Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Long March to Carrier Capability and the new Chinese Aircraft Carrier.

There has been a lot of coverage of the news that the Chinese Navy has recently conducted the first jet trials on their new aircraft carrier (Liaoning), with a total of 5 arrested landings (so-called touch and go) being carried out on trials.

This is clearly an impressive development, and shows that China has now proven itself capable of something that only the Navies of Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, India, Thailand, the UK and US have previously done – namely land a jet at sea.

Does this mean though that the maritime balance of power in Asia has altered, and that the Chinese are suddenly a more potent force? Look at some of the hype on the internet and you’ll see portents of doom, with people declaring that these landings somehow make the Chinese Navy immensely capable and that the USN and RN and all other navies are somehow irrelevant.

A more balanced view is that actually this is a tiny step on a very long road towards generating a proper carrier capability. What we have seen demonstrated thus far is that the Liaoning is capable of conducting carrier trials for aircraft which didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons, and which were probably conducted in very favourable weather conditions. So, its an achievement, but not a declaration of full operational capability.

China has a long road to march down before they can truly call themselves a carrier power. The next steps ahead of them will include working up the vessel to operate aircraft indigenously – in other words embarking an air group and over time getting used to being able to operate, repair and generate aircraft for missions. This is not an easy task, and as the Royal Navy has found, losing the ability to practise working on fixed wing carriers means without support from the USN, the skills fade will rapidly erode the ability to recover this capability with the CVF entry into service. So, China will probably have to spend several years just getting used to operating aircraft at sea, and that’s before you consider the challenges of carrying out a mission.  

To employ the carrier operationally, the Chinese will have to work up to having the ability to generate aircraft, send them on missions such as ground support or fleet air defence, and then recover successfully. This requires a lot of investment and training in a range of areas,  and also the creation of a cadre of qualified pilots. Again, its not impossible to do, but it will take time. Even putting an airgroup to sea does not mean a vessel is actually combat ready – one could make a credible argument that the Admiral Kuznetzov, the Russian aircraft carrier has never actually achieved proper combat readiness (certainly her deployments are so irregular and short, it is hard to see her as a credible operational unit).

One of the challenges facing the RN at the point when CVF enters service will be taking the platform, integrating the airgroup and then turning this into a fully operational asset. This takes time, skills and training, and cannot be achieved through shortcuts. You have to merge in multiple aviation disciplines, including air to ground strikes, air defence, AEW, ASW and so on, and then be able to manage the battle in a manner which means these are used to full advantage. Its not just a case of watching Top Gun, taking off in a jet and then blasting bad guys out the sky. The Chinese Navy has got to achieve all of this if it wants to put a fully operational carrier to sea – and this takes a long time to learn.

Additional to the actual operation of the carrier, China also has to work up a proper battle group, not just in the sense of platforms sailing in close proximity to the carrier, but platforms which are properly integrated and able to collectively fight together. This needs to be supported by a chain of supply ships, capable of not only supporting up close with tanking and replenishment at sea, but also a longer logistics chain able to ensure spare parts can be sent to wherever the carrier will deploy. The Chinese are expanding their navy rapidly, and its going to take a lot of effort to generate the skills and experience required to run a proper carrier battle group. Again, this takes time and effort and a lot of skill to pull off. In the entire world, arguably only the USN can field a proper carrier battle group and its taken them decades of constant practise to get it right.

The Chinese have not only got to adapt to the challenges of integrating hulls into a coherent and operational force, but they have also got to adapt to thinking in a ‘blue water’ manner. Historically China has always been a ‘brown water navy’ operating in the littoral environment, and rarely at sea for more than a day or two. The notion of long deployments far from home, outside of a couple of training ships, has never really happened. The Chinese Navy has invested heavily in laundry equipment in recent years (e.g washing machines) to fit to their  vessels -  a small thing, but something that says a lot. A truly seagoing navy, which has a bluewater mentality regards the ability to keep crews functional at sea as an inherent part of a ships design. The Chinese have regarded their navy as far more coastal in nature, not requiring the same level of personnel support or comfort. The gradual move by China into deploying their Navy on a more frequent basis, and further away from home, is starting to shift this mentality, but it takes time to bring about change.

It is all very well having visions of Chinese aircraft carriers operating in the Atlantic Ocean, deploying airpower, but this is in fact at variance with established pattern of Chinese naval operations. It is hard to see, at least for the next 10-15 years, any major deployment by the Chinese Navy outside of its traditional area of operations, which will feature carriers deployed in a manner that the Western navies would recognise.  Instead it is likely that we will see smaller deployments, possibly the odd training deployment of a carrier, but a series of smaller ‘baby steps’ as the Chinese Navy seeks to gain not only practical operational experience, but also changes its mentality into a more blue water focused force.

Realistically we are looking at a much longer period of time before the Chinese Navy becomes a credible carrier power, and even then it is unlikely to become a power in the same way as the West would recognise it. The true mark of a ‘proper’ aircraft carrier operating nation is probably the ability to sustain a deployment of airpower, at distance from the homeland, working as part of an integrated battlegroup, able to deploy the full range of air operations on a 24/7 basis, and be relieved on a sustainable basis by a similar capability.

It is unlikely that any nation other than the US could do this for the next 10 years. It is hard to see China being able to simultaneously grow the equipment, skills, training and mindset needed to be a full time carrier power for at least 20-30 years. It may not even happen at all, particularly if Chinese doctrine only sees the carrier as being a platform for use in local waters.

So, the best conclusion to draw about this news is that China has started down the path to operating a carrier, but that it will be many years before it acquires a proper carrier capability, and even longer before this poses a credible threat to other first rate navies.

Friday, 23 November 2012

In a crisis, just where are the carriers? The worrying level of USN carrier availability...

News broke recently that the USS NIMITZ, one of 11 USN super carriers, has had her deployment to the Persian Gulf delayed by several months due to engineering problems. This delay will reduce the availability of carriers in the Gulf to just one active vessel for much of 2013.

This news, while in itself not exactly unexpected – after all NIMITZ is nearly forty years old now, and it is inevitable that vessels that age develop machinery challenges – does perhaps illustrate a wider concern about just how thinly stretched the USN is now, and how this is likely to get more challenging.

On paper from next week the USN will operate 10 aircraft carriers, all NIMITZ class, after the USS ENTERPRISE is decommissioned. In reality those 10 vessels are going to be thinly stretched across the globe. Right now, of the 10 hulls, Nimitz is undergoing repairs, three are forward deployed (two are in the Gulf, one is in Japan) and another is available for tasking in the US. One (Abraham Lincoln) is available, but is about to enter deep refit for refuelling, while two more are in deep refit or being refuelled, with a further two in minor refit. As of today, the US Navy has just three operational deployed aircraft carriers at sea, with a fourth available in the US if required, and this is unlikely to change before summer 2013. (A good source of information can be found here -

The worry is that these sorts of availability problems will continue to grow as the class gets older. Make no mistake, these are some of the most complex and capable warships on the planet, but they are also getting old. Three of the hulls have now been commissioned for over thirty years, and another two for over twenty years. Although designed for an optimised 50 year lifespan, it is likely that as they age, maintenance is going to be increasingly difficult and availability will suffer.

Although a replacement class is now under construction, only one has been ordered so far, and the deep budget cuts likely to hit the DOD over the next few years means that it is by no means certain that further orders can be guaranteed in time to generate replacement hulls on time. This is a grim situation and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.  

Nimitz Class at sea

While the USN currently remains the most capable navy in the world, it is facing an increasingly challenging future, with a wave of issues likely to cause it difficulty over the next twenty years or so.

The first issue is that of budgets and manpower. The full impact of the likely budget cuts to the US military are yet to become clear, but deep cuts to procurement, force levels, manpower and maintenance budgets are almost inevitable. At the same time though, there is a growing ‘bow wave’ of new construction required which has yet to appear in service, or even the builders yards.

Despite many years, and millions of dollars expenditure, the USN has not yet introduced a wholly new ship class since the DDG51s entered service back in the late 1980s. Although a couple of small ‘Littoral Combat Ships’ have entered service, the programme is delayed and it feels as if it is unlikely to ever yield large scale unit production. The USN surface fleet is getting a lot older though, with the Ticonderoga Cruisers, the older Arleigh Burkes and the residual Oliver Hazard Perry frigates all getting into their late teens through to late twenties. These ships have been worked hard for years, and yet no replacement is currently in site and likely to enter service within the next 5-6 years. The US escort fleet is increasingly reliant on the DDG51, which looks like it will remain in serial production for at least another twenty years. Of the replacement frigates and cruiser programmes, no signs of real progress seem to be occurring. While this situation drags on, funding is going to be needed soon for the next pair of CVNs to ensure serial production of the Ford class continues. So, the USN has a major problem in managing an ever more elderly fleet with ever fewer ships likely to be active. As spares budgets are cut, it will become harder to keep vessels at sea, while procurement of replacements seems ever more delayed.

Arguably, the USN is finding itself now in the position that the RN has found itself in since the end of the Cold War. The priority is to allocate funding and resources to high end capabilities like carriers, amphibious shipping and submarine construction – not only to replace older vessels, but also secure a drumbeat of construction to prevent yards closing and skills from being lost. This priority comes at a price, which is fewer resources to support the surface fleet, and ever fewer orders for escort ships. The situation todays USN is in is arguably no different to the Royal Navy, and perhaps shows that in both navies, the priority is to put resources in the complex capabilities and not the escort ships – no matter what impact that may have.

An additional challenge facing the USN is manpower – Carriers are hugely manpower intensive, with their crews alone totalling over 3000 personnel for the hulls without even considering the airwing. Even allowing for refits, it’s fair to say that the best part of 30,000 personnel are assigned just to operate CVNs in the USN, and that’s before you count the airwing crews. In other words, the USN has more personnel working on carriers, than the entire Royal Navy has manpower.

As budgets are cut, the inevitable temptation is to try to reduce headcounts in order to reduce salary and other associated costs. It’s much easier to reduce headcounts than equipment as the savings are significantly greater over the long haul. At present, the crews for the carriers account for some 10% of the USN manpower bill, but in reality with airwings as well, the figure is edging closer to 15-20%.

In a much smaller USN, the carriers are going to occupy a disproportionate level of manpower, which will cause challenges for recruiting and training. If the headcount is reduced, but carriers remain the same, then the emphasis on recruiting and training skilled personnel will be ever more focused on recruiting to fill the carrier force. This means a need to make significant savings elsewhere, and reduces the availability of personnel to man existing ships. In other words, a 10 carrier USN in a smaller sized navy is going to have significant structural challenges for the remainder of the navy.

The Royal Navy is experiencing similar issues – of the 30,000 people in the RN, by the time you discount the Marines, Fleet Air Arm, Submarine Service and so on, there are actually relatively few ‘sailors’. The USN is going to have the same challenge – discount the submarine service, naval aviation and so on, and it quickly starts to run out of sailors. Make no mistake; the USN of the future is going to struggle to keep 10 carriers at sea without making major cuts elsewhere.

An increasingly rare sight - a pair of Nimitz class operating together

What does this all mean?

At its most simple, the reality is that for all the good that carriers do, the USA as a nation is going to have to probably invest more time and effort than ever before in securing airbases and access. A 10 carrier navy, getting ever more elderly, is going to be unable to operate across much of the world – while a CVN can provide some capability, the days of a carrier permanently steaming in the Med, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere have probably gone forever. To be certain of delivery of airpower, the US will need to have access to landbases – and this comes at a significant political price.

The likelihood is that over the next 5-10 years, the sight of a US Navy carrier operating in Europe will be minimal, and that outside of the deployment to the Gulf and Japan, the USN is going to be deploying its vessels into theatres where they don’t have organic airpower, AEW or the benefit of air cover. In other words, the USN is going to be working with ever more elderly ships, where they won’t be operating under the traditionally assumed umbrella of protection from a friendly nearby carrier, and they will be increasingly vulnerable unless land based airpower is nearby. This of course does not consider the role of the LPH in all this, as it is not yet clear what roles LPHs will play and if rumours in the press are to be believed, it is still not completely certain they will have a STOVL jet to fly from them.  

The reality is that the USN now is probably in the same place as the RN found itself in the mid-1960s – mid 1970s. Reduced budgets, elderly vessels still in service, while the new designs (T42s, 22s) were taking longer than planned to come into service, and yet operationally committed across the globe.

The ability of the USN to operate with impunity across the globe, steaming where it wanted on its terms, and able to stand its ground against almost any aggressor has gone forever. Todays’ USN remains a fiercely capable and strong navy, but its ability to exert unlimited and unchallenged control of the high seas has gone, probably forever. Instead it would be more realistic to judge that the future USN will provide a capability to deploy power into some areas, but only at the cost of reducing capability and influence in others.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Chronicling the unthinkable. The history of the Central Government War Headquarters (BURLINGTON).

It’s been a busy few days for the author, and time to sit, think and then write has been in short supply. One of the challenges of writing a blog is to be able to have the space to think through the issue, and identify one’s own views on a subject prior to writing about it. Although the author hasn’t had much of a chance to do this recently, it perhaps is a useful way of highlighting a new website which warrants much wider attention.

During the Cold War the Civil Service found itself being asked to ‘think the unthinkable’ and provide advice to Ministers and consider planning for the continuity of the State during the transition to war, through to the point where nuclear weapons were released, and then finally how to pick up the pieces again in the aftermath of the conflict.

This is perhaps the most serious and difficult task asked of any civil servant – how does one consider the acts which may well lead to the deaths of millions, and then consider how to continue Government and rebuild in the aftermath? If anything, this is perhaps the one time when someone really does need the space to stop and think about an issue.

For decades much of this planning remained Top Secret, and it was only really with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act back in 2004 that many files, often unseen for years, were released slowly into the public domain. These files tell the story of how the UK Govt planned to continue providing some form of government, even after a nuclear strike.

The full story of the post war planning has been covered in the superb book ‘The Secret State’ by Peter Henessey. This account looks at how the UK planners considered many issues linked to the fighting of a nuclear war, including the niceties of nuclear command and control. One site which is discussed at length is the so-called ‘Central Government Headquarters’ at Corsham in Wiltshire, often known as the ‘BURLINGTON’ bunker.

This site, built on a disused WW2 underground aircraft factory was converted at significant cost in the 1950s to provide a central HQ for UK Government, and at its peak had over 4000 bunk spaces and a vast area of offices, communications centres and life support. It really would have been the home for Whitehall in the event of war, right up until the mid-1960s when alternate plans were developed.

Corsham is a fascinating site, and one that remained Top Secret until late 2003, when it was finally declassified ahead of the FOI Act. Since its declassification, the author has been lucky enough to visit the site for tours on several occasions, and to see where the most difficult decisions a UK leader would ever face could have been taken. It is a chilling site, with an air of malevolence hanging around it, as its labyrinth corridors and rooms sit decaying, awaiting a mission that never came.

The reason why Corsham matters to the author is because it highlights one of the difficulties in trying to deliver effective defence policy. How can one plan the unplannable and put into place arrangements that can never be tested, trialled or worked through, and on the day of implementation be put into place against the greatest disaster ever likely to befall humanity? More parochially, it shows the difficulties in planning, by showing that when construction on the site began, it would have delivered an immensely capable HQ, but it was obsolete within two years, due primarily to unforeseen weapon developments.

This is perhaps a good way of realising why many projects seem to perhaps be less efficient than perhaps the public would hope – people have to work with concepts that may be difficult to plan for, and provide equipment against assumptions which are difficult to test. When the international environment changes, one has to try and work out how to incorporate a previously vital, but now immediately obsolescent, capability into a new role at short notice. The story of Corsham beautifully illustrates these points, in a particularly serious way.

The reason why this all matters is because an outstanding new website has been set up to chronicle the history of Corsham. Steve Fox, a historian possessed with considerable reserves of stamina and a willingness to keep hammering away at FOI requests has spent years compiling probably the first history of the site and its role. He played an immense role in working through hundreds of files of correspondence, often spotting tiny details hidden in a morass of trivia, which in turn has helped build a picture of how the site would have worked.

Humphrey has a long standing interest in Cold War era continuity of government planning, and has been fortunate enough to correspond with Steve over the years on Corsham and other matters. The work that he’s has done has been superb, and it represents probably the only history of the Corsham facility that will ever be published.

The work is testament to the power of the FOI Act, and an excellent demonstration of the level of planning and commitment by the Civil Service to seriously trying to govern Britain in the aftermath of the unthinkable, quite literally down to the provision of tea leaves. The link is below, and the site is now permanently linked on the right of this page. Steve has done an incredible piece of work, and deserves huge plaudits for his efforts in putting this all together. Humphrey strongly recommends that those of you with an interest in all things Cold War, bunkers and contingency planning, pay a trip to the following link:

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A most interesting interjection indeed...


The main defence story of the day is the reported comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir David Richards, who reportedly delivered a frank assessment on the challenges facing the military at Oxford University, which according to some internet sources was part of the ‘Changing Nature of War’ module. What has seemingly caused media attention are three issues, although sadly Humphrey has yet to track down a full transcript of what the General actually said.

Firstly, there has been some attention raised on the suggestion that CDS has had to advise politicians that defence cuts mean they have to reign in their ambition. Frankly this seems to be a non-story. The role of all CDS, or equivalents in history, is surely to provide impartial advice to politicians about the ability of the military to deliver effect. It is almost inevitable that every CDS (or their service forebears prior to the 1960s) in recent history will have had to have had some equivalent conversation with the politicians of the day. To be honest, the author would be more worried if a serving CDS did not feel able to tell a politician about the limits of what the armed forces could do. Over his holiday, Humphrey was reading about the British Army in WW1, and was struck then by the strength of the debate between serving officers and Ministers over manpower provision and the conduct of the war. The notion of military personnel issuing advice to Ministers and MPs, which is perhaps not always what they would wish to hear, is not new, and not news.

The next issue is on the old bug bear of senior officer numbers. The media have waned hot and cold over this issue, often seemingly seeing it as a convenient way of coming up with a bad news story – either ‘isn’t it terrible that the UK has so many senior officers’, or ‘isn’t it is terrible that the UK has so few senior officers’ and both stories note the damage done to the UKs standing by defence cuts in general.

CDS appears to have noted that he is being tasked to reduce senior officer numbers as part of defence cuts, but that reductions in senior officers come at a price of influence. This is again not exactly news, but a reiteration of the simple fact that fewer seniors out there will reduce the ability of the UK to exert influence in various areas. Interestingly the spin seems to have been that too few officers is currently a bad thing (at least until the next ‘too many senior officers is a bad thing article is published).

The final statement, and one that to the authors mind is perhaps most interesting, was the observation that there may not be enough RN warships currently in service. CDS noted the RN was being forced to meet its standing commitments with high tech vessels, often where the threat was actually generated from very low tech capabilities.

The media seem to have interpreted this as an argument that the RN has too few ships, although it could be argued that there is another interpretation altogether – namely that this was a floating of a possible debate ahead of the next SDSR (likely to be held in 2015) about the wider structure and capability of the RN.

As most readers know, the RN has for decades chosen to focus its resources on a smaller number of high technology vessels able to fight in any challenging scenario, rather than a large fleet of less capable vessels with a small high end contingent.

By advancing the view that the RN has possibly had to allocate the wrong vessels to the job, one could see a subtle line of argument against the structure of the RN surface force being advanced. Namely, the tasks that the RN is asked to carry out do not require a fleet of 19 high end escorts, but do require a larger fleet of less capable escorts. As has been noted here, the RN does not have the ability to suddenly order extra ships and man them. A change in the force structure of the 2015 SDSR would take 5-10 years to implement at the very least, which means that debates now are about the RN of the 2020-30 timeframe, and what we may ask of it.

The argument is fascinating because it shows the view that in the next SDSR, the RN may be forced to justify why it requires fewer high tech ships over a larger fleet. In 2015 the RN will enter the SDSR with a carrier programme well underway, and the Type 26 programme beginning to enter construction. If one looks at the programme beyond 2015, on current plans, the T26 will be in serial production for nearly 20 years, while at some point in the 2020s a follow on class of vessel to cover the ‘odds and sods’ replacement for MCMV, patrol and hydrographics etc is likely to emerge. At a time when resources will continue to be challenging, and when the UK will probably be looking to focus on a more ‘strategic raiding’ vision (at least if the views of the 2010 SDSR hold firm), then the RN is likely to require a lot of extra funding proportionate to the Army in order to deliver CVF, T26, next generation patrol ships/MCMV and more importantly SSBN(F) in the 2015-2030 timeframe.

By questioning whether the RN really needs high end ships to do piracy now, one could see an proposition emerging that actually the UK needs less frigates like T26, and more light vessels such as the so-called ‘black swan’ concept often discussed on the Internet. The result could be that an argument could be constructed to justify more funding for the smaller ships, and less funding for T26 and the high end navy. This would of course free up funding for other projects, such as the various Army procurement projects in the same time frame.  

This is entirely supposition of course, drawn on little more than a scan of relevant Internet sites. However, CDS comments were fascinating as they perhaps lift the curtain slightly on the sort of thinking that may have to be addressed in the next SDSR, and which perhaps show how the services are drawing up their arguments. It is only 2 ½ years till the next SDSR is likely to come, and we may well see further such debates in this time. The author suspects equally robust cases will be made for sea power and a high tech navy, for tanks and armour, and for precision guided air-launched missiles and for airpower as a whole. These speeches will give interesting insight into how the debate is developing across a range of fields, and it will be most interesting to listen to them.

So, what has been portrayed as a ‘brave’ speech by CDS is perhaps something more – a chance to confirm that he does the job as one would hope all CDS’s have done it, and that in doing so, we have perhaps glimpsed how thinking is driving the evolution of the debates which could possibly occur at a future review. A most fascinating speech indeed…

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The United Kingdom is still a Warrior Nation.

In a deliberately provocative article on Sat 10 November ( , Sir Max Hastings used a column in the Telegraph to argue that the UK is no longer a warrior nation. The gist of his argument was that defence cuts will lead to an unwillingness by political leaders to use force in future, and that our glories belong to the past, and not the future.

The author strongly disagrees with this very fatuous statement. At its most simple, the UK is a warrior nation. For centuries the ability to willingly inflict violence upon others who threaten our existence and way of life has been a hallmark of the UK national character. The means by which we have done this have changed out of all recognition; allegations that the military is now smaller than the end of the Napoleonic wars can easily be countered by the realisation  that the modern military is infinitely more capable than a Napoleonic era force.

Suggestions that we no longer have the ability to deploy in meaningful numbers are also way off the mark. One of the defining characteristics of the UK as a modern global power is precisely this ability to deploy. We have inherited, more through luck perhaps than judgement, a legacy of real estate, runways and ports which easily facilitate the movement of troops. As a nation we long ago made the decision that quality and not quantity mattered, and invested heavily in logistics, transport and the other enabling capabilities that allow the UK to go where it wants, when it wants.

For all the moaning in the Telegraph about how dreadful it is that the UK can ‘only’ deploy 8-10,000 troops on sustained operations, one should ask in return, how many other countries can do just this? The UK is one of a handful of countries able to operate this many troops, and sustain, resupply and replace them, at long distances. The only others are the US, possibly France and to a limited degree Germany. Humphrey grows increasingly tired of the same old mantras printed in the press about how ‘we couldn’t do this again’. You know what, we may not be able to send 30 or 40 escorts to the South Atlantic, or permanently station four armoured divisions in Germany, but in todays world, that doesn’t actually matter. Let’s focus on what we can do, and what can do now and have been doing for a decade.

Let’s look back since 2001, we’ve deployed 46,000 troops to Iraq to fight a high intensity war, and then fought a violent peace for a further four years. At the same time we’ve continuously kept over 10,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting a very violent, very intense conflict. This isn’t the sort of happy consensual peacekeeping that some other nations see as their military comfort zone. No, instead the UK has willingly put its troops into harms way to fight in some of the most challenging areas on earth. We have a generation of new soldiers, sailors and airmen who have fought in some of the most bloody and difficult operations carried out since WW2. A scan of the Operational Honours lists issued every few months shows just how difficult these operations are, and how in terms of courage, leadership and pure raw bravery, todays young military personnel are easily the equal of their illustrious predecessors.

Very few other nations could have sustained our commitment to Afghanistan without breaking their armed forces. The UK has done this, and still sustained a plethora of operations across the world, ranging from defending the Falkland Islands, to keeping peace in Cyprus. There has been major maritime work going on in the Gulf and Horn of Africa, while in the West Indies the RN and RFA continue to interdict drug smugglers and save lives with disaster relief. In Libya last year we demonstrated that we could not only fight in one theatre, but we simultaneously ran one of the most successful air / sea power campaigns ever seen, helping support the liberty of the Libyan people.

We may not be as large as we used to be, but it doesn’t matter as much as we perhaps think. Look at the UK and our overseas deployments since the end of the presence East of Suez, and you’ll see that we’ve managed to sustain a similar level of troops deployed globally now, compared to any point since the mid 1960s. We continue to work on all continents on the planet, we continue to be a partner of choice for many countries, and we continue to demonstrate global leadership. Our political leaders of all colours have a willingness to countenance the use of force when required, and perhaps more importantly our public backs them and supports the military.

To the authors minds, the phrase warrior nation does not mean ‘how many tanks you can put into a hypothetical battlefield against a long vanished army’. It means ‘the willingness of a people to see violence inflicted in their name, and if needs be participate, whatever the cost may be’. The UK as a nation is one comfortable spending money on defence, comfortable using its military across the globe and although saddened, can accept the fact that this use often comes at a high cost.

When we give thanks to our forebears today who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, we must continue to realise that it’s not about the tanks we own, or the ships we possess. Any nation can have a large military, but it’s about a deeper willingness to accept and understand that there are times when it must be employed for a greater good, often at a cost of treasure and blood.

Humphrey believes that the UK is still emphatically a warrior nation in capability, people and attitude. Rather than looking to a near mythical past (which in reality was full of journalists decrying how poor the UK military was and couldn’t do anything compared to the good old days of Loos, Maekfeking, Waterloo, Agincourt etc), lets try and focus on the present. Consider that the UK still represents a hugely potent force for good, and that we are served by incredible people (both military and civilian) who dedicate their lives to preserving global security. We are far more than we as a nation allow ourselves credit for, and while we should not be ostentatious, perhaps we should be a little more positive about how much we can do in the world relative to other nations.

We are a great nation, full of great people prepared to do great things. Today, let us be thankful to those who have paid so much to enable us to be where we are now.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The curious case of the Frigates and the Vulture - or the sad decline of the Argentine Navy

Freshly returned from his holidays, Humphrey has been catching up on the news and defence related matters which cropped up during his absence. Clearly a lot of interesting developments have occurred in recent weeks, and there is much to comment on and consider. As a brief start to taking stock of developments, the author was particularly interested in the strange saga of the Argentine Navy and the US ‘Vulture Fund’ known as NML Capital.

The strange story goes back to Argentine economic woes of the last decade, and the use of military vessels as collateral for loans. When Argentina stopped paying up, and defaulted on its debts, the suddenly a whole raft of Argentine assets, including naval vessels, have become legitimate targets in the eyes of NML Capital to try and recover their debt (estimated at some £230m).

In recent years the Argentinean government has been struggling to try and prevent loss of assets in this manner. Reportedly President Kirchner does not fly abroad in Argentine Air Force jets for fear that they may be confiscated on landing by authorities. Most recently the Argentine sail training vessel ‘Libertad’ (classed as a Frigate) pulled into Ghana on a routine training cruise. Whilst alongside the vessel was impounded, as NML tried to take possession of it, agreeing to return the vessel for a payment of some £12.5m.

Such a payment was not forthcoming, and the Argentine Govt evacuated the vessel, chartering a jet to bring them home for fear that any Argentine Air Force jets would also be impounded. The result is that the vessel remains in the hands of the company, and is now likely to be put up for sale on the commercial market.

More seriously, reports now indicate that an Argentine frigate docked for emergency repairs in Simonstown (the Espora) is also likely to be subject of an attempt to be impounded by the company. In reality it is unlikely that such efforts would succeed, as South African courts are reportedly no friends of vulture companies, but it does mark a significant precedent.
ARA Libertad in Ghana - Elena Craescu/European Pressphoto Agency

What does this mean?

There has been some discussion that the seizure of Libertad and possible seizure of Espora somehow mark an act of war against Argentina. This is errant nonsense – no matter how you look at it, there does not seem to be any way that a US company can engage in a form of conflict with a country. If followed to its logical conclusion, one would have to argue that Argentina is duty bound to declare war on the USA, as this is the home of the company. It is highly unlikely that this situation would occur, and in reality the key lesson that can surely be drawn from this is not to include military assets as collateral for a loan!

More seriously though, the case does highlight the many challenges facing the Argentine Navy at present. On a practical level, it is now becoming ever harder for Argentine forces to deploy overseas, and the list of countries where they can put into port is reducing. In effect this reduces the ability of Argentina to work with allied nations, or to conduct coalition exercises or operations beyond their own immediate neighbourhood. The Espora incident shows that even fairly ‘safe’ countries like South Africa will still see embarrassing court cases. As such, Argentinas’ navy now faces a slow decline into operational irrelevance.

International exercises are a key part of operating a modern navy. There are constant lessons to be learned from operations, basic issues to be ironed out and understanding built. One of the reasons why the UK is a relatively significant maritime power is due to the wide programme of international exercises it conducts each year. By working with different nations, capability is improved, understanding on interoperability increases and bugs can be ironed out. The result is that UK vessels can easily slip into multi-national groups, and the UK is often sought after as a contributing power – just look at how often the UK plays a key part in leading the multi-national coalition forces in both the Middle East and Horn of Africa. By contrast, when the French began to reintegrate into NATO following thirty years of Gallic temper tantrums, they were reportedly very rusty and unable to keep up to date with modern operational practise.

The ability to exercise, cross fertilise ideas and ensure that your own procedures work, or could be improved is a key part of being a credible maritime power. The problem Argentina now faces is that it will be increasingly difficult to do this. The lack of fleet replenishment capability, coupled with the inability to run forward logistics sites without them being subject to court action means it will be almost impossible to deploy warships outside their immediate neighbourhood.

More broadly, participation in wider international affairs, such as back in the 1990s when Argentine vessels served off Haiti, or the participation in the first Gulf War, are likely to be curtailed. While the current Argentine political leadership may not wish to take part in such activities anyway, the fact remains that Argentina is now unable to generate maritime capability to enhance its national standing with other powers. It would be a reasonable judgement to suggest the Argentine Navy will, in the medium term, greatly suffer from this reduced ability to operate with partner nations.  

The next major challenge will be the long term future of the Argentine Navy itself. At present, the fleet comprises four destroyers and nine corvettes, plus a further three conventional submarines. All of these vessels are now approaching, or significantly over, thirty years of age. They are elderly ships, and haven’t been significantly updated for many years.

ARA Espora (from Wikipedia)
By now, most navies would have active replacement programmes underway for all these vessels. The debt crisis means it is almost impossible to see a situation where the Argentine Navy receives new first rate warships within the next 10-15 years. The problem of financing such an acquisition on the international markets is a major bar to proceeding. It is highly unlikely that any reputable shipbuilder would offer meaningful credit to the Argentine Government at present, and even if it did, there is no guarantee that any foreign built new hulls wouldn’t be seized in the yards by the Vulture Funds. That is even without considering the parlous state of the Argentine acquisition budget, which has been starved of funds for years, while a long list of items requiring replacement stack up. The only recent order for the Navy has been four patrol ships back in 2010, which will be indigenously built, although news on their status remains scarce.

From a prestige perspective, the recent confiscations have cost the head of the Argentine Navy his job, and the standing of the military, always low with Kirchner, is likely to be reduced further. It is hard to see the Navy having sufficient clout at present to justify funding for a large shipbuilding programme, when all it seems to do is get its existing ships confiscated!

So, at present the Argentines cannot afford new ships, cannot get credit to build them overseas and even if they could, they’d be likely to face confiscation in the yards. It is hard to imagine many foreign governments willingly entering into sales agreements with the Argentine Govt right now. This also more broadly highlights the problems facing all three armed services which have huge amounts of obsolete equipment needing replacement; for instance this article has not even begun to consider the cost of replacing the Argentine Navy etendards, nor updating the Skyhawk fleet.

This places the current Argentine Navy on a very steep path to decline. It normally takes 15-20 years to take a new major warship class from concept phase to being fully operational. Even if work started today, the earliest that we’d start to see new vessels entering service would be in the late 2020s – early 2030s. Even if they bought an existing design, it would still take 5-10 years to get everything sorted. In this timeframe the existing vessels will only get older and in an ever more fragile state.

It is important to remember that the financial challenges facing Argentina means that funding of upgrades, maintaining munitions stocks and ensuring that current warships remain credible is also likely to suffer. Missiles, munitions and radars need spare parts, need updating and need maintenance. Most Argentine escorts use foreign sourced munitions, and it’s likely that hard currency would be needed to pay for their updating. Therefore, the Argentine Navy is stuck with the vessels it has, and  is unlikely to be able to pay to update or upgrade them in the near future.

It is reasonable to assume that by the 2020s, the Argentine Navy is going to be reduced to a rump of escorts made operational by cannibalising others, and all of which are roughly 40 years old. While in the post war era, many navies could get away with running 30-40 year old warships, particularly the workhorses of the Fletcher and Gearing class, as their capability was similar to other vessels, todays navies do not have the same luxury. By the 2020s the Argentine Navy faces block obsolescence as it fields vessels which have not had an update to their weapon systems for years, and which are likely no longer supported by manufacturers. More worryingly, it is hard to see any credible replacement work going ahead for some time, so the Admirals will need to try to shepherd their resources as best they can.

Of particular concern will be the submarine fleet, which is getting ever older, and where replacement costs will be extremely expensive. Submarines have a limited life, and their performance will be ever more diminished over time – just look at the clusters of old Soviet era Whiskey and Romeo boats around the world. The Argentine Navy will face a real challenge to maintain its submarine capability in the medium term, and if not careful, could easily lose this capability forever.

One option for replacement could be to turn to the second hand market, although this would require hard cash. Argentina may be able to source some assorted hulls from Italy or other European nations as they downsize their fleets, or potentially look to acquiring cast offs from other navies in South America. Whatever solution is chosen though will require hard cash, and further increase dependence on a diverse source of spare parts, making it harder to sustain the vessels. Training overseas would be difficult, as vulture funds may try to seize assets, and many governments may be wary of doing business with a nation with such poor international standing.

So, the outlook for the Argentine Navy is increasingly grim. Isolated from traditional partners, unable to steam to locations that previously welcomed Argentine vessels, and working with an ever more unreliable fleet of elderly vessels, while funding for replacements is unlikely to be found. Currently it is hard to see the future of the Argentine Navy as being anything other than a sad decline into strategic irrelevance, particularly when one looks at the reinvigoration of the Chilean, Brazilian and Peruvian fleets. The early 20th Century saw huge competition between the major powers of South America in order to be the leading naval power. For many years Argentina presented probably the second most potent navy on the continent, but now it is hard to see it as being anything other than an also ran.