There was a brief flurry of announcements last week that the Royal Navy would be conducting a deployment into the Med with the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), to conduct exercises with a range of partner nations across the region (the official MOD press release can be found here - http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/News-and-Events/Latest-News/2012/September/27/120921-Cougar-Preview).
This is a not insignificant deployment – sending some 3500 personnel into the Med represents roughly 10% of the Naval Services manpower total strength. At the same time, it is also being done while the RN continues to fill its other key deployments, such as the Atlantic Patrol Task, and operations in the Gulf. While this blog has never tried to put itself across as a ‘fanboy’ site, it is worth noting that there are very, very few navies in the world capable of sustaining on a permanent basis the number of operational deployments and training deployments that the RN does.
The news of COUGAR 12 matters in several ways. Firstly, it is a good way to test one of the flagship announcements of the SDSR – namely the forming up of the RFTG. The role of this organisation is to provide a worked up interventionary force, able to provide the Government with a range of power projection capabilities ranging from naval gunfire support, through to air support and landing of Marines. In 2011, on its inaugural deployment, the force was able to support operations in Libya, playing a crucial role in the UKs campaign efforts. This marks the second time a large number of units have formed up under the RFTG banner.
The news of the deployment is impressive when one considers the operational tempo seen by the UK military this year – fresh from deploying 20,000 troops in support of the Olympics, and while operations in the Gulf, Afghanistan and the rest of the world permanently occupy the best part of 12-13000 troops elsewhere, the UK is still able to conduct a major amphibious exercise in the Med. Most militaries would have needed a long break before being able to return to contingent capability after something as complex as the Olympics, so it is useful reminder that despite being smaller than in the past, the UK still possesses considerable capability.
From an operational perspective though, the deployment matters as it seems to signal the quiet return to contingent capability, and a desire to focus on life beyond OP HERRICK. It is perhaps faintly ironic that having spent years acquiring probably the worlds second most capable amphibious force, with HMS OCEAN, the ALBION class and the BAYS, the UK promptly found itself embroiled in operations in a landlocked country. For the best part of a decade the majority of the Royal Marines have been engaged in supporting Ops TELIC and HERRICK, and there has been perhaps slightly less focus on the amphibious role – with the decision rightly taken to support the ongoing operation and not preparing for a hypothetical one.
The COUGAR series of deployments marks the first major steps back into the regeneration of the Royal Marines as a large scale amphibious force. SDSR cut the requirement for landing troops ashore considerably, but there remains a need to land up to roughly 1800 Marines as part of UK contingent capability. While the Corps was tied up with the OP HERRICK plot, this was a challenge to practise. Amphibious operations are not remotely easy to do – even basic evolutions like getting loaded marines from their bunkspaces to the right landing craft take time and effort to practise. By the time you find yourself trying to land 1800 troops, using a range of landing craft, helicopters and other capabilities, then suddenly the whole process becomes a remarkably complicated evolution. It now looks as if the UK will be able to start exercising at a much higher level than has been practised for some years during this evolution.
This ties into the wider delivery of the goals of the SDSR – never forget that while many focused purely on the short term reduction of personnel and platforms, SDSR was actually about delivering a force capable of providing expeditionary warfare capabilities as its heart. The move towards COUGAR and other exercises serves as a reminder that OP HERRICK is beginning to draw to a close, and that resources previously tied into the commitments plot are suddenly becoming available again. COUGAR serves as a useful reminder that while OP HERRICK remains the Defence Main Effort, there is now increasingly an eye being cast onto the 2015-2020 phase of the SDSR and delivering a force which is affordable and capable of conducting expeditionary operations.
A glance at the list of units participating in COUGAR is also illuminating – firstly, one notes the lack of any RFA tankers or stores ships. This is a task force which will be utterly reliant on shore support, or other nations tankers and supply vessels to remain at sea. This is probably the first time in memory that an RN task force has deployed to sea without a tanker or store ship as an integral part of its force. While the Med is to all intents a very friendly region, and the UK has a naval base in the area at Gibraltar, and support facilities in Cyprus, if something changed and the force had to deploy further afield, then things may become more challenging. This serves as a reminder that in future, an RN of only three store ships and six tankers, is going to have to make very tough choices between supporting single ship operations at distance, or supporting multi-ship exercises nearer to home.
Additionally the presence of the Apache is also interesting – the Apache force is increasingly playing a role at the heart of UK maritime strike roles, and this is not something that can be just spun up overnight. Exercises like COUGAR are vital to iron out bugs and demonstrate capability, and act on lessons identified from previous operations. The COUGAR deployment highlights the importance of joint working, and we are likely to see further such examples in future.
The final point is the programme – COUGAR is about working with other nations to improve our ability to operate with them in the real world. There will be plenty of opportunities to improve relations with the French, and other NATO partners. But perhaps the most exciting opportunity is the chance to improve relations with nations such as Algeria, with whom the UK rarely works, but where an exercise programme might open the door to better co-operation, and future opportunities (both defence and commercial). These sort of exercises can have a huge impact on relations between the UK and other nations, and often play a very beneficial effect.
So, although its only an exercise, and although there are plenty of other higher profile operations going on at the moment, COUGAR 12 is worthy of note. It reaffirms the UKs capabilities, commitment to the wider Med region and also demonstrates that despite being very, very busy, the UK is still more than able to deploy a wide range of military capability to carry out operations at some distance from home. There are likely to be plenty of other exercises like this in the coming years as the UK moves on from HERRICK and instead focuses on a future force optimised for short term intervention. This is really just the beginning!