Saturday, 28 December 2013
So 2013 is finally drawing to a close, and with it the passing of another very busy year for the British Armed Forces. Looking back, the best way to sum up the year is simple ‘doing exactly as the SDSR predicted we would do’. Over the last 12 months the UK armed forces have ended up operating in areas where they have long had no presence – Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Philippines to name but a few places. They have deployed on exercises across the globe, demonstrating global reach at a time when it is fashionable to see them as being in retreat. Against this lie the ongoing commitments to Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands and the wider routine deployments. Throughout it all, they have worked with efficiency, good humour and huge effect.
When you look at the sort of tasks that have been done, one is left with the impression of an armed forces running hot, but not yet at breaking point. The sort of tasks being undertaken are exactly those envisaged in the SDSR, namely short term focused interventions using available assets while still supporting an ongoing longer term deployment in HERRICK. While it is easy to look to the SDSR as merely a source of cuts, as a predictor of the likely types of engagement, the types of deployments to be undertaken and the sheer unpredictability of the world, it seems to have done a pretty good job.
For the Royal Navy 2013 can be seen as a year when the value of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) concept was once again proven. Now very much established as the centrepiece of the RNs annual deployments, the COUGAR series of exercises have shown that they can deploy globally to meet a wide range of challenges, from low level defence engagement with nations like Albania or Saudi Arabia (for instance training the Royal Marines), to providing more substantial presence where required (such as demonstrations of capability in the Gulf), before finally showing the flexibility of maritime power by quickly responding to the disaster in the Philippines. Against this, the normal drumbeat of deployments to the West Indies, South Atlantic and for the first time in some years the Asia Pacific has continued. The sheer pace of deployments now is quite impressive, with ships turning round barely months after returning in order to redeploy. While this demonstrates that the RN is very much ‘sweating’ its assets, it does raise questions about whether in order to meet short term outputs, the long term sustainability of the fleet may be more challenging as ships begin to wear out.
The RAF has had a similarly busy year, demonstrating its ability to support both ongoing support to OP HERRICK, through the maintenance of both offensive detachments of Tornado, and the longer term airbridge. At the same time, it continues to provide a world class strategic airlift capability, as seen repeatedly in Africa this year, where the C17 fleet carried out several short notice airlifts to Mali, the CAR and Sudan both to augment allied forces, and evacuate British nationals. Once again the sheer value offered by 99 Squadron is seen, and the purchase of the C17 must rank as one of the best investments in the RAF for many years due to the sheer flexibility it provides. Let us not also forget that the RAF has also invested heavily in joint exercises in the Middle East, rebuilding links with Gulf Air Forces after some years of focusing elsewhere – both the ‘Green Flag’ exercises in the UK with the Royal Saudi Air Force, and also the SHAHEEN STAR series of exercises in the UAE, where the Typhoon and Tornado force are gaining valuable desert training experience.
Finally the Army has had a year in which it has perhaps struggled to work in two very different realities – the one of the drawdown from HERRICK, the final stepping away from the high intensity combat operations which have typified Army operations for a decade, and instead trying to make the difficult shift into a mindset built around ‘defence engagement’ at lower levels of forces (platoon, barely Company size in some cases), while deploying training teams to places like Mali. For the Army, 2013 has been a year in which it has had to undergo painful downsizing of the Regular force, while trying to adapt to the upsizing of the Reserve force. One is left with the strong sense that there is not wholehearted support for this in some quarters, particularly given the continued flow of leaks to the Daily Telegraph trying to pick up on every possible flaw in the Army Reserve (the one on how the AR has an average age of a few years older than the regulars so was too unfit to fight was a low point).
The end of HERRICK
As we look into our crystal ball, the first thing we see is that 2014 marks the end of OP HERRICK, which in turn arguably closes the book on a period in UK military history which started in 2003, with OP TELIC, and more broadly with Bosnia in 1994. Unless something dramatic happens, by the end of 2014, for the first time in 20 years, there are unlikely to be any substantial UK forces deployed on combat operations or aggressive peacekeeping duties in any substantial numbers anywhere in the world.
The importance of this cannot be overestimated – for two decades the UK has supported constant operations and deployments into a wide range of countries, environments and conditions and in the process done everything from low intensity peacekeeping all the way up to high intensity warfighting. The Op Tour mentality has permeated every part of UK military life, and now for the first time in many years it may come to a close. What this means is two things – firstly a chance ofr a genuine break to reorganise and recuperate and to try to put a highly stretched system back onto what could be considered ‘peacetime footing’. Secondly, it will make for a very difficult transition in the mentality of troops, many of whom have grown up against the backdrop of a drumbeat of operational tours. It is likely that the next big battle facing the military, but particularly the Army, will be retention, as they try to stop numbers from plummeting as people sign off when realising the reality of barracks life.
The end of HERRICK marks the end of a wider chapter too, namely that of the natural enthusiasm for interventions on the ground for sustained periods. While it would be highly foolish to rule out ever doing a sustained and long term campaign in the future, after some 20 years of operations overseas, one senses among decision makers and politicians a desire to claim the glory, but not the mud. In other words, there is a desire where it can be done to employ military assets in a way which comes at low cost, high prestige and no long term commitments – arguably operations in Libya and Mali have shown that a combination of airpower, maritime presence, and highly limited ground commitments provide the ideal combination. It is extremely hard to forsee any situation in the next few years where the UK is willingly going to wish to deploy large numbers of ground forces, and the associated support on the ground – the costs, both human and fiscal, plus the reality that such entanglements tend not to achieve much in the longer term unless you wish to be fixed for a generation. Indeed, one challenge of the use of large ground forces is that its extremely easy to start with a small deployment (say a company group to secure an airhead), but after a while, as reinforcements arrive and HQs establish themselves, you suddenly find yourself with a large footprint, a hefty logistics requirement and that you are fixed in place. Suddenly withdrawal goes from a simple matter to being a complex multi-year evolution – for instance look at HERRICK where the withdrawal arguably began some two years ago due to the complexity of planning to move 10,000 troops and their equipment home. When set against this, one can see the natural enthusiasm for small raids, for littoral influence (via the RFTG) and for Defence Engagement as it comes with a much lower footprint and bill.
What is the year likely to hold?
So, having considered how 2013 went, the crystal ball needs to consider what 2014 may look like. The world is currently in an interesting state of flux – the much vaunted US shift to the Pacific does not seem to have occurred in meaningful numbers, although sequestration will continue to impact on the US military’s capability. One senses that US capability is on the wane, but that huge efficiency potentials do exist in the system, although the ability to close bases and amalgamate is much more difficult than in the UK – just look at the ongoing arguments over moving to a single pattern of camouflage! It is likely that the year will see a gentle shift towards a Pacific presence, particularly as a more assertive Chinese Navy comes increasingly into contact with other Pacific powers who may not appreciate their presence.
The Asia Pacific region is likely to see increased tensions, as the combination of many nations with barely concealed enmities, capable militaries and strongly nationalistic tendencies comes together. One senses that there will be several clashes (Cod War style?) in the region, although it is unlikely to come to physical blows. Japan and Korea will continue to remilitarize, driven by the combination of an increasingly irrational northern neighbour in the form of North Korea, and the more aggressive Chinese presence. While outright conflict remains exceptionally unlikely, it will remain tense. For the UK, it is unlikely to be a region where there will be major commitments – there is unlikely to be an RN deployment into the area in year, although the Garrison in Brunei will continue to be a valuable training location. One senses that the FPDA remains key to UK engagement in the region, backed up with closer engagement with nations like Japan and Korea. But, the Asia Pacific region will be a region unlikely to see a large UK presence in 2014.
The Middle East will remain the region with the largest presence of UK assets, predominantly maritime and aircraft. Progress in the relationship with Iran may see a reduction in tensions across the region, although the ongoing sunni/shia tensions means that Iraq is likely to continue down its bloody path into near civil war again. The region will remain central to UK interests, in part due to the large number of UK expats, the economic links to the area and the wider global stability that comes from a peaceful middle east. There will be continued engagement, but very much a case of ‘business as usual’ – it is unlikely to see a major outbreak of conflict this year. The UK is likely to engage much as before, and build its presence around a combination of reassurance, security and a desire to secure export orders for Typhoon and other equipment. The need to understand what is emerging in Syria will be key, although the decision to not intervene over the summer is likely to be seen in hindsight as a good thing.
Africa will probably be the busiest area for the UK as the region descends into a combination of civil war, conflict and chaos, with former French colonies becoming ever more unsettled. While the French are likely to take the lead in an area which has effectively been their own private area of interest for decades, the UK may find defence engagement, training teams and provision of airlift or ISTAR capabilities to be a valuable way of playing a part without long term engagement. Africa remains a deeply puzzling region, capable of enormous potential and wealth (witness for instance the Angolan desire to procure an aircraft carrier), but let down by waste and inherent corruption. The most likely source of instability at present would seem to be towards the north, although one cannot rule out that if one of the ‘elder statesmen’ who are Presidents in the south passed away, then there may be wider instability which could see some kind of NEO.
Finally Central and South America will continue to be relatively quiet – despite regular efforts by both the Argentine regime and the British press to draw up alarmist reports on the Falkland Islands, Argentina will continue its quiet decline and pose no meaningful threat to UK interests. The world cup in Brazil is a chance to show the world the potential for Latin America to succeed, and its likely that security will be very tight. There is unlikely to major clashes in the region, although the ruling between Chile and Peru over the international maritime boundary may raise tensions locally. More broadly UK engagement will be built around a combination of ship visits, training in Belize (where the UK presence is once again slowly being bolstered) and very low level engagement. So, overall the authors global prediction for 2014 is likely instability, but the risk of intra-state conflict remains low. It will be interesting to see how right he was in 12 months time!
In the UK the debate will increasingly shift towards the upcoming defence review. With an election only 18 months away, defence is likely to become a political issue – particularly on contentious issues like Trident, Scottish independence and the future of the Army post Afghanistan. While it is still far too early to guess what outcomes the 2015 SDSR will hold, one senses that the argument will be built around the view that the RN and RAF offer flexible presence, the ability to intervene at low risk and to offer a ‘good news victory’ but at the cost of needing very expensive high tech equipment. One senses that the Army is likely to struggle to make the argument to retain a large force built around heavy armour, particularly at a time when both the German and French armies are reportedly dropping to barely 250 tanks each in active service. Following a long time in the limelight where cuts have been less savage to protect it at a time of operations, one senses a desire to see the Army take its share of the pain in a way that hasn’t happened for some time.
In real terms the arguments likely to pan out in the media will probably highlight the value of the RN and RAF mobility and presence, while the Army will major on the importance of heavy armour and response units like the Parachute regiment. The challenge though will be for the Army to come up with a genuinely compelling view which can put the case well for supporting a large force requiring extensive new equipment. Given the annual service wages bill is some £10 billion per year, and that the Army is nearly 25% bigger than the RN and RAF combined, there needs to be a strong case made to keep the Army as it is, given that there is little desire to see it used in large numbers, and no credible military threat to the UK which would justify a large army.
As such its likely to be a year of leaks, counter leaks, barely concealed agendas in speeches and a sense of a private review being conducted in public through the media. It will be interesting to see what sort of items dominate the defence media over the next few months, as this may set the tone for the likely outcomes of the review – namely expensive kit or expensive soldiers, but you can’t have both.
So as 2013 draws to a close the conclusion is that the UK military isn’t in that bad a shape. It has been a busy year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Financial pressures remain, although as seen in the spending review, good behaviour by the MOD has been rewarded on terms of flexibility to carry forward underspends, and there are many structural and equipment challenges which need dealing with. But man for man the forces remain immensely capable and allow the UK to remain a global power with the ability to operate across multiple continents simultaneously – with only the US and to a lesser extent France capable of doing this too. Things aren’t as bad as we sometimes want to believe they are, and we should realise that we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
Finally, this blog turned two years old on 27 December. As it enters its third year, it’s a good point to take stock on the journey so far. From quiet beginnings, its now about to breach half a million page views (getting an average of about 800 hits per day), and has well over 2000 comments posted from the active community who read and contribute here. The biggest challenge is to find the time to write meaningfully on issues of interest, sometimes easier said than done! Certainly looking at the diary, 2014 is likely to be busy in the early part of the year, and there may be less posts than usual, but Humphrey will do his best to keep both the blog and Facebook page up to date.
At this point, he’d like to specifically thank the many commentators who post here, and provide valuable advice, insight and views, which have often led to lively debate. A big thank you to people like Ianeon, Derek, Mike, GNB, Angus, and all the other posters who add so much to this site. Additionally this is a good chance to thank the other sites which so kindly flag up posts here – like Think Defence, the 3Ds blog by Mark Collins, and so on. There are some brilliant websites on defence and strategy matters out there, with the links on the page. Do go and visit them for a great insight into how others see things!
At this point, have a very merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Monday, 23 December 2013
The Scotsman has carried news that the Russian Navy currently has a warship, possibly a Task Group off the coast of Scotland, which in turn has led to the deployment of the Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) to monitor the situation. In turn this has led to claims that the UK (or Scotland) is at risk due to the lack of Nimrod or similar patrol aircraft, and the supposed lack of surface ships based in Scotland. This sort of article is immensely frustrating to read, relying more on hyperbole than any actual fact, and hiding wider issues.
For starters, while it is tempting for the media to become immensely worried that the UK is at risk of imminent Russian ships near our coast, the truth is perhaps more mundane. A cursory glimpse at an Atlas shows that for any ship transiting from further North, its inevitable that their passage plan will take them near the UK coastline. During the Cold War, seeing Russian warships off the UK was a matter of routine- indeed if you believe rumours on some websites, it got to the stage that they had a repair tug permanently stationed near Scotland to assist damaged vessels. Putting into the Moray Firth, a relatively sheltered area during particularly poor weather doesn't seem an unreasonable activity.
By itself the presence of Russian (or other vessels) is not a cause for worry – the Russians are slowly regenerating their fleet and its activity levels, and as such it is more likely that Russian vessels will be seen near the UK after a long hiatus. Similarly, national security is hardly imperilled – while the Russians nearly started a war in 1904 by accidentally sinking some trawlers in the North Sea, this tactic is hardly likely to be repeated today. The right of vessels to exercise innocent passage is something that the Royal Navy does very well too – one only has to look at some of the more interesting waters where RN vessels sail to realise that to complain of another nation doing the same is utter hypocrisy.
The main complaint though seems to be twofold – that a warship and not an aircraft was sent to investigate, and that it didn’t come from Scotland. In reality one has to ask whether an aircraft is really the best solution for this particular situation. Beyond overflying the hull to visually confirm that ‘yes there really is a Russian vessel out there’ the value of the MPA is limited to being able to say ‘we know you are there’. For the crews its likely to mean sustained sorties flying racetracks in foul weather, with long hours of discussions between kipper fleet members about the merits of different pies that they've tasted. Indeed a look on PPRUNE suggests that most MPA overflights in the past were limited to two or three direct overflights of a hull for various legal reasons. So, the best Nimrod could do would be to find the vessel, loiter with fairly obvious intent, and then land again. To support this around the clock would require a minimum of three airframes, a significant proportion of flight operations and support personnel and tie up the resources of a significant proportion of the station. To say ‘why not send a jet’ is to not take into account just how much work would have been needed back at base to support the task and the knock on impact it would have.
By contrast, deploying an RN vessel is actually a much better way of allowing a permanent monitoring presence. The escort can sit offshore and simply steam with the Russians and escort them until such point as they cease to be of direct interest to the UK. In terms of support, it arguably costs less to deploy such a vessel, and probably would tie up less people in direct support than if a continuous Nimrod presence were to be deployed. Whether in reality if the UK still had an MPA ability then both would be used is debatable, but to suggest that the UK is at risk because a ship is attending and not an aircraft is utterly ridiculous.
The argument on basing location seems similarly frustrating – ultimately the base port location of a vessel is arguably an irrelevance. Unless you constantly have a crisis right next to your homeport, vessels (or aircraft) are always going to have to travel to the problem. Within the UK the bulk of RN deployments require vessels to head south and away from the UK towards the Atlantic or the Med, and far less happens to the North. During the Cold War there was a reasonably sized RN surface ship presence in Scotland, including a small number of Type 42s. But as the fleet has shrunk to just two surface ship classes, and the strategic threat from the North has become all but irrelevant, it is extremely hard to see the justification for sustaining escorts in either Rosyth or Faslane on a permanent basis so far away from the RNs centre of gravity for surface ships support. Ultimately, ship basing is not about randomly assigning hulls to bases to provide fancy looking ORBATS or statistics, but about deploying them where it makes most sense from a long term financial and support basis.
It should not also be forgotten that if ships were based in Scotland, and an emerging deployment occurred off Lands End, then a similar problem would occur. Ultimately the RN is stretched for hulls and people, and the days when a frigate could be sortied from a local port have gone forever. Instead, it is more realistic to remember that most parts of the UK are within 24 hours sailing of another (depending on the weather!), and that wherever you are based, you will doubtless always be in the wrong place for the next crisis!
It’s probably also worth remembering that were escort vessels based in Scotland, then they would almost certainly be in Faslane. A very rough distance calculation suggests that a vessel sailing from Faslane would only have to travel some 100km less than a vessel travelling up from Portsmouth (very roughly some 850 vs 950km). Just because a vessel is based north of an arbitrary line does not magically make it able to respond much faster to a problem, or as a certain Scottish engineer might say ‘you canna break the laws of Physics’!
While it has become fashionable in some quarters to claim that Scotland is somehow utterly defenceless against visiting friendly foreign vessels, two things need to be remembered. Firstly that Defence is a national asset and that you cannot base everything everywhere. In a small navy which is still probably over catered for in terms of wharfage and dockyard facilities, there will inevitably be disappointment that some parts of the country don’t get the military assets they’d like to see. Indeed later in the decade it can legitimately be pointed out that on current plans not a single submarine will be based in the UK outside of Scotland. On current plans Scotland plays home to 50% of the RNs MCMV capability and will host 100% of its submarine capability. Add to this the presence of a large naval base, plus a variety of support facilities ranging from Rosyth down to things like the Lochalsh test facilities, and you realise that there is still an extremely substantial Naval presence in Scotland.
Secondly, its easy to forget in this furore that Scotland already has its own OPV assets – the Marine Scotland Agency (link HERE) has been responsible for fishery protection and offshore constabulary tasks in Scottish waters for 130 years. Today it operates three OPVs , ranging from 700 – 2100 tonnes, and also has a small selection of maritime surveillance aircraft too. These vessels work to the Scottish Government, and effectively provide it with an offshore capability. While one can bemoan the lack of RN OPVs in Scottish waters, it is because Scotland as a whole is responsible for this role that the RN doesn't usually deploy OPVs on patrol there. Its also worth noting that Scotland has as many OPVs for Fishery Protection as the RN does for the rest of the UK.
Without wishing to be diverted too far into the independence debate, its perhaps noteworthy that the RN has sufficient resources to generate a 24/7/365 available escort in UK waters for activation when required, and that it is backed up by a wide variety of ISTAR capabilities to ensure the RN knows where any vessels of interest are likely to be. By contrast a putative Scottish Defence Force faced with a similar challenge would be wholly reliant on one of two Type 23s being available for sea and not in refit, training deployed or otherwise unavailable. It is significantly easier to generate an escort from a pool of 19 than a pool of two hulls. Similarly an independent Scotland may find it far more difficult to get access to the wider information required to maintain awareness of vessels and their locations, leaving the Scottish dependent on the largesse of the UK to step in and support them if they wished.
On that note, Humphrey now intends to sign off for the Christmas break. With the exception of a short ‘review of 2013, look ahead to 2014’ which he plans to write over the Christmas period, its unlikely that there will be any other updates to the site until early in the new year. A merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers!
Friday, 20 December 2013
It has become a tradition in the UK that the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) presents a speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in the run up to Christmas. A combination of looking back on the year that was, and looking ahead to the year that will be, it is a good opportunity to hear a candid assessment of the outlook for the UK armed forces. This year the new CDS General Houghton was on good form, presenting a very accomplished review of the challenges facing the military as it moves ever close to the next SDSR.The full speech can be found at http://www.rusi.org/events/past/ref:E5284A3D06EFFD
In broad terms the General noted the real difficulties for the armed forces in the current operating environment, noting “The advent of more diverse and less state based threats has become an increasing feature of the age. Most mature Western democracies no longer face existential state-on-state threats in classic force-on-force terms. Rather the challenges are more insidious. There are threats which relate to terrorism, to international crime, to energy resources and critical national infrastructure. There are challenges to our human security, our way of life; there are hazards which derive from the dangerous conditions attendant on a warming planet. And these are threats which have emerged in the rising domain of warfare: cyberspace”.
This is a useful reminder to those whose belief that force structures today do not allow us to defend against the encroaching Soviet hordes – there is a very good reason for that! It is genuinely difficult to envision circumstances at present where the UK would be dragged unwillingly into a physically existential battle for survival against another state. Instead our threats are more challenging – if you consider the damage that can be done from a well placed cyber attack, it could be argued that there is no need for a conventional military existential threat now. A well placed cyber unit able to carry out crippling attacks on national infrastructures, power and support services could probably do more damage in one fell swoop than a sustained air campaign could over many months. It may be better to suggest that we simultaneously do not face a credible military existential threat, but there is a very credible existential threat from both nations and third party groups from the cyberspace domain.
To meet this challenge requires investment in areas not traditionally seen as ‘sexy’ components of military power. It needs to see an investment in computers, communications, information security and an investment in a culture of information awareness among every member of the workforce, from the lowest civilian to CDS. More challengingly this culture needs to be replicated across every part of Government to ensure that the UK is well placed to defend against virtual threats. In many ways the UK is well placed, the cyber security industry in the UK is a genuine world leader, and there is a growing awareness that there is little point in having expensive physical assets if they can be removed from play without ever deploying due to a cyber attack breaking the fuel distribution network, or crippling the rail infrastructure to get to the seaport. The challenge though comes when it is time to start spending serious money on this sort of project – investment in cyber defence comes at the cost of less investment in traditional military kit, which not only impacts on the defence industry, but also UK ability to deploy around the world on operations.
CDS hinted as much in his speech when suggesting that Western nations reviewed their conventional inventories. But he also made a sensible observation by suggesting that Western nations needed to work far more closely together in some areas with genuine jointery at play. There is a serious problem of over capacity in some areas, and lack of willingness to co-operate on shared abilities. The recent deployments in Mali and Central African Republic show how a truly joint air transport fleet may have been more effective, with member states able to provide through a central tasking mechanism rather than relying on individual contributions by nation states in penny packet measures.
Consolidation of resources is never easy – the legality of operating a joint pool into conflict zones and determining who gets what call on which resource is work which makes lawyers jump for joy and staff officers weep while they think of the families they will not see for some time to come… But as affordability of high end equipment becomes more difficult, it increasingly looks like the only sensible way forward. For instance consider the cost of providing a fast jet training pipeline – from the initial flying training through to conversion aircraft and the provision of instructors, tactics schools, opposition jets for sorties etc – to sustain a pipeline for an ever small fast jet fleet looks horrendously expensive. When you consider that most NATO nations are going to be operating fleets of less than 50 fast jets in future, the cost of providing a purely national solution to the pipeline will be an ever larger proportion of the total budget. One can easily see a case for trying to provide a multi-national solution for many of the smaller nations, if only to keep them credibly in the fast jet game, otherwise in a few years time it may well be the case that they simply cannot afford to stay in the fast jet business.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the speech was where CDS focussed on the growth of the equipment programme, but at the cost of acquiring high end capabilities which could not be supported by the manpower pool. This led to the spectre of the ‘hollowed out force’, with CDS highlighting the Royal Navy as being closest to being at this point. What exactly did he mean though? To Humphrey the argument felt like a strong shot across the bows of sustaining equipment programme spending without making the right investments in the personnel and training areas.
The problem that the UK forces have got is that they are probably too expensive to man at current levels for the long term with the equipment they have. It is easy to focus on pure numbers and not look beneath at the make up of the force. For instance the Army requires a larger manpower pool, but its manning pyramid is perhaps disproportionately focused on providing lots of junior troops (Pts & Lcpls) who have the lowest salaries and often require the least amount of technical training. There is also some flex in the system in that you can bear a gap of a couple of junior troops or SNCOs on a Company or Battalion sized deployment. By contrast the Royal Navy relies heavily on a very skilled and technical workforce – the days of ships being manned by the press gang being long gone. To operate a Frigate needs highly skilled operators and engineers to run the very complex equipment on board. If you look the collective man years of training required to put a fully effective Frigates crew to sea, you are talking about needing centuries of investment. Even a junior weapons or mechanical engineering rating requires several years of training to be at the stage where they are operationally useful. By contrast an Army private can be doing a role in an infantry unit within a year.
This higher training footprint has several issues – it costs more to run the shore schools like COLLINGWOOD and SULTAN. It means the crews generally require higher salaries and retention incentives to stay in for the medium term, as the private sector will quickly try and lure disaffected sailors with higher pay packets. Additionally the impact of a well-qualified rating leaving can often have a direct impact on the ability of a ship to deploy. For instance, in the nuclear submarine fleet, the loss of a suitably qualified nuclear SNCO watchkeeper could theoretically prevent deployment of a submarine until the gap is filled. It also takes many years to train a replacement – people leaving early will leave gaps in the system that will take years to fill. What this means is that as training cuts bite, and deployments are extended to cover the gaps caused by having less ships available, the pressure on the RN workforce grows. The more people who leave early, the harder it is for the RN to keep ships at sea for the medium term. The problem also grows as the more gaps that exist, the harder those who are left have to work, thus increasing the likelihood of them leaving too.
So, one interpretation of what CDS said was that he was firing a shot across the bows of the RN to try and wean it off its addiction to high end ships. By insisting on using the most advanced equipment, the RN can fight at a high level, but when there is almost no chance of state on state conflict, and the majority of our threats come from very different areas, what requirement is there for this complexity? Given the Type 26 is due to be ordered soon, and given the emerging SDSR, one could read his comments as a strongly hinted suggestion that the RN should reconsider its future plans and consider something less complicated (e.g. the much vaunted Black Swan sloop concept).
It also served as a useful reminder that the ability to rapidly regenerate the front line no longer exists. If you browse the net, you quickly come across ‘fantasy fleet’ sites where discussions quickly veer into the impossible wishlisting of new ships for the RN. What is often forgotten is that to use the ships / tanks / planes, you need the training pipeline in place to support them. People forget that the 2010 SDSR slashed the underpinning training and support services for the front line. Not only were units cut, but the assumptions on how many people would be needed in future was also reduced. This means that the manpower and equipment to rapidly grow the forces doesn’t exist anymore. There is little point in saying ‘we need 20 extra frigates or 3 more Typhoon squadrons’ because the pipeline to produce that many people with the right skills in the right timeline simply isn’t there. The hollow force is a good demonstration of what happens when you focus on buying new equipment over investing in the equally vital support services linked to it.
It also feels like a case is subtly being made for the versatility (and relative cheaper cost) of Army manpower – given the perception in some quarters that the Army is probably overdue its share of pain in the SDSR, there is likely to be a concerted effort to protect the figure as close to 82000 as possible. The arguments being expounded in the speech (national resilience and so on) seem to suggest a fairly clear push to support the Army headcount, at the cost of the RN and RAF moving to being less technical services.
CDS also touched on the importance of funding for operations. He discussed how in the post Helmand world the MOD is funded to hold troops at contingency, but not for engagement. Given early engagement now can often prevent significant escalation downstream, he rightly highlighted that there needs to be discussion on how the military can deploy without it impacting on current outputs. This is important as engagement yields positive results – just look at the work of the training teams deployed across Africa. But in an overheated budget, these so-called ‘jollies to foreign climes’ are usually the first thing that gets culled. In his speech, one senses a gentle effort to test the waters to see what other budgets could fund defence engagement – DFID or the conflict pool perhaps? Given that the bulk of the Army deployments post 2015 will either be for contingent operations, or for Defence Engagement, this felt like a fairly clear effort to secure funds without it reducing existing defence activity.
It was also interesting to see such a blatant pitch for participation in UN operations as part of wider international engagement. CDS felt that the only way to influence security was to participate overseas, however does this sit comfortably with a Government where there feels a strong desire to step away from prolonged entanglements? After all a read of SDSR would suggest a desire to reorient the UK forces to being held at readiness at home, with only limited deployments (mostly maritime and air based) outside of specific ongoing tasks. CDS now appears to argue that the UK should be more proactive in engaging with the myriad of UN missions out there, which may be good retention and career development for the Army, but does an intervention weary public really wish to see public money expended on deployments to parts of the world they've never even heard of?
Finally CDS made some very interesting observations about the UK defence industry and whether the role of the MOD was to support industry and exports. The debate about whether the UK should focus on purchasing products ‘made in Britain’ is an article in itself, and one which has no easy answer. But to so openly suggest that not all purchases need come from home is interesting. One of the strengths of the UK to date has been in having such a substantial defence industrial base, which ensures continuity of supply, no export licence restrictions and reduced reliance on overseas partners for support. To move away from this reduces the ability of the UK to operate with such flexibility. Similarly, the comments suggesting that Defence should not subsidise the export business is intriguing – given that export orders often help provide funding for in service equipment, or make upgrades more affordable due to economies of scale, there is in Humphreys mind a clear case to be answered for supporting exports. Similarly the export levy applied to successful sales means that HMG (and by definition Defence) see financial gain from overseas sales. At a point when the budget is stretched, supporting exports would help make the wider equipment programme more affordable.
So in summary this was a fascinating speech, and one which had many different interpretations. What it does highlight is the way that the Army has a very different view of what the post SDSR laydown should look like to the other services. One senses a ‘lots but cheap’ versus ‘few but good’ debate emerging as one of the key sticking points in the next review. It will be interesting to see how early 2014 pans out as there is likely to be a lot more to come on this. One suspects this was the opening salvo in a debate which will rage for at least another 18 months or so.
Monday, 16 December 2013
Last week it was confirmed that the MOD would not proceed with the privatisation of the DE&S, following the competition reducing to just one bidder. Instead the organisation will be moved into an ‘arms length’ organisation working for the MOD, but with significant autonomy to set pay and conditions to attract and retain the best employees, and be able to deliver effective procurement on time.
Humphrey has long felt that the DE&S gets an extremely undeserved reputation, which it frankly doesn’t deserve. Defence procurement is long, complicated and at its most complex involves trying to acquire the latest in cutting edge technology, integrating multiple different technologies together and then making it work in pretty much every type of warfighting condition imaginable from peacekeeping to a CBRN environment, and it has to do this and maintain its qualitative edge for 30-40 years.
This is not to deny that there haven’t been problems – there have. The problems of recent years when looked at in depth owe much to issues on cost growth, technological issues, integrating technology, and trying to deliver a project at the same time as people are trying to slash budgets. One only has to look at the way that the recent spending rounds have effectively created a situation where equipment is being procured while at the same time there is significant uncertainty about how much money exists to actually buy it. Arbitrary demands for a 5% in year cut here, or a 12% reduction in year four of the spending profile there, and it all quickly adds up to a challenging situation. By being part of the system, and not at arm’s length from it, DE&S not only had to buy and support the equipment, but be subject to the same spending constraints as others.
The SDSR set out that the DE&S should be looked at for privatisation, essentially being an authority working under contract to the MOD, and not as part of the MOD. At its most simple the concept was that the MOD would set the requirements, the solution and the budget to meet it, and the new DE&S would act as managers of the process. They would be contractually obligated to deliver to time for a specific capability. Spending reductions or changes to the specification would have to be managed formally through contract amends to the DE&S, thus preventing random money saving targets in year, or a newly promoted SO2 keen to make his mark adding in a spurious requirement late in the day which added significantly to cost and time. In other words, the vision was of an organisation with sufficient independence as to meet the procurement needs of the military, without undue interference. The theory was sound, but in practise it was infinitely more complicated than this, and for many reasons the project didn't continue. Now the DE&S looks to the future as still being part of Government, but instead at arm’s length from the rest of the MOD to be able to try and have the autonomy to deliver as expected.
DE&S struggled in part due to the challenges of being part of the system, but also due to the challenges of not being able to recruit and retain the very best skilled workforce. One only has to talk to friends who work in the DE&S to pick up the sense that people there feel frustrated at the system. Many friends of the author took personally the media criticism that they were failing to deliver equipment on time to support TELIC or HERRICK, despite the delays owing far more to wider problems than failings in DE&S. Others feel browbeaten into submission, fed up of the constant sniping over their very existence by the media, the public and sadly some military personnel.
One of the real problems has been being able to pay a skilled workforce a reasonable salary and offer it career development opportunities. It is difficult to retain highly skilled project managers, or technical persons when the best the Civil Service can do is offer a package of £28K per year, with no real career progression possible unless you step away from what you excel at. A friend of the authors realised the game was up when he encountered a private sector project manager on over three times his annual salary for doing the same job when they worked alongside each other. For years there has been a steady drip feed of people into the local industry around Bristol, as the Defence Industry is able to offer much better salaries for doing fundamentally the same job. The opportunity of the new structure is that it may be able to make a much better offer to the skilled workforce, and possibly offer promotion and career development opportunities which have long been dormant since it became essential to be a ‘generalist’ to secure promotion in the wider civil service.
One hopes too that the new structure will hopefully end the merry go round of service personnel coming in for an obligatory ‘two year tour’ prior to returning to what they would regard as ‘proper soldiering’ (or service equivalent). Part of the challenge in handling procurement is the near constant churn of military personnel who are being pushed through the DE&S system in order to gain experience at lower levels prior to moving up the chain. This means that over time it is very hard to find much continuity on a project beyond the civilian element (who often feel dis empowered when handling new and extremely confident SO2s who emphatically KNOW that they are right), and as such the wheel is regularly reinvented.
A cursory glance on ARRSE would suggest that there is a well-worn path of people arriving and knowing that in order to be promoted, they have to change something – no one gets promoted for ‘steady as she goes’. This is perhaps part of the problem – a culture of ‘something needs to change’ rather than ‘something doesn't need to change’. One would hope that the new organisation is able to embed experts for longer, and that future procurement tours are seen as much as about delivering a previously agreed capability and not tinkering for the sake of it.
It is important though that we take stock of what DE&S does and look on it compared to the rest of the world. Arguably in DE&S the UK has acquired one of the finest and most responsive defence procurement systems out there, despite the criticism heaped on it from less informed commentators. When you consider the very challenging requirements of UK defence- namely to acquire capabilities across a wide range of areas, using the most cutting edge of equipment and then being able to support it in service for decades, DE&S does well. Generally speaking equipment enters service broadly on time (or at least in the same range of overruns as would be realistic in most other industries). They are able to run a fair and open competition, which isn’t always taken for granted in some countries, and generally speaking people bidding have a genuine shot at winning a contract, and not being part of a political stitch up (as again happens in some countries). Incidences of corrupt practise are mercifully exceptionally rare, and a sign of a balanced system.
The DE&S have been able to respond effectively to the dynamic and changing nature of operations, such as TELIC and HERRICK – one only has to look at the way that over the last 10 years or so the British Army has been able to re-equip itself with an entirely new range of capabilities, many of which didn't exist even 5 years ago. There has been sufficient agility in the process to ensure that new equipment can enter service quickly, and due to the evolution of the UOR process, it can now be supported on a campaign basis and not just for the short term. In other words, there is an incredibly agile and flexible procurement and support system looking after the needs of troops on HERRICK, and the way that so many different areas have been re-equipped often several times over is testament to the ability of DE&S to work with industry to deliver quickly. The challenge now is to learn from what works well on UORS, and apply them to mainstream procurement where things are often more complex and with much more challenging and diverse user requirements to boot.
As with many things in the MOD, the UK perhaps doesn't realise how good a service it gets from them, and while it is very easy to knock the DE&S, it is worth taking a moment to think about what its workforce has done in the last 10 years or so. Compared to almost any other nations procurement system (let alone nations deployed on wartime operations), you then realise that despite huge media complaints, the DE&S is a rather fine organisation indeed. One hopes that the future structures proposed for it help make it even better still, and if the new system enables it to deliver at arms length to avoid planning round challenges, and enables it to recruit and retain high quality people for the long term then that is to be strongly encouraged.
Monday, 9 December 2013
The Telegraph reported on Monday (HERE that the Secretary of State for Defence Phillip Hammond had dismayed UK allies in the Middle East by pulling out of a high profile engagement to speak at the Manama dialogue, allegedly to focus on the possible changes to the DE&S privatisation. This has been seen as putting in peril UK efforts to secure deals on Eurofighter Typhoon and the expansion of naval basing in Bahrain. Having read the article, Humphrey came to the conclusion that it is a unique ability of the British media to turn any good news story into a disaster from any possible angle.
Its worth noting that the Manama dialogue is not a government organised event but instead one run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). It remains a singularly high profile event, and one that is very much the jewel in the Bahraini crown when it comes to regional events – in an area dominated by ever glitzier air shows, defence exhibitions and ostentatious displays of capability, the ability to host a high profile think-tank event is still extremely important and one unmatched by other nations in the region.
As an event, the UK Government has always provided a high profile level of attendance, as seen this year by the presence of William Hague (Foreign Secretary) and a large delegation of senior military officers including the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Telegraph story would have you believe that the UK was snubbing the entire event, when in fact there was a very high level of representation from across Government.
The story also fails to highlight the signal shift in the UK commitment to the Gulf region since 2010. It is fair to say that the current Government places an extremely high priority on engagement in the Middle East (UK ministerial visits into the region since May 2010 now number in the hundreds). In a region where constant engagement and dialogue make all the difference in supporting relationships (and opening the doors to possible wider opportunities), this step change in meetings has made an enormous difference.
Its not as if Philip Hammond hasn't spent considerable time in the region this year already - indeed he was present only two weeks previously at the Dubai Air Show and like other Ministers has been out several times this year. Indeed it is genuinely getting to the stage where some senior Ministers reportedly encounter each other more in the transit lounge of Dubai Airport than they do around the Cabinet Table!
This should be coupled to the wider reality that the UK defence engagement in the region is currently at a level unsurpassed in peacetime since the ostensible withdrawal in 1971. One only has to look at the MOD newsfeed and service journals to see that the UK has quietly established a very substantial, indeed near permanent, presence in the region across all the nations out there. This ranges from the traditional training teams through to naval facilities in Bahrain and the increased use of Minhad Airbase for the deployment on exercises of Typhoon and Tornado jets on the SHAHEEN STAR series of exercises. This year alone there have been nearly 100 port visits to the UAE by the Royal Navy, and the deployment of the Red Arrows to the Middle East has made front page news across the region, buying a level of diplomatic influence that other nations can only dream of.
Of course it is disappointing when senior Ministers have to cancel their travel plans, but that is the reality of being a Minister – you are not master of your own destiny. In a department where the slow but steady upward delegation of decision making means Ministers need to be involved more and more often, there are arguably barely enough Ministers now to cope with the sheer number of decisions required of them – all of which require considerable thought. This is perhaps another argument in favour of ‘starred officers’ as the presence of senior officers at 3&4* level can help act as a replacement form of access into the UK system, and in a region where visible gestures count for a lot, helps demonstrate that the UK takes the nations in it seriously.
So to suggest that the UK position in the Middle East is weakened due to this decision is absolute rubbish. One only has to look at the wider picture to see that since 2010 there has been a very substantial shift in emphasis to the region which is paying dividends in all manner of areas. The top level visits are one part of a wider strategy which is seeing the UK return to a region in which it has long been missed. The UK presence in the region now is probably stronger and more influential than at any point in a generation. At a time when we do ourselves down far too often as a nation, it is a shame to push a nakedly biased agenda like this and ignore the incredibly positive and advantageous position in which the UK finds itself.
One could argue that mischief making articles like this, suggesting insults and coming up with suggestions of a snub by Hammond smacks more of an agenda by a paper which seems to have been drafted onto the ORBAT of a tiny group of disaffected individuals who seemingly place more importance on capbadge loyalty over their obligations to the Official Secrets Act and implementing the policies of a democratically elected government on issues with which they disagree.
Saturday, 7 December 2013
Several news items this week have combined to make Humphrey pause and consider how the British Armed Forces are bearing up some three years after an SDSR which some would have you believe was the end of life as we knew it. This article is as much a chance to link three fairly disparate news articles as anything else, but it also presents a good chance to remind ourselves that all is not gloom and doom.
Firstly the ‘Save the Royal Navy Website’ maintains a superb twitter feed (which is HERE) where the site owner does a marvellous job of not only fighting for the interests of the RN, but also posting a great selection of news articles about what the RN is up to. In the last week he has been able to post shots of RN vessels currently deployed in Japan, the Philippines, the Middle East and in the Med. Not mentioned this week, but still out there are the forces in the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Home Waters.
While the numbers may be smaller than in the past, reading the twitter feed and looking at the images of modern vessels, one is left with a genuine sense that the RN remains an immensely capable force by any reasonable standard. The ability to deploy this force globally, and to meet a wide range of missions is extremely impressive. One of the centre pieces of the SDSR was the restructuring of the RN to provide the so-called ‘Response Force Task Group’ (RFTG) which has since establishment proven to be a superb means of deploying a worked up task group around the world and reacting to events.
In this year alone the Royal Navy has been engaged in operations across the globe, and been able to not only rely on warship deployments, but also highlight the value of its wider basing and command and control capabilities. As the year draws to a close, there are by the authors reckoning three 1* command groups deployed out there co-coordinating both UK and Multi-national operations. The facility in Sembewang has once again highlighted its importance to the RN (and the wider UK) as a useful foothold in a region that the RN hasn't frequented for some years, and HMS DARING and HMS ILLUSTRIOUS have helped restore hope to thousands of people affected by the dreadful events in the Philippines.
While many wish to be downbeat about the RN, given the pace at which it is operating globally, and the way in which it is able to respond so rapidly to so many events, it is hard to see it as a navy in decline. Yes it is smaller, but so are most Navies these days. But to judge a Navy purely by hulls and not by output is misguided - the RN today remains one of the most capable on the planet, and the events of this year have gone to show that it continues to meet the task placed on it with aplomb.
CAR – the forgotten war
While the RN remains deployed across the globe, events in West Africa continue to validate two key judgements of the SDSR. The deployment into Mali earlier this year showed the importance of having a flexible force able to respond quickly to problems. As the year ends we now see a permanent UK presence of trainers on the ground helping in the brave new world of ‘defence engagement’ which showcases the value of small training teams having disproportionate effect. While this is going on the French have become embroiled into a second operation in the Central African Republic (CAR), to which the UK is now deploying a C17 to assist in the movement of French troops (HERE).
This flexibility of strategic airlift is in marked contrast to the often much vaunted French military, which many on the internet look to as an example of what can be supposedly be done on a reasonable budget, particularly compared to the UK. What has actually happened is that the UK, while focusing less on ‘shop window’ assets has more sensibly invested in assets like strategic airlift, meaning that in a crisis it is far more capable of responding without reliance on a third party nation.
What appears to be emerging as we end the year is the engagement of the UK into a region where there has never really been any interest or presence. The military involvement on the ground perhaps perfectly sums up the ability of the post SDSR military – small focused interventions by ISTAR, training teams and strategic airlift & sealift and avoiding bloody and messy sustained engagement. What this highlights is the continued shift in importance to the UK of the RN and RAF, and the continued lack of importance of the ‘heavy’ Army which is perhaps unable to respond at the speed required to influence events, and when it does get to a situation requires such a strong support chain that the cost and involvement is vastly increased.
The events in both the Far East & West Africa seem to herald the model for the future – small bespoke deployments which do not leave a long term footprint, and which have an effect significantly out of all proportion to their size and cost – the deployment of the RN to the Philipines will probably have a positive impact on the UK/Philippines relationship for decades to come as this sort of assistance does not get forgotten quickly – particularly when so few other nations were prepared to step up so visibly to support.
Meanwhile the Army and RAF seem to be well placed to focus on delivering specific niche missions, or focusing on very low level work like training the trainer, or a well placed airlift. This sort of commitment helps build relations in a region, and cements our position with NATO allies by showing the UK as a willing participant (albeit without large human cost), and enables a place around the table to help plan what happens next.
Delivering Reform at Home
Underpinning this mission is a sense that the structural reforms of the MOD required to make it more agile have been a reasonable success. The Levene Report which heralded the creation of Joint Forces Command, and led to the empowerment of the Service Chiefs has recently published its latest appraisal of progress (Link is HERE). This makes very interesting reading as it positively sets out the case for Defence Reform, and recognises that in most areas the MOD is making very good progress at streamlining, reducing process and making itself more relevant to the future.
One line though which struck the author as being particularly pertinent was:
“I am also concerned that the Chiefs could feel inhibited from rebalancing between military and non-military staff because of a misplaced media-driven focus outside Defence on maintaining the absolute size of their Service. Major changes in force sizes need to be recognised as a deliberate and hard-nosed rethink by the Services and the Department as a whole of how to improve fighting capability. The attention drawn to them by the popular press and others should not be allowed to distract from this. Special pleading is just that, and should be headed off robustly.”
This damning paragraph rightly highlights the difficulties faced in trying to drive the necessary reforms through to achieve the desired force. As the military evolves and as the costs of service personnel are driven ever higher, there is a need to look for innovative ways of doing business. This can range from civilianising and contractorising posts to delivering best value for money and effect. The problem at present is that much of the debate in the UK media is focused on absolute force size, not aided by efforts in some Army quarters to leak that the nation is imperilled due to the lack of X or Y cap badge or capability.
What is frustrating is that when you look at what the UK has achieved in terms of achieving Defence objectives in 2013 (and arguably since the SDSR), there has been a long litany of success. The vision of moving the UK to becoming a nation focused on short scale and focused operations, achieving effect through much better use of ISTAR, training and other things rather than through an ORBAT of undeployable armoured divisions or vast fleets of bombers that never operate is a compelling one. When you look at what the UK has achieved it is hard to argue against the view that the current structure is the right one for what we want the UK to do, mindful of the budget limitations in place.
Looking to the future, as we approach an SDSR in 2015, the narrative seems to be increasingly showing the clear value of the RN and RAF, but the Army looks increasingly vulnerable. Justifying an 82,000 strong Army at a point when it is off operations and where the bulk of its formations are too inflexible to deploy in time to influence a crisis without being committed to a long term deployment seems to suggest that 2015 will be a painful (and some would argue long overdue reality check) period for the Army.
There are risks ahead, and it is not all plain sailing, and as anyone involved in programming deployments will say, the unexpected now can interfere with the achievement of the expected in due course. But, as a nation right now the UK seems to have found a very comfortable global role for itself. Capable of deploying to an intensity seen by few other nations apart from the US, and able to do so globally, it is increasingly assured about seeking the use of semi-permanent facilities overseas (just look at the build up of capability in the Middle East) and in seeing itself as a truly expeditionary power. The result is a small armed force, worked hard and with real challenges about sustaining this tempo over many years, but one which delivers excellent value for money.
The SDSR in 2015 will almost certainly be a chance to reflect on five years of successfully delivering to a new model, and as the work begins to consider what sort of military the UK as a nation wants, it feels like the conclusion will be that right now and looking ahead to what Force 2020 will deliver, that the assumptions feel about right.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
In the previous two parts of this article Humphrey has looked at the proposals set out for a possible Scottish Navy and Air Force. In both articles the conclusion was that the proposals were probably too ambitious when set against the level of resources and manpower, and that it didn’t take into account wider problems like setting up support facilities or fast jet training pipelines. In the latest part of the series Humphrey intends to focus primarily on considerations not really raised in the paper to try and raise questions about the sort of challenges a new Scottish SDF would face.
Communications - Can anyone hear me?
The current force proposals make no real mention of the vital role played by modern military communications. It is no exaggeration to say that without communications, the UK military would cease to function. One of the most critical aspects of this is the IT networks which power much of the day to day workload and traffic.
The current main MOD system is known as ‘DII’ and is an MOD wide network offering access to users in a range of configurations and classifications ranging from unclassified to above SECRET. It is a vital part of day to day defence operations and can be found worldwide. Those who have used DII often groan when its mentioned, and indeed ARRSE is often full of complaints about it. However, if you look beneath the details, what DII offers is a global worldwide IT system which allows you to log in pretty much anywhere, from home to the field to being at sea, and then being able to operate some fairly varied software at a variety of classifications wherever its required. This is not an easy task and one which costs a lot of money to install and upgrade each year.
Despite the ability to talk to each other being so vital, there seems to be no mention of any form of IT infrastructure beyond a vague reference to ‘communication units’ in the paper. This is a real concern – good secure IT able to provide secure communications of classified material and not fall prey to hackers or cyber attack is very expensive and requires specialist skills. It is probably highly unlikely that the UK Government would be willing to allow the new Scottish Government to use its national defence IT system (and arguably would a Scottish Government want to?). This means that in the run up to indepence the SDF is going to have to work out how to install an entire communications network from scratch. Don’t forget that provision of IT is contracted out to various different companies for the MOD, so its not as if one can simply divvy up the assets and black boxes.
Given DII is unlikely to be run on from the start of independence, there would need to be heavy investment in the C2 infrastructure to enable the SDF to actually talk to each other. Again this is not just about having Outlook on your desktop, but the ability to send secure communications to military units, aircraft and ships. Even something as simple as working out how to exercise command and control over the Type 23 Frigates assigned to the Scottish Navy is going to be painfully expensive – particularly when one considers the small size of the overall defence budget.
So one key piece of work needed is working out who is providing the communications, what they are, and how you can assure your cryptography and means of talking securely to the right people at the right time. Without this the ability for the SDF to be anything more than a theoretical force in being is immensely limited.
Housing and other sites
The paper commits the SDF to retaining in existence all current MOD sites in Scotland, and possibly restoring RAF LEUCHARS to flying status. One of the challenges facing the MOD at the moment is the dilemma between having a broad footprint across a range of areas, often made up of aged buildings with heavy maintenance requirements, or condensing this into smaller but more modern sites.
The SDF will find itself inheriting a very large footprint of sites, many of which are quite old, quite remote and in need of a lot of work. It will need to decide whether to invest in them, or rationalise and save money for better facilities elsewhere. At a most basic level, is the SDF going to provide housing to their personnel? After all the MOD housing isn’t actually owned by the MOD, but by Annington Homes – this means that at independence there will not actually be any housing for the SDF personnel. It may sound a small thing, but the new SDF will need to quickly work out a complicated contract to house people in married quarters.
We may brush this aside as a technicality, but its going to be little things like this that pose the real challenge. A badly written contract can be extremely expensive and cost money for many years to come – even something as simple as working out who does repairs, who is called if the house floods and who does the housing allocation. All of these need to be worked out and negotiated properly at the outset. The problem is that the SDF plans don’t seemingly call for a large team of procurement and contracts staff, and instead seem to think that their civil service will just do policy and a few other roles.
When you look at the length of the time it takes MOD to negotiate contracts, often due to the sheer complexity and challenges attached, and then look at the suggested timeline for independence, one cannot help but wonder where the contracts staff will come from to get this right. It feels as if the desire to move quickly could end up costing Scottish taxpayers millions as they either end up with hastily negotiated or poorly constructed contracts – from a business perspective they will have the SDF over a barrel – they will know when the SDF needs to sign by and can react accordingly. One suspects that any private sector company dealing with the SDF will be negotiating from a position of strength! This is a critical point and one that seems to have been totally overlooked. The sheer scale of renegotiating an entire nations contractual obligations in Defence alone, where Government and private sector have built a close relationship over many years in a way that no other independent country has seen before will make this very complicated. This is not to say it cannot be done, but that it will require a great deal of work from what may be a thinly stretched team of contract experts to achieve against a very tight deadline.
Recruitment & Training
At a most basic level, one must ask about how the recruitment and selection process is going to work. To grow a force of some 15000 over 10 years and then retain it will prove to be a real challenge for any military when you consider the small resource base open to it (barely 5 million people). At present recruitment for the UK armed forces is able to draw from a much larger pool, and even then it is a struggle to get the right recruits at the right time. When you look at the potential sets of skills required – Typhoon pilots, Infanteers, Naval Officers etc, and consider that these all have very different selection and training procedures, you quickly realise how challenging its going to be to recruit for the SDF.
For instance, all Aircrew selection and aptitude tests in the UK for all three services are currently done at RAF CRANWELL. The new SDF will not have any similar selection process, nor will it have the means to conduct aptitude testing. The cost of setting up an equivalent system of selection, particularly when you consider the much smaller numbers required, is likely to be extremely expensive – again an expense that needs to set against a very small budget.
Given the length of the training pipeline, it is fair to say that the SDF will need to begin recruitment for pilot roles almost immediately – without having an aircrew selection process to work with. While this may be seen as a short term risk to not do, the longer term impact is that it risks a major aircrew gap 4-6 years down the line as the SDF stops getting replacement pilots into squadrons in time. This problem is replicated across the training pipeline - in order to man the equipment inherited, there need to be training facilities in service at independence which do not yet exist, and which will cost a great deal to establish.
Similarly, the lack of any training facilities or courses across the piece means that at independence, there will be no real means to recruit, select, initially train and professionally train recruits into the SDF. This sort of set up can be established over time, but is heavily reliant on instructor availability, and the means to deliver the most up to date training courses. The insistence on using very modern equipment means that the SDF is going to have to implement a patchwork quilt of very different training courses ranging from basic recruit training through to Typhoon weapon courses. Essentially this could be done, but will be very complicated to do it well. Trying to get the right instructors at the right levels, supported by the correct instructional equipment and publications isn’t easy and could require a lot more people than are currently allowed for in the manpower liability.
Salary and allowances
One area which remains unclear is whether the SDF will continue to pay British Armed Forces salaries or if they will look to reduce wages for serving personnel. One of the big challenges is going to be affording a force of some 15000 regular staff. In the current UK model, some 80% of all serving troops earn over £26,000 per year. Even taking this as the average salary with no variations or allowances, you still end up with a wages bill of almost £400 million, which in reality is likely to be even higher still. In other words, on the projected budget, nearly 20% of it is likely to be taken up by salary costs (this seems about in line with current UK experiences for the British Armed Forces). This figure doesn’t take into account the allowances currently paid, and also things like X-Factor, which compensates troops for the challenges of military life, but which may not be as applicable to a far more sedentary SDF.
Finding the money to pay the troops will be one thing, but actually finding the troops willing to join will be another. The key worry is that baring wholesale transfer of troops against their wishes, it seems that very few personnel would willingly wish to transfer over to the SDF on independence. Given that the current ORBAT calls for very specialist personnel and skills, one can forsee a situation where the SDF may inherit the kit, but it the operators and maintainers choose not to come over, and if the training pipeline cannot cope, then this equipment is likely to stand empty for quite some time to come, and also calls into question the ability of the SDF to effectively defend Scottish interests.
There are a lot of wider issues beyond just the order of battle that cover the formation of a credible armed forces. If Scotland does become an independent country, many of these issues would need to be dealt with very quickly in order to ensure long term continuity for their military.
In the final assessment part of this series, Humphrey will consider whether the numbers add up, what opportunities may exist and provide a very personal assessment on the credibility overall of these plans as they stand.