Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The SDSR 2015

So, the SDSR then.

All in all defence had better be thankful, if for nothing else than having been spared the executioner's blade. Jeremy Corbyn is probably less electable at this stage than me - a liberal leaning, fiscal conservative - and as such the Conservative government smells the opportunity to do a hatchet job on government spending knowing that they'll probably never get an opportunity to strike like this for another twenty years. That defence was spared cuts is good. That it will see a slight increase in spending is nothing shy of a miracle, as my understanding is that other departments are about to get a bit of a beating.

What then did defence manage to rustle up for itself?

Well in general the document itself is a dire product of the modern age we live in, talking a lot but saying very little of substance (like this blog in many ways...). I dread to think what the US constitution and its amendments would have looked like if they were drafted in this era instead of 239 years ago. Lots of vague sections and very little in the way of detail or brevity.

We might as well start with the Royal Navy, being the senior service and all. In this case the announcement about extra patrol vessels and the decision surrounding the Type 26 Frigate program is of the most immediate interest. The government now plans to build two additional patrol vessels of the type currently being built by BAE Systems, "enhanced River class" or whatever you want to call them. Then it's eight of the new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates, followed by an ambiguous order for five new general purpose vessels of a new design, theoretically keeping the UK's escort fleet at 19 once the Type 23 class has been retired.

Reading between the lines, which I probably shouldn't, this smells like an issue with Type 26. Or rather issues, plural. Potentially very big ones. The whole reason for building a new class of patrol vessels was simply because BAE had a contract that guaranteed it payments in lieu of actual work, so the government gave it work in order to get at least something useful out of a bad deal. In theory the Type 26 frigates should have followed on from these, but the addition of two extra patrol vessels is a very concealed way of saying "something's up with Type 26 and it's not ready yet". Hence the need to make a bit more work in the interim.

The new batch of five general purpose vessels also creates more questions than it provides answers. According to the document this will be a fresh design with export sales in mind (stop laughing at the back, this is serious business), which would appear to rule out simply not providing towed sonars etc on a last batch of five Type 26 frigates. So if it's not a Type 26 derivative, then what is it? "Built for export" is another way of saying "probably not much use to the Royal Navy", as most countries that want a full blooded escort want to build it themselves to preserve their industrial capacity. Typically the only takers abroad are countries that want something less shiny and technical. A gun, a flight deck with hangar, some anti-ship missiles, diesel engines for the lower cost and complexity, and a short range anti-aircraft missile for self defence. Something that is fine for patrolling the waters around Chile, South Africa etc, but not much use to a Royal Navy carrier group. It could also throw open the interesting dynamic of being a ship construction program accessible to others except BAE.

One wonders then (for one is in posh mode) what the Royal Navy would do with such a vessel, or indeed with these "enhanced River class" patrol vessels? Given that HMS Severn carried out the Atlantic Patrol Task North earlier this year that might suggest that the RN was preparing for a future where this tasking is carried out by a patrol vessel on a permanent basis, while the escort fleet is held back for working with the carriers. Perhaps when the general purpose vessels show up some time twenty years from now they will take over this APTN role, as well as other less demanding taskings. We shall see.

On the subject of the carriers there's still no clarity as to whether both will be operated at the same time, or whether they will alternate being in active service which seems the most likely solution. There was some talk about supporting amphibious operations, so presumably they'll combine the carrier and helicopter landing roles all in one to make use of that space. That seems fairly logical to me, though again no word yet on how many F-35B the RN will get its hands on just yet.

Overall I think the navy did ok out of this review. Some new toys on the horizon, though the Type 26 situation does seem a little worrying. Originally its cost was projected at around £250 million a pop, something which some people scoffed at as being unrealistic, instead predicting a price closer to £500 million each (ahem). If indeed the Type only gets an eight ship run, which theoretically could be reduced further at the next review, then that £500 million warning is looking about right, inflation not withstanding. It's Hoon-onomics all over again.

On to the army, which will have been pleased to have avoided more cuts, with the confirmation that the army 2020 numbers are set to stand. How those numbers get divided up is the thing that is causing some puzzled looks. In theory I like the idea of 77th Brigade and 1st ISR Brigade - carry overs from Army 2020 - in particular the latter. 77th though is an odd one, with lots of management speak sounding drivel about its role in media ops and lots of talk about "synchronisation of effect" etc. I do like the idea of providing a central pool of resources, human and technical, for civil affairs and security capacity building though. 

The one that's generating chuckles is the announcement of two rapid reaction "strike" brigades... that will be activated in 10 years time. Only the British army could label something as being rapid and yet take ten years to establish it. What this will be made up of is still up in the air for now, though I suspect we'll get some detail in the near future. Talk of using the new Ajax scout vehicle, perhaps in an infantry carrying role, as well as some nebulous new infantry mobility vehicle. A lot of people are putting money on this being an 8x8 vehicle, but this could just as easily be the Mastiff and/or Foxhound vehicles left over from Afghanistan. 

Honestly I don't see the point. Ajax will be many things once in service, but rapidly deployable is unlikely to be one of them. Considering the military has both 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade to call on, these would seem to be more obvious selections for something requiring rapid deployment. I guess context is everything. A "strike" brigade based on the continent and equipped with wheeled vehicles would be able to redeploy fairly quickly without the need of air or naval support to move its kit. And if it did need to go abroad, having wheeled vehicles aids its rapid deployment to forward areas, certainly quicker than tracked vehicles. 

The question of course then becomes what it will do when it arrives? What threat requires a response that is a bit quicker than loading and unloading tracked vehicles from trailers/trains, but is sufficiently deadly to warrant an 8x8 armoured box complete with turret mounted cannon (presuming this new 8x8 is something like the French VBCI) instead of a 4x4 or 6x6 vehicle sans turret and cannon like Foxhound and Mastiff? I really hope it's not an excuse to purchase 8x8 vehicles, which seem to combine all of the worst elements of various vehicles in one complete package of nonsense. We shall see. 

In about a decades time that is.

Other than that not much change for the army. It seems they'll lose an armoured brigade in favour of these two strike brigades, which begs the question of whether the armour will be retained and split between the two strike brigades, making the purchase of an 8x8 vehicle all the more pointless, or whether this is just the death knell for yet another battalion (sorry, "regiment") of tanks. If so then the nuts truly have taken over the nuthouse. This insatiable desire people have to dispose of tanks in favour of more peacekeeping friendly vehicles like 8x8s continues to boggle my mind, despite the various warning signs over the recent years that suggest tanks still have a key role to play in modern warfare.

On to the RAF and the big announcements basically centre around the introduction of a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and the extension of the life of some of the RAF's tranche 1 Typhoons. The MPA news is good, with nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft set to be acquired. Little odd though that the MoD didn't run an open competition. The P-8 would have been the front runner for sure, especially with RAF personnel already serving on US navy P-8s to maintain skills in anti-submarine operations, but just handing over the victory like that to Boeing is troublesome and establishes a worrying precedent. I guess we should be grateful in a sense, as at least the government isn't going to spend the next ten years mulling over all the options before paying twice over the odds for a bespoke solution. 

Only the MoD could make a negative like that seem like a positive in comparison to the alternative.

As for the Typhoons, it seems like this is more of an insurance policy against potential delays with the F-35 than anything else. Clearly someone at the MoD main building has realised that when Tornado goes out of service in 2019, that will only leave the later two tranches of Typhoon capable of carrying Storm Shadow, Brimstone and certain other types of air to ground weapons while they wait for the F-35 to be qualified for their release. If those Typhoons are tied up on QRA duty then that could leave the RAF in a bit of a tight spot should another Libya or ISIS type situation crop up.

Hence the Tranche 1s get a new breath of life. Or rather, avoid a premature death. And in doing so the UK gets to retain seven squadrons worth of Typhoon. At least until the next decade when F-35 comes fully on stream and the government decides it wont need those Tranche 1 tiffies any more after all.

On the subject of drones, the UK is set to increase the number of surveillance drones for use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as introducing a new high altitude, long endurance drone for ISTAR purposes only. There has been some more chatter about cooperation with France on the joint development of a stealthy UAV capable of penetrating heavily defended enemy airspace and dropping bombs, which is the definition of insanity. Not the drone part, that's a good idea. The insane part is doing the same thing over and over again (cooperating with France on a defence technology project) and expecting a different result.

In what I would like to christen "Typhoon syndrome", you get two (or more) countries of roughly equal size in terms of finances, stature and technological expertise and try to get them to cooperate on a major defence project. Because both feel they should be the senior partner they then spend the next ten years arguing about work share, program leadership, where to base the development centre, who should get ownership of the IP, what bits and bobs should be included in the program, where the parts should be sourced from, and what biscuits to put in the tea room. The end result is normally a prolonged period where bugger all useful happens, lots of lawyers make lots of money drafting and redrafting contracts, then the whole thing falls apart and the partners end up doing their own thing anyway.

And here we are again. BAE has already built a drone which presumably is close to being suitable for the RAF's requirements. It might not be there yet, but all the information currently available on Taranis suggests it's well on the way. So the reason for going into partnership with France and giving this up is...? What exactly? This can only end in tears and with the UK going back to Taranis again, so how about we skip the middle bit this time where we waste years and years and millions of pounds trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and just go with our own design for a change. Have a bit of faith in ourselves. 

Lastly, cuts to the civil service and the defence estate have been announced. Now I'm all for cutting waste in government (remember the bit about being fiscally conservative?) but that only works when you're genuinely trimming the fat and leaning government down to its most productive level. Cutting civil servant jobs only to fill the posts with more expensive service personnel is not leaning. It's actually making the system more costly. Nor is it a genuine saving if civil servants are laid off, only for consultants to have to be brought in to do the work (worth pointing out that many conservative MPs have connections either directly or indirectly with a lot of the major consultancies). Again in that case you're just making the same outputs but at greater expense.

I'm also a little sceptical of the estate sell offs. We'll have to wait and see what is actually being sold, but this obsession in the modern era with selling off assets just because they lack an immediate value to an organisation is worrying. Based off the "just in time logistics" model of lean business (bloody Toyota), selling assets that have only a book value and no immediate productive value seems like a clever idea, except of course if you happen to be in any industry other than one that has highly predictable demand. Like say, oh I don't know, something like defence. Yeah, defence would be a terrible industry - possibly one of the worst - to try and apply a lean asset approach to. What's that you say? Defence estate? Oh dear...

So all in all not a bad review as far as defence is concerned. Tomorrow we'll find out just how much of a kicking the rest of government is going to take and I suspect that in that light this SDSR will be seen as a God send in some regards. There are however some things I would have liked to have seen included that weren't, mainly because most of them are a bit odd ball and the product of my own musings, which I'll run down here;

1) I wish the army would just bite the bullet and go all in on a restructuring of the regimental system to a non-geographic system. At some point in the future the army is going to get cut again and the whole "but this regiment can trace its origin all the way back to the big bang" type argument is going to start over. This is becoming something of a hobby horse of mine. The army has lots of historic names and titles in its ranks, ones which aren't tied to any given geographical space. The army could still recruit geographically if it so desired, at least in theory, but would now be able to spread the recruiting areas more easily without having to worry about boundaries.

An example of this would be replacing the Royal Regiment of Scotland with the more ambiguous "Black Watch". You can now expand the recruiting area across not just Scotland but parts of the north of England as well, such as cities like Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesborough. Even though such ambiguous names might still in future need to be merged further, it would at least give the army some breathing room for a while by creating a small number of "large" multi-battalion (4-5+) regiments. Sticking most of the armoured infantry into "Dragoon" battalions for example also gives the army the chance to conjure up images of old, which it seems so institutionally tied to, if it so desires.

2) I've proposed before a kind of UN organised international disaster response organisation. Link here. That goes on the list.

3) More focus on NATO and our role within it. The importance of NATO has been given the breath of life over the last few years, after Libya and the ongoing scuffle in Ukraine. NATO has shown that first of all it is still important to the defence of many of its members. Where might the Baltic states be right now if not for NATO moving in to secure their liberty? That's obviously a hypothetical fraught with problems, but it shows that NATO as an alliance still has an important and needed function; the collective defence of its members territories. On top of that NATO has also proven handy recently as a framework organisation, one that has command and control elements already in place, around which an out of area operation can be assembled if needs be.

So, with that in mind we make a case for a modernised NATO that meets members defence goals and also better prepares NATO for some of the modern challenges that it faces?

See it strikes me that the thing that's always been missing from UK strategy over the last twenty odd years has been focus. One of the reason that Israel does so well in defence matters is that it has a very clear focus on what its major threats are and the equipment it needs to solve these problems. The British empire for a long time had a very clear idea about the problems facing it and the manpower and equipment needed to cope with these problems. Now the UK lacks this focus, that guiding hand which shows us where our main enemies are and how best to face them. We have a strategy that encompasses everything from mainland UK defence, to protecting the Falklands, to brigade style interventions abroad and so on. It's all a bit haphazard and most of it is very vague "we need to be ready for this contingency, we need to be ready for that contingency" etc.

What if instead, for example, the UK proposed setting up a north east Atlantic command which it would run? It would be responsible for pulling together naval assets from the UK and possibly Denmark, Norway, Germany, Holland, Belgium and perhaps even the US and Canada, and maybe others that had assets available, to form a task group with a strong focus on the northern and eastern sections of the Atlantic, particularly the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap? Basically similar to the current standing maritime task group, but UK led, perhaps using the Rosyth dockyard as a base after the Queen Lizze carriers are done with, and with a heavy focus on operations in that area, i.e. hunting Russian subs!

The command might include air elements, such as the brand spanking new RAF MPAs, and land elements, by bringing together the amphibious assault assets of the participating nations, perhaps with the official NATO war time mission of reinforcing Norway/Iceland/Greenland, which brings with it the obvious side benefit of providing NATO with a trained and cohesive amphibious assault force for out of area operations should they be needed. In a sense the UK is already heading down this path with the UK Joint Expeditionary Force and the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (and yes, those are two different things), teaming up with other NATO members to provide land forces for rapid response to crises around the globe. This would be more of a tri-service version of that. 

And given the resurgence of Russia, maybe positing the idea of standing land forces at the eastern end of NATO's European boundary might not be a bad idea, perhaps in the form of a number of divisions to which countries attach on a rotating basis brigades/battlegroups depending on their size and availability. Maybe take the Joint Expeditionary Force concept a bit further and suggest the formation of a Joint Expeditionary Division made up of rotating units from members. Maybe even two, one armoured and one light such as airborne units?

3) Speaking of the Russian threat, when is the UK going to take a more serious look at the issue of Surface to Air Missiles (SAM)? There was a bit in the SDSR about new radars for defence against ballistic missile threats, presumably with a hypothetical finger wagging in the direction of Russia, so why doesn't the lack of a decent SAM system get much attention in the UK? There is a short range system in the pipeline using CAMM, but short is the operative word in that first part of the sentence. I'm talking the need for a longer range missile system, one that can hit out to much greater distances, which the UK could take on operations.

The air threat to the UK, its overseas bases and any expeditionary force is currently somewhat limited, but "currently" is not the same as "will always be". The ability to protect UK forces against the possibility of air attack should be given a bit more thought I feel. When the UK parliament was debating punitive strikes against the Syrian regime in response to its use of chemical weapons there was a fear in some quarters that the Syrians might make an all or nothing gamble air attack on RAF Akrotiri, either pre-emptively or in retaliation. However unlikely that scenario might actually have been, it does give pause for thought about the UK's capacity to defend assets on the ground from an air attack, be it bombs or indeed cruise missiles. With the prevalence now of drones, what AAA type defence do UK ground forces have? (hint: none)

And while I'm mid moan, what about the UK's ability to penetrate such air defences? Where is the replacement for the ALARM missile? Oh right I forgot, it'll all be done with high power radars and smart munitions from now on. Hmmmm, call me a sceptic on that one for now. And what about anti-ship missiles, both air launched and potentially land based? The latter has a more limited use, unless we consider the issue of "those islands", which funnily enough also make a case for the medium/long range SAM system.

4) It's nice to see that the Tranche 1 Typhoons will get some good use, but I have been mulling lately a rather more bizarre idea. What if some were "loaned" as it were to the US to permanently join the aggressor team for Red Flag exercises? UK pilots would fly them and they would be integrated into the red team plans as a way of exposing allied pilots to a highly agile, so called "4.5" generation fighter. The expertise learned from this constant UK presence could then in turn be used to improve RAF tactics. The UK regularly contributes to the blue side of Red Flag, so why not the red side as well?

So that's then. See you again, same time, five years from now, yeah?


  1. Thanks for that summary... was a very interesting read.

    I actually woke up with more optimism the day after SDSR 2015 then I did with the previous SDSR. There were some unexpected but welcome decisions [high on my list was the retention of the C130Js]

    but what it certainly lacked was a sense of urgency.

    1] you mentioned the chuckles about the 'rapid response' strike brigade. I do fear that we will only ever see the brigade as the PowerPoint efforts of a fast-rising 1* before its all change again in 2020 ...

    2] the purchase of P8 is a necessary step to fill the capability gap but Cameron has said that 'he hopes to have three operational by the end of the parliament." Surely they could invite the US to immediately base a small flight at the RAF station likely to receive the UK's squadron and rotate back some of the seedcorn veterans to make up a majority of the crew. This would give an early capability and allow faster integration...

    3] the first T26 likely IOC to be 2025? Frankly that is absurd [almost the equivalent of two WW2's?!] While I really hope that the Royal Navy do see an increase in high-end escorts come 2030, there is still way too much room for subsequent reductions. You read from well informed sources that there are issues with the design but how long have the T26 been in the planning already, for it to take another decade before the first one is accepted by the RN.

    So sense of urgency, the true missing element from the SDSR!

    Finally a couple of questions...

    1] Pleased to know that MARS SSS is now likely to move forward...but do you think they could use the economy of scale argument and extend the buy to 4/5 ships to be configured as replacements for Argus/Diligence...so same hull, same propulsion, same C2C, same crew accommodation, just about the same everything that can get away with...

    2] I might disagree with you about issues around 'cap badges' [I think there is a strong argument for at least a tier of 'regional' based recruitment and the 'history' of regiment is not to be entirely dismissed. But I would ask is there any reason why a regiment, for example the The Rifles, could not 'loose' a battalion as infantry but keep all the 'golden thread' of that regiment but stand it up as a Combat Engineer battalion [yes suitably trained etc etc] ... the army gets the CS personnel it needs and no one is upset about the loss of another cap badge.

    I have similar thoughts about a flight of typhoons permanently based in the US on an aggressor 'tasking' ...

    look forward to your views...

    1. Hello anon,

      For your two questions;

      1) I think the roles of Argus and Diligence, if continued beyond the current ships, would probably be better suited to something designed more with that purpose in mind, even if it means say grabbing used commercial vessels which have the requisite space and approximate layout needed. I'm not sure the MARS design would adapt well to those two quite unique roles.

      2) If you used one of the battalions of Rifles to do an engineer task, what do you do with the engineer battalions cap badge? You have the same problem again. I appreciate that there is a certain level of esprit d'corps to be had from certain histories, but then if the army moved to an all "large" system with non-geographic titles it would a) still have histories to aspire to and b) probably function on a day to day basis in exactly the same manner as it does today. I can sympathise with some peoples view that it's a blow to morale when a regimental history dies, but I think one big overhaul that fixes the problem for a long time is better than a constant stream of smaller blows coupled with the twitching bums all round that occurs each time a defence review comes around.