Friday, 27 November 2015

The vote on Syria

So David Cameron is pushing for strikes in Syria. And I have to wonder, why? 

I get the press release, that ISIS was linked to the Paris attacks and so bombing ISIS = helping the French. But why the obsession over boming targets in Syria? If the UK removed that restriction then yes, it makes it easier for an overall commander to guide the strikes because now UK assets can be made available to hit targets where ever they might be needed, but that's really not a good justification at this stage for hitting targets in Syria. Everyone, even people who know little about defence, seem to appreciate that the way to beat ISIS is on the ground. The air strikes are supportive of that effort. And Syria is currently not the place where the ground effort is proving the most fruitful.

That would be Iraq, the place where the UK is already carrying out air strikes. I basically do not buy David Cameron's line that bombing inside Syria will make the UK safer, which is the suggested reason for doing it. What it will do is attract more attention on the UK, while having a minimal impact on the influence of ISIS vis a vis home grown terrorists in the UK. It makes no sense from the angle of justification that David Cameron is using. The quickest way for the UK to aid the fight against ISIS is to concentrate air efforts in Iraq, where the local ground forces have a more realistic chance of pushing back ISIS and denying it space, money, equipment, and influence. 

Once ISIS is back near the Syrian border, then we can talk about authorising the use of force in Syria. But as things stand, the UK makes a fairly modest contribution to the counter-ISIS efforts and if a target of immense value in Syria becomes known to the UK, the best bet at the minute is to hand over that information to the US who have a much greater presence. The UK should be sticking to the age old military principle of concentration of effort and confining itself to helping out in whatever way it can on the Iraqi front, rather than getting sucked into the murky quagmire that is the Syrian front right now.

Perhaps what's more worrying is the number of MPs who seem to have bought all of Cameron's rubbish hook, line and sinker. Even many Labour MPs, who should be reading up on their history about a certain Tony Blair, seem to have been sucked into the farce. I understand that everyone is outraged by what happened in France. Naturally everyone wants to show our immense solidarity with the French people. But this is not the way to go about it. This is a token gesture. Worse, it's a political gesture, one that looks good but ultimately doesn't help the situation. While it's been quite eye opening to hear members from all parties over the last few days talking about the first duty of the state being to protect its people, seemingly having woken up to the importance of defence and security, it's also worrying how many have been led down the garden path on this one. The comparisons between this latest push for airstrikes in Syria and the information war that took place prior to Iraq have chilling similarities. 

I fear this will not end well.

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?

The Argentine Presidential Election

Obviously the big defence story of the last few days has been surrounding the SDSR, which I'll get into in a post shortly. But another interesting story is that of the Argentine presidential election, won by Mauricio Macri. Mauricio's victory could mark a new era in British/Argentine relations, in particular over the issue of the Falklands Islands. Macri will still - as any Argentine president will - claim the Falklands belong to Argentina. But it seems that for Macri this issue will drop well down the priority list.

Argentina's finances are in a state and the only way out of that particular hole is to strengthen economic ties with the wider world, basically doing a complete 180 degree turn to the policies of his predecessor Cristina Kirchner. In particular building ties with Mexico, Brazil and the US will be top priorities, but warming relations with the UK won't hurt either and it seems Macri will do just that, putting the old issues aside in favour of more pressing matters.

This doesn't remove the threat to the Falklands Islands, but at least in the short term it reduces it somewhat. Argentina is in no position to start throwing its meagre weight around and it seems Macri is aware of this. Good news on the whole, at least until Argentina hits its next bump in the road.

Monday, 2 November 2015


Since 2010 and the release of the coalition government's SDSR which brought with it a greater role (and reliance on) the reserve forces, I've heard a lot of ideas about how the reserves could be made better, many of them sterling in quality. Such things as offering regular officers the chance to take a career break while becoming reserve officers, full regular course training for NCOs, making a posting as support to the reserves a part of the career progression for regular NCOs (a la Sir Peter de la Billiere's reformation of the SAS NCO career progression) and many other suggestions.

The attraction for the government has always been simple, as reserve soldiers cost less to retain in peacetime than regulars, though become more expensive when activated for service. The hitch has always been the old question of whether they are as good as regulars, or at the least adequate for service abroad. The nature of reserves as part time soldiers naturally places limits on how much time can be spent practising military tasks. Which did give me one pause for thought.

In yonder civilian world, part-time is generally understood to be somewhere under 30 hours a week, frequently under 20. That's a long way from one weekend a month and a training night in the middle of the week. So it begs the question if whether the part-time nature of some reserves could be adapted to a greater commitment than where it stands now, but still falling well short of what would be expected from regular personnel? Clearly not everyone has the time for this, many having demanding day jobs. But it's possible that some could take on a greater number of hours, perhaps in turn becoming the repository of greater military experience and skill in their units, the central core around which reserve units are built.

It's an idea with flaws of course. Primary among which is the misleading notion that regular soldiers spend all day everyday doing military related training, and as such the misleading notion that a part-time soldier would spend all his additional "shifts" (so to speak) doing war related training. It also doesn't automatically pass on the benefits to other members of the units. Yes it could build greater experience and better organisation, and develop a feeling of being closer to regular counterparts in quality overall, but it doesn't inherently mean that the reserve unit has taken a collective leap forward.

It's possible that the extra hours would be consumed with a degree of paper work and other tasks, but at the very least this time spent organising saves time later. Part-timers of the extended hours nature would have the chance to expand their skills and become trainers in their own right for their own units. It's also reasonable to assume that some would have greater time flexibility to accompany their regular counterparts on more frequent and longer exercises, again building knowledge and experience of the latest methods to be taken back to their reserve units.

Just some food for thought while you sip on your cocoa.