Tuesday, 1 October 2013

September 2013 Thoughts: The Armed Forces and the Numbers Game

In 1982 the British Armed Force had over 327,000 personnel in service from which to man a Task Force to reclaim the Falkland’s; the defence budget was 5.95% of GDP and equated to £120,849 being spent per service-member[1]. However, as of August 2013 the armed forces of the UK are 157,680[2] and is being rapidly reduced by further cuts, the defence budget is 2.14% (including research[3]) equating to £214,358 per service-member[4]. So whilst the percentage of GDP spend is down by more than 50%, and the numbers are down by more than 50%; the British government is spending 77% more per service-member – therefore it follows those personnel must be the best equipped that Britain has ever fielded and there should be no shortages of equipment? Unfortunately it hasn’t worked like that, shortages are all too common theme of operations and of embarrassing press articles[5] which have plagued successive governments. The question is why?

Why do the British public not accept being told that a faster/better police car/fire engine/ambulance can cover more ground than previous types so we need fewer without organising protests, marches and online petitions running into the thousands – but on the just as important topic of defence accept such arguments with barely a murmur? Yes the Eurofighter & F-35 are better than a Tornado or a Harrier; the Queen Elizabeth carriers and Daring destroyers are better than the Invincibles and Type 42s of the Falklands era[6]; none of them can be in two places at once though. Furthermore, better also usually means more complicated, not just in terms of mechanics but in terms of the far more confounding computers and programing – making maintenance and possible problems require more specialist skills, making it more difficult.

The total list of programs and equipment which have been cut without replacements is massive[7], Britain has sacrificed Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) and like the Type 22 Frigates instead of the equipment being put into storage or handed over to the reservists so it would be accessible when needed it was destroyed. Practically brand new multi-million pound investments wiped out without even seemingly a glance. The Army has also suffered although its pain has been masked to an extent by the procurement of equipment for the Counter Insurgency (COIN) wars it has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – but now there’s talk of using that equipment for years to come in possibly, ‘peer war’ scenarios; a Cougar or Jackal is great for protecting troops from IEDs and mines, but what about artillery fire/air attack, direct fire from a tank/IFV or an anti-tank missile? The result will not be something any government wants to see (and certainly no amount of blaming the predecessors will wash it’s record clean); yet still cuts to defence are considered the soft option of British politics, with even now reports appearing that further cuts are a very real possibility[8]. These cuts though are not because the British political class are anti-national security; but because the NHS (£124.4billion), Education (£87.3billion), Pensions(£139.1billion), Welfare (£116.6billion) and even servicing the interest on Britain Debts (£47.2billion) have a higher priority given to them by the national political debate[9]. The concentration for this piece though is on defence, but it is of limited length, so it seems sensible to concentrate on just one problem, for one service to provide an example of situation that has arisen.

What’s happened to the nation which demanded “we want eight” when faced with the Naval Race of the early 20th century? Why is Britain as a trend disarming by technology? Certain numbers of personnel are required; certain equipment is required to deploy – one of the most interesting facets of this trend is that Strategic Deterrent, the supreme example of technological security is understood to require certain numbers to guarantee it’s at sea readiness (which itself is a cornerstone of it’s ability to act). However, in the same breath as voices declare that, they will declare that two aircraft carriers can replace four (over worked) aviation ships; the Royal Navy to maintain the Strategic Deterrent has to guarantee one vessel on patrol, for this four vessels are the minimum[10]. Yet according to those voices to provide both the aviation ship for Carrier Strike/Fleet Air Defence and the aviation ship for the Amphibious Lift/Close Air Support just two are needed? This is a future problem though (which could be easily solved by the construction of 1 LHA & 2 LHDs[11]) and even then it’s not even the most glaringly problematic one. At the current time the RN has to provide escorts for the Response Force Task Group (2+), the Fleet Read Escort (1), Atlantic Patrol Task – North (1), Atlantic Patrol Task – South (1), Combined Task Force 150 & 151, NATO Response Force (1) and other East of Suez patrols – even if all those not numbered just required 1 vessel, the RN would need an escort strength of 24 vessels, with no slack to maintain those 8 on station. It has just 19. Hence, it’s unsurprising that in a recent speech the new First Sea Lord stated[12]:

In the Royal Navy, we cross-connect the use of the entire frigate and destroyer force - and we have to, because of numbers - and to maximise output. In doing so, we move seamlessly from training on operations, to operations. We move from a high end role, to a simpler mission, and back again. And, at all times, high end training is necessary, on the right equipment, to be ready.

We allocate ships to more than one task, by double and triple counting - because we have to. And we work the crews very hard to make this 'ship chemistry' work.

This is the famous RN can-do attitude at work, but triple counting a ship is an accountancy bluff which only works because it’s not called – not a safe strategic choice for a nation which is as exposed and interconnected globally as the UK is[13]. For example, if the 3 Type 23 frigates had not been sold by the government of Tony Blair to Chile[14] and if Gordon Brown’s government had kept to the letter of the 2003 Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World, 8 Type 45s would have been built[15]; so the Royal Navy even if the Coalition had still cut the Type 22 frigates[16] would have had the 24 escorts in service. As it is a successive governments have cut numbers, in a penny pinching fashion without strategy or evening seemingly considering operations. Would it not have been better to sell Chile Type 22s rather than cut a class which was the back bone of the fleet in numbers even then; and to which the figure of 16 does not represent that much larger an operating cost than 13? Why not build the 7th and 8th Type 45s? If six are being built, they are replacing 12 ships, and it will reduce the cost per unit of the class as the research had already been done and paid for; again the running cost would not have been that much more for a large operation benefit. The Type 22s, are to an extent harder to defend as they were a small class in a force looking for savings; but they could have been made reserve vessels[17] - for which their size and form/equipment would have made them perfect candidates. Then if necessary the government could have called upon one or two from time to time in peace time to fill in for vessels needed elsewhere or damaged by accident[18]; or even to provide extra escorts for major exercises like Cougar 13[19] – options which would have been great for reservist capability and moral. Instead the RN is on 19 escorts and has no reserve[20] - no tactical, no strategic reserve; there are no reserve ships for the RN.  

Britain is a nation which depends upon energy and food imports, which depends upon exports and the free movement of goods to be able to pay for that. Britain is a nation with many friends, many dependents and many interests. Britain is a nation which depends upon a level of global stability to be profitable. Britain is a nation that’s largest ally is starting to focus on another ocean. Escorts can no longer be coasted upon and reduced, without thinking through the strategy. This though won’t happen if defence continues to be an issue which suffers either being ignored, wilfully ignorant or ignominious considerations – such as focus upon jobs a certain program/procurement creates rather than what it delivers in terms of security. How will this happen, well not by passing a law that it must be debated or by having another day set aside a year. It has to be the responsibility who is interested, who realises the problem to instead of sitting at home grumbling to their family in front of the news, to everyone who when reading the papers shudders when seeing the words “Britain must act” whilst thinking “with what?”; in fact to everyone. Silence can no longer be tolerated, at minimum tweet, blog, write letters to the press or to your local MP; raise the issue at every opportunity – because it is only when the illumination of a thorough debate is cast upon this issue that change for the better could ever come about.  

[16] The 4 of which would have meant an escort strength of 28, a very useful amount of slack; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/changes-to-royal-navys-surface-fleet-announced (17/09/2013)
[17] http://amphibiousnecessity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/july-2013-notes-could-rnr-provide.html - perhaps even the last two Batch 2 Type 22s Sheffield & Coventry could have also been kept by the previous governments to provide the reserve capability.
[20] In an ideal world the RN would have 16 Type 23s and  8 Type 45s in regular and 4-6 Type 22s in reserve; an escort force of 28-30 vessels, that would have had sufficient a combination of flexibility and capability built in to adapt to any strategic scenario Britain was likely to find itself in.

September 2013 Thoughts: Sea Power

From Trafalgar and Waterloo to the first German war the British navy was supreme upon the seas. Our sea-power during the greater part of the nineteenth century equalled that of all other nations put together. Did we misuse that power? On the contrary, there never were so few warships afloat. History, which has been my guide and inspiration, will show the future ages that the control of the seas which the British held so long was used not for the exercise of warlike ambition, but to keep the peace, to suppress the slave trade and to make the seas safe for the commerce of all nations. All our ports, even our own coastwise trade, were opened to the entry and competition of men and good from every land.

Winston S. Churchill, London, May, 1946

Sea Power is an encompassing phrase, all too often commentators will use it to describe the raw naval/military potential of a nation – but in a world where international relations encompasses soft power as well as hard power how can Sea Power be so one dimensional? Even Mahan, who stated the history of sea power was “largely a military history”, issued a qualified statement with the word largely. The truth in fact is that Sea Power certainly isn’t so mono-polar; it includes not only the war fighting potential of a nations naval forces, but their diplomatic potential, the economic potential of its & other merchant ships traversing the world laden with goods, and perhaps most importantly it includes the succour which a nation may extract from that sea, both water & seabed, which comes under that nations jurisdiction. All these things are now part of Sea Power, and they must be in balance otherwise a nation could find itself weak at a time of crucial necessity.

This is itself a very Corbettian view, in that no longer is control of the sea the epitome of sea power, but what can be done with/from the sea when it is controlled. The important thing though is that both of these parts are as important as each other; without the ability to control the sea (at the least in a local sense) nothing can be done with/from it. Control of the sea allows the utilisation of the sea in peace time for actions such as gathering food (fishing or harvesting seaweed), collecting energy (directly by wave, tidal or wind power; or indirectly by the extraction of natural gas, oil, coal or uranium[1]) or amassing resources (mining the sea floor or underneath it) – none of this can be overstated in their importance to a nation’s economy. It’s because of that importance that disputes over the extents of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)[2] are so contentious; it’s also the reason that naval conventional deterrence is rising[3] as a required capability for many nations. However, deterrence comes in many levels and the equipment/diplomatic commitments required by each nation depend upon the level of sea power it itself requires/desires and the level it feels it receives/can accept from any alliances. For example a nation for which it’s EEZ is concentrated in one area could well focus upon sea denial systems such as Diesel/AIP Submarines (SSKs[4]) supported by land based aircraft and missile boats to provide the military part of the ‘sea power’ they require. In comparison a nation with a diffused EEZ, will need aircraft carriers to provide ‘organic’ air power to support any operation[5], amphibious ships to bring along land forces[6], auxiliaries for logistics to provide the global reach, major escorts and nuclear submarines (SSNs & perhaps SSGNs[7]) – all necessary to protect and project sea power on a global scale[8].

It’s not only a nation’s EEZ which determines their requirements; the world is increasingly interconnected, or put another way, globalised. This means that the trade routes which crisscross the world moving everything from energy & raw materials to completed multi-component products, and which depends upon the “freedom of the sea’s” for that movement are of massive importance. Something accentuated by the fact that the ships which carry all this are growing bigger as their owners seek economies of scale; some modern ships carry as much as a convoy of 50 ships did in the Second World War[9]. This is great for companies, terrible for countries as it means that the impact of disruption (or even worse, destruction) of the practically never ending conveyor belt like flow of ships would at the minimum be devastating economically – in the case of energy supplies it could be literally life and death for millions[10]. This brings in another version of sea power, a nation which is unable to protect its trade is a weak sea power; protection of this trade requires presences and is the principle role of escorts during ‘peace-time’[11]. Even this is variable, as major exporting nations require less strength as the onus is on the importing nations which need the goods to protect the trade – of course the nations which are most exposed are those nations which are trading nations, both major importers & exporters as for them the movement of goods is a foundation which if undermined would cause their economy to crumble. Protection of this has been the traditional role of the Royal Navy, and is exemplified in its Prayer which states: “that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth and her dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions”.

The final factor affecting a nation’s sea power is their diplomatic commitments/support; again a nation higher up the status level can expect more support but, in turn, more is expected more of it. These alliances and the status they bring can deliver a certain level of insulation from events, as well as false feels of greater security – false because the greater security is dependent upon the idea that other nations will protect their interests; which they will as long as those interests coincide with their own and they do not have other commitments for their forces. An excellent example is the reliance European nations have developed upon America for defence; and the fact those nations seem to have perceived this as being more technological reliance[12] and are now reacting as such is interesting. As whilst seeking to be self-sufficient in an armaments is a very sensible strategic notion for any nation[13] - the fact is that the most important thing America has done for those nations is allowed them to focus on Europe, it’s America which to be fair pushed for decolonisation, which has had to take on the role the colonial powers had up till that point fulfilled of global stabilisation. It took up a mantle which whilst previously had had a lead nation, Great Britain, had been a collective work rather than a single nation’s responsibility. The great prosperity of the modern world, recession & all is based upon stability – conflict disrupts that, unstable regimes disrupt that, any problems disrupt that and for the last half a century it has been America’s job to deal with it. America though cannot afford to shoulder this burden indefinitely, neither should it be expected to; the Pacific Pivot whatever it’s end result is an example of the rebalancing it is having to do as it has to focus on protecting once more its own interests. For European nations this means that they will have to consider their interests, their role in the world and the security as their own responsibility[14]; and more than likely, although it could take decades to break the current cycle, adjust spending on defence to fit.

Sea Power is global power, the sea is the medium by which all people are brought together, and can reach other – even before the undersea cables that are the truest foundation of modern communications ran along its bed the sea was the global information super highway where cultures met and where discoveries were passed along. It has been a constant throughout the passage of the recorded history of humanity[15]; the only change has been the evolution in both how people use it, and the capability with which people make use of it.

In summary Sea Power is not just about fighting high level wars. It is about daily political commitments, flexibility, potentiality, capability and manoeuvrability: whether hard or soft; economic, political or military it is about the things that the sea offers a government, a nation, a people in terms of options and resources. However what they get out from it depends entirely upon what they are willing to put in. Having started with his words, and for all his humanity, it seems sensible to make use of another quote from Churchill; which sums up eloquently what Sea Power can do for a nation.

We have never lived at anybody’s mercy. We have never lived upon the good pleasure of any Continental nation in regard to our fundamental requirements. We have never entrusted the home defence of this country to any foreign power. We have never asked for any help from anyone. We have given help to many, but to make good the security of our own island we have asked for help from none.

Winston S. Churchill, Commons, March 8, 1934

Further Reading:                             

[11] although with counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, national & international emergencies, anti-smuggling, presence/showing-the-flag and various other contingencies which spring up, the phrase ‘peace-time’ looks more & more misleading
[12] Whilst it certainly provided volume for NATO’s force structure, the fact is the American armed forces were mostly valued for their high-tech/high –value units such as Patriot air defence batteries; hence why many NATO countries do not actually have their own equivalent systems to defend their forces.
[13] Which of course Europe is not; making the idea of a European Defence Industry just as much of strategic misnomer – however recent focus on procuring missiles from MBDA rather than buying from the Standard Missile company; buying Sylver VLS rather than MK 41.
[14] For the UK this will include 14 Overseas Territories, of which 12 are islands and not all have airfields but they do all have EEZs around them with the potential economic & strategic benefits/requirements.
[15] And more than likely the unrecorded and pre-history of humanity