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?