Sunday, 15 January 2012

The season for recycling rubbish - A round up of the Papers latest defence myths...

Several items have caught the authors eye over the last few days. Firstly, the article in the Sunday times, later repeated in the Daily Mail ( which claimed that the RNs new JCA (Joint Combat Aircraft), couldn't land on an aircraft carrier.

On paper this sounds extremely embarrassing - who on earth would buy a plane which can't actually land? Clearly the MOD is staffed by buffoons and incompetents, and anyone who works for them should be sacked and ritually tarred with white feathers etc etc.

The truth is a little more prosaic - there is a small issue with the F35 at the moment. That's why it is in testing - to find out what doesn't work, and then fix the problems so that it does work! Modern aircraft are complicated beasts, and do require a lot of work to ensure that everything comes together. Is it embarrassing that there is a problem - probably, it's never nice to find an issue, but equally, this is an aircraft which is 5 years from its initial in service date, and a lot has to be sorted before it gets there. The situation is akin to saying that because a car on a car test track has a minor and easily fixable technical problem, then the entire series production should be cancelled - before its even entered service. The reality is that every aircraft type in history has encountered problems at the testing stage. The author would be more worried if there were no problems emerging on the JCA, as he would then wonder what was really going on.

What is perhaps more interesting is that this story highlights the way the journalists rely on poor sourcing for their stories. It seems the original minor news broke on a website, and was flagged up on one particular site based in the UK. It then bounced about a few aviation forums a bit as the owner of the site sought to flag up all the issues with the plane and joyfully predict the end of the F35 world. The story was then picked up by Mick Smith, and published in the Sunday Times.

The unfortunate reality is that the website which flagged up the situation is run by someone violently opposed to the existence of the F35, and who has many issues with it. As far as this author can make out, the document was 'sexed up' in the worst possible light to get attention and conform with the website owners personal views. This was noted by posters on other sites, and some questions raised over the validity of some of the claims.

Personally, the author thinks the whole incident sums up how lazy some journalists are now. Rather than file proper copy, some journalists appear to think it is acceptable to lift stories wholesale from websites, seemingly without bothering to check whether there may be a bias to said site, or whether there was more to this than meets the eye. Now, because of this, the CVF saga has gained another damaging piece of media PR simply because a journalist decided to run a story based on the hype of an immensely biased website. What happened to basic research standards?

MOD Credit Card Splurge?
The Daily Mail reports that the MOD has somehow spent millions on all manner of odd things including toys, gym equipment and jewellery in the last year. While this has been found out from information on receipts, there is definitely something a little odd about this story.

Firstly, the current MOD claim system would never, ever, allow someone to make a claim for the things being discussed in the story.( Given the incredible depths to which claims are now scrutinised (Humphrey has seen 3* Officers need to request 4* approval for an Easyjet flight), he is sceptical that the expenditure is as it is claimed to be.

The next issue is that if the claims are lifted from GPC cards, then they may be drawn from a set of fairly generic headings, rather than covering what was actually bought. As odd as it sounds, use of the GPC is categorised fairly blandly in records, making it hard to actually ascertain what may have been bought, and why. Additionally, all expenditure on GPC cards is scrutinised, so if there was any doubt at all about the veracity of the purchase, then it would have been flagged up.

The other point to note is that you need approval to buy just about anything nowadays in the MOD - you can't walk off and just get what you want and claim it back, never having been audited. Therefore someone must have put together a highly compelling business case to get some of this spending approved - which suggests that there must have been a real need for its purchase.

The final point, it is immensely irritating to again see the idea that only civil servants spend money badly. These reports seem to make out that our brave boys are suffering in the front line, while fat cat civil servants eat caviar and smoke cigars. The reality is that it's just as likely that military personnel were responsible for this expenditure, but the headline 'our brave boys buy jewellery and claim it from taxpayer' doesn't quite have the same ring to it when wanting to maintain the myth of lions led by donkeys, which the current media circus is so keen to propagate.

Tis the Season to Leak Option Papers
The next item to catch the authors attention was the piece in the Sunday Telegraph claiming that the military were looking at disbanding the Parachute battalions (again). This no doubt has elicited loud harrumphs from retired officers across the country, and a general rush of letters to papers / MPs, some of which may actually be scrawled in green ink or blood, that the world as we know it is ending because Defence is getting smaller.

This is exactly the reaction that the person responsible for briefing this situation to the paper was hoping to achieve - adverse media coverage suggesting that a regiment which hasn't carried out its operational role in nearly 60 years may finally be cut down to size.

The reality is more complex - the Department hasn't made any decision yet on future army structure or size - it needs to get through OP HERRICK and then out to 2015 prior to making some tough decisions on force lay down. What the Paras seem to be doing is preparation of the battlespace, to drum up a media firestorm to persuade ministers conscious of opinion polls that the last thing they should do is sack paras. Instead, why not pick on some poor county regiment, or laundry & mobile bath unit that is nowhere near as crazily airborne, and are quite clearly all hats.

The problem is that if the MOD bows to this pressure, it is then impossible to carry out a proper root and branch reform of the military. Cap badge loyalty is immensely strong, and it's natural for people to want to protect their own men, heritage and career prospects. However, the problem is that clinging onto all the 'cool' units, such as the Paras, or the Brigade of Guards means that the Army is ever more imbalanced, relying on light infantry to be scaled to carry out a wide range of duties. Much of the reason why the department is in a financial mess is because it is unable to push through cuts which may be politically unpopular, but financially immensely sensible.

As we approach the season of PR12 cuts, manpower reductions, force changes and the general sense of getting ever smaller, stories such as this will become commonplace. The Paras may have jumped the gun, but the author predicts that within 2-3 weeks, further stories on less tanks, less planes (particularly red arrows) and less ships will be leaking, despite the fact that no decisions have been taken.

Were the author immensely cynical, he'd suspect that there will be a shortage of photocopying paper on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of MOD Main Building for the next couple of weeks....


  1. Have you seen the leaked F 35 Concurrent report?

    This came out not long ago which highlighted this arrestor problem, Alongside with other issues, one of which is classified (Most likely electronics or its low observability thingy stuff)

    While I agree that the main stream news defence journalists are poor(I don't like the Sunday Times ones, she always needs Toms help and did a poor show on Newsnight once) they are generally slow and the analysis isn't really good. But this originated from the leaked document, although the journalists could have got information from sources which aren't favourable to the F35. Which I think is pretty obvious, because there are other problems, but carrier + aircraft = a good slagging match and piss poor debate. For example I hardly remembered the mainstream press picking up the F136 engine being dumped (The one designed by GE and Rolls Royce) or its current ability to nearly set itself on fire.

    I feel sorry for the Royal Navy and RAF, they get talked about like they're the one which caused this gap! If anything it's the Government, they selected the F35B, which is self is not in a good state, so they went to F35C, which they don't really know the full implications of the cost! For me going F35C is probably for the best instead of F35B.

    The problem with the F35 is they're trying to run before they can walk, I'm not sure if they have C variants in the LRIP, but if they do then this is the problem. It's not so much the redesign of moving the hook and the related structural changes, which will take time, it's about the ones already built.

    It the costs of having one of these early versions that should annoy people, these are the ones which will cost more money, to fix and to buy replacements aircraft in the future. Sometimes it can cost too much to bring the early versions up to the full requirement. Aircraft are always evolving, with fixes and new features, it's what you start with which is important.

    In an ideal world the carriers would have been built earlier with RAF harriers flying from them until the F35 was ready for service. Unfortunately we've got to make cuts and are/will get stung by waiting for the F35.

  2. Very true Sir Humphrey!

    And the 'massive saving' to be found by using said shite paper? About 30p a ream, but you don't throw half of it away, go look in the stationary catalogue. A much higher quality paper is only marginally more expensive and still meets the recycled content target. Can I order it? No! 'We need to save money'.

  3. Wow, a new aircraft that has suffered problems in development! No, say it aint so! That's never happened before.

    I wonder if on the reduction of the army issue we should move to the Canadian model for airborne troops - airborne companies attached to other regiments. I also wonder if it would be right to turn the Brigade of Guards into one super-regiment like SCOTS.