Thursday, 4 January 2018

Something, something, 2018 Strategic Review, Part 1: The Royal Navy

The other day I laid out a few of my general thoughts on where UK defence is headed, what with all this talk of possible cuts on the horizon. I'm sure that in time the government will come up with a staggeringly good management speak term for it all, something like "a strategic reshaping" or "resourcing refinement". For now though I thought I might do a series of three posts taking each service in turn and expanding a bit on my thoughts, as it's been a while since I last mused about the services in such a way and "fantasy fleet" type posts are allegedly a good cash cow. The fact that I'm still using blogger would imply this either a) isn't true, or b) I just don't do enough of them ( so keep an eye out for the forthcoming weekly series "SDSR; Week x").

As I said the other day the Navy has found itself in something of a pickle, given that it can't simply fob its manpower problems off on the other services. Not when there are several thousand naval personnel running around in camo gear with green berets and rifles, preparing for the call to re-run D-Day. So yes, we're going to go there right off the bat with the Royal Marines.

Let's start by saying that the Navy needs the Royal Marines. Someone has to fill the role currently handled by the Fleet Protection Group, so it might as well be the Royal Marines as much as anyone else, unless you want to start involving RN police and the private sector. Thus their name and tradition need not die a complete death. The much more debatable subject is whether or not the RN needs in excess of 7,000 of its 33,000 personnel to be tied down to subsidising the army. For comparison purposes that's enough personnel to fully man about 4 Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (air component included) or 35 Type 45 Destroyers.

In theory the Royal Marines represent the key component of the UK's ability to reinforce NATO's northern flank as well as being the spearhead of UK amphibious operations. In practice the Russians are about as likely to mount a full scale invasion of Norway in the coming years as I am to become Prime Minister, and the UK is about as likely to carry out a full on amphibious assault of a well defended hostile shore as the Russians are to mount a full scale invasion of Norway.

That's not to say that the UK will never need the ability to launch an amphibious assault or that the Navy should sell off all its ships and landing craft for such a purpose, just that the role could probably be covered by rotating army battalions through the training for it. Will they be as good at it as a purpose designed force? No. Will that matter in practical terms? Probably not. Will it give the RN a big slice of its manpower allocation back again for more useful purposes as well as freeing up spare funds for other things? Absolutely.

Speaking of a lack of value for money, let's talk about the proposed Type 31. I say this because as far as I can tell the specification looks less like the promised modern general purpose frigate and more like a budget patrol vessel. The fact that it comes with the RN's favourite price tag of £250 million per ship attached (remember when Type 26 was going to be £250 mil? Oh how we laughed) is concerning no matter how you look at it, because either that's quite expensive for a basic patrol vessel or a hopeless undercosting of a complex warship. On the bright side, at least the MoD doesn't have a consistent track record going back over several decades of undercosting projects in order to get them approved by the treasury... 

Oh wait.

Meanwhile the possibility of building extra Type 26 fitted for but not with towed sonar arrays to fill the GP role seems to have been discarded and there's no hint at this stage of a possible future replacement for the Type 45 destroyers based off the Type 26 design, both of which are disappointing given the alternatives. Overall I'm pretty glum at the prospects.

I also find myself wistfully wondering at times about more radical proposals. What if the UK invested in a small fleet of non-nuclear submarines for example? Or fast attack craft, armed with anti-shipping weapons? Land based anti-ship missiles? These may seem like an odd list of capabilities to muse on, but I raise them only because the UK seems to have a massive disconnect between its stated goals and what it actually spends its money on.

I'm always hearing about how much of a threat Russia poses to the UK for example, yet there seems to be no interest in investing in things that might help against that threat, for example the use of conventional submarines to patrol the waters close to home and/or developing a class of fast surface vessels that could threaten any Russian surface fleet. We hear about the threat of an Argentine naval invasion of the Falklands Islands and the need to maintain the ability to recapture said islands, but nobody will countenance the idea of having shore based anti-shipping weapons or again conventional submarines to fend off this imagined Argentine armada.

It all seems very... British. Unplanned, platform focused, more about jobs for the boys and jobs for the unions than any kind of organised effort to meet a defined set of goals. The budget will always be the limiting factor, this isn't Britain circa 1810, 1918 or 1945 after all. But even within those bounds it all seems a little jumbled. The navy does at least seem to have pinned down the core of what it wants to do in the shape of a future carrier battle group, but beyond that neither the MoD nor the RN itself seems to be dead set on a course of action aside from "have ships, do patrols".

Even within those defined bounds there's still scope for question marks. How is the RN planning to get spares and manpower urgently to the carriers if needed? At the minute the plan seems to be "deliver to nearby naval base, make carrier dock at base, unless it can be carried by helicopter". The V-22 option has been ruled out it seems. What will the future of surface based anti-ship missiles look like? Harpoon still? Will we ever invest in more than just a handful of Tomahawk missiles, given that this has been demonstrated as a highly useful capability over the years since it was first introduced? What strides are being made to investigate laser technology and other unconventional weapon systems?

Granted, some of that will happen behind closed doors and away from the public eye, but it does feel a little like the UK is just gearing itself up to fight the last war while others are looking at what might happen in the next (a running theme in these three posts). 

I also think there are questions to be asked about the overall level of spending. My view traditionally has been that the three services should receive broadly equal funding, at least enough to be able to generate their core capabilities. Over time my view has hardened somewhat against the army on account of its complete refusal to make any kind of tough choices and adapt itself in any real way to future challenges. It is only just now catching up with the 8x8 fad from twenty years ago and seems determined at all costs to maintain headline numbers at the expense of any deep thought about its future role in the UK's defence posture.

As such I'm semi-inclined to think that the RN should get a funding uplift. But only if it can show that the cash is going to be well spent and not simply fritted away on platforms with a dubious rationale behind them aka Type 31. For a start, funding for a naval strike option from the F-35 should be a priority, on account of the main role of an aircraft carrier being sea control. Or something like greater investment in unmanned systems as exemplified by this recent post on the Verdigris blog

What it can't be is just money thrown aimlessly at more ship numbers because "more numbers = good". There has to be a clear line that can be traced between the extra spending and an extra output of some kind. Otherwise money saved elsewhere should simply be tucked away in the piggy bank for a rainy day. The downsizing of the Royal Marines and the reallocation of the funds in a sensible plan should be the first step by the Royal Navy in showing good faith in its bid for future funding. The Navy simply cannot be just rewarded for making poor choices in the past with its funding, otherwise you end up with the NHS. 

Innovation, logical aims, diversity of approach, squeezing every last benefit out of every last pound available. These should be the guiding principles of the Royal Navy's strategy going forward for the next 5-10 years. More focus on the actual outputs required for UK defence and less focus on platform numbers and specific platforms to deliver the required outputs. 

And certainly no more running to government with cap in hand begging for more cash until it can prove that it can better manage the cash it already has. Something which you'll see repeated in the next two posts, especially so in next case.

Next up, the army.

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