Saturday, 30 November 2013

Assessment on the proposals for the Scottish Defence force (Part Two – The Air Force)

In the previous part of this series, Humphrey looked at the proposals for what an independent Scottish Navy would look like, and whether it would be fit for purpose. His general conclusions were that any force would struggle to achieve the goals placed on it due to the lack of support, infrastructure, money and manpower. The next part of this series will focus on the proposals for the Air Force.

The current proposals seem somewhat vague – they seem to imply the acquisition of around 12 Typhoon jets for QRA and 6 C130 Hercules, presumably operating out of Lossiemouth and a helicopter squadron (type unknown) plus contributions to wider regional air defence and seeking fast jet training overseas. The assumption is that around 2000 personnel will be required for this task.

The first challenge is the Typhoon fleet and how it can be operated to best effect. QRA is a very expensive thing to do properly – its not just about having pilots based in a cockpit ready to take off. Setting up QRA is about having a Recognised Air Picture, a means of sharing information and communicating it to the airbase. It is about having the C2 links in place so that in the event of a scramble, the means exist for the senior decision taking Minister to be able to authorise a shoot down decision and then for the pilot to carry it out in an appropriate manner. This ability needs to be available 24/7/365 and is an onerous task on aircrew and support teams.

In the SDF the reality is that with only 12 jets available, their entire effort will be taken up doing QRA – assuming two training aircraft come over, this gives a squadron of 10 aircraft to generate 2 airframes on a constant basis. Take two out of the equation for servicing, two on the flight line and two being prepared to take over, and this leaves you with a flex of four aircraft to conduct all training and flying for the fleet.

The MOD currently estimates that Typhoon costs £70k per hour to fly (full costs), so assuming that it flies for 30 hours per airframe per month over a year (an averaged figure as there will be peaks and troughs), you suddenly realise that it would cost £2.1 million per month, £25 million per year to keep each aircraft going, or a total of nearly £300 million per year to ensure that two jets were constantly available for QRA. This is well over 10% of the putative budget. Add to this the operating costs of RAF Lossiemouth currently exceed £100m per year, and you realise that nearly 20% of the SDF budget is going to be taken up just to run QRA.

The next challenge is manpower and support. Finding the Typhoon pilots to join will be a headache – there is no guarantee they will come over at independence, and it takes many years to train new ones. A job offer of a career where your entire flying life will be linked to QRA is unlikely to be a draw for many pilots unless they want long term stability. Retention is likely to prove a major issue for the SDF as it simply will not be able to offer the sort of opportunities that other Typhoon operating forces can.

More worryingly still is not the pilots, but securing sufficient trained groundcrew and engineers to support the Typhoon. There is no aviation engineering training facility in Scotland, meaning the SDF will either need to build one at very substantial cost, or try to get places on courses elsewhere (presumably in the UK). Given that these come at significant cost, and there is no guarantee of places on a long term basis, one cannot escape the sense that either the SDF will have to invest heavily in local training, or it will have to accept it is utterly dependent on the UK for provision of training of its ground crew in perpetuity. Humphrey predicts that securing sufficient trained engineers in the force will be the biggest challenge facing the SDF.
The other problem is who actually supports the aircraft – a lot of deep level RAF servicing has been contracted out now, and these contracts will be null and void for the SDF airframes. The SDF will either have to spend a lot of money to introduce servicing facilities (which are not cheap) or it will have to enter into all manner of very expensive commercial arrangements with UK companies to get them to support Typhoon in Scottish service. This sort of arrangement cannot be skimped either – if you don’t service your aircraft, then you quickly lose the ability to fly them. As such a newly independent Scotland may find itself hamstrung by a need to pay a great deal of money in support contracts and servicing contracts and not capital investment in new technology.

The final issue with adopting Typhoon is what batch of aircraft will be taken and how Scotland proposes to work with the Eurofighter consortium of nations? Typhoon is subject to a multi-national development programme which isn't cheap, but is designed to keep the aircraft at the cutting edge. Either Scotland buys into the programme (again at very considerable cost), ensuring its airframes remain current and relevant, or it has to save money in the short term by not working with the partner nations, but instead finds itself solely responsible for updating and upgrading an increasingly obsolete fleet. The costs to the Scottish taxpayer would rise as this would essentially become an orphan fleet, incurring significant costs to industry to support it.

So when looking at the proposal to operate Typhoon, there seem to be real and clear difficulties in providing the aircrew (and there is no guarantee of getting flying training places given how taught the training pipeline is for most nations these days with very little spare capacity to sell), and the ground crew to support the aircraft. There are huge and immediate support costs to be incurred to run the airframe, and the long term investment costs are substantial. Of course it could be done, but it will cost far more than people think, and will place great pressure on a defence budget which looks increasingly overheated.

The proposal to acquire C130s seems similarly expensive. There is not, and has never been a C130 basing presence in Scotland. This means that the SDF would need to pay out from the start to set up a C130 support facility and hangar in Lossiemouth. They would also need to find sufficiently trained crews and groundstaff – a small point, but the C130 fleet has been based at Lyneham and Brize Norton for nearly 50 years. Finding a sufficient pool of operators and support staff to uproot from their home to go to a newly independent Scotland is going to be a major challenge in itself.

The next challenge is that C130 is due to leave RAF service in 2022 (or thereabouts). This means that the SDF will not be able to draw on RAF resources in the medium term for shared training or support places, thus meaning a requirement to set their own training pipeline up. Given the age of the ‘J’ fleet, the heavy fatigue on most airframes as a result of TELIC/HERRICK and the lack of a long term future in the RAF, one feels that the SDF will find itself saddled with a great deal of costs to keep the airframe going. Of course it can be done, but it is going to be much more expensive than planned – particularly once you factor in the costs of training all the ground crew and aircrew locally, as there will be no UK pipeline for them to try and secure places on.

The proposal to acquire a squadron of helicopters has similar challenges – where do the crews come from, where does the support come from and where do you get it serviced? Frankly the lack of planning as to how you would recruit the aircrew pipeline, and where they would be trained is perhaps the biggest worry in these plans. The time it takes to get people to the front line is measured in years, and requires training schools, training aircraft fleets and a lot of investment of time and money. The SDF will get a one time injection of equipment but cannot guarantee what level of personnel it will get. It has to retain the people it does get, while recruiting and training at a fast pace from the start of independence to ensure that in 5-10 years after independence, there are sufficiently qualified pilots, engineers and other key staff in the system. This is going to place a large burden on the training pipeline, and cost an enormous amount of money.

So in summary, the proposals for the SDF Air Force appear to be built around the concept of operating a very expensive and enormously capable fighter jet purely for QRA, while introducing an aged and nearly out of service transport aircraft into an environment where it has never been based before. It assumes that this will be done on a manpower ceiling capable of retaining key personnel, and recruiting / training more staff through a training and ground school environment which doesn't yet exist and would be extortionately expensive to create. All of this will be done within a shared wider budget of £2.5 billion.

Bluntly the sums don’t add up, the manpower totals don’t add up, and the ability to generate a long term and credible airforce is probably in doubt due to the lack of thought about the training and support implications of the plan.

In the final part of this series, Humphrey will look at some wider aspects of the plan and see whether the plans really do add up.  

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Assessment on the proposals for a Scottish Defence Force (Part 1)

The Scottish Government has put forward its proposed plans for independence, and the way Scotland would be governed in the event of it becoming an independent country. At the heart of these plans were details on the future structure of a Scottish Defence Force (SDF), and how it would be structured.

Humphrey has long had a close personal interest in this debate and has watched the arguments in favour and against with interest. He is genuinely neutral on the outcome of the referendum, believing that the final decision is a matter for the voters concerned, although he retains a keen interest in the proposed structure of any proposed SDF.  

The Think Defence website has helpfully summarised the findings of the paper on Defence matters, and it is well worth a read (the link can be found HERE). In summary though, over the 10 years after independence (2016-2026) the plan is to grow an SDF of some 15000 regular and 5000 reserve personnel operating on an at independence budget of some £2.5 billion per year. Having reviewed the paper though, the author has significant and serious concerns about the issues that were not raised, and wants to try and highlight them here over a series of short articles. The first part will focus on the SDF Navy, then the next part on the Air Force, and then finally some wider conclusions.

At a most basic level, the paper appears to fall foul of what can be described as the ‘fantasy fleet’ syndrome so often found on the internet. In other words, people have taken an order of battle, hived of a reasonable sounding level of equipment and assumed that this would make a good defence force. That’s a great theory, but in reality its likely to be far more complicated than this.

For starters, the British Armed Forces are the product of hundreds of years of evolution, procurement and support. They operate a closely integrated set of equipment, underpinned by a well developed training network, and supported by a very complex set of support contracts to ensure availability. Due to the numbers and amounts of equipment in service, costs can be calculated using economies of scale, and planned workflow, in a way that smaller sized support cannot.

A nascent SDF would find itself operating a truly eclectic collection of units which are not necessarily the most appropriate for its situation. For instance, the proposal that the Navy takes on two Type 23 frigates seems a little odd. The Type 23 is one of the worlds most advanced anti-submarine warfare escorts, and designed to be a submarine killer par excellence. To use it to best effect requires a well trained crew, who have a range of extremely specialised skills. Assuming that no one is forced at independence to join the SDF, the challenge will be recruiting and retaining a core of niche skills to actually employ the vessel in her intended manner. This includes the engineers, weapon systems maintainers, the warfare department and those with the skills and experience at all ranks and rates to use the vessel in its intended manner.

The Type 23 has a crew of 185 people, and a very rough rule of thumb is that for every person at sea on a ship, you need at least two at home in other roles to ensure support and training can be carried out. This means that the SDF will need to have around 1100 sailors in the system just to keep their two Type 23s available for sea. The table below shows the current crew totals for the proposed fleet, plus the shore contingency required to actually keep a fleet operational. It should be noted that in the RN, the entire figure for the surface navy is roughly 15000 personnel to support some 70 warships.

Total required
Fleet total
Type 23 (x2)
Sandown MCMV (x4)
Bay Class LSD (x1)
70 RFA
River Class OPV  (x2)


Even if they have the bodies there is no guarantee that they will have the right skills to do the job. It’s a harsh reality that Scotland does not currently house any RN school, such as HMS SULTAN or COLLINGWOOD. At independence the SDF would find themselves without any training establishments worthy of the name. While building a basic recruit training facility may be easy (if expensive), the cost to build something like the Maritime Warfare Centre in COLLINGWOOD, or the engineering facilities at SULTAN. This means that from the outset the SDF is going to be reliant on either building a new and very expensive shore infrastructure to train and develop its personnel, or be reliant on the Royal Navy for assistance. The other issue is whether the RN would willingly expose what would be foreign nationals to all parts of the capability of the system they inherit. One must assume that on transfer to Scotland, the vessels would have their capabilities ‘dumbed down’ to ensure they do not come with the same capability as their RN equivalent (particularly in electronic warfare and other matters). The result is that the SDF would operate vessels on its own, and would probably find the RN unwilling to train them to full effect on the systems UK Eyes only capabilities.

The problem with relying on the Royal Navy is that with Scotland now a foreign country, their personnel would almost certainly be charged the full rate for access to training establishments, which quickly racks up into millions of pounds. The RN training pipeline is in high demand from nations across the world, and there is no certainty at all that the RN would place good relations with the SDF over many other navies, and no certainty that places could be found for the SDF sailors. In other words, at independence, the SDF has no means of training its next generation of sailors in anything from initial naval training, through to  how to support and fight their ship.

Similarly, the issue of maintenance will be a complex one. There are no T23s based in Scotland, which means that a great deal of money will be spent creating a permanent support facility for the class in Scotland. In these circumstances the SDF will need to negotiate and establish support contracts, similar to the ones used by the RN, and pay to put in place the complex web of support arrangements in order to keep the vessels available for service. In a small procurement and support budget, it is hard to see where the money will come from for this sort of activity.

The sheer running costs of the vessels will also be a challenge – on average it costs about £20 million per year (source THEY WORK FOR YOU) to keep a Type 23 at sea, and about £3 million for MCMVs and patrol craft.  To keep the Scottish Navy afloat, you are looking at an annual running cost of around £60 million – before you consider salary costs of the crew and the shore support infrastructure to go with it. On a relatively small budget of £2.5 billion, it is easy to see how much of a cost it would be just to keep the ships at sea, let alone deploy them.

The upgrade of ships like the Type 23s or the MCMVs is going to be a challenge. Both classes are currently undergoing complicated and expensive updates to keep them at the cutting edge of technology. Is the SDF prepared to buy into this upgrade process, accepting that it will struggle to train the personnel to use it for best effect, or does it want to instead use older hulls, but accept the challenges of managing an aging weapons stockpile which could be highly expensive to support over time?

Even the most basic issues, like where the Tugs and support ships come from will be a problem. Its often forgotten that the Royal Navy doesn’t actually own any tugs nowadays, and that they are instead provided by Serco Denholm under contract. These are not for the SDF to inherit, so even basic issues like who provides the berthing, sullage and in port services that a modern Navy requires needs to be answered. The widescale privatisation of defence support across the UK means that the SDF as a whole will not inherit a single armed force. Rather it will need to do a lot of negotiations with companies to provide services previously paid for by the UK government – one suspects this could have a large impact on the budget in the first few years.

The final question is what does one do with a navy like this? The lack of proper training facilities, the likely difficulty in recruiting and retaining specialist crews, and the huge costs of putting in place support arrangements. All this seems to indicate that this would be a Navy either trying to operate kit than it cannot use or maintain, or being so hobbled by debt early in life to establish itself that it will never use the equipment it gets.

An initial look at the laydown of the SDF would suggest that from a maritime perspective, there will not be enough people, not enough money for running the fleet properly and also a major conflict between short term investment in hulls, or long term investment in high end training. The figure of 2000 people is far too low to support a Navy of this capability, and one feels that there will not be enough money either – particularly when other running costs are taken into account.

In the next in this short series, Humphrey will focus on the Air Force, and then finally consider some wider issues which do not seem to have been considered in the round. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? The Army Reserve debate considered...

Humphrey has been away with work, and watching developments in Defence with interest, albeit from afar. One of the most interesting has been the continued opposition to the restructuring of the Army, and drawing down 20,000 regulars, to replace them with an enlarged Army Reserve. The wider dynamics of the debate are interesting – it seems to Humphrey that there remains a very strong opposition to the Army Reserve playing an enlarged role in national society, and some of the headlines that have been generated on the topic seem to vary from wrong to downright offensive.

Part of the challenge is the way in which the AR continues to be seen in the eyes of many as a grown up cadet force, populated by social misfits like ‘Gareth’ from the office. There is also a dislike of the concept of people conducting soldiering in their spare time, and a sense that the organisation somehow has lower standards than the Regular Army. One only has to spend time over on ARRSE to quickly realise that there is a very large hostility to the very existence of the AR, let alone the roles it plays.

This dislike is puzzling to the author – the AR will eventually represent some 30% of Army manpower, and yet it is still treated by many in the public eye as an organisation worthy of contempt. Reading some of the debates held in Parliament, one is left with the impression that in some peoples views at least, the AR never went to the Balkans, Iraq or Afghanistan, didn’t win many gallantry medals and didn’t lose several score of their members during these campaigns. There instead seems to be a view that soldiering can only be done by full time professionals, and that only a Regular Army of 100,000 personnel can possibly protect the UK today.

It is curious to see former Army (and presumably serving judging by the leaks) Officers express such visceral opposition to the enlargement of the AR.  Many of their arguments about its training and equipment were arguably in part caused by the deep reluctance of the Regular Army to fund and support the TA (as was) over many years. One only has to look at the history of the Reserve to see that it has traditionally enjoyed older equipment, less up to date weapons and vehicles and has often been seen as a dumping ground for personnel not wanted in their parent units to instead act as PSI’s. It is depressing that having seen the AR as something not worth much effort or expenditure for years, the same disgruntled elements now seek to turn on the AR members and make out that they are at fault for not meeting the expectations of some in the Regular Army.

The reality is that the UK simply cannot afford an Army of 100,000 regular personnel anymore if it wants to deploy them into the most high level of conflict. The cost of equipping and training a brigade or battlegroup capable of deploying into somewhere like HERRICK and working alongside NATO partners, while using the most modern equipment and weapons, is absolutely astronomical. The author has long held that there have essentially been two British Armies since 2006, the force deployed on HERRICK which was equipped with the most modern equipment and vehicles, and which got all the necessary updates to meet their tasks. Then there was the rest of the Army, denuded of manpower, resources, training opportunities and often kept with less capable equipment and weapons. One only has to look at the way in which all non HERRICK related opportunities and training really dried up between 2006 and 2012 to realise how much of an effect Afghanistan (and the wider financial situation) was having on the Army.

It feels as if some observers believe that the entire Army is kitted out to the standard of the battlegroups we see on HERRICK, whereas in reality even after some 7 years out there, there is arguably only about two brigades worth of the most up to date equipment in the system – those for the deployed force and those for the deploying force. Yet to get to even this standard has cost billions of pounds, primarily through UOR expenditure. To get the remainder of the Army to the same level of equipped standards would cost billions more, which simply don’t exist. OP HERRICK provided a wide range of new vehicles, capabilities and weapons at a time when it wasn’t otherwise likely to have got them. Its essentially re-equipped the deployable proportion of the Army, and done so outside of normal budgets (although bringing this all into core could be expensive). Yet despite being re-equipped, it feels as if people will continue to complain that it will be too small and unfit for purpose in the future – particularly if Reservists make up a large proportion of manpower.

The problem that the Army faces is that its adventures in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have led to it being associated with long term deployments into unpleasant locations and not achieving an enormous amount. Sure the wars have been won quickly, but there is a difference between being an Army used to win a war, and an Army used for fighting to keep the peace. There is seemingly little popular support for protracted engagements on the ground, particularly when the sole outcome seems to be negative headlines, deaths of troops and a sense that the investment does not necessarily seem to be producing the desired outcome.

The argument against reductions seems to be that we live in an uncertain world and we do not know what the next military problem may be. This is a reasonable argument to make, but in a world where the UK is an island nation, where defence expenditure in our local part of the world is declining and where there is seemingly no direct strategic threat to our existence, it is hard to see what the threat is that would warrant maintenance of a Regular Army of 100,000 personnel. Any deployment or use of that force would almost certainly be during an operation of choice, not necessity, and by definition would be an expeditionary operation. The public have little taste for such operations at present, and as noted, the cost of sustaining such capabilities remains extraordinarily high. Ironically what seems to be missed by most commentators is that the SDSR (and arguably all Defence reviews since 1991) are trying to help fund an Army capable of going overseas to fight the sort of operations that the Army itself wants to be able to do assuming the support existed for them to do it. What the commentators don’t seem to get is that such operations are very expensive and require a lot of specialised equipment and support which limits how many people you can deploy. In other words, based on the budget we have, the Army is being sized to a level which can be afforded.

The role of the AR in this is simple – it will be able to provide a wider pool of manpower to augment on those occasions when operations occur at the higher levels of effort (which historically seem to happen about every 10-20 years) and provide support when required in other areas as part of a total force. Its not about sticking part time Guardsmen on the Mall, but about restructuring so that rather than having 20,000 troops sticking around which the MOD cannot afford to equip to the highest levels or deploy, that those troops are instead available when needed as a reserve component.

There is no likelihood of an ‘Active Edge’ being called which necessitates the mobilisation of the Army in 72 hours anymore. Instead we know that there is likely to be either short term intervention, for which the UK has plenty of extremely capable spearhead forces, or if the operation becomes enduring, then the AR can be called upon to provide additional bodies as required to generate the follow on forces. Given all troops (both regular and AR) undergo the same OPTAG for HERRICK, its reasonable to assume that by the time mobilised troops get to theatre, they will be of a reasonable standard to do the role required of them.

Perhaps the problem is a combination of Regular Army personnel sensing a loss of career opportunities, coupled with an unwillingness to adapt to the new operational environment. In the last 25 years the Army has gone from being a force waiting to fight for the end of the world in Germany, to a force required to deploy on constant operations. There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that the days of constant operations and sustained deployments are drawing to a close. The willingness of politicians and the public to accept the sort of ongoing HERRICK tours is probably at an end. The future is clearly set out in the SDSR – its about small interventions for a short period of time, at levels which can easily be supported by an Army of 82,000 plus the AR. The future Army will be deployed, but on less regular operations and probably for ‘one offs’ and not a grinding series of tours. This does mean a mentality shift, and a refocusing of expectations. The RN and RAF seemed to have accepted this many years ago, and it is notable that for the last few years they have increased their efforts in ‘defence engagement’ and highlighting the value that ships and aircraft can provide in supporting UK interests around the world (just look at the Gulf where the RN and RAF are the focus of pretty much all UK defence engagement in the region). The future for the Army has to be one where it is seen as a critical player, but one that will arguably play second fiddle to airpower and seapower, which offer more flexibility and less likelihood of long term entanglements.

So, perhaps the disquiet over the growth of the AR and the cuts to the Regular Army should be seen as a wider realisation that the ‘good times’ are coming to an end. The Army has been heavily protected from cuts since 1998, in part due to its ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the RN and RAF have been heavily cut – paying the long term price in force structures in a failed effort to deliver short term operational success. One senses that the mood has changed, and there is a realisation that with the Army extracted from most of its foreign adventures, the time has come for it to share the structural pain. The problem is that one senses some parts of the Army cannot accept that the good times are over, and instead they are pushing back against the inevitable.  

Is the Army looking a gift horse in the mouth? Probably – it has been offered a reasonable settlement to bring troops back from Germany and almost double the AR in size. A lot of political capital has been invested in the Army to succeed in this mission, and there is a danger that a misguided effort to sabotage AR recruitment in order to try to protect the Regular Army size, it will actually do more harm than good to the Army itself. There is unlikely to be any political willingness to fund a larger Regular Army when there is no political desire to use it for more than interventionary missions or small scale deployments.  Given the current offer sees the Army remaining at roughly the same overall size as before (112,000 regular and Reserve versus 115,000 Regular and Reserve today), it is hard to have much sympathy with those who claim the Army is being hard done by. There is an opportunity to build a genuinely world beating ‘total force’ and the political support to provide funding to make this happen. Rather than seize this opportunity to reform, instead there seems to be a hellbent desire in some quarters (at least if you look to the leaks to the media and attitudes on some websites) to stop this in its tracks in the misguided belief that it will somehow keep the Army the same size as it was before. This could be a very foolish mistake to make indeed. 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

There is Nothing Soft About Power.

The tragic news from the Philippines over Typhoon Haiyan has highlighted the wide range of international responses to this awful event. In addition to the usual commitments of international aid, rescue teams and other assets, there has been a large military commitment from both the US and the UK in responding to the crisis. For the UK the response has once again shown the flexibility of the armed forces, and their capability to respond at short notice to major problems around the globe. But it also highlights a few other salient issues as well.

At the time of writing the current UK commitment is one C17 aircraft, the presence of HMS DARING and the announced deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to relieve HMS DARING. In addition there are suggestions on the MOD announcement that the UK is going to deploy heavy airfield clearance equipment to help free space on runways to make room for aid flights.

The relatively quick UK response is in marked contrast to many other nations military capabilities, and once again suggests that for all the ‘doom and gloom’ about the general state of the UK military, it is still remarkably quick to respond to global challenges and provide assets if required. There are very few nations out there which are able to respond as quickly and effectively as the UK to this sort of challenge.

The deployment of the C17 highlights the value of this strategic airlift capability, and why it remains one of the single most sensible and valuable defence procurement decisions of the last 20 years. The fleet has been worked hard, but in acquiring the C17, the RAF is able to operate a truly strategic airlift capability, which is easily able to respond to problems. One only has to look at where the C17 force has been deployed in recent years to see that it is quickly becoming the aircraft of choice in enabling the UK to participate in, or respond to a global crisis. The biggest concern for the RAF and other operators is likely to be the news that the production line will be shutting down in the near future, with no equivalent successor on the horizon. Given how hard the fleet has been worked (look at the way HERRICK and TELIC have effectively forced the retirement of the C130J fleet much earlier than planned due to fatigue issues), and there is a worry that the longer term outlook is less rosy for replacing a like for like capability.

The deployment of the C17 also highlights the value of the UKs global network of defence attaches. While they are often derided by those who don’t work with them, the fact that the DA network will doubtless be working hard to facilitate overflight clearances, landing authority, diversion options and the like helps ensure that the C17 can deploy safely and effectively. Its often forgotten that a lot of work goes into ensuring an aircraft can fly from A-B via C. Getting permission to overfly nations with military aircraft isn’t always straightforward, and it’s a quiet testimony to the value of the global DA network that they are able to help facilitate this access at short notice. When people call for an end to the old boys attaché network, they perhaps don’t realise how much damage would be done to the UKs ability to deploy at short notice as a result.

The deployment of HMS DARING highlights firstly the value of the RN facility in Sembewang, Singapore, which to this day remains a very useful asset for the UK. Its ability to provide a wharf for repairs and support meant that DARING was able to undergo a maintenance period whilst deployed, thus extending her time on station during what has already been a busy deployment. So, it is a useful reminder that although low profile and low cost, retaining Sembewang helps give the UK the ability to sustain warships for far longer than would otherwise be the case.

It is equally important to  note the value of being able to deploy a warship – RN crews routinely deploy having trained in disaster relief skills, and it is something which is often put to the test across the world – particularly in the West Indies. The deployment of DARING helps show why this training is so important, as it helps save lives. Her presence will directly be able to provide command and control, aid, power generation and also overflights by the helicopter. While the relatively small crew will be limited in what they can achieve ashore, simply due to the sheer size of the problem, it is still a vital contribution that not many other nations can do. Once again the sheer value of RN training is brought into sharp focus.

The deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS highlights the value of the COUGAR series of deployments and the Response Force Task Group concept. The ability to deploy a relatively capable force east of suz to loiter and conduct Defence Engagement has helped give the UK an ability to respond with a more capable platform, albeit in slower time. The air group of seven helicopters, backed up by a more substantial crew and supplies will also play a real part in making a difference to rescuing people. But, we should be realistic about the limitations of the deployment.

It appears that only seven aircraft are available (3 Lynx, 1 Merlin, 3 Seaking) which is a far smaller airgroup than seen on carriers in the past. In itself this highlights the pressure on FAA platform numbers and size and shows that even with new carriers coming online, much of the supporting force is far smaller than it used to be.  Additionally ILLUSTRIOUS appears to be deploying without an attendant RFA, meaning her ability to sustain supplies on station is limited. This also shows just how stretched that the RFA has become, now that there will be two RN platforms in the region, but no RFA to support them. It is also arguably pure chance that the Typhoon occurred at a point when the RN had a vessel in the Asia Pacific region, having not really deployed there at all for several years. Had it occurred 6 months previously or in a few months time, then not only would there be no vessel in region, but the RFTG would be in home waters and unable to intervene in sufficient time. While this incident again highlights the sheer flexibility of maritime power, we should be cautious of making out that it will always be this straightforward to ‘send in the Navy’.

Additionally, the incident highlights how valuable the LPH role is to the RN – given that HMS OCEAN is due to pay off within the next few years, probably without replacement, and that no decision has been taken on running a second carrier on, it is not certain that the RN would always be able to do this again. A carrier operating with a fixed airgroup (as opposed to an LPH) would not be stored or equipped to intervene in the same way. So while it is tempting to think of a CVF steaming to the rescue in the future, the reality is that it would be more difficult than perhaps realised. It is also a pertinent reminder of the slow speed of amphibious shipping – even at full speed it will take nearly a week for ILLUSTRIOUS to reach the Philippines – and she is still a relatively fast vessel. The other amphibious vessels in the RN are much slower, and would struggle to deploy in a similar time frame.

There is a wider value to the operation beyond the humanitarian aspects. Some may see this sort of deployment as ‘soft power’ and not something which suits the UK military. But Humphrey would argue that the UK has long had vast economic, political and security related interests in the region, but has played barely any military role in the area since the 1970s beyond the occasional exercise or group deployment. This sort of deployment of military assets is a useful reminder of the UKs interest in the area (valuable for the other FPDA members as a sign that the UK hasn't forgotten about the region). It sends a useful symbol that the UK remains a global military power, able to deploy at short notice in to trouble spots and provide assistance. This will not be forgotten by many of the powers in the region, many of whom are looking for dialogues on security and defence matters. That the UK came to the assistance of the Philippines is good, but it is perhaps more useful to flag up that the UK isn't just a bit player, talking a good game but not really playing it. By deploying assets, the UK is showing that Asia Pacific region isn't too far away not to care about, and that it is prepared to take an interest. This gesture will not be forgotten and could be a useful primer to discussions elsewhere in the region about possible future defence & security relationships with the UK.

In summary, the utter tragedy in the Philippines is heart rending. The fact that the UK has been able to stand up and deploy assets to help try and save lives and assist with rebuilding is to be applauded. It highlights not only the capabilities of the UK, but also perhaps where some of the risks lie in the next few years. After all, after the paying off of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS next year, it will be 2-3 years until an equally fast carrier would be available to assist. Similarly, the lack of regular deployments into the region make the UKs response valuable, but we should not be blinded into thinking that it is something that could always be done.

 For more information on the UK military interests in the Asia Pacific region, readers should look at the article from 2012, East of East of Suez, hosted here-

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The death of UK shipbuilding has been greatly over exaggerated

The news in the UK is dominated today by the announcements of mass redundancies in  the BAE shipbuilding business, with almost 2000 jobs being lost at three sites in Portsmouth and Scotland. The news is very sad, particularly for those families involved, but offset slightly by the news of a planned order of three new OPVs for the Royal Navy, ostensibly to replace the current River class vessels. The news has been seen as highly damaging to the UK shipbuilding industry, and resulted in headlines claiming the end of 500 years shipbuilding as we know it in Portsmouth (in fact utter nonsense as Portsmouth has gone many decades without building warships other than HMS CLYDE - it had only recently regained construction of blocks for the Type 45 project) and leading to unpleasant suggestions about it being a sop to the Scots ahead of the referendum.

In reality this day was always going to come, and has been realistically expected for many years. Despite the regular outbreaks of claims that the UK is no longer a credible maritime power and that our shipbuilding industry no longer matters, the reality has been that for the last 15 years, there has been a very substantial programme of shipbuilding, ending the cold war decline in  orders, and focusing instead on replacing older hulls with newer more capable ones. The sheer size of the CVF project, which in terms of work packages and displacement alone is almost akin to building the equivalent of 20 Type 45 destroyers, has meant a glut of work for the yards, which in turn followed on from the construction of the Type 45 class.

The problem has been that at some point the work was going to dry up for a while and there was no credible way of filling this gap. The intention had always been that the Type 45 work and CVF work would run parallel to each other, then turn into primarily CVF based work as both hulls were under construction. This is a reflection on the capacity within the industry as a whole, where the CVF project has involved many different yards building blocks for fitting out.

One reason why the MARS project wasn’t built in the UK was the sheer lack of capacity in the current timescale – the UK needed new tankers several years ago, but funding cuts and delays meant they were not ordered until last year. In the projected timeline for delivery they would have been built while CVF construction was at its peak, meaning there was simply no capacity in UK yards to build them as well without delaying CVF or the tankers. Consequently its worth noting that no UK builder bid for the work knowing it wouldn’t be possible to complete them in the UK. But despite this glut now, there has always been a window in the post CVF completion timeline when the workload would reduce and slow ahead of work increasing on the Type 26 project. This was the reason behind the Terms of Business Agreement signed under the last Government, which essentially sets out how to sustain a level of shipbuilding in this fallow period ahead of work increasing as the Type 26 began to enter service.
Portsmouth Dockyard - Shipbuilding to cease, but base to remain

The problem has been that budget cuts over the last decade have stripped away many of the projected Type 45s, with the class reduced from an original 12 to just 6 hulls, although it remains questionable whether there would have been sufficient capacity to build another 6 T45s and the CVF at the same time. But in reality, this issue started being a problem when the decision was taken to reduce the planned Type 45 buy, and again delay the acquisition of the Type 26 (a frigate that the author first heard about in 1993). Arguably had there not been the challenge of balancing the equipment programme to reflect TELIC, HERRICK, the global financial crash and the perception that Defence was underfunded relative to its aspirations in the last decade, then today may not have happened, or may have happened on a reduced scale.

But, equally it is far too late in the day to do much to solve the problem – there is no way that an additional order for new complex warships now would save the jobs – the gestation period for a design is just too long, and the period required to fabricate material too great. In an era when it takes on average nearly 3 years just to build a modern fighter aircraft, it is fair to say that an order in the last 18 months would not have emerged in time to prevent job losses. Additionally there has just not been the money out there to add extra vessels in to the programme, meaning any order would have been for ships built without funding, manpower or clear role. While it may have been good politically to order new ships, it would have been embarrassing to then park them while the RN worked out how to afford to run and operate them (just look at the fact that the decision on running a second carrier is something which will need to be raised in the SDSR as an example due to the much wider ramifications on Defence). For more information on the challenges faced, Humphrey suggests reading Add Two Type 45s to Your Shopping Basket?

That is why the news that three new OPVs would be ordered came as something of a surprise today. While it is clear that the River class would eventually need replacing, the decision to replace them before they are 15 years old seems to imply either that the class has been worked too hard and is in dire need of replacement, or that there is no other package of work which was affordable and which could be ordered in time to guarantee the workflow.

Already many of the ‘fantasy fleets’ brigade on some websites are speculating about the design and whether it will complement or replace extant units. To Humphrey there seem to be several factors at play here. Firstly, the fact that the SDSR reduced the RN size to 29,000 of whom some 15000 are in the surface fleet. This may sound a lot, but in reality the RN career managers have a daily challenge to ensure that there are sufficient people of the right training and qualifications to fill billets. Assuming the three vessels need 40-50 crew, and that they will usually require at least three people to fill one crew slot (manning, shore leave, patrol patterns and the like), then this has suddenly meant that effectively the RN needs another 450 sailors to man the ships. In reality these sailors will only be available either by coming from the plot for the River class, or from another source.
The future of the RN - a Type 45
The next challenge is that the ships actually need to enter service – there is an SDSR looming, and there is as yet no guarantee on the financial settlement which will underpin it. Just because these vessels have been ordered does not mean they will ever see RN service – Humphrey is sufficiently cynical to wonder whether in due course they may be deleted in the SDSR and sold on. After all there is a strong ‘Frigates first’ mentality in many quarters, and a cynic may see the RN worried that these OPVs could be the first slippery slope to a downgraded (but far more affordable) Type 26 design. Is it beyond the realm of possibility to wonder if they may be offered up as a savings measure in order to protect the purity of the escort fleet?

The other thought though is that if the next SDSR saw further cuts to the escort fleet, then the crews and operating costs could be found by removing a Frigate or two from service, but running on the River class. The news that an RN frigate has paid off, but the RN is gaining three lovely new and far more capable OPVs is a way of implying that the RN is getting as a result of the review – a very easy political win to make.

The problem that exists is that whereas in previous years the shipyards could rely on some limited export orders for lean times between RN orders, the export market now seems pretty much closed off. Although a small number of vessels are still under construction (indeed a new Irish OPV was launched only yesterday at Appledore - LINK HERE), the market for high end construction is very limited. The dilemma is that nations in the market for frigates and corvettes increasingly want to build this sort of vessel at home – they see acquisition of a shipbuilding industry as a crucial part in their industrial and military development. Alternatively, for those nations who don’t have similar designs, but who do want to keep themselves in a reasonable navy, the far eastern shipyards of Korea and China can churn out reasonable quality vessels at very low prices which no western shipyard can compete with. One only has to look at the proliferation of Chinese derived escorts of all sizes from OPVs upwards across much of Africa and the Far East to realise that they’ve pretty much cornered the market. The only area left is the discerning customer, or loyal ally, who wants a high quality product at a less competitive price. It is telling that as far the author can see, there are no such export competitions out there which the UK is poised to win. Is it too much hyperbole to suggest that in the authors very personal view, the UK will never again build a Corvette or above sized vessel for export? Probably not.

CVF - another example of the exciting future ahead
While this does cast a depressing pall on proceedings, it is worth though considering what the prize is for UK shipbuilding, rather than focusing on a long expected announcement. Despite the gloom, Humphrey is positive that the future building programme is actually pretty impressive, both in tonnage and quality. One only has to look at the next 10 years to see that right now the UK is building, ordered or planning to construct two aircraft carriers, finish one last destroyer, three OPVs, complete five more ASTUTE class SSNs, commence construction on the SSBN project, and take delivery of four new fleet tankers plus work on the specialist MARS vessels like new AORS and other auxiliaries. This is without considering the work on the Type 26 which is also well underway. In tonnage terms, there is nearly half a million tonnes of naval construction on its way right now – that’s the equivalent of nearly 200 Leander class frigates worth of work.
This is also work which is not cheap and cheerful designs – this is bringing vessels into service which are the most complicated naval designs possible – most navies in the world would struggle to bring a carrier into service, let alone an SSN or SSBN, but the RN has all this work in different phases right now.

Lets be clear here, when we get down about the RN, lets ask ourselves how many other navies in the world right now are in the process of introducing a new carrier, a new SSN, a new class of Air Warfare destroyer, designing a new SSBN and all the support vessels to go with it. The answer is one other  - namely the USN, although the Chinese navy isn’t far behind. We may do ourselves down, but we need to realise that no matter how depressing the news today, the RN is still very much a global leader in naval construction. More importantly  the RN has a world class ship design industry behind it – one only has to look at the work of companies like BMT to see that the UK has a capability which is keenly valued by our allies, many of whom are working with UK companies to help design and build their vessels. It may not be an export order, but it does keep irreplaceable skills here in the UK and allow us to remain a nation able to design vessels as well as build them.

Of course there is risk to this – its likely that programmes will see further delay, and there is no gurantee that all these ships will eventually enter service, but every navy in the world faces similar uncertainties. It is critical though to realise that as HERRICK draws to a close, and the UK looks to adopt a force posture built around power projection from the sea, that actually the future for the RN looks pretty bright indeed. Today is a sad day for those affected, but as we look to the future, one can hopefully see a very bright future indeed for UK shipbuilding. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Lets Recruit All the Lawyers, Lets Recruit Them Tonight...

The Daily Telegraph appears to be continuing its campaign to highlight that any form of capability in the military other than infantry (and preferably Fusiliers) is wrong continues apace. The most recent article on Sat 2 Nov put across that the MOD has increased the ranks of military lawyers from 130 – 190, while spending on civilian lawyers continues. This is put across as a bad thing that shouldn’t happen while we are sacking soldiers.( 

The Forces have always needed effective legal support, and arguably the tiny number of military lawyers provides an utterly vital capability. Its not just about the provision of support to people who understand the arcane intricacies of a military law system which is very complex, and very different to our normal law – though this is extremely important. It’s about the provision of people who bring a vital advisory role to Commanders on the ground, and  the wider MOD.

Operations today occur in a very complex and crowded environment where decisions made by troops can often have wide ranging implications. Operations will generally occur under extremely defined rules of engagement, and unlike in WW1 or WW2 where the general philosophy could be said to be ‘if it is an enemy then deal with them appropriately’, todays operations occur in a world of ambiguities. Understanding the limits of your mandate, your rules of engagement, the importance of UK and international law and trying to realise how this can be applied to the foot patrol or offensive operation is critical. It could be that while the proposed intention of dropping a lot of paveway bombs to demolish a building would get the job done, it could be in breach of various laws, be disproportionate to the mission at hand, and in the long term do more damage than would otherwise be the case.

Having a legal advisor (LEGAD) on hand is a vital means of ensuring that commanders at all levels, from the platoon commander to the General commanding the UK contingent are appropriately advised on the legality of their actions. This should not be underestimated – in a world where someone doing something wrong can be broadcast on the internet in seconds, ensuring that UK troops are operating inside a legally watertight framework is essential. Similarly, as we move to a world where indiscriminate targeting is frowned on, and where application of force is so accurate now, the ability of a lawyer to understand the Rules of Engagement, particularly when set against international law, and then to be able to support a proposed targeting solution is critical. Knowing that when UK troops are committed to using force, they are doing so knowing what they can or cannot do is critical.  

Similarly, once the direct fighting is over, UK troops often find themselves operating in a very strange environment – one only has to look at Iraq in the aftermath of the initial war fighting phase to realise that its not a clear cut place to operate. The advice offered by in theatre legal personnel can often make a huge difference in helping commanders understand their freedom to operate, and what genuine constraints may affect them. For instance, on a single tour in Iraq, units may have found themselves conducting everything from searches, checking for IEDS, detaining known individuals through deliberate operations, and then engaging in combat – quite possibly in the same day. The requirement for modern troops to adapt very quickly to all manner of situations places a huge burden on them – it is important that they get the best possible guidance to know they are acting correctly. Certainly in this authors experience on both TELIC and HERRICK, the LEGAD advice was often one of the most critical parts of any potential operation.

The same lawyers provide vital services back home – in the Royal Navy for instance, there are a range of in house experts on the Law of the Sea, international maritime disputes and territorial waters and the like. This may sound questionable, but when the RN is daily conducting counter piracy and counter narcotics operations across the globe, or sailing in possible maritime flashpoints where different nations have very different interpretations of maritime boundaries, having a good legal understanding on hand of the art of the possible is absolutely vital.  

Lets also not forget that the Service lawyers are paid an utter pittance relative to what they would earn in civilian life – the military gains immensely from their knowledge and expertise, and also their time. When one looks at the hours put in by most military lawyers, you suddenly realise just how much of a bargain the taxpayer is getting. The equivalent cost in private practise would doubtless be millions more.

So, while it is easy to knock the MOD for increasing the number of military lawyers, to Humphrey at least this is an utterly sensible decision. We operate in a challenging world where every decision could be subject to challenge and scrutiny, and every action could have serious repercussions. Having high quality in service personnel able to immediately advise makes a huge difference, and can have a real and lasting impact. This is perhaps a good example of the future model of UK military capability – not necessarily ‘sexy’ nor conventional as we associate with the Cold War or WW2, but instead bringing sharp minds to bear on real problems. When we see in the news stories of missed bombs killing civilians dominating headlines, we have to understand that the nature of conflict has changed and that precise and legally appropriate application of force is vitally important to achieving tactical, operational and strategic success.

The future force will be as much about these small groups of experts being available to assist as it is about the bigger battalions and armoured divisions so beloved of internet warriors. In reality, the UK may get far more value, influence and success out of one well placed LEGAD than it would out of the deployment of an entire Battalion of infantry, if the LEGAD is able to advise correctly. As with so much else in the UK military, we should look to the effect achieved and not the numbers to understand why this is a capability worth investing in even when so much else is being reduced.