Sunday, 20 May 2012

If its a day ending in Y, then its time to attack the civil service again...

Oh good, its been at least a few days since the civil service was last attacked for having the audacity to exist and employ people, so it was probably time for another article to make out that the Civil Servant is the root of all evil. While the author accepts that the Civil Service is never going to win any prizes for being a popular organisation, the level of hatred that the media attempt to generate against it is starting to border on the obscene. If the media were to conduct similar levels of attacks on religious or ethnic groups as they do on the civil service, then one could almost foresee prosecutions occurring.

The current criticism stems from news that the civil service operates a flexible working system. This has been portrayed in the media (or rather the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph) as something which permits Whitehall Civil Servants 36 days extra leave per year through working a nine day fortnight system. There is apparently no auditing of this system and its open for exploitation and abuse.
If one is to believe the ‘sources’ (assuming they aren’t made up in true tabloid fashion), then apparently all of Whitehall is at it, and most departments are a ghost town on Fridays.

Lets briefly consider what it is that the fuss is all about. At its most simple Civil Servants are employed to work a fixed number of hours per week – usually 36 in London (7hrs 12 per day, plus lunch). Most departments operate a ‘core hours’ scheme whereby workers are expected to be in between 10-4pm and work as appropriate to make up the time.

The nine day fortnight scheme, or TOIL isn’t some kind of random system where employees arbitrarily decide they wish to take time off every two weeks. It’s a contractual change to your working hours, and subject to supervision and approval. If you are found to abuse the system then you can expect gross misconduct charges and dismissal from the civil service. The scheme is not something that most Civil Servants take part in – in the last ten years, this author has met precisely two Civil Servants working the nine day fortnight scheme.

The flexible working system merely tries to offer staff the ability to work a more flexible routine which reflects their personal circumstances. It isn’t an automatic right, and it would only be given if changing working patterns doesn’t impact on the role of the individual or their team. It doesn’t mean staff work any less time, and it doesn’t mean that they are skiving off. Often the system helps as it means staff are available to provide cover later when needed, and can stand down when there is no work to do.

In reality though most staff are so busy that they never get the time to take their TOIL and work for free far in excess of what is expected. The authors role requires him to regularly work late into the evenings, and he often has 2-3 days’ worth of excess TOIL which is lost, as there is just too much work to do. People may have accrued TOIL, but they certainly don’t often get to take it.

The idea that staff are somehow getting a magical 36 days of extra leave per year is just plain rubbish. Staff are working exactly the same hours as before, doing exactly the same job, and merely doing it for slightly different working patterns. No one attacks shift workers for working odd patterns. No one attacks people who do a 36 hour 9-5pm five day week, so why is it so wrong to try to offer flexible working?

The reality is that the civil service is not some plush job where people have an easy life and do little work. Most people in the Civil Service are hardworking individuals, who genuinely take pride in what they do, and who are getting utterly fed up of the constant attacks on their role and existence. It is incredibly dispiriting to have to read the sort of attacks day in, day out from press organisations who have decided that people with the audacity to work in public service are leeches who must be chastised. Yet the same organisations attacking the Civil Service, and who demand mass firings (and judging from the comments online, some readers expect mass firing squads) of Civil Servants are the same ones who criticise it when things go wrong.

Right now thousands of Civil Servants are applying to leave on early redundancy terms. In the MOD, 40% of all Civil Servants are in the process of losing their jobs. Despite this, the queue to get out is huge. The MOD was overwhelmed with applicants to get on the early release scheme last year, and it is likely that the same will happen again. People are fed up with being made to feel scapegoats for decisions in which they had no say, no part and no role. Today the Sunday Telegraph has reported that there is likely to be real concern at the loss of skills in the Mod through the redundancy scheme (LINK HERE). The reality appears to be dawning that if you attack the MOD Civil Service, blame them for all the mistakes in the military, demand mass sackings and downsizing, then you are going to lose core skills. There is no large department of Administrative Affairs to sack for the MOD. There is no office full of bean counters who can be lost. The reality is that where people go, they are taking with them niche skills, experience and future potential that cannot be easily replaced. By all means attack the civil service, but don’t be surprised to discover that in doing so, you are, in a small way, ultimately helping to undermine UK security.  

It’s entirely appropriate to attack Civil Servants where genuine abuses or mistakes have occurred. People that have done this should be named, shamed and fired. But this is a tiny percentage of overall public sector workers. Most people try to do the best they can do with declining budgets, with unclear guidance, and they are trying to implement politically driven changes, and then expected to carry the can for the politicians when things don’t go to plan.

One theme that this author has tried to put across is that it’s extremely depressing to try to work in an organisation where 40% of staff are being made redundant, where pensions are being slashed, where budgets are being cut, and where pay has been frozen for years and will continue to do so. It is depressing to be made out to be the reason everything has gone wrong in society, and that it is all the Civil Servants fault. It is depressing to be blamed and told that I should be hung in front of my family (as one particularly charming Telegraph poster put yesterday) for suggesting that most Civil Servants are normal people trying to do the best we can.

The irony is of course that the organisation most determined to do the Civil Service down is also one of the most hypocritical out there. The author was discussing the Telegraph article last night with a social acquaintance of his (a reasonably well known national journalist). They spent a lot of time strongly attacking the Civil Service, and suggesting that all public servants are feckless, lazy and workshy and don’t deserve to have any form of flexible working. They then went on to complain, apparently without irony, about their new bed not having a headboard, making it hard for them to work in bed. Nice to see that the Fourth Estate doesn’t see fit practise what it preaches.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Sinking without trace? The future of Military Shipbuilding in an independent Scotland

News broke this week that Scottish shipbuilders could not expect to continue receiving UK MOD contracts in an independent Scotland. Reportedly Ministers have told Unions that an independent Scotland would cease to get any future MOD contracts (LINK HERE), although the SNP has dismissed these claims.
This blog has previously looked at the reality of independence for the Scottish Military (SDF) and suggested that independence would probably have major implications for the Scottish shipbuilding sector (LINK HERE). This report would seem to confirm that. The question is though, what are the challenges that an independent Scotland would face in sustaining a military shipbuilding capability?
Launch of HMS DARING at Scotstoun 2006
Any future Scottish shipbuilding industry needs at the outset to generate a sustainable building routine. The UK has created a Terms of business agreement with UK shipbuilders which has contractually guaranteed a set amount of work over the next 10 -15 years. This has enabled the remaining yards in the UK to plan their workforces, training, investment and export bids with considerable confidence, as they know that they will be assured a fixed level of income.
The challenge Scottish yards face is getting a similar agreement off the Scottish Government. It is all well and good having a shipbuilding capability, but you need to have the ability to sustain it for the long term. Any future SDF fleet will at the outset comprise a number of ex-RN vessels which for the most part would not need immediate replacement. For instance, the RN OPVs and MCMV fleet is currently only mid way through its life, and would not need replacements until the 2020s or 2030s depending on how far their life can be prolonged. The Type 23 frigates would potentially be able to keep running until the late 2020s, early 2030s on current plans.
It is hard to see from the current in-service RN fleet what would need replacing within the next 5-6 years. This presents a significant gap in the construction market as work on the T45s comes to a conclusion, and presumably work on CVF is halted after independence. Barring a major investment and arms build up by the Scottish Government immediately on independence, there is simply no feasible requirement for any new orders until much later in the decade, or even into the 2020s.
This presents a serious challenge – around the world there are plenty of countries which have built frigates, ceased work and suddenly found that their indigenous shipbuilding capability has all but been destroyed. The Canadians are a very good example of this with the Halifax class, and to a lesser extent so are the Australians with their ANZAC programme.
An independent Scotland would need to make some tough decisions about the level of complexity it wanted its yards to build to. Currently the Glasgow yards can build to the level of complex Frigates or parts of carriers – essentially the highest possible capability, but this is a highly perishable skill. If work doesn’t appear to continue this, then it is hard to see how this high end ability will survive.
I see no orders…
The problem for Scottish yards initially would be to identify nations who are in the market for Frigate sized vessels within the next 5-6 years. This isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In Europe the Frigate export market is tied up by the French and Spanish and to a lesser extent the Germans. The ships built are high quality frigates of varying designs, for a range of customers.
Within NATO, several countries have completed acquisition programmes for new vessels (such as Norway and Spain), and others are relying on 2nd hand sales (such as the Balkan states and Portugal). This author is not aware of many NATO nations likely to require complex frigate sized vessels in the next 5-10 years that would be the subject of an export order. Either they will be built at home, or they would likely go to one of the existing major shipbuilders.
Looking beyond NATO the challenge is to find nations who want frigates, but who don’t want to develop a shipbuilding industry. There is a keen market for OPVs and large patrol craft up to Corvette size, but not really for larger vessels. Those nations seeking them, such as countries like Bangladesh, Philippines and so on will almost certainly look to somewhere like China or Korea for the order, on the grounds that costs will be significantly cheaper. Sub Saharan Africa is not in the market for operating frigates (standfast south Africa and Nigeria, neither of which need new frigate sized ships), and North African nations are either satellites of the USN or French, and would be highly unlikely to turn elsewhere. Middle Eastern navies talk of aspiring to buy them, but in reality have tied that sort of construction into wider and very complex arms & security deals, where the implicit guarantee of protection and security from a ‘great power’ underwrites the deal to help provide security. With the best will in the world, an independent Scotland will not be seen by these nations as a great power in the same way as UK today, France or the USA.
So the reality is that right now, it is highly unlikely that any nation would have an export frigate order that Scottish yards could stand a realistic yard of winning. The market simply doesn’t exist for this type of order.
There is a market for OPVs, MCMVs and other lower end vessels. However this is the sort of capability which is often built in the home nation, or could be built more quickly and cheaply in Eastern Europe or the Far East. The challenge is creating an order book of vessels which can be built at economic, yet profit generating prices.

The Wider Package…
Building ships is relatively easy. Most nations can in one form or another construct a ship. Building a modern warship to military standards with the full kit out of command systems, electronic warfare packages, weapon systems and so on is significantly more complicated. Even designing one is not easy.
One challenge Scottish shipbuilding would need to address is how to support the hulls with the complex industrial piece. Orders for vessels built in Scotland would be heavily reliant on equipment from other nations, including from England to be installed, as there is not a complete ability to do this in Scotland. This means a reliance on the UK to provide export licences for their equipment to be sold to third parties. While refusal is not a certainty, it should be remembered that Scottish yards would not be able to build a complete warship for export unilaterally. There would be continued dependence on other nations for export licences, and this is not certain to be approved.
Another key consideration is the complete lack of a training infrastructure in Scotland for technical military maritime training. One reason why UK sales packages do well is that they often include access to UK training facilities such as the Maritime Warfare School, or FOST Sea Training. This ensures customers learn how to use their equipment to the best of their abilities. Scotland would need to invest heavily in this sort of training school to provide a complete package for future orders, otherwise they would struggle to compete with UK and other European countries which could not only build a ship, but also train you properly to use it to war-fighting standards.
HMS SULTAN seen from the air.
There is no clear guidance yet about what the training estate for the future SDF will look like, but until they have access to the ability to train people fully on hugely complex equipment, then there is a reduced chance of orders going to Scotland. There would need to be an equivalent to HMS SULTAN, HMS COLLINGWOOD and FOST set up in Scotland to provide training on kit, and its not likely that this would come cheap.
Its worth noting that many medium sized navies, from nations of a similar size, if not bigger, than an independent Scotland do not really maintain this sort of international training facility. They are reliant on the RN and other high end navies to train them on technology and weapons.  The challenge Scottish yards would face is making a competitive deal – shipbuilders in the UK would be able to offer access to not only their yards, but also to the RN training facilities.
The maintenance of a high end design team is essential, and its not necessarily clear that one exists in Scotland. Its all very well being able to build a ship, but nations seeking warships will be looking for designs too – one key aspect of the recent MARS tanker completion (LINK HERE) was the importance not of building the ships in the UK, but of designing them here.  For the Scottish warship industry to have real success, it needs to be able to keep a design team going, capable of identifying not only export orders, but also designing vessels for the SDF when required.
 Next Steps
So far it has been fairly clear that a small shipyard in Scotland would struggle in the years post-independence, when orders are likely to be few, and money tight. This does not mean that shipbuilding won’t be a success. It does mean that early planning now is essential to getting this right. The sort of considerations that need to be thought about now by Scotland (or by any small country considering independence) to preserve a shipbuilding capability are below. This is not Scotland specific – any nation wanting to create a shipbuilding capability would have to consider similar issues.

Export Planning
A serious effort needs to be started now to identify what shipbuilding contracts are available in the post independence environment. Its not enough to blithely assume that on independence the orders will continue to flow in. Ideally some form of shadow ‘Defence Export Organisation’ would need to be set up to ensure that industry understands what opportunities it can reasonably bid for.
Set out clear intent on force structure
To help industry determine the level of investment, it is necessary to set out how much money is available for new ships, and what building plans the Scottish Government would have. Its not just a case of saying ‘we want 20-25 ships’. Industry needs to know what types of ship, what types of equipment, what types of weapons, because that will drive how much investment now is placed in Scotland. If there is not sufficient reassurance that orders will be placed, then investment is going to die off. This ties into building a clear strategy for export planning – if there is no likely order, then why would any industry investment occur?
Have a clear long term sustainable plan
It is essential to ensure that Scottish yards have a long term stable build programme. This helps determine investment over time, and also helps recruitment of construction workers. It is pointless to build three frigates over the next five years, and then not need a new one for the next 30. Ships being built today are expected to have long lives, and not need regular replacement. A high end warship is a complex and costly project, and the skills required to build one quickly fade.
There needs to be a very clear business plan set out saying what orders are going ahead, and ensuring that a ‘drumbeat’ capability is maintained in the yards. In other words identify funding now to commit to building frigates, MCMVs and OPVs in 10,15, 20 years time so that industry can plan to a basic level of work.
Develop a single Shipbuilding industrial strategy
Its not just a case of saying ‘we have yards, they can build ships’. An independent Scotland will need to develop a wider range of skills and experience to draw on to help build these ships. There needs to be a clear policy developed on the long term sustainability of shipbuilding, from running the yards to developing technical schools for the construction workers. There also needs to be clear guidance on investment in training schools and facilities to ensure that Scotland could offer sea training and the like.
An independent Scotland faces a real challenge in terms of maintaining its shipbuilding capabilities. A likely lack of orders, coupled with no real requirement to replace the RN stock the SDF would probably inherit means real work is needed to identify what sort of shipbuilding capability Scotland really wants. The reality is that if nothing is done, then it will probably be lost forever, as export orders go south to yards where building can be done next to the training and support facilities.
No one doubts the quality of Scottish shipbuilding, but it could face enormous challenges for survival in any independent Scotland unless a lot of work is done, and a lot of money spent, to safeguard this priceless national asset. Once it is lost, it would be almost impossible to recover.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Has Sisyphus climbed the mountain? Thoughts on the PR12 announcement.

Well ladies and gentlemen, he’s done it. If you believe the announcement yesterday by the Secretary of State, the MOD has finally balanced its budget. The news was greeted with muted trumpets in most of the media, who perhaps fairly, seemed cynical that this had actually been achieved. If true though, this represents a major success for the MOD and helps pave the way for a more positive future.

What does it all mean though? At its most simple, yesterdays announcement has hopefully marked the close of a long and painful series of internal spending reviews within the MOD designed to make the books balance. Since the middle of the last decade there has been a consistent mismatch between the aspirations, the requirements, and the funding lines. This came about from a combination of defence requirements not being updated since SDR, meaning the MOD was mandated to deliver capability greater than that which was really affordable. At the same time the MOD had to sustain two high intensity land campaigns, and try to react to changing spending requirements as technology and lessons from campaigining emerged. Add to this the budget change in about 2004 which caused MOD to be thrown off course, and the perception in some eyes of a lack of sufficient funding to defence properly under the last Government, and you have a perfect storm.

The short term solution was to try to balance the books in year – move the funding around and ensure that in the short term costings things were in the black. For instance, defer spending in one year across a range of projects and slip it to the following year or two. Alternatively slip a major project one – two years to save money, but accept a hit a few years later as the spending then kicked in. In all honesty, it wasn’t so much deep strategic thinking that drove these reviews, more an effort to try to play ‘whack a mole’ as funding requirements emerged, and were pushed back into the ground, only to emerge again a bit later, and bit more expensively.

The MOD has been criticised for getting into this situation, but it could be argued that the MOD was merely carrying out the direction issued to it by the Government of the day. If it is mandated to deliver a defence capability and output, and there is no Strategic Defence Review to change these assumptions, and little political willingness to cancel projects, then what else could have been done but move the money around and hope for the best?

The SDSR in 2010 marked the first time in a generation that the MOD was really able to take a hard look at its aspirations and projects, and as has been seen, sacred cows were slaughtered to make the costs match up. This was the start of a process of cutting aspirations and equipment to meet the new financial reality.

The Known Knowns...
One of the interesting parts of yesterdays announcement was looking at what is funded. At its most cynical it reads as much as a ‘Defence Industrial Protection’ announcement as it does a statement on UK defence procurement. The sort of projects protected, including SSN, Successor, T26, Lynx, Merlin, Warrior CSP and so on are all major projects which generate thousands of UK jobs, and keep UK skills alive in specialist defence sectors. Loss of this sort of project would not only remove a capability from service, but more seriously almost certainly remove the UKs ability to build equipment like that in future. So, it is very good news to know that the shipbuilding programme, and much of the aircraft capability remains extant, and that new fleets will be introduced to service.
Also good news is that fact that there will be investment in communications and projects such as the future Merlin AEW package appear to have survived unscathed and that funding is assured. Although C4ISTAR procurement is perhaps less high profile than buying warships or tanks, it is of far greater importance in fighting in coalition warfare. Ensuring the UK has the ability to operate as an integrated partner with the US is absolutely critical in future. This extends to the ability to work in joint headquarters or to plug seamlessly into one anothers comms infrastructure. It is vital that this sort of investment is protected.

The Possibly Not Yet Knowns...
Although the headlines look good, and its clear that the budget is now balanced for some future equipment, what is less clear is the numbers game. The announcement seemed to steer clear of talking in any detail about numbers for both in service kit and also replacement programmes. This is likely to emerge over time as projects enter the procurement process and requirements are more clearly defined. Its not clear for instance how many Lynx or Merlin helicopters will enter service, nor how many T26 will be purchased.

Similarly the announcement steered clear of in service kit, and whether there would be any changes to force structures in the short – medium term. It also steered clear of mentioning what options had been taken to put the package together – in other words, in different budget areas what cuts had been made to make the sums add up. Its inevitable that many painful cuts in local areas have been made – for instance a 5% cut in one units travel budget, or a 10% post reduction in another. Over time these figures build into bigger and bigger savings, and theoretically have built the package required to make the books balance. What is not likely to be known is how this was done, and what impact it has had on the overall ability of HM Forces to operate. Similarly, a lot will depend on how many reduced units are being purchased – the significant downsizing of the Army opens the door to reduced purchases, upgrades and so on, but its not yet clear how this is being done. We may know more once the future structure of the Army is announced in the near future.

Another area not discussed is the level of risk taken with some of the figures – how many of the savings are actual (e.g. delete a project, facility, post or person) and how many are theoretical (e.g. assume savings against something coming into service which is not then realised). If the package has been built around theoretical savings, or if it has been built in a way which makes assumptions which cannot be realised due to changes in the operational environment, or to technical problems, then how much ability is there to absorb this? Hopefully there is no danger of the SofS having to return to Parliament to announce further cuts due to the current package not delivering on its promises.

Finally, one thing that seemed good news was the announcement of a contingency fund. On paper this sounds good, although this author was somewhat cynically thinking that this may be seen as the new UOR fund. It would be useful to hear whether HM Treasury intends to abolish UOR funding after HERRICK as a result of this contingency funding now existing, or whether it will run in parallel with the UOR system.

The Next Few Years
Several things now emerge as the next steps that need to occur to capitalise on this seemingly good news. Firstly, Defence is now in a position to enter the next Defence Review (currently due for 2015) in good financial health. If this remains the case, then hopefully the 2015 review will be about reviewing strategic choices and commitments and not necessarily about ensuring that commitments meet reduced budget aspirations. The door seems open to reviewing a range of options in 2015, such as Sentinel, Future MPA, and a second CVF if funding still exists – this is the chance to review the decisions made in 2010 and adjust aspirations accordingly.

The next challenge is to ensure that the package can deliver Force 2020 – right now, if as expected this continues and 1% real terms growth is achieved, then HM Forces are well placed to achieve a well balanced force in 2020. The issue becomes what happens when costs inevitably spiral, when challenges emerge, or when budget growth is not as great as it should be. How much scope is there to continue to deliver the Force 2020 structure if there is another fiscal shock to the budget?

The MOD needs to be able to retain good people to see the changes through too – the downsizing is having a massive impact on morale, and as the economy picks up over the next two-three years, many skilled military and Civil Servants may be tempted to leave rather than stay in and continue to work for the MOD. Delivering a complex package is going to be hard if the most experienced people are continually tempted away by the prospect of pay rises and promotion. The traditional lures of a Government job (pay, pension, career prospects) have been massively diminished in recent years, and many good people will leave unless the package is able to become more competitive as time goes by. The traditional job safety which compensated for loss of earning has gone forever, and many good and skilled project managers and delivery experts are now facing the future and realising they can earn far more in the private sector than they do in the MOD. Failure to keep the right people in threatens to undermine much of what has been announced this week.

The next two –three years will be interesting. The drawn down from HERRICK, the almost certain cancellation of projects slowly emerging into the public domain, the reality that the UK is likely to cease to be continually deployed on combat operations for the first time in over 20 years. All these things will come to pass, and delivering this will be challenging. Knowing there is financial stability will help plan for the replacement of some elements of kit, but equally the challenge is also going to be to work out what to stop doing as a result of kit replacement programmes being cancelled, or reduced in size. The lead in to the 2015 SDSR will be interesting and set the groundwork for the view out to 2025.

So, a cautious welcome to the good news that the budget is balanced, but until the full details emerge of what was sacrificed to make this achievement, it is hard to predict what this will really mean for the long term operational effectiveness and capability of HM Forces.

Friday, 11 May 2012

A positive view on the F35 Announcement

A decision has finally been reached on the F35 procurement, with Phillip Hammond formally announcing to the Commons that the STOVL version is to be purchased. This author has deliberately held off commenting previously on the F35 saga, preferring to wait for a formal announcement in the House before making his own assessment. It is now time to suggest that contrary to much of the media coverage, the decision reached was the correct one.

Imagine the anger that would be in today’s papers had Phillip Hammond announced that there had been a 100% cost increase in the procurement of the catapults required to turn CVF into a conventional carrier. Doubtless commentators would have noted with incredulity that MOD had managed to bring about a £1 billion cost increase in just 18 months, and that it was near scandalous that they were continuing with this procurement at a point when the STOVL aircraft offered a far cheaper alternative. It is likely that people would demand lessons be learned, and question whether anything had changed since SDSR.

This author believes that whatever decision was announced yesterday, the MOD would have been roundly attacked today. It is a classic example of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The media and various commentators would have sought to put the worst possible spin on whichever decision was taken. The author does find it amusing  that the MOD is being attacked for deciding to save money and not procure something that probably would have been massively over budget.

To this author, the decision to switch back to the F35B is probably the right decision. It is never easy to make a U-turn in defence procurement – just look at the way that the Nimrod decision continues to make uncomfortable column reading for the MOD. In this case though, and based on the evidence put to the House, it seems that a minimum of three years delay, and a £1 billion overrun already seem a sensible enough reason to go back to the original plan.

The first point to note is that if the project had escalated by £1 billion already, and if it was going to take at least another 11 years to enter service, then further cost increases were almost certain to occur. This would have made the CVF project ever more unaffordable at a time when funding remains tight. What other projects would the MOD have had to cancel to keep the CTOL version on track when the costs grew further? Cancellation now may have incurred some costs, but far less than seeing this through to the bitter end.

Early image of STOVL CVF Design
Force 2020
The next critical point – the key structure of the SDSR was to restructure the UK forces to deliver a structured force capability in 2020. The CVF project is central to the notion that by this point, the military will have regenerated after HERRICK and will be ready to resume a more interventionary posture.  The loss of a credible carrier strike capability from this would have removed the central plank of the Force 2020 vision and undermined much of the other 2010 SDSR assumptions.

It is worth remembering that the UK now intends to conduct strategic defence reviews every five years. The switch to STOVL means that on current plans the UK will regain a Carrier Strike capability in around 2017. This means that barring a very serious change of defence direction in the next Defence Review (due in 2015), it is likely that not only will CVF enter service, but that the option is now clearly on the table to ensure that both carriers are retained. Adopting the CTOL would have meant the RN needing to put the case for CVF in 2015, 2020, and depending on just how delayed CTOL became, the 2025 defence reviews as well.

Given the 2010 review’s willingness to put sacred cows on the options list and then take the option (for instance Nimrod or Harrier), it seems credible to say that the switch to STOVL could have saved CVF for the RN. It is easy to imagine a situation with government in 2020 being open to the ‘delete/sell CVF’ option, if CTOL had been delayed again and was looking at a 2025 or beyond entry to service.

The longer the UK waits to regenerate Carrier Strike, the more difficult it will become to do this. By 2023, the RN would have been out of the full time fixed wing carrier business for over 20 years (since withdrawal of the Sea Harrier), and out of the small & occasional deployment of fixed wing carriers for nearly 15 years. Its not just a case of trying to put the officers into positions to fly CTOL aircraft at this point, it’s the loss of an entire generation of officers who have not worked with Carriers, who do not understand their practical importance at the centre of the fleet. Its nearly 15 years when opponents of carrier aviation can make the whispering claims that if we can manage this long, then why do we need this ability at all? Its much easier to keep a capability when already in service, even in this day and age. The reversion to STOVL will ensure that the training pipeline will begin to churn pilots, engineers and other critical members of the carrier community back into the system within the next few years. This gives the RN a chance to try to continue the knowledge and experience of carrier ops into the next generation of personnel, something that could easily have been lost with the delay in CTOL entry to service.
F35B in flight

A Better Platform for UK Aspirations?
Humphrey has a sneaking suspicion that many of the proponents of the CTOL CVF were seduced by the vision of the RN returning to a capability of operating big deck carriers, and deploying near USN levels of aircraft at sea, while sitting off a hostile enemy coastline and threatening to level it to the ground.

The harsher reality is that the RN would have struggled to put more than 12 JSF to sea on a CTOL carrier on a good day, plus supporting helicopters. In reality, this author suspects that based on the likely small numbers of JSF that will be bought, even a 12 aircraft embarkation will be relatively unusual. To that end, the RN could have ended up with a very large platform embarking nowhere near its true capability. At the same time, it is hard to envisage any credible scenario in which the UK would need to embark 36 CTOL JSF and surge to sea in a ‘sink the Bismarck redux’ manner.

The move to STOVL makes a more sensible use of the hull – essentially CVF will operate in the same manner as the Invincible’s have done very successfully for over 30 years – merging limited fixed wing operations, with the ability to surge larger aircraft groups to sea in extremis, with the operation of multiple helicopter types for other aviation roles. The vision of a CVF operating with a small group of JSF, merged with Chinooks, Apache and Merlin seems appealing. Suggestions on technical internet forums (such as PPRUNE) imply that it is a lot easier to run a carrier with the STOVL/Helo airwing envisaged than running a CTOL/Helo airgroup laid out in SDSR.

The CVF then will by 2020 be capable of putting a sensible airgroup to sea which is a logical evolution of that which has gone before. To this author, it makes far more sense to have these vessels in service capable of intervention in the most literal sense, rather than as a more specialised CTOL carrier.

While some will bemoan the loss of cross deck interoperability with the USN, an objective look would suggest that the requirement to do this is probably a lot lower than we’d like to assume. The USN is getting smaller and is likely to have sufficient space on its extant carriers to operate the future airgroups envisaged. Even today the average CVN ‘only’ puts to sea with some 40-50 F18 fighters embarked. While having access to a UK deck may be a nice to have, it is incredibly hard to envisage situations where the USN is so critically short of both available carriers AND land based airpower that they would regret not having CVF available. Such a situation has not occurred since WW2, and is unlikely to ever do so again. The US will doubtless be grateful that the CVF exists, even as a STOVL platform, and that is what matters.

Permanent Platforms?
One of the positives emerging from this is the strong hint that both vessels will remain available, with one in permanent commission. Previously under SDSR the intent was to only have one carrier available, and the conversion costs of the 2nd carrier would have been considered later. The hint of a move to having both hulls able to be in commission is extremely good news.

It is important to remember that this does not mean the RN will certainly have two CVFs at sea full time. The manning structure of the RN after SDSR is built on the assumption of one carrier – a fleet of 22,500 personnel (plus Royal Marines) has remarkably little slack in it once you remove the submarine service and FAA from the equation. Finding the spare 600 crew plus airgroup to operate a second CVF in full service is going to need manpower savings elsewhere. Given the RN has almost no slack, the question is, what does the RN want to stop doing to keep both CVFs at sea?

Wider European Implications?
There are wider implications from this decision. The Italian and Spanish navies are likely to be secretly pleased at the return to STOVL. It will reduce unit costs of the F35B, and this means they are more likely to be able to afford successors to the Harrier fleets.
The only CTOL operators in town...
The decision places France in a more interesting place. As noted elsewhere on the site, Charles De Gaulle is getting older, and previously co-operation had been built on the idea of jointly providing CTOL carriers working in a more co-operative manner. The French will now have to consider not only how they source a future carrier, but more importantly work out in the medium term what will fly from it? At some point soon work will need to begin to identify Rafales successor. It seems fair to suggest that no country, not even the USA, could afford the costs of building a national carrier strike aircraft  alone. The decision today means that the French will need to consider in the medium term how their carrier force is going to work. Already the French are a part time carrier navy, and this availability is only going to get worse as CDG gets older. The loss of a UK CTOL platform is going to place huge pressure on the French defence budget to source a new hull, and successor aircraft in a similar time frame to when the SSBN replacement is likely to be due. There will be difficult decisions ahead for Paris.

How damaging is this really?
No politician likes to make a U-turn, and this has doubtless been embarrassing for Ministers to make this announcement – particularly when they are returning to a policy of the previous Government that they had criticised. Some will argue that the UK would still be a carrier going nation had they kept to that policy. But a reality check is needed here.

Even if the SDSR 2010 had not adopted CTOL, this author’s strictly personal view is that the UK would not currently be operating Harrier. Ultimately the SDSR was about not only reviewing UK national strategy, but seeking to reduce a very large budget overspend. In order to make the savings required in 2010, it was clear that an aircraft fleet would have to leave service. Had the Tornado GR4 been taken out of service, then Harriers would not be merrily flying today from ARK ROYAL.

Instead the Harrier fleet would have had to be redeployed to Op HERRICK, and right now the much denuded force of barely 70 airframes would be trying to maintain 12 airframes in Kandahar – which in reality would have wiped out the force for effective tasking elsewhere. The Harrier fleet would be almost certainly committed to HERRICK, and the UK would not have been able to do OP ELLAMY with anywhere near as much success, as there would have been no Tornado, and no spare Harriers to go to Libya.

It is fair to say that at best the UK may have managed a very occasional training deployment, but in reality the Harrier force would have been so heavily tasked, that it would not have had much spare capacity.

Looking back with hindsight, it becomes clear that SDSR was always going to be forced to temporarily end UK carrier based airpower. This author believes that the decision to go back to STOVL has probably saved it for the long term. It was the right decision, and while it will be argued for decades to come, it is this author’s view that it was the right thing to do.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

“Do you hear there, Media Breakdown, Media Breakdown, Media Breakdown in forward circuit board’

The author started this blog as an informal means of trying to put across the frustrations felt at the media wilfully choosing to put across the worst possible angle on Defence and the role of the MOD. He is not na├»ve – it’s clear that bad news sells far better than good news, and that media organisations are in business to make money. That said, it is incredibly frustrating to see how low the media will stoop on occasions in order to get a story.


Last week an excellent news story appeared on the Royal Navy website (link can be found HERE) which talked about the work done by the crew of HMS DAUNTLESS in training naval personnel in West Africa (Exercise Saharan Express off the coast of Senegal). This is a genuinely critical role, and one where a small investment of time and money will pay enormous dividends in improving the capability of regional security forces. One of the challenges in the region is to prevent piracy taking hold, and to try to ensure that local navies have the training, equipment and capability in order to maintain the rule of law and ensure that pirates do not have the freedom of manoeuvre to turn these vast oil rich waters into a new version of the Somali coastline. The Royal Navy has helped further UK interests in these regions by conducting shore visits, meeting with and training local navies, and taking steps to help maintain the regional security forces. This is the sort of good news story that the RN should be rightfully very proud of.  It shows the important role the RN plays in trying to build local security as well as how a small investment of time and effort at a local level now, can help prevent major problems later.It’s likely that few people in the UK realise how vital West Africa is to the UK economy, and how a deterioration in the security situation could have repercussions at home as oil prices rise, and commodities become more expensive due to increasing insurance and shipping costs. Already Africa is home to vast amounts of the natural resources needed to make many of the items and luxury goods that people in the UK take for granted – a failure to adequately protect the sea lanes in Africa would mean that our way of life here could become more difficult. It is vital therefore that the RN engages with, and trains, personnel overseas and for this reason it is essential that the use of naval ships on long deployments helps protect UK interests and way of life.

The training conducted attracted a not insignificant amount of attention – after all, the presence of arguably the most capable warship on the entire continent is something which is likely to be headline news. By all accounts a locally embedded reporter (unfortunately Humphrey is unable to identify which paper) gave a long and detailed report about the sort of training and sea time that was going on, and talked in a very positive manner about the work done by HMS DAUNTLESS. Within the report was a single throwaway line about a minor switchboard failure.

It was therefore slightly surprising to see that the Daily Mail managed to turn a single throwaway line into something which made out that HMS DAUNTLESS was somehow drifting and in great peril off the coast of Africa (link is HERE). Reading the article, one is left with the impression that the mightiest vessel in the RN was in dire danger of sinking, and that the entire vessel was on the point of collapse, and that huge embarrassment was being caused to the MOD as a result of this event.

Let’s consider for a moment the reality of what went on. There was a minor overload in one switchboard, which for a few minutes caused a reduction in power. After some quick repairs normal business resumed. It may come as a shock to some people, but modern warships are incredibly complicated assets, full of advanced machinery and technology, and inevitably things will sometimes breakdown and need fixing. This surely isn’t a cause of embarrassment to the MOD – in reality, every warship in the world has had faults at some pointIn the case of HMS DAUNTLESS, we have a situation where a new ship class has been deployed into tropical waters for the first time, and this can have an effect on the vessel's operating performance. Now this issue has been identified, it is less likely to occur again as the RN identifies the class specific operating conditions and characteristics for the Type 45. Speak to anyone who has operated in the Gulf, or the Arctic Circle, and they will tell you how the characteristics of vessels change depending on the environmental conditions in which they work. For the Royal Navy this is even more challenging, as unlike many navies, the RN is expected to deploy its vessels worldwide, and they have to be able to cope in a very broad range of temperatures and conditions – indeed on her current deployment, its possible that DAUNTLESS will go from tropical African waters to the South Atlantic in deep winter – this inevitably places some challenges on the design.

The news isn’t that something temporarily went wrong, for that occurs to every ship, no matter what flag she flies. The good news is surely that while something went wrong, the RN was able to use its highly trained and skilled personnel to find the fault and fix it, while operating thousands of miles from home, and to do so without putting into port or requiring external assistance. Humphrey would argue that few navies are capable of doing that – having worked with many nations’ navies, it’s clear that for some of them, putting to sea for the day is a technical challenge, while remaining at sea overnight is beyond them. This is not meant disparagingly, as different countries have different ideas about what they want their military to achieve. However, for the RN, the story here is that no matter how far from home, the quality of the personnel and their training will ensure that wherever possible, ships will continue to operate as effectively as they can.

So, it is frustrating to see the Daily Mail continue on its curiously diverse campaign to bemoan the decline of society, while simultaneously doing all it can to do down the society it wants to protect. It is frustrating to see this sort of article as it not only does down the efforts of the sailors who man these vessels, but more importantly it fails to give a balanced account on the good work that the RN is doing day in, day out to support UK interests  and wider global security around the world.

What then is the solution to this sort of issue? Well the problem is that no media organisation is likely to focus on the wider truth that all ships breakdown, but equally the media is often keen to lambast the UK government for going to war in Iraq, purportedly on the basis of scanty evidence laid out in a dossier. Surely the media has a similar responsibility to report accurately, and not fill a sensationalist story based on little more than one throwaway comment in a report, then to take it utterly out of context, prior to belittling the efforts of British sailors far from home, who are doing an excellent job of supporting  UK national interests?

Monday, 7 May 2012

Vive L’Hollande? Some thoughts on where French Defence Policy may be headed in the medium term?

Francois Hollande’s election as the next President of France has gained worldwide attention.  Much has been made of his desire to introduce a different approach to French domestic politics, and also to try to change the nature of French relations with the Eurozone in order to build a better deal for France. What is less clear thus far, is his views on where France sits as a military power.

Humphrey has long puzzled over what France actually is, and what its aspirations are, when it comes to deciding on its place in the military world. In many ways France and the UK are two good examples of the different approaches a post-colonial power can adopt as it seeks to come to terms with the loss of influence, and physical possession, and instead move to a more multi-polar world.

Both nations are sovereign nuclear powers, both have military bases, and physical real estate on all continents on earth, and both have aspirations to act as powers with global interests and reach.

Yet despite this both nations pursued radically different policies in the late 1960s and beyond as France separated from NATO and pursued a policy of what can best be described as ‘studious indifference’ to NATO, and building a force structure optimised for low key colonial intervention forces, backed up by a large conscript army at home, with some higher quality prestige equipment maintained as the tool of an interventionary strategy.

The French military today still arguably is structured in a manner which reflects this, albeit now with a fully professional military force. It is based globally, but the equipment staged around the world is often of lower quality, e.g. OPVs rather than first rate frigates, and while there are some significant prestige projects in service, such as the Rafale fighter jet, the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier and the ‘Force De Frappe’ (the French SSBN force), one cannot help but be left with the perception of a military which behind some very high profile equipment is often struggling to catch up on the more basic stuff such as the equipment of its troops. When on OP HERRICK the author shared a room with French personnel, and heard them regularly bemoan how poor their equipment & their terms and conditions of service were, and also how much of a looming manpower gap was emerging at the SNCO level.

In recent years, marked efforts occurred to improve UK/French relations, and to try to engage more closely with NATO, as France sought to re-enter the military command structure for the first time in over 40 years. The result has been the slow trickle posting  of French officers back in to NATO HQs, and also the start of efforts to see France more closely engaged in the routine of NATO business – this has included a strong French presence on operations in Afghanistan, and a wider commitment to the missions surrounding anti-piracy efforts.

The question is then, what is likely to change in both the short and medium term? In the short term Hollande has set out views indicating he is likely to push for the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, and also threatened to review French participation in the NATO command structure unless more posts are allocated to French personnel. While the latter is in many ways a variation on the threats made by many countries who seek to get a better deal for their engagement in NATO, it will be difficult for France to simultaneously be seen to be withdrawing from the primary NATO mission, while at the same time demanding extra places within the NATO structure. It is hard to envisage a scenario where there would be much support for this to occur, particularly from countries who remain engaged in Afghanistan for the medium term.

The wider questions though are more fundamentally what of France’s military posture around the world. As noted, the French military is deployed on the basis of being a global low level interventionary force, designed to intervene primarily in situations where French interests are at stake (e.g. citizens who require evacuation, or friendly rulers who require stabilisation). These forces are based in either French real estate, or in friendly former French colonies. As time progresses though, two factors come increasingly into play – firstly the declining French influence in these regions and the looming block obsolescence of many of Frances prestige military capabilities.

While the Francophonie of the 1970s and 1980s may have been run as a virtual colony of France, with the rise of China as a major player in Africa, and the growth of a generation of leaders who do not feel the same residual loyalty (or easily malleable interests) to Paris, it is likely to prove ever harder for France to retain long term interests in Africa.

At the same time, the French military is built around low level equipment in these areas – a company group supported by a few transport helicopters could easily dominate a low level insurgency, as weapons become more advanced, and more readily available, and as African countries grow in strength and capability over time, it will prove more difficult for France to retain a qualitative edge in these areas without reinforcing their military capability. One has to wonder whether it will remain in France’s best interests to continue to retain these bases in the medium term, and whether instead a more realistic appraisal of French policy may conclude that much is expended in their maintenance, for increasingly little material reward.

The other issue facing the French military is the growing block obsolescence of much of its equipment, and the need to make some extremely difficult budgetary choices, particularly when the French Government may have to cut expenditure to meet other political priorities. At present the French deterrent force forms a large amount of national expenditure to sustain a four hull SSBN fleet plus a limited airborne nuclear capability. Realistically, work will need to begin within this decade in order to commence work on the next generation of warhead, missile and SSBN to replace the Le Triomphant class, most likely starting within the next 15 years. Unlike the UK, which is benefting from economy of scale with co-operating with the USN on certain aspects of the next generation of SSBN (such as the missile compartment), the French will have to fund this alone. At the same time, the Charles De Gaulle is increasing in age, and thoughts will inevitably be turning to her replacement soon. The much delayed PA2 carrier seems dead in the water, and given the lead times to build a new carrier, it is hard to see this vessel entering service to complement De Gaulle, but instead to act as a long term replacement. Finally, Rafale will need to be replaced at some stage, and again, the timelines appear to be merging so as to require a new capability at the same time as a nuclear deterrent replacement, a new carrier and a new fighter jet. There is a pressing need to replace the French air to air refuelling fleet too, and their army’s equipment is starting to age as well.

It is clear that the next five – ten years will potentially require significant strategic decisions from Paris – it is hard to see funding being found to replace all the high priority national prestige projects simultaneously, while at the same time funding the various replacements needed for escort ships, tanks, transport aircraft and so on. The clear issue France has to face is to consider where its strategic interests lie – without some form of wider co-operation, or without some form of deferment of a replacement, it is simply not possible to see France maintaining the same level of military capability and engagement in the next few years.

It would seem that something is going to have to give, and it will be extremely interesting to watch over the next few months and years to see whether the French engage in a genuinely soul searching strategic appraisal of their place in the world, or whether at best there is a desire to maintain the glory of France, without a deeper examination of how this can be achieved. One does not envy the ‘in tray’ of the new French Defence Minister, as it is likely to be extremely challenging to say the least!