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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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Guthrie: cuts ‘essential’

A former Head of Britain’s Armed Forces has warned that the Ministry of Defence is not fit for purpose. In a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank considered the options for the looming Strategic Defence Review, due after the General Election.

Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff during the last Strategic Defence Review in 1998, and thus has much experience of working through the trying process of a Review.

Guthrie outlined three options:

  • to give the defence budget a large increase (unlikely)
  • to make large cuts, particularly to equipment programmes, and ruthlessly to prioritise
  • Third to do nothing (impossible)

Guthrie said, “The second option is the only realistic choice. There is actually a very good case for increasing defence spending although alas there appears very little hope of this happening whatever Government appears after the next election.”

Like all other Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, Guthrie advocates his own service. This is not un-natural. The key thrust of his speech seems to be that the Army must be protected at all costs, as current and future threats point to a need for more troops, not less. In Guthrie’s opinion, savings should be found in ‘nice to have, but non-essential’ assets such as the huge purchase of Eurofighters, 2 large new aircraft carriers and the need to renew the Strategic Nucear Deterrent. While the Admirals and Air Marshals will cry foul, in hindsight (always a wonderful thing) they set themselves up for cuts by ordering such expensive programmes at all.

I believe that Guthrie is correct with his ‘nice to have, but not essential’ theory. It would be nice if we could a vast fleet and an air armada, but in challenging economic times we cannot afford to be all things to all people. In the same manner, we cannot afford to plan accurately for every future threat that we may face, and we should especially not try to do this at the expense of current conflicts. The irony is, that failure in current conflicts would seriously affect the future wars in any case.

Aside from talking about the Armed Forces, Guthrie also posed serious questions about the MOD itself. “Dr John Reid, when he moved from Defence to the Home Office questioned whether it was fit for purpose. Could he have asked the same question about the MoD?” The mishandling of procurement in particular does suggest that large parts of the MOD are unfit and inefficient. And if the ‘front-line’ services have to face cuts, surely the MOD should contract in line with them?

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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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Brown’s Iraq evidence ‘disingenuous’: a historical perspective

Hot on the heels of Gordon Brown’s appearance at the Iraq Inquiry, two former heads of the Armed Forces have described his evidence as ‘not true’ and ‘disingenuous’.

Lord Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff between 1997 and 2001, said “The whole defence budget was extremely difficult to run in his time. For Gordon Brown to say he has given the military all they asked for is not true. They asked for more helicopters but they were told they could not have any more.”

Lord Boyce, his successor from 2001 until 2003, said “He [Gordon Brown] is dissembling, he’s being disingenuous. It’s just not the case that the Ministry of Defence was given everything it needed. There may have been a 1.5 per cent increase in the defence budget but the MoD was starved of funds.”

The Prime Minister had stated in his evidence to the Iraq Inquiry that the Armed Forces were given everything that they had asked for before and during the Iraq War. After Guthrie and Boyce’s comments a Downing Street Spokesman claimed that no ‘request for equipment had ever been turned down’.

This is hard to believe in the extreme. It is the job of the Defence Staff to ask for what they need. It is also the job of the Chancellor and the Treasury to try and keep down exenditure. Somewhere in the middle should be negotiations that lead to a workable budget. It might sound good to say defence should get a blank cheque, but we must be realistic about this – you shouldnt write cheques that you cannot cash. But by the same token, you shouldn’t expect your forces to do what you want without equipping them properly.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, who retired as head of the British Army last year, said that “Defence inflation runs higher than normal inflation so when additional money has gone to defence over the years, the spending power of that money has reduced… in 2003, the Treasury reopened an agreement on funding it had with the Ministry of Defence and effectively cut £1bn out of our budget year on year.”

Dannatt also claimed that while Brown was right that Urgent Operational Requirements were usually accepted, there were underlying problems due to long-term underfunding of the Armed Forces. History would appear to prove him right. Ever since the end of the Cold War Governments have sought to keep defence spending as low as possible.

The current situation has striking parallels with the funding of the Armed Forces between 1918 and 1939. After the mass slaughter on the western front, naturally enough Britain hoped that she would never again have to fight such a devestating war. And as for many years there was no visible prospect of another world war, Defence Spending was drastically cut. The Royal Navy declined in size.

The Conservative Government of the 1920′s played a conspicuous part in leaving Britain woeufully under-prepared for war in 1939. A policy was put in place that assumed that the country would have to take part in no major war for at least 10 years. The ’10 year rule’ led to a lack of long-term investment in defence. Such a long-term inertia takes a long term to turn around.

This was shown not only in the numbers of men and units in the forces, but also their equipment. In particular, British tanks were hopelessly inadquate when compared to the German Panzers. Britain was forced into pressing into action makeshift weapons such as the the Sten Gun, as it was quick, cheap and easy to produce, even though it had very mixed results.

The irony is, that from their accession to power in 1933 until war broke out in 1939, it had only taken six years for Europe to slide to war. Clearly 10 years was far too long a period to look into the future. When in the mid 1930′s it seemed that war with Germany was inevitable, Britain was already playing catch up. As a result she had to rely largely on american lend-lease equipment, and fighting the war left her essentially bankrupt. There are some historians who argue that Britain’s appeasement policy prior to 1939 was her only option, given how unprepared she was to fight.

Much as a lack of investment in the 1920′s and 30′s led to the British Armed forces being wholly unprepared for war in 1939, so a lack of investment since the end of the Cold War seems to have left them struggling to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 onwards. Much of the equipment the Army have used in Iraq and Afghanistan was designed for fighting in the Cold War, on the North German plains – the Warrior Armoured Vehicles in particular.

The lesson is clear – long-term under-investment in the armed forces has effects out of all proportion to the relatively small savings that can be made. Usually, the mad scramble to prepare for an unforseen war ends up costing more anyway. Surely that fact that so many Urgent Operational Requirements are needed at all is evidence of the problem?

By the way, who was the Chancellor who set in place the 10 year rule?

A certain Winston Churchill, no less.

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MOD ‘wastes millions’ on unfit procurement, says committee

The MoD is spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year unnecesarily because it has commissioned more work than it can afford to pay for, a Parliamentary report has found.

The Commons Defence Select Committee found that both major pojects and acquisitions are running at unaffordable levels. A prime example is the delay of the Future Carrier Programme. This has achieved short term savings but bigger long term cost increases. The £674 million-plus cost of delay represents over ten per cent of the current estimated total cost of £5.2 billion for the two carriers.

The most shocking finding of the committee, however, is that the MOD has been delaying projects without considering whether the full extent of these delays will lead to higher costs in the long-run. If true, it is hard to escape the conclusion that short-termism is ruling Defence procurement.

The Report also criticises the management of the lengthy development of the FRES programme to produce a new family of armoured vehicles – now effectively closed. It is not clear whether the end of this programme is due to cost implicatons of a change in the operational requirments for armoured vehicles.

Chairman of the Committee, James Arbuthnot, says “We have tried on many occasions in the past to elicit details about FRES from the MoD without ever receiving clear answers. We can only conclude, with regret, that the MoD has none to give.” During the inquiry, the MoD told the Committee that it had reduced the overall equipment funding gap from £21 billion in 2008 to £6 billion in 2009 but could not explain how this had been achieved. I’m really not sure how they can claim to have made such savings but have no idea how they happened!

The research and technology budget has fallen from £540 million in 2007-08 to £471 million in 2009-10 and will decrease further in 2010-11 to £439 million. This fall in investment in research and development will have long-term implications for the Defence Industry, all for the sake of relatively small short term savings.

It does seem that there is no one at the helm at the MOD. Why the lack of transparency? Why such poor financial management? The MOD is supposed to be about military operations, not sloppy planning and incompetence. Behind the numbers, there are en going to war with indequate equipment. Are the Treasury and No 10 driving the MOD remotely? It does seem so. There is something sad about our armed forces higher management having to firefight from one budget to the next.

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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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The Future Defence Review: RUSI Analysis

Whichever Political Party wins the expected General Election in May 2010, there is bound to be a Strategic Defence Review which will set out the policy for not only the UK’s Armed Services but also foreign policy for the next decade, with longer term implications far beyond that.

Looking at a Defence Review purely with military binoculars is short-sighted. The review will be taking place in the context of both domestic and international developments. The Government is under pressure to reduce the national budget deficit and to reduce spending. Education, Health and Social Services are very unlikely to face cuts for political reasons. In this coming age of austerity, Defence is almost certainly bound to be one of the sectors that will face cuts. Major projects such as the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Future Surface Combatant and the projected new SSBN Submarines will all come under close scrutiny.

There is an international perspective too. As a key member of the EU, NATO and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has a significant role in international politics. Without capable armed forces, the UK’s international standing will be undermined to the point of talking but not acting – unable to contribute to peacekeeping forces, for example. And in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world, hallmarked by global terrorism and piracy, it is hard to see where the next threat will come from.

The Royal United Services Institute, a respected think tank on Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs is running analysis on the Future Defence Review. They have already released some very useful working papers on the background to the review, on Defence Spending in Austerity, Military Strategic Options, Multilateral approaches to Security and ‘Jointery’ in the MOD and the armed forces.

Daly History will be covering and commenting on the Defence Review, and indeed Defence issues in the coming General Election.

Click here to look at the RUSI’s Future Defence Review analysis

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Navy and RAF hit by Defence cuts

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been hit by a round of spending cuts.

The Portsmouth Evening News reports that one minesweeper and one survey vessel will be decommissioned. There are also strong rumours that the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance, which needs extensive repairs after almost sinking a year ago, may not be replaced. Whilst it will be sad if Endurance does go, the UK does have a permanent patrol ship in the Falklands, HMS Clyde, as well as a Frigate or Destroyer and RFA vessel on station all-year round.

The BBC News website reports that RAF Cottesmore, the base for the Joint Force Harrier, will be closed and all Harriers transferred to RAF Wittering. The Harrier force, however, will be taken out of service earlier than planned. This will almost certainly be before its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be available, leaving a huge gap in ground attack and naval air power capabilities. Might this also lead to the Invincible Class Aircraft Carriers being phased out earlier than planned, as there will be no planes capable of operating from them?

The Tornado GR Force will also lose one Squadron, from either RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Marham. The Tornado’s are due to be phased out in favour of the Eurofighter in coming years. There may also be cuts in the Nimrod reconaissance aircraft fleet.

The cuts are being made in order to fund the purchase of 22 new Chinook Heavy lift helicopters, bringing the RAF’s total fleet up to 70. The Chinook is an incomparable aircraft and has proved invaluable in Afghanistan. Cynics have questioned why the contract has been given to Boeing, a US Company, but the answer is that no UK company is capable of building a similar size aircraft.

These cuts, whilst demonstrating that the Ministry of Defence has as lot of work to do to get its house in order and can expect no increase in funding, must be welcomed as refocussing on our priorities and taking account of financial realities. When you have limited funds you have to prioritise.

Andrew Brookes, a former RAF pilot and director of the Air League, told BBC News: “If you cut back the premier league capability of the UK forces in order to just win a counter insurgency campaign against the Taliban, which has no air force and has no tanks and has no warships, when you finally do pitch up against a state that has those capabilities you could seriously end up losing a conflict that really matters to the UK in future in order to win one in Afghanistan today.” The almost sneering reference to a ‘counter-insurgency campaign’ is most unhelpful and based more on partisan loyalties than wider UK defence interests. The Cold War finished 20 years ago, yet some seem determined to keep fighting it.

The RAF has historically eschewed combined operations, and has for many years seen its independence as a service based in fast Jets. In comparison, it has given a low priority to supporting the Army with transport or ground attack aircraft as these roles undermine its independence. That the Army has to have its own Apache helicopter gunships says a lot. The reason that the RAF has had to be strong-armed into buying more helicopters now is that it has neglected its helicopter support role for many years in the first place.

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