Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A short Pause...


Humphrey is finally about to head off on his very late Summer Holidays, and as such will be away from all forms of blogging for roughly three weeks while he travels to some exotic and remote destinations with only a fully loaded Kindle for company!
 
The next update will probably be on the weekend of 10-11 November.

 
 
 
 
 
 


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Commemoration of World War One and the future understanding of our past.

 
 
In a week dominated by defence matters, both business and personal, one story caught the authors eye as particularly thought provoking. It was announced that over £50 million of public funding will be provided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014. This high profile event will include commemoration, remembrance, and a chance for every school in the country to send students to the battlefields of the Western Front in order to see first-hand ‘Flanders Fields’.
 
Rarely do wars have such a dramatic impact on a national psyche, but the First world War continues to occupy a place in the heart of the British consciousness which will take generations to reduce. It is sobering to contemplate that across the whole of the UK, there were fewer than 50 ‘Thankful villages’ (locations where everyone who served came back alive). Even today, as a nation we have only just seen the last veterans of the conflict pass on, and there are still plenty of people alive who were born in this time. In Government, it is often forgotten that Lord Astor, who acts as the spokesman for Defence in the House of Lords, is the grandchild of Field Marshal Haig.  Even now, almost a century on, our current links to the war remain tangible.
 
Humphrey has long been a ‘revisionist’ when it comes to WW1, and believes that what should be remembered as not only a violent and bloody war, also represented many of the finest feats of arms in British history. While the conventional view of the 1960s and beyond was of a war that comprised senseless slaughter, where legions of troops were thrown into battle by an uncaring General Staff, the reality is far different. Arguably WW1 represented a supreme accomplishment by the General Staff, who had to take a tiny professional army, expend it and buy time using the TA to mould a new citizen based force, which within five years became the world’s most accomplished fighting force. They did this in a backdrop of expanding the military far beyond what any would have thought possible, while adapting to technological changes at a vast rate. By the start of the One Hundred Days campaign in 1918, there is no doubt that the British Army was probably the best trained equipped and operationally effective army in the world.
 
This is not to diminish the slaughter or the losses felt, but it often feels that the emphasis is too greatly placed on the hellish experiences of the trenches, and not that of understanding the war, nor decision making as a whole. It is perhaps telling that the most popular public memory of WW1 comes not from primary sources, but from the comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’, clips of which to this day brighten up innumerable MOD presentations.
 
As a nation we have found ourselves in a position where our public understanding and concept of the war is built primarily through either secondary media, or relying on accounts of individuals fighting in the trenches. We rightly seek to learn from what has happened, and try to appreciate the horror of the surroundings, but we seem to shy away from suggesting that the war was a success. It is a victory that we are almost ashamed of, and rather than seeking to project the losses in a construct of a hugely successful General Staff and national effort to support the front, instead seek to portray the senior leadership as senseless murders. It is only in recent years, through the likes of outstanding authors such as the late Richard Holmes, and the superlative Gary Sheffield, that there has been an effort to try to even the score. Even now though, efforts to suggest that commanders such as Douglas Haig were actually outstanding leaders and officers attract national scorn, and an almost guaranteed pasting on the Today show.
The Menin Gate (Copyright Author)
 This is to be set against the explosion of interest in the war by many young people. Humphrey remembers a trip to the First World War battlefields in the 1990s when he was a student, travelling with family to trace the battlefields where his own Great Grandfather served. Paying respects at the Menin Gate was a moving experience, but one that felt small and intimate. Returning last year on a staff ride, the whole experience felt almost diminished as legions of students, tourists and staff riders came together to pay their respects. Travelling to Ypres, one sees huge numbers of students who come to learn of where their Great-Great Grandparents served.
 
The issue though is one of understanding the context of the war – too many student parties seem to focus on why the war started, then assume that the troops marched into trenches and stayed there for the next four years. There are tales of young, well-meaning teachers making out that due to the relative lack of officers in graveyards, there was some conspiracy against the most junior troops, when in reality junior officers proportionately speaking suffered the highest casualty rates. In other words, as a nation we fixate too much on the low level, tactical experience, and teach our people that the war was a failure, and ignore the many good things that occurred. Humphrey worries that we teach tactical history, without the strategic context to back up and understand why things happened the way that they did.
 
What then is the relevance to the current generation? In the authors mind there is an interesting challenge emerging over the next 10-20 years which is going to impact on our understanding of conflicts that the UK has fought in.
 
Firstly, there is an issue of understanding – WW1 remains a key area of interest due to the way in which it touched the lives of millions of British families. For the first time ever, the UK as a whole mobilised to fight an industrial age war where vast societal and military changes occurred. In many ways the reason why the UK has the current societal structure it does is in no small way due to the changes that occurred during WW1 (e.g. women taking on new roles in industry, opening the way to winning the vote and true equality). Today though, if one reviews the sort of wars that have been fought since 1945, there is no sign of a citizenry which has engaged with conflict in the same way. Although there have been large sustained deployments, it has only impacted a much smaller group of people who have served in the military. At best maybe some 150,000 – 200,000 TELIC Medals were awarded for service in Iraq. This is just 0.03% of the population as a whole.
 
As time passes, and the military becomes ever smaller, the ability for the public to engage with and understand the military experience of war will change. A future military of barely 150,000 regular personnel is going to mean that few members of the public will ever know someone in the Armed Forces. How then is it possible to build an understanding of not only the experiences that people have been through, but also understand the context in which they operated. Future generations reviewing emails or letters may not get the subtleties, or the humour or the nuances in the same way. As a nation, our ability to understand what Defence does will become more difficult to achieve over time as we have less contact with those who defend us.
 
The next challenge is one of building an accurate historical record which serves as testimony to the operations. We have reached with multi-media a curious situation. As the ability to meet members of the armed forces reduces, the ability to share parts of their experiences grows. One only has to look on YouTube or other social media to find ‘Helmet Cam’ footage, showing the experiences of personnel on patrol or in action. It is possible for any member of the public to view this and see what it is like to be contacted, or to dodge bullets. It can never replicate the feelings of nervousness, or the desire to want to get low and the hope that the incoming rounds don’t hit you, all of which the author has experienced. But it does show to those who haven’t been there the sense of chaos and confusion that exists when contacts are underway. In one sense this is a great step forward, as a means of showing the experiences of the military and trying to give a snapshot of what life was like in TELIC or HERRICK.
The future record of conflict? - Helmet cam shots (Copyright unknown)
 
But on the other hand it is only a snapshot, and over time multi-media is likely to be the only public archive of footage about the war. The problem is that the likelihood of securing a coherent narrative of records from Government is likely to reduce.
 
Humphrey has a guilty secret. He loves going to the National Archives to research his area of interest, which is the planning for continuity of Government in the event of WW3. He has spent many happy hours wading through thick files of paperwork, often dating back to the 1950s and showing in chilling and minute detail how the British Government intended for some measure of control to survive, even after the unthinkable happened. There is an undeniable excitement in reading files marked ‘Top Secret’ which have handwritten notes annotated by Winston Churchill or Harold MacMillan, and seeing documents unseen to the public for nearly 60 years. He has particularly huge admiration for Sir Norman Brook, who as Cabinet Secretary oversaw the planning for this most unthinkable of contingencies.
 
This though occurred due to the meticulous use of paper filing; anyone who has served in the civil service is doubtless familiar with the old coloured files used to put paperwork away as a legacy document. The authors’ first job as a student was to spend a summer working as an E2 filing paperwork at the local MOD site, and archiving these files. It was possible on slow days to sit and read through an entire folder of material, showing why decisions had been reached, ranging from the initial proposals and staff work, through to the finished document. One was left with an abiding sense of understanding as to how a policy was formulated, and created.
 
Over the last few years though, there has been a move away from the use of these files, and instead a desire to use electronic filing systems. Theoretically documents should be saved and filed as before, only in electronic areas. In reality though, changes in IT systems, constantly changing ways of storing data, and most critically differing perceptions by individuals as to what is actually worth saving.
 
The finest repository of information in the world - the National Archives (copyright unknown)
 
In the past, documents could be filed by administration staff and kept as a record for posterity. Now it is very much the place of the individual to decide whether or not a document should be kept, or uploaded. Putting a document on the wrong location could make the difference between it being shared for posterity, or only being read by one person. Similarly, the move to creating single versions of documents means that it is much harder to see information as it evolves – whereas before one could see the different drafts and understand the thought processes and views, now at best it is common to see ‘track changes’ being used, or at worst, a single ‘polished’ product available without the underpinning drafts.
 
While over time people will adapt to the new systems and develop a means of ensuring documents are recorded for posterity, this author cannot help but worry that many of the documents from the late 1990s to the latter part of the 2000s may have been lost or overwritten in various IT upgrades. In 30 years’ time, what documents will be released as part of the annual Public Records Office release? Is there going to be swathes of files, which set out how the UK chose to agree on a specific policy or course of action, or will the files be much sparser, and reliant on diligent, but isolated, staff officers and civil servants uploading information to become a permanent record. If the latter then there is a real possibility that our national understanding of what we have done as a nation will be weakened – no longer will historians be able to go through extensive files and see the trials and arguments between Ministers or civil servants, and understand why some decisions ended up being taken. Instead our future historical narrative is very much in the hands of people who had the time and technological understanding to save information for the future. One cannot help but wonder whether in our rush to embrace the great IT future; we may have sacrificed a great deal of our future understanding of the past.
 
In one hundred years’ time, what will the historical record look like for Afghanistan or Iraq? Humphrey suspects it will be taught (if it is taught) through the medium of diaries and recollections of those who have served at the front. It will be difficult to teach the policy understanding, or to set out the rationale for why some courses of action occurred, because these files may well be sketchy in some places. What impact will this have on our consciousness – although the number of deaths is mercifully small compared to previous wars, the ability to see and experience the war through multimedia is much greater than before. It is possible that the future UK understanding of Afghanistan will not come through a concise collection of factual documents and policy papers, lovingly assessed by historians, but by people watching intimate YouTube footage of very young men fighting for their lives, but without being able to understand from official records why this situation occurred.
 
There is no easy solution to this issue. In time people will come to embrace electronic filing and it is likely that record keeping will (hopefully!) improve. But there is always a danger that there will be something of a black hole in the records for some time. It is essential that people try to store recollections of material, both officially and unofficially. For instance, the author has followed in his Grandfathers footsteps and placed his ‘war story’ emails from his time on HERRICK with the Imperial War Museum, and been interviewed for his recollections as a young mid ranking staff officer serving in an HQ. The recollections are not particularly interesting, but they serve as a counterpoint to the immensely front line focused collection of material one often sees on the net, or published in books. In time this collection of emails will show what life was like in an HQ, although whether they are seen as a statement of fact, or a subjective account of someone being very tired, frustrated and keen to see loved ones again is not clear. In a small way, his experiences will help build our national narrative and understanding of how events and policies unfolded. Much as today, Humphrey can open a number of books by well-known authors which draw on his grandfather’s wartime accounts as a very normal Private soldier, he too hopes to see his experiences preserved for our national memory. If you as a reader know of people who have served in HERRICK, then do encourage them to talk to the Imperial War Museum. They are doing an excellent job at storing these recollections, and it is vital that all who served there, and not just those who were on the front lines, try to offer up memories, as without them our future generations ability to understand what happened there is reduced.
 
The future holds many challenges for the MOD, but it is vital that whatever happens, a legacy is preserved for the nation so as to set out why the UK became the nation it did. Without this understanding of the past, we run the risk of being unable to comprehend our course for the future.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Generalist, not specialist - thoughts on the West Coast saga


The news this week has been dominated by the announcement that civil servants were allegedly responsible for the collapse of the deal to transfer operations on the West Coast Mainline from Virgin Trains to First Group. Reportedly the problems stemmed down to systemic errors by civil servants, some of whom have been suspended. This whole saga has focused attention on the civil service, and questions are being asked as to whether the system is able to generate civil servants of sufficient calibre to be able to handle immensely complex projects. Humphrey has followed the debate with interest for although he has no knowledge of the deal, nor the department in question, he does feel that this has focused a spotlight on the real challenges facing the civil service, and particularly the MOD, today.

The key issue, in the authors mind at least, is that todays civil service seems heavily weighted in favour of developing generalist desk officers, and not deep specialists. In the MOD at least career structures are theoretically built around four broad bands, listed below as an example of the career structures in place:

Grades E2, E1, D: Entry level administration work, basic management of small sections, some budgetary responsibility. Fundamentally the classic admin roles that is the stereotypical image of civil servants. Well over half of the MOD CS (some 30,000 staff) sits within these grades. Salary ranges from £15,000 – roughly £25,000 at top end of D band scale.
 
Grade C2 – C1: Middle management. Promotion to this grade achieved by short assessment and competence based interview. These sort of roles involve project management roles, policy making roles, some management and also home to many specialist areas such as intelligence analysts. Salary ranges from £26,000 to roughly £44,000. Roughly 16,000 MOD civil servants at this level in 2011, but this is dropping dramatically.  

Grade B2 – B2: Seen by some as the first point of ‘senior management’, but perhaps better described as the funnel between the mainstream grades and the senior civil service. Promotion to this grade is via complex assessment process held over several months. The level at which individuals are leading teams, running major projects, or acting as senior civil servant overseeing wide range of functions, particularly at some major bases. Salary range is roughly £45,000 - £55,000 for a B2, and £58,000 – almost £70,000 for a B1. There were roughly 1800 B2 and 700 B1 posts in 2011, but again, numbers are dropping considerably.

Senior Civil Service (Grade 1-4, analogous to the 1-4* system): Entry is by competitive selection through long assessment process over several months. At this point individuals sit within a much wider pan government plot, and are expected to provide leadership of wide ranging areas, run directorates, budgets and business areas. They would typically lead large teams with multiple smaller assistant heads. At the most senior levels (Grade 3 or 4) they occupy roles of strategic leadership. The MOD PUS is an SCS Grade 4. In 2011 there were 270 SCS, and this number will fall considerably.

 
What is immediately clear is that there are three main ‘choke points’ in a civil service career – the jump from Band D to Band C, then to B2, and finally to the SCS. The vast majority of civil servants will never get beyond Band C1 – even in 2011, there were 83,000 MOD civil servants and under 2000 were at Band B or above. (All sources taken from the DASA website – click HERE for the link)
 
So, why does this matter for civil service expertise? From the authors’ perspective, the problem seems to be one of growing talent internally and then retaining it. The much vaunted Fast stream, which is the most well-known entry point to the CS, brings very small numbers of recruits into the system at Band C2, then aims to have them pass the B2 selection process within 6-8 years. This produces a generation of talent who will move posts regularly (6 months – 1 year) and gain exposure of a wide range of business areas, in order to develop sufficient skills so as to be able to pass the B2 (or wider govt equivalent) assessment process. The Fast-stream is able to put money into training its staff to a high level, and sending them on a wide range of development courses and opportunities in an attempt to pass the selection process and then occupy high profile positions in the future, ahead of entering the SCS in their late thirties to early forties.
 
The challenge is that for the rest of the MOD, no such career management or access to training exists. Career moves are self-managed, with individuals finding posts through internal trawls and moving when it suits their interests. Site moves are usually not funded, meaning the individual has to pay a lot of money to change location to move on promotion for development. Similarly training budgets are usually the first thing to be slashed – despite best intentions, this authors personal experience is that it is nearly impossible to get training in specific roles – either the courses no longer run, or the T&S funding cannot be sourced to support a course away from the office.
 
What this means is that for the vast majority of civil servants, a situation has arisen where there is next to no career development opportunity, and almost no professional training. While the specifics of the West Coast situation are unknown to the author, one must ask how much training the individuals in question actually received.
 
So, the first lesson to take away from this experience is that the quality of the civil servant you get is directly linked to the amount you are willing to invest in training. It may be worth asking whether the civil service as a whole is suffering due to a reduced investment in training.  
 
 
Upward transfer of risk
The next challenge facing the civil service is the seemingly inexorable upward transfer of risk away from desk officers. The electronic office is a wonderful thing, enabling infinitely improved ways of sharing information and passing documents around. But, it does come at a cost – it is often much easier to pass work to colleagues, or seniors and ‘just copy them in’ to a document, rather than staff internally then issue for comments.
 
In some ways this is a good thing, but Humphrey worries that there is a growing tendency to delegate risk upwards. Rather than taking decisions at an appropriate level, even relatively experienced civil servants now seem to push routine matters to B2/Grade 7 level, or even higher, in an effort to get resolution or even approval. This authors’ worry is that it is a little too tempting to copy ones senior official into an email chain, and ask them for a decision, rather than actually make a decision and inform them in due course.
 
Is there a growing danger that as this culture increases, it will become ever harder for civil servants to actually take decisions at most working levels, without referring further up the chain? How will newly promoted B2 or SCS Grade 1 staff cope when taking up posts if for their whole careers they’ve never been in a position of real decision taking responsibility? Having spent their careers to date pushing decisions up the chain, they suddenly seem to reach the nexus where real decisions have to be made – will they be sufficiently skilled or able to cope with this?
 
One cannot help but wonder whether some of the more embarrassing civil service mistakes in the last few years owe something to the culture of sending information to a senior for a decision, then an overworked official who is at a nexus of receiving this sort of request, is either too overworked to make a decision in sufficient time, or without sufficient subject knowledge. Could mistakes be rooted in a culture of expecting ones senior to decide what to do, and not being willing (or able) to seize the initiative and make something happen?
 
Generalist not Specialist
One issue which is a challenge is the way in which the civil service seems to aspire to being a meritocracy, where all are encouraged to become generalists, transferring about the system to develop in different business areas, without putting down too many roots. In theory, someone joining the civil service today as an E Grade could, with the right support and development, aspire to become a Fast-streamer and eventually become PUS.
 
A common comment the author hears is that the system appears to not encourage people becoming deep experts in their fields. Rather than encouraging staff to develop long term skills and abilities in one business area, staff are pushed to move about to develop their ‘core competences’ to demonstrate their suitability for promotion. It is nearly impossible to become a C Band or B Band civil servant without moving across several business areas. This is fine for those with the funds to afford the mobility required to meet this commitment, but most people simply cannot afford to do this. Friends of the author comment that they feel their career (at whatever grade) has hit a brick wall because they cannot afford to move house or location to start a new job. Others enjoy their line of work, often in niche areas, and would like to develop within it and over time aspire to becoming a C grade head of department. But, because they have not been able to develop their competences more broadly, they are unable to do so, and would not be able to pass an interview to do so.
 
Here lies a real challenge in the system. Civil servants are encouraged to develop as generalists, but outside the Fast stream no funding is available to let them move location. If they do move to develop, there is no guarantee that they will ever go back to (or can afford to go back to) their first location as a more senior member of staff and use their skills and knowledge to effectively manage the business area.
 
The system needs to develop some way of enabling people to stay in one business area, but feel they have opportunities for career development – this way it ensures continuity of knowledge, with a credible pool of personnel who will stay in an area for years, if not decades, while feeling they have sufficient development and promotion opportunities to sustain a career. This may in turn provide a reduced chance of the sort of mistakes which occurred in other departments, as experienced individuals can spot problems before they emerge, nipping them in the bud rather than seeing them in the Sun.
 
If Humphrey could put forward one ‘good idea’, he would strongly advocate the introduction of a ‘specialist’ grade scheme. Allow civil servants to nominate themselves as generalists or specialists in specific areas – then nominate whether a post is a general or specialist post. For those C or B grade Posts nominated as Specialist, a different set of recruitment criteria should be applied, enabling people with technical knowledge, or Project Management skills and not generalist knowledge to compete effectively for them. This small step would reintroduce a credible career path for the many mid level civil servants who want a career, but who do not want to leave their home or area in order to do so, or who do not want to go through the years of preparation required to pass the B2 selection process. It would not undermine the Fast stream, but would ensure that the system produced genuine experts in different areas rather than relying on a generalist with a broad background. This seems to work well for the Military, where different branches have various number of tied slots of OF5 or 1* level, allowing members to credibly aspire to certain posts relevant to their own aspirations.
 
 
Avoiding the Mid Career Blues?
One major issue is that of producing a civil service with sufficient technical staff who are motivated to remain in it, rather than leaving for the private sector. One has to wonder how many errors occur because the staff that knew the answer had left to go to the private sector, rather than remain in the system.
 
Paying public servants more is never a popular decision, and one sure way to get the tabloid press baying for blood. But the problem remains that the civil service has to try and attract a broad range of capabilities. Personally this author thinks the challenge isn’t at the lower ends of the spectrum, where pay for E and D grade workers seems to compare very fairly to the private sector. The challenge is for those in the C and B grades – people who have experience, expertise and knowledge, but who are hitting the point in their life where their salaries are being left behind.
 
No matter how rewarding a civil service career is, when you are being paid £26,000 per year to do project management work, with tens of thousands of redundancies, no prospect of career development, and a frozen pay progression system, then moving to the private sector suddenly becomes a tempting prospect. The system needs to work out how to retain talent – and also how to bring it in at a more senior level too.
 
The author has friends who would love to come to join the civil service, and who have a superb range of skills gleaned from years in the private sector. They’ve looked into joining and realised that to transfer in (assuming there was a job opening) would mean incurring a £50 - £100,000 paycut. The very best talent at mid management level cannot afford to leave the private sector and join the civil service. Similarly, the system is not set up to recruit those with experience, or those who leave and then want to come back in later. How does one create a system of bringing in the very best external talent to work for the civil service, without using contractors, and without incurring a vastly more expensive paybill?
 
 
Summary
There is no right answer to this issue. Humphrey remains proud to be a civil servant, and its incredibly embarrassing to read of the sort of errors which occurred in the West Coast saga. To the authors minds, the issue is trying to address how one retains and develops deep experience within a system which excels at producing a small number of generalist SCS each year, but which seems less good at producing deep experts who feel motivated to remain.
 
Not everyone wants an MOD civil service career – many staff are very happy in their own world, doing their job and going home each day. But the system has to try to provide a means of developing staff hungry for success, and retaining their skills in the right area. The civil service is good, but with some minor tinkering it could be even greater.
 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Corsican Lion roars - Thoughts on the COUGAR 12 deployment


There was a brief flurry of announcements last week that the Royal Navy would be conducting a deployment into the Med with the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), to conduct exercises with a range of partner nations across the region (the official MOD press release can be found here - http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/News-and-Events/Latest-News/2012/September/27/120921-Cougar-Preview).

This is a not insignificant deployment – sending some 3500 personnel into the Med represents roughly 10% of the Naval Services manpower total strength. At the same time, it is also being done while the RN continues to fill its other key deployments, such as the Atlantic Patrol Task, and operations in the Gulf. While this blog has never tried to put itself across as a ‘fanboy’ site, it is worth noting that there are very, very few navies in the world capable of sustaining on a permanent basis the number of operational deployments and training deployments that the RN does.

The news of COUGAR 12 matters in several ways. Firstly, it is a good way to test one of the flagship announcements of the SDSR – namely the forming up of the RFTG. The role of this organisation is to provide a worked up interventionary force, able to provide the Government with a range of power projection capabilities ranging from naval gunfire support, through to air support and landing of Marines. In 2011, on its inaugural deployment, the force was able to support operations in Libya, playing a crucial role in the UKs campaign efforts. This marks the second time a large number of units have formed up under the RFTG banner.

The news of the deployment is impressive when one considers the operational tempo seen by the UK military this year – fresh from deploying 20,000 troops in support of the Olympics, and while operations in the Gulf, Afghanistan and the rest of the world permanently occupy the best part of 12-13000 troops elsewhere, the UK is still able to conduct a major amphibious exercise in the Med. Most militaries would have needed a long break before being able to return to contingent capability after something as complex as the Olympics, so it is useful reminder that despite being smaller than in the past, the UK still possesses considerable capability.

From an operational perspective though, the deployment matters as it seems to signal the quiet return to contingent capability, and a desire to focus on life beyond OP HERRICK. It is perhaps faintly ironic that having spent years acquiring probably the worlds second most capable amphibious force, with HMS OCEAN, the ALBION class and the BAYS, the UK promptly found itself embroiled in operations in a landlocked country. For the best part of a decade the majority of the Royal Marines have been engaged in supporting Ops TELIC and HERRICK, and there has been perhaps slightly less focus on the amphibious role – with the decision rightly taken to support the ongoing operation and not preparing for a hypothetical one.

The COUGAR series of deployments marks the first major steps back into the regeneration of the Royal Marines as a large scale amphibious force. SDSR cut the requirement for landing troops ashore considerably, but there remains a need to land up to roughly 1800 Marines as part of UK contingent capability. While the Corps was tied up with the OP HERRICK plot, this was a challenge to practise. Amphibious operations are not remotely easy to do – even basic evolutions like getting loaded marines from their bunkspaces to the right landing craft take time and effort to practise. By the time you find yourself trying to land 1800 troops, using a range of landing craft, helicopters and other capabilities, then suddenly the whole process becomes a remarkably complicated evolution. It now looks as if the UK will be able to start exercising at a much higher level than has been practised for some years during this evolution.

This ties into the wider delivery of the goals of the SDSR – never forget that while many focused purely on the short term reduction of personnel and platforms, SDSR was actually about delivering a force capable of providing expeditionary warfare capabilities as its heart. The move towards COUGAR and other exercises serves as a reminder that OP HERRICK is beginning to draw to a close, and that resources previously tied into the commitments plot are suddenly becoming available again. COUGAR serves as a useful reminder that while OP HERRICK remains the Defence Main Effort, there is now increasingly an eye being cast onto the 2015-2020 phase of the SDSR and delivering a force which is affordable and capable of conducting expeditionary operations.

A glance at the list of units participating in COUGAR is also illuminating – firstly, one notes the lack of any RFA tankers or stores ships. This is a task force which will be utterly reliant on shore support, or other nations tankers and supply vessels to remain at sea. This is probably the first time in memory that an RN task force has deployed to sea without a tanker or store ship as an integral part of its force. While the Med is to all intents a very friendly region, and the UK has a naval base in the area at Gibraltar, and support facilities in Cyprus, if something changed and the force had to deploy further afield, then things may become more challenging. This serves as a reminder that in future, an RN of only three store ships and six tankers, is going to have to make very tough choices between supporting single ship operations at distance, or supporting multi-ship exercises nearer to home.

Additionally the presence of the Apache is also interesting – the Apache force is increasingly playing a role at the heart of UK maritime strike roles, and this is not something that can be just spun up overnight. Exercises like COUGAR are vital to iron out bugs and demonstrate capability, and act on lessons identified from previous operations. The COUGAR deployment highlights the importance of joint working, and we are likely to see further such examples in future.

The final point is the programme – COUGAR is about working with other nations to improve our ability to operate with them in the real world. There will be plenty of opportunities to improve relations with the French, and other NATO partners. But perhaps the most exciting opportunity is the chance to improve relations with nations such as Algeria, with whom the UK rarely works, but where an exercise programme might open the door to better co-operation, and future opportunities (both defence and commercial). These sort of exercises can have a huge impact on relations between the UK and other nations, and often play a very beneficial effect.

So, although its only an exercise, and although there are plenty of other higher profile operations going on at the moment, COUGAR 12 is worthy of note. It reaffirms the UKs capabilities, commitment to the wider Med region and also demonstrates that despite being very, very busy, the UK is still more than able to deploy a wide range of military capability to carry out operations at some distance from home. There are likely to be plenty of other exercises like this in the coming years as the UK moves on from HERRICK and instead focuses on a future force optimised for short term intervention. This is really just the beginning!