It has become a tradition in the UK that the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) presents a speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in the run up to Christmas. A combination of looking back on the year that was, and looking ahead to the year that will be, it is a good opportunity to hear a candid assessment of the outlook for the UK armed forces. This year the new CDS General Houghton was on good form, presenting a very accomplished review of the challenges facing the military as it moves ever close to the next SDSR.The full speech can be found at http://www.rusi.org/events/past/ref:E5284A3D06EFFD
In broad terms the General noted the real difficulties for the armed forces in the current operating environment, noting “The advent of more diverse and less state based threats has become an increasing feature of the age. Most mature Western democracies no longer face existential state-on-state threats in classic force-on-force terms. Rather the challenges are more insidious. There are threats which relate to terrorism, to international crime, to energy resources and critical national infrastructure. There are challenges to our human security, our way of life; there are hazards which derive from the dangerous conditions attendant on a warming planet. And these are threats which have emerged in the rising domain of warfare: cyberspace”.
This is a useful reminder to those whose belief that force structures today do not allow us to defend against the encroaching Soviet hordes – there is a very good reason for that! It is genuinely difficult to envision circumstances at present where the UK would be dragged unwillingly into a physically existential battle for survival against another state. Instead our threats are more challenging – if you consider the damage that can be done from a well placed cyber attack, it could be argued that there is no need for a conventional military existential threat now. A well placed cyber unit able to carry out crippling attacks on national infrastructures, power and support services could probably do more damage in one fell swoop than a sustained air campaign could over many months. It may be better to suggest that we simultaneously do not face a credible military existential threat, but there is a very credible existential threat from both nations and third party groups from the cyberspace domain.
To meet this challenge requires investment in areas not traditionally seen as ‘sexy’ components of military power. It needs to see an investment in computers, communications, information security and an investment in a culture of information awareness among every member of the workforce, from the lowest civilian to CDS. More challengingly this culture needs to be replicated across every part of Government to ensure that the UK is well placed to defend against virtual threats. In many ways the UK is well placed, the cyber security industry in the UK is a genuine world leader, and there is a growing awareness that there is little point in having expensive physical assets if they can be removed from play without ever deploying due to a cyber attack breaking the fuel distribution network, or crippling the rail infrastructure to get to the seaport. The challenge though comes when it is time to start spending serious money on this sort of project – investment in cyber defence comes at the cost of less investment in traditional military kit, which not only impacts on the defence industry, but also UK ability to deploy around the world on operations.
CDS hinted as much in his speech when suggesting that Western nations reviewed their conventional inventories. But he also made a sensible observation by suggesting that Western nations needed to work far more closely together in some areas with genuine jointery at play. There is a serious problem of over capacity in some areas, and lack of willingness to co-operate on shared abilities. The recent deployments in Mali and Central African Republic show how a truly joint air transport fleet may have been more effective, with member states able to provide through a central tasking mechanism rather than relying on individual contributions by nation states in penny packet measures.
Consolidation of resources is never easy – the legality of operating a joint pool into conflict zones and determining who gets what call on which resource is work which makes lawyers jump for joy and staff officers weep while they think of the families they will not see for some time to come… But as affordability of high end equipment becomes more difficult, it increasingly looks like the only sensible way forward. For instance consider the cost of providing a fast jet training pipeline – from the initial flying training through to conversion aircraft and the provision of instructors, tactics schools, opposition jets for sorties etc – to sustain a pipeline for an ever small fast jet fleet looks horrendously expensive. When you consider that most NATO nations are going to be operating fleets of less than 50 fast jets in future, the cost of providing a purely national solution to the pipeline will be an ever larger proportion of the total budget. One can easily see a case for trying to provide a multi-national solution for many of the smaller nations, if only to keep them credibly in the fast jet game, otherwise in a few years time it may well be the case that they simply cannot afford to stay in the fast jet business.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the speech was where CDS focussed on the growth of the equipment programme, but at the cost of acquiring high end capabilities which could not be supported by the manpower pool. This led to the spectre of the ‘hollowed out force’, with CDS highlighting the Royal Navy as being closest to being at this point. What exactly did he mean though? To Humphrey the argument felt like a strong shot across the bows of sustaining equipment programme spending without making the right investments in the personnel and training areas.
The problem that the UK forces have got is that they are probably too expensive to man at current levels for the long term with the equipment they have. It is easy to focus on pure numbers and not look beneath at the make up of the force. For instance the Army requires a larger manpower pool, but its manning pyramid is perhaps disproportionately focused on providing lots of junior troops (Pts & Lcpls) who have the lowest salaries and often require the least amount of technical training. There is also some flex in the system in that you can bear a gap of a couple of junior troops or SNCOs on a Company or Battalion sized deployment. By contrast the Royal Navy relies heavily on a very skilled and technical workforce – the days of ships being manned by the press gang being long gone. To operate a Frigate needs highly skilled operators and engineers to run the very complex equipment on board. If you look the collective man years of training required to put a fully effective Frigates crew to sea, you are talking about needing centuries of investment. Even a junior weapons or mechanical engineering rating requires several years of training to be at the stage where they are operationally useful. By contrast an Army private can be doing a role in an infantry unit within a year.
This higher training footprint has several issues – it costs more to run the shore schools like COLLINGWOOD and SULTAN. It means the crews generally require higher salaries and retention incentives to stay in for the medium term, as the private sector will quickly try and lure disaffected sailors with higher pay packets. Additionally the impact of a well-qualified rating leaving can often have a direct impact on the ability of a ship to deploy. For instance, in the nuclear submarine fleet, the loss of a suitably qualified nuclear SNCO watchkeeper could theoretically prevent deployment of a submarine until the gap is filled. It also takes many years to train a replacement – people leaving early will leave gaps in the system that will take years to fill. What this means is that as training cuts bite, and deployments are extended to cover the gaps caused by having less ships available, the pressure on the RN workforce grows. The more people who leave early, the harder it is for the RN to keep ships at sea for the medium term. The problem also grows as the more gaps that exist, the harder those who are left have to work, thus increasing the likelihood of them leaving too.
So, one interpretation of what CDS said was that he was firing a shot across the bows of the RN to try and wean it off its addiction to high end ships. By insisting on using the most advanced equipment, the RN can fight at a high level, but when there is almost no chance of state on state conflict, and the majority of our threats come from very different areas, what requirement is there for this complexity? Given the Type 26 is due to be ordered soon, and given the emerging SDSR, one could read his comments as a strongly hinted suggestion that the RN should reconsider its future plans and consider something less complicated (e.g. the much vaunted Black Swan sloop concept).
It also served as a useful reminder that the ability to rapidly regenerate the front line no longer exists. If you browse the net, you quickly come across ‘fantasy fleet’ sites where discussions quickly veer into the impossible wishlisting of new ships for the RN. What is often forgotten is that to use the ships / tanks / planes, you need the training pipeline in place to support them. People forget that the 2010 SDSR slashed the underpinning training and support services for the front line. Not only were units cut, but the assumptions on how many people would be needed in future was also reduced. This means that the manpower and equipment to rapidly grow the forces doesn’t exist anymore. There is little point in saying ‘we need 20 extra frigates or 3 more Typhoon squadrons’ because the pipeline to produce that many people with the right skills in the right timeline simply isn’t there. The hollow force is a good demonstration of what happens when you focus on buying new equipment over investing in the equally vital support services linked to it.
It also feels like a case is subtly being made for the versatility (and relative cheaper cost) of Army manpower – given the perception in some quarters that the Army is probably overdue its share of pain in the SDSR, there is likely to be a concerted effort to protect the figure as close to 82000 as possible. The arguments being expounded in the speech (national resilience and so on) seem to suggest a fairly clear push to support the Army headcount, at the cost of the RN and RAF moving to being less technical services.
CDS also touched on the importance of funding for operations. He discussed how in the post Helmand world the MOD is funded to hold troops at contingency, but not for engagement. Given early engagement now can often prevent significant escalation downstream, he rightly highlighted that there needs to be discussion on how the military can deploy without it impacting on current outputs. This is important as engagement yields positive results – just look at the work of the training teams deployed across Africa. But in an overheated budget, these so-called ‘jollies to foreign climes’ are usually the first thing that gets culled. In his speech, one senses a gentle effort to test the waters to see what other budgets could fund defence engagement – DFID or the conflict pool perhaps? Given that the bulk of the Army deployments post 2015 will either be for contingent operations, or for Defence Engagement, this felt like a fairly clear effort to secure funds without it reducing existing defence activity.
It was also interesting to see such a blatant pitch for participation in UN operations as part of wider international engagement. CDS felt that the only way to influence security was to participate overseas, however does this sit comfortably with a Government where there feels a strong desire to step away from prolonged entanglements? After all a read of SDSR would suggest a desire to reorient the UK forces to being held at readiness at home, with only limited deployments (mostly maritime and air based) outside of specific ongoing tasks. CDS now appears to argue that the UK should be more proactive in engaging with the myriad of UN missions out there, which may be good retention and career development for the Army, but does an intervention weary public really wish to see public money expended on deployments to parts of the world they've never even heard of?
Finally CDS made some very interesting observations about the UK defence industry and whether the role of the MOD was to support industry and exports. The debate about whether the UK should focus on purchasing products ‘made in Britain’ is an article in itself, and one which has no easy answer. But to so openly suggest that not all purchases need come from home is interesting. One of the strengths of the UK to date has been in having such a substantial defence industrial base, which ensures continuity of supply, no export licence restrictions and reduced reliance on overseas partners for support. To move away from this reduces the ability of the UK to operate with such flexibility. Similarly, the comments suggesting that Defence should not subsidise the export business is intriguing – given that export orders often help provide funding for in service equipment, or make upgrades more affordable due to economies of scale, there is in Humphreys mind a clear case to be answered for supporting exports. Similarly the export levy applied to successful sales means that HMG (and by definition Defence) see financial gain from overseas sales. At a point when the budget is stretched, supporting exports would help make the wider equipment programme more affordable.
So in summary this was a fascinating speech, and one which had many different interpretations. What it does highlight is the way that the Army has a very different view of what the post SDSR laydown should look like to the other services. One senses a ‘lots but cheap’ versus ‘few but good’ debate emerging as one of the key sticking points in the next review. It will be interesting to see how early 2014 pans out as there is likely to be a lot more to come on this. One suspects this was the opening salvo in a debate which will rage for at least another 18 months or so.