Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012 – The year that was; 2013 – The year that could be?

As we draw to the end of 2012, it is perhaps a good time to take stock of where the UK finds itself at the end of a particularly busy year, and see whether any initial lessons can be drawn from the year gone, and what we can possibly predict lies ahead of us in 2013.
2012 – A very good year indeed…

In the eyes of the author, 2012 has been a very good year in some ways for HM Forces. From a practical perspective, the standing of the Military in the UK has never been higher. The ability to step in at short notice and provide outstanding support for the Olympic Games, while simultaneously carrying out operations in Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Falklands and elsewhere demonstrates that for all the reductions that have gone on, the UK military can still rise to the occasion. Very few nations would be able to operate at the tempo that HM Forces have done this year, fewer still could then continue with the operational tempo of day to day operations that the UK is currently committed to doing.
This year saw the deployment of 20,000 troops for the Olympics from all three services and the provision of a very complex air defence, maritime security and ground defence plan plus discrete specialist assets. Additionally, thousands of troops were surged at short notice to provide manpower when it became clear that the security plan would not cope without them. This has clearly demonstrated the ability of the UK to put together, mobilise and support hugely complex operations at very short notice. For all that some commentators seek to knock the UK capability, we should remember just how few countries could have pulled of what happened over the summer.
It is fair to say that right now, the standing of the Military in the public eye is in a very good place-  there is enormous public support for the Military as a whole, and there is a real gratitude for the work done to ensure the Olympic Games were a resounding success. While there is clearly much opposition to the Afghan mission, there remains strong popular support for the troops who conduct it. In short, at the end of 2012, the UK military finds itself in a place where it is unlikely to be again for a generation – at the centre of the national consciousness.
The problem is how to capitalise on this – one of the challenges the MOD could conceivably face going to face in the run up to the next spending round is continuing to justify current budget levels. The problem is that the Military are almost too successful at supporting operations and delivering success, no matter how difficult the situation. In the last 18 months British forces have engaged in campaigns across the globe, utilising almost the full spectrum of types of military activity, from peacekeeping and support to the civil power, to cruise missile strikes and kinetic fighting in Afghanistan. Throughout this they have continued to generate sufficient personnel and equipment to publicly meet these challenges, even if privately we do not see what maintenance is being skimped on, or leave being cancelled. Even at the peak of the summer activity, only 30-40,000 UK service personnel were employed on operational duties (Olympics, fuel tanker drivers striker, HERRICK, Gulf, Falklands, Deterrent etc). This is barely 20% of the current regular armed forces, and 25% of the post Army 2020 forces.
The challenge for the MOD is going to be making the case that supporting this level of activity will continue to require 160,000 regular and 40,000 volunteer reserve personnel in future. After all, outside of general war, it is hard to conceive of HM Forces needing to stand up beyond 40,000 troops in future, and while the complexities of force generation, and sustainment beyond a single tour are well understood in the MOD, it is perhaps a more challenging argument to make in public. The question asked by the public, the politicians and the Treasury for the next review may well be – do we really need an Army of 82,000 people after all?
A Financial Even Keel?

The good news is that the budget appears to be in a much better place now than it has been for some years. This has not been an easy or straightforward process, and it is genuinely good news that things look like they are balancing out. The fact that MOD has been able to escape any front line cuts in the Autumn Statement is to be welcomed, although we do not know whether any cuts will occur to support services.
It is useful to see that there is a ‘contingency fund’ in place to fund new procurement in the future, although this has doubtless come at the cost of swingeing cuts to the equipment programme in order to bring some balance to the plan. So, while a fund may exist to buy new equipment, it remains to be seen what was sacrificed in order to bring this fund to existence. The loss of the Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC) is one high profile loss, and doubtless other ‘stealth cuts’ will emerge over time as it becomes clear that new capabilities will not be funded, or equipment replaced in service.
That said, the ability to go into the next spending round and SDSR with a balanced budget will be good news – particularly if Afghanistan is drawing to a close, which will significantly reduce wider expenditure on operations from the Treasury Reserve.
Moving forward from SDSR

In general, 2012 has been the year in which the final parts of the SDSR cuts were implemented, and we saw the bedding in of the various changes put about by the Levene Review. The standing up of Joint Forces Command was a big step forward, as was the scrapping of the three 4* CINC posts. There is a genuine change going on at the top of the system, as the military moves to a more streamlined command structure in future. We also saw the vision of the Army in 2020, in which a smaller army will focus more on preventative training and capability building, while reducing the teeth equipment it has previously drawn on for use. There will be many challenges in taking forward the future vision of the Army – 18% smaller, with significant reductions in equipment and cherished capbadges. On paper though, if the CDS vision of an Army with Brigades focusing on regional engagement can be delivered, and if it is properly funded, then there are grounds for cautious optimism that as we move forward into the post HERRICK future, we will see an Army which remains operational capable and globally employable.
 As we move into 2013 we will see more changes in HERRICK – 2012 was a very low profile year for the operation, and it is increasingly beginning to feel like the war that the Media forgot. With the exception of particularly bad news stories, the Media seem to have little interest in the UK involvement in Afghanistan now, and this will only continue as we move further towards withdrawal.
As we move to 2013, it would be fair to suggest that the following themes will feature heavily in the year ahead. Firstly, there will be continued light skirmishes ahead of the SDSR between various branches of the Services, as they jockey for position to gain favour for their vision of the future. The Royal Navy will remain cautiously optimistic that good times lie ahead, with HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH coming ever closer to completion, and the Type 45 and ASTUTE class will start to come on stream in ever greater numbers. The much vaunted ‘future fleet’ which has been talked of for years is finally beginning to emerge in strength. The questions for the RN will be whether there is continued support for a small but high tech navy, or if the transition to a more French style structure of larger numbers of lower capability vessels is the way forward.
The Army will focus predominantly on operational success in HERRICK and setting out a pathway to a vision of a future Army. It is going to be a challenging period as the first real cuts start occurring, and experienced personnel leave ahead of the 2015 pension reforms. The challenge will be to convince an Army that has spent the last 12 years on operational tasking that the future of ‘proper soldiering’ (as some on ARRSE would see it) involving training, limited engagement and the odd NEO is a worthwhile task. This will have to be done against the backdrop of a vociferous opposition to any change in capbadge, and the inevitable campaigns to save one much amalgamated regiment and its inherited traditions over another.
Finally the RAF will see itself with Typhoon entering service in ever greater numbers, while the less glamorous, but arguably just as vital Air to Air refuelling aircraft (Voyager) finally enters service. The RAF is in a position where it too will begin to change away from the business of supporting ops in Afghanistan and returning to regional engagement and delivery of airpower where needed.
In terms of engagement, the UK military will continue to operate across all the continents of the planet, and engage with a huge variety of nations. The Middle East will almost certainly loom large in most calculations, both from capability, sales and training, but also from ensuring global security against threats from an increasingly belligerent Iran. There will potentially be increased interest in low level engagement in Africa, and the RN will continue to fly the flag for defence relations with South America and the Far East. The Levant will remain a flashpoint, and it may well be the case that growing international pressure may see that something happens in Syria – although speculation on the nature of when, why or how such a force would be deployed is not something that the author would wish to speculate on.
One of the biggest challenges externally may well be to understand and respond to wider defence cuts, particularly in the US and Europe. If, as seems likely, the US drops off the Fiscal Cliff, then major cuts to the US military, even beyond that already scheduled seem likely. The UK will need to ensure its own interests are not damaged – particularly on high profile programmes like JSF. More broadly, there will be further cuts in defence expenditure across Europe, but increases in China and elsewhere. No matter how the media portray it though, the Chinese Navy will remain some years from a truly carrier capable navy, while the Indian Navy will continue to experience major delays and problems with trying to introduce the ex Admiral Gorshkov into service.
Finally the Media will continue to report innacurately on defence matters - after all having spent the year convincing the UK public that we no longer had a military worth a damn, then praising it for saving the day (again), and then condemning the military as a bunch of out of date types who wouldn’t know a good idea if they saw it, its clear that little has changed in the Fourth Estate.
Media coverage for next year is likely to focus on damning the MOD civil service for decisions that were actually taken by the military, to damn the Military for failing on some unspecified issue or matter, and for the odd silly season or ‘human nature’ story. If in doubt, the old faithful that the UK is no longer properly defended because the UK doesn’t have Harrier, Carriers, SLRs, Spitfires or Brown Bess Muskets still in service will be trotted out.
Defence think-tanks will continue to generate headline stories that bear little resemblance to the reality of the military today, but it will unfortunately not stop distinguished ex officers from making fools of themselves by writing angry letters to Government ministers or the papers, citing ‘when I was serving’ as a reason why 30-40 years later that the UK requires equipment of a type which has not been produced for decades, and which is utterly obsolete.
So, 2013 is likely to be a busy year, but probably less busy than 2012. There will be probably no headline orders or cuts, but instead HM Forces will quietly get on with business as usual. Along the way they will probably deploy at least once to somewhere unexpected, and will be required to do the near impossible at least once! Sadly, given the deployment to Afghanistan, it looks as it 1968 will remain the only year in which no UK personnel was killed overseas since 1945.
The end of the year also marks the first Birthday of ‘Thin Pinstriped Line’. Thank you for all your comments and support over the year, and here is hoping that the next year provides plenty more opportunities to write about Defence matters of interest.
Happy New Year!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The mysterious case of the MOD and the £600,000 magazine bill...

As the year draws to a close, and Humphrey had begun contemplating the drafting of his ‘2012 assessment, 2013 predictions’ piece, he was dismayed to see that the year is ending as it has begun – with a nonsensical piece of journalism attacking the MOD for the size of its magazine subscriptions.

The MOD has confirmed spending approximately £600,000 per year on a variety of magazine subscriptions (which equates to roughly £2.10 per full time military and civilian in Defence). The reaction from the media has been one of outrage that at a time when we are firing soldiers left right and centre, we’re spending enough money to keep at least 6 Brigadiers in post on magazines.

The reality as ever is more complex. The MOD has tried to explain that in fact MOD Main Building is not full of civilian staff sipping lattes, air-kissing and reading GQ, Cosmo and Loaded, while working in an environment out of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. Instead the majority of the magazines subscribed to are more akin to those found in the ‘this week’s guest publication’ section of the Missing words round of Have I Got News For You.

A lot of the subscriptions relate to professional journals, for instance in the engineering or health areas. These are expensive publications to obtain, but are a necessary part of ongoing professional development. One of the challenges MOD has is that its areas of business are so broad, and its staff work in such diverse ways, that it has to secure a lot of different professional journals. While one could debate their worth, the reality is that this is not an exclusively MOD only arrangement – these publications are valued across their respective sectors. Either MOD commits to providing its staff with access to the best training materials and journals, or it holds back, and then provides more reasons for disillusioned staff to walk away as they see a lack of commitment to their ongoing professional development.

A small number of magazines were ordered to include the more popular ‘fun’ magazines like GQ or FHM. These certainly are not going into the MOD Offices, but instead form part of the welfare package for troops at places like Headley Court, or deployed at sea. Over the last few years there has been huge efforts made to increase the welfare support offered to troops deployed, and Humphrey can attest from personal experience that it genuinely makes a real difference to have a magazine to flick through on the very rare downtime that one gets on an Operational Tour. The total cost to the taxpayer is miniscule, but the difference it makes to troops moral is enormous. The irony is perhaps that watching journalists spend years complaining about the quality of UK troops welfare, they are now complaining that such provision costs money.

The final major component is things like the subscriptions to magazines like Janes Defence Weekly, which some parts of the MOD receive. While it is easy to say ‘do net research’ or ‘get someone to compile it for you’, that is perhaps a little misleading. In a busy office environment, where staff cuts and increased workloads mean people are ever busier, it is hard to find the time to sit down and collate information on all the major defence matters of the week – this is a full job. Publications like Janes allow immediate and unclassified collated reporting, in order to ensure that people have access to a useable product, and one that is of reasonably credible provenance (unlike some of the garbage that exists on the internet).

Humphrey has often made use of publications like Janes to stay abreast of developments or other reasons. To suggest that MOD could scrap Janes subscriptions to save a small amount of taxpayer funding would actually be incredibly counterproductive. You would genuinely need more staff to do the necessary collation, writing, analysis and dissemination of open source material, which would cost significantly more cash, and struggle to have the same effect.

The problem here seems to be that Newspapers increasingly see the argument about defence expenditure as Item A incurs more costs than Z soldiers (of whom the Army is making 18000 redundant). It is easy to make an argument for manpower, and more difficult to make an argument for less immediately credible items like magazine subscriptions. The problem is though that they don’t look at the expenditure and try to work out how many staff would be needed to provide the same level of support as exists via such subscriptions. It would take dozens of staff to provide a level of service to MOD equivalent to that already enjoyed by having subscriptions to magazines like Janes. The reality is that if these were cut, then not only would MOD lose vital access to information, but it would also need to spend more taxpayers money to replicate the lost capability.

The challenge though is trying to move the Defence debate away from the simple ‘number of soldiers = good, anything else = bad’, which is where most journalists appear to be parked at present. There is no easy way to do this, but it is frustrating that the Department appears to be being criticized for taking a course of action which develops its staff, supports morale and saves the taxpayer money, when this is exactly what for years the media have been demanding that MOD should be doing.

Friday, 21 December 2012

General Richards speech to the RUSI - Will the Royal Navy really get larger in the future?

On 17 December, General Sir David Richards (the UK Chief Defence Staff – CDS) gave a speech to the military think-tank known as the RUSI – Royal United Services Institute. The RUSI is a well-known international think-tank, and one which has over the years provided the venue for a variety of particularly interesting speeches, papers and other engagements.

Traditionally the CDS will always give a ‘state of the nation’ address to the RUSI towards the end of the year, as an effort to not only look back, but also look forward and see what the future may hold for the British Military. Bluntly, many friends of the author believe the speeches are often fairly routine, covering ground regularly debated in public and reiterating policy over thinking outside the agreed position.

This speech is notable though for being significantly more open than previous debates, and for its highlighting several areas where the General stepped away from the path of established policy and perhaps illuminated thinking associated with the next SDR. The full text of the speech can be found over at the Think Defence Website (link is HERE). It is well worth reading in full, as it is genuinely illuminating.

The speech highlights many areas of interest, and the first specific point here was the discussion on the size of the equipment programme, and in particular the importance of retaining people to operate kit. CDS makes a very valid point – there is no point having huge quantities of high quality equipment if you do not have sufficient personnel to operate it to full effect. One of the problems of understanding Defence today is that people look simply at Orders of Battle, and assume that because Nation X possesses a certain amount of equipment, it must somehow be a potent threat. People very rarely consider the human factors associated with being able to equip, maintain, operate and fight with modern equipment. This human edge is one reason why HM Forces remain world class – they are not only equipped with good quality equipment, but they have the ability to use it, and support it, to a high standard.

There was a strong push for the newly established Joint Expeditionary Force (presumably the word ‘British’ was perhaps a little too loaded with historical attachment to be used in this title). The speech highlighted the importance of our being able to provide not only a capable military force able to operate autonomously within an alliance – or as part of a truly integrated multi-national force. This is really important – the ability to work effectively within an integrated multi-national HQ is something that makes a huge difference in modern operations. A quick glance at almost all operations for the last 20 years will show that on ops, the UK can expect to be quickly working with a diverse group of countries, with differing tactics, operational procedures, understanding of situations and politically acceptable end states. By investing time now in bringing the JEF up to scratch and forming strong working relationships, not only between services, but between nations, then there is reduced likelihood of friction in future operations, and increased chance of success. This is perhaps most prominently highlighted by the reality that in OP ELLAMY the UK had to establish in short order a meaningful contribution to a complex multi-national alliance, which included both NATO states and other nations such as UAE, Jordan and Qatar, which had never worked in this environment before.

General Sir David Richards (copyright Daily Telegraph)
CDS went on to consider the individual roles of all three armed services in delivering the future UK military capability. Intriguingly he commented that:

“In the future, the Chief of the Naval Staff and I have a vision for a Navy which procures ships differently allowing us to have more, not fewer platforms.

 We must resist the pressure that has shrunk the number of platforms. Clearly that will mean rethinking the Navy, including examining the case for ships that may have a limited role in general war. But this is not new ¬¬¬– remember the corvette over the ages – and is similar to the utility of light and heavy land forces, tailored to task. And in so doing we will ensure seamanship skills and leadership qualities, so much in demand by our friends and allies, flourish into the long term.

The Royal Navy’s maritime and amphibious components, with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines at the core of the latter, will be at the heart of Britain’s JEF. As the concept develops we will look to acquire ships that range from top-end war fighting elements through potentially to more vessels tailored to discrete but important tasks, to be deployed on a range of routine non-war fighting duties.

In saying this, the CDS was implicitly suggesting that the findings of the SDSR were no longer correct, and that they may need revisiting in future. This may not sound like a surprising piece of news to many observers, but it is worth considering that in saying this, the CDS is speaking with the authority of the Government. He has effectively admitted that the SDSR is no longer valid and needs to be revisited in 2015, and that this may well mean changes.

The news that the RN may move back into acquiring larger numbers of vessels is interesting, and would no doubt be welcomed by the entire Royal Navy, but it is important to avoid getting carried away with internet ‘fantasy fleet’ debates. The first thing to remember is that any decision on the size of the RN would not be taken until 2015 at the very earliest – this is the time of the next defence review, and its findings would ultimately depend on the UK strategic interests at the time, the amount of funding available and also what other equipment funding is needed. It is not a guarantee that this decision will be made, and it is also very likely that neither the current CDS, nor CNS will be in post come 2015 – CDS can make this sort of pledge, partially because he will not be required to try and see whether it can be implemented.

If a decision to enlarge the RN is taken, the question then becomes what form do these ships take? The mention of the word ‘corvette’ is interesting – the recent debate about the Black Swan sloop,  modern class of corvette for the 21st century seems to have been quite high profile. Perhaps CDS was tacitly acknowledging that there is a case to be made for a sloop style procurement. It is clear that the use of very expensive warships such as T45 on deployments to interdict pirates, and ‘fly the flag’ is not necessarily the best use of a billion pound platform.

Acquiring a sloop class would perhaps ensure that the RN could continue to fly the white ensign in areas of lower threat, say for instance the West Indies or West Africa, providing a more relevant training capability for lower end navies, while retaining sufficient high end escorts for global deployments. The concept of a second rate frigate is not entirely new to the RN – look at the Type 14 class and how they were employed initially as low tech ASW escorts, but in reality spent much of their career doing more generic ‘fly the flag’ duties during the early Cold War.
Type 14 Frigate (Copyright

The acquisition of further platforms would be good in many ways, but there are equally many questions to be answered. The most pressing of which would be ‘where the money is, where the building capacity is and where is the manpower?

To bring a new class of vessel into service will take time – the design and construction of a new class of ship would take a couple of years to complete. Even if an uplift were approved, it would be 3-4 years before design work was completed and orders could be placed. Therefore, it would almost be hitting the 2020 SDR before the vessels were under construction.

The next question is where is the build capacity to take on this work? As has been noted before, the UK military shipbuilding market is operating at capacity right now, and has no real spare ability to construct extra vessels. This means any construction effort would either impinge on T26 construction, or require an uplift of shipyard capacity in order to build the vessels at the same time.

Finally the issue is one of manpower – where does the RN get the crews to man these vessels from? The RN is scaled to man the ships it currently has in service, introduction of a new class of vessels which increase the RN in size would place a manning challenge on the service. To effectively run a ship, you need to have a 3:1 ratio of crew in place to allow for shore drafts, training courses and so on. A class of 6 ships (putatively the Black Swan design, discussed in the doctrine note found at HERE , each requiring 68 crew) would in reality need over 1200 personnel in the system to ensure sufficient manpower with appropriate skills to crew them over their lives. This is a significant manpower challenge and one that would not easily be found.

It is fair to say that the RN is unlikely to see any significant uplift in personnel over the next series of defence reviews, and that in reality pressure is likely to see headcount reducing in order to reduce costs. So, to man a class of new sloop escorts, the RN is going to have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and it is not clear where that may fall.

The next challenge for the RN is to consider how it employs the fleet with new vessels in service – will availability increase overall, or will the arrival of extra hulls and reduction of tasks for the main escort fleet perhaps lead to long overdue refits being scheduled, or maintenance being carried out? The situation may arise where as new vessels come into service, the RN overall availability of ships at sea declines as much deferred refits can be carried out. An enlarged navy may at best be only capable of maintaining a ‘steady state’ for some years.

 Turning to the Army, CDS made a particularly compelling vision for an Army with brigades taking on the role of establishing links with different regions of the world. He noted that;  

Though more conceptual work is needed, given the importance of the region and clear Prime Ministerial intent, I envisage two or more adaptable brigades forming close tactical level relationships with particular countries in the Gulf and Jordan, for example, allowing for better cooperation with their forces. Should the need arise for another Libya-style operation, we will be prepared. This would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum.

In Africa, brigades would be tasked to support key allies in the east, west and south whilst another might be given an Indian Ocean and SE Asian focus, allowing for much greater involvement in the FPDA, for example.”

 This felt a clear statement of intent that the post HERRICK British Army will not be withdrawn back to the UK to form an overly large home guard. There is clear guidance that the Army will be re-engaging in some regions where its influence has been minimal since the withdrawal from empire. The notion of having forces tasked to support work in South East Asia points to a vision that over the next 5-10 years the UK will, if anything, be taking on a much greater role of engagement than it has done since the end of the 1960s.

The question is what form of engagement will this take? There seems to be little enthusiasm for a long term campaign commitment in future involving boots on the ground, and SDSR seems to note the importance of strategic raiding over long term campaigning. So, if there is little enthusiasm for high end military operations, the question is, what sort of training and operations will the army be conducting in future? It will be most interesting to see how the next Defence Review sets out this vision.

British Army engaging in Oman on Saif Sareea 2 (Copyright Defence
CDS went on to discuss in more detail the difficulties faced by meeting the growing threat of ‘cyber warfare’ and the potential damage it can cause to the UK and our allies. He set out that the future operating environment is one that is vastly different to the one he began his career in, over 40 years ago. This is perhaps a very pertinent point – when CDS joined the military, the then CDS (Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Hill-Norton) had joined the RN in 1928. The chief of the General Staff was Field Marshall Carver, who has joined the Army in 1935. Together they had started their careers facing a world of imperial policing, and of localised engagements, prior to fighting in the bloodiest conflict in human history before preparing for an even bloodier war that never came, while withdrawing from Empire.

This perhaps illustrates the point that for all the criticisms about the military preparing to fight the last war, the reverse could perhaps be true. As a military, we still have personnel today who joined and served with those who had served in the pre-war military. This timeframe has seen vast strategic changes, and constant reassessments of our military requirements, threats and challenges (see the ever present moaning on websites like ARRSE or the Daily Mail about how we no longer matter due to not having so many ships, tanks or the SLR still in service). At the same time, a wide range of supposedly informed commentators criticise the UK for not being sufficiently forward looking, but also berating our lack of capabilities such as tanks, warships and so on. This author would argue that in this speech, CDS has highlighted that if anything the current military leadership accept and realise that it is more important to look forward than back, and that they are charged with delivering a military capable of meeting the very different demands today of that 40, or 80 years ago. Perhaps it is the commentators who cling to the past, preferring to see resources focused on fighting the last wars, rather than the Military itself, which seems to have a very clear vision of just how different the future nature of conflict appears to be.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

There is nothing soft about 'Soft Power' - Part Two

In the previous part we considered why the UK is seemingly able to exert continued influence on the global stage. Continuing on this theme, this article will now look at some other  less quantifiable factors which means that the UK continues to be seen as a nation able to exert influence on the global stage.

 A global legacy, and a global presence
One of the more intangible aspects of the UKs ability to exert influence is its historical legacy. Whether you love, or loathe, the Empire, the fact remains that part of its legacy is of a series of institutions, law courts, and fondly imagined memories.

Although the vast majority of the British imperial population has now passed on, there is still a legacy footprint of both those who settled in nations when they were still imperial possessions, and also those who were born imperial subjects, but who became independent leaders. Although very difficult to quantify, the UK is still in a position where in many nations around the world, diplomatic relations are held with people who remember the UK as a former colonial power, and who may have benefited from access to education or training in the UK.

In practical terms this means little, but in terms of opening doors, or enabling a newly arrived High Commissioner to talk to senior statesmen and officials who perhaps benefited from the UKs former presence, this can be most helpful. We as a nation perhaps overplay the ‘imperial guilt’ card, while forgetting that the Imperial legacy is perhaps seen in a more positive way in these nations. These individuals occupy places of power, send their children to British schools and are able to exert influence in their own nations. The ability of the UK to build relationships with people who have a positive memory of our shared past is tremendously helpful at times – it enables doors to be opened, and quiet words to be had. It does not shape policy, but it does help secure an audience with some who may be able to help us.

There are still many UK nationals working overseas, both from imperial days and more recently as advisers. This also helps us deliver influence in some nations. One only has to look at the Middle East to see that many of the nations there discretely rely on well placed UK individuals to provide advice on a range of matters, from military to security to political issues. Similarly, there are many well place businessmen, helping bring about success in national industries and developing an indigenous ability. This matters because although these advisers do not work for the UK government, there is doubtless back channels and conversations which go on, that can help shape policy. One of our national advantages when it comes to trying to get support for a particular action, or lobby in favour of a contract or other matter is that we have people already well placed within these national systems to offer advice. Again, this is not something which by itself enables the UK to stride the world stage, but it does mean that we as a nation can sometimes have the ability to open doors where other nations fail – allowing us the opportunity to lobby, cajole or quietly whisper in the ear of someone who may otherwise be unavailable.

 A global location
One major advantage that the UK has is that its physical location works to its benefit. Many major international flights use London as a hub for onward transit. On any given day there are often plenty of significant international statesmen, businessmen, royalty and other influential figures transiting the UK, or stopping for a night. This means it is incredibly easy to get UK government or industry to meet with these figures when they are en route elsewhere, and help discuss a matter, or lobby in favour of something.

This may sound daft, but more good often comes from a discrete meeting over coffee or a meal than days of international negotiations. It allows UK principals to build up genuine relationships of trust with people as they are able to see them often enough to really get to know them. One only has to look at the way that many senior Arabs decant to London each summer to realise that the UK has a uniquely placed ability to influence people. It is a location people want (or need) to visit, an international crossroads that allows us to deal with people in a manner many nations cannot. There are many countries – say France or Italy, which have relatively few connecting flights, meaning there is less need for foreign figures to transit – this in turn makes visits more business related, less likely to occur regularly and reduces the ability to build up an international relationship. Never underestimate the importance of personal relationships when it comes to conducting international diplomacy.

Similarly, the UK is very well placed to act as a hub nation for diplomatic networks. London is home to one of the largest diplomatic communities in the world, with many nations basing their diplomatic staff here, and using a so-called ‘hub and spoke’ network to send them elsewhere in Europe. This means that the FCO is able to easily call on almost every nation on earths representative within hours. By contrast, many nations have very small diplomatic communities, and the ability to actually get hold of someone, or talk to them and do business is far more difficult.

This works both ways – a strong diplomatic presence here means we can lobby for business, make nations aware of our views on matters of concern, and send messages directly to foreign capitals. The UK is able to bring together nations in London – in an international crisis, where London is seeking to build consensus, it is easy to bring in the diplomatic community to work together in a manner simply not possible in other nations. We find it easy to make our views known on the world stage.

Finally we are the beneficiary of a very helpful time zone – do not underestimate how valuable it is for London to be at the centre of the worlds timezones. The UK is geographically placed in a perfect position to do business all day long across the globe. When our officials and businessmen go to work in the morning, they are able to talk to Australia and the Pacific on the same day. They can then work in near parity with Europe, enabling decisions to be made during the working day, and after lunch, they can then attend conference calls with their partners across the Atlantic who are coming into work.

The fact is that the GMT time zone means that the UK is able to do business during the same working day with all the nations of the world that matter to us, in a way that others can’t. Unlike Australia, where having a conference call with the US means one coming in very early, the other going home very late, we are able to usually work at a mutually agreeable time.

This may sound a silly thing, but as the author knows from all to personal experience, if you are deployed in an operational theatre and need to sort out matters of state, knowing London is working, and can get an answer to you, makes a big difference compared to US colleagues, who know they are 5-6 hours away from guidance.

A global brand
 Finally, it is worth remembering that the Royal Family themselves allows the UK to exert a level of influence and access that most nations can only dream of. The news that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant was front page or very prominent news across much of the globe. It is exceptionally unlikely that similar news from any other nations ‘first family’ would achieve the same effect.

The Royal Family are a truly international brand, and a globally known. The hosting of a State visit by HM The Queen is a highlight in many nations, and has often seen enormous publicity. The Royal Family get access and opportunity to meet and discuss matters with some of the most influential people in the world, and as such are uniquely well placed to make discrete points on behalf of the Government.

Never underestimate how much value the UK gets from its Royal Family – they provide a level of interest and genuine affection which no politician could hope to achieve. As a symbol of British values and views, the hosting (or cancelling) of a Royal Visit can have major diplomatic implications. It is fair to say that when HM The Queen has conducted state visits, then there is often a significant improvement in national relationships. Just look at Ireland, where her visit helped tangibly demonstrate how much progress has been made in the relationship between the two countries.

This is a point worth remembering – any nation can send a diplomatic visitor, but few of these visits attract much interest or value. The Royal Family can conduct visits which occupy a much higher profile, and allow the UK significant influence on a range of matters. As a symbol they embody much of what people think the UK is about. Finally they are a link to the past, and much as noted above about advisers in former colonial possessions, they are able to be a bridge between the past and the future, and remind people of where they have gone, while stimulating relationships for the future.

This article has focused on many things which one cannot quantify, but which do add incalculable value to the ability of the UK to exert influence on the world stage. The key point that should be remembered is that this needs to be seen as being part of a wider piece, linking to the diplomatic efforts cited in part one.

 The next part of the article will try and focus in more depth about what we think we mean by ‘influence’ and try to consider what soft power, and influence in general does for the UK as a whole.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Quick site update on comments

Humphrey has reluctantly had to switch on the box for text confirmation of comments. This is because in recent weeks the site has become overwhelmed by spambots, resulting in literally hundreds of spam comments per day.

Although verification is a major pain in the backside, it should reduce the spam traffic to the site significantly.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Just how bad can it get for the Argentinean Navy?

One of the reasons why Humphrey started this blog was to try and put start a more reasoned debate about the reality of the Falklands, and how despite our lack of Sea Harriers, the islands were not at risk of imminent invasion. Over the last year the aim has been to try and bring a little balance to a debate which can, at times, adopt the air of hysteria as we hear of legions of retired naval officers pontificating about how UK sovereignty is under threat due to our total lack of Harriers.

Humphrey has had the genuine pleasure of meeting and engaging with members of the Argentine Armed Forces over the years, and he’d describe them as genuinely professional, intelligent, motivated and thoroughly decent people. He has a very healthy professional respect for them, but this does not mean he thinks the islands are under imminent threat of invasion.

Today, reading an article that appeared a couple of weeks ago in the MercoPress (the South Atlantic news agency) about reports from Argentina about the state of their armed forces – it can be found at the link HERE.

It is illuminating reading – it shows just how challenging the current state of the Navy is for Argentina. At present, according to the Argentine Defence Committee, sufficient funding has been allocated for the Navy to spend just 161 days at sea in 2013, compared to 329 days in 2010. Let’s put these figures in perspective for a moment – in a navy comprising some 43 vessels, that is sufficient funding to spend 4 days at sea each in the next year.

Compared to the Royal Navy, where some ships are currently spending over 200 days at sea per year, it makes you realise just how grim things are looking for Argentina at present. The average RN warship spends more time at sea each year than the collective Argentinean Navy.

There are several implications to this – firstly, the growing loss of skills and ability to conduct warfighting operations. Getting a warship worked up to go to sea on deployment takes a long time and lots of practise – with only 161 days of seatime available, it will be a real struggle to get more than a token warship worked up for an operation. While this is going on, the navy will not be sending personnel to sea in all the various roles they need to gain credible experience as naval personnel. There are ever fewer serving individuals who were in the Navy during the 1982 conflict with real operational experience, and probably not that many who remember the UN deployments of the early 1990s. This means that operationally the Argentine Navy is going to struggle to train its crews to work at even the most basic level of capability. It means that everyone across the board is not getting enough training and experience to keep even the basic level of skills like damage control,  navigation, pilotage and all the normal seamanship skills up to par. Getting to the stage where the Navy can work up to task group operations, or conducting work with coalition partners will prove all but impossible.

Argentina also faces major challenges in keeping its submarine arm credible and qualified – the same report notes that the Argentine SSK force spent just 19 hours submerged last year – not even one day. That places major challenges on the ability of the crew to qualify in basic submarine skills, let alone escape, and it probably means no real ‘perisher’ like courses can be run. No matter how good their SSK capability is on paper, it is going to take years (if not decades) to regenerate any meaningful operational capability.

Another worrying aspect from the report is the comment that the ordnance has expired for the Almirante Brown class destroyers. In other words, the Argentine Navy has no safe munitions to take to sea that will actually work with their destroyers. This means they have no effective air defence capability, and no real anti-ship capability. To update this requires refits and updates that will cost scarce foreign currency, and as noted elsewhere here on this site, there is no guarantee Argentina will be able to pay for such an update.

So, right now the Argentine Navy finds itself port bound, and unable to operate at any meaningful level of capability. The problem is how to recover from this near terminal decline – the loss of skills and experience in ship handling and operations will take years to rectify, and will make Argentina dependent on friendly foreign powers for help. No matter how optimistic their rebuilding programme for the Navy is, ultimately they are in the process of losing the vital critical mass of ship handling skills and warfighting ability that make the difference between a Navy and a collection of hulls. Although one should always be cautious of single source reporting, particularly where it has an inherent bias, it is clear that the Argentineans face major problems in general for their military. The report notes that the Mirage fleet (the nations primary air defence capability) has not flown a sortie since 2006.

This perhaps illustrates the importance of seatime – the RN may work its ships hard, and cut their numbers – but it is surely better to have hulls at sea where skills can be learned, trained and retained rather than have hulls alongside rusting for lack of funding.

So, in summary, when reading the articles in the media about how vulnerable the Falkland Islands are, one needs to remember that in reality the Argentine Armed Forces are hovering at the point of collapse, and that it is hard to see any real solution in terms of capability, training or credibility that will recover this situation emerging soon. Even if work were to start tomorrow to rebuild the capabilities lost, it is realistic to assume that Argentina is 10-15 years away from regenerating a credible military capable of taking a credible military opponent.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Is Apache really going to be deleted?

There are times when following the modern media that one feels like sighing deeply, ordering another G&T and hoping that salvation will eventually turn up. Today was one of those days. Reading the Daily Telegraph, the authors heart sank on reading an article which suggested that the British Army was considering scrapping the Apache Attack helicopter. This was bases on a public lecture by a senior member of the Apache helicopter force. (

The gist of the article was that in 2017 the UK will find itself having to fund the technical support for the Apache AH64-D variant, as the US military will have moved to using the E variant. The result is that the Apache will req   uire a capability update in order to remain sustainable alongside its US peers. Currently the MOD is considering its options on how to proceed with this upgrade, and that Ministers will take a decision shortly.

That aircraft require upgrades is not news, and in fact one only has to look across the entire UK military aircraft register to spot that pretty much every aircraft type has had extensive upgrades since entering service in order to remain relevant. The Tornado GR4 is light years removed from the Gr1 variant, despite being outwardly the same plane.

Its fairly common when putting staffwork together to put up a list of options on what can be done in a certain situation. For instance this may include ‘do nothing’, ‘delete the capability’ or ‘invest X amount’ or ‘invest Y amount’. This is absolutely standard practise, and is a very sensible thing to do. You can only make a considered decision on what to do if you have all the figures and facts in front of you.

The fact that a ‘delete Apache’ line has been raised would seem to suggest that people are looking at how much would be saved by not keeping it in service (although interestingly the article doesn’t show how much would need to be spent to mitigate the loss of capability). In reality the chances of Apache being deleted would seem to be very, very slim indeed in the current climate. It provides a unique capability, and one that could not easily be replicated by alternate means.

The article goes onto note that no final decisions on numbers have been taken – well this is hardly surprising, as until Ministers have taken a decision on their preferred course of action, its not really appropriate to come up with figures on what may, or may not, be upgraded.

What appears to have happened is that a journalist has seized on a legitimate comment by someone talking about the wide range of options that have to be considered, and then turned this into a ‘Apache is going to be scrapped’ story. This is an example where the MOD is being attacked for considering cuts, when in fact all that has happened is that Ministers have not yet taken a decision on what to do.

The final clincher is the strong quote from MOD clearly noting that Apache will remain in service. From what can be seen here, the Telegraph has published an entire story about the withdrawal of an aircraft type, when in fact withdrawal is not being considered, when no decisions have yet been taken and when the Department is clear that it wants Apache to remain in service.

Once again the author despairs about the lamentable standard of understanding of Defence matters in some areas. No one expects the entire nation to understand the subtleties of all aspects of defence, but equally this form of reporting is essentially scaremongering which seems to be built on totally misrepresenting a public speech, and then adding in some spin to meet the requirement to raise the blood pressure of the papers readership.

How can we have an intelligent debate about defence in the UK, when the media seem intent on misrepresenting even the most basic discussion on future defence options?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

There is nothing ‘soft’ about ‘soft power’ (Part One)

There was news recently that the UK has somehow managed to usurp the USA as the worlds most influential nation for so-called ‘Soft Power’. While this may have generated some quick headlines, and will probably be seen as little more than a column filler for a quick story, there is actually something quite interesting here.

The author has long held the view that the UKs military power is actually a fairly minor part of understanding why the UK still has a significant global reach and influence. It is perhaps easy to decry cuts to defence or force structures as this produces a tangible ‘loss’. One can map out the number of tanks, planes or ships and see a reduction over the years and make the assumption that somehow the UK is a less powerful or influential nation. Humphrey would argue though that actually this is just a tiny part of determining the sum of the UKs influence. There are many other things that perhaps matter more than whether we have 250 Challenger 2 tanks, not 400, or whether there are only 19 escorts not 25.

The purpose of this short series of articles is to consider the wider values and assets that the UK possess in an effort to understand why, despite regular calls to the contrary, the UK is still a significant power on the world stage. This was brought about by the realisation that despite prophets of doom spending nearly 70 years shouting that the UK no longer matters, somehow the UK remains a far more global and significant nation than is perhaps to be expected.
This article isnt about covering oneself with a Union Flag, belting out Land of Hope and Glory and feeling jolly smug. Its about trying to consider in a little more depth why it is that the UK still matters to many nations around the world. Its not about one thing above all others, but seemingly a combination of factors. Over the next couple of articles the author wants to try and consider what it is that means that the UK is still on the 'friends and family' list, if not necessarily speeddial, of so many nations.

Diplomatic Footprint

One of the key jewels in the crown of the UK ability to exert influence is the wide ranging diplomatic network, spread across all seven continents. There are very few nations in the world which maintain a truly global Embassy / High Commission footprint, and these organisations are perhaps more influential than some may think.

It is very easy to write off the FCO as some kind of dusty old organisation, more concerned with eating chocolates and drinking gin than doing anything which actually involves defending the national interest, but in reality the FCO is a world class asset. It brings many talented and skilled individuals to bear, deploys them across the globe and lets them represent the UK. In practical terms this means there is a wide network of individuals able to build relations with foreign governments and represent the UKs interests.

Its not just a case of talking to a nation once in a blue moon, but instead building a relationship over time, understanding their needs and goals, and trying to bring together both countries on a path of mutual interest. This can take a long time to become truly trusted and valued, and cannot be built up overnight. One of the strengths of the UKs extensive diplomatic network is that it is able to build these relationships in normal times, providing additional abilities to exert influence at more challenging times.

Similarly, the UK is able to put embassies into some nations where it can be seen to exert influence in a manner that other nations cannot. If one were to look at both North Korea and Iran, the UK has been able to maintain some form of diplomatic presence in these countries, meaning a conduit is open for dialogue, discussion and the discrete passing of messages – perhaps seeing the UK as a proxy to other nations. It is perhaps interesting to note that the UK remains hugely involved in the DPRK and wider nuclear issue, in no small part due to the presence of its embassy in Pyongyang.

So, although people are often somewhat unkind about the FCO, it would be fair to view it as a far more valuable organisation than we perhaps give it credit for. It means that a Union Flag is flown daily in many nations that perhaps do not see a British military visit from one year to the next.

More broadly, the UK occupies a truly unique place at the heart of a range of international institutions – from the P5 seat on the UN Security Council, the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth and the G7/G20. There is wider membership to literally dozens of other international organisations across the globe. No other nation has the same combination of membership of all these organisations. This means that the UK is seen as a nation worth talking to and engaging with – not just for its own sake, but also for the realisation that working productively in one forum can see the UK help support goals in other locations. The level of access enjoyed by the UK is perhaps a historical legacy, but it is a very potent one.

It is fair to say that in an international situation, the UK is not only seen as a valuable nation to engage, but also has access to a wide range of diplomatic fora to push its case. This is crucial in helping swing international opinion and build support for an outcome that meets UK interests.

NATO is a good example where the UK is able to wield influence on a political side. Membership of the alliance gives the UK access to a range of senior posts, including the 4* Deputy SACEUR post. Why does this matter? For starters it means that senior UK officials, both civilian and military can work in positions of real influence in this organisation. This means that when policies are drafted, courses of action proposed or commitments considered, the UK is often able to have a suitably qualified person to consider, advise or decide. This is crucial as it can prevent the UK from being committed to a course of action it does not support, and also to ensure that its own people can help shape the course of discussion.

Additionally the UK is perhaps seen as a leading NATO power, so is able to exert influence by having other nations use it as a conduit to test ideas, or build support for their own proposals. Much of NATO policy work is about horse trading and building consensus for the least worst option. Because  the UK has wider diplomatic relationships with many NATO members, the UK can bring value by acting as a sounding board, rallying point or trusted friend to approach other nations to get support for a plan. The challenge though for the UK is to continue to provide enough military assets to the Alliance to be a credible contributor, without overcommitting resources here at the expense of national assets elsewhere.

Love it or loathe it, but the UK is a member of the European Union, and exercises a perhaps surprising level of influence. Partly this is due to nations again seeing the UK as a rallying point – within the EU there are clearly differing visions for how to go forward in the future. It is perhaps fair to say that some of the more powerful nations like France and Germany favour a different approach to other smaller nations. The advantage the UK has is that it can be the rallying point for nations afraid of a proposed policy, but feeling unable to do anything to halt it.

The Commonwealth is a particularly potent organisation, not for what it does on a day to day basis, but for how it enables the UK Government to engage with a truly diverse range of countries. These nations all once formed part of the British Empire, and since the end of empire, have instead chosen to remain in a loosely affiliated international organisation. The Commonwealth has no real political power, nor does it speak in a particularly unified manner-  what it does do though is provide a global talking shop for heads of state to meet and build consensus around a variety of issues.

So, the first thing to take away from the concept of ‘soft power’ is that the UK is an active participant in a very broad range of organisations, and is seen as a party worth talking to by many other nations. We as a nation often do not credit ourselves with the simple fact that other countries value our access, value our presence and value our ability to talk across a range of organisations. We too often forget that our membership of some forums makes us of value to third parties who themselves are not members but who may have a view on something. People want to talk to the UK, not just for what we have to say, but also for what others may wish to say.

The UK is still a world leader when it comes to presence on the diplomatic stage, and its ability to exert influence is greater than some may believe possible. The next part of this series will move on from the traditional diplomatic posts, to a wider look at the more intangible reasons why the UK still exerts soft power influence – this includes geographical location, the interesting legacy of real estate and timezones…