Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Merry Christmas and a happy SDSR 2020

As it's Christmas I thought I'd give you an early present; an actual blog post. Which is basically the blogging equivalent of that shit jumper that Grandma bought you. We've reached the end of the decade (!!) and there's an SDSR on the horizon, so in the spirit of solidarity with the UK Labour party, let's have a period of reflection.

The looming defence review is interesting mainly because people are already getting quite excited about the prospect of an uplift in Defence spending beyond just what would be normal to cover inflation. I consider this a triumph of hope over experience. What everyone seems to be banking on is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his new "One Nation Conservative/People's government" will shake the people's money tree, or even just reach very deep down the back of the people's sofa, and find a few extra quid.

The problem with that thinking is that there are a million demands for public money already and defence is likely low on that list. Johnson's government has essentially figured out what Tony Blair learned when he became leader of the Labour Party and lead them to his first major election success; that successful political parties are a very different beast from competent ones, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

"One Nation Conservatism" at its core seems to be a recognition that however much you might like low taxes, free markets and old timey values, to win elections you have to be electable. People like the NHS. Mostly. People like the idea of investment, even if they're not necessarily sure what it is you plan to invest in and/or whether this will be worthwhile. People don't like "Austerity", even if your planned spending cuts don't really qualify for that term. It turns out people also don't like mad, terrorist befriending, anti-semite comforting, economically ruinuous people as their potential leaders. 

One Nation Conservatism then seeks to blend traditional Tory values of lower taxes and less regulation with a healthy dollop of spending other peoples money to keep everyone sweet. I may sound like a cynic but I completely understand the approach. If I was running to be PM I would make similar promises too, because that is provably what wins elections. 

However, defence has never really been much of a big vote winner in the last 30 years or so, despite the best efforts of some of the more delusional types to try and convince themselves (and everyone else) that it is. The public likes the armed forces. They support the armed forces. The public however will not give you their vote over someone promising to boost the NHS, education etc, just because you promised to spend a bit more on defence.

So as such I think it unlikely that defence is in line for any serious boost. Probably about the best that can be hoped for is that if the Department for International Development is indeed about to disappear, that some of the money it once wielded might end up passing through the MoD main building on its way to funding certain capabilities used for disaster relief. If we're really lucky then the government will dip into its Holy Bible of political bullshit and pull from its rectum a variety of increasingly implausable excuses as to how extra money spent on attack helicopters, drones and fighter jets actually qualifies as foreign aid spending.

Don't hold your breathe though.

That goes double for the potential main course of this next review; the promise of procurement reform. Again, everyone seems to be getting quite excited about the possibility that the government is going to descend from the heavens on the back of a pegasus and sweep away all the bad habits of MoD procurement, replaced as such with some marvellous and flawless new system of currently unknown origin or operation, and its architect shall be known as "Dominic Cummings". If I sound a little cynical then that's because this time I very much am.

Cummings strikes me as a sort of mad scientist type. Very smart, very open minded, but fundamentally more unhinged than anyone that thinks the Labour Party won the argument at this last general election. He seems to be pretty good at helping to win highly winnable election contests, which is great, but that's very different from buying new tanks, jets and warships. In this respect I'm less convinced that he can pull off the seemingly impossible and magically make MoD procurement function even just adequately. Many, many, many have tried. So far everyone has failed. I'm not sold that this is going to be any different.

I do like the sound of his supposed love of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), though again I'm wary. Cummings is reportedly very keen on drones and has some very firm opinions about the future character of warfare. Stop me if this is all starting to sound very Donald Rumsfeld "Revolution in Military Affairs" like. We all now how that ended. The reason this concerns me is because it suggests, at least at this very nascent stage, that he might have some very firm ideas about what a UK version of DARPA should and should not be researching/funding.

If true, this goes against the entire ethos behind DARPA. DARPA was created precisely because people in general - and in particular the military - are historically crap at predicting what technologies will transform the future of warfare. This single astute observation underpins everything that DARPA does and stands for. It will invest in just about any promising technology, virtually irrespective of the field, providing the technology is doing (or at least promising) something ground breaking. It does this because history tells us that this is by far the most likely way to uncover new technologies and processes that will have a big impact on defence. It would not work if it was beholden to a single crazy person trying to force feed money into whatever shiny object had most recently courted their favour.

Speaking of shiny objects.... and politics....

Looking at a recent photo of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers docked next to each other in port, it occurred to me that the Royal Navy has played an absolute blinder. Politically, the scale of their victory has been every bit as surprising and comprehensive as that of Boris Johnson's government. 

The aircraft carrier is the ultimate visible symbol of naval power, and now the Royal Navy has two of them. And their both fecking huge. With them comes the promise of ample jets to fill their decks and enough frigates to escort them, which Lord West once not-so-subtly implied was one of the main advantages of having them. They are an embodiment in steel of the magnitude of the Royal Navy's victory.

It's been a somewhat rough decade for the navy, but crucially they have carefully nursed and husbanded this central program over the finish line. As such they are now set to take a leading role in defence over the next decade; potentially even the next two. It is a triumph of political strategy, sacrificing short term pain for long term gain. They have absorbed cuts in hull numbers, weathered the storm of off shoring the manufacture of their new tankers, and dealt with some serious manpower problems. Let's not even go into the difficulties with the Type 45 destroyers.

But by sticking to their plan and vigorously defending the carrier program to the last, they've managed to come out the other side ahead of the competition. They have two carriers. They'll be keeping two carriers. Said carriers will become the lynchpin of the Royal Navy for a long time to come. 

Compare and contrast this with the army. Having accrued an enormous amount of goodwill with the British public and a serious amount of visibility of what it does due to operations in Afghanistan, the army has contrived to convert this immense stash of political currency into precisely bugger all of note. 

Forces housing? Still in terrible shape in many places. FRES? Only the scout variant survived and only now is it starting to become a reality after all this time. Challenger 2? No replacement even close to being in sight. Warrior IFV? Still soldering on, almost thirty-six years after entering service. Strike Brigades? Still not enough kit for them and still nobody, least of all the army, seems to really know what they're ultimately for. All this on top of a series of intentional manpower reductions imposed by government, and a series of unintentional manpower reductions imposed by appalling recruitment.

Heading into the 2020s the army could at best be described as in denial. It is, frankly, a mess. Ambitions of divisional level armoured operations seem hopelessly naive. Technology wise the army is falling further and further behind the curve. As the leading global players begin to invest in UAVs, UGVs, electronic warfare and counter-measures, and long range precision weapon systems, the army is still trying to get to grips with social media and upping its snowflake intake. 

It is, by any measure you wish to choose, woefully unprepared for whatever the next decade may throw it. By extension this makes the army very vulnerable at the next defence review. If ever there was a way for someone like a Dominic Cummings to try and show the MoD who was boss without doing too much long term harm, then targeting the army would be the way to do it. It is low hanging fruit, ripe to be plucked considering 1) its awful track record at procurement, 2) its seeming inability to nail down a coherent and clearly defined role, and 3) its sheer unwillingness to make hard choices of its own volition. 

I would add a tentative 4) having its premier champion of management speak as the CDS, in an era where plain speakers will reign supreme and bullshit bingo will likely rub key decision makers up the wrong way, but then people would start thinking that I extremely dislike General Sir Nick Carter purely on account of my own hatred of management speak. So on that note, 4) having its premier champion...

I digress. The RAF by comparison sits somewhere between the two. It has managed to keep a strong hand in the Joint Strike Fighter project, ensuring that it will have a portion of its own fancy new Lightning jets to play with and will not be left behind by the current generation of advanced fighters. It too will get to play at the so called 5th Generation table. More importantly, it will get to piggy back on the navy's new carriers and keep itself at the centre of political attention come what may. If it plays its hand well, it may get to play with a lot more jets than previously believed. 

At the same time it has managed to secure funding for the initial phase of a new UK built fighter, astutely making the industrial case as well as the military case, leaving the door open for a Typhoon replacement around 2030. Though there are no guarantees, the RAF has at least shown that it has some kind of coherent plan, instead of just an empty wish list. On top of that it has largely managed to protect itself from cuts while continuously demonstrating its worth on a variety of operations, from Libya and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, to supporting the civilian powers here at home. 

Critically the RAF has a very clear idea about what it exists for and what it's doing. Just as importantly, it can point to evidence of itself executing those missions on a routine basis. Going in to a defence review that is immensely valuable. Add on the fact that it's slowly bringing new capabilities into the fold such as Maritime Patrol and an expanded drone force, while also having at least the bare bones of a plan for Space - just as Space is becoming big business - and the RAF is poised to closely contest the navy for supremacy over the next decade. Against such powerful and impressive rivals, the army has little hope in the cut throat world of defence reviews.

Undermining all of this is of course the now perennial British defence problem; a lack of grand strategy and vision. Europe or the Middle East? Or the Far East? Or Africa? Or the Atlantic? Or the Arctic? Or all of the above. Counter Insurgency or conventional conflict? Or both? Capacity building or interventionism? Or both? The MoD can't ever seem to decide and successive governments seem unwilling to offer any help in that regard.

So in summary I don't expect the MoD to get lashings of additional money. I do expect it to hoover up some of the table scraps once the government is done eating DfID for breakfast. I expect the army to take a bit of a hammering, with the Royal Navy being the prime beneficiary and the RAF slotting in behind it a close second. I expect a well meaning but ultimately fruitless attempt to fix the unfixable in terms of defence procurement. And I expect the entire defence establishment to continue lurching aimlessly from one crisis to the next, sort of like a camouflage coated NHS, but without the religious fervour of the British public to continuously bail it out. 

Merry Christmas and a happy SDSR 2020!

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