A bold title for a single post but a trawl through the year reveals a few things worth noting in this disjointed and rambling beginning of year post!
It goes without saying that 2011 has been another tough year for defence, serving personnel and their families have had to endure continuing operations with all that that entails, the SDSR mandated reduction in personnel and equipment has continued but there still seems a lot of uncertainty regarding much of the reform programme. We can all enjoy speculating what the final ORBAT of a Multi Role Brigade is or how much conversion of CVF to CATOBAR will be, but it will become clear soon enough.
This amount of uncertainty is a simple reflection of the rushed, arbitrary and incoherent mess that was SDSR but if anything at all positive has come from the SDSR it is a clear desire to break from the previous decades of fantasy defence procurement where the service chiefs and MoD civil servants, with the knowing acquiescence of successive politicians, has seen a basic mismatch of aspirations and resources.
Champagne tastes and brown ale wallets.
It’s no good naming politicians or the Treasury as the author of the MoD’s misfortune; that is intellectually lazy thinking and lets the senior leadership of the services off the hook, where they equally deserve to be, on the hook that is. It is their decisions, their inflexibility, their seeming obsession with major equipment programmes that has bought things to a head.
Judgement on the defence reform programme should of course be reserved until it delivers but the positive noises being made about thinning out senior ranks and serious change at DE&S points to some determination to drive the programme through.
It is also worth reflecting on that without economic security there is no physical security.
The argument that the MoD, notoriously the most efficient waster of public money, should be except from belt tightening is on face value, reasonable.
But, 2011 has been a turbulent year and weakening defence capabilities whilst protecting spending in other areas might equally be argued as unreasonable and unwise.
We all know about India, the amount we contribute via development aid in spite of their fighter, maritime patrol and transport aircraft purchases but 2011 was also marked by three events in South America.
The first was Brazil overtaking the UK in terms of GDP, the second was Brazil joining in with Argentina in banning FI flagged vessels from entering her ports and the third was our continued overseas development aid to Brazil, yes, to the tune of just under £14 million per year, or put another way, two thirds of the cost of running a Bay Class LSD(A), the same type we have just flogged off to Australia.
Brazil spends about $4 billion on overseas aid as well by the way.
What else happened in 2011?
Afghanistan dropped down the national agenda as signs of progress, however faltering and fragmentary, were replaced by Libya and the ongoing financial crisis.
The Arab Spring had its moment in the sun but was also eclipsed by the ongoing financial crisis and finally, both Iran and Argentina joined in an ‘axis of chest puffers’ creating more heat than light by their ongoing and entirely driven by internal politics, sabre rattling.
Libya, Intervention and Big Grey Floaty Things
Whatever the colour of a politician’s rosette they all love to grandstand on the world stage, liberal interventionism, responsibility to protect or whatever the convenient buzzword the simple fact is that the armed forces will continue to be put in harms was by strutting politicians in order to have their moment of glory.
Libya demonstrated this simple fact but beyond this did it demonstrate anything that those interested in defence might take notice of?
The same discussions followed the Balkans, followed Sierra Leone, followed Iraq, despite not being over yet are firmly in place with Afghanistan in the title line and of course, Libya has kicked off all manner of discussions about the future of NATO, regional politics, likely armed conflicts and equipment choices.
Equally, after every operation one side of opinion will hail it as a template for the future and the other side will equally comment about it being irrelevant.
The problem with these discussions is they tend to reflect the prejudices of whoever is making the point.
If one is in favour of liberal intervention, Libya is a shining example of doing the right thing and doing the thing right but if one is against, it is easy to point to the thousands of civilian casualties, dubious adherance to UN resolutions, human rights breaches during and since and not forgetting the countless weapons, some of them, such as man portable anti-aircraft missiles, potentially threatening to UK military and civilian aircraft.
Another problem with drawing conclusions is those conclusions tend to have a habit of being proven incorrect by whatever comes next.
The more we apply lessons from the ‘last time’ the ‘next time’ comes along and proves them completely wrong.
Military fashion is terribly fickle and easy to observe with the aid og Mr Google.
But every other blogger in the known universe has done a lessons learned so why should we be any different?
Here are my observations in no particular order…
Is just a fact of life, at the beginning of every operation we are basically expecting far too much if we think that politicians have a clearly articulated set of objectives, it’s just so unlikely it is far from clear why we continue to be surprised.
All the constructs put in place by successive governments have singularly failed to articulate what the strategic interest for the UK was in intervention in Libya.
Maybe we should worry less about the contradictions of why Libya but not Syria, North Korea or Zimbabwe and start asking what our national interest was in Libya, why we should have contributed anything at all when we stand to gain so little beyond tenuous commercial advantage.
Political opportunism and old fashioned hypocrisy characterised the intervention in Libya. Wonder what the Syrians and Bahrainis think of us now.
By the way, a no fly zone is not a strategy.
Rules of Engagement
Restrictive rules of engagement will continue to be both a common feature and exploited by enemy forces alike. This places an enormous strain on aircrew, the links between aircrew and battlespace managers and the decision making process.
An additional issue is that of weapon design, it is no secret why Brimstone was one of the major success stories, quite simply its precision and small warhead matched rules of engagement that sought to minimise civilian casualties. This trend will continue and future weapons might be equally small, focussed and precise, perhaps even more so than Brimstone.
Because of increasingly restrictive rules of engagement the information needed to make targeting decisions must be moved around at high speed and usually in full motion high definition colour video. The common battlespace picture must have a myriad of inputs but absolute clarity in understanding and dissemination to support rapid decision making. Now that might sound like a section from a brochure it is still a simple proposition, we need to maintain and improve our ability to share information at speed and use that information to make correct decisions with little room for error.
The glue between ‘collectors’ and ‘effectors’ (in the latest jargon) must be strong, flexible and above all, universal, whether manned, unmanned, foreign or domestic
Carriers and Bases
Once again host nation support was obtained, strings were attached, deals were done and there were exceptions but in general, Libya proved that host nation support is likely to be achieved. Amphibious vessels continued to demonstrate their versatility and all round usefulness but carrier borne fast air, although useful, was simply not essential for success. Carriers may in some geographic situation be less dependant on host nation suport for the aircraft they carry but they are not immune from the issue and without suport from all manner of land based aircraft are unable to achieve their full potential or be sustained in theatre for very long.
Again, this does not make any difference to the basic validity of carrier aviation in future combined operations, there has always been and will always be a solid justification for sea based aviation.
The point about land and sea based fast air is that they are entirely complimentary and one is not somehow better than the other, just different. Getting into a lather about sortie rates, refuelling costs and other trivia does not change this fundamental.
The argument about relative costs is also nonsense because there are so many variables and so many different scenarios it becomes a circular argument. Reducing transit times by being closer to an enemy coast reduces airframe hours and refuelling costs but it does not eliminate them and these savings are balanced out by the crew and sustainment costs of a carrier.
Its very scenario specific and resistant to broad assertions.
Air Power Alone
Has never and will never be decisive, any conflict always needs ground forces to deliver the final blow. Libya showed that rule to still be true and it doesn’t matter where or how that air power is delivered either. Ground forces do not necessarily have to have UK uniforms but that doesn’t alter the fundamentals.
No matter how much air power was deployed or what it did or did not achieve the lack of ground forces means the West has very little influence on the aftermath. In the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan investment in the form of ground forces has meant we retain influence to shape post war governance and institutions.
Libya has shown that no matter the investment in supporting air power, our degree of influence is minimal.
In the immediate aftermath of the operation there was much talk about air power and special forces being the way forward, a means to reduce ground forces, cull the COIN sacred cow and get busy buying more ‘shexy’ hardware. It should come as no surprise what colour uniforms those making this assertion wore.
It is very easy to be cynical!
It is also important to note that air power does not mean air force; all three services played their part in delivering air power.
NATO was exposed for being comprised of twelve tenths the USA and most of the rest decided to sit on the sidelines with a note from their mums, but did it do them any harm?
The fact that NATO needs to face is that many of its members have realised that it is no longer the world’s most successful defensive alliance but a fig leaf for aggressive interventions by the others. Several of them have said ‘hang on, this is not what we signed up for’
If NATO is a broad organisational and command and control mechanism for members to form ad hoc groups as they please then that is one thing but entirely different to a collective defence pact.
There is a lot of talk about freeloading and the US subsidising Europe’s defence and quite a bit of it is true but at some point NATO is going to have to decide what it is.
Whether one agrees with the intervention in Libya or not it was patently obvious that despite the US supposedly taking a back seat Libya would not have been possible without extensive support from the USA. European forces were exposed as the archetypal ‘fur coat and no knickers’ with plenty of fast jets but little ISTAR, AAR, logistics and weapon stockpiles.
If Europe as a collective, despite many of its members engaged in US led operations elsewhere let’s not forget, cannot provide credible forces for a low intensity stand off operation like Libya it is time to question the value for money the continent gets from its huge collective defence budget.
With the US looking towards the Pacific, Libya was clearly a signal to Europe that over the long term, it will not be able to rely on the USA for security in its own back yard beyond the Third Shock Army rolling through Poland.
This may result in a Europe that looks more closely at its periphery or its immediate security needs and decides that it is less inclined to take part in distant US led operations with only marginal security implications.
Another important European dimension is the yet to be resolved Euro crisis, we should not underestimate the impact this on security and defence because if the economic impact to European economies is as dire as many are predicting then defence spending will be first in the reduction list except where it supports industrial capacity.
Libya demonstrated the eye watering costs of modern weapon systems, the reason almost everyone ran out is because they are so expensive to stockpile.
The desire to reduce allied casualties combined with restrictive rules of engagement means that precision guided munitions and long range stand-off weapons are the only realistic option. This results in a hugely expensive campaign and completely asymmetric in terms of relative costs of target versus the weapon used to attack it.
When we are firing three quarters of a million pound Storm Shadows from fast jets at £10k per flying hour, TLAMS from billion pound submarines and Hellfires from £30 million helicopters at targets that comprise of a handful of Soviet era weapon stockpiles, so called command and control nodes or Nissan 4×4’s with a dushka on the back then it becomes obvious that the way for any enemy to counter this is by the old tactic of dispersion, camouflage and duplication, basically, run our stocks of hugely expensive munitions down and make it too expensive to carry on.
The cost of precision guided weapons must be reduced to break this cycle.
Naval forces played a vital and under reported role, especially in the later stages, providing naval gunfire support, mine countermeasures and electronic surveillance.
The general lack of precision land attack weapons reduced utility in this specific role but where rules of engagement allowed, accurate but conventional gunfire was effective.
Mines were deployed by Gadaffi as a means of sea denial but these were effectively dealt with, providing evidence that reducing MCM capabilities is unwise.
Weapon stockpiles need to be addressed and the deployability and sustainment of expeditionary air forces needs to be improved through realistic deployment exercises and investment in logistics.
ISTAR was especially in short supply as was AAR and logistic support, yet again, actual operations expose the under investment in these areas consistently after every major operation.
This is the least surprising observation, plenty of fast jets and pointy shooty things but never enough ISTAR and logistics, a depressingly common observation following every single major deployment in the last several decades.
The leadership of the services and MoD need to address this issue and concentrate more resources on supporting elements, at the expense of the frontline if needed.
It is no good having ten squadrons of fast jets if there are not enough weapons, spares or means to operate them at austere locations.
We also saw highly expensive fast jets operating in an extremely low threat environment deploying highly expensive precision munitions against highly cheap targets!
Perhaps there is a need for a long range, high loiter time medium bomber, manned or unmanned, that can provide persistent ISTAR and immediate attack using low cost low yield precision weapons after all.
The government has based its public spending predictions on growth levels that have yet to be realised and the Euro crisis is a great unknown for 2012.
The MoD also faces a realisation of the costs of JCA and CVF conversion, these are as yet unknown but this year will see several chickens returning home to roost. When the full cost implications of the rushed decision to switch to CATOBAR are known and combined with increasing PFI costs and general cost inflation the next couple of planning rounds will be equally brutal as the last.
Expect programmes to be cancelled or delayed.
I am not going to get into specific predictions about which one will be subject to change but I think there are many obvious candidates.
Afghanistan will see a rapid drawdown as conditions, contrived or not, are set that allows this.
My main prediction for 2012 is the proliferation of UAV’s.
When Universities can create a workable tactical UAV prototype for less than £5k using commercially available components and 3D printing technology it does not seem such a leap to envisage this basic technology being weaponised or put to use supporting ground forces.
I do not see Western armed forces planning anything that can counter masses of low cost UAV’s except with very expensive missiles. CAMM might be fine for against aircraft and helicopters but how will it work against a couple of dozen printed UAV’s carrying a phosphorous grenade?