Thursday, 26 March 2015

NATO and the SDSR. Sort of. Kind of. In two minutes.

So after all that worrying in the end my great Internet blackout lasted all of about 8 hours. Happy days.

Time is short however and so I'm going to condense my thinking down into the shortest possible post. And what I'm thinking is this; with all this hullabaloo over Russia knocking on NATO's door, why not kill two birds with one stone? The two birds being to present a united front against Russia and to facilitate cooperative training among NATO allies. The solution would come from expanding the standing maritime task group concept and create a series of air, land and sea groups within NATO, with member countries rotating units through and rotating command of them. At the same time as providing conventional deterrence and rapid reaction units for various NATO tasks they would also be the core of large(er) scale NATO exercises.

So the Baltic mission could be expanded to a standing air wing with several squadrons rotating through on a regular basis. On the ground there would be perhaps a brigades worth of light infantry, centred on a position where they could provide rapid response across the region. Based in Poland could perhaps be one or two NATO armoured divisions, with countries rotating their armoured brigades through. A NATO air group could also be based in Poland. Romania (spellcheck can f**k off, I know that's correct) could also host one or two divisions, depending probably more on various countries willingness to pitch in than anything else. Perhaps one armoured division and one mountain, to let NATO's mountain warfare forces get a bit of large scale cross training in too. Add air group.

At sea the obvious choices for task groups would be the north sea/north Atlantic, the Baltic sea and the med. The first of those could (re: should) be a real area of interest for the UK, with the ability to host and take the lead in a primarily anti-submarine focused task group, one that would often find itself with access to carrier air cover (eventually) through the new QE-class carriers and provide NATO nations with the chance to gain a tremendous amount of training in open ocean anti-submarine operations, hopefully with some of our local allies pitching in with their non-nuclear subs for training and operations. A sub-group of this could be a NATO amphibious assault division, with various nations pitching in their amphibs (and troops, obviously) for regular exercises in the region. Perhaps the med group would have its own version as well?

And so on and so forth, you get the general idea. Everyone seems very, very concerned about the Russians all of a sudden, while also being very, very concerned about the future of UK strategy. Yet everybody seems to be asking questions and nobody seems to be offering answers. Hopefully this post will jog the discussion towards the answers, which in the UK's case is going to have to involve no mystical pots of money (it's not coming. It's really not) and doing what the UK has always done best; build alliances by pitching in with expertise and manpower (not so much money these days) to get everyone else moving. See Waterloo, Minden, etc, etc, for examples.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The cuts are coming

One basic rule that will always set you in good stead when listening to politicians is this; believe nothing. 

Don't believe the promises. Don't believe the numbers. Don't believe the rhetoric. It's an unfortunate fact that politicians long ago, as in since the dawn of time, gave up on the idea of what was best for their country. Politicians of all eras are at any one time caught up in one of the three stages of politics; expanding power, consolidating power, or clinging to power. They will say and do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve these ends. We all know this. If you don't believe this is how politics works and still believe that there are "some good politicians in parliament" then I strongly suggest you stop kidding yourself. You might say I'm very cynical on the subject but then politicians have had many, many opportunities to prove me wrong and reverse this trend. They have singularly failed to do so at every turn. Case in point is the SNP, who for years have vigorously opposed nuclear weapons on Scottish soil and yet are already back tracking on this issue at Olympic gold medal speed now that they sniff the opportunity to do a political deal with Labour in the event of a hung parliament.

And thus we come to Cameron's promise on no more cuts to the army and the recent budget statement. Lots of people took Cameron for his word when he talked about sticking to 2% of GDP for the armed forces and that the army would face no further cut backs under a future Conservative government. This to me represents a stunning level of naivety (sorry, I can't do the fancy accent characters). Just out of interest let's look at some of Cameron's promises from before the last election. One, a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on Europe. Two, no top down reorganisation of the NHS. Three, to balance the budget over the course of the next parliament. Now please point out which of these three election promises were kept? I can wait.

Please don't get bogged down in the ideology of those things. It doesn't matter if you agree with them or not. The issue at hand is promises made that were then broken. The notion that it was all the fault of the Lib Dems because of the coalition is also laughable. So based on this track record, along with the multitude of other U-turns that occurred during the parliament, what basis does anyone have to trust David Cameron when he says that no more cuts are on the way if the Conservatives are re-elected? I would suggest that there is absolutely none. Not a hint of a foundation upon which Mr. Cameron could plausibly claim to be a trustworthy individual.

Then we turn to the budget itself. We know health, education and international aid have all been earmarked for protection from cuts, at least in terms of the face value of their budgets. Given that they all received this "protection" during the course of this parliament, it is reasonable to presume that they would likely retain it going forward. It is also highly unlikely that any other government would target these areas, short of some bizarre turn around where UKIP ends up with absolute control, which is incredibly unlikely. As such any cuts will have to fall elsewhere. And there will have to be cuts. Plenty of them. The coalition is miles off its original target to reduce the public spending deficit by the end of this parliament. Labour are promising a softer decline in public spending to get the books back in balance, but even that would require cuts. Even the most likely course of action, a Labour government propped up by other left wing parties which decides that running a slight budget deficit in the long run isn't such a bad thing if they can spend the money on public goodies (aka the Gordon Brown approach to economics), would still require some cuts to spending. No matter which way you slice the cake, some people are destined to get a smaller portion.

One of those people is the MoD. Don't shake your head, you know it's coming. And if you don't then you had better wake up and smell the coffee pretty soon because it is happening, whether you like it or not. The defence budget is, and always has been, easy prey. It's politically much less volatile to cut than almost all other forms of public spending, with legal aid, agriculture and prisons being perhaps two or three that are easier to get away with. What the armed forces do is typically well away from home, out of sight, out of mind, unlikely in the public's perception to effect them on a day to day basis. It is a ready made pot of money to dip into. Some people will stamp their feet in defiance, but nobody is going to the ballot box to cast a protest vote because they think the UK needs more transport aircraft or minesweepers.

Looking at the economy, growth figures for the UK have been decent, but underlying trends are not great. Despite the governments boasts about rising employment, it's worth noting that the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose figures are used to trumpet this claim, classifies full time work as anything that goes over 16 hours per week. To me that is a very odd definition of what constitutes full time work. On top of this the number of people turning to self employment to get themselves back into work has grown significantly, but the long term trend of how long these people are able to sustain their self employment is not good. The fact that so many people have had to turn to self employment to get themselves back into work is also a clear indicator of the underlying weakness in the labour market, not least because many of the newly self employed are working on limited hours and for low pay.

Thus any idea that the country will simply grow its way out of this predicament, or that there is some bountiful pot of money sitting on the horizon just waiting to be tapped up, is on very shaky ground. Rising concerns about a lack of growth in Europe and beyond is also likely to hurt the long term prospects of the UK economy. 

The cuts are coming. Prepare thyself.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Taking Prisoners

So I recently saw a discussion regarding the Kurdish militias taking ISIS fighters prisoner and the rights or wrongs of the fact that the Kurds treated them (at the very least in front of the cameras) with the respect and dignity that would normally be accorded to opposing soldiers by an army that was a signatory to the Geneva Convention. Some people were outraged that the Kurds did this, some thought it a bit odd, and a handful agreed that it was appropriate.

I would say that I'm on the side that thinks this is appropriate. Now that may seem a barking mad position to take given what ISIS routinely does to its captives. But I think there are two reasons to support this position.

The first is that "an eye for eye" is the sort of knee jerk, ridiculous reaction I would expect of people like ISIS, not those claiming any kind of moral high ground in the contest. It is a fundamental, inescapable fact that if you follow this line of thinking then it will take you down a path that - through a series of slightly convoluted twists and turns - leads you inevitably to the conclusion that Jimmy Saville's children should be raped and/or molested by his victims, because "an eye for an eye" right?

The second is the much more practical purpose of what this approach would do for the Kurdish forces. Anyone fighting against ISIS should by now be under no illusions as to what will happen to them should they be captured by ISIS. Fighting tooth and nail to the last bullet and beyond is their only viable option. To surrender is to sign your own death warrant, and to willingly accept a potentially very gruesome end. 

By comparison ISIS forces have a much less final choice. To surrender to Kurdish forces is to potentially save their lives, at the very least in the short term (I've no idea what the Kurds plan to do in the long run with any prisoners). This not only offers the Kurds the opportunity to end certain fights by offering terms of surrender to ISIS fighters, but it also encourages defection by fighters who don't see a long term future with the group.

As an example, intercepted messages sent back by a number of foreign fighters who travelled to Syria to join ISIS have demonstrated that actually taking part in a Jihad may not be all that they originally though it was cracked up to be. Complaints about being treated as slaves or kitchen skivs, no home comforts etc, have shown that not all ISIS fighters are the hard case Jihadists that they claim to be. As such, offering them a way out by surrendering can be tempting and potentially provides the Kurdish forces (and their western backers) with valuable sources of intelligence that could help hasten the end of the group.

As galling as it may be to watch men who have fought against them - and possibly carried out war crimes - receive water, food, medical care and decent treatment, it seems clear that the Kurdish forces understand that biting their lips and treating their enemy humanely is a long term investment that trades short term frustration for information and in some cases lower friendly casualties.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Update 08/03/15

Just a quick one to let you all know that due to switching broadband providers I potentially may not have Internet access for a few weeks. It's all in the lap of the telecommunication gods I'm afraid. It might be one day, it might be 14, nobody seems to be able to give me a solid answer. Just a heads up in case things go quiet for a bit.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Looking at the strategy

With all the ballyhoo regarding the SDSR coming up this year and everyone debating where the extra (Ha!) money might go, I've been doing some mulling over with a nice glass (or two. And a half. And another f**king half) of Amaretto. Specifically I've been thinking about the Russian "threat", which based on some discussions I've seen you'd be forgiven thinking he was knocking on the door to number 10 right now demanding to come in and make himself comfortable.

It's got me thinking about the history of the UK as it relates to the armed forces. Throughout time the UK has always been able to channel itself against various enemies. At one point it was the French (and to an extent the Spanish). The need was clear; retain an absolute advantage relative to the combined European powers in naval warfare, maintain sufficient garrisons in overseas territories to prevent their capture by hostile powers, maintain a reserve of trained active personnel in the UK ready for immediate global deployment as reinforcements, and maintain a semi-trained "militia" in the UK to hedge against the threat of invasion.

The stragtey was all rather simple in the grand scheme of things. Use the navy to choke off any potential invasion of the UK and to command trade routes overseas, shift the overseas garrisons around as needed (with assistance from UK delivered forces) to fight any small fires abroad, recruit as many locals to help as possible, and divert the enemies attention away from the UK and its interests by providing financial, material and technical support to continental allies.

I've heard this best described as the "Excessive Power" doctrine, i.e. trying to prevent any one continental power from achieveing a position of excessive power over Europe. The results were erm, mixed to say the least. But what was critical about this is not the specifics, but that the UK had a very clear idea about what the major challenge of the day was. Political and military leaders knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this thing or that was the overarching objective, the primary concern of their day.

And for most of the time between then and 1989 the UK had one enemy or another to focus its attention on, aside from a few dry spells. Which is where we find ourselves today, in something of a dry spell. With Afghanistan at a close and the current operations over Iraq more akin to the inter war strafing of rebellious tribes from the 1920's, the UK is in something of a strategic void.

That's not to say that there are no threats. Just none that are especially fatal to the UK as an entity. 

The UK is no longer the great naval power of the world. The US is. And the UK happens to be allied to the US. The most prominent land power or air power that could threaten the UK is sitting at the other end of the continent, with several other air and land forces between it. Now as a member of NATO that puts the UK under certain obligations to defend its neighbours and indeed the old saying about prevention being better than the cure would apply here. The events of the second world war have shown us what happens when you allow trouble to arrive on the opposite side of the channel.

But then again, how serious really is the Russian threat? Ask yourself this question for example; how likely is it that the Russian hoardes are about to go rampaging across eastern europe? How far would they get before they ran out of men or tanks? More pertinently, how far would they get before they outran their logistics systems? How far would they get before they simply got lost?

So having answered those questions, how much of a threat really is Russia to the UK, beyond the nuisance value of probing our airspace and making angry noises about NATO expansion, keeping in mind that the situation in Ukraine and Crimea was a response to a perceived threat to their borders and their major naval base in the region, something which Russia has form over when it comes to perceived or real encroachement of their sphere of influence?

This for me is the really telling issue when it comes to debating the SDSR. To me it still seems like an exercise in politics and budgets. There is still not really a strategic element to the strategic review. Like all the talk about being prepared to recapture the Falklands if needs be. How about we prepare instead to not lose the Falklands in the first place?

Any time the Type 26 comes up, the debate turns to whether they should be anti-submarine focuses, or whether they should be more generalist global combat ships, or even be replaced in a number of roles by smaller, cheaper patrol vessels. Not much debate seems to take place around what the Type 26 would actually be used for, why we need them, and how many we need to meet the tasks expected, or what even those tasks should be.

Something to mull over your next glass of your favourite tipple.