Sunday, 14 March 2021

Don't read this: It's rubbish and not worth your time. Much like the Integrated Review.

Apparently this is post number 300. I suspect 150 of those are just drafts I have sitting around, consisting of one line thoughts from 6 years ago that I've completely forgotten about. But I digress. 

Today's topic is the impending review of defence. And by "review" we do of course mean "latest exercise in getting the books to balance, but not really, because the MoD is to sound finance as Harold Shippman was to ethical medicine". As you can probably gather, I don't have an enormous amount of patience left for this.

It is in many ways an example of why I don't blog much anymore, because I prefer to spend my time not banging my head against a brick wall in the hope that the wall will crack before my head does. For example the latest saga in defence has been the meme wars taking place on social media, where the military has decided that the real problem with service personnel expressing their dissatisfaction over poor quality accomodation, horrendous meals (for which they have to pay), being treated like children and being treated unsafely by their commanding officers, is that people using memes on social media to express their displeasure are undermining the credibility of the organisation, rather than the aforementioned issues with housing, meals, and a general lack of care for the men and women under their command.

Indeed if the army wants to complain about people undermining its credibility then it should turn about face and look at itself in the mirror. It seems to do a sterling job of just that, without the need for memes. Just look at army procurement for example.

The rumour going through the mill is that the Warrior upgrade program will be shelved and instead the army will try and shove a square peg into a round hole by making the 8x8 Boxer fufil the role previously carried out by Warrior, a tracked IFV. To suggest that defence chiefs are not taking their own ambition to be a "reference customer" seriously is to put it mildly. Apparently though main building has managed to pull off the miraculous feat of bending the the laws of physics, which will now allow a 30-odd ton wheeled vehicle to keep pace with a tank cross country. I remain sceptical at this stage.

Meanwhile the army is also looking at personnel cuts of around 10,000. If this were to redirect money into better pay and conditions to keep current personnel on board and attract high calibre new entrants, while also funding more training opportunities, I could perhaps see the logic in it. But again, I remain sceptical. If I were a betting man I would put my cash on it being to cover up the black hole left in the army's top line budget by its woeful track record of mismanaging vehicle programs for about the last three decades.

Strike... sorry, STRIKE brigades still seem to be on the cards, although we still don't seem to know anymore about them now than we did when they were first announced. Nobody has yet proffered a solution to the fundamental issue of how a wheeled brigade that is designed for rapid on road deployment will work when its lead recce element operates a tracked vehicle. But at least it seems they will get some new artillery, though whether the armoured brigades will is uncertain at this stage.

You'd think so, given how ancient some of the current equipment is and how "long range precision fires" is the 2021 equivalent of "Revolution in Military Affairs". Long range precision has many merits and is certainly worth exploring, but so is mass, of which the British army seems to have very little. This is a particularly odd form of oversight given the historical British preference for smothering all things enemy in a thick blanket of high explosive, on the basis that shells are a lot cheaper and more expendable than men.

And this is where I start to wander and my enthusiasm for these sorts of discussions fades. Because really most of this upcoming review will be bollocks, and we all know it. 

Whether we have four brigades or three, or six, and whether we have 120 tanks or 150 tanks is bordering on irrelevance at this stage. Without adequate manpower, adequate support, adequate equipment, adequate doctrine and adequate leadership, these discussions of numbers largely feel like just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. 

The army is very keen to paint itself as preparing for the future, despite a catalogue of chronic weaknesses endemic to its underlying structure and methodology. It persists with the 8-man section and the concept of fire-team level fire and manoeuvre, despite several decades worth of experimentation across the world, predominantly by the US, which has shown that under the strain of combat conditions such a structure rapidly falls apart. Anything less than 10 men operating as one piece of a platoon level fire and manoeuvre operation has consistently been demonstrated to be inadequate in the face of realistic battle casualties.

The removal of the light machine gun from the section level is another example. It's replacement is the concept of a designated marksman, something which the army tried back in the 80s and 90s only to find that it didn't work. It's a knee jerk reaction to some of the engagement profiles encountered in Afghanistan and completely ignores the possibility of operations elsewhere, for example in the jungle or even just wooded terrain, where the weight of fire of the LMG would be more useful (though one of the lessons of the second world war was the utility of the sniper/marksman/sharpshooter kept at both the platoon and battalion level. A lesson that itself had to be relearned from the first world war...)

Far from looking to the future, the army might actually be going backwards. Rather than integrating lessons that it has acquired along the way, it seems determined to be the living embodiement of the old adage about preparing to fight the last war. It is so far behind the RAF and the RN in terms of electronic warfare, ISTAR, and the possibilities offered by drone technology that it's not even funny, it's just depressing. And that's before we start talking about how far behind our projected peer opponents it is. 

The other obsession at the minute is around "Tier 2" special forces, a concept stolen from the US that it seems few people on this side of the pond really understand. The focus seems to be on men in masks cutting about with night vision gear and non-core assault rifles, getting ready to kick in doors across the globe for... reasons? Raiding?

The US split essentially revolves around units like Delta who are "Tier 1", aka the SAS. Then you have units like the Green Berets who often fall under the moniker "Tier 2", whose primary mission has sod all to do with kicking in doors (for the most part). It's mainly about the specialist skill set needed for mentoring foreign forces for their own internal defence, and occasionally for stirring up shit in other people's backyards. Basically what the SAS was resurrected from the dead for back in the 50's, long before the War on Terror.

There is much talk that we could turn the Parachute Regiment into Tier 2 special forces. To what end nobody seems to be able to clearly explain. Raiding? That's what we have a combination of the SAS/SBS and Tomahawk missiles for. It is an entirely dubious proposition that we need to rerole the UK's premier light infantry rapid reaction force to become "special forces" just because that's cool and trendy, especially when there is no clearly defined mission for them.

Now if you wanted to argue that we should beef 16AAB up a bit, giving it all the means necessary to be able to deploy a light mobile contingent ahead of its main force, then better support once it arrived, that I could understand. Because fundamentally the issue with rerolling the Parachute Regiment to be super sneaky knife fighters is that now you just have to find someone else to peform their existing role. It is an exercise in utter futility.

Meanwhile the army actually has a perfectly good, perfectly workable concept on its hands with the concept of the specialist infantry units, whose primary task on paper is to go off around the world and work as mentors to indigenous forces. You know, the whole Tier 2 special forces thing. The current counter insurgency environment in many parts of Africa would seem like an ideal place to put this concept to the test, strengthen it, and make it work.

It doesn't however involve purchasing any shiny new equipment and as such it doesn't seem to attract much attention and has lost a lot of momentum. Official army sources seem incredibly reluctant to actually talk about it or highlight any of the existing work being done, despite this arguably being some of the most valuable contributions to our enduring security that the army could make.

We haven't even started on the navy or air force yet. I'm not sure if that's because I'm enjoying ranting about the army so much, or because I'm just trying to put off the inevitable, equally depressing next stage of the discussion. You know, the bit where we address the rumours that the RN is planning to bin off most of its mine-hunting fleet and accept a dreaded "capability gap". Or the bit about retiring frigates early. Or the bit about losing the majority of its planned F-35 purchase.

It frustrates me because I've been banging the drum for financial reform of the MoD for years and yet many quarters have ignored the evidence in front of them and clung to the dream that the government will just pump a bunch of money in and fix all the problems. But this is not really the time or the place to start with "I told you so".

Even simple reforms like the extending of officer postings from two to four years to provide greater continuity have been consistently shot down. And now the whirlwind is being well and truly reaped. 

There's lot of talk about cyber in particular, something which the MoD has very little experience in and probably shouldn't be going anywhere near aside from that capability which it needs within its own box, while leaving the national level stuff to the intelligence agencies. God only knows who thought handing the MoD more responsibility for cyber was a good idea. The funding for this will of course come at the expense of conventional capabilities once again.

The whole thing is a giant mess. I just can't even bring myself to sit and pick apart every last detail. I can't. It's not worth it. The MoD is an organisation so broken, so out of touch with its core remit that it defies any kind of logical analysis. I often thought that if the MoD were a private company it would have gone bust a long time ago, but the reality is if it were a private company it wouldn't even have got off the ground in the first place, as no sane person would have invested in it in its current state.

Think Defence often uses the phrase "all fur coat and no knickers", but the MoD doesn't even have the fur coat anymore. It's a cheap knock off Kappa jacket that they bought from the boot of someone's car. 

So what do we do about it? Don't look at me, I have no idea. How do you unpick a tangle this deep? At a time when the government is making a big push for global Britain, this review would seem to be leading it in the exact opposite direction. To call it incoherent would be apt, but it's also depressingly familiar. The question is how long do we keep putting ourselves through the wringer over this? 

Who out of those of you reading this seriously thinks that the MoD will come good anytime in the near future? What sort of confidence did anyone actually have coming into this review, and are you more or less confident based on what you've seen so far? Because I didn't expect much, and it seems the MoD has fallen short of even that impressively low bar.

If you're a management consultant getting kickbacks on the Boxer program you probably think this review is great stuff, but for everyone else it's looking like an absolute shower. It's beyond parody at this point. No meme that I know of can sufficiently express the true nature of just how bad things have gotten. 

In fact, the MoD itself basically is the meme at this point. It has become the national standard by which poor governance can be measured. And frankly I'm sick of talking about it.


  1. 'If you're a management consultant getting kickbacks on the Boxer program you probably think this review is great stuff'

    I laughed out loud at this comment!

  2. Superb stuff, Chris. I agree with everything you say and am in exactly the same metal state. Can't help feeling it has something to do with leadership. Can you imagine a Montgomery tolerating the mess we are now in for more than a few minutes' or a Harding or a Templer?

    "Far from looking to the future, the Army might actually be going backwards." I'm sure of it!

    Never mind, we might get some consolation from the Review. The MOD might buy us one loitering munition and I mean just one!

    Best regards,


    1. Ambitious. Fitted with a warhead, or "for, but not with"?

  3. I was agog too. In theory Boxer was design to keep up with Leopard across country. But I don't believe it. We are practically defenceless now. And we are barely a decent reserve to the US.