Thursday, 15 November 2012

A most interesting interjection indeed...


The main defence story of the day is the reported comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir David Richards, who reportedly delivered a frank assessment on the challenges facing the military at Oxford University, which according to some internet sources was part of the ‘Changing Nature of War’ module. What has seemingly caused media attention are three issues, although sadly Humphrey has yet to track down a full transcript of what the General actually said.

Firstly, there has been some attention raised on the suggestion that CDS has had to advise politicians that defence cuts mean they have to reign in their ambition. Frankly this seems to be a non-story. The role of all CDS, or equivalents in history, is surely to provide impartial advice to politicians about the ability of the military to deliver effect. It is almost inevitable that every CDS (or their service forebears prior to the 1960s) in recent history will have had to have had some equivalent conversation with the politicians of the day. To be honest, the author would be more worried if a serving CDS did not feel able to tell a politician about the limits of what the armed forces could do. Over his holiday, Humphrey was reading about the British Army in WW1, and was struck then by the strength of the debate between serving officers and Ministers over manpower provision and the conduct of the war. The notion of military personnel issuing advice to Ministers and MPs, which is perhaps not always what they would wish to hear, is not new, and not news.

The next issue is on the old bug bear of senior officer numbers. The media have waned hot and cold over this issue, often seemingly seeing it as a convenient way of coming up with a bad news story – either ‘isn’t it terrible that the UK has so many senior officers’, or ‘isn’t it is terrible that the UK has so few senior officers’ and both stories note the damage done to the UKs standing by defence cuts in general.

CDS appears to have noted that he is being tasked to reduce senior officer numbers as part of defence cuts, but that reductions in senior officers come at a price of influence. This is again not exactly news, but a reiteration of the simple fact that fewer seniors out there will reduce the ability of the UK to exert influence in various areas. Interestingly the spin seems to have been that too few officers is currently a bad thing (at least until the next ‘too many senior officers is a bad thing article is published).

The final statement, and one that to the authors mind is perhaps most interesting, was the observation that there may not be enough RN warships currently in service. CDS noted the RN was being forced to meet its standing commitments with high tech vessels, often where the threat was actually generated from very low tech capabilities.

The media seem to have interpreted this as an argument that the RN has too few ships, although it could be argued that there is another interpretation altogether – namely that this was a floating of a possible debate ahead of the next SDSR (likely to be held in 2015) about the wider structure and capability of the RN.

As most readers know, the RN has for decades chosen to focus its resources on a smaller number of high technology vessels able to fight in any challenging scenario, rather than a large fleet of less capable vessels with a small high end contingent.

By advancing the view that the RN has possibly had to allocate the wrong vessels to the job, one could see a subtle line of argument against the structure of the RN surface force being advanced. Namely, the tasks that the RN is asked to carry out do not require a fleet of 19 high end escorts, but do require a larger fleet of less capable escorts. As has been noted here, the RN does not have the ability to suddenly order extra ships and man them. A change in the force structure of the 2015 SDSR would take 5-10 years to implement at the very least, which means that debates now are about the RN of the 2020-30 timeframe, and what we may ask of it.

The argument is fascinating because it shows the view that in the next SDSR, the RN may be forced to justify why it requires fewer high tech ships over a larger fleet. In 2015 the RN will enter the SDSR with a carrier programme well underway, and the Type 26 programme beginning to enter construction. If one looks at the programme beyond 2015, on current plans, the T26 will be in serial production for nearly 20 years, while at some point in the 2020s a follow on class of vessel to cover the ‘odds and sods’ replacement for MCMV, patrol and hydrographics etc is likely to emerge. At a time when resources will continue to be challenging, and when the UK will probably be looking to focus on a more ‘strategic raiding’ vision (at least if the views of the 2010 SDSR hold firm), then the RN is likely to require a lot of extra funding proportionate to the Army in order to deliver CVF, T26, next generation patrol ships/MCMV and more importantly SSBN(F) in the 2015-2030 timeframe.

By questioning whether the RN really needs high end ships to do piracy now, one could see an proposition emerging that actually the UK needs less frigates like T26, and more light vessels such as the so-called ‘black swan’ concept often discussed on the Internet. The result could be that an argument could be constructed to justify more funding for the smaller ships, and less funding for T26 and the high end navy. This would of course free up funding for other projects, such as the various Army procurement projects in the same time frame.  

This is entirely supposition of course, drawn on little more than a scan of relevant Internet sites. However, CDS comments were fascinating as they perhaps lift the curtain slightly on the sort of thinking that may have to be addressed in the next SDSR, and which perhaps show how the services are drawing up their arguments. It is only 2 ½ years till the next SDSR is likely to come, and we may well see further such debates in this time. The author suspects equally robust cases will be made for sea power and a high tech navy, for tanks and armour, and for precision guided air-launched missiles and for airpower as a whole. These speeches will give interesting insight into how the debate is developing across a range of fields, and it will be most interesting to listen to them.

So, what has been portrayed as a ‘brave’ speech by CDS is perhaps something more – a chance to confirm that he does the job as one would hope all CDS’s have done it, and that in doing so, we have perhaps glimpsed how thinking is driving the evolution of the debates which could possibly occur at a future review. A most fascinating speech indeed…


  1. I was one of the early commentators on the DT article and I was able to counter the piece with facts learned on Sir Humph's blog. So why didn't said Defence Editor bother to confirm facts before going to print. Either he has another agenda or Sir Humph is lying through his teeth! The misleading repetition of senior officer numbers was a prime example and one easily confirmed by the MoD Media staff. The article did conclude that Sir David was supportive of the Government and had obviously cautioned Ministers not to be too ambitious with heir military.
    The answer must point to spin, that malicious euphemism for lies. But, to what purpose?
    However, what I said must have affronted the DT for they withdrew the comment on later editions.
    If they can't take the heat, they must get out of the kitchens.

    1. From recent experience of something my work has been involved in the media are not interested in checking facts before going to print, or broadcasting a story. Indeed they will even refuse to publish the other side.
      I think we all have to remember the old saying about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

  2. My observation of DT articles is that they are often very poorly written.

    I was affronted by an article criticising Margaret Hodge in the following headline "Margaret Hodge's family company pays just 0.01pc tax on £2.1bn of business generated in the UK".

    The line of argument is utter tosh, tax is paid on profits (with allowances and allowable and disallowed expenses). The article is all about revenue.

  3. Sir Humphrey,

    General Sir David Richards is of course right in essence about lack of resources preventing the Armed Services from meeting all the commitments expected by Government.

    However, I cannot but suspect a certain "jockeying for position" here in anticipation of the next SDSR in 2015 and, posibly too, in anticipation of the ending of the Foreign Aid given to India (and perhaps other countries) by the same year. Such cuts will involve huge amounts of money and maybe there is a feeling within certain parts of the defence community that such money could be better spent on the defence budget instead.

    What is needed of course is a rise of at least 1% in the Defence Budget. That would solve many, if not all, of our problems.

    Sir Humphrey, I forgot to thank you for a comment on another site, in reply to a comment I had made on Marchwwod Military Port. Very informative. Thanks.

  4. On a completely different matter, just how much trouble is the Astute programme in? Most of the press are running hyper stories at the moment about the first batch of submarines being unfit for purpose (e.g. rusting, leaks, lack of speed) and a flawed design. Are there some really serious issues here or is this just the usual media exaggeration?

    1. Hi there. Sorry for the delay in responding, I've been very busy.
      Its hard to get a picture on what really went on, primarily because it is easier to put sensationalist pieces out there, rather than rely on more grounded factual pieces.
      I've deliberately not commented on the ASTUTE story because I don't know enugh about it to comment accurately. My instinct though is that had there been any real safety issues, then she would not have been at sea in the first place. The RN takes nuclear reactor (and wider submarine) safety VERY seriously indeed.

  5. Astute is not in any danger! The media are very very far from the truth.