Tag 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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Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

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PM refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya

I’ve seen various articles in recent days where the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that he refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya. Sadly it seems to be the the same old story of politicians cutting Defence to the bone and then when the proverbial hits the fan being only too happy to over-commit whats left.

I’m not sure on what mandate an international force could intervene in Libya. After the fiasco surrounding the United Nations and the lack of a resolution for action in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that any unilateral action could take place. The international community has little stomach for intervention at present – the debacle in Iraq – and to a lesser extent Afghanistan – has made politicians very wary of military action. US political and public opinion has never been overly keen on foreign intervention at the best of times, and with Gadaffi promising ‘another Vietnam’, many will be wary of getting involved. And the problems in Libya at the moment are not just limited to that country alone – they were sparked by protests in Tunisia and then Egypt, and there is similar unrest in other North African and Middle Eastern countries. How come the international community considers intervention in one case but not in others? Admittedly there is a difference in that Gadaffi is using his aircraft to bomb civilians protesting against him, and he has a track record of being an extremely difficult character.

Secondly, where are these military units going to come from that the Prime Minister plans to send to Libya? I wouldn’t mind betting that the Chiefs of Staff almost fainted when they read that Cameron plans to commit their ever-shrinking forces in another troublespot. Even as part of an international force within the UN, or more likely NATO – the UK would be able to contribute virtually nothing. It shows just how little Cameron and his Government understand about Defence, and how wrong it is that people with such poor judgement are running the Country’s defence.

Regular readers won’t need reminding that the Royal Navy warship leading the evacuation of British Citizens – HMS Cumberland – was on her last journey home before decommissioning. The other ship standing by, HMS York, is even more elderly than Cumberland. But using Frigates and Destroyers for evacuating British nationals from a trouble spot is ever so slightly overkill – like using a Ferrari to pop to the shop. A Bay Class LPD with a few Landing Craft and a helicopter or two would be ideal. If the worst come to the worst, it wouldn’t even need to dock, it could just sit off the coast and pick people up and drop off aid.

There has been talk of basing RAF fighters on Cyprus to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet the range from Cyrpus to Libya is considerable, and would prevent aircraft being on station for any length of time. The maximum operational range of the Eurofighter is 2,900 miles. Inn the Air Defence role with a 3 hour CAP it can operate at 185 kilometres, and with a ten minute loiter at 1,389 kilometres. It is at least 800 kilometres from Cyprus to the very western border of Libya, and twice that to Tripoli. Therefore Cyprus is barely an option, and the number of aircraft and air and ground crew required to maintain a worthwhile patrol would be considerable – aircraft that we simply do not have. Two years ago we could have sent an Aircraft Carrier plus escort to sit off the North African Coast. Not now – we don’t have one. It seems that ignorance of the flexibility and utility of the aircraft carrier is coming home to roost. Neither do we have the aircraft that could have overflown Libya and told us what Gadaffi is up to – ie, the scrapped Nimrod airframes.

Where are the ground forces to come from? Special Forces have almost certainly been in Libya already, providing close protection for RAF Hercules Transports evacuating Brits from remote desert locations. Given the frequency of tours to Afghanistan, and then when you factor in training, roulement, post-op shake down and the like, the maximum the Army could contribute would be in the region of one to three Battalions. Even then, that would place a huge strain alongside Afghanistan, particularly if any deployment in Lybia went on for too long. Rapid Reaction Forces used to be maintained for such an eventuality – particularly 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade – but at any given time these Brigades are usually either in Afghanistan, preparing to go or recuperating from a deployment.

If you want to be able to intervene in global troublespots as a world policeman – with the personal kudos that goes with it – then you need to back your armed forces to be able to do that job. If, however, you want to asset strip your Defence, then you have to accept that there will be things that you just cannot do any more. The situation is more serious than after the Nott cuts in 1981, when the Royal Navy just about managed to scrape together a task force.

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The vagaries of warship naming

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t think it would take long. There have already been calls for one of the Royal Navy’s new supercarriers to be renamed HMS Ark Royal. Even though a poll in today’s Portsmouth News showed that 94% of people asked did NOT want a new Ark Royal right away.

Personally, I just cannot agree. The names selected for the two ships – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – are fine, historic names. Classes of ships should all have logical names that follow a pattern. To have one ship names Ark Royal and another named something completely random would make no sense at all.

The problem is, there is a precedent. The current Ark Royal (RO7) was due to be named HMS Indomintable, alongside her elder sisters Invincible and Illustrious (both, incidentally, names as famous as Ark Royal, if not more so). But the popularity of the old Ark Royal, helped by the TV documentary Sailor, led to an outcry demanding that one of the new Invincible class carriers should be named Ark Royal in her honour. Sadly, in this case their Lordships made a rod for their successors backs.

A quick glance at Colledge and Wardlow’s Ships of the Royal Navy shows that the Royal Navy has literally hundreds of famous and proud names that it could call upon. The Navy had so many ships in years gone by, that it pretty much had to scrape the barrell for names – how else could you explain the fearsome sounding HMS Beaver? I remember a few years ago the letters that flew back and forth in the Navy News and Portsmouth News, complaining that sailors were expected to go to war in ships named after furry little animals or plucked from the road atlas of Great Britain.

If we really want to talk names for Aircraft Carriers, then we have plenty to choose from – Courageous, Glorious, Eagle, Hermes, Furious, Victorious, Formidable, Implacable, Indefatigable… I might have been tempted to go for Glorious and Courageous, both ships sunk in the Second World War, or Perhaps Invincible and Hermes in tribute to the Falklands War.

Reportedly the naming of the new Type 45 Destroyers aroused controversy. The previous class of Destroyers, the Type 42′s, were named after British cities. This was great for building up links with the respective city. Wisely, the Royal Navy decided to carry on with the ‘alphabet’ system of ship naming for Destoyers and Frigates. As the last sub-batch of the Type 22 Frigates were given ‘C’ names, the Type 45 became the ‘D’ class – Daring, Dauntless, Diamond, Defender, Dragon, Duncan. All historic, brave sounding names. Yet some of the cities who had been twinned with the old Type 42′s threw their toys out of the pram, refusing to take up links with the new ships and insisting that there should be an HMS ‘insert name of city here’.

There are some even more random naming controversies. HMS London, a Type 22 Frigate launched in 1984, was originally due to be called HMS Bloodhound, but was ‘renamed at the request of the Lord Mayor of London’. Aww, diddums. Her sister ship HMS Sheffield was originally to be called HMS Bruiser, and another sister HMS Coventry was supposed to be Boadicea. Bloodhound, Bruiser and Boadicea are all fine names. Perhaps we can understand the sentiment of naming ships after vessels that were sunk in war, but is rushing to rename ships of another class really a dignified way to do it?

I’m surprised that we haven’t had calls to name the new Antarctic icebreaker HMS Endurance. The Navy has been brave in announcing that she will be called HMS Protector, an old South Atlantic ship name with heritage and also sounds formidable. Who says that it absolutely has to be called Endurance anyway? A change of name makes a welcome change from the not so great publicity regarding the ship in recent years.

But please, let the name Ark Royal rest in dignity for a while, ready to sail again in years to come. Ship names should be a case of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. The Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence should issue a statement as soon as possible to shoot down all the spurious brownie point chasing. It’s quite distasteful.

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Last Harrier takes off from Ark Royal

The last Harrier jump jets took off from HMS Ark Royal yesterday. Click here to watch video footage on the BBC website.

The four Harrier GR9′s effectively marked the end of naval aviation as we know it, by taking off from the soon to be decommissioned flagship in the North Sea. The last take off comes over 30 years since the first Sea Harrier landed on the deck of a Royal Navy warship, and 28 years since the Sea Harrier was at the forefront of the fight to retake the Falkland Islands.

Lt Cdr James Blackmore was the last Harrier pilot to take off from the iconic ski-jump:

“It is amazing. I watched a Harrier hovering over Chatham dockyard when I was eight years old and I am now fortunate enough to be flying the Harrier today… It’s an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable.”

Captain Jerry Kyd said there was a tear in his eye when the last Harrier left. He showed extraordinary tact in the following statement:

“It was an emotional moment and also one of real pride as we look back over 25 years service to Queen and country… No naval officer wants to see any ship decommissioned early and she is a fine vessel and she has a fine history. She is at the peak of her efficiency but one understands that very difficult decisions have to be made across government.”

I wonder what Captain Kyd REALLY thinks?

Petty Officer Andrew Collins, 26, from Glasgow, described the situation in the usual directness of the British sailor:

“HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you.”

After a short visit to Hamburg in Germany, HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday 3 December. Port movements are only announced 24 hours in advance, but looking at the high tides that day, I would predict that she will arrive sometime around 9am or shortly after. Expect a Harrier flypast and tugs spraying water cannons, as well as huge crowds thronging old Portsmouth.

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Trafalgar Day – Historical Irony

Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758 1805

Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Image via Wikipedia)

How about this for historical irony? Only two days after the biggest defence cuts since 1945, and the day after a spending review that will change the face of Britain as we know it, Royal Navy warships in harbour are dressed overall in honour of Britain’s greatest ever naval victory.

21 October 1805

On 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar in Spain Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson‘s fleet closed with the combined French and Spanish fleet, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. Nelson proposed a revolutionary tactic, sailing two Squadrons into the enemy line at right angles, in order to split the French and Spanish into three and engage and defeat them piecemeal. Previous convention had been for fleets to sail in line parallel to each other, pounding away but making a decisive result difficult. But the ‘Nelson touch’, as outlined to his Captains by Nelson prior to the battle, brought about a pell-mell battle where the British crews superior gunnery almost always won out against the French who had been bottled up in port for long periods.

The victory at Trafalgar was the high water mark of British sea power, building on a fighting ethos and reputation that went back to Drake, and other lesser-known figures such as Vernon, Hood, Hawke and Howe. The daring and spirit shown by Nelson on that day in 1805 became a byword for British naval action, and men such as Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham expanded upon this example.

Modern historians and politicians may like to ignore Trafalgar and its significance (mainly given that we decimated the French and Spanish fleets), but it did mark the beginning of the end for Napoleon, a dictator who waged war across Europe and caused the deaths of millions. Trafalgar limited Napoleon’s ambitions, to the point where he was eventually defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815. 50 years peace in Europe was the result.

Whilst the British Empire had its origins far earlier than 1805 – the fleets of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the defeat of the Armada, anti-piracy operations in the West Indies and the growth of British India – Trafalgar heralded a prolonged period of British control of the worlds seas, that lasted arguably until the Second World War. Control of the seas allowed Britain to extend a commerical empire across all four corners of the globe, in North America, the Carribean, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.

21 October 2010

Only two days ago it was announced that the Royal Navy would be losing one aircraft carrier immediately and one soon after, one major landing ship, one destroyer, four frigates, and an auxilliary landing ship. This will leave the Royal Navy without air cover of its own, paper-thin amphibious capability (which is pointless anyway without air cover to protect it) and woefully short of escort hulls. Essentially, a whole task group is being mothballed.

Ever since 1805 British officers – and indeed sailors – have been brought up and trained that they are the ancestors of Nelson, Collingwood, Hardy and their men, and that even though weapons, ships and uniforms may change, the spirit remains the same. During the First World War Admirals and the public longed for a ‘second Trafalgar’ that would cripple the German fleet. And even though large fleet actions are a thing of the past, the sprirt has still been there – witness the service of officers such as Gerard Roope, William Hussey and David Wanklyn in the Second World War, and David-Hart Dyke, Chris Craig and John Coward in the Falklands. History matters.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the days of the British Empire and Britannia ruling waves are a distant memory, but even so since 1945 Britain has been riding the tail end of the global influence wave, thanks to the manner in which Britain and the Royal Navy are respected around the world. That respect will be a distant memory.

Not only are we talking about global influence and defence. Since time immaterial the Royal Navy has been a central part of British culture – Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column, Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak, Portsmouth, Greenwich… people who go to see have always been romanticised, whereas soldiers are frequently seen as the scum of the earth.

It’s probably too early to tell, but 19 October 2010 may well be the day on which British Sea Power really did sail into the sunset. There is not much, after all, that you can do with a clapped out Helicopter Carrier, one main landing ship, three auxilliary landing ships and 19 Destroyers and Frigates of varying quality.

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HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

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MOD organisation structure released

The Government has released organisation diagrams of all Departments, including the Ministry of Defence. It makes for pretty interesting reading indeed.

The diagrams show just how many deparments there are in the MOD. The chains of command are incredibly complicated, with all manner of civilians and officers involved. In most cases the diagram shows how many civilians and militarty personnel work for each person or department. In total it runs to 48 pages, covering the MOD centrally, the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force.

The first interesting point is that the main components of each service – eg Fleet, Land Forces, Air Command, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Defence Estates and Defence Equipment and support – are treated as separate from their services when it comes to budgeting. Divide and conquer perhaps, by making the services financially separate from their main components?

Another thing that strikes me is just how many senior officers work in MOD Head Office, and also civilian civil servants, all on significant salaries. This probably accounts for the oft-quoted figures about how the armed forces have more Admirals than major surface ships.

Thought it might make interesting reading for my regulars!

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Plan for Britain and France to ‘share’ Carriers

FS CdG11

FS Charles De Gaulle (Image via Wikipedia)

Rumours regarding defence cuts have reached a new level of lunacy, with reports that the Government is considering talks with France to share aircraft carriers.

The plan would see the two countries co-ordinate refit cycles, so that at least one aircraft carrier would always be at sea. In effect, what we would see is an Anglo-French task group. Which is all very well in theory when both countries are agreed on action, but what if – say, like with Iraq – there is disagreement about intervening? The UK would be powerless to contribute an aircraft carrier if Queen Elizabeth happened to be in refit.

Take, for example, the Falklands. If Argentina were to invade again, any task force to reclaim the islands would need air cover – which means an Aircraft Carrier. But imagine if Queen Elizabeth is in refit, are the French going to let us ‘borrow’ Charles De Gaulle? Very unlikely, in my opinion. In effect, this would mean a French veto on UK foreign and defence policy.

Even IF the plan could be made to work, it is unlikely to be very popular with either country, particularly the British and French sailors. There is nothing wrong with inter-state co-ordination (take, for example, the Anglo-Dutch Amphibious Group, a model joint poject), but it only works if the constituent parties are willing to work closely together and can rely on each other. Would a British Task Force get the same effective cover from Rafale’s flown from De Gaulle as it would from a Queen Elizabeth class with F-35′s? I doubt it. In any case, the CDG has been riddled with technical problems throughout her service life – a French former President even referred to her as ‘half an aircraft carrier’. The consensus seems to be that she is neither reliable nor effective.

Politically the French are unreliable. Long term enemies of Britain, the twentieth century may have seen France become an ally, but it has none the less been an uneasy entente cordiale. There is still animosity over Britain’s withdrawl from Dunkirk (I don’t know quite what else they expected us to do) and the destruction of the French Fleet in 1940 (again, what else could we have done?). De Gaulle made for a very uneasy bedfellow during the war (somehow managing to gain a status as a French hero without actually doing anything), and his withdrawal of France from NATO could have had disastrous results if the Warsaw Pact had rolled across the Iron Curtain. French Foreign policy – and Defence policy- is invariably governed by what is good for France, and not much more.

I’m not against co-operation, far from it. But it has to make sense and be workable. I did read a suggestion in a well-known warship magazine for closer co-operation amongst Commonwealth navies, which is something that would make a lot of sense. Not only do countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a head of state, but they also share much culturally, politically and linguistically. Such countries almost always find themselves co-operating in coalitions, alliances and operations. The only fly in the ointment might be public opinion in countries which are keen to assert their independence of the ‘mother country’.

Make no mistake about it, this is an accountant driven plan. It would enable the MOD to either make Prince of Wales a Commando Carrier, sell her to another country, or scrap her completely. Yet the cost to British Defence capabilities would far outweight the potential savings, which in any case might not be as much as hoped. And militarily, it makes about as much sense as the UK offering to sell Argentina the Bulwark or Albion LPD’s. But that is exactly what the French ARE trying to do – sell the Argentinians one of their landing ships…

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What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960′s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

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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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The British Army Journal

I’ve just finished reading the British Army Journal, a new publication I came across on the British Army website. Those of you out there who are interested in thinking about the changing nature of warfare should find it an interesting read.

It consists of over 200 pages of articles and analysis from senior officers, scholars, politicians, analysts and also naval and air force officers. It’s published by a private sector publishing company working with the Army, and, in the editor’s foreword, is aimed to encourage debate, including forwarding opinions and ideas that might run contrary to the MOD and the Army’s doctrine.

There are two things I admire about the British Army journal – making use of civilian knowledge, stimulating debate. And, of course, the two go hand in hand. Whilst since the Second World War the armed forces have no doubt modernised considerably, there is still a historical trend for the military to be rather conservative and insular when it comes to study, thought and theory. When we look at history, however, some of the most able theorists either came from civilian life, or had relatively little service – Basil Liddell Hart, for one. Rigorous debate, involving a range of different people, will almost always bring out the best ideas and challenge weaker assumptions.

There are also plenty of adverts from Defence Industry companies, which will be interesting for those who are keen on finding out about the latest vehicles and defence technology. Not that I will be able to afford a Warthog armoured vehicle any time soon… But it’s an idea of whats out there and what options are facing the Army.

The Army is to be congratulated for putting together such a forward-thinking publication. It goes beyond land operations; it looks at Defence in general in a joined-up manner. Not only is the Army the most prominent service at present thanks to Afghanistan, it does also seem to have a lead in intellectual thought. What I really like, above all, is that it doesn’t talk about ‘tanks this’ or ‘artillery that’, more about people and society.

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‘The Third World War’: History and its effect on Defence Policy

I’ve just finished reading a quite remarkable book by General Sir John Hackett (he of Arnhem fame, who commanded by Grandad’s Parachute Brigade there). Known as the finest Soldier-Scholar of his age, and with a wealth of degrees to his name, Hackett put part of his retirement to imagining the circumstances, strategy and tactics of a Third Word war in the mid-1980′s world. Not only did this far-sighted book look at military, but also social and geopolitical factors. Also, Hackett showed a rare intelligence and fair-mindedness when commenting on Air Force and Naval issues.

Whilst it is ever so slightly in the realms of ‘what-if’ – something of a bane for historians – it is a very educated ‘what-if’. But something that was fairly concrete, was British Defence Policy from around 1947-ish until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone knew that the main threat emanated from Soviet Russia and the Warsaw pact, and the only discourse among the armed forces and politicians was about how exactly to face up to this threat. Certainly, there were disagreements – such as the RAF altering maps to support its claim that it could provide air cover for the Navy anywhere in the world – but on the whole, the arguments were about the how, not the what.

It also harks back to a time when British Defence policy had a firm anchor – ie, the Cold War. The Government was under no illusions as to the major commitments facing the British armed forces – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact as the likely opponents, with a large army based in Northern Germany, an anti-submarine based Navy, and a constant nuclear deterrent. Lesser commitments included Northern Ireland and defence of an ever-decreasing number of possessions abroad. But, largely, these commitments were known, and planned for accordingly.

Since the collapse of communism, defence policy has, to an extent, been in a vacuum. And given that the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland has effectively wound down since the Good Friday agreement, defence policy has been at even more of a loose end. British Forces have been involved in conflicts – principally in intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building – in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leonne, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The British Army in particular has built up quite an experience base of wars-among-the-people, originating in Northern Ireland. Indeed, others – such as the US – have often wondered if the UK has ‘gone soft’ when it comes to traditional warfighting.

Its an often quoted phrase that armed forces plan to fight the last war. This might be over-exaggerating things – in some cases, such as in the Second World War, officers like Monty were at pains to fight their wars to avoid the errors of their predecessors in the Great War. But in the same sense, the last conflict does inevitably have a huge bearing, in one way or another, on the planning for the next one. It could also be said, that in a strategic vacuum where no threat is perceived, then senior officers are liable to plan for the kind of war that they would like to fight – witness the British Army after 1918 going back to its Imperial policing roots, or the modern RAF with its Cold War-like stance over fighter jets.

So, where do we find ourselves now? In the short to medium future, it would be hard to argue that the UK faces the threat of a state-on-state war. The large countries that might pose a threat in the long-term – China and Russia, for example – might produce bluff and bluster with the west occasionally, but this is a long way from all-out war. The over-riding threats do seem to be asymetric – in terms of extremist terrorists, or perhaps in terms of failed states that might implode and require intervention – Yemen, or possibly even Pakistan for example.

And, in the present economic climate, where funding is likely to be tight for the forseable future, it will be impossible to be completely prepared for any eventuality – the funds simply do not allow it. It is a case of priorities, and – in a world where it is hard to assess threats and priorities – the most prudent course of action would seem to be to retain a capability to adapt at short to medium notice as threats emerge. But, also, it is fair to ask ourselves, are we holding onto capabilities and assets simply because we’re not sure what to do with them, or because they would have been useful in the last war?

The example of the pre-war mechanisation of the Cavalry is a case in point. The First World War should have made it clear to all and sundry that the tank was going to be a force in wars of the future. Yet after 1918 the Cavalry clung onto their horses well into the 1930′s – largely for sentimental reasons, or through a fear of change itself. Therefore the British Army of 1939 found itself far behind Nazi Germany when it came to armoured warfare. There were undoubtedly officers in the Army who would gladly have kept their horses, and would have seen British soldiers galloping off to war against the Panzers. Britain only formed its Airborne Forces in 1940 – long after Russia, Germany, or indeed Poland – because the Army as a whole looked on special forces as ‘not cricket’.

Are – and I am asking myself the question here, as much as anyone else – main battle tanks and fast fighter jets relics of the Cold War, much as the horse was a relic of Nineteenth Century British Army? Its perhaps not a perfect comparison – after all, I would not advocate completely scrapping all Challengers or Eurofighters – but maybe retaining a core element, expandable in times of crisis, would be more sensible? These are the kind of tough but searching questions that should be asked.

I guess the lesson from history is, you never have the luxury of picking what war you get to fight, nor of picking exactly how you want to fight it – unless you start it, of course. But when threats are not apparent, you should leave yourself able to respond as quickly as possible. And you do this by not over-commiting yourself in any one direction.

But to do that, we would need politicians who firstly won’t let the Treasury hold them hostage, and secondly, senior officers who can think holistically about UK Defence rather than their own service and their own places in the history books…

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Trident to be funded from MOD budget

The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.

Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.

The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.

Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.

The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960′s.

The RUSI proposes four alternatives:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.

Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.

Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.

Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.

Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.

Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.

Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940′s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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