Category Archives: defence

The Falklands Then and Now… AND Now: initial thoughts

Soon after starting my blog, I ran a series looking at the 1982 Falklands War. As a long-term resident of Portsmouth I have always had a very strong interest in the conflict, and wanted to do something of an annual ‘Open University Lectures’ style series over Christmas to give us all something to do. I didn’t really expect anyone to read it, but thanks to a plug from Mike Burleson (proprietor of the now-ceased New Wars blog) things snowballed and my hit ratings have never quite been the same since!

Much has changed in two years In the winter of 2009 we were looking ahead to a closely fought general election, under the spectre of a massive economic crisis. In the years since we have seen a new Government, a swingeing Defence Review which has radically altered the picture of British defence planning and capability. No strike Carrier, No Harriers, half the amphibious ships, less escorts, less everything really. Since 2009 tensions have also arisen with Argentina pulling various diplomatic strings to unsettle the British presence in the South Atlantic. Coincidentally, since the discovery of oil reserves in the South Atlantic.

With much change since then, and also with the 30th Anniversary of the war coming up next year, I think it is the ideal time to revisit the ‘Falklands: Then and Now’ series. Over christmas and the new year period I will be re-examining my original conclusions, and trying to find some sort of assesment as to how the Falklands War might feasibly be re-fought in 2012.

In 2009 I looked at the following:

  • Aircraft Carriers
  • Amphibious
  • Escorts (Destroyers and Frigates)
  • Submarines
  • Auxiliaries
  • Merchant Navy
  • Land Forces
  • The Air War
  • Command and Control
  • The Reckoning

If there is anything that I should add, or if anyone would like to make suggestions, please feel free to comment or email me via the ‘Contact Me’ bar above. If anybody would like to guest on any of the sections, please feel free to get in touch.

As I’m sure you can see, it is very sea-orientated, but then again as the Falklands are Islands 8,000 miles way then that is always bound to be the case. I remember also getting some pretty snobby comments in the past, about it being ‘hardly rocket science’. Well, that’s exactly the point – we need ordinary people to support our military, and we won’t do that by getting excited about the screws securing the sprockets in a Sea Wolf missile’s motor.

Suffice to say, only the most deluded of commentators will find this a positive exercise, but it is an opportune time to assess the declining state of Britain’s defence capabilities, and to use a historical yardstick to illustrate how we are incapable of defending those who wish to live under British citizenship.

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Filed under Army, debate, defence, Falklands War, Navy, politics, Royal Marines

The True Cost of US Military Equipment

I’ve just come across this very interesting infographic, putting into perspective the US’s spending on Defence.

The True Cost of US Military Equipment

Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I wonder how many of those Billions are as a result of the desire to gold-plate everything that Mike Burleson used to highlight on New Wars?

Of course, we here in the UK can have a pretty robust discussion about defence procurement – it would be interesting if somebody worked on a comparable graphic for the MOD!

…. on another note, here is a wonderful graphic demonstrating the US Army‘s commitment to medal-itis…. I’ve never understood the logic of giving a soldier a badge to commemorate that they can fire a rifle…

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Filed under defence, politics

Thoughts on the Fleet Ready Escort

HMS Somerset of the Royal Navy. Type 23 frigat...

A Type 23 Frigate, often on Fleet Ready Escort (Image via Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot in the papers recently about the fact that the Royal Navy has not had a Frigate or Destroyer designated as the Fleet Ready Escort for the past four weeks or so. But what exactly is the Fleet Ready Escort? It is usually a Frigate or Destroyer, maintained at high-readiness in UK waters to respond to events anywhere in the world. The idea presumably being that if a crisis kicks off somewhere, we can at least get ONE ship there quickly, and the most utilitarian of ships at that. If we need to augment the deployment, add ships, roulement, etc, then we can deal with that in time. FRE could be referred to as the first domino.

A clear example of this is the manner in which during the Callaghan Government of the late 1970′s, a Frigate was despatched. A Submarine and RFA soon followed. Sending a Frigate might be largely symbolic in a lot of cases, given the time that it will take to actually reach a crisis zone. But it is a statement of intent, that we can and will respond. If it is commonly known that we have no means of response, then rogue elements around the world know that they can act with impunity. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if they can read Janes and see that our ability to respond is somewhere between unlikely and impossible, it must have at least crossed Argentina’s mind that if the Royal Navy does not have one Frigate spare in British waters, how the hell could it send a Task Force 8,000 miles south?

Therefore, that the Royal Navy has been without an FRE for any length of time is a cause of concern. It certainly is an indication that the fleet is far too stretched to fulfil all of its commitments adequately. Defending the realm and responding to the Government’s Foreign policy needs are surely the primary role of the Royal Navy? If they cannot be met, then why not? It’s hardly rocket science, but you can’t keep cutting ships without affecting capability. One expects that if something happened that required a response we would have to scrape the barrell and pull a ship out of refit, or off of exercises. We could probably cope, but ‘cope’ is not a very confidence-inspiring word.

One aspect in which I do think the role of FRE has been overstated is that of terrorism in UK waters. With the best will in the world, enough has been written here and elsewhere online to show that against seaborne terrorist tactics, such as small boats, Frigates and Destroyers are far from ideal. In any case, if you are looking to respond AFTER a terrorist incident, then it is already too late – the perpetrators will either have made away, or been vaporised along with their explosive-packed RIB. Smaller patrol craft, such as those employed by the SBS, would be far more suitable.

Neither is there any credible need to have a warship available to defend British waters in the conventional sense. All of our neighbours in Europe are friendly, and there are no antagonists anywhere near our seaboards who are likely to send a Battle Group up the western approaches any time soon. In any case, one expects if they did, we would know about it with plenty of notice. We are living in a different world from that of Jutland or Operation SeaLion.

In a similar manner to the FRE, the Army usually has an infantry Battalion on short notice to go anywhere in the world, and the RAF has assets on high-readiness, in particular fighters to intercept aircraft nosing into our airspace. When it comes down to it, all British servicemen and and defence materiel are on some level of readiness to go anywhere in the world should it be deemed necessary. If one ship is at high-readiness, what are the rest of them at? In the same manner, I guess, we have got used to roulements, with ships/units etc only being deployed for around 6 months at a time. This is obviously a ‘luxury’ or peacetime punctuated by low-intensity operations, whereas during total war, everyone is in the front line for the duration.

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HMS Albion mothballed for five years

The HMS Bulwark, a Albion class landing platfo...

HMS Bulwark, now the Royal Navy's sole Landing Ship (Image via Wikipedia)

We’ve seen in the news today how HMS Albion, the Royal Navy’s flagship and one of two main landing ships, is to be put in mothballs in Devonport Dockyard for five years. She’s a little over ten years old, which ranks as not even mid-life for a major warship.

Make no mistake about it, after five years in mothballs she will require a LOT of work to get her operational again – that will take time, and cost money. I would also imagine that if HMS Bulwark needs spare parts during the next few years, the temptation to ‘borrow’ them from Albion would be all too tempting. Meanwhile, for five years the Navy will only have one crew practising amphibious warfare. If Albion is needed to be brought back into service in a hurry, where will another crew come from?

As I’ve mentioned before, hull numbers matter – a ship can only be in one place at any given time, and if you want it to get to somewhere else then it is going to take time. If Bulwark is on a flying the flag exercise in the Far East, for example, and something kicks off in the South Atlantic, we can pretty much count out any kind of rapid response. The Government has also descreased the Navy’s second line Amphibious vessels, the Bay Class Landing ships. We now only have three of them, and they are often off around the world filling in for non-existant frigates and destroyers.

The parallels with 1982 are quite a coincidence. Back then, only HMS Fearless was ready for action. Intrepid was destored and effectively mothballed in Portsmouth Dockyard, and took weeks to be made ready, even with round the clock effort from the Dockyard – many of whom were working under redundancy notices, and in any case, such a workforce no longer exists. In 1982, the date for the landings at San Carlos was dictated by when exactly Intrepid could be made ready and reach the South Atlantic. The inference is that without her, it could not have happened. The situation now is identical. These are very useful vessels, absolutely central to commanding and controlling the projection of force worldwide.

The most fundamental function of Government is to defend the realm, and keep British territories and citizens safe from aggressors. Secondly, the armed forces exist to maintain Britain’s interests around the world. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that decimating armed forces does not defend the realm, in a very uncertain world. Compared to money ringfenced for overseas aid, or even more so the bailing out of the banks, the money saved by hatcheting defence is minimal. Is this the ‘good job’ that Liam Fox was doing? If Adam Werritty was his advisor, then he clearly wasn’t a very good one.

With just one landing ship operational, no strike aircraft carrier, minimal escorts and sparse auxiliaries, our ability to mount another Falklands operation is non-existant. Should I revisit my 2009 series of posts ‘The Falklands: Then and Now’, or would it simply be too painful?

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Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

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Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

First Sea Lord – Royal Navy ‘in a very bad way’

Something of a media storm has kicked up today, over comments made by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope.

In a rare example of an Admiral standing up for his services, Stanhope said:

‘How long can we go on as we are in Libya? If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now. Certainly in terms of Nato’s current time limit that has been extended to 90 days, we are comfortable with that. Beyond that, we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities.’

Admiral Sir Jock Slater was First Sea Lord during the earlier 1998 Strategic Defence Review:

The position the First Sea Lord and the chief of staffs is very difficult indeed because if you want to retain the confidence of ministers you should not speak directly to the press about your concerns. But the fact remains that the navy is in a very bad way. The loss of Ark Royal and the Harriers was the worst decision by a government for many, many years. I think what Mark Stanhope has done is to state the obvious. You can’t carry on doing more with less.’

Naval Historian and analst Professor Andrew Lambert, of Kings College London, had this to say:

I think what the First Sea Lord has said in a very quiet and polite way is what everyone else has been saying in a very loud and aggressive way for a considerable period of time. The government has committed themselves to doing something when we have not got the equipment to do the job. The problem is the government has not got the political courage to admit they have made a mistake and as a result we are spending vast amounts of money doing things inefficiently and ineffectively. We’re getting laughed at by the French for not having a carrier off Libya. It’s hard enough when they beat us at rugby or football but when they beat us at carrier aviation it is unacceptable.’

‘It’s not the business of government to make perfect decisions all the time. It’s their business to run the country and respond to events. They have held their hands up when they got things wrong with the NHS reforms and sentencing but they seem unable to do the same with defence. It’s gone beyond a joke really. I know governments will stick to their own rhetoric but this is costing us too much and may even end up costing lives and that’s why the First Sea Lord was right to speak out because the situation is unacceptable.’

The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, is either clearly living in la la land, or is secret ex-RAF officer:

‘Operations in Libya are showing how capable we are post-SDSR as a leading military power with the fourth largest defence budget in the world. We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking and have spare capacity with the Royal Navy Cougar Taskforce which is currently on exercise in the Gulf. The SDSR is not being reopened. The Harrier has served with great distinction over a long period and in a number of theatres, but we are not bringing them back into service. Our planning assumptions remain valid and we have been able to effectively conduct missions over Libya. We are now progressing with the disposal of the Harrier force.’

planning assumptions valid? They were invalid before the ink even dried Foxy. Leading military power? Our projection doesnt back that up. And as for rourth largest defence budget? Our inventory does not back up that one either.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said:

‘This is yet another convincing argument in favour of reopening the defence review, which has not survived its first contact with world events. ‘The country will be dismayed to hear that the operation in Libya could have been conducted more cheaply and more effectively had the Government taken a different approach. ‘I hope the straight talking by the First Sea Lord will be met with some straight answers from Ministers. In particular, it is vital that Ministers tell us now how they intend to equip the mission in Libya should it go beyond the six month mark.’

Looking beyond all of the party political and and inter-service dialogue, even the most ardent Tory party card holding RAF airman would claim that the SDSR isn’t looking, in retrospect, like a pile of horse shit. Even Cameron and Fox know it, but of course politics being politics they can’t say so. Ironically, I suspect that most people would respect them more if they admitted that they had got it wrong.

There are bigger contexts to the the rapid and serious decline in the Royal Navy. Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, the Task Group Commander in the Falklands War, wrote in the Daily Mail the other day that Defence cuts would leave Britain unable to recapture the Falklands if they were taken again by Argentina.

Heres a summary of Woodward’s arguments:

  • America, whose support in 1982 was crucial, appear to support Argentina’s claim to the Islands. Even to the point of referring to them as ‘The Malvinas’ in a joint declaration with Argentina.
  • Why isn’t Cameron getting straight on the plane to Washington to demand an explanation from Obama? 253 British lives were lost defending the islands, and the islanders right to determine their own sovereignty.
  • The Mount Pleasant airbase in the Falklands is not as defendable as thought, and in any case the Argentinians would not attempt a landing without taking out the airbase first.
  • The staging post on Ascenscion Island is leased to America, whose permission we would require to use it. Without it, any sustained operations in the South Atlantic would be impossible.
  • Mount Pleasant can only offer up 3 or 4 Typhoons. The RAF is struggling to get enough Typhoons airworthy for Libya, let alone a war 8,000 miles away. With no aircover and without Mount Pleasant to rapidly reinforce the islands, we could kiss them goodbye.
  • With no carrier-borne air cover, retaking the islands would be impossible. The French are unlikely to lend us Charles de Gaulle.
  • Fundamentally, the islanders are British, and want to be British. The Argentines want them for spurious, vain domestic political reasons. The fundamental values of the UN enshrine the right to self-determination.
  • If David Cameron decides, in a crisis, that the Falklands are not worth defending, who will lose the next General Election.
  • With the new carriers and joint strike fighters not due for some years, we have to muddle through this situation for another 10 years at least.

‘As things currently stand, we’d have serious trouble defending anything much further than  the other side of the English Channel.’

Sandy Woodward was, in many ways, like Montgomery. A war-winning senior officer who rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in doing so. And I, personally, find it very hard to argue with any of his arguments outlined here.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Uncategorized

New Royal Navy ice patrol vessel announced

The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Icebreaker MV PolarBjorn (Polar Bear) has been selected to become the Royal Navy’s new ice patrol vessel. PolarBjorn will be re-christened HMS Protector while in Royal Navy service. The last  HMS Protector was also an antarctic patrol vessel.

Heres the spiel from Rieber’s website:

The ‘Polarbjørn’ is purpose-built for undertaking both long duration Antarctic expeditions, and offshore subsea support duties.  With her large public areas and accommodation capacities, helicopter deck and DP2 class, the vessel is well suited for undertaking flotel- and base ship functions on offshore fields and other operations. The vessel’s large deck areas and cargo holds offers ‘unlimited’ storage capacity for ROV and related equipment. The ship’s 50-ton knuckle-boom crane and the A-frame offers efficient solutions for handling equipment over the side and over the stern.

A few facts and figures about Polar Bjorn:

  • 90 metres long
  • 18 metres beam
  • 9.05 metres draught
  • Gross tonnage 4,985 tons, deadweight of 3,700 tons

She is currently owned by Rieber Shipping, and was launched in 2001. Until recently she has been working under a Norwegian flag on the ‘spot’ tendering market in the North Sea and Arctic offshore oil fields. Apparently during 2010 she was only being used 33% of the time due to the economic downturn, so her chartering by the MOD will be welcome to her owners. Official announcements by Defence Minister Lord Astor suggest that she will be leased for three years while HMS Endurance‘s fate is decided, but I would suggest that it is likely that Endurance will be scrapped and PolarBjorn/Protector purchased once the lease runs out. The same happened with HMS Endurance herself.

Amusingly, apparently members of the HMS Protector Association had known about the acquisition since January, but had been sworn to secrecy by the ship’s new CO, Captain Peter Sparkes. The Association’s newsletter also announces that she will be formally commisioned on 23 June 2011 in Portsmouth.

According to some sources she will be arriving in Portsmouth for the first time in April or May. At that point she will undergo a refit to install naval equipment, such as communications and limited weaponry. Apparently her up-front helicopter deck is going to be removed, and a new landing pad installed nearer her stern. This will probably necessitate the removal of some of her crane capability, which she will probably not use fully in RN service in any case. She will also need a hangar, given the manner in which she will operate independently in the ice.

The former ice patrol ship HMS Endurance is being withdrawn from service after suffering serious damage when she flooded in the South Atlantic in 2008. Since then the Offshore patrol vessel HMS Scott has been standing-in in the South Atlantic, but this is far from ideal as she is not an ice-breaker, and takes her away from her other role.

It will be good to see a new ship entering Portsmouth for a change.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Uncategorized