Several news items this week have combined to make Humphrey pause and consider how the British Armed Forces are bearing up some three years after an SDSR which some would have you believe was the end of life as we knew it. This article is as much a chance to link three fairly disparate news articles as anything else, but it also presents a good chance to remind ourselves that all is not gloom and doom.
Firstly the ‘Save the Royal Navy Website’ maintains a superb twitter feed (which is HERE) where the site owner does a marvellous job of not only fighting for the interests of the RN, but also posting a great selection of news articles about what the RN is up to. In the last week he has been able to post shots of RN vessels currently deployed in Japan, the Philippines, the Middle East and in the Med. Not mentioned this week, but still out there are the forces in the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Home Waters.
While the numbers may be smaller than in the past, reading the twitter feed and looking at the images of modern vessels, one is left with a genuine sense that the RN remains an immensely capable force by any reasonable standard. The ability to deploy this force globally, and to meet a wide range of missions is extremely impressive. One of the centre pieces of the SDSR was the restructuring of the RN to provide the so-called ‘Response Force Task Group’ (RFTG) which has since establishment proven to be a superb means of deploying a worked up task group around the world and reacting to events.
In this year alone the Royal Navy has been engaged in operations across the globe, and been able to not only rely on warship deployments, but also highlight the value of its wider basing and command and control capabilities. As the year draws to a close, there are by the authors reckoning three 1* command groups deployed out there co-coordinating both UK and Multi-national operations. The facility in Sembewang has once again highlighted its importance to the RN (and the wider UK) as a useful foothold in a region that the RN hasn't frequented for some years, and HMS DARING and HMS ILLUSTRIOUS have helped restore hope to thousands of people affected by the dreadful events in the Philippines.
While many wish to be downbeat about the RN, given the pace at which it is operating globally, and the way in which it is able to respond so rapidly to so many events, it is hard to see it as a navy in decline. Yes it is smaller, but so are most Navies these days. But to judge a Navy purely by hulls and not by output is misguided - the RN today remains one of the most capable on the planet, and the events of this year have gone to show that it continues to meet the task placed on it with aplomb.
CAR – the forgotten war
While the RN remains deployed across the globe, events in West Africa continue to validate two key judgements of the SDSR. The deployment into Mali earlier this year showed the importance of having a flexible force able to respond quickly to problems. As the year ends we now see a permanent UK presence of trainers on the ground helping in the brave new world of ‘defence engagement’ which showcases the value of small training teams having disproportionate effect. While this is going on the French have become embroiled into a second operation in the Central African Republic (CAR), to which the UK is now deploying a C17 to assist in the movement of French troops (HERE).
This flexibility of strategic airlift is in marked contrast to the often much vaunted French military, which many on the internet look to as an example of what can be supposedly be done on a reasonable budget, particularly compared to the UK. What has actually happened is that the UK, while focusing less on ‘shop window’ assets has more sensibly invested in assets like strategic airlift, meaning that in a crisis it is far more capable of responding without reliance on a third party nation.
What appears to be emerging as we end the year is the engagement of the UK into a region where there has never really been any interest or presence. The military involvement on the ground perhaps perfectly sums up the ability of the post SDSR military – small focused interventions by ISTAR, training teams and strategic airlift & sealift and avoiding bloody and messy sustained engagement. What this highlights is the continued shift in importance to the UK of the RN and RAF, and the continued lack of importance of the ‘heavy’ Army which is perhaps unable to respond at the speed required to influence events, and when it does get to a situation requires such a strong support chain that the cost and involvement is vastly increased.
The events in both the Far East & West Africa seem to herald the model for the future – small bespoke deployments which do not leave a long term footprint, and which have an effect significantly out of all proportion to their size and cost – the deployment of the RN to the Philipines will probably have a positive impact on the UK/Philippines relationship for decades to come as this sort of assistance does not get forgotten quickly – particularly when so few other nations were prepared to step up so visibly to support.
Meanwhile the Army and RAF seem to be well placed to focus on delivering specific niche missions, or focusing on very low level work like training the trainer, or a well placed airlift. This sort of commitment helps build relations in a region, and cements our position with NATO allies by showing the UK as a willing participant (albeit without large human cost), and enables a place around the table to help plan what happens next.
Delivering Reform at Home
Underpinning this mission is a sense that the structural reforms of the MOD required to make it more agile have been a reasonable success. The Levene Report which heralded the creation of Joint Forces Command, and led to the empowerment of the Service Chiefs has recently published its latest appraisal of progress (Link is HERE). This makes very interesting reading as it positively sets out the case for Defence Reform, and recognises that in most areas the MOD is making very good progress at streamlining, reducing process and making itself more relevant to the future.
One line though which struck the author as being particularly pertinent was:
“I am also concerned that the Chiefs could feel inhibited from rebalancing between military and non-military staff because of a misplaced media-driven focus outside Defence on maintaining the absolute size of their Service. Major changes in force sizes need to be recognised as a deliberate and hard-nosed rethink by the Services and the Department as a whole of how to improve fighting capability. The attention drawn to them by the popular press and others should not be allowed to distract from this. Special pleading is just that, and should be headed off robustly.”
This damning paragraph rightly highlights the difficulties faced in trying to drive the necessary reforms through to achieve the desired force. As the military evolves and as the costs of service personnel are driven ever higher, there is a need to look for innovative ways of doing business. This can range from civilianising and contractorising posts to delivering best value for money and effect. The problem at present is that much of the debate in the UK media is focused on absolute force size, not aided by efforts in some Army quarters to leak that the nation is imperilled due to the lack of X or Y cap badge or capability.
What is frustrating is that when you look at what the UK has achieved in terms of achieving Defence objectives in 2013 (and arguably since the SDSR), there has been a long litany of success. The vision of moving the UK to becoming a nation focused on short scale and focused operations, achieving effect through much better use of ISTAR, training and other things rather than through an ORBAT of undeployable armoured divisions or vast fleets of bombers that never operate is a compelling one. When you look at what the UK has achieved it is hard to argue against the view that the current structure is the right one for what we want the UK to do, mindful of the budget limitations in place.
Looking to the future, as we approach an SDSR in 2015, the narrative seems to be increasingly showing the clear value of the RN and RAF, but the Army looks increasingly vulnerable. Justifying an 82,000 strong Army at a point when it is off operations and where the bulk of its formations are too inflexible to deploy in time to influence a crisis without being committed to a long term deployment seems to suggest that 2015 will be a painful (and some would argue long overdue reality check) period for the Army.
There are risks ahead, and it is not all plain sailing, and as anyone involved in programming deployments will say, the unexpected now can interfere with the achievement of the expected in due course. But, as a nation right now the UK seems to have found a very comfortable global role for itself. Capable of deploying to an intensity seen by few other nations apart from the US, and able to do so globally, it is increasingly assured about seeking the use of semi-permanent facilities overseas (just look at the build up of capability in the Middle East) and in seeing itself as a truly expeditionary power. The result is a small armed force, worked hard and with real challenges about sustaining this tempo over many years, but one which delivers excellent value for money.
The SDSR in 2015 will almost certainly be a chance to reflect on five years of successfully delivering to a new model, and as the work begins to consider what sort of military the UK as a nation wants, it feels like the conclusion will be that right now and looking ahead to what Force 2020 will deliver, that the assumptions feel about right.