Saturday, 23 February 2013

The not politically correct Angel of Mons? Sandhurst and renaming of buildings...


There was a minor furore recently in some parts of the media over the decision by the British Army to rename Mons Hall, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMA) after the King of Bahrain. This was in response to a generous bequest from the King to pay for an update to the gymnasium, which was apparently in desperate need of an update. There has been opposition from those that claim that the renaming of the building was somehow a snub to the veterans of the battle of Mons, despite there already being a number of memorials on site and elsewhere for the battle, and also there is a history of the RMA naming buildings after generous benefactors.

As Humphrey sees it, the issue is not so much about the renaming, but instead it is about two distinct matters – firstly, the issue of expenditure on historic buildings, and secondly, the issue of training foreign officers at Sandhurst.

On the matter of maintaining the estate, the MOD finds itself in an ever more challenging position. It owns a wide variety of sites across the world of varying age and heritage. Some are considered national icons, while others are listed building which cannot be easily updated or modified. Any change to them requires a lot of money to comply with onerous building regulations. Much of the MOD estate dates back to the late 19th and early 20th Century, and has often not been updated since that point. Anyone familiar with the Gymnasium and Pool at BRNC Dartmouth would recall it has near Victorian conditions, due to the lack of funding to update it. Sadly this is a common problem – for many years the amount of funding available to update buildings and facilities in the MOD has been decreasing. Difficult decisions have had to be made about how this money is best spent, and where it should be prioritised. Rightly, much money has gone on improving living conditions for junior service personnel and also basic training establishments. The amount of money for sites like Sandhurst is often far less than needed to keep it running in full order.

Here then the MOD faces an impossible dilemma – it is restricted in what can be done to update the buildings due to their historic nature. It cannot knock them down and start again, nor can it easily shut the sites and consolidate them elsewhere without incurring vast costs and an enormous outcry from the public, media and Parliament. Instead it has to somehow run them on without sufficient funding to do all the necessary repair work, and keep them in reasonable order and fit for purpose.

That is why bequests such as this are so important – they provide a revenue stream for the site which allows work to be carried out which otherwise would never have been completed. One can only imagine the media generated ‘outrage’ if the MOD had spent £3.5m updating a facility on a site that the media seem to think of as a cross between Hogwarts and an inbred boarding school for posh people.

On this front at least, the RMA has been able to try and secure an update to facilities in return for a small name change, which does seem the least worst course of action under the circumstances.

More broadly, this act once again highlights the unique relationship that exists between the UK, its Military training establishments and the ruling families of many nations. For decades foreign rulers have been sending their sons to the UK to carry out training at all three Service academies (BRNC, RMA and Cranwell). This has led to a situation today where many of the current Royal Families in the Middle East, and also more broadly have been trained in the UK.

This matters because it is a chance for the selected individuals to spend a period of time in their lives when they are not cosseted or treated like a future king, but instead are expected to work hard as a small member of a much larger organisation. The end result is that genuine friendships are forged in the adversity of Brecon or Dartmoor, or over late night bulling parties which then endure for a lifetime. It is clear that many of those rulers in the Middle East today have a fondness of their days in these establishments, which perhaps grows warmer with age and distance from the event. They feel a genuine connection to the UK, and a certain gratitude for giving them this training. This ties into a wider fondness, particularly in the Middle East for UK institutions such as London, the Royal Family and the Military, and helps keep them strongly linked to the UK. One reason why UK influence continues to be as great as it is in the Middle East is in no small part due to so many key individuals undergoing training in the UK.

One advantage the UK has is that its three Service Academies all offer a course that is only one year long, compared to the multi-year predominantly academic courses offered by most other nations. This has the genuine advantage of enabling someone to spend a short time away from home, but still learn relevant military and wider life skills. It is still comparatively rare to find senior foreign rulers trained in the multi-year academies of the US, France or Russia. We should not underestimate just how much of an impact these sites have on training senior Royals, nor the very real advantages for long term British influence are presented by this.

More broadly, sending young royals to these courses helps firm links with the next generation of leaders and rulers in a region which is of critical strategic importance to the UK. It is much easier to encourage nations to buy British equipment, or to have meaningful dialogue when the leader has used our equipment, or has memories of his time and knows the UK opposite number leading the talks. We may mock and scoff at such thoughts, but in the mindset of the Middle East, our Service Academies provide a genuine tool for access and influence that most other nations can only dream of.

So, while it may be tempting to be outraged at this news, let us perhaps consider that in fact it is a sign of the ongoing and enduring relationship of the UK with the Middle East, and that it bodes well for future relationships too. As the UK seeks an ever greater role in the region, particularly as HERRICK draws to a close, relationships at places like RMA Sandhurst will take on ever greater importance. We should mock at our peril... 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Retaining the Reserve - why resignation does not mean the end of the TA as we know it...

Humphrey is travelling again in a location where posting on blogger tends to have non western orientated formatting. This article will be reformatted on his return to the UK.
News today in the media that the Territorial Army (TA) is losing over 1000 personnel per year, at a time when it is supposed to be expanding to meet the Governments remit of having a large reserveforce to meet the Force 2020 structure. This is apparently seen as a disaster for the military,seemingly blows holes in current defence policy.

The reality though seems somewhat more mundane – turnover in the TA (and other reserve forces) has historically been relatively high (some reports placing it as high as 30%). As an organisation, the reserves fall into a very peculiar place when it comes to a recruitment proposition. They are asking someone to join the military, albeit on a part time basis, and be prepared to spend a significant proportion of their spare time working, and then on a regular basis be prepared to deploy on operations, putting their civilian lives on hold with all that that may entail.

When someone joins the regular Armed Forces, they do so in the knowledge that this will provide them with a career, full time employment and a support package which will pay their bills and produce a challenging, but well remunerated way of life.

In the reserve forces, individuals may join for a variety of reasons, which include the chance to be part of the military, to try a new hobby or to simply earn extra cash. Whatever the motivation, the authors personal experience is that there is a high retention rate through basic training as the individuals experience fun new activities for the first time, do something different and enjoy a well designed training programme which is challenging, but delivers a sense of purpose.

The problem is that after achieving the real satisfaction of passing basic training, the issue becomes one not of recruiting, but retaining. As people become more familiar with the reserve way of life, the regular weekends away often prove to be an issue – as the author can personally attest, it takes a lot of moral willpower on a Friday evening to drive to a training location for a weekends working. As time progresses the work will become more routine, and the challenge of learning something new is overtaken by the reality that like any job, some things are actually quite boring. Getting up early on the weekend, then going home tired and cold on Sunday evening ahead of a weeks work is sometimes fun, but often can sap the morale of even the keenest volunteer.

At the same time, external factors begin to play a part – the partner or spouse who was initially keen to see their loved one in uniform, or to see them out of the house, may begin to tire of their regular absences, and put pressure on them to call it a day. Also, as work goes on in the real world, it can often be increasingly difficult to sustain reservist commitment and work at the same time. Many companies do not offer special leave (either paid or unpaid) to Reservists, which means taking two weeks training will often eat into nearly half of someone’s annual leave allowance. Add this to the demands from home, and suddenly its no longer quite as appealing to be a reservist.

Finally, deploying on tour can paradoxically be a reason to no longer want to stay in. Discussions on
the Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) suggest that after a mobilisation, some units see wastage in excess of 50% of those personnel who deployed. This is for many reasons from the obvious – people saw too many difficulties in mobilising for career or family reasons and don’t want to go again, to the less obvious, such as their realising that the deployment was the high point of their time, and that anything after this would be a letdown.

So, the reality is that many reservists see pressures on themselves that regular personnel do not have, and perhaps sometimes struggle to understand. It is not surprising that there is a relatively high turnover of staff in the TA – perhaps the surprise is that it’s as low as it is.

The point that the media seem to have missed is that retention of the TA (and wider reserves) is  well understood, and planned for. Historically no single plan since the cold war has envisaged the entire TA turning out en masse at full manpower for an operation. Even if the Cold War had gone hot, then most publications suggest that up to 25-30% of the manpower may not  have turned up on the day, often for good reasons.

The Army 2020 structure may show a growth of 30,000 in the TA, but this does not mean that 30,000 TA will be ready to deploy immediately on operations, in the same way that there will not be 82,000 regular personnel ready to deploy. Rather it is a planning figure which allows the Army to plan on certain manpower requirements to be available at varying levels of readiness and sustainability and spread across a range of ranks.

The issue is to ensure that sufficient personnel are recruited and retained so that they can deliver in the numbers required. In recent years, the main driver for the TA in some areas has been provision of junior soldiers, such as Privates or Lance Corporals, with a much lower requirement for SNCOs and Officers. Its actually relatively easy to generate junior ranks in the reserves – there is a fairly high influx of recruits, and they will often want to go on tour. If say a unit had a requirement to deploy 50 privates and 10 Sgts, then if after a tour, 30% of the privates quit, then there would still be sufficient manpower for the medium term to generate the Sgts plot of the future.

The reality is that people leave the military at all levels and at different times. There is a much smaller requirement for more senior personnel, so even if people are leaving the TA at a junior rank, then its usually sufficient to ensure that replacements will arrive, and those that are left can take on the more senior roles. The challenge arises when the more experienced people are leaving in such numbers that they cannot be replaced – particularly in specialist areas like medicine or intelligence analysis, where a lot of professional training is required and you cannot just appoint someone in.

So, in reality, although the papers are making out that the military will suffer, in fact this sort of attrition has doubtless been planned for and factored in when making manpower assumptions. People often don’t stay very long in the reserve forces – indeed, a lot of people don’t stay very long in HM Forces full stop. The author has been told that the average length of service in the military is 6-7 years, and a quick look at the very useful DASA stats site shows that there is a high outflow from all three services, even in quiet years without redundancy rounds.

While there are always ways that retention can be improved, it may be worth pondering that if retention was too high, then there would be too many people in the system, with too few opportunities for promotion, and with increasingly little incentive to stay (and thus the retention cycle begins afresh!). The reality is that a turnover of personnel, to bring more junior people in at the bottom is an essential part of recruiting a military force, and to help ensure that the right number of people are available at the right time for promotion.

There are many challenges for the Reserves ahead, particularly as they transition into an employment model which will see far greater calls on their time, and this will require the willingness of both reservists and their employers to be a success. However, just because people are leaving the organisation as anticipated does not mean that the entire structure of Army 2020 is doomed!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Everything must go – the withdrawal from Afghanistan and disposal of MOD equipment

Some newspapers have recently reported that hundreds of vehicles and thousands of ISO containers worth of equipment in Afghanistan could be left behind or scrapped as part of the withdrawal plans to ensure UK forces leave the country by 2015. This has raised eyebrows in some quarters over what may appear to be an example of profligate waste by a seemingly cash strapped department. In reality the authors own view is that is it not only inevitable, but actually rather sensible that not everything in Afghanistan comes back to the UK.

The first point is that all withdrawals of military equipment since time immemorial will result in a detritus of kit being left behind. Things that are too old, too broken or frankly just no longer needed will often be sold on, or scrapped locally, raising a small amount of money into the bargain. One only has to look at the post war drawdowns and withdrawal from various colonies to realise that a lot of equipment is often no longer required once a base shuts down. Its worth remembering that everything is purchased in Defence for a reason, and to meet a specific need, and that if once that need has been discharged, and no other defence use can be found (or funded) then there is no longer any need for the equipment to stay in service. This withdrawal is no different from previous ones, and it is inevitable that there will be kit that simply isn’t needed anymore.

It is of course frustrating to see that a range of what is seemingly perfectly good new vehicles or other equipment are being scrapped, but you need to consider several wider factors. Firstly, a lot of the equipment purchased under ‘Urgent Operational Requirements’ conditions is usually bought purely for use in one theatre only, and is not always suitable for wider use.  Afghanistan is a very specific environment, and its relatively easy to source equipment which can meet the requirements of a hot, dusty and unforgiving climate where the environment is well known and understood. This makes off the shelf purchases much easier. The issue is when equipment is needed to work across the entire range of environments where the UK may operate, from the jungle to the Arctic, and where kit is less usable. There not much point retaining UOR kit in service where it has been purchased to meet the needs of an Afghan environment if it can’t be used as an asset for wider contingency operations.

A lot of these will be needed in the HERRICK withdrawal (taken from

In addition, UOR equipment is very good for HERRICK (or TELIC previously) but there is a significant difference between supporting a small number of vehicles for a specified operation and keeping them in a general usage pool. All of the support costs for UOR equipment is paid for separately from normal defence equipment support funding, which means that the Treasury is essentially paying directly for it to be purchased and maintained. When an operation comes to an end, a decision needs to be taken about whether that equipment has utility in the wider military environment (the so-called ‘bringing equipment into core’ process). If the equipment is to be run on, then the MOD will become liable for funding it as part of the wider equipment support programme – funding all the spares, upgrades and taking what has been a one theatre system and suddenly making it suitable for wider defence use. This is not cheap – don’t underestimate the hugely demanding nature of operations, and how many demands are put on vehicles and equipment. Many of the vehicles will need huge upgrades and refits, all of which comes at a price, and out of an already tight budget.

In the case of Afghanistan, it is probably fair to say that all the UOR equipment purchased has been constantly looked at with a wary eye to decide not only whether it may have potential for long term future use in the UK, but also whether the MOD can afford to do this. There are lots of UOR success stories, and one only has to look at the sort of equipment fielded by troops on HERRICK to realise that the British Army of today, on operations at least, has probably never been better equipped. But its also worth remembering that in terms of numbers, HERRICK has only taken up the best part of 2-3 brigades of troops in terms of equipment (the in use kit plus training elements plus a small reserve). This means that if a decision is made to bring it into core, then suddenly funding has to be found for it, possibly at a cost of other upgrades, and this may reduce funding for other army wide upgrade programmes. Also, there are costs associated with either running on small legacy fleets of equipment, which could at best support a small number of army units, or there are costs associated with funding increased procurement to make vehicles the default standard across the entire Army. Either way, there is a bill associated with bringing UOR equipment into service after an operation.

The state of the equipment is also worth considering too – military assets are worked hard on operations and will often require a vast amount of repair to bring them back up to standard. For UOR equipment, the question is whether it is actually worth funding this, particularly if it is diverting money away from core equipment programme options which could bring new vehicles into service for an army wide solution. Is it perhaps better to consider that disposal will be a more cost effective  means of getting the Army new vehicles into service, rather than relying on a ‘Frankenstein fleet’ of diverse vehicles which were purchased in a hurry and which are not necessarily the ideal solution for all the UKs military commitments?

One final point to consider is the sheer challenge of recovering from HERRICK. It’s easy to forget that the UK (and NATO) will have a major challenge on their hands to recover all the various assets moved into place over the last 12 years. The flow of UK equipment and assets into theatre has been slow and steady, occasionally ramping up for surges in troop numbers. Now though, the UK is going to have to bring out a significantly larger force plus equipment in a very short timeframe (barely two years) and this will place great strain on wider UK logistical capabilities. There has had to be a lot of diplomatic work done to ensure the withdrawal has a range of routes to use to pull out the equipment. The UK will have to use a variety of routes and means of withdrawal and plan to do so in a manner which allows UK troops to continue in combat and mentoring roles for some time to come. This is a really complex operation, and one which once again demonstrates the value of strong logistical capabilities as a force enabler. Each piece of equipment brought home will cost the taxpayer money, and it does seem to be a less than effective use of time and resources to bring equipment home that will only be scrapped on its return. Far better to leave and dispose of it locally if possible. Also, the range of vehicles and equipment in place that may not be required could also provide good opportunities for defence sales to other nations in the region, which in turn may lead to good export opportunities for UK companies to sustain and increase these assets.

An example of UOR procurement at work - the Foxhound armoured vehicle (copyright

So, while it is easy to think that the UK is once again wasting money by disposing of assets in Afghanistan, in reality this is probably the most cost effective solution. It also highlights the value of the UOR system which has allowed the UK to build up a theatre specific force over the last 10 years which has been well equipped with weapons, vehicles and other kit that is designed to meet the unique operational characteristics of Afghanistan. Speaking to peers from other nations, Humphrey has found that many of them genuinely envy the UOR system and see it as a model of success. While it is easy to say that the UK has failed by not providing equipment that could do certain things, the author sees UORs as a very good way of meeting requirements that could not have been reasonably foreseen in advance.

One only has to look at the changing nature of tactics in HERRICK, and the rapidly advancing science of IED protection to realise that much of the equipment used today wasn’t even thought of 10 years ago. Its’ sadly taken a war and incredible courage by EOD operators to develop tactics and equipment now that can meet this threat. The beauty of the UOR system is that it provides a means to support this, which can produce quickly, and which is not hidebound by the usual procurement rules. There are downsides to this (it costs more, support solutions are not always for the long term and it may be very theatre specific), but overall it works well.  A good summary of the UOR process, and just how much has been spent in various areas can be found over at the Think Defence website (

Perhaps the best way to view it is to see the MOD as providing the best possible equipment relative to budgets to ensure the UK is able to conduct initial entry to an environment and then operate for a short period of time. As the operation develops, the UOR process provides a means to develop and procure the theatre specific kit that meets the specific requirements of the operation in question. It’s a good system and one which we should be very proud of – in particular we should be very proud of the civil servants and military staff in the DE&S who are the unsung heros here. They’ve never got the recognition they deserve in working very long hours to bring this equipment into service and deliver it, often in a very short timeframe. We should also be very proud of the ability of British industry to provide technical solutions to many of the UORs out there, and this is a testament to the versatility of the UK defence and scientific sector to deliver.

So, while it may appear to be a strange act at first to dispose of equipment, in reality this seems to be something which makes quite a lot of sense for the MOD and the UK taxpayer as a whole. The withdrawal from HERRICK is going to be a real challenge, and will in time be worthy of accolades for the successful withdrawal of 10,000 troops, much of their equipment and kit, and recovering it from a landlocked country thousands of miles away, to return them safely home. It may not be high profile or sexy in the eyes of some people, but it once again demonstrates some excellent British success stories.  

Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Most Expensive Shopping List Part Two - 'Show Me the Money'

At the end of Part One, we’d taken a look at the size of the 10 year equipment programme and noted the sheer level of funding involved, the complexity of the challenge in supporting a UK industrial base and maintaining world class military capability  and also the length of time involved in procurement. On paper it is positive news that a 10 year programme exists, on paper at least, which will enable the MOD to push forward an equipment programme with some certainty and allow industry to plan with a reasonable level of confidence. In Part Two, Humphrey intends to focus on the bigger picture and look at some of the challenges and risks which may be associated with the programme.

The first thing to note is the announcement of a reserve of funding (some £4 billion) to cope with project cost increases, and a further contingency fund of some £8 billion over the period to allow spending on currently uncommitted items. On paper both of these are welcome announcements. One of the challenges of planning in the past has been the need to shift money from project to project in order to meet in year savings challenges, and wider fiscal growth.  This has often led to issues such as the delaying of carrier construction in order to make financial savings in year, but which can have significant knock on effects elsewhere on the programme.

The existence of the contingency funding is welcome, if only to reduce the likely impact on programmes by planning rounds, and hopefully reduce the impact on entry to service or equipment numbers. Similarly the existence of an £8 billion ‘pot’ ensures that if emerging requirements are identified, then in theory they could be funded – such as (hypothetically) a new maritime patrol aircraft.

The issue isn’t that these funds exist, but whether there is sufficient funding in them to meet the likely future demands on the equipment programme. The NAO report which underpins the programme was very clear that the programme would work while funding assumptions remained intact. If anything changed beyond those assumptions, then all bets were off. For instance, the NAO notes that a rise in inflation of just 0.5% beyond assumptions would see costs in the 10 year programme rise by £3.7 billion. This would all but wipe out the fund, and that is before any other unexpected cost growth is factored in.

Similarly, the NAO also notes that the budget is built around some fairly optimistic assumptions on both inflation (likely to be 2.7%) and also budget growth. The report notes on page 21 that the department is planning on a total budget uplift of 3.7% over the period in order to properly fund this programme. The report provides a series of tables which show that a 1.7% uplift would result in an £8 billion deficit to the equipment programme. In other words, if planned spending doesn’t meet expectations then there is likely to be further rounds of cuts as the MOD tries to balance the budget again. The report is similarly concerning when noting that even small cost growth would eat into the £8 billion allocated, and run the real risk of damaging existing procurement. This is a critical point to note – namely the MOD has only got a balanced 10 year programme if the funding matches the aspirations, and as seen in recent political debates, this is not yet 100% certain.

It is similarly worth noting that this period will encompass at least two General Elections and two Strategic Defence Reviews – and as events show, it is hard to predict what the world may look like by the time of the 2020 SDR.

The last key point to note is that the equipment support programme has apparently not been analysed by the NAO to the same level of rigour, and there may be further potential for cost growth there that has not been picked up. So, there is again no guarantee that the funding will be sufficient to support all requirements in the support world, particularly if costs grow or inflation increases above expectation.

So, in summary, while the outline programme looks good on paper, in reality it is dependent on a lot of things working to plan to be met. What this may mean is that the MOD finds itself in a challenging financial situation again in a few years if spending rounds, cost growth and the wider economic situation are not as good as planned.

One comment on part one of this article asked why the MOD didn’t save money by buying equipment ‘off the shelf’ rather than going for expensive bespoke designs. This on paper seems a reasonable request, after all one only has to flick through a copy of Janes Defence Weekly to see dozens of adverts for all kinds of military hardware, enticingly priced to attract buyers.

The issue with buying ‘off the shelf’ is that often the equipment may be designed to work in specific environments, or perform to certain standards. Similarly, it may not be completely interoperable with existing kit – one of the challenges of buying modern equipment is not so much the procurement phase, but the integration phase, and ensuring that everything works to plan. In the case of the UK, defence planning requires equipment which can be used across pretty much every climatic extreme, from the Arctic to the Desert. What is essential is that equipment is able to meet these requirements and work as intended, and also be interoperable with existing equipment. In addition, the equipment purchased needs to be able to meet existing Defence and NATO performance standards ( a very, very, dull subject, but something which is utterly essential), and then having done this be usable by HM Forces and supportable by  supply chain.

Sometimes this works, and works very well. The UOR process is in reality a very good example of where off the shelf purchases are able to meet a specific need or gap and address it for a short period of time. What has often been found though is that while some UOR kit is brilliant and is often then extended for wider service, other equipment is less than useful once it is taken out of theatre. A good example would be some of the armoured vehicles purchased for both Iraq and Afghanistan, which did an excellent job in the campaign, but which were not suitable for wider HM forces requirements elsewhere. Similarly, the process of taking UORs and upgrading them to be core equipment can often be expensive, as proper defence supply chains, upgrade paths, through life management and all the other dull, boring and utterly vital parts of sustaining a military capability come into play.

So, yes off the shelf sometimes works well, but the reality is that often what is commercially available doesn’t always meet the needs of the customer for the full gambit of requirements. Herein lies the dilemma – does the MOD procure something that may be an 80% solution, knowing that it is vastly cheaper than a bespoke solution, but know that it cannot do the same range of tasks, and that in the worst case scenario, its employment may result in the injury death of UK personnel if used on something it cannot do, but a bespoke solution could have done? There is no easy answer to this question, and it is perhaps not solvable at all.

However one looks at it though, there are some reasons to be positive as we look to the next 10 years. Firstly, the MOD has finally gotten through much of the financial pain of the last few years, and is seemingly (for a while at least) in a slightly more stable position (even if it could be undermined by wider factors). Secondly, the UK will remain able to procure mostly home built technology which gives assurances of supply, and no problem with securing support at a distance for the most complex systems. Never forget that the cost of buying off the shelf and overseas is that a nation is then reliant on another to continue to support the supply chain and approve export licences for the duration of the lifetime of the equipment. If the UK were to source significant quantities of complex equipment from overseas then it comes at a reduced ability to act independently of other nations who may not always remain aligned with UK interests.

Finally there is now some certainty for industry who will at least be able to plan with a somewhat higher level of certainty that equipment will, or will not, be likely to enter service. This means that they can make investment in some areas, and take on employees and grow as required. Never underestimate the importance of the UK defence industry to wider national security as a whole.

So, the next 10 years will be interesting, and may yet prove immensely challenging. But, the more interesting question may be to ask what the 2023-2033 equipment programme will look like, and what may, or may not, feature in the next iteration of this document?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A most expensive shopping list - thoughts on the 10 year procurement plan

Last week the MOD announced plans for the equipment programme for the next 10 years (HERE) which ostensibly sets out the broad direction and levels of investment in UK defence capabilities over the next decade or so. This total spending plan covers over £160 billion in programmed funds, which cover everything from next generation nuclear reactors through to combat aircraft and logistics vehicles. It is also critical to note that this is not £160 billion of money just for procurement – in fact barely half the funding announced will be going on new procurement of capability (some £86 billion according to the National Audit Office), while the balance will go on equipment support and maintenance of the capability.

Humphrey took a keen interest in this announcement, and in particular the NAO report which underpins it (HERE) Due to time constraints, this article is being split into two shorter parts, but its aim is to try and look in a little more depth at what this announcement may mean for longer term procurement and support over the next 10 years.

The first thing to draw from this plan is to understand how expensive defence is, and how much has had to be slashed from the budget. The MOD and NAO is quite candid in noting that there was a likely disparity of some £74 billion in costs between planned funding, and projected costs over this time. What this means in real terms is that the MOD has had to apply some fairly significant reductions, deferments, descoping, early retirement without replacement or outright scrapping of procurement during this period to make the sums balance. That in itself is not an easy task, nor should it be underestimated how much effort would have gone into achieving this current situation where the sums seem to add up (more on that later).

Funding Defence properly is a seriously expensive business. This may seem a statement of the obvious but it is worth considering – when one looks at the detailed NAO report, particularly the table on Page Seven, there is a clear breakdown of how much money is being spent on procurement, support and other costs. With salaries stripped out of the mix, suddenly it becomes clear that the vast chunk of defence expenditure is dedicated to buying, or maintaining defence equipment. In fact, the total amount of either the equipment budget or the support budget each year is larger than most nations entire defence budgets. This gives a sense of scale that for all the cuts, the UK remains a significant player on defence expenditure.

The next issue is the realisation that if the UK wants to play a major role in international affairs, and back this with a global military provided with equipment produced at home, then it comes with a high price tag. The UK military capability is underpinned by a strong home defence industry which provides world leading capabilities in a wide range of areas. The challenge for the MOD is to balance the requirement to provide a reasonable level of military capability to meet likely operational tasks, while setting this against the wider requirement to sustain a high tech defence industry which creates wealth and valuable skilled jobs. There is no point investing in high capability military equipment overseas, if in doing so you destroy an indigenous defence industry and remove the ability to design, build, deliver and support said capability at home. So, any budget has to be a balancing act between delivering value for money, but also considering wider domestic political interests as well.

One thing that this document should (but sadly won’t) do is end the tedious process of internet ‘wishlisting’, whereby people blithely come up with statements about how the UK should be buying hundreds of warships for the future. This document sets out nicely how the defence budget is a closed system – while it would theoretically be possible to invest in dozens of new warships, it comes at the cost of the loss of vast swathes of wider defence capability and industry. It is perhaps unfortunate that people continue to believe that money can be magically injected into the system to fund their pet wishlist. The harsh reality is that the UK is the 4th largest defence spending nation in the world, and even spending close to 50% of its annual defence budget on procurement and support, it can still ‘only’ find £160 billion to spend in the next 10 years.

The next point worth considering is the sheer cost of equipment support. People often forget just how expensive military equipment is to operate these days. There is almost a 1:1 ratio between every pound projected to be spent on procurement, and every pound on equipment support over the next 10 years. This is again a key point – if you want to operate a world class military force, you need to be prepared to invest as heavily in supporting, upgrading and maintaining the military as you are in buying new shiny equipment in the first place. The days when equipment had short lifecycles has probably gone forever. Instead its fair to say that almost all countries will now see as much value in running on vehicles, planes and ships to the point where it no longer makes economic sense to do so as they will in purchasing new equipment. In the UK for instance, in the space of 40 years we’ve gone from seeing fast jets in service for 5-10 years, to seeing Tornado have a nearly 40 year lifespan.

One useful thought is that when looking at the cost of other nations procurement budgets and comparing them to the UK, it is worth looking at the size of the support budget that goes with this. It is a reality that many nations have yet to really grasp the concept that first rate equipment needs first rate support solutions, from timely purchasing of spares, through to delivery of long term support and maintenance contracts.

 So, at the end of the first part of the article, its worth noting that despite a lot of cuts, there remains a vast amount of funding committed to the long term support of the UK military. Its also worth noting that this plan has yet to survive contact with at least two Strategic Defence Reviews and at least one major spending review. In the next part of this article, it will look a little more at some of the funding figures quoted and consider what the implications may be.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Lessons from Mali and implications for the UK.


So, a few weeks after an initial intervention involving just two RAF C17s, the UK has now found itself committing a significantly higher number of troops, equipment and capabilities into play in Mali and the wider West Africa region in support of French operations there. At home, the debate suddenly seems to have intensified over the size of the Defence budget, and how much national treasure needs to be spent on security. There have been many complex issues discussed, and in this piece, Humphrey wants to try and put out some wider thoughts about what the Mali intervention may mean.

The first and foremost lesson is very simple – namely that the UK has quite clearly retained a superb ability to deploy military personnel on operations around the world, even in areas where there is no traditional UK support network at very short notice. The initial deployment of C17s showed the real value of 99 Squadron, while wider deployment of Sentinel, ISTAR assets and provision of a RORO ferry shows how versatile these assets are.  In particular, Sentinel appears to be performing particularly well, and one wonders whether a renewed case is being made for its retention beyond 2015.

It is all too easy to knock the UK and say that it has ceased to be a credible military power, but in reality very few nations are capable of achieving what the UK has done in recent weeks, much less while doing this and supporting all the other myriad of operations too. Mali appears (currently at least) to be another demonstration that the assumptions made during the SDSR about force level requirements appear to be about right – namely that the UK can engage on one enduring operation and still have plenty of resources spare for other discretionary operations of choice.

The next lesson is  that you get the capability that you pay for – this may sound obvious but in fact the Mali operation has perhaps highlighted the significant differences in capability between the UK and French forces. Over the years Humphrey has noticed a regular trend of internet sites or media articles comparing the UK and France and noting that both nations spend similar amounts on Defence, but that the French appeared to have far more high profile capability than the UK (e.g. Rafale and the Charles De Gaulle CVN). The question is often asked ‘why’?
UK French co-operation in Africa (Copyright MOD)

Humphrey would argue that the answer to the question is being seen in Mali now – namely that the French military, perhaps for reasons of Gallic pride and industrial protection, has spent many years investing in some fairly spectacular front line capability such as a CVN. This is glamorous and a good example of French industry at work. However, what has been shown is that there are glaring gaps in French capability, and their ability to respond rapidly to a crisis. The list of UK assets which have been deployed are mainly in the logistics area, the so-called ‘enabling assets’. These are not glamorous, high profile and their people rarely get the attention or praise that they deserve. Logistical work, or strategic airlift though is crucial to the ability to sustain military power at distance. What we have seen here is that the French military lacks the sovereign capability to be able to conduct a discretionary intervention operation without a significant level of external support.

The most telling sign is on reading that the UK considered deploying a Joint Force Logistics HQ, which would have been able to co-ordinate the supply and support effort for the operation. The fact that the French potentially needed this capability does not inspire enormous confidence in their ability to support operations globally. Similarly, the incredible value of the MOD RORO fleet, which have now been assigned to support operations by providing strategic lift to the French military has also been shown again. The author maintains that the procurement of these vessels was an extremely sensible decision - particularly given that the French navy is currently resorting to using LHDs to conduct strategic lift, due to its own lack of RORO assets.

This is perhaps another key point – the French military is not currently committed to any high profile operations other than Mali, yet its military seems to be unable to cope without support. The UK remains engaged in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, with a significant draw on resources, yet has sufficient spare capacity to generate some very useful assets at short notice. The author would argue that the operation in Mali is a vindication of the UK investment in less glamorous capability areas like logistics in the last few years. It has meant that the UK is able to provide meaningful support at considerable distance from the homeland, and do so without compromising other operations.

It is perhaps ironic that people have spent years arguing on the Internet and elsewhere that defence cuts have made the UK military too small to matter anymore, but somehow the moment we find resources and capabilities to deploy on operations, arguments quickly change to the idea that the UK is overcommitted. Providing this operation goes on for a short amount of time, then there is almost certainly no reason why it cannot be supported, and it sits as a very good example of how SDSR vindicates the concept of discrete interventionary operations.

In terms of the wider picture, a key lesson highlighted here is the value of trainers, and the legacy of the British Empire. For many years the UK maintained training teams in former colonies in West Africa and elsewhere to capacity build for the military (the so-called British Military Advisory Training Teams – BMATTS to some, but more recently retitled into new names). Defence cuts and a post imperial withdrawal have massively reduced this footprint in the region. Now though it appears that the UK will be re-deploying training teams across the English speaking regions of West Africa, as part of efforts to help capacity build in regional armies ahead of their deployment into Mali.

A key lesson here may well be that firstly the UK could see renewed value in the funding of training teams. While the deployment of 20-30 people in a country to train SNCOs and Officers may seem a questionable use of public money to some, the ability to help generate a well-trained, disciplined and politically reliable and capable military in the region is invaluable. In future, one must wonder whether the post HERRICK Army may find resources to deploy small numbers of training teams into the region (as perhaps hinted at in public speeches by CDS) and try to increase the capacity of these forces. After all, in the long run it is probably vastly cheaper to run a 20 man training team for 20 years than it is to deploy 300 personnel plus equipment into the region to act as fire-fighters. One wonders if there may be a quiet reversal on the reduction in training teams, and a renewed UK presence in many regions of Africa where we have long been absent.

It is likely that the operation will have gone a long way to proving the concept of Anglo-French military co-operation. Although the two nations are similar in size and capability, it is probably fair to say that over the years, there has not been as much co-operation as there could be. Recent work to bring the forces together on exercises has helped, but it is only by going on a real operation that you can start to iron out the bugs and really forge true working relationships. This will go a long way to helping improve the overall joint capability between the two countries, although it does seem that the French are perhaps far more reliant on external support than had previously been realised. In turn this work helps provide a meaningful and useful demonstration to other nations like the US that European powers are still willing to stand up and generate meaningful military contributions. When one considers both this, and the Libya operation have involved far less US assets than perhaps previous operations did, then perhaps one has reason to feel more optimistic about European nations pulling their weight in military operations in future.

The question for the French is firstly, what impact will this operation have on their equipment programme? It is almost inevitable that there will be some significant ‘lessons identified’ drawn up from this, and they may well highlight the lack of strategic airlift, reduced sealift, seemingly weak logistical capability. All of these will require rectification, particularly while France retains a network of military facilities across the globe. The question is where does the money come from to fill the gaps? In reality there is unlikely to be a meaningful increase in French defence spending, which in turn means new acquisition will have to be drawn at the expense of more traditional military capability. The fact remains though that at present this operation has perhaps cruelly exposed chinks in French military capability that do need to be addressed.

French vehicles in an RAF C17 (Copyright MOD)

It is possible that President Hollande may try to go down the road of the UK, putting together smaller armed forces, but ones which are incredibly versatile and deployable. This is perhaps a lesson often forgotten by the British, that while we are incredibly quick to slag ourselves off due to a perceived lack of capability, in reality the current UK military structure is probably more deployable and effective than at any point in its history. As an island nation, there is no point in having hundreds of tanks, or dozens of jet aircraft if you don’t have the ability to deploy them to where the threat may be. If you were to look at the immediate post-Cold War armed forces, and compare them to today’s French military, one could easily see similarities. On paper, a large military with complex capabilities, but which struggles to deploy a substantial land force at distance from the home base (e.g. Operation Desert Storm). The defence reviews of the 1990s and 2000s may well have reduced the front line numerical strength of the military, but what is left is far more usable than before. Humphrey continues to maintain that man for man, the UK is probably one of the most effective and capable military forces on the planet for the role in which it wants to employ its armed forces. A lot of what has occurred in Africa could not have happened without the acquisition of capabilities in the 1998 SDR and beyond. Humphrey would go so far as to argue that had this operation occurred 20 years ago, then the UK could probably not have supported it in the way it has today. For confirmation of this, it is well worth reading the latest press release from the MOD (HERE) which talks about the key role played by the UK military in logistical support. This is a capability which did not exist 15 years ago (or rather it did exist until the Belfast aircraft was scrapped in the 1970s, but has since been regenerated!). One rather feels that the French Government is likely to start asking some similarly probing questions of its own level of military capability too.

The final challenge the French will face is determining the point at which they can withdraw from kinetic military operations and instead focus on capacity building. It is ever more challenging to draw a clear line marking the end of war, and start of peace. In Mali, they appear to be having rapid success now against a rebel force which posses little in the way of heavy anti-armour capability, but what happens if there is a proliferation of IEDs or other such capabilities? The French may well find themselves having won a ‘war’ but sucked into a very bloody ‘peace’ without a clear end state. The real worry may be that having extracted themselves from Afghanistan, they now find themselves embroiled in a conflict in their traditional sphere of influence, but with no easy means of extraction, and no clear path to ‘victory’.