Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Great Power, Grave Responsibilities - wider thoughts on the Syria situation

It cannot have escaped many peoples notice that events in Syria are currently causing grave concern across the world. The alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians has caused an outbreak of revulsion which, based on what is being reported in the media, has potential to lead to attacks on Syria by some Western powers in order to send a clear message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated.

Humphrey does not wish to comment on the specifics of the crisis, nor the arguments in favour of, or against, such a course of action. There has been some outstanding comment by highly qualified commentators in this area, and it seems foolish to try and repeat that which has already been said. Instead, he wants to try and focus on a couple of points which don’t seem to have been picked up so far.

The Quiet Decline of the USN
This crisis has been dominated by impressive images of US warships firing cruise missiles, and maps showing large warships steaming menacingly in the Eastern Med. Publicly we know that four USN escorts are currently in the region, each armed with a significant quantity of missiles. What is so striking though is how this illustrates just how thinly stretched the USN is these days. Until the end of the Cold War, the Med was practically a British, then US lake. Dominated by naval bases, and home to large numbers of carriers, escorts and other vessels, any crisis would quickly have seen an almost overwhelming concentration of US firepower.

Today, the 6th Fleet has no permanently assigned escorts, and is instead reliant on other vessels transiting the area. At present it seems that three US vessels were in the area (although it is unclear I they were taken off other tasks) and one more has joined them. This is the totality of the US escort fleet in the Med (and quite possibly Europe as a whole). It is telling that there is no carrier deployed in the AOR, and that the next nearest escorts and Carrier are deployed in the Gulf. Although they could move, this would leave the Arabian Gulf without a carrier, and it is questionable whether any commander would be willing to see a CVN conduct a Suez transit right now, particularly if strikes against Syria are occurring. Partly this is a result of fewer ships, and also an impact of sequestration, where planned deployments were cancelled. The harsh reality though is that US naval power has been heavily emasculated – claims of the Med being a US lake are simply no longer true.

The worry is that this problem is only going to get worse with time; the USN faces a major challenge in keeping hull numbers up, and more importantly maintained to a reasonable level. The challenge of handling major budget cuts is that this sort of presence will inevitably be reduced. So, perhaps closer attention should be paid to how the US is meeting the response, as this is likely to be the sort of thing we’ll see in future – not overwhelming numbers of ships and aircraft, but a small number of escorts, taken off other tasks in order to do the job. One lesson is clear – the USN remains an immensely potent navy, but its ability to project the sort of power that the world is used to is perhaps far less than many realise.

The Role of the UK
One thing that fascinated the author has been the way that over the years it is almost a national sport to slag off the UK as being a nation which doesn’t matter, and which is in near terminal decline. This crisis has served as a useful reminder that for all the talk of how the UK is a declining power, the fact that the Prime Minister can talk with sufficient authority on the subject, due in part to the ability to project force in the region, helps serve as a reminder that the UK is perhaps more influential than it thinks.

It was telling watching the news broadcasts about the crisis and listening to the nations who were engaged with the US on this – the UK, Australia, Canada, France etc. It very much felt like a case of returning to the old wartime alliances – relying on nations who may be some distance from the crisis, but for whom the combination of reasonable military power, plus a political willingness to consider its use meant that these were nations worth talking too.It is telling too that many of the nations often cited as upcoming powers who really call the shots (think many EU nations or South American nations) have seemed to have had practically no effect at all on this situation. For all the talk of a change in the world order, it seems remarkable that the nations who will decide whether to act or not are by and large the Allied powers from WW2.

What does this mean though? Firstly, it demonstrates the value the UK can bring to the US of being able to offer advanced military capability, a substantial diplomatic presence, some residual but possibly useful real estate in the region, and a willingness to consider the use of force as a last resort. The author has touched before on the value of the UK in its wider diplomatic relations, and this is another good example of where the ‘package’ that the UK offers is a useful reminder that few other nations can muster similar combinations of hard and soft power, backed by a leader whose speeches will help set the global agenda. It is telling in that what is supposed to an age of shared sovereignty and greater multi-national co-operation, many large institutions like the EU or NATO are seemingly completely irrelevant in putting their views across. This crisis perhaps helps reinforce that baring a major change in the international system, the nation state, not the institution will remain the ultimate negotiating power.

A validation of the SDSR
What is perhaps most useful is that this crisis helps revalidate much of the underpinning assumptions about the SDSR. This review was attacked as a means of cutting UK force structures, but if you read it, it makes clear that it is as much about the ability to project force at distance and conduct short scale, highly focused operations as it is about reducing numbers.

What has been seen here is the value that comes from having the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) in the region, where the presence of a reasonable number of RN/RFA vessels provides significantly more options than would otherwise be the case. The ability to deploy some extremely capable vessels, able to work with their USN equivalents on an equal footing helps ensure the UK remains a relevant power – even if this does come at a cost of affordability versus numbers. Additionally the deployment helps provide a useful reminder of the value of naval power – it can loiter, with intent, and with the ability to escalate or de-escalate as required in a manner which cannot be achieved by land or airpower. However this crisis pans out, it is clear that this has been a useful validation of the RTFTG concept.

Similarly, it has also been a useful reminder of the value of ‘residual real estate’ in places like Cyprus, which are often dismissed as sleepy backwaters by some. The ability of the UK Government to have access to sovereign territory, capable of supporting air operations and providing a vital logistics bridge back home cannot be overestimated. The value of Cyprus in this volatile and difficult region is becoming ever more apparent.

So, perhaps one lesson is clear – the SDSR helped create the force structures we see today – it is perhaps worth considering that according to the media, only the UK and US have warships in the region, with the French still in harbour, and no other partners have joined them. While some rail against the current structure of the MOD, perhaps its worth considering that many of the much vaunted NATO powers, whose spread sheet ORBATS look so impressive, seem to have been thus far unable to provide a short notice response to support these efforts. Perhaps it is worth asking whether the restructuring of SDSR, painful as it was, was a necessary task in order to ensure that the UK could continue to play a senior role in global politics.


This situation remains volatile and fluid and it is far to early to predict what may, or may not happen. However, what is clear is that looking beyond the headlines, and some fascinating wider trends are becoming clear, which say a great deal about the balance of power and influence in the 21st century.

Friday, 23 August 2013

What did the General really say? Thoughts on 'that' CDS interview.

The new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Sir Nicholas Houghton has been in many papers in the last few days over comments made to the MOD in house magazine known as ‘Focus’. The full magazine (which can be found HERE) is a particularly interesting read this month. Interviewing not only CDS, it also looks at the challenges facing the Chief of Defence Personnel, and interviews Rear Admiral Parr about RN operations – it is a genuinely interesting read, and contains a lot of material that doesn't seem to have been published as a press release or elsewhere. Its particularly worth reading from the authors perspective, if only to see the new CDP publicly accept that there a major problem with how the MOD civil service is perceived, and recognising it as a vital enabler for Defence which needs to be stood up for against outdated perceptions.

The reason that CDS hit the news though was over two sets of comments, which can loosely be paraphrased as saying ‘the UK is going to have to do less in future with less defence capability’ and also that ‘cynicism is an issue, as is getting the message out in the most appropriate format as to why Defence is transforming’. The media have looked at both comments and perhaps tried to read more into them than is perhaps the case. Humphrey has read the article, and his own very personal views are below. If you actually look at what was said:

“It is in many ways easier to focus on a single operation than having to plan for a whole range of contingencies. You can never have the same degree of sophistication in capability terms when you adopt a more generic contingency posture. We have to recalibrate our expectation of the level of capabilities we can field on new operations from a standing start. We’ve got to get back into an ‘expeditionary mindset’ where we will not have perfect capability for every scenario.”

In the context of the interview, this was being discussed as part of a wider discussion on the withdrawal from Operation HERRICK and the re-organisation of the military away from focusing on ‘the operation’ to ‘an operation’. This has been seized on as an example that the MOD is somehow less able to conduct military operations in future, but to the author this is a very mistaken view. What the General appears to have clearly identified is that for the best part of a decade, the primary output of the MOD has been Op HERRICK. It is fair to say that a large part of Defences efforts have been focused in support of this, from training, procurement of equipment, evolution of doctrine, provision of resources, airframes, munitions etc. Known as OP ENTIRETY, this move to make HERRICK the Defence  ‘Main Effort’ has seen the Department focus almost exclusively on the operation, while reducing ‘contingent capability’ (e.g. the ability to provide response forces to tackle unforeseen threats) to a bare minimum. For HERRICK this has worked well – one only has to look at the way that the Army operating in Afghanistan has been almost entirely re-equipped, and now operates at a capability almost light years beyond what it was in 2006.

This means that today, a unit deploying on OP HERRICK enjoys access to well-resourced training pipelines, that it has well supported provision of kit, and that there is a clear understanding of how the pieces fit together in theatre to support the wider operation. Through the UOR process there has been a huge effort in trying to provide mission specific equipment that meets the needs of Afghanistan, even where it has little relevance to wider operations.

The end result is that the UK forces in Afghanistan are remarkably well equipped and supported by any reasonable standard, and are very capable of adapting to and operating in the specific operational environment. Frankly, after 13 years in Afghanistan, were the UK not doing this, then one would argue that something has gone very badly wrong indeed.

By contrast the end of HERRICK means the likely end of an ability to work in an operational environment where we have well understood constraints, we know the people, we know the challenges, we know the likely threats. Instead, a return to contingency means exactly that – a return to preparing for the unexpected. This suddenly makes things much harder to prepare for – how do you train, equip and plan for an operation when you have no idea where it is likely to come from? At a time when the UK budget (as with most nations) is being reduced in real terms, the ability to fund a bespoke equipment programme, which provides every conceivable force structure, every possible permutation of equipment and training is impossible. Instead we are entering an era where until the next sustained campaign, operations will be very much done on the basis of what is available now, which may not always be the best possible mission specific piece of equipment.

This is a fairly sensible position to be in – as a global nation, with interests, commitments and a penchant for post Imperial entanglements, the UK will always have more possible scenarios to contemplate involvement in than it can reasonably fund. Instead planners have to fight a more challenging battle of identifying where to take risk, where to fund enhancements and how to procure, equip and train to a standard where the UK can deploy on an operation and stand the best chance of success within the constraints identified above. It is inevitable that as soon as the UK returns to a ‘campaign footing’ then this situation will change again – once it is clear there is a longer commitment to the ground, that requirements emerge and the ability to bring kit into service in a short time occurs, then it is possible to once again create a bespoke force for the scenario at hand.

So, in simple terms the General has merely restated the simple fact that if you are preparing for operations, not an operation, it’s a damn sight harder to go in with the right capability from the word go. It is important that this mindset (and perhaps risk taking mentality) is noted though, because an entire generation of commanders have grown up knowing that they were deploying on an operation which although risky, came at the end of a planned work up programme and where they could do a lot of advance preparation. Preparing to deploy to an unexpected location, not knowing the situation and not having the exact kitbag of equipment for that operation will come as a gentle shock to some, although hopefully it will be quickly overcome.

The General though touched on another wider point which again has perhaps been misrepresented – the need for better communication during the on-going transformation process and a need to avoid the cynicism that has emerged in some quarters. No one doubts that there is a need to get communication right, but it is a reasonable question to ask how easy this is to pitch. The challenge as Humphrey sees it is being able to put across the strategic situation, set out why the UK needs to reduce its armed forces and explain what the anticipated outputs and challenges will be in future, while at the same time showing people how the work they do fits in the greater scheme of things. That’s easy when people work in a small organisation, or when there is a common output, but Defence is neither of those things. It is a vast organisation, directly employing hundreds of thousands of people, working on all seven continents on the planet, and employs people in hundreds of different branches, roles, locations and areas. Its audience range from 16 year old school leavers with no qualifications, to rocket scientists to senior officers who personally advise the Prime Minister and who make strategic decisions which change the course of this nation’s history.

How one is able to set out these challenges in a manner which is neither patronising, nor overly bamboozling remains a challenge. It is not helped perhaps by a natural reticence on the part of some military and civilian components to perhaps scoff at internal communications and not see them as essential. It saddens the author that he has worked in some areas where information on force structures, operational updates and general information on what sort of change is going on is dismissed as either ‘propaganda’ or not seen as a useful use of time to study. There is a natural reluctance to be seen to take an interest in the direction the military takes – the author vividly remembers being on the end of some acidic comments from the interview panel when he sat his Admiralty Interview Board, because he’d got maximum marks on the naval knowledge test. There is perhaps a desire to be ‘too cool for school’ and not take an interest in what goes on around you. The result is perhaps that the information is being communicated, in different ways and different formats, but that many in the military themselves do not chose to avail themselves of it, instead preferring to rely on rumours, intrigue and a NAAFI buzz, over fact. One wonders whether this accounts for the continued belief in many quarters that there is a veritable convoy of nurses en route to the NAAFIs of this world…

So in summary, Humphrey feels that CDS has perhaps been somewhat misrepresented here – there are many challenges facing the military, and as an officer with a reputation for straight talking it is likely that this is not going to be the last time he makes observations which will be taken out of context. Having made some very sensible points, the challenge is now to make progress on them though, for that is perhaps how history will judge him. One wishes him luck!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Striking the Balance – the strategic challenge of being a middling power.

Recently the Canadian Government was reshuffled, with a variety of posts changing hands as the Prime Minister conducted a mid-term reshuffle ahead of an election. One of the posts changing over was Defence, with Rob Nicholson coming into the Department of National Defence (DND) for the first time. The superb Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute blog (link HERE) had a number of articles about the possible challenges facing the new minister.

Humphrey makes no secret of being an enormous admirer of the Canadian military – having studied in Canada, and been fortunate enough to undertake a short attachment to the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, he has fond memories of being part of a very professional organisation, and to this day thinks warmly of the people and role. Later on, his career has regularly brought him into contact with members of the Canadian military, who have always been supremely professional. Therefore, he continues to follow developments in the Canadian military quite closely.

This article was prompted by thinking about an article by Prof Jack Granatstein (HERE) and the challenges facing Canada. As a nation it provides a superb example of the challenges facing what can be described as ‘middling powers’ – one only has to glance at the history of the last 70 years to see a country which emerged from a global war with the third largest navy in the world, to see its engagement across a global range of conflicts from Korea to the Middle East, while still playing a major role in NATO. At the same time, its more recent story is of a nation of declining budgets, old equipment and politics stopping acquisition of new materiel. To the author, the reshuffle is perhaps a greater sign of the challenges facing both Canada, and other nations which operate reasonably modern military equipment but which face difficult choices ahead of them. The aim of this piece is to try and consider what these challenges are, and whether any conclusions can be drawn from it.

A most confounding position
The biggest question arguably facing Canada today is how to address what is a three pronged axis of interest. As an Atlantic and Pacific power, with substantial economic interests in both areas, Canada has an inevitable interest in both regions, which have extremely different challenges. At the same time, the emerging interest in the Arctic, where global warming and climate change is seemingly allowing an opening of trade routes, means a previously neglected region suddenly takes on far more strategic role. Beyond this home position, Canada continues to play a major role overseas, providing troops, aircraft and ships to participate in operations across the globe from the Gulf to Afghanistan.

An excellent vessel, but is she needed in South Africa?

The old Cold War roles of defending the Atlantic from Russian submarines threatening convoys have long gone by the wayside, and the days of the Canadian Army and Air Force presence in Europe ended 20 years ago. Despite this, Canada remains a leading member of NATO, participating in a variety of Alliance operations, including Afghanistan. The Pacific has perhaps traditionally enjoyed a lower priority in terms of resource allocation, but the emerging US strategic shift to the region, coupled with growing its growing economic importance and rise of military power means that Canada has to take a natural interest in this area. Finally one must not forget the issue of its relationship with the USA – due to geography; it is inevitable that Canadian airspace would be breached in the event of any attacks on the US – no matter how remote this possibility seems today. Given the strong US interest in both Atlantic and Pacific theatres, Canada finds itself almost forced to pay attention to its Northern flank, perhaps for fear that if it does not, then the US would. 

Set against this complex three pronged axis of interest, Canada has historically chosen to focus on the procurement and retention of a high capability professional military. One only has to glance at the order of battle over time to see how there has been an emphasis on capabilities designed to fight on the Central Front and North Atlantic, such as F18 fighters, excellent ASW frigates like the Halifax class and other equipment. The problem has been a historical reluctance to heavily invest in new equipment in a regular pattern, instead equipment is pushed on long past its original out of service date in an effort to keep it going, whilst funds for replacements are pushed into studies, concepts and otherwise committed. A quick glance at the Canadian Forces today shows that much of their equipment remains fundamentally unchanged from the end of the Cold War – although there have been limited acquisitions (such as the C17), the bulk of the order of battle is today much as it was in the early 1990s – when even then many of the ships and aircraft were approaching the end of their lives.

The problem which looms is that Canada has deferred expenditure for so long on so many fronts that it is rapidly reaching the point where barring a major change of budget; something is going to have to give. As a nation Canada is a superb example of the many mid-tier powers, other examples being the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Australia to name but a few, who have historically been able to afford and operate armed forces capable of working across a wide range of areas, but where future budgets may constrain this over time. All of these nations are typified by having a lot of legacy equipment in service, and a willingness to employ their militaries overseas on operations. These nations all face a similar challenge – the cost of military equipment is so great that all face a problem – what has to be sacrificed in order to keep some form of capability, and what are they no longer willing to do militarily?

In simple terms the real terms decline of procurement budgets, the growing complexity of weapon systems (and cost), and the approaching obsolescence of so many systems means that Canada is likely to be faced with a very difficult series of decisions. One only has to consider what needs replacement within the next 10-15 years – the F18 fleet needs replacement, the Halifax and Tribal class destroyers will be life expired, the Victoria class diesel submarines will be extremely old, and the Army will need replacements for its armour and APCs.

Strategic Airlift almost unparalleled by most nations, yet for what purpose?

Considering the Navy alone, one sees a fleet which has been hard worked for many years, and which has not seen new surface ships enter service for nearly twenty years. The destroyers are so old that it is nearly fifty years since the design was approved, and forty years since they entered service. The decision to continually defer replacements means that no military shipbuilding capability exists in Canada any more. This means any replacement will be built at far greater cost on a shipbuilding industry which will be created from scratch. This issue alone highlights the real challenge for many medium powers – the inability for domestic political reasons to consider purchasing certain from overseas. Despite there being several designs (such as the Royal Navy's Type 26 / Global Combat Ship) entering service in the time-frame for replacement, the desire by Canada to retain a ‘made in Canada’ label on its surface warships means that the Canadian taxpayer will not get the best value for money. One only has to consider that most warship replacement programmes these days will only replace half to two thirds of the hulls in the preceding class due to cost, and it quickly becomes clear that Canada is going to be forced to establish a military shipbuilding capability for just 8-10 hulls.

Domestically there are many good reasons to build at home – creation of jobs in vulnerable constituencies, a sense of national control over a hugely visible symbol of national prestige, and an ability to support domestic industries (e.g. having far greater sovereignty over the weapons and equipment than may otherwise be the case with a foreign purchase). Additionally even with offsets, it is difficult to justify to taxpayers spending huge sums of money abroad, particularly for a capability traditionally built at home. There are several nations who have traditionally built their large warships at home, and who face a need to build replacement hulls in the next 10-15 years. It becomes increasingly difficult to see how they can afford to do this without making major cuts elsewhere to their procurement plans, or buying overseas.

Set against all of this is the reality that with the changing nature of warfare and military operations, it is becoming increasingly unrealistic to expect all nations to be able to participate in the latest military technology. One only has to look at the cost of new fighters, tanks, escorts, submarines to realise that the funding simply doesn't exist to buy in and support all of these capabilities. But there is very little in the way of common agreement between nations over burden sharing – e.g. while it is perhaps prudent to envisage Country A buying the fighter jets, Country B providing the tanks and Country C the warships and then all three pooling them and providing as required to operations, the real world simply doesn't work like this. Military hardware is a very visible manifestation of a country's independence, and ability to exert its will. Relying on agreements between states sounds great, but is probably a step to far – even in the Netherlands and Belgium, which essentially operate a shared Naval command structure, there are still two very separate fleets of warships, even if some of the training and support is shared.

So, as time passes it will be ever harder for many countries to remain at the forefront of military technology – the cost of having a first rate military is so great that soon few nations will be able to afford it. This raises the prospect of a large number of nations relying on ever small levels of military hardware, and perhaps specialising so much that it is ever more difficult to deploy a meaningful force on overseas operations. The only other solution is to perhaps purposely ‘step back’ and focus on using older generation equipment.

How do you defend this in a meaningful way?

Medium powers like Canada though struggle to balance their wider interests, desire to play  a role in global affairs against a small military and limited resources. The question for powers such as this is what do they wish to be? On the one hand there is perhaps the inevitable temptation for finance ministries to push for a gentle glide path into military obscurity – maintain the bare minimum, and replace high end capabilities like frigates or Main Battle Tanks with OPVS and wheeled vehicles – in other words abandon pretences of capability. At the same time there is a natural desire to want to play more of a role and be more than a bit player – it is perhaps noticeable how many leaders enjoy the attention and press coverage that comes from being seen as influential on the wider stage, and the plaudits that come from this. This perhaps explains the reluctance in some countries to pare down military expenditure. At the same time maintaining a reasonably sized military has wider industrial and economic benefits – the presence of a substantial defence industry is often linked to military capability – scaling this down reduces the ability to not only build and support equipment at home (with all the attendant benefits for the economy and sovereignty) but also reduces export orders which helps the economy. This is a challenge facing Canada now – invest at considerable cost in new Frigates, creating a shipbuilding programme to assure them of sovereignty, or buy overseas, saving money for wider capability, but reducing economic benefits to taxpayers – who would expect to see their tax dollars spent at home.

Meeting the Force Balance
The procurement challenge is just one facet of the challenge of being a medium power. With only a finite level of resources, tough decisions need to be made about the level of capability and operational commitment that the nation can undertake. On the one hand there is a natural desire to provide troops to help a nation play its part in overseas operations and achieve wider foreign policy and strategic goals – perhaps best typified by the deployment of Canadian Forces to Europe during the Cold War where a relatively balanced force was deployed to help serve as symbol of Canadian commitment to NATO. In today’s world, where there is seemingly no direct threat to Canada’s territorial integrity (with the arguable exception of Arctic waters) there is a question over whether to focus resources on a small and highly niche set of advanced capabilities, which help bind the Canadians into wider operations, and enable them to be seen as a partner of choice – in many ways a policy adopted by the UK Government to fund a smaller number of highly capable military forces which are keenly sought for international operations. This specialism comes at a real risk that the Canadian Forces are unable to meet the wider range of military tasks in the albeit unlikely requirement to defend the homeland – it also forces them to be reliant on other powers to provide key components to their defence. This is a major challenge – do you focus on building a military which is of value overseas, but only affordable in certain numbers, or do you provide a wider military which can meet home defence needs, but at the cost of lower utility to allies.

The question also becomes one of where funding priorities lie in terms of equipment procurement and what is considered sacrosanct. Arguably based on recent threats, the main areas of Canadian focus would seem to be the provision of a strong air defence capability to help secure their part in NORAD, and also a reasonable maritime presence to protect territorial waters. But, based on recent operational priorities, the priority could be seen as improved land equipment – as seen by the deployment of MBTs to Afghanistan, which were of significant value to ISAF, but which have a very limited value in protecting Canadian sovereignty. There is no right answer to this debate, but it serves to highlight the real challenges facing planners – plan for value overseas, or plan for home defence – arguably for a medium power the two are increasingly incompatible.
Invest in high intensity military equipment? 
Canada’s wider strategic position serves as a good example of the challenge facing planners for powers which take an interest in overseas deployments, but where resources are limited. On the one hand there is the natural draw of NATO and the old Atlantic allies – this requires deploying forces to areas where the military threat can be relatively slight, and where well established systems of interoperability mean Canada can quickly participate in deployments and rely on other nations for support. At the same time though the rise in interest in the Asia Pacific region, and the notable shift by the US military to focus their resources in the region, well away from traditional NATO areas raise questions about whether focus on the Pacific should be increased. This would help keep Canada as a player with the US, providing resources to support an increasingly stretched US military, but would mean drawing down NATO commitments. At the same time the increase in interest in the Arctic, and the desire to reaffirm sovereignty means a natural requirement for icebreakers and forces to focus on the upholding of Canada’s purely national interest – a policy which in the 1980s caused tension with the US when a previous Canadian Government sought to procure SSNs, in part to demonstrate sovereignty over their waters.

Each course of action has different requirements and leads to a very different set of equipment priorities – the problem facing the Canadian Government at present is that it probably doesn’t have enough resources to do all three, but to focus on one would have severe impact on their wider international relations.The challenge for medium powers is to identify how to juggle long standing interests, commitments, requirements and vested interests to produce a relatively balanced defence policy. Canada serves as a good example of just how difficult it is to be a medium power in the modern world – small nations with minor militaries and limited aspirations find it easy to focus resources on one or two key challenges – just look at most powers in Latin America or Africa, where their military is focused on local territorial defence and maybe some limited support to the UN or other regional peacekeeping missions. By contrast the UK , France and a few other nations with larger militaries have sufficient resources to provide a relatively balanced force able to not only meet the demands of territorial defence & integrity, but also deploy them overseas – for instance the UK is resourced to deploy around 10,000 troops on a permanently sustained basis overseas, while also meeting existing commitments across the world.

So, the challenge facing the middling powers is to identify what role they fill in the 21st century. On the one hand there is clearly an aspiration for nations like Canada to remain a player on the world stage, but yet it is hard to see how this is affordable or feasible without sacrificing capability to pay for it.The question which policy makers need to ask themselves is the extent to which they feel Canada (or any other nation) requires high end capabilities to be employed in a purely national operation. It is hard to see anything outside of very low key constabulary operations requiring a purely national response – this in turn leads to the deduction that the best balance of investment may be for specific roles (e.g. provision of niche areas like cyber warfare or strategic airlift and ASW) which can easily work with coalition partners. This in itself is not straightforward – there is a danger that one nation which emphasises provision of certain capabilities over all others may find its hand forced on participation in unpopular operations – if the demand is for tanking aircraft or logistics, then could a nation refuse to participate if it had spent years focusing on providing this capability to its allies? While it could, the danger of refusal could lead to collapse of local alliances and leave said nation not only isolated, but also struggling to fund large gaps in its defence where it has chosen to take risks in coverage as part of its alliance membership. Similarly, invest in too narrow a capability, and your alliance partners may feel that the associated challenge of providing support, logistics and force protection in order to bring just one or two specific assets to a deployment may simply not be worth the cost.This is perhaps the real worry for middling powers – how do you balance off the need to defend your nation, support your wider interests, work with alliance partners and still maintain a balanced budget?

Or invest in hearts and minds for 'soft power'?

This article has tried to explore some of the challenges facing the so-called middling power today as typified by Canada. What it has hopefully shown is that there is no easy way to meet these challenges - the combination of difficult strategic decisions, the increasing cost of first rate military equipment and the challenges of supporting it mean that most nations today in this category are likely to have to take extremely difficult decisions within the next 5-10 years about their strategic position.

There is no one right answer, but hopefully this piece has highlighted that planners have to take extremely difficult decisions on a regular basis which cannot easily be solved. The challenge is to try and balance resources, interests and equipment in such a manner that when the use of force is required, the right assets are in the right place to make a difference – this is perhaps the most difficult problem of all.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Gunboat Opiates for the Masses?

Its an amusing irony that the recent row in Gibraltar has suddenly given the Royal Navy more publicity about its forthcoming COUGAR deployment in one evening, than it may have got in several months of deployment. The news that the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) is deploying to the Med has been seen as a clear example of gunboat diplomacy by Fleet Streets finest, many of whom seem terribly keen on starting a war in order to fill column inches during a slow news month…

Its perhaps worth noting that this deployment is extremely long standing-  the sort of planning which goes into deploying a major Task Force will usually commence at around 12 months prior to the event, when the rough outline of a plan is put together on the objectives of the deployment, likely ports, aims and intended outcomes and so on. While maritime power is about flexibility, its often forgotten that most RN deployments these days are the end product of months of well co-ordinated planning and staffing to ensure that the UK gets the best possible value from its naval assets.

That large elements of the Task Force would visit Gibraltar should be seen as a given – this vital port very much marks both the start and end of foreign deployments to this day for the RN, and it is sensible to visit a valuable facility and make use of it. People often forget that the UK presence in Gibraltar provides a useful set of berths, stores and a runway to bring much needed supplies in if required. Gibraltar is very much somewhere that the RN likes to make use of whenever possible. Indeed the visits by COUGAR deployments are now a regular feature in the calendar – the RN put several warships into Gibraltar last year as part of COUGAR, and this will doubtless feature as a run ashore for many years to come.

The reality is that this years COUGAR deployment was flagged up in that most sensitive of documents – this months ‘Navy News’, which clearly announced a large task force heading to the region including HMS BULWARK and ILLUSTRIOUS. It genuinely is a pure coincidence that these deployments are occurring right now, although that wont stop people trying to draw coincidences and talk about gunboat diplomacy during what is a political row.

What we can perhaps draw from this is that firstly the RN has enjoyed an unexpected boon of coverage, tapping into the nations subliminal psyche which holds that sending a grey hull is a key means of solving a crisis, no matter what or where the crisis is. There is perhaps work for some analysts to understand why, almost alone among all major powers, the cries of ‘send a gunboat’ seem to resonate most strongly in the UK (albeit to a lesser extent the same applies with the ‘send a carrier’ debate in the US). While deployments of warships can be seen as a useful indicator of interest in situations, it appears to be held most strongly in the UK – there is, at times, a fervent belief that deploying vessels is akin to the legend of waving the ancient banner three times in order for Arthur and his knights to appear – it makes little practical sense, but is somehow strangely comforting to the people. 

 More seriously though, it is very interesting how the routine deployment of a warship can be made into a headline grabbing story, something which is now being portrayed as ‘Cameron sends in the Navy’. While this is unlikely to play any impact in the ongoing situation in Gibraltar itself, it does show how sending a gunboat is perhaps a valuable weapon for internal domestic politics. From now on, political spinners can talk about how Cameron sent the navy to protect the UKs friends and interests – even if the reality is slightly more mundane! Perhaps the lesson here is that there is still very much a future for gunboat diplomacy, but as a political tool used for domestic consumption and not to emulate the late, great, Lord Palmerston? 

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Solid as the Rock? The current situation in Gibraltar and the Falklands.

Its August, the sun is shining, the politicians are on holiday and the media are desperately searching around for some kind of story to fill the news. Suddenly, the perfect story has emerged- those dreadful Spanish are doing all manner of dubious things to threaten Gibraltar and simultaneously the Falkland Islands. Is there reason for panic, or is it a case of just summer bluster in order to distract attention from other problems? The UK has always had a challenging relationship with the Spanish over Gibraltar – no matter how much the UK wishes to move the relationship forward (and in many areas it remains an extremely strong and positive relationship), this feels as if it is an issue which cannot easily be resolved.

The current situation owes much to the Spanish ratcheting up tensions after claims that Gibraltar was laying concrete blocks into local waters, in turn threatening traditional fishing grounds. It is hard to work out whether this is a genuine grievance, or merely a convenient pretext in order to gain some traction on putting pressure on the territory. Following a previous weekend where long traffic jams occurred with checks on all cars transiting the border, the Spanish are now reportedly considering imposing an entrance / exit tax of 50 Euros on anyone transiting their side of the border. While such taxes may be deeply unpleasant, they are perhaps not necessarily new (many countries impose similar entrance taxes around the world). The question is to what extent would this damage the local economy? It is worth considering that many Gibraltarians work in southern Spain, so any tax would probably make it difficult to get to work and damage the livelihood of many small businesses – perhaps appealing in a nation where youth unemployment is ever higher, but in the interim it could easily cause more long term economic damage to both the Spanish and Gibraltarian economies.

There have been increasing demands that the UK should do something, including the classic ‘send a gunboat’ line. In reality it is hard to see what such a deployment would achieve beyond having a vessel spend quite a lot of time sitting in waters which already have a small RN presence, and which would be unlikely to achieve anything tangible – it is wonderful to see a large escort ship alongside or steaming majestically at sea. It is less clear what putting such a vessel into these waters would do though beyond look terribly steely and help improve the 'donkeys flip flops' profits for the year.

The best approach to this seems to be the one being taken – namely trying to negotiate rationally and to avoid unnecessary provocations. This may not be as satisfying as summoning a countries ambassador and telling them exactly where to go, but is ultimately a lot more productive. Dealing with a culture which wears its heart openly on its sleeve on this issue is challenging. Overt threats will be seen as provocation, and ultimately the more two people face off against each other, the harder it is for one side to back down without losing significant face. Far better to be calm, measured and identify what can be done to de-escalate the situation. In the worst case scenario (which is arguably the Spanish shutting the borders), there is an economic impact on Gibraltar which would be keenly felt. The more that the UK raises the tensions, the more difficult it is to calm this all down.Far better to ride this out, represent the national interest in a measured manner and seek effective ways to make a point. From an international perspective, is it not better to be seen as the aggrieved party whose nationals are being unfairly targeted, than a equal participant in a puerile demonstration of machoism?

Linked to this is the news in one paper today that the Spanish may be selling a limited number of Mirage jets to Argentina. It is not clear whether this is actually news, or whether it’s the case that the Tabloid press have been looking on Wikipedia and turned what is a one line entry on future Spanish Mirage jet prospects into an article designed to raise tensions. In reality this site has long made the point that the Argentine Armed Forces are in a parlous state, and that they are desperately short of spares, training and operational experience. 
They've also taken various fleets of aircraft out of service in recent years, so its entirely reasonable to expect some form of replacement at some point. In the case of the Mirage jets, they entered service in 1975 and are extremely old and not necessarily front line fast jet material any longer. Acquisition of a small number of 1970s vintage jets which have been worked hard for nearly 40 years is not really going to change the balance of power in the South Atlantic. Indeed, its worth noting that right now (if you believe Wikipedia) the entire Argentine Mirage fleet is grounded anyway due to spares and safety issues. At best this acquisition may try and restore some limited capability. So, its fair to say that the Falkland Islands are hardly at risk of collapse – if the acquisition of a small number of ancient fighter aircraft materially changes the balance of power, then something has gone very badly wrong in UK defence planning circles.

In summary then, as this situation continues it is worth remembering that just because the FCO isn't making increasingly angry gestures to the Spanish publicly, and just because the Foreign Secretary hasn't challenged his opposite number to a duel, it doesn't mean that things aren't going on. At times it feels as if some people in the UK inherently dislike what can perhaps be seen as a lack of visible progress, or feel that not going onto national media and slagging off a nation means that we are now a collective nation of bed-wetting losers. In reality, if one looks at history, the crises that were averted were the ones solved quietly with at least one side acting in a rational and mature manner. Far better to occupy the moral high ground, and enjoy international support, than force yourself to share the muddy low ground. This isn't the first time that the Spanish have been challenging over the Rock, and its unlikely to be the last.Based on what the media are reporting, it is likely that this situation will continue for some time to come, but for now at least, even if there is no longer a Grand Fleet to send, or an HMS HOOD to conduct neutrality patrols, just remember that the world as we know it is not ending, even if the tabloids want you to think so

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Site Update

Dear Readers

I wanted to provide a short update on the site and what is likely to happen over the next few months. This blog has been going for about 18 months now and to be honest has been far more successful than I could ever have imagined when starting up a quiet site to post my thoughts on defence issues of the day. It is a tremendous challenge to keep generating articles over this time, and in particular to provide meaningful comment rather than reportage.

Those of you who've written blogs will appreciate the weight of expectation that falls on an authors shoulders. It is very hard to continuously generate work for a blog and keep it alive, rather than stale. I have always held to the view that when I run out of things to say, then that’s probably the time to shut the site down. I do not think I am there yet, and there is plenty more out there that I wish to write about, but I would like to get across to readers that it can be quite hard to write about things sometimes. Its also hard to try and keep a balance in subjects – looking at the site statistics, I find that the most keenly observed and commented upon articles tend to be naval related, usually closely followed by matters linked to the MOD. I do try to keep a balance on what I write about, but as this site is usually driven by what is in the news or the discussion forums, it can be a bit overbalanced in one form or another at times. Similarly, I try not to write about things which I may have some prior understanding of, but where my knowledge or exposure is now fading – there is nothing more dangerous than having someone write about something now that they used to know about!

I must confess to feeling a sense of frustration recently that there has been a significant growth in what I would describe as offensive comments, designed to attack myself as an individual rather than add to a debate. I've deleted these comments, but while on holiday this week, I must confess to seriously considering closing this site down. It is demoralising to spend a lot of my own personal time writing only to find anonymous trolls feeling it is appropriate to attack me for no reason beyond their own twisted agenda. The frustration that comes from spending my scarce time cleaning up after a trolling outbreak is beginning to outweigh the pleasure I get from writing for this site.

Those of you who know me in real life know that I'm about to get married in the very near future. This means that there will be a gap of about 4-6 weeks starting later this month where the site won’t be updated as I'm afraid the wedding and subsequent honeymoon must take priority over commenting on the affairs of the day!

On my return in early October, I hope to be able to return revitalised, refreshed and able to once again blog away, commenting in my own time on those defence issues which I find of personal interest. In the interim, if there are subjects you’d like to see raised, or commented on, then why not send me an email and put them forward. If I think I can cover it, then I will do my best to do so. 


Another Daring Deployment?

 The Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer, HMS DARING, is currently entering waters not sailed in by the RN for many years. On a global deployment, she has recently visited Pearl Harbour, and is currently engaged on a high profile tour of the Asia Pacific region. This deployment marks the first time in many years that an RN vessel has visited Pearl Harbour, and the first in about 4-5 years that a major platform will have deployed into the Asia Pacific region.

It’s a good news story in many ways – for the RN, a chance to deploy one of their premier assets into a rarely visited region represents a good opportunity to work with old friends and new allies, and demonstrate the exceptionally capable Type 45 to a variety of nations. In particular, it sends a useful reminder to the US that even with the Pacific reorientation, the RN is still capable of deploying to the region and providing a meaningful presence.

It is also perhaps a sign of the times that she has deployed without a support tanker – unlike previous RN global deployments, this time DARING is utterly reliant on shore support for the duration of the deployment. This perhaps highlights just how stretched the RFA tanker fleet has become, with just two modern and three positively ancient tankers left in service, down from nine only a few years previously. This is perhaps less welcome, and means that while DARING remains an extremely capable platform, her reach is perhaps more constrained than previous RN deployments into the area.

The deployment is a useful reminder that despite the UK placing a very heavy emphasis on deploying elsewhere in the world, there is still a UK interest in the Asia Pacific region. While the days of a Far East Fleet are long gone, it is clear that the RN is held in a high level of regard, and that many navies are keen to operate and benefit from RN training and experience. Coming at a time when the UK defence links to both Japan and Korea are positively booming, if DARING were to visit either country then it would be a good chance to highlight this growing relationship. In Korea, the UK has ordered four MARS tankers, which are due to enter service over the next few years, while the Koreans have become the first export customer for the Lynx Wildcat.
Type 45 Destroyer at Sea

 At the same time, UK and Japanese defence relationships have improved significantly as Japan takes on a more prominent role in the region and beyond. It is fair to say that this deployment provides a chance to deepen ties such as this, even if it is unlikely to be a regular occurrence (indeed just this week the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force visited HMNB Portsmouth for a training deployment). With the Japanese military growing in stature and prestige internally, and coupled with an increase in interest in acquiring capabilities that the UK has long experience in (for instance Marines and UAVs), the possibility exists for significantly improved co-operation over the next few years.

While it is easy to scoff at the value of such short exercises and visits, Humphrey places a real value on them. All bilateral relationships need to begin somewhere, and working at sea provides a real indicator of the level of capability a nation can bring to a multi-national operation. By helping foster closer relationships, identifying training needs, equipment gaps and where procedures can be improved, this sort of exercise helps smooth out the bugs ahead of possibly deploying together elsewhere. For instance, many navies in the Asia Pacific region are taking an increased interest in the anti-piracy role, and some have deployed to the Horn of Africa region. By building gentle relationships in home waters, it is much easier to build strong operational relationships when deployed abroad together. So, to the author, this sort of deployment is of real long term benefit to the UK – anything which helps ease the multi-national burden on operations, and helps improve the operational effectiveness on deployments is to be welcomed.

It was telling though that while this deployment continues, news has broken at home that the RN is no longer contributing an escort to the NATO standing task forces. Only a few years ago such a move would have been an unthinkable show of Alliance disunity, as one of its leading members failed to provide a visible contribution to the force (previously known as STANAVFORLANT/MED). Today though, NATO is an important security tool, but perhaps occupies a less pressing priority for defence planners. While it is easy to attack the RN for a lack of influence (as indeed some papers have done), the reality is that most nations in NATO have significantly reduced their permanent contributions to NATO forces operating in the European and Atlantic area. It is hard to think of many navies with sufficient hulls to spare to do every job, and the reduction in presence of hulls shows that right now this is seen as a lower priority than other duties. Although a shame to not have an RN presence, it is perhaps more important to note that the RN retains ‘ownership’ of the key NATO maritime headquarters at Northwood, where many of these operations are planned and co-ordinated from. Is it better to have an asset in the force, or run the force HQ? Humphrey would argue that even if the UK is not actively participating in such forces right now, it remains engaged in different ways which are equally, if not more, important.

The other factor to consider is that while the RN may not be working with NATO in the European area, it remains heavily operationally committed to duties such as ATALANTA in the Horn of Africa. Again, the question becomes one of where is it better to allocate scarce resources – on essentially training duties in home waters, or operationally focused duties overseas? There are similar training benefits from working in a complex multi-national environment, and this is the sort of operation at which the RN excels. No one would argue that it is better now than it was when sufficient hulls existed to meet wider commitments – but on balance, the decision to support operations like ATALANTA over things like NATO standing forces is arguably a much better use of increasingly scarce RN platforms. The other point to remember is that all of these commitments which have been dropped can be picked up again if circumstances change.

So, perhaps what we should see from the deployment of DARING is a wider picture – one which firstly shows how the UK is changing its security priorities and choosing to prioritise its interests and assets in regions beyond NATO, which is a step change from the end of the Cold War. At the same time it shows just how busy the escort fleet actually is at the moment – DARING was deployed on a major deployment out to the Arabian Gulf in early 2012 – the fact that by mid 2013 she is deployed again highlights the ever busier tempo that these escorts are working to. This is all well and good with a new class of young ships, but one must ask whether it will be sustainable in the medium term as they age and require more refits and maintenance (as all ships do). The question is perhaps, to what extent is the UK placing risk on long term force generation in order to meet short term task requirements?