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 thebulletin@adit.fr 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.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Taking Prisoners

So I recently saw a discussion regarding the Kurdish militias taking ISIS fighters prisoner and the rights or wrongs of the fact that the Kurds treated them (at the very least in front of the cameras) with the respect and dignity that would normally be accorded to opposing soldiers by an army that was a signatory to the Geneva Convention. Some people were outraged that the Kurds did this, some thought it a bit odd, and a handful agreed that it was appropriate.

I would say that I'm on the side that thinks this is appropriate. Now that may seem a barking mad position to take given what ISIS routinely does to its captives. But I think there are two reasons to support this position.

The first is that "an eye for eye" is the sort of knee jerk, ridiculous reaction I would expect of people like ISIS, not those claiming any kind of moral high ground in the contest. It is a fundamental, inescapable fact that if you follow this line of thinking then it will take you down a path that - through a series of slightly convoluted twists and turns - leads you inevitably to the conclusion that Jimmy Saville's children should be raped and/or molested by his victims, because "an eye for an eye" right?

The second is the much more practical purpose of what this approach would do for the Kurdish forces. Anyone fighting against ISIS should by now be under no illusions as to what will happen to them should they be captured by ISIS. Fighting tooth and nail to the last bullet and beyond is their only viable option. To surrender is to sign your own death warrant, and to willingly accept a potentially very gruesome end. 

By comparison ISIS forces have a much less final choice. To surrender to Kurdish forces is to potentially save their lives, at the very least in the short term (I've no idea what the Kurds plan to do in the long run with any prisoners). This not only offers the Kurds the opportunity to end certain fights by offering terms of surrender to ISIS fighters, but it also encourages defection by fighters who don't see a long term future with the group.

As an example, intercepted messages sent back by a number of foreign fighters who travelled to Syria to join ISIS have demonstrated that actually taking part in a Jihad may not be all that they originally though it was cracked up to be. Complaints about being treated as slaves or kitchen skivs, no home comforts etc, have shown that not all ISIS fighters are the hard case Jihadists that they claim to be. As such, offering them a way out by surrendering can be tempting and potentially provides the Kurdish forces (and their western backers) with valuable sources of intelligence that could help hasten the end of the group.

As galling as it may be to watch men who have fought against them - and possibly carried out war crimes - receive water, food, medical care and decent treatment, it seems clear that the Kurdish forces understand that biting their lips and treating their enemy humanely is a long term investment that trades short term frustration for information and in some cases lower friendly casualties.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Update 08/03/15

Just a quick one to let you all know that due to switching broadband providers I potentially may not have Internet access for a few weeks. It's all in the lap of the telecommunication gods I'm afraid. It might be one day, it might be 14, nobody seems to be able to give me a solid answer. Just a heads up in case things go quiet for a bit.