Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Great Power, Grave Responsibilities - wider thoughts on the Syria situation

It cannot have escaped many peoples notice that events in Syria are currently causing grave concern across the world. The alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians has caused an outbreak of revulsion which, based on what is being reported in the media, has potential to lead to attacks on Syria by some Western powers in order to send a clear message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated.

Humphrey does not wish to comment on the specifics of the crisis, nor the arguments in favour of, or against, such a course of action. There has been some outstanding comment by highly qualified commentators in this area, and it seems foolish to try and repeat that which has already been said. Instead, he wants to try and focus on a couple of points which don’t seem to have been picked up so far.

The Quiet Decline of the USN
This crisis has been dominated by impressive images of US warships firing cruise missiles, and maps showing large warships steaming menacingly in the Eastern Med. Publicly we know that four USN escorts are currently in the region, each armed with a significant quantity of missiles. What is so striking though is how this illustrates just how thinly stretched the USN is these days. Until the end of the Cold War, the Med was practically a British, then US lake. Dominated by naval bases, and home to large numbers of carriers, escorts and other vessels, any crisis would quickly have seen an almost overwhelming concentration of US firepower.

Today, the 6th Fleet has no permanently assigned escorts, and is instead reliant on other vessels transiting the area. At present it seems that three US vessels were in the area (although it is unclear I they were taken off other tasks) and one more has joined them. This is the totality of the US escort fleet in the Med (and quite possibly Europe as a whole). It is telling that there is no carrier deployed in the AOR, and that the next nearest escorts and Carrier are deployed in the Gulf. Although they could move, this would leave the Arabian Gulf without a carrier, and it is questionable whether any commander would be willing to see a CVN conduct a Suez transit right now, particularly if strikes against Syria are occurring. Partly this is a result of fewer ships, and also an impact of sequestration, where planned deployments were cancelled. The harsh reality though is that US naval power has been heavily emasculated – claims of the Med being a US lake are simply no longer true.

The worry is that this problem is only going to get worse with time; the USN faces a major challenge in keeping hull numbers up, and more importantly maintained to a reasonable level. The challenge of handling major budget cuts is that this sort of presence will inevitably be reduced. So, perhaps closer attention should be paid to how the US is meeting the response, as this is likely to be the sort of thing we’ll see in future – not overwhelming numbers of ships and aircraft, but a small number of escorts, taken off other tasks in order to do the job. One lesson is clear – the USN remains an immensely potent navy, but its ability to project the sort of power that the world is used to is perhaps far less than many realise.

The Role of the UK
One thing that fascinated the author has been the way that over the years it is almost a national sport to slag off the UK as being a nation which doesn’t matter, and which is in near terminal decline. This crisis has served as a useful reminder that for all the talk of how the UK is a declining power, the fact that the Prime Minister can talk with sufficient authority on the subject, due in part to the ability to project force in the region, helps serve as a reminder that the UK is perhaps more influential than it thinks.

It was telling watching the news broadcasts about the crisis and listening to the nations who were engaged with the US on this – the UK, Australia, Canada, France etc. It very much felt like a case of returning to the old wartime alliances – relying on nations who may be some distance from the crisis, but for whom the combination of reasonable military power, plus a political willingness to consider its use meant that these were nations worth talking too.It is telling too that many of the nations often cited as upcoming powers who really call the shots (think many EU nations or South American nations) have seemed to have had practically no effect at all on this situation. For all the talk of a change in the world order, it seems remarkable that the nations who will decide whether to act or not are by and large the Allied powers from WW2.

What does this mean though? Firstly, it demonstrates the value the UK can bring to the US of being able to offer advanced military capability, a substantial diplomatic presence, some residual but possibly useful real estate in the region, and a willingness to consider the use of force as a last resort. The author has touched before on the value of the UK in its wider diplomatic relations, and this is another good example of where the ‘package’ that the UK offers is a useful reminder that few other nations can muster similar combinations of hard and soft power, backed by a leader whose speeches will help set the global agenda. It is telling in that what is supposed to an age of shared sovereignty and greater multi-national co-operation, many large institutions like the EU or NATO are seemingly completely irrelevant in putting their views across. This crisis perhaps helps reinforce that baring a major change in the international system, the nation state, not the institution will remain the ultimate negotiating power.

A validation of the SDSR
What is perhaps most useful is that this crisis helps revalidate much of the underpinning assumptions about the SDSR. This review was attacked as a means of cutting UK force structures, but if you read it, it makes clear that it is as much about the ability to project force at distance and conduct short scale, highly focused operations as it is about reducing numbers.

What has been seen here is the value that comes from having the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) in the region, where the presence of a reasonable number of RN/RFA vessels provides significantly more options than would otherwise be the case. The ability to deploy some extremely capable vessels, able to work with their USN equivalents on an equal footing helps ensure the UK remains a relevant power – even if this does come at a cost of affordability versus numbers. Additionally the deployment helps provide a useful reminder of the value of naval power – it can loiter, with intent, and with the ability to escalate or de-escalate as required in a manner which cannot be achieved by land or airpower. However this crisis pans out, it is clear that this has been a useful validation of the RTFTG concept.

Similarly, it has also been a useful reminder of the value of ‘residual real estate’ in places like Cyprus, which are often dismissed as sleepy backwaters by some. The ability of the UK Government to have access to sovereign territory, capable of supporting air operations and providing a vital logistics bridge back home cannot be overestimated. The value of Cyprus in this volatile and difficult region is becoming ever more apparent.

So, perhaps one lesson is clear – the SDSR helped create the force structures we see today – it is perhaps worth considering that according to the media, only the UK and US have warships in the region, with the French still in harbour, and no other partners have joined them. While some rail against the current structure of the MOD, perhaps its worth considering that many of the much vaunted NATO powers, whose spread sheet ORBATS look so impressive, seem to have been thus far unable to provide a short notice response to support these efforts. Perhaps it is worth asking whether the restructuring of SDSR, painful as it was, was a necessary task in order to ensure that the UK could continue to play a senior role in global politics.

Conclusions

This situation remains volatile and fluid and it is far to early to predict what may, or may not happen. However, what is clear is that looking beyond the headlines, and some fascinating wider trends are becoming clear, which say a great deal about the balance of power and influence in the 21st century.

43 comments:

  1. The UK is limited in strike power. It can only use air power and Tomahawks from SSN(s). I know many RN pundits would be screaming that this is a case where the Harrier could have worked. the Sea Harrier or the JF Harrier is impractical in this sense given the tight strength of the Syria SAMs/Air Force and the limitations of a subsonic aircraft (one must not forget the a Sea Harrier was shot down in the Balkans).

    As for the RFTG, it can't do much besides Command and Control. The two Type 23s may be asked to do shore bombardment but that is unlikely, given the need to close in to shore and the threat of a SSM attack. They can help replenish allied ships (not that the US and French can't do that themselves) but there's not much for the RFTG to do. Ground troops are hardly an option for now and if so, they need to neutralise all SAMs, SSMs and beach defences first.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quite. What is noticable is that there has been very little of the serial bleating over the loss of the Harriers+Ark Royal from the usual quarters. The GR9s would be way out of their depth in this type of scenario and this will hopefully underline how limited their capability actually was.

      Delete
    2. As would the Sea Harrier, the version that pundits love but fail to realise the limitations of its sub sonic speed.

      Delete
  2. Sir H, I always enjoy reading your posts - please do keep it up. I must echo Jeneral28's post and respectfully disagree with you on one point. In my humble opinion - the possibility of action against Syria has highlighted the very limited capabilities of the RFTG in anything but an amphibious landing operation. It does point to the bright future of the RN (in terms of capabilities rather than numbers, unfortunately) regarding the fact that were this to be kicking off in 10 years time we would have Type 26 with strike length cells and a CVF with F35 to contribute to air strikes. That is quite a juxtaposition to todays picture - Type 23s with only NGS to offer and a small helicopter carrier. I am not knocking the RFTG overall, but sitting off Syria it is of VERY limited use.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well that's back to the future. But one must remember that air or missile strikes can't do much. It worked (luckily) in the Balkans but even then ground troops (and not amphibious) had to be sent in.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for your post - I agree the RFTG may appear limited now, but its a useful way of keeping task group skills alive - something that very few navies do in a meaningful sense (there is a huge difference between sending some ships somewhere, and sending a coherent force somewhere). Its a good way of getting us back into the carrier strike game, while also serving as a reminder of UK interest in the region, even if its ability to influence on the ground may be limited.

      Delete
    3. To me, the RFTG is a rename of previous UK amphibious capability. I do await the future whne there's more muscle in it so that it's role can be expanded.

      Delete
  3. Not really sure on the level of influence brought to bear, or indeed the military effect we will have. Being allowed to loose off some bought in TLAMS from the last few SSNs we have not been relieved of is a gesture, not an effect.

    The people talking to eachother seem in violent agreement about visiting violence.

    How is that influence? Perhaps if we could convince domestic public opinion on the issue we may be in a better position to influennce world opinion. However, after Iraq, we are the boy who listened to the other boy crying wolf.

    Perhaps you mean influence in the sense that we are being given the opportunity convince the world of the cause on behalf of the big boy?

    As with other misdventures, being the nation that gets to propose the resolution, as we are only slightly less odious to the ROW than uncle Sam, does not mean a hill of beans, real influence would result in endorsement.

    Lets wait and see.

    At the moment, influence seems confused with stepping up with our mates.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would define influence as being the ability to talk to partner nations and have them not only listen to your point of view, but take it seriously enough that it may influence their own planning outcomes.

      Delete
  4. Superb article, highlighting the flexibilty we still maintain. In addition to maintaining all standing commitments. Have a sneaky feeling that two subs may be made available to join usn strikes. Hms tireless was reported to be transiting through gib a few days ago. And most often there is a sub in the indian ocean that may (i hope) been redirected to the eastern med/gulf.

    Slight concern at the potential for reprisals should action commence against cyprus. As a vital ally and in order to protect our assets in cyprus. I think it would be an idea to perhaps direct a type 45 to the region or have hms dragon be directed to provide anti air support in the eastern med.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps have one of the t23s replace hms dragon as was the plan, early. And have dragon supplement the cougar fleet as it transits home. Perhaps have it in place for a while, see how i plays out

      Delete
    2. I think HMS Dragon is joining or has joined the ships in the Med. But again, it is only for defence.

      Delete
  5. For some additional problems in the region, and as a sign of how important this is to Russia and how much of it we don't see in the UK press http://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-sends-at-least-12-warships-to-syria/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much - I think this is a hugely important issue to the Russians - their view of the world stage and how powers should interact is being played out in the middle east. What will be interesting is to see the effectiveness of the Russian navy in all of this and see how well it has recovered from its nadir a few years ago.

      Delete
    2. An alternative view of the Russian position:

      http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20130829/183047608/Russia-Worried-About-Strikes-on-Syria-Not-Really.html

      Delete
  6. I think you overestimate the "decline" of the USN. The Med can be a U.S. lake...when it has to. But it doesn't need to permanently be one if U.S. assets are required elsewhere. Is there really any point in keeping significant USN assets tied up in the Med when there are more important areas (the Gulf, the Pacific) to tend to?

    Also, you neglect to mention one of the most valuable assets of the USN, the SSGN. Each of the 4 that the USN has can carry up to 152 Tomahawks, far more capable than the nearly the ENTIRE RN submarine fleet.

    You need to get your facts straight regarding the USN carriers. The Nimitz was just relieved by the Truman in the Gulf and could be used to support operations in Syria. Thereby still leaving one in the Gulf.

    Not really sure why you neglected to mention the significant USAF assets that are in Europe, Jordan, and the Middle East. Which can also be reinforced by significant assets from the U.S., including B-52's, B-1's, and B-2's that can fly to Syria from their home bases.

    Bottom line up front, the U.S. is more than capable of conducting the operations that are being proposed for Syria. If the UK wants to throw in a RN sub or a few Tornados from RAF Akrotiri, fine. It won't make much of a difference either way. But don't make the mistake of underestimating the power and capability of the U.S. military.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jordan said no-go for using it as a launch pad.

      And Tomahawks in the final analysis cost a lot.

      Delete
    2. Rob,
      I'm a huge admirer of the USN, but my real worry is that it is very overstretched these days, and a lot of risk is being taken. Partially its down to the fewer hull numbers out there,but also because sequestration is reducing the availability of hulls for tasks.
      While assets can go into the Med, they are being taken off tasks elsewhere and this is leaving gaps. The worry is that there are no longer anywhere near enough ships in the fleet to do the jobs required of it.
      As for the CVN issue - my concern (as noted in the piece) is that with one carrier needed for the Gulf, would commanders be willing to expose a very valuable asset like a CVN to a Suez transit at present, which is a very vulnerable place to be.
      The issue of basing in the middle east and Europe is a good one, but remember that its dependent on support to fly, and overflight of airspace to make the strikes happen - you just have to look at Libya in 1986 to see what can happen if permission is refused.
      So, as I see it there is no question that the US can do something, but its probably coming at risk of taking assets of other tasks, and it merely highlights the ever increasing speed of decline of US military power.

      Delete
    3. If what is being proposed (a limited surgical strike) is undertaken, I don't think the U.S. will have too much trouble shifting assets and leaving temporary gaps.

      If it's a more sustained air campaign, then the stress on the U.S. military will be much higher but again, the capabilities of the USN and USAF can still devastate a country like Syria.

      Also, let's not forget that this isn't really coming as a surprise to the U.S. They have had people and assets in place in the region for a while now dealing with the Syria problem (from places like Jordan).

      Regarding CVN transit, while they are less risk-tolerant, I don't think there is much risk of an attack transiting the Suez. Attacking an aircraft carrier is not an easy thing to do. Who would do it? AQ? Countless USN ships have made countless transits without any problem and they are quite experienced doing it.

      If the UK (Akrotiri) doesn't give basing rights that would hurt, but I think Turkey would be a better alternative anyway considering our long history of ops out of Incirlik.

      Delete
    4. Jeneral28,

      Jordan may say no, but I wouldn't be surprised if Turkey says yes.

      And Tomahawks have always been expensive. Hasn't stopped the U.S. from using it on numerous occasions, most recently in Libya.

      Delete
    5. They have been expensive but are growing even more expensive, esp after Libya.

      Turkey is a yes but wait till Syria attacks Turkey. The Yes may turn into a No.

      Delete
    6. Surely that would trigger a NATO reponse if they did?

      Delete
    7. Not necessarily. NATO will have to debate first and not all of NATO (members) will response.

      Delete
    8. If Syria attacks Turkey then we have bigger problems than trying to get overflight rights.

      Delete
    9. "growing even more expensive"

      Incorrect. Gross book value of UK Block III Tomahawk is £1,100,000 and Block IV is £870,000 (inc VAT).
      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110517/text/110517w0001.htm#11051744000014

      I know what you're trying to say SirH, although I think the emphasis on traditional European powers is more because it's happening in our backyard - the reason that it involves the same powers as the Crimean War (+US) is because of geography more than anything. Compare and contrast with recent events with that other non-signatory of the CWC, the DPRK - that was more about "new" powers like South Korea and China. Seat on the Security Council will always make us relevant to some extent, rather than our military power - although one comes from the other to some extent.

      I'm a bit bemused about the calls for more defence spending, because I'm not sure what we'd do with more forces anyway. People have commented about the effectiveness of Harriers in this scenario, same could be said if we restored a couple of squadrons of GR4s. Estimates are that if you wanted to do a proper job of securing and dismantling Syria's CW's, you're looking at 75,000 boots on the ground - and even if we had that number ready to go, I just can't see the will to go in at that scale. About the only thing that might be nice would be an arsenal-ship-on-the-cheap - pick up a double-hulled tanker in the second-hand market and fill it with Tomahawk tubes. And you can never have enough ISR and jamming capability.

      Think the USN absence is more about sequestration/the Continuing Resolution (the CR being the real killer) - hulls aren't so much the problem as generating the training cycles and having that invisible reserve of readiness. But they could do with more low-end-ish amphibious ships, they often tie up an entire ARG on tasks when really just a small LPD would do. Even better, just buy some Galicias and base them at Rota.

      "This is the totality of the US escort fleet in the Med " - not quite, the Stout has just arrived : http://www.navytimes.com/article/20130829/NEWS08/308290025/Official-5th-destroyer-headed-Med

      Delete
    10. El Sid, nice commentary. Yes, Chemical Weapons can't be attack with simple weapons either--there's a high risk of the substances spilling out.

      The Stout changes nothing. It is to relieve one of the four destroyers.

      That's Block III Tomahawks. I believe both the UK and US are using Block IV now.

      Yes, more GR 4s won't do much

      Delete
  7. I find it difficult to understand the effect of whatever assets the, 'Allies', have afloat in the eastern Med on the problem to hand. Without going into the domestic politics of the situation, any military action must be aimed at supporting the failing diplomatic endeavours currently being deployed. Vast amounts of HE, no matter how surgical, will only hand a propaganda victory to the perpetrators of the crime. (Just think of the devastated schools, hospitals and wedding parties that will appear on global TV News)
    As far as my limited knowledge of these matters is concerned, the only military asset which might be free of disagreeable consequences would be a sniper's bullet.
    On the other hand the humiliation of the Russian military machine might do more to bring Syria to heel, but somehow I don't think that idea is going to work either.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The French are not "still in harbour". FS Chevalier Paul (PAAMS destroyer) at least is in the E. MEd.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. well it can only defend. Even if it wishes to uses the new Exocets, that would meant moving quite close to shore.

      Delete
    2. Many thanks for that - I'd not see in Open source reporting that she was out there.

      Delete
  9. The RFTG may lack some 'teeth' at the moment but the addition of strike length cells on T26 and CVF should go a long way to rectifying that.

    Hopefully in years to come the RN can lead other European forces in taking some of the burden in the Mediterranean and Middle East from the overstretched American's.

    Even in it's current form the RFTG's ability to conduct preventative ops under, on and above the sea with a variety of assets, conduct surveillance and Tomahawk strikes and (although I doubt it will be used in Syria) shore-bombardment isn't something to sniffed at.

    Hopefully HMS Dragon is moving into the region to put a proper air-umbrella over the fleet. It's lucky that we have RAF Akrotiri to use as a forward base for aviation assets.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Challenger, T26 are not due till at least fifteen years from now. Wishful to think they suddenly appear out of magic.

      The most the British will use now are Special Forces which wil never be confirmed or denied by the government.

      Delete
    2. I am well aware of when T26 will enter service (currently slated for 2021 so possibly as soon as 8 years from now).

      My point wasn't that T26 and CVF will help to beef up the RFTG in the near future, that's ludicrous. I was replying to people saying the RFTG doesn't have any teeth at the moment by saying that it and the RN as a whole are organic entities which will evolve and be seriously more capable in the offensive role when T26 and CVF do eventually appear.

      Delete
    3. Well that is in years to come. RFTG may not always have a carrier with it.

      Delete
  10. Interesting article and comments, but in an academic sense now.

    The RFTG will only have self-defence as an option, following the seizure of the UK's right to wage war by the Legislature. No UK involvement, nothing to see here, move along...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The RFTG has been defensive since it was started in 2011. Not Type 45s sailed along with it. Even if there was one, it would be defensive in nature. Trafalgar SSNs are the only plausible strike weapon for the RN, evne if the great Harrier was still around

      Delete
  11. Daintree Tours

    Book Online and Save 15% at Trek North Tours. We specialize in Cairns Tours that include Daintree Rainforest, Kuranda and Cape Tribulation hiii friend really your blog site is really good can i work it Daintree Tours

    ReplyDelete
  12. Welcome to London’s Leading Ladies Escort Agency, here at this agency we recruit only the creme de la creme hence the name… We only welcome ladies that are discreet, stunning, extremely friendly and of course that enjoy entertaining gentlemen.
    High Class Escorts in London UK | Escorts in London UK | Hookers London UK | Prostitutes in London UK | Dubai NewYork Escorts London UK |

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks for sharing this.Sexy and attractive girl for sex in this escort post.

    Luxury models escorts Prague & Playmates Prague

    ReplyDelete
  14. I had almost given up on all hope to find a decent Escort holiday package at the last minute.

    Czech escorts & Czech porn escorts

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks for sharing this.Sexy and attractive girl for sex in this escort post.

    sexy escorts prague & Pornstars escorts Prague

    ReplyDelete