Tuesday, 10 November 2009

What the Tories should do about defence

OK, bear with me please. This is probably going to be a long post. The Tories sound like they have some good ideas about most of the difficulties they are going to inherit (such as new thoughts on the benefits structure, culling quangos, cutting the deficit). However, I've not heard much that's solid about defence. Sure, we've heard that they're willing to make cuts and that there will be a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) soon, but those are hardly solid policies.

Lets work out what the problems are.
  1. The Defence Budget is screwed. The Equipment plan is running far too hot (though it has been for some time).
  2. We've got the best part of 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. These guys are doing an incredibly difficult job and the lack of equipment suited for their task in that environment is getting them killed.
  3. The Royal Navy's size has been slashed since 1997, we've lost a third of our surface and subsurface combatants.
  4. The RAF haven't suffered as badly (to their eyes), losing ~1/5 of their fixed wing aircraft and gaining the important but catastrophically expensive Typhoon.
However, the one problem that over-rides all of these is that there is no money in the pot for defence. The Tories have committed to sustaining the NHS budget (which doubled under Labour. Can I have a show of hands of those who think the service is now twice as better as it was in 1997? No-one?! Strange that...) and more importantly, the country's balance sheet is fucked. We can't simply throw more money at Defence. And we can't even blame Labour for all of the cuts. Defence spending as a proportion of GDP fell mostly under the Tories (Of course, we can blame Labour for the shrinking GDP, but that's another story).

Let's try and envisage a near ideal world. Where everyone has almost everything they want. Well, who wants what?

  • The army want lots of soldiers, with plenty of support (helicopters, artillery, decent MRAPs to get them around, CAS)
  • The RN want their two nice shiny carriers. They should also want enough planes to fly off them and enough escorts to both keep the carriers safe and being doing something else useful. (Admittedly, they don't care about the last two but I'm going to assume they stop caring about the carriers to the exclusion of all else)
  • The RAF want lots of shiny fast aeroplanes they can use to show off to girls. They should also want a decent air-to-air refueling capability, plenty of logistics aircraft (C130s and up)
  • The MoD wants a nice big civilian staff so the PPS at the top can feel like he's got more power
  • Other things that would sure be useful: C4ISTAR in whatever form bloody works, Some form of nuclear deterrent (that actually does what it's supposed to), decent training budgets and enough fuel to keep everything running
Clearly not all of these can happen.

Right, I'm expecting someone reading this to say something along the lines of "But you've got to wait for the SDR, then we'll know what we need to do and we'll cut our cloth accordingly".

Well, to whoever said that, "Hi, Welcome to the blog, don't be daft"

SDRs are always a bottom up viewpoint. We decide what we can do, then lots of staff officers go ahead and work out scenarios that mean we've got exactly what we need. There's usually some cool stuff like "Go to a small island somewhere, drop off lots of troops and have plenty of aircover" but most of it will be wishywashy bollocks like "We want our armed forces to be a power for peace in the World and for flowers to grow wherever they go".

Basically, SDRs manage to be both bollocks and to push for just enough capability to do full scale expeditionary warfare from the sea.

At the moment, we have two schools of thought. One says that the Army should come first (afterall, they're the ones dying at the moment) and we should equip our armed forces for dusty places where ill-equipped men with beards are trying to kill us. The other says that we shouldn't plan for the "Last War" and should be building the best damn hi-tech equipment possible, just in case war starts with China. The SDR is more likely to lean towards this view-point than the former. Grunts just aren't sexy enough to get politicians excited.

Clearly both of these views are bollocks. Hopefully round about now, you're starting to realise why this is going to be a long piece. Pretty much every view on defence directly opposes another view. No-one can ever agree so nothing gets done. The three services bite and scratch each other for a slightly larger part of the ever-shrinking pie.

Hopefully the Tories will be smart (and strong) enough to be able to politically force the services to play nice together. In fact, my first recommendation would be to pick people for CAS, CNS, CGS and CDS who can work with the other services to a useful degree. It's entertaining that the military will need the Tories help to stop them getting shafted by the politicians but they've shown absolutely no capability to do it themselves. It doesn't actually matter which service does what, as long as the country has the capability it needs.

OK, we're going to need some money to play with. We're not going to be able to implement the suggestions in the Gray report without some cash and the equipment plan could do with an insertion of money now to stop everything else dying.

I'm actually with the Tories on this one, start by culling the civilian parts of the MoD. There's no way nearly 100,000 civvies are required to do those roles. Of course, this will require a strong and ballsy PPS, so good luck. However, this is not just doable, it's essential. To paraphrase someone famous "A Penny spent on defence that doesn't support the RAF, Royal Navy and The Army is a penny wasted". There is a hell of a lot being wasted in Main Building and elsewhere. Only one man has shown any chance of being even moderately capable in this field. Get Drayson in.

OK, hopefully we've now cut the civilian MoD down by about 25+%. Well, might as well share the pain. Redesign the promotional ranks in the services. We have far too many senior officers doing fuck all. We don't need to move all the way back to One Admiral per Fleet, but we currently have more Admirals than we have warships. I'm sure the case is the same in the Army and RAF. Dangle them a carrot - The Tories will sort out DE&S in exchange for serious cuts in senior ranks.

Excellent, we've now got some money to play with. Nowhere near enough to fix the equipment plan, of course, but perhaps enough to start making some decisions.

Trident replacement: I don't believe that a nuclear deterrent can work if it can be easily removed. However, I do believe a deterrent is essential. The arguments for Trident replacement usually include a few comments about keeping Submarine production in the UK (absolutely right, it's bloody hard to pick up skills once lost) and the general need for us to keep it to stay at the top table in the UN security council.

However, the costs bandied around for a full fleet of 3-4 Vanguard replacements (I don't like the idea of dropping below four due to the whole "whoops, we didn't have a boat at sea when they started threatening us") are pretty damn high. The obvious response has been to pack a small nuke warhead (we'll pick one off the yanks) into Storm Shadow and hope we've got a friendly airbase within a sensible distance of anyone we want to be able to deter. That clearly works, but not for an actual deterrent, making the exercise pointless.

It'd be cheaper to continue building more Asutes. We've cut the numbers of those anyway. We can build a larger fleet, continue not telling anyone where they are, buy a nuclearised Scalp-Navale / Tomahawk block IV and stick them on Asute. This can cut down on warhead numbers (for proliferation reasons) and save a bunch of cash. Whilst I'm aware that sticking a Scalp-Navale silo into an Asute would be tricky, these boats are modular, just build and stick an extra section in. All the benefits, lower costs.

Carriers - build both. We've already signed the contract and it'll keep the Scots and the Navy happy. Stick Sea Viper on them to give them both an ability to defend themselves without requiring half the fleet each. Look at buying some dirt cheap modular vessels like the Absalon class (~$250m each).

F35 - this is a tricky one, we've just announced we're only going to buy half the original order. I'd be tempted to cancel it entirely (aside from the three for evaluation, which we have to buy) and look at how much it'll cost to stick a steam generator into the Carriers. Then build some decent cats and buy an off-the-shelf naval AWACS plane. We all know the carriers will be ready before the F35 anyway, so put a note that you're going to buy those things at some point in the future (we're looking at least five years out before these damn things even float). Stick some Harriers on the carriers in the meantime and use them as somewhat sophisticated LHDs until we can afford cats and decent naval aircraft.

Ditch the A400M. It's pants, it's behind schedule and half of the reason for it was to carry FRES. Which is dead. And before it died was way to heavy to fit in anyway.

Somehow the C17 line is still running, offer to take a few of these off the Americans' hands. Haggle like crazy on the price (yes, Buy not Lease) and see if you can persuade them this is economic stimulus. Do not let the RAF change anything about them. They do not need to be anglofied, they work perfectly well in American trim.

Look at buying some more C130s. Don't let the RAF meddle in the design again.

Actually, have that as a new rule - No fucking meddling with designs. Plan it, design it, then build it. No constantly going back over the design over the years ahead driving costs up farther and farther. We all know why it happens. Some smart, ambitious, young officer turns up at DE&S. (S)He wants to make a name for himself. No-one will care if (s)he helps trim 1% off the cost of her/his project. (S)He's only there two/three years, there's no incentive to deliver anything in that time. But, if he can find a 'problem' with the specification as it stands.. (S)He can then be known as "That guy who figured out that our new MBT needed a GPMG pointing at 90 degrees to the main gun, to stop people flanking". Each of these adds up. The cost spirals, the 'problems' and 'needs' gets ever more ridiculous and someone dies because their piece of kit was delayed.

Fix DE&S. This should have been made abundantly clear earlier. Get some smart guys together (Drayson and his team?), give them incredible powers, cut the incredible amount of deadwood in that organisation. Ditch the siloing. If you're buying something, you have to go along and chat to the chap in charge of those sorts of things. He'll look at what we've already got, whether we can get most of what we need with that, what the other options are and how that will affect everyone else.

If it helps, make being a Procurement Officer a viable and worthwhile career for the military. Don't let them piss off after 2 years. Their name has to be permanently attached to that bit of kit.

Don't fall for PFI again. Airtanker was bloody stupid. We want tankers, so how about buying however many we need from the American procurement that's going on now. No matter how bad it is, it can't be worse than the Airtanker contract.

C4ISTAR is actually a pretty tricky one. Ditch MR4A, unless we can get a few more airframes for essentially nothing. Lots of UCAVs would be nice, but they all need Satcoms, which we barely have, despite our new shiny comsats up there. Taranis will be nice but is a long way out and doesn't quite fit the bill either. I'd basically suggest going cap in hand to the yanks and sticking a few more onto their production runs of Pred B or C. These aren't cheap, but they are bloody useful, at least when we're having to check the one road running from our FOB.

Basically, if there's one thing you can take from this: It is possible to keep our Defence capability without spending more. We just need to cut the bits which aren't working and focus on improving how we buy our kit.

Apologies for the length of this - I hope you're still reading and have had some good ideas as a result. I've presented this as a fait acompli of what should be done. In reality, it's no such thing. I just hope it can provide a bloody good start of what the Tories should be thinking about now. Let me know what you think!


  1. All very rational.

    I think I'd keep a ballistic missile based deterrent as cruise missiles are a bit too vulnerable to interception.

    Agreed the F35B is a foolish purchase, but then I suspect it would have worked out cheaper to build new dockyard infrastructure and buy a pair of Ford class carriers from the US.

  2. Ric

    Whilst I agree that Ballistic missiles tend to trump cruise missiles in terms of survivability and range, I believe that the modern range of highly stealthy, extremely low flying missiles are safe enough. If we run the numbers and decide that BMs are essential, it would not be beyond the wit of man to build a small silo compartment for the new Extended Astutes. Afterall, we barely carry any warheads now on the Vs, there's no need for a full 16 missile silo any more.

    I'm sure it would have been cheaper to buy something nice off the Yanks. I've always been a fan of the theory that we should work more closely on procurement with the USMC. Their requirements tend to be very similar to ours.

    But the contracts are already signed, the designs aren't bad, so if the Tories get into power, they might as well keep both of them.

  3. Sounds pretty reasonable.

    I don't think there's much fixed-wing alternative to the JSF for carriers - cats and traps are good, but what would you fly? Admittedly, navalised Typhoon would be v.nice, but I'd be tempted by something a bit more radical - rotary-wing and UCAVs, rather than manned fighters.

    Lord Drayson failed to get any significant reform done last time, and he's not showing much activity in that direction at present, but if the roadblocks (Sir Bill Jeffrey?) were removed and he were given carte blanche...

    A400M has one major advantage over the Hercules: the shape of its cargo box. For that reason alone, I'd favour buying a bunch of them. C17 is nice, but v.pricey. Still, there's no doubt that we need a much better strategic air-bridge.

  4. The King of Wrong,

    How about some F-18E/Fs? or F35Cs? I should have made it clear yesterday I was talking about ditching the B variant contract. Having said that, I figure the C will be overpriced and under-specced. Worst case, we could even pick up some Rafales. Navalised Typhoon would be bloody pricey compared to buying something off-the-shelf.

    Remember, the aim is to get most of the capability whilst spending a lot less.

    I like the concept of the A400M, but it currently looks like it's going to be bloody expensive and not much better than a C130. The only reason the cargo box is 'good' because it'll take standard 40ft ISO containers. You can fit 20ft ISOs into a C130 (and of course, pretty much whatever you want in a C17). With the latter, I figure we can negotiate a decent price for them. Afterall, it'll keep the line open for a bit longer.

  5. Hi Angry Walrus!

    Yeah, the B is clearly better than the C. The Hornet is ancient. The Rafale is hopeless - they can't sell it on the export market without engine and radar/avionics updates. The Grippen would be better value, but it's really a poor-man's fighter.

    I'm still thinking that, in terms of capability, rotary wing is the best choice. Given that 4th/5th generation fighters are operating beyond visual range on a first-shot/first-kill doctrinal basis, could we stick BVRAAM onto a Merlin to get similar capability? The jet jocks will hate it, but it seems a logical extension...

    I thought the C130 had problems with the shape of the fuselage - intrusions from the side limiting the size/shape of what can be carried?

  6. The King of Wrong,

    I assume you got B and C muddled there! The basic Hornet is seriously old, but the E/Fs are 4.5th generation, similar to Typhoon. Sure they don't have all the bells and whistles of the F35s, but they're cheap and available. They're seriously capable for the money. At the moment they're pretty much the only thing (other than the Growlers) that the yanks are flying off their hardtops.

    Superhornets also have a whole raft of other cool capabilities on board. They are incredibly good at swing-role. The only thing they really lack is range. And why the hell would you want to be using sea-based airpower in Afghanistan?

    Grippen is excellent value, but not navalised. Rafale isn't the bee-knees, but it is currently flying off carriers and doing some (admittedly minimal) missions. That's a lot more than the F35 at the moment. It's also cheaper.

    The first shot, first kill concept is great, but the signature of a Merlin is going to be miles more than that for a relatively stealthy aircraft.

    I assume you’ve seen this image: http://www.aviation-news.co.uk/media/a400m_4.jpg showing how much bigger the A400M is. Sure, but it’s also getting increasingly pricey. The issue is that you can jam 40ft ISO into an A400M, but not 2 20Ft containers into a C130 (due to the protrusions). On the other hand, one of these planes is flying. The closest the other has got is a single engine mounted on a C130 (Snoopy if I’ve remembered correctly). Sure, the A400M will be better, but like the F35C will be better than the F18E, is it worth the extra cash for the small extra capability?

  7. I've not heard anything good said about the C variant (CATOBAR/STOBAR?, running even later than the others). At least the (STOVL) B is keeping some of the Harrier capability and it's being bought by someone other than the USN...

    I'm not convinced by the "generation" system for fighters, to be honest. It seems to be designed to say "the Raptor is better than everything else", which is conveniently impossible to prove. The F-18E/F (and, for that matter, F-35 and F-22) don't have canards - I can see why they might do that from a stealth-uber-alles viewpoint, but in terms of manoeuvrability? If you're going to get your arse handed to you by an Indian Su-30MKI, you might as well get out of the air superiority business...

    I suspect that's getting a bit off-topic, though! Suffice to say we don't agree on what should be flown off the carriers, but there are multiple options?

    Nope, hadn't seen that image. Bit of a sorry state if we've got to ferry our wokkas around in a cargo plane! ;)