We're now about two years away from the next general election, and following that it's expected a new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will be conducted, regardless of which party wins power. With that in mind, Think Defence has started a series gradually building up to the review, looking to attack the issue from multiple angles (the latest post can be found here).
Part of the plan was for others to pitch in with their thoughts and so I've decided to produce a post in that spirit, my own current thinking on what I'd like to see from the SDSR 2015. Keep in mind this is just my current thoughts, and as such is subject to change in the future.
In keeping with more official documents, I've decided to number the paragraphs for this one, which should allow people commenting or referencing to point to various items in a much easier manner, though I warn you now that after revision the article takes the form of a series of paragraphs that do not always flow easily from one to the next. Some of the points raised will also be broken down and discussed in more detail at a later date.
Let's get started.
1. The last SDSR called for cut backs in defence as part of the governments plan for cutting the government deficit. These cut backs have been increased since then due to an inability to reduce the deficit quick enough, while other government departments have been protected from cuts. This time around I would like the next government to acknowledge that defence has more than played its part, cutting back significantly in all three services.
2. It is unacceptable for this to continue. At the very minimum I would like the next government to commit to keeping the defence budget flat in real terms (i.e. taking inflation into account), though ideally defence would be rewarded with a slight increase in order to acquire certain systems that are important for defence and have been neglected on the altar of savings, such as the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capability, and Crowsnest for the Royal Navy.
3. A major challenge for the armed forces following Afghanistan is getting back to training for their primary war time roles, while being careful not to assume that they've seen the back of COIN warfare for all time. For that reason I'd like to see the government take strong measures to ensure that the lessons learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are identified and collected now while the operations are fresh in the mind, and are then embedded into future teaching on the subject of COIN warfare.
4. In the realm of procurement, the list of mishaps in defence is long and varied, with the bill of associated increased costs running into the tens of billions over the last two decades alone. The current government has stated that as part of its plan it will be assessing whether a Government Owned, Contractor Operated (GOCO) model for the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) agency would produce better results.
5. From what I have seen and heard, I am not convinced that the government is investigating this matter in good faith. All signs seem to point to the government having already made the decision to switch to a GOCO model, regardless of whether this would be the best approach or not. I would hope that the next government - under pressure from the Commons Defence Select Committee - would resolve to conduct a completely fair and impartial assessment of the merits of GOCO versus other potential systems, not just legacy procurement and support setups, and measure not just the cost of the organisation to the government but also an assessment of its likely effectiveness at delivering future procurement projects on time and on budget.
6. In particular I would like to see a review of the large number of military personnel involved in procurement, which appears to make little sense. The bulk of officer candidates entering the armed forces are going to be University graduates who - by the time they enter the procurement system - will have lots of military experience, but very little (if any) commercial experience.
7. The input of some military personnel, especially those who have been recent operational users of legacy equipment that is to be replaced, is clearly vital to ensuring that the right equipment is purchased and that it meets the needs of the armed forces. But in 2010 the DE&S organisation employed over 1,780 commissioned officers from the three services, along with over 3,000 other ranks. A significant trimming of the numbers would help immensely to reduce costs. A shift to generally smaller teams would also ease the funding pressure and likely speed up some of the decision making, while providing less opportunities for disparate voices to throw their weight into the mix and drag otherwise suitable programs off track.
8. The Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system should also be revised. The word "Urgent" is generally taken to mean "as soon as humanly possible". Many of the UOR's ordered for Afghanistan and Iraq did not arrive until years after the UOR's for them had been issued. The inadequacy of vehicles like the Snatch Land Rover had been recognised early on and the plethora of mine resistant vehicles on the market prior to 2003 should have made finding a replacement relatively simple.
9. The UOR system thus needs to be adjusted, understanding fully the fact that UOR's might involve spending more money than is normal for a project (for example bringing examples of vehicles together quickly for an expedited testing phase) and that sometimes a solution might have to be purchased that meets all of the immediate main criteria (such as protection), but still needs ongoing development in some other areas that are less immediately critical, such as ergonomics.
10. Further, to aid future procurement programs the MoD should invest in a small historical staff. This small team, likely no more than 3 or 4 strong and probably consisting mainly of part time staff, should be tasked with reviewing past procurement projects both in the UK and abroad, in order to build up a base of knowledge of both good and bad procurement projects that could be used to inform and aid decision making going forwards.
11. Recent operational experience has shown the mutual value that could arise from closer cooperation with smaller allies. Although fundamentally the United States is Britain's largest ally (as indeed it is to many nations) and future British operations beyond the smallest scales are likely to be intimately tied to US military action, opportunities also exist to partner with and mutually "back scratch" smaller allies on a larger scale than at present.
12. Many nations with much smaller militaries than the UK have demonstrated a continued willingness to engage in military action as a sign of their commitment and value to their allies. Countries such as Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have repeatedly made efforts to overcome the limited size of their forces in order to contribute to International operations, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
13. The main problem facing these militaries is that their small size often precludes them from engaging in certain larger operations because they lack the mass, support and higher command functions to find a role on their own. It is here that the UK could afford these nations an opportunity by integrating them into larger formations.
14. A Danish tank battalion on its own would find difficulty demonstrating its usefulness to a large, American led operation. As a reinforcement in a British armoured brigade that same tank battalion would be afforded a much greater opportunity to contribute and see action. Integrating a Dutch Destroyer into a Royal Navy task group would give the Dutch Navy a chance to take part in larger operations than its individual ships might otherwise be expected to take on. Early integration into an RAF expeditionary wing could allow an Omani Typhoon squadron a much greater chance to get into the thick of the action than if it was simply presented on its own as an extra squadron to a US Air Force operation.
15. Developing these closer ties requires hard work. It would mean identifying those allies with whom the most mutual benefit can be achieved, those who are most likely to take part in International military operations, and then giving these allies priorities for cooperation and training. At the minute the UK is developing closer ties with France. While this has many benefits, I would like to see the UK invest a similar amount of time and money in other, smaller allies as well.
16. I would also like to see the government do more to prepare armed forces members for their lives after service. One of the recruiting tools used by the armed forces is to emphasise to young entrants all the valuable skills they will acquire that can be carried over into civilian life. While those with technical skills of some form may be able to walk out of the forces and straight into civilian jobs, often having acquired a civilian recognised qualification during their service, many are reporting that they struggle to find work on leaving the forces.
17. Employers know all too well that phrases like "self-disciplined", "motivated" and "leadership skills" are good, but not enough on their own for many businesses. Those finding the most difficulty seem to stem from certain trades, such as army infantrymen. The MoD should acknowledge this and offer more support during the last year of peoples service. There are lots of relatively simple things that could be done, from offering temporary placements at careers offices to give people customer service skills (and importantly, something customer facing to put on their CV), to working with large employers like the police, fire service, Royal Mail, large security firms and others to organise career days.
18. With the potential to do group meetings where soldiers, sailors and airmen could be interviewed, tested and fill out paperwork, such that when their service expired they could walk practically straight out of the gates and into guaranteed civilian employment, these prospective employers might even be encouraged to take on some of the men and women as reserves.
19. The last round of cuts in the army caused a lot of consternation, as they always do, about which cap badges would go. At times we seem to enter into a bizarre parallel universe, where the cutting of cap badges dominates the news headlines and parliamentary discussions more so than the loss of the men and women who wear them. The government was supposed to have fixed this a long time ago with the creation of the "large, large/small" regimental system that produced units like the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
20. Even that was a half hearted effort, as the RRS retained all of its old names in the individual battalion titles, largely defeating the point of the effort, which was amply demonstrated by the furore that attended the proposal to disband the 5th Battalion (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). The government needs to be bold and to try and solve this problem once and for all, or at least significantly mitigate its future impact.
21. The new proposal would be to replace the major county/region battalion identities with a system that shares much with that of the cavalry, by using largely non-county/region specific titles that still carry some historical weight behind them. In addition to providing large regiments that can easily be expanded or contracted in the future without having to lose further badges, the new system would also ease some of the recruitment pressures by allowing the army to distribute new recruits to those units that needed the extra numbers the most, without deflating recruits expectations about joining a "regional" unit.
22. The old county/regional regiments and affiliations would not be lost forever though. They and their colours would be preserved in the army reserve, where regional ties are very much at the heart of the reserve structure. How the regular infantry battalions would be re-named is a detail probably best left for others to fight over, but the options are plentiful; The Black Watch, The Rifles, The Fusiliers, The Duke of Wellingtons Regiment, The Buffs etc. Kings, Queens and Prince of Wales Own versions add further depth. The new regiments should ideally be deep (5 battalions as the norm) and typically non-geographic in title (I'm sure few people will associate the Duke of Wellington with the town, as opposed to the famous General).
23. Looking at the reserves structure announced earlier this year, I am disappointed. I do not think the proposal to significantly increase the number of reserves is particularly realistic, especially not with the new terms of service and revised conditions for call ups. The fact that senior army officers have told the defence select committee that they have no "Plan B" (to the extent of almost literally telling the committee that it will work because it must) is a cause for grave concern.
24. The extra money expected to be invested in the reserves is welcome news, but over the course of time applied and given the expected numbers, the dilution of these funds means that it is difficult to see how much will ultimately be gained. It also fails to address the lack of faith some have in the reserves. The new expectation that the reserves will be called up on a far more regular basis and to perform roles that might include "forward engagement", is a real blow for their employability.
25. I would therefore like to see the government restrict reserve mobilisation to only those operations that truly need it. Using the mandatory mobilisation of reserves to fill in holes on regular non-combat peace support and "engagement" tasks is not acceptable, and breaches the unwritten agreement of trust between the government and both its reserves and their employers, that reserves will only be called into action when a firm need exists.
26. I would also ask the government to rethink its proposal for making the use of the reserves (and indeed the wider army) a regular part of what it's now calling "Homeland resiliency". The simple use of the phrase "Homeland Resiliency" should be banned for a start. The use of the armed forces for responding to domestic incidents should be reserved for an ad hoc basis (outside of certain very specific cases like CRBN and counter terrorism response) and not something that councils plan on having at their disposal all the time, as this will naturally lead to underfunding and an attitude of "we can always get the army/navy/air force to do xyz".
27. Further, the reserve capability should be strengthened at its core by investing proper time and money in leadership, both commissioned and non-commissioned. Full courses should be offered for NCO's, identical to those given to their regular counterparts, in exchange for fixed (contracted) minimum service periods (in years).
28. Officers should i) be required to take the full Sandhurst course, as well as their full special to arm training, the same as their regular counter parts, ii) subsequently be required to commit to a minimum service term, as well as being required to put in more official days per year than non-officers, and iii) receive a much closer degree of integration and support with their regular counterparts (where they can make up the extra days required of them), such as attending certain planning meetings with regular units.
29. In addition, regular officers should be given the opportunity to take career breaks from their regular roles by joining the reserve, where they would be transferred to a suitable reserve unit to serve for a couple of years, during which they could pursue civilian employment, further education, or simply spend more time with their family, potentially with a fresh commitment to return in a promoted role afterwards. Indeed these conditions and opportunities could be rolled out across the entire armed forces.
30. In the Naval sphere, there are a number of pressing problems that the next government should address. The need to remove Trident from the MoD budget and return it to a separate funding line should be foremost among these considerations. It is a truly insidious move by the government to force budget cuts on the conventional armed forces by making them account for both the purchase and then sustainment of the nuclear deterrent. Such a system should be considered a truly national asset and as such funded from its own pot.
31. I'd also like to see the government invest just a small amount to secure a significant capability for the Navy. This would be a greater investment in Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) as used on the Royal Navy's attack submarines, and slated for use on the Type 26. Such weapons form an integral part of the initial stages of most modern operations, and to scrimp on this capability seems to be short sighted given the significant investment made in submarines such as the Astute class.
32. With regards to the two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers, the situation remains deeply troubling in many regards. I fail to see why the government has not given greater priority to the Crowsnest system, that will provide the future of maritime Airborne Early Warning (AEW). This was one of the most critical aspects in which the Royal Navy was found to be deficient during the Falklands War, and the dragging of heels over the replacement for the current Sea King based system seems absurd in that light. I would go as far as to say that AEW is more important to the future fleet than even the jet aircraft that will go on the carriers.
33. Regarding the future of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the continued delays, problems and downgrades of performance are beginning to throw insurmountable question marks over the "B" Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version. Performance limits have been reduced down to the point that the aircraft is now reasonably considered by some to be unsurvivable in certain situations, such as close quarters "dogfighting" and defending against a Surface to Air Missile (SAM) launch.
34. The cost increases of the program, driven by additional delays and the withdrawal from the program by some of the original potential customers, is gradually pushing the F-35 onto a path which is financially unsustainable going forward. The fact that the B version is the only STOVL aircraft with a realistic life beyond 2020 is subsequently making the current configuration of the UK's CVF carriers difficult to justify.
35. The cost of converting the future HMS Queen Elizabeth to a Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Landing (CATOBAR) configuration has been estimated at £2 billion. Given the extensive predicted service life of the carriers (which admittedly may or may not actually be met), the greater flexibility and performance of CATOBAR aircraft (including the greater choice for a fall back plan if things go wrong with the original choice) and the greater scope for cross decking aircraft with key allies, the investment of a further £2billion seems more and more justified with each passing week.
36. The next government also needs to begin thinking about a replacement for the current generation of helicopter carriers, with HMS Illustrious retiring in 2014 and HMS Ocean probably not too long lived after her. It may be that if the current budget squeeze continues then the two Albion-class assault ships may have to be run simultaneously, but this is still not an entirely adequate replacement. Serious consideration should be given to beginning work on a proper successor to Ocean.
37. I would also like to see the government reaffirm its plans to replace the Type 23 frigates on a one for one basis with the Type 26, and to see a little more substantial information about the final size, shape and capability of the Type 26. It's due in service in 2020, which means that by 2015 the design (and cost) really ought to be almost completely nailed down.
38. In keeping with the theme of greater cooperation with small allies, I'd like to see Exercise Joint Warrior, currently run twice a year, be extended in some form to a three times a year event.
39. Regarding the Royal Air Force, I'd like to see the government commit to keeping the Sentinel aircraft in service beyond 2015, as it has now demonstrated its worth in both counter-insurgency and conventional war fighting roles, for a relatively low cost.
40. A proper regeneration of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) function should also be high on the priority list. There are many solutions available that offer the combination of sub-surface search and attack, surface search and attack, and search and rescue support that are required from a UK MPA. The government should make funding for such a capability a priority, beyond even a Tornado replacement if necessary.
41. I would also like to see the government provide funds to return a proper UK Suppression of Enemy Air Defence's (SEAD) capability, lost when the ALARM missile was retired. It seems ridiculous that the RAF maintains the RAF Spadeadam electronic warfare tactics range, and yet lacks any kind of electronic attack or even basic SEAD capability. I am not convinced that the "stealth" characteristics and radar of the future F-35 will be enough.
42. I also have significant concerns over the A400M "Atlas" as the sole replacement for Hercules going forward. While unquestionably Atlas is a more powerful aircraft than Hercules, with longer range, greater cargo capacity and a larger cargo bay, the cost and numbers being procured are a cause for concern. The significantly more capable C-17 represents better value for money in the role of long range, "strategic" transport, while the Atlas itself seems overkill for "tactical" transport, such as shorter trips (e.g. intra theatre) and light loads. As the USAF is trying to divest itself of a number of the excellent C-27 Spartans (which share engine commonality with the C-130) and Boeing could be expected to be open for negotiation on the purchase of additional C-17's as that line approaches its end, I think there exists an opportunity to create a more balanced "high/low" mix of transport capabilities using the C-17 and C-27.
43. On the subject of disposing of aircraft, I find it absolutely astounding that the RAF is planning to retire its Tranche 1 Typhoons from service in the 2015-16 time frame, so soon after they have arrived. While the upgrade potential of this aircraft may be limited, such expensive assets should not be disposed of in such a callous manner. There are two major roles which I can see the Tranche 1's performing in the future.
44. The first would be to handle all of the UK's Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) requirements, both at home and in the Falklands Islands. Secondly, and in keeping with the earlier theme of greater training alongside small allies, a squadron could be kept spare along with a squadron of Hawk trainer aircraft (either T.1 or T.2) as the basis for a British version of the US aggressor squadrons used on Red Flag exercises. The combination of being able to offer allies the chance to fly against both an advanced fighter like the Typhoon, plus practising dogfighting skills against a small, agile aircraft like the Hawk, and the use of the Electronic Warfare Tactics Range at Spadeadam, would likely make the UK one of the world leaders in air combat training.
45. Lastly, given the significant cut backs that have taken place in army manpower, the use of the RAF Regiment should be reviewed. It's not that the Regiment does not serve a purpose. The value of such a unit has been demonstrated over the years in many examples (some not involving the UK, or involving the UK as the aggressor). What is needed is for the RAF Regiment to take on a wider breadth of roles.
46. Currently the one UK airbase most likely to be attacked (outside of Afghanistan) has no protection from an RAF Squadron; RAF Mount Pleasant. This seems absurd, especially as another unit is required to provide defence and training support for the Falkland Island's Defence Force. This is a capability that could easily be handled by the RAF Regiment. Indeed, this is precisely the role for which it was designed.
47. As the Army 2020 plan does not include use of the old Bulldog Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's) it seems logical that - providing the cost is not too great - these could be handed down to the RAF Regiment, both for base protection roles and to provide mobile Forward Air Controller (FAC) teams to help support the army on operations.
48. The RAF Regiment also provides a small contingent to the UK Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). Given that II Squadron, RAF Regiment is parachute trained, it seems a waste not to just outright include the whole squadron as the RAF's representative in the SFSG. The RAF Falcons parachute display team could be disbanded to pay for any additional training needed.