Friday, 27 April 2012

In brief - William Hagues speech in Asia

Some readers may be aware that the UK Foreign Secretary is in Asia at present, and trying to set out the case for wider UK engagement in this vastly complicated and hugely challenging area. The Think Defence website has a full transcript of his recent speech which sets out the UKs strategic  views on engagement with the region.
To Humphrey, this particular speech is of interest as it clearly sets out the level of UK engagement with, and involvement in, a very high profile area. It is well worth reading to gain a better understanding of the challenges we face in the region, and also to see how the UK policy in the area is likely to evolve.
The author is currently working on a long think piece which should hit the streets shortly about the UK military presence in Asia, and this speech goes a long way to showing why our military engagement in the area matters.
Link to a transcript of the speech is here -
Link to the FCO account of the visit is here -

Are we ‘Sea Blind’, or merely suffering from ‘Sea Myopia’?

Humphrey is on the verge of departing for a much needed holiday and has been extremely busy of late, thus reducing the amount of time available to update this blog. One thing that has caught his eye this week, and something that he’s been musing on for a while is the concept of ‘Sea Blindness’. This was spurred by listening to a discussion where it was noted that even the US Navy felt that they were in a nation suffering from ‘Sea Blindness’.

The first question that comes to mind is ‘what is Sea Blindness’? Arguably it simply means that the public, and by extension Governments of nations do not understand the maritime domain, and do not understand the case for the maritime domain – not just from a military, but also from a wider sector perspective. Personally this author dislikes this term, as it implies a state of permanence towards the public view of the sea. The phrase implies that there is no cure to the notion that the public will never understand the maritime case, and that instead it is the role of senior leaders in the maritime community to act as guides or aids to a public which will never understand the importance of maritime power.

The next question is surely, has the public ever not been sea blind? Arguably since time immemorial the public have been unwilling to support the long term interests of the maritime case – one can only look back through history at the maritime wars fought by the UK, and other nations, and see cases of weak defences needing bolstering at a desperate hour. Conversely, the major combat indicator of a potential threat has often come through the augmenting or enhancing of fleets in other nations. It is rare through history to find examples of nations maintaining powerful fleets in a state of permanent existence – rather it is the case that great fleets are maintained only for the duration of a crisis and thereafter disposed of. Simply look to the case of the Royal Navy after the Napoleonic Wars, where the manpower was disposed of and ships returned to the Reserve. It seems fair to argue that the public have no interest in funding a great fleet when there is no threat – the demands on their pockets are simply too great to bear.

If one looks at the history of the Royal Navy, it is clear it is one of both expansion and contraction to meet a threat. One could find dozens of examples through history where a small cadre of RN vessels and manpower was rapidly augmented to meet whatever threat was posed to the nation, and then rapid expansion began anew. This would only continue until the threat had passed, and then the retrenchment once again kicks in. Classic naval treaties, such as the Washington Treaty owed much to the public desire to avoid great expenditure and arms races for unnecessary purposes.  

Indeed within living memory the UK (and other Western powers) has fought two wars which were existential in nature, and in which maritime power played a key role in the battle for survival. Despite this, and despite the UK arguably facing potential defeat, there has been no longer term clamour from the public for the maintenance of large fleets at public expense to deter against this sort of problem emerging again.

The reality is that people have short memories – while they remain keen of the concept of the Royal Navy as an institution, and there is a keen sense of national pride in the values, history and tradition of what it represents, there does not seem to be a groundswell of popular support to pay to maintain a large standing navy. While many people in the pub or around the dinner table would willingly make the case for further defence expenditure, or to buy more ships, it does not seem that this is something which translates into a genuine public desire to put pressure to fund. The public want to see a strong navy, but equally they don’t want to pay more than is necessary to achieve this. This has been the same case since time immemorial, and almost all nations with a navy face the same challenge. Outside of the purposes of satisfying bruised national pride (see the South American battleship races in the late 19th and early 20th century) there is rarely any sign of huge public demand for significantly increased defence expenditure.

More broadly, this author would argue that ‘Sea Blindness’ when it comes to understanding the maritime domain is not a new condition – people have historically not understood the dependency that humanity has on the sea. In reality, although the UK is an island, very few people relatively speaking actively involve themselves in maritime matters. Outside of the small fishing / trading community, or those who work in the maritime support sector, it is probably fair to argue that most  people simply don’t have the professional links to see the sea for what it is – an essential gateway to prosperity and survival. But then again, one could make the argument that few people really investigate or seek to understand the many different networks, links or dependencies that nations have on all manner of objects, trade and supplies. It’s likely that few people in the UK knew that the IT industry was reliant on factories in Thailand to make hard drives until the floods damaged production and prices soared. Similarly the automobile industry is struggling after a fire in a factory in Germany shut down production of resin, reducing the ability to make cars globally. The reality is that we live in an interdependent world on many fronts, but it is so complicated, and so networked that it is almost too difficult to follow.

Therefore, the challenge for the Royal Navy is to continue to make the case for the importance of seapower in a nation where people appreciate, but do not understand the Navy or why we have one. To that end, Humphrey would argue that we’re not sea blind – people get the case for the Navy at the times in their lives when it really matters to their own daily existence – such as convoys in the North Atlantic bringing food to the table, or Drake fighting off the Armada to prevent an invasion. This is when people understand the navy, when they get that expenditure is required and that the case for it is strong. But this is only a short term matter – in 1945 the Royal Navy was the largest it has ever been, or is likely to be. By 1948 the Home Fleet had about three active warships, with the rest rooting on their moorings. The public, and by extension their elected representatives will only lose their sea blindness for the length of time it takes for them to see off a threat to their existence.

Arguably the case the Navy needs to make is not one of ‘Sea Blindness’ which as a term implies the Navy exists as a form of guide dog or white cane, to be used daily as an essential tool of existence. Rather this author prefers the phrase ‘Sea Myopia’, which implies that the public are able to see the case for maritime power, for maritime investment and the importance of the maritime case, but that often it’s a little bit blurry and fuzzy beyond their own close in vision. In this case the Navy should serve as a pair of reading glasses – able to bring clarity and vision when required, and which can easily be put to one side when not needed.

We live in a sea myopic nation – the public know of the navy, they see snippets on the news and media which make them proud of what their armed forces are doing. But equally they don’t want a guide dog, and they don’t need a white cane. They want to know the Navy is there when it is required, and want to be able to put it to one side and forget about it when the threat no longer exists. Humphrey believes that the public can see the Navy through a blurry view – we’re not completely sea blind, we just don’t need to look at the maritime piece very often. Arguably, if we as a nation reach the stage where we are ‘sea aware’ it is because a fundamentally life changing event has occurred which has had negative impacts on the UK, and which is placing our very way of life and existence under threat. Arguably if the Navy is doing its job properly, then the indicator of success is that the UK population remain in a pleasant state of ‘Sea Myopia’.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Oh for the sound of silence

Yesterdays Daily Telegraph ran a report suggesting that it had seen a document classified as SECRET UK EYES ONLY, sourced from DSTL and which made extensive comments on the suitability or not of various variants of the F35, which the papers claim is currently being subjected to scrutiny as part of the MODs annual spending round.

The purpose of this article is not to comment on that specific paper, but more generally to enable this author to try to express in words his anger at the utterly irresponsible actions of the individual who felt it was appropriate to so publicly breach the trust they were extended and leak a highly classified document in order to meet their own agenda.

Humphrey is not naïve, he fully accepts that leaking of documents is probably the third oldest profession (and no doubt is closely related to both the first and second professions!). It is inevitable that in all walks of life, there is a clear desire to try to protect ones interests, or to stand up for what one believes in, even when one disagrees with a course of action that is being considered.

At present the MOD is going through an annual spending review which by all media accounts has included a fairly tough scrutiny of a wide range of projects, equipment and options. This is something which has by necessity involved consideration of many options of varying impact – some of which would be immediately discounted, others of which may be looked at in more depth. Along the way this will have generated a lot of debate, scrutiny and detailed work on what the implications may be if one option is taken, or how collectively what the impact of a range of options were taken would be.

By its very nature this work can be emotive, and involves searching questions – some years ago Humphrey was involved in staffing some planning round work, and found that the experience was challenging because it made you strive to clearly justify matters that for some had always been accepted as sacred truths. The other thing that came through very clearly was that no matter how important you felt your own issue to be, there was always a much bigger picture which had to be considered, and that very few people relatively speaking saw just how vast and complex a planning round could be when all the different options were being considered.

This is linked to the fact that people in the MOD, both military and civilian are entrusted with a level of access to material which can often be hugely sensitive, and where lives can genuinely be at stake when it falls into the wrong hands. The Second World War showed the hugely dangerous implications of codes being broken, or sensitive military equipment being captured and falling into enemy hands. The author does not think that for one minute the average member of the MOD or HM Forces would willingly wish to compromise material that may have a direct impact on the lives of their friends and colleagues. This is why he finds it so immensely frustrating that people who would defend with their lives some protectively marked material are so utterly cavalier when it comes to passing a juicy document to the media in the hope of protecting their own interests.

Lets be clear here – if what the Daily Telegraph alleges is true, then someone has deliberately taken a document protectively marked as SECRET UK EYES ONLY and willingly passed it into the hands of an international media organisation for publication. This is a shocking breach of trust on every level and one can only wonder at the motivation of the person behind it.

In any decision, there will doubtless be a range of papers, options and other material that is being looked at. What is vital, particularly when emotional or sensitive issues are being considered is the ability to consider the entire issue objectively, and consider decisions without external pressure or fear that possibly controversial decisions may be exposed before all the facts have been considered. Right now, the person that chose to leak this document would appear to be trying to push an agenda of some form or another, and probably hoped that by exposing it to the media, then a particular line would be taken, or that senior officials or politicians may seek to change their views because of media outrage, and not because of the strength or logic of one argument over another.

To this author, this is not the way to conduct business – the ability to consider decisions without fear of being exposed in the media, or to have someone try to force an agenda change on you is vital. You need to be able to consider the whole picture properly, and with the full range of facts to hand, and not just a single document released to the media.

From a trust perspective, this author considers that it is morally wrong to breach the implicit trust that the nation has given you. Many people in Government have access to material which is protectively marked for a good reason. It is simply not appropriate to unilaterally decide who the right recipient for this sort of information is and then take it upon yourself to decide to leak it to the press.

Humphrey does not know, and bluntly does not particularly care, why the person chose to leak it to the media. There was doubtless a reason behind this, and in their own minds they may have thought that by leaking, they could influence whatever particular case they felt was of concern to them. But in reality what they have done is breached the trust placed on them by their employer, and the wider nation.

Planning Rounds can be challenging, as is any period where potentially significant changes are being considered. No matter what peoples personal views about the wisdom or otherwise of a decision, this author doesn’t think it appropriate to try to influence the debate by applying external pressure. There are cases to be made, and these can be made eloquently and effectively within existing channels. But once that argument has been made, and a decision is being contemplated, then it just feels plain wrong to try and influence that decision in a different manner. The reality of democratic government is that sometimes you have to go along with decisions that an individual may personally not agree with. The reality of being professional is that the same person is able to staff and implementing what is being asked of them without resorting to external vehicles to make their case.

Humphrey is genuinely angry that someone has chosen to breach the trust placed on them, and try to influence a private debate so publicly by allegedly exposing a classified document to the media. He earnestly hopes that the person responsible will be caught, tried and if found guilty, sentenced to a long period in prison on the grounds of breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

There will come a point when it is appropriate to comment on the various specific changes being considered to the MOD plans, and to this author at least, that point comes when the Secretary of State for Defence has announced those changes to Parliament and not a moment sooner. If only all those people with access to the privileged information about possible options that may or may not be under consideration felt the same way.

Edit - The Think Defence has an outstanding article on this subject as well, and their own views very closely mirror those of this site. The article can be found at the following link:

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Underway on nuclear power? The future of Australia's submarine programme.

Recent events in the Far East, including the failed test of a ‘satellite’ launcher by North Korea have thrown in to focus once again the smouldering tinderbox that is the Asia Pacific region. It is perhaps significant then that the US ambassador to Australia has intimated publicly that the US would support and assist the future Australian submarine programme, even if it included nuclear propulsion as a viable option. Link is CLICK HERE

This is a significant development, and one which represents the growing importance of Australia as a close ally to the US. This authors personal view is that Australia is developing a relationship with the US which will see it emerge as a particularly favoured nation of choice when it comes to joint operations and work – given the strategic shift of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region, one is left with the impression that two key partners of choice exist now – the UK to cover Europe / Africa, and Australia to cover Asia Pacific, and always ensuring that a convenient ally is nearby.

Australia has a long history of successfully operating, and building submarines – the current Collins class, which are six strong, is based on a foreign design, but built indigenously. Designed to provide long range patrol and surveillance capability of Australia’s vast coastline, plus the wider region, they represent a capable SSK force, and realistically, probably the most capable in the region south of Japan. The force has been beset by problems though, including maintenance issues, problems with the design of the vessel, and also problems with getting sufficient crew to support the programme.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has long found itself in a challenging position of struggling to attract sufficient recruits internally, where due to pay and lifestyle, its proving to be difficult to support their armed forces in general. For decades there has been a steady influx of more senior figures into the forces, drawn from the UK and some other nations, as ex RN personnel are tempted south to live on a combined pension & salary lifestyle which they can afford. This has meant that to man their Navy, Australia remains highly reliant on an influx of expatriates at all ranks.

The Collins class is approaching its mid-life point, and thoughts are now turning to the replacement programme. The Australian Government has stated its wish to double the force in size to 12 boats, in order to keep pace with the evolving submarine fleets in the region (CLICK HERE) and all propulsion types were being considered to meet the new requirement.

Although the US ambassador’s offer of support for nuclear power is useful, it would in reality prove immensely difficult for the RAN to introduce a SSN capability without undergoing very difficult change. For starters, SSNs are phenomenally difficult and complex systems to operate. Ignore the public rhetoric that early SSNs were just diesel boats with a reactor ‘back aft’ – the reality is far more complex than that.

To introduce an SSN into Service, the RAN would first need to train a cadre of nuclear engineers- a challenge in a country with no meaningful nuclear industry. It takes years to train RN or USN nuclear engineers, and this isn’t a skill that can just be acquired through a couple of exchange postings. While the RAN could short circuit this a little through trying to poach, or establish exchange postings, or current nuclear engineers, it is likely that this will be a struggle to achieve. Both the USN and RN struggle to keep their nuclear qualified officers in the system, and face a battle to prevent them from leaving and going to industry. It’s highly unlikely that they’d provide more than very limited support to a third country which would almost certainly try to convince any exchange officer to stay (Humphrey has heard countless tales of exchange officers sent to Australia who have been offered the ability to stay permanently – it’s almost considered insulting now if one isn’t offered the chance to stay!).

The next challenge Australia faces is how to build an SSN – the Australian Submarine Corporation simply doesn’t have the ability to build SSNs at present. As the UK found out to its very significant cost, building SSNs is expensive, particularly when you’ve lost the skillsets required to do this. The problems the Astute class faced when being built own a lot to the loss of core skills in the layover between work on the T&V boats finishing, and meaningful production of the Astutes coming up to speed. Australia would face similar problems – it would need to train an entire workforce from scratch if it were to seek to build a design ‘in house’. The other issue would be that once construction was complete, there would be no follow on design to introduce to service – so the Australians would have paid a huge figure to establish a nuclear shipbuilding industry that would then not have any follow up work for at least another 20 years.

While there have been suggestions that the Australians would seek to buy an off the shelf Virginia class SSN, this author would suggest that it is unlikely to happen in such a simple manner. The combined loss of taxpayers funding to support the US, and not Australian shipbuilders and high end industries would not only be an economic blow to the Australian economy, but could also have a serious impact on Australia’s ability to maintain a high end national ship design capability. As was seen with the procurement of the MARS tankers in the UK (see this authors take on that in the LINK HERE), where the location of the build was irrelevant, providing that the design capability remained in the UK. Any nation can build ships, far fewer can design high end warships.

The procurement of a USN Virginia class solution would probably cause significant dangers for the Australian national ship design capability, and in addition would be challenging to push through as an industrial deal. This author would struggle to imagine what sort of offsets would be needed to sell this to the Australian taxpayer, and also to the US taxpayer, particularly if reciprocal purchases of military equipment was seen as part of the deal.

Assuming a hull was sorted, the next question is what impact will this have on the Australian ability to man their submarines? Even going for a US propulsion system alone will effectively tie Australia into the US national system, and force a requirement to not only build up sufficiently nuclear qualified officers/ratings, but also retain them. This will probably mean an end to the reliance on recruiting UK and other foreign nationals within the submarine service, and force Australia to really address how it would support such a large burden of nuclear qualified personnel in a comparatively small force.  The problem is that you’d need to send a large number of crews to the US to train, or be hugely reliant on USN manpower support to keep the propulsion systems going. This in turn reduces the ability to put other foreign nationals into your submarine recruitment pool for engineering systems, so in turn, so very hefty financial and other recruitment incentives would be needed to keep the crews going.

The issue of manpower stretches beyond that of just putting crews onto hulls, and also into building the incredibly complex network of support that would be needed to sustain an SSN fleet. One key thing any SSN operator quickly learns is that it’s not about investment in a submarine, it’s about investment in an entire system. A quick look at the UK system shows that the Royal Navy is required to not only operate 11 nuclear submarines, but it has to deliver an assured capability to support, sustain and deliver a 100% safety record on 11 nuclear power stations. It’s fascinating to look into how much of the RN nuclear programme costs are based on the assurance piece – the danger of something going wrong with a nuclear reactor is far too terrible to contemplate. Australia would have to establish from scratch an incredibly complex nuclear safety system, and also the wider support structures needed to keep this in service. This isn’t cheap or easy to do, and it would eat into taxpayers funding that could more easily be put into use as an extra hull or increased physical capabilities. While it is possible to consider using USN facilities for maintenance, this then places a huge reliance on a foreign power to support your premier military capability – and essentially locks your nation into a position of supporting the US, lest support to the SSN fleet be withdrawn.

So, to even get to the stage of operating SSNs, Australia would have to take some very serious strategic decisions about the nature of its relationship with the US, the way it manned its submarine fleet, and whether it was comfortable losing the ability to have an indigenous submarine design, build and support capability.

What Could an SSN deliver for the RAN and the West?

While thus far the article has focused on the challenges, there are a good deal of positives that would come from the delivery of an SSN capability into the region. At its most basic, it would increase the available number of allied (e.g. Five Eyes community) platforms able to carry out SSN related tasking, which in turn would relieve the burden on both the US, and to a far lesser extent to the UK for operational commitments.

The capability would firmly establish Australia’s’ maritime integrity by injecting a first rate SSN force into a region bereft of decent ASW capabilities. It would probably take decades for any potential threatening nation to acquire the ability to acquire, train and operate a genuinely first rate ASW force which could take on half a dozen or so SSNs. This is not hyperbole – Australia is a vast and sparsely populated nation, and in an era of ever changing resources, population pressure and climate change, its vast territories and natural riches may become a tempting target for some countries in the coming years.

 Acquisition of an SSN capability would pose a major problem to any nation even loosely thinking of coveting Australian territory. Until a credible capability emerges which can beat this deterrent, it is fair to say that any invasion of Australian territory would be conducted at huge risk to an aggressor.

The deployment of an SSN capability would catapult Australia into the first rank of naval powers, and firmly cement their reputation as a expanding, aggressive and hugely competent navy, which has taken some of the finest traditions of both the RN, and USN and become one of the most professional medium naval powers in the world. This in turn would enhance their ability to exert influence, and in turn see the establishment of Australia as the USA’s ‘right hand man’ in a region where they are devoid of dependable allies.

For the UK, the implications are more limited. The deployment of an SSN will help with the wider burden of the FPDA alliance, by providing a second nation capable of deploying first rate naval capability into the organisation. Beyond this, it is unlikely that there would be a major shift in policy, although there may be implications for the potential loss of manpower to the RAN if they try to recruit UK submariners, or if they no longer needed them due to adopting US hulls. Suggestions on some internet forums that the RAN could adopt an S or T boat would seem wide of the mark – the last thing the RAN would want to do is take on a decommissioned UK SSN and try to bring it back up to speed – the Canadian experience with the Upholder/Victoria class is a lesson in what happens when taking old hulls and trying to reactivate them with new US systems.

The wider implications of a technology transfer are also interesting – this would not be the first time a nation has provided SSN kit to another, both the provision of a reactor to the UK for HMS DREADNOUGHT back in the 1950s, and also the provision by the Soviets/Russians to the Indian Navy of both SSGNs in the 1980s (albeit most likely with very heavy support), and also more recently with an Akula being provided to the Indian Navy. Whether a move by the US to provide far more overt levels of support than it had previously considered would cause other nations to review their own capabilities, and also whether other SSN owning powers would consider similar deals is open to debate.

The decision on whether Australia would chose to ‘go nuclear’ is almost certainly going to result in a decision to retain an SSK capability rather than gain an SSN. Such a move would be logical, given the implications for Australian industry, and the sheer level of the challenge that would be faced by any new SSN operator in establishing a credible capability.

This offer though is more interesting for the fact that it exposes the depths for which Australia has become a front rank ally for the US. The fact that the US is willing to so overtly offer access and by implication support Australian acquisition of an SSN capability (in marked contrast to the Canadian experience in the 1980s), suggests that Washington may have the long term vision of seeing Australia emerge as not necessarily a replacement for the UK (this author is deeply cynical about any attempt to ‘rank’ friendship between states), but as a first tier partner of choice for both diplomatic and military support.

With the wider regional instability of an area full of nations teetering on the edge of conflict, the fact that the US is so overtly reaching out to try to secure long term support, access and influence in Australia, in part through flattery of mentioning the ‘nuclear’ word, even if it is not followed through, should be seen as highly significant indeed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

How Regular Is Your Reserve?

Several newspapers have been carrying stories about some RAF personnel complaining at the prospect of their being made redundant, and being reminded that they have a reserve liability. (Link to the Daily Telegraph article is HERE).

This once again feels like another non story being dragged up by the media to try and bash the MOD around the head and make it look inept and incompetent, but which actually has an interesting truth to it, that is unlikely to be told by the media.

Currently, when people join the regular armed forces, they are reminded on joining that they are not signing up to a period of purely active service. There remains a theoretical obligation on leaving the military to be available for recall as a Regular Reservist. This appears to almost date back to the era of conscription in European armies during the 19th Century, whereby the regular military was relatively small, but could be quickly swelled by conscripts in the event of a general call up – an event best seen in 1914, where the major European powers quickly mobilised millions of men to return to the colours during a national crisis.

The UK, despite having a far less lengthy dalliance with conscription, maintained a similar system, whereby anyone who had served in the military remained theoretically liable to be called up in the event of a major international crisis, although in practise, this was rarely used. The author THINKS (but is not 100% certain) that the last time this system was used in real numbers was probably in the Suez Crisis, where reportedly 20,000 reservists were called up (although it’s not clear how many were ex regular, or ex national service, or TAVR).

The system of a regular reserve made a lot of sense at times when military forces used relatively straightforward and low tech equipment such as a basic rifle or field artillery piece. Once you’ve trained on something once, you can remember the basics of how to strip and shoot it with relatively little refresher training. You may be larger, slower and your uniform may have been attacked by the magical shrinking fairies, but as event after event has shown from the dawn of conscription to arguably the fall of the Third Reich, men called up after 10-15 years can have some utility, even if it is only to fight a defensive war of attrition and inflict further ‘casualty speed bumps’ on an aggressor (even in the more modern day, the so-called Home Service Force was seen as a useful reserve for UK Home Defence).

The UK military during the Cold War maintained a large theoretical reserve – this author remembers reading a book which attributed the 1980s theoretical ‘full effort’ Cold War British Army to be somewhere in the region of 160,000 regular troops, 90,000 TA and in excess of 200,000 regular reservists – in other words, on paper, the British Army could at full stretch field nearly half a million men, even in the late 1980s.

The emphasis though is on ‘theoretically’ as in reality these numbers could never have been reached. The loss of contact details, the inevitable loss of skills, lack of equipment and relevant subject knowledge for anyone who’d been out for more than a few years meant that anyone called up in the event of a general mobilisation would have been far less useful than perhaps supposed, and really would only have been of use as a generic military person of only limited value.

Today the problem is even more marked – the old wartime and cold war munitions and equipment stocks have long since been disposed of. The new budgeting method inflicted on MOD during the early 2000s meant that MOD incurred costs in year for running large dumps and depots of equipment held, and the reality was that there were lots of depots holding equipment that simply would never be used. The author has heard of many tales of kit being found during clear outs that dated back to WW2, or even the WW1 as late as the 1990s. In the US the problem was even worse, during the late 1990s US railroad officials reportedly broke open some rusting carriages in a siding to discover military equipment mobilised for the Spanish American War of 1898 but which got misplaced and then forgotten about!

The other problem is that the UK military has changed out of all recognition in the past 10 years. An infanteer from 2002 would probably need almost as much training and equipment recognition as a new recruit would if they were called up now. The average Infantry Section alone has a completely different kit out, with new weapons, equipment, communications, IED issues and so on. Putting someone who left the Infantry in 2000 into a Fire Team for a mobilisation of 6 months would probably require more effort than simply recruiting a new soldier for a full career.

So, if the requirement to use a Regular Reserve is limited, why is it held on to as an option? In this authors view, the reality is that there is highly unlikely to be an existential threat to the UK that would require massed call ups of troops in the near future of the kind envisaged in the Daily Telegraph article. Volunteer Reserve personnel are being increasingly used, but this is as much a wider reflection of the use of the Volunteer Reserves as a means of providing personnel who treat the armed forces as a second career, and for whom mobilisation is part of their working life. As a reservist, this author has such a view – mobilisation is something which occurs to him as part of normal career life.

Looking at the provision of manpower, it is clear that even when the UK military are operating at what feels like a high operational tempo – and 2012 is a good example of this, with the Olympics, Op HERRICK and wider UK defence operations all on-going, there is still only likely to be a relatively limited call up of Volunteer Reservists. Ultimately this is because the regular forces are adapting, taking pain in other areas, and ensuring that if they have to provide manpower for operations, they conduct their business in a slightly different manner to get the job done for a few months. Its challenging, but not impossible – and this arguably is a statement which covers any reasonably large employer who is trying to tackle the Olympics as an issue at the moment.

There would seem to be next to no need to call up Regular Reservists – what possible role could they be expected to do, given that there will be some capacity in the regulars, and plenty of capacity in the Volunteer Reserve to provide bodies to carry out duties. This author is genuinely struggling to conceive of any credible situation where the MOD would need to bring a mass call up of Regular Reservists into play – its not necessary, and some would arguably say it would be politically exceptionally damaging to the Government.

So why then does the Regular Reserve carry on as a role? Well the reality is that it’s a really useful means of bringing deeply specialised ex regular personnel, who may wish to bring some very niche skills with them, back into service for a limited period to carry out specific jobs. For instance in the original OP TELIC, about 100 Regular Reserve personnel were mobilised, out of a total force of nearly 50,000 personnel. The authors impression (and again, this is purely an impression) is that it is not a case of people randomly getting brown envelopes through their letterbox. The process of mobilisation is designed to be intelligently done – there is usually a discussion between the military and the person being recalled, or mobilised, and people who want to go willingly are usually sought. There are often many ex regulars who would like to go, but for whom they had no prior wish to belong to the TA and the Regular Reserve is an excellent way of getting them back onto the books without causing a major HR admin headache.

So, the best way to look at the Regular Reserve is as a last ditch source of volunteer manpower to be trawled only when the Regulars and the Volunteer Reserve can’t provide anybody. It doesn’t exist to call up recently redundant RAF personnel to go back into uniform and do the Olympics. It doesn’t really exist to put whole Corps level formations into the field, it merely exists as a useful legal tool to help get those who want to serve their country again into a useful post with the least amount of hassle. In other words, this story feels like a lot of concern being raised over no particularly good reason.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A time of Change – reflections on the new Navy Command Structure and the stand up of Joint Forces Command.

April 1st is always a time in the UK military when significant changes seem to occur to structures or organisations. This appears to be tied in to the start of the new Financial Year, although given some of the decisions taken over the years, one can’t help but feel there is a more ironic intent in choosing the date. Sticking his parochial service hat on, Humphrey is still waiting for someone to confirm on April 1st that the longest running April fool of all time (namely the foundation of the RAF) is over, and that the 100 year experiment has ended early, but this is unlikely to happen. For the Royal Navy though, April 2nd this year marked a very significant change to a long established command structure which did not receive the attention it perhaps deserved.

Since the current government came to office, there have been two major reviews into the structure of the armed forces – namely the SDSR, and also the Levene Review. These reviews have tried to achieve reductions in costs through the culling of manpower, reduction in equipment holdings and changes to structures to conduct business ‘more efficiently’.  

There was a clear desire in pretty much all political quarters ahead of the SDSR to cull numbers of civil servants (an easy vote winner for any party) and to reduce the fat and perception of a bloated chain of command. The image of out of date officers and bowler hatted civil servants dining in Whitehall clubs and ignoring the pleas for support from a poorly equipped front line is a powerful narrative, and one that many politicians of all hues like to invoke when discussing the department. Therefore the desire to see support areas, HQs and all the non-glamorous parts of defence cut ahead of the ‘Front Line’ is  easy to understand.

The Levene Review was aimed at trying to align the structure of the armed forces, particularly their senior officers, and making it more aligned to both the post SDSR force structure, and also cutting numbers of support staff. Broadly speaking it was well received, even if media debate focused on the misleading impression that the Service Chiefs were losing influence in the Defence Board debate.

One of the key recommendations was that each service should slim down their command structure, and instead of having two 4* posts (the Service Chief and the CINC), there should only be one, with the title of Command in Chief being abolished. Another key recommendation was the establishment of a Joint Forces Command (JFC), which would strive to establish better control over the truly joint capabilities across all three services.

The report is a genuinely thought provoking and high quality read, and this author would strongly recommend interested parties take the time to read it – as a guide to how the department is likely to be structured over the next few years – the link is HERE. The MOD accepted the recommendations of the report in full, and has since moved to implement them.

For the Royal Navy this has meant a challenging nine month period as it strove to implement the review, and deliver significant cost savings. The end result has been a significantly streamlined structure which is perhaps more hollow than some may be comfortable with.

Historical Structure

Since the final substantive withdrawal of UK forces from East of Suez in the early 1970s,  the Royal Navy has been organised in a very straightforward manner – the First Sea Lord (4*) was the head of the Naval Service, and primus inter pares among the other Naval 4* officers. Day to day control of the Fleet was delegated to the Commander in Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET) who was based at Northwood, who was also dual hatted as a NATO Commander – CINCHANNEL and later CINCEASTLANT. For all intents and purposes the CINCFLEET role was the operational commander of almost all RN units (standfast the Deterrent) – while 1SL may have lead the Naval Service, the fleet was the CINCs to control. Traditionally the holder of the CINCFLEET post has been rotated into occupy the 1SL billet (although there have been exceptions, much to the disappointment, or in thankfully rare cases, relief, of the service!).

The key role of the 1SL post for over 40 years has been to act as a figurehead, a political officer to represent the Service in Whitehall, a source of advice to Ministers, and the individual responsible for representing the Service, and the Nations, wider interests. While ultimately responsibility for the actions of the Service rested with 1SL, to all intents and purposes the generation of the Fleet and exercising control over its day to day responsibility rested with CINCFLEET.

Until the early 1990s, there were two other 4* commands – Second Sea Lord (2SL), and also the CINC Naval Home Command (CINCNAVHOME), who were responsible for the tapestry of personnel management and naval shore base infrastructure in the UK. These were merged into a single 4* in the early 1990s, and then became a 3* position in the late 1990s.

Its immediately clear that the perception of a hidebound rank structure is simply untrue – since 1990 the RN has cut 75% of its in house 4* posts, and now only has occasional use of a wider 4* slot – either the CDS& VCDS post, or the odd NATO job – by any stretch of the imagination this is a significant reduction in posts.

The New Model Navy

Under the new structure, there is more than just token name changes to senior posts. There is wholesale root and branch reform to the command structure, merged with a very large reduction in manpower to support functions.

At the very top, the most notable change has been the adoption of the title FLEET COMMANDER for the current CINCFLEET (Adm Zambellas). In due course, when the Admiral changes post, or retires, then the post holder will become a 3* Officer. There will be no further CINC titles in the RN (the 2SL/CINCNAVHOME post has also been retitled to Chief of Naval Personnel and 2nd Sea Lord).

The next key change is the emphasis on the 1SL post taking on a much greater responsibility for exercising day to day control and leadership over the Service. Previously the Service Chiefs operated out of London, and delegated these roles to the CINCs. Now 1SL will be expected to take a much greater hands on role in leading and managing the Fleet (The Army and RAF are doing identical changes). In one way this is a good move, as it reconnects the senior leadership to the Service they represent, but at the same time it reduces the amount of time that the three Service Chiefs will be able to spend in Whitehall fighting the cause of their own service.

Instead, much greater emphasis on fighting the political battle is going to have to rest with the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS) who will be based in London and will perhaps have to shoulder more of the day to day staff burden than before. This author would recommend that people wishing to place bets on future Sea Lords could do far worse than to observe who is appointed into the ACNS post in future, as it will require the post holder to raise their game beyond that which is already played, and in many ways force them to be the face of the Service in Whitehall in a manner which has perhaps been conducted by the 4* officers.

One mild concern that Humphrey has is going to be the increasing reliance on a single 4* Officer to conduct a wide range of defence diplomacy and other tasks. While some may scoff, the reality is that to many external nations, a visit by a 4* officer is a significant occasion, and one that represents not only UK military, but also political interest. At this sort of level, the staff talks that occur almost certainly have to transcend that fine line between operational and military matters, and onto wider strategic discussions. Previously with two 4* Officers in service, it was easier to send out high powered naval delegations to conduct these visits, carry out staff talks, meet visiting ships, secure access to ports and do all the ‘schmoozing’ that is an essential and poorly understood means of securing  UK interests and influence around the globe.

With the reduction of the CINCFLEET role, it is now going to fall far more heavily on 1SL to carry out these tasks, in a way that the new FLEET COMMANDER may not be able to do. This, coupled with the increased workload likely to result from the commitment to being in Portsmouth more regularly will make for a much busier senior officer. This will increase the reliance on high quality officers at the 1&2* level to support his workload, and ensure that more decisions are decentralised, rather than relying on pushing up to a more senior office.

Force Generation

One change not noted by the media, but which could have significant changes to the way that the RN works is the shift in responsibility for ‘force generation’ away from FLEET HQ in Portsmouth (Leach Building) and watch as it is delegated downwards to the three naval bases. Previously FLEET HQ desk officers spent much of their time handling the generation of assets to ensure delivery of a hull ready to achieve the commitment.

In other words, if the RN has a commitment to fill (e.g. West Indies Guardship), then the staff in FLEET were responsible for not only working identifying the platforms and working across the MOD to bring them up to speed, handling repairs, defect rectification and training, but also co-ordinating their programme for the deployment as well. Now the responsibility has been pushed downwards to the Naval Bases, where the engineering and support teams will work to ensure that a unit is ready for deployment to meet the schedule of the fleet programmers. A small change, but one that perhaps more accurately reflects how work was being done, and which, if it works, will help restore a balance in the system, where rather than having a 4* level HQ driving almost every aspect of force generation and deployment, instead it sits at a more appropriate level.

The proof will be in the pudding, but the reality is that with ever fewer units, the RN has to get the best possible utilisation from the hulls it is left with. It is vital that units are able to be worked up properly, and supported with training and spare parts to ensure that there is not a seamless break in the maintenance of commitments.

The personal view of this author is that this has potential to work well, but it will rely on staff not falling into the old trap of doing a ‘copy all’ email which then escalates problems back up the system, and suddenly rather than problems being sorted at the right level, there is a re-involvement of desk officers who had previously been removed from the process. This ties into this authors wider concern at the upwards delegation of authority within the MOD, where ever more senior officers are required to make decisions that previously had been taken at far lower levels. There is a danger that if not properly run, this process could end up not achieving its desired effect, unless strict email discipline is enforced!

Show me the the money

One thing to remember is that the changes introduced are just the start of a wider process of change, which if properly implemented will see the Naval Service gain much greater control of its budget, in a manner which it has not enjoyed for many years. There is a potential for the 1SL post to gain real budget control over spending on the Naval Service which will enable him to prioritise spending in a manner previously denied.

In the old planning round system, at its simplest (and this is a subject worthy of its own post) funding was allocated on a ranking system, with funding assigned across the board to those projects deemed worthy of support. This meant that individual Service priorities may not have been funded if another Services need was deemed to be of higher priority. The shift to giving greater control over the pot of money to Service Chiefs will help reduce the wrangling, or rather delegate it to within each Service, and enable the Navy to make a much more balanced decision about where its funding priority lies. In future, the Naval Service will decide on where to allocate the pennies, and not the Centre – in one way this is a positive development, even if it does mean that it will mean an end to the tired of myth of diktats from Whitehall informing where money should be spent. There is potential for mischief making though – potentially the RN could generate a ‘Maritime Patrol Aircraft’ requirement and if it chose to do so, fund it from within the RN budget. This author would be fascinated to see the RAF response to the RN trying to provide an MPA capability from RN funding…

Where are the People?

One key driver behind this change isn’t just a need to rationalise the RN in the post SDSR environment, but also to drive down headcount and reduce staff costs.

At present the RN is required to lose 5000 staff, and once the post SDSR fleet reductions have been taken out of the equation, there is still a need to shed staff to meet the revised manning total. Once you take out the front line units which require manpower, and can’t easily be touched, then you have a much smaller pool of people to draw on to make reductions. One of the reasons for the changes would seem to be a desire to reduce manning to match the structures put in place.

Put in context, the RN is creating a support structure which is far leaner than before and which is likely to get smaller still. There is going to be a real challenge to maintain shore billets which can provide expertise and support to deployed units. While this is achievable with current force levels, the RN does appear to be approaching a tipping point, where further cuts to manpower levels will have a far more significant impact than before – a further 10% cut to the RN would be the equivalent to having to sack every member of the Submarine Service.

This is worth remembering when people call for cuts to the back office administrators and civil servants – by all means cull the support staff, but identify what front line capability you no longer wish to have as a result. Right now, the authors very personal view is that we’re fast approaching the point where capability deletion, and not salami slicing is the only way future manpower cuts can be implemented.

A new Command, a new dawn?

The other key development on 2nd April was the formal standing up of Joint Forces Command at an Initial Operating Capability level, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Peach (see the MOD press release HERE) The role of JFC is to provide a joined up approach to the increasing number of ‘Joint’ Units which are involved in military operations with the UK.

As an organisation it will ‘own’ PJHQ, the overseas operating bases, and a range of tri-service organisations including elements of Defence Intelligence, Defence Logistics, Cyber Defence and a range of other units.

On paper this seems a sensible move – PJHQ has been a huge success, and something which many other nations have tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate. To an entire generation of British Military personnel, joint work is now the order of the day, and not single service. However, it was increasingly clear that there was no one organisation to take charge of all the joint organisations and provide leadership, management and direction to them. Indeed, it could be seen that some units perhaps suffered as they were ostensibly joint, but run under a single service role. By introducing JFC, it is possible to reduce the admin burden on these units, and provide clear direction to them. Similarly, it makes for a more sensible funding arrangement, and also to ensure that future joint developments make sense.

In theory the UK is moving towards what could be an extremely sensible operational model – the three service commands will be responsible for training, equipping and generating forces, in order for them to be assigned to JFC and PJHQ to exercise operational command over them. They will then work to the direction of the JFC / PJHQ while deployed, prior to being put back under single Service control on their return. This has huge potential, providing that no bunfights emerge. Under the old system, PJHQ was a 3* command, and effectively ran the operation on behalf of the services, whereas now JFC exists as an overarching body, it could be seen by some as a competitor for resources and influence.

In reality Humphrey suspects JFC will work well, and that within a few years it will be seen as an essential part of the structure of the military. The challenge is to ensure that the standing up of a new 4* post and associated admin adds real value to the system, and doesn’t clog it up. Based on what has gone on so far, Humphrey believes the former, rather than the latter, will be the case.


Command structures are not hugely exciting to most people, and don’t really represent much of interest to many people. But the recent changes to both the RN, and the standing up of the JFC are an extremely important change to the way that the UK military will conduct itself, and should be more widely looked at. Even though the front line kit won’t be changed, the way it is supported, trained and generated may well change, and this could have a major impact on the future of the military.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Eastern Promise – the rise of a new alliance with Japan?

There were reports in the Daily Telegraph that the UK is poised to sign a new Defence co-operation treaty with Japan, and potentially usher in the door to a new era of co-operation between the two nations. (Link is HERE)
The paper claimed, without further explanation, that this could lead to an increased UK SSN presence in the region, while it could also lead to further co-operation with defence industry, and potentially herald some sales of T26 frigates too. This potentially heralds an exciting development for the UK and its engagement within the region – which for too long has been an area seemingly occupying a lower priority for UK defence engagement.

Japan as a nation is going through what feels to be a change in attitude towards its Self Defence Forces. Traditionally, since WW2, the Japanese have maintained strong and capable forces able to deter external aggression, but which lack the reach and logistics support to operate far from the Japanese home islands. A latent pacifism, merged with the realisation that the USA could act as a guarantor of Japans ultimate security has led to the growth of capable but underappreciated armed forces.

Since the early part of the last decade though, the first tentative steps have seemingly been taken to show the re-emergence of Japan as a more regional power. The deployment of a tanker to the Indian Ocean after the 9/11 attacks, and a small ground contingent in Iraq, albeit in a peace support rather than combat role paved the way for further engagement in the region. Today, Japanese destroyers operate in the anti-piracy role, and recently Japan has created its first operating base in the region, flying P3 Orions for Djibouti (source is HERE)

This author has worked with the JSDF on a couple of occasions, most notably in Iraq, and found them to be a competent and professional military. The challenge appeared in the past to be one of convincing the Japanese people of the importance of the SDF, and of supporting their military. This appears to have been rendered less relevant by the Tsunami of 2011, in which the JSDF played a huge role in the disaster recovery operations. Speaking to acquaintances in the JSDF, Humphrey is left with the impression that the disaster led to an increased level of support by the Japanese population for their military, and a growing acceptance of their ability to play a part on the global stage.

What then does an alliance mean for the UK and Japan? In reality any such accord would take some years to become genuinely meaningful – when establishing enhanced defence relationships, there is always a period as both nations try to build trust, and establish the areas where mutually beneficial co-operation can occur. There is also a need for time to allow the personnel to build working relationships and identify what can best benefit their nations.

Any accord would probably see enhanced co-operation in the 5-10 year period, and not necessarily immediately. However, what it could do is benefit the UK in several ways:

Burden Sharing: The JMSDF is a very capable navy, and one which has high end vessels capable of conducting a wide range of operations. Closer co-operation could lead to an increase in deployments to unstable areas where the UK has shared strategic interests, but which it lacks resources to enforce those interests. Alternatively, it could lead to additional resources being deployed to areas where the UK already operates to reduce risks – a good example would be in the Arabian Gulf where the UK held a very successful series of joint exercises with the JMSDF MCMV units recently, and which established a good precedent for future co-operation. In the event of things going wrong in that region, it is useful if the allied nations operating there have worked together previously, and understand each others operating procedures.

UK strategic reach: The Asia Pacific rim is perhaps the region in which UK defence is least active. This author is preparing a piece for Think Defence on wider UK engagement in the area (which should be published after Easter). The main form of UK engagement is currently through the Five Power Defence Arrangement, which while a successful alliance, primarily focuses UK reach to Singapore and not beyond. As such, any alliance with Japan increases the likelihood of a more regular return to the South China Sea, and other traditional RN stomping grounds which have not been seen by many sailors for some years.

Similarly, the UK remains engaged in the situation with North Korea – as one of the few major powers to have an embassy in Pyongyang, and also to hold a post on the UN Armistice Commission in South Korea, the UK has influence and interests in the wider region. An enhanced relationship with Japan helps strengthen the UKs wider relationships, as a plausible argument can be made for our reason for engagement with Korea, and for justifying the increased exercises and links between the two nations. 

Reality Check

That said, it is important to be realistic about how much can really be achieved by the signing of this accord. This authors strictly personal view is that it is going to be unlikely to see Japan shifting allegiance to the Eurofighter, and ditching its F35 buy. Indeed, the likelihood of Japan purchasing Eurofighter was always slim, when one considers that the near entirety of the Japanese military is either sourced from US derived designs, or designed to operate with the US.

Even so, there is the possibility of lower level co-operation which could lead to mutual projects of interest, but again it is unlikely to see the Japanese buying into the T26 design. The Japanese have their own national ship design capabilities that they would wish to protect, and its unlikely that their government would willingly sacrifice this hard won capability in order to buy into the T26. What is more likely is the possibility of co-operation in either weapons or ancillary materials – for instance engines or propulsion systems.

The UK may aspire to the deployment of SSNs into the region, but this feels more the pipe dreams of an amateur defence correspondent (which sadly seems to be par for the DT these days) than based on any tangible facts. The UK SSN flotilla is going to be six strong for the next 2-3 years while the 2nd and 3rd A boats work up. In reality, the UK is able to support two, gusting three fully worked up SSNs at any one time (which before people get too worked up is pretty good compared to all other SSN operators bar the USN). Take away the East of Suez vessel likely to be doing other tasking, and the requirement to protect SSBNs and conduct other tasks of interest, and you quickly run out of hulls to send to Japan on wider exercises, without taking risk of meeting other commitments around the globe.

What would seem to this author (who has absolutely no knowledge of possible deployments) would be that any programme would see extensions to deployments east of Suez to take in visits to Japan. Traditionally the visit to Japan was as far as a Far East deployment would get prior to heading home – so it may be the case that either vessels head out and loiter in the region, or alternatively that exercises are programmed elsewhere.

The presence of MCMVs, MPAs and surface escorts in the Middle East / horn of Africa region is an excellent opportunity to boost further co-operation in this area. Humphrey would personally see an increase in exercises here, rather than wider deployments to each other’s home base as being the most likely outcome here.

If confirmed, then this treaty represents a potentially interesting piece of good news. It reaffirms the UKs long term strategic interests in the Asia Pacific region, while simultaneously helping support Japan to take further steps towards shouldering a greater share of the regional security burden. It will not significantly change either nations defence relationship immediately, but over time it could help to become a useful reason for the UK to justify maintaining a military presence and capability able to reach the area. More broadly, it helps reaffirm to other partners, such as the US that even though the UK military has reduced in size, the ability to take an implied interest in the region, means that it should be taken seriously as an ally.

The US, as it shifts towards seeing the Pacific as its primary theatre of influence will be looking for signs of the UKs level of commitment and support. The fact that the UK is seeking to remain engaged will count for something, as it will show that London remains a globally focused nation in outlook and attitude.