On 17 December, General Sir David Richards (the UK Chief Defence Staff – CDS) gave a speech to the military think-tank known as the RUSI – Royal United Services Institute. The RUSI is a well-known international think-tank, and one which has over the years provided the venue for a variety of particularly interesting speeches, papers and other engagements.
Traditionally the CDS will always give a ‘state of the nation’ address to the RUSI towards the end of the year, as an effort to not only look back, but also look forward and see what the future may hold for the British Military. Bluntly, many friends of the author believe the speeches are often fairly routine, covering ground regularly debated in public and reiterating policy over thinking outside the agreed position.
This speech is notable though for being significantly more open than previous debates, and for its highlighting several areas where the General stepped away from the path of established policy and perhaps illuminated thinking associated with the next SDR. The full text of the speech can be found over at the Think Defence Website (link is HERE). It is well worth reading in full, as it is genuinely illuminating.
The speech highlights many areas of interest, and the first specific point here was the discussion on the size of the equipment programme, and in particular the importance of retaining people to operate kit. CDS makes a very valid point – there is no point having huge quantities of high quality equipment if you do not have sufficient personnel to operate it to full effect. One of the problems of understanding Defence today is that people look simply at Orders of Battle, and assume that because Nation X possesses a certain amount of equipment, it must somehow be a potent threat. People very rarely consider the human factors associated with being able to equip, maintain, operate and fight with modern equipment. This human edge is one reason why HM Forces remain world class – they are not only equipped with good quality equipment, but they have the ability to use it, and support it, to a high standard.
There was a strong push for the newly established Joint Expeditionary Force (presumably the word ‘British’ was perhaps a little too loaded with historical attachment to be used in this title). The speech highlighted the importance of our being able to provide not only a capable military force able to operate autonomously within an alliance – or as part of a truly integrated multi-national force. This is really important – the ability to work effectively within an integrated multi-national HQ is something that makes a huge difference in modern operations. A quick glance at almost all operations for the last 20 years will show that on ops, the UK can expect to be quickly working with a diverse group of countries, with differing tactics, operational procedures, understanding of situations and politically acceptable end states. By investing time now in bringing the JEF up to scratch and forming strong working relationships, not only between services, but between nations, then there is reduced likelihood of friction in future operations, and increased chance of success. This is perhaps most prominently highlighted by the reality that in OP ELLAMY the UK had to establish in short order a meaningful contribution to a complex multi-national alliance, which included both NATO states and other nations such as UAE, Jordan and Qatar, which had never worked in this environment before.
|General Sir David Richards (copyright Daily Telegraph)|
“In the future, the Chief of the Naval Staff and I have a vision for a Navy which procures ships differently allowing us to have more, not fewer platforms.
We must resist the pressure that has shrunk the number of platforms. Clearly that will mean rethinking the Navy, including examining the case for ships that may have a limited role in general war. But this is not new ¬¬¬– remember the corvette over the ages – and is similar to the utility of light and heavy land forces, tailored to task. And in so doing we will ensure seamanship skills and leadership qualities, so much in demand by our friends and allies, flourish into the long term.
The Royal Navy’s maritime and amphibious components, with 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines at the core of the latter, will be at the heart of Britain’s JEF. As the concept develops we will look to acquire ships that range from top-end war fighting elements through potentially to more vessels tailored to discrete but important tasks, to be deployed on a range of routine non-war fighting duties.
In saying this, the CDS was implicitly suggesting that the findings of the SDSR were no longer correct, and that they may need revisiting in future. This may not sound like a surprising piece of news to many observers, but it is worth considering that in saying this, the CDS is speaking with the authority of the Government. He has effectively admitted that the SDSR is no longer valid and needs to be revisited in 2015, and that this may well mean changes.
The news that the RN may move back into acquiring larger numbers of vessels is interesting, and would no doubt be welcomed by the entire Royal Navy, but it is important to avoid getting carried away with internet ‘fantasy fleet’ debates. The first thing to remember is that any decision on the size of the RN would not be taken until 2015 at the very earliest – this is the time of the next defence review, and its findings would ultimately depend on the UK strategic interests at the time, the amount of funding available and also what other equipment funding is needed. It is not a guarantee that this decision will be made, and it is also very likely that neither the current CDS, nor CNS will be in post come 2015 – CDS can make this sort of pledge, partially because he will not be required to try and see whether it can be implemented.
If a decision to enlarge the RN is taken, the question then becomes what form do these ships take? The mention of the word ‘corvette’ is interesting – the recent debate about the Black Swan sloop, modern class of corvette for the 21st century seems to have been quite high profile. Perhaps CDS was tacitly acknowledging that there is a case to be made for a sloop style procurement. It is clear that the use of very expensive warships such as T45 on deployments to interdict pirates, and ‘fly the flag’ is not necessarily the best use of a billion pound platform.
Acquiring a sloop class would perhaps ensure that the RN could continue to fly the white ensign in areas of lower threat, say for instance the West Indies or West Africa, providing a more relevant training capability for lower end navies, while retaining sufficient high end escorts for global deployments. The concept of a second rate frigate is not entirely new to the RN – look at the Type 14 class and how they were employed initially as low tech ASW escorts, but in reality spent much of their career doing more generic ‘fly the flag’ duties during the early Cold War.
|Type 14 Frigate (Copyright Naval-History.net)|
The acquisition of further platforms would be good in many ways, but there are equally many questions to be answered. The most pressing of which would be ‘where the money is, where the building capacity is and where is the manpower?
To bring a new class of vessel into service will take time – the design and construction of a new class of ship would take a couple of years to complete. Even if an uplift were approved, it would be 3-4 years before design work was completed and orders could be placed. Therefore, it would almost be hitting the 2020 SDR before the vessels were under construction.
The next question is where is the build capacity to take on this work? As has been noted before, the UK military shipbuilding market is operating at capacity right now, and has no real spare ability to construct extra vessels. This means any construction effort would either impinge on T26 construction, or require an uplift of shipyard capacity in order to build the vessels at the same time.
Finally the issue is one of manpower – where does the RN get the crews to man these vessels from? The RN is scaled to man the ships it currently has in service, introduction of a new class of vessels which increase the RN in size would place a manning challenge on the service. To effectively run a ship, you need to have a 3:1 ratio of crew in place to allow for shore drafts, training courses and so on. A class of 6 ships (putatively the Black Swan design, discussed in the doctrine note found at HERE , each requiring 68 crew) would in reality need over 1200 personnel in the system to ensure sufficient manpower with appropriate skills to crew them over their lives. This is a significant manpower challenge and one that would not easily be found.
It is fair to say that the RN is unlikely to see any significant uplift in personnel over the next series of defence reviews, and that in reality pressure is likely to see headcount reducing in order to reduce costs. So, to man a class of new sloop escorts, the RN is going to have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and it is not clear where that may fall.
The next challenge for the RN is to consider how it employs the fleet with new vessels in service – will availability increase overall, or will the arrival of extra hulls and reduction of tasks for the main escort fleet perhaps lead to long overdue refits being scheduled, or maintenance being carried out? The situation may arise where as new vessels come into service, the RN overall availability of ships at sea declines as much deferred refits can be carried out. An enlarged navy may at best be only capable of maintaining a ‘steady state’ for some years.
Turning to the Army, CDS made a particularly compelling vision for an Army with brigades taking on the role of establishing links with different regions of the world. He noted that;
“Though more conceptual work is needed, given the importance of the region and clear Prime Ministerial intent, I envisage two or more adaptable brigades forming close tactical level relationships with particular countries in the Gulf and Jordan, for example, allowing for better cooperation with their forces. Should the need arise for another Libya-style operation, we will be prepared. This would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum.
In Africa, brigades would be tasked to support key allies in the east, west and south whilst another might be given an Indian Ocean and SE Asian focus, allowing for much greater involvement in the FPDA, for example.”
This felt a clear statement of intent that the post HERRICK British Army will not be withdrawn back to the UK to form an overly large home guard. There is clear guidance that the Army will be re-engaging in some regions where its influence has been minimal since the withdrawal from empire. The notion of having forces tasked to support work in South East Asia points to a vision that over the next 5-10 years the UK will, if anything, be taking on a much greater role of engagement than it has done since the end of the 1960s.
The question is what form of engagement will this take? There seems to be little enthusiasm for a long term campaign commitment in future involving boots on the ground, and SDSR seems to note the importance of strategic raiding over long term campaigning. So, if there is little enthusiasm for high end military operations, the question is, what sort of training and operations will the army be conducting in future? It will be most interesting to see how the next Defence Review sets out this vision.
|British Army engaging in Oman on Saif Sareea 2 (Copyright Defence Images.mod.uk)|
This perhaps illustrates the point that for all the criticisms about the military preparing to fight the last war, the reverse could perhaps be true. As a military, we still have personnel today who joined and served with those who had served in the pre-war military. This timeframe has seen vast strategic changes, and constant reassessments of our military requirements, threats and challenges (see the ever present moaning on websites like ARRSE or the Daily Mail about how we no longer matter due to not having so many ships, tanks or the SLR still in service). At the same time, a wide range of supposedly informed commentators criticise the UK for not being sufficiently forward looking, but also berating our lack of capabilities such as tanks, warships and so on. This author would argue that in this speech, CDS has highlighted that if anything the current military leadership accept and realise that it is more important to look forward than back, and that they are charged with delivering a military capable of meeting the very different demands today of that 40, or 80 years ago. Perhaps it is the commentators who cling to the past, preferring to see resources focused on fighting the last wars, rather than the Military itself, which seems to have a very clear vision of just how different the future nature of conflict appears to be.