Right, time to sit down and ponder again for a bit. Today's post revolves around an ongoing debate that's come up at places like Think Defence and others on a routine basis, in a variety of forms, and one that I think is quite interesting. It often starts with calls to disband the RAF, the RAF Regiment, or similar such arguments.
What we're looking at today is the degree to which the various services overlap into each others primary areas of responsibility.
The argument often swerves to one of two extremes. The first is that anything that flies should be RAF, anything that floats (or intentionally sinks) should be Royal Navy, and anything that operates on land should belong to the Army. The other extreme is that each service should be allowed to operate whatever equipment and personnel it wishes in order to support its primary tasks.
Personally I'm not sure I would go to either extreme, though generally I think I'd swing a little more towards the second solution. Also, before moving on, I'd suggest that this is not the post to come to for those searching for definitive answers. This is more of a general musing about the subject.
We'll start with the RAF Regiment, as that seems to a be popular topic for fuelling debate!
The Regiment had its founding in two elements that eventually merged. The first was the No.1 Armoured Car Company (RAF), which was followed soon after by two more companies. These units were raised to support RAF airbases in Iraq during the 1920's and 30's, as part of the UKs strategy of low cost policing in the Middle East. The aircraft provided the main punch to deter and defeat trouble, while the armoured car squadrons provided protection for the aircraft against ground assault, and as a support to locally raised levies.
Later, during the second world war, the armoured car squadrons found themselves attached to the British forces in North Africa. Here their role slightly changed, as they became a key part of securing forward airfields during the advance and protecting the evacuation of forward airfields in the retreat. By accident and the nature of their role, they also became a useful source of reconnaissance information for British commanders.
The second element that eventually formed the RAF Regiment were the gunnery units that provided anti-aircraft defence for UK airfields (hence why they now call their lowest ranks "Gunners"). Initially provided by the army, the pool of manpower soon began to dry up and those who remained were often those who had been deemed unfit for service in the infantry. The catastrophe in France and the need to rebuild the nations fighting power took priority for the army.
The manpower shortages became such an issue that ground crews often had to be trained to man the guns and as Germany turned its attention towards Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, the defence of RAF airfields became more critical then ever before. The problem with using ground crews for air defence was that it detracted from their rather more critical role of maintaining the aircraft that were needed to fight the air campaign.
Eventually the RAF did wrestle back control of its air defences and the formation of the RAF Regiment in 1942 cemented this. At its peak during the war the Regiment reached almost 80,000 men (almost the equivalent of the modern regular army). Today the Regiment has 9 active squadrons, each around 1.5 times the strength of a standard army infantry company. That's the equivalent of about 3 battalions worth of soldiers and one of the main sources of contention surrounding its existence.
On the one hand you have people arguing that at a time when the army is being pressed into significant down sizing, surely the RAF Regiment could give up more of its strength in order to preserve the Infantry? Or indeed, could the Regiment as a whole be shutdown and its manpower allocation either be given to the army, or the money be used for other things?
This argument centres around the question of the use of the RAF Regiment. In modern times, the RAF often finds itself operating out of bases that are co-home to army units, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The theory is that the army would need to provide protection of its own anyway, so by extension it would also provide protection to RAF bases.
The counter argument goes back to world war two and points to the neglect of airfield defence. In Afghanistan and Iraq the army and RAF have often found themselves co-located, but this is not always the case. In operations such as those in 1991 and initially in 2003, the army was well forward while the RAF was situated somewhat further back. Under these circumstances, so the counter argument goes, would the army really be happy to detach a company or two for airfield defence?
Further, RAF Regiment advocates would bring up the subject of "air minded soldiering", a set of skills that covers essentially the conduct of local ground operations in a way that prioritises the needs of keeping the airfield open and operating. This includes the need to push security well out from the airfield to prevent potential attackers from disrupting air operations, to the placement and operation of support weapons like mortars in a way that will not interfere with flight operations, to the conduct of forces inside the airfield (not driving over an active runway without permission for example).
Here the two sides lock heads once again. The anti crowd would argue that a core of specialists to keep the skills fresh could then be used to provide pre-deployment training to the company in question. They would also (if what I've seen and heard is anything to go by) likely make a variety of colourfully disparaging remarks about the competence and willingness of the RAF Regiment to actually perform the tasks that make up "air minded soldiering".
The pro crowd would argue that the set of skills required is more complicated than something that can be covered in a quick refresher course and that it requires time and practice to get right, even to the extent of arguing that "air minded soldiering" is more of an attitude than a skill set.
Which side is right?
Do we really need a dedicated unit for airfield defence? If so, why is this unit not deployed to somewhere like Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, probably the one permanent UK airfield that would be considered to be under any kind of real risk of sudden attack (albeit a slim one)? And if so, do we give the RAF Regiment control of short ranged air defence weapons to protect such bases, or do we leave them with the army who can also use them to protect mobile formations in a conventional war? Or do we give this capability to both? Does the RAF Regiment really need to be involved in CBRN defence? Does it need armoured vehicles to protect against ambush while on patrol?
It's an interesting insight into the world of niche cross overs I feel. Just because the task requires infantry skills, does that make the infantry the best placed to perform it? Or does the specialised nature of the task and its relative importance to just one service make the case for a dedicated sub-branch of said service?
Another example, less good for firing up arguments but perhaps more illustrative of the issue, is ordnance disposal.
All three services in the UK possess some nature of ordnance disposal teams. But would they be better served by one, centralised group that covered everyone? Or is the nature of the demand and the uniqueness of each environment sufficient cause for each service to keep its own teams?
All three services have their case to make. The army - as you might imagine - produces its fair share of unexploded ordnance just through training. It's activities on land also bring it into contact with a vast array of devices that either require to be made safe, or to be safely disposed of, the IED threat in Afghanistan and Iraq being prime examples.
The navy has two prime cases for such a unit. The first would be mine clearance, both above and below the waves. The need to make safe certain devices, or to dispose of them in place, can play an important role in the navies job of maintaining safe navigation of the seas and waterways of interest to the UK. Secondly, the navy has an identifiable need for expertise in dealing with unexploded ordnance thrown directly at it. For example HMS Antelope (F170) was sunk during the Falklands war after a bomb that hit and failed to detonate was subsequently set off during attempts to de-fuze it.
The RAF would probably argue its specific case in terms of ordnance dropped onto its airfields that endanger its air operations (such as mortars) and the need to make safe live ordnance carried by aircraft that subsequently crash, either belonging to friendly or enemy forces.
I think this is an intriguing area of investigation primarily because it emphasises the main points of having separate specialists vs centralised specialists. Centralising a specialist task tends to make it easier and more efficient to supply demand for those skills once the demand has presented itself, and allows the concentration of effort on a priority tasking. In the case of ordnance disposal, this would be the counter IED efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The problem with centralising of skills is that its generally very poor at predicting and initially responding to unexpected demand. Take a Royal Navy task force for example, that is sailing through the gulf when suddenly it finds itself in need of some explosive ordnance disposal expertise. Which is quicker, a centralised disposal team based in the UK? Or a small disposal team attached to the task force itself?
This particular naval example also throws up again the issue of specific, narrowly focused skills vs generalist knowledge. A centralised disposal organisation that is required to cover all three services will inevitably have to dilute its training somewhat in order to prepare for all possible eventualities. Having three service specific sub groups allows them a degree of specialisation not possible with the centralised organisation.
Put yourself in the place of the commander of the hypothetical warship that requires the disposal aid. Who would you rather have come and poke around your ship, messing with a potentially very dangerous device; someone who has covered this sort of thing as part of a broader education, or someone who has had a certain bias towards this sort of thing in their training?
The downside in this case is that your on hand naval specialist is unavailable for use elsewhere. They're sitting on a ship as part of your task group, potentially with no use of their specialist skills for the entire tour, while their expertise could be in high demand elsewhere. They may be providing a layer of safety for you, but only at the expense of your defence main effort.
Intelligence would seem to throw up a similar, cross service dilemma. By pooling intelligence assets in one place, under one command, you gain the opportunity to redistribute them as needed, pushing the bulk of your effort wherever it is needed most. But at the same time you reduce the flexibility of each service to carry out intelligence gathering activities that might be crucial to them in particular, even if the other services can't see the value.
By keeping assets to themselves and only releasing them for general use when they are less busy, each service can guarantee it will have the needed assets (and/or personnel) on hand to deal with tasks as they arise. It is this that I believe is the absolute essence of the argument around who owns what in the armed forces, alongside the argument about who can be best "trusted" with certain capabilities.
When we talk Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) for example, the arguments begin in earnest between the RAF and Royal Navy about ownership and who can be trusted to prioritise support for the capability.
Without question, MPA is of more use to the Royal Navy than the RAF, especially as the RAF no longer possesses a significant maritime strike ability. The MPA has long been an incredibly useful tool for navies, ever since the Royal Navy first realised the potential for using aircraft to quickly scout across vast tracts of water in search of the enemy, or to maintain a relatively persistent watch over their key harbours.
The Royal Navy then would argue that it should hold the keys to MPA and would probably point to the recent demise of such aircraft in UK service as a sign that the RAF can't be trusted. The story is likely more complicated than that in reality, as Liam Fox took great pride in appearing to the press as the tough guy who had stood up to the failing defence contractors, regardless of how wise that decision actually was for Britain.
The counter argument from the RAF is that they have lots of experience flying such aircraft, the flights would have to be integrated into their plans and probably use their bases and their training pipeline, so they might as well just manage it themselves with a Royal Navy liaison.
Well, I'm sure there's a heated debate to be had around that question! I'd be more interested in the question that arises from it; how far is too far? How much duplication of abilities and crossing of responsibilities is acceptable before we finally say enough?
The Royal Navy might well argue that it should not just have MPA and fighters for its carriers, but also keep dedicated large tankers like the RAFs new Voyager aircraft, in order to support its operations overseas. Or that it should have a new medium-long range bomber aircraft for attacking enemy naval infrastructure at a distance before its main forces approach.
Perhaps the RAF might end up arguing that in addition to their aircraft, they should be allowed to operate a fleet of small, armed fast boats for recovering downed pilots in the water? How long before that turns into a requirement for a mother ship type vessel to carry the small craft to a theatre? How long before that ship gains a large flight deck to operate helicopters to aid the rescue? And then other ships to defend it?
And what if the army were to get in on the act as well? They've just acquired Watchkeeper, a small unmanned aerial system for observation. What if they were to then turn around and demand a dedicated strike aircraft for attacking such targets? What if, during the next conflict, the RAF and/or Royal Navy fails to provide adequate fighter and/or electronic jamming support for these aircraft, so the army decides to acquire its own fighters and jamming aircraft? And while they're at it, they acquire their own transport ships to start moving themselves around at their leisure, instead of when the Navy can accommodate them.
Outlandish? Over the top? Almost certainly.
But it does make you wonder, how far do we go with allowing each service to keep its own pockets of overlap with other peoples capabilities. Is it just the small things? A few soldiers here, a few technicians there. Or do we let the overlap expand to a higher level, understanding all the while that the budget is limited and will only stretch so far?