Monday, 23 February 2015

Look, a new post!

Bonjour mes amies! (My French was always a bit suspect (E or F at GCSE level) so I hope that's right). Apologies for the delay, but such is sometimes the fate of someone who has to blog on the side. Today I just want to briefly touch on the situation in Ukraine. Not the politics or the operational level situation however, but something that amuses me greatly.

Because for many, many years Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) was very skillful in its handling of the Cold War against the United States and its allies. They played the long game for the most part and placed a high value on the return for investment of their decisions. This is exemplified by their support for North Vietnam in the 60's and 70's, which in return for financial, material and training support was able to bog down the US for around 8 years of conventional operations, at the cost of over 58,000 American dead and 153,000 plus wounded, and around $140 billion in financial costs, which equates to about a trillion dollars in today's money.

From the Russian perspective it was a (relatively) low input, high output arrangement, one which they used the world over. Some subsidised equipment and a bit of training could go a long way in terms of securing allies and resources, while at the same time serving as a thorn in the side of the US. But what's interesting about the situation in Ukraine, and why it amuses me so much, is the fact that the tables have been turned on their head to some degree. This of course is subject to accepting the allegations made against Russia that it has been sending soldiers across the border to help the Rebels fight, which still hasn't been proven by the standards that would be required in a UK court ("beyond reasonable doubt"). 

If the allegation is indeed true though then the situation represents a remarkable shift from what was typical of the cold war days (Afghanistan excepted), as Russia now finds itself having to pour manpower into the cauldron to try and shore up the situation while the west finds itself in the enviable position of observing from the sidelines, only having to pass on the odd shipment of non-lethal aid (and probably a few sneaky lethal shipments) to keep things ticking over, as Russia loses more and more diplomatic support by the day and its economy continues to suffer under the triple whammy of sanctions, depressed oil prices and the need to fund its broad day to day military activities.

What doesn't make me chuckle is the idea that western leaders seem so keen to just roll over and give the rebels very generous peace terms. For all the bluster, hysteria, huffing and puffing that's going around, the battle lines remain resolutely quite static and pose very little danger to Ukraine as a whole. There is no real light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for the rebels, at least not through a military solution. Western aid to the Ukrainian government, if stepped up, would at the worst probably just trigger a greater surge by the Russians that would extend the stalemate, and at best allow the Ukrainian forces to make the sort of progress that might just convince Putin to pull out and write the situation off as a lost cause altogether.

One has to think (for one art in posh mode) that if the roles were reversed then the Russians would jump at the chance to bog the old enemy down in a fight which they have very little to gain from. But it also raises an interesting question in this pre-SDSR silly season. With this crisis taking place in Eastern Europe, with ISIS at large in both Syria and Iraq, and now apparently Libya, with the government in Yemen falling to rebel elements, and with Boko Haram causing the Nigerian government no end of problems, is this the right time to expand the UK's capacity for unconventional warfare?

These sorts of situations are after all precisely the sort of thing that the SAS was resurrected to deal with, and a lot of the US Special Forces community owes its existence to the need for unconventional forces during the cold war. In an era of biting cutbacks is there perhaps some more money to be found down the back of the sofa to expand the military's unseen and unadvertised fighting/training ability? And if so, with cuts already having taken place and with more likely on the horizon, where will the military get the manpower for this? As it can't increase the size of the suitable recruitment pool that really only leaves the option of lowering the standards for entry.

Some interesting things to mull over I think.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Just a quick moan

Because who doesn't love a good moan on a Tuesday evening am I right?

I followed a link on Twitter to a defence blog I haven't previously seen (Quill or Capture) and I just read this sentence in one of the articles; "His assumption that there is a trend for wars to be fought among the people and that urban operations are the ‘new normal’ seems to be largely accurate."

In this case "his" is relating to Ben Barry, the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). And here comes my moan; when have wars not been fought among the people and when have urban operations not been the norm?

We like to make a big play about how in the first and second world wars strategic bombing brought the frontline to the people for the first time, but that completely ignores the fact that there are lots of graves filled with the victims of starvation and disease incurred during medieval sieges and the such like (and that's just for starters). Civilian populations have long been caught up amongst the raging fires of warfare. And urban centres have long been the target for military operations.

Stalingrad anyone? The Battle for Berlin? The fighting in Moscow at the greatest extent of the German penetration into Russia? The siege of Bastogne? The battle of Arnhem? And these are just the famous examples, the ones that stand out most in the history books. But during the course of the war in the east and the allied invasion of Italy and then France countless towns were fought over, won, lost, won again, lost again.

The English civil war, while perhaps more famous for some of its field battles and its end result, was basically a war of sieges. Far more people, military and civilian, were killed fighting over the possession of important towns than on the fields of Newbury, Marston Moor and Naseby. 

Urban operations have been the 'norm' for a very, very long time now. The technology in use has changed, as have the tactics, but the importance of urban areas hasn't. It just annoys me, the concept that somehow urban warfare is a 21st Century invention, along with counter insurgency wars no doubt. I'm sure someone, somewhere is right now writing a paper to present to congress about how the US army needs more of x and y shiny new kit in order to cope with this new "warfighting paradigm".

Rant over.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Some Stuff I've been pondering this week

Evening all. Lot to get through in one sitting, but let's dive straight in.

First up is a story over at War is Boring about the USAF wanting to get rid of some of its EC-130H Compass Call aircraft (first saw this link over at Think Defence, brought up by user "TAS"). TAS made the jokey comment that we should all pitch in a few quid in order to buy some and naturally I agree because as anyone that has read this blog for any length of time will know, I loves a bargain so I does! 

And in all seriousness this does seem to be something of a bargain if it turns out to be the real deal. I say "if" because a classic budget trick used the globe over is to offer up something for being cut that you know damn well nobody will accept, and the Compass Call aircraft might very well fall into that. If not then it seems the USAF would genuinely be willing to mothball seven of its fleet of 15 aircraft, saving approximately $300 million over the next four years (which would seem to suggest an average running cost of about $10.7 million/£7.02 million per year, per aircraft).

Of course instead of just saving money they could make some cash, by selling them to us friendly Brits! Although the Compass Calls are laden with secret squirrel kit it shouldn't be too much of a problem to get authorisation for a sale, not least because the UK has just started taking delivery of the new Airseeker aircraft, which are basically the same as the USAF Rivet Joint. The two countries have a long history of sharing sensitive information and knowledge, and this sale would offer the USAF the additional benefit of keeping these helpful aircraft in service, albeit now in UK hands.

And I think a purchase would make a lot of sense for the UK. Here is the chance to snap up a massive capability leap for the RAF at a bargain basement price. The base Hercules aircraft itself is already in RAF service so a pool of trained pilots, ground crews and spares already exists. What doesn't exist in the RAF anymore is a strong Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) capability, not least since the ALARM missile was retired. 

Supposedly this will be covered in the future by a mixture of using the F-35's radar as a jammer along with various guided munitions, but I think a dedicated aircraft like Compass Call, with the ability to jam radars, communications and just about any other electronic signal that you can think of, would be a real boon to UK forces. As was pointed out in the War Is Boring article these aircraft have served over Iraq and Afghanistan and represent a handy little tool to have around, being useful in both full scale conventional campaigns and smaller scale "COIN" wars and interventions, such as the current operations taking place over Iraq against ISIS.

The US want shot of some of theirs, we could make good use of some, so I'm sure if the powers that be wanted then a good deal could be accomodated. That is of course providing the treasury plays ball. And that's the real sticking point, in that government budgets are nothing if not inflexible. While we routinely here about money being found for new projects, typically a short investigation yields a revelation that in fact the money has just been jigged around a little and that the "new" spending is simply planned work being pulled forward from later years (as happened recently due to a £900+ million underspend by the MoD). 

It's not purely an MoD problem, its been well documented across government that there is a lack of flexibility in budgeting and as a result an inability for ministers and their civil servants to pounce on deals like this. We can dream I guess!

Now, from that same War is Boring article I noticed that the USAF is still touting the $550 million (£361 million) price tag for its planned Long Range Strike Bomber. This seems rather odd/laughable to me, because the USAF doesn't exactly have a sterling track record of delivering programs to their budgeted time and cost profiles. It's likely to be made harder by all the requirements I see kicking about.

Because one of the problems with a project like this is that because it's always going to be quite expensive in the first place, people have a tendency to start demanding it perform a host of other side roles in order to obtain value for money. As the requirements expand, so does the amount of crap that the aircraft is required to haul around. This adds to cost, which tends to drive down the unit numbers, which encourages more people to add yet more shit to them to make them yet more multi-role, and so the spiral continues, till you end up with one aircraft that can practically fight a war by itself, but only at the expense of the rest of the air force.

Having learned absolutely nothing from the past it already seems the USAF is heading down this path. Given some of the things that people seem to expect the LRSB to be capable of in the future, then at the current rate it will eventually just be a massive collection of radars glued together with a big dollop of hope, with enough space for a handful of bombs somewhere in the middle.

It really doesn't have to end up like that. A new design that is a little more "stealthy" compared to the B-2, a set of engines (there are plenty of options available) and re-use the radar from the F-35, and Bob's your uncle. Just build a bomber, not a death star and the $550 million per aircraft cost should be more than achievable. At this stage it's a viable and successful project just waiting for someone (or several people) to come along and f**k it up!

Back in the UK and we have a general election looming, in case you didn't know from all the wall to wall media coverage which is only going to get worse as we approach May the 7th. What I found amusing though was a big push being made by the MoD to get more service personnel to vote, with the revelation that around 1/3 of the armed forces are not on the electoral register. It seems to me a rather cruel campaign in a sense, to encourage members of an organisation that has seen thousands of cutbacks delivered by successive governments to then vote for them. Politicians it would seem still have no sense of tact and never miss the chance to grab a few headlines.

Every now and again though politicians do finally do something right. After all, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. And on that note £500,000 from the fines imposed on banks as part of the LIBOR rigging scandal will be given to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust in order to help them carry out repairs on a pair of Fairey Swordfish aircraft. Some of the money will also be used to build up a supply of spares. You can read more about that here on the Royal Navy's website.

And finally the local hooligans of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, have been off tearing up the Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, exercising as a battle group along with engineers in order to seize a simulated airfield. All this is part of a build up to a six-week joint exercise in the US with part of the 82nd Airborne division. Which raises a question in my mind.

My question goes as such; what is the purpose for II Squadron, RAF Regiment?

I've long stood up for the purpose of the RAF Regiment. I think history has demonstrated its utility and the manpower allocation for the task is actually quite small in the grand scheme of things. But in turn I've shared some of the criticism that some have for it, such as the oddity of not having a squadron permanently deployed (on a rotating basis) to the Falklands Islands, which is arguably the one airfield the UK operates that is always at some degree of risk of precisely the kind of attack which the RAF Regiment is designed to prevent.

II Squadron is the massive oddity in the pack though. Aside from being able to serve as a regular field squadron it's also trained for parachute jumps, ostensibly giving it the capability to capture forward airfields by air assault. But the practicality of what is basically just a reinforced company seizing and holding an entire airfield is somewhat up for debate. Indeed the Parachute regiment, able to deploy whole battalions plus support would seem like a much more viable option if such a task were required.

Which rather leaves II Squadron up in the air from my perspective (no pun intended). Options for its future would seem to sit into three broad categories; 1) disband, 2) retain and attach to 16 Air Assault Brigade, with the purpose of securing landing zones (even just for resupply) while the rest of the brigade would move off to extend its operations, 3) retain and re-role.

Re-role to what though? 

Well one possibility might be to turn it into a dedicated Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) unit. The horrific execution of a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS provides us with a stark reminder of one of the many dangers faced by RAF and allied pilots when conducting operations over enemy held territory. The morale effect of knowing that help would be on hand should the pilot get into trouble and have to eject should not be underestimated, nor should be the propaganda value of captured pilots. It's also worth remembering how expensive it is and how long it takes to train prime quality pilots.

A CSAR unit built around II Squadron would prove quite handy I think. Clearly it could be given other tasks on the side if needed, but primarily it would be dedicated to the CSAR (and support to peacetime SAR) role in much the same way as the USAF's Pararescuemen are (incidentally it was the UK that essentially invented the concept of CSAR from the air in 1915 when Richard Bell-Davies of the Royal Navy Air Service rescued his wingman by landing his aircraft and picking him up from under the nose of the enemy, receiving the Victoria Cross in the process).

Such a unit would need a bit of equipment diverted its way, and I understand that in the current budget climate that's another strain that defence could do without, but I think it would be another small capability uplift that could have a big impact in the grand scheme of things.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Kawasaki P-1

Some of the latest small talk ahead of the 2015 SDSR (post upcoming) is that the UK might consider purchasing the Kawasaki P-1 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) from Japan. The Japanese have not long since removed their self-imposed ban on defence exports which would now allow them to sell the P-1 to countries like the UK. And boy does the UK need a new MPA aircraft.

But while the potential of such a purchase has garnered a lot of attention and speculation (and as yet nothing even approaching a public suggestion of interest from the MoD) it also faces a number of issues. The P-1 is so far exclusive to Japan. It has no other orders on the books. Therefore the support infrastructure would exist only in Japan at the start and unlike the Boeing P-8 Poseidon there would not be a global customer base to defray purchase and support costs, not least because the engines are bespoke to the aircraft.

Of course that could change. Kawasaki wants to use the P-1 as the basis for a regional airliner to compete with the likes of Boeing and Airbus, and if that happened then some support costs for the P-1 would fall. There is also the potential for the P-1 to become an export success in its own right, but who would take that first leap of faith and become the first export customer? The UK maybe?

Well I'm a big fan of the philosophy of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". You do something for me, I'll do something for you. And I think just such an opportunity exists with the P-1. Clearly for the Japanese any additional P-1 sales to a foreign customer are a bonus in their own right, but if one country were to take that first leap then it could potentially ease the concerns of others and make the P-1 seem like a more viable option on the global market. And of course we need a brand new MPA.

So why not propose a deal? Start by agreeing a fair and normal price for an order of P-1s, but then add a little twist, either; 1) the Japanese subsidise part of the cost of the UK's purchase, a subsidy that would be paid back in instalments in the future if the P-1 doesn't hit off on the international market, or 2) the UK pays the full price up front, but any future orders by another nation trigger "thank you" payments to the UK for being the first foreign customer, up to a fixed cap.

That way the Japanese only lose out on the deal if other countries follow the UK's lead, but even that is obviously a win for the Japanese. And the UK either ends up paying a fair price for the P-1, which is fine, or it ends up getting a great deal in exchange for having paved the way as the first foreign customer. You scratch my back, I scratch yours.

Or we could just do the normal running for the MoD and pay over the odds...

Monday, 19 January 2015

A sobering reminder

Every now and again I have an idea for a blog post. In order to stop myself forgetting these I write them down on here and save them as a draft post. Just going back through the list of drafts I found this, which I had written just before my Christmas break;
Just because there haven't been many successful terrorist attacks is not the same thing as there being no threat of terrorist attacks.
I was going to write about the fact that many people believe the threat of terrorist attacks in the West is over stated simply because very few successful attacks occur, while seemingly ignoring the fact that many potential attacks are stifled before they take place by the security services.  

And then the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened and sort of proved my point.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The 2014 Major Projects Report

So, this is 2015 is it? Looks very similar to last year by my reckoning. But a new year means a new... major projects report from the National Audit Office. How dreary. This one does include a review of the ten year equipment plan (2014-2024) as a bonus though. Don't all celebrate at once. Having read it though I can honestly say this; it is unintentionally hilarious.

Well actually we need a bit of context for this, so first we need to look at the governments propaganda blurb in response to the report;
An independent audit found the cost of the department’s 11 biggest equipment programmes fell by £397 million in the past year...

Across the sample of projects that are reviewed by the Major Projects Report, this year represents the MOD’s best cost performance since 2005 and the best time performance since at least 2001...
Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology Philip Dunne said: This equipment plan sets out our plans to spend around £163 billion on new equipment and support over the next 10 years. For the third successive year it is realistic and affordable and provides excellent value for money to the taxpayer across the coming decade as evidenced by our success in securing savings in Equipment Support, which we have been able to factor in to the 10 year plan... 

In addition I welcome the NAO report which recognises the progress we are continuing to make. We have reduced costs by almost £400 million in our major projects and enjoyed our best performance on cost since 2005 and time since 2001. There is always more we can do, but I am delighted the great strides the department has made have been recognised...
The Government had to take difficult decisions to balance the Defence budget as part of its long term economic plan, and this is what has led to a position where it is now able to invest significantly in equipment. The NAO report recognises the progress we are continuing to make, including the relative stability of forecast project costs, as well as highlighting areas where we must continue to improve and refine our processes...

Today’s report builds on Lord Levene’s Defence Reform findings published in December last year which said the right attitudes and behaviours are increasingly in place in the Head Office and the MOD’s management board has already come to be considered among the best in Whitehall. The report also provided a positive assessment of progress in Defence Equipment and Support where reforms augur well for the future...
So, all good it would appear then. Everything under control, budgets being balanced, projects being delivered on time, and the claim that the MOD is now the envy of Whitehall when it comes to management. So what exactly did the report itself say? Let the humour begin!
Compared with the 2013 Plan the forecast cost of procurement has increased by £5.4 billion while support costs are expected to be £6.2 billion less over the period. This is due mainly to: a reclassification of costs for one project as procurement rather than support; and anticipated efficiency savings in the support budget more generally. Anticipated efficiency savings are the main cause of a £5.8 billion decrease in the Equipment Plan budget across the 9 years that the 2013 and 2014 Plans have in common.
The word to keep an eye on here in particular is "Anticipated". It crops up a lot and as we'll see later, the case for all the governments optimism isn't exactly shared by the NAO. For example;
The project teams have provisionally identified potential savings of £2.9 billion over 10 years. Only a limited proportion of these savings have been realised to date.
Not off to a good start it would seem, but there's 9 years left to run in fairness. So what else have we got?
Project teams continue to be over-optimistic in their forecasts of procurement costs. The Department’s Cost Assurance and Analysis Service estimates that the forecast cost of procuring equipment is understated by £3.2 billion against project team forecasts, a reduction from £4.3 billion for the 2013 to 2023 period. The Cost Assurance and Analysis Service has also reviewed 28% of the support cost budget to date, and estimate that project team forecasts for those projects are £2 billion understated.
Oh dear, oh dear. What's especially frustrating about reading that is that this has been a consistent theme in UK (and indeed global) defence procurement for decades. One of the major causes of cost and time over runs in defence projects tends to be simply that the initial estimates are often chronically understated, which of course at the time helps to make the initial case to government to get the projects off the ground. 

It just seems like this is a record that keeps getting played again and again at the MOD and nobody ever seems to get round to changing it. It's also quite an ominous indictment when the previous paragraph talked about "Anticipated" savings. Anticipated savings from an organisation that has a chronic problem with over-optimism equals...? On we go;
A review of the estimated procurement costs of 29 of the largest projects within the Plan by the Cost Assurance and Analysis Service in January 2014 initially estimated the gap between the allocated budget and the realistic procurement costs of these projects to be some £4.7 billion. In April 2014, the Department adjusted its budget allocations, adding £2.4 billion to the 2014 Equipment Procurement Plan. There is currently no overall estimate of whether, or to what extent, support budgets may be understated.
I distinctly remember this government having a moan at the last government on defence, something to do with unfunded plans etc? It seems what's good for the goose is good for the gander now. It also doesn't mesh well with the claims that everything is balanced up and nice savings have been made if it then turns out that there is a shortfall on the horizon. At least the government has a contingency fund in place though, right?
The Department’s contingency may not be enough to mitigate the combined effects of underestimates in project team costs and equipment plan budgets.
Whoops. Still;
Our review of the forecast cost of 11 major projects where the Department has decided to buy equipment shows that the time, cost and performance of these projects has remained stable in 2013-14.
Well that's something at least.
We have excluded the £754 million cost increase of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers, which we reported in our Major Projects Report in February 2014.
... ah. 
The Department has taken action to manage the risk of underspending against its budget, as in past years.
Only in government could the possibility of underspending on your budget be described as a "risk". Normally an underspend is a good thing, a sign that you're doing something right and that frees up money for future years. But government has long been in the game of "use it or lose it". And so the MOD opted to use it, and in doing so went £185 million over budget!
To avoid a significant underspend in 2013-14 the Department included £920 million of additional work in the programme. When the Department became concerned that an underspend would emerge in-year, a further £213 million of additional work was added to the programme. In the event, the Department overspent by £185 million against its original assumptions.
Now we have to be careful, because "additional work" could just mean bringing forward work that would otherwise have been done in the future and so it might as well be done now while there is time and spare capacity to do it. The question is though, what exactly was this additional work? And if it was work that has been conjured up out of nowhere just to consume a chunk of the budget then who will be resigning for wasting £920 million of taxpayers money? Something for the defence select committee to look into I think.

Whether the work was or wasn't planned is also neither here nor there. The concerning factor for me is that the MOD some how ended up going back over budget again. Did someone not think that was a little odd? Does anyone at the MOD actually own a calculator, and if so, do they actually know how to use it? Why is this not a bigger issue, as both the government and opposition seem perfectly fine with it?

Indeed it creates a stark comparison when you hold the MOD up against some commercial organisations like Tesco, where an over statement of profit by £263 million has led to a criminal investigation, an internal investigation with the help of an external auditor, the chairman of the board announcing he will step down next year, bonuses being withheld from two former executives, and eight senior executives being suspended. 

Where is the list of suspensions, bonus retentions and resignations at the MOD, considering they managed to not only not notice a nearly £1 billion underspend until it was on top of them, but then some how managed to swing the opposite way and over spend by almost £200 million? Does nobody else find this remarkable, or has government incompetence become so wide spread that now nothing comes as a shock to the system, no matter how bloody outrageous the level of contempt for handling public money might be?

At least it can't get any worse from here on in. Nothing can top that;
In addition, external consultants working with the Department to review support costs have found consistent weaknesses in:
• specifying requirements;
• estimating costs; and
• working with suppliers to drive down costs.
Pass me a drink;
Only 9 of our 17 projects forecast a range of potential costs based on the likelihood of different scenarios and risks, in line with good practice. Sometimes project teams rely on industry to model realistic cost estimates for projects. This casts doubt on whether the forecast costs are sufficiently robust for the Department to have confidence that the Equipment Plan is affordable and the Department has sufficient quality of information to manage the risks to the budget.
 ... And then I said, *hic*, so how does he reach the top shelf?! HAHAHAHAHA;
... Also, the Department can choose to spend more than that on equipment procurement and support, and the current Equipment Plan budget is significantly in excess of the amount allocated by HM Treasury for equipment procurement.
Remind me someone, where have we heard before something about unfunded equipment plans, defence blackholes etc? And yet here we are again. 

Honestly I think I might as well stop there because it's getting late and I'm pissed (in both the British and American sense of the word). If you want to read the rest of the report you can do that through this link, while Think Defence has also done his own analysis which you can find here.

To me it just reads like the same old, same old. Multi-million pound overspends at the drop of a hat, the sort of cost planning and cost management skills that means the MOD wouldn't even be able to get a small business loan out in the commercial world, overoptimism at every turn and seemingly zero accountability for the mistakes. 

Or "business as usual at the MOD" as it's otherwise known.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Begun The Drone Wars Have

It appears that recently I've become the BAE Systems of the defence blogging community; promising much, only to deliver the end product late (though thankfully not over budget, on account of their not being one!). It's been a hectic few weeks and tomorrow sees me off on a round trip to Surrey, which I'm sure will be hilarious and not at all frustrating, what with all the Christmas Eve traffic. Only after that will I be able to relax for a while with family, which fundamentally is what Christmas is all about. 

I shall be away from any form of computer until after the 5th January, so I think it best to get my Merry Christmas's and Happy New Years in now before I get started. I'd just like to say thank you to everyone that has read the blog over the last year, especially those that have interacted through the comments. It's been a pleasure conversing with you all and I hope that in the past year the blog has lived up to the standard that you've come to expect from it. One of my resolutions for next year will be to exceed those expectations going forward.

I'd also like to give a special thank you to Think Defence and his fantastic website, in particular for the regular links back here which have helped to consistently grow the blogs traffic through 2014. My sincere hope is that the quality of the articles here has been sufficient to earn that attention.

And speaking of linking elsewhere, the December issue of Global Defence Technology is now available. Indeed, it's been available for a while now, it's just that some of us are a little behind the curve! You can find the latest issue here, including an interesting graphical timeline celebrating 100 years of the Royal Navy's submarine service.

But the main feature of this article is at almost the opposite end of the scale to submarines. Rather than dipping below the waves, we're going up, up and away. 

Sort of.

Because since the latter stages of the second word war the UK has operated almost exclusively in environments where control of the air was either uncontested by the enemy, or contested only briefly. The Falklands war is the obvious outlier, perhaps with Korea thrown in as well, but it very much remains the exception to the broad rule of UK operations post 1945. The significant aspect of that which I want to look at today has been the almost complete absence of aerial observation over UK forces in the field.

This has been especially true in recent years, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though the UK armed forces are returning to more "conventional" training, it will doubtless be in the back of everyones mind that UK ground forces are likely - at least for the foreseeable future - to find themselves operating in a theatre where control of the air is held by UK and/or allied assets.

One wonders then (for One is now in posh mode, having started to read "Edgehill 1642", by Peter Young, having now cleared a 12 month backlog of reading material. Highly recommended so far) to what extent will UK forces (and indeed its allies) emphasise the need to protect positions against observation from the air? 

Even with the advantage of air superiority, UK ground forces have still had to remain conscious of the danger posed by enemy observers on high ground. But camouflage against overhead observers - particularly in rear areas - is something quite different. For example some of the accounts provided by German officers who fought in France during the mid-late 1944 period is illuminating, not least because of the tedious and often extreme lengths that they had to go to in order to avoid allied aerial observation.

The reason I ask is simple; drones.

Forget about the big ones like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk or the General Atomics Reaper for now. I'm talking little drones, up to about the size of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle (wingspan approx. 10 ft). Because the one thing that has struck me the most watching the footage coming out of places like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq has been the proliferation of small drones, most of them commercial types available to the general public, and their potential for military observation.

Being small, made predominantly from non-metallic materials, and with no real major heat sources, these drones have so far proved incredibly difficult to detect, even when flown here in the UK close to commercial air traffic routes. And even when they can be seen, an army is likely to run out of surface to air missiles long before the enemy runs out of cheap drones, while machine gun and rifle fire has to date proven to be ineffective as a means of bringing these vehicles down. At the minute electronic jamming would seem the most promising first line of defence.

Carrying small cameras like the GoPro range, they thus offer a relatively cheap and difficult to counter method of acquiring overhead imagery of enemy positions. The quality of these images is already pretty good and is only likely to improve further still as the continuous drive to make better cameras for mobile phones pushes back the boundaries of what can be achieved in such a small package.

It doesn't take much imagination from there to realise the implications for UK forces going forward. A cheap drone, a cheap camera, and a cheap transmitter all couple together to provide potential enemies with the ability to peer not just over the frontline, but potentially quite a distance back into allied positions. For those wishing to avoid the unwanted attentions of a 155mm battery dropping rounds into a command post, it might in the future serve to become masters of protection against aerial observation. 

For those that are interested here are a few videos to illustrate the point. The first comes from the conflict in Ukraine, showing how even a drone flying at a relatively modest altitude can see for quite some distance in all directions;

You might have to open it out in a new browser or use the full screen function, as I can't adjust the embedded video player size.

The next video comes from Syria, featuring drone footage taken over Kobane. Once again it is clear just how far the camera can see even at this modest height. A manually adjusted focus function wouldn't be hard to install, and the image as it is already provides a remarkable amount of detail that could be analysed more closely at a later time;

And just in case you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the receiving end of a volley of 155mm rounds, wonder no more. Don't try this at home!;

Which is worse though; being shelled by heavy artillery or shot at by an AH-1 Cobra? Decide for yourself;

Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year too.

Friday, 19 December 2014

In The Post

I'm working on something right now, but don't have time to finish it just yet. Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Going Commando

Some of the very best ideas and debates are formed over the course of a few beers. Unfortunately so are many of the worst. I'll leave the reader to decide at the end which category this falls into. Hopefully it'll be interesting if nothing else. Because today we're going Commando.

Specifically in response to the question; "(Hic)... What I don't understand, right (hic)... is why the army got rid of the Commandos?"

The answer is that technically speaking it didn't.

The Commandos were formed during the second world war after the British evacuation from Dunkirk. The purpose was to create a force that would hit back at the Germans by raiding areas under German occupation, doing damage to the German war effort, tying down German forces needed to guard the coasts, and serving as a morale booster to the British public that would also show potential allies such as America that Britain was still in the war and actively fighting.

The application of this concept would come from units that were roughly the size of an infantry battalion (a "Commando") and who had carried out specialist Commando training both to increase physical standards and to teach unorthodox skills such as small boat handling and explosives work. In theory at least a full "Commando" would attack some objective in enemy territory, and potentially many Commandos could be brought together to attack much larger targets.

In practice the results were exceptionally mixed. Planned raids were routinely called off for a variety of reasons and many of those that went ahead proved to be disasters. Two of the more successful ventures were Operation Biting, which involved the capture of a German Wurzburg radar set, and Operation Chariot, the raid on the St. Nazaire docks. Oddly enough both raids had a connection to No.2 Commando; Biting was carried out in February, 1942 by members of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which had previously been known as No.2 Commando until November of 1940. At this point a fresh unit took up the No.2 Commando mantle and it was this unit that took part in Chariot in late March, 1942.

But the raid on St. Nazaire also highlighted one of the main problems with Commando raids. If a large force could not be extracted immediately then it was prone to suffering heavy casualties as the infantry - lacking the support of heavy weapons and artillery - was gradually rounded on by the local defending forces. Many other raids failed before reaching their targets because of the inherent difficulty associated with inserting a large force covertly and then keeping them hidden. A large number of men spread out in sub-groups, often navigating at night, proved apt at stumbling across German patrols or checkpoints, thus raising the alarm and compromising the operation.

The solution to this problem was devised convergently (at least the evidence points that way) by two men. One was Roger Courtney, a Corporal who had been through Commando training and who was convinced of the potential value of a small unit that used kayaks to covertly approach enemy warships in their harbours in order to plant explosives on them. At first ignored, Courtney later successfully (and at some risk to his own life) boarded a Royal Navy ship anchored in the Clyde by approaching it in his Kayak. He thieved the cover off a deck gun which he later used as evidence of his activities, along with having cheekily inscribed his initials on one of the doors of the ship. He was promoted to Captain and given command of a new unit that would ultimately become the Special Boat Service.

The other, and undoubtedly the more famous now, was David Stirling, a Lieutenant in No.8 (Guards) Commando. It's possible that Stirling had been influenced by Courtney, as Courtney's first command was only a small unit that was originally attached to a formation known as "Layforce", of which No.8 Commando was also a constituent part. As things stand though there is no real evidence that the two met or had any conversations on the matter.

Stirling was frustrated with the constant failure rate incurred by the Commando units and became enamoured with the idea of using small units dropped behind enemy lines by parachute. Once on the ground the men would split into teams of around five and walk to their targets. He reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that these very small teams would find it much easier to hide from the enemy and to slip onto a defended objective using stealth instead of firepower.

Thus it was Stirling's new unit "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" (an intelligence fiction that only had around 60 men) that really began to unlock the potential of the Commando concept. Its raids behind German lines in North Africa started to inflict significant damage, especially against the Luftwaffe's transport aircraft that were often used to ferry vital fuel supplies. Increasing numbers of German soldiers were tied down on guard duties across a swathe of sites, and when things went bad for the members of "L Detachment", the nature of the small parties meant that losses were comparatively light.

The solution to the Commando's problems had been found.

And really that in turn answers the question on the fate of the army's commando units. They still exist, just now in the form of the SAS. Even then, many of the roles they used to perform have been replaced. Because one of the major issues that led to the formation of units like the SAS was the desire to destroy targets of high value to the enemy. Bomber aircraft of the time generally lacked the accuracy to hit precise point targets like a specific dock or power plant. 

These days any reasonably large, static object like those mentioned are highly susceptible to being hit with modern precision guided munitions. The requirement to send in a unit of men to blow up a bridge tends to look a little mute when we have the ability to either fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from over a thousand miles away or to have a pair of aircraft whizz overhead and hit the bridge at multiple aim points with laser or GPS guided weapons.

That's not to say that there is absolutely no use for a unit like the SAS in its more traditional role of sneaking around behind enemy lines blowing things up. I'm sure you could rattle off plenty of scenarios where this would be a preferable solution. But that list of scenarios has shrunk significantly over the years and without some revolution in counter air defences it's likely to stay shrunk.

And if you want to be somewhat liberal with definitions then the Commandos still live on, partly of course in the shape of the Royal Marines, and also in the Parachute Regiment. As mentioned above, the Parachute Regiment was first formed from what used to be a Commando and all of its members were Commando trained. To this day the Parachute Regiment retains a training and selection regime that goes slightly above and beyond what is normally expected of an infantryman, coupled with actual parachute training.

There is also one little interesting nugget that seems to have been lost to general history that I turned up while doing some additional research; even the RAF had its own Commando units. 

I shit you not.

They were first formed by the RAF in early 1942 at the recommendation of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the then Chief of Combined Operations and responsible for fostering solutions to some of the problems that would be faced in the event of future allied landing operations. One of these problems was that tactical fighter aircraft - especially those that would provide direct close air support to advancing forces - would need somewhere to land that was relatively close to the frontline in order to maintain reasonable coverage. The army was already working on the means to rapidly construct new forward airfields and the potential of capturing German ones was obvious, but a new problem now reared its head; who was going to rearm and refuel the aircraft? 

The squadrons own ground crew would be needed back in Britain to keep the aircraft flying during the landing operations and it could take potentially days for these crews to move along the logistics chain from their normal sites to somewhere like Normandy, during which the aircraft would have to be grounded. The answer, as realised by Lord Mountbatten, was to form new units made up of technicians, armourers and the like, along with supporting staff, who would go in with the landing troops and service the aircraft at the forward airfields until the normal ground crews could arrive, at which point the temporary crews would move forward to the next site and so on and so forth.

These units were given the full gamut of Commando training to prepare them for the rigours of the landing operations and life in the field close to the enemy, and became the Royal Air Servicing Commandos. You can read more about them at their associations website linked here, as well as the account of Sergeant Edward Handbury Tee, which goes into more detail about the nature of the training and gives a flavour of the sort of operations they conducted in North Africa, link here.

EDIT; Commenter Topman provided this link to an RAF Historical Society document which contains more information on the Servicing Commandos.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sacred Cows

Before we get started today, just to let you know that the November issue of Global Defense Technology is out, including news on the army's contribution to the Bloodhound supersonic car and a piece about quantity vs quality, focusing on Royal Navy ships. Click here for the link.

The main subject though is related to a post over at Think Defence on the subject of Sacred Cows ahead of the 2015 SDSR. The thrust of the article, surprise, surprise, was what are the sacred cows of defence and what do we do about them with almost inevitable budget cuts looming on the horizon?

I would probably answer by saying that pretty much everything in defence right now is a sacred cow, largely because the armed forces are so small. Just try proffering up the possibility of reducing the Royal Marines for example, and/or rolling their training into line with the army's infantry training at Catterick, but with a sort of Royal Marines version of the Parachute Regiments P Company. The responses can be quite fierce.

And there really isn't anything you can think of in the armed forces that doesn't have a backer of one form or another, ready to fight their corner tooth and nail. Because the forces are so small, further cuts anywhere begin to make the military look very thin indeed. As things stand the UK is headed towards having just five front line Typhoon squadrons, with two additional squadrons of F-35 on the way (fingers crossed), leaving the UK with just seven front line combat aircraft squadrons in 2020. Given how hard the front line units have been worked over the years that is already looking like a tight squeeze.

Now I wrote recently on this subject in a post entitled "More Cuts?", but in light of Think Defence's challenge on sacred cows I thought I'd go back and tackle again the one really sacred of sacred cows; the army.

For me the army is the truly decisive arm, the one that goes in and finishes the job. It's been this way for a very long time and will continue to be so for a very long time still I suspect. But in the face of what seems to be practically guaranteed additional cuts to defence, cuts that have to also make room for things like the deterrent replacement and a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the army also has the broadest shoulders to bear the weight of any future cuts.

It's annoying. It's frustrating. But it's also true.

The political will to support the armed forces collapsed almost as soon as the second world war had finished and ever since politicians have been looking to reap the "peace dividend" with ever more voracious glee. And with the governments deficit reduction strategy basically in tatters and a slowing European economy, the government has admitted more money needs to be found. Some of that will be found from the armed forces, you can practically bet your house on it.

And I just can't see anyone other than the army having the room to make those cuts without biting too deeply into their core, everyday capabilities, not least because this government has already set the trend for using aircraft and ships to contribute to international missions without having to put "boots on the ground" (at least officially) and risk the backlash that would result from casualties.

So what cuts to make?

Although I put forward one proposal just purely touching on the 3rd Division in the "More Cuts?" post, that was more of a quick comment. Thinking about it a little more deeply and somewhat more practically, and in keeping with the spirit of culling sacred cows, here is what I came up with.

One of Think Defence's favourite axioms is that of retaining a hard core to work from, the tip of the spear so to speak. With that in mind, and given that the most challenging task that can be asked of the army is to go head to head with a peer enemy (almost certainly as part of an alliance or coalition of some form) I think there is room to actually expand the armoured side of the army.

Currently there are nine cavalry regiments, split with three each in three roles; armoured cavalry (armoured reconnaissance), armoured (Challenger Tanks) and Light Cavalry (Jackal mounted reconnaissance). There are six armoured infantry battalions mounted in the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). Lastly there are three infantry battalions designated as "Heavy Protected Mobility", mounted in Mastiff protected patrol vehicles.

What I'm thinking is this; carving up the assets to form two armoured divisions. Each one gets an armoured recce unit, two regiments of Challenger tanks, three armoured infantry battalions, and two Heavy Protected Mobility battalions. That means converting one of the cavalry units back over to Challenger and also grabbing a spare infantry battalion from elsewhere to convert to the Heavy Protected Mobility role, but that should be fairly simple to achieve.

The end result is the solid core of the army, two armoured divisions that can alternate between training and readiness, much like the two parachute battalions in 16 Air Assault Brigade are asked to do. With proper vehicle management it shouldn't be necessary to keep two whole divisions worth of vehicles on hand, but rather a pool of assets for everyone to dip into as needed. 

And not that it's a huge deal, but we're here so might as well bring it up, I'd proffer up the old 7th Armoured Division (Desert Rats) for the name of one of the divisions. Considering the army is an organisation that is institutionally wed to famous names and famous histories, it's always made me wonder why the title "7th Armoured Division" was never protected more vigorously, not least because it's one of the few unit names that a good chunk of the population can actually remember.

That now leaves us with 3 spare cavalry units, 16 Air Assault Brigade, and the entire adaptable force (1st Division) of infantry to deal with (minus the battalion we pinched above, which comes to 19). Starting with 16 Air Assault Brigade, to me it makes sense to put them together with 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, to make a Joint Rapid Reaction Division. The only real change I'd make is to put two line infantry battalions in with 16AAB to beef it up a little. Attach one of the spare recce units to the division (make it parachute capable) and we're almost done.

We now have two spare cavalry units and 17 infantry battalions. And it's here that we really start to get into the slaughter. 

Two of the infantry battalions are the Gurkhas, with one battalion stationed on rotation in Brunei acting as the acclimatised Far East reserve. But Brunei has become something of a political hot potato lately with the switch to Sharia law. Many are calling on the Prime Minister to reconsider the UK's relationship with the Sultanate, and part of that could involve withdrawing the Brunei garrison.

The Gurkhas themselves have also come in for criticism, partly from those in the UK who begrudge the Gurkha regiments being maintained when domestic units have been cut back, but mainly from the Nepalese government itself which plans in the future to introduce a bill that would ban the recruitment of its citizens into foreign armies. All in all the time would seem right to take pre-emptive action on that front, as well as sending a message to the Sultan of Brunei by wrapping up the use of Gurkhas in the British army and withdrawing from the Brunei committment.

Two down, leaves us with 15 battalions. Well, actually it only leaves 11, because two are tied down in Cyprus and two are tied to public duties. Which makes me wonder whether the Ceremonial duties could better be covered by a permanent, over strength company that draws from all the guards battalions, and that the two battalions otherwise tied to this role could be used more actively? 

And it also brings into question the deployment of UK forces to Cyprus, specifically whether we need two infantry battalions permanently based there. The Cypriot government continues to make noises about the British presence and it does seem that an opportunity would exist for scaling back the deployment, using the airbase as the home for a much smaller force. The actual UN peacekeeping rouletment aspect to the deployment is not covered by the two infantry battalions, and that element could easily be backed up (i.e. in addition to) by deploying a squadron of the RAF Regiment to the base on rotation (guarding an active airfield on what is essentially foreign soil is sort of the prime reason for the existence of the RAF Regiment *cough* Falklands).

Doing the above would allow the reduction of four battalions, though I suspect the guards would survive and two other lot of poor buggers would face the chop. That brings us down to 11. Out of this I'd suggest we could pull eight battalions together to form a Light Division, with one of the two spare cavalry units attached to provide their recce element. This becomes the "other tasks" division for the most part, dealing with things like forward engagement, as well as providing a reserve of infantry for contingent tasks as needed. This division would probably be almost completely mounted in Foxhound.

That means that in total 9 battalions plus one cavalry regiment would face the axe, as well as many of their reserve counterparts and some elements of the support units such as logistics that would be downsized to match the reduced force size. Given the savings in raw salaries and pensions, entitlements, basing, training and the like, that alone would save the MoD a massive chunk of cash and potentially spare the other two services further pain.

That may seem like it's unfair or even heresy, but that's precisely what culling sacred cows is all about. The reality is that money is only getting tighter and the army has the most wiggle room to absorb cuts. If you look back at it that still leaves an impressive force, with two armoured divisions and two light divisions, from which brigade sized forces could be extracted if needed, which certainly compares favourably with most of our NATO allies, even the ones you normally associate with being land powers.

Would we all prefer it if no cuts had to be made? Absolutely. But that increasingly looks like nothing more than a hope and a prayer. The RAF and Royal Navy are already pressed to the limit in operational terms, run ragged as politicians look for less risky means of contributing to international operations. I'm afraid that leaves the army standing before the axe man alone.