Friday, 21 July 2017

A Strategic Defence Review in all but name...

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you have news to reveal in Parliament that you'd rather not get much attention then do so on the last day of the session (with apologies to Jane Austen, who is according to shock news this week apparently one of Britains greatest living authors…). That was proven again this week when the Government mentioned on 20 July that there was to be a review of national security capabilities (LINK HERE).

This announcement seems to have been left until the last day of the Parliamentary Session to be released, with relatively little in depth information as to what the Review will actually cover. The text implies soothing corporate buzzwords such as  ‘joined up effective and efficient as possible’. Fighting the urge to shout BINGO at the host of buzzwords in the statement, it is worth considering what it could imply.

Under current plans the UK undertakes a 5-yearly review of the strategic situation, which was done in 2010 and 2015. On both occasions the results provided both a National Security Strategy (NSS), which laid out the range of the threats and challenges facing the UK, and also a SDSR, which set out the Defence contribution to meeting them, and the forces required to do so. In turn this generates a 10 year look ahead of force structure (the so-called ‘Future Force 2020 / 2025) which maps out what capabilities need to be purchased and what level of forces will be available to contribute to operations.

The next SDSR was not due until 2020, and ordinarily the review would have had an annual report into progress (noting that many of its commitments would be implemented over this period) and tracking delivery against aspiration. The annual reports are worth reading if you want to take stock on how Defence and wider HMG feel that they are doing on delivering the SDSR.

The announcement of a deeper review though implies significant change – this is the third ‘strategic’ review in roughly 6 years of one form or another. The language ‘capabilities’ implies that the review is focused on the implements used to deliver the strategy -  but whether this is limited to equipment, or if manpower is deemed as a capability is not clear.

This perhaps is the question here – what does a review of the investment into UK national security capability actually mean? The SDSR did a comprehensive review of UK security commitments, ensured funding was available both for current equipment and the future equipment plan and got it onto a reasonable basis for the future. To launch a review into what should have been a five year commitment to procurement after less than two years implies that something has gone badly wrong.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the collapse in the pounds value against both the Dollar and the Euro as a result of the Brexit referendum has gone a long way to causing a new challenge in finances. Simply put, the pound has lost roughly 20% of its value against the dollar, which means that all equipment to be purchased from the US is now 20% more expensive. Even with low level fluctuations to be expected as the norm for budgeting purposes, this is an enormous drop that is unlikely to be easily affordable.

Given that no budget increase seems to be on the cards for the MOD from any political party, the only way out of this is to review the plans and see what can be done to cut the now enormous extra bulge in the procurement budget. The problem with this is that if you cut equipment, you are not just cutting a long term plan – you are also effectively making a statement about what operations you expect the armed forces to be able to carry out. Everything is purchased for a reason,  to be able to provide a capability to contribute to a specific range of missions. Items are not bought because they look good or sound cool – they are aquired to do a job. But this requires them to be bought in specific numbers to allow certain levels of contribution.

For instance, you may want to buy X fighter jets to allow for enough to do multiple peacetime tasks, or provide a force for different types of combat operations. But if you reduce X (say 100) jets down to (say 80) jets, then you are reducing the ability of the military to deploy to deliver against some of these scenarios.

Similarly the military is recruited and manned to provide people in sufficient numbers to deliver these capabilities. If you reduce them, then you theoretically reduce the manning and training liability – a loss of 20 jets may mean one less squadron of aircraft, which in turn reduces the number of pilots, engineers and ground crew needed to support it, along with less infrastructure, fewer bases and reduced fuel and support costs. A small change to the equipment plan can send ripples through the whole defence budget, causing substantial longer term changes right across every part of defence.

Therefore when you say a review is going on of investment in national security capability, then that actually implies that an SDSR in all but name is going on – because the impact on reductions in procurement have to be taken into account in the way that Defence generates and supports forces to meet its required outputs. There are many issues that need to be considered, such as the type of equipment being purchased, the levels of manpower required for it (and whether the forces current relative manpower ceilings are right or if they need to be changed) and the infrastructure and estate required to support it.  

It is notable that unlike the last two defence reviews, which were heavily trailed and announced quickly, this seems to have been announced as late as possible in the Parliament – perhaps to attract minimal attention. It is also notable that unlike previous recent convention, where the name of a ship and its laying down or first steel are known at the same time (such as the announcement that Successor would be known as the ‘Dreadnought’ class), the steel cutting for Type 26 occurred earlier in the week, while its naming as the City class did not occur until a few days later – on the last day of the Parliamentary session. It was also interesting to spot that there was practically no press interest at all in the announcement of this defence review, and plenty on the ship name and its impact on Scotland.

Also of interest is the manner in which this review will deliver its outcomes to the public. The two previous defence reviews were announced in Parliament (if memory serves by the Prime Minister). The intention for this third defence review (for that is surely what it is) seems to be different – there is a small statement confirming that the 2nd annual report into the SDSR will cover its implementation and that of associated work. In other words a major defence review, the outcomes of which seem to be intent on reducing significantly the levels of defence procurement, and in turn the nations ability to meet its agreed security strategy will not be announced in Parliament, but as part of a wider report that is of fairly niche interest to most people. The impression here is that significant capability, structural and organisational changes may well be afoot for the whole of Defence, with long term ramifications for the size and shape of the armed forces, but that there seems to be no intent at present to announce its outcome in Parliament, contrary to previous recent defence reviews.

MOD will  doubtless proudly trail the announcement of the publication of the 2nd report with the usual brand of superlatives that have come to characterise its press releases - such as ‘the report when published in A4 is equivalent to the length of one Lego London bus’ or ‘the report is of sufficient thickness that when handled by the superbly trained world class Royal Navy crew, it can be used as an effective means of batting away inbound supersonic cricket balls heading towards their ship’. But look beyond the superlatives and be sure to read very closely what the review says in the annual SDSR report when it comes out. It has the potential to be a very interesting read indeed…

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Snapshot in time - or deconstruction of a photo...

Humphrey is rarely moved to write on wider government issues (particularly Brexit), and certainly does not wish to express his views on  it.  Sometimes though something happens that is so staggeringly stupid and yet so widely propagated that a reply is called for to try and set things straight. In this case it is the ridiculous assertion doing the rounds on social media and political spokespeople that David Davis went into meetings with the EU without any paperwork on him.
One of the tasks that generations of Civil Servants have come to dread is the Friday afternoon phone call, usually just when the finish line is in sight going something along the lines of “we’ve just found out the Minister is going to Upper Bongozwania over the weekend and needs a full brief with lines to take”. This is the cue for a flurry of work as briefs are pulled together, lines to take on policy issues formulated and every conceivable issue that could come up is pulled together into one briefing pack that sets up the trip, its objectives and what the Minister needs to do or say at various points. This is then passed to a member of the Private Office, who ensure that it is seen by the Minister, who is prepared adequately for the trip.
A somewhat flippant view perhaps, but it demonstrates that even the most short notice visit will generate some form of paperwork to inform, advise and support the Minister in executing their duties. One of the great ironies of ministerial office, perhaps beautifully captured by ‘Yes Minister’ is how little real ability to really set the agenda or ‘go it alone’ that the average Minister really has. In reality most have wide and complex portfolios, and require effective support from their civil servants to understand the issues, and ensure they can successfully chair a meeting or work a room. A good Minister can make it look so effortless to outsiders, that they are in control of their brief, that they know all the details and that people walk away feeling that the Minister personally cares about their subject. What they don’t see is the huge amount of briefing preparation for these events by the Civil Service to protect their Minister, or the way that some Ministers are very good at improvising, adapting and overcoming to meet any given situation…
'That' Photo...
When travelling, Ministers usually find themselves rushed from car to building to meeting room to exit to car with barely a moment to stop. When they arrive in the meeting room, often jetlagged and wondering what day/week/month it is depending how long they've been on the road, there is often an official photographer there ready to take a photo of the moment (or in some cases, particularly the Middle East, a TV crew as well). This is literally a snapshot in time, occurring right at the start of the meeting before anything substantive has been discussed, and before the table is disfigured under coffee cups and sugary snacks (essential survival tools for long days on the road). It is very rare indeed to have time to unpack and set up before the photographer takes the photos and then departs so the real work can begin.
In the photo that is being discussed at length, it is worth realising a few key points. Firstly, it appears that the photo was taken at the start of the meeting, so highly unlikely that there would have been time to get the paperwork out. Secondly, given the penchant for Downing Street photographers to snap shots of briefing material to cause scandal, even if there was time, why would you run the risk of creating another mini news scandal by potentially giving them material to work with?
Finally comparisons with those from the EU present with the paperwork seem unduly harsh – given they have probably walked down from their office to be in the room, its not unreasonable that they bring the paperwork with them. By contrast if you’ve travelled internationally, then the chances are that you’ll have the papers in your bag. In other words, there is literally nothing here except for a PR photo that has gone viral despite it saying nothing at all. 
It is a damning reflection on how infantile and facile the news agenda is when a single photo, a snapshot of time can somehow lead a legion of Twitterati and the front page of a tabloid paper to assume that a Minister has turned up without any briefing papers. The lack of willingness to apply common sense, to think conventionally or to question what is being shown perhaps highlights how hard it is to get complex policy challenges debated credibly in the UK. Instead the debate boils down to deciding its all over before its even started, simply because a photo was taken before the paperwork was dug out.

What an utterly depressing state we appear to be in. What is even more depressing is that in future, its probably a safe bet to assume every such PR photo will feature reams of paperwork on the desks and howls of outrage from the environmentalist lobby over the trees that died in the service of briefing Queen & Country...

Monday, 17 July 2017

Which version of the Truth to believe?

The Times ran today with a story suggesting that the JSF is over budget, fails to work on a range of issues and that it is fundamentally not fit for its intended purpose. Is this fair, or is this the latest round of rumour mongering on a project that has long split opinions? More to the point, in an era of ‘fake news’, what version of the truth should we believe?

The problem with stories such as this is that they capture very specific snapshots of an issue, are roughly stapled together with some narrative to form a story, and in turn this can be spun as the author sees fit. It is clear that the Times has managed to unearth documents purporting to show big price rises, reduced capability and issues with testing, but does this mean the programme itself is at fault?

In truth the likelihood is that no one outside of a fairly tight circle really knows or understands. We have to be clear on what JSF is – it is by a significant margin probably the most complicated multi-national aviation project of all time, designed to deliver an aircraft that is as much an ISTAR platform as it is a strike and fighter aircraft, and to do so across three very different environments (carrier operations, STOVL operations and conventional). Designed in the mid 1990s it has been brought into service during an era of unprecedented technological change and capability growth.

The first thing we have to realise is that this makes for a very complicated project that in all likelihood will be in service for multiple decades to come. The pilot of the last F35 to be manufactured, let alone leave service, probably hasn’t been born yet. This in turn means there is a need for a complex testing programme to bring together the many capabilities it has to deliver.

Military aircraft testing to the uninitiated is a terrifying process – if you could see the faults encountered and experienced during the testing of a new aircraft then you’d probably never want to fly in one. But these tests exist to iron out bugs, to make sure aspiration links up to reality and more importantly fix them as they are encountered. It is by necessity a slow process, particularly when working with multiple variants of the same airframe.

If you look in isolation at documentation supporting the programme then of course it would be easy to look at tests and worry that it wasn’t working. But unless you sit inside the inner group, privy to all the data, all the tests and more importantly the planned solutions, it is difficult to make an objective assessment.

Similarly much of what F35 is capable of remains exceptionally highly classified – and rightly so. Therefore much of what goes on is known to few, and unlikely to ever be publicly discussed for fear of compromising capability. This creates a window of opportunity for naysayers without any real deep link to the project to say ‘X is broken because of Y and can’t do Z’, while those on the inside are frustratedly thinking ‘actually X isn’t broken, Y is just fine because of tweaks made to C,D and Q, and it can do Z and then some’ – but they can’t break this silence because of their obligations to various Secrecy laws across many countries.

What is clear from the twitter response today is that the article caused much frustration, and the responses boiled down to experienced operators who know the aircraft, know its capabilities (and limitations), and who know what is going on react with barely concealed frustration at the article. It was clear they felt it was not a 100% accurate interpretation of events, but their ability to comment knowledgeably was limited.

The F35

Humphrey has a couple of points that he’d apply to this and other stories that are worth considering when asking ‘who should I believe’? Firstly, always ask whether figures involving money are genuinely accurate – for instance the cost quoted purporting to show things doubling involved taking the headline purchase cost and comparing to its expected through life cost. This is akin to buying a car – if a car costs £10,000, then that’s a clear headline cost. But if you said ‘the car is lifed for five years, and will incur monthly running costs for insurance, parking permits, servicing, MOT, road tax of £100, and monthly petrol costs of £50, then suddenly that £10,000 car becomes a £19000 car once these additional costs are factored in. Always seek to question what sum of money is being quoted and why.

Secondly always ask who is providing the criticism and what is their viewpoint? The Times managed to dig out several critics of the F35 programme who attacked the information provided to them. What it didn’t do was note that these critics have been attacking just about every aircraft programme since the 1970s as being too expensive (just look at any book from the 1980s about aircraft, such as ‘New Maginot Line’ to prove this point) that some of them have personal agendas in wanting very specific types of aircraft built, and that none of them are privy to the actual full picture of what is going on. In other words, the critics are relying on their biases for ‘shock tactics’ when in fact they are hugely biased for their own views and have a clear agenda in play.

So, ask yourself – who is saying this, why are they saying this and what is their agenda? Humphrey makes a point of checking the public background information on people who claim to be ‘experts’ on issues, particularly when the media cite them as such. It helps distinguish from genuine experts who are worth listening to, to former junior RN officers who feel their knowledge of one minor part of the Service makes them an expert on all things maritime…

Finally ask yourself ‘who has leaked these documents and why’? In other words, when journalists start getting leaked documents to examine, there is usually an ulterior motive by the leaker – sometimes it is genuine concern, other times potentially hope of gain. Many whistle-blowers do so out of a deep sense of worry that something will go wrong – but often they are junior and don’t have access to the full picture. It is rare indeed for senior whistle-blowers to leak to the press on a project, perhaps because when you see the bigger picture, things become more complicated. So always ask why might specific documents have been leaked – for instance if a defence spending round is underway, the MOD is legendary for ‘cap badge politics’ of officers photocopying selectively to send to various defence journalists to advance their own Service cause – regardless of what is actually going on.

The longer term ramifications of this story though are depressing. It has undermined the Royal Navy and helps hurt morale of those serving. It feeds those on social media who genuinely now believe that the UK is buying a subspec aircraft. More depressingly it increases the clarion calls to ‘bring back harrier’ because apparently bringing a long dead aircraft without an extant supply chain, spare parts, flying training pipeline and up to date equipment is far more sensible than buying the best strike jet in the world which has massive operational and economic benefits for the UK. The damage to the RN reputation will continue for years to come with cheap jibes about ‘volvo frigates’ and ‘useless JSF’ by people who have no idea about the subject or issues at hand.

To sum up then, when you read stories like in the Times today, don’t write them off, don’t assume they are rubbish. But equally question more deeply and understand the motivations behind the story and question the story itself. If in doubt, question everything you see and read and ask yourself this simple question ‘why is it that this story is in the paper today, and why did someone see fit to leak it in order to be here’? This way you should help build your own version of the Truth.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Steely Stuff - the saga of Type 26 production

There has been coverage in the last few days of the UK governments confirmation that only 35% of the new Type 26 frigates steel would be sourced from UK suppliers, with the remainder coming from overseas. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

The problem with the modern defence industry these days is twofold -firstly it is hard to keep everything required for a ship or kit ‘in country’ and that you have to go overseas for parts of the supply chain. Secondly, its hard for any government to keep giving out orders that continue to sustain a credible industry without either very heavy subsidies, or making the ship far more expensive.

In the case of the Type 26, the clear problem was that despite MOD aggressively trying to persuade industry to bid and provide UK solutions, no UK steel manufacturer was able to meet the specifications and provide all the steel. Its hard for Government to support industry when industry itself is unable to meet the needs of the requirement.

Much like the RFA Tide class tankers had to be built overseas because no UK shipbuilder proposed an in country build (primarily due to capacity issues), the reality is that the requirement for certain types of steel is quite limited now. Industry has to make a strategic decision based on whether it is worth retaining a capability to make this type of specific steel or not, and balance up the costs and benefits of doing so. Clearly UK industry has chosen not to keep up the investment required and as such was unable to bid.

From a Government perspective, its difficult to see what could have been done differently. The requirement for high end specific steel was always going to be limited after the Type 45 finished construction. At best a small number of ships over a roughly 20 year period would need them (even on the original 13 hull Type 26 plan, it still only envisaged one ship every 18 months - two years). 

The numbers are small, and the need for extra steel limited. So we find ourselves in a position where parts of the hull are being outsourced and built overseas – because there is no industrial capacity to do so here, nor was there likely to have been. Does this really matter?

Humphrey would argue that no, it does not really matter except to political mischief makers. The harsh reality is that every Western military (and frankly most other countries too) rely on foreign components in their warships and other vessels. Some nations may have ships built from locally produced steel – but those same ships may have a combat system from one nation, a SAM from another and a gun from a third party country. In other words it’s a fusion of kit from across the globe coming together in one platform.

If you’re going to rely on foreign derived kit in your ships, then the sensible thing to do is work out what really really matters to your operational effectiveness and sovereignty. Arguably this will be the command and control systems, communications, the crypto and all the other complex electronic bits. Then it’s the weapon systems, aviation assets and other parts that help the ship ‘fight’.  It doesn’t really matter where the steel comes from – in many ways this is the least relevant bit when it comes to national sovereignty.

What matters is that in a crisis, your ability to design, build operate, support, repair and use the ships systems as intended is what counts, not where some of the steel in the hull comes from. All navies face a similar challenge – what matters is determining the level of sovereignty that you are willing to trade off for capability. If you really want a home derived warship, then you’ll end up with something out of the North Korean navy – which will be simple, unsophisticated and unable to do much except look good in photoshopped pictures.

We live in an interconnected world with complex supply chains that stretch a long way. If we were to do an analysis on the many parts of any ship, we’d find it derived from across the globe. We have to accept that the days of a nation building purely ‘in house’ are gone forever. This means every nation has to decide where the balance of investment lies, does it subsidise, or does it outsource as required to get the result when it needs to?

This argument feels more about bolstering opposition MPs who represent steelmaking constituencies than it does about actual effectiveness. In truth many of those MPs condemning the Government today, were themselves in Government when decisions were taken many years ago to slip, delay and defer or cancel Type 45 hulls 7&8 and further delay the ordering of Type 26. What we are seeing now is chickens coming home to roost from many years ago, which in turn forced industry to choose where to invest.

Sadly, its likely that no matter how this ends, much as HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH is constantly being mocked as a carrier with no planes, the Type 26 will continue to be mocked as a Swedish steel ship, allowing the Twitterati to continue to feel bad about themselves and indulge in their favourite habit of running down the RN, not focusing on the fact that every navy faces similar choices and would doubtless make the same decision if needed.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The excellent website ‘Save the Royal Navy’, which has done a superb job over many years of raising issues with the RN today, recently put out some analysis looking at fleet escort availability (ARTICLE HERE).  The article was picked up on twitter, and got quite a few comments by people who seemed to not understand why only 6 RN escorts were available for sea right now from a force of 19 hulls.  To Humphrey, there are a number of issues coming out of this article and the twitter response which are worth further comment.

Firstly, the traditional metric of how a Navy can deploy is that it requires a roughly 3:1 ratio to sustain a vessel on a task indefinitely – in very rough terms this means that when a ship is deployed on OP KIPION, her successor is nominated and working up through to being on passage to join her (e.g. HMS DARING saw HMS MONMOUTH sail sometime before being relieved). At least one more ship is going to be somewhere in the refit system requiring essential maintenance, upkeep and life extension work too. This 3:1 ratio is something which can be broken, and availability can vary over time – but as a general rule if you want to keep a ship on task for the long haul, you’ll need three ships to do this.

In the case of the current RN, the force of 19 hulls is actually 17, with two in long term ‘harbour training ship’ (NOT reserve which has a specific and different meaning) roles to save on manpower levels. This means the RN is sweating its assets incredibly hard to keep ships on task for the long haul – particularly at a point when the T23 fleet is starting to show its age, and also go through a complex Mid Life Update process – at its simplest, ships designed for 18 years of life will be nearly 40 before they leave service, and its showing.

But, the risk is that in looking at the headline figure of ‘only’ 6 escorts, we lose the ability to explain that this is actually pretty good by any navies standards. If you look at the worlds navies right now, there are very few which are able to deploy and sustain more than one or two ships at distance from home – the USN, occasionally the French and Russians and that’s about it. Others can do some quite impressive training deployments, more for showing the flag than delivering effect. Other navies may deploy escorts, but to do so occupies a big chunk of their naval training and output for the year to deliver this, at the hidden cost of keeping other ships alongside.

Don’t make the lethal mistake of assuming that because the RN ‘only’ has 6 ships out there that every other navy is laughing at it. In fact the RNs ability to sweat its force so hard remains a real point of awe for other nations, who are amazed at how much the RN can do at one time.

The challenge is communicating this to an increasingly seablind nation that thinks the Navy only has six ships out there. Trying to explain the escort force is but one of many aspects of the RN, that many other ships are deployed too, and that keeping 6 ships on task (one third of the escort force) on a sustained 24/7 basis is a genuinely impressive ability most countries cannot do. That by the way is before you look at the SSBN deployments, the OPVs, the Survey Ships etc. What the RN is perhaps not able to communicate in a way that the public will get is that every single day of the year, the UK has more ships outside its home waters doing operational stuff than just about any other country on the planet other than the US.

This leads to well intentioned but ultimately misguided calls for more ships and to grow the Navy to do more. The problem though isn’t one of ships, but of people. To keep the fleet deployed and doing the job it has to do, the RN has to ask a great deal of its people. The challenge is keeping the right mixture of people in the right posts at the right time to be usable – this is not as easy as it sounds. 

There is a clear recognition that the current manpower total of roughly 30,000 is too small – and the RN is slowly growing, but it takes time to get people into the right level of trained posts to be of value.

Even if HMS RALEIGH took 10,000 people tomorrow, it would still be 10-20 years depending on role before these keen recruits could generate experienced senior rates with the right mix of training and expertise in the numbers required. You could skip training or accelerate promotion,  but this does pose a risk too.

Its often forgotten that the RN of today is still living daily with the effects of the manning ‘black hole’ caused by the recruiting taps being turned off in the early 1990s and an entire generation was never recruited. To add more ships would only make the problem worse right now. Instead what is needed is a two-step approach – firstly a lot of hands on management and moving people around to keep ships on task and at sea (and this in turn causes retention issues when a Friday pierhead jump occurs). Secondly, more people are needed to fill extant gaps and help the RN keep going for the long term – but this will take some years to deliver.

Interestingly during the election, the commitment to service manpower was a headline figure of not cutting total manpower, not an explicit commitment to keep the Army at 82000 (arguably still a lot more than is actually required if you listen to many commentators). So, its possible that over time you will see service manpower adjustments, with the Army being reduced in order to increase the RAF and RN by the same amount.

The other challenge is to ensure that people understand just how small the RN is, and how tiny some of its branches are. There are numerous ‘pinch points’ out there for personnel who cannot easily be filled – for instance, the surface fleet may have roughly 15000 sailors in theory, but this is not a block of people who can do each others jobs. What it actually has is several smaller branches of people in roles from warfare to engineering to logistics, and which take many years to learn to do well.

So, when you see suggestions that the RN could solve its manning problems by not manning a carrier or moving people round, remember that the manning gap doesn’t mean there is an exact total of two or three ships companies out there in the right ranks/rates ready to go to sea. It means there are a lot of people in different roles, with different experience but you can’t easily pull them together to form a ships company.  Over the next few years the challenge is going to be managing the manpower pool and keeping the right talent in the right places at the right time to keep the RN going, without breaking them in the process. This is not going to be easy.

So, Humphrey would say that yes, there is absolutely a case for a larger RN – and the Government itself recognises this with the Type 31 frigate and suggestion it will grow the escort fleet. But this will take time to build the ships, time to recruit and build the right manpower pools to man them. Patience is what is needed here, because there is no magic manpower tree you can shake to produce SQEP at no notice to do difficult jobs well.

Humphrey predicts a couple of things will happen over the summer – firstly people will see ships alongside for summer leave and there will be outrage at the RN not working, or not deploying. Secondly people will not understand that the RN has more than 6 ships at sea, that it’s a very busy navy and that its doing a damn sight better than its friends and others. If only we could focus on the positives, focus on the sense that the need to grow is accepted and recognised, and focus on the medium term, not doing ourselves down in the short term.

There are absolutely big challenges ahead, but Humphrey is utterly fed up of reading rubbish on twitter about how the RN is some kind of failure or national embarrassment for ‘only’ having X ships at sea. The UK is lucky enough to possess a phenomenal navy that is well funded, well equipped and highly capable at doing its job. Perhaps if we started recognising this rather than feeling like we’re a nation of failures more people would join and help solve some of the manpower challenges that it has right now?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

‘On my island in the sun’ – Or why a permanent base in the West Indies isn’t a such great idea…

The inspiration for this article came from a recent Guardian article which was talking about the role of the RN’s OPV fleet post Brexit, and which placed some fairly dismissive views on the role of HMS SEVERN during her lengthy west indies deployment. In turn this sparked a wider debate on Twitter about whether ‘forward basing’ was the answer for the RN in the West Indies.

The Royal Navy has had a long history in the West Indies from buccaneers and naval battles of old through to a pretty much continuous presence for the last 200 years. Throughout the Cold War the RN commitment in the region was built around a naval presence headquartered in Bermuda (HMS MALABAR) and supported by a small number of frigates to support the UK colonial commitment to the area. Administered initially under the post of ‘Senior Naval Officer West Indies’ (SNOWI) which was disbanded in 1976, the RN presence reduced to a rotating escort, and HMS MALABAR (used for cold war duties, and which closed in the 1990s).

The role of the RN in the region has historically been built around three basic concepts – support to UK government and its allies (both Overseas Territories and Commonwealth partners), provision of disaster relief in the event of a hurricane and counter drugs work. All of these are important tasks, and make a massive difference in a region where military capability is light, and the residual UK territories (Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Turks & Caicos Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla and Bermuda) have little more than armed constabularies to protect themselves.

Up until the early 00’s the role of West Indies Guardship (later known as Atlantic Patrol Task North) was filled by a frigate or destroyer, occasionally with an RFA in company. The Type 21s in their later years were regular visitors, as were Type 42s. But the reduction in the number of escorts and ability to sustain a 24/7/365 presence saw changes to the operational pattern, and types of ships deployed.

The major changes initially included deployment of an RFA tanker to the region for much of the year (used to support counter narcotics work due to the flight deck, but also do wider support) and at the time of writing RFA WAVE KNIGHT is on station. The reason the newer Waves were deployed owed much to international regulations around tankers prohibiting the entry into certain ports of older tankers, hence why a scarce Naval Service tanker is employed in the region.

In addition, during the hurricane season a variety of RN assets will cycle through, the most unusual of which was probably HMS PROTECTOR who pulled the role for a time during the Antarctic winter and between local refits. RFA BAY class LSDs are a common site, with MOUNTS BAY reportedly being in the region too at the moment (LINK HERE).  Finally it is common for vessels returning from the Falklands to do a Panama transit and spend time in the region, so the sight of a DD or FFG in the region is less common than before, but still does occur.

RFA WAVE RULER embarking US Coast Guard detachment in West Indies Source
Most notably though in recent years the use of River class OPVs has been seen in the region, with HMS SEVERN and HMS MERSEY both deploying out for sustained periods of time. This works due to the ‘third watch’ system, which sees the crew regularly swap out to ensure they are not deployed for sustained periods of time.

The deployment of a smaller vessel is notable because in many ways it provides a more credible capability for the regional threat level. No matter how you look at it, having a very highly capable destroyer sailing the West Indies for 6 months is not the best use of an RN asset sorely needed elsewhere (no matter how big a threat the Windies cricket teams balls may pose to the ship ;-) ). Joint operations are perhaps more challenging because an escort is an order of magnitude more complex and complicated than any vessel operated in the region.

At best the average coastguard out there may aspire to operate one or two small OPVs (for instance the former HMS ORWELL is still in service in Guyana) but they simply have neither the interest or capability to operate high end ships. This makes defence sales difficult, its hard to organise much sustained credible training of value that is of relevance and overall while welcome in the region, an escort ship is probably overkill except for its aviation assets and bodies for use in a disaster.

By contrast an OPV provides a more sensible platform to work with – its easier to get genuine co-operation and teach useful tips if the host nation aspires to move into an OPV capability too soon (for instance the Brazilian River class derived OPVs were originally built for Trinidad and Tobago). The smaller draught makes it easier to get into small ports and more importantly alongside in harbours that may not have seen a White Ensign in decades – particularly in regions where a Frigate would end up dwarfed on the cruise ship berth.

Do not under estimate the sheer value of diplomatic goodwill generated by valuable allies, or the delight locals have in seeing a Royal Navy ship alongside in their town. In this way the River class is an invaluable asset to have in region, and arguably does far more long term good than an Escort.

A Permanent Home?
Does the sustained deployment though call for a permanent base to operate out of in order to make support easier? There is a seductively compelling vision of a small RN base somewhere in the Windies, parenting an OPV or two (perhaps the Batch 1 River class?), and providing long term presence in the region.

Its not a completely foolish idea – the Dutch maintain a very small naval presence in the Dutch Antilles CLICK HERE for more information) which not only has a permanent support ship, but also sees a regular escort presence (see HERE for a story about RFA WAVE KNIGHT RASing a Dutch frigate recently).  The French Navy also maintains a similar presence in the region too.

The challenge for the RN though is firstly to define what benefit a permanent base would offer. It would require a substantial amount of land, and deep water port access sufficient to accommodate RN ships used on the APT(N) role – so essentially up to 40,000 tonne tankers. Arguably there is nowhere that really has these facilities with the possible exception of the Cayman Islands.

HMS SEVERN in the Cayman Islands SOURCE

You then need to consider what the base will do – assuming it is supporting the deployers, it would require explosives handling facilities, maintenance workshops, an oil fuel depot of some kind and access to a Forward Logistics Site (e.g. airhead) to support personnel and kit movements. Underpinning this would be an HQ structure of some form to provide admin, logistics and general support. You’d also need a very complex set of legal agreements underpinning the facility, the way it could be used and be certain of the legal status of troops based there.

This would necessitate a considerable manpower footprint, which would realistically need to rotate through on the same sort of deployment schedule as is seen at UKMCC  in Bahrain (6-9 month tours). The problem is that this means you need 3 people  nominated for each post (one there, one returned and one deploying) at any one time to be certain of manning it. As the RN hasn’t got a manpower liability for such a commitment, it would require either putting more pressure on existing teams, or making cuts elsewhere and gapping posts to fill it. In critical areas like engineers, this would place incredible pressure on already stretched teams to provide bodies.

By contrast the current arrangements work rather well, with ships pulling into ports as required for maintenance periods (some RFA vessels have made extensive use of the US in this way) and contractor support, spare parts are flown out as needed. It also means its easier to draw on fuel and other stores as required, with reimbursement via existing agreements, rather than keeping a supply base open which would rarely be drawn on.

Even if the base is established, you’ve actually reduced the flexibility in the system. You’ve tied up personnel who will be on another 6 month tour – doubtless fun the first time, but by the 4th or 5th deployment in a few years rolls around, the novelty factor has long gone. It could paradoxically be a major retention issue for branches with existing manpower problems if they have to sustain a long term commitment with relatively little work to do out there.

From a spares perspective it adds extra cost to the supply chain – assuming the ship is permanently out there means you’d need to add in a lot of extra supplies into the stores chain to be held in case of demand. This means either more purchases (increasing cost) for more stock, or reducing stocks held in the UK and increasing pressure on residual stores at home, which could be a problem if lots of spares were needed, but could only be found in the West Indies. In other words, you’re paying a lot more money for contingency planning, as opposed to just sending out a spare part as required when an OPDEF is raised.

Finally you’d see a massive increase in costs for personnel moves as crews flew through, training teams came out to deliver OST, various contractors came out to visit and update the ship, doing the sort of work that would be done at home normally on other ships. The unanticipated people cost, plus burden on RAF cargo flights and getting people out there would make a massive difference to deliver work that is currently done at home at a fraction of the cost.

People always forget that forward basing doesn’t take away the challenges of keeping the ship ready for sea, safe to go to sea and ready to fight. There is a world of difference between keeping a ship going for a finite deployment, and keeping them sustained for the long term in region. It can be done and it is done, but its not cheap and it places a burden on the system.

The final point to consider is that a shore base actually reduces flexibility. It requires a ship to get to / from the point where its support facilities are and build its programme around that. It adds in a layer of planning to ensure that ‘home’ can be reached as required in the event of a problem, which in some ways is helpful, but if you find yourself tied to the Cayman Islands, but are operating 500 miles away routinely actually adds time and difficulty on to the planning. Again, it can be overcome, but its much easier to just run a programme and adapt support arrangements to temporarily stage out of whichever port you need to be in.

So, given all this the question has to be asked what benefit is gained from opening a permanent base in the West Indies? Arguably very little – it reduces flexibility, it increases costs and it doesn’t really give anything tangible in terms of capability gains but would come at the cost of increasing pressure on the stores chain and people side. Accordingly, while it sounds a fabulously seductive idea, opening a base in the West Indies would achieve little and do a great deal of damage to the Royal Navy across a range of areas, for no arguably no tangible operational difference. Far better to continue the current model that has worked well for decades, and which continues to deliver sea-power as required to help our friends and allies in the region.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Some Brief Thoughts on QUEEN ELIZABETH sailing.

If you are a follower of UK defence matters, then it seems to be traditional that you must be find a reason, any reason, to naysay and be downbeat about something good. The recent sailing of QUEEN ELIZABETH (QEC, and of course, not yet an HMS), is a good example of this. There were tweets and moans aplenty about an aircraft carrier supposedly without aircraft, about it being empty for years across a barren flight deck with tumbleweed and adrift deck hockey quoits the sole occupants, and of course that’s assuming a 17r old hacker hadn’t somehow taken charge of the ship using its SHOCK HORROR Windows XP system that’s not actually connected to the internet to somehow do something bad. This is without mentioning the near orgasmic levels of excitement the media wound themselves up into with the prospect of the vessel running into the side of the dockyard, or being stuck under the Forth Bridge.

In reality the opening days of the QE’s sea trials could not have gone better for the Royal Navy and the MOD. An outstandingly effective PR operation managed to secure a great deal of national media coverage of this event, and most of the main papers had photos of the ship at sea. Some highly astute programming ensured that a pair of Type 23 frigates and a pair of Merlin helicopters were immediately available to ostensibly provide cover, but arguably in reality provided the nation with several years of stock footage of British carrier groups at sea.  Within a couple of days the first landing was achieved, thus slaying the ‘but she’ll have no aircraft’ argument, and the internet is awash with glorious photos of the biggest warship ever built outside of the United State of America at sea. To top it all off, some sharply pointed jibes towards the Russians by the Secretary of State for Defence managed to elicit a strong reaction, suggesting the Bear is not as thick skinned as it wishes to portray itself to be.

What does this all say about the state of the RN today and what does it mean? In simple terms the sailing of QE was a very visible symbol of British commitment to global power projection, and a clear reminder of the willingness of the UK government to deploy force as required at great distance. In a time of Brexit and a supposed isolationist tendency, the existence of QE serves as a strong reminder of UK government intent to play a global role.

The deployment highlights the sheer capability of UK shipbuilding and engineering prowess – it is all too easy to mock the UK engineering sector, but to build a pair of 70,000 tonne carriers and then follow that up with an SSN programme and begin an SSBN programme – all three of which are arguably the most complex engineering projects on the planet, is a hugely positive sign of how capable UK industry is. Very few other countries can complete just one, let alone all three, of these complex engineering projects. It is also worth considering that CVF represents a triumph of shipbuilding techniques, proving the concept of modular builds and offering a real solution to support smaller shipyards around the UK to remain in the construction business.

It is also an immensely positive advert for the quality of the RN personnel embarked, who have shown over weeks of media focus their pride, their professionalism and delight at being part of the QE. Ignore the ill informed rubbish about supposedly large numbers of people putting their notice in on some papers, this experience has highlighted just how good UK sailors are and how lucky we are to have people of this calibre prepared to serve their country.

On a wider note, this is a useful reminder for the UK to the US that it is serious about playing its part in supporting US navy carrier deployments. The USN has been exceptionally good to the RN for many years in supporting the pathway to regenerating a carrier capability – the sheer number of RN personnel deployed as pilots, flight deck crew and other roles on US carriers is astounding. The departure of QE from port shows that we are much closer to the reality of her working alongside her US cousins and likely relieving a CVN on station. The photos of USS EISENHOWER and HMS OCEAN together in the Gulf will almost certainly be replicated in the next few years with QE somewhere else. At a time when bonds are being tested globally, this is a strong message to send of continued commitment to a common operational output. It is reasonable to say that many in the USN will be viewing the deployment of QE and POW as their 11th and 12th CVBGs to help take the strain on a very overstretched US navy.

More widely this visible sign of capability will be seen by many allied navies as a reminder that the RN remains one of the worlds most capable and competent forces. It is likely that there will be many nations keen to secure a visit by QE over the next few years - helping boost UK defence engagement and wider policy goals, and helping visibly show UK commitment to our friends and allies. 

Finally the departure serves as a stronger message that the Royal Navy is seeing its investment, its risks and its deep pain bear fruit. It has been nearly 20 years since CVF was first conceived, and much has been risked and lost to keep them on course. To finally see one at sea is an uplifting moment for all concerned. This is not the end of the story, but merely the opening chapter, but there is much to be optimistic about.

Much will be written about CVF over the coming months across a vast range of media outlets and blogs (likely including this one), but for now let us briefly rejoice at a moment of genuine good news, which when coupled with the ordering of Type 26, the rolling out of another A boat and progress on the RFA tankers, is a sign that for all the gloomy mist, there is often a patch of sunlight to be found out there.

James 3:4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go :-)

Sunday, 2 July 2017

‘ThinpinstripedLine2 – he's back and this time the stripes just got a whole lot thinner’

The ThinPinstripedLine blog began back in 2011 as a private blog, written in the authors spare time, and with the aim of trying to provide an alternate source of views and opinions on defence and foreign policy issues, predominantly written from the perspective of trying to understand whether there was a deeper rationale behind many of the defence stories appearing in the news. It was, and remains, the bugbear of the author that defence journalism is often fairly sensational, built on easy to write stories, often on the premise of ‘the MOD has cocked up, now whats the story about again’? In mid 2014, circumstances meant that it was no longer possible to continue writing the blog and it was suggested to Humphrey that it may be a good time to call it a day. Despite three years passing, the site has continued to attract hits and comments, and people have made clear that they miss it. Humphrey always wanted to restart the site, but circumstances meant that this has not been possible until now. 

In writing this blog, Humphrey has tried to bring an alternate set of views, that perhaps question the received wisdom that the MOD is inept, that all civil servants are useless and that the higher echelons of the armed forces and Whitehall are fundamentally out of their depth. Instead, it has tried to argue that many decisions happen for often good reasons, that the UK is far more significant than perhaps its detractors like to give it credit for, and that things happen for a good reason.

To help establish some basic credibility, Humphrey has had a diverse background in the MOD which has included working at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of defence issues. He has been fortunate enough to travel across the world to all major UK military bases, and worked on many of the major operational & policy issues affecting Defence in PJHQ, Front Line Commands and Whitehall. Humphrey also spent nearly 20 years serving as a Commissioned Officer in the Reserves, and is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as well as other operational tours. Like many of his generation, he is as familiar with being shelled as he is with staffing a submission. To avoid any doubt though, Humphrey now does not work for, and has no current professional connection to, the UK Ministry of Defence or the British Armed Forces. This blog does not represent any official view on defence policy, nor does it purport to speak on behalf of the MOD. It is purely the collected thoughts of a private individual. 

What will the blog cover?
One only has to look at the enormous range of issues affecting the world over the last 3 years to realise that the strategic situation facing the UK and her allies is astonishingly complex and not easily solved. The key challenge facing the UK is how to simultaneously manage to contain and influence Russian behaviour as a significant conventional challenge, requiring long neglected conventional military skills, whilst sustaining influence in NATO against a backdrop of Brexit, and also fighting a long term campaign in the Middle East whilst trying to sustain a global presence across a range of theatres. This is being done against the backdrop of enormous financial and manpower pressures, and the difficult of balancing the needs to deliver capability today against the long term rewards of capability tomorrow. This is not an easy operational environment to operate in at the best of times!

Over the next few months the aim of the blog will be to try to explore some of these themes in more depth and try to add some context to the work already out there. In no particular order, the sort of articles that will hopefully be written (depending on workload and current events) include
• Analysis of the 2015 SDSR and its prospects for the future
• Assessment on the role of the British Defence Staffs across the world
• The challenges facing the Royal Navy over the next year or two
• The UK in the Middle East and HMS JUFAIR.
• CVF and RN carrier airpower resurgent
• Gibraltar and why a frigate should not be based there.

This is a very short list and it will be driven by events – many older PSL articles were drafted in response to newspaper or media stories, and so Humphrey will try to be as responsive as possible to developments in Defence. Generally the aim will be to put 2-4 articles up per month depending on what is going on, and how busy the real world keeps Humphrey!
Finally, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to make contact with Humphrey – over the years many of the readers of this blog have become good friends, and its always nice to reach out and hear from readers!

Thanks and its great to be back!