Wednesday, 29 January 2014

From Russia With Love?

News broke the other day that the UK is on the verge of signing a ‘military technical co-operation’ agreement with Russia. Naturally this led to some newspapers speculating that the UK would soon be ordering Russian equipment, egged on no doubt by mischievous sources in the Russian defence industry hinting that they’d love to see the British Army equipped with Kalashnikovs.

This is a good news story, despite some concerns that the UK was jumping into a closer relationship with the Russians after previous difficulties. It is natural for people in both countries to be wary, as despite a long theoretical peace, both nations have hardly been the best of friends for many decades.

The UK and Russia have more strategic interests than one might think. Both share concerns over developments in the Middle East, North Korea, the Med, and both  watch with interest developments in the Caucuses and Afghanistan, mindful that developments there will have an impact in their home cities. Russia is in a curious strategic position, slowly rediscovering some assertiveness and agility following two decades of rest after the collapse of Communism, it is not the all embracing mighty power some once thought it to be. A combination of an ageing population, declining birth rates and a population weighted to the West, despite natural resources and minerals being located in the sparse East, means Russia is perhaps more vulnerable to long term challenges than we give it credit for. While their military is slowly evolving following years of neglect, much of the promised new equipment seems to live purely on power point presentations or as barely laid down warships, despite regular promises of modernised forces.

Whether Russia wants to or not, it has to engage with the West. We've already seen some increased links between the French and Russia (particularly over the construction of landing ships by the French for the Russian Navy). The UK is the other natural power with whom the Russians need to have some form of dialogue – ultimately both countries are nuclear powers with shared interests and some diverging views on how to solve them. A failure to talk doesn't help global stability at any level.

So, this gentle first step of engaging is to be welcomed, even if it is doubtful that much of real substance will come of it. You have to start talking somewhere, and when merged with the gentle joint exercises occurring with the Russian Navy, and doubtless some limited co-operation over the security at the Winter Olympics, then we start to see the most gentle signs of a thaw in relations.

In real terms though, who benefits from a possible co-operation agreement? It is unlikely in the extreme that either nation’s military would actively wish to purchase from the other. From a purely practical point of view, introducing systems into the supply chain would make logistical support very difficult, and integration into each other’s militaries very challenging. But, from an industrial perspective, there is a great deal of opportunity to be had. The world is full of ageing soviet era equipment, much of which still has a great deal of life in it, but which desperately needs refurbishing. This ranges from old tanks and APCs in Africa, even through to Middle Eastern nations which have a smattering of Russian equipment in their arsenals. By opening the doors to closer technical co-operation, it may be easier for UK and Russian industry to work together to market a variety of upgrades, refurbishments and other changes to existing Russian (or British) legacy equipment, particularly for nations where its too expensive to buy new, but their existing equipment is too obsolete to run on.

As such, any agreement could have a positive long term benefit to both nations industries, although do not underestimate the very real challenge of ensuring that the security and export control organisations of both countries feel comfortable with the sort of disclosure of previously closely held secrets to a nation that until recently was the enemy.

Its also important to note that the Russian defence industry is legendary for having a very fertile imagination. When you look at announcements around the world of Russian ‘arms sales’ and dig a little deeper, what often emerges is a pattern of seeing a solitary request for information, usually as part of a wider set of requests from around the world, interpreted as a definite order by the Russian defence media. If one compares the announcements of the total number of Kilo class submarines ordered by various nations over the last few years to the actual number delivered, then you’ll find a distinct difference. For the UK it’s a useful reminder that any discussions are likely to lead to possible press releases, and then doubtless ‘outrage’ stories in the Daily Mail or elsewhere at the shock news that the UK has ordered Russian equipment – something which may come as a surprise announcement to the MOD! Humphrey would urge caution in reading too much into any news stories on this subject for they will often take the worst case approach, without looking too deeply into the underpinning facts.

Finally, it’s easy to be suspicious of the Russians, but we mustn't forget that they are by nature a suspicious country too. When you consider how many times over their history that they've been attacked, invaded or suffered horrendous experiences, a natural cynicism is to be expected as part of their national character. Visiting the Great Patriotic War museum in Moscow some years ago, Humphrey was not unsurprised to see that the national story of WW2 for Russia featured one tiny museum cabinet with a few photos of the other allies, and pretty much nothing else. For a nation like Russia, which suffered the equivalent of a ‘First Day of the Somme’ level of fatalities every day from the start of the war until its end, and when more Russians died in the first four months of the Siege of Leningrad than the British Armed Forces had fatalities during the entire war, it is easy to be cynical, suspicious and untrusting of others.

The Russia of the future is one where there is enormous potential, huge reserves of wealth and resource, and an increasingly rich population. But it is one which is still suffering from the tremendous casualties inflicted during WW2, which has caused a slowing of the birth rate. When combined with the increasingly challenging border situations, unstable countries around it exporting terror and violence and an exploding population further east looking covetously at a resource bounty, it is perhaps time to consider that now is the point where the UK and NATO can look to Russia as more than just a diplomatic relationship and possibly reinvigorate relations for the future. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A corner of a foreign field that is forever England...

Browsing the as always excellent ‘Think Defence’ website, Humphrey was struck by a number of articles picked up from around the news on overseas basing, particularly about how the French are looking to expand their network of basing facilities in Africa to help meet the challenges of instability. The specific article can be found HERE, but in summary it says that in future, the French plan to maintain similar troop numbers in the Sahel region, but spread them out into more austere locations and have specific roles for each base.

Foreign basing is one of those subjects which seems to crop up a lot on many internet ‘fantasy fleet’ discussions, with posters on forums creating wishlists of the sort of UK military structure they’d like to see, and most of the time it has some kind of permanent basing facility in all manner of odd locations, usually with some kind of grandiose title attached to it (e.g .15th Imperial Army HQ in Timbuktu).

There is a strong association with the concept of possession of overseas facilities, as if the sheer act of having a smaller part of territory abroad that is forever (England) somehow makes a nation more potent or powerful. Yet despite this, overseas basing is one of those areas which relatively few nations still do. For this article, Humphrey would define an overseas facility as something sustained to support the permanent stationing of troops and/or military hardware in a foreign nation, and not the presence of a liaison officer or small admin hub linked to things like NATO HQs.

If you look beyond a couple of military operations like HERRICK, where there are obviously operational facilities for many nations, then outside of the US, France and the UK, and to a much more limited extent Australia & the Netherlands (which operate logistics facilities in the Middle East and West Indies), there are no real western powers operating from overseas locations. The Russians still maintain a facility in Syria, and in the immensely complicated world of South East Asian politics, a number of nations maintain small facilities in disputed island territories, although these owe more to complex political situations (and an insistence that the facilities themselves are in territorial waters)

It is interesting to consider then that despite the perception of the UK as a nation in decline militarily, it still retains a significant overseas footprint of permanent basing facilities, and a much wider footprint of temporary detachments which over the years have gained a certain permanency about them. Today the UK operates permanent bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Ascension Island, the Falklands, with access to facilities in Diego Garcia, Brunei and Singapore. This is backed up by training facilities in Canada, Kenya and Belize, and there is also a series of operational detachments operating out of Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. This list does not consider Germany (due to close), nor the multitude of support facilities and HQs where UK staff participate both in NATO and more broadly.

Anglo French co-operation in Mali

This footprint remains significantly larger than some may think, but the list also raises a variety of observations about the realities of overseas basing and how challenging it is to sustain an overseas presence. The first thing to note is  that when looking at UK overseas facilities, the majority of the ‘operational’ ones (e.g. those owned by PJHQ and run as Permanent Joint Operating Bases or PJOBs) are located on UK sovereign territory. Humphrey is lucky enough to have visited and worked at every single UK PJOB (including Diego Garcia). While they may be considered overseas in some ways, they are able to be used in a manner which doesn’t allow other nations control over their function or role. The result is a collection of fairly substantial sites with considerable permanency (e.g. married quarters, garrison units or permanent lodger detachments and a sense that the site exists for the long haul).

Where the UK chooses to sustain a more expeditionary presence (primarily in the Gulf) it relies on the presence of temporary units, and a more expeditionary posture. It is rare to find many permanent buildings in these sites, and the majority of accommodation remains austere and designed to be lived in for a short period of time. Why though, especially when the UK has been in the region on a permanent basis for a long time, has it stepped away from having large permanent facilities outside of sovereign territory?

Part of the answer is that a permanent presence implies a permanent dependency on the host nation. In running a permanent facility overseas, you rely very much on the goodwill of the host nation to support you, accommodate you and make life as straight forward as possible – ranging from visa issues at the point of entry, through to ensuring that the routine life support of food and power is delivered without any problems. When relationships with a country go well, then this isn’t an issue, but when countries seek to link support for the bases, or their continued access to adopting certain policies or helping endorse their views, then things get more challenging. Permanent bases on foreign soil tie you implicitly into maintaining a long standing relationship with that nation, no matter how challenging it may become.

In Africa, one would argue that French foreign policy has been as much driven by doing what is required to keep a motley assortment of despots, presidents and Emperors on side as it is about what is in the long term interests of the French. When you have a large expat community settling in the vicinity of the bases, and when you have married quarters, schools and all the other gentle signs of permanence, you have to consider how the base is run in a very different way. Sustaining the base on your terms becomes almost a foreign policy objective of its own.

The other challenge associated with permanency is that when the host nation does something you do not necessarily agree with, then as a nation you face a difficult challenge. Do you acquiesce, knowing that it is vital to keep the military facilities open, or do you speak out, knowing it places your long term presence at risk? The problem with permanent facilities is that they imply permanence of thinking. You cannot risk your relationship in the short term, knowing that in the medium term you will still have to deal with the same people, who may harbour grudges over how you acted, and in turn, could make the presence of the bases and the limits on what you can do with them a focal part of the relationship.

Finally, the problem with permanency is that your forces assigned to the base become permanent in themselves, and perhaps become in the eyes of the host nation ‘their’ forces. When you see a facility like the French ones in the UAE or Africa, you see a substantial military presence. But, by running sites with declared orders of battle, and declared roles – such as hosting specific squadrons of jet fighters, or supporting land units, you are declaring your permanent commitment to that nation or region. As such, when the time comes to reduce a presence, change it around or send it off to do other jobs, there is a danger that the host nation sees it as being a weakening of the commitment to them personally. After all, if you host a French air force base with Rafales, you have a reasonable expectation that those Rafales are there to defend you. Permanency of presence brings a state where amending it can become a major challenge in bilateral relations, and reduce your own freedom of action in a crisis.

Tornado GR4 - Great aircraft, but it still needs somewhere to land!

Additionally, it becomes a major millstone when the relationship is not as smooth – arguably both the French and US who base aircraft overseas would like to see defence sales of similar equipment flow as a result of their presence in some countries. When this doesn’t result in a sale (e.g. the French trying and so far failing to sell Rafale to the UAE), then it either leads to challenging questions, or results in a sense that assets shouldn’t be used to defend countries not willing to buy them. Currently the French find themselves in the UAE with a substantial fast jet presence, an implied assumption that this would be used to defend the UAE in a crisis, but absolutely no signal nor interest from the UAE in purchasing similar jets to work with the French. Having secured a permanent presence, they cannot withdraw the jets without it being seen as an implied snub, and they now arguably find themselves fixed with a nation expecting them to defend their interests, but not reward them for doing so.

Of course ultimately, there is the danger that having a permanent military presence can result in your being sucked into a war, not necessarily of your choice. One would argue that many French interventions in West Africa owe as much to protecting their status quo as they were about protecting French allies. When your permanent bases become a millstone requiring military action to protect, you realise that they are perhaps more hassle than they are worth. In the same way, withdrawal, closure or shutting down a base can have a far greater impact on the bilateral relationship than it would were it seen as a purely temporary measure. Arguably the withdrawal of the UK helicopter flights from Belize and the drawing down of BATSUB have had a huge impact on Anglo-Belizean relations, particularly as the media coverage seems to portray the provision of 25 Flight as effectively the SAR cover for the whole country, implying that the UK decision is puitting Belizean lives at risk. A similar problem may be faced in Kenya, where if BATUK is drawn down in the post HERRICK environment, linking any change to posture may become part of the challenges in managing the bilateral relationship.

The beauty of the UK approach of relying primarily on temporary facilities on foreign soil is that you can ebb and flow presence with far more ease and far less disturbance. By this, it is much easier to maintain a small ground detachment of RAF personnel to service aircraft and run a bare bones facility, then augment them as required than it is to keep a permanent presence on one station. In an RAF of ever fewer aircraft, and one built around the concept of expeditionary operations, having the ability to move quickly around a region, exercising in various countries as you go is perhaps far more useful than having one tied squadron. In regions where complex international relationships exist, it would perhaps be more difficult to send ‘their’ Typhoons or Tornados to exercise in a third party nation, for fear of causing offence or difficulties. Instead, by maintaining a broad and austere presence which can quickly be stood up, the UK gets the best of both worlds – the ability to operate from a diverse range of countries and locations, but at the same time a much lower problem of challenging diplomatic problems.

This policy does come at a cost though – it relies heavily on a ‘detachment mentality’ which requires troops to deploy on an expeditionary basis and without families. Fine for the odd training detachment, but after four or five multi-month detachments, then things can get a bit more wearing. Similarly, the cost associated with being able to deploy on an expeditionary footing is far more expensive than having a couple of airbases and permanent facilities. It requires heavier investment in airlift, sealift and logistics than would otherwise be the case, and means scarce procurement funds are diverted away from teeth capability like munitions and into the less glamorous world of logistics.

But, despite this, the UK seems set to have an ever greater austere overseas presence. As HERRICK draws to a close, and assets become available for regional training, its likely that we will see further such deployments into regions of national interest. It is hard to see the Gulf facilities being reduced in number, and there is a near permanent demand from across the globe by nations to work with UK military personnel on training exercises. If anything, as HERRICK ends and global defence engagement steps up to fore, then sites which have perhaps seen relatively little use in recent years like Belize, Singapore and Brunei may find themselves becoming far more prominent in UK defence engagement. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Friends with benefits? The UK/US relationship and Mr Gates.

Humphrey woke this morning to the news that the former US Secretary of Defence (Bob Gates) has criticised UK defence spending and cuts, implying that the UK is no longer a 'full spectrum military power' and that this in turn calls into question its long term credibility as a major ally for the USA. Leaving aside the purely coincidental fact that Mr Gates currently has a book out, and is media savvy enough to know that controversial comments playing to well known UK insecurities may be a smart way of boosting sales, these comments are rather interesting and worthy of further thought. 

There have arguably long been two constant truths in UK foreign policy assumptions - firstly that the UK has a uniquely special relationship with the USA, and simultaneously that the special relationship may not be as special as we'd like it to be. The simple fact is that on the global scale the UK and USA enjoy a genuinely close and intertwined defence and security relationship where there is a wide level of overlap between national interests which merit close co-operation. In practical terms the value that the UK offers to the US comes from several areas:

  • The UKs unique network of diplomatic relationships and influence, often providing access and insight in locations where the USA cannot operate, or where the UK can provide a second voice to influence a nation to support US views.
  • The exceptionally close and highly effective relationship between the UK and US intelligence communities, which is of real and genuine value to both nations
  • The ability of the UK to offer access to sovereign territory around the world, enabling the US to conduct operations in an extremely permissive environment (and in turn permits the UK a veto over any operations conducted from its territory).
  • The provision of certain specialist military assets and capabilities including nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, Special Forces and ISTAR assets which are on a par with US forces and able to operate in a truly integrated way with them as a 'day one' asset and not as a coalition bolt on at a later date.

All of this combines to ensure that the UK can offer the US a reliable ally who shares their position on many policy issues, and where they can act as a trusted sounding board to provide reassurance and also a second opinion on many matters.

There are some, particularly in the UK media, who seem to think that it should be a relationship of equals (or rather it would be if we had an empire, and Calais still belonged to the Queen), while an equally vocal group, again mainly in the media, hold that we are a poodle, somehow bound to carry out every whim of the US President, whether we want to or not. 

In reality it is probably somewhere in the middle - it is a relationship built heavily on close interpersonal relationships, where many UK officers and officials spend much of their careers at all levels working with their US peers. Having worked closely with the US military in Baghdad and Kabul, Humphreys own personal view is that the UK seems to have a more flexible junior officer (perhaps in part due to the very different commissioning process used by both nations), but by SO2 the two groups are equal, and that in time the US system seems to produce a much more strategically aware and business minded individual as an officers professional and personal education is (in his own view) taken far more seriously than in the UK system. The level of integration and trust means that the UK can influence to a much higher level than we perhaps give ourselves credit for, but equally it is not something which can be taken for granted.

In terms of Mr Gates comments though, the accusation seems to be that the cuts put forward in recent years call into question this relationship. Frankly Humphrey would regard this accusation as plain wrong. It is easy to say that the UK cannot do X, Y or Z anymore - indeed, it currently has no carrier capability or MPA capability, but equally it continues to provide a lot of assets that do matter to work with the US. Indeed, while it is easy to say that the UK has no full spectrum capability, arguably it is many decades since the UK last had anything close to this, and there is no other nation in the world today which can meet US requirements in a similar way. Given the scale of cuts being considered by the US Military at present, it is probably not long till the US could easily be accused of the same claim.

In citing the lack of a carrier with fixed wing aircraft now, Mr Gates seems to imply that Washington only viewed the UK as a credible ally when it was able to put a nearly 30 year old vessel to sea with half a dozen older aircraft at the end of their lives and without it, the UK ceases to be relevant. Given the UK effectively dropped out of fixed wing carrier operations when the Harriers went to OP HERRICK, and yet since then has continued to be seen as an ally of preference for the US, one must question the validity of the statement. Similarly, this view also ignores the very substantial construction programme and investment in both CVF and the JSF which put the UK firmly back on the table as a big deck carrier operator.

Even after the cuts of SDSR, the UK has continued to field a military which remains capable of deploying forces on operations as near level partners with the US. It is perhaps ironic too that some view the UK as unable to do full spectrum operations, when in fact for years both the US and UK have been urging more and better burden sharing across NATO, trying to end the duplication of capabilities and instead focusing scarce resources on specific areas - arguably the MPA decision is a good example of this, rely on your allies to cover some areas, while you do others. In essence Mr Gates argument seems to be that by practising what the US has preached, the UK is actually damaging its capability and value as a partner to the US- an odd argument to make!

The biggest challenge is probably one not of military capability affecting the UK ability to operate, but the changing strategic laydown as the USA drifts ever further eastwards. One of the reasons why the UK has long held such a close relationship is the WW2 total war relationship turned into a Cold War potential war relationship, which turned into a post Cold War messy operations relationship. In the course of this, the UK and US military have worked together almost daily through a variety of alliances, operations and exercises. This has built a very strong relationship, built on shared experiences. But as the ground commitments of Afghanistan come to an end, and as US resources dwindle too, with a focus on the Pacific, while the UK focus is more centred on the Gulf and North Africa, the opportunity for day to day interaction is reduced. It is hard to see the UK refocusing purely on the Pacific where there is extensive economic but limited military interest just to stay close to the US military capability. At a time when the US interest in Europe is waning, the UK will need to work out how it remains close to the US - probably through the highly specialist capabilities discussed above, where it can be seen to add real value to the alliance, and not by the provision of a large but less deployable military force. Ultimately there is no point having a large Army if you cannot move it easily and quickly towards the noise of the guns.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of Mr Gates comments was the way in which he seemed to not realise that the UK remains an active player with the US right now. For instance his inference that the USN was operating in the Gulf without the RN was utter rubbish - one only has to look at the Gulf to see an excellent example of how well the USN and RN work together, with both navies working closely out of Bahrain and on wider operations in the region. Indeed one could make the same argument of the USN at present, where budget cuts have reduced the ability of USN vessels to deploy oversea, with most European deployments being cancelled this year, and many ships remaining in the US and not proceeding overseas. It is easy to snipe at the RN, but the USN is struggling just as much with some of the cuts it faces.

Perhaps a different way of looking at Mr Gates comments would be to see them as a reality check on the limitations of UK power in a broader sense. Arguably much of the Anglo-US relationship since WW2 has been built around preparing for an unthinkable war, and conducting small scale operations together - such as naval work or air operations in Kosovo. Outside of NATO exercises, it is hard to think of many occasions where there was major joint ground deployments. Indeed with the exception of the 1991 Gulf War, the US and UK did not deploy large scale forces together after the end of the Korean War. UK assurances about capability, and US memories of past UK glories coupled with their experiences of working with the UK on exercise perhaps built a subconscious view in Washington and elsewhere that the UK military was somehow still at a similar level of capability to its 'glory days' of being able to put large forces into the field. The experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq may have served as a wake up call that whilst UK forces remain extremely capable, there are limitations on what they can achieve - perhaps not helped by 'extremely optimistic' planning and views by some in the UK military who seem to cling to similar views and sought ground engagement at all costs. Arguably what the last decade of operations has exposed is that in US eyes the UK is an exceptionally valuable ally, capable of providing very high quality assets on operations, particularly in the maritime and air domain. Where it struggles (and this perhaps had not been fully realised by the US) is in its ability to support a large scale COIN campaign for a sustained period of time. Perhaps to some in the US, this wake up call comes as a shock as if they have suddenly discovered that the Emperor is only in possession of his underwear.

This is emphatically not to do down the UK position - the author has long maintained that the UK as a nation remains one of the most capable and agile militaries on the planet, but that there are very clear limitations on that power. If Mr Gates views are shared elsewhere in DC, they perhaps reflect the reality kicking in that the UK simply does not (and cannot afford) the manpower anymore to support large scale land campaigns in a way it previously could during WW2 or Korea.

What does this mean for the UK? Well if anything it perhaps continues to emphasise the importance of getting the Army to the right size and investing in the high end capability that continues to make a real contribution to the US. Ultimately there is no point having a very large army if we cannot deploy and support it for the long haul. HERRICK and TELIC have shown that the UK can comfortably keep 6-10,000 troops deployed for a long period of time, but beyond this and things get challenging. While some long for a larger Army (and preferably a regular one at that), this author fails to see the need to do so if we cannot afford to deploy it and support it. It would seem infinitely more sensible to focus tight resources on high capability items like SSNs, Typhoon, ISTAR and so on, where these can make an appreciable difference to the US when it comes to planning, and are also easily redeployable - in other words, if the US shifts east, it is much easier to deploy a destroyer to the Asia Pacific region for regular exercises than an Armoured Division.

Be in no doubt that the UK remains a significant power, and when one hears phrases like 'full spectrum military' bandied around, the next logical question to ask is 'who else has one'. There is a genuine and extremely close relationship between the two nations, which in turn translates into an excellent relationship between the two militaries. There is no doubt that maintaining this relationship requires an investment of time, money and procurement of high capability equipment, coupled with a continued willingness to countenance the use of force in situations of electorally challenging proportions. But, this is easily resolved, providing a willingess to work together remains in place. There is no other nation vying to become the replacement for the UK in the affections of the US - indeed Humphrey would argue that the US has a variety of 'special relationships' as does the UK. Ultimately, for as long as the two nations share similar foreign and security policy outlooks, it is hard to see them not working together in an extremely close fashion indeed

Friday, 10 January 2014

Actions on encountering a plan - the UK Parliamentary Defence Select Committee report on the 2015 Defence Review.

The House of Commons Defence Select committee has published its short report on the steps and progress made towards establishing the next Defence and Security Review in 2015. It can be found here and makes for compelling reading - LINK HERE. Although it gained headlines in the UK for suggesting that unless there was continued investment in defence spending, the UK would cease to be relevant as a power, it is worth reading for its wider discussions on the role of strategy and where the UK should focus its attention in the next review.

From the outset the review sought to portray the SDSR of 2010 as a purely cost driven and not strategy driven review. There is no doubt that it had to be though – anyone who was familiar with the parlous state of defence finances in the latter part of the last decade will recall the near permanent state of hand to mouth existence. With the review itself coming on the back of a global financial crisis, placing the UK in a perilous economic position, there was simply no way that the MOD could continue as planned without restructuring. While it is easy to sit with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘no more reviews that are financially driven’, one must appreciate just how challenging things were in 2010 to appreciate why SDSR needed to happen.

As we look to the future though, we must ask ourselves whether it is actually possible to have a proper strategy in any meaningful sense of the word. Personally Humphrey dislikes the phrase strategy – it is applied too freely and too often to pieces of work, and joins his own lexicon of ‘buzz words’ which he’d dearly love to see used less often (others being ‘swim lane’, ‘docking point’, ‘open kimono conversation’ to name but a few).

The problem with strategy is that to the author, it implies a long term plan which sets out goals that are realistically achievable, and a desired end state. At its most simplest, one could argue that the UKs defence, security and foreign policy all exists to support a very simple strategy – namely secure the Kingdoms continued existence. The problem though is when we come to looking at all the other ‘strategies’ out there which seem to sit uneasily with each other. The challenge the UK has is that it is a global power in the sense that it has interests which extend across the globe – a balanced look at where the UK has external interests would show there are very few countries other than some Pacific islands and parts of north west Africa which the UK doesn’t have some kind of investment or interest in.

To create a strategy which pushes forward UK interests when all of these areas have the potential to cause challenges is extremely difficult indeed. Developments in one country or region will often have an impact far beyond, thus making achievement of a goal sometimes challenging. For instance, one only has to look at the changes in North Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring of 2011 – where a small event in Tunisia quickly led to a wider series of uprisings which in turn led to the UK going to war in Libya. While it is tempting to want to have some kind of omnipotent strategy which accepts this sort of change, and structures UK diplomatic, security and military responses accordingly, the reality is it is almost impossible to predict this sort of occurrence and mitigate for it.

At best, a national strategy for a nation with global interests can probably set out a fairly loose set of optimal outcomes (e.g. peace, stability, economic investment etc) rather than focusing on a detailed end state. It is hard in this day and age to have a detailed strategy when events in one continent, can easily derail your objectives in another. By contrast, smaller nations which may have a far more limited outlook on the world may paradoxically find it easier to have a focused national strategy. If one looks at the middle east for instance, many nations there have national strategies for the medium term (e.g. out to 2030 in some cases). In a region where you have clearly understood threats and challenges, it is relatively easy to shape your foreign and defence policy to meet them. Where it is much more challenging is where you have to focus across the globe on a variety of issues, where meeting one may in turn deny resources to resolve another. For instance, the UK has long had an excellent relationship with Belize, maintaining a training team there for many years plus until 2010 an Army Air Corps training flight. This helped support UK interests in the region – but to support wider UK interests elsewhere (namely balancing the budget and providing helicopters to support training elsewhere), 25 Flt was closed in 2010 and its airframes sent to Kenya to support pre-deployment training for Afghanistan. This helped achieve one sub component of national goals (namely train troops to help achieve success in Afghanistan), but came at the cost of damaged relationships with Belize, where the lack of the helicopters remains keenly felt to this day. Thus one sees how achieving a goal in one location can reduce our standing elsewhere.

In the UK Humphrey would argue that actually the strategy document underpinning the SDSR (the National Security Strategy found HERE ) is actually a pretty good attempt to summarise what the UK is trying to do with its tools of foreign policy. It recognises that fundamentally the UK has external interests, has tools to deal with them, but avoids being too prescriptive on where those interests may be, or how the goals and end states should be achieved.

The problem with having a very deep strategy which sets out in huge detail what your national goals are, and how you want to achieve them is that it rarely survives contact with events. If one looks at the NSS, what it does very well is summarise in 2010 what we know well in 2014, that the main threats to the UK are terrorism, cyberspace attacks, environmental challenges, and outright military action. You can easily see that the sort of threats facing the UK are primarily extra-territorial, and that the threat doesn’t come from one specific state or actor. Instead it will change regularly, and there needs to be a lot of flexibility to meet this. If you consider what sort of foreign and security policy challenges have faced the UK in the last few years, they all seem to be captured in some form by the NSS.

The other challenge to consider when looking at the formulation of strategy is of timescales in a democracy. Strategic goals should by definition be long term, and take many years to reach – it is ultimately about securing an end state. The world changes rapidly, but does not move quickly, and as such it can be difficult to have time to simultaneously absorb the many changes going on around you and react accordingly, but also to have time to understand how other nations are reacting. Arguably we are still seeing reaction now to the Arab Spring, nearly 3 years after it first started, and in that time much has occurred, but many nations policies are still in the throes of adapting or changing.

When you consider that most western democracies have an electoral cycle built around change every four – five years, and that this can often herald new governments with new ideas about how to achieve goals, you suddenly realise that the ability for any democratic nation to put in place a truly long term strategy is perhaps limited. As Governments change, views often change about where national interests sit, and how resources should be applied. One only has to look at the way that under the current UK Government the Gulf has occupied a much higher foreign policy priority than the previous one (which in turn had very different priorities to previous Governments) to realise that it is very hard to get continuity when it comes to strategy.

Couple this regular change to the constant churn of officials in the military and civil service, and you quickly realise that it is hard in Government to find the deep experts and ‘wise old men’ who can sit back with the benefit of hindsight, time and experience and provide continuity of advice. Few of the senior officials in Government today were in the same jobs in 2010 – meaning that it is harder to have people who can offer advice based on hindsight. One disadvantage of the model of moving posts every 2-3 years for broadening is that it becomes extremely difficult to become a subject matter expert, and when promotion and prospects are linked to moving, it is hard to find many high flyers willing to put their careers on hold to be the long term expert.

What this means is that it is perhaps very difficult for any Government to genuinely have a long term strategy or strategic goals. It can set short term aspirations, maybe in the 5-10 year timeframe, and respond to events, but the ability to sit and deeply contemplate the world with a 20-30 year vision (as arguably some Middle Eastern nations where people will stay in senior posts for that length of time can) is perhaps not easily achievable. So, while it is easy to criticise the lack of strategy in any Governments plans, one can perhaps forgive this when they realise that by the time the goals would have been met, the Government of the day would long have been forgotten. Far better to focus on short term achievable generic tasks like combatting terrorism or cyber security, than set out a long term goal for which the UK would not meet during their time in office, nor for many years to come.

A final thought is that while it is easy to decry defence cuts and argue for strategy, one could argue that a truly objective linking of UK defence outputs to long term foreign policy goals would probably not produce the force structure we have now. An outsider looking in may well conclude that the sort of military assets needed to build and effect long term change, stability and security are those which have effects such as training teams, defence attaches, limited professional training and so on with the nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantor of security, and not so much on very heavy army assets like armoured divisions which are much harder to deploy. Looking more broadly, things like focusing heavily on cyber security defence is arguably more important than some other tasks – this is perhaps the problem facing the military today. The sort of interaction many nations want is quite localised, involving maybe a training team or specialist advisors or access to training courses. It is rare to find many nations keen to see long term air or naval bases and deployments of armoured divisions on the ground. There will be a need for some heavier support for the very rare chance of intra-state conflict, but as we move into a world where cyber attacks, terrorism, and the steady blurring of the lines between defence,  security and foreign policy continue, the challenge for policy makers is to come up with a force structure which reflects our long term interests, our medium term strategic goals and the need to sustain a military capable of defending the UK and its allies. As ever, we live in ‘interesting times’.

(For those interested in the UK Military attitudes to strategy and planning, then the attached link is scarily prescient!

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Dragon awakens - Chinese Carrier Task Force images

Official photos have been released of the Chinese Navy deploying its first ever carrier at sea as part of a ‘task force’ ( The images suggest the Chinese Navy had around 11 ships in the force including a carrier, an LPD, six surface ships and three nuclear submarines returning to shore after 37 days away on tirals. On paper an impressive task force which helps demonstrate Chinese capabilities to the world, and once again highlights the growth of the Chinese Navy over the last few years. 

But, dig beneath the surface and you see a slightly more complex picture – for starters the carrier does not appear to have an airwing embarked on her of any substance – suggesting that her ongoing trials and development of an aviation capability continue. This is not something that can be rushed, and while trials can continue, it will take some time before a fully worked up airgroup capable of operating 24/7 is out there. In the interim one suspects that the performance of the aircraft isn’t perhaps as good as hoped, particularly given the public criticism of the J15 aircraft as a ‘flopping fish’ in state media as recently as September (LINK HERE), which suggests all is not well with the programme.

Image of the Chinese vessels at sea

The next issue is that there are no support vessels of any type in that image – while it is possible to put to sea for some time without one, the groups capacity to support flying operations or remain at sea for a long period of time is limited. The provision of auxiliary vessels has long been the Achilles heel of the Chinese Navy, taking what is on the surface a superficially impressive Navy and realising that it is incapable of conducting global deployments without heavy reliance on shore facilities. But, does this matter though? One has to ask whether the PLAN sees its carriers and other ships as a truly global asset, or whether they are a useful additional capability to threaten in waters nearer to home. A carrier group deployed in the South China Sea has far less reliance on the need for oilers, ammunition stores and so on, particularly if they are not conducting onerous flying operations. So, while the vessels may not yet have the tanker support the RN or USN would see as essential, they may not actually need it. Until we have a better understanding of Chinese carrier doctrine, it would be wise to not necessarily write off their carrier capability just because it cannot conduct blue water operations a long distance from home. There is perhaps a danger that in looking at this image, we apply a Western mindset that says it is not a credible force because it cannot do the sort of operations that we would do with it. For a good alternate take on this, Humphrey recommends reading the War Is Boring blog for their judgement. 

The RN 2013 equivalent - the RFTG

As a photo opportunity this represents a useful chance to show the burgeoning capability of Chinas navy, but it does not give us a chance to make a more valuable judgement on their actual capability. One should not underestimate the significant progress made by the Chinese over the last few years, but equally we should be cautious of assuming that just because they have a lot of hulls, that they can fight effectively with them. The challenge facing the Chinese Navy is significant – it is essentially trying to do two of the most difficult jobs in Naval Operations (establish fixed wing carrier operations, and also demonstrate it can support Continuous At Sea Deterrent – CASD with their new SSBN classes) simultaneously. No navy in history has had this challenge, which will require a lot of work from their very best and brightest people to succeed.

The real judgement on their capability would come from seeing how this task force would perform as a fully worked up group in a warfighting environment, and not just as a collection of ships steaming in close proximity. It will take time to build the doctrine, concepts and understanding to help get the Chinese to the point where they can do what the USN (and to a lesser extent the RN and Marine Nationale) can do or will do already. Humphrey would urge some caution in reading too much into this photograph right now – any nation can do impressive photo displays, not every nation can fight a truly high end naval war.  
Multi-ship RAS during COUGAR 13

A final thought is that to those who look at this picture and bemoan the state of the Royal Navy, they should perhaps consider this. The RN has undergone a significant period of change, and while right now it could not put a fixed wing carrier to sea, within 2-3 years HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH will be at sea and hopefully conducting similar trials. Additionally with the new Type 45 now fully in service, ASTUTE coming on line, and with a fleet of MARS tankers and other vessels coming too, the RN is arguably going to be able to put a similar display on very soon, with new ships designed at home and purpose built for the job (not relying on 30 year old second hand Soviet era designed carriers). While Humphrey has little time for ‘picture posturing’ we should not sit here and depress ourselves by thinking about what we cannot do, but remind ourselves that the PLAN is merely demonstrating what we can pretty much already do, and will continue to be able to do for many years to come. The photos on this article come from EXERCISE COUGAR 2013, which demonstrate that the RN is well experienced not only in deploying globally, but in staging similar 'photo fleet' opportunities too!