Tag Archives: armed forces

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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PM and Defence Secretary at odds over Defence Review

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP (Image via Wikipedia)

A leaked private letter to the Prime Minister from the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has shown that the current Strategic Defence and Security Review is nothing more than a cover for the Government-wide Comprehensive Spending Review. The disagreement also shows the complete disunity within the Government over the Review.

I’ve quoted below some of the most important points in the letter:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war.

How do we want to be remembered and judged for our stewardship of national security? We have repeatedly and robustly argued that this is the first duty of Government and we run the risk of having those words thrown back at us if the SDSR fails to reflect that position and act upon it.

Our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments. The range of operations that we can do today we will simply not be able to do in the future.

The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the changes proposed would follow years of mismanagement by our predecessors. It may also coincide with a period of major challenge (and, in all probability, significant casualties) in Afghanistan.

Even at this stage we should be looking at the strategic and security implications of our decisions. It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package. Cuts there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.

Specific cuts mentioned in the letter are reducing standing naval commitments in the Indian Ocean, Carribean and Gulf, scrapping amphibious vessels and auxiliaries, the Nimrod MR4A maritime aircraft. Dr Fox implies that we could not re-do the Sierra Leone operation again, and also that we would have great trouble reinforcing the Falklands in an emergency. The ability to assist civil authorities would be reduced, as would the assistance the military could give in the event of terrorist attacks, and security for the 2012 Olympics.

Liam Fox has long been one of the Tory front-bench who I find it possible to respect – more so than most of the public schoolboy Thatcher-worshipping ilk. A former GP, and thus one of the few prominent politicians nowadays who has had a career other than politics or ‘policy’, he’s spent a long time in the Shadow Cabinet in various roles. Having been Shadow Defence Secretary for almost five years might be expected to have some idea of what he’s talking about.

I think the severe lack of senior politicians with any kind of armed forces experience - or for that matter with any experience of knowledge of history - shows. Any decision-maker with any sense would be looking closely at John Nott‘s 1981 Defence Review as a how-not-to-do-it. Yet that is exactly what Cameron and Osborne propose. It’s rather sad to think that the Conservatives came to power after touting themselves as the party of the armed forces. Even their former pet General, Sir Richard Dannatt, has waded in on Dr Fox’s side.

Fox’s reference to the possible reaction amongst the party membership is interesting. Although it is often thought that the Tory is made up of lots of ex-Guards Officers, via Eton and Sandhurst, the only former soldier of note on the Tory front bench is Ian Duncan-Smith. There are more than a few ex-military backbenchers, but how much influence do they have over ‘Dave’ Cameron and Boy George? I can’t imagine them, nor the Tory old guard around Britain, being too happy about the hatchet being wielded over the armed forces.

It is hard to disagree either with the assertion that the safety and security of the nation is the first duty of any Government. If they fail with that, then we’d all might as well give up. It’s no good having wonderful schools, hospitals and a thriving economy if enemies – either other states or terrorists – are able to disrupt our everyday lives at will. When we’re conducting an intervention abroad, say in Iraq or Afghanistan, we get the security sorted first, in order for the reconstruction to start. Why should the principle be any different when it comes to Defence closer to home?

Another thought that is deeply disturbing… if the Defence Secretary is having to write to the Prime Minister explaining his concerns about how the Review is progressing, who the hell is producing the review? It’s not a Defence Review… its a pure and simple cuts package. At least previous reviews made some attempt at sketching out the strategic direction. That somebody in the MOD feels the need to leak such a letter is indicative of how poorly this is being handled.

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Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960′s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.

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Time Magazine article on the British armed forces

Thanks for Think Defence for drawing my attention to this link. Its an article in the prestgious American magazine Time. Its a very interesting read indeed, looking at the history of Britain’s military and its current position. A perfect example as well of how the past and the present relate to each other. And, as is often the case, an outside view is devoid of the usual baggage and partisan perspectives.

The article is quite right in highlighting the firm divide between supporting the troops and opinion about the war in Afghanistan. Public shows of support, such as at Wootton Bassett, and appeals such as Help for Heroes, are more prominent now than at any time since the end of the war, with the exception perhaps of the Falklands in 1982. Yet defence is virtually a non-issue when it comes to the upcoming General Election.

It is hard to argue that British defence is not in crisis. Equipment costs are spiralling, defence spending falling in real terms, commanders are engaged in turf wars for profile and funding, and the Government is looking at burden-sharing with the French – a prospect that has not gone down well with the forces or the public at large. But while the British public might balk at the prospect of our armed forces fighting under the Tricolor, and are proud of their military history, they are also savvy enough to know when they are being lied to, and when their servicemen are being let down.

The upcoming Defence Review is perhaps the most crucial crossroads for the British armed forces since the end of the cold war. And in many ways, the review will have to deal with many delayed hangovers from the Cold War, particularly in the mindset of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. There is undoubtedly a gap between how Britain perceives itself, and the reality of what it can afford. The world is clearly a far more uncertain place than 20 years ago. Therefore, there need to be some earnest questions and honest answers about every facet of the armed forces – something that has been avoided since the end of the Cold War.

“All I could make out in their language were the words Mr. Bean. They were laughing at me … making me feel about three inches tall.” So spoke Royal Navy Seaman Arthur Batchelor about his ordeal being held captive by Iran in 2007. Such an image does not sit well within British naval history. British forces have long been held up as role models on the international scene. In 2003 British forces strolled into Basra wearing Berets, while their US counterparts treated Iraqi civilians with extreme caution. British forces have unrivalled experience and expertise of a wide range of scenarios. But incidents such as the capture of sailors and marines by Iran in 2007, and the inability to tackle pirates in 2009, undermines the morale of Britain’s forces and their global standing.

The recent Iraq inquiry, however, has identified that while there is a wealth of capability within the armed forces, the real problem with British Defence policy lies in a serious lack of defence expertise within the politicians of Whitehall. There is undoubtedly a gulf between the military and the Government, illustrated clearly by the almost open warfare between Gordon Brown and General Sir Richard Dannatt during the latter’s time as Head of the British Army. Can former lawyers and union leaders really govern the armed forces properly? It is no wonder Generals become politicised when they are treated as shabbily as they have been by the current Government.

British defence governance, leadership and culture clearly needs a serious reconfiguration, as Time suggests. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the cultural and political issues are bigger than that of funding. It is almost reminiscent of the ‘frocks and hats’ divide during the First World War. As funding is inherently determined by the culture and government of the military, it makes far more sense to square this problem before talking about whether we need aircraft carriers or whether we have too many eurofighters.

We should have a much clearer picture after 4 May…

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Land/Sea/Air integration – historical perspectives

Something I have frequently focussed on in recent months is the need for integration and inter-operability between the three armed forces. It is very rare indeed that any of the armed forces are called upon to act in isolation, so it makes complete sense to work together as much as possible. Not only that, but UK Armed Forces are smaller than the US Marine Corps, but have much more duplication and a more bloated and complicated command structure.

My interest in co-operation between Land and Air forces stems from Operation Market Garden in 1944. Then the Air Force planners held a veto over picking landing zones for the Airborne Forces, leading to them landing too far from Arnhem Bridge. Clearly, co-operation was poor, and it costs lives and the outcome of the battle. Another aspect of Land/Air Co-operation is the need for the Air Force to provide close support to Army units.

In terms of Sea-Air co-operation, we need look no further than the aircraft carrier. There has always been an extremely complex relationship between the RAF and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The latest episode in this was the decision to retire the Sea Harrier early, and to operate RAF GR Harriers at sea – a far from ideal solution. Its a discord that promises to run further, with the debate over the Joint Strike Fighter.

Co-operation between the Navy and the Land Forces can be traced to need for amphibious operations. It has long been the role of the Royal Navy to transport the Army, land it, and then recover it. As shown during the Falklands, this involves securing Sea and Air superiority, transporting the landing force, then getting it ashore and keeping it there. That the Royal Navy has its own amphibious land force, the Royal Marines, and the longer history compared to air, makes this one of the more harmonious relationships.

Although there have been notable developments since 1944, some of the essentially historic problems remain. And they are, by and large, parochial and cultural. As the junior service the RAF remains fiercely proud of its independence, especially given recent calls to disband the RAF entirely. It is hard to dispute that by procuring as many Eurofighters as it can lay its hands on, the RAF is securing its status. Whereas providing close support to the Army is a slippery slope to being renamed the Royal Flying Corps once again. Hence why the Army has to provide its own battlefield support in the shape of the Apache. Reports that the RAF would be happy to foresake the Joint Strike Fighter as a replacement for the Harrier add to suspicions.

But aren’t we missing something here? Are service loyalties really that important, that broader UK Defence is sold down the river? Its hardly surprising that officers who have served a lifetime in a service are loyal to it, but all are first and foremost servants of the Crown and the Government. Are we creating needless barriers by thinking in terms of Land-Sea-Air, and structuring our forces as such? Is this a sensible way to manage our forces in the modern era? Perhaps in bygone times when each service required more specialist management, but in a time were technology has bridged the gaps between the seas, the air and dry land, are we right to divide our forces by these out-dated envitonmental factors?

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Army says it need 20,000 more soldiers

The Daily Telegraph has obtained a British Army Document stating that it needs 20,000 extra soldiers in order to meet its commitments.

One of the most telling comments concerns the trade-off between equipment and manpower:

“We should be mindful of the fact that our US, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand allies have all recently increased the size of their Armies by approaching 20 per cent. Indeed defence may need to prioritise manpower over equipment if that is what we require to fight wars in the 21st Century.”

The Army spends dramatically less on equipment on the Royal Navy and the RAF. By presenting the upcoming Defence Review in terms of this choice, the Army is placing itself very well for what will be a very tough process.

The Army currently has 101,000 men and women serving in its ranks. It consists of 37 Battalions of Infantry (Light role, Mechanized, Armoured, Air Assault and Special Forces support), 10 Armoured Regiments (Formation and Recce), 16 Artillery Regiments (Air Defence, MLRS, Armoured, Light Gun, Surveillance), 15 Engineer Regiments, 10 Signals Regiments, 21 Logistics Regiments and 6 Army Air Corps Regiments. Modern Warfare calls for such a plethora of supporting services.

The fall in the numbers of Infantry units has been most marked. In 2004, with the end of Operations in Northern Ireland, the Treasury forced the Army to cut its Infantry strength by 4 Battalions. Supposedly not needing to base Battalions in Northern Ireland meant that the Army needed less of them. This is despite the fact that the Army had too few Battalions at the time anyway. As traumatic as they were to regimental identities, the 2004 reforms were right to establish larger Regiments with more Battalions.

The Options for Change review in 1990 set the current tone for Army cuts. With the end of the Cold War it was felt that the Army no longer neeed to to base such large forces in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine. Throughout the 1990′s successive cuts sliced away at the Army’s strength. Now, even though the Army is fighting a strenuous war in Afghanistan that is at present involving 6 Infantry Battalions, the cutting mentality is still there – Politicians, as ever, are obsessed with peace dividends. Yet the other combat arms and supporting corps’ seem to have escaped the severity of cuts.

Perhaps it is a case of the Army looking at its structure? Whilst it is unwise to plan only for the current war, when the armed forces are looking at having such limited budgets, it is more important to win a war we are fighting now than to sacrifice it for a war we know nothing about. The Infantry time and time again have been the key force in wars, and the war in Helmand right now is very much an infantryman’s war. The Taliban and other asymetric forces fight in an old fashioned, guerilla manner, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that large numbers of troops are needed to hold and secure ground in this context.

Perhaps also it is time to look beyond the narrow specialised roles of infantry? The Cold War in particular led to a large number of armoured and mechanised infantry Battalions sat in Germany. Such units then took almost a year to retrain to serve on the streets of Northern Ireland. In my opinion the primary role of infantry should be exactly that, to fight as foot soldiers. Specialist roles such as armoured and air assault should be an additional flexibility that all are capable of. The British Army has an Air Assault Brigade, yet infantry units that are not part of this Brigade regularly take part in helicopter assaults.

If only the RAF can be persuaded to invest in troop-carrying helicopters and close-air support…

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Defence Green Paper predicts tough choices and big changes

The Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth today published a Green Paper ahead of the upcoming Strategic Defence Review. It can be read in full here.

Titled ”Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review’, the paper sets the terms of reference for the tough review on Defence spending and policy that is due to take place after the next General Election.

Obviously, the more discussion, debate and thinking that goes into shaping the review, the better. I do question how worthwhile Defence-based discussion will be, as the review is bound to be driven by Treasury policy. None the less, It is important for the Government, the MOD and the services to take a serious look at the issues involved.

Key Questions outlined are:

  • What contribution can the Armed Forces make to internal security within the UK?
  • How can the Armed Forces be more effective in supporting conflict prevention?
  • Do our international relationships need rethinking?
  • How closely should our armed forces integrate with allies?

The paper seems to conclude that the Armed Forces will have to become leaner and meaner, and to not become too focussed on specific threats but be able to react to new ones. The paper also underlines firmly that the days of the UK acting alone are long gone, and that in future all operations will be in partnership with allies. This will involve building closer links with the US and Europe in particular. This represents a huge change in sovereignty as we know it – the UK is no longer able to defend itself alone. Is this a reflection of changing international circumstances? Clearly, however, some big changes will have to take place.

The most perplexing conclusion of the review is that foreign policy, defence and international development should be more closely integrated. Why has this been dreamt up all of a sudden? The Iraq Inquiry has shown just how disparate these Government Departments have been. Especially when dealing with asymetric threats that require civil and military co-operation. This is especially sad, as the UK had long led the field in low-intensity warfare.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: “There is no more important function for Government than Defence. This Green Paper will stimulate debate about the future of Britain’s defence ahead of a Strategic Defence Review in the next Parliament. Afghanistan is the top priority today but we must also ensure that our Armed Forces are ready to confront the challenges of tomorrow. The current and emerging threats we face are characterised by uncertainty and will require a more flexible response from an adaptable Armed Forces.”

Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said: “I welcome this Green Paper. It is a first and a significant step on the road to the forthcoming Defence Review that will shape our security in the years ahead. The issues the Green Paper raises are of fundamental importance to all citizens of this country, and I look forward to a vigorous and widespread debate on them in the coming months.”

One does wonder, however, just how much input Sideshow Bob and His Airship Sir Jock will have into the review – for one, the Defence Secretary after May will probably be Tory. Will the Treasury simply hand the MOD cuts and expect them to make them? Probably. It is particularly galling for Ainsworth to talk about Defence as the most important function for the Government – this is not borne out in spending or decision making.

All the same, there will probably be some sharp debates over the next few months. Given the tribal nature of British armed forces expect to see the heads of the Navy, Army and Air Force to attempt to outdo each other. While this loyalty is admirable, it comes at the expense of a broader ‘UK Defence’ thinking. Loyalty should not come before objectivity. Units such as the RAF Regiment, for example, should not escape just because the RAF stamps its feet to keep it. Current expectations are that the RAF and Navy will bear the brunt of the cuts, but who knows what clever lobying may bring about?

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