Humphrey has been unable to post much recently due to a combination of illness (the flu bug doing the rounds) and being extremely busy in real life. As such, a number of fairly important stories have occurred which time constraints have prevented comment upon. To that end, he wants to use a quiet Sunday afternoon interlude to put down some thoughts on a couple of the emerging defence stories of the week, and put his own take on them.
Firstly, the Sunday Express has commented on a suggestion that soldiers are reportedly missing meals due to not being able to afford them (http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/305915/Soldiers-cannot-afford-to-eat).
To this authors mind, this story seems to be picture perfect – the poor underpaid squaddie, struggling to make ends meet while being forced to train ever harder to go to war on behalf of an ungrateful nation and meddling officials who don’t know what they are doing.
The story though does appear to not take into account some fairly basic facts. Firstly, the idea that soldiers are underpaid seems to have little merit. A newly joined soldier is on over £17,400 per year – which equates to an after tax weekly salary of roughly £350. The current system of Pay As You Dine (PAYD) provides means for soldiers to only pay for those meals they actually consume, rather than being forced to pay a food bill every month which often covered meals never actually taken. The system appears to have run into problems with some very junior soldiers who are unable to budget £5 per day to buy themselves a core meal.
We expect these individuals to operate highly complex machinery, to operate weaponry that is incredibly advanced, and at its most basic, to carry a loaded weapon and use deadly force. It seems to this author that junior soldiers being required to budget to put £35 per week by for 21 meals doesn’t seem an unreasonable thing to ask of them, particularly as they have shown an aptitude for other far more complicated matters.
The problem as ever seems to be that some junior soldiers are cash rich on payday, and cash poor by a week later. This is despite them enjoying a disposable income which is probably higher than many of their contemporaries, who in civvy street are expected to cope on similar wages, and also run a house and bills as well as work. There seems to be an almost patronising level of paternalism directed at these junior soldiers – on the one hand we expect them to kill for their country, but at the same time we expect them to be unable to cope with some very basic budgeting, and that rather than it being a scandal that they can’t put their money by, it is a scandal that the MOD is somehow to blame for not feeding them. There would be no sympathy for 18 year olds in the real world in this position, so why do the papers expect it for the military?
Thankfully this doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction on the Army Rumour Service (always a good barometer of forces opinions), with most serving soldiers seeing that it is the responsibility of the individual to look after their money.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Several papers commented on the news that the UK has signed agreements to use the northern route (via the so-called ‘Stans’) to withdraw UK kit from Afghanistan as the run up to the 2015 planned withdrawal date approaches.
This is actually an extremely important announcement, as it is an ever clearer sign that the UK is going to have to adjust its Afghan expectations over the next 2-3 years. While the UK has been at the forefront of Afghan efforts, and has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure, at some point, and probably not in the too distant future, the UK will need to begin to scale down its operations. This is where the announcement of this route is so vital – it shows that already thoughts are turning to working out how best to extract the vast UK physical commitment to the region.
In context, the UK is having to consider how best to extract the entire life support network, plus logistics, munitions and stores for a force of 10,000 people, and then moving it from Afghanistan back to the UK. This isn’t just a case of sticking it on a wagon and then count in back a few months later – the logistics challenge associated to withdrawal is immense. For instance, planners have got to work out how best to reduce forces – what kit can be taken out and when? They have to work out when the UK is going to cease to possess certain capabilities in theatre – which has repercussions for the entire logistics and support chain from the front line, all the way back to the manufacturer. Very challenging decisions need to be made about the very nature of engagements that the UK will undertake in a not too distant future, as withdrawal will start to constrain commander’s operational freedom of manoeuvre.
This does not mean that in 20XX the UK will suddenly stop having the ability to do certain things in Afghanistan. What it does mean is that we are now seeing the focus of operations change, and we will almost certainly start to see the UK (and wider ISAF) ability to influence and conduct the more intensive and high impact operations diminish over the next 2-3 years.
Be in no doubt – the withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be a case of turning off expeditionary operations one day, and then flying home the next. There needs to be vast amounts of planning and logistics work associated with this, and it represents a formidable task for the planners. How to pull down without pulling out, and how to still support the troops that are left will present many J3/4/5 planners with real headaches over the next few years.
There has been a lot of attention paid in some quarters this week to the allegations that the UK may shift back to STOVL rather than CTOL F35. Humphrey has no intention on commenting on these particular reports – to his mind they are part of the wider PR12 process, which has seen, and will doubtless continue to see, a plethora of leaks of selected texts designed to push one case, denigrate another and continue the endless routine of tribal warfare between the services and their capbadges. All will be revealed in late March, so there is little point in speculating much before this point.
The Quiet Decline of the US Navy.
What has been of more interest though has been the reporting on the F35 and also the wider perception that the US Navy is about to take a very significant hit in surface fleet numbers over the next 2-3 years. According to documents released there will be the loss of roughly 20 escorts from cruisers to frigates, paid off into reserve. This represents almost 20% of the USN, and is likely to see the reduction in size to barely 80 escorts within the next 2-3 years.
This is a very significant reduction – it’s effectively the paying off of the equivalent of the entire RN surface flotilla without replacement. On current plans by 2015, then USN is going to have barely 60 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, and around 20 Ticonderoga class cruisers – both designs which date back to the late 1970s – early 1980s in concept, even if the interiors have been significantly updated in equipment since then.
The worry is that the follow on programmes are hugely delayed – the so called littoral combat ships are according to some reports proving to be nowhere near as capable as intended, while the much larger follow on destroyer classes (known as DDX or Zumwalt class) appears to have nearly been killed off. Plans for 32 of the much larger Zumwalts have stalled, and are now scheduled to comprise only three hulls, of which the first was only laid down four months ago.
This position means that the USN is reliant on an increasingly old series of escorts, many of which are now approaching their early twenties in age, and in turn based on a design which originates in the 1980s and which will be built until at least 2041 according to recent USN documents. This means the class could conceivably have a life span of almost 100 years from the first of class commissioning to the last of class paying off.
The USN is now struggling to keep pace with the fact that its escort fleet is aging, that it has multiple carriers which require replacement at some point in the near future, and that its SSN fleet is also going to need updating soon as well. This must also be set against the reality that hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of cuts are inbound to the US defence budget, and that all three services have old and obsolescent equipment requiring replacement. It is hard to see how the US will be able to maintain its three services in their current levels of capability for much longer, and the worry is that a lot will have to give.
Humphrey is increasingly of the opinion that we are witnessing the USA’s ‘east of Suez moment’ at which the US is faced with the same strategic challenges that all empires are faced with. The legions will be recalled from Europe soon, and this is going to leave a major series of security and other challenges that need to be filled. A future blog article is planned to look at the impact of the USN cuts, and what the impact may be on the RN and other navies.
Well it’s been a busy couple of weeks for Humphrey, and he is conscious that there have been fewer updates than usual. Hopefully this will be addressed soon, and further articles are planned which will look at some of the wider strategic issues facing the UK, as well as continuing to comment on the round of media articles and issues focusing on Defence. Until next time, toodle pip!