Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The media beatings will continue until morale improves...

Just when you think the near relentless attempts by the media to demoralise and demonise the Civil Service have reached a new low, there was depressing news in the Telegraph blames the MOD for failing to cut the number of Civil Servants, which apparently means the Armed Forces are being denied the ability to raise funds for new equipment (LINK)

Reading this sort of ‘news’ is a damning indictment on just how poor the levels of research and analysis are in many media outlets these days, and how desperate they are for a story that tries to give ‘bad news’.

The actual story relates to the news in the 2015 SDSR which imposed a nearly 30% cut on the overall headcount of the MOD Civil Service from roughly 55000 to roughly 40000 in a review which was politically barred from downsizing the Armed Forces, in order to save funds. The key point to note is that an SDSR is the entry review to a five year process of actions and tasks – and the commitment was to reduce numbers by 2020, not by 2017.

That this figure came as a shock to many in the Military was a bit of an understatement – Humphrey recalls vividly their reaction when they realised the reality of what reductions of this scale meant, and how difficult it would be to achieve it.

This difficulty isn’t because the Civil Service was reluctant Turkeys voting for Christmas and trying to prevent it happening, but instead because the scale of cuts represented massive changes to the way Defence had to do business, and at a point where it was also trying to generate efficiency savings.
Its often forgotten that the MOD Civil Service is arguably two distinct bodies – the ‘industrials / Skill Zone’ workers, who do a wide range of practical work such as dockyards, munitions depots, and all manner of physical and skilled work to directly support military units. Then there is the wider non industrial civil servants, who do the policy work, office support, intelligence analysis and all the other tasks required to support the armed forces.

If you want to reduce your workforce by 30% you have two real options – either stop doing stuff wholesale or do it differently or close sites down and make lots of people redundant. If you want to stop doing stuff, you need to identify what process is being done in Defence now that doesn’t need to be done in future. Do you privatise elements of support, reducing the headcount but not the money to spend on overseeing the work (e.g. could logistics be done differently). Do you stop doing some kinds of policy work  or close offices down – but what is being done that is discretionary that can easily be stopped or merged?

The sort of change required is vast, it needs a lot of clever thinking to ensure that work being done isn’t forgotten about – what happens for instance if you fire all the people doing logistics contracts, but then have no one left to manage said contracts? You cannot just overnight say to one in three CS – ‘thanks chaps, don’t bother coming back in tomorrow’.

One only has to think back to the last big round of departures back after the 2010 SDSR when over 10,000 civil servants took a generous redundancy scheme and left. Morale was so low, and the terms reasonably generous that they managed to hit the three year target for reductions in the first year alone just with voluntary applications. This saw an exodus of very experienced people who left for either early retirement or other work.

The consequences were challenging – one only has to look at the near total dismembering of DE&S in Bristol to realise that a lot of very good people had gone, often without replacement and before a credible plan was in place to manage the work they’d left behind – usually it was a case of ‘gap the vacancy and hope to divvy the work up’. This in turn led to skills loss and an increasing reliance on contractors and consultants to do work at vastly higher cost to the taxpayer than before, and in turn it damaged the ability of the MOD to support the Armed Forces.

A further 30% reduction of staff in 2015, on top of a substantial reduction in 2010 was the last straw for many civil servants, who felt fed up, demoralised and tired of being blamed for the perceived failings of the Department – which many of them had no control of influence over. Humphrey recalls being a guest at a formal dinner a few years ago when the person to his left blamed him personally for the failure of MOD to support the troops in Afghanistan – it got to the stage for many of his friends where they were almost ashamed to admit they worked for the MOD for fear of the response they’d get.

Today the authors sense is that many good civil servants have left, others are biding their time. Part of the challenge in restructuring and downsizing will be trying to keep as much of the department as intact as possible – which is likely why no voluntary redundancy scheme has yet been announced – the uptake would be enormous and the loss of people hard to sustain.

This is perhaps the real problem – too many out there think of the MOD as supernumeraries who add nothing and do little. There is no real understanding of the value they bring, the skills they offer or the loyalty they show to the armed forces. It all comes down to tired clichés and silly arguments about ‘equivalent rank’ or fundamentally failing to understand that a civil servant is a civilian and not a military officer – one of the (several) breaking points for Humphrey was an poorly judged intervention by a junior staff officer outside London when he was sitting outside having a conversation with another civilian and failed to ‘come to attention’ as a very senior serving officer walked past him – apparently being a civilian wasn’t an acceptable excuse for not bracing up.

Until it is possible to have a sensible discussion that recognises the huge skill set in Defence, that the workforce has been through near constant change and reduction now for years and without much sense of a coherent ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ its going to be hard to raise morale of civil servants. Many are tired of being whipping boys in  articles like this, many more are fed up of low pay, an until recently appallingly designed and implemented performance management system that seems designed to insult the intelligence of anyone who suffered it (friends who are HR professionals described the MOD appraisal system as arguably the single worst system they had ever seen), and finally a sense that the CS is the convenient whipping boy to protect ‘our brave boys’ from any form of criticism or attack, regardless of who was to blame, with no one willing to step in and stand up for them.

It is absolutely right to hold publicly funded organisations to account, but the relentless attack on the MOD CS is having a dangerous effect on the nations defences. People we need to have working in the system due to their skills, knowledge and experience are leaving. Recruitment is down meaning its impossible to replace them – at a time when much of Government is growing to handle Brexit, the MOD is reducing its staff by ever greater numbers. The overwhelming sense on leaving though is one of relief in walking away from an organisation that seems to go out of its way at times to devalue the efforts of its workforce.

The irony is that the savings from these reductions will be minimal – given the inability to reduce military headcount, it means the work will still need to be done, but the military left will be doing the work on top of their existing jobs, and at vastly higher cost to the taxpayer. Until the uncomfortable reality is accepted that military personnel costs are enormous, and that the only way to save money is to reduce headcount, this situation will continue. Comparing capitation rates and average salaries, we seem to be replacing people on one salary with someone on three times the total capitation rate to do exactly the same job – how does that make much sense?

Had MOD just made 30% of the workforce redundant in 2016 post SDSR, there would have been chaos today and it would be under attack for failing to show proper strategic workforce planning. But by trying to do this sensibly and work out what changes, what stops, and what has to be done differently in order to meet these targets, it is attacked for failing to make 30% of its workforce redundant in 2016…


Monday, 21 August 2017

To sink a story? The Royal Navy and Harpoon...

Amidst the good news about the arrival of QUEEN ELIZABETH into Portsmouth for the first time, some Facebook and other social media sites have been discussing the Royal Navy at length. These sites commentators generally fall into one of two categories – the first is a long series of rambling ‘things were so much better when I were a lad in the mob and worked 25 hours a day in black & white and the RN is definitely going to the dogs’ brigade, and the other much smaller number are those who focus on the positives, while accepting the actual challenges the RN has got today.

One of the most difficult stories to consider is the forthcoming removal from service of the Harpoon weapons system. To many this signifies that the Royal Navy is in decline, that it will apparently not be able to sink a ship and that this means all is lost. The purpose of this article is to consider whether this is actually the case or not. From the outset Humphrey wants to be clear – no one instinctively welcomes the removal of service without equivalent replacement of a weapons system. But, these are not ordinary times and the financial pressures are enormous.

The history of the RN since WW2 is of trying to provide a range of capabilities to face the threats of the blue water Soviet Navy. Post war the fear of the Sverdlov class cruisers (and the now all but forgotten Italian WW2 battleships sent to the Black Sea fleet as reparations) drove the retention of Battleships and Cruisers well into the 1950s as a means of delivering credible firepower to sink Russian capital ships. One of the primary drivers for the development of the Blackburn Buccaneer was as a ‘Sverdlov killer’ being able to deliver a variety of weapons that could sink it.

Following the move to scrap CVA01 in 1966 the RN moved to fill the buccaneer gap against the next generation of Soviet warships by purchasing the Exocet anti-ship missile from France which entered service in the 1970s across a range of platforms, and which was used to deadly effect in the Falklands War. The Sea Dart also had a credible anti-ship capability too, although this was never tested operationally. Finally the RAF used to maintain their Buccaneer (and later Tornado) force using Martel missiles and later Sea Eagles to conduct maritime anti-shipping strikes.

Sverdlov class cruiser


By the mid 1980s Exocet was showing its limitations and the RN needed a new generation missile to equip the Type 23 frigates then in build. A competition between the Sea Eagle (which later entered service as an airborne missile) and the Harpoon (already in service on the Submarine fleet) saw the decision taken to put Harpoon into service. By the early 1990s it was in use in air, surface and sub surface variants in both the RN and RAF.

The challenge though is that Harpoon was a missile designed to fight a very specific set of threats – namely Soviet task forces in the deep Atlantic where no land was likely to intrude, or other ships get in the way. If you were at the point of firing them at a target, you could be reasonably certain that there would be nothing in the way to distract it.

The 1998 SDR saw the decision taken to delete the Sea Eagle missile from service with the realisation that the missile was (in missile life terms) facing obsolescence and required major work to stay remotely credible. It also took up a lot of magazine space onboard the Invincible class carriers that could be better employed. Finally the real problem was that the threat the missile existed to counter (the Soviet fleet) had ceased to exist. There was simply no credible reason to maintain heavy anti-shipping capability in the RAF, and this part of the Tornado force was disbanded and missiles scrapped.

The sub-surface version was also scrapped a few years later for similar reasons – or arguably because as a submariner friend of Humphrey put it ‘firing 4 Harpoon from a submarine into a surface ship is a really easy way to give away that there is a submarine locally, while also giving them a chance of shooting down or decoying away the missiles in a way that you can’t do with Spearfish torpedoes’.
Missiles are not inert objects that once assembled can be bolted onto a ship and forgotten about. They require a lot of maintenance and work to ensure that they can be fired when needed. They have a finite lifespan and need careful husbandry to ensure the stockpile is able to deliver missiles that work when expected. Some of the real unsung heroes in the Ministry of Defence are the teams of highly skilled civil servant in the various Defence Munitions depots who keep the various types of weaponry available and ready for use.  The RN has known for some years that its Harpoon fleet would reach the end of its natural lifespan, and it would have to make challenging decisions on what to replace it with. The fundamental problem facing Harpoon is that it is the only (non deterrent) missile type that the RN has never used in anger.

What role Harpoon?
The RN is one of the relatively few navy’s to have employed its missile systems in anger at sea. Since the 1960s it has used a wide range of missiles and capabilities on operations against very credible threats – with one glaring exception. It has never used, nor been in a position where it was likely to use, a ‘heavy’ or long range ship launched Surface-Surface Guided Missile.

During the Falklands there was no opportunity to engage the Argentine forces with the Exocet or Sea Dart in anti-shipping mode. In the Falklands and both gulf wars the Lynx fleet did superb work using the Sea Skua missile to engage and damage/destroy enemy patrol vessels. In Libya in 2011 a regime frigate was reportedly damaged or sunk by NATO air dropped bombs whilst alongside – but in none of these wars did the RN have a need, or opportunity, to employ their heavy missiles.

HMS MONTROSE firing Harpoon

As time has moved on the nature of maritime warfare has changed dramatically – the days of expecting to fight in the GIUK gap have gone. The most likely circumstances where an RN ship is going to be fighting these days will be in the littoral – namely close off shore, usually in very crowded waters with a variety of friendly, hostile and neutral warships and a plethora of merchant shipping in the area. We expect our people to fight in very crowded, very difficult waters where there is no certainty that the contact on your radar is a friend, foe or someone completely different.
Harpoon as a missile is simply not the right missile to employ in this sort of situation. As an aging missile with limited capability, it excels at ruining the day of any ship it hits. But you need to be certain that if you fire a long range ‘fire and forget’ missile that when it gets to where you’ve told it to go, that it hits the right target.

At the same time the likely opponents facing the RN today will not be heavy armoured cruisers or missile frigates. You only have to look at the sort of areas that the RN is deploying to, and glance at Janes Fighting Ships to realise that the possible foes do not really operate a ‘heavy navy’. The sort of foe we will face will likely have fast attack craft, light patrol vessels and maybe one or two older frigates – in other words, a very light ‘brown water navy’ not a heavy duty ‘blue water navy’.
What this means is firstly, you need to be certain of what you are shooting at, and be certain that you’re not firing at the wrong ship. The risk of catastrophe if you fired and sank a friendly or neutral warship by mistake could have massive diplomatic and political ramifications as well as huge loss of life. If you read ‘One Hundred Days’ by Admiral Sandy Woodward, you’ll recall his account of nearly shooting down a passenger jet that seemed likely to be an Argentine jet. He recognised then that the wrong call would likely have cost Britain the moral high ground, and the war.

Therefore the need for a long range missile falls away quickly when you consider you’ll want to be certain you know what you’re firing at. Secondly, you have to consider the level of risk politicians want to take, or the level of escalation they’re willing to live with. The loss of a warship can see hundreds of people killed – the sinking of the Belgrano was the largest single loss of life in the Falklands War and was by far the most contentious act of the war.

Politicians are by nature risk averse and do not want to do things that will see people killed unnecessarily – bluntly put, it is hard to see in an era when the philosophy seems to be ‘minimal casualties’ Ministers approving the launch of an SSGM to sink a ship and possibly kill 300-400 people in one incident. Note Humphrey specifically says ‘Ministers’ – that is intentional too. It is often forgotten that neither the CO of CONQUEROR or Admiral Woodward had approval under their Rules of Engagement to attack the Belgrano – it had to be escalated to the War Cabinet and ultimately the Prime Minister to approve.

Similarly in the Falklands the Argentine Exocet struggled to identify targets (for example the loss of Atlantic conveyor) and in the ‘tanker wars’ of the 1980s in the Gulf, many innocent merchantmen, and US warships were struck by errant SSMs fired by both sides. The reality is that in crowded waters, heavy anti-ship missiles are not the incredibly precise and accurate weapon people think they are.

USS STARK in 'Tanker Wars'

It is hard to envisage in a time when Politicians want to exert ever closer scrutiny of conducting military operations that a decision on whether to launch a SSGM would be delegated to a CO or Task Force commander. This would be a Ministerial level decision and if it went wrong, could cause the Government to fall. In other words, Harpoon as a long range anti-ship killer as currently configured is arguably unusable, because it cannot necessarily offer Ministers the assurances they rightly seek about avoidance of collateral damage in the waters where it would realistically be used. Simply put, we have a missile that Politicians arguably cannot use for fear of the consequences if it went wrong.

What will happen then?
With the lifespan of the Harpoon missile limited, the RN faces a difficult choice at a time of ever tighter funding constraints. Do you spend money to extend or refurbish the missile, noting that a ‘quick fix’ may keep a partial capability but reduce likelihood of buying a new missile if one became available (e.g. the Treasury may ask why if your reliable and reasonably expensive second hand car is working, you suddenly want a  very expensive new sports car two years later).

Alternatively you could buy from the market right now and put the latest Harpoon variant into service (or peer equivalent), noting that this would tie up a lot of money that the RN doesn’t necessarily have to hand and which is for a missile that will probably never end up being fired in anger.

The final option is in the short term the least palatable – take the Harpoon out of service as planned, but gap the capability. However, note there are quite a lot of very capable ‘dual role’ missiles which can attack both maritime and land targets due to enter service in the medium term (particularly in the US). A buy of this sort of dual role capability would not only enhanced the RN anti-ship capability, but more importantly provide a credible land attack capability that could complement/replace the TLAM in due course. Presentationally the final option is by far the most risky, but also the one that gives the best long term result for the Royal Navy. There are risks involved – particularly the gap between Harpoon and Sea Skua going out of service and the Sea Venom system, which will be air launched, fully entering service.

So the choice the RN appears to have made is to rely on investment in its short -medium range anti surface capabilities (e.g. guns up to 4.5”, air launched anti-ship missiles with a range out to about 20km and torpedoes). All of these provide credible capability against the threats that the RN is likely to face in the maritime domain.  While the theoretical capability of Harpoon will doubtless be missed, it is hard to see what threat it alone could counter in these environments that the other systems cannot. The RN is more than capable of sinking the vessels foolish enough to pick a fight with it – the loss of Harpoon will not change that.

It is also worth remembering that the UK concept of operations as laid out in defence reviews going back 20 years is simple – we are not going to fight alone or in isolation now. If we go to war, and we need a heavy anti-ship capability, then this is something that our friends and allies can contribute. The UK brings a lot of highly niche capabilities to most coalitions, so its not unreasonable to go to allies and expect them to provide something similar. However, we also have to remember that the chances of there being a combined maritime operation against a peer naval capability, requiring a long range anti-ship missile being fired with the attendant casualties and risks of escalation remains exceptionally slim indeed.

The biggest damage done to the RN over this whole affair seems to have been to its standing in the media and public eye. By letting the media portray the situation as akin to the RN being unable to fire anything at all, and making out that the fleet is in imminent danger, the RN lost control of the narrative.  Listening to some commentators out there on the net, you’d think that the RN was in the business of going to sea, with CO’s enjoying delegated authority to casual fling harpoon missiles at putative foes in-between wondering whether they wanted snorkers or babies heads for dinner. In fact the Harpoon is a class of missile that hasn’t been employed in anger ever – sadly this point has been lost amongst a general rumbling of discontent.

The Harpoon has been an excellent capability for the last 30 years, but like all weapon systems  it will need to retire. The RN has been forced to make really difficult choices over funding and chosen to prioritise other systems instead. Don’t forget that under the operating model that Defence uses now, if the RN felt a Harpoon replacement was that important, then NAVY command could have chosen to reprioritise funding from their budget to make it happen. That they did not should tell you a great deal about the importance the RN places on Harpoon right now, and the even greater importance of prioritising the right replacement in due course, not the halfway house tomorrow.


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Is 2017 the year of the Royal Navy?

On the eve of the first entry into Portsmouth by QUEEN ELIZABETH, it is good to take stock of how far the Royal Navy has come in recent years, how much has been gained (and lost) and what sort of state the Naval Service is in today.

An article reposted on Twitter this afternoon by Kings College Defence Studies Department (link is here HERE) rebroadcast an article that was written back in February of this year. It took a critical (and it has to be said error strewn) view of the state of the RN, which Humphrey would not necessarily agree with in its entirety. In response to a suggestion by one of the PSL twitter followers, this is an attempt to take a critical response to the article, and provide a strictly personal view of whether 2017 is ‘the year of the Royal Navy’.

What is the good news?
In simple terms 2017 has proven to be a remarkably good year for ‘ships in the water’ and in new capability entering into the public eye. The arrival of QUEEN ELIZABETH is naturally remarkably good news, as is the fact that PRINCE OF WALES will be named in September. That clear progress is being made on the carrier front is beyond any doubt.

The launch of the 4th ASTUTE class SSN is also good news – essentially a ‘Batch 2’, HMS AUDACIOUS entered the water quietly, in a manner befitting the ‘Silent Service’ during the purdah period. Likely to sail soon for Faslane, her ongoing acceptance marks the continued regeneration of the SSN flotilla, which is undergoing a real renaissance, and with A boat production now well established and ongoing. At the same time work is underway on DREADNOUGHT, the next generation SSBN and the Royal Navy continues to play a vital role in leading the way for the introduction to service of the Common Missile Compartment, taking the Anglo/US deterrent to sea ahead of the USN – the US nuclear capability is quite literally reliant on the UK proving the concept.

In the shipyards of Korea, two Tide class tankers have now either arrived in the UK or are en-route – these enormous vessels (almost as long as, and almost twice as heavy as an INVINCIBLE class carrier) bring a step change in capability compared to the myriad of LEAFS and ROVERS that they replace. Two more enter service shortly to complement the existing WAVE class. It is worth considering that the RN may have fewer tankers, but each is the same size as the old ‘OL’ class fleet tankers, and vastly more capable – a real asset on national and coalition operations.

The world class Type 45 Destroyer

The Batch 2 river class are beginning to slowly enter service, and these are not small OPVs – their displacement and dimensions are close to the old Type 12 and Type 14 frigates and arguably they are well equipped to fill a similar maritime constabulary role.

The first batch of Type 26 has been ordered and construction is now (finally) underway – this commitment to the first three hulls means the RN is well placed to support export prospects of the design to both Australia and Canada, potentially forging a truly global frigate class for the first time since the Type 12s came into service.

In very rough terms this year will see the Royal Navy have roughly three quarters of a million tonnes worth of shipping actively under construction (albeit at varying stages) with potentially up to another quarter of a million tonnes planned and due to be ordered in the next couple of years. Simply put, the Royal Navy of 2017 has nearly a million tonnes of new ships being designed, planned or constructed right now -  this is arguably one of the largest maritime regeneration programmes in British history, and a clear sign of just how much investment is going into the Naval Service.

Operationally the fleet remains globally deployed and committed. The emotionally and politically significant recommissioning of HMS JUFAIR in Bahrain marks the first permanent and ‘official’ UK commitment East of Suez on an enduring basis in nearly 50 years – this is not just about the practicalities of a very valuable base and its first class facilities. It represents a wider policy commitment to place the UK visibly in the region on an enduring national interest basis, not in support of a discrete military operation. This news sits well with Gulf rulers who are keen to see the UK commit to the Middle East at a time when other allies interest seems to be waning.

The Type 45 fleet is proving its worth on operations, and routinely proving the naysayers wrong about its propulsion challenges. You only have to look at HMS DARINGs 9 month deployment which was enormously successful to realise the value of the Type 45 fleet. The Type 23 fleet continues to be robust workhorses, with deployments by HMS PORTLAND and ARGYLL underway to both the Gulf and more widely to the Falklands. This is in addition to other deployments to the West Indies and Med by many other parts of the Fleet.

There is good news on the equipment front too, with new anti ship missiles replacing the venerable sea skua finally entering service, and the new SeaCeptor going to sea as well. The loss of Harpoon is significantly overblown, due to the enormous constraints on its employment in anything other than blue water open ocean environments - in the likely space where the RN will be fighting, a missile like Harpoon is not the solution to the problem.

So on one level 2017 has proven to be a remarkably good year for the RN – it is the year that it all came together in terms of putting assets in the water, and seeing the first visible signs of the construction programme coming good. The fleet is finally showing the fruit of years of invisible investment in order to turn the powerpoint slides of fantasy designs into actual reality.

HMS OCEAN - due to leave service in 2018


So whats the bad news?
The RN does still face challenges – the lack of manpower continues to be an issue and will be some time before it is properly fixed. Sensible moves, such as reducing manpower on lower readiness ships (the erroneously reported ‘reserve fleet’) about to go into Refit is one sensible move to reduce pressure. But it is still hard to generate the right people at the right level of training in the right rank – getting thousands of people through the door isn’t going to help if your shortage is in deeply specialised Senior NCO posts – that won’t be fixed till 15-20 years down the line.

Similarly the ongoing silence over the Strategic Defence Review that dare not speak its name is of concern. Speak to RN personnel over a beer and they will be brutally honest about the financial challenge facing the MOD as a whole – what is not clear is whether this review will be led by money, or by defence outputs.

There is a real concern that despite the Governments commitment to maintain defence expenditure, no real picture is emerging as to how it intends to meet the ‘black hole’ in the financial plans brought about by the Brexit referendum causing a collapse in Stirling’s value. The simple truth is that it appears a cost driven SDSR is underway in the Cabinet Office, and that the RN faces desperately difficult decisions ahead if it is to stay in budget.

The challenge is going to be not in 2017 but 2018 – this is the point of maximum danger for the RN. The review is likely to emerge inflicting real pain – potentially equipment or vessel deletion, or alternatively reducing activities and reprofiling readiness (e.g. putting ships alongside). Less ships at sea helps solve some of the manpower strain, but paradoxically reduces retention as bored sailors put their notice in – who wants to be upper deck sentry on a wet cold Sunday afternoon in Portsmouth?

2018 also sees the paying off of HMS OCEAN, which while the capability will transfer to the QEC class, represents a tangible loss to the Royal Navy. Although she is an old lady now, it will still hurt to see her go, and this does present difficult presentational issues – there is no corresponding good news for next year in terms of entry to service of new ships or capability. At the same time we will see the likely paying off of the Batch 1 River class, which are barely 15 years old. The discarding of three highly capable OPVs may make sense from a resale value, but will be a hard sell to tabloids scared of threats in the channel.

The RN is in the worst of both worlds here – it doesn’t have the money or crew to run the ships on at present, and the only way it can do this is if something else stops being done. Is it possible that this will cause an older frigate to pay off to provide the bodies (and save money/manpower).
It is likely that 2017 will see new ships entering service, but 2018 will see old ships and not that old ships leaving service earlier than planned and without necessarily like for like replacement.

The worry is that following the good news of 2017, next year will see a vast array of stealth cuts from a defence review being conducted in secret with no commitment to present to the public or Parliament. It is likely that a range of deeply painful measures will have to be adopted to make the books balance unless significant extra funding is found to keep things as they stand. Some of the things to look out for will include reduced numbers of deploying ships, reduced readiness patterns, smaller purchases of aircraft types such as JSF, deferring projects from being ordered or reducing the total amount on order. In other words a return to the dark days of the 00s when outside of OP HERRICK Defence found itself going through brutal planning round after planning round to try and make the books balance. 

A Type 14 Frigate - smaller than a Batch 2 River Class OPV!

Also look for measures such as early paying off of vessels like RFA ARGUS (rumours of her early demise abound on Twitter) and potentially disposing of other assets – will HMS BULWARK ever go to sea again under the White Ensign, and given the reduction in requirement for amphibious shipping, and the desperate state of RFA manning, will another BAY be paid off to try and solve these problems?

Looking longer ahead, the continued lack of ordering the MARS solid support ships is worrying – the older Forts are now almost 40 years old and cannot go on forever. Similarly other elements of the RFA fleet is aging, whilst no work seems to be done on the LPD Replacements or other items that need to be put into long term plans soon.

Getting the next batch of Type 26 will also prove difficult – by reducing the order to 5, its very easy to change it to ‘about 5’ or ‘up to 5’ in forthcoming defence reviews (next one due in 2020). This, coupled with the likelihood that the Type 31 order will be delayed means the RN has three new frigates on order, and 10 nearly 30 year old frigates soldiering on without funded replacements.
The risk for the RN is that it is moving to a model of ‘boom and bust’ – it spends years sweating assets like the Type 23 and pushing them far beyond their limits. It then receives new kit in a glut, putting pressure on the wider budget and reducing the overall numbers ordered. It then repeats the experience for another bulge of new ships entering service after many delays decades later – but again in smaller numbers.

Overall it is a mixed picture – right now the RN of 2017 is in a great place with many new ships and capabilities entering service – we should be thankful for this and embrace the huge potential opportunities they offer the RN. However, we do need to be realistic and recognise that 2018 and beyond could very well be incredibly difficult for the Royal Navy and see many emotional and hard changes brought in. One has to hope that the reasons for these changes are honestly communicated and not hidden beneath a veneer of comparisons to London buses and superlatives about ‘the ever increasing capability of Platform X means we no longer need Platform A,B,C,D,E,F and G’.


Friday, 11 August 2017

Liz & Georges first playdate...


Without doubt the most impressive defence related story of the week was the news of QUEEN ELIZABETH and the USS GEORGE W BUSH steaming together off the coast of Scotland in concert with a variety of escorts. The sight of a pair of allied carriers operating together is increasingly uncommon, and its even less common to see a US carrier in UK waters these days.

The pictures are genuinely stirring – two of the largest and most complex warships in human history sailing together, one returning from operations in the Middle East and the other at the start of a career that will see her doubtless spend many years deployed in the Middle East. But its not just a photo that is so compelling here, it’s the deeper story of integration and co-operation between the US and UK that makes this such a fabulous story to tell.

Any nation can put on a photo shoot of ships together at sea – indeed when you have multi-national maritime exercises between countries that don’t work closely together, the most important ‘take away’ is being able to get them all to steam together long enough to take a photo or two. But a photo is little more than a snapshot in time intended to look good for PR images. Ultimately there is nothing particularly difficult for the RN & USN to form up in a completely non-tactical but very photogenic formation and steam in roughly the same direction for a short time. 

What really matters is the wider support and links between the USN and RN that have helped keep the UK on track to sustain and regenerate carrier strike over the last few years. This is less visible, but as equally important.

The decision by the RN to move to a bigger generation of carriers for CVF posed a number of challenges. For nearly 30 years it ran a reasonably small airwing on the Invincibles – usually peaking at roughly 20 airframes all told of which only about half were fixed wing Harriers. This meant the RN had lost its experience of dealing with big deck carriers, and wasn’t used to dealing with large airwings anymore – not just in terms of practical handling on deck, but the wider issues of force generation, sortie generation and employing a large airwing in a very different manner to a small force of defensive fighters.

Seapower as done by real Navies



Embedding Excellence
From the outset of the CVF project the RN has worked closely to maintain an excellent relationship with the USN, who have in turn provided fantastic assistance. This took on renewed significance after 2010 when the decision was taken to delete the GR9 from service and take a gap in operating fixed wing carriers. At the time the intent was to move to a CTOL F35 fleet, and even though this later changed to STOVL, the USN remained very willing to let the RN in and have access to its resources and training pipeline.

This offer has played an enormous part in keeping the RN able to keep naval aviation alive and prepare for the reintroduction of a truly ‘big deck’ carrier capability. The USN hasn’t just trained pilots (there are a lot of RN F18 pilots out there now), its also provided training for RN flight deck crew to get them aware of just how complex a ‘big deck’ carrier is, and what a step up it is from the Invincibles.

For many years now, there has routinely been a detachment of 6-10 RN personnel onboard many US Carriers, usually flight deck crew, pilots or officers carrying out roles as an integrated part of the ships company. This isn’t always without its challenges – apparently the USN doesn’t allow beards, and at least one copy of Queens Regulations has been sent out to confirm to the USN that the bearded RN crewmen aren’t trying to get one over on them!

A similar story can be told about the manner in which the USN is prepared to allocate control of its assets to the RN, such as during SAXON WARRIOR to help the RN gain experience of operating a large carrier with significant strike capability. It is no exaggeration to say that the RN has simply never had the level of strike capability generation that QEC offers. Even in the supposed ‘heyday’ of the RN carrier fleet in the 1970s, the strike package was limited to 18 buccaneers. Once QEC is fully up and running, she will be able to support and sustain an air-group of 36 JSF  and potentially significantly higher, with a level of sortie generation far in excess of what has been possible before.

Being able to practise this sort of planning and co-ordination with a US carrier matters because the RN is going to be operating at a scale of capability that it simply has not experienced before. At the risk of descending into ‘fantasy fleets’ territory here, its worth noting that a combined US/UK embarkation of 48 F35 on a CVF gives her an almost equivalent level of capability to a US carrier. If the US didn’t give the UK this sort of access, it would take many more years for CVF to reach her full potential with a much steeper learning curve.

The USN has always been generous to other fixed wing carrier operators – for instance allowing Argentinean and Brazilian jets to practise ‘touch and go’ landings to maintain currency, or working closely with the French when De Gaulle is in refit. But the level of co-operation and support extended to the UK is far in excess of what any other nation has ever had.

This is because CVF is such a big deal for the Americans as well as the UK, and there are very strong US national interests at stake in seeing her succeed. To the USN, CVF represents a ‘near peer’ carrier capability that is on their side. She is able to embark and more crucially operate US jets (more below) and brings a self sustaining task group with the level of defensive capabilities and replenishment abilities needed to operate in high threat areas. In other words she is a vessel able to operate alongside and if needs be relieve a US Carrier on station.

The US generosity then is as much driven by national self interest – they know that a fully capable RN carrier, operated in an effective manner, is a vessel which can be deployed to cover gaps in their own carrier coverage. It is notable that the Gulf has seen a sharp reduction in US carrier presence, down from 2 near constant hulls only a few years ago, to a situation today where carriers only deploy in for shorter periods, with long gaps. CVF presents an opportunity to put a peer platform into the gulf to cover these gaps and help provide contingent capability.

The outcome of 20 years dreaming, cutting and tears...


Integration of the Airwing
The other key difference between the USN support to the RN and the manner in which it is provided to other nations is the depth to which the two nations work together. There is often a lot of military low level exchanges between countries, where a liaison officer may be sent to work alongside a host nation and represent his country. But proper fully fledged exchanges are significantly rarer because  they essentially plug a foreign national into a hosts armed forces and treat them as one of their own.

In other words, a British RN pilot on exchange with the US Navy is considered for all intents and purposes to be ‘an American’ (albeit with a far nice accent), and will occupy a permanent slot in a unit that would otherwise be filled by a US national. This means that generally exchange officers can be asked to deploy on operations that their original country may not be directly involved in. For instance, reports of RN exchange officers flying over Syria in USN F18s before the UK Parliament authorised the UK military to conduct these ops. Therefore you want to be certain that you are comfortable accommodating exchange officers and that they wont be pulled hours before a mission over national policy differences.  

A lot of people have complained that the decision to not make QUEEN ELIZABETH a CTOL carrier damages the ability to ‘crossdeck’ and operate French and US aircraft, and that this is somehow a mistake. In reality the so-called ‘crossdecking’ experience is an exceptionally rare occurrence.
There have been plenty of low level visits, where a few aircraft may land on, then take off from a foreign carrier, and plenty of photos exist to attest to this. But these were little more than PR shots – the aircraft landed, refuelled and went on its way. In the over 100 years of Naval aviation, Humphrey can find only one occurrence of genuine cross decking occurring, which was in WW2 when HMS VICTORIOUS embarked some US aircraft for a few months during her Pacific deployment. (For more information on this, there is a superb article on the deployment at https://goo.gl/MqLPwU)

True crossdecking is a lot more than just parking some planes on deck. It requires the embarkation of maintenance parties, spare parts and munitions. Every nation will have subtly different modifications and parts that need to be stowed – which in turn requires a stores system that can accommodate these parts, and workshops with the right tools to maintain them.

The aircraft need mission planning software, and the ability to be able to prepare and fly a mission that in turn likely needs access to ‘EYES ONLY’ software. Part of the challenge of operations these days is not the fighting together on the front line, it’s the fight to get your national IT architecture to play together. Crossdecking requires you to feel comfortable in setting up a national eyes IT network on a foreign nations platform and feel that you can operate it without compromising national secrets.

Finally you need to be confident that both countries share the same Rules of Engagement and legal interpretations of how to handle different operational situations. At its simplest, if Country A is flying airstrikes from Country Bs aircraft carrier, then you need to be certain that doing so won’t contravene Country B’s laws and ROE.  This is not a small problem – coalition operations are a real challenge at times when trying to work out what the national permissions allow Commanders to do.

You would only embark assets onto another country’s carrier if you were certain that there was total alignment and that you would get the full support needed to carry out the operation – what happens if you want to launch a strike, and the host carrier refuses as its against their laws? Can a Commander provide met data, fuel or other capabilities that would enable you to conduct the strike or is this going to be a breach of their mandates?

True interoperability is an act of faith and trust between partners. This trust takes decades to build up and is only very sparingly given. All it takes is one act where a country is unable to carry out military action due to another refusing access (for instance overflight of airspace) for this trust to collapse.
This is why the QUEEN ELIZABETH is so significant – for the first time ever the US Armed Forces feel comfortable enough to assume that the USMC will be routinely embarking and operating from a foreign platform. This level of shared sovereignty is a real step change for the US, which works well as a coalition lead, but less well as a coalition partner over concerns about how its assets will be used.

This is a big deal, and highlights yet another reason why QUEEN ELIZABETH is such a game changer, not just for the UK but our American allies too. No other country gets this level of access or integration – others get as far as integrating an air defence platform into a CVBG, but this takes the Anglo-US relationship to a whole new level of capability.

 At a time when it is fashionable to say that the UK doesn’t exert much influence in DC and gets little from the US, Humphrey would argue that the reverse is true. The UK has been given an astonishing level of access to US Navy capability and platforms, and in return the US feels it can trust the UK enough to embark sailors and marines to sea with the UK on operations.



Sunday, 6 August 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Deployable Division?

The British Army is a magnificent institution with a long proud history and many admirable qualities. Humphrey is proud to say that he has worked at LAND HQ, served on a Divisional Staff overseas on TELIC and deployed on the ground with the Army on HERRICK and spent happy times living full time in Army Officers Messes. But, despite his emotional infatuation, there are still many difficult questions that face the Army today about its role and future.

It occupies a curious place in both the emotional heart of the nation and the head of policy makers. The public if asked are usually aware of an organisation steeped in regimental tradition, know of units like the SAS, Guards and Parachute Regiment and may know a little bit about the equipment such as tanks (noting that all APCs are tanks to the layman’s eye…). They recognise it from state ceremonial, where it is an integral part of the national fabric and identity, and are proud of the perception of ‘our boys’ serving overseas in warzones. There is often a deeper rooted, but baseless suspicion of the senior echelons, dating back to the tired cliché of ‘lions led by donkeys’ and fed by a generation of misguided historians trying to rewrite WW1 as not the greatest victory in the history of the British Army, but instead four years of class war and turgid poetry.

To policy makers the Army is an institution which is central to the survival of the nation, and which carries out many vital roles to meet defence and security policy objectives, but which is also extremely good at champing at the bit to get involved in operations overseas, even when it is not necessarily in the national interest to do so.

A cursory examination of history suggests that the British Army is not by itself a war winning organisation. It does not go to war alone with peer rivals and expect to win – UK policy instead for centuries has been to maintain a small (but professional) Army able to either conduct colonial policing, or work as part of a larger coalition force to achieve victory. This is not to do down the efforts of the Army, but to accept the reality that as an island nation, the UK has relied on the Navy as the ultimate guarantor of its security.

Before WW1 the Army was optimised primarily as a colonial police force, coupled with a small expeditionary force of regular soldiers intended to deploy to the Continent to work alongside the French or other allies in the event of war. WW1 was an event that really constituted three Armies – the small regular/territorial force of barely 300,000 soldiers that mobilised in 1914 and was wiped out to buy time. The interim force of Territorials and Reservists that held the line in 1915-1916 while the Army reconstituted, and the civilian volunteer/conscript force from 1916 onwards that saw the Army grow to over 4 million men by 1918.

Rapid demobilisation followed, followed by regeneration in the 1920s and 30s to become the most mechanised army in the world by 1939, comprising some 224,000 regulars. It is often forgotten that the British Army of 1940 had many more tanks and vehicles than the German Army – history is not kind to the losers. The Army in WW2 grew to a citizen force of roughly 3.5 million men, before shrinking post war.

The continuation of National Service, the war in Korea and the end of Empire saw the Army stay at roughly 330,000 soldiers for much of the 1950s, causing significant damage to the national economy due to the cost and lack of manpower for rebuilding. By 1957 the Army estimated that its regular strength was roughly 80,000 personnel (only a quarter of the whole force), many of whom were tied up training two-year National Servicemen. A major factor in the 1957 Sandys Defence White Paper was the need to reduce manpower costs and free people up for other economically important tasks.

The past

The Sandys Review led to a reduction to 165,000 troops most of whom were focused on either colonial policing actions (it is often forgotten that in the early 1960s there were over 100,000 UK service personnel in the Far East) or deployed in Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The withdrawal from Empire saw the Army shrink to a strength of approximately 150,000 by the 1980s, where its role was primarily to provide a Corps of four Divisions in Germany in the event of general war, supported by mobilisation units from the UK which would provide further Divisions to augment BAOR and conduct Home Defence roles.

The end of the Cold War saw the first deployment of a Divisional sized force, with an Armoured Division sent to the Gulf in 1990 for Operation Desert Storm. This happened just as the Options for Change review cut BAOR and reduced the Army to approximately 120,000. Further deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s followed by the deployment of an Armoured Division to Iraq in 2003. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2014 saw the Army struggle to sustain itself on two fronts without heavy support from the RN and RAF providing extra manpower and resources.
The 2010 SDSR initially preserved the Army at just under 100,000 personnel, although later reviews cut this down to 82,000 regulars supported by a target of approximately 30,000 reservists working in a far more integrated manner. Today the Army is struggling to sustain itself at 82,000, with recent manpower figures showing a total of roughly 78,000 troops.

That’s terribly nice – so what does it all mean?               
What this quick canter through history shows us is two key issues -firstly the UK has sustained an Army of a size to combat external threats, and deployed them primarily overseas. As the threats have receded, so has the size of the Army. The second issue is that the Army remains determined to see the deployment of a division globally as the benchmark against which its performance is measured.
The manpower issue is the first challenge – the Army has not responded well to attempts to reduce its size, and has fought a strong rear-guard action to prevent further headcount reductions. The 2015 election was fought on a clear promise to not cut the size of the Regular Armed Forces, and to keep the Army at a strength of 82,000 people.

The problem for the planners is twofold. Firstly, there is no clear sense of what these 82,000 people are needed for. Secondly, there isn’t enough money to equip all of them to the right standard to be uniformly deployable.

One of the unexpected outcomes of HERRICK was the emergence of a two-tier Army. One only should look at the ‘Theatre Entry Standard’ (TES) set of equipment of a unit at the start and end of the operation. In a period of less than 10 years the UOR system provided the Army with a set of entirely new vehicles, weapons and equipment that was used to fight a low-level insurgency. The infantry platoon of 2013 on the ground of Afghanistan bore next to no resemblance to their predecessors of 2006. But, they also bore no resemblance to their colleagues back in the UK conducting more routine operations as funding was reprioritised for ‘OP ENTIRETY’ – brought about by the Treasury making the not unreasonable point early on in HERRICK that the Army was there for the long haul, and wouldn’t it make sense to reprioritise funding to coherently equip troops for HERRICK and not hold them for contingency purposes, given they would be on HERRICK and not held for contingency.

This meant the Army had two entirely different outfits – one was the HERRICK Army, with units getting ready to deploy or on operations with access to new first-rate equipment that was bought for Afghanistan, not every operation going. Other units left behind simply didn’t have access to the same equipment or capability – and were arguably far less well equipped as a result. The Army had gone in barely 20 years from being a ‘heavy armour army’ optimised to fight on the Rhine to being a medium/light Army optimised to find IEDs.


The future or the past?

The end of Afghanistan brought the opportunity for the Army to take a long hard look at itself and work out what it wanted to be for the next war. Some of the UOR equipment was disposed of, other kit was ‘brought into core’ (e.g. long-term funding in place) to equip units. Meanwhile work continued to identify what of the legacy armoured vehicle fleet needing replacing, updating or deleting (e.g. the Challenger 2 fleet remained firmly based in Germany and the UK, with only a small number making it to TELIC).

The problem was money – there simply wasn’t enough of it to keep the Army of 82,000 equipped to the right standard of post HERRICK equipment. A simple choice emerged –cut the Army (the figure of 60-65,000 is routinely quoted as their optimal size) which would allow a fully funded and equipped Army to make the most of post HERRICK kit and remain optimised for high end warfighting.

The commitment in 2015 to not cutting the Army ahead of the SDSR led to the outcome where the Army was forced to keep soldiers it couldn’t afford to equip, and perhaps more importantly couldn’t easily identify a role for, in its structure for primarily political reasons. Speak candidly to most Army officers and many of them recognised that an Army of 82,000 makes sense if you have a clear role for it, and can afford to give everyone the same level of equipment.

Instead the outcome was a fudge, whereby the two-tier Army was formalised as a small high readiness force, with a much larger regeneration force with lower readiness and equipment held behind to do defence engagement roles. The various restructuring seemed aimed at trying to maximise some form of warfighting capability, while recognising that politically it would be impossible to carry out deep reform of the Army by scrapping ‘capbadges’ – nothing riles the Conservative backbenches more than knowing their local Battalion of ‘Loamshires’ is at risk.

How do we solve a problem like a Division?
 The 2015 SDSR also committed the Army to be able to deploy a Division globally at 6 months’ notice as a ‘best effort’ commitment. This felt like a sop to the Generals and backbenchers who felt that this was the ‘great power’ standard to which the Army should be judged. By some measures it made sense – the RN had got its aircraft carriers, the RAF new JSF and Typhoon with global strike capability. The commitment to a Division highlighted that the UK remained a serious military player.
The question though is whether any credible political or strategic benefit is gained from keeping a deployable division? The beauty of maritime and airpower is that it is inherently fast and easily deployable. A ship can be on station in a few days, airpower can launch cruise missile strikes easily at less than a weeks’ notice. The operations in both Libya and Op SHADER showed how airpower is flexible and able to deliver effect very quickly after a decision is taken to use violence.

The Army is very good at doing short notice small scale operations – just look at the ability to deliver hostage rescues, evacuation of UK civilians or provide training advice. This sort of small scale and easily defined boundaries of a deployment sits well with politicians – it doesn’t (usually) provide mission creep and helps generate good PR for the government. What politician doesn’t want to see images of brave British soldiers on a mission to rescue hostages overseas?

The problem is when mission creep happens, and there is arguably serious ‘long mission fatigue’ prevalent in Westminster now. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are clear – there is no such thing as a quick ‘large’ deployment. If you look where the UK has deployed forces in the last 40 years as an initial crisis response or peacekeeping / peace enforcement mission – Falklands, Belize, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone are just a few that spring to mind, then the UK is still there now.
The days of delivering force on land, moving into a country, removing the government and then departing once the mission is accomplished have gone forever. The international political environment simply does not stand for this anymore. If you break it, you pay for it, seems to be the new motto of military operations overseas. A deployment of a UK division merely ties the UK into a cycle of longer term presence in a country, often for decades after the event.

The future?

The wider issue is the sheer notice required to put a Division on the ground – 6 months’ notice means tying up merchant shipping (thus RN escorts), strategic and tactical airlift and other assets and denying resources elsewhere. To deploy a Division is thus a major policy commitment for HMG, and one that will have long term impacts elsewhere.

For instance, a carrier deployed to the Med, or an RAF aircraft squadron to the Gulf can both deploy quickly and recover in short order. The small numbers of personnel involved means it’s easy to recover, get the units back in harmony (essential to retention) and have them ready to deploy again without significantly impacting on wider outputs. By contrast the deployment of a Division takes time to get troops there, but even longer to get them back. It’s often forgotten that the last year of the HERRICK presence was fundamentally about taking down the infrastructure and sending equipment home – long after combat operations had ceased the UK still needed troops on the ground to get their kit home.

A deployment of a Division impacts significantly across many units, reduces Army assets to deliver other roles and ties up joint assets used to deploy, sustain and recover it. It is a politically significant statement that almost certainly means a follow up deployment of a Brigade or other force is required to relieve the force and continue the UK presence – it is hard to conceive of any credible situation where a Division would deploy and immediately recover without a legacy UK presence.
The desire by politicians and policy makers to get into this sort of entanglement is diminished these days. The lessons of the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan proved that peacekeeping/enforcement is expensive, time consuming and demands a high sacrifice of blood and treasure for very little difference.

The appetite seems to be for quick ‘surgical’ operations where airpower, Special Forces or cruise missiles can help deliver the ‘union flag’ so desired by politicians without the messy reality of sorting out logistics chains to sustain a force on the ground for years to come. It’s hard to see any real desire by the Politicians to want to get involved in wars that require divisions anymore.

This then leaves the Army in a bit of a quandary. It has focused on delivery of a global division as its benchmark at a time when the Politicians simply do not want to do this. It has focused on keeping 82,000 troops when it can’t afford to keep them all equipped, and to meet the political priority of protecting certain Regimental capbadges, it has been forced to sacrifice its far more valuable logistics, communications and other enablers that keep it as a genuinely effective force.

Talking to friends in the Army, there is a real sense of anger and frustration among many mid-level officers. The veterans of HERRICK feel that the Army hasn’t learned lessons and remains bound by tradition and an inability to really learn. Candidly, many feel that the UK ‘lost’ in Afghanistan and hasn’t yet accepted this fact. They feel the Army is overly top heavy and rigid and unable to really adapt to 21st century warfare. Suggestions that much of the Army exists as a structure to support rapid expansion in the future is met with a hollow snort of derision – we could never do a WW1 style rapid expansion again for the legacy reserve stocks of weapons and equipment have long since been disposed of as part of the move to RAB accounting in the early 2000s.

The operations that the Army is likely to be involved in are either low level defence engagement, or as part of NATO reassurance in Eastern Europe. The chances of needing BAOR established again are slim – if we get to the stage where the UK is trading shots with the Russians, then things will be quickly escalating beyond the point where conventional weapons are of value. Home Defence remains an issue, although the days of Exercise 'Brave Defender' will never be repeated - the threat is completely different. There is simply no credible home threat that needs the Army to deploy against invasion or insurrection. It is telling that there has been a move to get back into the aid to the Civil Power role again, if only because having troops able to do flood relief helps generate positive headlines.

Whenever brave efforts are made to try and look again at how things can be done differently to free up funding (such as closing RHQs or making sense of the archaic HQ and Regimental structure) leaks to the press ensure a media and Parliamentary furore that prevents real change being put into play. This stops the Army from being able to genuinely restructure itself because the moment it tries to do so, some tired old headline such as ‘we don’t have an army anymore, only a militia’ (an utter fallacy) appears and men of a certain generation with angry moustaches and blazers with badges and purchased medals write to their MPs. In a Parliament without a majority, it only takes a minor backbench rebellion to threaten chaos, meaning no Minister will risk reform if it angers the backbenches.

The Army today faces a structural and existential crisis. Too large to be properly funded, and politically barred from restructuring itself (although the recent 2017 manifesto pledge is merely to preserve the headline strength of the forces, not the individual services, so there is still hope). Denied a credible enemy that it can prepare to fight against, it has no clear rationale for why it needs to operate at a large scale when the political decision makers are increasingly set against boots on the ground for long term commitment.

The RN and RAF are regularly proving themselves able to deliver ‘good news’ operationally and with tangible equipment progress. At a time when major change is needed, and an honest debate about manpower and equipment and more importantly what the Army is for, it feels that an opportunity has been missed to answer this question and move forward. We may be able to deploy a Division, but no one seems to know why, or for what purpose. Until this can be answered, one most worry for the future of the Army. 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Russians are (legally) coming to spy on us at BRNC Dartmouth!

The Daily Mail has run a story about how a Russian ‘spy plane’ was seen over Dartmouth recently under the auspices of the ‘Open Skies’ treaty (story is HERE). This is a great example of how poor understanding of international issues can often lead to significant confusion for the public. Notwithstanding fears by Twitter wags that the long secret ‘Spanish Windlass’ technique employed by the RN to solve PLTs may be vulnerable, this sort of incident helps build concern that the UK is at risk.

Conventional Arms Control and Confidence and Security Building Mechanisms (CONAC / CSBMS) were an integral part of maintaining a reasonable state of security during the Cold War. Some treaties such as the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions – MBFR or ‘Most Bizarre Form of Ritual’ or the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty focused on imposing limits on tanks, guns and equipment on the Central Front during the 70s and 80s. The aim was to reduce tension by reducing the amount of equipment that could be used to fight a war (and reduce defence spending by avoiding an existential arms race).

The Open Skies treaty was different and aimed at reducing the potential for ‘strategic surprise’ – essentially preventing either NATO or the Warsaw Pact / latterly Russia from building up forces on the borders outside of recce aircraft range (the subject of Cold War photo reconnaissance is a fascinating story). The simple idea was that the treaty permitted states at short notice to overfly areas of other states to reassure themselves that there was no military formations standing to or preparations for an invasion underway. In other words, it was about building confidence and preventing rash decision making that could escalate the situation.

The treaty was signed too late for the Cold War, but came into full force in about 2002. It permitted countries to provide approximately 48hrs notice of a visit to a nation, who would then be hosted by the country in question. A flight plan would be submitted (subject to a myriad of stipulations, clauses and rules to prevent it giving completely unrestricted access to airspace), and the host nation would approve it. The inspection flights would occur with representatives of the host nation onboard, and due to the way the imaging cameras worked, being aware of every point where images were taken.  Finally copies of the imagery taken would be provided to the host country, ensuring it knew exactly what photos have been taken. The treaty can be read in full HERE and is complex and subtle.

To this day the treaty continues and Russian aircrew visit the UK twice per year, flying an approved route with the RAF onboard to monitor and support their visit. The same occurs in reverse, with British crew flying in partnership with other nations (the RAF having scrapped their Andover aircraft as a savings measure some years ago) into Russia and other nations, where the Russians host the visit.

US Open Skies Aircraft

These visits form a critical part of engagement with the Russians and a valuable tool in Western security. It may seem counter intuitive to invite a nation into your borders with whom you are not in total alignment with – but actually the visits can play a big part in reducing tensions. One only has to look at the range of documents that emerged after the Cold War to show how the Russians genuinely expected a NATO invasion Eastwards. To this day, Russian policy is arguably built on the basis that its perfectly normal to be paranoid – after all, history is full of stories of invasions of Russia (and plenty more of Russian invasions of others!).

If you can reassure your allies and neighbours that there is no risk, it reduces and plays down the prospect of miscalculations or problems. In every sense Open Skies is about reducing tensions by providing reassurance, not spying.

The Russians rely far more on Open Skies than the West does – it provides them with valuable information and imagery that cannot necessarily be provided by overhead imagery – a problem that the West does not necessarily have. Open Skies can function as a carrot and a bargaining chip to help shape behaviour and assist Western policy.

Russia needs access to Western airspace, but equally the West can deny this through modifying or walking away from the Treaty. In terms of diplomatic effect, a threat to shut down Open Skies would likely alter Russian behaviour (albeit at cost of long term grudges and a desire for revenge). It is a powerful tool that when properly employed can help influence the Russians in a manner that other negotiations cannot. It is telling that whilst Russia plays, at best, lip service to other treaties like the CFE, or at worst walks away (such as the Vienna Document), it has continued to engage with the Open Skies treaty, which implies that it is something they place real value on.

Open Skies is also of sufficient importance to NATO allies that provision of a new Open Skies aircraft formed part of the coalition agreement for the German Government, whilst in the US lawmakers on Capitol Hill routinely focus on the presence of the Russians on American soil and are convinced of its benefits.

The risk to the UK is minimal from such inspection flights, frankly the imagery is of limited quality (linked to the fact that wet film is currently mandated, and there are limits on the quality of the image taken). Allowing a Russian aircraft to fly in UK airspace to film buildings whose existence can be seen on google earth is not realistically going to cause major concerns.

The world of CONAC and CSBMs is an interesting throwback to the Cold War which can occasionally have real benefits for the West. Long seen as an area of ‘tank spotting or rivet counting’ the mechanisms in some of the treaties permitting legal access to areas allowed the West to quickly access Ukraine and verify presence of Russian equipment quite openly and legally. They allow the West a chance to directly see and understand Russian activity (the same is true in reverse) and they help keep a credible tool of influence for Western policy makers to use in the event further sanctions are required.

The UK commitment to arms control was highlighted in the 2015 SDSR by the establishment of pan Whitehall Joint Units to focus on CONAC policy, and through the Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), which is highly valued in NATO as leaders on the CONAC scene. This is one of those areas where a relatively small presence of niche policy and military specialists helps buy the UK significant access and influence beyond that which would normally be possible. The Joint Units and JACIG provides the UK an ability to engage with the Russian military face to face, to exert influence at NATO or OSCE policy making events and to help try to influence behaviour of other states. While its role is not widely understood or known even inside the MOD, the UK retains an exceptionally capable and highly regarded pool of CONAC policy leads and inspectors.

The key point is not to panic when you read breathless news articles about Russian spy planes and assume that UK security is threatened. It is not – the UK knows where the aircraft are going, what they are taking photos of and has copies of all the photos. The same is true in reverse with the Russians, for this is about confidence building, not spying on an enemy.


Don’t worry – the Russians may be coming, but they come in frosty peace…

Monday, 24 July 2017

A Right Regimental Rumble

News in the papers this weekend focused on the alleged proposal by the Army to try to close down and merge various ‘Regimental HQs’ (RHQs) and instead collocate their function into one single super site at Andover. This has caused complaints that it will weaken the relationship between the regiment and the local area, that it will harm welfare for soldiers and that it is damaging for recruitment.

Humphrey finds this sort of story fascinating as it encapsulates many of the challenges that the Army faces today in remaining relevant and showing it is meeting tight budget targets. For the uninitiated, the RHQ is essentially the administration hub for Regiments within the British Army – but confusingly as far as Humphrey can make out, not all units or cap badges in the Army have an RHQ due to their different structure (although they may have some kind of equivalent at different levels such as a Corps HQ).

Its role is providing support to the Regiment, primarily on welfare, community links and elements of recruitment. In the past this made a great deal of sense – a local HQ would be able to keep in contact with society, know where its soldiers were and help with pension issues or older veterans and also help look at recruiting to identify the right soldiers and officers. It helped build the ethos of the Regimental system as an extended family. In many ways it is still a vital function in areas without good communications – for instance in Nepal where the Brigade of Gurkhas maintains a strong welfare presence across the country to look after the many Nepalese veterans and their families.

But, is this an idea that has passed its prime? Several factors would seem to suggest that scrapping RHQs as they currently stand may not be as bad an idea as some think it is. Firstly, the sheer number of veterans requiring support is diminishing, as the last of the WW2 generation slowly pass on, and we see the end of the days when a large number of the population have served.  There are far fewer veterans needing welfare, and those that do are often dispersed far more widely geographically.

The days when former soldiers lived locally to the Regiment, and could retain those local links have almost completely gone. Does the RHQ function need then to be carried out in a regional area (e.g. the Regiments historical recruiting grounds) or can it be carried out centrally? If your target welfare audience lives outside the area, then its physical location is almost irrelevant as you’ll need to travel or use the phone to speak to someone anyway.

The next challenge is whether the purported links to the local area are as important as some maintain. It is clear that historically ancient reguments have long links to certain parts of the country and recruit from it. But the days of unmerged regiments having a history without amalgamation with another unit is long gone - other than perhaps the Guards and Paras, there are realistically no infantry or cavalry units out there that have not gone through some form of amalgamation in recent years.

The case for geographical ties is important for a regiment whose history dates back hundreds of years to one location. For a regiment formed as an amalgamation in the 00s from two units who in turn were formed from the 1990 review, which turn merged units that came about from the 1960s, then its rather harder to work out whether there is a genuine case for geographic ties, or is it merely an instant 'tradition'?

In times of total war the Army proves itself to be remarkably unfussy about where its manpower is allocated – you only have to read Tommy, by the late Richard Holmes to realise that by 1916 the Army was allocating people regardless of origin to line units as required.

Today the Army struggles with recruitment in part because elements of it seem to have a strong desire for some kind of regional recruitment policy. This is fine when you are turning recruits away due to overwhelming numbers, but it is hard to imagine that Thomas Atkins aged 18 will not join the Army simply because the RHQ of a unit he has never heard of and has no emotional loyalty or ties too is no longer located in the same wider geographic region. People join for vastly different reasons, and the location of an RHQ is practically an irrelevance to them.

Probably more likely to aid recruitment than keeping an RHQ would?

Humphrey personally feels the argument in favour of geographic recruiting is often undermined by the way that the Army has been happy to take on large numbers of Commonwealth recruits to pad out its numbers (for instance the manner in which Scottish units are traditionally reliant allegedly on Fijian soldiers among others). Perhaps clinging to this tie is holding back recruitment, and it is time to move to a more centralised model where recruits are allocated to units as manpower needs dictate, not by the area the recruit comes from. By all means allow both unit and recruit to express preferences, but surely having a properly manned army is more important than the ideological purity of its recruits home location for some (but not all) units?

The wider issue too is how does the Army engage with the public today and what role does the RHQ play in this? It makes sense to have a local team if your unit only recruits from a tiny area and knows it intimately, but when RHQ covers maybe four or five (if not more) counties, how much local knowledge does it really have about where to go, who to engage with and what to do? There is a risk of overplaying how much influence an RHQ can have in an area where it has little to no real physical presence.

The last challenge is how do we take care of our veterans and does this require a ‘local’ HQ? Given the breadth of locations of retired service persons, from those who have just left to those who are in their 90s, surely what is needed is the ability to reach out to them via phone, email, physical visits and letters – in other words work that can be run from anywhere. Just because Welfare work is co-ordinated in a physically different location to before does not change the ability of veterans to access it.

Similarly there is usually a lot of Regimental Associations and other support networks available to veterans – changing the format of the RHQ from multiple buildings to one site should not impact on this relationship – frankly if a relationship breaks down because of an address change then that raises deeper worries about how badly the relationship has been maintained in the first place.

Estate Downsizing
Perhaps the biggest issue here is that this issue shows the challenge facing the MOD to shrink its estate over the coming decades. There are some very challenging targets to be met in order to reduce the estate, and to dispose of legacy buildings. Arguably this move helps show how the MOD is moving towards meeting that target, by disposing of older buildings and helping free up resources.

The challenge the MOD faces is one of having to manage a diverse estate with many elderly and listed buildings. Frankly the state of many of them is appalling and they need a lot of maintenance and support to keep them usable. Given this, surely it is better to use these as low hanging fruit, easy to offload as office space, compared to other sites which may be contaminated or require extensive changes and work to be sold. By selling these sites, it helps meet savings targets and reduces the need to sell off land used for operational purposes. It also reduces the bill for building maintenance, freeing up resources which can be used elsewhere instead.

The wider perspective is that the Army has been saying for many years that it is short of funds and needs extra resources. But its hard to make a compelling case for this when parts of the Army continue to act in an incredibly inefficient manner – can you imagine the uproar if it was revealed that the Civil Service maintained dozens of offices around the UK  purely for the welfare of a few hundred former civil servants each and to play a role in local liaison and influence recruiting of new civil servants? There would be uproar and rightly so, and demands for it to be centralised and made more efficient.


Cuts Sir - millions of pounds of them!

But by clinging to the view that somehow the Regimental System is above change and above efficiency, it makes it much harder to push for extra resources for the Army. Can you imagine the conversation with the Treasury – likely to go something like this:

Army: We require extra money because we don’t have enough to meet our current commitments.

HMT: Okay – you have delegated authority to spend money as you want – as a small starter, have you tried rationalising your multiple RHQs to maybe one central point? Have you tried moving to a single series of Army uniforms? Have you tried a single series of badges for each rank? You know, save some money internally and reallocate it to fund things that you REALLY need.

Army: Errrrm, but, well former retired officers and the media tell us its about ‘TRADITION’ and if we change and scrap this sort of thing then that’s the end of the UK as we know it. We can’t possibly do that – we need more money instead.

HMT: So why in a time of stretched public finances should you get money that could instead be used to help schools, hospitals, welfare, reduction of cuts to local services, tax cuts etc, when you are unwilling to make real efficiencies in your budget and make genuinely tough choices. Show me the quantifiable evidence you’ve obviously commissioned that sets out how multiple RHQS make a difference to recruiting, welfare and how if you don’t keep the structure exactly as it is now, then the Army will collapse? You know the RN and RAF manage without it and they seem to be doing okay?

Army: Errrrm, I have an email somewhere around here about the etiquette of eating sandwiches if that helps. Would you like a party biscuit while I find it?

This may sound flippant, but its an important point to make. The power to find extra resources lies in the hands of the single services if they want to make tough calls to their budget. Scrapping the RHQ system as it stands is a good way to do this without directly impacting on the front line.

If the military want to make a credible case for additional money beyond what they have now, then they need to be able to show an utter ruthlessness to cutting anything that isn’t directly linked to meeting the tasks set out for them in the SDSR. They need to they have scrapped all the nice to haves, they’ve taken the low hanging fruit and worked out ways to squeeze every pound of cash in Defence towards generating front line capability. Until that point, it is arguably hard to see a compelling case for extra funding if every step to rationalise existing funding hasn’t been taken.

This isn’t easy to listen to – people don’t like the thought that parts of Defence that have been taken for granted for decades may need to be done differently. But the problem is that if every time a vaguely tough decision happens, and people start moaning to the press, this actually harms the Army. It makes it harder to free resources up, it makes it harder to get rid of estate that needs to be disposed of and wastes money on repairing old buildings that could be spent on more pressing needs. Bluntly put, there is a lot of scope in Defence to make genuine real and lasting change that may not be pretty, and may upset traditionalists, but would be a great way to free up cash for long term investment instead.

So, as we look at this story, ask yourself what is actually at risk here? The truth is it’s about the MOD reducing its estate to a more manageable size and reducing infrastructure costs too. It’s about rationalising headcount to get rid of duplicate admin and support posts that could be merged without impacting on Army capability. It’s about trying to do things more efficiently with an Army that has long ceased to be an enormous organisation with a large footprint of retired soldiers needing to be looked after.

The challenge for the Army is to ensure that this move does not threaten the most important link of all – namely ensuring that those veterans who need it have access to welfare if it is sought. In an age where people are mobile, Humphrey does not think that the physical location of an RHQ for a unit matters as much as being able to communicate and be contactable to all who need its help when they need it.

Finally, as a mild aside it was depressing to see that some commentators suggest that former soldiers will be unable to cope if the RHQ moves in some form. Frankly this is a depressingly patronising viewpoint, that seems to stereotype all former soldiers as simple souls, unable to cope with the idea that they may need to ring a different phone number than before. It is frustrating to see this continued attitude permeate many commentators, who seem to assume former soldiers are idiots, unable to cope with the real world and that they need to be handled with kid gloves and special care.

The UK absolutely has a duty of care to its veterans, but you don’t seem to hear the same arguments being made for former RAF and RN personnel, who have a much more streamlined welfare and support system and for the most part seem to have no problems with it.


Some former service personnel naturally do struggle, and it is right that help is there for them. But it is equally important to stop perpetuating the stereotype of all former service members being unable to cope with the very simple task of ringing up a new phone number. It demeans those who have served, and helps reinforce negative impressions of them by society. We owe our veterans more than just writing them off as simple souls unable to cope with the world outside the Barracks walls.