Philip Hammond has delivered a relevant speech at the RUSI Air Power conference yesterday, and delivered some reassuring observations. Mainly, he seems to have finally grasped the full relevance and strategic importance of the aircraft carriers, of their flexibility, of the indipendent action capability that they offer.
Relevantly, he promised that the aircraft carrier will routinely embark a full squadron of F35B jets whenever she sails "outside of home waters". On operations, it is assumed that the number would increase, potentially all the way up to 36.
Of course, he does not expand on the difficulties connected with trying to deploy a full 36-strong wing from a fleet that is now projected to number only 48 in total.
I can think of only one example of such an ambitious force generation, and that's the successful effort of the Fleet Air Arm for the Falklands War, when over 90% of the total Sea Harrier fleet was sent to the fight.
This (renewed) promise is significant, because it expands and precises the nature of the "routine": whenever the carrier goes outside home waters. Again, it is a relevant promise because the Royal Air Force is reportedly trying to secure a mostly land-based life for the F35 fleet (unsurprisingly), with leaked information that suggests the RAF tried to have the "routine" airgroup cut back all the way to just 6.
12 is already a small number, 6 would be just laughable, so it is comfortable that the minister's position goes in favor of logic and operational reasoning.
The RAF must not be allowed to bring the focus away from the need for restoring the capability to deploy serious airpower at and from the sea. That's why carriers are being built and why F35Bs are being acquired.
The fairy tale of the "Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability", in which stealth bombers will "always get through" and hit targets deep into enemy air space must be forgotten. It is a ridiculous dream, and spending money on F35 to pursue it won't stand up to an informed analysis. It is not a priority to have even more land-based jet squadrons. The F35B must be about naval operations first and foremost.
The theatre of jets taking off from Marham, refuelling in flight 5 or more times to go and throw, at huge cost, a tiny number of Storm Shadows against an enemy with nearly no chance at all of defending its air space is not, and never will be, a justification for more of the same.
To any logical mind, those raids make little to no operational sense.
The RAF would better focus its hunger for fast jets on the horribly expensive Typhoon fleet, abandoning the plan to throw to hell more than 50 still young airframes. A RAF with 7 Typhoon squadrons (2 for air defence, and the Tranche 1 is realistically more than enough for the task as of now: 5 Deployable swing-role squadrons for operations abroad) is all what is realistically needed for land-based operations. More importantly, it is an affordable and basically paid-for force. It only takes money to continue to run the Tranche 1s. And it can be done.
A 159-strong, 7 squadrons Typhoon force can serve the country well. At Tornado GR4-standards, it can deliver 46 or more Force Elements at Readiness (FE@R), of which 16 or so would be for homeland air defence and 30 or so for speedy deployment to operations.
To this, the F35B fleet of 48 would add another 12 / 14, again reasoning at Tornado standards, and it is to be hoped that availability of the newer airplanes will be higher, once fully in service.
This is a realistic force, perhaps not as good as large 64 deployable elements at readiness which used to be the target in the early 2000s, but close enough.
It is estimated that a Brigade-sized operation can be covered with 32 deployed jets, so the force would fit into the Defence Planning Assumptions rather well.
This, i find, is the realistic and affordable target that should be pursued.
Philip Hammond also strongly suggested that both aircraft carriers shall be put in service. He said that the additional cost would be around 70 million a year, and described it, very correctly in my opinion, as an extremely good deal.
Putting both in service gives the Navy the ability to have a carrier countinously available throughout the operational life of the class, and the possibility, in emergency time, to sail both to a warzone. He of course said, once more, that the firm decision is left for the SDSR 2015, but he clearly expressed his belief that operating both ships is the way to go.
I will add, personally, that operating one or both vessels does not only impact the capability to deploy air power at sea continuously, but it also impacts the Navy's amphibious capability. Operating a single CVF risks to be a death blow to the amphibious capabilities of the UK, since by 2022 at the latest, and probably much earlier, HMS Ocean will be gone, and with no replacement LPHs planned, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are going to be simply crucial not so much as carriers, but as "Landing Helicopter - Aviation" ships.
With HMS Illustrious bowing out in 2014 and HMS Ocean possibly following in 2018, or anyway sometime before 2022, unless there is a dramatic rethink, the Queen Elizabeth class vessels will be the only big flat tops available to the navy, and they will have to be there to carry not just airplanes, but the Marines with their helicopters, in what has been called, ever since the publication of the SDSR 2010, "Carrier Enabled Power Projection".
It is absolutely crucial to ensure that both carriers enter service, to restore airpower at sea and to ensure the long term viability of the british amphibious capability, which would be massively depleted otherwise, with a further, massive reduction in the number of deployable Marines and with the near nullification of the amphibious force's rotary wing capability, as the LPDs and LSDs all come without hangars and thus with a quite small helicopter capability overall.
It is intended that the Royal Navy Response Force Task Group will have extensive aviation capability and room for a good 1800 Marines with their vehicles and supporting helicopters.
The presence of the Carrier in the task group is vital to ensure the whole thing remains viable. Early in last October, rear admiral Cunningham briefed the audience of the Maritime Security Challenges 2012 conference, and in his slides it can be noted that the assumption is that the Carrier task group will be always at 5 days notice to move.
If this is the planning assumption, there is no alternative to having both in service.
The much publicized anglo-french expeditionary force will instead be at 30 days notice to move, and it is planned that at least one aircraft carrier will always be part of the force, notionally being provided by each country, rotationally for one year at a time.
It is very important that the investment made on the carriers is not wasted: these are incredibly useful and relevant vessels, and it essential to use them well.
Mr. Hammond was also brought, albeit briefly, on the theme of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft, and he exposed himself justifying the Nimrod decision with a very strong description of the MRA4, which he argues had very low probabilities to ever fly, and would only be a money sink.
Frankly, i think this is gross exaggeration, and so far, while it had emerged that the Nimrod MRA4 still had some issues to iron out when it was cancelled, no one ever dared trying to say that it could not be made to work. And this is being generous: i'm assuming Hammond intended "flying" as operationally serving the RAF exactly as planned, because the Nimrod MRA4 had been flying in the more general sense of the word for many years, actually, and it tackled succesfully many trials, including torpedo releases.
Hammond of course tried to minimize the extent of the problem, but to anyone listening, the MPA situation of the UK just cannot make sense.
Even more so as Hammond (rightfully, in my opinion) underlined the "ISTAR lesson" derived from the Libya experience and the need for Europe to stand up to the security challenges of the Mediterranean, north Africa and Middle East, as we'll see further ahead.
I make no mystery of my position, which is to give great priority to the Maritime Patrol Aircraft need as part of the next SDSR. Worth reporting is also the quite clear thought of the chief of staff of the french navy about the MPA problem:
"They don’t have a maritime patrol aircraft. I don’t know if they are desperate, but if you took my MPA away, I’d be in a desperate state."
I'm under no illusion: for the Royal Navy, it isn't any more desirable to be without MPA than for the french.
Regarding the "ISTAR lesson", Hammond notes, quoting an observation already made by US Defense Secretary R. Gates, that the most advanced fighter aircraft are little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign.
The insufficient ISTAR resources available to NATO, along with insufficient air-to-air refuelling capability were the two most evident issues over Libya, followed by issues of insuffient interoperability and even difficulties in communications between allied assets.
The full extent of the problem is still struggling to come to light, but the issues are very serious, so much so that Denmark, which had earlier opted out of the NATO AGS drone system, now has re-joined the program, after having assessed first hand the difficulties in Unified Protector (Denmark has been a major contributor, flying a surprising number of sorties and expending the near totality of its precision-guided bomb stocks). In the UK, Libya has served to re-ignite interest in systems such as Sentinel and Sea King MK7 and Sentry, so much so that while uncertainties still remain over the future of Sentinel post-Afghanistan, there is now the expectation of seeing it confirmed as part of the future force.
The ISTAR lesson seem to have surprised many in Europe, but i want to hope that the military planners, if not the politicians, only faked ignorance because "forced" to abandon investments in these areas by governments calling for cuts.
Because the ISTAR lesson should not have been a surprise. To me, it certainly was. I've been arguing for strategic enablers in forever, and ISTAR platforms featured prominently in all my calls. I'm not a genius at all, yet i had easily seen where the real problems were. I'd like to think that military professionists can see things better than i do, sincerely.
I deem it absolutely fundamental that proper attention is paid to the unique Strategic Enablers, those capabilities that the UK can bring to the table that no other country in Europe can, with the exception of France for some of these.
So i'm thinking about Sentinel, a good-sized fleet of drones (Reaper and Watchkeeper, then Scavenger replacing Reaper), Airseeker, AWACS, the large fleet of Voyager air tankers, the carriers with their embarked aviation and AEW/ISTAR platforms, the amphibious force, the RFA (alone, it makes up 34% of the strategic at sea logistics capability available in Europe!) and Maritime Patrol Aircrafts too, a capability that has been gapped, but that should be restored as quickly as possible. And also, of course, the strategic mobility offered by an unmatched fleet of 6 Point class RoRo and 8 C17s, something that no one else in Europe has.
The "ISTAR lesson" is closely connected to the topic of multinational collaboration, and to the "new role" for a more mature, more active Europe, which far from meaning unified armed forces is anyway the only possible path to follow to achieve political and military relevance in the future.
But in the case of Libya it shone a bright light on relative military and political capabilities in terms of who "could but wouldn't"; and who "would but couldn't".
With the United States reflecting, in its strategic posture, the growing importance of the developing strategic challenge in the Pacific, the nations of Europe must find the political will to take on more responsibility for our own back yard, and fund the capabilities to allow that.
Certainly that means, shouldering the major burden in the Balkans and the Mediterranean.
But also being prepared, if necessary, to take a bigger role in relation to North Africa and the Middle East.
The bottom line is that Europe, as a whole, needs to do more, at a time when the reality is that, across the continent, aggregate defence expenditure is certain to fall in the short term and, at best, recover slowly in the medium term.
So the challenge is stark: if we can't spend more, we must do things differently;
Maximising the capability we can collectively squeeze out of the resources we have;
Increasing interoperability, closing capability gaps through joint working and greater specialisation.
For example, the UK is overhauling its ISTAR, strategic lift and combat air capabilities as part of the transition to Future Force 2020 with the new Atlas and Voyager fleets operating alongside the C17, Sentry, Sentinel, and Airseeker as well as a range of remotely piloted air systems.
These forces will allow us to offer capacity to share with our international partners in new, innovative and mutually beneficial ways.
And, for the time being at least, we will depend on others for support with maritime patrol aircraft, when we need them.It is not so much the number of Tornado jets that matters. What the UK can and should bring to the table to really matter, is a series of unique capabilities that are pretty much without equal in Europe and that can form the skeleton sustaining a multinational force with little to no US involvment.
That buys power for the UK in three ways:
First, by making the UK more "indipendent", because more realistically capable to mount an operation on its own, with complete, full-spectrum capability, albeit on a small to medium scale.
Second, by making the UK less tied to the specific help of the US and more relevant to other allies, allowing the country to pursue and craft other strategic relationships. The UK cannot hope to win appreciation abroad and be seen as a good ally because of the number of jets or frigates, but can still be seen as an useful partner for its political weight and for the range of specialized, precious capabilities it can field.
Third, by gaining more US support, because such a United Kingdom strategic posture, as "leader of the Willing Europe" can be a driving force for the european side of NATO, making Europe capable to shoulder more of the tasks connected to the Mediterranean and Middle East, allowing the US forces to concentrate more on the Pacific.
In the coming years, a CVF task group deployed to the Gulf to replace a US CVBG that can so go to the Pacific is going to be very, very appreciated. The French have already understood this, and Charles De Gaulle has been visiting the Indian Ocean a lot to deliver air support to troops in Afghanistan and help the US navy keep up force levels all over the map.
The UK did it in the far past already, when the US carrier groups were tied to Vietnam operations and the british carriers filled the holes elsewhere.
After what Hammond said, i can proudly observe that professor Lindley-French and, to a lesser but important degree, I, were right in our analysis of the situation. Read this (long) but highly recommended old article of mine about giving a grand strategy to the UK to see what i mean.
The new enduring relationship-I will avoid the "special relationship" phrase-is ultimately, in Washington’s mind, with both Republicans and Democrats, built on our ability to leverage other partners, primarily Europeans but also Commonwealth members. If we lose that ability because of a profound perception of our decision not to be a major second-rank power, our influence in Washington will decline further. There will be very clear strategic, practical implications.
The specific impact will be on NATO, because what is generating and becoming very clear in Washington is that the Americans are increasingly becoming an Asia-Pacific power. What they will look for - in a sense, Libya is increasingly the test case - is Europeans under Anglo-French leadership to look after our bit of the world, which is a pretty rough neighbourhood, while an overstretched America deals with the epicentre of change in south and east Asia. If we cannot step up to that leadership role, and we are choosing not to adopt it, the fundamental assumption in the NSS that the Americans will always ultimately be there for our security and our defence is being undermined.
The question then becomes: what level of capability does Britain require to ensure that the Americans feel that they can invest in our future security defence because it is part of the overall whole? I was at a meeting in Tallinn a couple of weeks ago, and a German MP seriously said that Germany would not modernise its deployable armed forces, and that it would not even conceive of modernising nuclear forces, but that it might allow the Americans to pay for and put in place a missile defence system that protects Germany in Europe. The inference is that if we are moving inadvertently into that camp - the Dutch are certainly going into that camp - our loss of influence in Washington and, I would suggest, elsewhere, will be profound. The French, frankly, have a lot more traction than we do these days because they talk a better show than we do.The tragedy, for me, for London is that after all the sacrifices of the past 10 years of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are almost snatching contempt from the jaws of respect, on the Hill in particular. I am not overstating this; that is the consequence of these two documents on the American political mind that considers these issues.”
I fully recognise that there are a lot of European countries-mainly because of the German position, I have to say-that have been in retreat for a long time, aided and abetted by poor American leadership. I have made that point in the US several times-that the Americans have a responsibility to lead well, not just lead. Our interest is to renovate a strategic concept in Europe that ensures that there is a genuine European pillar of the alliance stabilising this turbulent world. That is our mission; and we are not stepping up to that plate. Any chance of bringing Europe back on strategic line, if you like, is, I fear, in danger of being lost.”
A very, very senior person told me on Friday that the trajectory of these two documents [National Security Strategy and SDSR] could mean that the United Kingdom loses D-SACEUR-to the French, on current trajectory-because we are perceived as an unreliable ally, which is unfair but how it is being perceived. [D-SACEUR: Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – the SACEUR is a US officer]
The Americans will not go on funding this bill, and there is going to be a row over missile defence. Congress has not woken up to the fact yet that the missile defence system currently proposed is one that the Americans will pay for that can protect Europe but cannot protect the United States. Already, a high-level congressional delegation last week at NATO asked the specific question, "Are there any US enablers being used for operations over Libya?" The US MilRep jumped in and said, "No." That is not the correct answer, and Congress will soon learn that. There are all sorts of implications. Whereas for the US, alliances are extremely useful but not critical, for the UK our influence in functioning alliances and international organisations is absolutely critical“.“I think they [USA] would abandon Europe [If the UK and France stop being useful partners]. They would say, reasonably, "Look, Europe, you’re a strategic backwater right now. If you are not prepared to work with us to stabilise the world and our grand strategic mission, you can look after your own neighbourhood." The logical consequence of that is that this neighbourhood is rough. We would end up spending more, or we would take a much higher level of risk-probably the highest level of risk we have taken since the 1930s. That is the choice that we face.”
Professor Lindley-French, speaking to the Parliamentary Defence Committee
More importantly, in the words of Hammond i see signs of one fact: at least someone in government seems to be waking up to reality, in a way or another.
I can only hope that the concept will have been more widely grasped before it is time to write the next SDSR.
Because what defence desperately needs, is a review that comes up with a strategy and a coherent way forwards to stick to it. The first and greatest task of whatever government will be in charge at the time of the next SDSR is to write a Review that is not just a list of cuts, but a genuine assessment of the direction that should be followed.
Otherwise, rebuilding the trust between the soldiers and who leads them will be impossible.