Thursday, 14 November 2013

There is Nothing Soft About Power.

The tragic news from the Philippines over Typhoon Haiyan has highlighted the wide range of international responses to this awful event. In addition to the usual commitments of international aid, rescue teams and other assets, there has been a large military commitment from both the US and the UK in responding to the crisis. For the UK the response has once again shown the flexibility of the armed forces, and their capability to respond at short notice to major problems around the globe. But it also highlights a few other salient issues as well.

At the time of writing the current UK commitment is one C17 aircraft, the presence of HMS DARING and the announced deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to relieve HMS DARING. In addition there are suggestions on the MOD announcement that the UK is going to deploy heavy airfield clearance equipment to help free space on runways to make room for aid flights.

The relatively quick UK response is in marked contrast to many other nations military capabilities, and once again suggests that for all the ‘doom and gloom’ about the general state of the UK military, it is still remarkably quick to respond to global challenges and provide assets if required. There are very few nations out there which are able to respond as quickly and effectively as the UK to this sort of challenge.

The deployment of the C17 highlights the value of this strategic airlift capability, and why it remains one of the single most sensible and valuable defence procurement decisions of the last 20 years. The fleet has been worked hard, but in acquiring the C17, the RAF is able to operate a truly strategic airlift capability, which is easily able to respond to problems. One only has to look at where the C17 force has been deployed in recent years to see that it is quickly becoming the aircraft of choice in enabling the UK to participate in, or respond to a global crisis. The biggest concern for the RAF and other operators is likely to be the news that the production line will be shutting down in the near future, with no equivalent successor on the horizon. Given how hard the fleet has been worked (look at the way HERRICK and TELIC have effectively forced the retirement of the C130J fleet much earlier than planned due to fatigue issues), and there is a worry that the longer term outlook is less rosy for replacing a like for like capability.

The deployment of the C17 also highlights the value of the UKs global network of defence attaches. While they are often derided by those who don’t work with them, the fact that the DA network will doubtless be working hard to facilitate overflight clearances, landing authority, diversion options and the like helps ensure that the C17 can deploy safely and effectively. Its often forgotten that a lot of work goes into ensuring an aircraft can fly from A-B via C. Getting permission to overfly nations with military aircraft isn’t always straightforward, and it’s a quiet testimony to the value of the global DA network that they are able to help facilitate this access at short notice. When people call for an end to the old boys attaché network, they perhaps don’t realise how much damage would be done to the UKs ability to deploy at short notice as a result.

The deployment of HMS DARING highlights firstly the value of the RN facility in Sembewang, Singapore, which to this day remains a very useful asset for the UK. Its ability to provide a wharf for repairs and support meant that DARING was able to undergo a maintenance period whilst deployed, thus extending her time on station during what has already been a busy deployment. So, it is a useful reminder that although low profile and low cost, retaining Sembewang helps give the UK the ability to sustain warships for far longer than would otherwise be the case.

It is equally important to  note the value of being able to deploy a warship – RN crews routinely deploy having trained in disaster relief skills, and it is something which is often put to the test across the world – particularly in the West Indies. The deployment of DARING helps show why this training is so important, as it helps save lives. Her presence will directly be able to provide command and control, aid, power generation and also overflights by the helicopter. While the relatively small crew will be limited in what they can achieve ashore, simply due to the sheer size of the problem, it is still a vital contribution that not many other nations can do. Once again the sheer value of RN training is brought into sharp focus.

The deployment of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS highlights the value of the COUGAR series of deployments and the Response Force Task Group concept. The ability to deploy a relatively capable force east of suz to loiter and conduct Defence Engagement has helped give the UK an ability to respond with a more capable platform, albeit in slower time. The air group of seven helicopters, backed up by a more substantial crew and supplies will also play a real part in making a difference to rescuing people. But, we should be realistic about the limitations of the deployment.

It appears that only seven aircraft are available (3 Lynx, 1 Merlin, 3 Seaking) which is a far smaller airgroup than seen on carriers in the past. In itself this highlights the pressure on FAA platform numbers and size and shows that even with new carriers coming online, much of the supporting force is far smaller than it used to be.  Additionally ILLUSTRIOUS appears to be deploying without an attendant RFA, meaning her ability to sustain supplies on station is limited. This also shows just how stretched that the RFA has become, now that there will be two RN platforms in the region, but no RFA to support them. It is also arguably pure chance that the Typhoon occurred at a point when the RN had a vessel in the Asia Pacific region, having not really deployed there at all for several years. Had it occurred 6 months previously or in a few months time, then not only would there be no vessel in region, but the RFTG would be in home waters and unable to intervene in sufficient time. While this incident again highlights the sheer flexibility of maritime power, we should be cautious of making out that it will always be this straightforward to ‘send in the Navy’.

Additionally, the incident highlights how valuable the LPH role is to the RN – given that HMS OCEAN is due to pay off within the next few years, probably without replacement, and that no decision has been taken on running a second carrier on, it is not certain that the RN would always be able to do this again. A carrier operating with a fixed airgroup (as opposed to an LPH) would not be stored or equipped to intervene in the same way. So while it is tempting to think of a CVF steaming to the rescue in the future, the reality is that it would be more difficult than perhaps realised. It is also a pertinent reminder of the slow speed of amphibious shipping – even at full speed it will take nearly a week for ILLUSTRIOUS to reach the Philippines – and she is still a relatively fast vessel. The other amphibious vessels in the RN are much slower, and would struggle to deploy in a similar time frame.

There is a wider value to the operation beyond the humanitarian aspects. Some may see this sort of deployment as ‘soft power’ and not something which suits the UK military. But Humphrey would argue that the UK has long had vast economic, political and security related interests in the region, but has played barely any military role in the area since the 1970s beyond the occasional exercise or group deployment. This sort of deployment of military assets is a useful reminder of the UKs interest in the area (valuable for the other FPDA members as a sign that the UK hasn't forgotten about the region). It sends a useful symbol that the UK remains a global military power, able to deploy at short notice in to trouble spots and provide assistance. This will not be forgotten by many of the powers in the region, many of whom are looking for dialogues on security and defence matters. That the UK came to the assistance of the Philippines is good, but it is perhaps more useful to flag up that the UK isn't just a bit player, talking a good game but not really playing it. By deploying assets, the UK is showing that Asia Pacific region isn't too far away not to care about, and that it is prepared to take an interest. This gesture will not be forgotten and could be a useful primer to discussions elsewhere in the region about possible future defence & security relationships with the UK.

In summary, the utter tragedy in the Philippines is heart rending. The fact that the UK has been able to stand up and deploy assets to help try and save lives and assist with rebuilding is to be applauded. It highlights not only the capabilities of the UK, but also perhaps where some of the risks lie in the next few years. After all, after the paying off of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS next year, it will be 2-3 years until an equally fast carrier would be available to assist. Similarly, the lack of regular deployments into the region make the UKs response valuable, but we should not be blinded into thinking that it is something that could always be done.

 For more information on the UK military interests in the Asia Pacific region, readers should look at the article from 2012, East of East of Suez, hosted here-


  1. Whenever anyone talks about U.S. "decline," I love bringing up examples like natural disaster response. No country even comes CLOSE to matching the U.S. in skills, capabilities and deployment for these types of event. As it stands now, I think the U.S. is deploying an entire Carrier Strike Group (USS George Washington), a hospital ship, numerous aircraft, and more than 2,000 Marines). I'm sure I'm missing some stuff but it just goes to show you how capable the U.S. military is when responding to natural disasters; especially in Asia-Pacific.

    1. Often the Us military has not really helped to relief disaster zones. Look at Haiti, it it still in a mess despite the media images of the large US military effort there.

    2. Um, check your history. Haiti was a mess LONG before the earthquake. Very weak government, massive poverty, high crime rate. Are you going to blame all that on the U.S.? The feeble UN mission there certainly didn't help, too.

  2. "Anonymous" - Yes - I agree with you.
    They did exactly the same in 2004 with the Indian earthquake and Tsunami.

    The British government of the day went over the top on publicity with our meagre contribution - strangely the present government is very quiet about our contribution now. - possibly they realise that we can't do much - we don't have the capability.
    I think our one airplane, a C17 will be of some use - but I can't quite work out what our one, high tech, warship will do.

    It was sad to see on the news( 14th Nov ) that an American medical team was pulling out because they can't get the resources/supplies to allow them to continue working.

    1. The two RN vessels should be able to make quite a significant contribution, Daring obviously has a Lynx & RIBs, but also RM engineers, a doctor, dentist, chaplain, medics, and various equipment and supplies including generators, fire fighting equipment, TICs, ration packs, bottled water, and is able to provide around 20,000 litres of "potable water". Lusty's 7 helicopters, although a small air group, will still be a useful contribution to the overall effort, the US strike carrier has around 20 helos on board, so the RN is uplifting the numbers by a third.
      Obviously of no use for this operation, but I thought Illustrious was deployed with 2-3 Apaches aboard, for the anti piracy operation off the Somali coast, so she would have an air group of 10. Perhaps they have been flown off? I think the UK is going to send a second C-17 Globemaster.

    2. I forgot to add this link - RAF C-17 loaded with equipment for Philippines


  3. Time to use our 'new type of alliance' with Japan? They could replenish at sea, after all that practice in the Indian Ocean a few years ago. Would be a good bit of cooperation for the region and the 'alliance'.

  4. The relatively quick UK response...

    I'd disagree I think it was actually quite slow. It was well known that this Hurricane was moving in. We could have easily set the ships moving towards the Phillipines several days ago and been on the scene much quicker.


    1. As per below I think it is related to the lack of RFA support. I see things this way. We have more capabilities than anyone (apart from the USN of course.) However we have allowed capability gaps to appear, in this case RFA's and soon to be flat tops. This in turn results in a ship building gaps and redundancies. We have paid handsomely for the ability to build some of the most complex warships afloat. I see no reason why this does not enable BAE to bid for the higher value end of the commercial market, which in turn can make subsequent follow on MOD orders more cost effective. If this were the case we could have been ordering the extra RFA's and Ocean/Amphibs we clearly need from British ship yards. No one would have lost their jobs and our global reach would be enhanced. We really need some joined up thinking and everyone pulling in the same direction. Recent civil engineering projects, the aerospace and car industries have all proved we are more than capable. I would argue we now need to get, what should be for Britain, our most fundamental and strategic industry right.

    2. The RFA already compares quite well with the auxiliary capabilities of most fleets, especially other European navies.
      5 tankers
      3 Replenishment ships
      3 Bay class LSDs
      1 Forward repair ship
      1 Aviation training/PCR ship - also been deployed as LPH
      6 Point class Sealift ships

      Plus 4 larger Tide class tankers in build (to replace the 3 older Rover & Leaf class ships) & the 3 planned Solid Support Ships.

      The Marine Nationale only has 4 Replenishment ships/oilers & 2-3 leased sealift ships, most of the other Euro navies only have one or two fleet Replenishment vessels.

      It was however a mistake to axe the very capable (but expensive to run) RFA Fort George in the SDSR.

    3. Waylander posted above, as confusing otherwise with so many "Anonymous".

    4. quick? It was quick enough. Daring was on Ex Bersama Lima a strategic FPDA exercise

  5. I think it is a good response all things considered. Once again the RN has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, and as you say the Singapore facility is well placed. I think the response is being a little hampered though by the lack of RFA support for several reasons. Had this been available I feel HMS Daring may have been able to set off sooner, could have made better speed knowing fuel was readily available (no doubt the US will be supplying when required) and the RFA itself would have been an excellent disaster relief platform (with the manpower from Daring) when it arrived. The US response has been most impressive in stark contrast to the Chinese! This is exactly the point of maritime strength and global reach, it influences peoples thinking deeply, about who your real friends are and who your alliances should be with!

  6. " It was well known that this Hurricane was moving in. We could have easily set the ships moving towards the Phillipines several days ago and been on the scene much quicker. "
    I agree with this comment!!
    So.... where was the forward planning?
    Who has the responsibility to alert the world to impending problems?
    What has happened to "what if" planning?

  7. you better go back to school-- it is an example of soft power.

  8. I read article with interest. Although any help is useful our responce has been poor. This was predicted, tracked and the outcome known over 2 weeks ago. We need next time to have a large LPH ready in the area prepared with 20 helicopters, trucks, buldozers, engineers, hospital kit to go ashore and an accute facility on board.
    This is all possible if we stop inter department arguing. The Dfid has money, the MOD has the skill set, the Navy has the design and BAe has the spare shipyard to build them. Old non ied proof 8x8 trucks are being offloaded, heck Lusty herself having been refitted will be sold of for £3m for scrap soon.
    So why don't we put it all together, call it an RFA assett with secondry war fighting role if the ballon goes up. Now how do you get Dfid, MOD, aid agencies like British Red Cross to talk together. Stick a high speed Container Ship with it stuffed with aid from Red Cross etc ready. You'd need one in SE Asia and one in Carribean. Next time maybe it doesn't take a week before anything arrives. It deploys for 3mths until the main run ways are open and the main agencies can come in.
    So anybody know how we do that ?

  9. As a Filipino, i really appreciate the aide UK provides. I've been a long time follower of your blog and i do sense cynicism and doubt about the power and influence of the UK in recent times when i read your entries. I do not have deep knowledge about UK defence issues but the fact that it could provide military assistance is a tremendous feat considering the distance and the overstretched resources of the UK armed forces. It is logical that countries such as Australia, Japan and Korea could provide humanitarian and military assistance (i doubt the latter) because of their proximity and of course the full might of the US military with their Ospreys flying non stop in Leyte but to send a RN warship to help out with the effort shows that the UK still has that ability to deploy globally with short notice compared to other nations. I have seen the Sembawang yard in Singapore and it's quite big considering the limited land in SG. I think that the naval yard should be improved in the future considering all of the "developments" here in the Far East.

    I want to highlight the importance of UK soft power and how it influences the Philippines in many ways. I have read your previous entries about soft power compared to hard power and here you can see Union Flags anywhere from clothes to bags and even Jeepney decorations. There is great potential for the UK to expand influence here. The British embassy contributes a lot to the country even before the typhoon disaster. Soft power cannot be underestimated. I'm looking forward to a deeper relationship between UK and PHL in the future. (hopefully joint military exercises)