Well, well, well. Back again.
Obviously I've been absent for a while now. I'm not even going to go into it. Suffice to say I'm done and dusted with that drama and moving swiftly on. So what's happened while I've been quiet?
Err, not a great deal to be honest. SDSR2015 is still in the works and remarkably there hasn't been that much briefing and counter-briefing through the press this time. Which either means that everyone is getting along fine at the MoD and/or expected cuts are not that bad, or that something very nefarious is going down at the main building. The only real leak of any substance, and it wasn't even really a leak (more speculation) is that the RAF might be allowed to keep a hold of its Tranche 1 Typhoons for a bit longer, along with pushing back the out of service date of Tornado which will grow the airforce at least in the short term. On the face of it that seems sensible, though I've seen more than a few comments that this might actually in practice prove to be something of an accounting fudge where the total number of aircraft available for operational use at any one time actually remains about the same as it is now. We'll see.
Speaking of accounting fudges, David Cameron's pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence seems to be coming back to haunt the budget makers. Scurrilous rumours abound that the MoD is in fact trying to shore up the budget by stuffing in just about any spending that it can get its hands on, desperately trying to hit the 2% mark. Or at least they were scurrilous rumours, until it was discovered that that is exactly what the Treasury and MoD have been doing, shifting spending from other areas of government into the MoD budget to create savings elsewhere, while plugging holes that have emerged in defence spending due to various cut backs and efficiency savings.
In general though everyone seems quite optimistic that defence is in a good place right now. I'm not so certain to be honest. There is a lot of spending on the horizon that still has to be accommodated, such as new Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), work on the successor submarines to the Trident carrying Vanguards, the full draw down of units from Germany, new Type 26 Frigates, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), plus a host of other programs large and small. I wonder if it's all going to fit inside the current budget projections? We'll see. I can't see any major scythe swinging ahead, unless it's to make way for a radical policy shift by government such as a transformation to a highly naval and/or air dominant approach. I suspect it's more likely to just be a bit of hedge clipping.
Labour on the other hand have now finished making themselves unelectable in 2020 and so have begun work on their own shadow defence review. That got off to a sterling start when they had to shop around the job of Shadow Defence Secretary to multiple people, desperately looking for someone who would actually take it. Eventually the list got down as far as Maria Eagle, who was interviewed for the position it would seem over the phone, in the space of about ten minutes. Nothing quite like appointing a highly important member of the shadow cabinet on the basis of 'Do you want a job? Nobody else wants this,' etc.
That in itself is damning of both the Labour party and the musical chairs approach to senior government that seems to be par for the course in all of UK politics, but it's probably more damning of the state that defence in the UK has got itself into. It's no longer a prestige position, one which any MP would give their right arm to be involved in. Granted the Labour leader was somewhat constrained by the fact that many of his MPs had no real desire to work with him personally (or more likely to be closely associated with the coming catastrophe), and as such a number of experienced and sharp individuals were effectively removed from the selection process by default. But still, augur well for the future and the prestige of the position it does not.
The shadow review will be quite interesting when released though. Not least because it's likely to advocate the renewal of the UK's Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) (a.k.a "Trident"), when just the other day the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he wouldn't be prepared to push the "nuclear button" if the time came for him to make such a choice. But at least Labour's approach to defence has been consistent so far; consistently farcical that is.
Speaking of farcical defence policy, Syria is going well I see. President Obama may be a "lame duck" so to speak, but he is still the President of the United States of America and as such considered one of the most powerful men in the world right now, the leader of the free world etc. Yet inaction - actually worse, half hearted action - has now given Russian President Vladimir Putin room to squeeze in to an already crowded scenario, virtually guaranteeing the survival of the Assad regime. You remember Assad, that nice fella that used chemical weapons against his own people? Very Saddam Hussein.
You just get the sense that gradually the whole situation is slipping away from Obama and his allies, which includes the UK, like a scene from an action or adventure movie where the protagonist bravely struggles to cling on to the wrist of a companion who is dangling over a deadly drop, his grip gradually failing. ISIL/ISIS, whatever you want to call them, are at least being contained now. But the situation looks progressively like heading towards a stalemate unless the Iraqis and Kurds get some serious help. It's been a foreign policy failure for the west I would argue, one that doesn't look like it's going to turn around any time soon, which is immensely depressing.
One wonders then (for one has brought one's posh mode back with him) what the long term outlook for UK defence is? It seems that the UK struggles fundamentally with two things right now; bold, concise, strategic decision making, and expectation/media management. Obviously it has a host of other problems, but those are the two that are doing the most damage to the UK's reputation on defence matters both home and abroad, and have done so for many years.
Ask yourself this question; what is the UK's strategy for fighting ISIS/ISIL/theguysinblack (TGIB) in Iraq? Any takers?
Because (I know you shouldn't start a sentence with "because", thank you), from where I'm sitting in my lofty armchair there doesn't appear to be one other than 'Fly some aircraft over Iraq, drop the occasional bomb or fire the occasional Brimstone at a fleeting target, take some video, send Sentinel to monitor enemy movements, train a few people on the ground in medicine, logistics and a bit of heavy weapons use', but not a lot else. There doesn't seem to be a coherent plan with a stated aim. I suspect someone somewhere in the military chain of command has one, and obviously they're not going to print its details on Wikipedia for all to see (and humorously alter), but surely the government can provide a little more clarity over its approach?
Yet to make things worse the government is now feeling out support among MPs for a possible vote on allowing UK aircraft to bomb targets in Syria. As if there weren't enough targets in Iraq, or that the Americans didn't have enough firepower to handle the Syrian leg of the ISIL problem itself. You would have thought the government would at least focus the UK's modest resource contribution on one thing at a time, where it can make the most immediate difference, such as supporting Kurdish forces in Iraq pushing south and west trying to drive ISIS back.
The UK's approach to strategy has always seemed a little schizophrenic at times but right now it seems to be in freefall, flitting between tough rhetoric and firm commitments, to half-baked plans and cautious probing of a situation, to an outright sense that nobody in Whitehall seems to know what is going on and nobody is taking the lead. It's not so much "Lions led by Donkeys" as "Lions being led into a field and then left to wander around until someone figures out what to do with them next". There's no clear goal in Iraq it would appear, beyond vague statements about eradicating ISIS, and no clear plan from government of how to get from where we are now to where we want to be.
And this is where the expectation management comes in. How can the government or service chiefs elucidate and defend a strategy to the public and parliament if one doesn't appear to exist? How can the case for sending support to Iraq or to the Syrian rebels be made properly if nobody in government seems to know what that support will do or where will it lead. Strikes in Syria? Why? Where does that fit in to the master plan? Is there a master plan?
To give a classic example of the MoD's poor approach to media and expectation management, consider the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Amidst the pictures of flag draped coffins being unloaded from C-17s and the quite perverse way in which most media outlets made a large circus out of the approaching and passing of "milestone" and "landmark" casualty figures (100, 150 etc) as if they were commemorating a jubilee, what was the MoD doing to counter negative public perception?
Did it make clear that casualties are an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of wars, and that the public should brace itself for more if they wanted the armed forces to do their job properly and to achieve the aims for which it was sent out in the first place? Did it explain that members of the armed forces in the modern era are all volunteers, who accept a certain degree of risk that is attached to their profession in exchange for everything that a military career offers them? On the specific issue of body armour did the MoD ever once explain to the public and press that it involves a trade off, increased ballistic protection vs increased weight, and that actually there is an argument that can be made that body armour can be a hindrance in many cases, both to operational effectiveness and - counter intuitively - to soldiers survival? (Something which a US study proved post-WW2).
I can't remember a single example of any of these issues being tackled, or the MoD ever putting across an effective and cogent case against the constant stream of negative press. It just seemed to sit back and take it, sacrificing the information initiative to journalists and their frequently sensationalist headlines. To put all this into context, let's look at a few figures. Since operations began in Afghanistan around 14 years ago UK forces have faced a combination of bullets, bombs, mortars, RPGs, environmental hazards and accidental hazards. Thousands upon thousands of service personnel and government civilian staff have been rotated through the gauntlets of Afghanistan and Iraq. In total the UK has suffered 632 fatalities to all causes in those theatres, along with 838 seriously or very seriously wounded.
By comparison in 2013 alone (just the one year) 1,713 people were killed and 21,657 seriously injured as a result of road traffic accidents in the UK. In 2001, when the invasion of Afghanistan took place, the annual figure was 3,450 dead and 37,000 seriously injured. In 2003, as British forces rolled into Iraq as part of the coalition against Saddam Hussein, the figures were around 3,508 dead and 34,000 seriously injured, along with over a quarter of a million people slightly injured. In 2009, the year that UK forces withdrew from Iraq, the figures were 2,222 dead, 24,690 seriously injured.
The scale of the difference is stark. While this is by no means a completely fair and equitable comparison, a long way from it, the relative differences are (I think) firstly a testament to the armed forces and the quality of their work at the coal face under the conditions they found themselves in, and secondly informative with regards to how poorly the MoD and government handled the delicate subject of casualty figures and perceptions of casualties suffered. If the government of today and those of the future wish to use the military as a tool for effective foreign policy and forward defence (such as in Iraq) then they need to do a better job of overcoming the public and parliamentary resistance to the inevitable casualties that will result from it.
This is not an excuse for the government to throw the armed forces at problems willy nilly, or a get out of jail free card to send them into action with grossly inadequate equipment ("War's hell don't cha know?"). Rather it is an attempt to show that the government could do a lot better when it comes to putting the use of the armed forces into perspective and loosening the reins a little when it comes to the freedom of action of commanders in the firing line. Combined with clearer strategic guidance and understanding, this might just reverse the decline of the armed forces as an institution at the political level.
But we shall see. The final SDSR report approaches (eventually) and for now we'll just have to watch the actions of Russia closely. The future is always murky, but perhaps more so now than at any time since the end of the cold war. This is shaping up to be an interesting but very challenging few years ahead for UK defence.
Now please excuse me while I try to wash away the shame of using the phrase "information initiative" in a non-sarcastic manner .