Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Knowing when to talk

Ex-British service chiefs have just been slapped by Cameron about launching loud warning on defence, basically accusing them to do that “to sell books”. I hate him for the remark, but the worst part is that he is (kind of) right. He’s being given too easy a job in slapping down ex-service chiefs, because those same chiefs did not speak when they were in charge. If British top brass invariably wait until after they retire to sound their warnings, they become less credible for it. It is when you are serving that you must show some guts. Even if it means putting your careers at some risk. Do dare: fight your corner in public, not just behind multiple closed doors. You are given chances to do so without necessarily asking for the Telegraph to interview you: use the hearings of the Defence Committee in Parliament. Granted, the committee has little actual power, but it is supportive, and will add its voice to yours if you finally speak up. The hearings with serving chiefs are normally facepalm-worthy, filled of visible embarrassment and void of the courage needed to answer sincerely to the questions, and make the problems known. At times it gets abysmally depressing. One of the last hearings I watched had the MOD Deputy Chief for military capability unable to spell out the number of Typhoon squadrons and the number of C-130s and A400. Either you are completely incompetent, or you are all too valiantly following the line of the government. In either case, you are entirely useless and should be removed from post immediately. Apologies for my bitterness, but the poor showing of the, let me say It again, deputy chief in charge of delivery of military capability was nothing short of horrendous. Even more so because he is an Air Marshal, so the question touched his very own service. You can’t possibly be that ignorant.

Armed forces chiefs hold a big share of the blame for the sorry state of the armed forces. The focus is all too often entirely pinned on politicians, but the direct responsibilities of the MOD should not be denied. The feeling is that the whole thing is rotten and basically resigned to fate. It doesn’t show just in the embarrassed “I don’t know” in front of the Defence Committee, it shows even in planning and, after the SDSR 2010, even in the force structure of the army.
The MOD plans for the future are murky at best. They are vague, they lack details, they are left for later. Take the fabled equipment plan. It is about as vague as it can get. It names purchases and programmes only after they have happened, and for the rest provides only the most indeterminate description of how the money in the graphics is due to be used. There is no public commitment to procuring anything specific that isn’t already under contract. There is not even an acknowledged requirement. “We plan this many of this, we need that many of those.” It is obvious that numbers change and that money will ultimately determine how much of the requirement is covered. But here there is not an expressed requirement. Specific program voices aren’t even revealed. “We promise there will be this much money for helicopters”. That’s it.
There is no visibility about what actually happens to equipment programs. When we hear that the “equipment programme will be protected”, we effectively don’t know what it means. Also because, of course, even assuming that the equipment budget is protected for real, it will still have to change if the personnel is dramatically cut and there is no one left to operate the kit. The whole thing smells of travesty.

Some more information is given to the elite of officers and press which has access to some particular conferences and events, but even in these, details are becoming increasingly rare. I’ve been given access to a presentation document used at a recent armoured vehicles conference event. There is not a single number regarding Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme (CR2 LEP), no detail on Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP), even less on Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle (ABSV). A planned presentation about the Multi Role Vehicle Protected was cancelled entirely. A very restricted number of persons seem to be aware of what is going on. This way, there is no way to track what is happening, and cuts can happen without outsiders even realizing it. This is no operational secrecy: this is a deliberate effort to cut by stealth. Chop things off without it being known. And it is being done with the silent cooperation of service chiefs.

If I look at the Military Programme Law in France, or even to a degree in Italy, not to talk of the exceptionally transparent and detailed US documents, I do see what is being funded, and what the targets are. France’s military law document is pretty detailed about what will be ordered and what is expected to be delivered during the year, and out to the end of the 5-year period. What do we know about what the MOD is due to get in any given year? Very little. We know something of the very larger programmes, and some information can be obtained by the yearly NAO report, but that's it.
Months ago the purchase of a 9th C-17 was reportedly almost done. It came quite out of the blue, as the requirement wasn’t really acknowledged in public before (although the hope was, reportedly, that there would be 10 C-17 in the end). And in the deep blue it sunk again afterwards, dying presumably a silent and unannounced death.
WCSP is another example. Numbers are a complete uncertainty. Was over 600, then 445, now possibly just 380, and there are rather vague indications of how many will be IFVs, with the new turret, how many repair, how many recovery, how many artillery observation posts. Turret numbers is assumed to be “around 250”, but it is like there wasn’t a plan, there wasn’t a requirement. 250 vehicles is absolutely insufficient to equip the planned six battalions, but there is no stated requirement. Not even the effort to say “we need this many to equip these formations”. 
No. Silence, until eventually, after much budget raiding, a contract will be signed (hopefully) and only then we will know (maybe) how many vehicles of each variant will be handed to the army.
Type 26 frigate. “We are aiming for 13, but, really, we’ll decide… sometime. Don’t you worry.”
SSBN? That would be four, but maybe 3, or even zero.
ABSV? We really, really need to replace ancient FV430s in a wide variety of roles, but we can’t say how many vehicles we need and in which variants. We will just wait until we know if we can start the programme, because we aren’t even sure about that.
MARS FSS? Who knows what the hell is going on with that one…

A detailed list of equipment deliveries as for Military Programme Law in France. It is perhaps not necessary to publish the number of every single missile, but the MOD's way of doing things in the dark is right at the other extreme.

There isn’t even an attempt to plan. There is no acknowledgement of requirement. We had an SDSR, we decided we will have six battalions, surely we can say what requirements come from it? No. Not in public, at least. Say nothing, cut at leisure.
And no, it clearly isn’t about protecting military capability. Because when the numbers are finally announced, anyone with a little bit of experience in the field will know if two battalions worth of vehicles are missing from the count. Any potential enemy will easily know. The only ones who will be fooled are in the general public and in the parliament’s benches, as they will not be able to understand on their own how much of a hole there is.

Even Army force structure seems to have embraced this desperate “live for the day” method, in recent times. The Adaptable Force in particular seems to me to be “adaptable” in the sense that it is a container of battalions and brigade HQs “ready” to be cut when the budget is chopped. Seven brigades, each with just bits of the capability of an actual brigade, meant to be “put together” to generate, with well over a year of notice, a light deployable brigade, and another one six months later, just so the army still has (barely) the ability to keep a brigade in the field for a long period without entirely messing up the harmony guidelines for troops (6 months in the field, 24 resting and training before going again, requiring 5 people to keep 1 constantly deployed over the long term). Seriously? Seven brigades that actually equate to two. A pure political trick to mask up the cuts and to limit the number of disappearing capbadges, because, of course, capbadges are what really makes the news. There’s more infantry battalions than strictly needed for the brigade-level ambition, but that’s just because the numbers of battalions cut has been kept artificially low by depleting the strength of each and making every Light Role battalion dependent on having a whole company worth of reserves to get back to decent strength.
General Carter has recently made it all even more facepalm worthy by saying reserves are for “national emergencies” only. Clarity will be needed on this point, and on what a national emergency is supposed to be in the army’s plan. Because 14 of the army’s battalions now depend on reserves showing up to get to a decent, standard structure of 3 companies of 3 rifles platoons each, plus support company. Not to talk of support elements, where reserves also have a big weight, and the Light Cavalry regiments too. An enduring brigade-sized deployment is to be considered a “national emergency”? If not, Army 2020 does not work, because a very significant reserves component is needed in the fourth and fifth deployment of any enduring operation lasting over 18 months.

It is all very depressing. It is the image of armed forces which seem resigned, even prepared to die a slow (perhaps not even so slow, we’ll see with the new SDSR) death by a thousand cuts.
Service chiefs, we need you to talk when you are in charge, not when you are retired and can be easily ignored and even ridiculed.


  1. The sad decline of our armed forces reflects the country as a whole . The people that forms Britains ruling elite just don't care about the armed forces, to them it's just a waste of money and must be made ineffective .

  2. Gaby,

    Good post. I particularly agree with what you say about there being “no visibility about what actually happens to equipment programmes.” For some time now, I have been suspecting that what you say is true, for instance; “there is no way to track what is happening, and cuts can happen without outsiders even realizing it. This is no operational secrecy: this is a deliberate effort to cut by stealth. Chop things off without it being known.” That strikes me as being exactly what is happening.

    Take, for instance, what is happening over Fire Shadow. I think it has already been cancelled by stealth. I tried to contact you about it on the “The Equipment Plan and Major Projects Report 2014” thread but I think you were probably too busy to pick it up. Anyway, I can now find no record of the system on the MBDA site, whereas it was there only a few weeks ago.

    I think you have been rather hard, though, on the service chiefs not speaking out while in office. I certainly would not like to lose my pension. I find it unforgivable that, when asked about why senior military figures were so concerned about defence, Mr. Cameron said, “Well, obviously they have their own book to talk; sometimes quite literally a book to talk.” That was unbelievably insulting to the people concerned! Perhaps if he had served himself, he would realize how deeply these people feel. I think it will lose him my vote.

    1. Sorry i didn't reply to your comment. I saw it back at the time, but i made the mistake of not replying right away, and then of course forgot it. But yes. Google searching still easily finds MBDA documents about Fire Shadow, but i see it isn't very visible anymore in the catalogue... a programme with a murky fate. Maybe the next NAO report will enable us to know what exactly happened. But yes, it is an example of deliberate murkiness, ever since its budget was "hidden" by merging it into the Brimstone 2 voice in NAO reports.

      Cameron said an offensive thing, no doubt, but sadly defence chiefs are too easy to hit like this. I do understand being worried for your career, but when the time comes, you must speak. The hearings of the defence committee are an important occasion to get worries out in the open without breaking any rule. I want to see a prime minister daring to sack a top brass for speaking too openly to the Defence Committee. It would be political suicide. Top brass should take the risk. They won't have much left to preside over, otherwise. Playing along just isn't helping.

  3. Gaby

    Thanks very much for the reply.

    One point I forgot to make was that some pundits have put the next SDSR at almost a year away (next February or even March). Surely we can't go on muddling through in the present atmosphere of vagueness for that long. Major decisions, both on equipment and manpower, will have to be made well before then in order for Forces 2020 to work.

    On the subject of Fire Shadow, if memory serves me correctly, the MOD/Army actually purchased about 20 units, the intention (daft or not) being to trial them and develop the system"in service", as it were. If the project has been abandoned, what a waste of procurement money! Far better to have had the system developed by the manufacturer and then purchased.

  4. Good post Gab!

    I completely agree that when trying to nail down the specifics of any given equipment acquisition or spending commitment in general you either come up against very vague, non-committal rhetoric, or worse no information at all

    The only sensible way to plan for the future is to set a requirement, settle on a firm solution and stick with it! A simple sounding concept that the MOD and UK government seem to systematically fail to grasp.

    Military necessity seems to often be the last consideration, way below the political requirements of the day, driven by politicians who can only see as far ahead as the next general election and are desperate to curry favour by preserving employment in marginal constituency's, propping up faltering British businesses and demanding that the Armed Forces continually do more with less because of a marginalization of defence matters and a refusal to increase spending on something that isn't perceived as 'vote winning' in the way that for example the NHS is.

    Agree on Army 2020 as well, i think you make some really good points. However good or bad the concept may be the reality just isn't matching expectations.

    The Army Reserve targets aren't being met, we are seeing a situation where the Army has way too many infantry battalions (as you say to preserve the precious cap-badges) all of which are going to be under-strength and only filled out with the promised Reserve companies which are a long way from fruition. Plus even if the planned Regular/Reserves integration does work out i'd say serious questions should still asked as to what operating mixed battalions does for unit cohesion and effectiveness.

    You're completely right as well about the sloppy make-up of the Adaptable Force, which basically seems like a dumping ground for what's not needed for the Reaction elements. If the AF was really all about preserving the ability to sustain a brigade level enduring op then 2 fully filled out and supported brigades to make the magic 5 overall would be the plan instead of the 7 hollowed out, different sized brigades we are currently planning for which does seem to be far more about preserving cap-badges and anticipating further cuts in manpower.

    Everything is unbalanced as well, with not enough supporting formations to go with the remaining infantry.

    And they badly need some new vehicles to replace the ancient things they are currently driving. FRES, or whatever it has since been renamed seems unbelievably complex and dragged out for what should be an easy 'yep we want that one' off the shelf purchase.

    All in all it's a bit shambolic isn't it!

  5. The forces chiefs seem to behave like uniformed civil servants, unable to actually talk about things without ministerial approval, especially in the defence select committee. I agree that honestly they should speak out and lay into the years of mismanagement that have hobbled the forces. If anything so the public are made to understand what's going on. There's a perception of security based on ignorance and the assumption that the UK armed forces are as capable as they're always been. Which they aren't. The problem is that without single - service ministers present in parliament the old outlet for these concerns no longer exists. Nobody is there to specifically state the requirements of the Army, RAF or RN and the overall defence ministers tend to be either too weak to effect change or on board with the treasury's agenda before they even arrive. I fear that even losing wars isn't enough to effect change by shocking the public into action. I still have no idea how they spun Basra into anything but a catastrophic defeat. In 2007 the Army lost, badly. The reaction? Silence. Needless to say I am deeply worried by this.

  6. The problem stems from the weakness of the Politian's this weakness demands control, in particular control of any dissention. This can be seen in their attempts to reduce the sources of possible dissention. Hence we see the creation of the MOD which conveniently replaced three separate possible sources of dissention, the separate service ministries, with one. In the eighties we had the elimination of separate service ministers, and recently the effective marginalisation of the three service Chiefs. This leaves just the Chief of the Defence Staff as the only military link to the government. This puts a lot of responsibility on the chosen officer. An Officer chosen by the government. Who do you think they are likely to chose a lick spittle or an Alan Brooke? Unlike Churchill I doubt Politian's today have the courage to choose an Alan Brooke.

    1. The problem is that there's basically no public engagement with defence issues, it's become an area of government that simply gets "managed" and nobody takes note of what's really going on. In my opinion this is profoundly problematic for democratic accountability. We would do well to remember that things were not always this way, back in the early 1900s defence was one of the key issues in the public consciousness. The popular slogan during the dreadnought race with Germany: "We want eight and we won't wait" demonstrates that sections of the British public engaged with the debate on warship building because they cared and felt that they had a stake in what the country was doing for its defence. Contrast that with today, most people could care less and almost all are shockingly badly educated on these issues. It's taken me 3 years of King's College London's war studies degree to fully realise just how out of touch ordinary people are. I fear that we may have already passed the point of no return, but whatever happens it'll take a serious shock or some people with strength and will and vision at the helm of the "ship of state" to effect the change that's so badly needed.

    2. @ BritishGrenadier

      While we may lament the lack of interest shown by the public in matters of defence, it remains the responsibility of the Politian's to ensure the proper defence of the UK irrespective of personal advantage or party interests. Unfortunatly with a few exceptions this is far from the case.

    3. My concern is that there have been, historically speaking, circumstances where the public become inclined to take an interest in the state of their armed forces. This is most notable when the country is at war and it is being mishandled. In the Crimea the failure to manage the military effectively brought down the government. I would contend that what happened in Basra was far worse, bordering on criminal. What really worries me though is that no person off the street is aware that it even happened. It is a healthy sign of democratic governance if during a war politicians have the sword of Damocles hung over them by the public. In the same way that incompetent generals can always be fired, politicians also need to know that failure has real risks for them personally. No amount of spin should be able to cover up a military disaster, the media and public have a responsibility to hold their leaders to account otherwise they'll get away with murder.

  7. @BritishGrenadier

    You are quite right about Basra. It was a defeat and an ignominious one. I remember General Sir Michael Rose. a top-ranking British Army officer and former head of the SAS, saying some years before that campaign, that if the cuts to defence went much further, then the British Army would suffer a defeat. Basra proved that to be true. We went in there with too few resources, both in terms of manpower and kit. I know very well whom to blame for that!

    You are also quite right about the fact that the British public could not care less about defence and are shockingly badly educated on such issues.


    "Who do you think they are likely to chose a lick spittle or an Alan Brooke? Unlike Churchill I doubt Politicians today have the courage to choose an Alan Brooke."

    Yes. Brooke was a strong-minded character and no pushover. However, although I have a private theory that the politicians we had 50 to 60 years ago were giants compared to today's pygmies, I don't think you can say the same about our military leaders. They want strong forces but are hamstrung in so many ways, not least of which is the number of top-ranking officer to represent their views with the Government, as you point out.

  8. @MikeW
    I'm afraid I don't share your confidence in the top military leadership. Looking from the outside, the performance of British officers from Brigadier upwards in both Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't look good. Their seems to have been no real understanding of the environments they were operating in, no idea of what they were trying to achieve and no idea of how to go about it. Their also appears to be a reluctance to both acknowledge failure and to examine the causes. Which is a recipe for future failure. Is it time to look at how senior officers are selected and trained?

  9. Surely part of the answer is for some serving senior officers to stand for Parliament. Even if they don't get elected their voice would be heard and be very difficult for the Government to silence them.

    1. Members of the armed forces can't stand for election to Parliament. Why? I have no idea. But they can't.

    2. It's for good historical reasons - the military have been excluded from politics since the English Civil War, when they got a little bit too involved (apart from the Glorious Revolution in 1688). Serving officers are not allowed to make political statements or even publicly declare their politcal allegiance

    3. I know that's not true, during the Napoleonic wars plenty of officers were also parliamentarians. Nelson had a seat in the Lords, even if he only showed up rarely. No, it's got to be more recent than that. Has treating soldiers, sailors and airmen like glorified civil servants actually helped the UK? If officers were more free to discuss defence issues in public, with reasonable limits on where and when such criticism can be made, do you not think that would better ensure that politicians are held to account?

    4. Its important this restriction on serving officers is repealed.
      The only danger to parliament being that they might hear unpleasant truths.

    5. @BG - yes - some serving officers sat in the Lords - some because they were ennobled as a reward for winning battles, many because they were titled in their own right and had inherited while they were serving. As part of the unwritten British constitution, they rarely appeared, and usually only to speak on matters relating to their service. Some were elected to the Commons (often into Rotten Boroughs) as they were already landowning Gentry, or had become wealthy on prize money and become part of the Gentry. It was all against Army or Navy regulations, as attending Parliament meant that they would often not be available for service duties. Naval officers were known to hire substitutes to cover for the fact that they were actually AWOL. Some had a "family" seat in Parliament and never attended until after they left the service. Because of their position in society, few were ever punished. It was a corrupt period.

  10. Lets keep things in perspective, the UK defence budget at over $50 billion is not exactly small, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Canada etc all spend less than 2 % on defence, so if the UK did drop below that figure it would not be the end of the world. The only NATO nations that do meet the target aside from the UK and US, are tiny Estonia and bankrupt Greece. (the latter nodoubt because of Turkey).
    At the rate the UK economy is expected to grow, by 2019 the UK defence budget would apparently have to increase by £6 bn ($9 bn) to meet the
    2 % target, that obviously is not going to happen, no matter what ex service chiefs, Obama, US generals or anyone else says, so the UK defence budget will fall below 2% sooner or later.
    That has only become such an issue because Cameron pompously lectured the other NATO leaders on their defence spending at the summit in Wales.

    The UK will still pull it's weight, just look at the air campaign against ISIL,
    even when the UK joins an operation reluctantly and only deploys the minimum level of force, the RAF has still carried out the second largest number of strikes. There will nodoubt be a spike in French missions now that CdG has been deployed, but she will only be in the Gulf for 8 weeks, before sailing for an exercise/sales push in India, then she will return to France for a three year refit, where as the Tonkas and Reapers at Akrotiri will just carry on chalking up the strikes month after month.
    The French might have their defence law, but it is not doing their escort fleet much good, they are down to just 10 high-end major surface combatants eg
    2 Horizon
    2 old Cassards
    1 FREMM in service
    5 George Leygues

    They have also axed one of their auxiliary oilers, so will be down to just three, compared to the RFA's 9-10 replenishent vessels eg

    4 Tides (when they enter service replacing the 2 Rovers & last Leaf class)
    2 Waves
    3 Forts/FSS
    1 chartered tanker MV Mearsk Rapier

    So it's not all doom and gloom.

    1. Edit above - No there are not two Canadas, I was editing the list and clicked on publish by mistake.

    2. Measuring defence by merely looking at the budget in US dollars is not really helpful, because one billion dollar in the US is one thing, in France another, in the UK yet another, in Russia another still and in China yet one more. Too much differences in the cost of manpower, infrastructure, and all the other voices, generate tremendous differences in what a set amount of money actually means in capability terms.

      The RFA might have more vessels, but several are effectively unable to sail because the system has not recovered from the demented manpower cuts of 2010. They are very worried about how they will man Tidespring even to bring her back from Korea.

      The french navy might also have less "major" escorts, but it has a large number of middle weight ships (6 Floreal and 5 La Fayette) and a large number of OPVs based abroad to cover its own standing tasks. So, the french navy, with less major escorts, can put to sea an escorted carrier and amphibious task groups.
      The RN has had to merge the two in the Response Force Task Group, and still has to deploy on COUGAR without escorts in the group because its major escorts are all tied in standing tasks. Having more frigates isn't necessarily going to help if they are all tied elsewhere.

      And there are many other issues. And this is before the budget gets dramatically slashed again. The numbers making the rounds, if true, will make sure the UK will not have a real weight to pull anymore.

    3. In a crisis the Type 45s and T23s tied down on such tasks as the north Atlantic/Caribbean patrol, chasing pirates in the Indian Ocean, or various exercises, could be withdrawn from those tasks to replace sunk or damage ships, or simply to sustain an operation, but a Horizon or FREMM could not be replaced by a La Fayette light frigate or Floreal class corvette.

      There will be no end of wild stories leaked to the press between now and after the election, still it gives the Telegraph a chance to publish articles with headlines like this "Putin's million man army ready to steam roll across the channel". Defence journalism at it's best!

    4. You say it would not be the end of the world if the UK went below the 2% target. You're sure? It might not be the actual end; that will come later, but it will be the beginning of the end as the UK wastes billions on 'Danegeld'. Most importantly it is another broken promise. My word is my bond- remember that? Do you understand about Danegeld?

  11. This isn't about being able to scrape together a task force if we need to today, because in an emergency I'm sure we could. It's about being able to do that 10 or 20 years down the line. until very recently the RN had all of its escorts deploying back to back in order to cover its commitments. With no real time for maintenance or refits, constant deployments were doing serious damage to their ships. Some of which are expected to serve for another 15-20 years. In the case of Type 45 possibly longer. If you want to know the real state of the surface fleet talk to the engineers, most of whom were worked constantly while deployed to simply keep everything running. I don't think I need to place too much emphasis on how many people from the technical branches left because of this. 9 month deployments were doing severe damage to a service that relies, in the end, on the goodwill of its people to put up with sometimes unpleasant circumstances.
    Having too few ships and too few people for our commitments will do immeasurable damage to the naval service. Without enough engineers it doesn't matter how many warships you have, because they can't sail.

    My real hope for the near future is that the Batch 2 River Class will come in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, the existing fisheries protection vessels. The Batch 2s are cheap, light on manpower and could be put to good use holding down some of the low-end commitments so that the escort fleet can get some time for desperately needed maintenance.
    In the end though the simple fact is that we need more manpower, especially skilled manpower and eventually the number of ships is going to have to rise. We are a permanent member of the UN security council with global responsibilities and interests. This isn't about Putin's "million man army" or any wonky "defence journalism" it's about ensuring that we don't cripple our armed forces by under-resourcing them. Believe me regenerating capabilities once they've been lost is going to be far more difficult and expensive than paying so we don't lose them in the first place.

  12. Hi, excellent blog about british military.
    Just a comments, french navy has less AOR than UK but it is also because we have still height refuelling station around the world, who have been recently upgraded so the need of tanker is less important than for uk.
    Even if obviously with 19 heavy escort and submarines twice armed than ours, Royal navy is more powerful.


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