The media led on reports today about the Public Accounts Comittee report into the decision to switch CVF from STOVL to CTOL and back to STOVL again. The report received headlines suggesting that JSF posed huge risk and that millions had been wasted through various blunders. As ever though, the situation is more complex than perhaps suggested. The full report can be read HERE
The first thing that struck the author on reading it was that it highlighted the challenges posed in bringing any large piece of equipment into service. There was a lot of comments about the risk posed to the UK by not having the so-called ‘Crowsnest’ AEW capability in service until 2022 which left the platform at risk. It is very easy to focus on the idea that a carrier is late, and that is a relatively simple piece of kit, so why should it take so long to bring into service? In reality the introduction into service of CVF is a watershed moment for the Royal Navy – it will represent a step change in capability, and merge together several very different capabilities which the RN has either not operated for a while, or which it has not operated at all. At its heart the RN is having to simultaneously introduce a brand new class of ship into service, with all the technical risk that this entails. This is then backed up by the near simultaneous introduction into service of the most technically advanced jet the UK has ever operated, and also bring the UK back into the world of fixed wing carrier operations, a skill which even with the mitigation measures in place will still be a challenge to regain. Its also about bringing a new AEW platform into service, after a near 6 year gap in cover, and again with all the very considerable technical risk posed by this. Finally its about bringing the whole package together and working with the rest of the RN to ensure that what exists isn’t just a collection of equipment of very levels of operational utility and capability, but is in fact a fully worked up and integrated system which has an effect far beyond the sum of its parts.
In order to do this, its fair to say that the first few years of CVFs life seem set to be (in theory at least) a fairly routine set of trials, work ups and ensuring that it can actually do the job. This means things like a slow introduction into service of Crowsnest (which will be available in 2020, but not in full service till 2022), and probably a fairly slow ramping up of the JSF capability. In part this is technical risk, in part this is a legacy of planning round decisions taken some years ago to defer elements of the equipment programme which means that kit is entering service later than perhaps originally envisaged. Finally it is a reflection of the equipment budget, and wider budget to provide the right levels of skilled manpower at the right time – its not just about having the kit, but the right pipeline of trained manpower who know how to use and support it properly.
While it is easy to dream on about come 2018 the RN deploying a fully worked up CVF with legions of F35s onboard, it is perhaps far more sensible to be honest about how things will go. It will take time to have CVF worked up, bugs ironed out and with a full understanding of how to work it properly- the reality is that it was always going to take several years, regardless of the original ISD. Yes it is frustrating to realise that they won’t be out there straight away, but in reality thats what happens when a new warship class is introduced – just look at how long its taken for HMS ASTUTE or HMS DARING to get up to operational status.
Jointery or Nothing
One thing that reads through very clearly in the evidence is the clear emphasis that CVF is seen as a joint asset for Coalition operations. While obviously it provides a national capability in extremis, it is clear that provision of a CVF hull and airwing is seen as a major means of the UK working with coalition partners. This is an important part of the reality of future naval operations – while we like to fondly imagine that CVF provides the UK with the ability to work in isolation, in reality its an asset that will provide great influence in coalition work. The evidence is clear that in future the UK sees provision of CVF on operations as being part of a wider multi-national force, and particularly early in its life, there is an expectation that capability gaps such as AEW would be met either by working with partner nations, or by wider UK assets (e.g. AEW Sentry).
This is important as it highlights the gradual shift in UK thinking away from funding the provision of an entire wholesale package of capabilities into assuming that risks can be taken in some areas. When one reads the evidence though, it is suddenly clear how far fetched the scenarios sound – for instance it was only under heavy questioning, when the line of assumptions reached ‘fighting an enemy with French and US cover in high seas away from landbased cover’ did we discover that the RN may struggle a wee bit without CROWSNEST. One would hope that between 2020 and 2022 the RN is not going to be re-enacting scenes from a Tom Clancy novel?
More seriously though, this debate also raises a good question about the value of investment – the question was asked, do we want to build frigates or carriers and what is better for the national interest? From a practical perspective, one always wants to see more frigates in the water, but ultimately they are relatively common and most nations have them. Were the UK to focus efforts on escorts, then she would be one of several nations in the coalition with the assets, and perhaps less important in the greater scheme of things for allocation of more important protection like AEW or MPAs. By contrast, put a Carrier into the mix, and while you may need other partners to provide escorts, it not only encourages (in theory at least) wider diversification among allies to provide the other capabilities needed to protect it (such as MPA or AEW), but it also ensures that as the provider of the real enabling platform, the UK will have more say at the table, and is more likely to get assets assigned to protect it.
In a world where no nation can have every capability, nations will be forced to make choices and prioritise where they want to put their funding. While the logical counter-argument for carriers is that if the UK were serious it should also provide the funding for these capabilities, a quick look at the cost of them shows why the UK can’t afford them and a carrier to boot. So, if we can’t afford everything, is it not better to focus on the assets which provide real influence inside a coalition and which are beyond the price range and capability of smaller countries, while leaving them to develop their own niche areas? The authors very personal view is that over time you will increasingly see countries focus on this sort of niche capability provision as a means of bringing a real role to international operations.
On balance then, investing in CVF seems a sensible decision when you look at the likely type of operations that the UK is probably going to be involved in over the next few years. It brings capability and influence to the table, and helps the UK shape meaningfully the debate of how things will be in a campaign, arguably far more so than providing a small number of frigates.
I see no support ships?
One area which received relatively little attention, but on which this blog has focused in the past is that the report identified the risk for CVF with relying on older platforms to support it. The report notes that a CVBG isn’t just about the CVF but the wider enabling capabilities too. The challenge for the RN this century has been how to bring about a new capability and regenerate the fleet when build times are getting longer, expenses are getting bigger and yard capability is getting smaller. The RN has finally got the mix about right, focusing firstly on the T45, then the CVF and also the Astutes at the moment, with the focus shifting onto T26 and MARS in due course – but the problem is the lack of funding and shipyard capacity.
The drive to avoid a shipbuilding ‘boom & bust’ has meant a spreading out of build times, and a reduction in the number of hulls under construction at any one time, but has meant that industry can plan with a lot of certainty about the future. At the same time the reduction in funding means that many programmes are delayed, and replacements seem ever further away. What this does mean then is that as CVF enters service, all of its supporting elements will be getting ever older. Its also noteworthy that the MARS stores ships designed to support the CVFs have yet to get financial approval and that this is unlikely to happen before the next SDSR. Given this, it will be worth watching the progress closely on how MARS proceeds, as without it, the mighty CVF will be hugely reliant on a tiny number of RFAs, all of which are over 30 years old.
Manpower – A Critical Weakness?
One element that Humphrey found frustrating in the media cover of the report was the suggestion that somehow 400 bungling civil servants were to blame for the current situation, and they were so inept as to not calculate VAT, and that success in the programme is dependent on good staff with project management skills. The truth is very different – for starters a glance at the evidence showed that of the 400 staff supporting the Carrier Strike project, 250 were military, and only around 120 were civilian. It usefully highlights that while the CS take the blame for this sort of thing, that actually procurement is a joint responsibility between military and civilian teams.
The VAT saga was also not really understood by the media – a great story for the press, and one which all but guaranteed the headlines, the truth was that when the original costings were drawn up, HMRC advised the MOD that certain elements were VAT exempt. When changes were made to the design, the assumption was that this would continue, but a change in policy by HMRC on items coming from the USA meant that they would accrue VAT charges – something not identified at the start as this was not originally an issue. This is far less exciting than stories of ‘MOD incompetence’ and instead seems a reasonable explanation as to why costs grew.
The issue though is that in highlighting the lack of capability in programme management, it is ironic that those people who are complaining on the internet or in pub about this are the same ones who probably demand the CS be cut or destroyed. The reality is that over the last few years, the huge downsizing of the MOD CS has meant that many experienced people who could have spotted issues, and who could advise on managing projects like this have left, and ongoing recruitment challenges mean that little new talent is entering. As Humphrey has long maintained here, the more you attack the CS, malign its staff and demoralise them with more job cuts and offer few prospects of a credible career, the harder it is to motivate people to stay. Having spoken to friends who have left, they all describe how the relentless attack on the CS, the way they were made to feel like scum for being a member of the civil service, and a perceived lack of support or career opportunity made the decision to jump quite easy. Why stay working in an organisation where you are seen as someone to be treated as second rate, and blamed for every failing going, whether you had a part in it or not. Some may mock, but many friends of the author cite this continual war by the media on the CS as a reason for quitting- they are fed up of the constant abuse and of feeling ashamed of what they do. Humphrey has been personally abused for being a civil servant at dinner parties, where well educated people who’ve never been in the military attacked him for being responsible for the deaths of soldiers in Helmand. Its not a nice feeling and after a while it genuinely does start to become a reason to consider quitting.
So, in highlighting the challenges of project managing CVF, it is important to also highlight that you need to improve retention with politically unpopular things like paying sufficient rates to motivate people to stay, or standing up for civil servants and not attacking them. It may not win votes, but it may help keep those with vital skills in for a bit longer.
CVF is and always will be a contentious subject, as any large scale procurement will be. It is important to read documents like this report to better understand how decision makers reach their decisions, and also to see the sort of judgements which underpin UK defence policy. Its a fascinating read, and well worth a deeper look, while asking what the alternatives would be, and whether they would be better or worse for UK strategy as a whole.