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.