The announcements of Liam Fox, containing the many updates to the original SDSR figures and assumptions, put, as we know, a target of a total army strength of "around 120.000", delivered with a 70-30 mix of regulars to reserve, with the TA expected to reach a trained force of 36.000.
Lately, due to the increasing focus on collaboration with France, i've been investigating, more than usual, matters of french defence planning, kit and assumptions, and i've been very much impressed by the read of the last 15-years "planning horizon" which France set for itself in its latest white paper on defence, which was released in 2008.
One of the first considerations i had to make during the read is that France, in 2008, seemed to know the future, and be already informed of the 2010 Lancaster Treaty which it then signed with the UK. In 2008, even without naming the UK directly, France announced all the targets that have then been written out as part of the collaboration Treaty in 2010: everything, from collaboration and pooling of the A330 MRTT fleets, to pooling support of the A400 fleets, to a combined "european" force projection force of 60.000 (met with astonishing precision by the matching national ambitions of France and of the UK to set their maximum contribution at 30.000 each), to other collaborations, such as on drones and satellites.
It raises an interesting question: did the UK, two years later, decide to accept French planning assumptions in full and jump onto the boat, or where the targets shaped collaboratively well before the SDSR 2010 actually happened, or what else?
A second consideration of interest comes from reading France's own Defence Planning Assumptions, and the manpower numbers related to the targets. France plans a total army size of 131.000, not much larger than the UK's one, and with an "Operational Ground Force" of 88.000, representing a difference of only 4000 men above the current british FF2020 level for regular army strength.
This operational force is expected to deliver the following force packages, simultaneously:
- A year-long commitment for a 30.000 strong force deployed abroad, with a six months notice to move
- A further 5000 reserve personnel on permanent alert
- Capacity to deploy up to 10.000 men to respond to internal major crisis and/or natural disaster
There does not appear to be a real reason why the British Army shouldn't be able to keep faith to the general Defence Planning Assumptions with 84.000 regulars, if 88.000 french regulars can be asked to provide, simultaneously, such availability, which could, in the worst case, mean that 45.000 out of 88.000 men would engaged in operations abroad and at home at the very same time, nearly 1 in 2.
To the 84.000 british regulars, the government asks:
- To provide 5 Multi Role Brigades, 6000 or 6500-strong, capable to sustain a single enduring deployment with regular 6 months tours followed by 24 months breaks, with maritime and air support as required, with a further "specialized" brigade for high readiness reaction.
- Alternatively, an enduring brigade-sized effort (6500) in one location, while also delivering
- one non-enduring complex intervention (up to 2,000 personnel), and
- one non-enduring simple intervention (up to 1,000 personnel);
A non-enduring operation indicates, in planning, a mission which lasts less than six months or maximum six months, typically requiring a force to be deployed and then withdrawn without replacement. Examples might include evacuation of UK citizens (as in Lebanon in 2006) or a counter-terrorist strike operation.
- A third scenario states that the UK would stage three non-enduring operations if it was not already engaged in an enduring operation; without putting numbers on it.
- Last comes the "one-off" divisional effort, expressed as "for a limited time, and with sufficient warning, committing all our effort to a one-off intervention of up to three brigades, with maritime and air support (around 30,000, two-thirds of the force deployed to Iraq in 2003)."
The warning time required and the duration of the intervention are not specified. It should be safe enough to assume that we are looking at a six months notice, followed by a six to nine months deployment, perhaps one year if it really was necessary, but already 9 months would be a large breach of Unit Tour guidelines.
The Defence Planning Assumptions made by the british Government for a force merely 4000-men smaller than France's own are actually quite soft and comfortable. Even accepting that there are differences in how the two armies are structured and manned, it does not appear acceptable to suggest that an 84.000 strong regular force can't meet said 2020 targets.
If it cannot, then it is evident that there are very serious issues with structure and manning procedures and with the ratio of active to "back end" personnel, which in that case would have to be tackled and solved without sentimentalism.
Another observation is that there is much more disparity between France targets for Air Force and Navy when compared to UK's own targets.
France plans for a 50.000 strong air force with 300 combat airplanes, between modernized Mirage 2000s and new Rafales (including the Navy's ones), plus a 50-strong A400 cargo fleet, 4 AWACS E3F Sentry, 3 (a fourth is planned) E2C Hawkeye (used by the Navy) and 14 air tankers (now KC135, tomorrow A330 MRTT).
The Navy airplanes (some 50 Rafales and 4 Hawkeyes, in the long term, as the Rafale force is built up from the current 38 or so and the old Super Etendard are retired instead) are flown and used by the Navy but are included in the national pool of combat air assets, under Air Force responsibility. The Navy Rafales have nuclear capability with the ASAP cruise missile. Land planes in this role (modernized Mirage 2000s) are to drop from 60 to 40 instead.
The 300-strong pool of combat jets is expected to provide for deployments abroad a force of 5 squadrons, for a total of 70 fighters, with an additional 10 at permanent alert.
The long term consistence of the RAF is put at 33.500 by 2015, with a notional 31.500 men planned for 2020, with 107 Typhoons (with the 52 Tranche 1 Typhoons to retire between 2015 and 2018), a still unclear number of F35C (aspirational 100, 138 in wet dreams, 80 in a realistic/optimistic estimate, but down to as few as 40 in the worst-case projections), 22 A400, 7 C17, 3 Rivet Joint and 7 AWACS. The 5 Sentinel R1 ground surveillance planes, a truly unique capability, seem luckily set for a reprieve during SDSR 2015, with their fate destined to be evaluated in the review.
France is planning for a much higher number of combat airplanes (300 against perhaps 187 or even less) and a greater number of cargo planes (even if it has not an airlifter with the payload capacity of the C17), while the number of supporting assets (AWACS, air tankers, ISTAR) is smaller. The French Air Force, however, has aspirational plans for up to 60 drones from 2020, against a RAF target of 20, 30 at most. Even more importantly, the French air force is also getting hundreds of millions of euro in investment to put up, under Joint Staff control, a net of satellites for ground observation (Helios satellites, procured under Project MUSIS), eavesdropping (Project CERES) and Ballistic Missile Early Warning and Tracking. Satellite fields in which the UK is at a total standstill, depending entirely on US and French capability for its needs.
France plans for a 44.000 strong navy fielding a Carrier Strike group centered on Charles De Gaulle and her airwing, plus at least another operational group, which could indicatively expect to be centered on a Mistral-class LHD, of which 4 are planned, with two delivered, one at sea trials and another to come.
One of the old Foudre-class LPDs has been in the meanwhile retired early and sold to Chile for USD 80 million. Even with this retirement, the increase in the number of Mistrals, the acquisition of four L-CAT advanced landing crafts and other investments have signaled a large expansion in the amphibious power projection capability of France. This is part of a trend that is also seeing Italy, Spain, Australia and other countries (even Germany wants to acquire a LHD at some point!) expanding their power projection capability, with the UK being a weird exception with the reductions implemented in the SDSR.
The French Navy's major units are to also include 14 major escorts (2 Horizon class destroyers (Type 45 equivalent), 9 ASW FREMM frigates, 2 FREDA FREMM frigates (for air defence), 5 La Fayette frigates), 6 SSNs and 4 SSBNs.
The area in which the French navy beats the RN is that of second-rate combat ships, such as the Floreal low-end warships, which enable the Marine Nationale to be in many places at once, even though the balance of major units is favorable to the RN (assuming 6 Type 45, 13 Type 26 and 7 SSNs). The RN is unfortunately bare of any Floreal-equivalent, and has no fleet of corvettes or other ship types suitable for minor warfighting and constabulary tasks, which is cause of the overstretch and source of concerns over availability, as the big warships are, overall, present in adequate numbers, but are tied up constantly to the coverage of standing tasks all over the globe that, in several cases, could be covered by less specialized and less precious vessels.
The RN manpower is going down to 30.000 by 2015, and the SDSR contained a notional figure as small as 29.000 by 2020, an amazing (perhaps scary is the right word) figure if we think that it also includes 7000 Royal Marines, while the French Navy only controls, as part of the total, some 2000 "commando" and sea rifles, with the amphibious infantry being an Army business in France.
42.000 men against 23 or 22.000, even considering the already mentioned smaller warships that France runs and the bigger consistency of the French naval aviation, is a rather impressive figure, considering the balance of vessels. I think it is a testament to the efficiency of the RN, which even with its own defects, seems to run on a much leaner manning than its most direct competitor.
It also, however, supports the warning of the First Sea Lord, which recently said that 29.000 men would really be too small for the RN to be able to work, particularly if both CVFs are retained as hoped.
The feeling that the SDSR 2010 was heavily influenced by France's 2008 white paper is further strengthened by other "details", such as the creation of the Defence and National Security Council, which is lifted clear out of the White Paper.
I don't have any particular problem about it, but i would have liked more to have different bits of the document being copied, instead, starting from the very important development in satellites, moving through the acquisition of wide-ranging naval cruise missile capability (with 250 Scalp Navale missiles being ordered for use on the FREMM frigates and on the Suffren SSNs) up to increase of power projection capability and strengthening of the amphibious capability.
The biggest and most worrisome difference between FF2020 and the White Paper targets, however, is another, and of budgetary nature. The 2008 White Paper contained precise commitments to the defence budget, with spending levels to be maintained (and increased according to inflation) and then expanded by 1% yearly post 2012. Of course, not even the French armed forces have the total certainty of getting all what they need, but the Scorpion land moderniation programme is going on, the Fèline kits for the infantry are financed and progressively acquired, and the 25.000 kits target still stands, the third Mistral-class LHD is to enter service soon, a first firm commitment to buying the new air tankers exists and will be in PR12, and so along.
Around Future Force 2020, instead, there's still a lot of uncertainty, floating question marks, and budget scares, with no loyal and definitive commitment being confirmed in the long term, even though a 1% budget increase (on the sole Procurement budget) has been promised for the years 2015 to 2020.
In practice, the French White Paper is a document that gives the Armed Forces some true indications.
The value of the SDSR10 promises for 2020, instead, is uncertain, and years of painful experiences of constant cutting have spread in the british armed forces a culture of mistrust and suspect, in which no one trusts the governments, whatever they are, and their promises.
The challenge of Future Force 2020, passing by the SDSR 2015, is also this one: rebuilding a trust in the armed forces, by delivering a plan, and then following it with coherence. With painful choices too. But with coherence.