Thursday, 5 December 2013

Assessment on the Proposals for a Scottish Defence Force (Part Three - General)

In the previous two parts of this article Humphrey has looked at the proposals set out for a possible Scottish Navy and Air Force. In both articles the conclusion was that the proposals were probably too ambitious when set against the level of resources and manpower, and that it didn’t take into account wider problems like setting up support facilities or fast jet training pipelines. In the latest part of the series Humphrey intends to focus primarily on considerations not really raised in the paper to try and raise questions about the sort of challenges a new Scottish SDF would face.

 Communications  - Can anyone hear me?
The current force proposals make no real mention of the vital role played by modern military communications. It is no exaggeration to say that without communications, the UK military would cease to function. One of the most critical aspects of this is the IT networks which power much of the day to day workload and traffic.

The current main MOD system is known as ‘DII’ and is an MOD wide network offering access to users in a range of configurations and classifications ranging from unclassified to above SECRET. It is a vital part of day to day defence operations and can be found worldwide. Those who have used DII often groan when its mentioned, and indeed ARRSE is often full of complaints about it. However, if you look beneath the details, what DII offers is a global worldwide IT system which allows you to log in pretty much anywhere, from home to the field to being at sea, and then being able to operate some fairly varied software at a variety of classifications wherever its required. This is not an easy task and one which costs a lot of money to install and upgrade each year.

Despite the ability to talk to each other being so vital, there seems to be no mention of any form of IT infrastructure beyond a vague reference to ‘communication units’ in the paper. This is a real concern – good secure IT able to provide secure communications of classified material and not fall prey to hackers or cyber attack is very expensive and requires specialist skills. It is probably highly unlikely that the UK Government would be willing to allow the new Scottish Government to use its national defence IT system (and arguably would a Scottish Government want to?). This means that in the run up to indepence the SDF is going to have to work out how to install an entire communications network from scratch. Don’t forget that provision of IT is contracted out to various different companies for the MOD, so its not as if one can simply divvy up the assets and black boxes.

Given DII is unlikely to be run on from the start of independence, there would need to be heavy investment in the C2 infrastructure to enable the SDF to actually talk to each other. Again this is not just about having Outlook on your desktop, but the ability to send secure communications to military units, aircraft and ships. Even something as simple as working out how to exercise command and control over the Type 23 Frigates assigned to the Scottish Navy is going to be painfully expensive – particularly when one considers the small size of the overall defence budget. 

So one key piece of work needed is working out who is providing the communications, what they are, and how you can assure your cryptography and means of talking securely to the right people at the right time. Without this the ability for the SDF to be anything more than a theoretical force in being is immensely limited.

Housing and other sites
The paper commits the SDF to retaining in existence all current MOD sites in Scotland, and possibly restoring RAF LEUCHARS to flying status. One of the challenges facing the MOD at the moment is the dilemma between having a broad footprint across a range of areas, often made up of aged buildings with heavy maintenance requirements, or condensing this into smaller but more modern sites.
The SDF will find itself inheriting a very large footprint of sites, many of which are quite old, quite remote and in need of a lot of work. It will need to decide whether to invest in them, or rationalise and save money for better facilities elsewhere. At a most basic level, is the SDF going to provide housing to their personnel? After all the MOD housing isn’t actually owned by the MOD, but by Annington Homes – this means that at independence there will not actually be any housing for the SDF personnel. It may sound a small thing, but the new SDF will need to quickly work out a complicated contract to house people in married quarters.

We may brush this aside as a technicality, but its going to be little things like this that pose the real challenge. A badly written contract can be extremely expensive and cost money for many years to come – even something as simple as working out who does repairs, who is called if the house floods and who does the housing allocation. All of these need to be worked out and negotiated properly at the outset. The problem is that the SDF plans don’t seemingly call for a large team of procurement and contracts staff, and instead seem to think that their civil service will just do policy and a few other roles.

When you look at the length of the time it takes MOD to negotiate contracts, often due to the sheer complexity and challenges attached, and then look at the suggested timeline for independence, one cannot help but wonder where the contracts staff will come from to get this right. It feels as if the desire to move quickly could end up costing Scottish taxpayers millions as they either end up with hastily negotiated or poorly constructed contracts – from a business perspective they will have the SDF over a barrel – they will know when the SDF needs to sign by and can react accordingly. One suspects that any private sector company dealing with the SDF will be negotiating from a position of strength!  This is a critical point and one that seems to have been totally overlooked. The sheer scale of renegotiating an entire nations contractual obligations in Defence alone, where Government and private sector have built a close relationship over many years in a way that no other independent country has seen before will make this very complicated.  This is not to say it cannot be done, but that it will require a great deal of work from what may be a thinly stretched team of contract experts to achieve against a very tight deadline.

Recruitment & Training
At a most basic level, one must ask about how the recruitment and selection process is going to work. To grow a force of some 15000 over 10 years and then retain it will prove to be a real challenge for any military when you consider the small resource base open to it (barely 5 million people). At present recruitment for the UK armed forces is able to draw from a much larger pool, and even then it is a struggle to get the right recruits at the right time. When you look at the potential sets of skills required – Typhoon pilots, Infanteers, Naval Officers etc, and consider that these all have very different selection and training procedures, you quickly realise how challenging its going to be to recruit for the SDF.

For instance, all Aircrew selection and aptitude tests in the UK for all three services are currently done at RAF CRANWELL. The new SDF will not have any similar selection process, nor will it have the means to conduct aptitude testing. The cost of setting up an equivalent system of selection, particularly when you consider the much smaller numbers required, is likely to be extremely expensive – again an expense that needs to set against a very small budget.

Given the length of the training pipeline, it is fair to say that the SDF will need to begin recruitment for pilot roles almost immediately – without having an aircrew selection process to work with. While this may be seen as a short term risk to not do, the longer term impact is that it risks a major aircrew gap 4-6 years down the line as the SDF stops getting replacement pilots into squadrons in time. This problem is replicated across the training pipeline - in order to man the equipment inherited, there need to be training facilities in service at independence which do not yet exist, and which will cost a great deal to establish. 

Similarly, the lack of any training facilities or courses across the piece means that at independence, there will be no real means to recruit, select, initially train and professionally train recruits into the SDF. This sort of set up can be established over time, but is heavily reliant on instructor availability, and the means to deliver the most up to date training courses. The insistence on using very modern equipment means that the SDF is going to have to implement a patchwork quilt of very different training courses ranging from basic recruit training through to Typhoon weapon courses. Essentially this could be done, but will be very complicated to do it well. Trying to get the right instructors at the right levels, supported by the correct instructional equipment and publications isn’t easy and could require a lot more people than are currently allowed for in the manpower liability.

 Salary and allowances
One area which remains unclear is whether the SDF will continue to pay British Armed Forces salaries or if they will look to reduce wages for serving personnel. One of the big challenges is going to be affording a force of some  15000 regular staff. In the current UK model, some 80% of all serving troops earn over £26,000 per year. Even taking this as the average salary with no variations or allowances, you still end up with a wages bill of almost £400 million, which in reality is likely to be even higher still. In other words, on the projected budget, nearly 20% of it is likely to be taken up by salary costs (this seems about in line with current UK experiences for the British Armed Forces). This figure doesn’t take into account the allowances currently paid, and also things like X-Factor, which compensates troops for the challenges of military life, but which may not be as applicable to a far more sedentary SDF.

Finding the money to pay the troops will be one thing, but actually finding the troops willing to join will be another. The key worry is that baring wholesale transfer of troops against their wishes, it seems that very few personnel would willingly wish to transfer over to the SDF on independence. Given that the current ORBAT calls for very specialist personnel and skills, one can forsee a situation where the SDF may inherit the kit, but it the operators and maintainers choose not to come over, and if the training pipeline cannot cope, then this equipment is likely to stand empty for quite some time to come, and also calls into question the ability of the SDF to effectively defend Scottish interests.

There are a lot of wider issues beyond just the order of battle that cover the formation of a credible armed forces. If Scotland does become an independent country, many of these issues would need to be dealt with very quickly in order to ensure long term continuity for their military.

In the final assessment part of this series, Humphrey will consider whether the numbers add up, what opportunities may exist and provide a very personal assessment on the credibility overall of these plans as they stand.  


  1. You have missed the most basic question. How are they going to establish a workable Ministry of Defence plus a procurement/commercial organisation to make policy and administer all the other parts of the organisation? I wonder how many Scots working south of the border will wish to rush back to join such a MIckey Mouse organisation, except on very favourable financial term. Can they set up a MOD by independence in 2016? I doubt it, but without the bureaucracy it is going to be virtually impossible to get everything else in gear.

    A question also arises about location. The White Paper implies everything will be based at Faslane. So suppose the UK takes several years to move Trident out, where will the MOD be in the interim? Does Faslane make sense for a defence organisation anyway? Who will wish to move from a major city to the breezy rural environs of the Clyde estuary?

    Most countries that became independent with the end of empire were fairly unsophisticated and have been able to gradually develop forces over 30-50 years, initially using simple equipment (think of the Gulf states), but certainly not in the timescale envisaged by the SNP. Jumping straight to very advanced forces is going to be extremely difficult and it may well prove impossible for the Scots to operate or maintain the SNP wish list. In practice the Scots will be dependent on the UK to look after them and provide active assistance in areas such as training, logistics and communications for at least 20 years, probably longer in reality.

    On this basis alone independence does not make sense. However, the very fact that the issue has advanced this far, for the second time in just 35 years, ought to be a warning call to the dysfunctional Westminster political class that a lot of British citizens, not just in Scotland, are profoundly dissatisfied with the way our political elite has been running the country.

    1. The issue of the Scottish MOD is one I was going to look at in the last part. I agree the timings are very difficult.
      The other point I intend to look at in more depth in the conclusion is that there is no precedent that I can find for an advanced nations military, particularly when optimised for expeditionary operations, has ever split in two and then gone further. I think the combination of needing people, training and maintenance is going to be a step too far on independence, although it could with a lot of time, effort and resource be doable within a few decades.

    2. Allowing your two broad qualifications, you are probably right about the unprecedent aspect. But it's not clear to me why "expeditionary operations" should be relevant here.

      Your discussion of personnel costs seems optimistic. The latest "MoD Indicators" or "QDS" stuff I could find from DASA had "direct personnel costs, per service person" at £52K. This produces a more reasonable - but still suspiciously low based on NATO data for comparator countries - figure of c40% of expenditure going to personnel. Well, 40% plus civilian staff of course, but (as you'll know only too well) civil servants are cheap ;-) Please see below for a further remark regarding staff (as opposed to uniformed personnel) numbers.

      On the subject of (secure-ish) communications, I'm surprised nobody put in dibs on timesharing Skynet 5. [Yes, this is a ridiculous idea. It's meant to be.] Call me anti-military, but I'd expect that government (including military, far from the most important user) secure communications to be the business of a GCHQ analogue. There's a clue right there in the name.

      If you're covering the MoD, you might like to reflect on the following statement in the paper. "[T]he Scottish Government will establish core government capacity for defence functions, such as strategic planning, oversight and policy functions for defence and security." How many people work on those things for UK MoD? I vaguely recall struggling with the MoD's execrable online org chart gadget and coming up with a 1500-ish figure. Whether that's right or wrong, in Denmark the number is around 150, and in New Zealand it's under 100. Not a terrible lot, even if redundancy in the delightful surroundings of southern England were generally preferred to gainful employment in the Mickey Mouse Scottish external affairs & defence department.

      Any DES, DSTL, DIO, etc analogues must therefore form part of the SDF. This is by no means unprecedented (e.g. Denmark, Norway, NZ) but it does mean that the number of civilian personnel in the SDF - no numbers given you'll recall - would probably be in the 5,000 range and up. To me, this makes sense, given that I would expect personnel costs to account for 45-55% of total budget. The proposed SDF lacks sufficient expensive toys for it to be much less.

    3. Replying to myself. How frightful! But for the record, the last "direct personnel costs, per MOD civilian" (from 2011) appears to have been £36K. At that time "direct personnel costs, per service person" was £49K I think.

  2. Come independence St. Alex will simply wave a magic wand and all these problems will simply dissapear. ;-)

  3. After reading this thought provoking article I had a "thought."
    Apart from men in kilts with bagpipes for the tourist industry will the new Scotland actually need any Armed Forces?
    Wouldn't they just rely on Great Britain to defend them?
    They must realise that Great Britain wouldn't/couldn't let Scotland go unprotected - The risk would be too great.

    They may consider that the Emergency Services - Ambulance/Fire/Police/Health/Coastguard/power/communications etc. more important.

    Without a half decent Civil Service and communication system they must know that they couldn't exist.

    So if you think outside the box - "would the New Scotland actually need any Armed Forces"?

    1. If they really want to join NATO, I rather think they will...but the alternative that they really want to win the referendum, but will then sadly conclude that they can only really manage a few OPVs for the EEZ and a Gendarmererie attached to the Police Force for situations requiring lethal force has occurred to one or two people here - especially if they can find a way to blame the English...

      aka GNB

    2. Nations that essentially do no more than hope that a neighbour will protect them are, ultimately, independent on paper only; they are hostage to whatever demands their protector makes. Although I'm sure those demands would be dressed up very politely so everyone can save face.

  4. Maybe they can forget their defence force and declare themselves as Iceland number 2.