure tonnage and capacity terms, and in the UK yards right now, there simply isn’t the space or capacity to build an additional four tankers. Its not a joke to say that even though BAE were offered the MARS programme on a non competitive basis, they didn’t actually bid for it due to the work they already had underway with the CVF programme.

This brings Humphrey onto his next point – the fact is that the CVF programmes existence has probably saved UK military shipbuilding as it stands now. No matter how you look at it, in 1998 when this programme was announced, there was no other credible plan B for military shipbuilding in the UK – no need for dozens of new escorts, no requirement for much in the way of RFAs at that time, and limited need for high end construction. If CVF (and in particular its modular format) hadn’t been on the horizon then, then personally this author believes that UK military shipbuilding now would really have struggled to stay afloat. There simply wouldn’t have been the requirements or orders coming in to provide the same level of workload, nor to keep the design teams busy until the need to order the T26 emerges in the latter part of this decade. In turn, this would have meant that there was little likelihood of being able to build a carrier in the future - without the yards, then the ability to build a complex vessel quickly goes away.

As such, the author would argue that CVF has not only preserved UK shipbuilding skills, but more importantly has also helped generate a clear pathway for the next generation of ship construction. Canada struggled in the 1980s when it found it had to reactivate a surface ship construction line for the Halifax class frigates, essentially having to build a design and construction capability from scratch and then shutting it down when the last of 12 escorts was completed. With no follow on capability, the indigenous capability was lost, and the next generation of destroyers and surface combatants will cost Canada far more than if any existing shipbuilding capability was already present to design and construct them.

In the UKs case, if all goes to plan, then the end of CVF construction will ramp down just as construction of the Type 26 is ramping up. This should ensure a near steady state of construction for UK yards, particularly as orders are placed for new RFA AORs in the latter part of the decade, meaning that UK yards can plan with far more certainty about their workload, which in turn ensures it is much easier to plan workforce requirements and train staff. Without CVF, it is hard to see how the same level of planning could occur, and that instead shipbuilding would be more aligned around peaks and troughs, with classes ending construction and long lean periods emerging as they waited for orders for new vessels. The dangers of this approach were highlighted with the Astute programme some years ago, where the gap between the T and A class was such that there needed to be an immense level of skill reconstitution ahead of being able to successfully deliver the project.

This brings Humphrey to his last point – namely that both the programme and the wider UK military shipbuilding sector are looking very healthy right now. The CVF project is delivering ahead of schedule, and with the scale of the project, there is the equivalent of 20 escort ships under construction right now across multiple UK yards. There is a confidence in the yards that with a return to a balanced equipment budget, then there will be follow on orders for T26 and in time new RFA and minor warship orders too. The UK has now successfully mapped out a pathway to delivering two new carriers and thirteen escort ships, plus an additional five SSNs between now and the latter part of the 2020s.

This is a hugely positive story – the RN is on course to receive two hulls that, whatever variant flies from them, will be some of the most capable and potent warships it has ever operated. UK industry meanwhile knows what the RN will be buying, and has sufficient stable work in place to ensure that over the next 15 years, it will be able to secure sufficient work to keep thousands of highly skilled workers, and thousands of small and medium businesses who do subcontracting in gainful employment. This is good for the RN, good for industry and good for the nation as a whole.

So, whisper it quietly, but this author would suggest that things are looking remarkably good for the UK warship construction sector right now…

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Uniforms, they are a changing…



There was a fair amount of press coverage recently on the trials of the new RN No4 (No8 in old speak) uniform onboard HMS DARING (HERE)

The new uniform appears to be a vast improvement on the old one – unlike previous iterations of the No4 uniform (which Humphrey has worn and not always loved over the years), this appears to have a sensible series of improvements to help make life more practical for the end user. For instance, sensible combat type shirts, and zip up boots (easy to put on or off in an emergency). Despite much adverse comment about the baseball caps pictured on HMS DARING, which are emphatically not part of the trial (they were privately purchased by the crew), the reaction from acquaintances of the author has been overwhelmingly positive to this kit. It is good uniform, that does a sensible and practical job, and which if adopted will go a long way to making life easier for the average sailor at sea.

It is often forgotten that this uniform exists in order to provide a safe and practical working kit on the sea – an inherently hostile and dangerous environment. This kit is designed to make donning it in the wee hours of the night, when people are being roused from deep sleep to respond to possibly life threatening situations such as a fire, or man overboard, far easier. Humphrey knows what it is like to try to done No4s in a rolling small patrol craft in the dark in a hurry – it is neither easy, nor pleasant. Valuable seconds can be wasted trying to find the right button, or force shoes on tightly – the idea of Velcro and zip up shoes, while it may have traditionalists outraged, is in fact a very welcome development that has potential to save lives.

Despite this, and the fact that this is a good news story clearly showing that the RN is adapting to change and trying to introduce new kit to make peoples lives easier, there has been a media hue and cry, complaining about how truly dreadful this all is, and that Nelson must be spinning in his grave if he were to see the sight of RN sailors today.

Firstly, ignoring the fact that sailors in Nelsons day didn’t actually have uniforms, so it’s likely he’d be rather impressed at the sight of a uniformed ships company, the media have also seemingly chosen to ignore the fact that the uniform isn’t actually intended for ceremonial work. The Telegraph event went to the lengths of running an editorial about how this was a step too far HERE

To the author, this summarises a wider problem – to the media, and to its readers, there is what appears to be a near constant narrative that the armed forces are reluctant to embrace the concept of change, and that they are led by hidebound individuals who don’t want to see change unless forced to do so. This author would argue that in fact the opposite is true – if anything the military embraces change on a regular basis – the changes in technology, tactics, equipment and even uniforms over the last 100 years shows that implementing change (even if it is not necessarily warmly welcomed by all individuals in the military) is something that is a clear fact of life at all levels.

If anything the media, in an effort to support the views of their readership seem to this author to be the ones who seem unhappy to see change occur. It is not just in the uniform changes, which are an easy thing to be negative about, focusing on items seen as “it would never have happened in my day” to many older readers, but also a wider view on the role of the Royal Navy as a whole.

One thing that has become ever clearer is that to many media organisations, the last time the Royal Navy seemed to have a clearly defined role was in 1982 in the Falklands War. It feels at times that one cannot move for a small select band of retired naval officers and other pundits emerging to take a pop at the current RN and its strategy.

In many ways this is understandable – to the public, naval conflict is something which is built around the notion of warships exchanging fire with the enemy, shooting down planes and sadly exploding in fireballs. The Falklands war has captured the imagination of the public in a way few other naval wars ever will, simply due to the fortuitous presence of media filming some hugely iconic events (such as the loss of HMS ANTELOPE). This, coupled with a huge amount of national pride at a ‘good war’ means that the UK is rightly proud of the conduct of the RN during 1982. More importantly it is a war that put across naval warfare in a manner that most bystanders can begin to understand – a clearly defined foe, naval engagements in the classic naval manner, and a hard fought victory.

This in turn has created the situation where to the public the role of the RN is seen as being that of 30 years ago – the prevalence of retired naval officers who ‘had a good war’ as pundits, and who can easily be called upon as ‘talking heads’ to provide comment on modern naval situations. The author has lost count of the number of times he has seen these pundits commenting on the navy and naval developments and referring back to the events of 1982.

The issue though is that the RN has massively changed since the Falklands war – even a cursory glance at the orders of battle, the equipment and the recent operations shows that the RN has been forced to adapt to a massively changed international environment, and in no way represents the navy of 1982.

This is perhaps the most frustrating element of the uniform story – the fact that no matter how hard the RN tries, it is seemingly unable to move away from its past without incurring negative comments from the media. The RN has an incredibly proud history of conducting itself in a hugely professional way since 1982 – look at operations in the Gulf in the 1980s and 1990s, off the Balkans, and all of the operations since 2003 in the northern Arabian Gulf. The RN has been working to an operational tempo and rate that few navies could handle without approaching breakdown, and throughout it all has had to adapt to major international changes, and force structure changes, all without publicly failing to deliver.

Rather than criticising the RN for changing, or for failing to change, Humphrey would argue that the RN (and wider armed forces) should be held up as examples of organisations that have proven robust enough to handle organisational change on a regular basis, and still deliver.

At the same time, he remains concerned that the public seem to fail to understand just how much the RN has evolved and changed since 1982. Relying on men who served their country then, but who have not worn uniform for over 20 years to act as the ‘talking head’ commentator on media issues seems an inherently dangerous approach – the public understood the issues of the Falklands, and they understand comparisons made to the war, and they understand when people say the UK could not mount a similar operation again. What it feels is not being made clear is the counter argument that actually the RN has delivered clear visions of what it wants to do, it has delivered change to respond to the new global environment, and it has served with huge distinction and heroism in some incredibly difficult situations. That the main news story for the RN isn’t the superb news about HMS DARING working with a USN CVBG in the Gulf, or the excellent work being carried out by the EXERCISE COLD RESPONSE forces, but instead is a series of angry diatribes about baseball caps (served up with a side order of near glee at the news that HMS ILLUSTRIOUS is due home with a hole in her side, which means surely someone must be to blame?) is depressing. How can the RN sell its hugely positive message if the media are more reluctant to comment on the bad news?

What is equally sad is the fact that no new commentators appear to have come to the fore as respected military observers. The public is reliant on being fed what feels like a diet of regurgitated Falklands War veterans to talk about naval matters, and they do not get to hear from more recently served personnel who may have left the service, but who can coherently put the argument in favour of sea power, and change across.

This is most manifested in the uniforms argument – where were the recently served sailors to stand up and support the RN in this matter? It felt like watching a group of retired sailors condemn the RN for changing a uniform, while no one who actually understood the rationale for change was able to speak for the alternative perspective. There is only so far that the MOD press office can go – people are inherently mistrustful of official spokesmen and press releases, but the problem seems to be that the arguments about the RN, and the way it is portrayed to the public increasingly seem to be built around elderly retired sailors who are less and less current on the issues affecting the RN.

What is needed is for the emergence of a new generation of ex sailors, who are able to coolly, rationally and sensibly put the case for sea power, dampen down the wilder excesses of the media, and also to sell the case for the RN and explain the good that it has done over the years. Where these people will come from though is harder to tell – sadly the RN probably needs another good traditional war such as 1982 before naval officers become household names again, and the cost of this is far too high to contemplate…

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Neither a Frigate, nor an OPV be…

Humphrey was lucky enough to see the fascinating new Dutch ‘low end’ patrol ship HNLMS Holland the other day. This brand new vessel, commissioned barely 10 months ago represents an interesting resource shift on the part of the Netherlands Navy, and one that could spur on public debate in the UK about the roles played by higher end vessels.

The Holland is an interesting vessel – at roughly 3750 tonnes and 110m long, she is the size of a Frigate, and from outward appearances, and at certain angles looks similar to a scaled down Type 45 – particularly from the front with the main mast. However, this is where the similarity ends – she has a crew of only 50 (albeit with accommodation for a total of 90) – there is a large flight deck and hangar for a medium sized helicopter, and bays and stern ramp for the launch and recovery of ships boats. The only weaponry she is fitted for is a 76mm main gun, plus a 30mm and some smaller calibre weapons. They are also equipped with a particularly interesting internal communication system, reliant on PDAs for ship information.















HNLMS Holland - Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holland_class_offshore_patrol_vessels 


The class of four ships bear their genesis in a recent Dutch defence review, where the Navy drew down its frigate strength, and instead chose to focus resources on the littoral – relying on these four vessels for lower end duties, and also reinvesting in their MCMV capability. The result has been a class of ships which are frigate sized, but feel more optimised for the OPV role.

This is an absolutely fascinating vessel in many ways – she represents the shift in thinking in some navies, particularly those which have previously relied on access to high end escort ships, but which equally have many maritime constabulary tasks to undertake where an FFG is not necessarily the most appropriate platform to be employed in this role.

The result is a class of ship which is more than capable of holding its own against pirates, low level interdiction operations – for instance, in the West Indies where the Dutch retain colonial possessions, and still conduct counter narcotics work with resident naval vessels. At the same time they can carry sufficient space for a good electronics fit to enable the command systems to be fitted to allow for integration into a wider task force – such as OP ATALANTA, where the threat requires not just good hulls, but the ability to operate helicopters and boarding parties working with good wider situational awareness.

So far then, the Holland appears to be a class of ship capable of fulfilling the lower end of duties in that peculiarly grey area between the traditional role of an Offshore Patrol Vessel – which to those unfamiliar with warship types is essentially a simple vessel with basic weapons and designed to patrol the maritime waters of a nation, and that of a more complex frigate.

The challenge would seem to be though that to all intents and purposes, these ships are frigates. To use popular parlance, they would appear to provide an 80% solution to many maritime issues – capable of handling all the main duties shy of major maritime warfare. But, if the politicians, treasury and commentators regard them as frigates, then the challenge would seem to become that of trying to explain to a sceptical audience why they cannot be employed as frigates.

While a Frigate could easily carry out the many duties that Holland is designed to do, it also provides the ability to respond to wider threats and escalation – for instance, personally Humphrey would not wish to be on the Holland if she were deployed into a higher threat environment, where credible naval opponents lurked – the small crew would probably struggle to conduct damage control, and the lack of a wider weapons fit means the ship is reliant on a task group for protection. Her slow speed though (a reported top speed of 21kts) means she would probably struggle to carry out sustained task group operations.

So, Holland provides the 80% solution, but that comes at the price of meaning that she and her sisters would not be able to deliver the 100% solution expected of a more expensive frigate. This presents a challenge to the operational planners – the future Dutch navy is expected to consist of only six high end escorts, plus the four Holland’s as second line vessels. Six escorts realistically translates to a maximum of three available for deployment as a fully worked up group – in reality, it is unlikely that the Netherlands will ever be able to deploy more than one or two high end escorts to an international task force. Even moving the fleet to supporting one long distance commitment for a year will effectively reduce their available fleet by 50% as three hulls will be needed to cover this commitment.

A quick glance at their superb English language website (http://www.defensie.nl/english/navy/) clearly shows a nation which still harbours strong aspirations to play a leading role in NATO and European defence. This means that the Holland’s are going to be heavily called upon, whether they like it or not, to provide support.

Humphrey is a huge fan of the Netherlands Armed Forces – he’s worked with them across the world and found them to be supremely professional, extremely good at what they do, and well equipped with high end capability. He personally believes that the UKs current direction of defence policy travel closely mirrors that of the Netherlands – essentially both nations are maritime former colonial powers with global interests and professional armed forces trying to punch above their weight. That is why he is so interested in the emergence of the Holland class, as it is likely that similar arguments will be heard to justify acquiring a similar class of vessels for the Royal Navy at some point.

To be clear, Humphrey is not aware of any formal plan to introduce such a concept at present – the closest the RN comes is the so-called C3 concept (or whatever it is known as today!), mentioned in SDSR and which is a putative replacement programme for the MCMV, OPV and other minor war vessels. At present all the RNs frigates are due to be replaced by the Type 26, which will be a high end war fighting vessel, designed to do ASW and general purpose patrol. The first is due to hit the sea-lanes in about 8-10 years’ time, depending on construction speeds, and will replace the T23s over the next 20 years or so.

For more information on the C3 variant, it is worth looking at this link to the Think Defence website article - http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2010/12/the-future-of-the-royal-navy-10-%E2%80%93-mines-countermeasures-and-survey/ . For images and some information on the Type 26 in general, it is worth visiting the official RN website - http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/The-Fleet/Ships/Future-Ships/Type-26 

The challenge the RN will face is trying to convince politicians and the Treasury as to why it should invest in the Type 26 and not an RN version of the Holland. There is an easy case to be made from an industrial perspective that buying OPVs rather than frigates does not make a huge amount of sense for the UKs shipbuilding industry – there is a need to protect the high end ship design and electronics capabilities that distinguish a major warship from its smaller cousins – however, Holland in many ways has provided a means of protecting the Netherlands national industrial base, by providing work in the more important areas where national capability is deemed an essential need.

For the RN, the danger may be that a keen individual works out that many of the Military Tasks that the RN currently does could be fulfilled by a smaller number of lower end vessels, leaving an escort fleet to focus on things like the Arabian Gulf or the Falklands. The build programme would preserve UK jobs and skills, but equally would enable the ability to put slightly cheaper (albeit Holland reportedly cost €150M Euros) vessels into service. After a while though, it would become ever harder to justify the Frigate fleet when the smaller vessels where being gainfully employed.

The problem is that a smaller ship will never be able to fight the sort of wars or conflicts that the UK anticipates and trains for as part of its wider defence policy. While these vessels may be superb for the OP ATALANTA role, or for tackling counter narcotics work, they still would not easily be able to successfully work with the USN, or conduct carrier or ARG escort work. It’s equally unlikely that they could be deployed globally without resorting to either a third watch manning system, or considering some kind of permanent station – which in turn raises a lot of questions about how to support such a move. For the UKs allies, much of the appeal of working with the RN is in getting access to a top tier navy which trains for high intensity conflict. The ships and equipment are designed for handling very complex maritime and littoral scenarios, and other navies want to work with us in order to learn how we handle such situations. There is huge interest in securing joint exercises and port visits, but it could be argued that a smaller vessel would be of less interest. Nations are less likely to come to us if we can only offer them the chance to work with a capability they wither have, or as other navies grow in capability, could represent a much lower capability. This in turn reduces our influence, and ability to work directly with navies that will matter to us in the future.

To this author, his strictly personal view is that while the Holland is a superb ship, and one which will hopefully meet Dutch needs for years to come, this is a path that the RN should be hugely reluctant to tread while it is optimised for a global role. Much as the Army has found that most people can train for peacekeeping, but it takes a great deal to step up to real war fighting, the danger is that an enlarged OPV in the RN would deliver an 80% solution, but cause major force generation, capability and war fighting challenges that could have immensely serious consequences.

A general update on the aims and objectives of this blog

Now that this blog has been running for approximately three months, Humphrey wants to provide a general update on its aims, direction of travel and other useful information.

Aims

This blog was created as a result of the author feeling immensely frustrated at the poor level of defence reporting across the media. This is in turn led to regular posts on sites like ARRSE, where many popular misconceptions came up that were debated at length. The author felt that too often, several well-worn subjects were discussed, and that the same arguments cropped up again and again.

As such, this blog was born – its original aim was to provide a home to deeper articles on a range of issues which are of interest to the Defence community, and to try to correct misunderstandings on some issues. It also seeks, where appropriate to try to use these articles to put across a different perspective to the one often adopted in the press.

The author tries to put together a collection of articles which can vary in style, length and content. Broadly though they try to reflect an issue, look at it from a perspective that may not be immediately obvious, or which may not get the same level of comments as other more popular narratives.

As the blog has evolved, and different types of articles trialled, the following have become wider aims – the list below summarises what the current aims of this site are:

The aim of the Thin Pinstriped Line is to provide high quality and non-partisan written analysis on relevant defence matters of interest to the author.

Site ‘No Go’s

While this site will always seek to comment on many defence matters, there are some things that as a rule of principle, the author will adhere to. Firstly, this site will not generally comment on specific leaked papers surrounding spending rounds or other matters – the author has nothing but abject contempt for those individuals who betray their privileged access to material in order to leak it to the media.
Articles such as the ones relating to PR12, and particularly the situation with the F35 are leaked for a reason, in order to play into an agenda for someone. Personally the author does not wish to dignify such articles with comment – its very easy to put together papers which imply that options which would mean the end of vested interests, but these must be seen in the wider context of the options process, and all that this entails. It is very dangerous to comment on one specific option – particularly when decisions likely haven’t been taken, and when the paper has been leaked to influence as well as inform.

Additionally, there are some areas where the author simply doesn’t have sufficient technical or professional knowledge to comment meaningfully on a defence matter. While there will occasionally be articles talking about some wider defence issues in an open manner (for instance the Cyberwarfare post), there will also be times when the site will not mention an issue – this is generally because the author does not feel qualified to talk about a subject.

Additionally, the author tries to steer clear where possible of particularly partisan or political matters – because while he has his own, strictly personal, political views, he does not think it appropriate to comment on issues which can be as much about political footballing, as it is about defence. An example of this would be the recent argument over whether Forces pay should have been frozen this year – it is very difficult to make an entry into this arena without taking sides in what is a much wider political debate.
Finally, as a general rule, this site does not discuss theoretical matters such as “Future RN in 2025 with no CVF” or “Army with no tanks but lots of helicopters”. These are fascinating matters, but there are other sites which cover them in a far better way than this one. The author would strongly recommend visiting www.thinkdefence.co.uk as a good starting point for this form of discussion.

Site Updates
This blog is intentionally written in the authors spare time and at home on his PC, rather than at work. This does mean though that when things get busy, the ability to update it or write an article becomes more challenging.

For the last few weeks, and certainly for at least the next two-three weeks, the ability to do multiple updates is limited due to the author having a very busy real life. However, the intent is to try to update this site at least once per week – the author feels it is better to do one good update on a regular basis, than several poor ones on a frequent basis.

 When leave, weekends and spare time permits, then more frequent articles will be posted – it really depends on how busy the author is, and what is going on in the world of Defence. Right now, in the lull before the PR12 storm, the headlines have been relatively quiet, and there has been little to catch his eyes that he feels qualified to comment on. Who knows what could change over the next few weeks.

And Finally...
It has been a personal challenge to write this blog, and the author has been very appreciative of the warm comments he’s received by email, Facebook or in person. Thank you for taking the time to read this site, and please continue to offer feedback and comments – they are hugely appreciated.

 One last thing – as an author, Humphrey is slightly worried that two hits on this blog came from people searching for "Folkland Porn" and "gifts that have to do with bagpipes"...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

At what point do IT geeks become legitimate military targets?



 The authors attention was drawn today to a short article on the BBC discussing how a 19yr old had won a competition by GCHQ to provide the best form of online protection against the hacking threat. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17333601

 The emergence of Cyberspace as a new battleground has been widely predicted, and many good papers and books exist on the subject. The issue that has raised questions in the authors head is not on the importance of the UK being able to protect itself from the electronic threat, but more broadly how the current generation of computer literate individuals would be able to sit within the defence community as a whole. For those readers with an interest in such things, he would strongly commend a read of the UK Govt Cyber Security strategy paper at http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/cyber-security-strategy , which attempts to set out the UK Govts position on how it will meet the cyber threat.

 What is clear is that the cyber debate represents one of the most challenging future developments that could essentially be a paradigm shift in how security is provided. The move away from the reliance on the Government to provide security for the nation, and instead a realisation that national security is dependent on a hugely complex set of companies, organisations, and groups, and that the resources required to provide this defence are a truly national asset.

While there is unlikely to be a reduction in the requirement to use physical military force in future, it is increasingly clear that the cyber context will be seen as an integrated part of any major powers military and Governmental campaign. The work sits across a range of campaign areas, and Humphrey wanted to use this article to raise a couple of questions.

Is Cyber Security something that should sit within the J1-J9 framework, or has the time come to create a J10 division to handle these matters?

This author genuinely holds no view on this, but would welcome the views of others. For while we focus heavily on issues such as hard power, soft power and influence, it does feel that Cyber Security simultaneously feels as if it sits in all of these roles and none of them at the same time.

 One final question, more rhetorical than anything else, but which perhaps illustrates the complexity of this debate.

 During a military campaign, is it legitimate to kinetically target a building containing an internet cafĂ© full of civilian students, if those individuals are engaged in hostile acts of aggression against an opposing nation’s critical national infrastructure using cyber means? Do the unarmed civilian students represent a military threat, and how do the laws of war extend to acts involving cyber offence & defence?

Humphrey suspects there is no clear answer to either question, but feels it would make a fascinating debate - where is the line drawn for cyber purposes. Is Cyberspace to be treated as a virtual battleground for targeting purposes, or do the physical facilities and people involved in the process count as legitimate targets for a military operation?


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A dark day.

One of the most difficult, challenging and moving jobs that the author has ever done was to work as an out of hours duty officer. This role meant working on call overnight, and at weekends to handle the diverse range of crises and challenges that the department always found itself faced with. Within this, the most difficult part was casualty notification.

 There were many times when the phone would ring at a very dark hour, and a message would come through that at least one UK service-person had been killed in action – often only an hour or two previously. At this point a well honed service was already kicking into gear, ensuring that next of kin were being contacted, and that the welfare support was being activated. The authors role was to contact Ministers offices and ask them to notify their principals of the casualty – at the time (and the author has no reason to suspect this has changed) all Ministers asked to be informed when casualties occur, regardless of the time. To this author, this was a small gesture, but one that felt as if the human cost of the department was brought fully home to roost for them.

 Many is the time that the author has thought about the families of those whose death he in a small way helped report, and wondered how they took it on the darkest hours of what must have been a desperate day.

 Today, these thoughts came back as a result of the utter tragedy that has occurred in Afghanistan, in which six personnel are reported missing presumed killed, following an incident involving a Warrior IFV. This tragic event takes the total number of reported UK deaths in Afghanistan to 404.

 The author feels an immense sense of frustration today – not at the news, for that is a tragedy, but instead at the manner in which the media have conducted themselves. To his mind there is something deeply ghoulish about the way that the media have spent the entire day whipping up a frenzy of coverage over these deaths – chopping to different reporters at different times, merging speculation, with rumour, with idle gossip and a small sprinkling of fact. This has been a great day in their eyes – a tragic story with death, merged with the passing of a self imposed figure of  total casualties. No doubt tonight the evening news shows will be full of people debating the wisdom of the war, the value of the operation, and whether the sacrifices paid by our troops was worth it. No doubt tomorrow the papers will be full of that combination of tributes, merged with analysis of the Warrior IFV, doubtless researched by a junior hack on Wikipedia who thinks the Warrior is in fact a tank. There will be breathless commentary from retired officers, demands that something must be done, conspiracies linking this to other events, and a general sense that a bad thing has happened.

 There is a media feeding frenzy going on here – Humphrey was repulsed at the sight of a reporter going ‘I’m not sure if it was an anti-tank mine, or a large Taleban roadside bomb’. The media are so desperate for a story, any story, that their humanity and basic common decency appears to have been sold out in a desire to come up with ever more sensational headlines and fill the large gaps of airtime demanded of a 24 hour rolling news channel. Personally Humphrey would really like to run up to a lot of these reporters, shake them by the shoulders and shout at them to STOP.

 Lets take a deep breath, step back and try to remember what exactly is going on right now, in several homes across the UK. As these words are being written, families are having to come to terms with the knowledge that their father, husband, son, brother, is dead and will never come home again. Life as they know it has changed forever in under 24 hours. Right now, it is likely that kinforming is still going on. This means it is highly likely that not everyone who has links to the dead men knows what has happened.

 Personally, the author finds it the height of bad taste to broadcast endless speculation about what may, or may not, have killed these men. At its simplest, it doesn’t make a material difference right now to anyone outside of the Defence community. The UK public will not sleep more safely tonight knowing that it was a really large Taleban bomb, and not an old Russian anti-tank mine. There are doubtless sections of Defence which do need to know, and will work hard to find out whether anything needs to change in tactics, operational procedures or any of the other ways in which the military work.

The author has long held a bit of a grudge against a large media organisation for the way it covered the 100th death in Basra. He was told from a very reliable source, whilst he was serving out there at the time, that they had rung up and tried to insist on embedding a media team to cover the local reaction to the 100th fatality – as if that made it somehow magically more important than the 99th, or the 101st. Personally, the idea that the Media think that waiting around for one of the authors friends, colleagues or acquaintances to be killed, just so that they can have a warry looking outside broadcast and reaction as their anchor asks “and well Bloggs, how do the people here feel tonight” – as if anyone is going to make their true feelings clear live on national telly – is one that at the time made the author and other friends extremely angry. My life is not a statistic. The lives of my friends, colleagues and fellow service personnel are not statistics. Waiting around for us to die so you can try to get whatever award it is that journalists get for slumming it without aircon, G&T, and cockroaches that don’t talk back is so far beyond bad taste as to be untrue.

The media has an obsession with numbers – they are obsessed with when a certain number of people have been killed, because this enables them to run deep meaningful stories and have debates about whether the UK should withdraw from whichever commitment it is involved in. This sort of debate is really important, and it needs to happen, and it needs open debate in society. However, personally, this author wishes the media would have the common decency to allow even 24 hours to elapse before running newsnight style panel discussions where people who in all likelihood never knew those killed are able to use the tragedy of their deaths as an enabler to allow them to mount their soapbox.

 The author doesn’t know the time of the attack, but he would imagine that it’s a safe bet to assume that 48 hours ago the people killed were alive. They had no intention of dying – they probably focused on doing their job and getting home again. None of them went out there to become a statistic – when the author was in Afghanistan, he often worked outside the wire, and knows what it feels like to be in an even relatively low threat environment. You don’t spend your time thinking ‘you know, if I were to be killed today, then that makes me No150 or 300, so I’d better not be killed in case I become a cause celebre on the TV’…

 Personally, the author wishes that the media had exercised a tiny amount of self-restraint today. They should have stood back, reported factually that 6 people were missing presumed killed in an explosion and that next of kin were being informed. The debates, the discussions, the breathless hyperbole surrounding a newsflash of a report that it may have been this kind of bomb or that kind could have waited. The author passionately believes that casualties should be reported to the media – we live in a free society, and we must know as soon as is reasonably possible the fact that people have died to protect us. But, wall to wall television coverage isn’t healthy – people seem to forget that in their desire to see this on the news, right now several families are going through the worst torment imaginable and their lives have changed forever. Having their own private hell played out repeatedly on TV seems to only make things worse.  A dignified, decent exercise of self-restraint, holding back the deeper analysis and breathless comment for another day, even 24 hours, would have been to this author a much more appropriate way to conduct oneself. Clearly though the media feel the need to report NOW because tomorrow is another story.

The author will think tonight of those families of the loved ones, and hope that in time the healing process begins and that they can get through the unimaginable trauma they are experiencing right now. His thoughts are also with the fellow soldiers of the men lost, and hopes that in the days and weeks to come, they are able to continue with their mission.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Well that was the week that was...

Humphrey has been unable to post much recently due to a combination of illness (the flu bug doing the rounds) and being extremely busy in real life. As such, a number of fairly important stories have occurred which time constraints have prevented comment upon. To that end, he wants to use a quiet Sunday afternoon interlude to put down some thoughts on a couple of the emerging defence stories of the week, and put his own take on them.

 Starving Soldiers

Firstly, the Sunday Express has commented on a suggestion that soldiers are reportedly missing meals due to not being able to afford them (http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/305915/Soldiers-cannot-afford-to-eat).

 To this authors mind, this story seems to be picture perfect – the poor underpaid squaddie, struggling to make ends meet while being forced to train ever harder to go to war on behalf of an ungrateful nation and meddling officials who don’t know what they are doing.

 The story though does appear to not take into account some fairly basic facts. Firstly, the idea that soldiers are underpaid seems to have little merit. A newly joined soldier is on over £17,400 per year – which equates to an after tax weekly salary of roughly £350. The current system of Pay As You Dine (PAYD) provides means for soldiers to only pay for those meals they actually consume, rather than being forced to pay a food bill every month which often covered meals never actually taken. The system appears to have run into problems with some very junior soldiers who are unable to budget £5 per day to buy themselves a core meal.

 We expect these individuals to operate highly complex machinery, to operate weaponry that is incredibly advanced, and at its most basic, to carry a loaded weapon and use deadly force. It seems to this author that junior soldiers being required to budget to put £35 per week by for 21 meals doesn’t seem an unreasonable thing to ask of them, particularly as they have shown an aptitude for other far more complicated matters.

 The problem as ever seems to be that some junior soldiers are cash rich on payday, and cash poor by a week later. This is despite them enjoying a disposable income which is probably higher than many of their contemporaries, who in civvy street are expected to cope on similar wages, and also run a house and bills as well as work. There seems to be an almost patronising level of paternalism directed at these junior soldiers – on the one hand we expect them to kill for their country, but at the same time we expect them to be unable to cope with some very basic budgeting, and that rather than it being a scandal that they can’t put their money by, it is a scandal that the MOD is somehow to blame for not feeding them. There would be no sympathy for 18 year olds in the real world in this position, so why do the papers expect it for the military?

 Thankfully this doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction on the Army Rumour Service (always a good barometer of forces opinions), with most serving soldiers seeing that it is the responsibility of the individual to look after their money.


Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Several papers commented on the news that the UK has signed agreements to use the northern route (via the so-called ‘Stans’) to withdraw UK kit from Afghanistan as the run up to the 2015 planned withdrawal date approaches.

This is actually an extremely important announcement, as it is an ever clearer sign that the UK is going to have to adjust its Afghan expectations over the next 2-3 years. While the UK has been at the forefront of Afghan efforts, and has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure, at some point, and probably not in the too distant future, the UK will need to begin to scale down its operations. This is where the announcement of this route is so vital – it shows that already thoughts are turning to working out how best to extract the vast UK physical commitment to the region.

In context, the UK is having to consider how best to extract the entire life support network, plus logistics, munitions and stores for a force of 10,000 people, and then moving it from Afghanistan back to the UK. This isn’t just a case of sticking it on a wagon and then count in back a few months later – the logistics challenge associated to withdrawal is immense. For instance, planners have got to work out how best to reduce forces – what kit can be taken out and when? They have to work out when the UK is going to cease to possess certain capabilities in theatre – which has repercussions for the entire logistics and support chain from the front line, all the way back to the manufacturer. Very challenging decisions need to be made about the very nature of engagements that the UK will undertake in a not too distant future, as withdrawal will start to constrain commander’s operational freedom of manoeuvre.

 This does not mean that in 20XX the UK will suddenly stop having the ability to do certain things in Afghanistan. What it does mean is that we are now seeing the focus of operations change, and we will almost certainly start to see the UK (and wider ISAF) ability to influence and conduct the more intensive and high impact operations diminish over the next 2-3 years.

Be in no doubt – the withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be a case of turning off expeditionary operations one day, and then flying home the next. There needs to be vast amounts of planning and logistics work associated with this, and it represents a formidable task for the planners. How to pull down without pulling out, and how to still support the troops that are left will present many J3/4/5 planners with real headaches over the next few years.

 The Quiet Decline of the US Navy.
There has been a lot of attention paid in some quarters this week to the allegations that the UK may shift back to STOVL rather than CTOL F35. Humphrey has no intention on commenting on these particular reports – to his mind they are part of the wider PR12 process, which has seen, and will doubtless continue to see, a plethora of leaks of selected texts designed to push one case, denigrate another and continue the endless routine of tribal warfare between the services and their capbadges. All will be revealed in late March, so there is little point in speculating much before this point.

 What has been of more interest though has been the reporting on the F35 and also the wider perception that the US Navy is about to take a very significant hit in surface fleet numbers over the next 2-3 years. According to documents released there will be the loss of roughly 20 escorts from cruisers to frigates, paid off into reserve. This represents almost 20% of the USN, and is likely to see the reduction in size to barely 80 escorts within the next 2-3 years.

 This is a very significant reduction – it’s effectively the paying off of the equivalent of the entire RN surface flotilla without replacement. On current plans by 2015, then USN is going to have barely 60 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, and around 20 Ticonderoga class cruisers – both designs which date back to the late 1970s – early 1980s in concept, even if the interiors have been significantly updated in equipment since then.

 The worry is that the follow on programmes are hugely delayed – the so called littoral combat ships are according to some reports proving to be nowhere near as capable as intended, while the much larger follow on destroyer classes (known as DDX or Zumwalt class) appears to have nearly been killed off. Plans for 32 of the much larger Zumwalts have stalled, and are now scheduled to comprise only three hulls, of which the first was only laid down four months ago.

 This position means that the USN is reliant on an increasingly old series of escorts, many of which are now approaching their early twenties in age, and in turn based on a design which originates in the 1980s and which will be built until at least 2041 according to recent USN documents. This means the class could conceivably have a life span of almost 100 years from the first of class commissioning to the last of class paying off.

 The USN is now struggling to keep pace with the fact that its escort fleet is aging, that it has multiple carriers which require replacement at some point in the near future, and that its SSN fleet is also going to need updating soon as well. This must also be set against the reality that hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of cuts are inbound to the US defence budget, and that all three services have old and obsolescent equipment requiring replacement. It is hard to see how the US will be able to maintain its three services in their current levels of capability for much longer, and the worry is that a lot will have to give.

 Humphrey is increasingly of the opinion that we are witnessing the USA’s ‘east of Suez moment’ at which the US is faced with the same strategic challenges that all empires are faced with. The legions will be recalled from Europe soon, and this is going to leave a major series of security and other challenges that need to be filled. A future blog article is planned to look at the impact of the USN cuts, and what the impact may be on the RN and other navies.

 And Finally

Well it’s been a busy couple of weeks for Humphrey, and he is conscious that there have been fewer updates than usual. Hopefully this will be addressed soon, and further articles are planned which will look at some of the wider strategic issues facing the UK, as well as continuing to comment on the round of media articles and issues focusing on Defence. Until next time, toodle pip!