So 2013 is finally drawing to a close, and with it the passing of another very busy year for the British Armed Forces. Looking back, the best way to sum up the year is simple ‘doing exactly as the SDSR predicted we would do’. Over the last 12 months the UK armed forces have ended up operating in areas where they have long had no presence – Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Philippines to name but a few places. They have deployed on exercises across the globe, demonstrating global reach at a time when it is fashionable to see them as being in retreat. Against this lie the ongoing commitments to Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands and the wider routine deployments. Throughout it all, they have worked with efficiency, good humour and huge effect.
When you look at the sort of tasks that have been done, one is left with the impression of an armed forces running hot, but not yet at breaking point. The sort of tasks being undertaken are exactly those envisaged in the SDSR, namely short term focused interventions using available assets while still supporting an ongoing longer term deployment in HERRICK. While it is easy to look to the SDSR as merely a source of cuts, as a predictor of the likely types of engagement, the types of deployments to be undertaken and the sheer unpredictability of the world, it seems to have done a pretty good job.
For the Royal Navy 2013 can be seen as a year when the value of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) concept was once again proven. Now very much established as the centrepiece of the RNs annual deployments, the COUGAR series of exercises have shown that they can deploy globally to meet a wide range of challenges, from low level defence engagement with nations like Albania or Saudi Arabia (for instance training the Royal Marines), to providing more substantial presence where required (such as demonstrations of capability in the Gulf), before finally showing the flexibility of maritime power by quickly responding to the disaster in the Philippines. Against this, the normal drumbeat of deployments to the West Indies, South Atlantic and for the first time in some years the Asia Pacific has continued. The sheer pace of deployments now is quite impressive, with ships turning round barely months after returning in order to redeploy. While this demonstrates that the RN is very much ‘sweating’ its assets, it does raise questions about whether in order to meet short term outputs, the long term sustainability of the fleet may be more challenging as ships begin to wear out.
The RAF has had a similarly busy year, demonstrating its ability to support both ongoing support to OP HERRICK, through the maintenance of both offensive detachments of Tornado, and the longer term airbridge. At the same time, it continues to provide a world class strategic airlift capability, as seen repeatedly in Africa this year, where the C17 fleet carried out several short notice airlifts to Mali, the CAR and Sudan both to augment allied forces, and evacuate British nationals. Once again the sheer value offered by 99 Squadron is seen, and the purchase of the C17 must rank as one of the best investments in the RAF for many years due to the sheer flexibility it provides. Let us not also forget that the RAF has also invested heavily in joint exercises in the Middle East, rebuilding links with Gulf Air Forces after some years of focusing elsewhere – both the ‘Green Flag’ exercises in the UK with the Royal Saudi Air Force, and also the SHAHEEN STAR series of exercises in the UAE, where the Typhoon and Tornado force are gaining valuable desert training experience.
Finally the Army has had a year in which it has perhaps struggled to work in two very different realities – the one of the drawdown from HERRICK, the final stepping away from the high intensity combat operations which have typified Army operations for a decade, and instead trying to make the difficult shift into a mindset built around ‘defence engagement’ at lower levels of forces (platoon, barely Company size in some cases), while deploying training teams to places like Mali. For the Army, 2013 has been a year in which it has had to undergo painful downsizing of the Regular force, while trying to adapt to the upsizing of the Reserve force. One is left with the strong sense that there is not wholehearted support for this in some quarters, particularly given the continued flow of leaks to the Daily Telegraph trying to pick up on every possible flaw in the Army Reserve (the one on how the AR has an average age of a few years older than the regulars so was too unfit to fight was a low point).
The end of HERRICK
As we look into our crystal ball, the first thing we see is that 2014 marks the end of OP HERRICK, which in turn arguably closes the book on a period in UK military history which started in 2003, with OP TELIC, and more broadly with Bosnia in 1994. Unless something dramatic happens, by the end of 2014, for the first time in 20 years, there are unlikely to be any substantial UK forces deployed on combat operations or aggressive peacekeeping duties in any substantial numbers anywhere in the world.
The importance of this cannot be overestimated – for two decades the UK has supported constant operations and deployments into a wide range of countries, environments and conditions and in the process done everything from low intensity peacekeeping all the way up to high intensity warfighting. The Op Tour mentality has permeated every part of UK military life, and now for the first time in many years it may come to a close. What this means is two things – firstly a chance ofr a genuine break to reorganise and recuperate and to try to put a highly stretched system back onto what could be considered ‘peacetime footing’. Secondly, it will make for a very difficult transition in the mentality of troops, many of whom have grown up against the backdrop of a drumbeat of operational tours. It is likely that the next big battle facing the military, but particularly the Army, will be retention, as they try to stop numbers from plummeting as people sign off when realising the reality of barracks life.
The end of HERRICK marks the end of a wider chapter too, namely that of the natural enthusiasm for interventions on the ground for sustained periods. While it would be highly foolish to rule out ever doing a sustained and long term campaign in the future, after some 20 years of operations overseas, one senses among decision makers and politicians a desire to claim the glory, but not the mud. In other words, there is a desire where it can be done to employ military assets in a way which comes at low cost, high prestige and no long term commitments – arguably operations in Libya and Mali have shown that a combination of airpower, maritime presence, and highly limited ground commitments provide the ideal combination. It is extremely hard to forsee any situation in the next few years where the UK is willingly going to wish to deploy large numbers of ground forces, and the associated support on the ground – the costs, both human and fiscal, plus the reality that such entanglements tend not to achieve much in the longer term unless you wish to be fixed for a generation. Indeed, one challenge of the use of large ground forces is that its extremely easy to start with a small deployment (say a company group to secure an airhead), but after a while, as reinforcements arrive and HQs establish themselves, you suddenly find yourself with a large footprint, a hefty logistics requirement and that you are fixed in place. Suddenly withdrawal goes from a simple matter to being a complex multi-year evolution – for instance look at HERRICK where the withdrawal arguably began some two years ago due to the complexity of planning to move 10,000 troops and their equipment home. When set against this, one can see the natural enthusiasm for small raids, for littoral influence (via the RFTG) and for Defence Engagement as it comes with a much lower footprint and bill.
What is the year likely to hold?
So, having considered how 2013 went, the crystal ball needs to consider what 2014 may look like. The world is currently in an interesting state of flux – the much vaunted US shift to the Pacific does not seem to have occurred in meaningful numbers, although sequestration will continue to impact on the US military’s capability. One senses that US capability is on the wane, but that huge efficiency potentials do exist in the system, although the ability to close bases and amalgamate is much more difficult than in the UK – just look at the ongoing arguments over moving to a single pattern of camouflage! It is likely that the year will see a gentle shift towards a Pacific presence, particularly as a more assertive Chinese Navy comes increasingly into contact with other Pacific powers who may not appreciate their presence.
The Asia Pacific region is likely to see increased tensions, as the combination of many nations with barely concealed enmities, capable militaries and strongly nationalistic tendencies comes together. One senses that there will be several clashes (Cod War style?) in the region, although it is unlikely to come to physical blows. Japan and Korea will continue to remilitarize, driven by the combination of an increasingly irrational northern neighbour in the form of North Korea, and the more aggressive Chinese presence. While outright conflict remains exceptionally unlikely, it will remain tense. For the UK, it is unlikely to be a region where there will be major commitments – there is unlikely to be an RN deployment into the area in year, although the Garrison in Brunei will continue to be a valuable training location. One senses that the FPDA remains key to UK engagement in the region, backed up with closer engagement with nations like Japan and Korea. But, the Asia Pacific region will be a region unlikely to see a large UK presence in 2014.
The Middle East will remain the region with the largest presence of UK assets, predominantly maritime and aircraft. Progress in the relationship with Iran may see a reduction in tensions across the region, although the ongoing sunni/shia tensions means that Iraq is likely to continue down its bloody path into near civil war again. The region will remain central to UK interests, in part due to the large number of UK expats, the economic links to the area and the wider global stability that comes from a peaceful middle east. There will be continued engagement, but very much a case of ‘business as usual’ – it is unlikely to see a major outbreak of conflict this year. The UK is likely to engage much as before, and build its presence around a combination of reassurance, security and a desire to secure export orders for Typhoon and other equipment. The need to understand what is emerging in Syria will be key, although the decision to not intervene over the summer is likely to be seen in hindsight as a good thing.
Africa will probably be the busiest area for the UK as the region descends into a combination of civil war, conflict and chaos, with former French colonies becoming ever more unsettled. While the French are likely to take the lead in an area which has effectively been their own private area of interest for decades, the UK may find defence engagement, training teams and provision of airlift or ISTAR capabilities to be a valuable way of playing a part without long term engagement. Africa remains a deeply puzzling region, capable of enormous potential and wealth (witness for instance the Angolan desire to procure an aircraft carrier), but let down by waste and inherent corruption. The most likely source of instability at present would seem to be towards the north, although one cannot rule out that if one of the ‘elder statesmen’ who are Presidents in the south passed away, then there may be wider instability which could see some kind of NEO.
Finally Central and South America will continue to be relatively quiet – despite regular efforts by both the Argentine regime and the British press to draw up alarmist reports on the Falkland Islands, Argentina will continue its quiet decline and pose no meaningful threat to UK interests. The world cup in Brazil is a chance to show the world the potential for Latin America to succeed, and its likely that security will be very tight. There is unlikely to major clashes in the region, although the ruling between Chile and Peru over the international maritime boundary may raise tensions locally. More broadly UK engagement will be built around a combination of ship visits, training in Belize (where the UK presence is once again slowly being bolstered) and very low level engagement. So, overall the authors global prediction for 2014 is likely instability, but the risk of intra-state conflict remains low. It will be interesting to see how right he was in 12 months time!
In the UK the debate will increasingly shift towards the upcoming defence review. With an election only 18 months away, defence is likely to become a political issue – particularly on contentious issues like Trident, Scottish independence and the future of the Army post Afghanistan. While it is still far too early to guess what outcomes the 2015 SDSR will hold, one senses that the argument will be built around the view that the RN and RAF offer flexible presence, the ability to intervene at low risk and to offer a ‘good news victory’ but at the cost of needing very expensive high tech equipment. One senses that the Army is likely to struggle to make the argument to retain a large force built around heavy armour, particularly at a time when both the German and French armies are reportedly dropping to barely 250 tanks each in active service. Following a long time in the limelight where cuts have been less savage to protect it at a time of operations, one senses a desire to see the Army take its share of the pain in a way that hasn’t happened for some time.
In real terms the arguments likely to pan out in the media will probably highlight the value of the RN and RAF mobility and presence, while the Army will major on the importance of heavy armour and response units like the Parachute regiment. The challenge though will be for the Army to come up with a genuinely compelling view which can put the case well for supporting a large force requiring extensive new equipment. Given the annual service wages bill is some £10 billion per year, and that the Army is nearly 25% bigger than the RN and RAF combined, there needs to be a strong case made to keep the Army as it is, given that there is little desire to see it used in large numbers, and no credible military threat to the UK which would justify a large army.
As such its likely to be a year of leaks, counter leaks, barely concealed agendas in speeches and a sense of a private review being conducted in public through the media. It will be interesting to see what sort of items dominate the defence media over the next few months, as this may set the tone for the likely outcomes of the review – namely expensive kit or expensive soldiers, but you can’t have both.
So as 2013 draws to a close the conclusion is that the UK military isn’t in that bad a shape. It has been a busy year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Financial pressures remain, although as seen in the spending review, good behaviour by the MOD has been rewarded on terms of flexibility to carry forward underspends, and there are many structural and equipment challenges which need dealing with. But man for man the forces remain immensely capable and allow the UK to remain a global power with the ability to operate across multiple continents simultaneously – with only the US and to a lesser extent France capable of doing this too. Things aren’t as bad as we sometimes want to believe they are, and we should realise that we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
Finally, this blog turned two years old on 27 December. As it enters its third year, it’s a good point to take stock on the journey so far. From quiet beginnings, its now about to breach half a million page views (getting an average of about 800 hits per day), and has well over 2000 comments posted from the active community who read and contribute here. The biggest challenge is to find the time to write meaningfully on issues of interest, sometimes easier said than done! Certainly looking at the diary, 2014 is likely to be busy in the early part of the year, and there may be less posts than usual, but Humphrey will do his best to keep both the blog and Facebook page up to date.
At this point, he’d like to specifically thank the many commentators who post here, and provide valuable advice, insight and views, which have often led to lively debate. A big thank you to people like Ianeon, Derek, Mike, GNB, Angus, and all the other posters who add so much to this site. Additionally this is a good chance to thank the other sites which so kindly flag up posts here – like Think Defence, the 3Ds blog by Mark Collins, and so on. There are some brilliant websites on defence and strategy matters out there, with the links on the page. Do go and visit them for a great insight into how others see things!
At this point, have a very merry Christmas and a very happy new year!