Tuesday, 29 April 2014

For Your (Scottish) Eyes Only - intelligence and security in an independent Scotland


The UK Government has published its assessment on the benefits to Scotland of remaining part of the UK when it comes to defence and security matters (link is HERE). As part of this review, it highlighted the value to Scotland (and the UK as a whole) that comes from being supported by the existing security and intelligence agencies. The paper rightly noted that Scotland would have to set up from scratch a security and intelligence apparatus in order to preserve their national interests. This would be time consuming and expensive to do. It is worth considering briefly just how significant a change to Scottish security would be if it were no longer able to rely on access to the UK apparatus, and just how exposed this could potentially leave Scottish interests.

At present the UK security and intelligence apparatus is built through several different institutions and sets of relationships. On the practical side there is the actual collection organisations – the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6 and which handles Human Intelligence matters. There is GCHQ, which handles communications intelligence, both from the traditional interception role (in both the classic listening to signals, and also handling cyber security) and also the equally critical cyber defence role to provide assurance of protection to UK national infrastructure. Finally there is the Security Service (MI5) which handles domestic security and counter terrorism work – although in reality there is often significant blurring between the boundaries of all three organisations. At a lower level there is also an extensive police and border security intelligence function, which helps provide predominantly criminal related intelligence. Additionally there is a comprehensive military intelligence community built across all three services which encompasses both collection and analysis organisations, primarily to support military operations, but also working in support of wider UK requirements too.

Supporting the collection effort the UK also possesses a strong analytical community, which includes Defence Intelligence, which acts as a centre of excellence for analytical assessment of material collected, and also the Cabinet Office which is home to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which sets the requirements and priorities for intelligence collection and provides overarching assessments on intelligence matters.

The UK is lucky enough to also enjoy a strong intelligence relationship with what is commonly known as the ‘Five-Eyes’ community. This grouping comprises the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and has its roots in the intelligence sharing built up during the Second World War. Formalised as a relationship during the early cold war, this grouping is perhaps the ‘crown jewels’ of the world’s intelligence community – providing a genuinely collaborative environment where all five countries are able to share material and work together far more closely than any other nation on the planet.

Backing this up, the UK also benefits from its membership of both NATO and the EU, which also provide intelligence functions. One of the often forgotten benefits is that member states of NATO and the EU are often able to pool material together to form products which can be shared and discussed with other member nations. This matters a great deal as in the early 21st Century, no country can be a master of the entire globe, able to collect and analyse against every conceivable threat. By working together, it is possible for member states, particularly smaller ones to specialise in one or two specific areas of interest, and offer this material into an alliance on a basis whereby they get access to other work they’d never otherwise be able to support.

The challenge though is that intelligence sharing is a process built on trust and confidence. While many nations in the world enjoy close diplomatic relations with one another, the intelligence community is part of it where most nations are far more reticent to expose their capabilities. To offer to share assessment or intelligence means exposing your own national capabilities, where you may be interested in conducting collection or assessment work, and also exposing it to another party which could easily betray this confidence. In some ways intelligence sharing is akin to having a discussion in a relationship where you expose all your dirty sordid little secrets and fantasies to someone else, knowing that another person now has a significant hold over you – you only do it when you implicitly trust the person in question.

The traditional view of intelligence gathering?

It is reasonable to say, based on the material publicly available, that the UK enjoys a strong relationship with a range of countries and alliance partners. This is a relationship built on trust, and one which has been built over many years, if not decades, of understanding and agreement. Not least because over this time the UK has proven itself to be a reliable partner of choice which can be trusted with material, and which brings a range of valuable assets and capabilities to the relationship.

A newly independent Scotland would have none of these advantages at all. The first challenge facing it would be to work out what level of security and intelligence capability it needs, and what it could actually afford. In practical terms, there would need to be a decision on whether Scotland wanted or needed a capability which looked beyond its own borders, and whether this was about pure assessment (e.g. using open source material) or whether there was a need for collection too. Establishing a collection agency is not cheap – it requires years of work to get to the point where it has the access it needs, the material it needs and the pool of staff it requires. While there may be some ex SIS or GCHQ staff who wish to join, it will take a significant and sustained investment to create a meaningful collection organisation which generates material of value.

The next issue is what does Scotland do with its material, and who can it talk to? Once independence occurs, Scotland is going to be cut off from the 5 EYES, NATO and EU feeds of material, meaning that it will suddenly have no intelligence reports other than those which it can generate, or which is occasionally shared by other nations. It is exceptionally unlikely that Scotland would gain admission to the 5 EYES community – considering New Zealand was expelled for its policy on nuclear armed ships in their waters, it is hard to see any support for admitting a newly independent nation which will have just caused significant damage to the continuation of the Nuclear Deterrent (impacting on both UK and NATO nuclear deterrence). It is worth considering that despite massive global changes, in nearly 70 years no new country has been admitted to 5 EYES on a full time basis.

Given, it appears highly unlikely that Scotland will be a member of either the EU or NATO on independence, this immediately means that it will not be eligible to receive any material produced by either organisation. Instead it will have to negotiate bilateral sharing agreements until such point as it is admitted to both organisations. Such agreements are two-way – nations may have remarkably strong diplomatic relationships, but this doesn’t automatically translate into a desire to share intelligence. A newly independent Scotland will need to demonstrate that in receiving this material, it is trustworthy (e.g. material it sees is purely for the host Government and will not be seen or used further), that it can safeguard the material (e.g. appropriate physical and electronic security measures are in place to protect it from compromise) and that it has something worthy of being traded in return. While it is nice to think that some countries will be benevolent to Scotland and perhaps expose intelligence of interest, the reality is that like any other newly independent nation, other countries will be watching closely to see if Scotland is a safe bet to do business with. Any hint that material shared could be compromised and the shutters will come down in an instant.


A cynical view of intelligence...


What this means in reality is an independent Scotland will in intelligence terms be blind for the first couple of years, if not longer? It will have to work hard to prove itself a credible international partner, and one worthy of discussions and sharing material with. In the intervening period an independent Scotland will find itself dangerously reliant on the largesse of other powers in order to build a credible understanding of its own security challenges.

While it is easy to say ‘but what does Scotland NEED intelligence for’, and then assume that all this sort of business is linked to spies drinking vodka tonics in the tropics, the reality is more mundane. Being switched off from the wider intelligence community means, for example, that an independent Scotland will have no forewarning (unless another nation feels generous) that a Russian Naval task force has sailed and is 48 hours away from anchoring in the Moray Firth. It will not get the full insight into international crises which are emerging which could have an impact on Scottish Foreign Policy objectives. It will not necessarily receive the full level of information on domestic terrorist threats or other such risks. In other words, an independent Scotland, bereft of alliances will find itself reliant on the internet and other open source media to pull together much of the analysis and assessment that is required to inform policy making. More crucially, unless it can generate the material itself, Scotland is going to be reliant on others goodwill to inform it as to what may be going on just over the horizon.

This isn’t just a question of protecting against existential threats to Scottish homeland security. The aspiration in the proposed SDF appears to be to have a force capable of deploying when required in support of international operations. This raises the question of whether the security and intelligence apparatus which will be created is capable of properly supporting them – it is one thing to have a frigate and a desire to sail it into a danger area. It is another to not have access to a fully supported intelligence organisation capable of advising on risks, on potential hostile forces, on capabilities of their likely opponents and most importantly their intentions. Supporting this is the development of a proper secure communications infrastructure capable of providing encrypted communications that can send this sort of material to and from the operation. While not remotely glamorous, the investment required to support a credible deployed expeditionary capability, even when working as part of a multi-national task force is expensive and requires a lot of money to keep going.

A final thought worth remembering is that the sort of skills and training required to be a good collector or analyst do not come cheaply. Many of the smaller NATO nations rely heavily on access to the training schools where resources, techniques and training is shared. To establish an independent training programme would be very expensive and take resources off other tasks. Similarly, the Scots are going to have to invest in secure communications from the outset – quite literally on the first day of independence they will no longer have access to the highly secure UK government networks, and will instead have to rely on their own crypto methods. This could make their communications immensely vulnerable until such point as a truly secure Scottish capability is set up to ensure the integrity of the IT networks. This may sound like nitpicking, but it is unlikely that either NATO or the EU would support accession unless they were confident that IT security and physical security measures were in place to protect against compromise. A newly independent Scotland may find itself landed with a very large bill to put sufficient measures in place to ensure it can properly protect NATO and EU material.

This is not to say that it could not be done – far from it. An independent Scotland will have greatly diminished interests and responsibilities, and is unlikely to need a major intelligence or security capability. But, it is worth remembering that it is a leap of faith in the security of Scottish citizens, who will suddenly be living in a much more exposed society, at much greater risk. While no one envisages a sudden invasion from overseas, the harsh fact is that an independent Scotland will have practically no means of being aware of what is going on inside its borders, let alone outside them.


It is perhaps appropriate to finish by imagining the conversation the chief of the new Scottish Intelligence Service would have to have with the new Prime Minister of Scotland on the first day of independence. The questions that would be asked are 'who/what/where is the threat', 'where do you want our attention to focus' 'who can we talk to for liaison purposes', 'what is the legal position on collection both here and abroad', and most importantly 'what resources do we have to make this happen'… There is no simple answer to any of those questions, but it would be perhaps useful to consider what the response would be. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Into Africa (Part 1) - UK Defence engagement in Africa

Of all the continents on Earth, Africa represents perhaps the one with the greatest potential, resources and pool of talent of any. But this is counterbalanced by a hugely complex, often chaotic collection of nation states, intertwined with incredibly complex social, political and economic problems, which often pose a wider challenge to regional and global stability.

For the UK Africa remains a continent which has traditionally occupied a relatively low priority in terms of manpower and resource allocation. Yet in the 21st Century, the UK model of commitment to Africa offers a good insight into how the MOD can help support wider UK goals in the region, on a relatively low commitment of resource, but achieve effects significantly greater than the sum of its parts. There is no doubt that Africa is an immensely complex and challenging region to understand. From a purely military perspective, the continent has everything from barely functioning defence forces struggling to achieve basic military tasks through to those with relatively advanced capabilities, and able to deploy at a distance across the continent or beyond. 

The UK has long maintained a somewhat discrete approach to engagement in Africa. Unlike the French, who still maintain a fairly substantial network of post-colonial era bases in former colonies, the UK never sought to maintain any fixed garrisons or sovereign bases after the Colonial era came to an end. Instead the only area where the UK has maintained a consistent presence is in Kenya, where the British Army has maintained a small training team since the 1960s, which has managed access to a substantial training estate. Beyond this, the UK approach can best be characterised as defence attaches, training teams and maritime presence.

Africa is one continent where the presence of a Defence Attaché can make an enormous difference to maintaining effective defence relationships. The UK has a relatively modest presence, fluctuating from nation to nation over time, but currently around 15 posts in total (although this regularly changes depending on politics and budgets). The role of the DA is fairly straightforward –act as the liaison point between the UK and host nation (and wider accredited nations) military forces, and try to foster strong links. In practical terms this can range from ensuring overflight access, support for adventure training, helping secure local training and keeping abreast of military developments. More broadly, much of what they do is around ensuring that the UK can engage with senior military figures in a country, and help build effective working relationships. Some such relationships can be essential – for instance ensuring that RN warships are able to transit the Suez Canal without any difficulty.

The traditional view of UK defence engagement in Africa?

Why does this matter though? At its simplest, the ability to gain access to senior officers provides a useful insight into how a nation is thinking on issues. It helps the UK gently offer advice on their views about how issues could be overcome (for instance procurement requirements or training problems). It enables a dialogue to go on with officers who can be exceptionally influential in determining the direction of events in a country. By getting to understand and build strong relationships, the DA can help steer a bilateral military relationship – one thing that has often impressed the author is the depth of attachment and esteem in which many nations genuinely value their relationship with the UK armed forces. The presence of a DA can often help improve these relationships, enabling better liaison, access for training and helping show UK solutions to capability requirements. Finally, a DA can often provide situational awareness and advise on developing crises with professional military judgement – this can be invaluable in determining the nature of an HMG response to a problem.

In addition to the DA network, there is also a small number of training teams designed to provide a permanent presence in the region to help bolster regional stability (British Army webpage links are HERE). At present, these are based in Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The role of each team subtly varies depending on the host nation, but each has a similar model – provide training, guidance and experience to help address gaps in regional military capability, and enable them to meet the demanding challenges of modern operations. The location of these teams has changed over time - in the immediate post Colonial era, there were a number in the continent designed to build capability up for local military forces (for instance the original UK mission in Ghana was nearly 250 strong in the early 1960s). Similarly others have shut due to budget cuts or changes in regime (for instance the BMATT in Zimbabwe), although speaking to officers from nations where there has been a BMATT, it is clear that many lament their passing and the loss of training, experience and value they offer. Although small, a well placed training team can often generate far more influence and access for the UK than a dozen armoured regiments based back in the UK... One paper the author came across while researching this article can be found HERE - its an ISS Africa paper dating back to the early 1990s and talks about the UK training team experiences. Obviously the paper should be read in line with the standards and experiences of the time, but it does provide an interesting insight into the experiences and value that the BMATT can bring. 

The training and capacity challenge - preparing for operations in Somalia

Capacity building is absolutely crucial to this – a well placed training team, able to energise, inspire and train a cadre of students can make a large difference to an often small military (a good recent example being the deployment in the short term to Mali of training teams to help improve capacity). It is worth remembering that many African armed forces are short on resources and capability, and cannot always do basic things that other military forces take for granted. For example, in Kenya the Army is able to run a training team on mine clearance – a major problem in that part of the world, and one which can have debilitating effects on local stability (e.g. loss of life, long term injuries and the loss of grazing or economically viable areas). By providing this training, the BMATT/ Peace Support Team is able to help increase capacity of local forces and indirectly improve the quality of life, and hopefully stability, of their nations. 

Similarly, a great deal of work has gone into Sierra Leone to help improve the capability of its armed forces to help them secure the country again. This work is long and time consuming – you cannot rebuild a shattered military overnight, but it is something which goes a long way to providing a credible security capability for a nation recovering from a brutal civil war. The message is also extremely powerful – namely that the UK is able to provide training and support for its friends, and hopefully at the same time instil a strong sense of discipline and standards in their armed forces which will continue. This may not be high profile or attention grabbing, but the deployment of a small team of trainers is often far cheaper and more practical in the long term, than a short notice crisis intervention like OP PALLISER in 2000, where the UK essentially had to take over running of Sierra Leone for a short period to help restore order. While such an operation may make people feel good about UK military prowess, surely it is far better to try and prevent the situation occurring in the first place through well placed training?

There is also a regular series of training detachments for a short period of time into various countries – for instance, in Uganda in 2011 there were almost 60 short training exercises to help improve the capability of the Ugandan armed forces as part of their preparation for UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia (link is HERE). This, coupled with other similar deployments means that a small platoon sized deployment can often achieve a very positive impact in training a military which would otherwise be deploying on operations without sufficient preparation. This sort of exercise can make a real difference in helping secure stability for the region, as local peacekeeping forces are better able to handle some of the more challenging aspects of peacekeeping, and in turn this reduces the reliance on Western forces to deploy or shoulder a greater burden.  A similar example occurs in Morocco, where the JEBEL SAHARA series of exercises provide an excellent opportunity for the RAF, Army (including Gibraltar Regiment) and other units to exercise in the region and work with the Moroccans.

Defence engagement in action - UK training in Africa
The final land part of the UK commitment comes from the long term presence in Kenya of the British Army training areas there. This exercise area has grown increasingly important to the Army, particularly during Operation HERRICK where it was used for a large amount of pre-deployment training for units deploying to theatre. There is a very substantial and regular throughput of UK troops in Kenya, and a great deal of investment has gone into the training areas out there to make them as capable as possible. While there are no permanent garrison type forces attached to Kenya as such, it is a useful reminder that there is a routine and regular presence in the country which gains significantly from the training opportunities on offer.

More widely, the UK has a regular maritime presence in the region, with Royal Navy ships regularly calling into West African ports on their way down to the Falkland Islands, helping participate in a series of capability building exercises, working with local nations to better improve their coastguard and naval training, and also reduce the risk of piracy. In recent years there have been very regular visits by RN vessels along the whole of the West coast, although the RN has long since scrapped the short lived ‘West Africa Guardship’ which appeared to be a short lived standing commitment in the pre-SDR days of deploying a frigate into the region. Similarly on the East coast the RN is an active participant in counter-piracy operations, with vessels conducting operations from the Red Sea all the way through to the Gulf, and also down the Indian Ocean coast. Although piracy attacks are reduced from what they once were, there is still a clear risk, which the RN plays a part in tackling. Additionally the RNR Maritime Trade Operations branch has played a hugely import, but little recognised role in helping provide guidance to merchant shipping both in the Red Sea and also off the West Coast of Africa, where this small but essential capability is helping make a real difference to merchant ships safety.

So, as we draw to the end of part one, the view on UK commitment to Africa is that it is dispersed, often full of individuals in isolated locations and often doing work which is a long way removed from the traditional glamour of what some like to see as a classic military role. There is no real permanent basing footprint beyond the exercise facilities in Kenya, but there is a surprising level of low level defence engagement. It’s a long way removed from the ORBATS and fantasy fleet exercises often associated with the Internet, but it does play a crucial part in ensuring UK national security.

In part two of the article, it will explore what the value is from defence engagement in Africa, why it matters to the UK, what sort of things can make a difference  and will consider the wider long term options for commitment to the continent and what the next few years may hold for UK commitment  to the region and what model could potentially work best. It will in particular consider the lessons of Mali, for which the author has deliberately not mentioned in this part of the article. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Falklands, exercises and tactical nuclear penguins...

Over the years Humphrey has become somewhat cynical of the news cycle about Defence. Most weeks of the year see the same cyclical series of stories about how the UK is no longer relevant, how the RN couldn’t defend Falmouth from a horde of French marines in Pedalos and how the Argentines clearly pose a major threat to the Falkland Islands. The latest iteration in this is the now traditional outburst that the UK is somehow causing a rise in tension in the South Atlantic by conducting routine exercises in the Falklands.

While it is easy to get either easily riled at the ridiculousness of the situation, or get worked up at the sheer outrage of it all, the pronouncements on the story perhaps show how weak the current Argentine case is, and hint at desperation measures to get the news story away from internal problems.   Breaking the story down, it is essentially the latest in a long series of claims by Argentina that the UK is attempting to militarise the Falklands – this seems to be linked to the deployment of Typhoon aircraft, the updating and replacement of in service equipment and the routine deployment of UK nuclear submarines into the region. Currently the news articles are reaching new levels of hyperbole, claiming that the Falklands are now a NATO base for nuclear submarines (something that may come as a mild surprise to NATO).

The story is one that owes more to the near total lack of updating of the Argentine military relative to the continued investment and planned replacement in UK equipment than it does in any suggestion that the UK is militarising the islands. A cursory glance shows how much smaller the garrison has become over the years.

Why then given the ridiculousness of the claims and the fact that they make Argentina look foolish does the Argentine Government persist in putting them out? Humphreys personal view is that there are several reasons why this increasingly odd propaganda campaign continues, despite seemingly having no real basis in truth.

Firstly, the narrative of the Falklands debate is one which is of relatively little interest to most other nations, beyond perhaps a few die hard anti-colonial powers. Routine pronouncements on the unfairness of the situation by Argentina will get little if any wider interest, and generate no real support now. Instead, in order to keep feeding the publicity monster that is the Falklands debate, Argentina has to keep drumming up ever more outrageous claims to get attention. The sort of claims about militarisation and nuclear submarine bases are patently ridiculous, but they are getting attention and as such means that the UK has to spend time patiently trying to explain the reality of the situation.

The danger with such a tactic is that each time you raise the bar in the debate, you make it ever harder to come up with a new story or credible reason to be covered. The more Argentine politicians make these statements, the harder it is for them to de-escalate the situation. How do you back away from these sort of patently false statements when the UK can easily demonstrate that it has not been militarising the islands? The challenge is going to be working out a way to step down from extreme rhetoric and moving to a position where the Argentines are seen as being reasonable rational actors.

The problem they face is that with a referendum highlighting the enormous support for the islands to remain British, and with a quiet diplomacy campaign going on with islanders travelling across central and south America to put their side of the story across, the Argentine view is looking increasingly isolated. The problem on the international stage is that grandiose pronouncements of outrage need to be backed up by provable facts in order to gain international support. Argentina is treading a path where it is increasingly crying wolf, and the more it does this, and the more outlandish and bizarre its claims, the less international support or attention it will enjoy on the matter. As a rule most nations dislike being drawn into others territorial disputes – the more that Argentina links the Falklands to its external policy, the harder it will find it to gain international support on other matters. This is a shame as it weakens Argentina externally, and reduces her ability to act as a wider force for good in the world. No nation should be seen as a single issue foreign policy actor, but right now it is hard to see Argentina as anything other than this. 

At home the policy seems linked more to try to deflect attention from continued political weakness and  a very poor economy than any real sense of trying to bring about change. Nothing unites like a manufactured foreign policy crisis, but again the problem for the politicians is that the more they cry wolf, the harder it is to continue generating the same level of popular support. The reality is that as the economy tanks, inflation hits and people lose jobs, their interest in a frankly hypothetical territorial dispute hundreds of miles from their borders, when their real lives are a struggle will diminish. For Argentine politicians, faced with the challenge of trying to secure domestic support and keep their hold on power, it will always be easy to try and drum up a bogeyman – but to keep on doing so past the point when there is a critical mass of popular support seems futile. One only has to look at the way the claims have got ever more outlandish and dramatic to realise that the Argentine population itself seems to have a much higher tolerance threshold on these matters than in the past – indeed, beyond a hard core of supporters, are the Falklands really an issue for most now, and will this soon be a foreign policy trump card that has been played too often to be of any real value to placate the masses from their domestic worries?

What then is the impact for the UK from all this? On a practical basis very little, but it does highlight the challenges faced in trying to put forward a balanced and rational debate on the Falkland Islands, when one party is keen to put forward all manner of outlandish propaganda. When the issue is discussed, rather than focusing on the positives, the UK finds itself having to rebuff ever more bizarre allegations. It also means that when routine deployments go ahead, or when equipment is updated, the UK has to be fairly defensive in its approach – an Argentine campaign highlighting the supposed militarisation of the region is fairly simplistic, but easy to do when you compare the capabilities of a Type 45 or Typhoon to the Argentine Armed Forces. This in turn makes it more difficult to just do the routine sort of deployments that used to be taken for granted – one impact of the internet and social media is that its very easy to push a cause, no matter how unusual or extreme, and whereas in previous years, Argentine protests would have had little coverage, today they can be pushed globally through various websites.


For the UK then although the whole situation may seem somewhat odd, it does warrant attention. The more that Argentina tries to frame the debate on the Falklands around ever more ridiculous pretexts, the harder it is to bring it back to what it is really all about – the right of self-determination for a group of Islanders who have repeatedly made clear that they wish to remain British. 


Friday, 11 April 2014

The Royal Navy and Light Frigates - A solution in need of a problem?


Its that time of the year again when another report comes out suggesting that the Royal Navy hasn't enough warships to protect our supply lines and that UK national security is imperilled. Ignoring that the article in question suggests that the UK only has 23 battleships (link is HERE) it is a good starting point to consider whether the RN needs more smaller ships.

For many decades, arguably since the Type 14s entered service, the Royal Navy has optimised a building programme to keep first rate escort vessels in service, capable of meeting any conceivable level of war fighting challenge. This has led to a deliberate policy of protecting build programmes which delivered high capability warships in smaller numbers over much larger numbers of lower capability. Even where relatively austere designs have been envisaged, they have quickly been upgraded – for instance the Type 23 programme reputedly began life as an austere towed array tug, probably to be built in sufficient numbers for a one for one replacement for the Leander's, yet quickly became a very expensive and highly capable escort.

For the RN of the 21st century, when hulls are ever fewer in number, and the tasks seemingly never ending, what is the rationale for keeping a small fleet of high end ships in service? To start with, one needs to look at the ethos of the RN – it is a service optimised to fight and win in very high intensity combat. Despite the constant pull of moving towards a gendarmerie approach (as seen perhaps by the Dutch or Italians) where only a small number of the escort fleet can fight in the high end of operations, the entire RN escort fleet is deployable.

Why does this matter? It means that the entire escort fleet is able to be programmed to conduct the full range of escort tasks – in other words a frigate can go from FOST to the West Indies, prior to a NATO tour and then off to the Arabian Gulf. Several different missions, each of which has very different calls on crews and capabilities. By contrast other nations will find that possessing two tiers of escorts actually stove-pipes availability – while you can send a high end escort into most situations, you cannot do the same in reverse.  This in turn means the RN has an ability to operate as a credible part of any allied task force and integrate effectively into it. In other words, by training to fight at the most challenging levels, the RN can send its escorts into harms way in a manner that some other nations vessels cannot.

In a world where multi-national operations are becoming the norm, the ability to contribute meaningfully to them makes a huge difference. The RN is able to offer a capability through its escorts that means they do not require ‘nursemaiding’ as some other ships may. Similarly, a highly capable escort can be tasked to take on more challenging roles – thus giving the UK more say in the tasking process and ensuring its own national interests are more accurately represented. Turning up in a campaign where you can play a full part carries far greater weight than just being able to conduct a limited maritime patrol.

The pinnacle of naval power - the Type 45 destroyer
Could a Two-Tier Fleet occur?
Assuming that a decision were taken in principal to create a two tier escort force, and create some light frigates to complement the existing escort fleet, could it actually be done in a credible manner which would make a real difference?

The first issue to overcome is funding – modern warships cost a lot of money, not just to build but to support and operate. While this may sound obvious, adding a small class (say four light frigates) to the RN means that it now has to programme funding to run these ships for the next twenty years. Assuming a very generous estimate of £15 million per year per ship to run each escort, this means that the RN has now got to find £1.2 billion extra in support costs in its budget for the next 20 years. This is without considering the costs of refits, repairs, upgrades and so on. To bring these vessels into successful use is going to be an extremely expensive business, and the question would be what gives in order to make them operational, and is the cost worth it?

More broadly one has to ask where the ships would be built in the next few years. Given the warship building capacity in the UK is now inextricably linked to BAE Systems facilities, and that these are fully committed to building CVF, the next generation of OPVs and then Type 26, it is hard to see where an additional class of four escorts would fit into the equation. Indeed, is there even room to build them and bring them into service without impacting on the existing plans to replace the Type 26 programme, and in turn delay the replacement of the ever older Type 23s.

The next issue is whether the RN has the manpower to support four new frigates. Assuming each vessel carries a crew of 120, then that means 480 billets need creating, which in turn creates a shoreside liability of roughly double this (a further 960 billets) to allow for proper sea-shore harmony time. In other words the RN has to find a further 1400 people across all branches to ensure a steady flow of manpower to man the ships properly. At a time when the surface fleet is contracting to barely 15000 personnel (plus Submarine Service, FAA and Royal Marines), this is akin to needing a 10% increase in general service manpower. This represents a not insignificant additional cost which would need to be sustained for the life of the vessels.

One pressing issue is what would the ships actually be equipped with in order to strike a balance beyond being glorified OPVs and not being fully fledged frigates? This is actually the most difficult question to answer – an OPV or MCMV has a clearly defined role and equipment fit which errs to this role – e.g. specialised equipment for boardings, or mine detection/destruction and usually a sensor package to boot which reflects this. Similarly destroyers and frigates not only carry a comprehensive weapons and aviation package, but more critically have the space and room for essentials like properly kitted out Operations Rooms to fight the ship as a coherent entity and not just disparate collection of weapons and radars in close proximity to each other.

By contrast a light frigate will never have quite enough space to carry more than a limited self defence capability, and in smaller numbers than its frigate cousins. Similarly space is likely to be more limited, reducing upgradeability in the future, and restricting the types of equipment which can be installed and forcing trade-offs into the design. What you end up with is a vessel which is over-equipped to handle the policing and constabulary tasks that the OPV would do, and under-equipped to operate at the high end spectrum of operations. As such we find ourselves looking at a vessel without a clearly delineated role beyond relieving some pressure on low intensity operations but unable to deploy into the most likely conflict areas without being at serious risk and requiring escorting by other vessels.

The sort of tasks that these ships could be employed on would arguably be the low level constabulary roles that the RN does in places like the West Indies or off of Africa – defence engagement, flying the flag and generally maintaining an RN presence where its required. The critical difference is that when done by RN escorts they are either on their way to the South Atlantic in a Guardship role, or in the West Indies during the Hurricane season when their larger pool of manpower and greater capability makes them of real benefit during disaster relief.

The Type 14 'Utility' Frigate

One of the reasons why the RN is valued as an ally to work with by other nations is that joint exercises provide exposure to working with high capability vessels and seeing what they are capable of. For some navies a visit by an RN destroyer represents the sole chance they would get to test their capability against a world class air defence platform – this means there is a desirability in securing a visit. By contrast, a routine call by a low capability frigate doesn't really have the same cachet, and is arguably less influential.

A slippery downwards slope?
So, ultimately possession of a small light frigate doesn't really fill a capability gap for the RN, and merely provides a vessel that could perhaps be dubbed the ‘snatch land rover of the sea’ – great for a specific purpose, but one senses that if deployed into a highly challenging location like the Arabian Gulf, and something went wrong then the media would quickly have a cause celebre.

The wider challenge is that procurement of a light frigate represents very much a slippery slope towards a smaller less capable navy in the longer term. It is clear that resources are not going to grow substantially beyond inflation in real terms for the next few years, and that competition for resource will be a challenge. A short term commitment to light frigates would provide a temporary hulls boost, but come the next defence review the question would surely be whether the RN needed to run them, or if it could make sacrifices in the more expensive escort fleet as military tasks were handed off. The result could be further reductions to the T23 and T26 fleets over time as risk was taken that for the majority of the RNs roles that the light frigate could cope as an 80% solution – providing numbers but not capability. As time passed, it would seem ever harder to retain a case for a high end escort fleet if the tasks could be done by a smaller vessel – and this would only be exposed as a risk come a conflict when the lighter vessels could not cope.

It is perhaps notable that in the last 40 years the RN has twice gone towards a light frigate in the utility role – in the first instance it was the Type 14s, optimised as 2nd rate ASW frigates during the Cold War, but which quickly proved relatively poor at the task and were disposed of ahead of their time. By contrast the Type 12s which were more expensive racked up a much longer and valuable life, able to operate at the cutting edge of RN operations for many decades. Similarly, the Castle Class OPV was in many ways the closest the RN has come to a post war Corvette design, but which were arguably never really comfortable in any one role. Optimised initially for fishery protection, then Falkland Island guardship and MCMV HQ vessels, they could have been upgraded to carry a 76mm gun, and presumably some lightweight missiles, but never did. (Intriguingly though in their life with the Bangladeshi Navy, they have received a limited upgrade to do this).

In a sense the Castle class encapsulate the problem the RN has with this type of vessel – too large to be a traditional OPV, but too weak to be able to hold their own in a conventional shooting war, they were very much ships which found purposes for which they were never really designed. It is perhaps telling that in replacing them, the RN has a purpose built OPV optimised to work in the South Atlantic, and relies on the use of a Bay class LSD(A) to carry out the MCMV HQ function in a vastly more effective manner.

So where this leaves us is the realisation that for all the natural desire to see more vessels flying the White Ensign, it is hard to see a light frigate being the answer. There is a clear need for the RN to operate OPVs and MCMVs, while the smaller coastal training craft fulfil a very clear defence engagement role. The Escort force is heavily tasked and probably working at an intensity which may store up problems in the long term maintenance and support, but where it is able to do the tasks required of it. What is not clear is what adding a light frigate brings to the RN in terms of capability enhancement. No one doubts the Navy is working hard, but one suspects that a light frigate would in all likelihood do more damage than good to the long term interests of the RN in terms of manpower, finance and build programmes, and probably not generate as much of an effect as its proponents would hope. Far better to focus resources on extra Type 26s, innovative ship refitting methods to keep ships at sea for longer, and for getting the most from your extant vessels, than on introducing a ship which probably has no clearly defined role or rationale.  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Soft Power in a Hard Age

The House of Lords published an outstanding report into the role of soft power and the UK at the end of March, which set out the value of so-called ‘soft power’ and how the UK could make better use of its resources and influence at a time when it is more vital than ever to do so. Humphrey has long been a proponent of the value and importance of ‘soft power’, the so-called intangibles of international diplomacy, ranging from the value of a Royal Visit through to the discrete whispering of an international development advisor to make changes which save lives.

Sadly, in many defence fora it is fashionable to mock soft power as something which is seen as a substitute for what really matters, namely long ORBATS listing every imaginable piece of military equipment going, usually accompanied by extensive wishlisting for ‘fantasy fleets’. To the author though, this approach is less about having effect and influence and more about feeling good about one’s own military superiority.

One of the long standing trends on this site is the comments which continue to make out that the UK is a nation in near terminal decline, with ever decreasing levels of influence due primarily to its smaller armed forces. To Humphrey this argument is dangerous for it only considers the UKs standing as a power based on possession of capability and not actually whether that capability is of any value of use. It is all very well saying that in 1990 the UK could field three armoured divisions in Germany, but what difference did they make to the UKs wider international standing?

Arguably much of what makes the UK an influential nation on the global stage is little to do with specific items of equipment or units in an ORBAT. When you speak to foreign military officers about what sort of things they would look for in a defence relationship, it is far more about the intangibles – the access to training courses ranging from officer training through to advanced staff courses, or the allocation of places on training courses to develop skills and training. It is about the allocation of loan or exchange officers to provide UK expertise and guidance – for instance the presence of UK military missions around the world are hugely coveted by their host nations, and sorely missed when removed.

When considering the sort of defence relationship that matters, one has to remember that the overwhelming majority of countries in the world do not have the ability to deploy overseas in any real depth or capability. Most armed forces are confined to their local area, with perhaps a token ability to send a small force for UN missions or peace keeping. When considering a defence relationship, they want to work with nations who can offer experience, training, access to capabilities which they may not otherwise see or afford, and who can enhance their defence capability. There are wider considerations about provision of equipment and capability (e.g. either new build or through disposals) and whether working with that nation would enhance their own security position. More broadly, considerations will also be built around whether enhancing a defence relationship would bolster the diplomatic relationship and wider relationship (e.g. getting close to the UK may in turn enable the country to help try and influence policy positions to the UK which could in turn influence other partners to whom they would otherwise have no traction).  

When you consider the sort of offer that the UK can make, it is a compelling one built around centuries of tradition, access to high quality training, a capable military able to operate across most military roles and a strong record of operational success. There is huge interest across the globe in access to UK training and opportunities – one only has to look at the constant clamour for places on UK Officer training courses to realise how popular it is. Arguably the UK is perceived, along with the US and possibly France, as offering the ‘gold standard’ of defence training through the quality of its people and the quality of the training delivered.

Tradition - soft power or wasted resource?
Overseas too, the UK is able to use relatively limited assets to enjoy significantly more influence than one might suspect. For instance, a well-placed Defence attach̩, or a defence training visit Рwhich can be as innocuous as sending a small training team to improve leadership training or bolster a military band can often have a surprisingly large effect. A ship visit can often pay dividends in access for senior officials who come for tours or cocktail parties and end up able to meet with Ambassadors, industry and decision makers and help push the case for UK interests, influence and investment. The visit by the Red Arrows to the Middle East in autumn 2013 was front page news across the region, and enabled the UK to have a golden opportunity to push its interests on a range of matters. In other words, the cachet of the UK defence brand is often as much about access to the people or the occasional presence as it is about maintaining large numbers of armoured brigades or fast jets.

This is perhaps the curious challenge of identifying what matters in Defence when it comes to capability. On the one hand there is a natural desire to maintain high end warfighting capability, but most of the influence that the UK gets from its military is in fact far more down to the judicious use of personnel, training and visits than it is about a theoretical ORBAT. In a world where the bulk of UK deployments overseas are rarely above Company size in terms of manpower (e.g. training in Africa or a ship deployment to the south Atlantic or an RAF exercise in the UAE) , the possession of large capable forces is perhaps not hugely relevant. It may be the case that the UK only has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, but when most nations cannot deploy their armoured forces at any distance anyway, does this really matter when considering the impact on our influence?

In fact it could be argued that what really matters for UK influence are two very separate drivers. Firstly a need to maintain the soft power enablers like international defence training, access to courses, provision of exchange officers and so on. This sort of investment is more than ample to help support the bulk of defence relationships and makes a strong impact on UK influence overseas. For instance the presence of an exercising company group could send a positive message on the UK relationship with that nation, bolstering the local security capability and reducing need for western deployments in the region and in turn improving the bilateral relationship which sees further investment from that nation in the UK. There is often a range of second and third order benefits from a small deployment which typify the importance of soft power – you don’t need to deploy very much, but what you do deploy will be of value beyond its size.

Additionally there is arguably a need to maintain a cutting edge ‘high capability’ military force capable of working at the very high end of military operations. In other words investing in expensive capabilities like aircraft carriers, cyber defence, and modern fighter aircraft and so on. This is to ensure that the UK is able to send a message to potential coalition partners that it is serious about providing support to operations, and that it can work at the most intense level of operations. This is as much about reassurance (e.g. deployments, exercises and the occasional operation) to partner nations to show that despite the reports, the UK remains an exceptionally capable military power.

Hard Power or irrelevant for influence purposes?

But the challenge is in the middle – what Humphrey would perhaps call ‘muddy power’. It is one thing to invest in training, and high quality exercises where military skills are tested (e.g. JOINT WARRIOR or FOST), and it is equally important to support the very high end niche skills and capabilities that matter too (arguably Special Forces, Amphibious Forces, certain intelligence capabilities and Fast Jets), but what to do with the remainder? Does it really matter if the UK only has a small number of tanks and 82,000 soldiers? The majority of them will not be deployed, and the cost of conducting large scale overseas exercises is so vast that its unlikely that you would ever see many large scale exercises occurring in future. If as noted that there is no direct military existential threat to the UK, and if most nations themselves cannot deploy their military capability at any real distance, the question must surely be, what value is there in sustaining a large force which is held at readiness, but which does not provide unique capabilities to our allies, and which is unlikely to work regularly in large numbers with overseas partners.

This is the curious issue – the UK derives immense influence from its armed forces, but it is rarely derived through calculations based on the size of the forces or the units which comprise them. In a world where presence is everything, is it better to focus on sending smaller units overseas who can work with other nations through defence engagement and build relationships and real capability, or is it better to have a larger military held at home but which cannot easily work with other nations.
In a similar vein, is it better to have a small number of very capable destroyers able to work at the high end of the influence scale, or is it better to invest in a much larger number of very simple platforms which do not have any real military value in a shooting war, but do allow a sustained UK presence in areas which may otherwise never see a White Ensign?

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Arguably at present the decision to focus on the high end and expensive assets is the right one. Allied nations want to improve their own capability and come to the UK to learn from our experiences, and understand how to use equipment to its full potential. A gentle move down the capability spectrum in order to improve numbers may help UK presence, but may reduce the desire of others to work with the UK – for instance, is it better to have two or three OPVs permanently in the Far East where they can work at a routine but low level with foreign navies, or is it better to do a biennial deployment of a T45 destroyer which other navies will be immensely keen to work with and see? Both help secure UK influence, and both help in their own way, but each comes at cost .

So, in an age where the UK is constantly told it is a power in decline, it is curious that the demand for access to UK courses and capability remains as great as ever. The Armed Forces remain a hugely influential tool for the UK Government, but is arguably far less about their overall numbers than the discrete presence or access to training. Meeting the ever more challenging balance between affording sufficient military force to defend UK interests at home, secure UK influence overseas and justifying maintenance of a large military which may not deploy in large numbers is going to prove ever more problematic. The sort of large military that many wish to see would probably not able to deploy to secure the influence that is currently achieved by a smaller military which may have less units and platforms, but where working with them is seen as hugely desirable by many foreign partners.


Striking the balance, getting value from the ever more expensive and ever smaller hard power in order to achieve ever greater soft power effects with defence engagement is likely to be the future balancing act facing HMG. It won’t be easy, and the only certainty is that to achieve the balance required to get it right the outcome will please no one and cause many more headlines about how the UK no longer matters as a military power at a time when nations are queuing up to work with, and learn from the UK. A very British outcome indeed!