Sunday, 22 June 2014

Thank You and Goodbye

I started this blog in late 2011 as a response to the levels of debate which surrounded many issues impacting on Defence and wider UK security policy. I felt a keen frustration that all too often the debate quickly descended into poor reporting, tired clich├ęs (e.g. more admirals than ships) and a general sense that the UK was a declining nation with good armed forces who were being betrayed by the MOD.

In starting it I wanted to try to address some of these myths, try to put across an alternate viewpoint  and suggest that actually the UK remains a relatively influential nation with capable armed forces and that there is often very logical reasons why things have been done as they are. In other words, I wanted to put across that it is possible to be very positive about Defence in the UK and that there is a remarkably good story to tell. In the intervening two and a half years, nearly 200 articles, over 2600 comments and over 650,000 page hits later, I feel that hopefully some of this has been achieved.

That said, I’ve now reached a point where the decision has been made to close down this blog. There are several reasons why I feel this is the right time to do this: Firstly, from a career perspective, it is increasingly difficult to balance holding down busy jobs as both a civilian and a reservist, and be able to comment objectively here. Recent changes to both commitments mean I don’t think I can continue to be able to post material here without having a conflict of interest in my professional roles. It also fair to say that the next 12 -18 months will see a lot of substantial changes in UK politics which could impact on Defence. The Scottish referendum, the General Election, the next SDSR and so on. There will be intense scrutiny of these debates, and particularly as this site has grown in popularity, the ability to comment discretely goes. There is a danger that in seeking to comment on the story, you run the risk of becoming the story yourself.

There is also the realisation that while there will be developments in Defence; I am often challenged to find new and fresh things to say on them. There is only so many times you can comment on a story or subject before you rehash material, and increasingly I feel that I’ve run out of things to say that add new perspective to the debate. You know it is time to start thinking about stepping away when you feel obliged to put an article out, rather than wanting to put an article out. The challenge of sustaining a blog over any length of time is the ability to put out fresh and interesting content. I’ll be honest here and say that this is becoming particularly challenging.

Finally, there is an issue of how much time it takes to keep the blog updated and credible. Even with the best will in the world, as my real life has grown busier, my ability to get regular and relevant updates out has diminished. I don’t want this site to become something which I feel I am obliged to do, not that I love to do.

I have genuinely loved writing here, and really enjoyed the debates and arguments which have followed. I’ve been flattered by the extremely kind praise I’ve received from other sites, and the way that others are kind enough to link or comment on what has been posted here. The participants in this site have really made it what it is, and  I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has posted here to express their own views – particularly Ianeon, Derek McBride, Mark Colllins, Think Defence, Not a Boffin, Phil, GNB, JediBeeftrix, Challenger, Mike, Angus Maclellan, and many others including the denizens of the DBB…

What happens next?
The site will remain up, and all the articles will remain here for anyone to view, but I will not be posting directly here as ‘Sir Humphrey’ anymore. The site will not be updated (except for occasional spam pruning) for as long as I remain in HMG service. But, in the event that I do leave, then I would certainly plan on restarting it at some future point (‘PinstripedLine 2 – he’s back and this time the stripes just got a whole lot thinner’).  It’s fair to say too that having realised how much I enjoy writing and commenting on Defence matters, I am now actively considering how I could make a career out of it outside of HMG service, although I’m not too sure where to start looking (any tips gratefully received!). So if I can find the opportunity I am seeking, then this site may well come back online in the future.

In the meantime I will remain out there on the net, observing in the background what is going on, and generally enjoying the excellent plethora of defence websites out there – one thing this experience has taught me is that there are some superb defence related websites on all manner of issues – do make time to go and read them!

Finally, if you do wish to contact me offline, then the site email address is, or message me via the Twitter account (@pinstripedline). All that remains now is to say thank you for reading, and goodbye – it’s been a blast, and I hope we all meet again very soon. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Between Iraq and a Hard Place - thoughts on the crisis in the Middle East.

It will have escaped few peoples notice that the security situation  in Iraq appears to be worsening by the day, as militia members affiliated to the Islamic State Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) continue their advance south towards Baghdad. Already several key towns have fallen, with reporting indicating a particularly hardcore Sharia law being imposed in its wake. Where the forces have contacted the Iraqi Security Forces, the outcome has been one-sided, with the numerically larger and better equipped ISF routing in short order. With senior Shia clerics making almost unprecedented calls to protect their people, and the Kurdish forces occupying Kirkuk, and with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing, the situation in Iraq appears on the brink of near total collapse. This is perhaps the most serious security situation in the Middle East in decades.

The response from the West has been mixed – a combination of well intentioned aid donations, verbal gestures of support, but little in the way of concrete action to support the Iraqi forces. At  best there may be limited airstrikes, but already the UK has ruled out putting troops on the ground, and there seems little inclination to do so by the US either. By contrast, Iran appears keen to be seen to do something, although what this might be is less clear so far. One senses that we stand on the brink of a generational shift in international relations, and the ramifications of what we are seeing here could be seismic enough to influence Middle Eastern politics for decades to come.

The issue is what can be done by the West to shore up a regime which has shown little interest in courting them for many years? While Maliki owes his elevation and subsequent survival at least in part to the efforts of the US, the relationship has long deteriorated. It is hard to sense any real affection between the Iraqi Government and the West, particularly the US. Maliki relies on the US for some military equipment and support, but since the Americans left in 2011, there is no real military link any more.

While there is some discussion of airstrikes in support of the Iraqi forces, one senses this would be part of a escalation into a wider and more dangerous situation. It is very difficult to conduct effective airstrikes unless properly co-ordinated and carried out in close co-operation. One does not get the impression that the ISF has the current ability to call in support from the US, or more importantly provide the intelligence, situational awareness and overall confidence to US commanders that they know where the ISIS militia is, and that wider loss of life can be averted. This places the US in a situation where it either has to conduct airstrikes without having full confidence of knowing what is going on on the ground, and potentially putting civilian lives at risk, or it needs to begin to put boots on the ground as forward air controllers and liaison officers. Even something as simple as forming a target list and sharing this information with the Iraqis will need face to face liaison.
ISIS Militia in Fallujah
It is hard to see the US being able to commit to air strikes without a wider ramping up of their commitment on the ground. This is before considering where such strikes would actually come from- to fly from Iraq would necessitate a substantial ground presence for support, munitions and airfield security, and would realistically need hundreds, if not thousands, of US troops deployed to the country. Alternatively, they could seek to fly from one of the neighbouring countries – but, this necessitates getting overflight rights from any of the Gulf nations, or having to stage out of Turkey, who will almost certainly sense an opportunity to call in political or military favours – particularly with a resurgent Kurdish force occupying Mosul. However you look at it, airstrikes will result in a major escalation and will almost certainly lead to boots on the ground.

It is also worrying how quickly the ISF seem to be collapsing in the face of an aggressive attack, and how much equipment is being lost. Consider the level of funding thrown into providing new equipment and support to the ISF over the last 10 years, and you realise  that there will be a proliferation of weapons out there which are now available for use by militia. While they will in reality struggle to support any vehicles or heavy armoured elements for long without access to mechanics and workshops, there is sufficient proliferation to make it immensely challenging for the ISF to go on the offensive against them. 

It is also telling the way that despite years of training and support from the West and elsewhere, there has been no real resistance. The concept of Iraq as a bonding factor for the Army to fight for seems to be missing - the polarising factor is the Shia or Sunni militias and groups, which is where the loyalty is being shown. Arguably, until the Army can replace the local Militia as a sign and guarantor of security to the ordinary Iraqi, the prospects for the long term stability of Iraq as a united country are weak. 

More widely one has to look at the phenomenally complex diplomatic situation. Some papers are running with the story that the US and Iran could find themselves allied together to stop ISIS. While this is exceptionally unlikely, it does highlight the way that Iran could convert this into a minor diplomatic coup. Its’ no secret that many Gulf states are uneasy at the gentle path of rapprochement between Iran and the West. They also see a growing Shia awareness, and threats to their internal stability – just look at the clashes in Bahrain in recent years. In a region where paranoia, plots and counter plots are the order of the day, it is easy to imagine more vivid imaginations seeing this as a plot between the Iranians and the US to support the Shia, and threaten the stability of Gulf regimes. This may sound far-fetched to Western ears, but never underestimate how paranoid the Gulf is, and how the unlikely is often deemed probable in rulers eyes. Given the decline in US-Gulf relations in recent years, this could be a situation which helps push the relationship to breaking point.

The long term worst case scenario is perhaps that Iraq as a nation will cease to have any recognisable role, and instead split into three very different places. The Kurds acquire control of the North, achieving a de facto state that the ISF and Baghdad will never again be able to control. The Sunni heartlands will become a warzone, alternating between militia and loose government control, and the four southern provinces will break away and form a federal compact with Iran, thus strengthening Iranian influence in the region, and indirectly putting Tehran onto the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

If this does occur, particularly if the Gulf nations sense that US actions had a hand in this, then there is likely to be an enormous shift in international alignment. There is a realisation in the region that while many Gulf military forces possess enormous theoretical fire-power, this doesn't translate into substantial and credible offensive military capability. For many years the intent has been to secure the support of the US, UK and France to come to their assistance – for this reason defence purchases are as much about buying insurance as they are theoretical capability. We are already seeing signs of the GCC nations introducing conscription, which although limited in nature, represents a desire to grow manpower pools. In most nations there are too few service personnel, often at too inflated a rank (for instance the Qatari Armed Forces reportedly have more 1*s than the US Army), and there is a reliance on overseas personnel from third world nations to fill out the ranks. Turning this into a coherent military force, particularly if there is a break in US support, will be extremely difficult.

Is it possible that changes in Iraq will force substantial recapitalisation of the Gulf militaries, backed up by more effective training and conscription? If there is concern about the level of US support, then equally it would be interesting to see where they would turn – Russia or China? One senses the possibility of a substantial shift in international alignment, which could be very interesting indeed.
Not just a militia now - a collection of armour too. 
More broadly there is reason to be concerned about the scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding – if reports of refugee numbers are true then Iraq is potentially on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. But unlike the previous decade, there is nowhere obvious for the Iraqis to flee to. Jordan has reportedly absorbed a nearly 25% increase in population in recent years through population fleeing, while Syria (where many Iraqis fled during the last decade) is now itself in a state of civil war. It is hard to see where the population can safely flee, or who would willingly take them – especially given Iraq's poor standing with other nations due to its actions in recent years.

So why does this matter to the UK? For starters we retain enormous trade, diplomatic and military links to the region. Many Gulf states see the UK as a ‘power behind the throne’ influencing the US and other nations actions. They will closely scrutinise UK actions to see what they may indicate, and whether there is a sense of the UK picking sides in the ongoing struggle between the Sunni and Shia, and Iran and the GCC.

There is little if anything that the UK can militarily do – this conflict is too complex, too vast and too challenging for the US, let alone any other nation to realistically intervene in with ground forces. While there is naturally a desire to say ‘but we helped break it in 2003’ in some quarters, this shouldn't be seen as a reason to commit ground forces or other assets automatically. Any UK intervention would be extremely difficult, would face identical challenges to the ones outlined above for the US, and would also pose extremely difficult questions on how to do this and also maintain effective relationships with the wider Gulf region. Handled incorrectly and the UK may find itself in a shift in attitudes and relationships which will be seen as being as damaging as the withdrawal in 1971, something which is still a sore point to this day with many senior figures in the region. Arguably, at best the UK could do what other nations are doing – send aid, whisper diplomatically in peoples ears and see what nation or nations emerges in the aftermath. It is hard to see any other nation being able to do more.

The situation in Iraq is and will remain fluid, challenging and extremely difficult to observe. It is not yet clear how things will end. But one thing is clear, Middle Eastern politics and international relations will never be the same again.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Don't Panicski - the return of 'Dads Army'.

The Daily Telegraph ran an article today suggesting that the UK was relying on a so-called ‘Dads Army’ to understand the challenge posed in relationships with Russia and their current actions, particularly in the field of linguists and analysts (LINK HERE) . It’s an interesting article as it really sums up the difficulties faced by the military in providing appropriately qualified personnel at the right time, and balancing this against resources.

For many decades the threat posed by the Russians drove UK defence policy and structures. Entire careers were built around understanding the Soviet threat, and people became ‘Kremlinologists’ able to understand things as subtle as the placing of individuals on a Red Square parade and how that impacted on their influence within the system. The end of the Cold War really brought this system to an end, and since 1991 there has been a substantial decrease in people specialising in the sort of skills and languages needed to understand Russia.

From a practical perspective, the article highlights just how long it has been since the end of the cold war and how few ‘veterans’ are left of this time. It’s been 23 years now, and many of the deep experts have long retired – effectively the UK is having to re-establish its capabilities from a clean sheet of paper, and this may take time to do. If it is possible to draw on willing experts, then they will provide valuable insights and advice as the UK focuses again on this area.

This decision does make sense from a purely logical perspective – if the threat has changed the need to dedicate resources to something which was not seen as a threat has reduced. There have been many editorials over the years since the end of the Cold War decrying the military for retaining obsolete units and equipment designed to meet the Russian threat over new military threats. To reduce expenditure on language training, and to reduce or close down areas focused on Russia makes sense – why spend money on providing a capability that is not needed in anywhere near as great numbers?

It is incredibly expensive to train linguists (or to lesser degree analysts) to a high standard, and takes many years to do. Many friends of the author have gone off to foreign postings, but begun their language training two or even three years beforehand to get them to a level of fluency required to be proficient at their role. This means that anyone specialising in speaking a language needs to be able to justify the return on the investment – during the Cold War there were plenty of career postings at various ranks which meant that these language skills could be drawn on and employed for years to come. But, as these posts have gone, the ability to gainfully employ linguists reduces – you run the real risk of taking someone out of mainstream military service for 5-6 years to do one post, often at a point in their career where they need to be visible and doing promotion worthy jobs.

Additionally, there is only a finite amount of resource available for language training, which like many of the other sort of ‘unseen benefits’ that Defence can do, is often subject to cuts ahead of the front line in the effort to preserve physical presence over personal capability. The Defence School of Languages has done a lot of work in recent years focusing its resources on the languages that really matter – arguably in the 80s this was Russian, the 90s it was Balkan languages and the 00s was about Arabic and Dari/Pushtu. In other words it has to respond to meet the threat of the time, and pus the bulk of its resource there, and not in to areas which have less military need. If the main effort of the day called for Arabic languages, then its almost inevitable that this is where priority is placed – one can only imagine the media outcry if the MOD had continued to push Russian languages ahead of Arabic when Iraq was going on, with the potential implications for troops on the ground.

So, when you bring this all together you realise that reducing linguist cover is an inevitable reality of budget cuts, and Defence prioritising its scarce assets where they are most needed. Even if DSL were to focus all its resource tomorrow on training Russian speakers, it would be several years till the results were seen, and there would still be the problem of providing a credible career path for those who did the training. If you are going to invest in language training, you need to understand how these people can use their skills in a way which benefits Defence, keeps their skills current and not rusty and gives them a meaningful shot at promotion (an argument which applies as much to the MOD civil service as it does the military). A similar argument can be made for the analytical community, although Humphrey has intentionally chosen not to focus on them for the purposes of this article.

The challenge is that this issue is not going to be exclusive to just the Russian speakers. Its likely that in years to come there will be a challenge in keeping other linguists gainfully employed, particularly for some of the more esoteric languages where Defence has a need, but cannot support the numbers or posts required. Again, the issue is how do you support a language capability when you cannot always guarantee the long term sustainability of posts and careers to match?

This issue really highlights some of the issues Defence has got – it needs to be responsive to international crises, but it has a planning lead time often based on needing years to respond to providing a capability. Striking the balance between provision of a generic capability like an armoured battlegroup or escort vessels that is broadly employable, and providing deeply specialist niche skills or capabilities which may not be used as often but which are badly needed and often at short notice is a real challenge. There is no right way of doing this, but it perhaps helps illustrate the challenges facing Defence planners today. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Minding the Gap – The loss of the CVS and ASW cover

Now able to make full use of Twitter, Humphrey was intrigued to read comments on one Twitter feed linked to discussion about the Royal Navy which was looking at the deployment of 9 Merlin helicopters onto HMS ILLUSTRIOUS. The debate swung on three main areas – the fact it was good news this was happening, it was a travesty that the paying off of ILLUSTRIOUS would lead to a capability gap which running her on could avoid till CVF was in service, and that it was down to ‘Government cuts’ that the Royal Navy found itself in this situation.

To Humphrey's mind, there is more to this argument than a debate over cuts, and its one which is very thought provoking. If one looks back to the genesis of the CVF project in the late 1990s, the original concept called for two carriers to enter service in the 2012-2014 time frame (with a follow on delay for trials) ahead of full capability some two years after. At the same time the plan for the Invincible class remained constant, confirming the pay off dates as 2006, 2012 and 2015 – e.g. roughly the thirty year mark. This allowed for the CVS to be used to provide one hull for carrier strike, and one hull primarily to work as an LPH in place of HMS OCEAN when needed, or alternatively for ASW / Training as required.

As with any plan, the real world soon intervened and by the  mid-late 2000s, the MOD was forced to defer the entry into service dates by about two years. This decision has been criticised publicly as adding immensely to the bill, but it is important to understand the context of the time. During this period the world was undergoing a major financial crisis and funding was drying up. Meanwhile the MOD was only beginning to comprehend the scale of the commitment to Afghanistan, which at this time looked like lasting at least another decade, while it still had ongoing commitments to Iraq. Coupled to this reality that the Land campaign was THE campaign – at least for another 10 years, was the reality that the MOD equipment programme was simply unsustainable in its current form.

The best way of simply describing the problem is to assume that of all the projects due to be funded on a rolling 10 year cycle, there were several points within this where a number of projects all required substantial funding, which in turn was substantially more than was available. The options were limited – you could delete projects (but you’d need to delete a major one to make savings), or you could de-scope them (buy same kit but with less capability and hope you could upgrade it in due course), or you could defer them (e.g. move the spending profile around and try to delay spending money at the same time).

The result was that MOD chose to defer expenditure on CVF, rather than delete other projects. This is important to understand – the scale of the crisis was such that had the MOD not deferred CVF then several major projects would almost certainly have had to have been scrapped to find the equivalent savings. This could have significantly impacted on the ability of the RN to bring other new capabilities into service – its perhaps intriguing that it was around this time that stories emerged of the RN seeking to sell the T45 hulls 5&6.

Two other points are worth noting here – firstly that these decisions were put together and recommended by military personnel, and endorsed by Ministers. There is an occasionally disturbing narrative emerging that somehow the military had this inflicted on them, which is plain wrong. Secondly, there was a clear understanding that the deferring CVF option would result in greater long term cost, but it would keep the project alive.

The CVF as conceived

What does it all mean?
In practical terms, once the decision was taken to slow construction, it became almost impossible to speed construction back up again. This is a combination of the construction yards amending their workplans to order and produce long lead items at certain times which often takes many months or years to change. The nature of the CVF build, relying on blocks being built around the UK meant that many different shipyards were impacted, not just one location.

Secondly, the work needed to put things in place to support the arrival of CVF was also effectively deferred for some time too. Bringing a new ship into service these days is not just a case of sailing a hull into Portsmouth and handing it over. Behind the scenes training contracts, simulators, supply chains, personnel career drafting are all impacted. It is even down to the little things of ensuring that the harbours are dredged and shore supply is sufficient to cope with the ships demand. What this means is that when the entry was deferred, a host of other work was also deferred, helpful in generating short term savings on hard pressed budgets, but more challenging in ensuring that any speeding up could bring the ship in to service too quickly.

Even if CVF hadn't have been deferred in the mid 2000s, the question must surely be, how bad could things have been in the 2010 SDSR? When people look at the SDSR they often forget that its role was to set a 10 year vision for the MOD and UK defence – it essentially tells a story of getting the UK from  a financially unsustainable military committed to land operations in Afghanistan, through withdrawal and force regeneration, and then by 2020 to the point where they can deploy again on global intervention operations supported by the next generation of equipment.

There was always going to be an SDSR in 2010, whoever won the election, and the funding for the MOD was always going to be an issue. SDSR will be remembered as the review in which the RN lost ARK ROYAL and Harrier. This decision has been covered elsewhere on this site (LINK HERE), but no matter how often it is revisited, to Humphrey's mind it makes financial and objective sense, even if subjectively it was very painful. But, what arguably saved CVF was the realisation that QUEEN ELIZABETH (QE) was still nearly five years away from launch, and PRINCE OF WALES (POW) was even further behind. By contrast, had the RN committed to the original plans, QEC would have been fairly close to launching, and POW would have been well under construction.

This poses a dilemma for the RN – the big forgotten cut of the SDSR was a nearly 20% cut to RN manpower, which tore a huge chunk out of the fleet and which arguably will have repercussions for several years to come. A financially strapped RN in the SDSR facing imminent introduction of a new carrier, and a second on the way may well have found it impossible to find the funds and people to keep both the CVF and CVS class going. Although Humphrey is merely indulging in idle speculation here, to his mind he cannot see the RN of 2010 keeping both CVF and CVS. Indeed, given how bad things were then, the immediate paying off of both CVS, deletion of Harrier and a possible sale of at least one CVF seem probable.

Don’t forget how difficult budgetary decisions were back then, and the ‘black hole’ loomed large in everyone's mind. Its impossible to see how Harrier would have survived the SDSR even with CVF entering service, and if costs could be saved by reducing to one carrier with the option of a second some years later and a run on LPH, then this is probably what would have occurred. Put simply the money and manpower would not have existed to keep running both classes running in the 2012-2015 time period.

Instead what really happened was that CVF was still so far off from entry to service, and so many jobs around the UK depended on their being built, as well as the reality that without CVF entering service, military shipbuilding in the UK would probably then die, the hulls were essentially safe. One could make an ‘alternate history’ argument that the deferral of two years probably saved the CVF for the Royal Navy.


Back to the Future
So, returning to the debate about HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, the question is, is there really going to be a capability gap when she leaves service? On paper yes, the RN will lose a big deck platform capable of embarking a large number of Merlins and conducting carrier based aviation on them for a period of time. HMS OCEAN is not designed to operate or support ASW Merlins (she is a remarkably austerely kitted out vessel), and could not offer the same capability.

But, lets consider how the CVS have been used in the last few years. Although initially built for ASW purposes, since the 1998 SDR, they have essentially been used as both carrier strike and LPHs. Although there has been the occasional embarkation of ASW aircraft for exercises, it has been unusual to see a CVS operating in the dedicated ASW role. After SDSR 2010, one of the reasons for running on ILLUSTRIOUS was to ensure that she could cover while HMS OCEAN had a refit, and not to provide ASW capability at sea.

So even with the loss of the last CVS, the UK is not losing a finally honed carrier based squadron level of ASW capability. Instead it is taking a short term hit, which in reality is no different to the situation that has been going on for many years, in which the Merlin fleet embarks in small numbers not large ones. There remain several hulls in the fleet (AOR, AEFS and PCRS) which in an emergency could embark a reasonable number of airframes. But again one has to remember the numbers – the RN only has a small number of front line Merlins – take out the ships flights, and the training and support aircraft and realistically it is pushing it to deploy a squadron of 9 Merlins on one deployment.

Does this matter though? Certainly it is less than during the heyday of the Cold War, when the RN put a lot of carrier based ASW to sea. But the threat has significantly changed - so even with the loss of the last CVS, the UK is not losing a finally honed carrier based squadron level of ASW capability. Instead it is taking a short term hit, which in reality is no different to the situation that has been going on for many years, in which the Merlin fleet embarks in small numbers not large ones. There remain several hulls in the fleet (AOR, AEFS and PCRS) which in an emergency could embark a reasonable number of airframes. But again one has to remember the numbers – the RN only has a small number of front line Merlins – take out the ships flights, and the training and support aircraft and realistically it is pushing it to deploy a squadron of 9 Merlins on one deployment. Additionally its worth remembering that in the brave new world of CVF, its unlikely to see more than 6 Merlins embarked, as the intent seems to be primarily to use her as either Carrier Strike or LPH and not an ASW carrier.

Arguably for the RN today the primary threat is about protecting the SSBN force and ensuring that maritime chokepoints are not at risk from singleton SSKs. Both of these are tasks to which there is a lot of resource and capability dedicated already (although it is reasonable to say that the Nimrod MR2 is sorely missed). Its also worth noting that most other carrier operating navies (with the exception of the USN) don’t really do squadron based deployments of ASW helicopters at sea any-more – it looks great in the odd photo, but isn't really something practised in large numbers. Instead ASW is as much about singleton or small numbers of ships and aircraft prosecuting individual targets, rather than the wolfpacks that were feared during WW2 and the Cold War.

The final and most critical point to remember about the RN when discussing keeping ships and aircraft at sea is finding the manpower to do this. While it is easy to call for keeping on a CVS till the second CVF arrives, the reality is that the RN today is desperately short of manpower across a wide range of areas. One only has to look at the official data published on manning to realise there are gaps and imbalances across the fleet. The 20% manpower cut in SDSR is arguably even more challenging, as once the RM, FAA and Submarine Service personnel are stripped out, the RN only has around 15000 personnel in the ‘surface fleet’ to source billets for. Keeping a CVS on requires nearly 700 people (plus Air Group) to be available – that’s nearly 5% of the surface fleet on top of every other requirement. This also places a lot of pressure on certain pinch point areas – its not just about dabbers painting the flight deck, but about engineers, officers of the watch and other deeply specialist skills. Manpower in the Naval Service is a finely balanced act and one where even minor changes, or an early resignation can have far reaching consequences. It is reasonable to say then that had the RN decided to focus resources on running both a CVF and a CVS at present, then wider fleet manpower would be very badly affected – if the choice came between running on a carrier, or paying off escorts into reserve, gapping posts and making other harsh changes in order to support two carriers at sea, which is the better choice?

So in summary, while it is always interesting to read views which suggest that the RN could or should run on a Carrier, or that it was only down to Government cuts that some things didn’t happen, the reality is more challenging. The RN is extremely lucky to be able to focus on getting at least one CVF into service, and re-enter into the small group of navies capable of operating fixed wing aviation at sea. But, it is always a fine balancing act of resources, capabilities and manpower to do this, and the RN can only do extra things by making compensating reductions elsewhere. The question is whether this is a price worth paying for the illusion of capability, mindful that the deployment of a squadron of Merlins on a carrier is a very rare event indeed – is this what the RN needs, or is it dedicating resources and effort to smaller less high profile roles but which have a greater operational effect? 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Jumping into the unknown - the future of 16 Air Assault Brigade

Another day, another depressing story about the decline of the UK Armed Forces into being just a ‘defence force’ (according to the rent-a-quote senior retired offer used), and this time the story is about the size of 16 Air Assault Brigade. The Daily Telegraph is running a story so exclusive and based on ‘internal briefing notes’ about the order of battle changes, that the documents can be found on the British Army website. (Story can be found HERE). The charge made is that there are major cuts coming to what is seen as the ‘premier’ formation of the British Army, and it will reduce in size from 8000 to 5000 troops over the next few years, as units, capability and troops are reduced in number. This is seen as a bad thing, and is apparently a damning indictment of all that is wrong with the MOD today.

The truth of the matter is somewhat different – this change is perhaps better seen as a key part of the reforms under Army 2020 which will deliver a more balanced structure to the Army and reduce it by some 18000 troops at the same time. This is not an easy matter to achieve, and has been the source of a lot of controversy since announced. The full set of information on Army 2020 can be found at the Army Website

The nub of the plan is that in future the Army will have two very distinct components – the ‘Reaction Force’ and the ‘Adaptive Force’ – both of which play different roles. The Reaction Force will comprise a Divisional sized force, of 3 (UK) Div and three armoured infantry brigades and a separate air assault brigade (16 Air Assault). Both formations will be held at high levels of readiness to deploy units as the UK response to an event requiring military intervention. In the case of 16 Air Assault this provides a training cycle capable of providing a battle group sized force able to respond at short notice, with a second at slightly lower readiness.

The big change that is occurring is that the Brigade will lose around 3000 troops and support units, and rather than being a larger force comprising a conglomeration of infantry capbadges and support units, will instead be built around the Parachute Regiment at its core supported by two Regular AAC regiments and some supporting units. This decision makes sense for two main reasons – firstly there is a need to provide a more balanced set of brigades able to relieve and sustain each other. There is little point having a one off 8000 strong light infantry brigade able to deploy at short notice if there is nothing of an equivalent nature there to backfill it.
The future of airborne infantry?
A key part of Army 2020 is the reorganisation to deliver an Army capable of supporting a brigade sized  force on long term deployment, plus other interventions as required. These reforms mean that both 3 Div and 16AA can be the lead elements for such an intervention, but sufficient capability exists to replace them when appropriate. The deployed levels were laid down in the 2010 SDSR, and these changes are about structuring the Army to meet them. This is not a ‘defence cut’ as charged in the coverage, but instead a fairly sensible reorganisation to balance the force and ability to sustain it.

The second point is perhaps more pragmatic – there is little point in sustaining an ‘Air Assault’ Brigade if you lack the transport aircraft and helicopters to do so. One of the harsh realities facing HM Forces is that the future means less but more capable equipment – so the C130J fleet will be replaced by the A400M. The Lynx fleet is getting a lot smaller, and in the medium (10 year) term the Puma fleet is likely to have gone too. What this means is that the enablers to make a formation air based are much smaller in number now. The days when the UK had sufficient C130s available to do brigade sized lift are gone forever – there is relatively little point keeping a full brigades worth of supporting airborne elements if you are unable to move them by air. The future air transport fleet size is going to struggle to sustain more than a battalion sized lift anyway, given availability of airframes in future.

So this is perhaps best seen as a reality measure – an acceptance that there is a finite level of capability to support units like 16AA. While the UK remains exceptionally capable at being able to deploy its troops at a distance (arguably second only to the US), there is a limit of aircraft, helicopters and support services. Far better to structure your resources appropriately, than pretend there is more there.  In truth the chances of the UK deploying 8000 plus personnel on a one off  intervention operation is incredibly slim – particularly for the next few years during the recovery from HERRICK. At best any such deployment would be smaller in number anyway – it could be easily argued that a force of 5000 is a realism measure in itself, recognising the likelihood that 16AA would never have deployed as envisaged in its ORBAT.

Perhaps more depressingly though, the article highlights the ongoing difficulty of trying to bring about real and necessary change to Defence, and particularly the Army, without incurring the wrath of the ‘capbadge mafia’. It is not easy to go through a large downsizing, and many people have to leave – but the reality is that an Army of 100,000 is unaffordable given current personnel costs and something has to give. The Army 2020 structure provides a genuinely good chance to revamp the Army into a new model of both regular and reserve forces able to provide a similar level of capability to what has gone before. The problem is that many of these protests about loss of units or capbadges are driven by individuals putting self-interest ahead of the national interest. If the decision were taken to abandon plans to downsize the brigade to placate these interests, other units and formations would have to go through a similar process, and the Army would become inherently unbalanced – Army 2020 is about delivering an Army capable of sustaining long term operations, not one capable of putting an overly large Air Assault force on the ground for a few months and then being unable to backfill it without cannibalising other forces.

One of the lessons of HERRICK has arguably been that for all its size, there was an inability by the Army to deploy relatively small and coherent formations onto a fairly straightforward operation without drawing more broadly on other formations and taking risk on their readiness. One only has to look at the way each HERRICK rotation has had all manner of units bolted onto the deployment to realise that the current force structure was great for some jobs, but not ideal for the jobs it needs to do now. These changes are as much about setting the conditions to reduce this problem as they are about downsizing the Army as a whole.

The challenge facing the Army is to work out when to fight its battles on formations and manpower. Trying to blame others for cuts to its structures will not sit well – the Army 2020 ORBAT is an internal document drawn up by experts based on the tasks required of the Army. One senses a growing frustration from the other two services with the Army over the way that even the slightest change to manpower draws howls of protests and leaks onto the front pages of the papers, when both the RN and RAF have proportionately undergone far worse headcount reductions in the last 10 years with barely a whimper (both RN and RAF have had roughly a 25% cut to their manpower, compared to just 18% for the Army). Given the way that the Army struggled to sustain personnel on HERRICK without a lot of support from the RN and RAF, there is unlikely to be much sympathy from them for any argument which prevents much needed structural changes from happening.

Is this the future for rapid reaction forces?

There is a depressing tendency in some quarters to make out that every change to the Army is a threat to national security and that the UK Armed Forces are now some kind of ‘defence force’ or other saying.  The reality is that even after these changes are implemented, the UK remains with one of the world’s most capable armed forces, able to deploy at a significant distance from home to achieve effect. There is little point in having an army of 150000 if there is no way to deploy it. Sadly the same people demanding bigger armies are usually the ones demanding the UK gets involved in problems a long way from home to resolve them – a difficult challenge if you cannot afford to do so.
If you want to have a globally deployable military these days, then you need to accept this comes at a very large cost, particularly in manpower, and this means difficult changes. The UK can no longer afford to sustain a very large global military – what it can do is sustain a reasonably sized but very capable force, which continues to punch well above its weight.

The final thought that Humphrey had is that those lobbying hard for the 16AA role to continue should consider carefully what they wish for. While there is no doubt that the Parachute Regiment has a long and proud history, the fact remains it has only carried out its designated operational role once in nearly 60 years (jumping at Suez). The more attention is paid on the capabilities of 16AA, the more a rationale person may ask why the UK persists in funding such a large capability (relatively speaking) when there is seemingly no chance of large formations jumping into action in future. The follow up question would surely be, why do we need an Air Assault brigade at all if the roles it has been used for have been the more traditional domain of light infantry?

The worry could be that as a defence review draws near, the need to sustain a reasonable sized parachute force could be questioned. A casual observer could easily ask what the UK gains from retaining this capability here, versus investing in other areas which could arguably be of more direct military relevance. If you consider the sort of operations the UK is likely to do, then the argument for a combined Parachute / Marine capability becomes stronger – why not merge the two forces for one light role intervention force and save considerably on the J4 chain needed to support the force?  One should always be cautious when pushing a case publicly – the louder you shout about how important you are, the more your opponents will be willing to push back against the argument, and the implications could be very serious indeed if you lose the argument. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

#Sir Humphrey!

The author has finally gotten around to establishing a Twitter account which is used to retweet some of the best defence articles out there, and occasionally engage in debate or answer questions. Feel free to follow Sir Humphrey over at @pinstripedline!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thoughts on Maritime Patrol Aircraft, SAR and the sad loss of the Cheeki Rafiki

There has been significant coverage of the loss of the Yacht Cheeki Rafiki which has sunk in the North Atlantic and where four sailors remain missing. The combination of the decision to call off the search after 53 hours, coupled with the sense that the UK didn't have any specialist assets to contribute, in sharp contrast to the contribution for the search for Flight MH370 has led to a situation where there have been many questions asked.

The first thing to realise is that the sea is a very harsh environment to work in, and that even the best preparations can only buy so much time. The author has many vivid memories of having to conduct sea survival training over the years (which usually always seems to happen in particularly cold winters!). On entering the lake to swim to the life raft barely 100m away, and dressed in full survival gear, it was still incredible how quickly one felt the first tingling signs of hypothermia. In the environment the yacht was in last week, with 20ft seas and 50mph winds, the author’s natural instinct is that it would be exceptionally difficult to survive for any length of time.

There has been rumbling in some parts of social media that the US Coastguard were in some way remiss in not extending the search for more than 53 hours. To Humphrey this seems grossly unfair- it was clear that a great deal of effort was expended in what was a very small search area (relatively speaking) to try and locate any sign of life. The location is some 1000nm offshore from the US in a remote area, and the weather was atrocious. The reality is that the superbly professional and very well equipped US Coast Guard did the best job they could to find any signs of life. Speaking to friends of the author who previously served on SAR and Nimrod, their verdict was clear that the USCG did the best job it possibly could, and there was much praise for the courage and selflessness of the crews who went out into difficult conditions to try and find them.

There were those who questioned why the UK was not involved in some way initially in the search. From a practical perspective the North Atlantic has long been divided up into various international areas of responsibility for SAR, with different nations taking the lead in different areas. This incident fell well within the US area of responsibility, hence their taking the lead. It is not in itself a reflection on a lack of UK capability that there was no initial UK response – its akin to saying that China should be taking on responsibility for a search when a ship sinks off the coast of Ireland – if practical arrangements and SAR capability is in place, then this should be relied on in the first instance.

Many commentators have critically noted the lack of Nimrod – the Daily Telegraph for instance is highlighting that the UK is going to be relying on a C130 crew with binoculars to conduct the SAR contribution being made by the RAF. Its worth remembering that even if Nimrod MRA4 were in service, its unlikely that an airframe would have been made available in the first instance due to the incident falling firmly into the US area of responsibility. Additionally, when one considers how few Nimrods would have been purchased (down to 9 airframes at the end), then it is equally questionable whether one would even have been available to support this sort of operation. A fleet of 9 airframes only realistically gives you a couple of spare to use for contingencies like this without taking the fleet off current military operations.

The C130 is of course not an ideal SAR platform when compared to the Nimrod fleet, but it is worth remembering that for many years a C130 has conducted this role in the Falkland Islands. After the withdrawal of Nimrod, the C130 fleet became responsible for conducting SAR operations. Is it ideal – well, its not as optimal a choice as the Nimrod, but equally its still better than nothing. It is also worth considering that the Military almost fell by accident into the long range SAR function, using it as much to support tanker trails over to the US during the cold war for RAF exercises, and support to certain VIPs when travelling. The reality is that the Nimrod was an excellent airframe for the ASW role and SAR was a valuable, but very much secondary role for it. Much like other countries, there is a debate to be had about the value of whether the military are really needed to conduct SAR any more – after all the days when large scale aircraft moves to and from the US, particularly with less reliable airframes, are all but gone. For the SAR responsibilities that the UK has more broadly, there is already a reasonable level of capability available with the helicopter fleet, and as seen this is being privatised. One has to ask whether we are berating the MOD for not having a capability that arguably it rarely needs now (this is the first time in four years that the lack of Nimrod availability for SAR has really been noticed), and if so, is this the best place to allocate scarce resource at a time of budgetary pressures?

There has also been some comparisons to the search for MH370 and the suggestion that the RN and UK could have done more to help. Firstly there were no RN vessels nearby – the nearest one is likely to have been HMS PROTECTOR, currently en route to the US for a short maintenance period over the summer. In the case of MH370, an airliner has vanished from the skies for no clearly understood reason. There is an urgent safety requirement to try and identify what caused this to happen in case it has a wider knock on impact for other aircraft or equipment. Additionally, the incident occurred in a region with particularly complex geopolitical relationships, where there was not a well-developed capability to hunt for submerged objects. In this instance the RN was able to provide its world class hydrographic capability to support the search, and bring to bear a capability that could have been instrumental in building knowledge on the search area. The search for MH370 is about trying to trawl parts of the ocean in an area where we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the subsea terrain. Arguably, for the UK, the ability to contribute was as much about sending a strong reminder that the UK has an ongoing and active commitment to the region as it was about trying to support the search efforts.

By sad contrast, the loss of the yacht was a tragedy, but not one likely to have wider consequences for other similar vessels, or to have an impact on international relationships. The sea remains an incredibly dangerous and challenging environment and ships are lost on a regular basis. In this age of GPS and intercontinental travel we perhaps lull ourselves into a false sense that the sea is small, easily traversable and things can easily be found. The reality is that in the remote parts of the ocean, the environment is incredibly hostile and dangerous, and very hard to reach.

What does this incident mean for the UK more broadly? It has raised again the ongoing need for an MPA of some form. If you look at pronouncements on this issue, there has always been a guarded sense from Ministers and Seniors that there is a likely need for an MPA or other system to meet many of the tasks done by the Nimrod fleet. There is a strong sense that scrapping Nimrod was the right thing to do based on the likelihood of successfully delivering the programme into service, but that this doesn't remove the need for an MPA. The reality is though that the budget remains tight, and to find funding for a new aircraft savings need to be made elsewhere.

Additionally it is difficult to see such a perceived ‘U Turn’ coming before an SDR if only because it would be an own goal of epic proportions. Instead any decision is likely to be built around the SDR and compensating savings or funding identified from elsewhere to source the replacement. There seems to be a strong school of support for the P8 Poseidon, which is in many ways a ‘son of MRA4’ – having been in the back of a P8, the author was impressed with the mission system which is essentially the MRA4 mission system. There is a strong pool of RAF experience being accrued already on MRA4, so it would seem logical to look to this route. But it is unlikely to see much movement before 2015 baring a very unexpected turn of events.

In the short term the argument could be made that the UK is ultimately finite in resources and that part of the benefits of having allies is that they bring shared capabilities to support us. Much like our allies rely on the UK to provide many niche or technical requirements, the UK has taken a decision to rely on others to provide MPA capability. A hard decision to take, and even harder to sell to a cynical public. Incidents like this could reinforce the public perception that the UK is incapable of supporting things that it previously could do well. But, one could ask whether this really matters – the UK has had to take a lot of very difficult defence decisions in the last 15 years and many capabilities have been lost or scaled down. Given the relatively small need for long range SAR, was the loss of MPA a price worth paying or would it have been better to scrap more infantry battalions or escort ships?

There is no easy answer to this question, but ultimately though this event is a desperately sad tragedy for the four families involved, and Humphrey continues to hope against hope that the sailors are found alive.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Why you should read the UK National Strategy for Maritime Security

For the first time the UK has published its National Strategy for Maritime Security, a document which sets out in one place the entirety of the challenge facing the UK when trying to protect UK national security interests in the maritime domain. The full document can be found at this LINK.  There were some comments suggesting that the piece did not fully focus on the role of the Royal Navy, placing it at the centre of UK strategy, whereas to the author the document serves as a timely reminder that maritime security is about so much more than just your nations navy.

Humphrey wanted to do a short piece to set out why this paper is important and why it is worth a read. The paper is important as for the first time it sets out how complex maritime security is, and the range of stakeholders who have a part to play in protecting the UK. While many people traditionally associate the Royal Navy with this role, in fact the Border Force, Police, Department for Transport, Fisheries and all manner of other government organisations all play a part too. There are many stakeholders out there, all of whom have a valid interest and role to play in this field. It is useful to be reminded of that fact. The fact that the document is signed by no less than four Cabinet Minister should highlight the range of interests at stake here.

In practical terms the document summarises why the maritime domain matters to us – the UK maritime domain is over 298,000 square miles in size, and 95% of UK trade (worth some £500 billion) is exported / imported by sea. There are over 24000 active British seafarers at sea and approaching 2000 ships with a direct UK interest (owned, flagged or managed) at stake. In short, the maritime domain is an utterly critical part of our national economy, and damage to it threatens our long term national security.

The strategy sets out five maritime security objectives(although it deliberately avoids assigning a level of importance to them), which govern how the UK maritime strategy will evolve.

UK Maritime Security Objectives

1. To promote a secure international maritime domain and uphold international maritime norms;

2. To develop the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance;

3. To protect the UK and the Overseas Territories, their citizens and economies by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group  (REG)-flagged passenger and cargo ships;

4. To assure the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Zone, regionally and internationally.

5. To protect the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

Underpinning these objectives is an exposure of the current risk assessment to the UK from the maritime domain – setting out where the greatest risks to our security currently judged to be:

• Terrorism affecting the UK and its maritime interests, including attacks against cargo or  passenger ships.
• Disruption to vital maritime trade routes as a result of war, criminality, piracy or                  changes         in international norms.
• Attack on UK maritime infrastructure or shipping, including cyber attack;
• The transportation of illegal items by sea, including weapons of mass destruction, controlled drugs and arms;
• People smuggling and human trafficking

What though do these objectives really mean? In practical terms they highlight the importance of the Royal Navy in delivering maritime security overseas, not only through the traditional presence of grey hulls on foreign stations, but also through participation in multi-national headquarters and operation, and also through training. The paper rightly highlights the huge importance of capacity building, and providing other nations with the means to do the job for us so that the UK doesn’t have to carry too large a burden. It also rightly highlights the importance of participation in international organisations like the UN or IMO and how working with others can help create regulatory environments to help protect merchant ships (e.g. implementing standards of protection).

The paper goes into significant detail on the sort of training efforts put into place by the UK and other countries to improve maritime capacity in poorer states. It notes that poor governance of maritime security, coupled with a lack of capability not just in the traditional naval area, but also in governance, rule of law and policing can lead to a vacuum which can be exploited and cause wider economic and security problems. While it is often fashionable to mock the more obscure training courses offered by groups like DFID, in fact these can often play a direct role in improving security at sea. This is where the RN can play an important role in the provision of international defence training, or by occasional ship visits, but also in helping increase the capacity of the nations in question.

The issue of protecting UK citizens through port and offshore installations is rightly highlighted as being of significant importance. But, is this work for the Royal Navy, the Police or the UK Border Force? It perhaps highlights the grey area in which RN vessels can play an important part in reassurance through patrolling offshore, but at the same time there are plenty of other HMG assets capable of doing the same work. It came as mild surprise to read that the UK Border Force has five cutters assigned to it to conduct maritime security patrols (a good press release on the latest vessels is HERE). At some 500 tonnes and up to 50m long, these are not insubstantial vessels and in fact are often forgotten when considering the wider HMG security piece. While it is easy to decry the loss of RN OPV numbers, there remain plenty of other vessels in UK waters (as well as both Scottish and Welsh fishery protection vessels) capable of doing this role. Similarly the paper refers to the extensive maritime aerial surveillance assets in place to support offshore fishery inspection – a role people perhaps assume is dead without the Nimrod.

UK Border Force Cutter

It is all too easy to forget that you do not actually need the RN to do much of the regular maritime constabulary tasks undertaken day in day out in UK waters. The natural temptation is to call for more RN presence, but ignoring that service personnel are extremely expensive to recruit and employ – why use them in roles which can be done by civilians just as effectively? The real area which the Royal Navy has a perhaps unique role to play is in objective four when considering securing trade routes overseas – this is where the RN adds real value, deploying platforms at distance in support of this sort of work.

The final objective of protecting against crime on population and resources highlights how challenging this issue is. The scope of the problem is vast, ranging from fishing to smuggling to threats to offshore oil rigs and data cables, through to the more conventional terrorist threats. The paper highlights the importance of information sharing as being of equally high value as actually having ships at sea – there is little point in having a grey hull in the water if you don’t know where to send it. To that end there is a fascinating study into the importance of the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC), which is a good example of how multiple data feeds can be brought together to provide one central co-ordination point. The UK is a world leader with NMIC in providing a truly integrated picture, and an example of where a headquarters can add real value. When information is properly co-ordinated, analysed and fused together, it is possible to get a much better sense of where the threat lies. The final area of interest is the Annex B which sets out the range of organisations and agencies who have direct involvement in maritime security in the UK. It is worth studying to understand how complex and multi-faceted this area is, and how much work is needed to join the dots together sometimes. I

So, why does this all matter and why is this document worth reading? Ultimately it matters because it tells the world how the UK is able to address on a global scale the challenge of maritime security. It recognises that problems occurring thousands of miles away in Africa or Asia can have a direct impact on our way of life here (e.g. closing shipping lanes in Asia could massively reduce electronic or car imports into the UK). It realises that the threat is very complicated and that no one organisation is able to handle it all alone. While the Royal Navy plays an absolutely critical role in this, it is also important to understand that there are many other actors playing a key role too. It is all too easy to forget how many agencies and actors help protect UK maritime security, and this should be remembered. Its an extremely interesting and thought provoking read and Humphrey earnestly recommends taking a look at it to understand the importance of maritime security to the UK today. 

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Into Africa - Part Two

In the first part of this article, Humphrey took a look at the current laydown and commitment of UK forces in Africa, and what sort of engagement is currently undertaken. In this part, he intends to focus more on what future engagement could look like, and some thoughts on what is, or is not, a likely model of future UK interest in the continent.

Stand Off?
As noted originally, the UK has long since moved out of its permanent bases in Africa – while a small training footprint remains in Kenya, this is very much a training location, optimised for supporting pre-deployment exercises and not operations. When there is a presence, it is very much built around a temporary deployment and not permanent basing. The UK as a whole has also tried to avoid significant intervention in the continent, with only two substantial military interventions involving kinetic operations (Sierra Leone and Libya) occurring since the end of UK colonial rule, plus the deployment of a variety of training teams. So any future presence in Africa should be set against the expectation that there is little if any real appetite for major commitment which sees UK troops setting up on a permanent footing in the continent. Unlike France, which has retained a number of bases, particularly in West Africa, the UK has never sought any meaningful operational footprint.

Therefore, the model for future UK engagement in Africa is likely to be one of expeditionary operations and not one of long term sustained presence. When UK troops deploy, they will do so using short term facilities, and the infrastructure of the host nation and not their own sovereign bases. While such a move means UK presence is going to be more fleeting in nature, it does reduce the need to be dependent on a host nation for sustaining a long term base. Arguably, much of what has driven French interests in Africa for many years is as much setting the conditions for a supportive local government to see through the continuation of French bases as it is about anything else. Additionally the longer term the base, the more likely it is that it acquires an expatriate population to match. There are over 250,000 French nationals living in Africa, often near to where current French military bases exist (particularly retired personnel) – this in turn places a significant burden on any NEO planning – the more permanent and long term the base, the more people you’ll need to evacuate in an emergency.

It is worth remembering though that even if the UK is exceptionally unlikely to set up a long term permanent presence in the region, it still possess two Permanent Joint Operating Bases (PJOB) of value nearby – in Gibraltar, where the air and naval base provide useful mounting facilities for onwards operations, and in Ascension where the airbase can carry out a range of support to airlift into West Africa. Both bases do not have the same challenging political relationship with the host nation, and also remove the possibility of having bases tied to policy – e.g. operating a base in Africa means a long term basing commitment which in turn aligns you closely to the host nations foreign and security policy. While the UK has a close relationship with many African countries, an unexpected change of Government, or decline in interstate relationships makes the land base vulnerable to pressure. Far better to avoid any such entanglements and ensure presence is handled via short term detachments, not long term commitments. The ongoing UK mission in Mali is an excellent example of where UK presence is likely to be seen in future – short term small teams working out of shared basing.

UK and French troops in Mali

Why go there at all?
So, assuming there will be no permanent presence in Africa, what is the likely sort of work that the UK will do? Looking back at international engagement in Africa over the last 40 years or so, particularly UK involvement, and looking forward, the likely range of work seems to be fairly similar:

a.       High intensity conflict against a nation state (OP ELLAMY)
b.      Intervention to support failing state Government (OP PALLISER)
c.       Intervention to evacuate foreign nationals (Ivory Coast)
d.      Support to Counter Terrorism / Counter Insurgency campaign (Mali)
e.      Training to support capacity building and stability (South Africa/ Zimbabwe / Kenya)
f.        Other training / defence engagement (Continent Wide)

For the UK this means a requirement to be prepared to engage across the full spectrum of military operations as laid down in the SDSR. Ironically, one could argue that for a continent in which the UK has long avoided any permanent basing, it is perhaps notable that the UK has involved itself in a broader range of military operations in Africa than in any other continent since the end of the Cold War.  It is very difficult to predict where specific engagements will occur, however looking to the future would suggest that a combination of resource conflict, border clashes, internal tensions and other simmering issues will continue to present a real risk to wider stability.

At one end of the spectrum then the UK needs to be prepared to commit to ongoing and sustained military operations in a variety of areas for the first three challenges (a-c). These may occur at very short notice, and often in areas where UK understanding and presence is limited – for instance Mali occurred at a very short warning period, and quickly committed a substantial UK presence to a region where there has long been next to no UK presence of any kind. This in turn means the UK needs to invest time and resource in enhancing its diplomatic, aid and other forms of engagement across the country in order to invest in the best possible indicators and warnings of future problems which could impact us. More than any other part of the world, the lack of a ‘on the ground’ HMG presence (as opposed to a purely military presence) could reduce the ability to have real understanding and planning about a looming crisis.Additionally a lot of investment is required to support development and governance to help create the skills to keep African governments working effectively and not collapsing in on themselves - while a military intervention is far more impressive on the pages of the worlds media, its a lot more expensive to do than deploy some governance and stabilisation advisor's who could have helped avoid it in the first place. It is essential we understand that now more than ever, defence and security engagement is not just about what the military bring to the party.

This in turn also needs to the logical deduction that the UK needs to invest heavily in logistics, airlift, sealift and other enablers to ensure that it has the ability to deploy a meaningful force when required. There is no point investing heavily in hundreds of tanks and APCs if there is no means of moving them quickly to the crisis. One senses that Africa highlights that the real challenge of the future is going to be equipping the UK armed forces to be simultaneously light and agile enough to move at speed to a crisis, but resilient enough to defend themselves robustly against a variety of threats and sustain themselves for an indeterminate time-frame. Tanks would seem to have little place in the UK commitment to Africa, but the ability to counter an armoured threat from legacy forces remains essential.

Is there any call for the Desert Rats in Africa in future?

For the last three areas (d-f) there is a need to provide niche capabilities and small assets to intervene as appropriate. What is often needed is not a ship visit or impressive combined arms exercise demonstration, but the deployment of a couple of training NCOs to increase the capability of a host nations armed forces in a specific area. Where the UK needs to focus is on its ability to do as it did in Mali, merging both world class ISTAR assets like Sentinel with the provision of a limited training team to up skill the armed forces. By intervening in a small way now, this has hopefully prevented a longer term need for a major deployment to the region to intervene more kinetically.

Additionally capacity building calls for the UK to add value by providing assets and capabilities that African nations may not possess. For instance, when seeking contributions to UN missions, the ability of the UK to deploy A330 or C17s to move an African forces troops, equipment and vehicles may make the difference between that nation contributing or not. This is a continent where there are significant capability shortfalls for the military, which impact on their ability to work effectively. A limited UK commitment (such as in Mali where C17s were used to enormous effect) can often prevent a need to deploy UK troops on the ground to participate in a peacekeeping mission. Therefore UK engagement should be seen in terms of not just what the British Armed Forces can do in terms of offensive missions, but also as enablers to allow others to carry the burden instead. Until a truly capable regional power emerges in Africa the UK and other powers will need to invest to carry the burden.

It is increasingly clear that the presence of training missions, liaison officers and defence attaches can make a real and valuable difference in improving stability. Future engagement will almost certainly focus on uplifting resources in this area, seeing an increased number of UK staff officers (particularly now HERRICK is almost over) deploy into singleton positions to work with the plethora of international missions in Africa. It is likely that over the next 5-10 years, the numbers of UK personnel deployed in these roles will increase, providing a commensurate increase in UK awareness about the region as a whole. Additionally, it is likely that the UK will take on a far more comprehensive approach than perhaps previously seen – seeking to better integrate the work of the multitude of UK interests in the region – DFID, FCO, UKTI, MOD and others, and ensuring that they work to a much better combined effect to get the best out of this sort of engagement.

Finally the provision of training, both in the UK and in Africa will become increasingly important. The offer of places at institutions like Sandhurst and RCDS will remain the crown jewel in the UK training package, providing a chance to influence future leaders and strengthen African militaries. But these places are limited and often come at huge cost, so in turn expect to see much more of the pocket deployment in small numbers where trainers uplift skills in one specific area (e.g. NCOs teaching drill or tactics) and slowly work over many years to bolster an effective relationship.

Training courses though are two way affairs – it is easy to fall into a perhaps patronising assumption that the UK cannot learn much from African militaries. But, as Humphrey found some years ago when talking on a course once, their people often have enormous experience – for instance the African participant in question spoke of his background, explaining that on leaving university he had joined an insurgency against the despotic ruler, fought in the jungle for years and that his last job (in a more normal stable environment) had been containing an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

To sail again under the Angolan Flag?

Why does this matter to the UK?
It is a reasonable question to ask what the UK gains from continuing to maintain the ability to intervene in Africa if required, and why is it in the national interest? Stability in Africa arguably matters more now than ever before – the collapse of a nation state like Mali or the CAR threatens regional stability – in turn a cycle of war, human disaster and anarchy can create instability, refugees, economic problems and lead to a fertile recruiting ground for insurgents and terrorists. By being able to intervene to limit problems before they become too great, or spending time training local military forces now, the UK is helping prevent problems emerging downstream.

Africa has enormous potential too – a region with a rapidly growing middle class, and with huge resource wealth. A more assertive Africa, home to countries willing to take a proactive step onto the world stage through UN missions and support benefits us all. By training them, supporting them and engaging in a genuinely meaningful relationship, and not one seen purely through the prism of commercial sales, the UK has an opportunity to create influence which can be to our long term foreign policy benefit. A credible set of African military forces, able to support and uphold the rule of law, and help bring about regional stability is a good thing, and helps the UK achieve its own defence and security aims. The worry is that inaction leads to vacuums which in turn creates conflict and strife. It is very easy to say that West Africa is a long way from home and that it is no concern of ours – but one can only imagine the demand to intervene in the event of another humanitarian catastrophe akin to Rwanda in the mid 1990s happening. Far better to engage at a low but meaningful level now and try to avert this before it happens.  

To some, it is perhaps tempting to link Africa to arms sales and see UK training as a means of securing UK economic success. In reality it is hard to see UK influence directly having a major impact on economic exports – the bulk of African countries need cheap and easy to maintain equipment which can get spares easily sourced – e.g. T55s or AK47s. The UK has a world leading defence and security industry, but much of what is offered now is probably too capable for a continent where the requirement is about equipping large numbers of soldiers on a very small budget – instead nations like China or Russia are far better placed to capitalise on this. But, as time passes and budgets increase and improve, a more discerning customer may well emerge. One only has to look at reports of Angola seeking to acquire an aircraft carrier to realise that when money is no object (and many of these nations sit on potentially vast oil or other reserves), then acquisition of high capability equipment is possible. Longer term engagement by the UK, building local capability helps build relationships where the countries may well in due course want to turn to UK companies for help and support – playing for the long haul could be a very sensible move indeed.

So, Africa remains a continent where the UK has huge interests, a long history of low level engagement and a regular military presence. It is somewhere with enormous potential, and where an investment of time money and equipment now could make a huge difference to the long term interests of the UK as a whole. It is in short a region where the UK and Defence have a tremendous vested interest in engaging with and getting the most out of it, because failure in Africa can have a direct impact on security and way of life at home in the UK.