Thursday, 19 October 2017

Will the Type31e be the end of shipbuilding on an independent Clyde?

The news that BAE systems has decided not to lead a bid on the Type 31e frigate, and instead opt to work with Cammell Laird, who will prime on the bid, has sent ructions through the UK shipbuilding industry. Scottish unions have reacted with dismay, seeing ‘a betrayal’ in the reduction of work they felt had been promised to the Clydes yards, with only 8, rather 13 ships being built now.

While this news may have upset many in Glasgow, it in fact represents good news for the UK shipbuilding industry, as it is now all but certain that Type 31e will be built elsewhere in the UK. In the medium to long term, this is very good news for the UK Government and taxpayer.

The move over the last few years to consolidate the UK military surface ship building industry has seen heavy concentration of resources in Scotland, where shipyards in both Rosyth and Glasgow have delivered the Type 45 and CVF programmes. There is currently no alternate yard in the UK building surface warships for the RN, although Appledore continues to have considerable success in the OPV market (but is limited by size of its yard in the type of ships it can build).

Given the growing demands for independence in Scotland, and the not inconceivable possibility that a second referendum may occur within the next 10-15 years, the UK would potentially find itself left without a yard capable of building large surface warships.

The fact that Type31e will be built elsewhere will no doubt cause a sigh of relief to be heard across Whitehall. It will send skilled jobs to other communities that are economically challenged, and if the build model proposed by the National Shipbuilding Strategy of almost continuous build, then export second hand quickly as replacements commission continues then the yard will be well placed to pick up surface work in future.

From a strategic perspective, in the (hopefully unlikely) event of Scotland becoming independent, the existence of a T31e yard in the UK will be vital in maintaining strategic capabilities. More importantly, Humphrey would argue that if Type 31e is built outside of Scotland, it will pose a credible threat to the long term future of the Clyde in an independent Scotland.

Could T31 kill the Scottish shipbuilding industry?

Why a Threat?
The existence of a yard that is in the middle of serial production of ships in the UK means it is significantly easier (but not necessarily cheap) to shift production there from other locations. If Scotland did become independent, BAE would have an existing relationship with Cammell Laird, and be well placed to further upgrade the yard. If more Type 26 frigates were being built, production could relatively easily shift south (albeit at some cost), and it is likely that BAE could tempt some of the Clyde workforce to come with them.

Assuming the NSS recommendation of continuous serial production is adopted, then a resurgent Cammell Laird would be the very definition of a ‘frigate factory’ producing Type31e on a regular basis. It would be well placed to compete for international competitions as there would be economies of scale gained from foreign buyers ordering and building Type 31e in the UK, rather than having a smaller order built elsewhere.

The challenge for Scotland and the Clyde would be simple – what can they build and for whom? The Type 26 design would be a UK owned sovereign design, and heavily reliant on UK technology. It is certain that no UK politician would countenance an order going to an independent Scotland, particularly if there is a shipyard in Birkenhead capable of doing the job.
Therefore, in the event of independence, it is reasonable to assume that no further Type 26 will be built for the UK on the Clyde. The Scottish Government may seek to build more, but that is dependent on the terms of the independence package – an SNP government playing hardball over Faslane may find that the UK government refuses technology transfers to the newly independent state.

Not only would such a move prevent Scotland from building their own Type 26, but it would also prevent them from competing on the open market to build them for others, as they would not be able to licence the design or acquire the equipment necessary to fit out the hull. Why would any country in the market for a frigate want to build a knock off that isn’t properly fitted out, when they could go south of the border and buy the real thing?

The wider problem too is that its hard to see where Clyde shipbuilding goes in the event of independence. A Scottish Navy won’t need new ships for some time, and they won’t be able to design new classes without establishing an expensive design capability (not for nothing has the UK insisted on keeping ship design capability in business  - this is what really matters when considering a new ship, arguably far more than the yard itself).

Sample Type31 design

The overseas export market for frigates and corvettes is not enormous, and countries will either seek to build at home – particularly if they are trying to develop their own industry, or they will go to an established builder in France, Italy, Russia, China or (hopefully) the UK. All of whom have, or will have, established export designs under construction with strong governmental support and access to indigenous technology transfer.

By contrast the Clyde won’t have any of this – its costs will be higher until it enters serial production, and an independent Scotland will have little in the way of a defence industry to provide technology transfer of real value (e.g. missiles, combat systems and so on).

The Clyde yards could compete for OPV business, simple ships to build and limited issues with tech transfer. The problem here is that the sort of nations in the market for an OPV will either build one locally, or if forced to look overseas will be in the market for an attractive package, likely including offsets and return on their investments.

The cheap OPV market is not easy to break into, particularly when there is a plethora of builders out there with established designs. It will be hard for Scotland to convince nations in the market to either pay more, or to buy from a country that has relatively little to offer in terms of offsets. A foreign warship order is partly an influence game – you buy from the people you want to build and sustain a good relationship with, and the question for these countries has to be ‘why Scotland and not X’?

It is hard therefore to see where an independent Scotland yards could go in the future – a relatively small market to compete in and not enough ability to design and export ships that other countries will want to buy. Any country buying a ship that is capable of providing the bulk of the equipment for fitting out is probably already building its own warships anyway.

What Future in the UK?

While the Clyde may be angry at ‘losing’ 5 frigates, it still has a positive future to play in the UK build programme. Over the next 15-20 years, the UK will be ordering (on current plans) 8 large cruiser sized frigates, various RFA support ship programmes (and these will be large vessels), a series of replacements for the Bay, Albion, Argus and other classes and work will begin on replacing the Waves and thinking about the T45 replacement too. A very rough estimate is that there is likely to be at least 15-20 large warships or RFAs that need to be built, and the Clyde is well placed to win this work that will guarantee a long term sustainable future for shipbuilding there. They may have lost Type 31e, but they have got a long term and very bright future ahead of them as British shipbuilders. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Is there a black hole in Defence?

Listening to the House of Commons Defence Committee this afternoon was a fairly tortuous process, in a session that, regardless of what else was covered will be remembered for the assurances by PUS that ‘there isn’t a black hole in Defence’.

Listening again to his words it is clear that he is being very precise – and technically he is right. The black hole of 2010 came about due to the large amount of unfunded aspirations across the equipment programme that had no identified pool of cash to draw on. Part of the SDSR in 2010 involved ruthlessly cutting those programmes, and establishing over time a pool of funds that would be released to programmes as required (so-called contingency).

Technically PUS was accurate – the way MOD funding is done, it is the case that there isn’t the same type of ‘black hole’ as in 2010. But this does not take away the wider picture that no matter how you want to spin it, Defence is in a very bleak financial position indeed.

When pushed for details on efficiency saving programmes dating back to 2013 & 2015, totalling some £30 billion over a 10-15 year period (not far off the equivalent of an entire budgetary year for MOD), it was admitted that only £25bn has been ‘identified’ (whether this means they’ve actually been taken isn’t clear, nor was it clear what they mean by ‘identified’). It was also dragged out that in fact there is a further £5bn in ‘efficiency’ savings yet to be found across Defence, just to meet current required efficiencies.

What is depressing listening to these committees is the level of spin that goes into great head spinning details, without giving straightforward answers to questions. When pushed on whether there are defence cuts looming, the response was ‘we have a growing defence budget’. There was no examination as to why a growing defence budget would need to conduct a savings led capability review only two years after the last five yearly review was completed.

An honest answer would probably have been ‘Under the current Governments mandate the MOD is required to keep service manpower unchanged, deliver four new Trident submarines, grow the equipment budget by 1% a year and deliver significant efficiency savings. It has to do so against a backdrop of inflation and a collapse in Stirling to significantly below planned exchange rates, meaning our ability to buy as much of what we wanted has decreased. At the same time the global environment is changing, we may need different capabilities in future and less of what we have now. To deliver what the Government wants of the MOD means tough decisions which will require us to deliver more in some areas, and do less or remove capability in others under our current financial settlement’.

Instead the attempt to make out that the MOD isn’t in the middle of planning for potentially the worst defence cuts since 1991 or even 1974, and that its all a matter of routine not only smacks of spin, but challenges the intelligence of those who work in defence and want honest answers to difficult questions.

Overall the MOD is lucky to have a motivated, willing and highly capable workforce of civilians and service personnel. They are not stupid, and you only have to talk to them to know they want to be treated like the intelligent adults that they are. To hide behind the line ‘we have a growing defence budget’ at a time when many of the workforce are having to identify how to hack, slash and delete wholesale capabilities that are of critical importance to the nation is a disservice to the men and women of Defence.

There is a constant talk of ‘challenge’ and ‘honest open communication’ as the new management buzzwords. To pretend all is well is not honest. By all means explain the many positive benefits Defence has, and set out how well it is doing in many areas. But to pretend that a growing defence budget means there is no problem, and to try to wave away likely cuts fundamentally damages the trust between the workforce and its leadership. Humphrey is now very relieved that he no longer has any links to Defence if this is how bad things are getting. 

People in Defence, civilian and military, are deployed regularly and make huge sacrifices up to and including their lives for the Department. They deserve to hear the honest truth about the situation and how bad it really is – not spin. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Redefining the Reds?

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), more commonly known as the ‘Red Arrows’ have returned to the UK from their tour out to the Middle East. At a time when the UK defence budget is under unprecedented pressure to cut, cut, cut, is it really an appropriate use of scare cash to keep the Reds in the air? This article will aim to consider what it is that the Red Arrows do and why many see them as having so much value, even at times of pressure.

The role of the Reds is arguably to simply showcase the very best of the flying skills in the RAF. Their work requires huge levels of professionalism and dedication to ensure that they continue to provide thrilling displays of aerial acrobatics that requires airmanship of the highest calibre to deliver. Their programme is a combination of both displays in the UK, reaching out to home audiences at air shows and domestic flypasts, and a global tour which annually deploys around the world to support trade shows, air shows and other key visits.

Why Influential?
On paper it all sounds like a bit of a jolly, conjuring up images of pilots flying between glamorous destinations and staying in luxury hotels in-between bouts of throwing their aircraft around the skies and introducing themselves in the Bar as ‘Red One/Two/Three’. The reality is that not only is it incredibly hard work, but the Reds display season overseas generates enormous opportunities for UK foreign policy goals.

These opportunities occur in various ways. Firstly, despite inevitable cynicism in the UK, there are many nations overseas that place huge priority on their national air shows or defence exhibitions. These are showcase events intended to broadcast to the world a statement of intent about that country. For example many of the Middle East nations throw enormous air shows and defence exhibitions that are a bold statement of intent about their place on the world stage.

To these countries, securing the support of a prestigious air display team is a sign of support from another nation and endorsement of their show & the nation as a whole. It speaks to the importance that the nation attaches to the show and a strong message of support for the country in question. Nations will request at very senior (e.g. Ministerial or Head of State) levels the presence of air display teams to help showcase their own event and by extension, their country.

The decision to attend, or stay away, from a major show can be a tremendously powerful diplomatic tool. In an image conscious world, an announcement by HMG that the Red Arrows will not be participating in an air show due to a nation conduct sends a clear message of disapproval, arguably with wider reach and greater potency than ‘sending a gunboat’.

On the ground itself the presence of the Reds in country opens the door to a variety of influencing opportunities. When planning defence engagement, the opportunity to have a Minister or Service Chief fly into the country and offer to show senior representatives around the team offers priceless opportunities for discrete conversations and chances to lobby and influence key decision makers. During the air shows themselves, there is usually a specific slot for the team to display each day. At a busy show, the UK senior contingent will try to spend the display with other seniors, inviting them to watch it with them. This gives the perfect opportunity to engage in bilateral conversations with senior people who otherwise may not have much engagement with the UK. A twenty to thirty minute window in which to lobby, influence and push on behalf of UK foreign policy and industry.

The Reds response to proposed cuts - airstrikes on Whitehall? :-)

The presence of the Red Arrows provides the perfect backdrop – it’s often a chance to meet the team and try to build on relationships. Most importantly it is often the perfect opening for a visit to be secured – anyone who has done business in the Middle East will know the immense difficulty of securing a diary appointment with busy senior figures. Putting an opportunity to visit the team and do something different in the diary is a good way to secure this, rather than another round of office based meetings. The presence of the Reds opens doors that would otherwise be difficult to get to.

The reality of much of how foreign and defence policy gets done is that it occurs due to personal relationships built up between very senior officials and Ministers over time. These quiet meetings, are chances to chat informally and outside of the often very choreographed ‘staff talks’ or bilateral meetings that occupy much of a senior figures diary. More importantly it usually permits the chance to talk candidly, delivering messages and lobbying in a way that can’t be done in a formal conference.

This may not sound like much, but if you need to discreetly sound out a nations view on an issue, push for a particular export campaign, or seek views on something best discussed in private, not played out in full at staff talks, then this is a great way to do it.

The presence of the team also allows a lot of low level influencing to be done that can again pay real dividends in the short to medium term. This ranges from practical visits, such as getting the team and its support crew to visit schools or other locations through to air displays or fly pasts. The wider picture here is that in countries where the UK wants to support education, or help grow womens rights, sending female crew members to school to show local children what they do, is a great way of helping inspire people. This is very gentle influencing, but it does make a real difference.

The fact that the Hawk is a two seater aircraft is also very useful – it is possible to put people on the 2nd seat during a flight. Offering individuals who the UK wants to build good relationships with the chance to fly with the Red Arrows is an easy way to help generate immense goodwill that could be returned over many decades to come, often in immensely beneficial ways for the UK. It is often easy to forget that the deep relationships the UK enjoys with some nations came about as much due to building good relationships with senior individuals as it is about policy developments.

More widely, the flypasts get huge public attention – its common when a display is announced to see thousands of people on the streets to watch it, or to get front page news. It helps reinforce to those with fond memories of the UK that it is still a power that wishes to work with their country. The media coverage provides the perfect opportunity for a photo and then quotes from Ambassadors about UK policy goals that is far more likely to be read than if you just issued a bland press release. Humphrey has worked extensively across the Middle East and knows that when the Reds are in town, HMG gets a chance to get headline coverage and more importantly the chance to message about issues of concern. The same town may have multiple RN ships in port, or Army training teams on the ground, but this gets no media interest or attention, whilst the Red Arrows flying down the corniche is almost certainly the next days front page picture story.

All of this is intangible, but it is perhaps better to think of the Red Arrows as a means of opening the door to engagement and raising the UK profile, rather than a display team in isolation. The outcome is that the Reds provide significant opportunities on behalf of the UK to lobby, influence and help support positive outcomes.

Checking out suitable accommodation options for future tours?

Could it be done in a different way?
Many commentators argue that the team is an anachronism that doesn’t have a place in the modern MOD – it is seen as too expensive or not appropriate at a time of austerity. It could be argued that contractors could do the job just as well as RAF pilots, or that industry could fund the team instead.

Arguably the credibility of the team stems from the fact that it comprises full time pilots who will return to operational roles when their tour is done. To nations keen to use the RAF pilot training system, the Red Arrows is a visible symbol of what that pipeline can produce. The fact that they are military adds an air of credibility when deploying too – other air forces want to work with them, or host them. Being seen as an ‘in house’ asset buys you credibility that doesn’t come about if people think you are a contractor.

The issue with privatising the Reds or sponsoring them exclusively by industry is that the brand becomes tarnished. It no longer represents ‘the best of British’, but becomes commercial. Suddenly the nature of the relationship changes – why invite a commercial team into display whose own country doesn’t want to fund them? Is it appropriate to get senior Ministers and Service Chiefs to lobby against the backdrop of a privately funded air display team?

This may sound slightly odd, but there is something in the international relations space about dealing with Governments and militaries, vice commercial organisations. The sort of company that would run the Reds is likely one that is already lobbying many host governments for contracts or business. The brand would become associated with prior failures by that company, and not as a statement of influence by HMG.

The best way to handle the industry link is to get industry present, and showcase the support they provide to the team, but let them do so in a way which puts HMG front and centre. Presentationally this helps industry show its ability to support Government (helpful for them when trying to highlight their capability in a bidding competition) and also their presence besides HMG helps tacitly show them off in a different light, and lends an air of respectability and legitimacy – after all, if you are good enough for the Red Arrows to use, then that’s a pretty positive endorsement of your product.

Look to the future
The real challenge and question facing the Reds is ‘what happens next’? Their aircraft of choice is ageing, and no decision has yet been taken on how to replace it. The Hawk T2 is probably too complicated an aircraft for use solely as an aerobatic display airframe, and given there are less of 30 than them out there, its hard to see the justification for a further order of 9-10 airframes simply for the Red Arrows.

At the same time the Hawk T1A is theoretically approaching its out of service date, although many aviation forums hint that it could be kept going for at least another decade. But, is it the right airframe to do this? When the Reds began flying the Hawk it was a cutting edge trainer, exported to many different nations, but today it is, as all airframes do, approaching the end of its natural life.

Does the UK wish to project itself as a power on the world stage using a nearly 40yr old aircraft design, or does it wish to try to project a more positive image? There are persistent rumours that some of the Batch 1 Typhoons would be ideal for the role, although whether the airframe has the ability to perform the same level of aerobatics is questionable. There is the wider, more vexed question of nationality too. The Hawk is an indisputably British aircraft. To the tabloids, MPs and ‘joe public’ they will want to see a ‘British’ aircraft to replace the existing fleet.

The Typhoon may be a heavily UK based airframe, and the future of aviation lies in multi-national, not purely national aviation projects, but this hasn’t stopped letters from MPs to the PM demanding that the next generation of aircraft is ‘British’.

The next generation of Red Arrow aircraft?

This demand comes at a point when BAE Systems faces real challenges in keeping the Hawk line going. The days of air forces needing large numbers of trainer aircraft have diminished – the reduction in fast jet fleet numbers, the fact it is easier to convert pilots more quickly and earlier onto aircraft like the Typhoon and the increased capability offered by the Hawk platform means the need for large buys is gone. The RAF purchased over 250 Hawks of various types, compared to just 28 Hawk T2.

In turn this means BAE will soon run out of orders to build the Hawk, and in turn will start laying off the workforce soon. An ‘attrition’ buy would probably make sense to help stave off redundancies for a few years, although it will be hard to justify at a time when the MOD is incredibly financially stretched. Whether some form of financing deal, such as getting OGDs or industry to stump up the funds is possible may be considered, but equally the follow on question is ‘what happens next’? Its all very well bailing out BAE for a few more years, but at some point production of the Hawk will stop – the question is when to stop ordering it for the RAF.

The idea of scrapping the Reds is unlikely to happen or be sanctioned by most Prime Ministers, nor would it happily be supported by departments across Government who see the clear benefits the team offers. But there will come a point when difficult decisions need to be taken – while it is easy now, with an in service aircraft and plenty of spares, to say that the Reds will not be scrapped, this may not be as easy to say when the spares become harder to get or run out, and the airframe needs replacing.

The value of the display team is clearly understood, but there comes a point where logic and a lack of cash will triumph over nostalgia. As the RN found out to its cost, no matter how effective HMY BRITANNIA was, once you’ve discovered you can scrap sacred cows with relatively little political impact, its easier to be willing to save money and scrap them.

The crunch point is likely to come in the next few years, when tough decisions will be needed about what, if anything, replaces the current fleet and whether the UK wants to fly an aircraft that advertises ‘Brand Britain’ when it may be as equally likely to be an advert for ‘Brand Germany’ or ‘Brand Italy’. These choices are not easy to make, and it is too soon to predict what the outcome will be. Until that point though, the Red Arrows will continue to delight audiences at home, and perform an invaluable  role abroad opening doors for the UK to deliver defence engagement goals and help quietly and effectively deliver an essential part of the UKs wider global security strategy.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

These Are Your Options Minister...

Twitter followers will be aware that Humphrey is on holiday at the moment, hence the reduced postings, but one story is running that is absolutely worthy of breaking radio silence to comment on. This is the news that the RN may lose both of its LPDs (ALBION and BULWARK) as savings measures under the latest miniature defence review being conducted in the Cabinet Office.

Humphrey has absolutely no idea what is, or is not, being discussed as part of this review, but given the furore on Twitter, it seems timely to try to set out what is actually going on.

The future of UK ampihbious operations?

What Is An Option?
To begin with, lets define what an ‘option ‘actually is, to help set the context as to why these reports have circulated. When the MOD conducts reviews, be it short term planning rounds or larger defence reviews, it is assigned a top level budget target that it has to meet for spending.

This figure is broken up among the different front line commands, with the Centre (e.g. Head Office) directing the percentage cuts that need to be made to each budget, in order that when combined together the new lower figure is reached.

This can be done both for ‘in year’ spending (e.g. spend less money from your current budget due to overspends elsewhere, or changes) or for multiyear spending (which looks out at the planned expenditure over the next 5-10 years.

Each Service or Command (such as JFC) will begin a process of pulling together a series of options that look at what needs to be spent and how things could be done differently (the so-called ‘defer, descope or delay). This can include spending less money early and delaying a programme. Or it could mean reducing the aspiration to do as much with the project, maybe buying less or putting less capability on it (so-called ‘descoping’), or sometimes money can slip to another financial year – for instance if the financial planners spot a bottleneck where multiple programmes all need money in Yr3 (of the 10 year look forward), they may seek to get some programmes to reduce spend, or delay them to solve a wider problem.

This delay is often taken knowing it will cause bigger problems downstream (the delay to the CVF is a classic example of this), but also in the knowledge that you face a choice of deferring and spending more, or not deferring and cancelling multiple projects to fix the funding gap.

Similar options will be put together for ships or units training and activities, or for operations. This may include ideas like scrapping a ship, or delaying and cancelling training. This is done to show the potential savings that could be accrued from not doing something, or doing it differently.

This work is brought together at varying levels of each Service, where the options are woven together to build a series of packages of measures. Some of these will be decided locally, but the money saved banked, others will be politically contentious and decided by Ministers.

The overall aim of the exercise is to produce a series of packages that can go to Ministers that set out how the money can be saved, different ways in which it can be done, and the overall impact to defence outputs if that measure is taken. If it all works, then Ministers (and sometimes the Prime Minister) approve the measures, and direction is issued to deliver as required (e.g. pay off ships, scrap aircraft etc.).

HMS OCEAN is to pay off in 2018

The LPD Leak
The issue with the leak of the ‘delete LPD’ option is that outside of those building the packages, the public do not know the context in which it is being considered. What this means is, what else is being looked at, and what are the circumstances in which it could be taken?

A lot of the work during reviews and planning rounds is built on scenarios, so gaming out what happens if you took all the money out of one budget (e.g. make all the savings from the RN), or what happens if you increased a single service target savings, in order to make headroom elsewhere for other spending (or enhancements).  Its often the case that people wish to understand the implications of what happens if you delete a capability wholesale – how much will it save across a range of areas, and what impact will it have?

For instance, in the case of the LPD option, it could be that planners want to understand how if the RN had to meet all the savings, or a bigger chunk of them, it would meet the goal and at what pain level. Similarly it could be that they want to understand how, if the UK deleted its amphib capability wider savings could be made. If you paid off the LPDs and got out of major amphibious operations, then you free up manpower, resources, you could scrap associated units allowing big savings of land release (which meets wider government policy goals) and so on. It allows you to look at the 2nd and 3rd order effects too – so if you reduce the Amphibious force, can you reduce the number of RFA tankers and stores ships if you need less fuel and supplies? How do you save in reduced long term refit and supply costs, or could you save in the long term equipment plan costings too by deleting a future LPD programme?

A single decision of this magnitude can have major repercussions throughout the RN and Defence – it would, from a financial planning perspective offer significant savings at a time when it is clear the budget is under enormous pressure. Therefore it is absolutely right and proper that planners consider every option and course of action to consider what its impact would be.

The public does not know the wider state of the debate, and it doesn’t know what other options are being tabled. Given what we’ve seen in the press so far Humphrey would make an educated guess that to meet the savings figures required, the Services are having to look at a ‘delete entire Fleet / Capability’ range of options such as ‘delete Typhoon Tranche 1’ or ‘delete Puma’ or ‘delete Challenger 2’ etc. Not because they will be taken, but because it is only by looking at this level of cuts that you realise big savings.

How Bad Is It?
We are past the era of salami slicing – shutting a squadron of aircraft early will realise a small amount of savings in manpower and airframe use. But it won’t significantly impact on the fixed overheads like training, maintenance and support – all of which are needed if you operate 1,10 or 100 of an airframe. Only by deleting the airframe do you save big money (hence the reason to delete Harrier in 2010).

The real question is how bad are things if the RN is being forced to run options that offer up the crown jewels of the fleet? To delete the amphibious capability represents a massive and damaging cut to UK capability, and would be running contrary to the National Security Strategy and UK policy goals.

To even consider getting out of the power projection game in this way indicates that things look very challenging right now. That this is being run as a potential option, even if only purely hypothetically, indicates the scale of the financial challenge facing the MOD.

Can the Army still afford more horses than helicopters?

Why Leak It?
There seem to be three reasons why options leak historically. Firstly,  those done by people who are concerned that an option will do lasting damage and who seek to influence public opinion to prevent it being taken (the so-called ‘noble leaker’).

There are those who leak a politically unacceptable option so that it can then later on not be taken, leading to widespread relief, and preventing deeper questioning of just how much had to be saved elsewhere to keep the capability in service (the so-called ‘cynical leaker’).

Finally there are those outside the Services or Civil Service who leak for reasons linked to politics. A gentle push here, a prod there, and a reminder that more money is needed elsewhere. It never hurts to curry favour with those from whom you ascended, in case you need their support in future... (the so-called ‘expedient leaker’).

A good way to determine where the leaks have come from will be the level of witch-hunt that follows the news. Previous leaks over the years have seen responses ranging from stern letters warning of dire repercussions for the leaker when caught, through to no action whatsoever. Some leakers are perhaps more equal than others...

What Happens Next?
It is inevitable that further such leaks will follow – both the RAF and Army will be keen to try and shape their own narratives over the next few weeks, highlighting where cuts may fall on their own services. But, what is key to remember is that these are options, nothing more.

It is not until the final packages are assembled, setting out what the future force structure looks like (e.g. the so-called ‘readjustments) that we will see inspired briefing and more coherent information emerge. Anything can change right up until the last minute though, so expect multiple changes, briefs and counter briefs as the Services vie for support.

There seem to be two likely outcomes to this situation though. The first is that in the New Year major force changes, significant capability deletion and potentially manpower reductions will be announced that will do deep, long term and serious damage to the UK as a global power. They will be spun as ‘enhancements and adjustments’ (so potentially some good news like keeping OPVs on) to hide the likely extensive range of very damaging cuts.

Alternatively, there could be some kind of crisis funding deal agreed as part of the budget process, whereby further funding is provided and the worst of the cuts are ameliorated. Either way, it seems exceptionally unlikely that the MOD will escape significant pain over the next 6 months.

The Defence Budget may well be growing and the UK may show how more money is being spent on defence by stretching the phrase ‘2% of GDP’ to the absolute limits of credibility. But what is also clear is that there is a significant hole at the heart of defence funding, that baring a major long term injection of cash, will require very tough choices to be made. Never has the phrase ‘a growing defence budget’ sounded more hollow.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Corps huh, What is it good for?

The Times reports today that the RN is considering scrapping 1000 Royal Marine posts as part of a wider options package to save money. The report suggests that the RN could save up to £100m per year, which would go a long way to addressing the financial black hole sitting at the heart of the MOD.

For all the talk of a rising defence budget, it remains clear that the devaluation of the pound, coupled with rising equipment costs clearly shows that that there isn’t enough money to do everything that the 2015 SDSR set out to deliver. For all the spin of ‘backed by a rising defence budget’, when you speak to friends in the military or MOD, these lines are met with hoots of derision. Their view is simple – the budget situation is bordering on catastrophic and only major reform, or a major injection of funds will solve the problem.

From a Treasury perspective, the case for MOD to have extra cash is weak. The Department enjoys considerable latitude in how it chooses to spend its cash, with significant delegated authority (far more than most departments), and what is regarded in Whitehall as a very generous comprehensive spending review settlement. There is definitely more money coming in, but friends have suggested it is coming in at the wrong point in the five year spending cycle and in the wrong amounts. Getting the Department financially to the point where it can meet its in year budget, and ensuring it is on a stable long term footing is the challenge.

It is hard to see the Treasury being amenable to demands for more money – there is precious little spare money, and no political appetite for higher taxes to fund defence. There is also a sense of weariness that the Armed Forces excel at ‘special pleading’ in demanding ever greater sums of cash, without showing the ruthlessness required to cut costs at every opportunity to find the money themselves. Speak candidly to Treasury officials with experience of working with the MOD and they are torn between enormous admiration and respect for the military and its ‘can do’ attitude, and enormous frustration at trying to put sacred cows on the menu, let alone eat them to save cash.

Given the lack of willingness to find extra funds, the only other option open to the Department to meet its financial challenges is to make real and painful cuts. This is currently being wrapped up in the auspices of a mini national security review, sneaked out under the radar on the last day of the Parliamentary session. It seems inevitable that cuts will follow from this, but likely packaged under a series of headline grabbing announcements of ‘cash for X’ with much smaller footnotes describing how A,B,C and D are all being scrapped, delayed, deferred or descoped too.

By Land

The news that the RN is considering offering up the Royal Marines indicates several things. Firstly, it’s a sign that the traditional battles in MOD during spending rounds have reached the point of leaking the ‘sacred cow’ options (such as scrapping the Red Arrows, disband the Parachute Regiment etc), in order to try and fight a rearguard action. All the Services have these options, it was a bit of a running joke with some of the authors friends that the ‘Close BRNC Dartmouth’ option paper seemed to have been staffed about 50 years ago and was just dusted off as required. There is also the possibly urban myth that the reason the Upholder class were scrapped was due to a planning round where the diesel submarine capability was offered up as a sacred cow, with the submarine force planners assuming no one would be foolish enough to take it…

 The usual form is to leak or brief selected options  which are hugely emotional and tap into the psyche of MPs and commentators, and then get them to fight a campaign to save X at all costs. This usually leads to lobbying, letters and pressure on Ministers, and if lucky direction that the Option won’t be taken forward after all. The problem is that this doesn’t make the financial pressure go away – and its usually only by taking tough calls like scrapping a capability outright that you can save the chunks of money required.

Why Royal, Why Now?
The challenge for the Royal Marines right now is that they look particularly vulnerable targets, with a highly specialised core role that is increasingly unlikely to be used in anger. The RM and the RN have long had a slightly odd, and at times, uneasy relationship. It is often forgotten these days that the role of amphibious warfare isn’t something that really took off until WW2, and that the RM have only been leading on it for about 70 years. Until that point they were arguably merely light infantry embarked on ships and the odd landing party.

The post war use of the RM saw them work across a variety of tasks such as Northern Ireland, and the withdrawal from Empire. From the 1960s onwards was a force optimised to go to Norway and halt any putative Russian advances, and then die bravely when things went badly wrong. The RN did not invest heavily in specialist amphibious shipping beyond a pair of LPDs (FEARLESS class) in the early 1960s, which were mostly used for training cadets or in reserve and absorbing into the RFA some tank landing ships to put troops ashore.  A pair of carriers were converted into the LPH role (ALBION and BULWARK), but ALBION paid off quickly, and BULWARK spent much of her later life in reserve.

By 1981 the RM represented some 10% of the Naval Service and was subject to hard questions on its role, noting that much of their amphibious work could be done through using RORO shipping chartered in a hurry. The RM were facing swingeing cuts when they were saved by the Falklands War, a period which led to a renaissance in the amphibious force and made the RM politically untouchable. Over the next twenty years there was heavy investment in new shipping (a total of 6 LPDs and 6 RORO ferries were acquired) and the Corps escaped almost unharmed from Defence Reviews.  Used operationally in Sierra Leone and the Gulf War, the RM was seen as a light infantry force able to deliver a Commando Brigade ashore with supporting enablers to allow them to fight and operate with allies or link up with wider UK elements.  More widely the RM continued to provide security for the nuclear deterrent, boarding teams and other specialist roles as part of a wider package of capability.

The key point where things began to change was arguably OP HERRICK. At this point the Corps transitioned from being an organisation which fought from the sea onto the land, to one that spent many years focusing on being a land based warfighting force. The depth of commitment to HERRICK meant that the Corps lost a lot of its links to the wider RN; speaking to friends who served in the RM, many remark that during the HERRICK years the RM did very little with the RN at sea. This would have been fine for a short operation, but for a multi-year commitment it meant that an entire generation of Officers and NCOs were growing up who excelled at conventional land warfare, but who had lost touch with their maritime roots.

By Sea

At the same time, there was a growing sense in some parts of the RN that the RM was arguably a money pit that cost the RN a significant amount of time, money and platforms, but which delivered very little for the RN itself. Tellingly, during the worst years of the piracy issues in Somalia, the RN had to rely heavily on RNR ratings to form ships protection teams, not RM in part reportedly because the RM was so focused on Afghanistan. At a time when the RN was taking heavy cuts to ships and other platforms as part of budget reductions to help deliver success in Afghanistan, there was perhaps some resentment that the Corps delivered little, yet absorbed a huge amount of the Naval Service budget. What is the point of having an amphibious fleet, and maritime amphibious helicopter capability, if your amphibious troops are stuck in a cycle of deploying only to a landlocked country?

The 2010 SDSR marked the point where the RM began to see a real shift in approach, due to the reduction in how much amphibious shipping was available, and the ability to deploy a conventional landing force ashore. No longer would the UK seek to put the entirety of 3 CDO Bde ashore, but instead smaller landing forces would be deployed instead (thus enabling the paying off into reserve of one of the LPDs, and selling of an LSD(A)).

The RM managed to escape significant cuts in the 2015 SDSR, but by now had become proportionately a very large part of the Naval Service. In years gone by the Corps had averaged 8-10% of total Naval Service strength, but by 2015 this was closer to 25%. Given the widespread and savage manpower cuts to the rest of the Naval Service, questions were reportedly asked as to why the RM were so politically untouchable.

The Situation Today
In the current security environment that the UK faces, it is hard to see a need for a major amphibious lift capability to conduct opposed operations. This may sound like heresy to say, but if you consider that any major beach landing would be fraught with risk, and require major military support and logistical access to a port and airhead quickly to succeed, it is hard to see the circumstances where the UK and US would want to conduct such an operation. The political circumstances are such, that it is difficult to see the UK willingly wishing to indulge in a full scale amphibious assault against a hostile nation with a brigade sized force anytime in the future.

There are plenty of situations where the ability to transport equipment and people is vital – for instance conducting a NEO, or moving troops and supplies into a friendly country ahead of a wider land conflict. There are also circumstances where an ‘amphibious raid’ capability is equally important – the ability to quickly send a small number of troops ashore via helicopter or fast landing craft to conduct a specific mission, or diversionary raid is extremely useful.

Do these circumstances though require the Royal Marines to stay as  they are, or could they be restructured? If the decision were made to move away from a large scale landing force into one that focused on smaller niche roles, then the benefits could be considerable.

Firstly it would enable the RN to look at savings on running of the two LPDs. These ships are immensely expensive primarily due to their HQ functions which support the planning of large and complex amphibious operations. A change in emphasis could reduce the need to have these ships active, allowing them to do other tasks, or be held at readiness and free up manpower. It would also allow the scaling down of the HQ organisations that support amphibious operations – plenty of people moan that the RN has too many 1*s and above – here is the chance to downgrade or scrap the planning staffs that support the larger operations and reduce the senior officer headcount.

Sea Soldiers in the Desert...

For the RM, the chance to re-embark at sea and focus on maritime counter piracy and security could be an opportunity to rebrand and reinvent the organisation, giving it a new lease of life. There is a real and pressing need to marinize the RM again, getting them used to being at sea, not permanently working ashore. At the same time it would free up a lot of highly trained infantry soldiers who could train to deliver boarding teams, and maritime counter piracy duties. This is a deeply complex role that requires a lot of training and support to get right, and is only going to grow in importance over the next few years.

Investing in niche roles such as this, or protection of nuclear weapons, and coupling this with a smaller ability to land raiding parties not brigades has the benefit of making the Corps far more valuable to keep in the long term. Right now it is arguably a light infantry brigade which has some other secondary duties tagged on the side. This is fine, but there are plenty of light infantry brigades out there, and probably too many soldiers in the Army as it is. If the RM were to refocus onto being sea going soldiers again, and deliver a small range of capabilities very well, then this makes them far harder to scrap entirely.

For the RM itself it also perhaps gives a chance to consider what it is they exist for, and how they can rebuild relationships with the RN. Speak to RM’s candidly, and you quickly pick up a deep sense of persecution and vulnerability. They feel unloved by the RN, and that they are held to a different expectation of standards of conduct. Issues such as the wearing of dresses, or the lads having very messy nights out point to a culture which is increasingly different to that of the wider Naval Service.

But speak to the RN and you sense a similar frustration with the RM, a sort of paternalistic groan at the exploits of junior marines who manage to do something which does real diplomatic damage to bilateral relations, or who are often perceived as social hand grenades. There is also a sense at times that the RM absorb money and people that could be better spent keeping other ships at sea, or on  more escorts, more OPVs and more sailors to man them.

This sense of diverging paths stems from arguably too many years of the RM not working alongside matelots at sea, and becoming increasingly focused on just the land part of the littoral. A move to being back at sea, to working with sailors and showing the benefits of having embarked marines on a ship could be what is needed to rebuild this relationship.


Where do we go from here?
It is too soon to know whether there is any likelihood of this option being taken. Downgrading the RM landing capability would be a considerable policy statement of future UK aspirations – it would essentially say that the UK is out of the major landing game, and could have significant repercussions for longer term equipment planning, such as future amphibious shipping plans.

Is the need to conduct major offensives, or to move highly skilled people quickly to disaster relief? Do you need the supporting enablers that 3 Cdo Bde has, liked the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Logistics Corps that right now are proving their value in supporting OP RUMAN in the West Indies? Can this be delivered by other means?

Given the current parlous state of finances to not do this means that the RN has to ask what else does it want to stop doing instead? It is difficult to see what can be stopped without having significant effect on either delivering Carrier Strike or the Deterrent, and in supporting ongoing operations. To find an extra £100m a year in savings without changing the RM would need major structural, manpower and operational changes, which would be challenging to deliver.

Ultimately the Naval Service needs to consider what effect does it wish to have on land, the extent to which being able to land the RM on land to be able to fight matters and whether it is better to step down from that level of capability, but instead fund specialist roles like maritime counter terrorism instead that could be of far more importance than a theoretical landing capability.

There is no right answer to this debate. It highlights how difficult it is for planners in the MOD to know what to do – they have to balance off the need to meet national policy goals, support military force levels and provide capabilities, all while guessing and second guessing what may, or may not, be needed in the future.

The history of the RM and the Parachute Regiment since 1945 seems to be that both are seen as light infantry forces capable of ‘kicking the door in’ but neither has really been used in this way for decades. Whether the cost of maintaining this capability is worth it, or whether it is better to refocus elsewhere is difficult to know. There is no right answer now, only time will prove whether the planners of today have the foresight to prevent their successors 30 years down the line from going ‘well we used to be able to do this, but we scrapped it 30 years ago to do that instead which it turns out we’ve never used’.

Friday, 15 September 2017

No - the Royal Navy is not a global laughing stock

It seems to have become a traditional British media pastime to run at least one annual story decrying the death of the Royal Navy and making out that the RN is no longer able to defend our shores. Previous versions of this story have run in a variety of papers, usually focusing on the perception that because ships are in harbour, something is ‘wrong’ and that the UK no longer has a Navy.

The Daily Telegraph on 15 September splashed an exclusive article and editorial claiming that the RN was a ‘global laughing stock’ according to ‘senior unnamed military sources’, and that it was all going horribly wrong. The article is lurking behind a paywall, but it could be condensed into putting across a few core arguments, namely;

·         Only a third of the escort fleet is at sea
·         The RN can’t afford to send ships to sea over fuel costs
·         There aren’t enough people to man the ships that we do have
·         HMS OCEAN broke down, and the UK failed in the West Indies
·         The RN is therefore a global laughing stock unable to defend the UK.
·         Things were better in 1945 when we had 900 ships…

The problem is that the article relies on a lot of convenient memories, stitching together of half truths and different bits of the puzzle and forgetting various bits of recent RN history to make it stick. Humphrey wants to take a deeper look at it, deconstruct it and find out what might have an element of truth in it.

To Sail at Sea
A charge made against the RN is that it is a pitifully small force compared to the 1945 version of the fleet. Frankly, that’s not really surprising. In 1945 the UK had just finished a 6 year long global war which was an existential struggle for survival. The economy had mobilised to a total war footing, doing deep and lasting damage to our national economic prospects in order to secure the manpower and resources to fight for our very existence as a nation. It is entirely correct to say that the RN had hundreds of warships and hundreds of thousands of people in 1945 – if we didn’t, then the war would have been lost.

The two world class navies at sea together

What the paper then forgets to mention is the arguably nadir of the Royal Navy in the immediate post war period. Hundreds of old ships, worn out from wartime service needed to be scrapped. Other ships, built for hostilities use only were already past the point of economic salvage. Underpinning this was a desperate need to get people back into the national economy to rebuild a shattered nation. If you study defence policy from 1945 – 1960, what is clear is the difficult balance that had to be struck keeping thousands of national servicemen on to support ships, when they possessed technical skills in very short supply to help rebuild the economy.

The immediate post war history of Britain is one of trying to maintain a large manpower intensive navy, and running out of people. By 1948-49 the RN was reduced to a handful of ships at sea simply because it had no manpower to go to sea. If memory serves correctly, the Home Fleet of the late 1940s had less ships able to go to sea for their summer cruise than the RN has active in home waters today because of a lack of people and resources. Yet this was supposedly in ‘the good old days’ when the RN was flush with ships.

The RN, and every other seagoing Navy out there operates its ships on a rotational basis. This simple concept can best be described as ‘the rule of three’. Namely, for every ship that is on the front line at sea right now on live operations (e.g. fully stored, fuelled and munitioned and operating under a specific operation), you require a further two ships in the pipeline. The first is the one that’s just come home and gone into refit or lower level readiness. This is because the crew need to take leave, parts need replacing and the ship needs maintenance. The second is the ship that will replace the ship deployed, and this vessel will usually be in some point of the force generation cycle, which involves final bits of maintenance, trials, basic sea training and more advanced sea training and any other targeted work to get her ready to sail. This is a complex process that takes many months to fully prepare a ship to sail.

Over a couple of years life, a ship is programmed by the RN planners (a special breed of people possessed of wisdom, foresight and very little hair left at the end of their tour) to come out of a refit, work up, complete all trials and training, deploy for 9 months, return home and then wind down before going in for the next cycle of refit and repair. This cycle is either repeated, or broken up by the occasional deep multi-year refit to extend her life or fit major new equipment.

In simple terms this means that to keep 5-6 ships deployed, you need a force of roughly 17-18 escorts at any one time. Possessing 19 escort ships does not mean that 19 ships can go to sea on operations. It means you have got the ability to keep 5-6 ships deployed on station indefinitely.

This may sound a technicality, but is actually really important to understand. What distinguishes the RN from a lot of coastal navies is that sustaining this sort of deployment is routine business – the RN accepts that it goes to sea across the globe and plans this as a routine activity. For many navies, an ‘out of area’ deployment is a major investment of time and support and training, and is something that may occur once every 4-5 years, not every day of the year.

Type 45 Destroyer at sea

The paper spreads across two pages showing what ships are where. Other than the glaring error listing HMS PORTLAND as being deployed, which may come as news to the crew of PORTLAND who returned a few months ago, it fails to take into account the time of year. The RN works on getting its ships alongside in harbour during the summer and Christmas leave periods to give crews the chance to take leave – right now, the fleet is at the end of the leave period, and ships are preparing to kick off operations and training again. Its similar to last year when the picture of the Type 45s alongside in Portsmouth failed to note that they were there mainly because it was summer leave and the crew was taking a well earned break.

The paper also failed to take into account that ships in home waters are often doing useful tasks - for instance HMS ARGYLL in London supporting DSEI and doing defence engagement duties at home. The ever excellent 'Save the Royal Navy' webpage has a very good breakdown for what the escort fleet is up to at the moment, that is worth looking at, to see how busy these ships are. This can be found at the LINK.

Maintaining our Ships
The paper majors on the concept that HMS OCEAN ‘broke down’ and  there was no other ship to send in her place. Humphrey has no idea if this is true or not about the breakdown (EDIT - The 2nd Sea Lord has confirmed that OCEAN did NOT experience mechanical problems), but it is clear that ships can, and do, have mechanical issues. They are very complicated beasts, requiring a lot of time and maintenance to get right. When worked hard, the opportunity to do deeper maintenance is reduced – its worth noting that OCEAN returned from a major 6 month deployment early in 2017, and has already sailed again for another 4-6 month deployment.

That bits break is a fact of life – every navy in the world has the same issue. The difference is how this is responded to. The RN excels in part because of its heavy investment in a global logistics chain, which makes good use of local support facilities, NATO access and the RAF air transport fleet to ensure that if something breaks, it can be fixed very quickly. All ships of every navy in the world carry defects that need maintenance – the RN is one of the very few that has the means to fix them at distance from home.

The fact the OCEAN was able to pull into Gibraltar highlights the flexibility of the RNs global reach and presence. Being able to access a friendly naval base thousands of miles from home with access to stores and a runway you control (so no diplomatic clearance or challenges with local customs officials) is not something many navies can do. Rather than focus on the mildly negative fact that she allegedly broke, lets focus on the positive that the UK was well placed to fix her.

Keeping our People
The one area where the RN faces real challenge is that of keeping its people in the system in the right rank/rate, with the right experience and in sufficient numbers so as to balance time at sea with time on shore. The RN has struggled to get this right since 1945, so manpower shortages are nothing new.

It is hard to think of a time since WW2 when the RN hasn’t been in the depths of a manpower crisis in some area or another. There are always problems out there, mainly because a busy Service that works hard globally needs to work people hard to keep up. People will always get frustrated and leave when the Service can’t give them what they want.  In practical terms the fixes open to the RN on its current manning system are very limited, it can do less stuff at sea a long way from home, it can pay ships off to increase the pool of manpower available, or it can recruit more people.

Sending ships to sea less means you reduce the amount of separation time people have – a lot of the people leaving at key pinch points are often slightly older, with families and partners that they wish to spend time with. As you grow older the desire to do another 9 month deployment fades quickly, and the pressure to spend time with your family grows. Keeping ships alongside, or in local waters reduces the pressure of both deployments and the build up to them (people often don’t realise that the amount of work required to get ready to deploy is almost as time consuming and draining as the actual deployment itself).


Paradoxically keeping ships at sea less reduces the pressure on people, but can be retention negative. If people feel they aren’t getting to sea or seeing the world, then the appeal of another few months on UK coastal visits, or tied up alongside quickly pales. There is a healthy balance to be struck between keeping ships busy or keeping them alongside. This is perhaps best seen in the way that some of the longer haul deployments, such as to the Asia Pacific region have tailed off in recent years, and there is an increase in home waters deployments or visits. Its a very fine balancing act to manage.

You can pay ships off to increase the pool of manpower available to do work with – this is one reason why there are only 17 escorts active out of 19 – there simply aren’t enough people in the system to keep them all manned and ready for use. Paying off makes sense if you want to keep ships fully manned, but is politically unpalatable – the Govt has taken a lot of stick for putting two ships into low readiness, even though if they remained in full commission they would never go to sea anyway due to the lack of people on them

Finally you can recruit more people, but due to the continued maintenance of the ‘only one point of entry’ in to the system it is hard to sideways recruit talent into SNCO or higher posts. While limited moves are being made to accelerate promotion or look at innovative ways of solving these problems, for as long as the RN insists on broadly recruiting at the lowest entry point, it will struggle to generate the right levels of manpower – it is recruiting today for people who it needs to be senior rates in the early 2040s – what other industry recruits in such a closed manner?

Show Me the Money...
Suggestions have been made that part of the problem stems from a lack of funding for the RN in general. It is true that budgets have been cut in real terms for many years by all the main political parties, but it is equally true that the UK retains an enormous defence budget. For all the bluster about not spending enough on defence, do not forget that there is still growth in the equipment budget, and budget holders in the single services have considerable delegated authority to re-prioritise and reallocate funding as they see fit.

Defence, and its advocates will always want more money, but so does every other department and their advocates. The harsh truth is that the MOD enjoyed an exceptionally good funding settlement in the last Comprehensive Spending Review, and that it has one of the best deals going, particularly compared to a lot of unprotected departments. There is little sympathy for 'special pleading' because Defence has not only the funding, but the flexibility to reallocate this funding to solve its problems.

Is the RN a global laughing stock?
The article relies on a lot of emotional phrasing by ‘senior defence sources’ that imply that somehow the UK has failed in the West Indies and more widely. To be honest, the moment Humphrey sees this sort of moaning, its an immediate switch off. It usually implies someone with an agenda is trying to influence thinking about how money gets spent – and not always in the way people think.

For example right now it is open knowledge that the MOD is in incredible financial problems (again) due to the collapse in the value of the pound. A lot of very difficult choices are going to have to be taken in order to balance the books. This ‘oh the RN is a laughing stock as it only has one of these ships to respond to the West Indies’ could be read as special pleading to protect assets like amphibious shipping and the Royal Marines (which if they were to lose their amphibious over the beach role would free up a vast amount of money,  ships and people to do other jobs). Alternatively it could be mischief making by other services to try and persuade Ministers and politicians that given the purported embarrassment that the UK has had, why not walk away from these capabilities altogether and spend the money elsewhere (or the  ‘well you wouldn’t get this problem if you had a fully funded Armoured Division minister’ briefing).

HMS MONTROSE demonstrating the RN role is to fight and win

The reality is though that the RN is anything but a global laughing stock. It is operating right now across the globe from Antarctica to the north Atlantic. It has in the last week demonstrated, along with the rest of the UK armed forces, a world beating capability to commence, at barely 24hrs notice a major international rescue operation in five different island chains on the other side of the planet, deploying aviation, specialists and equipment well ahead of any other nations to save lives, and which will be sustained for months to come. It is sustaining day in, day out, difficult deployments across the globe which rely on a global support chain of people, equipment and capability to deliver.

All this is going on against the backdrop of enormous amounts of new construction coming into service, with regeneration of the entire fleet planned in one way or another. The future RN won’t look like the RN of the past – it will see different types of ships, such as autonomous capability and land based means of delivering effect, but it will continue to harness the cutting edge technology to have a qualitative edge over its potential foes.

The RN right now is the Navy most other nations look to as their ‘gold standard’. Its ability to use its combination of people, equipment and capability, delivered under challenging financial and other circumstances, to sustain a global network of operations 24/7/365 is a source of immense interest and jealousy.

Most navies out there leave their ships alongside harbour walls year in year out, or maybe day run to go and do basic manouveres. Few navies try to go a long way from home, and even fewer sail a long way from home ready, willing and able to inflict violence on a potential enemy. The RN of today is better equipped than ever to get to sea, to stay at sea, to bring help, succour and comfort from the sea to those who need it, and if required, to fight at sea to protect this country from its foes.

It is not ‘a global laughing stock’, it is the global standard that other navies aspire to be. It may have challenges, but all navies do. It is a shame that the Telegraph is so unwilling to take pride in the Service and instead seeks to undermine it at any cost. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Is the UK still failing in the West Indies (Part Two)

The news cycle continues to be dominated by Hurricane Irma, which is now making landfall in the US and causing astonishing levels of damage and destruction, without yet reducing in intensity – by a significant margin Irma remains the most destructive hurricane in the Caribbean region in recorded human history.

In the UK a tale of two narratives is unfolding. On the one hand, the UK government is quickly and effectively getting on with the job of delivering aid and support where it is needed. On the other the media, Parliamentarians and opinion formers are attacking the UK Government for ‘not doing enough’ to help.

The original ‘Has the UK failed’ article on this site came out Friday lunchtime, and since then the original article has had over 8000 hits on the blog site, with wider tweets on the subject reaching nearly 30,000 ‘impressions’ as Twitter likes to call them. By a significant margin this has been the largest reaction to any article on this blog since it was first established in 2011.

The remains huge public interest in this issue, and so rather unusually, this quick follow up piece has been written to take stock of what has gone on, consider the implications and again ask the question ‘Has the UK failed in the West Indies’ now that a few days have passed. Ultimately it will revisit some of the issues raised in the original piece, but hopefully there is significant new material here to consider too.

RFA on the ground to help

What are the positives on the response?
Despite naysayers to the contrary, Humphrey remains convinced that the UK response to this disaster has been astoundingly good, from Central Government through to troops on the ground.

The first positive is the way it has demonstrated how effectively the National Security infrastructure works when dealing with a major crisis, which paradoxically was one of the main complaints of the media.  The challenge when looking at something like a natural disaster is knowing at what point things are going to go badly wrong, and more importantly what help is needed to alleviate the problem.

It only became clear at some point last weekend that a bad storm was brewing, and it remained uncertain where it would go. At this point HMG options were limited for a response. The islands knew hurricanes were coming, but they didn’t know how bad it would be (often they can change strength or course before a warning is issued). The likely scale of the hurricane meant an evacuation was neither feasible or possible. Many of the UK island groups do not have major runways capable of landing military aircraft, let alone large airliners, and even if you could evacuate, where would you have sent the people?

If you don’t know where the hurricane will go precisely, and you don’t know how bad it will be, its not possible to immediately send aid. DFID and UK NGOs are highly experienced at knowing what is needed post disaster, but you need to know where to send it and in what quantities.

If you send troops out there, you have no means of landing them on most of the islands that the UK has an interest in due to the lack of airheads, and no military capability on these islands – mostly because it is not needed. Do not forget these island groups are tiny and contain a plethora of smaller islands – the Turks & Caicos islands alone by way of example have 8 main and 299 smaller islands – housing a population of barely 31,500 people.  Where do you send the assistance if you don’t know what will be hit?

Given the lack of military presence, had assistance been sent, it would have required a major operation involving sending UK troops into dozens, if not hundreds of islands without supporting equipment or logistics in barely 48hrs, and only hours before the largest recorded hurricane in the regions known history was due to hit. It is difficult to imagine what good could have come of this plan – at best UK troops would have been trapped in their shelters, at worst they could have been badly injured or killed and unable to get help. History is full of stories of rescuers requiring rescue themselves – this would have been no exception.

It is easy to criticise the Government for ‘not doing something’ but it is hard to see what you can do at times like this. Beyond advising the local population to take shelter, and taking the usual hurricane prevention measures for people and property – which is something that these islands should be used to having an annual hurricane season, there is little else you can do before the disaster occurs.

To those who complain the Government has failed, Humphrey would ask a simple question – what would you have done as a course of action given the many logistical constraints facing the planners in this scenario?

99 Sqn on their way to help

Joined Up Government
What seems to have happened instead is that the UK Government did a lot of effective planning to work out what was needed, and take steps to do post disaster recovery instead. This may sound a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it’s a mark of how well joined up UK Government is that this happened so quickly. Between last weekend and Wednesday, a significant amount of planning, preparation and getting ready to move occurred for military assets and disaster relief agencies. This meant that even as the storm was hitting, it was possible to have the right kit, people and capabilities prepositioned and ready to move off to help.

This is not an easy task – it involves getting the Cabinet Office, MOD, DFID, Home Office, FCO and others to work together to conduct the planning to determine what is needed, where it is needed and what the mission is. It requires MOD to stand up a crisis cell to oversee the Operation (now known as OP RUMAN), to take charge of it and ensure all the contributing units and organisations could respond quickly to get underway. It required DFID to work with charities to identify what emergency response was needed, to pull coherent asks together and get the supplies ready to move and sort out £32 million shopping list of items required to get moving. All of this is complicated and involves thousands of people working together to pull it off. It happened in 72 hours.

Lets consider this for a moment – in barely three days Government was able to go from identifying that a bad storm was forming, and that the already highly capable disaster relief assets in place wouldn’t be sufficient, to planning, co-ordinating and commencing a major international civil military rescue operation on the other side of the planet. That’s pretty good going by any reasonable measure, and is in sharp contrast to the very disjointed responses of other nations.

It highlights how effective things like how effective the UK military working relationship with DFID is now – again, far better than almost any other national equivalents abroad. It shows how swept up procedures are to generate a very challenging rescue mission and get it ready to go in a couple of days. It also shows just how good HMG staff are, civilian, police and military, and how lucky the UK is to have their services.

Finally it shows just how wise the UK investment in strategic lift capability has been to allow this to happen, and how superb the RAF are at pulling all the stops out to get aircraft airborne to save lives.

‘Long Reach’
OP RUMAN has demonstrated once again how capable the UK military is at delivering relief and support on the other side of the world at next to no notice, and doing this while lots of major military operations are going on elsewhere. This is something that except for the USA, no other nation can do right now.

Today the UK has got a major international disaster relief operation underway, lifting hundreds of people, plant, vehicles and supplies into a region devastated by a hurricane, and its done this at next to notice. While this is going on, its also supporting troops in the Baltic and Black Sea against possible Russian aggression; patrolling the med to help support the ongoing crises there; conducting major air operations and training on the ground in Iraq and Syria; working in support of maritime security in the broader middle east; delivering support to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan, and continuing to man garrisons in Falklands, Cyprus and Brunei to name but a few jobs.  These require major support from the homebase, yet the UK has been able to flexibly rerole airframes and assets to ensure that help is available to do this. This is not the mark of a minor military power.

One of the key takeaways from OP  RUMAN has to be just how flexible the UK power projection capability is, particularly the flexibility of the A400M, A330 and C17 fleets, which have been quickly drawn into service to conduct a joint operation. This sort of work isn’t easy and shows again the sheer professionalism underpinning the RAF strategic A/T force in the way they meet these challenges.

More widely OP RUMAN has highlighted the value of Gibraltar as a Forward Mounting Base. HMS OCEAN has deployed to the region, and has pulled into Gibraltar for supplies and to embark aircraft for the dash across to the West Indies. The presence of a runway and secure stores highlights once again the value of the dispersed network of Naval bases across the globe that the UK can call on to help in emergencies. Much as in OP PATWIN (disaster relief in Philippines) when HMS ILLUSTRIOUS used the RN facilities in Sembewang dockyard in Singapore to embark stores, OCEAN is doing similar in Gibraltar. This is a timely reminder of the way that the UK can exert influence globally through its ability to airlift aid and equipment out to UK facilities for loading onto other ships to conduct disaster relief.

RN/RFA/Army/Police in the West Indies

HMS OCEAN will also be deploying with Chinook helicopters – several are heading down now to deploy to the ship for the transit. This simple statement also helps tell a great story about how swept up the UK is – for most countries the idea of flying a large air force helicopter from home to another country then embarking on a naval platform to deploy to the other side of the world to do disaster relief with NGOs and the Army for an indeterminate period and thus needing a logistics chain to fly out spares and equipment to the other side of the world too is challenging. To do this at 3 days notice would be seen as mission impossible – yet to the MOD, this is essentially routine business.

Embarking in this manner helps highlight just how sensible jointery is, and how effective (to the outside) the UK approach and ability is at making things like this happen at short notice. It is fair to say that many other countries will be incredibly envious at the way that the UK doesn’t just possess good equipment, but its able to operate it in such an effective manner.

There will be those who complain about the lack of UK aircraft or helicopters in the region to start with. This seems unfair – before the storm hit, it wasn’t clear what state any airports would be in. Now the storm has passed, its clear only one airport is at present open that can take military aircraft – had the UK forward deployed then the chances are that the aircraft would have been destroyed, or even if they survived, they would by now have run out of spare parts and fuel. Photos below taken by 70Sqn RAF, landing in their A400M aircraft show how much damage the airhead they are using sustained - and thats classed as one that is currently usable!

One of the realities of this sort of operation is that good logistic chains are essential to keep things going. Part of the ‘delay’ has been as much about establishing working communications, finding out where it is possible to go to, and working out how to get equipment into region that is usable. There is no point rushing something out, only to find it breaks down two days later and can’t be fixed because the airport is closed and the harbour blocked.

Expectation Management
Part of the issue here has been one of a failure to adequately manage expectations of people used to seeing something happen instantly on twitter, then wondering why if they can change their Facebook page to show support for a crisis, that the response is slow to turn up.

Examples of this include the way that the Government was criticised for ‘not doing enough’ as if planning a major rescue operation doesn’t count. There seems to be a view that somehow saying ‘COBR is meeting’ means that magically everything just happens in the manner of a Hollywood movie. In reality, the world isn’t like that – COBR is a great means of getting people to talk, to share information and discuss issues – but it doesn’t change the laws of physics.

Similarly, the expectation management of those trapped needed to be better handled. One paper reported how a couple were to be trapped for a whole 72 hours on a Dutch Island before the FCO could get to them. Never mind that the island had effectively just had the equivalent of a nuclear blast go off on it, that thousands were dead, injured or homeless. No, what mattered was that the FCO had failed as they’d have to spend the weekend there.

RAF Shot of damage on airfield

It may come as a shock to learn that the FCO is not a large organisation, it is not hugely staffed and many posts have very few people at them. It is also not psychic – if someone goes overseas to a destination in hurricane season, doesn’t tell the FCO where they are going (which can be done via an email), then its perhaps not always realistic to expect the FCO to know there are British nationals there. Posts can only deal with the people they know about (whenever Humphrey goes somewhere off the beaten track, he always uses the facility on the embassy webpage to let them know he is present and his contact details and plans for this very reason – it’s a shame more people don’t do this).

More widely, with very few FCO posts in region, tens of thousands of known British entitled persons to track down and ensure safety of, is it perhaps not surprising that if a pair of people not known about to the authorities, on an island that doesn’t have a UK Embassy or consulate aren’t top of the list to be tracked down and recovered? It takes time to establish how is, or is not, entitled to external help, and frankly 72hrs seems reasonable under the circumstances. Yet the narrative in the media was of failure because these people were not helped NOW.

The real story of Hurricane Irma is perhaps that it shows that in a world of twitter and instant gratification, many people are simply unable to comprehend that things take time to happen. Rather than accept that HM Government is doing an astonishingly good job of trying to fix things, to get targeted help on scene and then put in place proper relief efforts, the news seems instead to focus on the idea that the UK ‘failed’ because the Government didn’t send a bunch of troops to the UK administered islands early for reasons not entirely clear.

This desire to attack and criticise is an increasingly depressing reality in looking at defence and current events coverage. The breathless tone of reporting about ‘UK FINALLY turns up’ as if the presence of a floating disaster relief ship in region for this precise eventuality didn’t count, or the way that the existing and overwhelmed infantry garrisons for the vastly larger French and Dutch islands meant they were ‘better’ than the UK response ignored the reality that both nations are struggling to get laid out and are asking the UK for help.

As a nation, we are quick to flagellate ourselves and attack what we have done. We seek to complain, to do down and denigrate. When the government do not meet the exact standards of the self-appointed media inquisitors (who all too often know nothing of the subject at hand) then they are deemed to have failed. In fact, the UK response to Hurricane Irma has been incredible – swept up, effective and coherent. It has put the right kit in the right places at the point when it is needed.

People forget this is the single worst hurricane ever recorded here -the UK could have had ten times the assets available and it still wouldn’t have been enough to cope. But what they have done is deliver a far more effective and swept up response than any other nation out there, and this will make a real difference in the days, weeks and months ahead, long after the media inquisitors forget about this and go on to attack HMG for failing in whatever subject of the day attracts their attention.