Saturday, 27 July 2013

To sail no more - the scrapping of the Type 22 Frigates, and why this was the only rational course of action.

News broke a few days ago that the Royal Navy has finally sold its four Type 22 Batch Three (T22C) frigates for scrap – fetching some £3 million from the sale of them to ship breakers for ‘recycling’. The ships were paid off under the outcome of the 2010 SDSR, although they had originally been planned to be run on till the latter part of this decade. Since being paid off the ships had been stripped of parts and were looking increasingly forlorn on the RNs equivalent of ‘death row’ (Fareham Creek) where decommissioned warships are left until disposal. There was some surprise on some RN related websites that what was arguably the finest class of surface escorts produced for the RN since WW2 had not been sold on for use in another navy. The aim of this article is to try and explain why this may not have happened.

The first thing to note is that the MOD always tries to get the best possible return on its investment when selling off decommissioned warships, planes and equipment. Indeed it runs an entire organisation (the Disposal Sales Agency) which is mandated to try and get the best possible return for taxpayers on what can be very expensive assets. All RN surface ships are routinely looked at when approaching decommissioning to see what possible further use can be got from them and the T22Cs will have been no different.

In practical terms DSA would have worked with other parts of Government such as Defence Attaches, the FCO, the UKTI Defence Security Organisation and so on to identify possible markets for the ships to go to. They’d have worked with a number of countries who may have expressed interest in order to facilitate inspections of the vessels and discuss any sale agreement. The problem is that by all accounts no country emerged as willing buyer of these ships, despite several years of marketing.

There are several reasons for this surprising development. The first is simply the age and condition of the ships – all four vessels were over 20 years old and had been worked extremely hard in RN service. Any navy bringing them into use would have found them needing an expensive refit before going to sea again. The next issue is that all four vessels are now effectively an ‘orphan class’. They were the last Type 22s in service in the RN, and on their disposal the stores, training support and other contracts associated with supporting them would have been fairly quickly switched off. Any nation buying these vessels would not have been able to tap into existing support contracts and training pipelines to get the ships ready with spare parts, and the crews trained to the right standard. Essentially they’d have been on their own to do this.
Arguably the finest Cold War escort built by the RN - HMS CORNWALL  
 There is a very big difference between buying an ex-RN vessel while the RN still has plenty of ships of the same class still in service, when the customer can get economies of scale for spare parts, and support, and being the sole user of such a ship. Its notable that since 1998, the only real sales of the 25 escorts paid off (12 Type 42s, 10 Type 22s, 3 Type 23s), has been three Type 23s which were essentially sold on a ‘hot sale basis’ where the Chileans took control of them almost immediately, while only three Type 22s were sold on – (two to Romania and one to Chile) – again with quite quick transfers. In both cases there was interest as the vessels were part of a larger class which was planned to remain in service for many years to come.

Today though, with no other Type 22s in RN service, any buyer would have to absorb significant costs associated with the vessels and bringing them up to speed, and doing so without easy access to RN training facilities, which no longer run courses linked to these ships.

The next challenge is the sheer cost of modernisation of these vessels, all of which were a complex 1980s design relying heavily on the technology of the time. Any purchaser would be reliant on the UK for the spares chain –which not only imposes a certain challenge for assurance of supply, but also reduces the economic benefit to the purchasing nation of buying them (there would be no real boost to the home economy by doing so). Modernising the vessels would take time, and effort and would be extremely challenging – while it can be done (just look at what the Chileans managed to do with the County Class over many years), it is not a task for the faint of hearted. Given much of the challenge in refits is integration – getting equipment never originally designed to go onto a ship to work with the ship as she will become, it can be an expensive and difficult process. Its likely that the buyer would have needed to consider whether it was worth going to a lot of cost, and incurring a lot of risk on a  ship that may be nearly a quarter of century old before she even enters service. Why not build a new design at home, designed from the outset for use with modern systems and where there are easier training and economic benefits? This is perhaps the real challenge –why buy an old vessel, which needs a great deal of work to update, when you can often get extremely good deals from shipbuilders across the globe – indeed many third world navies can get very advantageous deals from Far Eastern shipbuilders, keen to produce new frigates appropriate to an emerging navies needs.

         If you must have a reserve fleet, then you need to do it properly -
USN Reserve Fleet in 1958 (Copyright US Naval Institute)
So, if there is little economic value in selling them, others asked on the internet why not keep them in reserve in order to provide the Royal Navy with a ‘reserve squadron’ (a phrase often associated with fantasy fleet scenarios). In the past there was often immense value in maintaining a reasonably sized reserve fleet – the technology was relatively simple and the skills needed to operate the vessels was widely available, and easily trained to ‘hostilities only’ recruits. The RN stopped relying on the concept of the Reserve Fleet in the 1950s, when it quickly became clear that any war would probably see nuclear strikes take the fleet out before it was able to go to sea and play a part, despite it absorbing a great deal of RN finance and manpower. Since that point the RN has not really had much truck with the concept of reserve vessels, beyond a small ‘standby squadron’ which existed in fits and starts until the end of the Cold War.

The problem has been though that as ships got more complicated, it has become ever harder to maintain them to the right standard in reserve so that they can come back to sea at short notice. Warships are immensely complex beasts, and require a great deal of effort and husbandry in order to be truly effective. To keep a warship in reserve actually requires a lot of work to keep the vessel ready for sea and her systems working – to the extent that you may as well just keep the vessel in commission in the first place! The other challenge is that as ships lurk in reserve, they are often cannibalised for spare parts – for instance during the 1990s, HMS INTREPID was essentially turned into a floating hulk in order to keep HMS FEARLESS at sea, despite nominally being available for sea herself.

In the case of the T22Cs, the problem becomes more pronounced – had the RN put them into reserve, and kept a small pool of manpower to maintain them, where would the crews come from the run the ships? This problem has two parts – firstly the reality that the RN today is incredibly lean manned, and that the equivalent of four ships companies worth of crews are simply not floating around unallocated. To man these ships would need nearly 1000 personnel, or roughly some 5% of total RN (not including Royal Marine) manpower.

The next problem is that when a class of ship goes out of service, the support network that is in place goes with it. The bespoke training courses, the maintenance, the stores chain – all of the very complicated aspects of support needed to keep a single ship in service quickly break down once a class has gone out of service. It was one reason for the disposal of the T22Cs in the first place – the RN would have saved far more money by taking an entire class out of service, with its associated chain of support, than it would have done by paying off some T23s.

Had these ships been kept in reserve, then none of the support network would have existed to provide trained crews after a certain time. Its not just a case of having the buffers party out on deck, its about having the trained operators and mechanics who know all the specifics of how to keep the bespoke equipment in service, and use it to full effect. The average length of service in the UK military is 8 years, which means that fairly shortly after decommissioning, the corporate knowledge and understanding of how to run the ships will quickly go.

Even basic things like maintaining the Seawolf stockpile would have been a challenge – you’d have had to still run all the support chains to keep the missiles safe, up to date, to keep the stockpile ready for use – missiles are phenomenally complicated and many people don’t understand just how much effort is required to keep an effective missile design in service and able to do its job. It requires a lot of support, both from Government and industry (who would expect to be well paid for their services to keep the design in service). Keeping the vessels in reserve would mean either running on Seawolf, or disposing of it and putting them to sea without its primary defensive missile system.

Even if they had gone back to sea, and a collection of bodies was identified to become the crew, it is a long process of refitting and working them up to a reasonable standard – even in a crisis, from the point where the hull enters dry dock to commence a crash refit, through to the point where the crew begin its work up, this is a process which will take months, potentially over a year. You can refit a ship in time, you cannot create a fully effective crew in a hurry.

While in the Falklands it was possible to bring some ships back into service where they had very recently been paid off (the Tribal Class and some Type 12s) , it is very much the exception (a combination of fairly simple technology in the Tribals case, plus wide availability of spare parts for the Type 12s doubtless helped). Today, the value of being able to bring a first rate escort into service from reserve is minimal – indeed, one only has to look at the navies of the world to realise that all the serious players, such as the UK, US, Canada, Australia, France etc do not really embrace the concept of a reserve fleet in any meaningful way.

So, the hard reality is that there was no real future for the T22Cs once they had paid off from RN service. Too expensive and old to refit effectively, it is perhaps a lesson that should be remembered for the next 20 years. While in previous years the RN has been successful at selling middle aged ships into foreign service (with associated benefits of interoperability, and wider economic success), as there are fewer ships in service, these opportunities will reduce. Its likely that the Type 23s will only be disposed of when they are very old, and very tired – it is hard to see any navy wanting to take them into service after many decades of being worked hard by the RN (which in contrast to most navies gets very good value out of its ships being at sea). One would go so far as to predict that baring an unlikely set of circumstances (such as a pair of Type 45s decommissioning very early) it is highly unlikely that any RN escort will ever again sail on after decommissioning from RN service. 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A son is born...

The news that HRH Prince George of Cambridge has been born is on the one hand an unlikely subject for a defence related blog. But, to Humphrey this happy news is perhaps more telling as a sign of the importance of ‘soft power’ and the extent to which the UK and its Royal Family can still exert a surprising level of influence to this day.

Soft power is something which is extremely difficult to understand or perhaps place a value on – an ORBAT can easily show what a nation can do militarily, while a GDP statistic shows a nations theoretical economic power. Soft power on the other hand is intangible – it is something which helps a nation, influences on behalf of a nation, but perhaps cannot be quantified.

It is very difficult to imagine the birth of the first born son of the first born son of the heir to the throne of many nations occupying much column space – similarly, replace throne with President and even less attention is likely to be paid. At best a short paragraph in a couple of newspapers or maybe a PA / Reuters feed may occur. The nation itself may briefly celebrate, but it is unlikely to register on the world stage.

By contrast, the birth of Prince George dominated much of the worlds media – Humphrey is writing this article in an international airport, surrounded by papers from across the world from the last few days. Almost without exception, the picture of a tiny baby is plastered on the front page, and backed up by several pages of news on this event. For all we knock the UK, for all we want to be downbeat and pessimistic about how we’re just a minor nation with little influence on the world, for some reason the birth of a Royal Heir has monopolised global media coverage for several days – an astounding thing to consider in an era of 24/7 news coverage.

What does this tell us about the UK and its impact on the world? To the author, it tells us that facets of the UK hold global imagination and interest in a manner we cannot comprehend. The near fairy tale story of the Prince meeting his princess, and marrying them is something which has resonated globally. The message beneath it though is one which is actually terribly helpful to the UK – it tells a story of a nation with proud history and traditions, but one unfettered by them to the extent that a Prince can marry a commoner. It tells something of the UK values, its heritage and culture, and perhaps helps show off a democratic system which works very well for the UK.

In terms of influence, this single birth has probably generated more column inches, documentaries and coverage of the UK, London and British life than a decade of ‘visit Britain’ campaigns or Parliamentary fact finding missions to promote UK investment and economic prowess. The economic benefit to the UK is clear, and in due course the wider diplomatic benefit will be too.

One has to consider the visits of members of the Royal Family overseas are seen as very desirable to foreign nations – they want to host these visits and show their countries off. The diplomatic benefit of offering up (or conversely threatening the withdrawal of) a Royal visit can be enormous. Doors will be opened, enabling our diplomats to meet with Government officials in far off nations who may otherwise be unobtainable. Presidents and Ministers will wish to meet them, enabling both the Royals and their entourage to lobby for UK interests, encourage UK investment and help push the case for things that matter to HM Government. In due course, the diplomatic value of the first visit by the Duke & Duchess with the young Prince will be an opportunity for a diplomatic coup.

This is perhaps the real hidden story of the Royal birth – as a nation we have a wonderful Royal Family who are an incredibly potent and powerful tool of influence for the UK as a whole. No other birth in the world would have occupied the same level of attention of the worlds media, and it highlights the fact that as a tool of influence, as a tool of highlighting British values, culture and views, the Royal Family is a world class asset without comparison. This is the lesson of soft power – no matter how many tanks you possess, or aircraft you can fly – these will still have less ability to open hugely diverse doors around the world than one young baby boy. 

(A longer more defence related post is already lined up to follow this weekend once some final bits have been written, at which point normal service resumes!)

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Changing of the Guard - the challenges facing the new UK Chief of Defence Staff

The long announced retirement of the UK Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir David Richards, and his replacement by General Sir Nick Houghton has occurred. Following a short change of command ceremony, instigated by General Richards, in what may be the first (and possibly last) ceremony of its type, the baton has been passed on to a new CDS, who will now spend the next five years at the very pinnacle of the military.

General Richards leaves after only three years at the top, but his departure sees the end of an era, as one of the last soldiers in HM Forces service who will have been based in the Far East and Singapore finally retires – perhaps in more ways than one marking the closure of one period of UK military history, and the start of another. The challenges facing Gen Houghton are significant and he will have much to occupy his time over the coming weeks and months. The purpose of this short article is to try and provide some personal views as to the sort of challenges that face CDS as he takes charge.

From the outset Gen Houghton is taking charge at a relatively positive point for the British Armed Forces. They have emerged relatively unscathed from the latest spending round, and the likelihood of further vast cuts to balance the books is currently relatively small, at least for the next couple of years. This, coupled with the realisation that HERRICK is coming to an end, that the most painful decisions on future military structures have been announced, and that the equipment and support needed to deliver means that on paper at least, there is scope for some optimism. He has less likelihood for a couple of years at least of having to oversee and implement ‘bad news stories’.

The withdrawal from HERRICK by 2015 will in all probability mean the end of sustained overseas UK military land operations for the first time in a generation. While this is good in many ways for the Army, which needs time to take a pause to reorganise, reform and prepare again for deployment, it does present wider challenges. From a leadership perspective, he has to take charge of a force where future sustained deployments will probably not be a fact of life. Following nearly 20 years of high intensity operations in Bosnia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, many in the military have grown used to a life where deployments are a central part of their career. Post 2015, it seems far more likely that outside of short term training exercises, there will be far more limited opportunities for overseas action. Getting people to adjust their mindsets, making them realise this and persuading them to stay in for the long haul is going to be critical, lest too many experienced mid seniority officers and NCOs decide now is the time to leave. The problem becomes more challenging as wider changes, such as changes to pensions, changes in allowances and terms and conditions of service kick in, which may not impact the more junior and newer echelons, but which could force many older and more experienced personnel to consider leaving. When one considers that the economy appears to be on an upsurge, retention may soon become a major problem.  Therefore, CDS will have a challenge to ensure that a military used to ‘running hot’ is now able to adapt to running in a very different manner, keeping the best talent onboard is going to be a major issue.

Reviews aplenty
The next issue facing CDS will be the certainty that the MOD faces another Strategic Defence Review within 2 years, regardless of election results. Although likely to be less traumatic overall for the MOD than the 2010 review, it will still be a challenging time. The settlements in the current spending round seem relatively positive for Defence, and with the equipment programme currently looking stable it seems likely that there will be less traumatic shocks than 2010 where the loss of Harrier and Nimrod is still keenly felt to many supporters of the military.

One should not assume that the review will be straightforward though – a change of Government policy or attitudes to defence may see unexpected changes to posture. Similarly, there is still room for challenge in the equipment programme, where as Humphrey has previously noted, the room for cost growth is relatively limited. It would only take a larger than expected rise in a couple of major programmes to throw the entire budget into disarray, which would reopen the door to further cuts or delays.

So, the challenge for CDS is to set the conditions for a Defence Review which builds on the work of 2010, acknowledges the challenges of the Arab Spring and associated instability around the world, identifies that while there has not been an emergence of a strategic threat to the UK, our interests remain globally based, varied in nature and vulnerable to different threats, and which does so on a budget unlikely to grow in real terms for many years to come.

CDS will need to do this against the backdrop of a world where politicians remain confused about their attitudes to the British Armed Forces – they inherently admire the flexibility on offer, and the ability that a well time operation can have to support UK interests or (more cynically perhaps) improve their position in the polls. At the same time, one detects in public a sense of weariness over Afghanistan, and a desire to avoid any more ‘imperial entanglements’ like TELIC or HERRICK. Understanding this attitude, trying to ensure that funding remains sufficient that the UK can deliver on extant military tasks, plus play a suitable role in global affairs without becoming too embroiled in some of the challenges out there will also be a major challenge. As the warm glow of support from HERRICK fades away, the challenge will be to keep reminding people of the value and excellence that the British Armed Forces bring to the table, and the options they provide to politicians.

So, for CDS he has to fight in the strategic sphere to push the case for the Military, but avoid creating the situation where politicians feel they can commit to courses of action that they and their successors will later regret, and also providing a sufficient ‘window of respite’ to allow all three services time to regroup, recuperate and reorganise after HERRICK. The entire assumption of the 2010 SDSR was avoiding major entanglements between 2015 and 2020 (hence Force 2020) – so as the global situation becomes ever more challenging, he will have to ensure there is a high level understanding of the risks and challenges involved in deploying UK troops overseas.

Operating Overseas
As the withdrawal from HERRICK occurs, it will also be increasingly important to set the direction on how the UK will remain integrated with many of its allies, where years of operations in Afghanistan have led to a great inter-personal relationship. One only has to look at RC(South) where UK forces have served for years alongside an incredibly diverse range of nations, including Estonia, Canada, and the US to name but a few. Now that the operation is drawing to a close, being able to keep those close coalition links intact, ensuring hard learned lessons are not forgotten and that basic things like being able to work together in future remain possible. An early casualty of budget restraint is always overseas exercises, but it  will be important to see how at all levels, from company groups operating in the field, through to staff officers in high level command post exercises, how the UK retains these links and builds on them.

Many of today’s staff officers probably take for granted the close operational relationship that has developed in HQs in dusty locations, but this is perhaps the exception and not the norm. Keeping this relationship alive, and not necessarily slipping back into old habits will be key. One senses that long neglected relationships (such as some NATO exercises) may well come back to the fore as they seem good opportunities for further engagement in future. 

Similarly, CDS will need to face difficult questions about the level of support offered to overseas training and exercises. The future vision for all three services is clearly built around the principles of defence engagement, sending UK assets overseas to work and train with our partners. Selling the vision of a future where it’s not about brigade sized forces engaged in high intensity conflict, but platoon sized elements training small militaries to avoid the conflict ever emerging will be key. Increasingly tomorrows soldier will need to be someone who cannot just ‘close with and kill the enemy’ but someone who can educate, train and build cultural links with a diverse range of countries. Perhaps now, more than ever, the notion of a strategic platoon is appropriate. A poorly received training visit, inappropriate incidents or bad training, and this could lead to longer term difficulties and challenges in a country.

The problem for the UK is that many people place enormous value on British military training – it is telling that in many parts of the world, nations would rather pay a large amount of cash for a place at Sandhurst or Dartmouth rather than send their personnel for free to some other nations. But the issue is where to engage, and with what resources? The ever smaller UK military headcount, the desire to reduce overseas presence and the smaller amounts of funding mean that at a time when demand for UK training is perhaps at an all time high, as nations seek to learn from our lessons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, our resources to meet this challenge will be more constrained. Here CDS (among others) will face the enormous task of setting guidance about where our priorities lie, and where the UK will need to take risk and not participate. This will not be easy, but it perhaps demonstrates how the value of the UK armed forces is not just about war fighting, but defence diplomacy too.

New Ways of Warfare
Over the next five years, one critical challenge will be for CDS to set out his vision of how the UK embraces and responds to the ever more important threat of cyber warfare. There is little point in having world class armed forces if they can be denied the ability to deploy due to hackers taking out a road network or port. We’ve already seen strong messages that the UK understands the importance of cyber defence, but as we approach the 2015 SDR it will become even more vital. The issue is finding funding for such a role, seeing whether it sits within the military sphere or a civilian sphere (for instance, are the sorts of individuals who excel at computer defence able to also work well in a military environment?). 

One area which will require a lot of work will be to set out the vision for cyber defence, and identify how it can be funded with denying funding to existing military capabilities. This will not be easy, and it will be hard to explain to external cynics that ‘Bytes not Bombs’ makes better sense for defending the UK, but it will be a critical task. The nature of warfare today is very different from the one conceived when CDS joined the military – arguably although we no longer face an existential threat that can be dealt with by nuclear means, we do face in the form of cyber attacks an existential threat to our way of life. Failure to defend adequately against this could have devastating consequences for our economy, our support infrastructure and our defences – but the problem is that explaining that today’s front line exists in a virtual space not a muddy corner of a foreign field is extremely difficult. Humphrey worries that until a major attack occurs and succeeds that the external media and public support for tackling this new form of threat may be lacking.

What is the Prize at Stake?
This may sound an odd concept, but it is perhaps worth considering what is at stake if CDS is successful during his tenure. By 2018 when he leaves post, he will have gone through a defence review, seen the delivery of much of the new equipment underpinning the Future Force 2020 vision, including JSFs, new Army equipment and the delivery of the first CVF into service. The UK military should have been well rested by then, and will be nearly ready to re-emerge onto the global stage in a post HERRICK incarnation where it is able to deploy, sustain and recover large forces globally with modern technology and equipment. Recovered from HERRICK, the UK military will hopefully be well on course to achieve the vision set out in the 2010 SDSR.

But this task will not be easy – to bequeath his successor a force capable in 2020 of doing what was set out a decade previously, some tough decisions will be required, and a strong case made for the value of Defence, even when it is not necessarily going to be as busy as in previous years. Meeting this challenge, advocating the hugely important role Defence plays for the UK and persuading politicians, the public and overseas partners of this will be critical. It is a major task he is taking on, and Humphrey wishes him every success in achieving it. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Achtung Tommy - For You Ze Mapping Ist Over!

Several UK newspapers reported this week the findings of the UK Parliaments Intelligence & Security Committee report that during OP ELLAMY, the UK had relied on Germany to provide mapping for the RAF to conduct its missions. This was apparently a disgraceful sign of a nation in decline and that we should all be jolly ashamed of ourselves.

The reality (as ever!) is a little different and one worth thinking about. Maps are something that we all take for granted in our daily lives, and they are an utterly indispensable part of modern military operations (even in the hands of a newly appointed young officer). We perhaps take for granted the information on them, without considering how it is obtained. In the UK the Ordnance Survey has over many hundreds of years done a phenomenal job of providing accurate information almost down to the last manhole cover about what lies where. At sea the Hydrographic  Service has similarly spent many hundreds of years charting the oceans and waters of the planet – it is not an exaggeration to say that in some of the more remote parts of the globe, the only charts in use date back to the surveys done by Captain Cook or other explorers. As a national asset the Hydrographic Office in particular is absolutely priceless – very few nations run credible hydrographic programmes beyond the UK, US, Russia and China. The Royal Navy, with its extremely effective and very hard worked survey fleet has been able to become a global leader in providing accurate chart information to the world – indeed many countries are enormously reliant on the UK for providing charts for their warships.

But, to put a map or chart together is an enormously complicated piece of work which takes a lot of time and effort. No country on earth currently has the resources to provide a truly global and accurate mapping capability of all the nations and areas that it may need military mapping for. Its not just a case of putting down some generic top level mapping and hoping that’s enough – modern military operations require a lot of detail, and to be able to work effectively, mapping is needed at a very high level of detail. When it comes to targeting, knowing whether a particular target is located at grid reference 123456, or 12345678 can make a huge difference – precision weapons nowadays mean that the chances of hitting the intended spot are much higher than ever before. This means you can destroy a critical node or facility without necessarily doing much in the way of wider damage, which makes rebuilding efforts easier, and also reduces the risk of civilian casualties.

So, accurate mapping allows the use of more precise weapons, but comes at the challenge of ensuring you have accurate data – there is no point firing something like (purely hypothetically) a Storm Shadow, which is designed to be incredibly precise, if the location data isn't spot on – it will waste an expensive munition for no effect, and could also kill a lot of innocent people.

The old days of ‘grid square removal’ by heavy bombers dropping tonnes of munitions on a target are gone forever. There is an expectation that war will be conducted by more precise measures, meaning that civilians and innocents are not caught up in efforts to deny the enemy a specific building or site. The media and public mood no longer supports the sort of operations seen in WW2, Vietnam and arguably even the Black Buck raids where bombs were dropped with much greater inaccuracy. In the West, todays military operations are expected to see weapons hit the target, nowhere else and do the minimal amount of damage to anyone else. This can only be done if you have the most accurate of targeting information. Get it wrong, and drop a bomb on a school or gathering of civilians, then it would quickly be front page news, and could have a major impact on the ability to conduct the campaign.

So, what should be clear is that in this day and age, relying on the AA road atlas, or Baedekers travel map simply isn’t good enough for incredibly complex military operations. The problem is that to get mapping to this level of granularity requires a phenomenal amount of work and costs a great deal of money. There is no country on Earth which can achieve this level of work, not even the USA. So, for many years most NATO countries have worked together to try and pool resources and mapping in order to get the best possible use of scarce assets.

Part of the benefits of belonging to an alliance like NATO is that it does allow burden sharing, and that we can hand off to other nations a reasonable expectation that work can be done which will provide us with information when it is needed.  This is a tremendous asset and its worth considering that without something like NATO, where information sharing protocols, and agreed joint workplans are in place, the UK may well not have had the right maps anyway for OP ELLAMY and wouldn't have had anywhere to turn to get them. There is no shame on divvying up work to ensure that you all benefit, providing that when you need the resource, you know that you will get it.

The problem seems to be that some in the UK seem to cling to a view that we as a nation must do everything ourselves (or at a push with the ‘Old Commonwealth’) and that any effort to work more efficiently is a national disgrace. The irony is that to achieve the sort of work they want would take vastly more resources than currently exist, and probably suck resources away from other defence tasks. It is odd, but the UK seems to enjoy a deliciously schizophrenic attitude to military alliances, whereby we like the fact that other nations make use of our own equipment and assets (like charts or maps), but we somehow are failures for doing the same in reverse. Frankly, Humphrey has no time for this sort of nonsense – in a time of stretched budgets, where people have to do more with less, it seems incredibly sensible to share mapping work out among NATO partners. Ultimately this decision helps make operations work, saved the taxpayer money and probably saved lives into the bargain. It is perhaps ironic that while the media were getting themselves worked up into a froth about this, most military personnel were immensely sanguine – indeed Humphrey saw one website where an individual was claiming to have flown missions on the V-Force in the 1960s using maps and data collated by the Germans…

The irony is that amidst the anguish over using German maps, the article skims over the wider point that Defence Intelligence appears to be losing several hundred posts. It is not commonly realised that the DI is responsible for the provision of geographic information to the military, currently via the Defence Geographic Centre in Feltham (for more information see LINK HERE). This sort of service is crucial to help the MOD maintain an edge on operations – it isn't just about having a good set of weapons, but the ability to know where you are, where you are going and how you can have the best possible military effect that matters. Ironically the papers that got the most irate about the news the UK was relying on the Germans were also the same papers that call the most loudly for ever more civil servants to be fired. The problem is that the people working at the DGC are exactly the sort of civil servants who are not pen pushers, who make a massive, near immeasurable difference to UK security, and who face considerable uncertainty in the future. We perhaps forget at our peril that just because someone doesn't wear uniform, it doesn't mean that they don’t play a major role in helping the defence of the UK.

So in summary, this whole row seems a bit of a storm in a teacup – while it is tempting to be cross that we don’t do mapping of every country in the world, it does seem a little counter-productive. At the end of the day the UK was able to conduct one of the most successful air campaigns in its history, achieving a lot of success in no small part due to the ability to get accurate mapping from our allies. Had we not had these arrangements in place, it is incredibly unlikely that we’d have got similar mapping via our own channels and the consequences could have been extremely severe indeed. Let us remember that no nation can do everything in isolation, and maintaining a good set of international relations and alliances is as important as possessing the latest military hardware to be successful on the world stage…  

Monday, 8 July 2013

What exactly is a 'real army'?

The Daily Telegraph had an article over the weekend about how the UK needed to acquire a ‘real army’ in order to be a world power, rather than relying on the current planned force structure of regular and reservists to provide a ‘total force’ concept. The author (John Baron MP) had previous experience as a junior officer in the Army during the 1980s, and it is interesting that the article refers with an almost longing sense of desire to see the UK re-establish a force not seen since that time.

Humphrey has a very personal view that when people call for the military to be changed, it usually involves change to try and make it reflect the military that they served in. For decades people have been complaining bitterly that the UK military doesn’t do what we want it to do, and that only deep change can possibly solve the problem. Meanwhile the British Armed Forces carry on deploying and succeeding on their missions, despite this lack of a ‘wonder weapon ORBAT’. It is very easy to look at an order of battle and decide that somehow the UK lacks a real army – indeed anything can be proved with statistics, and it’s easy to say that because the UK plans a relatively small force with only limited numbers of equipment relative to other powers, it somehow lacks a real army.  The problem with such a simplistic argument is that it ignores several issues.

Firstly, while we are now at the stage of looking wistfully back to the Cold War as a time of when the UK had a large army (relatively speaking), historically the UK has always maintained a small standing army. The combination of sea power, the lack of a credible opponent who could invade the UK, and a reluctance to embrace conscription has led to a force which even at its Imperial peak numbered barely 247,000 troops. It is only during the two largest wars in history (WW1&2) that the Army expanded, and even then it was only achieved through mass conscription and bankrupting the nation. The post-Cold War era is one when we maintained a large standing army which was affordable only through the combination of conscription and very low wages until the early 1970s. The reality has been that since military wages improved in the 1970s it has become ever more difficult to afford a large well paid force of troops.

The second problem is that it is difficult to justify a large standing army at a time when there is no existential threat to the UK. Even during the Cold War, once National Service had ended, the UK contribution quickly dropped down to barely four armoured divisions and supporting elements, which seems significant until set against a much wider NATO and Warsaw Pact order of battle. Then, as now, the British Army was a small organisation in a much larger world. Today there are no armoured divisions massing on the inner German border, and no credible invasion force to build to liberate Europe. We have no threat which requires a large army to defend our way of life, and certainly not one which would call for a massively larger army.

So, when we hear demands that the UK has to have a ‘real army’ the question must be ‘what does a real army look like’? We cling to a view that somehow because the British Army doesn’t possess thousands of tanks and legions of artillery batteries it somehow doesn’t have the same impact as other nations which possess much larger military forces. But to the authors mind there are two very different types of armed force out there – those which exist on paper, and those which have genuine capability to meet their missions. One only has to look across the world to see a plethora of nations who on paper possess large reserves of troops, weapons and equipment which theoretically place them at the top of whatever table one looks at. The problem is though that they are often poorly trained, funded and their equipment lacks support or maintenance – the ‘shiny toy in the shop window’ syndrome. When one reads accounts of large armies, it is often striking how they are in reality unable to deploy and effectively use more than a small fraction of their overall strength, or deploy at any distance. The author still shudders when he hears tales of various UN  peacekeeping forces where nations with statistically large militaries deployed sizable contingents, only for them to arrive with next to no equipment, logistics or food, and then to have next to no effect on the job at hand. The other category of army is the one that is funded and equipped properly to do the job at hand. This is a much smaller category of nations, and the UK firmly falls into this category. It involves providing a force which may not be numerically large, but where the equipment – both first line and support, is of a good quality, and which works well together.  

To the authors mind, we as a nation already possess a very capable ‘real army’ with a balanced mix of capabilities and where investment has been made across the whole spectrum of military need (e.g. not just tanks, but ISTAR and logistics too). The proof is perhaps in the realisation that the UK is one of only two nations currently able to deploy a divisional sized force overseas and fight at a distance prior to commencing a period of peacekeeping / peace enforcement missions. This was a capability tested on both DESERT STORM, Kosovo, and TELIC in the last 22 years. An examination of the 2010 SDSR shows that the UK retains this ability, even with a smaller army to deploy a maximum force of some 30,000 troops in a similar manner to previous operations. The British Army may be smaller, but its ability to deploy a similarly sized force to previous years is not in doubt.

The question is what would having a larger army do now for the UK standing in the world relative to our current force size? The first thing to note is the sheer cost associated with increasing the British Army – even returning to the force of the late 1980s would double the wages bill for the Army – which would be akin to adding several billion to the annual defence budget without even considering the cost of equipment, logistics, bases, accommodation and the like. A cold reality of the current day is that British troops are very expensive, and any uplift in regular forces comes at a huge cost in terms of wages. Add to this the reality that the geographical footprint has been reduced, and you realise that the bases, training estate and accommodation needed to accommodate a larger army simply doesn’t exist anymore. Historically we’ve never maintained large forces in the UK (with the exception of the two world wars), and indeed it would be fair to say that the current projected force of some 82,000 regular troops in the UK will be about the highest number based in the UK for generations. Any enlargement would place an enormous pressure on resources, which would be unsustainable in the medium term. This is also not considering the recruiting challenge of providing sufficient troops for the long haul – it is notable that in recent years the Army struggled to keep itself at a target strength of some 100,000 troops, even when the economy was doing poorly. Any growth to become a ‘real army’ would probably prove immensely challenging to achieve.

Similarly, growth in the Army comes at a cost of needing large numbers of new vehicles, weapons and supply chains. You can’t just wish a new armoured division into existence – there is a vast difference between saying on paper you possess an armoured division and then actually having something that works. Any enlargement would take many years to generate all the associated equipment, and come at a very substantial cost – the production lines don’t exist, and it would cost a fortune to reopen them. It is one thing to say ‘we want the UK to have four armoured divisions’ and another thing to generate four operational armoured divisions.

Finally the most important question is what exactly would an enlarged Army do? It is hard to see what military need exists to justify significantly increasing the Army in size.  The past twenty years have seen the UK deploy on many different operations, but outside of GRANBY and TELIC, there has never been a need to deploy more than a few thousand troops on any one operation at once. HERRICK saw some 10,000 at the peak, but this included several thousand Royal Navy and RAF personnel too. So, in reality even assuming a 3:1 ratio for deployment (one training, one on task and one recovering) and allowing for the reality that some areas have much tighter margins due to personnel situation in certain pinch points, it is hard to see how a larger army would do more than reduce the frequency of deployments.

Given the SDSR essentially lays out that the UK only plans on doing small scale operations, certainly until 2020 and then only looking to medium scale (e.g. sustaining a small Bosnia sized deployment), one has to ask what enlargement would do beyond provide a pool of soldiers who are probably bored to tears of exercising on Salisbury Plain. There is little point in enlarging the Army unless there is commensurate political willpower to actually employ it overseas – it is hard to see that this exists at present. Some 13 years of sustained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a situation where the UK possesses immensely experienced armed forces, who are well equipped to deploy and sustain themselves across the world, but there is arguably a lack of political willpower to see further such sustained entanglements. While the UK has traditionally supported deployments where casualties occur, and where things can get very challenging, there is a substantial difference between remaining a nation willing to take casualties in order to achieve a short term aim (such as a NEO) and whether this would translate into willingness to see another open ended commitment such as HERRICK in the next few years. It is hard to see a need for a larger Army if one does not see a similar political will to use it. At best when one looks at the projected employment of the British Army over the next few years, there seems to be opportunities for overseas training, some small peacekeeping and preparing for contingency operations such as NEOs. Enlarging the Army without any equivalent increases in military need seems counter-intuitive. Why incur vast expense in maintaining a military that can’t be fully employed or justified, instead of funding a smaller force which can be properly trained and equipped to meet expected tasks?

The reality for the British Army is that it is a force which does not have a likely opponent, nor an existential threat to defeat. It is all very well calling for it to grow, but at a time of very constrained budgets, and ever more expensive equipment, the question is where is the money to support this? The challenge for the UK in the next SDSR and beyond is perhaps to better justify why it warrants a regular British Army of 82,000 people at all - an island nation with no existential threats, and any likely deployments to be small in nature, perhaps the question is whether we need an Army that large in the first place? Given the Royal Navy and RAF are better suited for the type of expeditionary warfare that is so in vogue at present, does the Army warrant being the size it does? To the author at least the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. The current force provides sufficient personnel to be able to support coalition operations (for we are highly unlikely to deploy an armoured force in isolation), and to meet all likely outputs required of it. But, it is not just about numbers – the UK could do what the French does and pay smaller salaries, invest in front line equipment to the detriment of support equipment and put a numerically larger force in the field which struggles to support itself. This would not be sensible – rather the current structure means that the UK can afford some very useful ‘enabling capabilities’ which mean it seen as being an ally of value to other nations. Investing in ISTAR, in logistics and in other key but ‘unsexy’ assets makes the UK well placed to be able to maintain a force which other nations want to work with – one of the so-called benefits of soft power, as nations seek UK troops for training and support.

In conclusion then, Humphrey remains confused as to what exactly the benefit would be of the UK changing course and trying to fund a vastly larger army. The money doesn’t exist for such a course of action, and the infrastructure to support such a force no longer exists (even in BAOR days the majority of the Army wasn’t based in the UK, so we’d need to build it from scratch), and the costs associated with recruiting and equipping a large force are enormous. Given the lack of existential threats, and the reality that there is no real desire for sustained overseas operations for at least the next few years, it is hard to escape the view that the UK not only possesses a reasonably sized army proportionate to its current strategic position, but that by keeping it relatively small, it retains the funds to keep it well trained and well equipped, and in turn enabling it to punch above its weight as a partner of choice for other nations. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

New Facebook Page for this site

Humphrey has finally gotten around to trying to improve his online media presence and created a Facebook page for this blog. The aim of the page is to try and provide links to posts as they occur, and also post links on some of the other excellent defence writing out there in an easily shareable format. In addition it allows anyone who wishes to contact the author to do so via the messaging system or on the wall.

The page can be found at


Reserving Judgement? Thoughts on the Future Reserves announcement

The long awaited paper on the future of the Reserve Forces was announced in Parliament on Wed 3 July. The paper marks the latest in a long chapter in the UK on the best way to employ and make effective use of the Reserve Forces. For as long as the UK has possessed a formed reserve (rather than a militia or local arrangements) there seems to have been unsolved debate about what the Reserve actually existed to do. In two world wars, and during the Cold War, this role seemed clear enough – to provide a body of men who had a reasonable level of military training in their spare time and who would be relied on during the outbreak of war to bring the regular military up to full strength, either through the addition of formed units, or specialist individuals into a wide range of areas.
The end of the Cold War marked the next stage of the wider debate about the utility of the Reserves and whether they could or should be used in roles outside of general war. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 set the scene for the use of the Reserves in a manner outside of this, allowing them to be employed and mobilised for a variety of operations ranging from civil contingencies work in the UK through to deployment on Ops HERRICK and TELIC. This really marked the first point at which the UK saw the evolution of its Reserve Forces from a peacetime force waiting to deploy for the ‘big one’ through to a force able to be utilised in day to day operations.
The paradox has been that throughout this period, despite trying to get a reserve that is more deployable than ever, numbers have been slashed. The TA at its cold war 1980s peak stood at some 80,000 personnel (roughly the planned size of the future British Army), but the SDR in 1998 saw it cut to just 36,000, and today the figure of trained personnel reportedly stands as low as 18,000. So, the starting point for the debate is to identify how to not only get the Reserves to take on a greater role, but also to grow them to a level where they can field over 30,000 trained personnel within a few years.
So, what did today’s announcement really do? For starters it tried to set out how the MOD is going to change the current situation with Reservists and help further integrate them into the military structure in the hopes of creating a so-called ‘one army’ which has both regular and reserve components by 2020. This will mean a raft of changes to how members of the reserve work, are employed and motivated to stay in the service. It also sets out how the MOD will improve support to both families and employers who have Reservists.
In simple terms the paper tries to ‘improve the offer’ made to Reservists in a bid to make them join, remain in the reserve and stay for the long haul. It promises improved equipment, better opportunities for training, access to military pensions and other benefits such as learning credits and so on. There is also a drive to try and equate military training to courses in civilian life, in an effort to let employers understand the value they gain by employing a Reservist. The quid pro quo is that members of the Reserves will now be called on far more regularly than before, with the Army in particular seeking to mobilise units at least once every five years in theory in order to take part in a wide range of operations from peace support to war fighting.
The question is whether the proposed changes are enough to act as a sop for Reservists? On a superficial scan they do seem quite promising. Access to a pension is a nice gesture which sounds impressive, but will probably cost the MOD relatively little. A lot more detail would be needed on payouts and input, and it is worth remembering that someone would need to train for about 15 years to qualify for a single years payment. In real terms over a 20-30  year career in the Reserves (assuming 2-3 mobilisations) at best most people may be in line for a pension worth 2-3 years worth of full time service. In practical terms this is a pittance compared to regular pensions, but is a nice tangible reminder to people who are thinking of leaving about the longer term financial impact.
The worry though is the ominous mention about reviewing the bounty payment, particularly in light of the pension plans. The payment of a tax free bounty is a major retention bonus at present, and were this to be scaled back as a result of pensions, then it could be a significant reason for people to leave.
Similarly, the offer of paid leave sounds interesting, but has no details to back up how it would actually work in practise. The offer of 3 days pay for completing annual training requirements of 24 days (or 5 days for the TA 40 day target) is extremely appealing, but will it come at a cost of reduced bounties? So, Humphrey is cautiously optimistic that the new financial arrangements sound positive, but the devil, as ever, remains in the detail.
Integration or Rejection?
The concept of better integration between the regular and reserve forces is particularly interesting – there remain strong cultural differences between the two forces, despite the use of Reservists on operations. On a strictly personal note, Humphrey finds it amusing when regular personnel have turned up on training weekends, only to claim time off during the week as a result of working during the weekend!
The challenge, particularly for the Army, will be to create a culture of shared understanding about the very different challenges facing regular and reserve members of the armed forces. While there will inevitably be good natured banter, there is also a more serious need to build trust and understand how the two groups approach life in slightly different ways. From personal experience, the author has found that the Regular military sometimes struggle to understand the Reservist mindset, or how it is possible to balance off two very different careers. Reservists sometimes find military courses infuriatingly slow, and feel they are doing two day courses packed into two weeks. If the opportunity exists to put regular troops on reserve training weekends to increase skills and understanding, and if the chance is there to improve reserve access to training courses then this can only be a good thing.
Part of the challenge though will be adapting to different mindsets – for instance Reservists book two weeks leave to undertake training, only to turn up on the course to find it was cancelled, they are RTU’d for some reason or they had their place taken by a regular. Incidents such as this remain depressingly commonplace, and the end result is often a disaffected individual who may find they’ve wasted two weeks leave, cannot get on other training and ends up missing their bounty. Such a result is a waste of talent, a waste of resources and often leads to the loss of a trained person. It is vital that the regular armed forces get much better at ensuring that courses for Reservists run as expected, and do not get cancelled unexpectedly.
A final challenge to note here is the difficulty for the Army in generating opportunities for units and not individual reinforcements. Part of the challenge in HERRICK has been the use of the TA in providing a trickle of individual reinforcements who augmented units rather than deploying formed units in the campaign. What this meant in real terms is plenty of opportunities for junior soldiers, but ever decreasing opportunities in their professional field for seniors and officers – instead outside of specialist areas most deployments occurred as augmentees. So, as the Army changes structure the issue is going to be getting the TA to the point where it has sufficient opportunity and experience to deploy a formed unit and be able to meet all the requirements placed on it. While can be done, one should not underestimate the challenge involved in getting a unit fully worked up for deployment – particularly on the SNCO and Officer cadre. There is likely to be a steep learning curve and whether this is sustainable, particularly for individuals with busy day jobs is open to question. It is going to be very interesting to see how easily the Army finds it to deploy a formed reserve unit onto an operational task and the level of support it will require from the regular force to make this happen.
Integration will be a challenge, and its not something which can happen overnight, but it is something which will take time. As units start to form up on the mobilisation cycles, then this will hopefully see a better shift in attitudes between both organisations towards making a ‘one army’ concept a reality.
Wives & Employers (may they never meet)
The final part of the announcement focused on measures designed to offer support to employers and families of Reservists. This is perhaps the most important area of all – you can offer the best military opportunity going, but if your employer doesn’t want to give you time off, and your wife/husband won’t let you go, then it is all for naught. Humphrey has often heard it said that reserve life comes below the priorities of family and work, and this is probably right – no matter how satisfying it may be, it doesn’t pay the mortgage.
For employers the challenge is convincing the smaller firms of the value of the training on offer, and in persuading them of the case of letting valued employees go for up to a year at a time every five years. This is not an easy situation – big organisations have the HR mechanisms and staff pools in place to be able to provide staff support and cover for the periods when a Reservist is away. By contrast smaller companies may lack the support network, and may be reliant on the Reservist as an SME in his or her field, and without this it may have a critical impact on the willingness to support membership of the Reserve forces.
There is no easy answer to this challenge – ultimately no matter how well supported or incentivised a company is to employ Reservists, it may well often be simply unsustainable for a business to employ people on the understanding that they may be away one year in five (although arguably and if one were feeling controversial a similar argument could be extended to maternity leave). The best that can be hoped for is a broadly supportive employer, who will accept the benefits Reservists bring, but who also are willing to release them when required.
The one possible worry for some was lurking in the text which noted that the top up pay for Reservists to ensure their salaries were matched when mobilised was going to be capped for non specialists. This could be a defining moment – while there have always been some theoretical caps in place, in reality mobilisation for the last decade has seen  very junior personnel often being paid more than the Brigade Commander. While there is financial logic in potentially capping salaries, there is a danger that people will be reluctant to mobilise if they felt that it would impact in their ability to pay the mortgage.
 The ultimate question is to what extent these reforms will make a difference for the reserves to recruit and generate high quality personnel capable of doing the multitude of tasks expected of Reservists in the future. It is one thing to set the target of growing a force to 30,000, but growing it to the right combination of ranks, skills and specialisations is another. From the authors experience, many people join the Reserves for a few years, enjoy the training and maybe do a deployment and then when the ‘real world’ intervenes, they leave. In many ways this is no different to the regular military where the average return of service seems to be about 8 years. The issue though is trying to sustain enough more experienced figures like NCOs and senior officers – to get there will require them to take on regular deployments and be willing to put their careers on hold every few years. Some will always be willing to do this, but others will not.
From the authors own very personal perspective, mobilising for one deployment was a superb experience and something which at the time was a real personal challenge. But if asked to deploy again, he would need to think long and hard about whether he could do this. It would be career limiting for the regular job, and introduce a level of worry and instability. There is also the question that as civilian and military careers no longer keep pace, whether the opportunity on offer as a Reservist would be sufficiently tempting – why put a civilian career on hold for nearly a year for no real development? So, the reality is that it will prove to be a challenge to get people to stay motivated and stay in for the long haul – regular tours, a likely increase in workload and a lot more training is great for some, but could prove to be simply too much for others as they balance civilian and military careers and family life.
It is very early days, and it is far to soon to judge whether these changes will be a success. They will require a lot of recruiting effort to bring people in to get the force up to strength, and then a sustained recruiting effort to keep it at the strength and this could be very challenging indeed. Indeed in the short term the closure of units and merging of units could have a detrimental effect on manpower as people vote with their feet over the loss of units. Additionally, it will take time for newly established units to get up to speed – for instance while the Intelligence Corps is gaining new units, a formation headquarters does not equal a fully manned and trained unit – this will take a lot longer to achieve.
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years as we try to progress. One hopes it is achievable, but its going to need time, patience and money, and two out of three are not necessarily there in large amounts!