Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Limitations of Power

Its been an extremely challenging few weeks in the international arena. Developments in Russia and the Ukraine have brought about the biggest challenge to regional security for nearly 25 years and seen a decline in Russia’s wider relationships with the West to a level not seen since the end of the Cold War. Across Europe there has been growing concern amid calls to raise defence budgets to meet the emerging perceived risk.

In the UK, some areas there has been criticism of the UK response, suggesting that the predominantly diplomatic solution sought by the UK, coupled with wider defence cuts means that the UK is no longer capable of defending itself, or exerting influence on the wider global stage to help lead in the situation. Perhaps most prominently, the former Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannat has said that the UK should consider leaving a brigade of some 3000 personnel in Germany to act as a visible symbol of British commitment to Europe. 

But is Russia really a threat to the UKs national security at present, particularly to warrant a substantial reorganisation of the Armed Forces? There is no doubt that Russia poses a clear risk to some countries in her neighbourhood with whom she shares land borders and where disputes exist. However, it is hard to see this risk translated into a wider desire to take on Western Europe in an existential battle for control of the map. Rather, it is a battle for influence and control of what the Russians consider to be their ‘near abroad’.

For the UK, the issue perhaps neatly sums up the challenge faced by policy makers now about how to exercise UK influence and interests. On the one hand it is easy to call for a significant increase in military expenditure and retain extra soldiers in Germany. But the question has to be what is gained by doing so? The UK defence budget is struggling to support the military we have now, and many years have been spent orientating it to a deployable expeditionary force capable of projecting a reasonable level of power at a significant distance from the home base. Based on the budget, this provides the UK with a reasonably sized Armed Forces capable of doing most military tasks. To shift this focus into a force more capable of defending external aggression from a nation like Russia isn't just a case of saying ‘here is a brigade in Germany’, but instead would require a very significant shift in the training, equipment and organisation of the Armed Forces back into a model not seen since the early 1990s. The money does not exist to do both, and arguably the UK armed forces personnel costs are so great, that enlarging them to any great size is simply not possible without a sustained build up over many years, and with a lot of extra funding.

The real influence the UK can bring to bear in a situation like this is not military in nature – it is rather the ability to co-ordinate diplomatic, financial, political and other influences together in order to allow the Russian regime to make a judgement on whether further action is in its best interest. The idea that deploying a British brigade in Germany will somehow change the Kremlin's assessment of the situation is highly unlikely in the extreme. What matters is the manner in which the UK and other European and NATO allies are able to come together to take wider steps to calm the situation.

While it is easy to suggest that somehow the UK is not a relevant player in these debates, the fact that the UK can bring significant diplomatic clout (e.g. UNSC membership, leading role in NATO, EU and so on) helps ensure its voice is represented at the table. No country on its own could realistically hope or expect to be able to force a step change in Russian policy in this matter. It is only by working together and building a coordinated package of responses that real pressure can be put on the Russian position. While doubtless some commentators would welcome the Prime Minister standing alone and forcing the issue to claim some kind of leadership, in the real murky world of international diplomacy, its far better to work together than take a well intentioned, but ultimately futile isolated stand. It is also worth noting that for all the talk of how the UK seems irrelevant, the fact that US condemnation has not moved the Russians, would suggest that there was little to no chance of the UK ever having the clout or effect that some commentators dream that possession of a larger military would give us.

The problem for the UK and other nations is trying to work out how to handle situations like this, where clearly unacceptable behaviour has occurred, but where military action is simply not going to happen. 25 years of focusing resources on power projection and soft power have ensured that the UK is well placed today to respond to wider challenges (e.g. piracy, low level intervention, UN missions, and disaster relief) and so on. But, they do not help the UK in a crisis like this where putting troops on the ground is simply not going to happen.

Does this mean a radical rethink is required, taking the British armed forces away from their interventionary role into one of deterrence, or does it mean that there has to be a tacit acceptance that there are simply some challenges that cannot be dealt with as some would wish? To change back into a BAOR configuration would be extremely expensive, and would make the ability to carry out the much larger number of defence tasks of real value to the UK far more difficult. For instance, the reports last week talking about how the UK needs to place far more emphasis on the Sahel in terms of stopping terrorist networks, building capacity and trying to ensure that the area doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists. This sort of work requires light forces, able to deploy easily and with a small footprint, and who are able to work as part of a joined up military, diplomatic, police, security and development group to improve the region. This isn't necessarily cheap, and arguably plays a far more vital role in the protection of UK interests than manning an Armoured Brigade somewhere in Germany to deter the Russians.

In a world where the Westphalian system is becoming a cherished memory, the problem is working out at what point, and at what level, it is possible to take a stand in favour of territorial integrity. For the West, it is easy to issue impassioned pleas, send out strongly worded statements of condemnation and threaten economic sanctions when a nation is threatened. For Western countries able to deploy military force, it is arguably possible in some cases to deploy to a neighbouring country and take steps to support the country under threat. But this only works when the West feels it is able to exercise military power in a manner which will not escalate into a wider global crisis – e.g. look at somewhere like Guatemala and Belize in the 1970s and the UK was able to deploy forces to act in support of Belizean territory without risk of escalating the Cold War. What though can the West do when faced with a problem between two nations which share a common border and where one is significantly more powerful and where escalation could lead to much wider conflict?

So, for the West, the Crimean incident has perhaps been a useful reminder of the limitations of force as a tool of coercion when you do not share a land border with a nation. It is telling that despite the strong opposition from NATO, which let us not forget remains arguably the most potent military alliance on the planet, the Russians felt they could act with relative impunity. This suggests that no matter how theoretically strong the military power is, there remains a significant difference between possession and willingness to employ it when not directly in the national interest.  Perhaps for the West the Crimean incident has served to also focus the mind that the military option is not the only way to resolve a situation. While Russia has gained the Crimea, it has done so at a considerable damage to its wider international reputation, and the West has rightly realised that economic sanctions are key to helping bring about long term change. While militarily the Russians possess substantial forces, the long term economic potential for the country will be weakened, and ultimately jobs matter more than bullets.

Looking ahead to the wider outcome of this, does it really change anything in terms of the UKs defence posture? The incident has clearly highlighted the importance of cyber-defence, particularly looking at the manner in which hacking seems to have become widespread and as much offensive as it was orientated to information operations. This will serve as a timely reminder of the importance of cyber security – even though it comes at a high price in terms of acquiring skills, equipment and manpower.

More broadly, it reminds us that the possibility of state on state conflict remains real, and that this is a good reason to continue training at the very highest levels. While it is easy to slip into a ‘train for peace enforcement’ mentality, the fact that this situation came about so quickly would suggest this is not always helpful. For the UK, it may help serve as a reminder that no matter how unlikely it feels, there is still a compelling case to train at this level. This though comes at a cost – the skills required to conduct these operations are expensive to train in, and easily lost. The challenge is whether the UK can continue to afford a large Army, or whether it reduces its force in size, but in turn produces one still capable of operating at the very highest levels.

A similar discussion could equally apply to both the Royal Navy, and the RAF, which continue to focus on operating in the most challenging of environments. As HERRICK draws to a close, and the current crisis becomes part of history books, the challenge will be to make a compelling case for the continuation of training at this level. If you believe the media reports, then the UK defence budget seems likely to shrink over the next five years as a result of the 2014 budget, meaning that very hard choices will have to be made as to where to invest effort. Publicly, reducing the forces in order to preserve a  high end capability will be very difficult to push through and be politically damaging. But, would the UK have more influence and standing in NATO by still being able to generate forces capable of tackling the more difficult tasks, rather than just having a large order of battle that is less effective?

The media, the public and many politicians will oppose cuts on the grounds that they leave the UK national security dangerously exposed. But, what is more dangerous – having more ships, tanks and planes, or having more but being able to use them to their full range of capability? One suspects that the arguments in the run in to the SDSR will be as much about emotion versus logic, and how one can make a good case for a possibly smaller military as being better for our protection.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Gone Travelling...

Humphrey is currently travelling on business, and is unable to do any blogging updates. The next article will probably be posted around 28-30 March, jetlag permitting!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

"And in other news" - the Armed Forces Pay Award and the Royal Navy opens fire on Plymouth...

Its been a quiet couple of weeks for newsworthy items on Defence blogging front. Humphrey has very deliberately not commented on the situation in the Ukraine, believing that his ability to comment meaningfully on it is limited, and that its far better to avoid adding idle speculation to what is a delicate and tense situation. Two items of news though did catch the authors eye, and are worthy of brief comment.

Firstly there was news last week that the Armed forces are to get a 1% across the board payrise in the current financial year. The reason this is interesting is the actual report written to underpin this, which contains a lot of really interesting insights into the current state of the Armed Forces – the full report can be found HERE.

The pay award for the UK Armed Forces is perhaps unique in its implementation, with a truly independent group of individuals spending the year studying the military, visiting them and hearing their concerns and looking in depth at specific issues, prior to making a recommendation to the Government as to the size of the pay award. This means that their annual reports make fascinating reading as they often highlight a wide range of issues and problems which would otherwise not be picked up.

Within this years report, the author noted several issues. Firstly, the ongoing issue as to whether UK service personnel are well paid relative to civilian life or not. It has long been a public view that the military are underpaid relative to what they do, but  this report suggests that independent research by a major consultancy firm shows that when compared to nearly 35000 other job roles and responsibilities, the overall remuneration package actually compares remarkably well to the rest of UK society. This year is the first time that any work has been done on pay comparability, and it is important because it places the military package in context to the wider civilian workforce.

The findings indicate that on a basic level, military base pay for both Officers is 100-109% of the median of civilian sector and Other Ranks is between 107 and 118% of the median. Interestingly when wider packages are taken into account, Officer pay falls to between 79-100% of the median. What the work suggests is that at present the military receive a pay award which compares very well with the wider public and private sector, although it does note that as the economy recovers, this may change.

The overall suggestion is that the Armed Forces enjoy a very good level of pay and reward relative to most professions (particularly for junior entrants), and it is only at the highest levels when this starts to fall behind. Such data is revealing as it weakens the case for a substantial payrise and undermines the argument of ‘poorly paid troops’ – as we move to a post HERRICK world, the reality is that even the most junior private will be earning roughly £18000 per year as a starting salary, which compares favourably to many other roles. One suspects that this work in future will play an important part in determining the size of pay awards – it is important that a situation is never again reached where the Military Salary is vastly behind its public and private sector peers (as in the late 1970s), but equally the UK has to avoid creating a situation where the military is an unaffordable force.

World Class comes with a large price tag to boot..

The report notes that the total cost of providing a 1% pay rise plus some allowance changes is over £80 million this year. This is worth remembering when people call for large wage increases, or increases to the headcount of the military – the current UK military is an extremely expensive beast to run and the only way large headcount increases could be sustained (e.g. manning an Army of 100,000 for the long term) is through either salary cuts or substantial equipment cuts elsewhere.

More broadly the report has some fascinating observations on the state of manning within some very niche, but utterly critical areas. For instance, there is some information on the seemingly parlous state of manning for the Strategic Weapon System operators (e.g. Trident) specialisation, particularly at the Senior Rate level, noting that at some critical areas, a 13% manpower outflow is forecast for this year. This shows once again the importance of retention at critical levels – you can recruit as much as you would like at entry level, but unless you can offer a sustained level of manpower, the ability to support crucial tasks like the nuclear deterrent is at risk. Similarly, looking at the level of manning in the diving branches, its clear that while recruiting targets are being achieved for new entrants, there are significant gaps further in the system – e.g. the Army is currently 43% under manned for its divers liability.

Another interesting point to note is the growing need to look again at the ethnic demography of the Armed Forces, which according to the report suggests that only 3% of the Armed Forces are made up from Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) groups at present. This is a worryingly low figure, particularly when the report also notes that within a few years, the BME group will represent nearly 25% of the target population for recruitment. How the Military is able to get a message across to encourage increased recruitment from this large pool is critical – encouraging a military which not only reflects the society it defends, but also is able to fully recruit from its available manpower pool is going to be a real challenge. It is absolutely vital that as society changes, the Armed Forces reflect and remain relevant to that society as a whole.

This is actually going to be a major challenge for the MOD over the next few years. Taking an organisation that has historically been an overwhelmingly white middle class group, and which will be located in a relatively small number of static locations which are not going to be in urban areas, and keeping it in the minds of a BME population which has not historically played a major role in the military is going to be a real issue. It will not be easy, but when one quarter of your recruiting pool comes from this group, it is vital that you get sufficient visibility and recruits from this pool, otherwise long term manning is simply going to be unsustainable.

The final comment of interest came from the experiences of the AFPRB visits to various sites around the UK, including Reserve units. Paragraph 2.4 notes:

“personnel told us that they thought recruiting the required number of new Reservists by 2018 would be a challenge and there was  widespread scepticism about whether targets were achievable. ”

This sense of scepticism is in sharp contrast to the official assurances at higher level that the ambitious recruiting targets will be met. That there was seemingly such widespread doubt is slightly worrying – the Reserve is going to be hugely involved in trying to meet these targets, and if this doubt exists, then instilling a positive atmosphere of success will be difficult. Given the scale of the challenge ahead, a great deal of work will be needed to overcome these doubts and put the force in place.

So, the AFPRB report is not perhaps the most exciting piece of news to break on MOD related matters, but it is one that often contains crucial small details which accurately highlight the experiences and conditions that the Armed Forces are expected to work under. As such, it is well worth reading to get a truly independent and informed insight into the issues facing the modern military today.

How it should be done! Firing a Stingray at sea

Stingraaaay, Stingray….
A less informed insight is perhaps the kindest thing that can be said though about some of the reporting on the incident in Plymouth this week. According to multiple reports, a Type 23 (HMS ARGYLL) reportedly had an impressive negligent discharge when a training variant of the Stingray Torpedo carried onboard was discharged by mistake, leaving the side of the ship and bouncing off a security fence before being stopped by a shipping container.

What was perhaps most depressing about the incident was the way in which breathless media reporting kept harping on about linking the presence of the vessel to the fact that there are nuclear submarines based in the dockyard. The manner in which a totally unrelated fact was linked to something else to add more drama to a story may get people to read it, but arguably generates far more scaremongering than would otherwise be the case (although it would perhaps be helpful if a certain Broadsheet had spelt nuclear correctly, rather than ‘nucleur’!).

Similarly the story generated a fairly appalling level of journalistic research, including several papers using the line that the Stingray was fired from torpedo tubes usually below the waterline, but exposed at low tide. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of a Type 23 would know that in fact the launcher is located as part of the rear superstructure which includes the hangar complex. Ironically, these clear assertions of fact were located next to pictures in the same article showing a torpedo being fired from a Type 23 – and yet seemingly no one thought to question the apparent mismatch.

What is depressing about this is that this sort of shock horror journalism is what will pass for most peoples understanding of what the Royal Navy is up to these days. Humphrey has blogged before about the challenges of getting the British Public to actually see media coverage on what the RN is up to (e.g. the so-called ‘Love Boat’ press release). It is stories like this though that seem to get the news – while understandable that people want to read of disaster and not good news, its depressing to consider the uphill struggle faced by Royal Navy PR when persuading the media to pick up on the day to day ‘good news stories’. Who wants to read about the importance of things like HMS PORTLAND doing Maritime Security Operations in West Africa, or the return of HMS MONTROSE from a hugely demanding mission in Syria, when they can instead read poorly drafted and researched hyperbole about the RN going to war with Plymouth instead?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The barbaric habits of the British Army today

Well it seemed Humphrey picked a bad week to go out of the country on business – Russia and Ukraine are dragging the West into arguably the worst crisis of the post-Cold War era. In the Gulf tensions are mounting between Qatar and other GCC nations, with ambassadors now being withdrawn. Venezuela appears to be on the verge of near chaos as a result of riots between opposition activists and the Government. Meanwhile in the UK the worry seems to be that some Army officers have adopted ‘barbaric’ eating practises.

Yes, ‘that’ memo is the subject of the latest article, mainly because it is so much more than just a ‘light hearted email’ but is in fact, to the authors mind at least, a fascinating insight into the quiet social revolution going on in our officers messes. The story so far is that a memo written by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 (UK) Division-  Maj Gen Cowan, and sent out to a fairly small list of 1* officers has been leaked to the media. In it he complains in three distinct areas about conduct today – namely, the conduct of an officer in the mess – particularly when eating. The manner in which some officers conduct themselves at dinner parties and guest nights, in particular the seating arrangements, and finally the standards and use of writing by some officers today. 

The reaction in the media has been one of predominantly barely controlled ridicule, seeing this as yet another example of a Victorian General completely out of touch with the modern nation and the standards of today. The defence being used is that the email was intended to be sent in a manner showing light hearted banter to try and get people thinking about how they conduct themselves.

Personally Humphrey thinks the General has made the cardinal mistake of trying to apply humour to an email, without considering how it may be read by others. No matter how you mean something to be read, the danger is that unless you know the author well, and can interpret the inflections and subtleties as you read it, then the danger is that it can be interpreted very differently. Its far better to have verbally briefed your concerns for onwards briefing, rather than commit them to a medium which can be easily passed on. In this case it has rebounded very badly, causing the Army a minor PR disaster at a point when it desperately needs PR wins.

At its most basic the Generals email highlights the growing social change in the military, and the manner in which it has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 years. When the Generals generation joined the Army, the expectation was one that Mess life was very much the centre of the individual officers personal life, inhabited for most of the year and with a small group of individuals living, working and socialising together. The shared camaraderie and opportunity fostered a strong team spirit, and built bonds which lasted a lifetime. Underpinning this was a shared sense of common values and conduct – one only has to look at the way that the three Officer training establishments used to conduct training in officer like qualities for many years. When people married and left the mess, they would usually inhabit the married quarters, and the Regiment or Service would work around the world as an extended family, particularly as it was less common for wives to hold down full time careers. Thus things like dinner parties and wider social gatherings were very common. 

Today though the mess as a concept is very different – the growth of home ownership or at the very least renting somewhere off site has massively reduced the numbers of full time ‘livers in’ who occupy the mess. The average officers mess is a ghost town at weekends, and the move to commercial catering such as Pay As You Dine (PAYD) means that many of the perks of mess membership seem to have quietly vanished.  Officers have partners and families The explosion in easily accessible social media such as internet, consoles, mobile phones and all the other means of staying in touch with friends means that people have very easy access to their wider social networks. Speaking to senior officers recently, they bemoaned that the modern generation of junior officers arrive in the military with already formed social networks outside of the armed forces which they prioritise above their military colleagues. In other words, there has been a shift between the generation where the military and Mess life was seen as a calling and a way of life to now where increasingly the Mess is seen as a temporary accommodation during the working week, and that real life goes on at home. 

While there are exceptions to the rule, Humphrey has noted that particularly in the last 10-15 years the Mess has played an ever less important part in the life of many military officers. The ease of returning home, the decline of the drinking culture and the fact that many people are just so busy now means that many of the standards and traditions that previously were taken for granted have fallen by the wayside. The dinner party lifestyle which occurred on the Patch, the regular mess dinners and the spontaneous unplanned run ashore seem to have slowly gone into decline. Much of the wider activity that made the military so much more than just a job is quietly disappearing and instead the Mess is becoming much more like a Travelodge – somewhere to eat, sleep and go to work and nothing more. 

What has not helped is that for the last 20 years the Armed Forces have been exceptionally busy on real world operations and the not had the time for living the ‘Garrison Lifestyle’ as was the case during the 1980s. The end of HERRICK though is perhaps drawing into sharp relief that the future for the British Army is going to be a lot more about life in large garrisons around the UK, with very little in the way of ‘real soldiering’ going on. The reaction to this email shows perhaps how much the Army has changed from being a static force, to one that has spent nearly two decades on operations and not having time to worry about the seating order at a dinner party. The large bulk of junior – mid seniority officers will have not known any life other than one where operations were the key driver, and a steady round of OPTAG, deployment, POTL, recovery and repeat was the norm.

Where does this saga leave the Army? Firstly it is hard to see how it is anything other than a minor PR disaster for the Army – having an email leak in this way merely goes to highlight all the concerns that people have about the perception of an out of touch military still fighting the last war. The salient points that the General did make (e.g. the unnecessary use of capitals and long words and other defence writing points, plus working on increasing public exposure to what the Army does) have been missed, particularly by a media gleeful to have pure comedy gold on its hands. Secondly it weakens the case for the Army in SDSR in the mind of politicians who will remember incidents like this – the good work done on operations is easily undone by a new minister who remembers the story of the Army officer more worried about cutlery than combat. The other two Services will doubtless be rubbing their hands in glee as they see an easy way to portray an out of touch Army spectacularly shoot itself in the foot.

The reaction in the Army is also telling. It highlights the growing schism between junior officers who see the Army as a career, but one in which they have to balance off their home, work and personal lives with more senior officers who see the Army as a lifestyle and a calling. There is no denying that society has changed, and that the mental image of the mess from thirty years ago is probably not the mess that many young officers want to live in now. As the Army returns to barracks, one has to ask whether many of the current crop of younger officers would want to put up with this sort of imposition on their lives, or if its enough to make them leave and go elsewhere? There is a fine line to be struck between insisting on the highest standards and conduct, and adding unnecessary and at times possibly ludicrous conditions on how you should eat and behave. Finally the letter does suggest that some in the Army do not recognise that the role of the partner has changed, and that offering marriage guidance suggestions (no matter how humorously intended) to a generation where the wife (or husband) usually holds down a very successful career and probably earns more than their Army spouse is a very easy way to build resentment from both the Officer and their partner, and is one more reason to encourage people to consider leaving.

 It is also probably not unfair to say that this sort of story may make potential recruits reconsider whether they event want to be in the Army full stop – if you were looking at careers, would you want to join an organisation that recognised your time was your own, or one that had senior people get het up over you eating a sandwich?

So, no matter that the memo was sent with the best of intents, it would seem to have backfired spectacularly and caused the Army one of its more easily avoidable PR disasters since the last Crimean War. It has reinforced the ‘General Melchett’ stereotypes so beloved of the media, and tarnished the reputation of an officer who has served with distinction for many years. In short, probably not the Army’s finest hour.