Saturday, January 25, 2020

The cringeworthy debate pre-SDSR

I’ve already written out my thoughts about the SDSR 2020 and, despite the enduring noise about Cummings and cuts and other unpleasant news, i’m sticking to that description, for now at least. You can find my predictions here, if you haven’t yet read them and want to know what my position is.

This post, which I hope I’ll be able to keep short, is more of a comment to the circus of rumors, leaks and “suggestions” coming from experts ahead of every contemporary SDSR. It’s a cry of agony in front of the increasingly empty rhetoric of “sacred cows” and an expression of the deep incredulity and frustration with which Allies observe the painful process with which Britain, more often than not, commits self-harm.

The gut feeling is that those who profess the loudest objectivity are actually the most partisan, and that the “sacred cow” catchphrase has become an easy and good-looking way to advocate for cuts to fall on anything other than the pet project of the day. It makes it look like you are being all innovative and hard nosed about things. 

Most of those “sacred cows” are, in fact, valid capabilities than nowhere else in the world are subject to the same kind of denial. Moreover, these “sacred cows” are actually UK capabilities which work, which have cost billions to build up and which are competitive and respected worldwide.

I’ve already written about the absurdity ofclaiming that aircraft carriers are somehow obsolete, and I won’t go over that subject again. In this occasion I will only remark that no one else in the world, nowhere, would ever consider chopping the legs off from under a key national capability at the dawn of its service life, after 20 years of efforts, sacrifices and expenses to build it up.

The UK has a history of throwing away billions of pounds in exchange for absolutely nothing, and the Nimrod MRA4 fiasco is there to remind us all of how majestic the wasted sums can get. But Nimrod MRA4, according to what we are told at least, did not work and was “never going to work”. Personally, I doubt it, but we have to take it at face value. If we do, the question then becomes why it wasn’t stopped earlier, before wasting over 3 billion pounds, and who is responsible and why nobody is paying for such a disaster, but this is another story.

The carriers work. There is no excuse in the world that will justify turning them into pure waste, because it will be due only to self-harm, if it ever happens.

I will rather focus on the 16th Air Assault Brigade and 3rd Commando Brigade, which have increasingly become THE sacred cows, together with the capabilities they represent: parachuting and air assault, and amphibious capability.

This is the third SDSR in a row that begins with calls to “merge” the two brigades and / or drastically cut back on both capabilities, withdraw the amphibious ships etcetera. It is as illiterate a proposal as they can be. Merging the two brigades to achieve savings would almost certainly mean disbanding the brigade supports: either 7 RHA or 29 Commando RA; either 23 or 24 Engineer Regiments, and so along. The result would be the net loss of yet another set of Brigade enablers, which are already the true weakness of the British Army, which has already taken this path in 2010, with the result that there are 31 infantry battalions but only about a third of those sit within a brigade with any realistic chance of deploying and operating as a combined arms force.

It is true that it is increasingly dangerous to employ parachute assaults or even employ helicopters and operate in the littoral in a world of long-range SAMs and anti-ship missiles, but it is not true that either capability has ceased to be relevant. Nobody else is giving up on them: France has used small-scale parachute assaults as early as 2013 during Operation Serval; Russia and China are nowhere near considering giving up such manoeuvre capabilities, despite being the countries which are supposedly causing both capabilities to become obsolete. Russia and China are also pursuing massive strengthening of their amphibious forces.

Littoral manoevre and air manoeuvre remain as critical as they have ever been. It is true that capabilities and tactics must evolve as the sword and the shield battle it out for superiority, as it has been ever since warfare began. Just like I said for the carriers, it is not the ability to put troops ashore from the sea or from the air that becomes “obsolete”: you still need to be able to do that. What might become obsolete is your methods of doing it, and, above all else, the instruments you employ to make your way through enemy defences. It is not the amphibious ship that has become obsolete, per se: it is your ability to protect it from enemy missiles that you no longer trust. What undoubtedly needs modernization is the Ship to Shore connection. Slow and vulnerable landing craft need to be succeeded by connectors which can defend themselves and move much faster and over longer distances to restore the unpredictability of littoral manoeuvre.

The quality of the debate on both air and littoral manoeuvre has dropped to such desperately low levels that we have “experts” that sometime literally argue, at the same time, that air assault is now impossible due to the proliferation of surface to air missiles, but that the Marines should become a lighter force which gives up on surface manoeuvre in favor of long range raids enabled by helicopters.

Have you spotted the problem?

If helicopters are the future of Littoral Manoeuvre, they can’t be simultaneously obsolete. If air assault is no longer feasible, why helicopters coming from the sea are an answer? It’s absurd.

It’s what happens when your argument is actually nothing but a call for the cuts to fall on anything but what you care about.

Several of the UK defence commentators and experts have fallen in love with the nebulous STRIKE concept, for reasons that remain mysterious. There have even been repeated suggestions that STRIKE makes littoral manoeuvre unnecessary, because you can just land the STRIKE brigade in a friendly port and then drive on road to the front. This has even been offered as a solution to avoid the risks connected with facing the Anti-Access, Area Denial capability of a peer enemy, which supposedly make the Royal Navy incapable to operate in the area.

How is that a sane argument to make? 
If you are dealing with an enemy sophisticate and powerful enough to keep the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force out, how the hell are you going to create trouble for them by driving wheeled APCs up to their border?

Moreover, in a war scenario, will a country nearby to your enemy want to get involved, and let you land your forces there and then drive all the way to the border, exposing itself to all sorts of dangers? Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t want to get involved at all.

And ultimately, if you are landing in a safe port and then driving up to the front, why not do it with heavier, more credible armour than with expensive but nearly unarmed BOXERs? This is not a replacement for littoral manoeuvre and amphibious capability: it’s normal land warfare. Nothing at all new here.

5 years on I’m still waiting for a single rational explanation of how a mixture of BOXERs and AJAX somehow changes the reality of modern warfare. UAVs will spot and possibly attack tanks and IFVs, but not BOXERs…? They are not invisible hover-tanks, they are enormous 8x8s with very little armament on top. They are don’t have a firepower advantage. They do not solve the reality, finally admitted by the Commander Field Army himself in a recent interview with Wavell Room, that the British Army is outgunned and outranged. It faces a dramatic disadvantage in weight and reach of Fires.

The STRIKE brigade will have some degree of self-deployability, and that is good. It will require less HETs, less LETs, less of a logistic train. And that is good and desirable. But pretending that they will somehow revolutionize warfare is absurd. The British Army is purchasing an 8x8 armored vehicle 30 years after everyone else, and that is it. There are much better equipped and armed wheeled, medium brigades within NATO already today, but nobody in their sane minds pretend they can not only maneuver quickly up to the fight and along it, but split up into platoon packages and rampage deep behind enemy lines.

The British Army and some commentators insist on saying that STRIKE will do that. It is not credible. Not unless something truly new and revolutionary comes to these formations. STRIKE as of now comes with no advantages over a peer / near peer enemy capability. None at all. If there is no rational reason to expect success, all that is left is hope and dreams.

The increased strategic mobility of wheeled armor is a step forwards from what the British Army has, but is not a new thing compared to wheeled formations which have been around for decades. At the end of the day, British Army 8x8s are not going to be any more unpredictable in their road moves than the enemy’s own 8x8s.

Actually, Russian 8x8s are lighter and often amphibious, so you could actually legitimately claim that their strategic and tactical mobility is superior, as they can use more routes, more bridges (BOXER and AJAX are over 38 tons behemoths) and even, with some limitations, move across rivers without seeking a bridge at all. They are less protected than BOXER, but on the other hand are far more heavily armed.

These are all factors that routinely get ignored when STRIKE is promoted as the best thing since sliced bread.
For all its merits, STRIKE is a capability that is far more limited than its supporters want us to believe.

Moreover, the British Army as a whole is currently outgunned and outranged and full of capability gaps. If you want to fill those gaps and make it more competitive, you must find many more billion pounds to invest.
Is it worth it? Is it something the UK actually needs?

The Royal Navy and RAF are small, but are already globally competitive. They line ships and aircraft which are on par, or superior to peer and near peer rivals. The Army, unfortunately, is not in as good a shape. It is small and also faces severe obsolescence issues in its equipment.

In an ideal world, those deficiencies need to be corrected, but this is not an ideal world: if the corrections are only possible by robbing Peter to pay Paul, is it worth it?
In my opinion, no. Why should you cut funded, existing capabilities which are useful and globally competitive in order to pursue the new fashion of the day?

The Army says it needs STRIKE to contribute to NATO, to be able to rush to the aid of Eastern Europe in case the Russians lash out. The first question that should be asked is: is in the UK’s interest to rush to the East for a major land campaign? Does it need to be “the first” to get there (even with STRIKE, it would not be…)? Why should the UK’s contribution take that shape? Why not give priority to completing the modernization of the heavy armour, and perhaps invest on more HETs and in rebuilding railway mobility capability which was so unwisely demolished in the SDSR 2010…?
Why not focus on providing other capabilities, which the UK is better equipped to deliver without having to find extra billion pounds, simply?

I go back to 16th Air Assault Brigade: the UK owns 60 Chinook, 23 Puma HC2 and is getting an excellent, globally competitive Apache block III fleet. It owns 8 C-17, which in Europe are an unique, high value capability. In addition to those, it owns 22 A-400M and 14 C-130J. All these high value items are funded, operational, proven.

Nobody in Europe is currently as well equipped as the UK to build up a powerful air mobile force. Instead of babbling about the parachute regiment being a “sacred cow”, the UK should look at the excellent ingredients it owns, and think about how they can more effectively be exploited. Those 60 Chinooks are a treasure that other NATO countries would kill for. You can easily imagine the frustration of the French, for example, whenever they look at that fleet and think what they could do with it.
Many UK commentators apparently consider it not a treasure, but an expensive obstacle to throwing money on something new.

Wouldn’t it make far more sense to think about how to get more out of what you already have? You probably can’t launch an helicopter-borne force deep behind a peer enemy lines, but there is still enormous usefulness for a fleet of 60 Chinooks that could be used to quickly move whole battalions of infantry to hold ground and plug gaps in a modern, contested, wide-area combat zone. Especially with 50 Apache in support.
Instead, we get the “sacred cow” rhetoric.

Thankfully, in its interview with the Wavell Room, the Commander Field Army has demonstrated greater wisdom than the various “experts” and said that they are indeed rethinking the contribution of 16th Air Assault to a Divisional fight, or even a Corps operation at NATO level. It might look more like the old air mobile force of BAOR days, or take yet another shape. What matters is making good use of the very expensive ingredients that are already on the table.

Similarly, the UK has excellent maritime capabilities, including the amphibious and heavy sealift vessels needed to move a capable littoral manoeuvre force, which NATO values. Why should you cut back on something that is already there, already funded, and that can deliver plenty more usefulness well into the future?

Such a sacrifice would only make sense if it resulted in some kind of truly revolutionary leap forwards in other areas, or if it resulted in plugging a capability gap that just cannot be allowed to continue. But this is not the case.

Watching british SDSRs unfold is a cringeworthy experience. The arguments thrown around, with calls for cuts of this or that expensive, precious capability are painful to listen to.
It’s like watching a guy with only very vague notions of cooking suddenly put into a kitchen with a table covered in all sorts of expensive, precious ingredients. Some of those precious ingredients he completely disregard, others he even wants to throw away (but it’s fine, so long as he describes them as sacred cows that hold back “innovation”). Some others get mashed together into some sort of half-cooked, disappointing recipe (BOXER and AJAX, I’m looking at you). Some other recipes, he starts without having all ingredients for and without being able to afford them (STRIKE). Some other recipes are started out with great enthusiasm, then abandoned halfway in (the modernization of heavy armour, which was thrown into disarray by taking Ajax out of it and might other blows via WCSP and CR2 LEP). Some other precious ingredients get kind of forgotten and are abandoned in a plate to the side, certainly not without some usefulness for the future, but not mixed together in any kind of rational recipe ( 1st Division and its incomplete brigades without CS and CSS).

It’s a painful spectacle of waste and indecision.

Sometimes someone manages to buy at bargain price some of what is thrown away (RFA Largs Bay, swiftly picked up by Australia; next time will it be Wave class tankers taken up by Brasil, or perhaps even some Type 23s…? Maybe Sentinel R1, too. I’m sure someone would gladly buy those). Sometimes it ends literally in the garbage bin.

We should all be very careful when labeling existing capabilities for deletion and sacrifice, for many reasons. First of all, the efforts of thousands of people and billions of taxpayer money are invested into them, for a start.

Second, deletion of existing capabilities never recoups much money at all. You are certainly not getting back the billions it cost to build them up. You lose far more than you can purchase with what little money is recouped.

Third, any deletion of capability comes with a depressive effect on the force that suffers it. How much manpower is going to bleed out, and how much is the perception of your force’s future and relevance going to be impacted?

Last but not least, you have to be very, very sure that what you are going to invest in is worth the sacrifice. We have to be rational and admit that the British Army is unlikely to ever be truly competitive again. It can be improved, certainly, but it is not going to be a main continental force, not even if several more billions a year are poured into it. Does the UK need to cut back on its existing capabilities to try and reinforce the army? Why? What influence and effect is that going to buy, at the end of the day?

The new SDSR should completely ignore the empty rhetoric of sacred cows, which are mostly just the latest evolution of inter-service bickering, and assess what the UK absolutely needs to do, first of all, and immediately after it should determine what it can do well, and specifically what it can do with what it already owns.

If there are new capabilities that absolutely must be funded – and there might well be – then the first place where to look to make room is in the long list of programmes which haven’t yet started and are not yet under contract. You might have to delay, delete, prioritize.

If I had to point my finger at some kinetic capabilities that might urgently need attention, for example, I’d have to mention anti-ballistic missile defense and air-defence in general, since this is an enormous weak spot in the whole of the UK’s forces. As ballistic anti-ship missiles and theatre ballistic missiles become more and more common in the tactics and strategies of enemies and rivals worldwide, having no BMD defence at all will soon simply become unacceptable. The ability to fire back, and thus some truly powerful and modern Fires, would be by big second. The US Army has made Fires its number one priority, and it’s no mystery that I think they have got that right.

In order to make room for investments in those areas, the UK might have to cut pieces of its future-years equipment programme, and that is why the Army is worried, since most of its programmes have yet to be put under contract. According to the official schedule, after all, in this very year alone the Army should get to decisions for Warrior CSP production, JLTV procurement, Multi Role Vehicle – Protected Group 2 selection (between Bushmaster and Eagle 6x6) and Challenger 2 LEP. It’s easy to understand why the Army is particularly nervous.

The alternative is to drastically cut back on some of the stuff that is already under contract or even in service, even if it means wasting a lot of still perfectly valid capabilities and throw in the garbage bin all the money it cost to procure them.

But I hope that the actual decision makers at the SDSR table will prove more reasonable than the voices of the informal debate we are hearing in the last while. If it is not possible to do everything, you should stick to what you are good at. If your money is not enough to purchase all you’d need, at least start by using well what you already have, and have already paid.

If the UK can do well guarding the North flank, reinforcing Norway and keeping the Atlantic supply routes open, that is a plenty valid contribution. If it can supply modern, competitive airpower, from sea and from land, that is plenty good contribution. If it can also deploy a decent heavy armor force, that is good.

If you pursue a “revolutionary approach”, you’ll better make damn sure your revolution is real and workable.

Because you know what you lose, but not what you might or might not gain.