Monday, 23 February 2015

Look, a new post!

Bonjour mes amies! (My French was always a bit suspect (E or F at GCSE level) so I hope that's right). Apologies for the delay, but such is sometimes the fate of someone who has to blog on the side. Today I just want to briefly touch on the situation in Ukraine. Not the politics or the operational level situation however, but something that amuses me greatly.

Because for many, many years Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) was very skillful in its handling of the Cold War against the United States and its allies. They played the long game for the most part and placed a high value on the return for investment of their decisions. This is exemplified by their support for North Vietnam in the 60's and 70's, which in return for financial, material and training support was able to bog down the US for around 8 years of conventional operations, at the cost of over 58,000 American dead and 153,000 plus wounded, and around $140 billion in financial costs, which equates to about a trillion dollars in today's money.

From the Russian perspective it was a (relatively) low input, high output arrangement, one which they used the world over. Some subsidised equipment and a bit of training could go a long way in terms of securing allies and resources, while at the same time serving as a thorn in the side of the US. But what's interesting about the situation in Ukraine, and why it amuses me so much, is the fact that the tables have been turned on their head to some degree. This of course is subject to accepting the allegations made against Russia that it has been sending soldiers across the border to help the Rebels fight, which still hasn't been proven by the standards that would be required in a UK court ("beyond reasonable doubt"). 

If the allegation is indeed true though then the situation represents a remarkable shift from what was typical of the cold war days (Afghanistan excepted), as Russia now finds itself having to pour manpower into the cauldron to try and shore up the situation while the west finds itself in the enviable position of observing from the sidelines, only having to pass on the odd shipment of non-lethal aid (and probably a few sneaky lethal shipments) to keep things ticking over, as Russia loses more and more diplomatic support by the day and its economy continues to suffer under the triple whammy of sanctions, depressed oil prices and the need to fund its broad day to day military activities.

What doesn't make me chuckle is the idea that western leaders seem so keen to just roll over and give the rebels very generous peace terms. For all the bluster, hysteria, huffing and puffing that's going around, the battle lines remain resolutely quite static and pose very little danger to Ukraine as a whole. There is no real light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for the rebels, at least not through a military solution. Western aid to the Ukrainian government, if stepped up, would at the worst probably just trigger a greater surge by the Russians that would extend the stalemate, and at best allow the Ukrainian forces to make the sort of progress that might just convince Putin to pull out and write the situation off as a lost cause altogether.

One has to think (for one art in posh mode) that if the roles were reversed then the Russians would jump at the chance to bog the old enemy down in a fight which they have very little to gain from. But it also raises an interesting question in this pre-SDSR silly season. With this crisis taking place in Eastern Europe, with ISIS at large in both Syria and Iraq, and now apparently Libya, with the government in Yemen falling to rebel elements, and with Boko Haram causing the Nigerian government no end of problems, is this the right time to expand the UK's capacity for unconventional warfare?

These sorts of situations are after all precisely the sort of thing that the SAS was resurrected to deal with, and a lot of the US Special Forces community owes its existence to the need for unconventional forces during the cold war. In an era of biting cutbacks is there perhaps some more money to be found down the back of the sofa to expand the military's unseen and unadvertised fighting/training ability? And if so, with cuts already having taken place and with more likely on the horizon, where will the military get the manpower for this? As it can't increase the size of the suitable recruitment pool that really only leaves the option of lowering the standards for entry.

Some interesting things to mull over I think.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Just a quick moan

Because who doesn't love a good moan on a Tuesday evening am I right?

I followed a link on Twitter to a defence blog I haven't previously seen (Quill or Capture) and I just read this sentence in one of the articles; "His assumption that there is a trend for wars to be fought among the people and that urban operations are the ‘new normal’ seems to be largely accurate."

In this case "his" is relating to Ben Barry, the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). And here comes my moan; when have wars not been fought among the people and when have urban operations not been the norm?

We like to make a big play about how in the first and second world wars strategic bombing brought the frontline to the people for the first time, but that completely ignores the fact that there are lots of graves filled with the victims of starvation and disease incurred during medieval sieges and the such like (and that's just for starters). Civilian populations have long been caught up amongst the raging fires of warfare. And urban centres have long been the target for military operations.

Stalingrad anyone? The Battle for Berlin? The fighting in Moscow at the greatest extent of the German penetration into Russia? The siege of Bastogne? The battle of Arnhem? And these are just the famous examples, the ones that stand out most in the history books. But during the course of the war in the east and the allied invasion of Italy and then France countless towns were fought over, won, lost, won again, lost again.

The English civil war, while perhaps more famous for some of its field battles and its end result, was basically a war of sieges. Far more people, military and civilian, were killed fighting over the possession of important towns than on the fields of Newbury, Marston Moor and Naseby. 

Urban operations have been the 'norm' for a very, very long time now. The technology in use has changed, as have the tactics, but the importance of urban areas hasn't. It just annoys me, the concept that somehow urban warfare is a 21st Century invention, along with counter insurgency wars no doubt. I'm sure someone, somewhere is right now writing a paper to present to congress about how the US army needs more of x and y shiny new kit in order to cope with this new "warfighting paradigm".

Rant over.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Some Stuff I've been pondering this week

Evening all. Lot to get through in one sitting, but let's dive straight in.

First up is a story over at War is Boring about the USAF wanting to get rid of some of its EC-130H Compass Call aircraft (first saw this link over at Think Defence, brought up by user "TAS"). TAS made the jokey comment that we should all pitch in a few quid in order to buy some and naturally I agree because as anyone that has read this blog for any length of time will know, I loves a bargain so I does! 

And in all seriousness this does seem to be something of a bargain if it turns out to be the real deal. I say "if" because a classic budget trick used the globe over is to offer up something for being cut that you know damn well nobody will accept, and the Compass Call aircraft might very well fall into that. If not then it seems the USAF would genuinely be willing to mothball seven of its fleet of 15 aircraft, saving approximately $300 million over the next four years (which would seem to suggest an average running cost of about $10.7 million/£7.02 million per year, per aircraft).

Of course instead of just saving money they could make some cash, by selling them to us friendly Brits! Although the Compass Calls are laden with secret squirrel kit it shouldn't be too much of a problem to get authorisation for a sale, not least because the UK has just started taking delivery of the new Airseeker aircraft, which are basically the same as the USAF Rivet Joint. The two countries have a long history of sharing sensitive information and knowledge, and this sale would offer the USAF the additional benefit of keeping these helpful aircraft in service, albeit now in UK hands.

And I think a purchase would make a lot of sense for the UK. Here is the chance to snap up a massive capability leap for the RAF at a bargain basement price. The base Hercules aircraft itself is already in RAF service so a pool of trained pilots, ground crews and spares already exists. What doesn't exist in the RAF anymore is a strong Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) capability, not least since the ALARM missile was retired. 

Supposedly this will be covered in the future by a mixture of using the F-35's radar as a jammer along with various guided munitions, but I think a dedicated aircraft like Compass Call, with the ability to jam radars, communications and just about any other electronic signal that you can think of, would be a real boon to UK forces. As was pointed out in the War Is Boring article these aircraft have served over Iraq and Afghanistan and represent a handy little tool to have around, being useful in both full scale conventional campaigns and smaller scale "COIN" wars and interventions, such as the current operations taking place over Iraq against ISIS.

The US want shot of some of theirs, we could make good use of some, so I'm sure if the powers that be wanted then a good deal could be accomodated. That is of course providing the treasury plays ball. And that's the real sticking point, in that government budgets are nothing if not inflexible. While we routinely here about money being found for new projects, typically a short investigation yields a revelation that in fact the money has just been jigged around a little and that the "new" spending is simply planned work being pulled forward from later years (as happened recently due to a £900+ million underspend by the MoD). 

It's not purely an MoD problem, its been well documented across government that there is a lack of flexibility in budgeting and as a result an inability for ministers and their civil servants to pounce on deals like this. We can dream I guess!

Now, from that same War is Boring article I noticed that the USAF is still touting the $550 million (£361 million) price tag for its planned Long Range Strike Bomber. This seems rather odd/laughable to me, because the USAF doesn't exactly have a sterling track record of delivering programs to their budgeted time and cost profiles. It's likely to be made harder by all the requirements I see kicking about.

Because one of the problems with a project like this is that because it's always going to be quite expensive in the first place, people have a tendency to start demanding it perform a host of other side roles in order to obtain value for money. As the requirements expand, so does the amount of crap that the aircraft is required to haul around. This adds to cost, which tends to drive down the unit numbers, which encourages more people to add yet more shit to them to make them yet more multi-role, and so the spiral continues, till you end up with one aircraft that can practically fight a war by itself, but only at the expense of the rest of the air force.

Having learned absolutely nothing from the past it already seems the USAF is heading down this path. Given some of the things that people seem to expect the LRSB to be capable of in the future, then at the current rate it will eventually just be a massive collection of radars glued together with a big dollop of hope, with enough space for a handful of bombs somewhere in the middle.

It really doesn't have to end up like that. A new design that is a little more "stealthy" compared to the B-2, a set of engines (there are plenty of options available) and re-use the radar from the F-35, and Bob's your uncle. Just build a bomber, not a death star and the $550 million per aircraft cost should be more than achievable. At this stage it's a viable and successful project just waiting for someone (or several people) to come along and f**k it up!

Back in the UK and we have a general election looming, in case you didn't know from all the wall to wall media coverage which is only going to get worse as we approach May the 7th. What I found amusing though was a big push being made by the MoD to get more service personnel to vote, with the revelation that around 1/3 of the armed forces are not on the electoral register. It seems to me a rather cruel campaign in a sense, to encourage members of an organisation that has seen thousands of cutbacks delivered by successive governments to then vote for them. Politicians it would seem still have no sense of tact and never miss the chance to grab a few headlines.

Every now and again though politicians do finally do something right. After all, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. And on that note £500,000 from the fines imposed on banks as part of the LIBOR rigging scandal will be given to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust in order to help them carry out repairs on a pair of Fairey Swordfish aircraft. Some of the money will also be used to build up a supply of spares. You can read more about that here on the Royal Navy's website.

And finally the local hooligans of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, have been off tearing up the Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, exercising as a battle group along with engineers in order to seize a simulated airfield. All this is part of a build up to a six-week joint exercise in the US with part of the 82nd Airborne division. Which raises a question in my mind.

My question goes as such; what is the purpose for II Squadron, RAF Regiment?

I've long stood up for the purpose of the RAF Regiment. I think history has demonstrated its utility and the manpower allocation for the task is actually quite small in the grand scheme of things. But in turn I've shared some of the criticism that some have for it, such as the oddity of not having a squadron permanently deployed (on a rotating basis) to the Falklands Islands, which is arguably the one airfield the UK operates that is always at some degree of risk of precisely the kind of attack which the RAF Regiment is designed to prevent.

II Squadron is the massive oddity in the pack though. Aside from being able to serve as a regular field squadron it's also trained for parachute jumps, ostensibly giving it the capability to capture forward airfields by air assault. But the practicality of what is basically just a reinforced company seizing and holding an entire airfield is somewhat up for debate. Indeed the Parachute regiment, able to deploy whole battalions plus support would seem like a much more viable option if such a task were required.

Which rather leaves II Squadron up in the air from my perspective (no pun intended). Options for its future would seem to sit into three broad categories; 1) disband, 2) retain and attach to 16 Air Assault Brigade, with the purpose of securing landing zones (even just for resupply) while the rest of the brigade would move off to extend its operations, 3) retain and re-role.

Re-role to what though? 

Well one possibility might be to turn it into a dedicated Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) unit. The horrific execution of a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS provides us with a stark reminder of one of the many dangers faced by RAF and allied pilots when conducting operations over enemy held territory. The morale effect of knowing that help would be on hand should the pilot get into trouble and have to eject should not be underestimated, nor should be the propaganda value of captured pilots. It's also worth remembering how expensive it is and how long it takes to train prime quality pilots.

A CSAR unit built around II Squadron would prove quite handy I think. Clearly it could be given other tasks on the side if needed, but primarily it would be dedicated to the CSAR (and support to peacetime SAR) role in much the same way as the USAF's Pararescuemen are (incidentally it was the UK that essentially invented the concept of CSAR from the air in 1915 when Richard Bell-Davies of the Royal Navy Air Service rescued his wingman by landing his aircraft and picking him up from under the nose of the enemy, receiving the Victoria Cross in the process).

Such a unit would need a bit of equipment diverted its way, and I understand that in the current budget climate that's another strain that defence could do without, but I think it would be another small capability uplift that could have a big impact in the grand scheme of things.