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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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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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Defence Review – the rumour mill gathers pace

The mudslinging and inter-service squabbling regarding the Strategic Defence review has reached an undignified level in the past few days.

Firstly, Colonel Richard Kemp was quoted in the Sunday Express as saying that he would rather see an end to the three independent services than see the Army lose a single Infantry Battalion. Its probably worth pointing out that although Colonel Kemp is usually quoted as ‘former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan’, this was quite some time ago, prior to the current Helmand deployment.

In the Portsmouth News today Read Admiral Chris Parry stated that Kemp’s idea was ‘silly’, and that “No one in the services would go for it. The Canadians tried it and it was disastrous from a morale point of view and they couldn’t do their jobs properly.” Parry’s comments sound very much like a hissy fit. And whilst morale is very important, I wonder if the average sailor would be hugely bothered? I wonder whether the Canadian Forces structure is really as bad as Parry suggests – I doubt it.

These retired officers have clearly never heard of the dictum ‘when the armed forces argue, only the Treasury wins’. Will no-one poke their head above the parapet and at least say something constructive and realistic about UK Defence as a whole, rather than arguing their own corner and to hell with everyone else? No-one wants to go down in history as the commander who sold their service down the river, but once again the bigger picture seems to suffer.

By being so partisan and parochial, serving and retired officers are unwittingly making themselves into even juicier targets in the long-run. If they cannot come up with reasonable proposals for restructuring, then there is more chance that the Treasury will simply impose cuts arbitrarily.

This all comes as details emerge of possible cuts in the armed forces as a result of the Defence Review:

Royal Nacy Cuts

  • 2,000 personnel
  • 3 Amphibious Assault Ships
  • 2 Submarines

Apparently the Bay Class Landing Ships are seen as most vulnerable, and there has been talk of mothballing one of the Albion Class LDP’s. Both possibilities are ever so slightly ludicrous – the Bay Class ships have been great value and flexible platforms – landing ships, aid, disaster relief, transports, mother ships… Cutting Amphibious capability severely limits power projection. The possible cost of the 2 new Aircraft Carriers is all too evident now.

Army Cuts

  • 2,000 front line troops, plus 5,000 from Germany by 2015
  • 40% of Tanks, tracked artillery and Warrior armoured vehicles
  • Territorial Army cut from 32,000 to 15,000

It seems that the plan is to draw down the Army’s presence in Germany – this has already been slowly happening since 1990, and recently with the move of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps from Rheindalen to the UK, and 4 Mechanised Brigade from Germany to York. British Forces in Germany are in the main armoured, a legacy of the BAOR of the Cold War. Eventually the Army’s presence in Germany will probably consist of use of the huge Sennelager training area. Most commentators agree that in the current climate the Army is too armour-heavy, although whether 40% is the right level to cut remains to be seen. Cutting the TA by more than 50% is also likely to raise eyebrows.

RAF Cuts

  • 7,000 out of 42,000 personnel
  • All 120 Tornado Fighters/Ground Attack Aircraft
  • Combat Aircraft cut from 250 to less than 200
  • Joint Strike Fighter buy cut from 150 to less than 50

The early retirement of the Tornado before it has been fully replaced will undoubtedly leave a huge gap in the RAF’s inventory, with only a few Squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoons currently in service. In addition, the proposal to buy less than 50 JSF would seriously reduce the RAF’s close air support capability. And what it means for the Fleet Air Arm’s JSF plans, who knows? As with the Aircraft Carriers causing the loss of Assault Ships, it seems that the need to operate Eurofighter comes at the expense of other combat aircraft. Thankfully, there is no mention of any cuts to the RAF’s transport aircraft or helicopters – functions which the junior service has neglected somewhat in the past.

It should be added of course that there has been no indication of where these details actually came from… of course it could be a load of rubbish someone has made up… or, on the other hand, it could be something that the MOD has floated out to gauge opinion?

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UFO’s

For some years now the Ministry of Defence has been looking at reports of Unidentified Flying Objects over Britain. This is strictly from a Defence perspective, in that any unidentified objects flying in UK airspace have to investigated, whether they are flying saucers, wayward airliners or Soviet Fighters.

The files regarding UFO’s are deposited with the National Archives, and are made available to the public periodically. The latest batch of documents released comes from the period 1995 to 2003, and includes all kinds of letters, drawings, parliamentary questions, and even a 100-1 bet on alien life forms.

I can’t say I’ve ever been into the whole Sci-Fi, UFO thing… I find the realm of the real and known more interesting than imaginary spacemen and flying apparitions. But in the interests of research – and knowing that the National Archives get a lot of queries from UFO enthusiasts, I thought I would take a look at the documents that have just been released.

My overall impression is that the Ministry of Defence seems to get inundated with letters from UFO-hunters and, for want of a better term, sci-fi geeks convinced that ‘the truth is out there’. Frequently letters seem to allege that the MOD is part of a cover-up, or is somehow hiding evidence, and much of the Ministry officials time seems to have been spent explaining what exactly their role is. Primarily, this is that as long as their is no threat, then the matter is not investigated further. A common misbelief seems to have been that the section of the MOD tasked with assessing unidentified objects – the Air Staff – was a paranormal investigation unit, like Mulder and Scully. Some people even wrote in enquiring about ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, that hardly fit under the UFO description.

In most cases – in fact, all cases, come to think of it – the only hard evidence is one or two people having seen strange visions in the night sky. However you like at it, this is hardly reliable concrete proof of anything.

Some of the letters received by the Ministry are – even allowing for individuals and their interests – nothing short of laughable, along the lines of ‘I am interested in UFO’s and I want to know more about them, please tell me all about them’. One correspondent wrote to the MOD, and stated ‘I hope you received my last letter. However, I never received a reply’ perhaps the MOD was busy with more important matters, maybe?). Some letter writers kept on replying, refusing to accept the MOD’s answers. Some determined individuals even addressed their letters to Cabinet Ministers, then no doubt wondered why they did not get a reply direct from them. One couple even forwarded some drawings from their 7 year old son, who they claimed had worked out how UFO’s could fly.

One letter was received from the ‘Birmingham UFO Society’, complete with spaceship letterhead. It listed 7 sightings in the Midlands over a period of several months, and asked the MOD for any information. Another writer stated that it was his ‘lifes ambition’ to find the ‘true origin of UFO’s’. One correspondent from South Wales asked what the MOD’s policy was on alien abduction. The answer? ‘human abduction is a matter for the civil police’! The Thameside UFO Study Group entered into a lengthy correspondence with the MOD – which must have had the civil servant concerned pulling his hair out – which ended with the UFO enthusiast writing ‘PLEASE TELL ME!’

Another letter was received by a Gentleman from Gosport, a former RAF serviceman. Walking home one night in 1960 or 1961, he saw a strange, cigar shaped object hovering over ASWE on Portsdown Hill, bathed in lights. Then, nearer home, he saw two Gloster Meteor jets flying low over Gosport. As he rightly mentions, jets do not ordinarily fly low over built-up areas, so was this some kind of emergency? He rang Thorney Island RAF base, and was told that he had NOT seen a UFO, or any jet fighters! The MOD were unable to shed any light on this incident.

One interesting set of statistics in the file I looked at is the total number of UFO reports in any one year. There were very few in the 1950’s or early 60’s, but in the late 60’s and 70’s they peaked at 750 in 1978, before falling again. Is it a coincidence at all that this came when psychadelic drugs and sci-fi appeared on the scene?

It’s hard to escape the fact that there was, and indeed is, no hard evidence of UFO’s being some kind of alien life form. Whilst some people interested in the subject were no doubt genuine, a large proportion seem to have let their interest get carried away and believed that the X-Files was real. What makes me really sad, however, is that they were wasting a large amount of time of a department tasked with running Britain’s Armed Forces – surely civil servants and officers based at the MOD have better things to do than chase up stories about little green men?

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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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Contract signed for next phase of Type 26 warship project

The MOD has recently signed a contract with BAE systems for the Assessment Phase of the Royal Navy’s planned Type 26 combat ship, the next generation of British warships.

A joint BAE-MOD team will work on designs for the Type 26 class, which are due to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates by the end of the decade. The Type 26 nomenclature has been used, as the Type 24 and Type 25 Frigates were projects that never left the drawing board. By giving the project a formal Type name, the MOD is making it seem that much more of a reality.

According to the official MOD press release, the purpose of the Assessment phase will be to ensure ‘…that the necessary capabilities identified during the Strategic Defence Review are incorporated into the Type 26 design’.

The published key design aims for the Type 26 are for a ship that is:

• Versatile – able to undertake a number of roles;
• Flexible – to adapt to the changing needs of defence;
• Affordable – both in build and support through its service life;
• Exportable – designed with the international market in mind.

I have long thought that these ships will be very important to the future of the Royal Navy. The design aims seem to be broadly sensible, and of course affordability will be important in the current economic climate. That the Assessment phase is largely dependant on the Strategic Defence Review may seem worrying, but it is also pragmatic – there is no sense in forging ahead with a project that may be cancelled or radically altered. And ship design and procurement needs to work within the broader strategic context.

The Royal Navy is currently far behind many of its allies where smaller escort ships are concerned – the Danish Absalon and the Swedish Visby classes are examples of this. Its crucial that the Type 26 is delivered.

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Endurance report highlights effects of undermanning

HMS Endurance in Portsmouth Harbour

HMS Endurance in Portsmouth Harbour

The report into the 2008 flooding of HMS Endurance has highlighted the serious effects of undermanning in the Royal Navy. The report can be found here.

On 16 Deceme 2008 HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, suffered serious engine room flooding off the southern tip of Chile that very nearly resulted in the loss of the ship. At the time of the incident the crew were cleaning a seawater inlet strainer. During the operation a remotely operated valve opened, causing flooding.

However, the roots of the incident can be traced back to the decision to deploy Endurance to the South Atlantic for 18 months, in order to save money – the report suggesting that she deploy for such a long stretch identified financial cost as the only caveat. The challenge of meeting such a long deployment was met by implementing a crew rotation described as ‘between managed gapping and a formal three watch system’ – euphemisms for undermanning. As a result at times the ship would be short of key personnel. At the time of the planned 18 month deployment a need was identified for an additional Petty Officer Engineer, but this need was no met due to fleet-wide shortages of this role.

In October 2007 Endurance completed her Operational Sea Training, and apparently performed well. During this period, however, she had not adopted her new manning regime, so the assessment was effectively meaningless. Surely if the ship had been inspected while operating the new manning regime, the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) would have identified problems?

Apparently during the deployment Endurance was producing much less fresh water than was considered normal (one of the ships laundries was closed down, and the crew were told to conserve water) and the engineering department attempted to identify why and rectify the problem. A blocked inlet strainer was identified. However, after cleaning two pipes were re-connected incorrectly.

The panel found that there was not enough expertise onboard regarding the fresh water system, and the Engineering Officer was not sufficiently aware of how the system worked. The panel also found that lack of manpower meant that Senior Ratings who were supposed to be acting in a supervisory role were having to be involved in manual maintenance tasks. This lack of senior ratings also led to poor co-ordination and risk assessment. The recently arrived CO also told the panel that he felt the Engineering Department was ‘set in its ways’ as too many of its personnel had been on Endurance for a long time.

That the ships crew managed to save the ship in such challenging circumstances is testament to their inherent professionalism. It is just a shame that they and HMS Endurance were put in such a position, primarily due to financial constraints. We should remember as well that this is an ice patrol ship operating in peacetime conditions – what sort of conditions are there on Warships, and what effect would this undermanning and cost-cutting have during wartime?

The report did not recommend any charges to be brought against the ships crew. Surely this is a tacit admission that the causes of the incident were based on cost-cutting from above. As a result, 2 years later, Endurance is still laid up in Portsmouth, awaiting a decision on whether she will be repaired or scrapped.

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