I've had an idea on paper for a few months now that was stirred again while reading Heinz Guderians book "Achtung - Panzer!", which I picked up second hand for the princely sum of 1 British penny. If I get time in the future I might start doing reviews of the military books on my shelf, but that's for another day.
The thing that reignited my earlier idea was when Guderian mentioned that tanks should not be dealt out in penny packets to support other arms, but instead should be concentrated together to deliver a decisive blow. It's the "concentration of effort" that I'm interested in here, but on a slightly grander scale.
With the UK's defence budget gradually dwindling and the size of the armed forces subsequently contracting, might more be achieved by a concentration of effort across the armed forces, as opposed to the penny packeting that occurs now? Allow me to explain.
At the minute, the UK armed forces are spread far and wide across the globe. There are lots of very good reasons for this. If we take the Navy for example, you have a warship patrolling in the South Atlantic to engage with allies and to demonstrate our commitment to the defence of the Falklands Islands. You have regular patrols in the Caribbean to demonstrate commitment to British Overseas Territories in the region. You have warships and mine hunters deployed to the Gulf as part of the wider security strategy for the region. And you have the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) that sails out annually to the Mediterranean and beyond to work with allies and provide assets for immediate tasking in an area of interest to the UK.
What you also have is dispersion. The dispersion of assets and the dispersion of effect. A few ships here, a few there, and only with the presence of the RFTG do we achieve any kind of mass at any one place. So one wonders, for one is in posh mode, whether UK assets could be tasked in a different manner to achieve mass, a concentration of effort, on a more regular basis instead of the occasional visit by singleton warships?
For example, instead of sending single warships down to the Falklands on a constantly rotating basis, what if multiple ships were sent as a single task group perhaps once a year, for a few months of showing the flag and exercising? A type 45, a pair of Type 23s, a sub, a Bay-class landing ship with Marines and some RFA support (also giving the Marines the opportunity to practice some landing operations on the Islands).
But why? What's the point? What does this concentration of effort actually achieve?
Well for one it could be used to relax the intensive tempo placed on the Royal Navy by removing the need to continuously replace ships on station. The benefits for recruitment and retaining key personnel in an era of cutbacks and decline might alone be worth the shift.
Personally I also think it sends a more potent message. Instead of having just the one ship arrive for a patrol, you now have an entire task group showing off their capability and demonstrating in no uncertain terms the ability (and continued willingness) of the UK to project the concentrated application of force to a given area.
Instead of having individual warships show up in the Caribbean for a visit with limited reach, now you can have a small flotilla arrive in the area visiting ports, covering a wider area in support of counter drug operations in the region or disaster relief, perhaps before going on to exercise with the US on a much more substantial scale.
The difficulty comes in transitioning this idea across the services to the army and air force. The RAF currently achieves deployments somewhat along these lines with its participation in the Red Flag exercises, as it has been lately. Outside of the US though, and understanding that support for operations in Afghanistan impose certain limits for now, it would be interesting to see the RAF deploy on a "wing scale" more routinely for exercise.
With the army the main problem is the nature of land warfare versus that at sea or in the air. On land is where people live, work, grow their crops etc, and as such by its nature is very restricted in terms of working space. Deploying a large chunk of the army somewhere for an exercise is quite difficult, unless you happen to have a Salisbury Plain sized piece of land free for them to run around on.
Thus in the land sphere it make take the form of a brigade sized group being spread across a whole country, training alongside allies at multiple locations (or inviting them to train here). Again I appreciate that it's not quite that simple, not least as different units have different training needs and there are certain skills we'd very much like to retain as a nation (operations in mountainous or jungle terrain for example) which might not be accommodated so easily by this method.
The plus side though is that - as earlier - the larger force has a larger effect. A whole brigades worth of British army showing up in your country for a few weeks on exercise not only provides an outstanding training opportunity, but it also sends an important message diplomatically because of the sheer scale of the deployment.
In a sense it becomes like the American invitations to Red Flag. More than just an exercise, it's a strong symbol of commitment and a demonstration of the value of the partnership. To invest that much time and money in someone has - I suspect - a greater value than just the visit of one company or one battalion.
And that's the essence of what I'm getting at. Could focusing defence efforts on a larger scale in some places, albeit perhaps less frequently, derive better value for the UK than spreading ourselves wide and thin?