Sunday, 27 October 2013

How do you solve a problem like Reserve recruitment?

This weekend saw a major recruiting effort in London, as the reserve elements of the Armed Forces came out to try and drum up interest from the public in joining the military on a part time basis. While this was going on, the Telegraph appears to have continued to wage a one paper war against the Government, carrying multiple articles from seemingly ever older, senior and out of touch retired officers to try and push the case for maintaining the Army as it is, and not replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists.

The issue of the size of the Army Reserve (as the TA is to be known) and the wider reserves is one of the most controversial parts of the 2010 SDSR. Cynics see it as running defence on the cheap, while optimists see it as a means of being able to have an army bigger than we could otherwise afford. There are many challenges in meeting this growth though, and it is something that significant political capital has been invested in – failure by the MOD to recruit will probably be seen by the media as a personal rebuff to the Prime Minister directly. To Humphrey the challenge is achievable – in real terms the TA has to expand by about 10-12,000 personnel or roughly 30%. Some see this as not possible, and ARRSE is full of people complaining that the TA simply cant provide troops of the right level to do the job. If you believe the press, we are getting rid of 20,000 battle ready troops for an uncertain future of any army of 30,000 part time troops.

In reality the debate on numbers misses a key point – growing the TA to 30,000 doesn’t meant that the UK can put 30,000 troops into the field – in the same way as reducing by 20,000 troops doesn’t mean we can put 20,000 less troops in the field. Armies don’t work in this way – one only has to look at the recent announcement by the US Army that it doesn’t have any combat ready brigades right now to realise that numbers alone do not mean capability. The reality is that the future TA will support through targeted mobilisations of troops rather than wholesale mobilisation en mass. A quick glance at the SDSR will show the sort of force levels the UK aspires to deploy in future – if you read this, it gives a clear idea about how many TA troops will be required at one time, which is arguably not that many.

What an enlarged TA does is effectively provide a sufficiently large pool of manpower so that in extremis, it can carry out a sustained period of relatively large mobilisations to support operations in line with planning assumptions. A smaller TA is not incapable of meeting those assumptions, its just going to have to mobilise people more often if the UK finds itself in this sort of situation. Similarly, if you believe the papers, you’d think that 20,000 troops are going today and we will find ourselves defenceless for years to come – in fact again if you read SDSR then you can see that the role of the TA sits nicely with the vision for Force 2020. In other words, as we slowly downsize the Army and increase the TA, the UK should be able to maintain a similar level of output throughout. This sort of rationale explanation doesn’t seem to fit well with those who see Soviet invasions lurking just out of sight...

Can we do it? Yes we can!
There is perhaps deep rooted cynicism in some quarters that the TA can enlarge to the levels required – it is always a challenge to enlarge an organisation quickly without putting enormous pressure on the system. Bringing an additional 12,000 recruits in, plus recruiting enough to maintain existing force structures will be a challenge – but it is achievable. Humphrey is wary of comparisons with the 1980s, when the TA grew to at its peak be nearly 86000 strong. This was at a time when  memories of WW2 and national service were fresh, and many peoples fathers had served in the military. When coupled with the reality that being called up was highly unlikely, it was perhaps easier to convince people to sign up for membership of an organisation in their spare time.

Todays recruiting proposition is very different – people signing up today do so in the realistic expectation that they may be called upon to serve overseas, with the attendant risks that this brings. Having done some recruitment on behalf of the reserves, Humphrey has found a lot of people do see the risk of ‘being shot’ as a genuine bar to serving. Its one thing to join on the off-chance of a deeply hypothetical conflict, and another to be expected to be available one year in five to serve overseas. A lot of people will find it difficult to belong to an employer which regularly expects them to put their civilian careers on hold, and instead do and different job. Employers, particularly those in smaller organisations will find it difficult to support membership of the Reserves if it means losing people with key skills. While the counter to such an argument is that the Reservist returns with good skills in leadership or communications, an employer may find it easier and cheaper to send them on an ‘outwards bound’ course once every few years, rather than incur the cost of losing someone for a prolonged period.

So, it is a challenge to convince people to sign up, but it is achievable. In the view of the author, this is best done through proactively showing the benefits of membership – such as good pay (you would be amazed how many people think you are not paid), access to skills, training and qualifications, and the ability to do something very different with your life. Above all it requires regular and active interaction between Reservists and civilians – while regular military personnel do a great job of PR, they cannot easily explain the mindset and different nature of life as a reservist where you have to do two very different jobs. It won’t be a quick task, but it can be done if sufficient time and effort is thrown at it – although people should be wary of investing so much time in recruitment, that retention and follow on training is neglected.

It is also important that the regular Army embraces the TA fully and adopts a ‘whole force’ mentality (the same also applies to the other two services). Based on the sort of discussions on ARRSE, there is a real and worrying lack of understanding between the two forces, with seemingly a minority of regular personnel regarding the TA as weekend warriors unable to support when really required. This is worrying, because until the Army understands its reserve element and throws time, effort, resource and support at them, then it will struggle to get the best from it. The longer damaging leaks go to the Daily Telegraph trying to undermine the campaign, the harder it will be to encourage a shift in this thinking.

Little things like making service in a reserve unit be seen as a career enhancer will help – in the RNR for instance the RN traditionally posts regular staff who are at the very tail end of their careers. While good people, there is no trickle of staff going back into the RN and selling the RNR and the benefits the organisation brings to the Naval Service as a whole. In fact it seems entirely possible for many RN personnel to go their entire careers without meeting or interacting with a member of the RNR. While this is perhaps understandable given that much of what the RNR does is about niche roles in bespoke areas, it does make it hard to get the RN to understand what capabilities it gets out of it. If postings to Reserve units are seen as career enhancing and an essential pre-requisite for promotion, then it is likely that attitudes will shift.

Also, it is important to try and build an understanding of the ‘Reserve Mentality’ – the author has often seen regular personnel complain about people in the reserves (particularly in the TA), and suggest that the irregular attendance doesn’t help. The problem is as much that many Reservists hold down busy and demanding regular jobs, and getting time to go to every training weekend is often tricky (particularly if the family or work expect support). This attitude that because not everyone can make every weekend sometimes translates into a subconscious bias that Reservists are not able to do the job. What is perhaps better is to see the Reserve as a pool of manpower that can fill the breach if required. After all, any mobilisation will usually see a Reservist pulled up to a reasonable level of capability during the OPTAG process, and ensure that they deploy with the same training as their peers.

Personally the author finds it depressing that rather than trying to focus on getting the best possible result for Defence, which is a well equipped Army with both regular and reserve components based on an affordable equipment programme, some individuals seem more focused on upsetting the plan in a short sighted effort to protect a capbadge. Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that there is no Plan B to the enlarging of the Reserves. No matter how you look at it, the cost of having regular personnel is so expensive that if the UK wants to retain a reasonable level of capability it has to move to a much greater emphasis on a mixed force of Regular and Reserve personnel. One senses that the efforts of leaking to the Telegraph owe as much to disgruntled Army officers seeing diminished career opportunities as it is about there being real military concerns over capability. The future Army is going to be smaller precisely because it is so expensive to run – while some are complaining about the loss of 20,000 troops, what they have not done is present a credible alternative which is affordable within the Defence Budget (such conversations seem to rely heavily on the ‘scrap aid, scrap welfare and scrap money on PC rubbish’).

The author has been a reservist for his entire adult life, and he genuinely means it when he says that right now is the most exciting time he can ever remember to be in the Reserves. The application of funds, training and a sense that the Reserve is now integral to UK defence is refreshing. He genuinely believes we can meet the targets set for expansion, and that given time and effort it will be possible.  

Expanding the Reserve is going to be a challenge, not matter how you look at it. But, it is achievable – after all we manage to recruit sufficiently well to support an Army of 100,000 year in year out. If through sensible application of time, effort and resource, we can shift some of those regular applicants into the TA then it is entirely realistic to assume that the target will be met. But it will take time, effort and wholehearted support from the Regular Army to make it happen. In the authors very personal opinion, this is not helped by a whispering campaign which undermines these efforts, and where some individuals seem to think it more important to leak classified documents in order to attempt to subvert the democratically elected Governments defence policy than they do in following the direction given to them.



Saturday, 19 October 2013

This is the Captain(s) of Your Ship Speaking... Why there are 260 Captains in the Royal Navy today

The BBC television show ‘Blackadder’ is arguably one of the funniest and finest comedies of the late 20th century. Achingly sharp, with jokes that are still funny to this day, it was a four series show which finished with ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ set in the First World War. Watching the show today, one is struck by how funny it is, and also worryingly how its anti-establishment jokes aimed at undermining the social structure of the time has become the accepted historical record of the First World War.

The UK has a very strange ‘love hate’ relationship with its military officers – junior ones are portrayed as incompetent (Lieutenant George), Captains are seen as possibly okay (Captain Blackadder), Majors are usually seen retired and with a snifter in their hand (the Major from Fawlty Towers), while Colonels or heaven forbid Generals (General Melchett) are usually seen as inept, incompetent, who do not have a clue about their profession or what it involves. They are seen as people without a clue until the point when they retire, at which point they suddenly become military geniuses, whose angry letters to Broadsheet newspapers warrant being printed on the grounds that they are military commanders who know what they are talking about.

Humphrey was reminded of this during a week in which it was clear that the UK media and MPs will not let nomenclature get in the way of a good story. The alleged outrage was that right now there are 260 Captains in the Royal Navy, but ‘only 19 warships’, which is an interesting fact for the rest of the Fleet to consider. This sort of ‘factual inaccuracy’ should be enough to give the story a stiff ignoring, but to Humphrey, it does warrant a bit of further thought.

The problem that this story generates is that it doesn’t focus on why the RN has 260 Captains and what they do all day (apparently Captains who are not on a ship is a bad thing). Instead, it is arbitrarily made clear that this is a bad thing, and that something must be done about it. Ask any member of the public over the next few months what the RN has been up to in the news, and they won’t focus on the amazing work done in counter narcotic s in the Caribbean, the counter piracy work off Africa, or the reassurance and diplomacy of COUGAR – they will instead focus on their view that there are too many captains and not enough ships.

Why So Many?
The first problem is that there isn’t a good enough way of explaining that the Military runs in a hierarchy, not just for command purposes, but also for career development. It is common to see suggestions that we should just drop everyone one rank, and then that would solve the problem. Broadly in todays military, the OF1 / 2 is a training grade, OF2/3 is the day to day working ranks for departmental and small unit roles such as small ship or Company command, OF4 represents the first opportunity for substantive command of major platforms and squadrons, and OF5 represents command of major platforms, units establishments, heading of branches and career structures and so on.

Looking at the latest round of RN statistics, we can see that of the 260 Captains, there are some 100 warfare, 80 engineers, 20 logisticians (pussers in old Money), 20 medical and 40 Royal Marines and that’s your lot. Looking at branch manpower, Captains make up roughly 4% of the Officer strength of each RN Officer branch.

Dropping everyone one rank down wouldn’t remove the need to have achieved professional training or experience – you still need to have spent quite a few years in the RN before you are professionally qualified to command, and fight, a major RN warship. So, the end result is people spending longer at more junior ranks, and possibly leaving in frustration at the slow pace of career development. Additionally, its unlikely to save that much money – there is not a significant difference between a senior Commander and Captain on the pay scale, and in fact bearing in mind you’d need to lengthen these scales to reflect the longer service in each rank, its likely that it would cost about the same regardless. All that is being saved is the title of the rank.

The reality is that the OF5 level roles (Captain, Colonel and Group Captain) represent a rank which combines the pinnacle of achievement for many branches, with the post holders occupying the top jobs in their subspecialisations. It represents a level of command for a suitably senior person to oversee units or establishments – for instance the presence of a Captain at Faslane as the senior officer for the Faslane Flotilla, and it allows a suitably senior individual to command a shore establishment (e.g Captain BRNC Dartmouth).

Looking more broadly, Captains serve as defence attaches or liaison officers overseas – in many of our allied nations rank counts more than capability, and a Captain can open doors that a Commander could not. While we talk about military capability as being built around ships, units and squadrons, a well-placed liaison officer at suitably senior level in a multi-national HQ can often swing the influence battle far more effectively than an entire Battalion of troops, by ensuring that the UK interests are represented properly and not offered up for sacrifice.

Finally there is a requirement to fill the ever growing list of joint service jobs, such as command of various tri-service training schools and establishments or working in a key MOD staff role. In the constant battle of influence between all three services, the ability to have a well-qualified and senior person to post in to a key job is crucial.

It’s also important to realise that relative to the size of the Naval Service, there are not actually that many senior officers out there. The current strength of the Naval Service today including untrained personnel and the RNR is approximately 36,000 people. Of this total there are roughly 1100 Commanders, 260 Captains, 80 Commodores and 30 Admirals. In practical terms this means that barely 1% of the entire Naval Service is at Captain level or above
.
The media like to portray that the Royal Navy (and to a lesser extent the wider forces) is somehow overweight with Captains, Commodores and Admirals, all of whom apparently do not know what they are doing and are incompetent (until such point as they retire, write to the Daily Telegraph at which point they are rebranded as tactical geniuses). Firstly it’s clear that you have to be bloody good at your job to be promoted to Captain – only one in four of today’s Commanders go on to make Captain. Even allowing for smaller branches, it is clear that only the very best of the Commanders make it beyond this point.  The harsh truth is that there has been a steady downward decline in the number of senior officers for decades. It’s also forgotten that the military is a hierarchical organisation which needs a rank structure and career path – it’s all very well cutting people out of the system, but how do you generate your future leaders, managers and, most importantly of all, warfighters?

It’s worth remembering that people at Captain or above are in their mid-forties at the very least – they usually have families, wider commitments and are thinking about their next options. To keep the best in, you need to have a reasonable package of promotion to motivate people to stay in a role for which they are paid vastly less than their civilian peers in industry – one only has to look at the responsibilities placed on most OF5s and OF6s to realise they could command much larger salaries.

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves during this insane argument that there are more Captain than Ships that the Royal Navy has ALWAYS had more Captains than ships. During the 1980s there were nearly 600 Captains out there, and it was doubtless vastly higher than this during the earlier Cold War.

Part of the problem seems to be a desire on the part of the UK to do down our senior military personnel – there seems to be a natural reluctance to criticise and attack the idea that a large military, based on all continents of the earth at over 2000 locations and with over 300,000 people directly involved in it needs to have a pool of senior leaders and managers. The media seems to revel in arbitrarily deciding that because there are only X ships in commission, it is a bad thing to have an officer corps which doesn’t reflect this. Yet at the same time the moment cuts are made, there will usually be some near hysterical story about how the loss of Admiral X or Air Marshal Y’s post means the end of the UK as we know it (cue letters from now tactical genius retired officers saying this wouldn’t have happened in their day…).


There is no easy answer to this, and it’s inevitable that for as long as the services maintain a rank structure, there will be complaints that they are over manned at senior levels, although it is very odd that there isn’t the same complaint levelled at the number of ratings – for instance, why are people not angry that there are 5,790 Leading Hands in the RN, when there are ‘only 19 Warships’?

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Underspending, not under investing - the MOD budget debate.

The Telegraph led yesterday with a story claiming that the MOD is sitting on a pile of nearly £2 billion cash as part of the MOD budget underspend. The story led an emotionally charged article, claiming that somehow the MOD was responsible for refusing to spend money which could pay for at least six infantry battalions, and also that it was down the Ministers and Civil Servants for refusing to let money be spent. The article attracted an extremely strong, and surprisingly emotive response from the Secretary of State for Defence, who in turn accused the individuals behind the claims of being ‘financially illiterate’.

Underspends are always deeply emotive issues, and it is easy to see why. At a time when equipment budgets are under pressure, troop levels are being reduced and people see ever more day to day challenges in spending money within Defence, it is easy to see why the public would be cross at the thought of money not being spent – after all for years people have been claiming that the MOD needs more money, not less.

The reality is that its actually not as straightforward as the Telegraphs pundits would have suggested. In truth the MOD is not a single budget, owned by a group of parsimonious civil servants at the centre, who guard each penny with their lives. Instead finance is spread out among many different component parts of the organisation – and let us not forget that this is a seriously diverse and complicated affair which directly involves over 300,000 people based at 2000 sites worldwide, and made up of many thousands of discrete budgets, which in turn are linked into wider budget structures.

Each of these units, sites, organisations will have money delegated to their budget to run their day to day operations, travel and other routine expenditure. As such one reason why funds may not be fully spent can be as simple as not exhausting the budget each year – for instance, predicting a need for 12 business trips for 2 people each year when only 6 happened with one person – effectively only 25% of the projected funds were needed. While this is terribly simple, it helps to try and make you realise that much of the underspend comes from a few thousand here, a few thousand there not being spent. In an era where everyone in defence has had austerity and the need to get value for money out of what they spend, it is inevitable that people will try to save where possible. Across an organisation as vast as defence, this quickly adds up into quite substantial savings.

Similarly, when one looks at the salary underspend (some £200 million reportedly), its clear that this was down to a higher than expected exodus of staff. The budget plans are often drawn up ahead (Humphrey can’t remember when the last set of planning was but it was probably about two years ago). Its hard to predict things like unexpectedly large staff outflows, and far better to plan on paying all your staff, than overestimating and running out of cash to pay those you've got left!

The problem with this debate is that rather than being seen in the context of Defence going through a challenging period, and trying to make savings, its instead been seen as a sign of incompetence. The new ‘we want eight and we won’t wait’ mantra seems to be linked to the numbers of infantry battalions in service – at least for the Telegraph. It is incredibly frustrating to see people genuinely hold forth that had the MOD spent its funding fully then somehow X units or Y ships would have been in service.

In reality budgets don’t work this way – the MOD has allocated funding not just to pay salaries, but to recruit, equip, train, supply, house and support a finite number of infantry battalions (among all other budget areas). It may well be the case that the Army has spent all of its budget this year, and that the underspend came from other areas, but next year, these areas may themselves need the funding line. The idea that funds can be chopped and changed willy nilly is dangerous – you cannot go through the decade not knowing from one year to the next whether there is sufficient funding for a unit to continue its existence. Similarly, the argument that the money would somehow have paid the soldiers salaries ignores that it would not have covered all the other aspects of their roles – and also that there wouldn't have been any of the combat support units assigned to support them funded. Sadly the defence debate seems to be framed around the idea that capability comes from front line established units, and not the dull and unglamorous support units and spending money on logistics.

As posters have pointed out on ARRSE and elsewhere, an underspend is actually a very good thing for the MOD right now. Firstly, it provides a reserve of cash which can go towards meeting the reductions in expenditure demanded under the next spending round – in other words its preventing further job cuts to the Army. Secondly, if as promised the cash can be held by the MOD, then it starts to provide a small pool of funds to look at gently regaining capability in areas where risk has been taken in planning rounds – e.g. buy back training exercises, increase stockpiles, improve in small areas which never get any public interest, but without which the Armed Forces would struggle.

The problem is that the debate does not get beyond the most superficial and simple ‘ despite spending less than planned, we have less infantry therefore the MOD is incompetent’ seems to be the line that will be adopted and no effort will be made to redress this. The fact that right now the MOD is in probably the best financial shape it has been for many decades is an irrelevance – it was precisely because some very hard and emotional decisions have been taken that the MOD is in a reasonable financial place.

The worry is that there is a lack of understanding, of a way of explaining to the public that combat capability is not measured just through ships or tanks, but in whether you can actually do anything with them. The MOD has perhaps chosen to invest in areas which lack the glamour, but which help keep capability alive and not moribund in a vehicle park, while excess soldiers parade glumly by.

What is also frustrating is judging by the language in the article, the continued efforts by retired military officers to try to shift blame away from their capbadges, their regiments, their service and instead to blame the politicians and the civil servants. There is an increasingly depressing line emerging in some quarters that somehow its all the fault of the nasty non uniform wearers and that if the military had their way, all would be well. This desire to blame, to avoid responsibility seems to run contrary to all that is taught at basic level – that of honour and shouldering responsibility. The problem is that the longer this continues, the harder it will be for the military professionals to have some really difficult conversations about where the balance of investment goes – today we stand of the cusp of an information revolution, where computer and cyber operations could change our entire concept of warfare. We see huge debates about whether military force sits within a wider framework of nation state building and intervention, and how the military is best placed to support this. Yet, as one exceptionally good discussion thread on the Army Rumour Service website (http://www.arrse.co.uk/staff-college-staff-officers/205081-igb-my-mind-can-british-army-ever-leave-cold-war-germany-baor.html) asks, is there instead a mentality focused on the ‘good old days’ and not on looking to the future.


We stand on the edge of a revolution in military affairs, where the geek  from their basements and not the infanteer will have the power to take out cities, power networks and governments, alls. This will call for tough decisions on where to put the funding, but instead it feels as if the debate cannot move on from questioning whether the UK no longer has an Army because it has less than 100,000 men (a perennial favourite in some quarters). We need to embrace  new thinking and accept that much of what has worked for many decades has changed, but to do so means being more trusting of the civilian sector and not just accepting that Green always knows best. The article in the Telegraph would suggest that some retired persons have yet to take this onboard. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Analysis paper on Scottish Independence and Defence


The MOD has published its assessment of the implications for Scotland were it to become an independent country and create its own armed forces. This 88 page paper is a fascinating read, as it exposes the real challenges faced in creating a military from scratch.https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-scotland-analysis-paper-on-defence
Humphrey has written before about the difficulties facing a newly independent Scottish Defence Force, and many of the concerns raised then have been echoed in this paper (http://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/bagpipes-bayonets-bluster-and-bugger.html). The paper nicely highlights the reality that you cannot slice up defence assets and turn them into a coherent military force – ORBATs may look impressive, but dividing them into something more meaningful is particularly difficult.
Additionally the paper highlights the issue of how one takes a world class military, optimised for power projection abroad, and then carves off a smaller chunk of it to focus on missions for which it was not designed. For instance, the idea that Scotland would keep running a modern air force built around Typhoon seems interesting, but where does the pilot training pipeline come from, how is this affordable and what happens when the Eurofighter nations move to upgrade their aircraft? Is it truly feasible to imagine a relatively small Scottish Defence Force being able to shoulder the burden of paying the costs of sustaining an increasingly obsolescent Typhoon fleet, which is no longer at the same standard as its multi-national peers?
The problem facing a newly independent Scotland seems to be that the UK military assets are simply not appropriate for what will be a low level defence force in a relatively small country. Stripped of the recruiting, support and logistical contracts and pipeline that have sustained the equipment, one can imagine a future Scottish Defence Force burdened down with legacy equipment which requires expensive training and support to run properly, and which is too expensive to meet what will be a very small budget.
One could almost argue that rather than take much UK military equipment, it would be more sensible for Scotland to instead take a large cash payment and procure a low level defence force (with UK forces providing sovereignty assurance in the interim) which better meets their specific needs. So, procurement of low level OPVs, simple vehicles and so on – in other words start from scratch with something that is feasible, and not take on equipment that is designed for a very different role.
The other key issue emerging from the paper is the reality that a newly independent Scotland will have no shipbuilding industry orders, and that it highlights the reality that what matters to military shipbuilding is not the yard, but the design capability. The UK ability to design complex warships is arguably far more important than the ability to build them in home territory. The Scottish situation would be one of having good yards, but no design capability, and competing in a fiercely competitive market against yards able to offer much cheaper hulls. One cannot see the Scottish yards surviving for long without a design capability to back them up – but this would not come without yards to build the designs. The chapter on the industrial and manufacturing implications is well worth reading to realise just how interdependent the defence industry is now.

So, the paper is well worth a read, and it will be extremely interesting to read the Scottish Governments own paper when it is published (which Humphrey will also link to as well). 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Falling down the Rankings? Thoughts on the UK National Defence Association report.

Humphrey has now safely returned from his wedding and honeymoon, and is slowly catching up with the events of the last few weeks. Its clearly been a challenging time – the dreadful events in Kenya were brought home to the author when he transited Nairobi and saw Army personnel everywhere returning from the siege. Similarly the party conference season here in the UK seems to have stirred up a few debates about the state of Defence, perhaps hiding other more important developments.

The one debate though that made the authors heart sink was the frankly ridiculous report by the UK National Defence Association which through some fairly interesting interpretations of statistics tried to purport that the UK is no longer a military power in any way (apparently we have less troops than Greece or Argentina, and less planes than Italy). What is so depressing about this is firstly that this report was written by an organisation which has many senior former military personnel in it who should frankly know better than to rely on pure statistics as a measure. Secondly it is depressing that the level of defence debate in the UK has descended into an incredibly puerile series of reports suggesting that because the UK doesn't have 3000 tanks, we are somehow an irrelevance on the global stage.

There is always a tendency to look fondly back at times gone by and suggest that they were better then than things are now, and this report perhaps shows this. In terms of time elapsed, we’re now nearly a quarter of a century out since the Cold War ended, and we can now look back at the force structures of the time and gasp, near agog, at the sheer size of the UK armed forces and just how many people were in them. No doubt people were doing the same back in 1991 and wistfully looking back to the UK military of 1966 and its global presence.
Does the UK really need more than 250 Challenger Tanks?

The problem for Humphrey though is trying to work out what the UK would possibly achieve by having the vastly larger armed forces that some seem to think would cement our status on the world stage. When one looks back over the last 150 years, the possession of large military forces by the UK has been somewhat of an aberration. If you ignore WW1 & WW2, then the only period in which large forces were sustained was from 1945 until the end of the Cold War. This could only be done by relying firstly on large numbers of conscripts, then having to provide very low pay after the end of National Service. It is telling that once military wages began to catch up with, then overtake civilian roles, manpower quickly became increasingly unaffordable.  Similarly it is easy to forget that this period is one of the very few in UK history where there was a clearly defined opponent, where UK forces had a clear role to play (e.g. maintain BAOR, defend the home base, conduct ASW) as well as support wider non NATO commitments. It is much easier to justify the retention of larger armed forces when you have a specific role in mind for them, and not just being held at readiness as a contingency.

In the UK we are perhaps guilty of looking back on the Cold War period as halcyon era where we had large armed forces, while forgetting that they existed to do very specific roles, and also encourage other nations to pull their weight too. The post Cold War era wasn't some wonderful period where UK forces roamed the globe in glorious isolation emulating Palmerstons views, but a period when the UK had to contribute to an international coalition and work with our partners against a common enemy. This is important to remember, for the argument that 30 years ago we had X frigates, Y jets and Z tanks compared to today's paltry number is actually misleading. In reality much of this equipment was fully committed to NATO forces, and wasn't easily available to support wider UK national interests beyond the NATO area. So yes, the UK had capabilities, but they were borne to meet a specific external threat, and not a general role.

Similarly, if one looks at availability, it becomes clear that in real terms UK capability for purely national tasks now isn't far off what it was at the end of the Cold War. Speaking to a Naval friend who joined in the late 1980s, he pointed out that of the 47 escorts when they joined, nearly a third were usually tied up in refit. Add to this the tasking and working up of escorts for things like NATO commitments, and support to the South Atlantic, and suddenly that’s the best part of another 15 escorts committed. At best there would be a margin of some 10-15 hulls available for national discretionary deployments – not much more than is available today.

It is also clear that the report focuses far too heavily on manpower being the sole guide to a nations military prowess, while ignoring the vast technological changes which have gone on. The old County Destroyers needed some 500 crew, the Type 42s needed around 250-280, while the Type 45s need barely 190. In real terms, the RN would have needed some 3000 sailors to put six Countys to sea, but barely 1100 for the Type 45. A simplistic analogy, but one which perhaps demonstrates that in many ways the RN of today may have less sailors, but it also needs less sailors to operate vastly more capable equipment. The usual riposte at times like this is to deploy the tired old adage ‘but a ship cannot be in more than one place’ – something which may be true, but ignores the difference in capabilities. An RN task force of 30 years ago would have needed two or three ships to achieve the same effect as a modern Type 45 can have – so whilst in peacetime that may mean two or three less ship visits, it does mean that in wartime the RN has a broadly equivalent level of protection now with far less hulls than before. Numbers are only one part of the equation, and while important, should not dominate to the point where  capability is no longer considered.

We could afford plenty of 2nd rate Type 14s, but they were not hugely useful. 
It is also important to realise when looking at these sorts of papers that nations have very different defence requirements. It is one thing to say we have less soldiers than say, South Korea, but we forget that we do not have a nuclear armed neighbour on our border with a leader who is not always a completely rational actor. It is entirely logical that some nations will have more military personnel than the UK – they have direct ground threats, or their need for manpower for other jobs means it is politically helpful to keep a large army to hand. For instance many states still conscript their troops, meaning on paper their army is vastly larger than the British Army, but this is only achieved through a ready pool of manpower who can be paid a pittance and employed on duties which are often as much about support local agriculture by working on farms, or support public order as it is about being a military force.

There are also many nations out there who on paper have large stockpiles of equipment (particularly in the Middle East) and this can easily be turned into a headline about how a tiny nation has more tanks than the UK. The reality though is that these purchases are little more than an insurance policy designed to coax the nations into feeling an obligation to support the purchaser in a real crisis. If one views defence sales to the Middle East as a means of these nations buying support through economic largesse then that’s probably not far off the mark. Many of these equipment buys are in fact often stored in the desert and left to rust without ever being used. The author has heard many tales of armouries full of weapons never removed from packing crates, or trained on and often forgotten about. On paper this is a capability, and in reality it is little more than a box of life expired spare parts. One difference between the UK and many other nations is that the UK is willing to genuinely use and ‘sweat’ its assets to get the most from its equipment purchases. Just because some nations have impressive arsenals does not equate to a genuine ability to use them to best effect.

This is an important matter to realise, nations have the military force that they think their own unique strategic situation deserves. For many countries possessing a large army is a useful pool of manpower, but doesn't make them more than a local player. It is telling that so many of the nations cited in the report as statistically high ranking actually have practically no capability to send troops any distance at all from the homebase. This is great if you want an armed force which protects the Presidential Palace and stops people from launching coups, not so useful if you want to deploy overseas. Indeed, looking at military contributions to Afghanistan or Iraq, it is telling that many contributing nations possessed far larger armies than the UK, but were unable to send or support more than a company group because deploying at distance into a high intensity warzone was a step beyond what their military could provide.

Capabilities unmatched by almost any other nation. 
This then is where the UK forces excel – they may be small, but they are structured in a manner which has historically served the UK well. Todays armed forces are essentially a means of deploying a small raiding force into a hostile territory to conduct surgical strikes and achieve effect with minimal effort. The operations in  Libya in 2011, or Sierra Leone in 2000 are good examples of this, where a small force deployed highly capable equipment to achieve the end state before withdrawing. This is in many ways no different to the Victorian armed forces, which in many ways did similar missions – deploy overwhelming technological advantage and withdraw before it became too difficult. It is telling that the times when things got complicated was when a short operation turned into a prolonged campaign (e.g. Crimea or the Boer war). If we look at the structure of the UK forces, we see a nation who has chosen to invest heavily in very high end capabilities which provide several things:

Firstly, the ability to integrate with and operate with US forces, which in turn makes the UK a partner of choice, not only with the US, but other nations seeking to improve their ability to work at the top tier. 

Secondly, a strong logistical capability to allow operations to occur at distance from the homebase. It is telling that the UKNDA report went on about the French having more aircraft than the UK, but as we saw in Mali this year, as soon as things got complicated, the French quickly became reliant on the UK and US for logistical support. It is far better to have smaller numbers of properly supported assets that can do the job, than an overloaded ‘front end’ of superficially impressive equipment which isn't actually supported by any worthwhile logistical network.

Thirdly, an ability to think innovatively about getting the best of manpower. Many jobs that used to be done by the UK military have either been civilianised or handed off to contractors. This has reduced manpower totals, but also saved money. Many nations have yet to do this sort of thing, so their manpower requirements are higher than they necessarily need to be. If one considers the sort of jobs now passed out of military hands to the civilian world, it actually adds up to a considerable number of posts saved.

Do we need bigger armed forces in order to scale up this sort of parade?

So, the question is surely what does the UK need larger armed forces for? There is no existential threat to the UK in a conventional sense that calls for larger armed forces. When you ask people about the military, there is a sense that they think the Military should be bigger, but don’t know where or what it should be there to do. When one looks at the argument for the Fusiliers battalion being scrapped, people are understandably angry that 600 soldiers are going, but fail to realise that preserving the Battalion would not measurably improve UK capability – it only makes sense to retain it if you also preserve the enabling assets like logistics, intelligence, artillery and the like to deploy it as part of a coherent force. By itself little is gained from preserving a single unit as it would sit in isolation. While one hears of pressure on the Army over the last few years, the reality is that the Army has become increasingly expensive to pay and equip and the commitment of ground forces to an open ended commitment is not hugely popular with the public. As we move towards SDSR2015 and the Future Force 2020 it is clear that the future vision of the UK military is far less about large formations waiting to repel an armoured invasion, but small niche formations designed to intervene, to train and to influence our allies.

Where the UK retains influence and value is the way in which it provides high quality staff officers who can plug into a headquarters, or provide an airfield logistical unit. Every nation can provide infantry units, but far fewer can provide the less glamorous or appealing units that are absolutely essential to coalition operations. The UK has an ability to do this – its similar in many ways to smaller NATO nations like the Netherlands, Denmark or the Baltic's – small military forces which are hugely professional and highly rated by their peers because they've chosen to provide useful niche capabilities.

 The problem though is that the public debate is not framed around the discussion of  what useful enabling capabilities the UK has, but instead focuses far more on how we no longer matter because we only have 19 escorts not 32 escorts. This doesn't help the public understand that as taxpayers they possess an extraordinarily capable military which is well equipped to carry out the roles assigned to it. They also do not get the chance to pick up that the threat is changing and that a single hacking group in a parents basement can do more damage to UK national infrastructure than 50 hostile warships. The real challenge for the MOD is to continue to try and move the debate forward, trying to get people to understand that numbers do not mean everything, and that in reality a lot has changed.

It is all well and good to say that the UK needs X thousand more troops, planes and ships, but the problem is that no one seems able to identify the threat that they need to meet and why the taxpayer should pay for them. Humphrey was particularly struck by the argument that the RN is going to struggle in wars as it has too few ships and is at risk of losing some – having done some basic research, if you ignore the period of WW1 and WW2, then the sole occasion between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and today when RN vessels were sunk in a military operation was the Falklands War. We keep clinging to the idea that as a nation we should be spending lots of money on more warships to protect ourselves, when over 200 years of history would suggest it is exceptionally unlikely that such an event will occur – is this good reason to spend a fortune on new ships?


So in conclusion, the idea that the UK is a military irrelevance because we only have a small amount of manpower or ships is complete and utter unmitigated nonsense. One has to look beyond this sort of report and focus on what the UK is actually capable of doing today and how it is in fact a remarkably capable nation, able to achieve far more than we like to give ourselves credit for. The argument of ‘we need more to matter’ seems to be very much a case of wishing ourselves to have a threat to face, rather than because we actually need such a capability – is there such a thing as an unnecessary level of defence?