Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Concentration of Effort

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?


  1. Chris, I agree with the main thrust of your argument especially in relation to the RN. The real fighting point of the RN is the RFTG, yet at best it has 2 frigates assigned when it goes anywhere whereas as an effective fighting force it would also have a couple of T45s and probably a SSN. I'm sure these additional assets could be found, but in what timeframe given force levels and the way they are deployed?

    Having said that there is a need for global presence, so alongside this would like a rebalancing of the forces with slightly fewer DDs/FFs (given the limited funds) and more Light Frigates / OPVs.

    The same principal does apply to the Army and RAF but to a lesser degree as the bulk of forces are concentrated in the UK.


    1. Afternoon fella,

      See I'm not sure the global presence role would be needed. I think the headlines (at least in the trade press) of Royal Navy task groups arriving in various places around the globe would do the trick. Eventually you would end up with a force that could generate perhaps 4-5 Type 45s and 8-10 frigates (T23/T26) at any one time, along with support, Albions, and eventually CVF.

      That's a force that could afford to send a fully tooled up task group down to somewhere like the South Atlantic as a polite reminder to our South American neighbours, while still having the mass to conduct a large training exercise such as Joint Warrior in Europe.

      Instead of parcelling out our assets thinly, maintaining a small but persistent global presence, we would maintain an intermitent presence globally, but one that when it arrives makes a bigger statement.

  2. @Chris: Definitely agree with the high end escorts, carriers and amphibs. What I do see the need of though is lower level patrol presence for things such as EEZ protection, maritime survelliance and also cooperation on MCM.


    1. It's certainly possible that if this idea goes forward that's been kicking around of a single class to replace all our Mine warfare vessels then you could use them for a degree of EEZ protection when they're not busy mine hunting. Just not sure that our EEZ (Gibraltar aside) is in a huge amount of need of protecting, as in, not many real threats to it.

    2. Fair point on the longer term MHPC concept, would need more than the 8-12 hulls envisaged but would be a good approach.

      On another point, if we went for the large scale approach then a 3rd CVF wouldn't go amiss to allow for one to be deployed, one on call / training and another in refit / reserve.

      Good article BTW.


    3. Ta very much!

      I think a third CVF is probably beyond what our budget can manage. This is one of the reasons I'm intrigued by the concentration of effort principle, because by removing the need to permenantly fulfil certain requirements it allows us to manage the active CVF in such a way that the crew get a decent share of down time. It'll be a core asset for the future Royal Navy, so eeking the maximum potential from it will be vital.

      One of those rocking up flanked by numerous escorts and support ships as part of a task group should make quite the impression about the potential of the Royal Navy in the 21st Century.

  3. A hi-lo mix in escorts and support vessels (MHPC, etc) might enable both persistent forward presence (which is worth more than a Frigate sailing through on a regular basis) AND a RFTG/"Battle fleet"?

    1. Evening Gareth,

      Maybe. I'm just dubious about how much value the persistent presence represents compared to showing allies that you can arrive with plenty of muscle when needed.

  4. Chris: excellent idea, perhaps we could do a couple of them a year, and make them purple, eg a Saif Sareea / Purple Warrior / Fire Focus. We're not a superpower, so barring our own territories, we don't need the enduring tasks, but we do need the practice.

    1. Yeah (providing we have the cash) that's the sort of thing I'm hitting at.

  5. Chris - I can see your point, but I have a few of issues:

    1) Very few nations can really engage with a large task force/wing/brigade. Outside of other medium powers, what other nations could really gain any benefit from having (e.g.) a RN TF turn up? The TF would most become self involved, and other than looking impressive, what would we actually be able to do to improve the local situation?

    2) Long term commitment - IF we were deploying this concentration of effort regularly, then fine, but if budget pressures mean that we end up deploying more sporadically, then other nations are going to place less stock in us as a reliable security partner. The reason why we have (for many years) focused on small scale deployments is that we can keep it up easily, without it being a major (budget) issue every year.

    3) Do we want to be seen as some kind ultimate guarantee of security for other nations? Surely its better to keep a light touch most of the time, and not become relied upon, as the USA is?


    Given the overall size of our armed forces, I thing we have roughly the right mix of hi and lo level deployments.

    The annual RFTG deployment could do with beefing up a little, but in many cases a single frigate or destroyer can achieve as much as a full squadron.

    The RAF regularly deploy as much as they can on exercises, but given that we don't send wings of bombers for a single mission, what's the point of deploying a full wing? What does it prove?

    1. Evening Tom,

      1) I think there's a lot of people (the ones worth engaging with) that could realise a benefit. A RN Task Group visiting down south would have the opportunity to run a much larger exercise with the South African Navy for example, something which they don't always get the chance to being a bit out of the way, before moving on to exercise around the Falklands with the local units, then on to Chile to do a decent sized exercise with them, perhaps arrange for AUS-NZ vessels to meet us there too. Then back up North, exercise perhaps with the Brazilians and the Americans together, then home for tea.

      The main advantage, and this links in with your points 2 and 3, is to demonstrate to allies (and enemies) the ability of the UK to arrive in numbers and contribute on a meaningful level. The exercises give allies the confidence that the RN can show up with a task group and slot in with their local allies if needs be.

      As specifically for your question about the RAF, "wing" is a very loose term. It could mean just two squadrons with some support, showing up for a two week exercise, taking the skills of Red Flag to our allies (albeit without the Americans fancy computers). Let's say we use South Africa again just for examples sake, so you go down there and run a simulated campaign with them and their Gripens. You build up their ability to operate with and even command such an exercise, while also showing them what you can bring to the table. In future you now have the basic foundation for them to join in with say an Anglo-French operation in support of an African Union requested mission.

      Your thoughts?