Wednesday, 1 August 2012

An Olympian Task – the MOD and the Olympics

It will have escaped few peoples notice that the Olympic Games have begun in London. Across the great city, thousands of supremely fit, well trained and highly motivated individuals have begun to move in and complete their roles – namely the provision of a safe, secure and successful games.

In an ideal world the two weeks of the Olympics will be the most boring that the military has ever seen – if the job has been done well, then nothing will happen, and the true measure of success will be headlines in various newspapers suggesting that the UK had overreacted with far too much security.

The Olympics were always going to have a military presence, although this has grown over time as other events have unfolded. From the day the torch arrived at RNAS Culdrose, through to the winning of medals by members of the Army, the military was integral to the Games. The point of this piece though is to look at some of the wider implications for the Armed Forces of the Olympic commitment, and see what this means in the medium term.
Rapier Missiles on Blackheath Common (copyright MOD)

Multiple Commitments from a Whole Force construct
Right now nearly 20,000 military personnel from across the Regular and Reserve components of all three Services are based in London or Weymouth in support of Olympic duties. This is in addition to nearly 9500 troops in Afghanistan, plus several thousand more committed on operations and garrison duty around the world. When one considers that a further 9000 troops or so are currently in the work up for OP HERRICK, and assuming that there has been no ‘double tapping’, then well over 50,000 UK troops are on Operations right now.

In other words, looking at the total force of some 100,000 Army, 40,000 RAF, 32,000 RN, plus roughly 30,000 reserves (give or take a few thousand as redundancy settles in), roughly 25% of the UK military strength is committed to operations or preparing for operations.

There are two ways of looking at this – firstly, one can be worried that the entire military seems heavily committed in support of operations, or alternatively one can be concerned that even at maximum tasking, there is still significant flex in the system to provide numbers. It is hard to imagine the UK taking on further military tasks right now – we’re operating at our maximum envisaged level from SDSR in terms of troop employment, and although there is obviously short term pain in terms of gapping, and normal business not being conducted in order to do the Olympics, it is clear that there is sufficient flex in the system to generate troops if required.

This will come as a welcome relief to the Secretary of State, who will be able to use this as evidence that even with cuts, the manpower exists to meet two large tasks (one military, one arguably resilience based) and still have sufficient capability in the system to continue with other Military Tasks and discretionary tasks.

It is unthinkable that the military would have failed to deliver – arguably the reason that Defence so often is seemingly shafted in spending settlements is the view that it has sufficient manpower and resources to deliver the job when required. If it has not failed to deliver, then why does it need more money? The continued success of providing manpower, even at a likely considerable cost for missed work, gapped training and other problems means that it remains hard for Defence to argue for a funding uplift. Why throw extra money at something which works, when there are plenty of things which seemingly don’t work?

One reason this has worked though has been the prodigious use of reservists to meet some commitments. This is in itself a strong vindication of the whole force concept, and the idea that reservists can be used to support UK resilience work in a sensible way. Previous roles, such as the Civil Contingencies Reaction Forces (CCRF) suffered from an inability to mobilise on time to meet the needs of the day. It now appears that the Reserves are far more employable in this sort of job, which in turn increases the flexibility of the military.

It will be interesting to see the level of employer support for those reservists who have been compulsorily mobilised for the Olympics. Will there be more support for those staff who have served their nation here at home in a non conventional military role, or will it be seen as more acceptable to see reservists mobilised for this sort of duty  as opposed to tasks overseas? This is the first major use of reservists in this way since the war, so Humphrey suspects a lot of work can be done on seeing how the lessons from this experience can be applied in the future.

One key concern on the reserve manpower front though is that by drawing on the pool of reserves, it will have ‘reset the clock’ meaning that they cannot be compulsorily mobilised for some years now. One has to hope that no emergency arises which requires any specialist skill sets in the next 2-3 years, as having drawn on individual Reserves in large numbers, it is legally not possible to do so for some time. The Regular force, and willing individual volunteers will have to carry the burden for the next big operation.

Rapid Responses
One key aspect of all the Olympic commitments which seems to have been overlooked is the sheer speed at which the UK military was able to respond to the tasks at hand. This may sound obvious, but how many military forces in the world would be able to find themselves sustaining a near 10,000 person combat operation thousands of miles from home, and then rapidly being able to set up and deploy nearly 20,000 personnel, mainly at short notice, onto the streets of their capital.

This may sound a minor point, but actually it hides a lot of useful facts. Firstly it shows that the military are able to respond quickly, and at short notice to a multitude of tasks – even after the SDSR has reduced manpower. Secondly, it’s not just about the manpower – the military have been required to put together the logistics support package to make this happen. While much of the operational side has been exercised for the purposes of ‘exercise play’, testing every conceivable scenario going wrong (usually all at once), the UK didn’t test deploying and sustaining 20,000 personnel on the streets. To put the life support arrangements in place, and have a working operation going within days shows the importance of investing in unglamorous, but essential logistics capability.
The RN littoral commitment off Portland (Copyright MOD)

HQ SJC(UK) comes of age.
The operation thus far has been run by the not hugely well known ‘HQ Standing Joint Commander (UK)’ from HQ LAND. This organisation has traditionally been the much, much smaller version of PJHQ, and optimised to deliver a ‘home battlestaff’ to manage the complex world of UK resilience operations. For the last 10 years or so, the UK MOD has spent a lot of time trying to extract itself from the world of MACA, MACP, MACC and a brace of other acronyms. Despite the military being used as the preferred system of last resort by governments of all political persuasions, the MOD found itself increasingly being used as a disaster relief plan. Its not exaggeration to say that many local authorities business continuity plan was quite literally ‘ring the Army’. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 changed all this, and for the last few years, a lot of work has gone into making the military step away from the provision of civil aid and operations in support of government authorities.

The 2010 SDSR re-emphasised that the military still had a role to play in the provision of troops and capabilities for UK resilience operations, and there has been a steady resurgence of interest in this area. Anyone interested in UK doctrine on UK operations should read JDP2-02, which is widely available on the internet.

The role of HQ SJC(UK) was to try to co-ordinate the military response to the sort of role envisaged in the post 2004 CCA environment. Run by a small Army dominated cell in LAND, it provided a nascent planning team which could be bolstered in support of operations. Originally stood up for the 2007 floods, and various other tasks over the years, it has never really enjoyed the attention it deserves. The operations this year, both in support of OP ESCALIN (fuel tanker strike) and the Olympics have shown that HQ SJC(UK) has now become a much more coherent and credible team. It is fair to say that the UK now has proven itself able to stand up two equally effective HQs – with HQ SJC(UK) proving itself to have come of age, particularly now it is running the equivalent of two OP HERRICKS, and PJHQ is now a very mature operating construct, able to effectively run ops overseas.

The reason this matters is because the existence of swept up HQs, able to generate and run operations effectively is central to the reason that the UK is good at projecting power seemingly beyond its weight. Its all very well having thousands of tanks, and hundreds of fighter jets, but if the means to generate, deploy, operate, sustain and recover the joint service assets don’t exist, then their collective capability is vastly reduced. The UK MOD works well because joint operations have become central to the means of doing business, both in the UK and overseas. The Olympics has clearly demonstrated that HQ SJC(UK) is a very capable team indeed.

Force Structures
One interesting observation is that the naval commitment to the Olympics seems to have justified the not insignificant investment in littoral capabilities over the last 15-20 years. The bulk of the RN assets deployed on the operation, such as HMS BULWARK, HMS OCEAN and a range of landing craft, support vessels and other capabilities are littoral assets through and through. The RN may lust after frigates and ‘punchy’ warfighting vessels, but it is clear that a frigate would be of far less value in somewhere like Weymouth, where large flight decks, good C3I capabilities and the ability to send out LCVPs is of far more value than the ability to menacingly point a VLS silo in someones general direction.

What does this mean for the future? Well its possible that sensing the interest in the littoral, the reality that the RN has got good publicity and also done a very good job so far of protecting offshore assets, and the realisation that much of the inshore fleet is getting old and tired, that some funding may go here. The P2000s are due replacement soon, and the putative replacement class has seemingly not yet been funded. At the same time rumours are emerging that Portsmouth dockyard may be given a contract to build some OPVs to keep skills alive ahead of the 2015 commencement of T26 work. So, its possible that some may wish that having seen good value in the littoral, funds may be diverted or found from elsewhere in the budget to support investment in this area. Could one workstream for the 2015 SDSR be to consider improved funding for the RN in patrol craft and other areas? Also, what does this mean for the wider fleet, which is conspicuous by its public absence from Olympic duties? Memories are often short, and the possible danger for the escort fleet is while it has been doing sterling work across the globe, it has not been required for the Olympics. One could plausibly see a future SDSR looking make further reductions or enhancements as seeing extra investment in the littoral at the price of a further clutch of frigates, as a price worth considering paying.

Public Attitudes
One thing that has been immensely clear is the huge public respect for the armed forces stepping into the breach to rescue the security situation. Although it wasn’t quite as bad as some of the more hyperbolic media articles made out – for instance no one has been called off Post Op Tour Leave for Afghanistan, it is clear that the operation has only been made possible by personal sacrifices, both for regular and reserve personnel.

The UK military has once again shown itself to be the first responder of choice for the British Government, and the difference between national pride, and international humiliation. The military involvement in the Olympics, from discrete provision of air defences, through to the involvement in the opening ceremony highlights the huge role played by the armed forces, and also the immense public support shown for them.

Even the most spectacular moment of the night involved the armed forces – never forget that the parachuting ‘Commander James Bond’ is according to his biography, a Commander in HMS FERRET, home of the RNR Intelligence Branch…


  1. " then well over 50,000 UK troops are on Operations right now"
    I wonder how Sir Humphrey defines an "operation"?
    I thought the only people "on ops" were the actual people on Op Herrick.
    I don't see trenches, sandbags,armed soldiers patrolling, vehicle searches, curfews, etc. in London and other Olympic sites.
    I think it is all propaganda and bluff. Good fun for the services and invaluable publicity but just another con by our brave Whitehall Warriors.

    1. Or all the RN, RM and RFA personnel on Ops (ie at sea). Just because there are no sandbags does not mean they are on on Operations. Or the staff at UKMCC or Falklands or - well you get the idea.

  2. very interesting post sir humphrey, i generally enjoy your 'alternative' spin on things. i also disagree with ianeon, i think the swift deployment and professionalism displayed by our armed forces in the g4s c*ck-up have been top notch. i do wonder exactly how long the military hq types knew about it though - did they contingency plan that the private sector might fail us totally re: security and have some ideas just in case (i guess i hope so?).
    re: the navy i think we definitely need new / more patrol type vessels, perhaps even up to small corvette size able to both police and protect our shores (and perhaps beyond, why have a frigate chasing drugs in the Caribbean if we can have 1 or 2 fat patrol corvettes always there instead?). all on the proviso the escort and assault fleets are not cut any more and 20 really is the bare minimum we should have 'fighting ship' wise (ideally i'd like 8 t45s and 16 t26s but i know it's not going to happen) ...

  3. Boring, boring, boring. What a self-centered egotistical arsehole you are.