Thursday, 30 May 2013

Of Fleets in Far Flung Places

Humphrey has a certain pet hate on some internet sites, and this is the trend to ‘fantasy fleet’ creation. While the merits of discussing possible courses of action are interesting, in recent years these sort of threads have routinely become an excuse to wishlist large numbers of ships, aircraft and vessels in an almost fantasian order of battle which bears no resemblance to any current reality. Almost without exception these threads prove immensely dull to read, and rarely achieve more than listing different types of impressive ships in arbitrary ‘fleets’.

The concept of these so-called ‘fleets’ has often puzzled the author – it is something to which many posters cling to – the notion that the Royal Navy should somehow hark back to its imagined glory days and establish a ‘Far East Fleet’, a Med Fleet and south Atlantic squadrons, along with the supporting bases and dockyards. These impressive sounding titles are bandied around without really thinking what this means. Ironically, those who most loudly advocate the creation of these fleets are the ones who also demand that the MOD cuts the numbers of officials and Admirals to pay for it – as if adding an additional layer of command is going to somehow reduce officialdom.

For this post, Humphrey wants to consider why foreign dockyards and the concept of ‘Fleets’ is perhaps less relevant than ever to the Royal Navy of today, and considers that what may have worked in the past is not necessarily the model of the future fleet structure.

HMNB Portsmouth
What is this so-called ‘Fleet’?
Historically until the early 1970s the Royal Navy has operated globally, with its assets split into squadrons or fleets for the purposes of command and control – in the post war era this was based around a home fleet, a Mediterranean Fleet, a Far East Fleet and ‘stations’ or squadrons based in the Caribbean and West Indies, plus other outlying locations.

At its simplest the role of the Fleet could be seen as providing a local level of command and control over an organisation, ranging from provision of support and training, through to conducting operations in the operating area. Essentially a Fleet could be seen as being an organisational overhead designed to provide support to fighting units of the fleet. Additionally the presence of a senior officer ensured a local staff able to co-ordinate operations, handle defence relations and staff talks, and ensure that the local interests of HM Government were sufficiently represented and adhered to. In wartime the fleet structure provided a similar level of operational support, with the staff co-ordinating operations and in very rare occasions marshalling the units of the Fleet to a co-ordinated action (arguably Jutland remains the greatest example of this).  Such actions were relatively rare though, even in WW2.

The structure of disparate Fleets ended in 1971 as the Eastern and Western Fleets were merged into a single command (known as CINCFLEET), which in its new guise as NAVY COMMAND remains the organisation responsible for the generation of, and deployment of RN vessels across the world.

The reality today is that for an organisation like the RN, the Fleet is an organisational structure which adds little extra operational value. In decades past, when communication was much slower, and there was a very clearly pronounced ‘air gap’ between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of the RN and wider MOD, there was more value in having layers of command. It was simply not possible for a single headquarters and staff to oversee the movements and support to ships across the world, and also conduct the wider range of staff duties.

Today the IT revolution has changed all this – it is now completely possible for a ship deployed to have direct email contact with its operational command chain, and also bring in fleet HQ and the MOD strategic policy desks into the same discussion. Modern IT means it is possible to remain aware of deployments, stores problems and wider international challenges. A ship on deployment now has immediate ‘reachback’ to subject matter experts in the UK able to provide almost instantaneous responses on most issues. What this means is that the value of a deployed HQ is significantly reduced – there is no need for an HQ EASTERN FLEET to interpret guidance from on high about handle the process of working up, supporting and deploying HMS NONSUCH and then implementing it – this can all be done centrally with everyone involved in the process able to work together from the outset.

Additionally the rise of jet travel means that the days of deployed Admirals acting as ‘the voice of HMG’ for years at a time have gone. It is now possible for senior officers to travel the globe, handling defence talks, meetings, engagement and all the other niceties of naval relationships without being based in the region. The work still goes on, but it can be dealt with by officials based in the UK and not overseas.

While this is in some ways a sad development, for lets face it, there is something rather evocative about reading of long vanished posts like FLAG OFFICER FAR EAST FLEET, or reading the superlative John Wintons descriptions in ‘HMS LEVIATHAN’ of the Commander and commissioning in Sembewang. But, to read such descriptions now is to make you realise how much the world has changed – while the titles were impressive, the work that the posts generated is no longer needed – as times change, so do organisational structures and titles.

It is perhaps worth considering that for many years now the RN has essentially operated a ‘Far East Fleet’ in all but name – one only has to look at the plethora of RN assets deployed on a daily basis east of Suez, and the way in which they are controlled – through a 1* commander permanently based in Bahrain, to realise that while the vast organisational structures which used to control the RN may not exist, the fact remains that the RN is able to deploy, sustain and effectively operate a force with more capability than the majority of the worlds navies thousands of miles from the home base. While the complex relationship and naming convention of Task Group or Task Unit may be less romantic than ‘Far East Fleet’ but it should not hide the reality of a permanent presence overseas.

It is also worth considering how much tighter the overall RN command and control structure is these days – in the last 20 years there has been a massive reduction in the administrative oversight of the deployment of ships – the old structure of Maritime Headquarters, regional Flag Officers with responsibility for ships in their areas and a wider CINCFLEET structure has been replaced by a much tauter structure based in Northwood, which is able to maintain similar levels of awareness, with a much smaller overhead of ‘Stars’. This is worth remembering – those who claim the RN still has many Admirals forget just how many high profile Admiral posts have been abolished in recent years as the RN adapts to better technology and capability.

Type 45 Destroyer

 Overseas Dockyards
The other point which often crops up in Fantasy Fleet discussions is the keen desire for the RN to establish a network of overseas dockyards which will house whole squadrons of warships (presumably under the command of a newly re-established Fleet HQ). While it is wonderful to look back in history and see where the RN used to have permanent bases, it is hugely misleading to do so.

The author has a very personal view that the RN is in the business of sending warships to sea, and not the business of managing an unnecessarily large property portfolio. Every penny spent on building and sustaining shore infrastructure is a penny not being spent on a warship. While there is a very clear case for a well maintained and modern infrastructure, this does come at a cost. The RN already probably has a surplus of real estate relative to its fleet size, and much of this is buildings that are decades (and in some cases centuries) old, which require updating, refurbishment and refitting.

Historically overseas dockyards made perfect sense – in the early 20th century when communications were slow, it made immense sense to ensure that local dockyards could repair vessels on station, ensuring they were available in short order, rather than waiting weeks or months for spare parts to be sent out. The presence of coal or oil in the days before the RFA was a strategic necessity, while ammunition depots could easily store shells for use. Similarly, the reliance on troopships rather than trooping flights meant that long drafts for overseas personnel made sense – it wasn’t feasible to keep moving people around unless there was good reason to do so. Hence maintaining a strategic network of dockyards and accommodation facilities made enormous sense.

Today though most of these requirements are either overtaken by technology or simply not feasible. The investment in strategic airlift means that the average RN ship can have parts flown out to it within 2-3 days if there is a pressing need, no matter where it is in the world. Similarly, personnel can be rotated around with ease, reducing the need to have any permanent overseas barracks.

Similarly, when considering ammunitioning a vessel, how does one manage the stockpile. Modern missiles are incredibly complex and need a lot of work and maintenance, and there is only a finite supply of them. To decide to store some missiles overseas suddenly imposes requirements for all manner of ammunition handling facilities, extra staff to handle the missiles and generally support the facility. It adds cost on to duplicate an existing capability for little (if any) discernible improvement in capability.

The investment in the RFA in the 1950s and 1960s provided the RN with a truly global reach, which has continued to this day – while there may fewer tankers and support ships than before, there is still a considerable afloat support capability. This means that the requirement for fixed shore bases is much smaller than it used to be.

The other major problem with supporting the re-establishment of overseas bases is where the manpower comes from the run such large facilities which will see hardly any use. The author often sees suggestions that the UK should just establish naval bases in its old stomping grounds across the world, without thinking why or for what reason. There is simply no manpower in the modern RN to establish bases of this nature, or is there reason why it should do so. Since the final merge of the two fleets in 1971, the RN has spent decades becoming a leading expert in the deployment at distance of its vessels while relying on either RFAs or other support mechanisms. There is simply no need or requirement for an overseas dockyard anymore beyond the small detachments which exist overseas.

If you look at the current RN overseas footprint, then the current structure appears to be sensibly balanced. It is surprising to consider that it is only in the last 20 years that the RN has closed its last West Indies and Far Eastern naval bases (HMS MALABAR in the early 1990s and HMS TAMAR in 1997). Since then its presence has been a small support unit in the Falklands, a minor naval base in Gibraltar which gets smaller with every year, a support unit in the Middle East and also a tiny residual presence in Singapore.

Although small, when backed up by vessels such as RFA DILIGENCE, and also strategic airlift capability, it has been proven for decades that the RN is able to deploy a long way from home and sustain itself on station. The requirement for these dockyards so often harked after seems non existent, and one which would merely throw money against a need which simply doesn’t seem to exist.

One final point on overseas basing is well worth nothing – while it is appealing to consider the RN having permanent dockyards overseas, one has to remember that having a base in somewhere like Malta means that the UK is inextricably involved with the domestic situation of that nation until the time comes to leave. Running an overseas facility means a great deal of engagement with the host nation, and accepting that you may find yourself sucked into all manner of crises which you may not want to deal with. Foreign military bases are wonderful political levers to build support for the host government from an overseas power, and while useful for deploying capability, may often be more hard work than is really needed. While dreaming of reopening some old dockyard may be fun, do we really want to find ourselves in difficult and contentious local politics which could cause major difficulties for the UK?

So in summary, Humphries very personal view is that overseas fleets and dockyards are wonderful part of our naval heritage, but not something that has a place in our naval future. The RN has done an incredible job since the end of empire in providing a long distance ability to deploy and sustain far from the home base, while not being reliant on a network of dockyards. The current deployment of the RN shows that it is still as globally versatile as ever, and while smaller, remains immensely capable.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Thoughts on the tragedy in Woolwich

The news this week about the appalling killing in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby has come as a profound shock to many in this country. While as a nation we are used to the loss of our armed forces personnel, often serving far from home (indeed since 1945 there has only been one year where UK personnel were not killed on active duty), it is a truly appalling incident when a serving solider can be attacked and beheaded on the streets of south London. The incident has led to a wide ranging debate in the UK about the nature of terrorism and what can be done to deal with such appalling incidents. Additionally there has been a huge focus on whether the security services could have done more to prevent it.

To the authors mind, the implied criticism of the Security Services seems unfair – one only has to look at the huge number of plots and attacks foiled over many years to realise how much evil that could have been wrought has been prevented from occurring. It is very easy to sit with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘MI5 could have done more to stop this’, but we must remember the reality that in a nation where there are reportedly many plots, many people of concern and finite resources, the Security Services have to get it right 100% of the time. The fact is that an attacker only has to slip through the net once for evil to occur. While it is important that there is a proper investigation into why things were not halted in advance, to Humphrey it is important that we perhaps reflect on how much we owe those in the Security Services who have spent years successfully halting all manner of attacks. Learning from failure is vital, but so is accepting that sometimes no matter how successful your methods, something could wrong. Essentially the media seem to believe that the Security Services must have 100% success from now until the end of time – frankly to the author, the fact that this attack is so unusual, and also the first successful domestic terrorism attack of its kind on the mainland since 2005 is a sign of how much has been achieved.

 A uniformed decision?
There was a lot of criticism in some quarters over the decision to temporarily ban personnel from walking in uniform in public. It is understandable that people feared this as a sign that the UK was giving into terrorism, but equally if you have had a serious incident targeting a member of the armed forces, and do not know whether there will be follow ups, it would seem prudent to try to minimise the risk. While the tabloids perceived pride may have been hurt, it would have been far worse had there been follow up or copycat attacks planned which succeeded because the targets were easily identifiable.

Part of the challenge is to try and see how the UK military fit in a domestic context while wearing uniform. For decades it was an anathema to be seen wearing uniform in public, and even now it attracts raised eyebrows in some quarters. As a reservist the Author has worn rig in public and occasionally been surprised at either how little recognition there is of military uniform (being asked the time of the next bus / train is common, as is abuse when you say that you have no idea, for the questioner assumes you don’t know your employers own timetable!)

While wearing uniform in public is to be encouraged, if only to raise the profile of HM Forces, the question is what level of risk does it pose? In some areas it is extremely normal to see people wear uniform, one only has to wander round some of the Garrison towns or a Naval Base to see plenty of people in uniform. There is an understanding and acceptance of this as part of daily life. Paradoxically in some areas, particularly inner cities where there is a much reduced presence, it is far less common to see people wear uniform. The sort of people likely to be wandering the streets may be reservists or cadets making their way to drill nights, rather than professional military personnel. This in turn raises questions about whether it is right for them to wear uniform in public if they are living in a broadly non-military area, particularly a diverse one where not everyone is automatically supportive of the military or UK foreign policy objectives.

As the reserves are expanded, there will be growing numbers of people recruited into areas which may not have had a large military presence before. One of the most challenging questions from a security perspective is how to balance the desire to raise the profile of the military in the area, but also protect the personal security of not only the reservist, but also their families too.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, for while no one wants to see the streets of some cities become ‘no go’ areas for UK military personnel, one also has to consider the level of risk associated with this.

How real is the risk?
The big worry is that this attack sends a message to other individuals with malicious intent – namely that you don’t need bomb making skills or complex training to conduct an attack that will monopolise the media’s attention. It seems that from public reports the two alleged individuals simply used a range of weapons which are freely available in certain parts of the inner city.

The lesson is that with a limited amount of reconnaissance to identify a suitable target, it is possible to have an effect far beyond what they could have hoped for. On a purely objective basis, the murder of a single soldier is a tactical incident – yet by capturing it for posterity on film, and broadcasting it so widely, it has had a strategic effect. The question that must surely be being asked by some potential attackers must be ‘why bother with a spectacular bomb attack’ which comes with inherent risks of detection, when a simple and basic knife attack will achieve similar coverage and an opportunity to pass on their message. The real worry must now be that there is a shift in attack patterns, away from so-called ‘spectaculars’ like the 7/7 bombings and more onto this sort of copy-cat attack which is far easier to plan, and far harder to stop.

One thing that will have been learnt is just how easy it is though to dominate the news cycle in the era of 24/7 media. If you time your attack well, and encourage filming and photography (as seen here) then the message will spread far and wide. It is hard to consider any republican terrorist attack in the 1980s or 1990s having a similar effect on the broadcast media – one only has to look at how the loss of a soldier was often barely reported by the later stages of OP BANNER. Then coverage only occurred with a truly appalling attack, or spectacular loss of life.

Today though, with the need to feed a voracious cycle of 24/7 coverage, and the ability to upload pictures and media in seconds, it is possible to quite literally dominate the world headlines in minutes. If you have a message that you need to pass, and you are not afraid of dying for your cause, then the lesson of the attack in Woolwich is that it is easy to dominate the agenda if you want to.

Similarly it is going to be ever harder for senior leaders to take decisions without being rushed into them. There is now an expectation in the media that people take charge and lead, often while the event is still on-going. Humphrey recalls hearing the BBC say in one report that no decision had yet been taken about recalling Parliament – this was barely 2 ½ hours after the attack. The idea that Government is able to process the information, take decisions and implement them in less time than it takes a journalist to eat an alcohol sodden lunch is utterly ridiculous. Yet the problem is clear – the terrorists can dominate the information agenda and set the headlines, while the machinery of Government, which was slick and well-oiled enough to deal with most crises in a short (i.e. hours – days) period of time, is now unable to cope with responding in minutes.

The media seemed to be obsessed about the calling of COBR, as if that was the panacea that would magically produce answers and see things happen, despite the fact that barely three hours after the incident much seems to have been unclear. This sets the alarming realisation that it is simply not possible now for Government to be able to handle a major crisis without the expectation by the media that it will all be sorted in minutes, and preferably in time for the headlines. The hell bent desire for coverage, even if it is vacuous, empty and says nothing is all that drives the media agenda now. Government is being expected to react to the tune of the media, often when this may not be the right time to do so.

One has to genuinely worry about how senior figures are able to make tough decisions with the full range of facts open to them. It can take some time to bring together an assessment of what has gone on, and consider the next steps. One only has to look at the media coverage to see how the story changed over the course of a few hours to realise that it’s really hard to know what’s going on until you’ve spoken to everyone and shared information around. How can Government hope to respond, except by rushing and making the wrong call in the heat of the moment in order to satisfy media demands for action? The Medias need for someone to be seen to do something seems to be more important than the need to do the most appropriate thing.

The attack on 22 May was a tragedy which will be scrutinised for years to come. But it is important to not take hasty measures, nor seek to attribute blame without considering what successes have also occurred. We must remember Drummer Rigby, but also remember that the fact we have been so shocked by this event perhaps highlights how unusual it is, and how it is so at odds with the values of the vast majority of the society we all share. Let us not diminish his memory by acting in a manner which shames us as a nation as a whole.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Rotating the troops home from HERRICK

There was a lot of coverage of the MOD announcement on Tuesday 14 May that the UK would be changing its deployment routine for the final phase of Operation HERRICK (UK ops in Afghanistan). Since the operation began, rotations of the major formations have happened on a roughly six monthly basis, with units relieving each other in country. Originally, when set against the planned timeline for withdrawal, a further three HERRICK rotations were due to occur. Under yesterdays announcement the MOD has now changed its plans slightly, with the three rotations replaced by two longer deployments. In effect each of the last two HERRICKS will be eight months long instead of six.
The news has been met in some quarters with allegations that the Army is too overstretched and that this announcement is a direct result of defence cuts and not other reasons. Frankly these thoughts stand up to little scrutiny. When one looks into the timetable for the next two years, it is clear that the one of the rotations was scheduled to occur during the Afghan Elections in April, a period of time which would prove challenging, and place a major burden on the Afghan Security Forces. Delaying the relief by a few weeks will ensure that UK forces are not in the process of a handover during what could be a tense time. By delaying this rotation, the follow on force, which would have relieved the formation in October, would have arrived in late December – early January – at a point in time where it would have had barely eight weeks in theatre prior to the final withdrawal of UK troops. From a common sense perspective, it seems far more sensible to extend the tours of the formations out slightly, even if this does come as an annoyance to those deployed.
Longer tours are nothing new – for some time now many staff officers have been deploying on nine-twelve month continuity tours in particularly key posts. This makes for a long tour, but is manageable – yesterday’s announcement though marks the first time full formations will deploy for longer.
Part of the problem in getting a coherent debate on what the announcement really means is that to the public the phrase Afghanistan conjures up images of troops fighting for their lives in FOBS or the Green Zone. A steady stream of publicity about the incredible bravery of troops based in Helmand has led to many in the public assuming everyone will be extending and risking their lives in similar conditions for longer. The reality is a lot different as most troops by then will be working in Kandahar and Bastion enjoying a significantly different way of life to what many in the public assume goes on in HERRICK – the text below was taken from an email written by Humphrey during his time on HERRICK as a Staff Officer working at a major NATO HQ:
“Posters have gone up around the camp advertising the fact that on Friday nights there will be a weekly class in Greek Folk Dancing (surely we don’t have enough plates spare to smash though?), and at the same time, the gym has now issued a set of rules setting out when ‘registered couples’ are entitled to use the steam room & sauna in our gymnasium. Personally I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that we have a steam room & sauna at a time when young British troops are living in forward bases in Helmand, under constant attack, while using plastic bags to crap in, and eating cold rations (all the time under a 30% likelihood per tour that they will lose multiple limbs or be killed to an IED), or the fact that our NATO bureaucracy decided we needed rules to regulate when said steam room & sauna could or could not be used.

In a similar vein, we’ve just had the water fountain reconnected in our lovely gardens (the ones with the giant coliseum which can be seen from space). In a country with massive water shortages… we’ve spent taxpayers money ensuring that the fountain trickles nicely while we drink a cup of coffee at lunchtime. Meanwhile, if you walk down the road to the neighbouring US base, you will walk past a communal water pump at which you’ll see young children drinking from a communal cup. The locals, here in Afghanistan’s capital, don’t have a pumped water supply, and have to share from a central pump. We in the HQ (all of 200m away) have so much water to spare that we can use it in our garden fountains...

From our perspective we are seeking to withdraw, and in doing so are surging troops into the country in an effort to secure final ‘victory’ (whatever that phrase means in this context). The problem is that for us, we’re not seeing thousands of combat troops, replete with helicopters and rifles and cool things that make big explosions turning up and swarming into the badlands to close with, and kill, the enemy. Instead we’re seeing a surge of staff officers, often very senior ones, who are told ‘you’re deploying to Kabul’, and on arrival at the HQ are told to find themselves a job. We have the situation of people turning up here with no job, no roles and told to sit in an organisation and make themselves useful. As with all bureaucracies, when given this chance, rather than streamline the HQ, they are just adding themselves into the process chain. This means that things now take twice as long to do as before as people are insisting on being involved in things, which they have no knowledge of, or remit to do – they just want to be more involved in the HQ.

Other reminders that the HQ is in a strange place is the fact that we had an Earthquake the other night. We were about 150 miles from the epicentre (6.4 on the Richter scale), but the building still shook like crazy. To add insult to injury the locals decided that it would be great fun to fire a few rockets in our direction that night as well. Naturally the only greeting one could use the next day was ‘did the earth move for you too last night darling?’

Humphrey thought about the merits of posting the above (edited) email, but felt on balance that as it has been widely shared with friends, on ARRSE and also within a wider discussion provided to the Imperial War Museum as part of their Afghan recollections project, it was appropriate to provide it as an already public document, but it must be read in the context that not all HERRICK experiences are those seen on the TV – it should be seen very much as a cry of frustration by a very tired Officer during a difficult period , but also to understand the challenges of working in a complex operation. One should not read the frustrations of an email sent home to friends during this time as being any implicit criticism of policy by HM Govt or NATO as a whole, more as a sense of ‘letting off steam’ in the same way as we all do from time to time.

But, moving on from this, the points made above highlight that as we move towards transition, and away from combat operations, this sort of experience will be increasingly the norm for UK forces. Their roles will be far more about providing distant support and training to the Afghan Security Forces, or to assist with the preparation for withdrawal, which is a major logistical feat by itself. So, while it is inevitably frustrating for those troops who are deployed to find they will be away for longer, we do need to keep a sense of balance about what they will be doing, and the relative level of risk compared to earlier HERRICKS.
 Are Defence cuts  to blame?
The question is though, do these changes mean that defence cuts have bitten too deeply? It is hard to say yes that this is the case. Although the Army is shrinking by some 18,000, this final figure will still not be reached for many years. There is still plenty of manpower in the system to find and support this scale of deployment, and a key part of the SDSR and Future Force work was about ensuring that the UK could continue to deploy formations of up to around 7500 – 8000 personnel on an enduring basis. While an Army of 82,000 will inevitably find it harder to generate bodies than an army of 100,000, we should not for one moment assume that the UK is going to be unable to do a HERRICK in future on purely manpower grounds alone. One suspects though that over the next few years, all the decisions linked to manpower, ranging from rotations of units on OP HERRICK through to whether or not there are certain units or squadrons in flypasts or ceremonial functions as being linked to defence cuts.
It would also be wise to be wary of making too much of a song and dance about this extension as it may not sit well with the soldiers of allied nations. For a significant period of the US deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, US troops were deploying on 12-15 month rotations, with only two weeks off during this period. The author knows of cases where units flying home after 12 month tours were turned around in the air and returned to theatre with a six month extension in order to meet emergency surge requirements. By contrast the UK tour of eight months will be barely half that of most US troops tours in previous years, and all affected personnel have been given 12-18 months notice that its going to happen to them. While it is doubtless annoying, and frustrating for the troops and their families, we perhaps need to keep the level of extension in context.
In reality despite the best efforts of some media elements to make out that this is a result of defence cuts, one cannot escape the conclusion that this is actually a reasonably sensible decision to make maximum use of troops and resources and is probably safer for all concerned. Even though UK troops will be largely hands off by the end of HERRICK, there is always a risk when units rotate, as tired troops and green troops mix in a combination where mistakes can happen. It is surely better to get through a period where things may be more challenging, and work with troops who although tired, are aware of the challenges and comfortable with operating in Afghanistan.
Similarly, it would seem a better use of the UKs wider training regime to not spend significant time putting troops through OPTAG and the work up cycle (not to mention issuing kit that will be written off) for a tour that at best would last 8 weeks at the other end of HERRICK. Looking at the bigger picture, surely using the troops that would have theoretically done the final HERRICK to instead help regenerate the wider Army and its ability to focus on contingent, not current, operations is a much more sensible move.
Looking more widely, the legacy of HERRICK will be broad, and in the publics eye, they will not realise that for many of us who served there, it was about doing a job which was important (albeit at times frustrating) but where the individual risk was far less than friends and family at home thought. The challenge now may be to try and build a narrative over time which accurately records the work done, as while the heroic bravery of those who fought in the FOBs and Green Zone rightly deserves to be remembered, equally it is important to understand the work done by those who worked in the MOBs, doing training, support and logistics. It is perhaps a cruel irony that the arguably most important part of HERRICK (the final withdrawal and closedown) is the one which will enjoy the least understanding, despite it demonstrating the UKs considerable reach and capability when it comes to logistical parts of military operations.
Whatever happens, one must see the announcement though as a sensible decision made for the right reasons, and not as some kind of knee jerk reaction to the prospects of a smaller military to come.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

CVF, the NAO and a lot of missing capability...

The National Audit Office report (NAO) into the decision by the UK MOD to change the procurement of the new carriers from the conventional to the short take off variant (CTOL and VSTOL respectively) has been released. The full report can be found HERE, and is well worth a read. At some 40 pages long, it provides a fascinating insight into one of the more controversial decisions taken in the last few years. 

The background to the situation was the decision taken in the 2010 Strategic Defence Review to modify construction of the two CVF vessels from carrying the VSTOL variant of the F35, to carrying the CTOL variant. This change would also allow the planned F35 buy to not only carry out the Carrier Strike mission, but also fulfil the RAF Deep Penetration Offensive Capability (DPOC) requirement, which in turn was borne out of the old Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), which was designed to replace the Tornado GR4. Under SDSR, the intent was that the RN would only operate one carrier, but with CTOL aircraft embarked, while the second hull would either be sold off or held in long term reserve.

Following an in-depth appraisal of the costs and technical challenges associated with the project, and coming at a point when the 2011 equipment plan was proving highly challenging to bring in on time and on budget (a key aim of the current Government was to balance the equipment programme), the decision was taken to revert back to the previous plan. The NAO report was intended to investigate this decision and identify how much was spent in total reverting back to previous plans.

In total the NAO estimates that some £74 million was spent on the project which must be written off – a fairly substantial expenditure to incur in just two years. But, it also highlights that due to the decision to cancel now, further losses of nearly £750 million were avoided which were likely to have been incurred had the decision been taken to go with the EMALS catapult system. Additionally it notes that entry to service would have been delayed by some three years – unacceptably long to CDS.

The report will no doubt be chewed over for some time to come by many on the internet and wider media. But Humphrey wanted to highlight a couple of factors in the report which struck him as being particularly interesting. Firstly, the report perhaps shows the immense difficulty associated with making changes to major defence projects these days. When procuring expensive equipment, much of which is often unproven and not fully derisked, there is a large financial burden attached to this. The reality is that if you want to have world leading capabilities, you need to be prepared to invest a lot of capital and have a large pool of funds available for the inevitable cost growth as things go wrong.

To the author the fact that the MOD actually cancelled the project is significant – making a ‘U-Turn’ to a ‘U-Turn’ is never easy and politically extremely difficult. One should be hopeful that although money was written off, the fact that the MOD felt able to recommend the abandonment early on shows that the days of ploughing on with projects, throwing ever greater amounts of money into it are perhaps drawing to a close. It would have been very easy for Ministers to reject the recommendation and take far less political heat for doing so than cancelling – do not underestimate how difficult taking this decision would have been.


The view from the Crowsnest
The next point of interest is the details in the report as to how long it will be before CVF is fully operational. On current plans QUEEN ELIZABETH will begin sea training within a couple of years, and start to embark helicopters and conduct limited marinisation trials of the JSF. But the report notes that we are still 10 years away from seeing a fully worked up carrier group capable of carrying not only the F35, but also a fully operational AEW capability in the form of the Crowsnest project. This project is the successor to the ASACS Sea King variant, which is being withdrawn in 2016. The project has repeatedly been deferred in recent years, and it now looks as if the MOD will not have a full capability until 2023 – this will mean that there will be a seven year gap when the RN hasn’t got any AEW capability while the system is worked up.

In practical terms this is not as terrifying as it may sound – to all intents and purposes the AEW capability has hardly been exercised at sea for many years now, with the ASACS fleet instead working primarily in OP HERRICK. Outside of some limited deployments for ELLAMY it is hard to recall when the RN last put the AEW capability to sea in a credible manner. The ASACS force is a phenomenal ISTAR platform and has genuinely superb capabilities, but it has very much become a purple asset used across defence and not just a carrier asset.

Additionally, if one considers that by 2023, the UK is unlikely to have significant numbers of F35 in service (open source publications are hinting at a squadron by 2016, which may mean further squadron by 2022) then one realises that CVF in its early years is going to have a sparse flight deck. The chances of needing an AEW capability is slim as for the first few years of its life, there simply wont be that many aircraft to fly off the deck needing it. So, on the one hand we should naturally be concerned that a very expensive aircraft carrier capability will not see its full potential, but on the other hand, the loss of AEW by itself is unlikely to make a major difference to the utilisation of CVF in the first few years.

What is perhaps more worrying is the hints in the report that the MOD has deferred expenditure on the associated MARS supply ships until after the next defence review. There is a requirement to replace the now very elderly ‘Fort’ class stores ships which support the carrier fleet, the oldest of which are now nearly 35 years old. Deferring the decision on ordering the replacement (likely to be a three hull class) means that the MOD will have to run on the very elderly fleet of RFAs well into the 2020s. It is all very well having a brand new aircraft carrier, but when you are reliant on a nearly 40 year old store ship to provide your dry supplies, you suddenly have a critical point of failure.

The problem is that RFAs seem to lack the high profile support needed to get through difficult planning rounds (one only has to look at the continuous deferment of the MARS programme to date). The CVF is a great capability but it needs to be fully supported, not just by aircraft and escort ships, but also by a proper fleet support chain. The question is surely how effective will CVF be if she has to rely on Fort Austin or Fort Victoria to provide the logistics to stay at sea?

Increasingly it is becoming clear that while the CVF offers amazing capability on paper, the reality is that until the mid 2020s it will not provide a truly modern capability able to generate carrier strike and operate with modern ships, escorts and aircraft. In the rush to get the carrier into the programme, one must wonder whether too little attention has been paid to prioritising the support elements, as funding was instead diverted to land based operations over the last decade. The author has a vision in his head of a lonely CVF with maybe six jets and a small number of helicopters in the early 2020s, escorted by a middle aged type 45 (youngest will be 10 years old), an elderly Type 23 (youngest will be 20 years old) and a geriatric stores ship (over 40 years old). Is this really the positive young and modern Royal Navy we so desperately want to be proud of?


RAF Woes
More broadly the report highlights the wider problems facing the UK. Firstly it notes that the RAF scrapped the DPOC requirement, meaning that there is going to be no replacement for the Tornado GR4 until the 2030s as the Typhoon OSD approaches. In practical terms this means the RAF is losing a very substantial chunk of capability within the next few years without replacement. The Tornado force is already beginning to be run down, and is likely to be out of service by 2018 without direct replacement. This means the RAF will have lost over 140 airframes, and a huge swathe of capability. In the same timeframe it will be operating a Typhoon force optimised for air defence, and which seemingly still hasn’t got a fully integrated ability to operate Storm Shadow or Brimstone (both immensely capable weapons) and which will have only a limited number of assets to cover both the air defence and expeditionary warfare roles. If as publicly reported the JSF is only beginning to enter service in very limited numbers, then you quickly realise just how limited RAF capability will be soon. In 2003 it operated four fast jet fleets totalling some 450 aircraft, but by 2018, barely 15 years later it will be down to the Typhoon fleet which is likely to only have some 100 aircraft operational at anyone time, and also maybe 16 JSF as a shared RN/RAF asset.

While it is fashionable in some internet forums to knock the RAF as an evil conspirator trying to destroy RN fixed wing aviation, one only has to look at the scale of how bad things are getting for the RAF to understand how limited the UKs air expeditionary capability is likely to be until the mid 2020s when the Typhoon and JSF force are hopefully at full strength. We are in for a period of at least 10 years when the RAF will be a far less capable force than before, with little hope of seeing capability reintroduced for at least further 10-15 years. One wonders whether the decision to scrap the DPOC programme will go down as one of the most rued decisions of future generations of RAF planners.

Finally one has to consider the financial challenges ahead. Humphrey has previously written about the problems of the current equipment programme funding, and the limited ability to absorb risk in the contingency fund. Reading the NAO report one notes that firstly the cost of absorbing the operation of a second carrier could be as high as £60 million per year, which would be extremely challenging to find in the current RN budget without commensurate cuts elsewhere. Secondly it notes that the costs of the CVF project is likely to rise as final costings are not yet known – given the limited ability of the EP to absorb cost growth, one has to worry about the 2015 defence review and whether sufficient funding really exists to bring the carriers into service without having to make further cuts to other programmes.

The NAO report makes for interesting and frankly worrying reading. While for years many have gone on about how capable the RN will be once CVF enters service, the fact remains that the UK is procuring a capability where cost is growing, and where the final bill for producing a fully worked up carrier group is likely to be extremely expensive. The fact that the MOD is having to defer and take risk elsewhere means that while in time the CVF will provide the UK with a truly world class ability, there is likely to be a prolonged period into the mid 2020s where one wonders whether the carrier strike ability is more Potemkin than we would perhaps like. ..

Monday, 6 May 2013

A tale of Two Defence Reviews - thoughts on the French and Australian defence review

In the last week or so there have been two major Defence Reviews announced in France and Australia. Both nations are close partners of the UK and significant powers on the global stage, which means that these results are of direct interest to the UK.
The announcement of the French Defence Review, reported back on the future structure of the French military for the next 10 years. Essentially akin to the UK SDSR, the work was designed to address French budget challenges, and try to create a sustainable force which is affordable in the near future. The Think Defence website has helpfully collected a summary of all the reporting on the event (HERE) which are well worth reading.
In many ways the review highlights the challenging position France finds itself in at the start of the 21st Century. Unlike the UK, the French have never had an ‘East of Suez’ moment, and arguably French policy for many years has been to continue projecting a low level amount of power across the globe, while retaining a smaller cadre of higher capability equipment at home. To this day, France still retains bases in South America, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands, all of which play home to small amounts of troops and equipment, as much for legacy ‘imperial policing’ in their overseas territories as it is for projection of power more widely.
It is clear that Mali has already highlighted many lessons for the French Military, including a paucity of strategic airlift, and a perhaps worrying reliance on foreign militaries for a wide range of assets when taking part in intervention operations. This perhaps explains the emphasis on a future force built and optimised for a French ‘rapid reaction’ capability, and seems intended to deliver a military with around 7 intervention brigades and some 200 main battle tanks (e.g. a very similar size to the British Army under Force 2020).
The French Navy will see itself reduced down to no more than 15 first line escorts, plus some 20  patrol ships and light frigates for policing and constabulary duties overseas. The long delayed plan to build a second carrier is now officially cancelled, leaving France as a part time carrier navy, particularly given that Charles De Gaulle requires relatively regular refuelling, which can often take several years to do. The SSBN and SSN force levels remain unchanged.
The French Air Force will focus efforts on the acquisition of new tanker aircraft to replace its positively ancient KC135 fleet, and will in future consolidate around no more than 225 Rafale aircraft as its sole fast jet fleet. There will be continued investment in transport, ISTAR and other assets, although fleet sizes will be reduced.
The overall effect of the review will be some 34,000 job losses across all three services, and a near flat level of growth in the budget for at least the next five years.
What does this mean?
In many ways this review mirrors the SDSR in that it takes a capable military power with financial problems and tries to make structural adjustments to solve said problems. It is telling that there is still no real change in French strategic posture around the globe, and that as a nation, France will try to continue being a global power, albeit one on an ever tighter budget. Recent lessons in Mali would suggest that France can exert real influence in Africa, and that this area may well be the French ‘area of investment’ over the next decade. While the days of the Francophonie are declining, it is clear that French bases continue to be a useful strategic asset in a region where economies are booming, while stability remains volatile. One suspects that any further reviews will see closure in other overseas departments, such as in French Polynesia ahead of Africa.
The fundamental problem that faces France though is that it still seems unclear as to whether it wants to remain a nation capable of operating as lead nation in areas of interest, or if it wants to contribute to wider coalition operations. On the one hand it retains a ‘golf bag’ of useful assets and capabilities, but these are often limited in number and increasing in age. At the same time there seems a deep reluctance on the part of the French to restructure their forces to fit in with wider coalition operations. Decades of operating outside the NATO military structure have perhaps created a mentality of ‘we can do this alone’, which was fine when budgets could match aspiration, but is perhaps more difficult now.
The question is what does France bring to a multi-national operation that can’t be done by the UK or Germany or other NATO powers? Its troops have limited experience of working in coalition environments, and its military clearly has many capability gaps (as seen by experiences in Mali). At its harshest, the issue is whether France has the right force mix of assets and troops to be a valuable member of international missions, or whether its focus on ‘shop window’ capabilities like a CVN or Rafale means that it is perhaps less valuable than nations which produce smaller, but more interoperable forces, like the Netherlands or Denmark.
The wider problem facing the French is that this review has perhaps steered clear of the most challenging problem which is to deal with how a nation which traditionally takes pride in a ‘French solution’ will continue to be able to afford capabilities in future. One only has to look at the emerging list of requirements for the French military for the next 20 years to realise that new carriers, new fast jets, new tanks, new SSBNs and associated deterrence capability are all required and that there probably isn’t enough money to go it alone.
The decision to not proceed with a second carrier (having worked with the UK) may well be a cause for concern in 10-15 years time when it is clear that any future carrier replacement will have to be funded alone, without benefits of joint co-operation. The PA2 would have offered some economies of scale, but now any French replacement will need to be designed as a likely single hull at a point when no other European nation is likely to need a carrier built. This will make it extremely expensive to replace the Charles De Gaulle. Similarly, while Rafale is a reasonably competent aircraft now, the costs of not only sustaining it for the long term, and then bringing a successor into service in both Ari Force and Naval service will be phenomenally expensive – one only has to look at the costs associated with the F35 to realise just how expensive modern aircraft are. Given any replacement programme will be due at a point when the deterrent is also likely to need replacing, one feels that the French may have to make some extremely tough decisions in about 20 years time. While it is hard to see Gallic pride permitting the abandonment of either a carrier or nuclear capability, the issue is what is hollowed out or deleted elsewhere in the force structure to pay for this capability. The worry for French planners may be that in order to preserve a few high profile capabilities, the French military as a whole will struggle to afford them and remain a credible force.
So, France finds itself in a really interesting position – on the one hand their defence review seems to assume that little has changed, and that a smaller military will continue to do much the same as before, but there seems to be an avoidance of publicly discussing the very real challenges to the long term ability of France to stay on this course. At some point something will have to give, and there seems no clear lead from this paper as to what that may be. In the interim the French will remain a power capable of some power projection of headline capabilities, while remaining reliant on other nations to support them.
Meanwhile Down Under…
At the same time Australia has announced a defence review which seems to have been linked more to electoral ambition than due to timing. The review publicised this week was brought forward ahead of  what is likely to be tightly fought election. It suggests that Australia will continue to commit to the procurement of up to 100 F35s, while purchasing interim F18s to keep their fast jet capability alive. At the same time it reconfirmed that Australia would design and build a force of some 12 SSKs using an indigenous design and not an ‘off the shelf’ variant.
The first challenge for the review is to identify where the money is coming from to pay for this – by all accounts the review is long on aspiration but relatively short on details about where the funding is to pay for this. Earlier this year it became clear that under current plans the Australian military would probably need to look at its budgets again with a view to cutting expenditure, so whether this review is anything more than a list of aspirations remains to be seen. There is no guarantee that post-election it will be funded by either party, depending on the economic situation.
To this author the chances of Australia being able to fund the design and purchase of 12 SSKs seems slim. Warship design capability is an incredibly complex business (as discussed elsewhere on this site) and at present Australia doesn’t possess a submarine design capability. The RAN has struggled to recruit and retain sufficient people to keep a force built around six hulls operational, so it is hard to see that changing soon. Baring an influx of ex RN and RCN submariners, the question is whether the RAN can actually get sufficient manpower through its training schools and out into the fleet to keep such a force operational. Otherwise, the worry must surely be that it will spend a great deal of money building a capability that its never designed before, and doubling its force in size at the same time. This could pose a real challenge to their long term stability, and again may come at significant cost to the rest of the fleets capabilities.
Similarly, the commitment to 100 F35s is welcome, as it helps stabilise the prices somewhat, but any future reduction in orders could have wider implications for the US and UK as unit prices rise. What is interesting though is the way that Australia appears to be linking itself into the US as its key gurantor of security (e.g. purchases of US equipment, allowing bases in Australia) as the US seeks to rebalance itself into a pacific power. At the same time though, the question may be does Australia feel comfortable aligning its equipment programme so firmly with one nation. There is no certainty that the US will always provide the parts required, which means for a nation like Australia, broadly dependent on others to produce equipment, the question is where else to buy? One senses an opportunity for the UK to sell the Global Combat Ship (GCS) design (known as Type 26 in the RN) to Australia as a means of producing a good design quickly and at low cost. As the ANZACs come to the end of their lifespan, the GCS could be a good solution to ensure that while the RAN is aligned firmly to the USN, it is not entirely dependent on it for all aspects of its equipment.
So, the challenge for Australia is two-fold – firstly it needs to be able to afford the equipment it has set out to buy. Then it needs to find the manpower to be able to operate this equipment, which in a small country is not always easy. As a large country, with a small population in a region where economic growth is increasing and there are many militaries with large manpower and growing resources, Australia needs to play a careful game. Not to become too aligned to the courses of action of one power, but as it is too small to be able to effectively stand alone, it needs to exercise a careful mix of diplomacy and tact, while ensuring its military can resist any external threat. This is not going to be an easy task, and one that can only get more difficult as budgets shrink.
What does this mean for the UK?
So, the question now is what do both of these reviews mean for the UK? Both France and Australia remain some of the closest allies to the UK, and it is likely that future military operations will involve one or both powers in some way. In practical terms the reviews continue to confirm that the French will be useful partners, but that they will be more useful at providing headline capabilities, and that planning for joint operations will probably see a heavier reliance on UK logistical and support capability. At the same time, the Australian  review is useful to confirm that Australia will remain a first tier power, and that its continued presence in the Indian Ocean and Middle East means that the UK will have reason to work with them, even in the post HERRICK/TELIC environment. Similarly, the French will also have reason to work with the Australians in both the Gulf and also the Pacific Rim – all three nations share some common areas of interest and a ll three nations find themselves in challenging strategic positions – powers with a sense of global responsibility, but constrained budgets and a realisation that individually they are unable to do as much as they would wish. The next two decades will prove to be increasingly challenging, as we collectively seek to do more together, while struggling to afford the replacements of capabilities previously taken for granted, while dealing with emerging powers with the money, manpower and resources which enable them to pose a real challenge. Whatever happens, it will certainly prove to be an interesting time…