Monday, 6 May 2013

A tale of Two Defence Reviews - thoughts on the French and Australian defence review

In the last week or so there have been two major Defence Reviews announced in France and Australia. Both nations are close partners of the UK and significant powers on the global stage, which means that these results are of direct interest to the UK.
The announcement of the French Defence Review, reported back on the future structure of the French military for the next 10 years. Essentially akin to the UK SDSR, the work was designed to address French budget challenges, and try to create a sustainable force which is affordable in the near future. The Think Defence website has helpfully collected a summary of all the reporting on the event (HERE) which are well worth reading.
In many ways the review highlights the challenging position France finds itself in at the start of the 21st Century. Unlike the UK, the French have never had an ‘East of Suez’ moment, and arguably French policy for many years has been to continue projecting a low level amount of power across the globe, while retaining a smaller cadre of higher capability equipment at home. To this day, France still retains bases in South America, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands, all of which play home to small amounts of troops and equipment, as much for legacy ‘imperial policing’ in their overseas territories as it is for projection of power more widely.
It is clear that Mali has already highlighted many lessons for the French Military, including a paucity of strategic airlift, and a perhaps worrying reliance on foreign militaries for a wide range of assets when taking part in intervention operations. This perhaps explains the emphasis on a future force built and optimised for a French ‘rapid reaction’ capability, and seems intended to deliver a military with around 7 intervention brigades and some 200 main battle tanks (e.g. a very similar size to the British Army under Force 2020).
The French Navy will see itself reduced down to no more than 15 first line escorts, plus some 20  patrol ships and light frigates for policing and constabulary duties overseas. The long delayed plan to build a second carrier is now officially cancelled, leaving France as a part time carrier navy, particularly given that Charles De Gaulle requires relatively regular refuelling, which can often take several years to do. The SSBN and SSN force levels remain unchanged.
The French Air Force will focus efforts on the acquisition of new tanker aircraft to replace its positively ancient KC135 fleet, and will in future consolidate around no more than 225 Rafale aircraft as its sole fast jet fleet. There will be continued investment in transport, ISTAR and other assets, although fleet sizes will be reduced.
The overall effect of the review will be some 34,000 job losses across all three services, and a near flat level of growth in the budget for at least the next five years.
What does this mean?
In many ways this review mirrors the SDSR in that it takes a capable military power with financial problems and tries to make structural adjustments to solve said problems. It is telling that there is still no real change in French strategic posture around the globe, and that as a nation, France will try to continue being a global power, albeit one on an ever tighter budget. Recent lessons in Mali would suggest that France can exert real influence in Africa, and that this area may well be the French ‘area of investment’ over the next decade. While the days of the Francophonie are declining, it is clear that French bases continue to be a useful strategic asset in a region where economies are booming, while stability remains volatile. One suspects that any further reviews will see closure in other overseas departments, such as in French Polynesia ahead of Africa.
The fundamental problem that faces France though is that it still seems unclear as to whether it wants to remain a nation capable of operating as lead nation in areas of interest, or if it wants to contribute to wider coalition operations. On the one hand it retains a ‘golf bag’ of useful assets and capabilities, but these are often limited in number and increasing in age. At the same time there seems a deep reluctance on the part of the French to restructure their forces to fit in with wider coalition operations. Decades of operating outside the NATO military structure have perhaps created a mentality of ‘we can do this alone’, which was fine when budgets could match aspiration, but is perhaps more difficult now.
The question is what does France bring to a multi-national operation that can’t be done by the UK or Germany or other NATO powers? Its troops have limited experience of working in coalition environments, and its military clearly has many capability gaps (as seen by experiences in Mali). At its harshest, the issue is whether France has the right force mix of assets and troops to be a valuable member of international missions, or whether its focus on ‘shop window’ capabilities like a CVN or Rafale means that it is perhaps less valuable than nations which produce smaller, but more interoperable forces, like the Netherlands or Denmark.
The wider problem facing the French is that this review has perhaps steered clear of the most challenging problem which is to deal with how a nation which traditionally takes pride in a ‘French solution’ will continue to be able to afford capabilities in future. One only has to look at the emerging list of requirements for the French military for the next 20 years to realise that new carriers, new fast jets, new tanks, new SSBNs and associated deterrence capability are all required and that there probably isn’t enough money to go it alone.
The decision to not proceed with a second carrier (having worked with the UK) may well be a cause for concern in 10-15 years time when it is clear that any future carrier replacement will have to be funded alone, without benefits of joint co-operation. The PA2 would have offered some economies of scale, but now any French replacement will need to be designed as a likely single hull at a point when no other European nation is likely to need a carrier built. This will make it extremely expensive to replace the Charles De Gaulle. Similarly, while Rafale is a reasonably competent aircraft now, the costs of not only sustaining it for the long term, and then bringing a successor into service in both Ari Force and Naval service will be phenomenally expensive – one only has to look at the costs associated with the F35 to realise just how expensive modern aircraft are. Given any replacement programme will be due at a point when the deterrent is also likely to need replacing, one feels that the French may have to make some extremely tough decisions in about 20 years time. While it is hard to see Gallic pride permitting the abandonment of either a carrier or nuclear capability, the issue is what is hollowed out or deleted elsewhere in the force structure to pay for this capability. The worry for French planners may be that in order to preserve a few high profile capabilities, the French military as a whole will struggle to afford them and remain a credible force.
So, France finds itself in a really interesting position – on the one hand their defence review seems to assume that little has changed, and that a smaller military will continue to do much the same as before, but there seems to be an avoidance of publicly discussing the very real challenges to the long term ability of France to stay on this course. At some point something will have to give, and there seems no clear lead from this paper as to what that may be. In the interim the French will remain a power capable of some power projection of headline capabilities, while remaining reliant on other nations to support them.
Meanwhile Down Under…
At the same time Australia has announced a defence review which seems to have been linked more to electoral ambition than due to timing. The review publicised this week was brought forward ahead of  what is likely to be tightly fought election. It suggests that Australia will continue to commit to the procurement of up to 100 F35s, while purchasing interim F18s to keep their fast jet capability alive. At the same time it reconfirmed that Australia would design and build a force of some 12 SSKs using an indigenous design and not an ‘off the shelf’ variant.
The first challenge for the review is to identify where the money is coming from to pay for this – by all accounts the review is long on aspiration but relatively short on details about where the funding is to pay for this. Earlier this year it became clear that under current plans the Australian military would probably need to look at its budgets again with a view to cutting expenditure, so whether this review is anything more than a list of aspirations remains to be seen. There is no guarantee that post-election it will be funded by either party, depending on the economic situation.
To this author the chances of Australia being able to fund the design and purchase of 12 SSKs seems slim. Warship design capability is an incredibly complex business (as discussed elsewhere on this site) and at present Australia doesn’t possess a submarine design capability. The RAN has struggled to recruit and retain sufficient people to keep a force built around six hulls operational, so it is hard to see that changing soon. Baring an influx of ex RN and RCN submariners, the question is whether the RAN can actually get sufficient manpower through its training schools and out into the fleet to keep such a force operational. Otherwise, the worry must surely be that it will spend a great deal of money building a capability that its never designed before, and doubling its force in size at the same time. This could pose a real challenge to their long term stability, and again may come at significant cost to the rest of the fleets capabilities.
Similarly, the commitment to 100 F35s is welcome, as it helps stabilise the prices somewhat, but any future reduction in orders could have wider implications for the US and UK as unit prices rise. What is interesting though is the way that Australia appears to be linking itself into the US as its key gurantor of security (e.g. purchases of US equipment, allowing bases in Australia) as the US seeks to rebalance itself into a pacific power. At the same time though, the question may be does Australia feel comfortable aligning its equipment programme so firmly with one nation. There is no certainty that the US will always provide the parts required, which means for a nation like Australia, broadly dependent on others to produce equipment, the question is where else to buy? One senses an opportunity for the UK to sell the Global Combat Ship (GCS) design (known as Type 26 in the RN) to Australia as a means of producing a good design quickly and at low cost. As the ANZACs come to the end of their lifespan, the GCS could be a good solution to ensure that while the RAN is aligned firmly to the USN, it is not entirely dependent on it for all aspects of its equipment.
So, the challenge for Australia is two-fold – firstly it needs to be able to afford the equipment it has set out to buy. Then it needs to find the manpower to be able to operate this equipment, which in a small country is not always easy. As a large country, with a small population in a region where economic growth is increasing and there are many militaries with large manpower and growing resources, Australia needs to play a careful game. Not to become too aligned to the courses of action of one power, but as it is too small to be able to effectively stand alone, it needs to exercise a careful mix of diplomacy and tact, while ensuring its military can resist any external threat. This is not going to be an easy task, and one that can only get more difficult as budgets shrink.
What does this mean for the UK?
So, the question now is what do both of these reviews mean for the UK? Both France and Australia remain some of the closest allies to the UK, and it is likely that future military operations will involve one or both powers in some way. In practical terms the reviews continue to confirm that the French will be useful partners, but that they will be more useful at providing headline capabilities, and that planning for joint operations will probably see a heavier reliance on UK logistical and support capability. At the same time, the Australian  review is useful to confirm that Australia will remain a first tier power, and that its continued presence in the Indian Ocean and Middle East means that the UK will have reason to work with them, even in the post HERRICK/TELIC environment. Similarly, the French will also have reason to work with the Australians in both the Gulf and also the Pacific Rim – all three nations share some common areas of interest and a ll three nations find themselves in challenging strategic positions – powers with a sense of global responsibility, but constrained budgets and a realisation that individually they are unable to do as much as they would wish. The next two decades will prove to be increasingly challenging, as we collectively seek to do more together, while struggling to afford the replacements of capabilities previously taken for granted, while dealing with emerging powers with the money, manpower and resources which enable them to pose a real challenge. Whatever happens, it will certainly prove to be an interesting time…


  1. A great thanks for posting this.

    France's review places the nation on par with the UK in the future, with a more rapidly deployable army though that army will have less firepower than Army 2020. France's Navy too will pale in comparison, except with CdG (when operational--as you have rightly pointed out). Interesting to note is that the French Navy has a second level of ships--simple patrol ships--which the Brits don't (even with the Type 26). But France is also wasting its time retaining their Air-launched nuclear missiles (which the UK does not have).

    Australia is much different given its defence review is based on a pretty much better economic budget as opposed to the two European states. Furthermore, Australia is not a nuclear weapon state, though it is in range of missiles from N Korea (which aren't nuclear capable yet). But with 3 Air Defence Destroyers, a large fleet of amphibious ships and 12 submarines, you can see that "Down Under" has probably the best conventional forces (excluding its army which has less firepower that the UK). Not forgetting again that if the F-35 is delayed, Australia has enough F/A-18s.

  2. Simplified down I think you hit the nail on the head with France being in a position of wanting to maintain a high-end power projection capability whilst keeping a spread of low-level 'presence' and patrol assets across the globe, with the obvious problem being that it will find it extremely difficult to effectively do both on an ever tighter budget.

    I think the points about Frances relative isolation and weakness with regards to interoperability and familiarity in coalition operations were very valid as well. Still, at least Mali has shown them the need for a greater focus on strategic transport, tankers and drones, it's about time they started to recalibrate they're forces away from a focus on gold-plated, high-end (as you said shop window) stuff and towards the kind of balanced capabilities the UK and others are pursuing.

    As for Australia, all I can say is that if they ever get all 12 SSK's then I'll eat my hat!

    1. France has medium tanks--and is planning to have brigades on those. The UK only has Warriors and Mastiffs in the future. But the UK can fight some sort of Tank war.

      Nothing wrong with more SSKs.

    2. Nobody is saying that 12 or more SSKs wouldn't be a good thing, however the growing opinion seems to be that with very specific requirements for a large, long-range design (which rules out a lot of the current off the shelf designs) and the desire to build them in-house will make any Australian SSK project increasingly expensive and thus make it difficult for them to get the desired number into service.

      Didn't the UK originally want 12 T45, 20 FSC and 10 Astute's! Aiming high and scaling down along the way seems to increasingly be the way these things go.

    3. Australia is in a position to have quite a number of SSKs. UK's decision to cut is a long standing area--they've always cut the numbers of their future plans. It was already impossible to maintain 12 T45s when you have SSBNs and Afghanistan straining the budget. In Australia, at least you don't have a ring-fenced SSBN.

    4. As Sir H has pointed out the Australians will find it very difficult to double the number of SSks in service, support them and find enough personnel to man them.

      Cutting planned ships is hardly a trait that can only be applied to the UK. I'm sure you're familiar with the USN and the trouble it's had with the Zumwalt destroyers and littoral combat ships as well as many other contemporary projects, and the above article itself mentions France cutting it's order of FREMM from 11 (already down from a projected 17) to 8. Not really fair to say this is a UK peculiarity when it occurs around the world, especially in times of economic turmoil and the austerity that follows.

      It's true that Australia doesn't have to find ring-fenced money for new SSBNs, but as is also pointed out above they, like everyone else, have to fund a diverse range of complex future projects alongside the SSK programme, from buying 100 F35 to getting it's 2 Canberra class amphibious ships into service and funding an ANZAC frigate replacement. It's not as simple as thinking up a number and going ahead with the programme.

    5. They may not have enough personnel, but may have a right sized fleet for the same range of operations the RN wishes to conduct, except of course nuclear patrols. Not forgetting that Australia is in a relatively better fiscal budget than the UK.

      The RAAF has thought wisely and bought the Super Hornet first. Their 100 plus F-35s may be cut short--who wants to ditch the Super Hornet in the short to medium term? The ANZAC frigates can stay on.

    6. My point had nothing to do with what the RAN want or need to conduct suitable naval operations, it's that even with a better economy they will struggle to design, produce and crew 12 large, long-range SSKs.

      You could argue that the UK 'needs' 8,9 or 10 Astute's, but it has little to do with the cost of buying them and the practicalities of modern shipbuilding.

      The RAN will probably at best see 8-10 of them and think themselves lucky.

    7. My point is that Australia is in a better state to afford more military hardware and personnel, unlike the UK.

      Do not put words in my mouth.

    8. They certainly are, I was simply commenting on how most modern military programmes aim for more than they actually deliver, which is as much to do with the complexity and expensive of modern technology as the fiscal health of the buyer.

      We shall see how many subs they end up with, I wasn't trying to put words into you're mouth, I guess I'm just not as optimistic as you.

  3. Building and operating a second carrier was never a realistic proposition for the MN. UK Armed Forces Commentary reports that the 15 first line frigates will include the 5 upgraded La Fayettes, so the FREMM order has effectively been cut from 17 to 11 to 8 ships. The planned 4th Mistral has also been cancelled and the total number of combat aircraft will be reduced by about 70 to 225. UKAFC suggests that we will have to wait until late 2013 to understand the full impact of dwindling resources upon the future of the French armed forces.

    As far as the RAN is concerned, any more than 8/9 new SSKs is extremely unlikely. 12 is never going to happen. As a 4th Hobart class AAW destroyer now seems to have been ruled out and there is a shortage of auxiliaries in the RAN, it might be that the money spent on the Canberras would have been better used elsewhere (e.g. an additional Hobart and 2 or 3 flexible support ships). Excellent vessels though they undoubtedly are, the Canberras seem to sit uneasily with the size and mission profile of the rest of the RAN.

    1. There's nothing wrong without a fourth Hobart AAW destroyer. The multitude of SSKs for Australia is possible and wise--the Pacific is area needs more than just superpower warships.

    2. 3 AAW destoyers (therefore only 2 available for operations) is insufficient to protect the amphibious assets and put together an independent battle group which could project decisive, sustained force against a capable opponent. That is why the RAN has a requirement for, but is unlikely to receive, a 4th. I did not say that 12 SSKs was wrong, but you have to be more than an optimist to see this ever happening.

    3. The RAN has only deployed amphibious forces en masse for East Timor where the threat from aerial attack was unlikely. Given its projected area of operations, 3 is sufficient especially when its not going to head across the world. Even in deployments to the ME, it only sends ANZAC frigates, not the AAW destroyers.

    4. In a volatile part of the world the RAN can't simply assume that they will only ever come up against relatively unsophisticated opposition. The Canberras represent a step change in RAN force projection capability and, especially since the Hobarts were not their preferred choice, 3 hulls represents the minimum AAW capability. That is why there is a requirement for a 4th ship which, due to budget constraints, is not going to be fulfilled.

    5. The RAN does not operate alone and proportionally, 3 AAW does work out. Now for the British RN, 6 Type 45s barely does the job, especially with the range of aircraft carriers and assault ships.

      Please reveal yourself.

  4. If you’re after some insight into Australia’s shipbuilding ambitions (particularly the frigates and submarines), may I suggest having a read of the future submarine shipbuilding skills study that accompanied the White Paper.

    It was authored by the head of the DMO, so it reflects some of the thinking at the very top of the defence hierarchy.

    One ambition is to achieve a continuous build strategy in both submarines and surface combatants and the study argues it may be cheaper in the long run to pursue this strategy. It offers the Spanish shipbuilding plan as one to possibly emulate. Also, the submarine design strategy suggested does not aim to go it alone without foreign design partners. It explicitly expects to work with a major design bureau to either create an evolved Collins class or a completely new design. If a continuous build strategy was adopted, the plan would be to increase indigenous design capacity but only after successive submarine designs (again the Spanish experience is offered as a case study).

    The study also mentions the type 26 as a possible frigate replacement although it also notes that if an indigenous combat system design was desirable (to complement continuous build surface combatants), that may have some impact on which design and/or design bureau was more compatible.

    There’s a lot to this study, but quite revealing of current thinking I think.

  5. BTW, the Australian election contest is anything but close. The question most concerning Australian political pundits is whether the loss to the Labor Party will be historically bad or just merely disastrous. Seriously. It's that bad for them.

  6. Have things in Australian changed radically since this ASPI paper was written five years ago?

    Back then, we are told, the RAAF had more fast jets than pilots (at p. 10) and this was not a new state of affairs. So, not just submarines without crews then. If the RAAF struggled to man an air combat force of 70-ish Super Hornets, what on earth would it do with 100 F-35s? That's an awful lot of attrition replacements.

    It's none of my business how the Australian govt spends its defence budget, but if it were I'd have some hard questions to ask.

  7. With the french once again prioritising 'premier' capabilities rather then key enablers, i do wonder how much they would actually bring to any coalition that could not be provided by others. I believe the british would do much better prioritising our relationships with the danish and dutch. This is particularly evident when you look at the state of the french navy, which will have only 10 frontline warships, backed up by 5 light frigates. Excluding the carrier, the danish and dutch between them as many frontline warships, aswell as the appetite to commit forces in similar areas of interest as the british do.

    Also, i wondered how much the author may know about interest in the gcs/type 26? Ive heard australia, brazil, canada, turkey? Nz?

    1. NZ? NZ is non-firepower military force. They will have to piggy-back on Australian Defences.

    2. Ouch. Close but not quite true.

      NZ operates two ANZAC-class frigates, currently undergoing mid-life upgrades. The current plan is to replace them with like-for-like capability around 2020. Whether that actually happens will depend on the government of the day, and how peaceful our Pacific back yard appears at the time.

      Irrespective of the merits (or otherwise) of the T26, NZ will probably end up getting whatever Australia decides to buy. And they are big enough to have a local defence industry, but too small to produce anything cost-effectively.

      In other aquisition activity, NZ has bought up Australia's rejected Kaman Seasprites. It will prove to be either the deal of the decade or a complete catastrophe - opinions vary.

      An RFI has also been issued for a replacement tanker/AOR. Hopefully this will be better managed that the aquisition of HMNZS Canterbury, our grey-painted RoRo ferry. Perhaps those helpful Koreans could knock us off a half-scale replica of a MARS vessel...

    3. I should imagine those nice people from BMT will be on the case already. Some sort of joint buy with the RAN (who are bringing forward their requirement) might fit the bill?

      If you're really lucky, RAN, RNZN and the Norwegians could all team up for a bulk buy of the same design.

    4. I'm pretty sure BMT will be sharpening their pencils. I'd be surprised if a few Korean yards don't also put forward some modification of a commercial tanker.

      I wasn't aware Norway was in the market - must look up what they have specified.

      The Aussies have the Cantabria on 9-month loan from Spain, so presumably they are considering going with something from Navantia. Unfortunately, their budget is likely to be bigger than ours. Also, they already have two large LHDs under construction, so will probably want a pure AOR. NZ will try to squeeze in capacity for a few troops and vehicles, probably resulting in a horribly compromised jack-of-all-trades vessel.

    5. @Sellers:
      Ive heard australia, brazil, canada, turkey? Nz?

      Canada and Turkey are definitely out, Brazil is still up in the air but the odds are against - last I heard they'd had seven different offers to choose from, and they would expect to build domestically and have a lot of tech transfer. The Aussies are officially looking at GCS as part of the treaty they signed a few months ago but one senses they are a bit wary about putting too much of their shipbuilding in the hands of BAE, especially after the cockup on the Hobart hull. Kiwis would probably be more keen, but as has been mentioned, it makes sense for them to "me too" with the Aussies.

  8. Talking about France and Europe, this might be of interest:

  9. What does this all mean ?

    It means - trust nobody - rely on nobody and believe in yourself.

    If you get into trouble - get yourself out of trouble.

    I feel very sad when I see people trying to justify cutbacks by saying that other people will help us out, when it is obvious that every country has its own financial problems.

    "Defence of the Realm" is laughable in the UK as it is in our so called allies.

    Why can't we wake up to the realities of the 21st century ?

  10. Hi Angus McLellan,

    Yes, something has changed: the boom in extractive industries that doubled the external value of AUD and made Australians rich (and therefore picky about jobs) has come to an end.

    On that previous post by Mr. Anonymous (did not read the linked document, yet), RE " the study argues it may be cheaper in the long run to pursue this strategy. It offers the Spanish shipbuilding plan as one to possibly emulate. Also, the submarine design strategy suggested does not aim to go it alone without foreign design partners. It explicitly expects to work with a major design bureau to either create an evolved Collins class or a completely new design."
    - that says it all
    - the subs will come from Spain, and the continuous build will be the same kind of fitting out, final phase as with their amphibs (you see, they have to be seen to be toeing the lines the politicos use in their election campaigning)
    - the hull casting will be done in the UK
    - the CMS and weaponry will come from the US (as it does on the existing Spanish-built subs)

  11. Arrgh, did not sign it
    Cheers, ACC

  12. DID's yesterday issue carried this "Australia's government signs a deal with Sweden's FMV procurement agency, Intellectual Property rights for submarine design and technology"
    - the Swedes know what they are doing; designed and operate good subs, but sold the boring building of them to a German yard
    - so just put those words in a different order: design - build - operate (=support and upgrade), and the IP framework that you need to protect your long-term interests is still the same

    Cheers, ACC

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