Saturday, 3 October 2015

Fudge, Farce and a few buzz words

Well, well, well. Back again.

Obviously I've been absent for a while now. I'm not even going to go into it. Suffice to say I'm done and dusted with that drama and moving swiftly on. So what's happened while I've been quiet?

Err, not a great deal to be honest. SDSR2015 is still in the works and remarkably there hasn't been that much briefing and counter-briefing through the press this time. Which either means that everyone is getting along fine at the MoD and/or expected cuts are not that bad, or that something very nefarious is going down at the main building. The only real leak of any substance, and it wasn't even really a leak (more speculation) is that the RAF might be allowed to keep a hold of its Tranche 1 Typhoons for a bit longer, along with pushing back the out of service date of Tornado which will grow the airforce at least in the short term. On the face of it that seems sensible, though I've seen more than a few comments that this might actually in practice prove to be something of an accounting fudge where the total number of aircraft available for operational use at any one time actually remains about the same as it is now. We'll see.

Speaking of accounting fudges, David Cameron's pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence seems to be coming back to haunt the budget makers. Scurrilous rumours abound that the MoD is in fact trying to shore up the budget by stuffing in just about any spending that it can get its hands on, desperately trying to hit the 2% mark. Or at least they were scurrilous rumours, until it was discovered that that is exactly what the Treasury and MoD have been doing, shifting spending from other areas of government into the MoD budget to create savings elsewhere, while plugging holes that have emerged in defence spending due to various cut backs and efficiency savings.

In general though everyone seems quite optimistic that defence is in a good place right now. I'm not so certain to be honest. There is a lot of spending on the horizon that still has to be accommodated, such as new Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), work on the successor submarines to the Trident carrying Vanguards, the full draw down of units from Germany, new Type 26 Frigates, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), plus a host of other programs large and small. I wonder if it's all going to fit inside the current budget projections? We'll see. I can't see any major scythe swinging ahead, unless it's to make way for a radical policy shift by government such as a transformation to a highly naval and/or air dominant approach. I suspect it's more likely to just be a bit of hedge clipping.

Labour on the other hand have now finished making themselves unelectable in 2020 and so have begun work on their own shadow defence review. That got off to a sterling start when they had to shop around the job of Shadow Defence Secretary to multiple people, desperately looking for someone who would actually take it. Eventually the list got down as far as Maria Eagle, who was interviewed for the position it would seem over the phone, in the space of about ten minutes. Nothing quite like appointing a highly important member of the shadow cabinet on the basis of 'Do you want a job? Nobody else wants this,' etc.

That in itself is damning of both the Labour party and the musical chairs approach to senior government that seems to be par for the course in all of UK politics, but it's probably more damning of the state that defence in the UK has got itself into. It's no longer a prestige position, one which any MP would give their right arm to be involved in. Granted the Labour leader was somewhat constrained by the fact that many of his MPs had no real desire to work with him personally (or more likely to be closely associated with the coming catastrophe), and as such a number of experienced and sharp individuals were effectively removed from the selection process by default. But still, augur well for the future and the prestige of the position it does not.

The shadow review will be quite interesting when released though. Not least because it's likely to advocate the renewal of the UK's Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) (a.k.a "Trident"), when just the other day the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he wouldn't be prepared to push the "nuclear button" if the time came for him to make such a choice. But at least Labour's approach to defence has been consistent so far; consistently farcical that is.

Speaking of farcical defence policy, Syria is going well I see. President Obama may be a "lame duck" so to speak, but he is still the President of the United States of America and as such considered one of the most powerful men in the world right now, the leader of the free world etc. Yet inaction - actually worse, half hearted action - has now given Russian President Vladimir Putin room to squeeze in to an already crowded scenario, virtually guaranteeing the survival of the Assad regime. You remember Assad, that nice fella that used chemical weapons against his own people? Very Saddam Hussein.

You just get the sense that gradually the whole situation is slipping away from Obama and his allies, which includes the UK, like a scene from an action or adventure movie where the protagonist bravely struggles to cling on to the wrist of a companion who is dangling over a deadly drop, his grip gradually failing. ISIL/ISIS, whatever you want to call them, are at least being contained now. But the situation looks progressively like heading towards a stalemate unless the Iraqis and Kurds get some serious help. It's been a foreign policy failure for the west I would argue, one that doesn't look like it's going to turn around any time soon, which is immensely depressing.

One wonders then (for one has brought one's posh mode back with him) what the long term outlook for UK defence is? It seems that the UK struggles fundamentally with two things right now; bold, concise, strategic decision making, and expectation/media management. Obviously it has a host of other problems, but those are the two that are doing the most damage to the UK's reputation on defence matters both home and abroad, and have done so for many years.

Ask yourself this question; what is the UK's strategy for fighting ISIS/ISIL/theguysinblack (TGIB) in Iraq? Any takers?

Because (I know you shouldn't start a sentence with "because", thank you), from where I'm sitting in my lofty armchair there doesn't appear to be one other than 'Fly some aircraft over Iraq, drop the occasional bomb or fire the occasional Brimstone at a fleeting target, take some video, send Sentinel to monitor enemy movements, train a few people on the ground in medicine, logistics and a bit of heavy weapons use', but not a lot else. There doesn't seem to be a coherent plan with a stated aim. I suspect someone somewhere in the military chain of command has one, and obviously they're not going to print its details on Wikipedia for all to see (and humorously alter), but surely the government can provide a little more clarity over its approach?

Yet to make things worse the government is now feeling out support among MPs for a possible vote on allowing UK aircraft to bomb targets in Syria. As if there weren't enough targets in Iraq, or that the Americans didn't have enough firepower to handle the Syrian leg of the ISIL problem itself. You would have thought the government would at least focus the UK's modest resource contribution on one thing at a time, where it can make the most immediate difference, such as supporting Kurdish forces in Iraq pushing south and west trying to drive ISIS back.

The UK's approach to strategy has always seemed a little schizophrenic at times but right now it seems to be in freefall, flitting between tough rhetoric and firm commitments, to half-baked plans and cautious probing of a situation, to an outright sense that nobody in Whitehall seems to know what is going on and nobody is taking the lead. It's not so much "Lions led by Donkeys" as "Lions being led into a field and then left to wander around until someone figures out what to do with them next". There's no clear goal in Iraq it would appear, beyond vague statements about eradicating ISIS, and no clear plan from government of how to get from where we are now to where we want to be.

And this is where the expectation management comes in. How can the government or service chiefs elucidate and defend a strategy to the public and parliament if one doesn't appear to exist? How can the case for sending support to Iraq or to the Syrian rebels be made properly if nobody in government seems to know what that support will do or where will it lead. Strikes in Syria? Why? Where does that fit in to the master plan? Is there a master plan?

To give a classic example of the MoD's poor approach to media and expectation management, consider the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Amidst the pictures of flag draped coffins being unloaded from C-17s and the quite perverse way in which most media outlets made a large circus out of the approaching and passing of "milestone" and "landmark" casualty figures (100, 150 etc) as if they were commemorating a jubilee, what was the MoD doing to counter negative public perception?

Did it make clear that casualties are an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of wars, and that the public should brace itself for more if they wanted the armed forces to do their job properly and to achieve the aims for which it was sent out in the first place? Did it explain that members of the armed forces in the modern era are all volunteers, who accept a certain degree of risk that is attached to their profession in exchange for everything that a military career offers them? On the specific issue of body armour did the MoD ever once explain to the public and press that it involves a trade off, increased ballistic protection vs increased weight, and that actually there is an argument that can be made that body armour can be a hindrance in many cases, both to operational effectiveness and - counter intuitively - to soldiers survival? (Something which a US study proved post-WW2).

I can't remember a single example of any of these issues being tackled, or the MoD ever putting across an effective and cogent case against the constant stream of negative press. It just seemed to sit back and take it, sacrificing the information initiative to journalists and their frequently sensationalist headlines. To put all this into context, let's look at a few figures. Since operations began in Afghanistan around 14 years ago UK forces have faced a combination of bullets, bombs, mortars, RPGs, environmental hazards and accidental hazards. Thousands upon thousands of service personnel and government civilian staff have been rotated through the gauntlets of Afghanistan and Iraq. In total the UK has suffered 632 fatalities to all causes in those theatres, along with 838 seriously or very seriously wounded.

By comparison in 2013 alone (just the one year) 1,713 people were killed and 21,657 seriously injured as a result of road traffic accidents in the UK. In 2001, when the invasion of Afghanistan took place, the annual figure was 3,450 dead and 37,000 seriously injured. In 2003, as British forces rolled into Iraq as part of the coalition against Saddam Hussein, the figures were around 3,508 dead and 34,000 seriously injured, along with over a quarter of a million people slightly injured. In 2009, the year that UK forces withdrew from Iraq, the figures were 2,222 dead, 24,690 seriously injured.

The scale of the difference is stark. While this is by no means a completely fair and equitable comparison, a long way from it, the relative differences are (I think) firstly a testament to the armed forces and the quality of their work at the coal face under the conditions they found themselves in, and secondly informative with regards to how poorly the MoD and government handled the delicate subject of casualty figures and perceptions of casualties suffered. If the government of today and those of the future wish to use the military as a tool for effective foreign policy and forward defence (such as in Iraq) then they need to do a better job of overcoming the public and parliamentary resistance to the inevitable casualties that will result from it.

This is not an excuse for the government to throw the armed forces at problems willy nilly, or a get out of jail free card to send them into action with grossly inadequate equipment ("War's hell don't cha know?"). Rather it is an attempt to show that the government could do a lot better when it comes to putting the use of the armed forces into perspective and loosening the reins a little when it comes to the freedom of action of commanders in the firing line. Combined with clearer strategic guidance and understanding, this might just reverse the decline of the armed forces as an institution at the political level.

But we shall see. The final SDSR report approaches (eventually) and for now we'll just have to watch the actions of Russia closely. The future is always murky, but perhaps more so now than at any time since the end of the cold war. This is shaping up to be an interesting but very challenging few years ahead for UK defence.

Now please excuse me while I try to wash away the shame of using the phrase "information initiative" in a non-sarcastic manner .

Monday, 6 July 2015

An explanation

So I haven't posted something in almost a month and I'd like to offer up a quick explanation. I've been dealing with what I thought was some very serious issues within the family. Only today I have I discovered the truth that the extent of the problem was a lot less serious than I was previously led to believe. That means I still have some damage control work to do and a few heads to bang together, multiple times, as hard as possible, but hopefully I'll be back to blogging in the near future. Luckily this period prior to the SDSR has been quite quiet. Even the service on service warfare hasn't really begun in public much, just the little nibble here and there. 

Apologys all.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The word of the day is...

So, Conservative government it is. And given their plans for spending cuts it looks likely defence will be hit again, possibly to the tune of another £1 billion a year. That's coupled with the fact that some decisions of the past have been kicked into the long grass, such as what to do about the slightly embarrassing lack of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft. For that reason it would appear defence is going to be doing some serious juggling during the next defence review. 

I've said it before, I'll say it again here: I think the army is up for the chop. 

To me it seems almost inevitable that the Army 2020 plan will be chucked in the bin to accommodate more cuts in manpower. The question is whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? Well clearly in an ideal world the government wouldn't cut anything from defence, but that's not the world we live in currently. The axe must fall somewhere and - all things considered - the army seems like the place to go. 

The problem is that fundamentally we've reached a level of defence now where the UK is by and large an assisting player. We don't really have the capacity to take the lead in international operations without stretching the services thin to the point of breaking. This I think is most evident in the land environment, where the UK would struggle to put down a divisional effort if required.

With that in mind I wonder whether the UK might be better suited to following some of the examples abroad, where many smaller forces such as our own have taken to the idea of specialising their brigades with the intention of being able to provide a lead element of at least battalion size that is trained in a particular subset of skills. Parachute capable units are the most obvious, something the UK already has. But I do wonder for example when I look at the 3rd division whether having three identical mechanised brigades is really the best use of the scant resources? 

If one were turned armoured by shifting across a tank regiment and dropping an infantry battalion, while another was wound up entirely, then not only would this allow all the infantry units in the remaining two brigades to ride in proper tracked vehicles instead of Mastiff, but it would also save the MoD a decent chunk of the money that it's probably going to need in the coming years.

I think the biggest issue I have with Army 2020, looking at it from a seat here in 2015, is that it looks like we're setting up for another Afghanistan at the same scale, something which a declining defence budget is probably not going to allow, and which public opinion might also have a problem with. I've written before that I think COIN wars choose you, not the other way around, but I think we also have to accept that the UK is unlikely to go back into action on that same scale again. 

It's a shame that defence in the UK has come to this, but that's the price of not being a vote winning area of spending coupled with the endless "peace dividend". Do I think a move to downsize the army could have dangerous repercussions in the future? Potentially yes. But at this stage I'm resigned to the fact that the air force and navy have more broad utility for the immediate future and should be protected by and large from future spending cuts. That's not the same as saying the army has no utility, just that the winds of change are clearly filling the sails of the senior and junior service right now, while the army finds itself beating against gale.

On the plus side the economy is recovering and defence right now has slumped into the minimum 2% region which means that looking out into the future things are likely to get better, if only a little. But for the short term I think a bit more pain is on its way and the army seems the most likely recipient of it. The truly interesting question is whether the army will see this as a chance for some exciting, radical reform to shape itself to face the new challenges of the modern era, or whether it will try simply to fight the last war again on paper.

The move to brigades with a much clearer role, able to provide spearhead elements for various operations across the globe, or to combine together to form task orientated groups, could revitalise the army after what has been a difficult decade of hard and bloody fighting. It's an odd thing to say, but at a time of potential cutbacks "ambition" could actually end up being the word of the day.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Bulletin

Just a quick update for today. My last post about organising international disaster relief efforts has been picked up by the weekly defence and aerospace newsletter "The Bulletin", obviously of which I'm very proud. If you'd like to subscribe to the newsletter, just contact for more infortmation.

I should be back tomorrow with a brand new post. If all goes according to plan.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

International Rescue

Not quite in the sense of 'Thunderbirds are go', but close.

The recent earthquake(s) and ensuing emergency in Nepal has highlighted a number of problems when it comes to international responses to natural disasters. The first was a flood of well meaning but ultimately useless individuals, many from the UK, who rushed to Nepal to offer their services in the rescue efforts having had such great memories there while backpacking many years ago. But with no training under their belt other than a degree in English Literature every one of these people actually makes the problem worse, not better, as they consume valuable resources such as shelter, food and water while offering nothing more in return than an extra pair of unskilled hands at a time where extra unskilled hands are in abundance. This apparently can be a major problem in areas that are popular with student tourists.

The second issue is coordination. With countries from all over the world throwing available resources at the problem you can end up with a quite dizzying array of ships, planes, helicopters, trucks and engineering plant all showing up at the same time, often with nobody in overall charge of assigning these resources to their most efficient use. Cue sometimes chaotic scenes at airports as there are more aircraft present than spots to safely unload them, mountains of water, food and medical supplies but not enough vehicles in the right place to distribute them, and teams of highly trained foreign military personnel with valuable skills such as building temporary shelters serving as little more than members of a human chain to carry water.

And as demonstrated by the UK's Chinook debacle, where Chinook heavy lift helicopters were flown all the way to India at great expense to help with the rescue efforts only to be sent back home because the downdraft from their rotors was considered too powerful, there is often a real shortage of impartial, expert knowledge. We'll give the Nepalese government the benefit of the doubt on this issue and assume that it had nothing to do with politics.

So how to solve the problem? Well every defence review in the UK seems to come with its own little section about how the UK military can contribute to international aid operations, so why don't we go the whole hog this time and in the next review (due later this year) just outright suggest the need to work with the UN to come up with a permanent international disaster response organisation. The idea would be to have local experts dotted around the world, formal plans in place to help organise any relief efforts, paid researchers to work on future challenges, a centralised cadre of officers who would fly out immediately and take charge of an official UN response (with the permission of the local government of course), along with centrally organised response teams staffed from military, civilian and charitable groups, with some of the equipment and expertise needed to take immediate action and to organise any follow on more effectively.

The UK government has been very keen over the years to promote its international "global player" status. Maybe the next defence review will give it a chance to actually start acting on that aspiration and genuinely taking a lead on important issues.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Libya and the election row

So the latest round in the election prize fight has been fought over foreign policy and whether it was right or wrong to help the Libyan rebels against Colonel Gaddafi, especially now that the country has descended into what is basically a civil war and is at the heart of a migration crisis with people fleeing Africa through the country's ports, many of whom have subsequently drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to make the crossing to Europe. 

To me the fundamental problem with the arguments that helping the rebels was the wrong thing to do just because things have not turned out the way everyone hoped is two fold. The first is the implication that allowing Gaddafi to remain would have somehow produced a more favourable result. Keep in mind that just as NATO began its operations Gaddafi's forces were planning an offensive against Benghazi, with orders to suppress the rebellion using whatever means necessary. He threatened to find people in their closets and show no mercy or compassion to those that resisted. He was not exactly planning to take the city through diplomatic means.

So anyone in a decision making capacity at that point has to make a choice. Sit back and watch the Libyan army run rampant through the streets, or provide assistance? To sit on your hands at that point would be to condemn a great many people to die. This is the crux of my beef with the idea that somehow NATO was wrong to intervene. The narrative created makes it sound like Gaddafi would have just quietly restored order, when the reality is he was planning to go in all guns blazing. And as we've seen with the civil war in Syria, the presence of an army with limited training and equipment for fighting an urban COIN war usually leads to a bloody mess as it is. The fighting in Libya could have carried on for quite some time anyway had NATO not pitched in.

The narrative against the intervention also belies the fact the people are free to make their own choices. At the conclusion of the American War of Independence there was peace. It took the Americans almost one hundred years before they finally got round to having it out with another in the open field. Many revolutions do not end well, but then again many revolutions do. I'm surprised how many people in the west are so uptight about the idea that a population should be allowed to decide for itself what sort of government it wants, even if that means them fighting it out with one another to figure out who wins. Just because there might be fighting after an intervention is not really a good excuse to sit and do nothing while people are crushed mercilessly under the boot of a dictator. 

And the final part of the narrative that irks me is all the complaining about how the west has abandoned Libya to its fate. Let's just be clear here, this is what the Libyan's wanted. At the time of the intervention the various Libyan rebel leaders were making the point quite blatantly that what they wanted was western help to defeat Gaddafi and that from there they would take it themselves. They did not want the west to interfere in the process post-Gaddafi, they wanted to be left to it. So they have been. To complain at this late stage that the west has not done enough to help stabilise the country is a bit of a piss take frankly.

Just my two pennies on this issue.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Update 21/04/2015

Evening all.

Just a quick update. I know things have been a little sparse lately. Tomorrow I have a first interview for a (potential) new job so hopefully that goes someway to explaining why I've been a bit quiet. One of the reasons I want this new job is because the hours are shorter and it should be a bit more chilled out. With any luck that will give me more time for writing.

And frankly there isn't a huge amount to write about just this second. The big problem is that we're all waiting to find out who wins the election and then what kind of coalition is cobbled together as a result. This in turn will effect the nature of the forth coming SDSR and its in the run up to that that tongues will really begin to wag and the claim, counter-claim, brief, counter-brief game will truly begin. Normal running should resume fairly shortly though. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to do a bit of swatting.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

You SSK thing

Today I'd like to continue the theme I've been harping on recently about UK defence in the context of just pure defence, i.e. protecting the UK, without any concern for foreign adventures and UN missions etc. Putin is the new black these days and everyone seems to think the UK should suddenly be re-arming ready for world war three because... Russia. So an interesting topic at such times would be - I think at least - the issue of conventionally powered submarines.

The UK's last foray into this world ended with the Upholder-class diesel powered subs, which served for a grand total of four years in the early nineties before being decommissioned and sold off as part of the "peace dividend" (the dividend that just keeps giving....). Since then it's been all nuclear for the UK, in ever decreasing numbers which in the case of the Astute-class seems likely to come to rest at seven. Meanwhile the rest of the world has somewhat embraced the concept of the conventional submarine due to the lower construction and running costs, accepting a trade off in many performance measures vs a nuclear submarine in exchange for the ability to at least play in the game, and understanding that even conventional submarines represent a formidable foe for surface vessels when properly handled. Stories abound about European operated conventional subs sinking entire US carrier battle groups on exercises. Even if the exact details of each of these incident might tell a different story to the one that appears in the various press releases, it would be foolish to assume that despite quite a lot smoke there is absolutely no question of there being fire.

The UK reluctance to invest in such a capability has its own merits. Question one; where would you build them? Barrow is tied up building the Astutes and planning for the successor class to the Vanguard SSBNs. Question two; what would the UK do with them? Nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN) have been the favourite for a while now due in large part to their exceptional range and speed. They are Fisher's dreadnoughts for the 21st century. Endurance and speed that a conventional submarine can't hope to match.

Well, as the Russian bear rising seems to be the flavour of the month right now then actually the conventional sub seems to make a lot of sense. From the Royal Navy's perspective the biggest concern in relation to the Russian Navy in some hypothetical future war is probably the dual threat of Russian submarines and surface groups penetrating into the Atlantic and disrupting supply lines with the US, while also threatening the UK deterrent. To do this the Russians would have to make their way through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. Now in days of yore the UK used to be able to help protect this gap with its maritime patrol aircraft but whoops, budget crisis, MPA no more. But protecting and patrolling this gap - and indeed the surrounding UK waters - is right up the street of a conventional sub (Henceforth SSK, to save me having to keep typing "conventional sub").

The mission plays perfectly to the strengths of the SSK as a slow but virtually silent ambush predator. Whispering back and forth through local areas of interest to the UK, the SSK would provide a powerful tool in the Royal Navy's underwater arsenal, while the SSNs roared about the open oceans. As far as purchasing some of these goes, a UK new build, homegrown design would obviously offer tailor made advantages as well as being a potential source of exports given the current popularity of these kind of subs, but a foreign buy would be more likely. Given the low(er) cost of SSKs in comparison to an SSN it shouldn't break the bank to purchase a few and there is certainly plenty of competition on the market place right now, from the German Type 212, to the French Scorpene and Swedish Gotland-class.

If we're all really serious about this "the Russians are coming" narrative that has developed lately then to me a small fleet of SSKs seems a highly logical choice.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

NATO and the SDSR. Sort of. Kind of. In two minutes.

So after all that worrying in the end my great Internet blackout lasted all of about 8 hours. Happy days.

Time is short however and so I'm going to condense my thinking down into the shortest possible post. And what I'm thinking is this; with all this hullabaloo over Russia knocking on NATO's door, why not kill two birds with one stone? The two birds being to present a united front against Russia and to facilitate cooperative training among NATO allies. The solution would come from expanding the standing maritime task group concept and create a series of air, land and sea groups within NATO, with member countries rotating units through and rotating command of them. At the same time as providing conventional deterrence and rapid reaction units for various NATO tasks they would also be the core of large(er) scale NATO exercises.

So the Baltic mission could be expanded to a standing air wing with several squadrons rotating through on a regular basis. On the ground there would be perhaps a brigades worth of light infantry, centred on a position where they could provide rapid response across the region. Based in Poland could perhaps be one or two NATO armoured divisions, with countries rotating their armoured brigades through. A NATO air group could also be based in Poland. Romania (spellcheck can f**k off, I know that's correct) could also host one or two divisions, depending probably more on various countries willingness to pitch in than anything else. Perhaps one armoured division and one mountain, to let NATO's mountain warfare forces get a bit of large scale cross training in too. Add air group.

At sea the obvious choices for task groups would be the north sea/north Atlantic, the Baltic sea and the med. The first of those could (re: should) be a real area of interest for the UK, with the ability to host and take the lead in a primarily anti-submarine focused task group, one that would often find itself with access to carrier air cover (eventually) through the new QE-class carriers and provide NATO nations with the chance to gain a tremendous amount of training in open ocean anti-submarine operations, hopefully with some of our local allies pitching in with their non-nuclear subs for training and operations. A sub-group of this could be a NATO amphibious assault division, with various nations pitching in their amphibs (and troops, obviously) for regular exercises in the region. Perhaps the med group would have its own version as well?

And so on and so forth, you get the general idea. Everyone seems very, very concerned about the Russians all of a sudden, while also being very, very concerned about the future of UK strategy. Yet everybody seems to be asking questions and nobody seems to be offering answers. Hopefully this post will jog the discussion towards the answers, which in the UK's case is going to have to involve no mystical pots of money (it's not coming. It's really not) and doing what the UK has always done best; build alliances by pitching in with expertise and manpower (not so much money these days) to get everyone else moving. See Waterloo, Minden, etc, etc, for examples.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The cuts are coming

One basic rule that will always set you in good stead when listening to politicians is this; believe nothing. 

Don't believe the promises. Don't believe the numbers. Don't believe the rhetoric. It's an unfortunate fact that politicians long ago, as in since the dawn of time, gave up on the idea of what was best for their country. Politicians of all eras are at any one time caught up in one of the three stages of politics; expanding power, consolidating power, or clinging to power. They will say and do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve these ends. We all know this. If you don't believe this is how politics works and still believe that there are "some good politicians in parliament" then I strongly suggest you stop kidding yourself. You might say I'm very cynical on the subject but then politicians have had many, many opportunities to prove me wrong and reverse this trend. They have singularly failed to do so at every turn. Case in point is the SNP, who for years have vigorously opposed nuclear weapons on Scottish soil and yet are already back tracking on this issue at Olympic gold medal speed now that they sniff the opportunity to do a political deal with Labour in the event of a hung parliament.

And thus we come to Cameron's promise on no more cuts to the army and the recent budget statement. Lots of people took Cameron for his word when he talked about sticking to 2% of GDP for the armed forces and that the army would face no further cut backs under a future Conservative government. This to me represents a stunning level of naivety (sorry, I can't do the fancy accent characters). Just out of interest let's look at some of Cameron's promises from before the last election. One, a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on Europe. Two, no top down reorganisation of the NHS. Three, to balance the budget over the course of the next parliament. Now please point out which of these three election promises were kept? I can wait.

Please don't get bogged down in the ideology of those things. It doesn't matter if you agree with them or not. The issue at hand is promises made that were then broken. The notion that it was all the fault of the Lib Dems because of the coalition is also laughable. So based on this track record, along with the multitude of other U-turns that occurred during the parliament, what basis does anyone have to trust David Cameron when he says that no more cuts are on the way if the Conservatives are re-elected? I would suggest that there is absolutely none. Not a hint of a foundation upon which Mr. Cameron could plausibly claim to be a trustworthy individual.

Then we turn to the budget itself. We know health, education and international aid have all been earmarked for protection from cuts, at least in terms of the face value of their budgets. Given that they all received this "protection" during the course of this parliament, it is reasonable to presume that they would likely retain it going forward. It is also highly unlikely that any other government would target these areas, short of some bizarre turn around where UKIP ends up with absolute control, which is incredibly unlikely. As such any cuts will have to fall elsewhere. And there will have to be cuts. Plenty of them. The coalition is miles off its original target to reduce the public spending deficit by the end of this parliament. Labour are promising a softer decline in public spending to get the books back in balance, but even that would require cuts. Even the most likely course of action, a Labour government propped up by other left wing parties which decides that running a slight budget deficit in the long run isn't such a bad thing if they can spend the money on public goodies (aka the Gordon Brown approach to economics), would still require some cuts to spending. No matter which way you slice the cake, some people are destined to get a smaller portion.

One of those people is the MoD. Don't shake your head, you know it's coming. And if you don't then you had better wake up and smell the coffee pretty soon because it is happening, whether you like it or not. The defence budget is, and always has been, easy prey. It's politically much less volatile to cut than almost all other forms of public spending, with legal aid, agriculture and prisons being perhaps two or three that are easier to get away with. What the armed forces do is typically well away from home, out of sight, out of mind, unlikely in the public's perception to effect them on a day to day basis. It is a ready made pot of money to dip into. Some people will stamp their feet in defiance, but nobody is going to the ballot box to cast a protest vote because they think the UK needs more transport aircraft or minesweepers.

Looking at the economy, growth figures for the UK have been decent, but underlying trends are not great. Despite the governments boasts about rising employment, it's worth noting that the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose figures are used to trumpet this claim, classifies full time work as anything that goes over 16 hours per week. To me that is a very odd definition of what constitutes full time work. On top of this the number of people turning to self employment to get themselves back into work has grown significantly, but the long term trend of how long these people are able to sustain their self employment is not good. The fact that so many people have had to turn to self employment to get themselves back into work is also a clear indicator of the underlying weakness in the labour market, not least because many of the newly self employed are working on limited hours and for low pay.

Thus any idea that the country will simply grow its way out of this predicament, or that there is some bountiful pot of money sitting on the horizon just waiting to be tapped up, is on very shaky ground. Rising concerns about a lack of growth in Europe and beyond is also likely to hurt the long term prospects of the UK economy. 

The cuts are coming. Prepare thyself.