Future Force 2020 set out a list of objectives, tasks and force levels that post Afghanistan, in the land of budgetary milk and honey, the services would evolve into.
Personally, I think the perennial strategy of hoping for jam tomorrow is hugely naive, it isn’t going to happen yet FF20 makes the assumption that the 2015 SDSR will see a sustained and meaningful increase in funding.
It is highly unlikely this will happen.
Politicians roundly condemn the MoD for its pervasive atmosphere of wishful thinking, especially in equipment projects, but here they are promising the future will be rosy and asking the armed forces to take them at face value, if only we can take a little bit of bitter medicine now.
Ho Ho Ho
A few weeks ago someone made the comment that they would rather the armed forces be a ‘hard as coffin nails David’ rather than a limp wristed Goliath, I thought this was brilliant and it neatly encapsulates much of what is wrong with our thinking. We tell the world we are a Goliath, we provide him with big spears and a flashy helmet but when push comes to shove, are found wanting because the resultant package is unbalanced, Goliath has the big spear but he hasn’t had a decent meal in weeks and his spear is fitted for but not with tip!
The only way to achieve balance is to be realistic about scale.
Future Force 2020 attempts to move towards this realism about scale but I am not sure it has actually fooled anyone.
In a speech delivered at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington in November 2010, General Sir Nick Houghton said;
But first, I would like to make some general points about where the SDSR leaves our relationship with the US. As the SDSR makes explicit our relationship is ‘deeply-rooted, broadly-based, strategically important and mutually supportive’. The UK intention is to remain America’s most capable and reliable ally. We recognise that we benefit a great deal from the relationship. In return we will retain the ability to operate independently or in support of the US across the full spectrum of domains and capabilities.
The full spectrum of domains and capabilities, this is clearly at odds with reality and in recent evidence to the defence select committee all three service chiefs agreed that the SDSR left the UK somewhat short of being a full spectrum military power, despite David Cameron disagreeing with them!
Jekyll, meet Hyde
We either are, or we are not.
That is of course assuming that being a full spectrum military power is actually important in itself, I don’t think it is, what is important is, does the military meet the strategic needs of the nation.
This is where I tend to disagree with most (apart from Sven perhaps!) in that the UK needs a defence capability and the ability to mount operations at length, alone and at a small scale but only for self defence or operations such as evacuations.
Anything else is purely discretionary, slaved to strategic and political goals.
Traditionally, we have conducted this self defence at arms length, the concept of fighting in someone elses back yard rather than your own front door is actually pretty sensible but it is looking increasingly anachronistic in a globalised and interconnected world economy.
This constant ‘reassuring the US’ stance that we are somehow special, their bestest friend in the whole wide world and will always be available, on tap, to provide a political fig leaf for their dubious over reactions must stop. As the US focuses on the east our interests will increasingly diverge and unless we want to base our whole strategy on being subservient to the US by moving our strategic focus to the Pacific and Indian oceans we must accept a partial parting of the ways.
The reputation of the British armed forces, over £20billion, hundreds of lives and countless injuries have been spent in pursuit of playing a supporting role to the USA and we must ask critically, what has this provided.
The UK’s future strategic interests lie in Africa and the Middle East, sometimes these will be coincidental with the interests of the USA, that’s fair enough, we can be a useful and reliable ally that share many common values, nothing at all wrong with that.
What operations with the US have shown is that in reality, they are not actually interested in our definition of ‘full spectrum’ but selected capability areas that compliment and reinforce theirs. Other alliances and coalitions should be of equal importance and viewed in the same manner, anglo French/Dutch, the Commonwealth, the Five Powers, Baltic States, Middle East and numerous others should have a renewed interest. The Commonwealth in particular is likely to be increasingly important and NATO, whilst having an uncertain future, should also be seen as a key element of our self defence strategy. The increasing global interconnectedness of nations means that a problem that affects one, with affect many others and coalition operations, as recognised by the last several defence reviews, will be the norm.
If we offer these coalitions a little bit of everything, because a lot of everything is simply not financially viable, we will not achieve any sort of influence within it. If we specialise then the UK becomes the ‘go to’ nation for those specialisms.
This should inform how we approach land forces reform, structure, scale and capabilities.
In the same speech, Sir Nick Houghton looked at a set of tasks that Future Force 2020 was measured against and although not all of them are wholly Army specific it is worth repeating them.
Firstly we looked at our ability to restore freedom of navigation in contested waters. In a globalised world dependent upon trade, disruption to shipping lanes has wide-ranging affects to a large number of countries. Our thinking assumes that the UK would want to be capable of contributing to coalition operations of this sort.
The second scenario was a stabilisation and counter insurgency operation of the sort we have become familiar with. There were two main issues which we tested here. The first was scale, where we concluded that we needed to remain capable of deploying and sustaining indefinitely a brigade sized force. The second was self-sufficiency. Although we expect to conduct this sort of operation mainly in a coalition we took the view that we needed to remain self-deploying and self-sustaining. So the Future Force delivers the enablers to avoid being a burden on others.
We also considered a similar scenario in which the UK leads a coalition which intervenes in a civil war and conducts a follow-on counter insurgency operation. With the UK in the lead, this scenario tested our logistics and command and control capabilities. The results can be seen in the Force Structure we have come out with and justified over retention of a Theatre Command Capability.
Another scenario put Weapons of Mass Effect in the hands of a non-state group, and required the rapid and precise deployment of high readiness forces, supported by strategic intelligence and rapid decision making. Here we judged that we needed to be capable of operating on a national basis as well as part of a coalition.
Fifth, we tested our ability to carry out a complex non-combatant evacuation. The UK military has performed this function most recently in Lebanon in 2006, rescuing British nationals and citizens from other allied nations as tensions increased and led to war. This scenario tests our ability to deploy rapidly to disparate parts of the world, with reach and sustainability as key issues.
The most challenging scenario was an operation to liberate an ally from an occupying state. Here we judged that we need to be capable of putting a divisional sized force in the field with substantial maritime and air support. Our multi-role brigade concept allows us to configure this sort of force for the threat it is likely to be faced with at the time. This represents the best effort of the Future Force 2020 and could operate alone or with allies.
Finally, we considered the ongoing requirement to deter the use of force against the UK. Here presence is key. So our decisions to develop a new carrier strike capability, continue with hunter-killer submarines equipped with Tomahawk missiles support this. And in the final analysis our ultimate guarantor of security is the Trident-armed submarines providing continuous at sea deterrence.
Restoring freedom of navigation in the global water maritime is something we should definitely be able to do and in this mission set is also interdiction of maritime terrorism and counter smuggling, all most likely threats. It also uses the word contribute, recognising the global nature and interconnectedness of maritime trade.
I admit being troubled by some of the others because they start with the assumption that these tasks are in our strategic interest, not sure countering an insurgency in a foreign country is actually in our interest or that having cruise missile armed submarines and a strike carrier is a deterrent, presumably this is talking about the South Atlantic where the best deterrent is diplomacy, commercial interdependence and a credible self defence capability. In fact the more I think that deterring Argentine by threatening them with subsequent violence after we have allowed them to take islands a second time seems fundamentally ridiculous. I know the concept of deterrence is a sound one but I think the deterrence of value of defence is actually greater than attack. Are we really basing CVF and SSN on providing a deterrent to those wishing to attack the UK when in the SDSR and NSC we explicitly recognise these are very low likelihood threats, again, somewhat confusing?
Does anyone else think that these tasks are predicated on preserving capabilities rather than aligning with strategic objectives, self serving, self preserving, wishful thinking at its best?
The Multi Role Brigade is an interesting concept because it is designed to provide a sustainable enduring presence in a counter insurgency campaign at medium level (Brigade) whilst still able to scale up to a divisional size force for the occasional ‘kick Iraq out of Kuwait’ type operation.
By dispersing the combat elements like artillery and heavy armour amongst the force it protects them from predation by the ravenous Treasury, regardless of the fact that in most enduring operations you have very little use for them.
My first thought on the MRB was that it was designed to hoodwink gullible politicians whilst retaining as many command slots and capabilities as possible. The whole point is that it provides a stable rotational scheme with a stable force composition but the reality is that it pitches the force capability at a mid level, assuming that all operations will need this level.
If not, the concept of stable rotation goes out of the window as Peter will be robbed to pay Paul, business as usual. It also sticks with the notion of uniform deployment periods for all force elements, the high threat C-IED operator will still do the same 6 month tour as an IT specialist in a HQ. Again, if we are to accept the notion of flexible tour lengths depending on role then the stable rotation MRB concept becomes frayed around the edges.
It has the thin veneer of radical innovation but really, it is just spreading what we already have into an even layer to make enduring operations more manageable and protect key force elements.
This is fair enough and a pretty neat idea if the future is participating in enduring counter insurgency operations but I don’t.
It seems a common thread throughout the SDSR, let’s all decide which bits of kit and capability we want to keep and write the strategy around them, tail wagging dog.
Whoa, hold on, rewind a minute.
Did he just say the future is not enduring COIN operations?
Yes, I did.
Although we are actually pretty good at it we can no longer afford the force density to make it work in the traditional sense (if there is anything traditional about it), Malaya and Northern Ireland are shining examples of the operational art, but look at the force levels used to make it happen. At the highest point in Northern Ireland we had the equivalent of 3 Divisions in an area of about 5.5 thousand square miles, Helmand is 22.5 thousand square miles and how many personnel do we have deployed?
And, lets not forget the Ulster Defence Regiment, Royal Ulster Constabulary, MI5 and huge civil service and a fully functioning ‘civil society’
I accept that we are not covering the whole of Helmand and never were, COIN being as much about people as space etc but it is an interesting comparison to make when considering the size of land mass we are planning to conduct COIN operations in.
If we want to conduct a successful COIN campaign on our own in a suburb of a small town in Yemen, then yes, we can go it alone but this is hardly worth subverting the Army and other armed forces to do so.
This is where a lot of readers may be surprised because what I think is the most appropriate future is actually a blend of strategic raiding, contributory and global guardian, to shamelessly steal the RUSI definitions.
To underpin this, let’s go back to my prevailing strategy, cum hair brained scheme, as described in previous posts.
It goes something like this, cue the music…
A full spectrum core (or David) that is scaled to provide enough capabilities for self defence of UK territories only, plus evacuation operations, which realistically means small scale. This also provides a hedge against strategic shocks by retaining skills and capabilities at a seed corn level.
Surrounding this are what I call ‘capability plus’, selected functions that we expand to such a level that we become actually useful as opposed to a liability, in a coalition operation, we might not be able to do everything at a medium or large scale but what we can, is done very well.
One of these selected and expanded functions is forward presence, mentoring, training and building regional security. This will see a greater integration of military, diplomacy and overseas aid functions, all aligned to a common set of resource, trade and security strategic objectives.
Where do land forces fit into this?
First of course is the need for self defence of UK territories and the ability to act alone for non combatant evacuation.
In addition to the forward presence/regional security capability plus, others would be electronic/cyber warfare, combat engineering, ISTAR, psychological operations, intelligence, theatre entry from the sea/air and command and control.
Many of these are what might be called enablers or backbone capabilities and the theatre entry aspect is of course, what some might call strategic raiding, but they all leverage our technology and expertise yet de-emphasise mass, or fewer boots.
This reduction in overall force size but concentration on certain key elements and their enablers plays to our strengths but still makes provision for effective contributions to multi national coalitions and satisfies the need (at least in my eyes) for a range of capabilities that we can use to develop other nations security, provide meaningful and timely intelligence and increase influence in other areas beyond the purely military, all in support of the over arching strategy which concentrates on collaboration rather than confrontation.
There is a clear danger in reducing the force size, it diminishes the critical mass that drives career progression and retention, it places land forces in greater peril from unrealistic politicians and without combat experience our ability to actually provide credible training for others that is relevant (because the trainers have loads of bling) might be reduced.
It is not without risk and I recognise this.
I will look at scale and endurance as I cycle through the next set of posts but in general, the ability to mount divisional one off operations and self sufficient brigades for enduring operations would be off the menu. Our deployments, especially those of the forward presence elements, would be enduring in nature and the capability plus areas would also be capable of sustained deployments when acting as coalition enablers but the general rule of thumb is an end to sustained deployments of full spectrum forces and a more selective approach.
The Future of the British Army Series…