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.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Has the UK failed in the West Indies?

There has been significant media coverage of the dreadful impact of Hurricane Irma in the West Indies, which has caused immense damage across a wide swathe of the region. The hurricane, at Category 5 is the single worst one ever recorded in the regions history and has done enormous damage. Islands have been devastated, with widespread destruction and loss of life likely.

Three European nations still retain territory in this region – the UK, France and the Netherlands, while the US maintains sovereignty over other islands as well in its peculiar ‘empire that is not an empire’ approach to the world.For France and the Netherlands, the island groups form a integral part of their homeland – with parliamentary representation and enjoy a very different constitutional relationship to those islands still associated with the UK.  The French West Indies have a population of almost 850,000 people across 7 main islands, all located relatively close to each other. The Dutch Antilles have a population of just over 300,000 people, again spread over a small number of islands in very close proximity to each other.

The UK is responsible for governing five island groups in the West Indies itself – Anguilla, Montserrat, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands (plus Bermuda out in the atlantic), with a total population of roughly 100,000 people across all five islands. The islands are governed by the UK, who is responsible for defence and external affairs, and which provides additional assistance in some areas – for instance legal support or other bespoke issues.  

The key difference is that these islands are not located close to each other – they are spread across the entirety of the Caribbean, and represent the history of decolonisation as different islands broke off from other colonies during the independence process in order to remain affiliated to the UK – for instance Anguilla. While UK policy is that all islands that wish to have independence will get it, for some islands, they are just too small or poor to be able to cope as a fully fledged power – Montserrat has barely 4500 people on it and an enormous volcano that did immense damage in its most recent eruption.

HMS OCEAN is on her way

What is the Defence posture?
Both the French and Netherlands armed forces maintain permanent garrisons in their territory – the French have an infantry regiment (size unknown) based in Martinique, coupled with a small naval base facility to support some ships. The Dutch maintain a small naval presence (a support ship and an occasional guard ship deployment) plus a detachment at one of the airfields, which also doubles up as a US Air Force forward operating base. There is a small ground presence too, but again its hard to get exact numbers. In very rough terms, there are roughly 1000 people from each nation in their respective territories doing military work or internal security at any one time.

By contrast the UK defence presence in the West Indies is not land based, and has not been for decades. The usual presence is built around an RFA tanker or Landing Ship, supported by deployments from escorts or OPVS – with the aim being to have a ship loaded with disaster relief supplies in region and available to sail as required during the hurricane season. For the rest of the time the presence involves both regional security visits, capacity building and counter narcotics work.

The UK does not maintain a land presence in the West Indies – although there have been regular training exercises in places like Jamaica. The nearest land presence is in Belize, where there remains a significant real estate footprint, supported by regular exercises in country. The small Army Air Corps detachment (25 Flt with Bell 212 helicopters) closed in 2010 following defence cuts, but the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) has been preserved and was growing in size again as one of two locations where the Army can do jungle warfare training (the other being Brunei).

The other land presence is the Bermuda Regiment, which exists for the security and defence of Bermuda, and has the curious anomaly of being the last part of those armed forces linked to the UK (e.g. such as the Gibraltar Regiment) to practise conscription. But this organisation is not part of the British Army and is realistically not able to be used.

Beyond this there is a small number of paramilitary forces on these islands, ranging from police forces to tiny units, perhaps platoon strength at best. The lack of any credible external threat, coupled with the fact that the UK is responsible for their defence means no island has invested meaningfully in a military capability.

Has the UK failed?
Much of the criticism levelled at the UK in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane hitting was that it had not done as much to provide assistance as both France and the Netherlands, and that more could have been done. Is this a reasonable criticism to make?

Firstly, its important to note that the French and Netherlands armed forces are operated in a totally different manner to the British ones in region. They have much smaller areas to cover, and much higher populations and land to protect. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to have permanent military forces in region in this way – if you only have a couple of islands which need support, you can keep your troops in one place. This also reflect the fact that both French and Netherlands forces are used for internal security, which UK military do not do.

The UK approach though by contrast seems entirely appropriate for the UK situation. We have multiple island groups spread out over thousands of miles of ocean with tiny islands with miniscule populations. There is not the security requirement for a major military presence on these islands, nor much space.

Some seem to think the UK could have sent more troops out to the islands ahead of time – the problem with this idea is that there firstly wasn’t that much warning of the storm. Secondly, where would the troops have gone and why? Many of these islands don’t have international airports, and some probably can’t take C17s or Voyagers, so how do you get to them without access to a ship? The time required to set this up would have been longer than the warning received as to how bad the hurricane was actually going to be – its entirely realistic to assume that they’d have been arriving right in time for the hurricane to hit.

The next issue is that guessing where to put resources when your interests are dispersed isn’t easy. The hurricane skipped some islands unexpectedly, but hit others harder – had forward deployment occurred, then its entirely possible that the troops would have been in the wrong place at the wrong point, and extracting them would have been really hard. There are very few major airports or airfields in the region, and those that are there have been damaged or destroyed (look at St Maarten airfield in the Antilles). Just because you have troops on the ground doesn’t mean they’d have been able to get out again to go where required, and potentially you would have troops and equipment/plant trapped on an island unable to get off to go where it needed to be more urgently.

The C17 is an ideal airlifter for disaster relief (RCAF version here)

The assumption a lot of people make is that the armed forces are flush with disaster relief equipment and machinery to solve issues like this. Sadly that’s not really the case at all. The old MOD publication JDP2-02, which focused on UK resilience operations rightly makes the point that even 10 years ago the total UK military engineering capability for this sort of major operation was akin to that of a small town at best, and this is thinly spread across the whole world.

There are not vast halls of equipment sitting idle and waiting to be unloaded, nor many troops specially trained in disaster relief. Much of this equipment is not easily airportable, and the locations where it has to go will likely not be able to land these aircraft at the best of times, let alone post hurricane.

The UK solution is absolutely the right one – send a Landing Ship Dock for half the year as the ‘on call’ ship to respond to this kind of emergency. You could, quite literally, not hope for a better ship to respond to this sort of crisis. The Bay class landing ships are probably the most versatile ships in the RN today in terms of adapting to new roles. MOUNTS BAY has a hospital on board, she has enormous amounts of spare bunk spaces to embark extra personnel as required to move them around, she has a big well deck full of space to embark hurricane relief stores and people specially trained to do this. Don’t forget all deploying ships do disaster relief as part of their FOST training – the only bit of the armed forces to do this.

Given the scale of the disaster, she is well equipped to sail to offer help and support where needed and be self sustaining in islands where power is lost. With landing craft onboard she’ll be able to get ashore on beaches where ports are blocked, and carries the equipment needed to make a lifesaving difference. Of all the ship types in the fleet, MOUNTS BAY is the one that really is the best possible solution right now to this crisis.

Was the UK slow to respond?
Much of the criticism has centred on the speed of the response, with suggestions that it took ‘nearly a day’ for something to be done. To Humphrey this is a deeply foolish complaint to make. Hurricanes and other natural disasters are not something you respond to by just going ‘send X’ in an email and then getting on with it.

To do a disaster relief effort, you need to know where to go, what damage has happened, what the needs are and more importantly where can you land? The RAF is deploying a C17 today with troops and supplies, but its not clear where it can go or where it can land to help (hence the advantage of the RFA in theatre).

World class FOST training prepares the RN/RFA for this sort of scenario
Too many people in this era of instant connectivity assume that just because something happens on the news and is known about instantly, it can be responded to instantly. The reality is the harsh tyranny of the Mercator projection has kicked in. It will take two weeks for OCEAN to sail to the west indies because it’s a bloody long way! People don’t understand that the world is a very big place, and ships even at best speed don’t move that fast across it. No other navy in the world right now, other than the US Navy which has similar ships closer could get a ship of equal capability there any faster – yet we’re somehow blaming the RN for the fact that it will take two weeks to get there.

Similarly the UK is being attacked for a lack of foresight for not stationing equipment there. This again seems grossly unfair. The military presence in region today for disaster relief could not be better – compared to ten, twenty or forty years ago when it would have been an old frigate or destroyer with limited aviation, no landing craft, no well deck and most importantly no ability to store lots of disaster relief supplies, the UK response today from a capability perspective is simply the best it could be. Also we'd have had worse ships in the amphibious fleet, less capable of providing assistance like HMS OCEAN will do, and a less capable strategic airlift force too to move the heavy plant (no C17 equivalents). The UK is genuinely better placed now to respond to this crisis, than it is at any previous one in terms of what is in theatre, and what is able to come right now with follow up support.

Could the UK have lots of troops permanently based in the region during hurricane season to stand by to do disaster relief? Yes it could, but it would be an enormous cost to establish new bases, and then sustain the right amount of kit in one spot, with no guarantee that it would be needed. Remember this is the first ever recorded category 5 hurricane in history to hit most of these islands. Ultimately the RN expects to do some disaster relief each year, which is why it has a ship there to do it, but this year was worse than anyone could credibly have expected. Even if UK troops were there, there is no guarantee their equipment, communications, medical support or other facilities would survive – far better to keep it at sea safely, so it can be deployed as required.  

Additionally complaints of the UK response miss the mark that the armed forces are not intended to function as a disaster relief organisation. They can do it, and have a proud history of doing it, but that is not their intended role. There is a huge number of amazing UK disaster relief organisations that are better trained, better equipped and better suited to do this sort of operation out there-  the military is at best a sticking plaster. But these organisations need to know where to deploy and where to go – they haven’t the resources to go forwards and be in the wrong place, unable to get out to give the help it turns out was needed elsewhere.

So when we look at the UK response, ask yourself these questions. Firstly, was the capability in theatre appropriate for the likely level of need – and the answer is absolutely yes it was. Secondly, could the UK have done more to respond given the geographic dispersal of territory, the lack of easy access and the limited amount of capability to do disaster relief held by the UK forces – and the answer is no, absolutely not.

Ultimately security is about risk management – on every risk register there will be issues that come up that can’t be treated, must be tolerated and which run the risk of doing huge damage. The UK approach to supporting the West Indies has been about balancing investment to keep modern ships with good capability available when required, but when something this game changing happens, no one could have been ready to solve the problem.

To compare the UK response to France or the Netherlands, who have totally different needs, operations and garrisons in region seems a bit futile. We do not know the level to which these forces are able or trained to do disaster relief, or if they are able to do it. The solution for those countries works, because of their specific situation. The UK solution works because it reflects the UKs’ specific and very different needs and requirements for disaster relief.

In this time of desperate human suffering, it is sad that rather than focus on the good that the UK is doing, and the way it is intelligently sending relief where it is needed now, this is seen as grounds for unwarranted criticism of an approach that seems eminently sensible. Send help where it needs to go, not where you think it may have to go. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

The dangers of asking for an upgrade...

A perennial subject of debate across the internet is the so-called ‘fantasy fleet’, or discussion which starts off usually with a question about why a Navy didn’t do one thing, and quickly spirals out of control into a debate about how with unlimited funding and change, the author would quickly make the Navy a much better one than it is now. Such threads are usually pretty boring to read, based on wishlisting of nice equipment, the desire to achieve numbers and never based on financial realities, second and third order effects or trying to deliver a military force against a hugely constrained set of financial and other factors.

Recently debate has focused on whether the new Royal Navy Batch 2 River class OPVs, which are now running sea trials should have increased armament. The ships as currently configured carry a 30mm cannon, some miniguns, GPMG mounts and a flight deck – on a hull of roughly 2000 tonnes (or similar to the old Type 14 Frigates). The argument is that the RN of today is struggling with hulls at sea, and increasing the armament of these ships helps counter threats, and would make them more viable for operations – for instance one suggestion was built around giving them SeaCeptor missiles (the new short range anti-aircraft missile) or Phalanx and possibly an enhanced gun.

The problem with these ideas is that its very easy to look at a list of equipment, try to imagine it on a hull and then wonder why the RN is foolish enough to ignore this potential. The reality is much more complicated, and the aim of this article is to briefly consider why upgrading isn’t always a good idea.

To begin with, naval ship designs are complicated beasts, constrained by a variety of factors to balance them out in order to deliver a ship that can meet the operational requirements placed on it. The River class OPVs are fundamentally cheap simple hulls designed to do very low level maritime constabulary work – with a minimal crew of 60 (including some on rotational watches), while they appear large from the outside, they are also designed for the lowest possible cost – so will not be optimised for conducting some operations, nor will they be fitted for it in the design.

River Class OPV in the West Indies

For instance, if you want to put a missile silo onto a ship then you need to modify the design heavily to incorporate the radars, the silo itself, additional power use, workshops and maintenance offices for both the missile system and the radar, and all the other integral parts of the weapon system to keep it operational. This immediately requires you to add a very substantial piece of work onto a hull never designed to carry this sort of firepower – meaning major internal work, rebuilding and so on. Its worth noting that the work to upgrade the T23s to carry Seaceptor is keeping them in refit for several years – that’s on a ship designed to carry missiles. On a ship like an OPV where no previous system has gone, expect it to potentially take longer still – one only has to look at the post war history of the RN to realise it does not have a good track record with major mid life refits.

Straight away in order to increase capability, you’ve actually committed to reducing the operational strength of the RN considerably for several years, particularly as one of the strengths of the River class is their operational model, which sees them spend a huge amount of time at sea each year. Given the RN is contracted to provide a mandated level of cover for fishery protection duties, this programme would actually decrease availability for the Rivers to do other work further away from home waters, and actually reduce RN presence overseas.

If you fit the missile system and Phalanx, you then need to buy sufficient ammunition to load the ship out with, and work out where this comes from. Assuming all five hulls receive the modification (suggestions seem to be based on a 16 cell VLS silo), you’ve committed to a substantial extra buy of missiles to cover test firings, warhead maintenance and refit, and to provide an attrition reserve. This immediately adds tens of millions, if not potentially hundreds of millions of pounds extra to the long term costs of the missile.

Finally you need to consider where the people come from to actually man these ships to use and maintain the system in the first place. To put an effective VLS system on an OPV would need additional crew to cover the system itself, a number of extra crew to work in and maintain the newly upgraded Ops Room, and other ancillary requirements. Being very generous, lets assume the number is 30 extra people at a time to do this. That doesn’t sound much, but this is not a blob of 30 identical sailors, its actually about finding a minimum of 150 sailors at a wide range of ranks and rates, often with very niche training and experience.

Finding these 150 sailors isn’t the end of it, you then need to assume a ration of 3:1 to keep them in the system to ensure people are always available for sea, along with shore time to help reach harmony goals (a common fact fantasy fleet threads forget is that sailors need time on shore for family and career purposes). To the fleet manners, you’ve just given them a problem of finding 450 people, in a surface fleet of barely 15000 people – drawing on sets of skills that are in high demand and scarce availability.

You can fix this problem either by recruiting more now and hoping they stay long enough to meet all the training requirements and help ease the burden in 10-15 years time. You can gap other ships and put people on the OPVs to man their systems instead – thus reducing manpower elsewhere and making people work harder and longer (and in turn exacerbating the retention problems the RN already has), or you can pull people from shore drafts and hope they don’t leave when partners give them the ‘its me or the Navy’ choice. Those are really your options to find the people to actually man this capability.

HMS FORTH underway

None of this considers the 2nd and 3rd order effects required of changes to training courses, extra work required to consider how you get the right numbers through the pipeline, or how you would do FOST with these ships, which would suddenly require a long FOST than before (thus taking them off task for even longer) and how this is resourced. All of a sudden this single extra weapon system on a ship has cost hundreds upon hundreds of millions of pounds, caused major headaches for manpower planners and most importantly reduced the number of RN ships at sea now – and the problem is no one seems to know what the reason is to do this!

What would we do with this ship?
This is perhaps the biggest question – what would the RN do, or need, with a missile armed OPV? If you look at the employment of OPVs, it is to conduct simple low risk, low threat tasks that do not need a destroyer or frigate to do them instead. It is not about operating off the coast of a hostile country with an active air threat – while the Tom Clancy fans can doubtless come up with such a scenario, the reality of it occurring with an RN OPV in the North Sea coming under air attack in peacetime is hopefully reassuringly slim.

A lot of the answers come back to ‘well it makes them better able to tackle the threat where they work’ without actually addressing what the threat is, how it can be deterred by a 16 cell VLS silo or why a country would choose to declare war on the UK, or why the UK would be letting an OPV operate in these waters with ROE to permit firing SAMs in the first place…

This is before you think about the challenges of how the ship would fight – does it do so in isolation, lobbing off 16 missiles and hoping that a 17th aircraft doesn’t turn up to cause it to die bravely? Or does it do so as part of an integrated Task Force, which in turn raises question of why, if the RN can use OPVs for air defence, does it also need the Type 26 and 31 to do the same? Again, the work required to operate as part of an effective battlegroup needs a lot of training and practise – which would take the ship away from her primary role of doing low level work.
Simply put, it is almost impossible to imagine a set of scenarios where a missile armed OPV could do anything good that couldn’t be done better or more effectively by a bigger ship. By giving the illusion that a small ship can do something to a limited level, you run the risk of seeing people killed when those illusions fail to work.

Show me the money…
The final problem in all this debate is that fantasy fleet debates rely on a seemingly bottomless pit of money, which is usually funded by scrapping the aid budget (ignoring that this is a critical part of national security strategy in preventing downstream conflict) or scrapping benefits (ignoring that this would cause a furore politically that most governments don’t want – just look at efforts in the last few governments to try and change benefits), or the Reserve (ignoring that the Reserve exists for short term fixes to specific problems and not delivering a multiyear complex capability enhancement that the MOD budget is there to fund. Government funding is complex, but is built around spending rounds and reviews, and money cannot just be randomly allocated from one departmental budget to another to meet a short term need.

The fact is that this sort of enhancement comes out of the MOD budget, and as anyone familiar with the planners from either Main Building or Front Line Commands can attest, there is not exactly a surplus of money around right now. Real world planners live a language of enhancements, deferrals, buy back, package building and risk to keep what exists now working to meet mandated defence outputs, not ‘how do we spunk hundreds of millions of cash we don’t have on kit we don’t need to do a job we’re not required to do’.

A possible solution?

The danger of fantasy fleets is that its easy to post about, and even easier for those who have a say in defence, like journalists, commentators and politicians to ‘have a good idea’ and then ask the MOD why it isn’t sticking extra kit onto a ship. At its most dangerous this leads to pressure for the RN to do something, usually like coming up with a ‘black swan’ design to show how bloody stupid the whole thing is, and at worst can result in good money being wasted on being forced to buy something that the RN doesn’t want or need, and which will harm the RN not help it (a good example of this was the acquisition of HMS MERMAID, but doubtless others are out there too).

Similarly, commentators often go ‘but why not build a modified X design’ (Khareefs being the current flavour of the month), usually because they look good, not because they are necessarily right for the RN. There seems to be no deeper analysis of whether buying a ship built for a third party which likely doesn’t have existing RN systems or equipment and then adapating it for RN use is necessarily a good use of cash, or more importantly what on earth its intended to do.

So please, the next time you read a fantasy fleets thread, think long and hard about the deeper implications about what it means, why many ideas are impractical and more importantly why its sensible to be balanced and measured about these things. Consider that the RN doesn’t add new weapon systems lightly to in-service ships (for instance the Castle Class were built intended to carry a 76mm Oto Melara, but this was never once retro-fitted), and that there is usually a damn good reason for this.