As we draw to the end of 2012, it is perhaps a good time to take stock of where the UK finds itself at the end of a particularly busy year, and see whether any initial lessons can be drawn from the year gone, and what we can possibly predict lies ahead of us in 2013.
2012 – A very good year indeed…
In the eyes of the author, 2012 has been a very good year in some ways for HM Forces. From a practical perspective, the standing of the Military in the UK has never been higher. The ability to step in at short notice and provide outstanding support for the Olympic Games, while simultaneously carrying out operations in Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Falklands and elsewhere demonstrates that for all the reductions that have gone on, the UK military can still rise to the occasion. Very few nations would be able to operate at the tempo that HM Forces have done this year, fewer still could then continue with the operational tempo of day to day operations that the UK is currently committed to doing.
This year saw the deployment of 20,000 troops for the Olympics from all three services and the provision of a very complex air defence, maritime security and ground defence plan plus discrete specialist assets. Additionally, thousands of troops were surged at short notice to provide manpower when it became clear that the security plan would not cope without them. This has clearly demonstrated the ability of the UK to put together, mobilise and support hugely complex operations at very short notice. For all that some commentators seek to knock the UK capability, we should remember just how few countries could have pulled of what happened over the summer.
It is fair to say that right now, the standing of the Military in the public eye is in a very good place- there is enormous public support for the Military as a whole, and there is a real gratitude for the work done to ensure the Olympic Games were a resounding success. While there is clearly much opposition to the Afghan mission, there remains strong popular support for the troops who conduct it. In short, at the end of 2012, the UK military finds itself in a place where it is unlikely to be again for a generation – at the centre of the national consciousness.
The problem is how to capitalise on this – one of the challenges the MOD could conceivably face going to face in the run up to the next spending round is continuing to justify current budget levels. The problem is that the Military are almost too successful at supporting operations and delivering success, no matter how difficult the situation. In the last 18 months British forces have engaged in campaigns across the globe, utilising almost the full spectrum of types of military activity, from peacekeeping and support to the civil power, to cruise missile strikes and kinetic fighting in Afghanistan. Throughout this they have continued to generate sufficient personnel and equipment to publicly meet these challenges, even if privately we do not see what maintenance is being skimped on, or leave being cancelled. Even at the peak of the summer activity, only 30-40,000 UK service personnel were employed on operational duties (Olympics, fuel tanker drivers striker, HERRICK, Gulf, Falklands, Deterrent etc). This is barely 20% of the current regular armed forces, and 25% of the post Army 2020 forces.
The challenge for the MOD is going to be making the case that supporting this level of activity will continue to require 160,000 regular and 40,000 volunteer reserve personnel in future. After all, outside of general war, it is hard to conceive of HM Forces needing to stand up beyond 40,000 troops in future, and while the complexities of force generation, and sustainment beyond a single tour are well understood in the MOD, it is perhaps a more challenging argument to make in public. The question asked by the public, the politicians and the Treasury for the next review may well be – do we really need an Army of 82,000 people after all?
A Financial Even Keel?
The good news is that the budget appears to be in a much better place now than it has been for some years. This has not been an easy or straightforward process, and it is genuinely good news that things look like they are balancing out. The fact that MOD has been able to escape any front line cuts in the Autumn Statement is to be welcomed, although we do not know whether any cuts will occur to support services.
It is useful to see that there is a ‘contingency fund’ in place to fund new procurement in the future, although this has doubtless come at the cost of swingeing cuts to the equipment programme in order to bring some balance to the plan. So, while a fund may exist to buy new equipment, it remains to be seen what was sacrificed in order to bring this fund to existence. The loss of the Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC) is one high profile loss, and doubtless other ‘stealth cuts’ will emerge over time as it becomes clear that new capabilities will not be funded, or equipment replaced in service.
That said, the ability to go into the next spending round and SDSR with a balanced budget will be good news – particularly if Afghanistan is drawing to a close, which will significantly reduce wider expenditure on operations from the Treasury Reserve.
Moving forward from SDSR
In general, 2012 has been the year in which the final parts of the SDSR cuts were implemented, and we saw the bedding in of the various changes put about by the Levene Review. The standing up of Joint Forces Command was a big step forward, as was the scrapping of the three 4* CINC posts. There is a genuine change going on at the top of the system, as the military moves to a more streamlined command structure in future. We also saw the vision of the Army in 2020, in which a smaller army will focus more on preventative training and capability building, while reducing the teeth equipment it has previously drawn on for use. There will be many challenges in taking forward the future vision of the Army – 18% smaller, with significant reductions in equipment and cherished capbadges. On paper though, if the CDS vision of an Army with Brigades focusing on regional engagement can be delivered, and if it is properly funded, then there are grounds for cautious optimism that as we move forward into the post HERRICK future, we will see an Army which remains operational capable and globally employable.
As we move into 2013 we will see more changes in HERRICK – 2012 was a very low profile year for the operation, and it is increasingly beginning to feel like the war that the Media forgot. With the exception of particularly bad news stories, the Media seem to have little interest in the UK involvement in Afghanistan now, and this will only continue as we move further towards withdrawal.
As we move to 2013, it would be fair to suggest that the following themes will feature heavily in the year ahead. Firstly, there will be continued light skirmishes ahead of the SDSR between various branches of the Services, as they jockey for position to gain favour for their vision of the future. The Royal Navy will remain cautiously optimistic that good times lie ahead, with HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH coming ever closer to completion, and the Type 45 and ASTUTE class will start to come on stream in ever greater numbers. The much vaunted ‘future fleet’ which has been talked of for years is finally beginning to emerge in strength. The questions for the RN will be whether there is continued support for a small but high tech navy, or if the transition to a more French style structure of larger numbers of lower capability vessels is the way forward.
The Army will focus predominantly on operational success in HERRICK and setting out a pathway to a vision of a future Army. It is going to be a challenging period as the first real cuts start occurring, and experienced personnel leave ahead of the 2015 pension reforms. The challenge will be to convince an Army that has spent the last 12 years on operational tasking that the future of ‘proper soldiering’ (as some on ARRSE would see it) involving training, limited engagement and the odd NEO is a worthwhile task. This will have to be done against the backdrop of a vociferous opposition to any change in capbadge, and the inevitable campaigns to save one much amalgamated regiment and its inherited traditions over another.
Finally the RAF will see itself with Typhoon entering service in ever greater numbers, while the less glamorous, but arguably just as vital Air to Air refuelling aircraft (Voyager) finally enters service. The RAF is in a position where it too will begin to change away from the business of supporting ops in Afghanistan and returning to regional engagement and delivery of airpower where needed.
In terms of engagement, the UK military will continue to operate across all the continents of the planet, and engage with a huge variety of nations. The Middle East will almost certainly loom large in most calculations, both from capability, sales and training, but also from ensuring global security against threats from an increasingly belligerent Iran. There will potentially be increased interest in low level engagement in Africa, and the RN will continue to fly the flag for defence relations with South America and the Far East. The Levant will remain a flashpoint, and it may well be the case that growing international pressure may see that something happens in Syria – although speculation on the nature of when, why or how such a force would be deployed is not something that the author would wish to speculate on.
One of the biggest challenges externally may well be to understand and respond to wider defence cuts, particularly in the US and Europe. If, as seems likely, the US drops off the Fiscal Cliff, then major cuts to the US military, even beyond that already scheduled seem likely. The UK will need to ensure its own interests are not damaged – particularly on high profile programmes like JSF. More broadly, there will be further cuts in defence expenditure across Europe, but increases in China and elsewhere. No matter how the media portray it though, the Chinese Navy will remain some years from a truly carrier capable navy, while the Indian Navy will continue to experience major delays and problems with trying to introduce the ex Admiral Gorshkov into service.
Finally the Media will continue to report innacurately on defence matters - after all having spent the year convincing the UK public that we no longer had a military worth a damn, then praising it for saving the day (again), and then condemning the military as a bunch of out of date types who wouldn’t know a good idea if they saw it, its clear that little has changed in the Fourth Estate.
Media coverage for next year is likely to focus on damning the MOD civil service for decisions that were actually taken by the military, to damn the Military for failing on some unspecified issue or matter, and for the odd silly season or ‘human nature’ story. If in doubt, the old faithful that the UK is no longer properly defended because the UK doesn’t have Harrier, Carriers, SLRs, Spitfires or Brown Bess Muskets still in service will be trotted out.
Defence think-tanks will continue to generate headline stories that bear little resemblance to the reality of the military today, but it will unfortunately not stop distinguished ex officers from making fools of themselves by writing angry letters to Government ministers or the papers, citing ‘when I was serving’ as a reason why 30-40 years later that the UK requires equipment of a type which has not been produced for decades, and which is utterly obsolete.
So, 2013 is likely to be a busy year, but probably less busy than 2012. There will be probably no headline orders or cuts, but instead HM Forces will quietly get on with business as usual. Along the way they will probably deploy at least once to somewhere unexpected, and will be required to do the near impossible at least once! Sadly, given the deployment to Afghanistan, it looks as it 1968 will remain the only year in which no UK personnel was killed overseas since 1945.
The end of the year also marks the first Birthday of ‘Thin Pinstriped Line’. Thank you for all your comments and support over the year, and here is hoping that the next year provides plenty more opportunities to write about Defence matters of interest.
Happy New Year!