Friday, 29 March 2013

Is rationalising rationale? Thoughts on the RAF drawdown.


There have been several announcements this week about future developments for Defence, and in particular the RAF. Many of them were bundled under the announcement entitled ‘Defence Rationalisation’ which as a Parliamentary statement seemed to have got relatively little public attention, despite highlighting some significant changes to the MOD footprint in the UK.

The first element of the announcements was the move to shut at least one RAF airfield (RAF Church Fenton) and close down flying operations at other sites such as RAF Wyton. This collective move will lead to a significant reduction in the overall number of military airfields in the UK conducting training and other sorties. On the one hand this is probably a sensible realism measure, but on the other there was inevitable disappointment at the ending of flying operations on many sites, and the inevitable closures to follow. This move though highlights the challenge facing MOD -  a few years ago the authors remembers reading about a potential contract to handle all airfield operations in the UK, and it stating that nearly 120 airfields conducted flying operations. This was not that long ago (under 10 years), and perhaps shows that despite how many sites have closed since the end of the Cold War, there is still (even after SDSR) a very substantial real estate across the UK used for flying. The MOD challenge for many years has been managing an estate that is fundamentally a legacy estate – if you look at the sites used by the RAF and the other services, they all seem to have one thing in common which is that they were usually WW2 era (or pre-dated WW2) and that they’ve been in near continuous operations since then. The author is struggling to think of (and would delighted to be corrected on) a single RAF airfield built from new since WW2.

What this means is that for decades the MOD has had far more airfields than it has realistically needed, and which probably haven’t been used to the most economic effect. While in the early Cold War this made eminent sense, as quite literally dozens of airfields needed to be available as dispersals for the V-Force in the event of war. Similarly, with larger (and far less capable) aircraft fleets in service, there was a need for a large training and support pipeline, which in turn led to requirements for a range of sites in use. Finally, the very real threat from the Warsaw Pact drove requirements for dispersed sites where interceptors and other aircraft could be dispersed to in order to ensure a full defence of the UK could be mounted. One only has to look at the size and structure of the RAF in 1990 to realise how extensive and challenging the air defence & strike requirements were back then.

But, times have changed and the challenge today is not about defending the homeland, but about mounting operations at a long distance from home. The threat from air attack to UK airbases is almost non-existent, and there is no need to disperse a V Force anymore. Similarly with only two fast jet fleets in service, and both eventually becoming single seat aircraft, the need for a large training pipeline is much smaller than before. While many of these sites remained open, they consumed scarce funding to keep the airfields to an operational standard. Its not just a case of putting some tarmac down and letting planes fly off it – airbases are expensive and challenging to operate safely and effectively. This authors very personal view is that in a time when capability is about deployment, it is better to invest in a small number of high quality facilities used to best effect, than spend precious resources maintaining large numbers of legacy sites that may not be used fully.


RAF Marham - taken from
And then there were three...

One of the key parts of the announcement was the move by the RAF to concentrate its fast jet force on just three sites – RAF Conningsby (Typhoon), Marham (Tornado / JSF) and Lossiemouth (Tornado / Typhoon). In practical terms this means that the future RAF fast jet force is going to be operating out of just three airfields, plus a very small number of secondary sites such as RAF Leeming and Valley.

This announcement highlights the ever increasing importance of Lossiemouth to the RAF. While there has been criticism of the decision to cease flying at both Leuchars and Kinloss, it is notable that both airfields will reportedly remain open as diversion airfields on safety grounds. Scotland may have lost two airbases, but it will be home to well over one third of the future RAF fast jet fleet.

Also, the news that JSF will be based in Marham shows just how small the initial JSF buy is likely to be. At present Marham is home to about three squadrons of Tornado GR4s, and arguably has little space left to grow forces. This implies that the future initial JSF fleet, including both the RN and RAF component will be at best 3-4 squadrons strong, plus the OCU. It is increasingly clear that there will be very few airframes available for the JSF fleet, at least at first, and that the UK will be taking a significant reduction in airframe numbers overall. One only has to consider that the GR4 fleet is still some 100 out of 140 original airframes strong – even with improved serviceability, and the ability of Typhoon to conduct a ground attack role, there will still be far fewer airframes available. It does make one wonder just how many aircraft will see service onboard HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, given that any maritime deployment of 12 airframes will likely represent nearly 25% of the JSF force.

On a personal level, Humphrey is somewhat sanguine about the reduction in operating bases – it is easy to get emotional about locations where aircraft once flew, but the world has changed and the equipment in service to day is infinitely more capable (and expensive!) than its predecessors. Given it is likely to be deployed overseas, it is arguably far more important to focus on the maintenance of expeditionary warfare capabilities such as logistics, engineering and all the other essential and very unglamorous elements of capability that the RAF has chosen to invest in.

While the author can see the argument for retention of widespread airfield capability should a threat emerge and the RAF has to grow again, one has to consider the sheer lead times involved in fast jet procurement these days. Talking to one area involved in fast jet production, he was astounded to learn that it can take 2-3 years lead time for all the high tech components to be manufactured and built together. Aircraft assembly these days is a very complex and precise business, and the ability to rapidly surge airframe construction simply doesn’t exist. For instance in France, Dassault is struggling to sustain an average production of 12 Rafale airframes per year from its plant. So, while it is easy to want to hold back capability to grow an airforce in an emergency, the reality of todays operations is that we need to fight with what we have. By the time the reinforcements arrive, the crisis will be long over.

SAR Debate

Perhaps the most emotional of all the announcements this week was the news that the provision of Search and Rescue (SAR) is to be taken over by a private company (Bristows) in 2016. This has led to widespread media concerns, and if you read some quarters of the internet, some suggestions that are patently absurd in nature.

The SAR decision is one of those announcements which makes perfect sense, but which it is very hard to win support for due to the emotive nature of the subject. Formed in WW2 to rescue downed aircrew, the military have spent many years rescuing not only civilians, but also crashed pilots around the shores of the UK. In the early Cold War years, when aircraft attrition was far higher than it is now it made a lot of sense for the military to be involved. But these days, some 97% of call outs are for civilian purposes and not military purposes. The reduced number of aircraft attrition, fewer accidents and also bluntly fewer planes in the air means that there is a vastly reduced requirement for the purely military aspect of SAR. Humphrey would go so far as to say that were SAR being invented today, it is extremely hard to see the military wanting to get involved in it due to the almost non existent military nature of the role.

The reality is that Bristows are a UK company (albeit ones with a US parent company) who have been running SAR operations in the UK for over thirty years. During this time they have provided the Coastguard with their SAR capability and also done a wide range of other jobs too. Their aircrew have conducted themselves with the same level of incredible courage and bravery as seen by the military SAR force, although with far less publicity or attention. If they can provide new aircraft that are cheaper to run than the Seaking, and do the job for less cost due to more efficient manpower useage (no secondary duties, branch career plots, wider roles, out of area deployments – just SAR pure and simple), then this is probably a very good result for the taxpayer. While the author has seen snide comments on the Internet about the idea that people in distress will have to provide credit card details prior to rescue, the reality is that everyone in the UK already pays for SAR services through our tax bills which fund the MOD. Its not that a service that was genuinely ‘free’ is going to charge funding. Bluntly, having seen some of the excuses employed for calling up SAR, this author is minded to support charging idiots who think that SAR exists as a kind of free taxi cab to save them a long walk home when their lack of planning and preparation meant others having to risk their lives. Perhaps it may encourage some to think before going into the mountains or out to sea.

Its also important to realise that this announcement doesn’t take away the wider CSAR role (which remains utterly nascent in nature, and is in reality likely to be provided by allies), and it doesn’t stop the likelihood of localised SAR rescue when required. What it is doing is providing a more sensible and cost effective approach to a service which is to all intents and purposes a civilian emergency service now.

Ultimately, while emotionally it will be hard to see the end of this era, it does not mean that we are no longer doing something, its just being done differently. One only has to look at the way in which other duties have been outsourced to the private sector over the years, and ultimately provided a more cost effective way of doing things (e.g. SERCO for tugs and other operators for range safety duties). In a smaller military budget, the ability to preserve funding for operational capability is crucial – if outsourcing SAR frees up room in the budget for other purposes (or even to be sacrificed in cuts so that other things are not cut), then this is a result. In this very challenging era of austerity, we need to be as objective as possible about what it is we ask Defence to do. The papers constantly complain that Defence isn’t getting value for money, yet when it seeks to do so by divesting itself of a largely legacy role, it is attacked for doing so.

RAF SAR Seaking

Off with the OWOB?

The last interesting snippet was news in the Telegraph complaining that the Old War Office is to be disposed of, and that this nation is now a disgrace for getting rid of our heritage. Apparently losing the OWOB means that the UK is no longer a proud nation capable of getting things done, or some other such nonsense.

As anyone who has ever been in the OWOB will tell you, it’s a lovely building from the outside, but on the inside it is a decrepit, fairly depressing place to be. There is no sense of history there, beyond perhaps a couple of the wood panelled conference rooms. It is in poor condition, floods, and is generally a building which has been neglected far past the point when it is economical to make use of it. While it is tempting to complain about a loss of heritage, one has to wonder the reaction of the Telegraph were it to find out that the MOD planned to spend scarce resources refurbishing the building, particularly when chunks of Main Building lie empty.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the story – the MOD has made incredible efforts to reduce its presence in London from some 20 buildings in the 1990s to just two today, and likely only one shortly. Rather than praising MOD for reducing its footprint (part of which was made possible by the much criticised refurbishment), they are now attacked for losing sight of our heritage.

The reality of the OWOB is that in a building where much sensitive work takes place, it is simply not somewhere which the public could appreciate or enjoy. There are many great stories to be told of what has gone on there in the past, and the decisions that were taken. Indeed when the author worked in the building, the rumour was that you could still see where Christine Keelers high heels had caused damage in the Secretary of States private lift…

It would surely make much more sense to dispose of this great building to a firm that could invest the time and money it really needs to bring it back up to a state of restored grandeur. Let the public see the 2nd floor conference rooms, and the offices of the great figures of history. There is no way this can be done while the building remains in Government hands, so let us take a bold step and pass the heritage of the nation on so that the nation itself can view its heritage.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Not a penny more, not a penny less? The Armed Forces Pay Review

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body (AFPRB) issued its annual report recently, outlining its case for a pay rise for the armed forces as the public sector pay freeze slowly begins a near glacial pace of melting. The top level recommendation that they receive 1% pay rise and a small increase to X Factor (the figure which provides a compensation for the challenges of service life relative to civilian life) was eventually accepted in full, following a brief political spat and some odd allegations that because the head of the committee was coming to the end of their fixed tenure, he was being ‘fired’.

The report is interesting in several ways, not just because it helps reaffirm to all serving personnel they are receiving a pay rise, but also because of some of the nuggets of information it contains about wider service issues.

The first take home from the report is that British military personnel are incredibly expensive to employ. Following the implementation of the review, the cheapest trained private / able seaman will be on a salary of £17,765 per year, plus allowances and hugely subsidised accommodation and food. The salary scale for the higher payband now runs from £17,765 through to £29,357 for a level 9 private. Anyone deploying on OP HERRICK will receive a further £5,000 tax free bonus, plus operational allowances. By the time you reach Sgt level, the payband ranges from £33 - £37,000 per year plus allowances.

The clear message to be seen here is that the easiest way to make savings measures is to cut manpower levels. The military have become an extraordinarily expensive asset to employ, and one has to wonder whether we are possibly reaching the point where the wages bill is likely to become almost unaffordable within current budget levels.

The problem we see here is that the military are perhaps a victim of their own success – well paid, no one would want to give them a pay cut willingly – indeed one only has to look at the recent budget to see the view that the military should not be constrained by wider public sector pay restraint. At the same time though, the more the salary grows, the more pressure is placed on the budget to afford the wages bill. At some point something has to give. One has to ask the question, even rhetorically, as to whether we are paying our military personnel too much now? The issue is that for many of the entry level military posts, no specialist skills or qualifications are required, and the work in barracks is often routine and straightforward. As the Army withdraws from HERRICK and barracks life becomes routine, the reality will be that most soldiers will occupy a far more stable and fixed existence than they have for decades. While exercises and small deployments will doubtless continue, the pressing need to train for HERRICK will have reduced, as Army life is likely to become a more modern version of BAOR. At this point, one can almost see situations emerging where people question why we are paying so much to the military in salaries – the public support exists at present, and no one currently begrudges soldiers wages, but take away the deployment opportunities and it may well be the case that hard questions are asked about why we pay military personnel so much.

While this may sound like thinking the unthinkable, one only has to look at the Police, who have reduced their starting salaries by some £3000 per year for new entrants. Is it better to protect formations and headcount by reducing salaries, or is it better to maintain the payscale and lose more staff and capabilities. While this is all completely hypothetical, it is perhaps a point worth considering.

Why the long face - was the pay review really that bad?
The next interesting fact to emerge was the throwaway line about the Army reviewing its recruitment policy to improve Officer quality. The report briefly noted that there has been a marked decline in the quality of officer applicants applying to Sandhurst, although it doesn’t specify whether this is at the AOSB stage, or during the RMAS course. This is a fascinating comment to read – after some 12 years of seeing the Army deployed on operations, one would have thought that anyone applying to join would have a much clearer idea of what qualities it is that a potential Army Officer should have in order to pass the Commissioning Course. Similarly, the explosion in Internet forums such as ARRSE have seen a massive amount of additional support and assistance offered to candidates today compared to a few years ago. Yet despite this, there is still clearly a quality issue with candidates going through the system.

It is a genuinely fascinating issue – in a time of mass youth unemployment, particularly in the target range for Army entrants, and at a time when the Army’s requirements have arguably never been that low, there is still a struggle to get good candidates into the Army. By any large organisations standards, the Army is not taking on that many people – barely a few hundred per year are needed at Sandhurst, while BRNC and Cranwell need even fewer. What would be interesting is to understand why it is that there is a failure to get the right people in – the AOSB and its two sister service equivalents remains one of the most objective assessments of character out there. It is not fundamentally difficult, it is merely a test to determine whether one has the potential to develop leadership and pass a commissioning course, prior to then developing into a leader of men.

Whether the problem is that the current military career is not seen as high profile enough for some, nor rewarding enough for others is not clear. It is arguably not the case that people are not joining because of a lack of opportunities to deploy, indeed many who are applying to the military now probably haven’t considered in any great depth the likely path their career will take beyond the first year or two. So, something else is happening which is stopping the military getting the very best of the UK graduate and wider youth into the system. By all reasonable assumptions, they should be beating off high quality applicants, particularly given how many hundreds of students try the OTC each year to get a taste of Army life – this organisation alone should be more than enough to fill the slots of potential applicants at Sandhurst.

There is no right answer here, and Humphrey has discussed it more out of genuine curiosity than having any clue as to why this may be the case. But, there is clearly an issue with the recruitment system, and one has to wonder what can be done to rectify this challenge before it becomes a major problem.

Situation Vacant - Armoured Train Driver...
One area where recruitment is clearly proving a major challenge is that of TA Officer recruitment, where the report recommends a series of financial incentives to try and bring new junior officers into the TA. As the organisation is due to grow in size over the next few years to some 30,000 strong there is a clear and increasingly urgent requirement to get younger individuals in to form the next generation of junior officers who can lead it forward. Despite this, there seems to be a major challenge over getting sufficient individuals to stay the course over the long training period and then into positions where they can move to carrying out work of real value.

Part of the issue to the authors mind is that it is often difficult to take on the role of being a junior officer and also hold down a real job. While joining the Reserves as a new entrant is fun, with a high quality training pipeline and lots of opportunities to develop, which in turn can lead to a real sense of accomplishment on completion, it is perhaps less clear cut for a young officer. In addition to the normal training pipeline, there is often a requirement to take on a lot of extra unit work in the name of ‘development’ much of which takes up time and effort for seemingly little reward. At the same time completion of professional training moves one away from having a clearly defined role and into instead a more vague area where there is often no hugely useful day to day role – the officer being too junior to take on meaningful staff work posts , but at the same time there is little they can do other than hang around a unit. Humphreys personal experience is that there is a vastly higher attrition rate for junior officers compared to junior ratings – indeed within 5 years of his joining the Reserves, almost all of his peer group had resigned in frustration at the lack of reward, and lack of opportunity to deploy until much later on. Indeed he knows several officers who resigned as they were told there was no opportunity to deploy for at least 3-5 years, putting them at a point where their real careers would be taking off, and when deployment would do more harm than good to their wider interests.

This is a real challenge to manage – it is relatively easy to recruit, train and deploy a junior rating or soldier, but far more difficult to do the same for a junior officer. The author once worked out that in his area of the Reserves, it would take 2-3 years to take a new entrant to the point where they could deploy as a Junior, as opposed to 10-12 years as an officer.

It is perhaps very telling that in the review, the AFPRB noted that only 65% of the Reserves qualified for their bounty last year, which means that nearly one third of the entire reserve did not complete even a basic level of training over the preceding 12 months. This also serves as a reminder that despite the views that the Reserve will make up significant proportion of the future manpower structure, it will not necessarily always be available in the numbers that people may think.

So, the key point to the author here is that a lot of thought needs to go into the concept of how viable a Reserve Officer corps really is. It’s a lot of investment of time and training which is often lost in very short order should someone decide to walk away because they are bored. The model of providing retention payments will likely go a long way to helping improve this, giving people a reason to stay on past the ‘5 year itch’ point, by when reportedly nearly half of all new entrants have left.

Personally, the author believes that the UK should move to follow the Canadian model of trying to recruit junior officers at the university stage, when they can spend their summers training and building much deeper bonds with the service. Then as they enter the world of work, it is much easier to adapt to working to ensure time is made for the Reserves, rather than trying to shoehorn the reserves into your time. This is perhaps the biggest challenge, making those who join see the Reserves as something which isn’t just a fun hobby but which is also a second career. Too often it feels as if its seen as something done on the side for a bit of fun at weekends, and that it isn’t something which in fact is of increasing importance to the defence of the UK.


Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Chief of the Defence Staff Reading List

On the day when the new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) was announced as being Gen Houghton, Humphrey was delighted to be sent a link to a newly established website called ‘Chief of the Defence Staff Recommended Reading’.

Hosted at the Defence Academy website, the site is a chance for current members of the Armed Forces and MOD Civil Service to flag up particularly noteworthy books for further scrutiny. Designed to ensure that current generations of Staff Officers are able to remain informed of current books is extremely important, and Humphrey genuinely hopes the website flourishes over time. There is, to the authors mind at least, a reluctance in the UK military ethos to widely embrace the culture of academic study. It is sometimes seen as being far too keen, or far too geeky, and the study of military profession and current events is perhaps not taken as seriously as it should be in some quarters. The author remember sharing a room on an operational tour with a relatively junior US Officer who had shelves full of very heavy academic treatise on military history, theory and developments - he explained that even though deployed, he was studying for an MA to help him as part of his professional advancement, and that in the US system, he stood little realistic chance of promotion if he didn’t study hard.

While there are individual pockets of people who do take this sort of study seriously, it is perhaps frustrating that, in the authors experience at least, all too often there is scepticism attached to anyone who reads ‘serious books’ and people are reluctant to read and share their thoughts on them openly. Hopefully the establishment of the new site provides a genuine opportunity for the defence community to become more aware of recommended titles, and take the chance to read them as part of their ongoing professional development.

The site will be permanently linked here, but can be found at the following URL: It is also worth more broadly exploring the site, which contains links to many podcasts ( and many other publications as well -



Sunday, 17 March 2013

'At What cost a carrier'? Captain Hendrix (USN) paper on the future USN fleet

Humphrey was lucky enough to be tipped off about the existence of an extremely thought provoking article by a US Navy officer (Captain Hendrix) on the future viability of the US carrier fleet. This was an alternative thinkpiece, produced in an unofficial capacity, but one that does raise some extremely searching questions about the viability of the long term future of the US carrier fleet.

The author conducted a detailed analysis of the cost of the CVN fleet, and also of the airwing attached to it, and broadly concluded that in terms of delivering effect, there were other means that could deliver similar effect for less cost (e.g. stand off missiles, more escort vessels etc). He was also scathing about the overall cost effectiveness of a current airwing, suggesting that large amounts of an aircraft’s use was linked to carrier qualification and not necessarily the delivery of effect. At the same time, the increased use of long range anti-ship missiles will make it more difficult to operate close in to an enemy coastline without being at increased risk.  He believes that because of this, in future the F35 will simply not have the range to be able to penetrate enemy air defences, and that instead efforts should focus on development of a navalised UCAV to take over instead of the F35, with any future force structure being built around UCAVs and SSGNs using land attack missiles.

It is a genuinely fascinating paper to read, although Humphrey personally felt it relied quite heavily on the use of statistics to deliver metrics, which is a peculiarly American military phenomenon – for example the author extrapolated date to show that statistically in the last 10 years each USN fixed wing aircraft has dropped a total of 16 bombs.

What is perhaps interesting about the paper is that in many ways it revisits a lot of the long term arguments about the validity of carriers, and revisits them to show that the perceived weaknesses remain the same as they always have. One only has to think of the argument in the UK in the 1960s, when the decision was taken to move away from fixed wing carriers that they were inherently vulnerable to attack and could be sunk with ease. Humphrey is always somewhat sceptical of claims about ‘wonder weapons’ that can take out a carrier battle group from nowhere with ease. While there are indeed many very potent long range weapons out there, the problem remains one of getting accurate enough real time intelligence to be able to ensure accurate targeting of the carrier in the event of war.

While technology has changed a lot, its worth remembering that historically finding and killing an aircraft carrier is actually remarkably difficult to do. In the 1970s the old ARK ROYAL was operating on exercise off the coast of the US and spent days operating undetected without the US being able to find her, whilst her airwing caused (simulated) carnage ashore. It is a truism to this day that without a very comprehensive ISTAR network at your service, it is remarkably difficult to find a ship which doesn’t wish to be found. Therefore, although things can always go wrong with a carrier, they are not perhaps the vulnerable giants some make them out to be.

One of the key thrusts of the paper was to argue in favour of stepping away from the F35 and instead focusing on the move towards development of a UCAV which can be used fleet wide, not just on carriers but also lighter amphibious ships too. The author is personally somewhat sceptical that the technology exists at a sufficient level of maturity now, or for the forseable future for this to be credible.

The challenge though is that the F35 feels as if it is being buffeted about as a victim of events, and that whether it remains affordable is still to be seen. Mark Collins at the excellent 3Ds blog  (LINK HERE) has charted the ongoing woes of the F35 development. Several countries that were certain to purchase are now reviewing their commitments and slipping entry to service, or going back to the drawing board- for instance Canada has reopened its fighter competition, and Australia is now slipping back delivery of the airframes too. At the same time, there is much internal debate within the US military about the total numbers likely to be purchased, with the programme looking vulnerable to sequestration cuts which could reduce the overall number of airframes purchased. But, the reality seems to be that even if F35 is looking exposed at present, it is hard to see any other credible contender emerge as a replacement for it within the US system. There is no chance at all of Rafale meeting the requirements for the US, while Typhoon, although an outstanding combat aircraft, is also unlikely to be sold to the US. This means that the choice seems to be between either cancelling outright, with further buys of F15 and F18 as a stopgap between a UCAV finally entering service, or continuing with the JSF programme.

The issue for UCAVs at present is that they are probably not at a sufficient level of maturity to conduct the wide range of operations that are being envisaged for JSF. It is worth considering that while there is plenty of use of so-called ‘drones’ like the Predator, these are fundamentally fairly simple aircraft designed to not be used in hugely complex missions. To meet the requirements of a new UCAV, you would essentially need to design an entirely new platform from scratch, adding in technologies never used before and then integrate it with all the likely weapons systems expected to be used. You’d then need to ensure the platforms were capable of flying the missions expected of them, which are likely to be very different to the so-called ‘racetrack’ circuits flown by drones in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Its worth considering that the average development period of modern combat aircraft takes 15-20 years from initial requirement to flight testing, and then probably 5-10 years to see it in squadron service. JSF will only really be entering full squadron service in the UK in the mid 2020s, some 30 years after the initial discussions were held on replacing the FA2 and GR7 Harrier. Even if we started development of a UCAV tomorrow, having cancelled JSF, there would still be a quite literally decades long gap between the programme commencing and having a fully operational platform in service. In the interim, there would continue to need to be buys of manned aircraft, if only to replace the fatigue life expired ones in service – one only has to look at the USN F18 fleet, where many of the airframes are coming close to the aircraft fatigue life following 10 years of combat operations.

So, while a UCAV will almost certainly emerge at some point, and it is very likely that one would replace JSF in a few decades time, the reality is that switching of JSF now does not mean that a UCAV will enter service in the same time frame as the JSF was planned to.
Its a fascinating area for consideration, and one worthy of following over time. The authors personal view is that Aircraft Carriers remain extremely valuable assets, but the cost of operating them is and will continue to be extremely high. However, one has to consider what the alternative would be to not having them in service at all.  Humphrey would strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in aircraft carriers to take a look at the paper by Captain Hendrix – it is genuinely fascinating and thought provoking. The paper can be found here -

Thursday, 14 March 2013

To infinity or beyond? The future of the Parachute Regiment

News recently emerged that the British Army has significantly scaled down its ability to deliver military parachutists. Despite there being at least two battalions of the Parachute Regiment ostensibly assigned to deliver a parachuting capability, it has emerged that at present, the UK only maintains a roughly Company sized group able to deploy at ‘short notice’. This has led to suggestions that UK military prowess and capability is at stake as a result.

The Parachute Regiment is an interesting example of the challenges faced in Defence, and in particular the Army as we move towards the future force. Still consisting of three Battalions (plus a TA unit), the Regiment is one of the best known and recruited of all British Army cap badges, and has a strong historical legacy, and admirable recent operational record.

That said, for an organisation founded on the principle of jumping out of perfectly serviceable aircraft, it has not acted in the air assault role for nearly 60 years (Suez was the last drop of any size). Despite this, for many years the UK maintained the ability to employ an Airborne Task Force, at up to Brigade level capable of lifting the parachute component, plus supporting arms into action and delivering them at relatively short notice into hostile territory. More recently, cuts to the RAF air transport fleet and general army reductions have meant that the airborne component has been reduced to nearer Battalion level, supported by more conventional air assault assets using the helicopters of 16 Air Assault Brigade.  The issue is whether the news that as of today the UK is only able to employ a Company group at short notice really matters, or if it is perhaps something in which the media have got themselves unduly wound up about.

 There is no doubt that the Parachute Regiment is a priceless asset, comprising a body of men with an outstanding esprit de corps, and a strong sense of purpose, inculcated by the unifying bond of P Company.  But, we have to be perhaps realistic about the reality of parachuting today and whether it is remotely feasible at large levels. On a purely technical side, one only has to look at the numbers of aircraft available now, and in the future to the RAF to realise that there will far fewer airframes able to support jumping in future. With a planned A400M buy of only some 22 aircraft, once training and servicing is taken out of the equation, then it’s likely that it would take nearly half the A400M fleet lifting at once to deliver a single Parachute battalion to its objective. When one considers that in any military operation, one of the most vital and in demand assets are the tactical transport fleet, then it’s clear that there are unlikely to be this many airframes available. At a most basic level, the UK is rapidly running out of the ability to airdrop more than a couple of hundred paratroopers at any one time, regardless of whether it has the infantry numbers to do so. Reductions to a company sized group is perhaps a sensible realism measure that accepts that ultimately there are only going to be a relatively small number of aircraft available for future operations.

One also has to consider the nature of any parachuting operation. As history has shown, jumping into an operational environment requires people to jump with what they’ll fight with and then be reliant on either a quick relief, or air dropped resupply. While it may be useful to drop a battalion of troops into a country, the question quickly becomes – what are they there to do, and how will they be supported for any duration of time? It is one thing to drop a company group into a discrete location – say an Embassy or other area to support an evacuation for a very short period of time. Larger drops though present major problems – you have committed boots to the ground who will need relieving at some point – a failure to relieve them will at best lead to hundreds of prisoners, or at worst, many dead soldiers. Arnhem stands as a signal example of what can go wrong when the airborne element is not quickly supported. Any future British Government considering the commitment of a parachute assault will need to consider that it must be followed up very quickly by fairly substantial ground forces in order to relieve them.

Jumping during WW2

So, while the Parachute Regiment offers an outstanding ability to insert itself into an operation, the bigger question is how such an effort could be sustained for any length of time and whether the drop would serve any useful military purpose. It remains hard to spot roles that specifically require dedicated parachute capabilities - since the end of WW2 the Parachute capability has only been employed at a substantial level on one occasion (Suez), despite many other operations involving the Regiment in a ground based role. As we enter an era where there is strong aversion to taking casualties, the implications of the loss of a single aircraft carrying paratroopers is hugely significant. The author vividly recalls the time in Iraq when the change of risk to aircraft from MANPADS meant that movements were conducted at night following the loss of a Lynx with five crew onboard. One only has to consider that this single incident led to major restrictions on flying, and what was a tactical level loss (with no disrespect intended to the families of those in this tragedy) had operational level implications. In any future campaign with Paratroopers on the ground, even a mild increase to the air threat may make it all but impossible to risk resupplying the troops without risking the loss of more aircraft and personnel. It would require a significant shift in public and political opinion to tolerate this type of risk.

This example perhaps demonstrates that the employment of Military Parachutists is perhaps one of the most irrevocable commitments to a campaign that can be made by a Government – once they have left the aircraft then they must be supported and relieved. If you are unwilling to resupply them from the air due to the air threat, you either commit ground troops – which requires further escalation and perhaps a deviation from the original campaign aim, or you write them off. The cold reality is that if you commit to the use of paratroopers, you are committed to a major escalation in your campaign with all the attendant risks that this brings.

The author firmly believes that there is a clear role for some military parachuting, and it is clear that there is some value gained from having a small body of personnel able to jump at short notice to support operations.  As was seen in Mali, there is scope for a limited insertion, but one should be wary of reading too much into these sorts of operations. The much vaunted US use of airpower in TELIC to deliver paratroopers turns out on further research to have been less effective than perhaps though.
As time moves on, it becomes ever harder to see how a large scale jump could ever be conducted again. Paradoxically it is perhaps far easier (and maybe more politically acceptable) to envisage a company sized drop. A relatively small commitment of troops dropped to support isolated westerners, or assist an evacuation can be supported far more easily than a Battalion. It is easier to drop them in a more concentrated area, reducing the likelihood of confusion on the ground as troops reorganise themselves over a large drop zone. Finally it is much easier to extract 120 troops than it is nearly 1000.

The future of Air Assault - Helicopters?

The problem though is trying to sell this to the public – there is an incredible level of public awareness and support for the Parachute Regiment, and they have an immensely strong body of supporters. Any effort to reduce contingent capability will be met with an immensely strong outcry, with demands that something else should be cut instead. There will almost certainly be thunderous blasts from editorial columns which on the one hand berate the MOD for not modernising, but on the other hand will then demand that the parachute capability must be preserved. The mantra will be carriers without planes, Desert Rats without Tanks and Paratroopers without Parachutes.

It is this authors very personal opinion that there is no question that the Regiment has a strong reputation and has performed admirably in many recent operations. But has the time come for it to be reduced further in role and scope – perhaps seeing the title Parachute Regiment being more an honorific title like Grenadier Guards, a proud name for a proud past, and not a current capability. Maybe the time has come to ask the unthinkable and perhaps suggest that outside of a small rapid response force, that the time has come to move away from the Paratroopers parachuting, and instead refocus them more properly on the role in which they have excelled –namely hugely aggressive light infantry capable of conducting great physical acts of courage. While P Company will need to remain to train the more limited parachute capability, perhaps we should have the courage to face down another sacred cow and consider whether to tell the Paratroopers that it’s time for them to become ‘hats’ again?

Friday, 8 March 2013

Army 2020 and the Desert Rats losing their tanks - does it really matter?

This week the Secretary of State for Defence was able to formally announce to Parliament the planned future basing strategy for the British Army. This significant announcement heralds the end of the British presence in Germany, some 70 years after the end of WW2, and perhaps forever sees the removal of significant formations of British troops from mainland Europe.

The announcement showed that in future, the British Army is going to be concentrated across several core sites and areas, rather than being dispersed to the four winds. This inherently sensible strategy of trying to base together units and formations means it will be easier to achieve collective training, and also hopefully instil some stability in what has often been a rollercoaster of a postings plot. In an ideal world, the greater stability offered by a home based army, coupled with more time at home should hopefully lead to better retention at all levels of the forces.

Additionally, some £1.8 billion of investment has been programmed to build new accommodation for the returning troops and units. While some may complain that this seems a lot, the reality is that much of this money would have had to be spent anyway at some stage as existing barracks were updated. One of the major challenges facing MOD is how to upgrade existing accommodation to make it fit for purpose – particularly when so much of the estate is often pre WW2 in age, and fails to match up to modern standards. There is seemingly little point in investing money on training and equipment if the location your troops live in is a dump – they will often walk away, and you end up with a real retention problem as a result.

So, in many ways this announcement was good news – the Army now has a clear plan to deliver to, and the way is clear to begin preparing for Army 2020,which will see a theoretical force of some 82000 regulars and 30000 reservists make up the future military.

Challenger 2 MBT
The problem to the authors mind isn’t the announcement, but the manner in which the media have chosen to interpret it. Buried among the details was the news that the 7th Armoured Brigade (the so-called ‘Desert Rats’) would lose its armoured capability and instead become an infantry brigade. The reaction from the media has been one of nearly controlled hysteria as they published article after article making out that due to the loss of tanks, the UK is no longer a military power (the articles were nearly identical in tone to ones stating that due to the loss, of potential loss of Sea Harrier, Aircraft Carriers, Trident, the Red Arrows, cuts to the SAS, the Household Cavalry and presumably the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps, the UK has ceased to be a military power several times over).

To the authors mind this is a good example of how it is increasingly difficult to have a rationale and coherent debate about meaningful reform of the military in the UK. Of course it is difficult when units have to be disbanded, titles changed or roles amended. But fundamentally the military as it exists is a product of generations of exactly this sort of process occurring. Almost all of todays military units that exist in the Army do so as a result of generations of amalgamations, disbandment, role changing and different ways of doing business. Whether we accept it or not, the Army is inherently an organisation which exists in a state of near perpetual change.

One only has to look at the title ‘7th Armoured Brigade’ to realise that it doesn’t exactly have an ancient history as an organisation – formed as an armoured division in WW2, its name, title, assigned units and role have changed many times in the last 70 years. While the desert rat flash rightly occupies a place in the British mindset, as a symbol of victory in the desert and of later successes in other wars, it doesn’t mean that the organisation somehow automatically needs tanks in order for it to be a success.

It is emotive when units change roles or titles, and there is no doubt that from a purely emotive perspective it will be a sad day when the formation no longer operates armour. However, we have to be objective here. There are several armoured brigades in the British Army, and they will be reducing in number. There is nothing particularly special about the 7th Armoured Brigade that means it must be kept in priority to other Armoured formations – indeed, many of them have long and glorious histories. What is it about 7th Armoured that has gained it column inches in a way that many other disbandments- say the loss of the regional forces 2* HQ (2,4,5 Division – all formations with great historical past) or the loss of the BAOR Armoured Divisions in the early 1990s didn’t get?

To the authors strictly personal view, it is a case that the media chose to focus on simple symbols and issues that they get, and believe that their readers will ‘get’ in order to stir up the appropriate level of ‘outrage’. Most readers of a certain age will be familiar with the Desert Rat symbol, and its easy to tie this purported loss into a wider narrative of national decline and failure in a way that saying 4 Mechanized Brigade losing its tanks wouldn’t get (the so-called 'black rat' patch). This is perhaps ironic, that a unit of equal history, provenance and role as 7 Armoured has generated no meaningful coverage at all of its Army 2020 future, despite being affected in the same way. The difference is that while the 7th Armoured 'Desert Rats Brand' is vaguely known to many British people, 4th Mechanised has never ocuppied a similar place in the public conciousness.

The problem is that it makes it increasingly hard to have rationale debates about how the military is structured. Its an old joke, but it is tellingly true that you know that a planning round is going ahead when the tired old ‘Disband the Red Arrows’, ‘Scrap the Household Cavalry’ or other such stories start doing the rounds. Certain elements of the military have achieved a near mythological status in the public mindset, which means any effort to do away with them is all but impossible. For instance, we recently had the sight of the Prime Minister turning the existence of the Red Arrows into a political matter, even before any decisions on the final size of the budget were taken, due to it being on the front page of the media.

The irony is that the same papers that go into ‘outrage overdrive’ the moment they see a defence issue that they think the public will understand (such as Aircraft Carriers with no planes, or Desert Rats with no tanks), are the first ones willing to complain that the MOD is unwilling to modernise, needs to do more with its resources and needs to be more attuned to the 21st Century. All well said and done, but how is this possible when the moment even a hint of change is considered, we see the nations media mobilised for war against the Ministry for even considering such disloyal thoughts?

More than just a symbol?
The reality is that the UK will not find itself militarily impaired simply for providing a force structure where the Desert Rats don’t have tanks. One only has to look at recent military operations to realise that in the 70 odd years since the end of WW2, the UK has employed armour on military operations on relatively few occasions (Korea, Gulf War 1, Kosovo and the Balkans, Operation TELIC). Outside of the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars, these deployments have been limited in number to at most a couple of squadrons of vehicles. Even the 1991 and 2003 wars only saw the deployment of at most some two brigades worth of armour. This isn’t to ignore the role played by the British Army of the Rhine, with its armoured divisions held against a theoretical Warsaw Pact attack, but the reality is that for most of the last 70 years, the UK has had very little need to call on armour for actual, rather than contingent, military operations.

The tank does still have an absolutely critical role to play in the modern military environment, but it comes with a significant footprint attached to its use. Even in Iraq during Operation TELIC, once the initial warfighting phase was over, there were rarely more than 12-16 tanks actually based in theatre. In Afghanistan not a single British tank has been deployed, although there has been enormous innovation and development of wheeled vehicles capable of mounting significant firepower. One only has to look at the future force structure to see that there is a significant appetite and requirement for the mid level vehicles – the lightly armoured reconnaissance roles and fire support roles which can be filled by a variety of vehicles. At the same time the growth of capability such as Apache, the Javelin anti-tank missile and Brimstone means that a wide range of means of delivering firepower exist, which do not always require a tank to do the job.

So, given that the UK has only deployed a maximum of two armoured brigades on any operation since the end of WW2, and given that the future force still envisages three armoured brigades on the order of battle, it is hard to see a threat to national security from this small change.

The real challenge is trying to win the PR battle to explain why these cuts are required, and how difficult it is to field first rate military force these days. The British public tend to be remarkably morose when it comes to discussing their nations military potential. There is a real tendency to do down the remarkable achievements of the British military over the years, and look back with misty eyed fondness to a past that never really existed.

It is very easy to look at a table showing how many troops and tanks may have been in service in the 1960s and compare that to today, and then think that we somehow no longer matter. Of course it is sometimes sad to look at the many units and equipment which no longer exists, but at the same time we need to be coldly realistic about this. The harsh reality is that to own and successfully employ a first rate, world class, military is extremely expensive. To buy the high end equipment, to support it, train with it and operate it takes a lot of money, and that only gets more expensive when you factor in wage costs too. Our military is a world class organisation, but it costs a phenomenal amount of money to run.

Of course the UK could adopt a different path, and instead of buying world class equipment, it could buy slightly cheaper and less effective equipment – this would increase manpower requirements, add significantly to the costs needed to buy sufficient vehicles or planes to do the job, and reduce our ability to work at the head of a coalition force. We’d not really save money, but we could perhaps convince the public that somehow possession of a force of 800 – 1000 tanks was a good thing – even if they weren’t as good as what we wanted, and even if we didn’t have the ability to manufacture or modify them (assuming we bought off the shelf from overseas). One only has to look at many of the armies out there to see orders of battle full of tanks, guns and troops, but relatively few logistical, signals or support elements. On paper these armies look incredible, but in reality their lack of investment in things that really matter means that they would struggle to deploy or sustain themselves for any length of time. At best they are almost a means of symbolic defence – much as an animal can modify itself to look bigger, scarier or more dangerous than it actually is, these armies have a similar function. They look dangerous, but when push comes to shove, many will struggle to achieve the most basic of military tasks.

The reason why the British Army has been reasonably successful is because of its investment in the less glamorous equipment and support areas, and focusing on being able to deliver capability when required. This means that when changes go through, it is still able to deploy effectively – one only has to look at the size of deployments in recent decades to realise that despite the army being half the size it was compared to 1990, it is still able to deploy an almost identical level of troops and capability.

 We are as a nation rightly proud of our history, and it is something to be moved by, the way in which the British take such a fierce pride in their military heritage and history. We associate ourselves with concepts, units and names that have long since ceased to be part of the order of battle, or whose veterans have long since passed away. Despite this, we continue to value these links. In the authors family, a prized possession is the Jerboa flash of his Grandfather, who was a founding member of the Desert Rats during WW2 and who fought with the Division for much of its wartime adventures. Similarly, the author himself feels an affinity to the Desert Rats, having served alongside them at a Divisional level during one of the TELICs, and a prized possession of his is a more modern ‘Jerboa’ which sits as a quiet reminder of a particularly challenging deployment.

So to the authors mind, the challenge here is to be able to explain to the public why the Desert Rats not having tanks doesn’t mean that the UK is no longer a military power. There is no easy way of doing this for its much easier to look into a headline and believe that the lack of a tank under an organisational structure means that we’re doomed, than it is to believe that little has changed beyond the units assigned to the formation. One only has to look at the quality of the people assigned to a unit to realise that for all the administrative changes, the quality of the individual British soldier continues to be a unifying and reassuring symbol of hope and pride, regardless of the role, structure, organisation, capbadge that they wear. That is perhaps the only thing that really matters in this debate.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Is the end of the Aircraft Carrer nigh? The rapid decline of the 'carrier navies'

In a further sign that budgets across the globe are beginning to bite, news reports in recent weeks have once again highlighted the challenges associated with operating a modern fleet of aircraft carriers. The challenging global economic situation shows few signs of lessening, and across the world there are reports of further cuts in equipment, hulls and operations.

In Spain for instance the veteran carrier Principe De Asturias (PDA) has finally been paid off after some 25 years service as part of budget cuts. It is perhaps ironic to consider that she was originally  conceived in the early 1980s as a cheap ‘Sea Control Ship’ solution originally looked at by the US Navy to provide cheaper carriers. Intended to put ASW helicopters to sea as a replacement for the Delado, she represented the closest any nation has perhaps come to a truly ‘austere’ carrier, with minimal support facilities for the airwing. Optimised in the first for ASW, with a very limited fixed wing capability using the Harrier (although never to the same level of development as the UK with the mixed FA2 / GR7 airwing), the PDA was an example in the 1980s of how smaller  ‘harrier carriers’ could be built for emerging middle tier navies, providing them with airpower at relatively small cost. In reality she remained the sole of her class built around the world , with the closest other example being a Thai vessel optimised for EEZ protection and to act as a Royal Yacht.

Although the Spanish have built a large LPH, with carrier facilities (the Juan Carlos) as a second platform relatively recently, she is not an aircraft carrier in the conventional sense, and with the Spanish economic crisis deepening, it seems likely that PDA will not be directly replaced by another ‘proper’ aircraft carrier.

Similarly, with the emphasis on Juan Carlos as an assault ship, it seems likely that the small fleet of Spanish harriers (less than 15 airframes) will be increasingly vulnerable to defence cuts in an economy which is desperately struggling. The chances of seeing a credible Spanish fixed wing aviation capability beyond the next few years seem slim, and at a time when they are struggling to afford sustaining a relatively small buy of Eurofighters, it seems hard to envisage introduction of the JSF too.

So, Spain is perhaps the first carrier casualty of the economic crisis, although Italy is also looking increasingly vulnerable. The Guissepe Garibaldi is now nearly 30 years old, and again is unlikely to be directly replaced. Mindful of the recent cuts to the Italian Navy which will see a near 20% cull in manpower, and significant loss of hulls across the fleet, it again seems less and less likely that a credible carrier aviation capability can be sustained in a single hull (the Cavour). Having seen both these nations enter the ‘Carrier Club’ in the 1980s, one cannot help but wonder if they will be leaving it as full time members in the not too distant future?

Juan Carlos and Principe De Asturias
 Meanwhile looking across the Atlantic Ocean, the US Navy continues to come to terms with the significant budget cuts being imposed. At least one planned carrier deployment of the USS Theodore Roosvelt has been cancelled for budgetary reasons, with the vessel remaining in home waters although ostensibly ready to deploy if required. At the same time, the nuclear refuelling of the USS Abraham Lincoln has been delayed, and in the worst case may not happen at all.

These two issues highlight the scale of the challenge facing the US Navy today – on the one hand it cannot afford to deploy its carriers, but equally it cannot afford to refuel them either. In reality the delay in refuelling Abraham Lincoln will have two impacts – in the first instance it effectively denies the US Navy a carrier hull for an unknown length of time, which coming on the back of the loss of Enterprise means the USN is having to sustain deployments with only 9 hulls. Similarly, delays to the refuelling will create a backlog within the refit cycle which could impact on the long term ability to support the USNs carrier fleet. Maintenance of hulls is a complex business and one that requires a lot of programming to ensure agreed availability levels. A slip or delay in refit may have repercussions that could take years to sort out, and at a time when its likely that others of the class will also need refuelling. In the worst case scenario, with her fuel expended then the Lincoln may effectively be forced into long term reserve until such point as funding is found – and with no nuclear fuel she is essentially a hulk.

Right now the USN is facing a difficult dilemma – tasked with deploying overseas, it will probably be increasingly difficult to justify the retention of carrier groups at their current levels if they don’t actually deploy. In many ways the USN carrier fleet sums up all that is great about the US Navy – an ability to send force anywhere on the planet, and do so at a time and place of their choosing. To suddenly be forced into a public admission that funds do not exist to deploy is not only embarrassing for the USN, but also highlights that if a high profile ‘flagship’ deployment cannot be funded, then what else is being cancelled?

Given the likely requirement to fund carrier refuelling over the next few years for several hulls, plus the growing age of the platforms, then one can see a future force emerging whereby the older CVNs are discarded at the point when their fuel expires, and left in reserve against the chance of a future economic upturn. Speaking to acquaintances in the US, the author has heard them constantly warn that a 6 carrier navy is on the cards, and these developments do nothing to assuage these fears.

The latest defence cuts likely to impact on the US Navy as a result of sequestration will only proceed to make matters worse. Reports indicate that the USN may find itself effectively mothballing four out of its nine carrier air wings as a result of these cuts (essentially suspending flying), which will take up to 12 months minimum to reactivate. In reality this move way well take longer – one only has to look at the way that the RN is considering all manner of options to keep its carrier currency alive ahead of F35 introduction to service – skills fade can happen very quickly, and when half your carrier airwings are not active, its going to present a real retention and training problem. At the same time, if the reports are true then even deployed carriers will have massively reduced flying hours (potentially up to 50%) even in locations like the Middle East. By late 2013 there will only be one available carrier to respond to a crisis.

The really worrying thought is what happens to the USN over the next couple of years as it struggles to adapt to a world in which it has only got five active duty airwings in a crisis. At best there will be two-three available at any one time for duty. When one considers that the Marines AV8 Harrier fleet is also reportedly looking vulnerable to cuts, the clear message coming through is that the US will struggle to remain a truly global superpower. The days when the carrier was a visible symbol of US diplomacy are gone forever, as the US can no longer afford to steam a carrier off a coast as a visible symbol of its displeasure. Instead the carriers will be seen as silver bullets, only to be used in times when it really matters.

The problem for the USN is that these cuts will also impact on wider deployments, with the projected surface escort fleet due to drop to under 90 hulls soon (many of which are approaching 20yrs old or beyond) and all exercises and deployments will be cut – indeed it looks as if all deployments to Europe and South America are on the verge of being cancelled.

The author has long held that the US is experiencing now what the UK went through in the 1960s – the sudden crushing realisation that the global footprint is no longer sustainable or affordable. With an ever smaller US Navy, worked ever harder and with reduced training and capability, it does not bode well for wider Western maritime security.

An ever rarer sight - a US Carrier at sea

The Broader Decline of Carrier Nations…
So, if the smaller and larger Western navies cannot afford to run carriers at any level, what does this perhaps tell us about emerging priorities? Firstly, it would suggest that the RN decision to scrap harrier and preserve the amphibious fleet in the SDSR was perhaps a sign of things to come for most carrier nations. Both the Italians and Spanish seem to be investing their resources in protecting littoral capabilities over traditional carrier ones. It seems clear that the days of smaller navies operating dedicated carriers and airwings are rapidly drawing to a close. Instead future acquisition is likely to focus far more on vessels capable of supporting amphibious operations, where there may be the opportunity to support some limited fixed wing flying. The sheer cost of acquiring and running a conventional carrier and airwing is now simply too great for all but the largest spending nations – even the RN has probably sacrificed its pre-eminence to afford the Queen Elizabeth class and JSF. It is perhaps telling that reading the SDSR and other documents one finds plenty of discussion about the use of CVF in roles other than fixed wing carrier, and it seems unlikely that it will be many years, if not decades before CVF sees more than 12 JSF operating from its decks. So, if the RN cannot afford to run carriers, then there is little hope for smaller European navies. While it is perhaps tempting to talk in terms of shared acquisition for a future carrier programme for the Spanish and Italian Navies, which could enable a shared airgroup, the reality is such a deal is unlikely to come to pass. Both nations have different requirements, and are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of a fixed wing carrier and airgroup. Indeed, when one realises that the Charles De Gaulle is now approaching middle age, and with no sign of a second hull under construction, or replacement for the Rafale under way, it is perhaps worth considering if the French themselves may be forced to bow out of the carrier game in the next 15-20 years?

It is perhaps less surprising that the RN will only routinely operate 12 F35 from a CVF, and we should be more impressed that fund will be found to get 12 onto a carrier in the first place. The sheer cost of carrier capable aircraft means that for most nations, even 12 airframes is going to be unaffordable. While it is easy to mock the RN for having large platforms and small airwings, this is perhaps little different from the 1960s, when despite our fond memories, the reality was that the average RN airwing was barely 20 aircraft including helos. Even then, the CVF airwing will be able to put more airpower to sea than almost any other country – its easy to be despondent that the UK will deploy small numbers of aircraft, but perhaps we should be more positive about the fact that we remain one of the very few nations able to afford to invest in such a capability in the first place.

The Russians meanwhile remain an enigma – the Admiral Kuznetzov is approaching her 30th birthday, but has racked up very little operational seatime. This authors personal view is that Russia will retain Kuznetzov in service, but she will rarely see any credible seatime or deployment with a proper airwing. Replacements will be mooted, but unlikely to arrive.

Finally Brazil continues to operate an ever older carrier (the Sao Paulo is now roughly 50 years old) which has yet to take more than four A4 Skyhawks to sea. Although rumours persist of a replacement, it seems ever further off. The Indian programme continues to serve as a model of how to operate and run multiple types of vessels at the same time without really worrying about effectiveness. India is one of the few nations, along with China, which seems to be seeking to support its carrier fleet and grow it in size.

For the UK the implications are both challenging but worrying. Within 5-10 years it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the UK will operate 2 out of 3 carriers in Europe, plus a reasonable amphibious force to boot. This will increase European dependency on the UK to provide support for a variety of long range interventions, whereas currently in a crisis airpower can be delivered by both the Italians and Spanish navies. Such a move will increasingly make Europe ever more reliant on the UK to be the provider of meaningful maritime power outside of home waters. This has significant political ramifications, as any crisis occurring when the Charles De Gaulle is in refit will require the UK to acquiesce, lest it is doomed to fail.

At the same time, the US Navy seems likely to have ever fewer carriers available, and those that are deployed will be to locations like the Gulf or Pacific. A force of 6 CVNs will only realistically permit 2 to be on deployment at any one time. There will be a carrier vacuum emerging in the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific which emerging powers may well seek to fill in the next 10 years. For instance the Indian Navy’s carrier programme, delayed and chaotic as it may be now, is likely to eventually deliver new platforms at the same time as the Chinese Navy is probably going to see its own carriers enter full service. The reality is that within a generation, when someone asks ‘where are the carriers’ the answer will be ‘in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and most of them aren’t our own’.

The future of naval aviation - LPDs with attack helicopters?

It is perhaps interesting to look at the number of nations operating ‘proper’ aircraft carriers, and see how it has declined over time. If one looks at the number of new carriers out there, then the last 20 years has seen a huge decline in construction. An objective look would suggest that since the end of the Cold War, the US has continued to introduce modified Nimitz class carriers, while Italy has introduced the Cavour into service (and even then she is more LPH than ‘proper’ carrier). Only the UK and India have designed and ordered new carriers (the CVF and Vikrant class respectively) with both classes not likely to enter service until the latter part of the decade. Outside of this, beyond some conversions of legacy Soviet hulls, no other truly new class of carrier has entered service, and only one new country (China) has really joined the carrier club since the late 1980s.

The sheer cost of entry into the carrier business is increasingly looking like a bar for navies who see ever tighter procurement budgets. Its not just the hull, its finding a carrier capable fighter aircraft and the associated escort and replenishment force to go with it. The cost of generating a truly credible fixed wing carrier battle group is truly vast, and this number will only get higher as time goes by. As budgets get more squeezed, it will be increasingly difficult for many nations to be able to justify the operational need for a carrier. While there are wonderful doctrinal arguments, or Gucci powerpoint slides which show how Nation X can operate at distance and project airpower without anyone interfering, the cold harsh reality is that very few countries have the military capability or national interest to want to go and do this. It is, for instance, difficult to conceive of circumstances in the near future in which the Brazilian Navy will be required to conduct air strikes in the Indian Ocean from their carrier.

This is not to say that the aircraft carrier is obsolete – far from it, as a potent tool of national power, the Aircraft Carrier is a superb instrument. But, its also an exceptionally expensive one to operate properly, and this is money that most nations simply don’t have. The days of cheap entry points into the carrier ‘club’ from buying a small ‘STOVL Carrier’ and running a few harriers of the back have gone forever. Any nation wanting to get into operating a carrier is either committed to STOVL (e.g. F35 at well north of £100m per aircraft) or CTOL, in which case either F35, Rafale or Russian aircraft are all that is open to you. As the global economic situation continues, it remains hard to see any new Western entrants to the carrier business, and if anything, they are likely to reduce in number over the next few years. Looking more globally, outside of China and India (and possibly Russia) there are no new emerging powers likely to enter the carrier club soon. That said, as economies continue to grow in the Far East, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some of the navies in the region such as Japan, Korea or in time Indonesia, may seek to acquire some kind of carrier platform as a status symbol, even if they have little operational need for one.

 This is not to say that naval aviation does not have a future – it emphatically does. However in an era of tight budgets, it is easier to see the construction of multi-role ships such as Juan Carlos being the preferred setting for most navies, as they represent a more versatile platform which is cheaper to run. As nations increasingly focus on influencing the littoral environment, LPHs / LPDs seem to be the new generation of capital platform. Able to be built relatively cheaply, but providing wide flexibility, they are not ‘proper’ aircraft carriers, but they do provide a deck, hangar space, command facilities and the ability to put troops ashore. The authors personal prediction is that while carriers may be on a slow decline, the broader global market for this sort of platform may boom.
The very stark reality is that most navies seems to be stepping gracefully away from the Carrier game – it is hard to see a Royal Navy in 2050 investing in new carriers, or the USN being able to afford one for one replacements for their CVN’s. Although the process will be slow, the increasingly likely outcome is that within 30 years the bulk of those carriers left in service around the world will be operated by nations whose strategic interests are not always in alignment with our own. The era of Western carrier dominance is nearly over, as costs rise. But, the era of carrier proliferation is not here either, with costs for a ‘proper’ carrier remaining too significant for all but the richest of nations. Were Humphrey a betting man, then he’d be willing to place a small wager that within 20 years, there will be six nations operating aircraft carriers (down from nine today), and only two of them will be in the West...