Just a quick line to wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a happy new year. My best wishes to all of you.
Now, because i'm a bastard at heart, i will share some of my depression with those who want to read further.
It will be an important and tough year for defence, this one is for sure. There are two events on the horizon that will be of absolute relevance and that will have the potential to slam the death blow on defence, already agonizing after the cuts of 2010 and 2011. These two events are the referendum for the Independence of Scotland and, obviously, the SDSR 2015.
An independent Scotland, make no mistake, would be a gigantic pain in the ass for defence, which would be faced with new, enormous and very expensive challenges, right at a time when the budget is tighter than ever. The SNP's fantasy plans for defence in an independent Scotland are as credible as unicorns gallopping over rainbows. What would be very real in case of a separation would be the cuts, the losses, the dismemberment of the Army and the further emasculation of the other two services.
The road to the next SDSR promises to be painful, as well. The MOD has been underspending since the SDSR, but much of the underspend, instead of being moved into later years to support the needs of defence, has been clawed back by the Treasury with cuts in the Autumn Statements of 2012 and 2013, and in the 2013 budget. The suspect, for a cynic like me, is that the MOD is underspending as a mean to cut even further without having to admit it plainly.
A part of the underspend has been spent on things such as additional Litening III pods (how many?) and the tiny successive orders of Foxhound vehicles that we have seen in the last while. Hammond said that some money will be used to start CROWSNEST next year instead of in 2017, and we shall see if the promise is kept. I very much hope so, because this would at least cut short the AEW gap.
But still, the last two Autumn Statements both raided away hundreds of millions of pounds each. The Autumn Statement 2012 clawed away £245 million in 2013-14 and £490 million in 2014-15.
The Autumn Statement 2013 added another 277 million cut for 2014-15 and announced a 272 million cut for 2015-16.
Multiple voices agree that even the Future Force 2020 structure, already depressingly incapable in several areas, is not going to be affordable unless there's an increase in the defence budget, over and above the promised 1% uplift in the sole Equipment Budget. These voices include RUSI in its overview of the coming year and the Chief of Defence Staff himself, who launched his warning in the traditional, annual lecture.
Depression rules supreme within the force, along with cynism. Scratching beneath the surface, it emerges that things are even worse than they look from the outside. Even relatively inexpensive projects are often unfunded and some did not even make it into the White Board of the "unfunded but with a hope come 2015" projects. Apparently, among these projects, there's the Force Protection Craft for the Royal Marines. This follows the killing, already in 2011, of the Fast Landing Craft project (it'll be 2020 at least before the Marines can try again at replacing the LCU MK10), and earlier still (2008) the killing of the replacement for the venerable BV-206 vehicles.
From the outside, the picture for the Royal Marines is unpleasant to say the least: all their main projects appear to have been killed; one Bay LSD has been sold off; one LPD is in mothball and HMS Ocean is to be withdrawn from service in 2019 without a replacement.
848 NAS will disband at the end of the year, having concluded the last training course for Sea King HC4 crews on December 19. 846 NAS has been disbanded already in March, leaving the sole 845 with just 11 Sea Kings. 846 NAS will reform on Merlin HC3/3A in September 2014, with 845 NAS following in August 2015.
It is not expected to reform 848 NAS: 845 will instead include an Operational Conversion Flight. The whole force will include 37 crews and 25 helicopters, unless there are further reductions.This is a reduction from 43 crews and a force which once lined over 30 helicopters.
Actually adapting the Merlin for shipboard operations will be a slow affair. The first navalised Merlin is not expected before 2017, and the last won't be around before 2022. For several years, the amphibious force will be extraordinarily poor in dedicate helicopter support.
The fate of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment is somewhat uncertain. The Royal Marines and Navy HQ are locked in a fight against the Army for its survival, trying to reverse the plan for its disbandment. Stood up in 2008 to respond to a chronic shortage of engineer capability in the amphibious brigade, 24 Cdo Eng hasn't even had the time to stand up the planned second field squadron (56 Sqn) before being sacrificed by the Army to the reductions required by Army 2020.
The assignment of 131 Cdo Eng (Reserve) Squadron to a command within the Army, other than to the Cdo Enr Regiment itself is also source of many questions and doubts.
The Army also wanted to axe 148 (Meiktila) Bty Royal Artillery, but this was thankfully avoided. 29 Cdo Royal Artillery, however has suffered its own reductions, and is down to just 12 Light Guns. Hopefully, it'll at least maintain its batteries.
Lastly, P Squadron, 43 Cdo, a force protection squadron made up by RN personnel, stood up in 2010 to provide "Blue" teams for the force protection of navy and RFA ships at sea, is also disbanding, and this role will fall on the shoulders of the line commando battalions. 40, 42 and 45 Commando are, as a consequence, being asked to generate, more or less constantly, 1.7 units at readiness out of 3, Jane's estimates. A new record.
Next year the Royal Marines will be 350 years old. They have much to be proud off, and much to celebrate. But behind the curtain, the picture is unpleasant. Since 2010, years of effort to build up the most complete and credible amphibious capability in Europe have been squandered and crumbled by reductions in shipping, in supports, in vehicles and landing craft projects. Having recently re-read "3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands No PicNic", by Major General Julian Thompson RM, it is very much alarming to see how the last three years have brought back the Marines on the same dangerous edge of destruction they faced in the early 80s.
The brigade today would have much the same problems it had in 1982, which means, to my cynic mind, that 31 years have been largely wasted and no lesson has actually been learned firmly enough to avoid falling back into the same old pits. The brigade was desperately short of helicopters back then, and would have even less today: 847 NAS is going to have just four Wildcat helicopters, and the Sea King HC4s (which was new in 1982, and is very old today) are far less than back then.
Save for the introduction of Viking and some other kit, the brigade has less of everything: less light guns, less helicopters. The loss of HMS Ocean and the incoherent, messy plans for embarked fixed wing aviation would put the brigade back in the same position as in 1982: no air superiority, no adequate air reconnaissance, little in the ways of air support, and no appropriate helicopter support ship for amphibious operations.
The Royal Navy is probably not without its faults. Thompson in his book remembers how the Navy already in 1970, pressed by cuts and budget problems, tried to halve the number of Commandos from the then 4 down to 2. Ironically, back then it was the Army's opposition that prevented that from happening.
In 1980, the Navy tried again, because faced by the cost of the submarine-borne nuclear deterrent (see the similarities? There's the Successor SSBN on the horizon...) and by a very limited and precise sets of roles assigned in the Cold War scenarios by a MOD 100% focused on Germany and convinced that out of area operations would never happen again. Instead of directly proposing the disbandment of Commando units, the Navy focused then on axing the amphibious shipping (again, see the similarities...). Thompson was told so in December 1981 by First Sea Lord Henry Leach. Not without sadness, of course, but that was the direction the Navy was inclined to follow to preserve other parts of its "body". Argentina's hurried, foolish move came a few months early: had they let the winter pass, and acted later, the carriers and amphibious ships would have all vanished, victims of cuts, and the islands today would be named Malvinas.
The Royal Marines of today are precious to the Navy. Their involvment in Afghanistan has made the whole navy proud and has kept the admirals at the table. For not the first time, the contribution of the commandos has been much greater than their numbers suggest.
Moreover, the flexibility of the RN Response Force Task Group has been proven multiple times since the SDSR came out, with the quick response to events in Libya and, to a lesser degree, to Sirya, and then this year to the Philippines natural disaster.
The Navy HQ is, this time, on their side, i believe. The involvment of Navy HQ in the fight to save 148 Meiktila and 24 Cdo Eng is telling, in this sense.
However, the Army, faced with its own painful cuts, is rowing against them. The parts have inverted, but the Royal Marines still sit in the middle, in an uncomfortable position. Let 2014 be a year of celebration, but never let down the guard! The Royal Navy, stretched far too thin in manpower and budget terms, is accepting tough reductions in amphibious shipping capability despite its support for the Marines, and the Army will be trying to redirect cuts away from itself as well. I fear this is a defining moment: may the 350th birthday not be the last of the Royal Marines as we know them.
The problem, basically, comes down to an alarming lack of strategic cohrence. The rushed and completely financial nature of the SDSR 2010 certainly has a good part of the fault, but the way the decisions made drift completely away from the slogans and strategic narrative is too evident and too disturbing to be excused only on those grounds.
The other half of the High Readiness reaction element, the Air Assault brigade, is in a messy situation of its own. Cut down to just two para battalions (plus reserve battalion) and with supports similarly scaled down, the brigade is no longer effective as a brigade and appears just as hard pressed as the Commandos in sustaining the generation of a battalion-strong task force every year. Binary brigades have been proven ineffective again and again and again. The US Army has just reversed its own try: the Brigade Combat Teams, save for those mounted on Strykers, have two manoeuvre battalions but are now to be enlarged to three, with corresponding uplift in artillery and engineer capability.
In practice, the strategic narrative and the reality of the brigade's capabilities are on diverging paths: having assigned to these two formations key and very demanding roles, with a very tight force generation cycle, the Army has then swiftly moved to weaken both brigades, making them at once busier than ever and weaker than ever, in CS and CSS elements in particular. The battalions in the two High Readiness brigades will constantly rotate in and out of very high readiness, putting the men, the kit and the organisation under severe strain.
Rushed SDSR or not, i simply can't understand how this is even possible, frankly. It screams wrong in your face from whatever angle you look at it.
Army 2020 strategic narrative, shaped by the Agile Warrior trials and exercises and by doctrinal studies, says that the future will require more littoral manoeuvre capability and more riverine capability. Decisions made: scrap the RLC's landing crafts without replacement, move wide wet gap crossing entirely into the Reserve, reduce amphibious shipping, scrap the Force Protection Craft project which would have given the armed forces an excellent riverine capability, in conformity to the lessons learned in Iraq using LCPV MK5s up rivers.
Again, say one thing, do exactly the opposite.
The aircraft carriers, which should be the cornerstone of the defence strategy which is, in the words, shaped around "small but powerful expeditionary forces", remain bogged down in uncertainty and alarming trial-and-error. It all seems to slowly move ahead, entirely shaped by funding considerations, without a clear cut role and case made for them, when the impending loss of HMS Ocean without a dedicate replacement and the need for air power at sea make the case perfectly clear.
In the air force, the Sentinel R1 hasn't yet a certain future despite proving itself again and again. The Shadow R1 will stay, and it is widely anticipated that the Reaper will eventually be brought into core budget, although there's no certainty yet. The Rivet Joint force will slowly build up to achieve FOC in 2017, while the purchase of a 9th C-17 aircraft is a persistent rumour which for now fails to become a solid reality.
The fast jet combat fleet, in the meanwhile, falls down to alarmingly low numbers. The Tornado GR4 is on its path to retirement: 12(B) Squadron disbands on March 31, 2014, followed the day after by 617 Squadron.
31 March 2015 will see II(AC) Squadron disbanding as well, to reform the day after in Lossiemouth, on Typhoon. In the same month, XV(R) Squadron, the Tornado GR4 OCU, will move from Lossiemouth to Marham, along with the Tornado Engineering Flight. Lossiemouth will bid its final farewell to Tornado GR4, which will only survive for a few more years in Marham, with a mere 2 squadrons. The OCU itself, at some point, will disband and go down to a mere Operational Conversion Flight as the Tornado force approaches its end.
And this is before the SDSR 2015: the pessimist expect the OSD for Tornado to be moved even closer than the currently planned 2019.
Even if the 2019 OSD stands, the RAF will be down to as few as 6 frontline fast jet squadrons by then, hopefully growing back to seven when the second F-35B squadron stands up. That's a tiny airforce, which compares badly to others in the same theorical league: see France, or even Italy.
The hope to see the Typhoon tranche 1 retained and used for something in the long term is all but dead, making the Typhoon program a fearsome waste of money, with 160 expensive aircraft purchased to never employ, effectively, more than around 100 in just five squadrons. A waste of colossal proportions.
Only two squadrons are planned for the F-35B force, and the second (809 NAS) will probably only stand up in the early 2020s. In 2020 the RAF is likely to have only 6 frontline squadrons, five on Typhoon and one on F-35B.
And this is before anything new and nasty happens.
According to Lochkeed Martin, as of October 2013, the F-35B plan for the UK sees 617 Sqn moving to Marham in 2018 with 9 aircraft to work up to Land-based IOC and to begin carrier trials. Five more will be based in the US for training, in the US Marines base Beaufort. 3 more aircraft will be with XVII Sqn, the OEU, on the Edwards AFB.
Of these 18 airplanes, only 4 have been delivered/are on order so far, but the MOD is said to be approving the plan for the purchase of some 14 more. If they are to be delivered by 2018, however, the time is very tight, as roughly two years pass from order to delivery. With just one lone F-35B in LRIP 7 and 4 anticipated in the LRIP 8, we are a long way away from the target. Either the MOD revises these orders upwards, or there will not be 18 aircraft in 2018. Even if there are, the UK, only Level 1 partner in the JSF program, will actually have less airplanes than most other partecipants. Not entirely bad, since the later aircraft will of course be more technically mature and also hopefully less expensive, but this is due to a reduction to just 48 planned purchases, and this is no good.
In any case, this is nonetheless telling of what downsizing the british armed forces actually are going through.
|9 aircraft in the UK, 3 in Edwards and 5 in Beaufort. That's all.|
The SDSR 2015 is also supposed to fill the bleeding gap in Maritime Aircraft Patrol capability, starting a new programme, but keeping in mind how many other problems there are at hand, it is quite hard to be upbeat.
One little, tiny ray of hope comes from the CBRN real, where the demented decision to withdraw the Fuchs is apparently being reversed, with 8 such vehicles, modernized, being assigned to FALCON Squadron, Royal Tank Regiment, to form a Wide Area CBRN recce and surveillance asset which will be part of the division-level supports (probably will come under Force Troops HQ). FALCON Sqn will be based in Harman Lines in Warminster. FALCON squadron will be a sixth sub-unit, independent from the main role of the regiment as Type 56 tank formation. There isn't yet an official confirmation i can quote, but it seems to be a done deal. In 1982, the Royal Navy saw stupid decisions reversed by the strategic shock of the argentine invasion. In 2011, Libya exposed the stupidity of losing capabilities such as Nimrod (both the maritime patrol and ELINT/SIGINT variants) and the aircraft carriers. But the shock wasn't big enough, and the UK got away with it, sending a few Apaches on HMS Ocean (just five in the moment of greatest effort!) and adding a little bit of extra life on Type 22 frigates and Nimrod R1.
In 2013, the Army was given back its CBRN capability following another strategic shock, the use of gas in Syria.
Royal Tank Regiment post-merger will have:
Armd Sqn (AJAX): SHQ (2 x CR2); 4 x Armd Tps (each of 4 x CR2).
Armd Sqn (BADGER).
Armd Sqn (CYCLOPS).
Comd & Recce Sqn (DREADNAUGHT). 2 x CR2; and 8 x CVR(T) SCIMITAR.
HQ Sqn (EGYPT).
The question is: what happens when, finally, a big strategic shock comes too late, instead of just in time to cause a hasty reversion of the worst mistakes?
Soon or later, it is bound to happen.
In conclusion, the Armed Forces are far from being healthy. They are, in many ways, exhausted and squeezed to death by immense pressure coming from all sides. In the way ahead, the SDSR 2015 marks a no-return point. And the Scottish issue, coming before that, can represent another such crisis point. Don't believe what SNP says: it would be foolish to expect anything other than sweat and tears in the armed forces if Independence happens.
Merry Christmas, and good luck for the new year, proud warriors. It seems good luck will be very much needed. May some kind of wisdom spirit descend in the minds of those who will write the fate of the armed forces in the coming year.