Saturday, 9 June 2012

Contracting out the MOD - the role of Contractors in Force 2020

The speech by the Secretary of State for Defence, Phillip Hammond, on the evolution of UK defence got a large amount of media attention this week. The entire transcript of the speech can be found over at the Think Defence website (Link here).  The speech was noteworthy for starting to expose the thinking underpinning the structural changes in the armed forces at present. As has been seen, the procurement budget has now been balanced, and the PR12 exercise completed. Theoretically the MOD procurement budget is now properly sorted and able to deliver everything still left in it. The next herculean task is to try to solve the problem of downsizing the military to meet the requirements of the future.

SDSR Vision
Although widely seen by many as a cuts exercise, one thing SDSR did well was to try to extract the UK from the long term defence ambition of building large armed forces optimised for entry on to foreign territory with a view to staying for a prolonged time. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be that politicans like short term glorious victories (or heroic withdrawals), but dislike the association with, and bills for, long term ground holding.

The clear result of SDSR was a move towards a military capable of ‘Strategic Raiding’, essentially pitching up to conduct very focused operations, but not staying long enough to become stuck in a long term conflict. This has seen investment and support for equipment such as CVF, and other means of power projection, and a move away from the heavy equipment required for high intensity war fighting. For instance, the Army is seeing a reduction in the availability of Challenger 2 tanks, and AS90 Artillery pieces. They are seen as too heavy, too much of a logistics tail and simply too difficult to move quickly to be part of the vision of Strategic Raiding.

One of the most controversial decisions of the SDSR was the decision to cut Army manpower to an eventual 82,000 (originally it was higher than this, but revised downwards at a later point). A 20% cut in the Army is going to mean significant structural changes, losses of units, and wholesale reduction in capabilities. The future UK Army will reportedly comprise a total force of some 120,000 personnel, consisting of both regular and volunteer reserve personnel. There will reportedly be an increase in reliance on reservists, allied nations, and also contractors to deliver some support in future.

Contracting Out Defence?
The vision of relying on contractors has caused significant comment. There is naturally an unhappiness at the perception of a military reliant on external private companies to deliver their integrated support in order to achieve a mission. There is, as always, a desire to try to keep this sort of skill in house if possible.

The author profoundly disagrees with the view that contractors cannot be expected to support Defence. The use of contractors during operations has been going on for many years. Anyone who has been to Basra, Baghdad, Kandahar or Kabul will find themselves walking by thousands of civilian contractors, all of whom play key roles in supporting operations. This isn’t just for the UK, the US is even more heavily reliant on the private sector to keep their military in the field.

In Basra, catering and life support services were delivered by a private company, and today in Afghanistan much of the general logistical support and food is delivered to ISAF through a long support chain stretching back to the Indian Ocean. In Iraq, the US military relied heavily on private contractors to carry out immensely sensitive tasks, such as intelligence assessment or working in key operational areas. Indeed, one could almost sense that the uniformed military were just one enabler within a much bigger set up of State and non-State assets used to conduct military operations.

From the outset then, the idea that the military will somehow be at risk due to the use of contractors is foolish. They are already used by the British military across the globe for a vast range of services, ranging from the provision of Chandlery and ship hotel support for RN vessels overseas, through to provision of IT services in HQs.

It makes a lot of sense to try to outsource much of this capability. Investing in the life support systems required to operate overseas is expensive, and draws funding away from the equipment budgets. Even the most basic item like food requires complex logistical support to get into place. The link attached shows the food storage facility used by the ISAF caterers to put food into Afghanistan – this alone requires 22 flights per week. If this wasn’t run by contractors, then how many military assets would be used to deliver this? (LINK HERE). The other article link shows that the Supreme Group has received $8 billion in contracts in the last 6 years from the US Govt alone to feed its troops. Even then, when things go wrong it can cause political scandal – (LINK HERE)

Supreme Catering Capabilities
When in service the capability has to be maintained, supported and upgraded. It requires troops to look after it and run it. Any piece of expeditionary capability such as catering, IT or support will come with a large footprint of military personnel needed to sustain it for the long haul. More significantly, if it is run by the military, then the troops assigned to support it count against the headcount ceiling for the operation. It is probably fair to say that if all the contractors assigned to support UK forces in Afghanistan were in uniform, then the UK would either have to significantly uplift its commitment to ISAF (with the ensuing challenges of sustaining this), or reduce its ‘boots on the ground’ to find room to accommodate the numbers.
The author strongly believes that there are some areas where you need uniformed personnel – for instance expeditionary logistics to support a FOB. The vision of Strategic Raiding is highly appealing, a short term commitment shouldn’t need to draw heavily on the logistics chain, which in turn reduces the need for boots on the ground, and the wider UK footprint. This in turn means a reduced reliance on the heavy logistical and other support elements that exist now – why keep something unlikely to be able to be deployed in time, as by the time it arrives, the Op will be over?

Instead, it feels as if the vision for using contractors in future is almost saying ‘we do not intend to embroil ourselves in the sort of commitment where we’ll need them in large numbers again’. It feels as if people are trying to communicate a vision that contractors will be needed for the long term support to bases, and HQs and other military assets that only happen on major long term operations. By its very nature, Force 2020 is supposed to be leading us away from this future, so one could make the case that contractors will become (hopefully) more rare as time goes on.

The challenge for the military will be how to build a comfortable relationship with commercial suppliers. The military will not need contractors on daily basis when not committed to operations, but will need call on them, often at short notice. They will need to avoid being overly reliant on a single point of failure (e.g. one company going bust at no notice, leaving them without a key enabler). They also need to ensure that Defence gets best value for money from its relationships. Industry is in business to make money – it would be fair to say that the Military and Civil Service are not overly profit minded, nor commercially minded. Ensuring that the MOD isn’t taken for a ride, and that industry isn’t able to tap into this as a new goldmine will be interesting.

 Wider Burden Sharing
One interesting theme was the emphasis on Alliances and burden sharing. The suggestion that the UK will look to other nations for increased support is an interesting means of moving forward the debate on collective defence. Would smaller nations be willing to become leading experts in a particular type of defence capability (e.g. provision of CBRN capability, or a logistics network), if they felt they could offload responsibility for other aspects of their defence? It is unlikely that anything substantial would change in the next few years, but as time passes and more European countries try to grapple with the cost of Defence, the idea that provision of a small element of logistical support could in turn gain access to wider UK support may be seen as a good thing.
 The critical message being sent out on the burden sharing though is that if the UK, arguably one of the world’s leading military powers cannot in future support sustained unilateral operations without burden sharing, then what hope do other smaller countries have? While many NATO countries have ostensibly tried to evolve their military to tackle power projection, the ever increasing costs means that most probably can’t afford to go it alone for much longer.

Will the Mexeflote be one day provided by Allies or Contractors?
Where does this leave the UK?

The emphasis being placed by the UK on the fact that in future it will be looking for partners and commercial support to conduct long term operations shows several things.

Firstly, a clear marker has been laid down that the UK is not going to be keen to get back into the business of sustained land operations. In future, it is now clear that the UK will be expecting to see support from a range of partners to operate overseas on a long term basis.

Secondly, the nature of involvement in conflict is changing. Short term, ‘little wars’ or limited interventions will continue to be the preserve of the State. The UK will retain the ability to influence short term events as a purely military concern. But in future success in a sustained military operation will be heavily reliant on the State, on Industry and on Allies. If industry, and by extension the civil population who work for it, are unwilling or unable to provide a capability, then the State will be unable to secure success in an operation. Arguably the military will become the ‘kinetic service providers’ for operations.

Finally the reliance on industry to provide ever greater levels of support will mean the need for a clear strategy to ensure that businesses deemed critical to the national interest are not able to fail, be bought out or become a monopoly without ensuring other suppliers are available. This could require a far more hands on approach to industry than has previously been seen by the MOD and UKTI. Is the time, effort and cost required in ensuring industry can deliver cheaper than maintaining an equivalent military capability?


  1. The only flaw in your argument - if it is an argument - is the "politician"

    As a "khaki brained idiot" from the past, I have no objection to the reduction of the the size of the armed forces - as long as the politicians rein in their ambitions.

    There is always a time-lag between the politician deciding we should do something, the military actually doing it, and the civilian contractor being "on-site."
    It is this time-lag which would concern me - I can envisage the scene where the military go off to do the politicians bidding and then sit around waiting for the civilian contractors to play catch-up.

    Everything can be planned for - except the politician - If something can go wrong, it will go wrong!

    I shall resist the temptation to say "Draw up a sandbag and I will tell you a war story" - lol

    We live in interesting times.

  2. You raise some interesting points, it is a challenging issue. Going towards contractors as partners can work as long as any military force looking at the issue understands that they still wear the risk of the supply chain. They need to invest in ensuring service delivery under any and all conditions. Being at the end of the supply chain, they cannot transfer the risk. Thanks - interesting reading.

  3. This all comes under the banner of Total Support Force (TSF). The concept as SirH points out in nothing new, the way we do it in the future and actually consider contractorised support from the outset is the new way. Its not a lot more than a mindset shift, green enters theatre early, sets the security conditions, contractor support arrives asap and green shifts on to other green tasks. As always the devil is in the detail and how we implement it but fro what I can see its not a huge paradigm (no pun) shift from what we've done in Iraq or Aghanistan thus far only more considered.

  4. "The clear result of SDSR was a move towards a military capable of ‘Strategic Raiding’, essentially pitching up to conduct very focused operations, but not staying long enough to become stuck in a long term conflict."

    Whoa there! Using that kind of language on TD could get you keelhauled.

    "Secondly, the nature of involvement in conflict is changing. Short term, ‘little wars’ or limited interventions will continue to be the preserve of the State. The UK will retain the ability to influence short term events as a purely military concern."

    Very much my argument for some years now, and given the lack of resources a direction i am happy to endorse.

    If you will forgive the shamless self-promotion, I wrote this before the SDSR was published:

    Concentrating on what the US seems to call punitive-intervention rather than stabilisation made sense then, and even more so in light of your explanation of contractor'isation for lengthy interventions.

  5. I found your blog when I was looking for a different sort of information but I was very happy and glad to read through your blog. The information available here is great.I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this post.