The F35 and MoD Credibility

CVF-Aircraft-Carrier-Royal-Navy-Joint-Combat-Aircraft-F35

I have been writing about Project CVF since I started running my ill-educated mouth off on the pages of Think Defence (bloody hell, is it really 4 years ago) and I can’t remember a time when the Daily Mail esque words of national disgrace have been apt, but if the recent article in the Telegraph about CVF is true then quite simply, those words apply.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much embarrassment been caused to so many by so few.

It has been obvious to me for some time that the commodity the MoD lacks the most is credibility.

Credibility with politicians, credibility with the Treasury, credibility with the media and last but by no means least, credibility with service personnel

Incompetence and your common or garden fuckwittery are closely associated with the senior staff, the decision-makers, at the MoD, in fact, the MoD is so closely associated with incompetence that no one is actually surprised when it can’t even get buying ladders right. What chance do they have with aircraft, ships and vehicles when at every turn, there is a banana skin?

Can we blame the media for taking the easy line, Treasury officials for being openly scornful of MoD project accounting, the National Audit Office for copying and pasting the forward to their Major Project Reports from the last one and everyone else to just shrugging their shoulders when the latest hugely expensive cock-up is revealed?

If any project, and there are many others, absolutely typifies the MoD’s complete and utter lack of credibility, it is the CVF/JCA omnishambles.

One of my other major bugbears is that our national defence and security strategy has become equipment centric, the armed forces are not seen in the context of how they contribute to national defence, promotion of our interests or values, but by how many FRES Scouts ‘feel right’ or whether the extra range of the F35C makes us second only to the US Navy.

Instead of putting equipment into the rightful context of a national strategy we put equipment at the top of the agenda and write our strategy around it, tail-wagging dog. I have even heard people genuinely talk about whose turn it is now, the Royal Air Force have had their turn with the Typhoon so the Fleet Air Arm should have a gazillion F35C’s.

This obsession with prestige major equipment projects, combined with the MoD’s general lack of credibility on all things financial combine to form a toxic brew.

Like some witch, crouching over a bubbling cauldron the final recipe in the potion is not the eye of a newt but a good stiff measure of inter-service politics.

The clearest threat to the UK’s strategic interests is this combination, transnational terrorists and rogue dictators are mere amateurs when compared with inter-service politics and execution incompetence.

When the National Security Strategy was published post the last election it talked about terrorism, regional instability and cyber-attacks but it singularly failed to recognise the obvious, that the squabbling children that are the defence decision-makers in this country are working hard every day to undermine our defence posture and represent the highest risk!

I must not be alone in thinking this, the massed ranks of the mainstream media are surely on the case?

Unfortunately not, they are also sleeping on the job.

Journalists default to the position that everything in uniform equals good and politicians or civil servants equals bad.

It is easy to talk of seat polishing bureaucrats or heartless penny-pinching politicians because it fits the lazy brained journalistic narrative but it is far from the truth. In a world dominated by the 24×7 news cycle, the lack of meaningful analysis in the mainstream media, because we all seemingly have the attention span of a Goldfish, is a real tragedy.

Instead of actually seeing through the issues they peddle their tittle-tattle and woefully inadequate analysis, cats and flaps indeed.

Even the august body that is RUSI can’t get the basics right, as their latest piece on CVF shows.

Without anyone holding the MoD decision-makers to account nothing will change.

What role do they play except being a mouthpiece for the leak of the day, carefully released from one faction or another within the MoD, services and industry?

If not the MoD and media then we must be able to rely on politicians to inject some hard-nosed reality.

Sadly not

Although we have all had harsh words for them, I am generally more sympathetic to Secretaries of State for Defence than one might imagine, the MoD is a tough gig because it’s poor reputation and, as above, complete lack of credibility make every decision a difficult one. They also know that no matter what they do, any casualty or apparent ill-treatment of service personnel or their families will be front-page news.

There have been complete Hoons in the hot seat of course but Robertson, Hutton, Ainsworth and Fox all struck me as being decent sorts with a genuine affection for the armed forces.

Despite their best intentions though, they have always operated in a vacuum where the lack of an underlying and coherent national security strategy means they have become vulnerable to a dazzling onslaught from vested interests wearing gold braid and sharp suits, the service chiefs and industry.

How can we be a ‘proper’ nation without these symbols of national pride they ask, but whilst signing the investment approvals they never seem to actually ask two very simple questions, can we afford it and if we think we can, what are we going to not buy instead.

A lack of strategy, feeble politicians, a woeful media, the defence industry lobby, service politics, execution incompetence and a fixation on major equipment projects have all combined to completely and utterly destroy the MoD’s credibility.

If there were any illustration of just how broken the MoD is, it is the Urgent Operational Request or UOR, the scale of which should serve as an illustration of exactly what I am talking about.

When you see UOR’s at multiple levels, across all three services and in such a massive volume, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear across Whitehall and the media.

It is important to draw a distinction between the performance of the MoD in getting UOR’s out of the door and the need to do so in the first place.

But not once have I seen any criticism of the need for such an extensive UOR programme to cover gaping holes in the equipment programme where the vast majority of the gaps they fill are entirely predictable.

Politicians and the media take some sort of perverse pride in how bloody clever we are at getting life-saving kit into the hands of our brave boys but never ask why it wasn’t there in the first place.

The simple reason is all the money has and continues to be allocated to large projects, all fur coat and no knickers.

The Treasury, who cover the cost of the vast UOR programme from its reserve whilst simultaneously funding one of the largest defence budgets in the world have started to realise (if they hadn’t already) that the MoD is absolutely taking the piss.

Every operation we learn the same tired old lessons, not enough personal equipment, not enough transport, not enough ISTAR but instead of actually doing something with the lessons learned reports the MoD reverts to type, back to the sweet shop and the fizzy delights thereof.

An equipment plan dominated by CVF, JCA, FRES and all the other acronyms means the shaft of the spear is neglected so when it comes to being used it is brittle, not at all robust and needs expensive bodging to patch it up until the next time.

But surely there is simply not enough money in the defence budget?

Another easy line to take is if we can afford to give aid to India then surely we can afford just another couple of billion for the MoD, everything will be OK with just that much.

I know exactly how much money is in the defence budget; don’t need an annual report or Treasury estimate, the amount is this;

Never enough

This is why we have the annual orgy of incompetence called the Planning Round.

Time for a fizzy sweet based analogy!

If anyone has any kids they will know exactly what I mean with this one, buying pick and mix sweets used to be on weight but now most shops have a fixed price paper cup that one fills with cola bottles, smarties, fizzy boot laces and candy bananas (my favourite)

Naturally, one tries to fill the fixed volume fixed price cup with as many tooth rotters as possible, pressing down on the lid and wedging as much as possible into it, rushing to the check out before the contents expand and pop the lid off!

That cup is the defence budget and the cola bottles and assorted fizzy sweets are the major projects.

To anyone except those in the MoD it is obvious that two things happen.

First, the cup varies in size at the margins and second, the things inside the cup change shape.

Because the sweets are stuffed so tight any change in volume of sweets or cup will combine to pop the lid off and back to the rows of sweets we must go, empty them all out and start again.

The big sweets go back in first; these are our favourite sacred cow shaped ones.

But what if they don’t quite fit?

Thus starts the depressing cascade of short term delaying, reducing specifications and cancelling projects that conspire to deliver such shockingly poor value for money from our not inconsiderable defence budget.

Not finished with the fizzy sweet analogy but this brings me to CVF and JCA.

CVF and JCA was always too big for the bargain basement cup, everyone knew it, even those involved with the project, but vanity, hubris and plain old fuckwittery took over.

No one was prepared to face reality, have the balls to fish into the bottom of the cup and put it back on the shelf with all the other sweet delights.

The reason for this was because the other kids also had their own big sweets that they also wanted to wedge into the cup so everyone agreed they would support the others big sweets staying in.

There would be leaking and spinning to the press if one sweet was threatening the rightful place of the other but essentially, the big sweets stayed in.

Those bigger kids in the defence industry would also be skulking around, offering directorships and encouraging everyone to keep filling the cup. They could play the long game, knowing full well that a subtle word here or there could see their sweet favoured over the other with the promise of future business class travel and ‘marketing’ jobs for the big players.

Even our friends wanted a say in what sweets we picked, cheeky buggers.

But

Being crammed full of big sweets, the cup no longer had any room for smaller but more nutritious delights such as transport, logistics, training, basic equipment and spares.

So whilst the children in the MoD played their games, bickered with each other, measured themselves against other nations and generally spent the defence budget on sugary sweets, something else happened.

Real capabilities were beggared, hence the UOR programme.

There was always going to be a reckoning and whilst the current government would have us all believe they are cutting back on black holes, deficits and public spending the reality tells a very different picture.

Something different did happen at the last SDSR though; someone has the bottle to call out the MoD and industry.

If Dr Liam Fox can be thanked for one thing it is this.

He looked at the bulging pot of sweets and said, hang on lads

The problem with the good Doctor was, he got out manoeuvred by a cunning defence industry and seeing the writing on the wall, the service chiefs abandoned their cozy agreements about supporting each others major projects and went to full on stab each other in the back mode.

Service politics at its corrosive worst meant the SDSR turned into a last minute, salami slicing, short term and incoherent shambles

Adaptable Britain my big fat arse

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Dr Liam Fox, first and foremost, he is a politician. The SDSR was always going to be a tough sell and the mythical budget black hole, which even today, no one outside the MoD has seen the breakdown of, simply wasn’t going to be enough.

Something big was needed, something David Cameron could beat the Labour Party around the head with.

A swift one-two was formulated to demonstrate how tough and macho the new Government was, remember all that talk of sacred cows and making tough decisions?

Nimrod MRA4 was the quick jab.

Forgetting about its Conservative roots, the Labour Party had failed to get a grip, so that was the first quick dig, Labour incompetence left us without a choice.

Next came CVF

Now that has a special political value to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and this is what makes it so totemic. There are a number of reasons, first, it is easily understood, second it was one of Tony Blair’s ‘liberal intervention’ projects but more importantly than anything else, it was being built in Scotland because Gordon Brown said so. Given the enmity that existed between David Cameron and Gordon Brown pre-election it was obvious CVF would not come out of the SDSR unscathed.

The RAF and RN knew this and knew it absolutely full well.

And so Operation Left Hook was started, a ‘fudge’ here, a spot of dodgy accounting there and hey presto, the plan for switching to the F35C was borne.

It ticked all the boxes.

The RAF and RN get a ‘proper’ carrier and longer range stealthy super jet, the government get something to batter the previous government with.

Cue House of Commons jibes about the Labour Party picking the wrong jet that flies less distance, is more expensive and carries fewer bombs. Nice and easy to understand and difficult to counter, three simple things that make the previous Government look incompetent and provides a fig leaf for the other cuts.

Remember, politics in everything defence.

No one cares about the number of soldiers cut by the way, remember, its equipment that gets in the papers because it is more easily understood by the dim witted hacks in the lobby and the nice but dim MP’s with their PPE degrees and old school ties.

The service decision makers, spotting a chance for more shiny toys became willing accomplices. Shoving decisions about converting the second carrier into the future was a classic short term decision ringed with a strategy characterised by one word, hope.

So everyone was happy, better equipment secured, convenient political brickbats to throw at the previous government and a handy set of media friendly soundbites readily available provide a cover for the other decisions (Harrier, MRA4, Sentinel etc).

The usual talking heads were wheeled out, articles written, RUSI conferences attended and mutual back slapping commenced. Everyone focussed on the extra range, payload, having Hawkeye replace the E3 Sentry, getting back into the big league, talking about out how we invented carrier aviation and of course, we are an island you know.

Everyone spent a lot of time describing how we should not sell or mothball the second carrier but failed to recognise that the very reason it was destined for the disposal agency was because of that switch on the F35.

Not a single newspaper reporter, blogger, think tank or politician questioned the decision on F35 or if they did, it was very muted.

[SMUG MODE ON]

Except one, me

[/SMUG MODE OFF]

I have been absolutely consistent in my opinion looking at the issue with a wide angle lens, F35B would be cheaper when taken in the round.

Which brings us up to date, the latest rumours, smoke signs and innuendo seemed to have pointed to a decision to reverse the choice of F35C. As conversion and other costs ballooned the financial benefits of the F35B became clearer and Phil Hammond was said to favour a reversion.

The usual leaky sieve MoD displayed a sharply honed knack for seeding the media with the appropriate rumours and all of a sudden the smart money was back on the F35B.

I happen to think this would be common sense decision that keeps things at a realistic level without stripping the rest of the armed forces of badly needed money and have said so repeatedly but what do I know?

[SMUG MODE BACK ON]

I also note with a wry smile that the most strident advocates of the F35C, because of its extra performance, prestige, interoperability, lower maintenance costs and all their other ‘points’ are now so casually having a bout of collective amnesia about what they said.

[/SMUG MODE BACK OFF]

Sensing the financially driven change the service lobby ‘machine’ kicked into gear, some more overt than others but there is no doubt in my mind that neither the RAF nor RN grown-ups actually want the F35B, this being possibly the best reason for forcing it upon them.

Articles have been written and papers circulated to shape the battlefield so to speak.

Part of this shaping is the Telegraph revealing that the US navy have weighed in to the debate, writing a letter to the MoD (at the behest of those vested interests no doubt) saying that the conversion costs will be half what we think.

This is the same Department of Defence that has bought the world the Future Combat System, cheap Littoral Combat Ships and affordable F35’s. When exactly has the DoD or MoD said something will be a pound or dollar and it been 50 pence or cents?

Forgive me a dose of cynicism.

Of course it is in the interests of the US Navy to have CVF able to operate the F35C; that much is obvious, but despite the US facing towards the Pacific and expecting Europe to pick up the slack in its overseas adventures CVF/JCA has to be in Great Britain’s best interests, no one else.

The Telegraph reported that MoD’s cost estimate for conversion was £1.8 billion but we don’t know what this actually entailed, did it include the extra crew needed or cost of developing an AAR capability needed for F35C operations for example?

The letter from the Secretary of the US Navy indicated that the cost for the launch and recovery equipment would be £458 million with other defence experts (yeah, I know) estimating that conversion would cost an additional £400million, nice round numbers are always suspect aren’t they?

£858million seems a long way from the reported £1.8billion estimate but are we looking at apples and apples, there are so many other variables to take into consideration, did that include one or two for example.

The letter has apparently thrown the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons, leading to David Cameron ordering a Treasury led investigation with a resultant delay in the announcement.

There was an announcement due on Monday, where everyone expected the decision on reversion to STOVL would be detailed but on Friday, this was cancelled; the letter from the USN being the catalyst for another look at the numbers.

If ever one needed an illustration of how little faith politicians have in the MoD it is this. One letter from a foreign power casting doubts on the MoD’s costings and all of sudden we are back to square one.

For once, the MoD may have been erring on the side of caution, putting a degree of risk into the calculation and making a realistic estimate that has room for variance.

With my pick and mix analogy, having a cup with a bit more room in it to compensate for the cup and sweets changing size.

Phil Hammond is no fool, he strikes me as being extremely ‘nose down’ competent, exactly the sort of Defence Secretary we need because he realises Champagne tastes and Brown Ale budgets are a recipe for zero credibility, something the MoD needs more than anything else.

This part of the Telegraph article struck me as the most significant;

“They want to ensure that the information the British Government is working from is accurate because currently that quite clearly is not the case,” said a Whitehall source.

Although it provides grist to the mill I despise with a passion ‘Whitehall sources’ because they betray the trust that the nation puts in them, quite clearly they are spinning against the MoD, running to the US Navy for help because Mummy (Spreadsheet Phil) is taking away their sweets.

If I was Phil Hammond I would be having several interviews without coffee on Monday morning and battering those ‘sources’ all over Whitehall’s car park, who the fuck do they think they are. I hope he sharpens his pencil and stabs the disloyal fuckers in the eye with it.

Sorry about the brief ranty interlude there!

We have excellent relations with the US Navy, US Marines, Air Force and Army; long may that continue but one of the huge strategic mistakes the UK has made over the last couple of decades is our slavish, embarrassing, forelock tugging and needy subservience to the USA.

There is no argument that CVF with cats and traps and F35C’s on the deck is the best military option when taken in isolation, no argument whatsoever.

But at what cost to the rest of our capabilities?

That is the key question.

We don’t have the same deep pockets as the US Navy and have to make sure we strive for balance across all three services without being blinded by the easy allure of those fizzy sweets.

This is what Phil Hammond realises, it has nothing to do with range, bomb load, whether we invented the steam catapult, whether the US or French can land their aircraft on the deck of CVF, how it fits in with doctrine or the emerging concepts of Carrier Enabled Power Projection

These are irrelevant.

The decision on CVF and JCA is about nothing more than credibility, the ability of the MoD to live within its means without indulging in fantasy procurement and then having to run cap in hand to the Treasury with an Urgent Operational Requirement every time there is a whiff of gun smoke.

Blogs and Internet forums are often criticised for indulging in fantasy fleets but it strikes me that the biggest proponents of the art of fantasy fleets are the professionals.

So if the most economic and balanced capability is CVF with the F35C then so be it, if it is F35B then equally, great, maybe the best answer is an F18, Rafale, Sea Typhoon or Sea Gripen?

I have my own view, the F35B, but it is one amongst many and based on zero intimate knowledge!

But in making the decision I hope we ask those tough questions and answer with an honest reply.

For a department that so desperately needs to establish some measure of credibility there will be no more second chances.

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