Sunday, 28 April 2013

To Build or not to Build - Thoughts on exporting warships

In the last article, Humphrey looked at the reasons why the RN would probably never operate a US supercarrier. In the closing parts of the article, it focused a bit more broadly on the challenges of sustaining a national shipbuilding capability, and also growing that into an export capability. In this article, which loosely follows on from the previous piece, the author wants to consider the very real challenge of exporting high end warships overseas. Due to time constraints this piece is being spread over a couple of articles, and posted as the authors real world commitments permit.

The first question is – what is a high end warship? Twenty people could probably offer twenty answers, but for the purposes of this article, Humphrey is assuming high end means large vessel (eg FFG class or above), fitted with modern weapons systems, aviation facilities and supported by up to date electronics and C2 facilities, and able to operate across the full range of maritime operations, from low level sovereignty reassurance patrols all the way up to high end kinetic warfighting. Traditionally such a vessel would have been called a Frigate or Destroyer, although the nature of maritime forces these days means it could theoretically be anything from a Corvette up to an LPD.

On first examination it is worth considering that the global market for such vessels is paradoxically smaller now than it has been for many years. While there are plenty of naval construction campaigns going on across the globe, most of them involve very simple ships – e.g. Offshore Patrol Vessels or landing craft. Most nations have the ability to design and build this sort of vessel, and which operate not only in Navies, but also the wider maritime tapestry such as Coastguards or law enforcement agencies. One only has to look at the UK to realise that beyond the traditional Royal Navy, there lies a very complex web of maritime security capability, ranging from small MOD police launches, all the way up to OPVs, operated by a number of Government departments.

Instead, looking more broadly and it is a bit of struggle to see an extensive market for new build high capability warships. One only has to look at a naval guide from 20 or 30 years ago to realise how much the market has changed. Back then many nations which didn’t traditionally operate escorts were moving into commissioning new ones, often through modular designs like the German MEKO class. The availability of a large number of cheap older warships on the export market, particularly the RN Type 12 and Leander derivatives, not only from the UK but other nations, meant a good number of Navies were able to consider getting rid of WW2 designs and bring into service more modern vessels. As these vessels themselves aged, naturally thoughts turned to bringing replacement classes into service. There is a sense when browsing naval guides of the 1980s that the market for warships remained buoyant. The end of the Cold War perhaps marked the first decline in this market – the changing security situation led to a glut of new and often barely used escorts being disposed of by NATO nations – one only has to look at the plethora of FFG7s and Type 22s disposed of during the 1990s, along with a number of older vessels too (Leanders and FF1052s) also sold off. This meant many nations were able to acquire frigates to replace their older ones without having to consider ordering new – great for budgets, less great news for hard pressed shipyards.

Move forward to 2013 and we find ourselves in an interesting situation – the vessels acquired during the end of Cold War garage sale are now aging and thoughts turn to replacement. But, the second hard warship market is vastly smaller than it was a few years ago, with far less warships available for purchase. The US has only a few FFG7s left in service, and is moving to decommissioning some CG47s soon. Compared to twenty years ago there are hardly any modern US warships available for purchase, and it seems highly unlikely that any DDG51s will be disposed of for some time yet. At the same time the RN has seemingly blocked the sale of any more Type 23s, and those ships it has disposed off (T22Cs and T42s) have attracted no overseas sales. So the traditional suppliers of second hand warships have far less to offer, and are in future far less likely to be willing to decommission those few hulls they have left – an RN of 19 escorts and a USN of barely 80 will be very reluctant to lose ships early baring major financial crisis.

With a limited pool of quality second hand vessels available, the question then becomes what do navies operating existing frigates do? You can only update  a design for so long before it becomes life expired. While saying ‘buy a new class’ may seem the obvious answer, it is not as straightforward as may be thought. Bringing a new vessel class into service is extremely complicated. One only has to look at the challenges facing the RN or USN in the introduction of the Type 45 or the LCS vessels to realise that even world class navies find introduction of exceptionally complex platforms to be challenging. The task of bringing a brand new vessel class into service without any other navy to turn to who has already operated it – one of the appeals of the second hand warship market is that the vessel you are buying has been brought into service, hugely derisked, problems ironed out and you usually have a benevolent navy standing by to offer support with training, spares and upgrades (for a small fee of course!). New vessel classes come with no such reassurance, and the navy introducing the vessels will often find itself dealing with these challenges alone, with only the manufacturer for company.
The next issue with new build hulls is where do you buy them? Do you rely on the support of an overseas yard, which may have more experience of building vessels, or do you instead seek to build capacity at home, even if there is less experience?

Therefore it is perhaps natural that many navies have preferred to buy the hulls second hand, and then do far more limited refits at home, rather than risk introducing a new platform into service themselves, which can often be ruinously expensive for a small number of units.

The next challenge is the sheer complexity of designing a high end warship. The UK has made clear that its own position is that while shipbuilding for less complex military vessels can be contracted out on occasion (for instance the MARS tanker programme), the ability to design such vessels in the first place is critical. The MARS programme highlighted the importance of retaining an indigenous warship design capability, and one reason for the various UK shipbuilding terms of business agreements is to ensure sufficient work to keep the design capability alive, even if there is a slow reduction in actual construction.

Warship design has always been complicated; you are merging the combination of basic hull design, propulsion, life support, damage control and combat capability and turning it into something which can operate effectively. Add in the phenomenally complicated amount of electronic equipment needed, and you quickly realise that even a relatively simple modern high end design requires a level of skill and ability which is far beyond that of many nations. Pretty much any nation can make a design which looks impressive on the outside, but far fewer have the ability to turn an impressive design into a working and competent design that can actually integrate its systems together to become more than the sum of its parts. This is one reason why so many modern warship designs take longer than anticipated to bring into service – the building is (relatively speaking) straight forward, but getting all the bits to work properly together and then fight the ship is a totally different ballgame altogether.

So, right now the export market for high end warships finds itself in a curious position. There are many navies out there who operate escort platforms which are starting to approach the end of their lives, and who are considering replacement, but who do not have the resources to consider buying new. At the same time, there are other navies out there operating vessels which they’d like to upgrade as part of the growth in their naval power, but who lack the ability to design (and often build) vessels in their home market. What this means as we move forward is how do the problems of designing and building vessels get solved and what does it mean for the warship export market?

In the next part of this article, Humphrey intends to consider the current challenges facing UK shipbuilding as it looks to the future, and what other nations are doing to build up, or replace their existing escort fleets, and whether we can draw any lessons from it.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Could the RN really operate a US Aircraft carrier?

Humphrey has been suffering from a nasty virus recently which has left him out of action and unable to write. While firmly recovering now, he has had time to catch up on various bits of reading, both articles and on the internet. One issue which caught his interest was a subject which seems to perennially come up in various forums, particularly on ARRSE, which is the question about why the UK (or presumably certain other close allies) have not gone down the road of leasing an American aircraft carrier for introduction to the RN, either to fill the gap between CVF entering service, or alternatively in place of CVF. It is a question which has often been asked, but Humphrey has never seen anywhere set out in depth why it hasn’t happened and what has stopped it occurring in the past. As such, the aim of this article is to try and set out the arguments underpinning why leasing/buying a US carrier is simply not feasible. This in turn forms the loose first part of a two part article on warship exporting in more general terms.

For the purposes of this article, one is considering the practicality of whether such a move could occur -on cost grounds alone such a move seems unlikely, but one needs to suspend disbelief to consider this proposition anyway! 

On paper it does seem to be an interesting proposition – the US has been constructing aircraft carriers on a near continuous basis for over 60 years, and has a wealth of knowledge about how they can be built, and the shipyard facilities to support this. The argument as usually put forward is that rather than build CVF, it would be just as efficient to either lease a ‘spare’ carrier (particularly in the post sequestration environment where they are spending more time alongside) or just pay for the US to build one.

The first challenge to this idea is a very simple problem. There is no military dockyard anywhere in the UK which can accommodate a US supercarrier alongside. Were the UK to acquire one, it would either have to create an entirely new facility at an existing commercial port (e.g. Southampton) or it would have to base the vessels in the US. The creation of a new facility would be a particular challenge, as any nuclear powered vessel would require discrete berthing with security procedures to take into account the presence of nuclear reactors. One only has to consider the security in place to support the SSN/SSBN fleet to realise what would be needed for the CVN. The creation of any extra facility at a point when the RN is trying to reduce its shore based footprint would cost a great deal.

So if we have nowhere to moor the vessel, we have yet to consider the problem of propulsion. The USN no longer has any active conventionally powered super carriers, the last decommissioning a few years ago. This means that any lease / build would need to be from a nuclear powered design. The UK has never operated any surface vessels with nuclear propulsion (standfast a few tentative designs in the 1960s) and would find it a challenge to bring such a capability into service – this is without even considering the likely challenge of finding a home port which would want to see a nuclear powered aircraft carrier based there. The most significant challenge of operating a nuclear carrier would be the lack of any suitably qualified personnel to run the reactors, and then over time the drain on manpower from the wider nuclear qualified fleet. Retaining suitably qualified and experienced nuclear watchkeeping personnel is a major challenge for the RN to keep its SSN and SSBN fleet at sea – indeed one reason why the RN is allowing women to sea in submarines is arguably to help increase the potential numbers of engineers who it can recruit. While Humphrey doesn’t have the exact numbers to hand, it would be a reasonable assumption that to man a single US CVN would require the greater part of the RNs current level of nuclear trained personnel, which would have a very challenging impact on the wider fleet.

Manpower more broadly is a major challenge – it is often forgotten that the future RN manpower plot isn’t actually that big. Of a headcount of some 30,000 people, by the time you’ve stripped out the Royal Marines, Fleet Air Arm and Submarine Service, you’re left with roughly 15000 people to do everything else. A single US carrier needs some 3200 personnel just to operate the ship – by the time you work on the 3:1 ratio (e.g. to keep one person at sea requires three people in the Service) then a single carrier would require well over 9000 people in the manning pool. This is before you even consider the size of the airwing. So, even if the RN acquired a carrier it would need to stop manning the majority of the surface fleet in order to put her to sea.

If we were to assume that the manpower could, somehow, be found, then we still have the major issue of training and spare parts. US and RN warships are very different beasts, with each reflecting national design preferences. There is relatively little commonality of systems, structures or methods of operation and in taking on a USN vessel the RN would have to spend a very significant amount of time training staff to use it to best effect. There would be a large bill attached to this (e.g. creation of courses, establishment of training pipelines, refresher training and the like) which would be required just to support a single ship. Similarly, the US has a very different set of parts and technical systems in service – any carrier acquisition would require the RN to adopt an entirely new and very separate supply chain at great expense. One challenge of buying from the US is that you would be entirely reliant of the largesse of the US system to allow the sale of spare parts – the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system is a classic example whereby the US sells a lot of basic equipment cheaply, but ties the buyer into long term supply contracts to provide its equipment, and its support to the customer. It is likely that the RN would find itself tied into very expensive US support contracts which would do wonders for the US economy but not support UK national preferences. Our ability to modify the carrier to suit our own purposes would also be reduced – in other words, buying the Carrier would probably mean buying into the US support system too. This is fine for a technologically less mature military which perhaps lacks the industrial and technological support base to run vessels, but it does mean that the RN would find itself hamstrung. By contrast CVF gives the UK total freedom of manoeuvre to change / modify or update the vessel and her systems in any manner that we see fit.

Finally one has to consider the issue of the airwing – the value of a supercarrier is being able to put up to 90 airframes to sea and position them where the US Government sees fit. The problem for the RN is that the funding does not exist to buy such an airwing, nor does the manpower exist to do so. Sending a single CVN airwing to sea would take up the majority of the Fleet Air Arms current manpower, to the detriment of most other tasks.

So, we find ourselves in a situation where to consider buying an supercarrier for the RN requires us to realise that there is nowhere to house it, not enough crew to man it, not enough aircraft to fly from it and the costs of training and supplying a single ship would be astronomical. This is to not even consider the wider damage to the UK shipbuilding capability that would result from a distortion of budget funds away from home grown construction in favour of supporting US industry.

This last point is perhaps key – we live in an era where many nations find themselves in possession of a military ship design and building capability, but where ever fewer nations seem able to secure export orders. One only has to look around the world to realise that the market for complex warships is diminishing, and where the loss of design skills probably means the end of a national capability to build complex vessels. Just look at the case of the MARS tankers, where even though they are being built in Korea, the key requirement was the protection of the UK design capability which was vital.

Increasingly warship construction is as much about economic security (e.g. protection of national assets like shipyards) as it is about physical security. The loss of an order may mean the end of a national capability to build warships. Buying from the US would mean the UK quite probably losing the ability to construct high end vessels, and as Canada is finding out now, the cost of re-establishing a shipbuilding industry is huge (see the excellent 3D’s blog by Mark Collins for more detail on the ongoing saga of Canadian shipbuilding). All those advocating the acquisition of US carriers for the Royal Navy should perhaps consider that it would not only be entirely unfeasible to support, train or operate one, but to do so may end our independent capability to build complex warships at all.

 As a follow up, the author wants to consider whether there is a market for warship exporting at all in future, and what it may look like. Time willing, the loose part two to this article will follow in the next week or so.

Friday, 12 April 2013

What is the legacy of Lady Thatcher for the Armed Forces?

The news that former UK Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher has died has led to a wide ranging series of social debates in the UK over the legacy of the former Prime Minister. It is rare to see the death of a national leader lead to such strident debate, not only at home, but also abroad – normally the death of a PM attracts a short amount of coverage in the UK, perhaps a couple of one paragraph articles in foreign newspapers and a quiet funeral in an obscure part of the nation. The death of Baroness Thatcher has led to a wide ranging and very polarized debate between those who were strongly in support of her, and those who see her legacy as less positive.

Normally Humphrey tries to steer clear of political matters in this blog, but he’s decided to try and put across some very personal views on this subject due to the fact that the life and legacy of Baroness Thatcher was more than just political, and that in many ways she transcended politics in her reputation in order to become something more potent. Whatever her wider political actions, there was one area where she had arguably a long lasting impact and bequeathed a very long term legacy, and this was with the Armed Forces and Defence in general.

From one perspective Lady Thatcher enjoyed an extremely close and very personal relationship with HM Forces that transcended the normal political/military divide. Over the years some politicians have had better relationships with the military than others – speak to any Military Officer or MOD Civil Servant with experience of dealing with Ministers, and after a couple of drinks then they’ll usually be happy to pass observations on who was ‘rated’ and who was not. Generally this had nothing to do with political party or views, but on the ability of the individual and the manner with which they were able to get on with the unique combination of military culture and lifestyle which permeates the department.

Lady Thatcher, despite never having held any office within Defence, seemed to enjoy a tremendous and mutually held respect within the Armed Forces. This was not for her political views,  but because in her ethos, attitude and manner of conduct, she seemed to place an emphasis and importance on the sort of values that are at the very heart of military culture. This, coupled with her realisation that in many ways after 1982 her continued hold on the Premiership owed much to the Falklands War victory, meant that she bestowed a great deal of affection on the armed forces. This is perhaps borne out by the reaction on sites such as the Army Rumour service or PPRUNE forums where a genuine sense of loss can be felt.

This closeness has never been seen to be bestowed in any other currently serving politician; while many recent PMs and Ministers have had good working relationships with the military, it is hard to see the same level of affection and mutual respect exist for any other politician of any party. That being said, other than Winston Churchill, it is hard to think of any other 20th Century Prime Minister or politician who enjoyed a similar status.

One way of conducting a cabinet reshuffle?
A Long Term Legacy?
One of the challenges of managing Defence is that decisions taken now will have to be implemented and supported for decades to come. One only has to look at the CVF project, where initial design work began in the mid 1990s for the replacement CVS studies, for a design that will not enter service till 2018 and which is likely to remain in service until the 2050s or beyond. One example of this long term impact can be found today in some the decisions taken in the 1981 defence review – for instance the structure of the RN is still inherently built around not only the SSBN fleet, but also the Type 23 Frigates. The decision to implement a small, cheap and size limited design as part of the review is a decision which made sense given the operational imperatives at the time (namely ASW in the GIUK gap), but which has hamstrung the modern RN and will lead to major changes to the Type 26 force. One of Lady Thatcher’s legacies to this day is that current Governments are having to work with a force structure which was largely bestowed on them by the Labour and Conservative Governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In particular, the decision to commit to the replacement of Polaris with Trident has ensured that the current administration is faced with the challenge of taking tough politicial and financial decisions as a direct result of decisions taken over 30 years ago. This is perhaps a useful reminder in a generation where it is difficult to find people who can think in terms of more than one electoral cycle ahead – namely that some decisions will have ramifications for decades hence, and that your successors are very much tied into the decisions that you make today.

A Global Presence Restored?
One area where Lady Thatcher had perhaps more impact than she is widely given credit for is the re-establishment of the UK as a globally deployed military power. The context of the 1970s was one of retrenchment, withdrawal and an ever deepening focus on supporting the Inner German Border as the central point for all defence planning. Margaret Thatcher was the first Prime Minister to come to power who had not played a role in the previous 15-20 years of Imperial withdrawal and refocusing on NATO. While she had roles in Government, she did not handle any Defence or Foreign portfolio matters. It is perhaps noteworthy that one of her earliest military engagements was not only the deployment of Royal Marines to the New Hebrides, but also the deployment of Royal Navy vessels to Armilla to focus on the increasing security threat in the Gulf. Well over 30 years later and the RN is still deployed in the Gulf, and in ever great numbers (today at any one time over 25% of the RN is deployed East of Suez). The Falklands War naturally marks the most well known of her wider military engagements, but it is telling that throughout her premiership, she was a strident supporter for the deployment of UK forces outside of their traditional operating area (for instance the significant Exercise Saif Sareea in Oman in 1986), bucking the trends of previous years. In the very twilight days of her time in Office, she saw through the Options for Change defence review, which not only heralded the end of the Cold War military structure, but also saw the first steps in the UK military re-establishing itself as a much more globally deployable power, as was seen by the deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1990.

This may sound somewhat obvious, but it is worth considering that the current state of UK military capability may well not have existed if a different party had taken power in the 1980s. It is clear that a win by the Labour Party in the 1983 or 1987 General Election would have seen a radically different defence policy implemented, and one which would have seen significantly different force structures imposed on the military – for instance SSBNs, almost certainly SSNs, Carriers and other vessels would have been scrapped as part of wider ranging defence cuts. The political scene in the UK in the early 1980s was perhaps more markedly split between Left and Right than at any other point in recent history. While most elections since then would have had relatively small impacts on the military capability, it is fair to say that history would have turned out tremendously differently had the Labour Party won these elections. Therefore, one direct legacy of Lady Thatcher is that through her actions, she set the conditions for the current military force structure to exist, and to enable current political party leaders to continue have a genuinely global military capability.

This is perhaps a somewhat rose tinted spectacle approach – after all the 1981 Defence Review would have cost the RN its assault ships and reduced the carrier fleet, but the ultimate result though was that despite this initial policy, the legacy of the first leader to not have known withdrawal from East of Suez was to adopt a defence policy which paved the way for a return to Suez and beyond. Her actions directly saw the UK recommitting itself to the Gulf for a generation, and set in train a chain of events which have seen UK forces based there ever since.

A Very Special Relationship?
Of particular importance is the manner in which the strong personal relationship between Lady Thatcher and President Reagan manifested itself in the significant re-invigoration of the Anglo-US alliance. The very genuine bonds of friendship at this level, and the renewed confidence which saw the two leading NATO powers take a far more proactive approach to tackling the challenges of the Soviet Union almost certainly paved the way for the much stronger co-operation of the years that followed. Again, this is a point often forgotten, but by the 1980s, the UK and US were still close, but the relationship perhaps lacked chemistry. Many of those who drove it forward were senior, approaching retirement and perhaps it owed more to their shared wartime experiences than it did about current matters. The series of events, such as the re-engagement on the global stage, success in the Falklands, and the later joint work to tackle the Soviet Union, as well as wider engagement helped restore the UKs reputation and working relationship for a new generation of military and civilian staff. This is not to say that the Anglo-US relationship would have further declined without Lady Thatcher, but it was definitely given a fillip that helped reinvigorate it. The impact of this was the ability for the UK to restore its place at the side of the US as a genuinely credible ally, which has endured to this day. Again, this is not something that should be taken for granted, as the election of the Labour party in 1983 / 1987 would have seen the emergence of a Government committed to the withdrawal of US forces from UK soil, and with it the likely ending of the Anglo-US alliance. It is fair to say that the legacy of Lady Thatcher is that the relationship is far strong now than it could well have been. Of course actions speak louder than words, and much of the strength of the relationship comes from willingness by the UK to offer troops, diplomatic support and other measures to work with the US. But, this can only come about if there is willingness at the top of Government to see this level of commitment. Lady Thatcher set the tone for a reinvigoration of the relationship that all of her successors since have seen fit to continue to support.

A war that redefined a nation
One area for which she will always be remembered, but for which it is challenging to identify specific a legacy is the Falklands War of 1982. While her leadership and position at this time will probably be one of the enduring memories of her premiership, the Falklands remains very much a unique occurrence in British history. If anything perhaps the legacy is the fact that the war came as a timely reminder that the UK continues to have a truly global footprint of interests, which still needed protecting. This came at a point when the UK was seemingly going down the road of having to politically choose between a military entirely optimised for the defence of the Central Front, or one which was essentially a home defence force. The Falklands came as a strong reminder that no matter what the primary threat, the UK needed to retain a broader global intervention capability. Any future defence review will have to be conducted under the ‘Falklands Factor’ – namely that the UK will be expected to be able to do something to intervene in support of its overseas interests, which was not a given even in the 1981 defence review.

Perhaps though the most challenging legacy she left is that of Service pay. In 1979 the armed forces were significantly underpaid compared to the wider population, and morale was low and retention a challenge. Many forces personnel really struggled to get by, and the pay simply wasn’t enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. One of the first acts of the new government was a very substantial pay rise, which in turn started the long road to service pay providing a genuinely competitive salary. This made a real difference to service morale at the time, and it is telling that many of those who served then have remembered this pay rise on their internet forum eulogies. While in the short term this had a positive effect, it could be argued that in fact it set in train the ever increasing challenge of an unaffordable manpower bill. One of the real challenges in Defence today, and often touched on here, is that manpower is now extremely expensive.

One of the reasons the UK could afford large armed forces until the mid-1960s was because the pay was so low by comparison to wider industry that it was possible to have large forces for relatively little cost. By contrast, todays armed forces are phenomenally expensive to pay and employ as their wages bill is out of all proportion compared to the 1960s (even allowing for inflation). By providing the military with a more reasonable salary, the stage was set to see the long running problem of how manage an ever more stretched defence budget – personnel or equipment? This is a problem which has only gotten worse in recent years, and is likely to prove a continued challenge – how do you pay for a military which requires highly specialist skills and experience, and also afford the equipment that goes with this? This is perhaps the most difficult legacy, for in choosing to increase the pay to the armed forces which she supported; the long term reality has been to make them increasingly unaffordable for the nation as a whole.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Korearing Out of Control - The situation in Korea

As anyone who follows the news will have seen recently, events on the Korean peninsula seem to be spiralling into a cycle of increasing tension as North Korea continues to provide strong rhetoric against the South and wider nations over the current diplomatic situation, which seems to have culminated so far in a ‘declaration of war’ and news that the Yongbyon reactor will be reopened. How serious is this, and does it really herald war for the peninsula?
North Korea is one of the most unusual and terrifyingly Orwellian states on the planet. Imagine a nation where every member of the population has spent the last 60 years being told that they live in a paradise, and that they have the greatest living conditions on earth. Add to this complete state control of the media and broadcast, a network of spies and informants and a gulag archipelago that would make Stalin jealous. Presiding over this nation of some 23 million utterly indoctrinated and militarized people is a tiny elite who enjoy a pampered and privileged lifestyle which provides them with any manner of goods and services. At the very top of this is the ruler Kim Jong Un, who has inherited his position from his father Kim Jong Il. The Kim dynasty are treated almost as gods, and no criticism of any form is officially tolerated.
Kim Jong Nam inherited his position from his father, who died in late 2011, and who had a challenging relationship with the outside world. At barely 30 years old and with no military experience or other state experience to speak of, the young Kim lacks the powerbase and support that his father built during his long years as the heir apparent. Kim Jong Il had several children, and appeared reluctant to anoint any one of them as the heir to the throne. By contrast he had spent many years in the shadow of his father, and was able to build some support in the senior echelons of North Korean society, and develop an understanding of how he could rule. The young Kim has none of this, and has been unexpectedly catapulted to power, bereft of the powerbase that can sustain him.
While Kim will enjoy the support of the State, he has come to power in a difficult time. The country has not had time to adjust to the thought of him as the leader of the nation – there was seemingly little preparing of the stage over the years for his ascension to the position (e.g. no portraits, TV appearances or any other sign of public presence). At the same time North Koreas position is precarious – the State has survived far longer than most totalitarian states by clamping down on any form of external news and contact with the real world. The combination though of mobile phones, the Internet and other forms of communication, coupled with dreadful famines and a dire economic situation means that while no Arab Spring uprising is likely, for the first time the complete and unquestioning adulation of the masses is not 100% assured. The transit of people out to China, and the slowly more porous northern border means that there is seepage of news and information from the outside world into North Korea. People are in a small way perhaps now realising that the world they inhabit is not a paradise after all.
This background is important when trying to understand the context of what we see going on in North Korea now. The rhetoric, the threats, the sense of trying to bring the nation together to unite against the external enemy – all of this seems a good way to help focus peoples minds on an external threat, and to perhaps once again pledge their fealty to Kim.

Kim on guidance visit (copyright
It is telling that there have been multiple photos of Kim appearing in the media while making visits to the armed forces. Kim Jong Il used to do something similar, whereby he would make a regular ‘guidance’ visit to various KPA units and reiterate advice on how things could be done better (a trait of Kim Jong Il was his unerring ability to be a world expert at whatever he turned his mind to apparently). If anything Kim Jong Un has been more prominent in these sorts of visits, where he seems determined to establish his credentials as a military leader. Not a military man by background, and with no real party power base to speak of, he needs to ensure that he can count on the loyalty of the armed forces to support his regime. Photos of him delivering guidance may appear somewhat hammed up to the Western audience, but in North Korea they serve as evidence that Kim has an understanding of the threat and is prepared to meet it.
The use of the rhetoric against South Korea and the US is important – it provides a unifying theme and helps focus attention on repelling the long expected attack. At the same time, the attempt to conduct a crude form of ‘nuclear blackmail’ by conducting tests of devices and rockets helps demonstrate Kims credentials as a credible world leader, with the most advanced technology and the ability to dictate terms to the wider world. The problem though is that as Kim is discovering now, it is difficult to back down from the pedestal when the other side don’t react as you expect them to.
The reaction from the wider world, including China (a crucial power broker in this area) has been overwhelmingly hostile to North Koreas recent nuclear tests. Unlike in previous years, where the implied threat of testing was enough to form deals which in part benefited North Korea, this test has instead seen the imposition of sanctions and global condemnation. While the regime itself is not under threat, it is clear that the testing of a nuclear weapon has backfired significantly, and led to further isolation.
The recent stepping up of rhetoric feels as much about trying to save face internally, by ignoring the deeper isolation (and likely suspension of food aid which would have helped alleviate some of the famine reportedly going on), and instead focusing on the threat to the nation. To that end the rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang in recent days has been significantly more hostile, and has culminated in  a so-called ‘declaration of war’.
Is War Likely?
Despite the situation, an intentional war does not seem likely. There is no sign of any mobilisation in the North, and reports on the internet from visitors to South Korea say that there is no increase in military presence there either. The question that needs to be asked is not ‘what does North Korea gain from war’, but ‘what does Kim and his closest advisors gain from war’. Given the near certainty that any North Korean attack would be halted and then eventual regime collapse would surely follow, it is hard to see why Kim would wish to purposefully attack the south as such a move would be akin to ending his own regime.
If ones assumes that there is no desire for war in Pyongyang, then the assumption must be that what we are seeing is instead a very public manifestation of Kims attempts to secure the loyalty of the people and secure his own regime. One cannot help but wonder whether he and his advisors are looking for some kind of small victory which allows them to portray to the world (or more accurately North Korea) that he has triumphed over the South and the USA, and enable him to rule with greater support. So, the short answer is no, intentional war is not likely, but the real danger perhaps lies in miscalculation.
The authors own very personal concern about this situation is not of a juggernaut Korean army heading south into the DMZ in the manner of a Larry Bond novel. Instead it is where something occurs at a very localised level which rapidly escalates out of control. We’ve seen in the past circumstances where the two sides can exchange fire; given the delegation of authority to unit level to return fire, there is a danger that a poorly aimed live fire exercise, or a genuine miscalculation could lead to a rapid escalation of events over which neither side has full control.
Kim and the Generals - an unlikely pairing? (copyright
It is highly unlikely to think that the North Korean units would open fire of their own accord. With a very centralized command and control structure, it is unlikely that the regime would be willing to chance an overly keen junior officer starting a war on his own initiative. So, one question of key concern then is what are North Korean rules of engagement? If the situation emerges that they can return fire without further authority, then they could potentially misconstrue live firing exercises near the DMZ and in turn cause an escalation. The worry is perhaps that Kim and his advisors in Pyongyang may find themselves struggling to co-ordinate events, as poor North Korean communications and overtly heavy chains of command struggle to pass the messages in time. By the time the situation is clear, it may be too late to authorise a ‘ceasefire’ order. That then is perhaps the authors greatest worry, that something very minor escalates out of control due to poor understanding on both sides.
What would the implications of war be?
As odd a question as this may sound, there are several very serious implications if events in the Korean Penisula were to turn violent. Beyond the likely carnage and vast loss of life that would stem from any attacks, particularly with Seoul being in artillery range of the DMZ, the wider implications would have a huge impact, not just on Korea but also the global economy.
Assuming that any war is relatively short, due to the lack of resources, up to date equipment and effective personnel in the North Korean military (think Iraqi military of 1991 with even more obsolete equipment), the South will find itself laden with two major problems. Firstly the cost of rebuilding Seoul and other cities damaged in the attack. This by itself would have major economic consequences for the country and would probably have wider ramifications for the global economy as the worlds 15th largest economy struggled to rebuild. It could be done, but it would be at a vast cost of resources.
The more serious question is ‘what do you do with North Korea itself’? The cost of reunifying Germany in 1991 came in at billions of Marks for the German economy. This was to merge two economies that were not that dissimilar and were both relatively industrialised. To merge the two Korean economies would cost billions, if not trillions, as the South finds itself laden with the requirement to modernise and update a nation with creaking infrastructure not updated in decades. As the population adapted to life in the 21st century, there is likely to be real challenges preventing movement for jobs, food and support. The sheer scale of the challenge in ‘deprogramming’ the millions of North Koreans who will discover that everything they have taken from granted since birth is a lie is a job which will keep psychologists busy for generations.
The serious question probably needs to be asked – could the South ever realistically absorb the
financial and human cost of reunification with North Korea? As we move ever further away from the
last time the peninsula was united, the two countries ties grow fewer. Families split for generations
will eventually lose contact, and the relationship becomes more theoretical than real. As the two
countries have such different experiences, they are effectively becoming two distinct and separate nations. It is hard to imagine that in 30-40 years time as the last few who remember Korea as a united peninsula pass on, that there will be the same desire to work together. Over time one must wonder whether South Korea will eventually seek to step away from reunification and the ever more expensive responsibilities that go with it, in favour of seeing the North as a separate country. While this may be unlikely now, with little real hope for improvement in the economy or life in the North, it will only get more expensive and challenging to resolve this problem.
Contemplating the reality of  and limitations to power? (copyright
The Nuclear Question
One issue that the author has deliberately not really focused on is the nuclear issue itself. This is because it is hard to imagine a scenario at present where the North is able to threaten with a nuclear weapon. While they may possess some devices that have been tested, we have not seen evidence of a credible deterrent force, nor an ability to deliver these weapons at any distance. At best a North Korean aircraft may be able to deploy the weapon over the south, assuming it made the run unmolested. Paradoxically, now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it is discovering that possession is perhaps less valuable than the threat of acquisition. It has already seen that testing weapons does not elicit the same response as shutting down processing and enrichment plants. From a military perspective, until such point as North Korea can field a militarily viable deterrent force, capable of presenting a second strike capability, its nuclear devices are a concern, but hard to see as a useful military tool. Kim is doubtless well aware that use of a nuclear weapon on the peninsula will draw a harsh response from China and Russia, both of whom share land borders with North Korea, let alone the reaction from the USA.
So, while it is concerning to wonder what a dictator with nuclear weapons could do if he was so minded, the Koreans currently find themselves in a strange position- not able to command the same attention for possession as acquisition, and not able to make proper military use of any device, their nuclear capability is perhaps far less useful to them than some may think. It is perhaps for this reason then that the North has announced it will reactivate the Yongbyon complex, realising that it can elicit far more concessions from halting a programme in its tracks than it can from demonstrating an existing capability to the outside world.
What does this mean for the UK and USA?
There are wider implications of this for both the UK and the USA. For the Americans the current situation, and associated surge in deployment of some highly advanced capabilities will come as an expensive bill during this time of sequestration. The funding for the deployment of F22s and B2s will be found, but one has to wonder what else will be cut to pay for it. Given the deep financial crisis that the Pentagon currently finds itself in, this crisis is an unhelpful reminder that the outside world is not beholden to congressional politics. It also serves as a reminder that despite the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, the US still has a large and very capable force deployed in both Japan and Korea to focus on the threat from the North.
For the UK the crisis has once again highlighted the value of both the Defence Attaché network and the wider Embassy network. While Humphrey has no idea at all of the sort of communications that have gone on, it is worth noting that the UK has an embassy in Pyongyang, unlike the US or most other Western governments. This means that even on a low key level, the UK is able to meet with North Korean counterparts and actually talk to them in some way – which is more than most other countries are able to do. This is arguably of genuine value to our allies as it enables us to offer a genuinely credible perspective on how things are going in Pyongyang and how they interpret the world. For a very small outlay to run the Embassy, the UK is able to help maintain influence in the ‘credit bank’ which we can use when justifying our value to other nations such as the US.
Similarly the presence of a senior Defence Attaché in Seoul helps serve as a reminder that the UK still has defence commitments to the region, and is a member of the UN Armistice Commission that was created at the end of the Korean war. The presence of this official allows the UK the opportunity to see the developing crisis from both sides, and to have a much better understanding of what is going on in the region.
For those who say that this doesn’t matter, then they should consider this - namely that any war which damages the South Korean and wider Asian economy will also have a massively damaging impact on our own economy. The global economy is so interlinked now that the fallout from the conflict could see major job losses and economic difficulty in the UK, plus the wider ramifications of human tragedy that inevitably follows a conflict. By following this properly, understanding the situation and being able to hopefully influence in a very small way, the UK is able to try and ensure it is best placed to understand and help resolve the situation. As a member of the P5, and a nation with strong economic and cultural interests in the region, the UK does have a strong vested interest in the peaceful resolution to this current situation.
This is a difficult time for the Korean Peninsula, it is always concerning when rhetoric is notched up
and talk of war follows, no matter where the situation is. One must hope that cooler heads prevail
and that the circumstances emerge whereby the North is able to stand down with its dignity
relatively intact, so as to avoid humiliating a potentially dangerous foe. One must hope that this
situation resolves itself peacefully, for the consequences if things do go wrong are simply too terrible to contemplate.