Monday, 25 June 2012

East of East of Suez (taken from Think Defence)

Think Defence has kindly offered me a spot to post occasionally on matters of interest. While many readers of this site are long time TD regulars, I strongly recommend anyone who hasn't been there to take a look.
The text below is the first part of a three part series on the UK engagement in the East of Suez region. The original article can be found at
East of East of Suez – the UK commitment to the Asia / Pacific Rim.
The Far East is an area which has long held a fascination for many in the UK – both as a tourist destination, a source of economic prosperity, an emerging powerhouse of influence and dynamism, and a location where over many years the MOD has been engaged in one form or another. The region conjures up images of UK forces fighting in the jungles and seas of the Pacific, of the fall of Singapore, of great national humiliation, and immense pride, in wars such as Korea in the 1950s. Even today the UK contribution in Malaysia and the ‘Confrontation’ Campaign are seen as good examples of how to successfully handle low level insurgencies or military clashes.
The phrase ‘East of Suez’ seems to sum up a generational policy shift in the 1960s, when the UK began the process of recalling the legions, and withdrawing the tens of thousands of troops from the Asia Pacific region, and the drawing down of the great naval fortress of Singapore. In the public eye, the UK ceased to be a military power in the region in the 1970s, and to many our final withdrawal was completed in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. Yet, against all odds, and despite the expectations of many, the UK retains a small military presence in the region, and continues to enjoy strong relations with many of the nations present in this fascinating and immensely complex part of the world.
The purpose of this short series of articles is to review the UKs military commitments to the region, to gain an understanding of where UK defence interests lie, and review what it is that the UK is being expected to deliver, and why it benefits the taxpayer to retain an influence in this region. It will be structured over three parts, and should be seen in the context of the wider TD series of Strategy Posts. It does not represent any official viewpoint, and should not be read or construed as being anything other than a personal interpretation of the current UK level of military commitment to the Asia Pacific region.
UK Commitments
For the purposes of this article, the Asia pacific region is deemed to be those nations east of the Indian Ocean, from Singapore through to the pacific coastlines of the Americas. It does not look at the roles played by UK forces in the Indian Ocean itself. Since 1997, the two main physical locations for UK forces in the region have been Brunei and Singapore.
Brunei: The role of the garrison in Brunei has been, at the request of his Majesty the Sultan of Brunei, to provide security for the country as a whole. The UK has had a military presence in Brunei since 1962, when troops landed to provide additional security. Today the garrison comprises some 900 personnel, predominantly drawn from the Ghurkhas’, for whom one battalion of light infantry is usually based in the Kingdom. Additionally, a small flight of helicopters and the UKs primary jungle warfare school (the other being in Belize, which has been downsized in the last year), as well as assorted other staff.
The Sultan meets the costs of the provision of the battalion, and also much of the infrastructure costs associated with their presence. The garrison arrangement is renewed on a five yearly basis between Brunei and the UK. At present the UK presence is scheduled to continue until at least 2015. An excellent summary of the UK defence commitment can be found at the FCO website (
Singapore: The UK presence in Singapore is not known to many in the MOD, let alone outside it. Until 1971 Singapore was home to a not inconsiderable number of UK warships and support vessels, using the dockyard facilities and support networks to provide the Far East Fleet. This organisation continued in a much reduced tri-national (Australia, New Zealand, UK) format until 1976, when the UK then withdrew its final contingents as economic problems forced a final withdrawal from the region.
Despite this, the UK retains to this day the ownership of a large fuel depot, and berthing wharves in Sembewang dockyard. Having been to the site a few years ago, the author can personally attest to its size, which provides berthing access for up to three escorts at a time, plus access to fuel and spare parts. Reportedly the fuel depot is the second largest in the Asia-Pacific region, and provides useful access for UK and allied warships to fuel. The FCO website has a good description of current UK military assets in Singapore –
These two facilities constitute the only permanent UK military presence in the region in terms of formed units or military installations. There is a wider set of individual exchange posts, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where a plethora of UK personnel work as integrated members of these nations militaries.
Defence Attaches: One of the most significant UK military contributions in the region in terms of influence is the Defence Attaché network. Although many people are often sceptical of the value of defence attaches (a recent Daily Mail article referred to them as the so-called ‘Ferrero Roche’ network’), there is a strong argument to be made for the retention of these posts.
Attaches provide the UK with the opportunity to put military personnel into the region, to meet with and understand the military issues facing a country, and to get a better feel for strategic developments in a region. Many countries genuinely appreciate a UK Defence Attaché presence – it is seen as a sign that the UK takes their nation seriously from a military perspective, and this presence can often be invaluable in opening doors in an emergency.
In a region like the Far East, the Defence Attaché network represents one of the best means of the MOD to engage with local military forces and continue a relationship, particularly in nations which may rarely see a UK visit. As of November 2010, there were DA’s located in Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. (Source Additionally, since 1998, posts have closed in the Philippines and Thailand.
Some of these posts are of particular interest, and worthy of note. The two posts in Korea and Japan owe much to the Korean War for their continued existence. As one of the main participants in the war, the UK continues to have a place on the UN Military Armistice Commission, and the position of a 1* helps ensure the UK is engaged in this particular diplomatic issue. Additionally, the presence of military personnel in Japan, where the DA holds the position of UK Liaison Officer to the United Nations Command (Rear) helps ensure that the UK can invoke access to Japanese ports and airfields at short notice under UN resolutions dating back to the war – and as seen during the North Korean nuclear tests some years ago, where the UK sent a radiation sampling VC10 to the region, this is a useful access right to be able to invoke (and also a means of demonstrating continued interest and influence in the region). For further information on the role both sections play, see these links – and
For the relatively small outlay of two defence sections, the UK is able to remain not only engaged in, and kept abreast of developments in the Korean peninsula, but also is able to safeguard access into the region. This helps the UK play a small, but influential role, and when coupled with the wider diplomatic presence in both Seoul and Pyongyang, means that the UK can help punch above its weight when it comes to influencing both these nations, and others involved in the delicate diplomatic situation in the region. While this may only be a small example, it does show that often a deft touch with the presence of a military attaché can have significantly wider ramifications for the UK as a whole.
Wider Exercises / Deployments: Although the UK has not had a major permanent military presence in the region for some time, until late in the last decade, regular task group deployments to the region ensured that there was a routine RN presence at least once per year, often in substantial numbers. The Ocean Wave 97 and Taurus 09 deployments are both good examples of the UK deploying substantial forces into the region, using enablers such as amphibious assault capabilities, and also wider surface ship capabilities, to visit a range of nations, conduct exercises under the auspices of regional alliances (such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement), and generally show the UK flag in an area which rarely sees a substantial UK military presence.
The combination of a smaller RN and a busyoperational tasking schedule means that deployments such as these have been less frequent for some time. Although there has been a limited RN surface presence – such as HMS RICHMOND in 2011, the reality is that for the time being, there is likely to be only a limited engagement in the area. The RN is very busy at present, and with a smaller escort fleet and reduced amphibious capability, all of which are in demand for real world operations, it is likely that future deployments to the region will see physically fewer, but materially vastly more capable, vessels operating there. Sadly the days of 10 – 15 vessel deployments such as OCEAN WAVE 97 are likely to have gone forever.
The RAF is also unlikely to see significant non-operational deployments into the region for the time being. The RAF operational fleet remains committed for operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and for as long as support to operations in Afghanistan remains the Defence Main Effort, then this is the priority for resources. That said, it is likely that exercises or small deployments, for instance to showcase Typhoon, will continue. As ever, it is important to remember that numbers of aircraft does not directly equate to capability, as both Typhoon and Tornado are immensely capable aircraft.
The Army is the service least likely to deploy in any substantial numbers to the region, although this is in keeping with the wider reality that since the 1960s and the end of Confrontation, the Far East region was far more an RN / RAF operational environment than an Army one. At the same time, the Army has the largest laydown of personnel of any UK service in the region, through the Brunei garrison.
Therefore, at any one time the UK military presence in the Asia Pacific region is just under 1000 permanently based military personnel, including Singapore, Brunei and the Defence Attache network. There are reasonably regular visits by RAF aircraft, and RN vessels, and although vastly smaller than the 1960s, there still remains a relatively substantial UK military presence to the East of East of Suez.
Having considered what the current UK military capabilities and commitments are in the region, the next instalment of this article will consider what possible challenges and threats exist in the region. This will also focus on the role of the FPDA, and wider UK engagement.

Situation Vacant: Danish Chief of Defence Staff, apply within.

Meeting with Scandinavian colleagues recently, Humphrey was told about the latest interesting military appointment in Denmark. Not a phrase one usually expects to see (standfast Hamlet), but in this case, a well-deserved one.
Gen Bartram (Copyright
The new Danish Chief of Defence Staff took up post a couple of months ago following what can best be described as an open job competition. Rather than the previous approach, more usually seen around most NATO countries, whereby the 3* heads of Service are in competition, the Danish Government decided to advertise the job openly.
In theory, anyone in the country was eligible to apply, and the rumour was that at least one fast food franchise manager had applied for the job (“Do you want fries with that airstrike Prime Minister?”). The successful applicant (General Peter Bartram), was an in service military candidate, but by no means an experienced senior officer. The General was serving as a local acting Brigadier in a NATO post, but apparently had some strong ideas about the path of reform in the Danish military. He was successfully interviewed, and promoted from OF5 to 4* Officer.

A glance at his CV ( shows an officer whose last operational command was in KFOR back in 2003 as an SO1. Given the proportionately very large commitment by Denmark to both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is surprising that he has not seemingly got any direct operational experience of either theatre.
This is a genuinely interesting appointment. On the one hand there has apparently been a strong reaction from those who felt that the post should have gone to an existing senior officer, who had experience of commanding and leading a service. The argument went that how can an officer who has not worked at the 2&3* level be able to represent the best interests of the Military as a whole, particularly in NATO?

There is some validity to this argument, many senior officers grew up working in close proximity to each other (particularly NATO experienced Officers), and there is much to be said for the bond of trust and friendship that emerges over time. General Bartram, although an experienced officer, will not have the same relationship with other CDS equivalents – he is at least 10-15 years their junior. Similarly, his lack of wider exposure to leading a service, coupled with his wider time in NATO does raise the question – is he able to effectively represent the interests of the Danish Military to the Prime Minister of the day?

On the flip side, there is much to commend this appointment. While it is unusual in peacetime to see accelerated military promotion, a quick glance at the annals of WW2 shows a large number of very young Brigadiers and above appointed during the war. In the British Army, Enoch Powell, although largely exorcised from history now due to some of his later political statements, began WW2 as a 27yr old Private and ended it as a 33 yr old Brigadier. Similarly Peter Young ended WW2 as a Lieutenant (Wartime only substantive Lt Col and Temporary Brigadier).

 Wartime is good at bringing out the natural military talents of high quality people, and many of the best Officers ever produced by the UK or wider Commonwealth military attained their peak at a young age during WW2. The argument should surely run that if nations are willing to entrust their entire existence to a generation of 30somethings during wartime, why are they so reluctant to do so to late 40 something’s in peacetime?  

One often reads in the UK press of the resignation of another British military resignation, usually from good officers at SO1 / OF5 level. Cited as a ‘bright young thing’ or seen as the next best hope of the General Staff, many good officers go in their late 30s or early 40s rather than stay on. The military seem to continuously lose a generation of talent, who every year see the slow promotion rates, limited prospects and pay constraints, and realise that with their active soldiering, sailing  or flying days all but behind them there is no reason to stay. This is a real loss to the UK as good officers, many of whom have very interesting ideas about the future direction of Defence choose to walk away.

Would UK defence benefit from a similar approach, and appointing the person with the right ideas, and not the person who is the best from those who are left? We expect good businessmen to be able to run a company by their late 30s, and many of those success stories achieved this because of taking a gamble at the right point in their career. Similarly, the civil service, although promotion is still slow, is very good at getting high quality civil servants into 1* positions by their mid –late 30s.

What is it about the military that makes it so essential that younger officers cannot lead it? Arguably, a good officer with a clear vision for change, and the energy, willpower and determination to see through a five year appointment may have far more effect than an older officer worn down by years of infighting. The authors impression of many senior officers over the years is that they are good people, but they often seem so tired. It is one thing to drive forward change, often working punishing hours in your 40s. Trying to do it in your late 50s is a very different story, and by then, you are as much focused on what happens next as you are about leading. Perhaps we are missing a trick here. Rather than putting good people into mid-level posts in their prime, and then watching  them leave demoralised, or just walk away with frustration at being unable to affect real change, let’s let anyone go for the top post. If you are genuinely excellent, and you have the vision required to deliver the change and leadership required, then perhaps we too should be brave enough to consider letting anyone go for it.

While it is exceptionally unlikely to ever happen, it would be fascinating to contemplate what difference a 50yr old CDS, appointed straight from an operational tour, and advised by older and more experienced single service chiefs, could have on the military. It would reinvigorate those who aspire to make a difference, but who see no chance of being able to do so.

After all, if  or Eisenhower could be a Major (Local Acting General of the Army) and then go on to become President of the USA, what could we do here in the UK?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Reasons to be Positive about the Royal Navy - Part Two (Shore Estate)

In the last part of this series, we looked at the importance of the recruiting and training system in creating a modern Naval Service which has, at its core, an extremely well trained and motivated cadre of personnel. We’ll return to the issue of personnel in a later piece, but for this instalment, Humphrey wants to focus on an often forgotten reason why the Royal Navy (RN) can be quite positive about its future – namely, the infrastructure to support the RN.

Current Shore Bases
Since the mid-1990s, the RN has operated around a cluster of three primary naval bases – Portsmouth, Plymouth and Faslane. There remains a large refit complex in Rosyth, although no vessels are based there permanently. Overseas the RN maintains a reasonable support complex in Gibraltar, a large fuel depot and wharves in Singapore, a small naval party and ‘Z’ Berth in Diego Garcia (albeit with minimal berthing), and a small military port in the Falkland Islands. There is a cluster of support and infrastructure in the Middle East, although this has never been formally commissioned as a support establishment.

The result is that the RN is able to not only sustain global deployments, but also maintain its own vessels at home with minimal problems. At its most basic, the UK is one of only a handful of nations with the ability to not only deploy its maritime forces globally, but also support them, at sea and on land, through its network of naval bases. This is a significant force multiplier, as there are still few parts of the world where there is not an RN shore party within easy reach if all goes horribly wrong.

The naval shore estate regularly comes under close inspection – an old standing joke is that there is a dusty paper on the options for closing all three naval bases, which appears to be dusted off and updated with each spending round. In reality though, it seems hard to envisage a situation emerging where one of the three bases goes.

Plymouth plays a vital role in hosting the Amphibious Fleet, Survey vessels and some T23 frigates. The last SSNs will move north or decommission within the next few years. At the same time, the large harbour space plays host to the largest naval base in Western Europe, and there are plenty of refit facilities and berthing space for the FOST organisation. Add to this the huge training estate across the water in HMS RALEIGH, and Plymouth clearly has an important part to play. This is without even looking at the fuel and munitions depots in the area.

Portsmouth is home to the T45s, T23s, minor war vessels, and the Carriers. The wider dockyard hosts shipbuilding facilities, Fleet Headquarters, the damage control school and a huge variety of dockyard and other RN support facilities.
HMNB Portsmouth

Faslane is home to the SSBN, SSN and some MCMVs. It’s perhaps the most remote of the three main bases, but it plays an utterly critical role in the defence of the UK due to its SSBN duties, and also hosting the Joint Warrior (or whatever the exercise is called today).

Positive Future
One reason to be positive is that a significant amount of investment has gone into all three sites to make them fit for purpose. If you go to Portsmouth today, it is quite incredible at just how much building work is going on to make the site ready for the arrival of CVF. The site is undergoing a lot of investment, as seen by the arrival of the huge build hall for the construction of parts of the carrier.

Similar investment is going on across the naval base estate, and although it is less popular than buying ships, it is worth considering that investment in good quality maintenance and support facilities can often generate more in ship seagoing availability than having an extra ship or two in the water.  Put simply, invest in the long term future of keeping ships at sea, and you’ll retain a truly blue water navy. Invest in the ships themselves, and that quickly disappears.

So, while this is not glamorous, it is important to understand that the raft of investment in accommodation (keeps sailors motivated to stay in), headquarters (improves joint working and efficiency), and new training facilities (sea survival centre on Horsea Lake will save lives) and so on play a major part in keeping the fleet at sea. In other words, while new buildings rarely excite people, they do provide the opportunity to make a tangible and very significant difference to keeping the fleet at sea, and this is surely a good thing?

A lack of emotional attachment
One advantage that the RN (and wider UK forces) has is the ability to close sites which have lost their value. This may sound nonsensical, but actually it’s a real strength. The MOD has managed to make itself into the second largest land owner in the UK, and has probably got more land than it knows what to do with. One real advantage is that the system is not afraid to close sites, collocate sites, rebuild sites and generally reduce down real estate.

Look at the growth of HMS COLLINGWOOD, which has merged several training schools together (HMS DRYAD, MERCURY and COLLINGWOOD in recent years) and put them on one site. Some decry the loss of naval facilities, or the loss of jobs and advancement – e.g. less positions as the Pusser at HMS NONSUCH or the First Lieutenant at DRYAD. Humphrey though sees this differently – a training establishment is fundamentally a collection of classrooms, accommodation and hotel services. If the classrooms can be replicated elsewhere (often in better condition), and the hotel services rebuilt as part of wider accommodation construction, then why not collocate? The ability to merge two or three sites into one reduces overheads, lowers staff costs and saves money which can instead be used to protect the front line.

The RN is able to have this debate and close sites down when they have ceased to be of use to the taxpayer. Don’t’ under estimate how important this is – having spoken with acquaintances in the US, they will often complain that no matter how much they want to reduce overheads by shutting down duplicate sites, the domestic politics means that it is almost impossible to do this without horse trading. As a result, much of the US defence budget is absorbed by sites of lower military value, and which could be closed, instead being kept open due to domestic political reasons.

So, although this may not sound that interesting, one reason to be positive is that the RN can shut the sites that it no longer needs, and get more value from its finances. This author passionately believes that the role of the RN budget is to support keeping ships at sea doing dangerous things, and not keeping old buildings in a state of repair if they are no longer required.

 Investment in new Maritime Services
One of the first books Humphrey ever saw about the RN was a copy of the “Warships of the Royal Navy’, published in the late 1970s. Although it was at nearly twenty years old by the time he saw it in a school library, its old grainy pictures of warships, RFAs and tugs were an inspiration to him.
At the back of the book was page after page of tugs, tenders, and other assorted maritime auxiliary services craft. Although utterly devoid of glamour, even then he realised these craft play a huge role in keeping a modern navy going.

The Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service (RMAS) was privatised and taken over by Serco back in the 1990s and run for profit. To this day, Serco Denholm are responsible for the provision of all manner of auxiliary services, ranging from tugs and tender transfers, through to torpedo recovery craft, exercise minelayers and range target vessels.

All in all, there are easily over 100 vessels which can be found primarily in naval bases, but also in other establishments such as the Kyle of Lochalsh, around the UK. This fleet of vessels is an important reason to be positive for two reasons. Firstly, many navies rely on their own personnel to man and operate these vessels. When they need replacing, these costs are funded from naval budgets, and not from a wider contract fund. Similarly, the manpower needed to operate them comes from the Navy, and not from the private sector, meaning more sailors are needed to do this sort of job, and not go to sea on a ‘proper’ military vessel. By contracting out the service, the RN is able to focus its resources and manpower on proper military vessels, and not have to worry about finding funds to replace elderly tugs, at a time when it wants to bring frigates into service. It is not remotely glamorous, but it is an essential part of operating a Navy, and one that is often forgotten.

Also forgotten is just how new this fleet is – there has been a huge amount of investment in the port services fleet in recent years, with literally dozens of craft (Humphrey read something saying over 80 new vessels were being ordered) being built and entering service. The RN has managed to acquire the services of one of the most modern and effective port support vessels fleets in the world. This would not have happened if the RN were still looking after the RMAS – instead, by privatising it, the funding instead has brought new ships and better capabilities into service, at a reduced cost to the taxpayer. This matters because without it, the RN would be reliant on ever older ships, or finding scarce equipment programme funds to pay for them. (For those interested in the ships in service now, try this link -

RMAS vessels in Portsmouth - Copyright 2010 Tim Webb, taken from
Finally, although not glamorous, the presence of these vessels around the UK coast helps demonstrate just how large and complex the UK defence maritime sector is, with many different areas operating vessels with a defence role. In one way it is a shame they don’t have grey hulls and carry RN crews – some of the ships out there, particularly the larger recovery vessels, would be an excellent first command. However, it is important to be positive that there is a large fleet of new, modern and very capable ships which exist to support the modern RN.

Again Humphrey has deliberately chosen to focus on the less glamorous areas in an effort to be positive. Running a navy is not all about putting a large grey hull to sea, and then doing stirring ‘warry things’. Investment in the dull but vital areas of shore based support, bases, tugs and so on is crucial to being able to run a first rate navy.

Over the last few years the RN has quietly, and with little fuss, managed to acquire a regenerated fleet of support vessels, and a modernised shore estate. It has done so to save money, be more effective and support the front line. However you look at it, this has to be a good thing.

The next part of this series is planned to focus on the purple dimension, and why the RN can be positive about its future in the operational context.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Reasons to be positive about the Royal Navy - Part One (Training)

As regular readers of the blog will know, Humphrey tends to take a fairly positive outlook on most things in Defence. For all the comments about the loss of capability, power and military numbers, he remains upbeat that actually things aren’t looking too grim, particularly for the Royal Navy. While the popular narrative remains that the RN is declining after years of neglect, and that the UK has ceased to be a credible military power, there is actually a lot of good stuff going on in the RN at the moment. Too much of what the RN does, or achieves daily is taken for granted, and never actually commented on by the media.

The aim of this post is to take a look at the sort  of things about the RN that make it so potent, and why, despite the loss of hulls, it remains a genuinely credible naval power. Too much has been written about ships, and how the loss of frigates or fixed wing carriers impacts on the UK ability to project power. This post aims to look beyond a simple ORBAT, and try to explore some of the less tangible aspects that make the RN a potent power, and why we should have reason to be optimistic for the future. Ultimately, there is no point in having dozens of warships in service unless you have very good and very well trained personnel to crew, support, and fight them. Lets take a look at why the RN has reasons to be very positive about its future.

Getting through the Gates
Arguably the best job in the world. How do you get people to do it though?
 The greatest strength of the RN is its people. The process of how it selects those people is a forgotten asset. The RN invests a great deal of time and effort in running a careers service to ensure that people come through the door and get a place only on fair competition. Entrants to the RN cannot bribe their way in, there is no advantage for people due to their place in society. The sons of Admirals receive no favours (and indeed arguably receive a tougher grilling) at the Admiralty Interview Board.

The process of identifying and selecting the future Naval Service is something that is rarely thought about. But in fact the RN has kept a process which has continuously managed to bring in high quality people over many decades. Lets actually think about what the RN careers service (e.g. entry for ratings, and selection for Officers at AIB) has to do. It has to find, and select a disparate pool of people, from those destined to do catering and deck work, to those destined to be nuclear engineers. It must select people who will in 40 years’ time be Admirals with responsibility for billions of pounds of public money and thousands of lives. This is not an easy task, but somehow the RN has managed to continuously bring in high quality people, and select them. There is no short cut into the RN, no easy way of buying a place at BRNC or RALEIGH.

So, from the outset, Humphrey would argue that one of the best reasons to be positive is that the RN has invested in a selection process which delivers only the very best people into the training pipeline. How many civilian companies today are required to recruit people for hundreds of different trades, and handle the recruiting process from point of entry through to posting. Most companies rely on headhunting, or bringing in talent at different levels. The RN has to bring people in, take risk on them, and hope it turns out okay in 15-25 years’ time. This is a significant responsibility, but so far it seems to be going well.

Think of other nations out there where entry is through conscription (or those paid to ‘volunteer’ so other can avoid conscription!), or those where entry is by less than auditable methods. Think of those nations where a position in a royal family, or being the son of an Admiral or other notable may result in an easier time. The RN works because everyone in the system has been selected to the same standard, with no favours shown. Do not underestimate what a difference this makes to the quality of people in the system. Do not underestimate what a force multiplier this really is.

Shore Training
One advantage the RN has is the strength of its training system, and its ability to learn and adapt to future challenges. If you look at both BRNC and HMS RALEIGH, it is clear that both sites have learnt a lot of lessons from the military encounters of the last few years, and reflect this in their current training packages. The process of Phase One training is not easy, and remains a challenge for any recruit to pass. The current package though seems well adapted to producing personnel capable of augmenting both the RN in complement jobs, and also the wider military on operations. This ability to learn, to change and to produce a new training system is critical to the strength of the RN. It learns from what went well, and what has gone wrong in the past.
BRNC Dartmouth
The system remains a source of influence too – there are many navies which wish to have their officers trained by the BRNC system. To this day RN vessels can pull into ports around the world and find naval officers who are the product of Dartmouth. This gives the RN an influence, both in helping shape the attitudes and views of naval officers who may one day occupy influential positions in their own country, but also in ensuring that other navies out there operate to high standards.

Dartmouth remains one of the crown jewels of the Defence Diplomacy network, and provides the UK with the ability to influence at a level most countries can only dream of. It is essential that this is funded properly, as a failure to take BRNC seriously as an influence tool could reduce foreign intakes. Similarly, the UK has to work out how to square a smaller surface fleet and intakes to BRNC with the ever increasing demand for foreign places at Dartmouth. Take too many foreign cadets and the college loses some of its RN ethos, and it may be less possible to produce foreign officers who have trained with the RN. Take too few, and navies will look to other nations to take up the slack, and this could lessen UK influence across the globe.

Looking further down the line, the RN maintains a strong network of very good training schools, such as the Maritime Warfare School, and HMS SULTAN. These are capable of producing highly trained individuals to meet Fleet requirements and provide through life training. It is important not to underestimate the importance of assets such as HMS SULTAN and HMS COLLINGWOOD – they provide a raft of training courses and capabilities that many navies don’t have, and ensure that the RN can indigenously train all its own personnel. This makes a real difference as the RN has control of its training syllabus, and can run courses to meet its needs, and not send staff on courses which may be of only limited use overseas.

The RN training estate, although not hugely glamorous, is an excellent reason to look positively at the future. A lot of money has gone into investing in first rate equipment and technology to provide world class training. Again, there is no point in having good ships, if your naval personnel don’t have the ability to use them properly.

That concludes the first part of this article. In the next part, Humphrey will look at wider issues around the RN, including the renewal of the shore infrastructure and support services. The point of this is to show that while this may not be ‘sexy’, the wider infrastructure is indispensable, and without regular investment, would render the seagoing element of the RN as next to useless.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Did she fall or was she PUShed? The latest MOD redundancies are announced...

Yesterday was ‘R Day’ – the point where thousands of service personnel found out whether they were being made redundant or not. The process identified those at risk of redundancy many months ago, and based on the many military colleagues that Humphrey saw, there appeared to be three reactions:

a.       Disappointment that they would be leaving HM Forces unwillingly

b.      Delight that they had been selected for voluntary redundancy

c.       Disappointment that they hadn’t been selected for voluntary redundancy.

It was telling that despite the difficult jobs market, 72% of those on the redundancy signal were volunteers. Many the author spoke to couldn’t believe their luck that they were going to receive large sums of money to leave the military, and spoke of being able to pay their mortgage off and never work again. For most of those on the list yesterday, there was real excitement at the thought of looking to start again, merged with a tingling of fear and discomfort as the reality of their decision set in.
It is ironic that almost everyone in HM Forces seems to have an exit plan. From day one people seem to talk about life after the military, and what they’ll do when they get outside. It feels at times that people see serving in the military as some kind of prison sentence, and that all they can do is complain about how bad it is. It is genuinely unusual to see people publicly admit to loving working in the military, and you often see people mutter about someone being ‘dangerously keen’. Life in the military is like working the worlds longest notice period – you know from day one when you will be required to leave the military, and this is perhaps reflected in many peoples attitudes.

That said, it is genuinely surprising to see just how many mid ranking officers (e.g. SO2-1*) have chosen to go in this round. It was seemingly without irony that the Daily Telegraph, which usually complains about the number of Staff Officers suddenly began referring to those affected in gushingly positive terms, implying the military would suffer from their departure.

There are a lot of good officers seeking to leave early, and this will hurt the military. While an attrition rate is inevitable – of the 500 cadets entering Dartmouth each year, only a fraction will ever make it to Admiral – it is still worrying that some very good officers, with the potential to go a long way have left. Although it will not in itself present a problem now, one has to wonder how the Armed Forces will be affected in 10 - 20 years’ time as a result of the people leaving now.

It is hard to see a way around the budget crisis though without moving to manpower cuts, particularly to the army. While the Navy and Airforce man the equipment, the Army has always ‘equipped the man’. An overheated equipment programme needs cuts in manpower to make savings on ground forces equipment. There is no point having an army of 100,000 if you can only afford to buy sufficient equipment for 80,000 troops. The reality is that military personnel are extremely expensive to recruit, train, employ, house, pay and provide good conditions for. When there are budget problems, often the only solution is to reduce headcount, as the associated savings are far greater than could otherwise be the case with just cutting the equipment programme.

There has been an inevitable amount of negative media coverage about these cuts. The papers seem to major on the losses to the Army, and note that yet more cuts will be required in order to bring the force to its future strength of 82,000. As usual there were lots of sniping comments about why no penpushers seemed to be going, and far too many articles failed to put in context the fact that 40% of the MOD civil service is being lost.

One MOD civil servant departure that was slipped out quietly, and which seems to have garnered little attention is the early departure of Ursula Brennan, the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS). The news that she is instead moving to the Ministry of Justice is a damning indictment of the decline of the MOD as a ‘great department of State’ in the civil service career structure.

It would previously have been nearly unthinkable for a PUS to leave MOD to go to a different department, particularly a smaller and less high profile one. The MOD was, along with Home Office, Treasury and FCO, one of the major departments where PUS did not usually leave to go elsewhere in the civil service, but instead they retired.

So why leave now? While the truth of the matter will almost certainly never be known, it is easy to speculate as to what prompted this decision. From the outset there has always been a suspicion that ‘Ursula’ (as she is referred to by many MOD types) was appointed simply because no one else wanted the job. Some civil servants known to the author expressed the view that she never seemed truly comfortable in the MOD. She didn’t join until 2008, and has only ever done the 2nd PUS and PUS job. She had no institutional background, and perhaps wasn’t seen internally as the classic ‘MOD civil servant’.

The MOD is a very different department of state to most Government departments. Its Civil Servants ‘go native’ for the Military. It is often said that some Civil Servants are more military in posture, language and dress than the Military. There is a very close relationship between the Civil Service, the Military, PUS, CDS and Ministers, and one in which there is a far more intimate sense that PUS is not a remote figurehead, but is someone who matters and is accessible to people at all levels. It would be fair to say that many of those who dealt with her found her a pleasant person, and very sharp. You don’t become a 4* civil servant unless you have some excellent skills. But, the author has heard from some of the nagging suspicion that for all she did, she didn’t come across to some in her department as someone who intrinsically 'got Defence'.

In her time at the MOD, she has had to oversee the slashing of budgets, the balancing of the equipment programme, and the delivery of the SDSR. In her role as the head of the MOD civil service, she’s overseen a programme of massive job losses and site closure. In other words, she has had to be the bearer of bad news to many people.

A departure now probably makes sense. A new appointee will probably not be in before late 2012. This gives them barely two years to be up to speed before the next SDSR, which already seems to be creeping into view. Given the Levene review was clear that senior figures should spend about five years in post, a new PUS now will be able to be up to speed, advise Ministers on how the next SDSR should be conducted, and deliver it ahead of moving on in 2016-2017. This gives their successor time to do the same for the 2020 SDSR.

Whoever replaces her faces a very difficult task. Let’s set aside the implementation of the 2010 SDSR, preparing for the 2015 SDSR and delivering success on operations while remaining in budget. They will be leading a department which has seen both its PUS and 2nd PUS leave in the space of a few months (with the 2nd PUS role abolished). They will be leading a workforce where morale appears to be extremely low, and who is recoiling from the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. They have to deliver a change programme which cannot promise a vision beyond more job cuts and more work for those who are left. Unlike the private sector where a promise of cuts today could mean expansion and more money in the near future, there is no bright light that can be offered. The workforce is demoralised, undergoing a three year pay freeze, demonised and feeling as if it is the whipping boy for the mistakes of others.

The PUS will need to try to take steps to reassure an aging work force (reportedly 60% of MOD is aged over 40) that they still have a meaningful career path. This is to be done when recruiting is frozen, promotion boards are on hold, and when HR no longer exists to guide staff on logical career development. They also need to try to work out how to hold onto people with niche skills and roles, such as project managers, procurement experts, and intelligence specialists and so on. They need to work out how to replenish this finite resource too, as with the recruiting taps currently all but turned off for new entrants; there will come a point when skills are lost forever.

It will be most interesting to see who steps forward to take on this role and what they do to try to keep the MOD as one of the best places to be a civil servant in Government. It won’t be an easy job, and most likely a thankless one.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Contracting out the MOD - the role of Contractors in Force 2020

The speech by the Secretary of State for Defence, Phillip Hammond, on the evolution of UK defence got a large amount of media attention this week. The entire transcript of the speech can be found over at the Think Defence website (Link here).  The speech was noteworthy for starting to expose the thinking underpinning the structural changes in the armed forces at present. As has been seen, the procurement budget has now been balanced, and the PR12 exercise completed. Theoretically the MOD procurement budget is now properly sorted and able to deliver everything still left in it. The next herculean task is to try to solve the problem of downsizing the military to meet the requirements of the future.

SDSR Vision
Although widely seen by many as a cuts exercise, one thing SDSR did well was to try to extract the UK from the long term defence ambition of building large armed forces optimised for entry on to foreign territory with a view to staying for a prolonged time. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be that politicans like short term glorious victories (or heroic withdrawals), but dislike the association with, and bills for, long term ground holding.

The clear result of SDSR was a move towards a military capable of ‘Strategic Raiding’, essentially pitching up to conduct very focused operations, but not staying long enough to become stuck in a long term conflict. This has seen investment and support for equipment such as CVF, and other means of power projection, and a move away from the heavy equipment required for high intensity war fighting. For instance, the Army is seeing a reduction in the availability of Challenger 2 tanks, and AS90 Artillery pieces. They are seen as too heavy, too much of a logistics tail and simply too difficult to move quickly to be part of the vision of Strategic Raiding.

One of the most controversial decisions of the SDSR was the decision to cut Army manpower to an eventual 82,000 (originally it was higher than this, but revised downwards at a later point). A 20% cut in the Army is going to mean significant structural changes, losses of units, and wholesale reduction in capabilities. The future UK Army will reportedly comprise a total force of some 120,000 personnel, consisting of both regular and volunteer reserve personnel. There will reportedly be an increase in reliance on reservists, allied nations, and also contractors to deliver some support in future.

Contracting Out Defence?
The vision of relying on contractors has caused significant comment. There is naturally an unhappiness at the perception of a military reliant on external private companies to deliver their integrated support in order to achieve a mission. There is, as always, a desire to try to keep this sort of skill in house if possible.

The author profoundly disagrees with the view that contractors cannot be expected to support Defence. The use of contractors during operations has been going on for many years. Anyone who has been to Basra, Baghdad, Kandahar or Kabul will find themselves walking by thousands of civilian contractors, all of whom play key roles in supporting operations. This isn’t just for the UK, the US is even more heavily reliant on the private sector to keep their military in the field.

In Basra, catering and life support services were delivered by a private company, and today in Afghanistan much of the general logistical support and food is delivered to ISAF through a long support chain stretching back to the Indian Ocean. In Iraq, the US military relied heavily on private contractors to carry out immensely sensitive tasks, such as intelligence assessment or working in key operational areas. Indeed, one could almost sense that the uniformed military were just one enabler within a much bigger set up of State and non-State assets used to conduct military operations.

From the outset then, the idea that the military will somehow be at risk due to the use of contractors is foolish. They are already used by the British military across the globe for a vast range of services, ranging from the provision of Chandlery and ship hotel support for RN vessels overseas, through to provision of IT services in HQs.

It makes a lot of sense to try to outsource much of this capability. Investing in the life support systems required to operate overseas is expensive, and draws funding away from the equipment budgets. Even the most basic item like food requires complex logistical support to get into place. The link attached shows the food storage facility used by the ISAF caterers to put food into Afghanistan – this alone requires 22 flights per week. If this wasn’t run by contractors, then how many military assets would be used to deliver this? (LINK HERE). The other article link shows that the Supreme Group has received $8 billion in contracts in the last 6 years from the US Govt alone to feed its troops. Even then, when things go wrong it can cause political scandal – (LINK HERE)

Supreme Catering Capabilities
When in service the capability has to be maintained, supported and upgraded. It requires troops to look after it and run it. Any piece of expeditionary capability such as catering, IT or support will come with a large footprint of military personnel needed to sustain it for the long haul. More significantly, if it is run by the military, then the troops assigned to support it count against the headcount ceiling for the operation. It is probably fair to say that if all the contractors assigned to support UK forces in Afghanistan were in uniform, then the UK would either have to significantly uplift its commitment to ISAF (with the ensuing challenges of sustaining this), or reduce its ‘boots on the ground’ to find room to accommodate the numbers.
The author strongly believes that there are some areas where you need uniformed personnel – for instance expeditionary logistics to support a FOB. The vision of Strategic Raiding is highly appealing, a short term commitment shouldn’t need to draw heavily on the logistics chain, which in turn reduces the need for boots on the ground, and the wider UK footprint. This in turn means a reduced reliance on the heavy logistical and other support elements that exist now – why keep something unlikely to be able to be deployed in time, as by the time it arrives, the Op will be over?

Instead, it feels as if the vision for using contractors in future is almost saying ‘we do not intend to embroil ourselves in the sort of commitment where we’ll need them in large numbers again’. It feels as if people are trying to communicate a vision that contractors will be needed for the long term support to bases, and HQs and other military assets that only happen on major long term operations. By its very nature, Force 2020 is supposed to be leading us away from this future, so one could make the case that contractors will become (hopefully) more rare as time goes on.

The challenge for the military will be how to build a comfortable relationship with commercial suppliers. The military will not need contractors on daily basis when not committed to operations, but will need call on them, often at short notice. They will need to avoid being overly reliant on a single point of failure (e.g. one company going bust at no notice, leaving them without a key enabler). They also need to ensure that Defence gets best value for money from its relationships. Industry is in business to make money – it would be fair to say that the Military and Civil Service are not overly profit minded, nor commercially minded. Ensuring that the MOD isn’t taken for a ride, and that industry isn’t able to tap into this as a new goldmine will be interesting.

 Wider Burden Sharing
One interesting theme was the emphasis on Alliances and burden sharing. The suggestion that the UK will look to other nations for increased support is an interesting means of moving forward the debate on collective defence. Would smaller nations be willing to become leading experts in a particular type of defence capability (e.g. provision of CBRN capability, or a logistics network), if they felt they could offload responsibility for other aspects of their defence? It is unlikely that anything substantial would change in the next few years, but as time passes and more European countries try to grapple with the cost of Defence, the idea that provision of a small element of logistical support could in turn gain access to wider UK support may be seen as a good thing.
 The critical message being sent out on the burden sharing though is that if the UK, arguably one of the world’s leading military powers cannot in future support sustained unilateral operations without burden sharing, then what hope do other smaller countries have? While many NATO countries have ostensibly tried to evolve their military to tackle power projection, the ever increasing costs means that most probably can’t afford to go it alone for much longer.

Will the Mexeflote be one day provided by Allies or Contractors?
Where does this leave the UK?

The emphasis being placed by the UK on the fact that in future it will be looking for partners and commercial support to conduct long term operations shows several things.

Firstly, a clear marker has been laid down that the UK is not going to be keen to get back into the business of sustained land operations. In future, it is now clear that the UK will be expecting to see support from a range of partners to operate overseas on a long term basis.

Secondly, the nature of involvement in conflict is changing. Short term, ‘little wars’ or limited interventions will continue to be the preserve of the State. The UK will retain the ability to influence short term events as a purely military concern. But in future success in a sustained military operation will be heavily reliant on the State, on Industry and on Allies. If industry, and by extension the civil population who work for it, are unwilling or unable to provide a capability, then the State will be unable to secure success in an operation. Arguably the military will become the ‘kinetic service providers’ for operations.

Finally the reliance on industry to provide ever greater levels of support will mean the need for a clear strategy to ensure that businesses deemed critical to the national interest are not able to fail, be bought out or become a monopoly without ensuring other suppliers are available. This could require a far more hands on approach to industry than has previously been seen by the MOD and UKTI. Is the time, effort and cost required in ensuring industry can deliver cheaper than maintaining an equivalent military capability?

Monday, 4 June 2012

Defence IQ Blogging Awards

The Think Defence website has been carrying a piece on nominations for the Defence IQ Military Blog 2012 awards. The article can be found at (text is also below).
Humphrey would strongly encourage all readers to nominate any blog that they feel warrants recognition. There is a plethora of excellent blogs and military matters sites on the internet, and it is a great idea to generate recognition for them. The author would personally support both the Think Defence website, and also the excellent Canadian 3Ds blog ( where Mark Collins does a superb job of summing up Canadian defence developments.
Nominations close on Wed 6 Jun, so move fast!

Link from

I wanted to get in touch to let you know about the Defence IQ Blogging Awards which aims to recognise and reward the industry’s top bloggers and the efforts they go to in order to keep us all informed.
Nominations are now open and I wanted to let you know personally that we are welcoming nominations from across the defence industry. There are six categories in which to enter your chosen blog in to:
  • Information Operations
  • Cyber (Security, Warfare, Strategy)
  • Counter Terrorism
  • Maritime Security
  • Regional Defence
  • Defence Industry
So if you write or read a blog, which you believe deserves special recognition – get in touch now! For more information, visit the website or let me know if you have any questions.
To enter a blog, provide the URL, a short description of why the blog is great and what category you want to nominate it in to and email it to or let us know on Twitter @DefenceIQ.
You can enter as many blogs as you read or write but hurry – nominations close at 14:00 GMT on Wednesday 6th June 2012.
The winners will be chosen by the Defence IQ panel and announced on Thursday 14th June 2012.

A Diamond Day for the Royal Navy

Humphrey was lucky enough to get excellent ringside seats for the Thames River Pageant on Sunday, and was incredibly proud to watch as the flotilla passed by. This was a day to be proud to be British, and one in which the Royal Navy should be very proud of the role that it played.

There has been some minor comments over the role played by the Royal Navy, and why there was no Fleet Review during the jubilee period. Also, there were some ill-informed comments as to why no RN frigates were on the river.
There are several points that need to be made about this event. Firstly, Buckingham Palace made very clear that they only wanted one official function this year, and this was the Jubilee Muster which occurred at Windsor. Anything else was seen as a non MOD function. The Windsor Castle muster was an excellent opportunity to show off the military in one glorious afternoon. A fleet review, in this author’s opinion would have added relatively little.

The Windsor Castle Muster
While it may sound like heresy, this author is not a huge fan of fleet reviews. On paper they look good, with lines of warships lining up in the Solent, and crowds watch as a reviewing vessel passes. The problem is that nowadays there aren’t that many warships in either the RN, or more broadly global navies, to make this a particularly visible spectacle. If you consider that most nations that would participate have reduced their navies since the 2004 Trafalgar review, and that those ships still left in service are operationally committed, one would be left with the image of a denuded review.

Personally, this author would worry that a fleet review sends the wrong message. It implies that the RN has too many ships and people, as clearly it can spare plenty to sit off Spithead and line up. While impressive, fleet reviews could give the impression that the RN is over resourced. Alternatively, it could mean the RN (and other navies) being required to gap operational tasks in order to line up and parade – frankly, no matter how important the relationship with the Sovereign, it is more important to keep deployments to support national security.

Finally, the problem with fleet reviews is that they aren’t really that interesting to people watching them. If people are keen warship fans then they’ll know what the vessels are, but to most people, all they will see is a long line of grey hulls sitting in the water. This is not a good chance to put across messages about the role of the Naval Service as the sort of people watching probably already know some of it. If the weather is poor, even fewer people are likely to watch – remember the 1993 Battle of the Atlantic review, conducted in atrocious weather, which meant hardly anyone saw what was going on from shore. What is really achieved by a review except making naval buffs feel ever more depressed?
Why no Frigates?
There are several issues to consider when looking at the Thames Pageant, and wondering why no RN frigates or above were present. From the outset, it is essential to remember that this was not a State occasion. This was a private event, to which the organisers were gracious enough to allow the RN to participate. As such, the RN had to meet the requirements of the organisers, and not the other way around.

The key issue on the Thames is that of ship size. The largest vessel in the RN that can go beyond Tower Bridge is a Type 23. For those that haven’t seen a T23 alongside HMS Belfast, it is essential to realise that both ships are similar dimensions in terms of length, height and breadth. Had you rafted a Type 23 alongside HMS Belfast, then you would have had the equivalent of an M25 pileup on a particularly congested piece of water as five lanes of traffic went to one, and over 1000 boats had to steer into a narrow piece of water.
Sea Cadets by HMS BELFAST

Between Greenwich and before HMS PRESIDENT, there are no moorings where you could put a Type 23 on a river anchorage and still allow the flotilla to safely disperse. HMS HURWORTH was the largest type of vessel that could safely occupy the berth in question. It was simply not possible to put a Frigate anywhere on the river between Greenwich and Tower Bridge without disrupting the pageant and compromising safety.
There is a berth at Greenwich, where vessels up to Carrier size can go to. The problem is that this is a private event, and that berth was taken some years ago. As nice as it would have been to have put HMS DIAMOND onto the berth, this simply wasn’t possible. Remember, this is a private event and not a state event. The RN cannot demand that people who have paid for a particular berth be kicked off for the sake of a pretty picture. There were no berths anywhere on the pageant route that the RN could have put a platform on to without moving people who had paid a lot of money to be there. The closest you could have put a large warship onto is the Excel centre, out of sight and out of mind.

The RN presence was entirely appropriate based on what could operate on the river. The ORC / PB escort came about because they are the only type of boats able to get from the start line to the finish line continuously. The P2000s participating couldn’t get up to beyond Westminster Bridge as they were too tall.

The wider RN involvement was not insignificant either. From the Royal Marine buglers, to the cancelled flypast (for which no doubt the Phoenix Think Tank is already blaming the RAF), and the involvement of an excellent RNR honour guard at HMS PRESIDENT. This was a very substantial commitment to the event from the RN, the RNR, the RM and the wider Youth Movement. A lot of people put in a huge amount of work to support the day, and they should be very proud of what they did.

I see no safety case…
There has been some adverse comments about people on the river, including former Royal Yacht personnel being required to wear lifejackets. While some will see this as H&S gone mad, there was actually a very good reason for this.

The key issue with the pageant was the challenge of moving 1000 boats downstream in a very congested waterspace. As was put to the author, if one person had fallen in without wearing a lifejacket, then it is likely that ‘Man Overboard drills would begin’. The recovery operation would immediately cause disruption as vessels desperately manoeuvred out of the way, and could easily have caused a pile up, similar to that on a motorway crash. There was a very real danger that if someone had gone in, then several lives could have been lost through unavoidable collisions. By putting lifejackets on almost all participants, this would have bought enough time for the RNLI to pick them up without putting the same level of risk in place.
This author is by no means a health and safety fanatic, but on this occasion he feels the correct decision was made to insist on lifejackets – seasoned mariners may not have needed them, but it would, in the worst instance, have probably helped saved lives.

The Commonwealth Link
Its worth remembering that three of the ORCs escorting the ‘Spirit of Chartwell’ came from crews of the RAN, RCN and RNZN. This was a very deliberate decision, taken to recognise the fact that they are also ‘Royal’ navies. Although a small gesture, this author believes it was incredibly powerful as a symbol of the very close relationship between the UK and Commonwealth (most participants came from Exercise Long Look). It also demonstrated that Her Majesty is also the Queen of many other realms beyond the UK. This was an excellent move, and one the author wholeheartedly supports.

The Royal Escort
The Youth of Today
One of the most powerful images of the day came from the Sea Cadet Corps, who sailed many small boats downriver, each bearing a different flag of a commonwealth nation. At a time when it is fashionable to decry the youth of today, it was wonderful to see a large group of committed and keen teenagers proudly taking part. The crew of the P2000 escort were also drawn from students too who are members of the University Royal Naval Units (URNU). The same went for the Sea Scouts and the myriad of other youth organisations represented on the river.

 Myriad of Maritime Agencies
One observation is that there were plenty of grey hulled craft on the river, although few of them were RN. This perhaps demonstrates the hugely complex maritime tapestry that exists in the UK, with many different agencies, organisations and departments all maintaining vessels required to do ‘offshore protection’. While the subject of another article, perhaps the time has come to ask whether the UK could be much more efficient at resourcing its offshore protection roles, as it felt as if there were more agencies than hulls involved in it at present.

Woeful media coverage
While many others have commented on the appalling coverage by the BBC, this author feels he learned a lot. He didn’t know that HMS BELFAST weighed 91,000 tonnes, and he certainly didn’t know Nelson had been at Waterloo. He does know that if this is the standard of research at the BBC, then perhaps it’s time to look again at the licence fee and whether it is justified!
A gleaming day
This was an excellent day for the UK, and one that will be long remembered by all who saw it. Personally, despite grumbles from some, this author believes that the UK should be very proud of the contribution made by the Naval Service to supporting this very successful event.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Repositioning the Legions - the USN in 2020

It has been announced by US Secretary of Defence, that by 2020 60% of the USN will be based in the Asia Pacific theatre. This is a significant shift in posture, and reflects the wider changes occurring to the US military as it orientates itself away from a global posture, and into a more Asian century.

Lets consider for a moment what this means – the reality is that by 2020, 60% of the USN, including ‘a majority of’ surface combatants, submarines, and no less than six carrier groups will be based in the Pacific fleet. This is a very substantial shift in resourcing, and reflects this authors long standing view that the US is experiencing its ‘East of Suez’ decade, where increasingly difficult choices have to be made about where resources are applied.
The new 'nation of concern' at sea. An increasingly common sight

In practical terms, as hull numbers drop ever more steadily, and replacements seem interminably delayed, the USN appears on track for an escort fleet of between 70-80 surface ships by 2020. This will be coupled with a currently 50 strong fleet of SSNs, likely to drop to nearer 35-40 boats. So, in practical terms the US Atlantic Fleet is looking like operating a force of roughly four CVNs, 30 escort vessels, and at best 20 SSNs. This is a very small fleet by comparison to barely 20 years ago, and vividly shows how much smaller the USN is today. The best comparison in terms of size is that the Atlantic Fleet in 2020 is going to be similar in size to the Royal Navy following the 1998 SDR (albeit with more CVN and SSN). This does not even begin to consider the impact of further possible budget cuts, which may well fall over the next few years.

The question is, what does this mean for the USN deployments? The force of 30 escorts is going to potentially have to cover the North & South Atlantic, Med and Caribbean. That’s assuming that Atlantic Fleet won’t provide escorts for the Gulf either.

Take away the escorts operating as part of a Carrier Battle Group (say three – five hulls), and you very quickly run out of small ships to deploy independently around much of the globe. The USN is going to become a much rarer beast in many ports in future. This will have the practical effect of diminishing US ‘soft power’ and influence, and also ensuring that access to training with the USN is more restricted. Much as the reduction in presence of the Royal Navy led to a general decline of the UK Governments ability to influence the development of foreign navies, it is likely that the USN will have a significantly reduced influence across much of the globe too.
The most powerful surface warship on Earth.

A reduced USN is going to struggle to operate and meet alliance commitments in the same way as before. A cursory search of the internet currently shows how the USN regularly operates in multi-national exercises in South America, training and capacity building in Africa, and also regularly works with NATO partners in Europe. Something is going to have to give soon.

Whither NATO?

A key issue is what impact will this have on the ability of the US to exert influence in, and control the development of NATO? As the US re-orientates itself to look East, NATO will almost certainly diminish as an essential Alliance to support. It is hard for NATO to convince the US to stay engaged, when in Europe, nations have been slashing defence expenditure and failing to take a more engaged stance. For too long NATO has been arguably seen by many European nations as a cosy means of letting the US pay their own Defence Mortgage. It is likely that a reduced commitment to NATO is going to come as an unpleasant shock to many NATO nations, although they can hardly argue that they weren’t warned.

Whether NATO survives is a moot point. There is no appetite for increased defence spending in Europe, and arguably the aspirations of the US, to a lesser extent the UK as expeditionary nations, capable of deploying power overseas, does not sit comfortably with some other NATO members. While there is much talk of ‘expeditionary operations’, the lessons of ISAF and other interventions have been that there is little real appetite for much military engagement beyond limited air strikes and the occasional peacekeeping deployment. It is ever harder to see NATO as a military alliance in a meaningful sense. Instead it seems to be a political grouping, which expects a smaller hard-core of states to carry out military operations. The further downsizing of the US military presence in the NATO area will only go further to increasing this sense of it being a primarily political beast.

One nation which may find it particularly interesting is Canada. The RCN will find itself on the Atlantic coast as proportionately a far more significant player than it has been for many years. It will be extremely interesting to see whether Ottawa sees this as an opportunity to invest in both littoral vessels to protect the North American continent, and escorts to contribute to operations. A small investment in the Atlantic elements of the Canadian Navy could see it increase in importance to Washington.

The RCN may find itself with a strategic realignment soon

Alternatively, this presents Canada with the opportunity to shift its resources to the Pacific. The RCN is in the position of being able to consider whether it wishes to assume a far more dominant role in the Atlantic, where a fleet nearly the same size as the RN is now could fill USN gaps. Alternatively this could be the chance for Canada to embrace its Pacific destiny, and instead focus defence resources on a far more Pacific orientated outlook, with the majority of RCN vessels based in the region to support the USN. Whatever decision is taken, this author believes the Canadian navy faces a genuinely exciting opportunity that may benefit it for years to come.

A less special relationship?

A key challenge for the UK will be managing the future RN / USN relationship. At present this is built around several core strands. Namely, the shared operation of similar SSBN capabilities, the SSN fleets, a shared naval aviation heritage and a background of joint participation in aggressive, war fighting operations.

By 2020 the RN will have hopefully completed its transformation into the so-called ‘Force 2020’ structure, originally outlined in the 2010 SDSR. The result will be a fleet once again operating fixed wing aviation, and which has a range of potent SSNs and a new generation of escort vessel (T26) entering service. The RN will be well placed to continue working with the USN, if the political willpower is there to see it through.

The reduction in US naval presence in the Western Hemisphere raises two equally intriguing prospects for the UK – it can either move to fill the gap, or it can use this as a once in a generation opportunity to realign its strategic interests. The forthcoming SDRs in both 2015 and 2020 will provide the UK with the opportunity to actively consider the level and depth of support to which it wishes to work with the USN.

On the one hand, a diminished USN could be the moment for the UK to step up and more actively seek to invest in maritime capabilities. An overt assumption of the role as the lead western naval power, with the UK seeking to act as peacekeeper, and de facto dominant naval power in Europe could be on the cards. Essentially the RN could, if HMG so wished, be employed as a force to fill the void left by the departing USN. This would help ensure the continuance of good relations with Washington, and revalidate the importance of London as a principal ally.

CVF will be of increased importance to the USN
In an operational environment where there are three, maybe four carriers assigned to the Atlantic fleet, the new RN CVFs will be seen as a very potent asset. The addition of two credible carriers would be a major source of comfort to Washington, in the same way that the presence of seven brand new and very good quality SSNs would. The UK will find that even its own diminished fleet will gain renewed importance in Washington if the will exists to step up and take regional leadership.

Alternatively, it could be that by 2020 the UK government may see an opportunity to reduce procurement costs, and reduce the need to buy high end ‘day one’ capabilities. The reduction in US presence in Europe could see London encouraging the development of a more potent European defence capability, and either reducing its own external presence (on the assumption that coalition operations remain less likely in the area of interest), or conducting operations through a more European focus.

Whatever course is taken, policy makers in London will need to consider carefully how best to work with a nation which no longer sees the same level of strategic interest in the region. The UK presence in South East Asia and the Pacific is minimal, and the funds, willpower and desire to meaningfully re-engage there do not, at present, seem to exist. Therefore the UK will need to set a course which engages the US in other areas – either taking on burdens for them, such as anti-piracy or counter narcotics, or seeking to place the RN in areas where joint operations are more likely.

There is a strong likelihood that with a diminished USN presence, the strong operational ties that link the two navies will diminish, and the RN will need to fight hard to justify its position as a partner of choice. Whereas previously the RN and USN senior leadership have practically grown up working together, the next generation of Admirals in the 2020-2030 timeframe will probably have had little, if any, meaningful professional contact prior to hitting senior ranks. Instead, nations like Australia, and potentially Canada will benefit to a far greater degree from these closer working links. The RN will need to think very carefully about its long term strategic links with the USN to ensure that meaningful relationships continue.


The announcement was hardly a surprise, the shift in US strategic interests to the Asia Pacific region has been going on for some years. But two things are very clear here:

Firstly, the US is going to see a significant drop in its ability to influence events in the Western Hemisphere. The presence of a USN warship will go from being routine, to something that is near generational in regularity. These changes will make it harder for the US to assume strategic leadership in some regions, and opens the door to other nations to build strategic partnerships and alliances.  

Secondly, the UK and Canada both find themselves facing strategic choices. For the UK it is the choice between adopting wider leadership and a possible ramping up of operations further east of Suez, or instead supporting European defence. It is hard to see how on existing budgets the UK will be able to both support US pacific aspirations and also support what is left of NATO. The Canadians face an opportunity to equally look at the orientation of their fleet, and decide between Atlantic importance, or Pacific influence.

Whatever happens, it is clear that a global rebalancing act is going on, and that the USN is never going to be the same again. It is tremendously exciting, but simultaneously terrifying to consider.