Saturday, 23 December 2017

A cup of Christmas cheer. Or not.

Tis the season to be jolly and all that, so in the spirit of the Christmas season I'd like to say a mass remembering the birth of our Lord and Saviour...

Ha, no. Just kidding. Christmas is of course about generating massive amounts of revenue for retailers, squeezing a budget to its absolute limits, and teaching kids about how to manage disappointment. What better subject then to encapsulate the true meaning of Christmas than UK defence. With a national strategy seemingly birthed in a stable - long before the three wise men ever showed up - the defence nativity should make some interesting reading.

Were I a cleverer man I'd actually be able to now craft this whole thing into some kind of amusing twist on the nativity tale, but being the rather more blunt dullard that I am I have instead opted to just throw down some thoughts on a piece of digital paper, rambling away with just a vague sense of the ultimate destination, much like a jaded vicar who's been at the communal wine and really just wants to get back to his family and the comfort of his armchair so he can watch the Doctor Who Christmas special.

With that in mind, let's begin.

As the alleged "year of the Navy" draws to a close the thoughts of the defence community turn to 2018 and the prospect of another very grand sounding Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which is really defence speak for "budget cuts".

At this point the typical retort against cuts is to invoke the tired olf phrase "the first duty of the government is to protect its citizens!". Which is very true, but gets rather messy for defence the second you start putting any kind of thought into what constitutes protection. The single greatest unnatural threat to life facing this country could quite easily be argued as being terrorism. Far more UK citizens have been killed by terrorists in recent years than by Russian bombers, submarines or tanks. The security services are virtually tripping over new terrorist plots on a daily basis and there's still more UK citizens who went to fight for ISIS yet to return.

On that basis the government would be well within its remit of protection to strip money from defence to pump into the Security Service and other domestic defence measures, on account that these actually protect us from a very real and present danger as opposed to one of the endless hypotheticals that are put forward by defence advocates to try and scare the shit out of politicians and requiring billions of new investment ("and before you ask the answer is yes, we will build a sub component of the new shiny thing in your constituency"). It's also worth remembering that the foundation of a good defence is a solid economy and thus finances come before all else.

As such the various services have already gone into furious PR mode to try and demonstrate their respective capabilities and make sure the public - but more importantly MPs - know exactly what they're capable of. We should soon be reaching the counter brief stage, where the services attention turns from promoting their own capabilities to talking down each others and explaining how they could the same job as the others but better and cheaper if only they got more of the pie.

And it's at this stage where I think things get particularly interesting on the basis that these days there really isn't a central pie anymore. Yes, the total budget for defence is fixed, but each service now gets its own allocation and is essentially free (to an extent) to spend that money as they please. This produced one of the more humorous incidents in recent years (to those with a certain sense of humour) when former Admiral Lord West told a naval conference that one of the great things about carriers was that they needed escorts to protect them, which means that you don't just get the funding for the carrier, you also guarantee the funding for the escorts as well, only for the MoD to turn around and inform the navy that it would have to find the funding for both the ships and their crews out of its own allocation.

Which brings us to the subject of Royal Marines oddly enough. There's been much speculation about whether the Royal Marines will stay or go, and if they stay then in what numbers? It seems that week to week their survival prospects seem to swing from "absolutely saved" to "absolutely f**ked". The Royal Navy clings to the marines with great affection, given not just their great traditions and reputation but also the political capital that can be derived from deploying marines. It allows the navy to position itself prominently in any discussion of intervention by advertising the ability of the marines to form a spearhead that will lead the way.

To me though it makes absolutely no sense. In much the same way as the USAF subsidises the US army through the continuing use of the A-10, the Royal Navy is in effect paying a subsidy to the army to the tune of an entire commando brigade. By providing the funding for this amphibious assault capability all they're really doing is alleviating the army from the need to do it themselves, without much real gain accruing to the navy itself. The fact that there has been so much talk of dispensing with the marines is probably all the proof that is needed that their political utility to the navy has also likely run its (obstacle laden) course.

The need to keep the Royal Marine name and tradition alive I can understand, albeit in a reduced capacity such as returning the marines to their more historical role of security and providing specialist small arms skills to deployed vessels, as well as being able to supply forward observers for naval gunfire support and other deep attack abilities. But to have several commandos on standby, poised to recreate the San Carlos landings on a smaller scale? Honestly I think the navy is barking up the wrong tree and the rest of the fleet will continue to feel the funding squeeze as a result if the navy is not brave enough to make a tough choice and prioritise its core competency over what is really a niche capability outside of its basic remit, redeploying the savings made to where it really matters.

And if the fleet cannot be operated properly at its current tempo then perhaps serious questions should be asked about numbers. I'd sooner see each ship properly manned, properly equipped and the crews taken care of (remember that whole military covenant thing?) than see the Royal Navy run thin and ragged, its morale destroyed and its body of knowledge and experience driven away purely on the altar of presumed prestige and the desire to put on a good show.

Now, before anyone in green gets too excited though at the thought of taking the marines and forming some kind of bizarre commando hybrid brigade alongside the Parachute regiment, which seems to be the fashionable talk at the moment, I would suggest that the army needs to take a very long, very hard look at itself. In the wake of Afghanistan the army was supposed to be transforming itself into a leaner, more agile organisation for the future. So far it seems to have done very little in this regard and instead channelled its efforts into retaining as many cap badges as humanly possible.

I'll be frank; at this stage I think the army has lost most of its credibility on financial matters and claims that it can be trusted to do its own reorganisation without the interference of government. It's path towards a future armoured division structure is a mess, with a strong likely hood that it wouldn't even be able to field a single battalion of tanks if required. The future of the Challenger tank is in limbo seemingly and the rest of the divisions future is being banked on a combination of a recce vehicle that weighs more than most world war two tanks and an 8x8 wheeled fad project that smacks more of trying to keep up with Jones's than any kind of rational analysis of future requirements.

On top of that the army has clung steadfastly to large numbers of light infantry that it doesn't really have a role for beyond sending them to train foreign forces (something armoured infantry can do) and hanging around awaiting the next Afghanistan, thus demonstrating that it has learned nothing from the last war unlike the Americans, who have been trying out all manner of new concepts in Iraq, from using OV-10 Broncos to carry laser guided rockets while also acting as something of a command platform in the sky, to the use of its HIMARS rocket system to provide precision fire support to advancing Iraqi forces, all the while restricting the number of US boots actually on the ground. 

Nor has the army seemingly learned a thing from the recent conflict in Ukraine, where electronic warfare has become highly prevalent, ISTAR is being combined with massed artillery, and even the humble anti-tank gun has made a return in the shape of 122mm weapons pressed into the role (quite successfully it would seem) due to the failings of many anti-tank missiles against modern protection systems. There's also not been a peep from the army it seems about the proliferation in missile systems being used in Syria and Iraq in a precision anti-personnel role.

Basically the army looks like it has been left in the dust of the 21st Century. Artillery systems have been cut back and much of what remains is old equipment, long overdue for replacement. There appears to be no plan for how to deal with the dynamic environment that faces the army in the future and the changing shape of warfare, which in practice seems to have something of a "back to the future" feel about it, just with newer systems replacing the old with a greater emphasis on precision.

This isn't really the place nor the time to sit down and comprehensively go through the whole list. I have in the archive somewhere a version where I looked at this to some degree, but the long and short of it is that I feel the army has used up most of its goodwill with government and having stubbornly refused to move forward, should have reform foisted upon it. This would involve a significant downsizing of the army in the shape of a big portion of the light infantry roles being removed. The army would essentially revolve around the production of an armoured division as its core, with enough room for some unit rotations. 

The caveat to this would be that while a big chunk of the saved capitation rate of the disbanded units would be either be returned to the central pool or converted into equipment expenditure to drag the army into the modern era, the money budgeted for training and housing the disbanded units would be rolled into the training and housing budgets for the remaining units. This would also be a perfect time to finally impose a solution on the army regarding the regimental system, after it has successfully spent the last 70 years or more dodging the issue. Remove the geographic ties for the most part and forge ahead with a new path. 

I also think this would be a good time to settle the air assault question. I think the Parachute regiment should remain and its training and selection ethos should be kept, but the notion of doing massed air assault should be dropped. If necessary a single incremental company could be kept alive, perhaps as part of the special forces support group, to allow for the contingency of needing a parachute ready unit. But by and large the need to keep parachute training at its current state of readiness should probably be dropped. The initial parachute training would likely stay as a right of passage in some sense, but it's well within the historical bounds of the army to have a "named" regiment performing a role other than what it once started as. One can only imagine (for one is in posh mode) what kind of fear the sight of a section of Paras emerging from the back of a Warrior might induce in some of the Queens enemies!

As for the RAF, they've done ok out of recent years, but Tornado retirement is just around the corner and the RAF still seems to be lacking in a number of core skills and equipment relative to our American cousins and the historical experience of air warfare. There's no anti-ship capability, no dedicated SEAD weapon, no air launched decoys, no electronic attack capability, and no area air defence SAM system. They doggedly cling to the RAF Regiment while seemingly resisting any attempt to actually deploy said force to perform its main role protecting what is probably the UKs most vulnerable airfield down at Mount Pleasant. The whole thing smacks of having a lot of shiny equipment for the cameras, while missing all of the important stuff that backs it up.

As mentioned earlier, while the USAF is adapting to meet the future challenge of operating in a COIN environment, the RAF still seems stuck in the cold war days. There hasn't been a hint that it seems to have evolved to meet either this new challenge or the challenge of penetrating a modern, sophisticated air defence network, perhaps as the spearhead of a coalition which lacks an American presence. While capabilities like Airseeker and the new Poseidon MPA are welcome, the RAF does seem to be gradually slipping ever further away from the cutting edge and the technologies and capabilities that really make a difference.

With Brexit on the horizon now is not the time for profligate spending sprees, and even without Brexit I strongly doubt any government would be ready to throw money endlessly at the forces as some seem to believe will happen. Now is probably as good a time as any for harsh realities and sincere reflection. 

And more importantly, hard choices.

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