Thursday, 24 July 2014

Mistral for the Royal Navy? Other Goodies?

Yesterday I saw a post over at Think Defence that got me thinking again about an old idea which I'd like to revisit today. 

Before I do though, a fresh article on TD today brought to light the plight of a former soldier who had hit hard times and died, with part of the blame being thrown on the benefits system for cutting his jobseekers allowance, an act which appears to have put him in financially hard straights and might be a contributory factor in his death.

With the end of operations in Afghanistan this year, the UK armed forces are shifting to what is hoped will be a wind down phase, where the immediate pressure on resources is slackened, at least until the end of the decade. That of course presumes that no other problems crop up, but presuming they don't, then what will be the great challenge for the armed forces between 2015-2020?

Some believe it will be implementing the changes imposed by the 2010 SDSR and any additional changes introduced in 2015. Personally - while I do think that will be a big challenge - I think the biggest problem facing the armed forces in that time period is how to reform the system to stop people falling through the cracks. 

Granted, you'll never make a perfect system. It's just not going to happen. But that should not be used as an excuse to not try and make it the absolute best that it can be. Ranging from support and retraining to help service personnel find new jobs, to contact services, strengthened support networks with official funding and aid (which tend to be the most crucial for people - civilian or military - who face hard times), along with better coordination with local authorities (who often ultimately pick up the tab for those that fall off the radar).

Would such a system have prevented the death of David Clapson? Maybe, maybe not. But if the government is really serious about the armed forces covenant then the issue of looking after former service personnel needs more attention and more funding than it currently receives. 

Back to the original plan, the article in question over at Think Defence was this one, and the line that caught my attention the most was this; "Are we too wed to a tight equipment plan to have any flexibility?"

I would suggest that the answer is yes. Last August I wrote this piece which argued pretty much that, that government budgets (not just defence) are too restrictive in their nature to allow opportunities to be seized, even if it saves funds in the long run or permits significant operational advantages for modest cost increases.

Clearly part of the problem is that by not having tightly controlled budgets and long term plans it becomes difficult to rein in the desire to start splashing the money all over the place. If all government departments were allowed the unfettered capability to take advantage of "opportunities" then before you know it the total government overspend would be massive. 

To observe this phenomenon in action just think of any trip around the supermarket where you allow yourself to take advantage of all the special offers going on your favourite goods. Before you know it you've gone 25% over budget and have enough food and drink to start your own food bank.

Of course the plus side of the supermarket scenario is that while that particular shop may go over budget, if you've planned it right (and don't scoff all the extras immediately) then future shops should come in significantly under. Short term pain, long term gain.

In the sphere of defence procurement its not quite that simple, as owning the equipment is one thing, but having the staff, POL and spares to keep it all running is quite another. But when you see the possibilities on show it does make you wonder whether defence (and possibly other departments) would work better if they had a 5 year allocation of funding, with the freedom to move that money about between years as needed, and whether the government couldn't be just a little less tight fisted when it came to opportunities to realise future operational gains at modest expense (with cross party support)?

The case in point brought up by TD is the issue of French Mistral sales to Russia. Clearly Russia is back on the naughty step right now and sanctions are very much the order of the day. Unless you happen to be France that is, who seem to be oblivious to the conflict of interest that exists in selling military equipment to the predominant adversary of the alliance of which they happen to be a member, and wonder why everyone is so cross with them.

With HMS Ocean due to retire in roughly the 2018 time frame then an opportunity exists to purchase a Mistral for the Royal Navy. My understanding is that UK ship building capacity would not be able to accommodate the build of a ship similar to Ocean in the required time frame, so a Mistral purchase makes sense.

Does it fit all UK requirements perfectly? Maybe, maybe not. Does it mean bringing in to service a ship with different systems on board compared to other UK ships. Yep. But the fact that it's a nice fit for filling the role of an Ocean replacement (and that indeed two might be on offer for a cut price) has to be tempting, especially when the advantage of denying their sale to the Russians is considered.

This issue surrounding the Mistral also raises an important consideration in that it reminds us that defence procurement is as much about political and economic needs as it is about military needs. In a perfect world only military considerations would matter. Similarly if the threat to the UK was considered severe enough (such as around and during the time of the second world war) then again military considerations would be all that mattered.

But reality is very different. Jobs, the economy at large, party politics and international politics all play a part. Like it or loath it, that's just how it is, and it's not going to change anytime soon no matter how much people wish it would. Which brings me back to this idea of a more flexible approach to budgets. 

With the A400M rolling off the production lines now a number of countries are already looking to offload their unwanted orders. Both Spain and Germany are looking to sell on 13 of their planned buys, a total of 26 aircraft. Now unless the UK economy expands something special in the next ten years, or future governments suddenly have a massive change of heart and begin pouring money into defence, then it's unlikely the UK would be able to take on all 26 aircraft.

There is however a chance to take on some. If the Germans and Spanish are really that keen to dispense with the extra burden then it represents a great opportunity for the UK to step in and begin negotiations for some additional cut price airlift, while earning brownie points with European neighbours. Of course if you wanted to be a real terror then you could always set a requirement at around the 13 mark and then play the Germans and Spanish off against one another to fill it...

Taking a more large scale view and thinking in terms of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" then the place to look right now is Brazil.

Because while the A400M/Atlas is undoubtedly a big step up over the Hercules (and most of the issues I have with it are related to the program, not the plane) there is a danger that we will end up using this mighty lifter for a number of tasks that could probably be better filled by something a little smaller, more of a runabout. Helicopters like the Chinook certainly could do some of that, but a small airlifter wouldn't go amiss.

Something like, say the new Embraer KC-390? (which really is the sort of thing the UK should be able to make for itself...)

That may seem a little excessive, to add another 20-ton lifter to a transport array that already includes a 30-ton and 70-ton lifter (which is part of why a 30-ton lifter was probably a bad idea) but not only does it give the UK a lighter lifter, especially for intra-theatre work, but it could also serve as part of a trade package.

We take KC-390s and new Super Tucano trainers (to replace the old Shorts versions) from the Brazilians and in exchange we sell them Hawk T.2s and Type 26s frigates. Adam Smiths/David Ricardos comparative advantage in trade in action. Sort of.

The point being that if the government had a slightly more flexible outlook on trade and defence then the possibilities could be quite remarkable. And that's the main issue I have with the way the government seems to operate right now. All it ever seems to see is the challenges. It never seems to see the opportunities.

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