Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Into Africa (Part 1) - UK Defence engagement in Africa

Of all the continents on Earth, Africa represents perhaps the one with the greatest potential, resources and pool of talent of any. But this is counterbalanced by a hugely complex, often chaotic collection of nation states, intertwined with incredibly complex social, political and economic problems, which often pose a wider challenge to regional and global stability.

For the UK Africa remains a continent which has traditionally occupied a relatively low priority in terms of manpower and resource allocation. Yet in the 21st Century, the UK model of commitment to Africa offers a good insight into how the MOD can help support wider UK goals in the region, on a relatively low commitment of resource, but achieve effects significantly greater than the sum of its parts. There is no doubt that Africa is an immensely complex and challenging region to understand. From a purely military perspective, the continent has everything from barely functioning defence forces struggling to achieve basic military tasks through to those with relatively advanced capabilities, and able to deploy at a distance across the continent or beyond. 

The UK has long maintained a somewhat discrete approach to engagement in Africa. Unlike the French, who still maintain a fairly substantial network of post-colonial era bases in former colonies, the UK never sought to maintain any fixed garrisons or sovereign bases after the Colonial era came to an end. Instead the only area where the UK has maintained a consistent presence is in Kenya, where the British Army has maintained a small training team since the 1960s, which has managed access to a substantial training estate. Beyond this, the UK approach can best be characterised as defence attaches, training teams and maritime presence.

Africa is one continent where the presence of a Defence Attaché can make an enormous difference to maintaining effective defence relationships. The UK has a relatively modest presence, fluctuating from nation to nation over time, but currently around 15 posts in total (although this regularly changes depending on politics and budgets). The role of the DA is fairly straightforward –act as the liaison point between the UK and host nation (and wider accredited nations) military forces, and try to foster strong links. In practical terms this can range from ensuring overflight access, support for adventure training, helping secure local training and keeping abreast of military developments. More broadly, much of what they do is around ensuring that the UK can engage with senior military figures in a country, and help build effective working relationships. Some such relationships can be essential – for instance ensuring that RN warships are able to transit the Suez Canal without any difficulty.

The traditional view of UK defence engagement in Africa?

Why does this matter though? At its simplest, the ability to gain access to senior officers provides a useful insight into how a nation is thinking on issues. It helps the UK gently offer advice on their views about how issues could be overcome (for instance procurement requirements or training problems). It enables a dialogue to go on with officers who can be exceptionally influential in determining the direction of events in a country. By getting to understand and build strong relationships, the DA can help steer a bilateral military relationship – one thing that has often impressed the author is the depth of attachment and esteem in which many nations genuinely value their relationship with the UK armed forces. The presence of a DA can often help improve these relationships, enabling better liaison, access for training and helping show UK solutions to capability requirements. Finally, a DA can often provide situational awareness and advise on developing crises with professional military judgement – this can be invaluable in determining the nature of an HMG response to a problem.

In addition to the DA network, there is also a small number of training teams designed to provide a permanent presence in the region to help bolster regional stability (British Army webpage links are HERE). At present, these are based in Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The role of each team subtly varies depending on the host nation, but each has a similar model – provide training, guidance and experience to help address gaps in regional military capability, and enable them to meet the demanding challenges of modern operations. The location of these teams has changed over time - in the immediate post Colonial era, there were a number in the continent designed to build capability up for local military forces (for instance the original UK mission in Ghana was nearly 250 strong in the early 1960s). Similarly others have shut due to budget cuts or changes in regime (for instance the BMATT in Zimbabwe), although speaking to officers from nations where there has been a BMATT, it is clear that many lament their passing and the loss of training, experience and value they offer. Although small, a well placed training team can often generate far more influence and access for the UK than a dozen armoured regiments based back in the UK... One paper the author came across while researching this article can be found HERE - its an ISS Africa paper dating back to the early 1990s and talks about the UK training team experiences. Obviously the paper should be read in line with the standards and experiences of the time, but it does provide an interesting insight into the experiences and value that the BMATT can bring. 

The training and capacity challenge - preparing for operations in Somalia

Capacity building is absolutely crucial to this – a well placed training team, able to energise, inspire and train a cadre of students can make a large difference to an often small military (a good recent example being the deployment in the short term to Mali of training teams to help improve capacity). It is worth remembering that many African armed forces are short on resources and capability, and cannot always do basic things that other military forces take for granted. For example, in Kenya the Army is able to run a training team on mine clearance – a major problem in that part of the world, and one which can have debilitating effects on local stability (e.g. loss of life, long term injuries and the loss of grazing or economically viable areas). By providing this training, the BMATT/ Peace Support Team is able to help increase capacity of local forces and indirectly improve the quality of life, and hopefully stability, of their nations. 

Similarly, a great deal of work has gone into Sierra Leone to help improve the capability of its armed forces to help them secure the country again. This work is long and time consuming – you cannot rebuild a shattered military overnight, but it is something which goes a long way to providing a credible security capability for a nation recovering from a brutal civil war. The message is also extremely powerful – namely that the UK is able to provide training and support for its friends, and hopefully at the same time instil a strong sense of discipline and standards in their armed forces which will continue. This may not be high profile or attention grabbing, but the deployment of a small team of trainers is often far cheaper and more practical in the long term, than a short notice crisis intervention like OP PALLISER in 2000, where the UK essentially had to take over running of Sierra Leone for a short period to help restore order. While such an operation may make people feel good about UK military prowess, surely it is far better to try and prevent the situation occurring in the first place through well placed training?

There is also a regular series of training detachments for a short period of time into various countries – for instance, in Uganda in 2011 there were almost 60 short training exercises to help improve the capability of the Ugandan armed forces as part of their preparation for UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia (link is HERE). This, coupled with other similar deployments means that a small platoon sized deployment can often achieve a very positive impact in training a military which would otherwise be deploying on operations without sufficient preparation. This sort of exercise can make a real difference in helping secure stability for the region, as local peacekeeping forces are better able to handle some of the more challenging aspects of peacekeeping, and in turn this reduces the reliance on Western forces to deploy or shoulder a greater burden.  A similar example occurs in Morocco, where the JEBEL SAHARA series of exercises provide an excellent opportunity for the RAF, Army (including Gibraltar Regiment) and other units to exercise in the region and work with the Moroccans.

Defence engagement in action - UK training in Africa
The final land part of the UK commitment comes from the long term presence in Kenya of the British Army training areas there. This exercise area has grown increasingly important to the Army, particularly during Operation HERRICK where it was used for a large amount of pre-deployment training for units deploying to theatre. There is a very substantial and regular throughput of UK troops in Kenya, and a great deal of investment has gone into the training areas out there to make them as capable as possible. While there are no permanent garrison type forces attached to Kenya as such, it is a useful reminder that there is a routine and regular presence in the country which gains significantly from the training opportunities on offer.

More widely, the UK has a regular maritime presence in the region, with Royal Navy ships regularly calling into West African ports on their way down to the Falkland Islands, helping participate in a series of capability building exercises, working with local nations to better improve their coastguard and naval training, and also reduce the risk of piracy. In recent years there have been very regular visits by RN vessels along the whole of the West coast, although the RN has long since scrapped the short lived ‘West Africa Guardship’ which appeared to be a short lived standing commitment in the pre-SDR days of deploying a frigate into the region. Similarly on the East coast the RN is an active participant in counter-piracy operations, with vessels conducting operations from the Red Sea all the way through to the Gulf, and also down the Indian Ocean coast. Although piracy attacks are reduced from what they once were, there is still a clear risk, which the RN plays a part in tackling. Additionally the RNR Maritime Trade Operations branch has played a hugely import, but little recognised role in helping provide guidance to merchant shipping both in the Red Sea and also off the West Coast of Africa, where this small but essential capability is helping make a real difference to merchant ships safety.

So, as we draw to the end of part one, the view on UK commitment to Africa is that it is dispersed, often full of individuals in isolated locations and often doing work which is a long way removed from the traditional glamour of what some like to see as a classic military role. There is no real permanent basing footprint beyond the exercise facilities in Kenya, but there is a surprising level of low level defence engagement. It’s a long way removed from the ORBATS and fantasy fleet exercises often associated with the Internet, but it does play a crucial part in ensuring UK national security.

In part two of the article, it will explore what the value is from defence engagement in Africa, why it matters to the UK, what sort of things can make a difference  and will consider the wider long term options for commitment to the continent and what the next few years may hold for UK commitment  to the region and what model could potentially work best. It will in particular consider the lessons of Mali, for which the author has deliberately not mentioned in this part of the article. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Falklands, exercises and tactical nuclear penguins...

Over the years Humphrey has become somewhat cynical of the news cycle about Defence. Most weeks of the year see the same cyclical series of stories about how the UK is no longer relevant, how the RN couldn’t defend Falmouth from a horde of French marines in Pedalos and how the Argentines clearly pose a major threat to the Falkland Islands. The latest iteration in this is the now traditional outburst that the UK is somehow causing a rise in tension in the South Atlantic by conducting routine exercises in the Falklands.

While it is easy to get either easily riled at the ridiculousness of the situation, or get worked up at the sheer outrage of it all, the pronouncements on the story perhaps show how weak the current Argentine case is, and hint at desperation measures to get the news story away from internal problems.   Breaking the story down, it is essentially the latest in a long series of claims by Argentina that the UK is attempting to militarise the Falklands – this seems to be linked to the deployment of Typhoon aircraft, the updating and replacement of in service equipment and the routine deployment of UK nuclear submarines into the region. Currently the news articles are reaching new levels of hyperbole, claiming that the Falklands are now a NATO base for nuclear submarines (something that may come as a mild surprise to NATO).

The story is one that owes more to the near total lack of updating of the Argentine military relative to the continued investment and planned replacement in UK equipment than it does in any suggestion that the UK is militarising the islands. A cursory glance shows how much smaller the garrison has become over the years.

Why then given the ridiculousness of the claims and the fact that they make Argentina look foolish does the Argentine Government persist in putting them out? Humphreys personal view is that there are several reasons why this increasingly odd propaganda campaign continues, despite seemingly having no real basis in truth.

Firstly, the narrative of the Falklands debate is one which is of relatively little interest to most other nations, beyond perhaps a few die hard anti-colonial powers. Routine pronouncements on the unfairness of the situation by Argentina will get little if any wider interest, and generate no real support now. Instead, in order to keep feeding the publicity monster that is the Falklands debate, Argentina has to keep drumming up ever more outrageous claims to get attention. The sort of claims about militarisation and nuclear submarine bases are patently ridiculous, but they are getting attention and as such means that the UK has to spend time patiently trying to explain the reality of the situation.

The danger with such a tactic is that each time you raise the bar in the debate, you make it ever harder to come up with a new story or credible reason to be covered. The more Argentine politicians make these statements, the harder it is for them to de-escalate the situation. How do you back away from these sort of patently false statements when the UK can easily demonstrate that it has not been militarising the islands? The challenge is going to be working out a way to step down from extreme rhetoric and moving to a position where the Argentines are seen as being reasonable rational actors.

The problem they face is that with a referendum highlighting the enormous support for the islands to remain British, and with a quiet diplomacy campaign going on with islanders travelling across central and south America to put their side of the story across, the Argentine view is looking increasingly isolated. The problem on the international stage is that grandiose pronouncements of outrage need to be backed up by provable facts in order to gain international support. Argentina is treading a path where it is increasingly crying wolf, and the more it does this, and the more outlandish and bizarre its claims, the less international support or attention it will enjoy on the matter. As a rule most nations dislike being drawn into others territorial disputes – the more that Argentina links the Falklands to its external policy, the harder it will find it to gain international support on other matters. This is a shame as it weakens Argentina externally, and reduces her ability to act as a wider force for good in the world. No nation should be seen as a single issue foreign policy actor, but right now it is hard to see Argentina as anything other than this. 

At home the policy seems linked more to try to deflect attention from continued political weakness and  a very poor economy than any real sense of trying to bring about change. Nothing unites like a manufactured foreign policy crisis, but again the problem for the politicians is that the more they cry wolf, the harder it is to continue generating the same level of popular support. The reality is that as the economy tanks, inflation hits and people lose jobs, their interest in a frankly hypothetical territorial dispute hundreds of miles from their borders, when their real lives are a struggle will diminish. For Argentine politicians, faced with the challenge of trying to secure domestic support and keep their hold on power, it will always be easy to try and drum up a bogeyman – but to keep on doing so past the point when there is a critical mass of popular support seems futile. One only has to look at the way the claims have got ever more outlandish and dramatic to realise that the Argentine population itself seems to have a much higher tolerance threshold on these matters than in the past – indeed, beyond a hard core of supporters, are the Falklands really an issue for most now, and will this soon be a foreign policy trump card that has been played too often to be of any real value to placate the masses from their domestic worries?

What then is the impact for the UK from all this? On a practical basis very little, but it does highlight the challenges faced in trying to put forward a balanced and rational debate on the Falkland Islands, when one party is keen to put forward all manner of outlandish propaganda. When the issue is discussed, rather than focusing on the positives, the UK finds itself having to rebuff ever more bizarre allegations. It also means that when routine deployments go ahead, or when equipment is updated, the UK has to be fairly defensive in its approach – an Argentine campaign highlighting the supposed militarisation of the region is fairly simplistic, but easy to do when you compare the capabilities of a Type 45 or Typhoon to the Argentine Armed Forces. This in turn makes it more difficult to just do the routine sort of deployments that used to be taken for granted – one impact of the internet and social media is that its very easy to push a cause, no matter how unusual or extreme, and whereas in previous years, Argentine protests would have had little coverage, today they can be pushed globally through various websites.

For the UK then although the whole situation may seem somewhat odd, it does warrant attention. The more that Argentina tries to frame the debate on the Falklands around ever more ridiculous pretexts, the harder it is to bring it back to what it is really all about – the right of self-determination for a group of Islanders who have repeatedly made clear that they wish to remain British. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Royal Navy and Light Frigates - A solution in need of a problem?

Its that time of the year again when another report comes out suggesting that the Royal Navy hasn't enough warships to protect our supply lines and that UK national security is imperilled. Ignoring that the article in question suggests that the UK only has 23 battleships (link is HERE) it is a good starting point to consider whether the RN needs more smaller ships.

For many decades, arguably since the Type 14s entered service, the Royal Navy has optimised a building programme to keep first rate escort vessels in service, capable of meeting any conceivable level of war fighting challenge. This has led to a deliberate policy of protecting build programmes which delivered high capability warships in smaller numbers over much larger numbers of lower capability. Even where relatively austere designs have been envisaged, they have quickly been upgraded – for instance the Type 23 programme reputedly began life as an austere towed array tug, probably to be built in sufficient numbers for a one for one replacement for the Leander's, yet quickly became a very expensive and highly capable escort.

For the RN of the 21st century, when hulls are ever fewer in number, and the tasks seemingly never ending, what is the rationale for keeping a small fleet of high end ships in service? To start with, one needs to look at the ethos of the RN – it is a service optimised to fight and win in very high intensity combat. Despite the constant pull of moving towards a gendarmerie approach (as seen perhaps by the Dutch or Italians) where only a small number of the escort fleet can fight in the high end of operations, the entire RN escort fleet is deployable.

Why does this matter? It means that the entire escort fleet is able to be programmed to conduct the full range of escort tasks – in other words a frigate can go from FOST to the West Indies, prior to a NATO tour and then off to the Arabian Gulf. Several different missions, each of which has very different calls on crews and capabilities. By contrast other nations will find that possessing two tiers of escorts actually stove-pipes availability – while you can send a high end escort into most situations, you cannot do the same in reverse.  This in turn means the RN has an ability to operate as a credible part of any allied task force and integrate effectively into it. In other words, by training to fight at the most challenging levels, the RN can send its escorts into harms way in a manner that some other nations vessels cannot.

In a world where multi-national operations are becoming the norm, the ability to contribute meaningfully to them makes a huge difference. The RN is able to offer a capability through its escorts that means they do not require ‘nursemaiding’ as some other ships may. Similarly, a highly capable escort can be tasked to take on more challenging roles – thus giving the UK more say in the tasking process and ensuring its own national interests are more accurately represented. Turning up in a campaign where you can play a full part carries far greater weight than just being able to conduct a limited maritime patrol.

The pinnacle of naval power - the Type 45 destroyer
Could a Two-Tier Fleet occur?
Assuming that a decision were taken in principal to create a two tier escort force, and create some light frigates to complement the existing escort fleet, could it actually be done in a credible manner which would make a real difference?

The first issue to overcome is funding – modern warships cost a lot of money, not just to build but to support and operate. While this may sound obvious, adding a small class (say four light frigates) to the RN means that it now has to programme funding to run these ships for the next twenty years. Assuming a very generous estimate of £15 million per year per ship to run each escort, this means that the RN has now got to find £1.2 billion extra in support costs in its budget for the next 20 years. This is without considering the costs of refits, repairs, upgrades and so on. To bring these vessels into successful use is going to be an extremely expensive business, and the question would be what gives in order to make them operational, and is the cost worth it?

More broadly one has to ask where the ships would be built in the next few years. Given the warship building capacity in the UK is now inextricably linked to BAE Systems facilities, and that these are fully committed to building CVF, the next generation of OPVs and then Type 26, it is hard to see where an additional class of four escorts would fit into the equation. Indeed, is there even room to build them and bring them into service without impacting on the existing plans to replace the Type 26 programme, and in turn delay the replacement of the ever older Type 23s.

The next issue is whether the RN has the manpower to support four new frigates. Assuming each vessel carries a crew of 120, then that means 480 billets need creating, which in turn creates a shoreside liability of roughly double this (a further 960 billets) to allow for proper sea-shore harmony time. In other words the RN has to find a further 1400 people across all branches to ensure a steady flow of manpower to man the ships properly. At a time when the surface fleet is contracting to barely 15000 personnel (plus Submarine Service, FAA and Royal Marines), this is akin to needing a 10% increase in general service manpower. This represents a not insignificant additional cost which would need to be sustained for the life of the vessels.

One pressing issue is what would the ships actually be equipped with in order to strike a balance beyond being glorified OPVs and not being fully fledged frigates? This is actually the most difficult question to answer – an OPV or MCMV has a clearly defined role and equipment fit which errs to this role – e.g. specialised equipment for boardings, or mine detection/destruction and usually a sensor package to boot which reflects this. Similarly destroyers and frigates not only carry a comprehensive weapons and aviation package, but more critically have the space and room for essentials like properly kitted out Operations Rooms to fight the ship as a coherent entity and not just disparate collection of weapons and radars in close proximity to each other.

By contrast a light frigate will never have quite enough space to carry more than a limited self defence capability, and in smaller numbers than its frigate cousins. Similarly space is likely to be more limited, reducing upgradeability in the future, and restricting the types of equipment which can be installed and forcing trade-offs into the design. What you end up with is a vessel which is over-equipped to handle the policing and constabulary tasks that the OPV would do, and under-equipped to operate at the high end spectrum of operations. As such we find ourselves looking at a vessel without a clearly delineated role beyond relieving some pressure on low intensity operations but unable to deploy into the most likely conflict areas without being at serious risk and requiring escorting by other vessels.

The sort of tasks that these ships could be employed on would arguably be the low level constabulary roles that the RN does in places like the West Indies or off of Africa – defence engagement, flying the flag and generally maintaining an RN presence where its required. The critical difference is that when done by RN escorts they are either on their way to the South Atlantic in a Guardship role, or in the West Indies during the Hurricane season when their larger pool of manpower and greater capability makes them of real benefit during disaster relief.

The Type 14 'Utility' Frigate

One of the reasons why the RN is valued as an ally to work with by other nations is that joint exercises provide exposure to working with high capability vessels and seeing what they are capable of. For some navies a visit by an RN destroyer represents the sole chance they would get to test their capability against a world class air defence platform – this means there is a desirability in securing a visit. By contrast, a routine call by a low capability frigate doesn't really have the same cachet, and is arguably less influential.

A slippery downwards slope?
So, ultimately possession of a small light frigate doesn't really fill a capability gap for the RN, and merely provides a vessel that could perhaps be dubbed the ‘snatch land rover of the sea’ – great for a specific purpose, but one senses that if deployed into a highly challenging location like the Arabian Gulf, and something went wrong then the media would quickly have a cause celebre.

The wider challenge is that procurement of a light frigate represents very much a slippery slope towards a smaller less capable navy in the longer term. It is clear that resources are not going to grow substantially beyond inflation in real terms for the next few years, and that competition for resource will be a challenge. A short term commitment to light frigates would provide a temporary hulls boost, but come the next defence review the question would surely be whether the RN needed to run them, or if it could make sacrifices in the more expensive escort fleet as military tasks were handed off. The result could be further reductions to the T23 and T26 fleets over time as risk was taken that for the majority of the RNs roles that the light frigate could cope as an 80% solution – providing numbers but not capability. As time passed, it would seem ever harder to retain a case for a high end escort fleet if the tasks could be done by a smaller vessel – and this would only be exposed as a risk come a conflict when the lighter vessels could not cope.

It is perhaps notable that in the last 40 years the RN has twice gone towards a light frigate in the utility role – in the first instance it was the Type 14s, optimised as 2nd rate ASW frigates during the Cold War, but which quickly proved relatively poor at the task and were disposed of ahead of their time. By contrast the Type 12s which were more expensive racked up a much longer and valuable life, able to operate at the cutting edge of RN operations for many decades. Similarly, the Castle Class OPV was in many ways the closest the RN has come to a post war Corvette design, but which were arguably never really comfortable in any one role. Optimised initially for fishery protection, then Falkland Island guardship and MCMV HQ vessels, they could have been upgraded to carry a 76mm gun, and presumably some lightweight missiles, but never did. (Intriguingly though in their life with the Bangladeshi Navy, they have received a limited upgrade to do this).

In a sense the Castle class encapsulate the problem the RN has with this type of vessel – too large to be a traditional OPV, but too weak to be able to hold their own in a conventional shooting war, they were very much ships which found purposes for which they were never really designed. It is perhaps telling that in replacing them, the RN has a purpose built OPV optimised to work in the South Atlantic, and relies on the use of a Bay class LSD(A) to carry out the MCMV HQ function in a vastly more effective manner.

So where this leaves us is the realisation that for all the natural desire to see more vessels flying the White Ensign, it is hard to see a light frigate being the answer. There is a clear need for the RN to operate OPVs and MCMVs, while the smaller coastal training craft fulfil a very clear defence engagement role. The Escort force is heavily tasked and probably working at an intensity which may store up problems in the long term maintenance and support, but where it is able to do the tasks required of it. What is not clear is what adding a light frigate brings to the RN in terms of capability enhancement. No one doubts the Navy is working hard, but one suspects that a light frigate would in all likelihood do more damage than good to the long term interests of the RN in terms of manpower, finance and build programmes, and probably not generate as much of an effect as its proponents would hope. Far better to focus resources on extra Type 26s, innovative ship refitting methods to keep ships at sea for longer, and for getting the most from your extant vessels, than on introducing a ship which probably has no clearly defined role or rationale.  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Soft Power in a Hard Age

The House of Lords published an outstanding report into the role of soft power and the UK at the end of March, which set out the value of so-called ‘soft power’ and how the UK could make better use of its resources and influence at a time when it is more vital than ever to do so. Humphrey has long been a proponent of the value and importance of ‘soft power’, the so-called intangibles of international diplomacy, ranging from the value of a Royal Visit through to the discrete whispering of an international development advisor to make changes which save lives.

Sadly, in many defence fora it is fashionable to mock soft power as something which is seen as a substitute for what really matters, namely long ORBATS listing every imaginable piece of military equipment going, usually accompanied by extensive wishlisting for ‘fantasy fleets’. To the author though, this approach is less about having effect and influence and more about feeling good about one’s own military superiority.

One of the long standing trends on this site is the comments which continue to make out that the UK is a nation in near terminal decline, with ever decreasing levels of influence due primarily to its smaller armed forces. To Humphrey this argument is dangerous for it only considers the UKs standing as a power based on possession of capability and not actually whether that capability is of any value of use. It is all very well saying that in 1990 the UK could field three armoured divisions in Germany, but what difference did they make to the UKs wider international standing?

Arguably much of what makes the UK an influential nation on the global stage is little to do with specific items of equipment or units in an ORBAT. When you speak to foreign military officers about what sort of things they would look for in a defence relationship, it is far more about the intangibles – the access to training courses ranging from officer training through to advanced staff courses, or the allocation of places on training courses to develop skills and training. It is about the allocation of loan or exchange officers to provide UK expertise and guidance – for instance the presence of UK military missions around the world are hugely coveted by their host nations, and sorely missed when removed.

When considering the sort of defence relationship that matters, one has to remember that the overwhelming majority of countries in the world do not have the ability to deploy overseas in any real depth or capability. Most armed forces are confined to their local area, with perhaps a token ability to send a small force for UN missions or peace keeping. When considering a defence relationship, they want to work with nations who can offer experience, training, access to capabilities which they may not otherwise see or afford, and who can enhance their defence capability. There are wider considerations about provision of equipment and capability (e.g. either new build or through disposals) and whether working with that nation would enhance their own security position. More broadly, considerations will also be built around whether enhancing a defence relationship would bolster the diplomatic relationship and wider relationship (e.g. getting close to the UK may in turn enable the country to help try and influence policy positions to the UK which could in turn influence other partners to whom they would otherwise have no traction).  

When you consider the sort of offer that the UK can make, it is a compelling one built around centuries of tradition, access to high quality training, a capable military able to operate across most military roles and a strong record of operational success. There is huge interest across the globe in access to UK training and opportunities – one only has to look at the constant clamour for places on UK Officer training courses to realise how popular it is. Arguably the UK is perceived, along with the US and possibly France, as offering the ‘gold standard’ of defence training through the quality of its people and the quality of the training delivered.

Tradition - soft power or wasted resource?
Overseas too, the UK is able to use relatively limited assets to enjoy significantly more influence than one might suspect. For instance, a well-placed Defence attach̩, or a defence training visit Рwhich can be as innocuous as sending a small training team to improve leadership training or bolster a military band can often have a surprisingly large effect. A ship visit can often pay dividends in access for senior officials who come for tours or cocktail parties and end up able to meet with Ambassadors, industry and decision makers and help push the case for UK interests, influence and investment. The visit by the Red Arrows to the Middle East in autumn 2013 was front page news across the region, and enabled the UK to have a golden opportunity to push its interests on a range of matters. In other words, the cachet of the UK defence brand is often as much about access to the people or the occasional presence as it is about maintaining large numbers of armoured brigades or fast jets.

This is perhaps the curious challenge of identifying what matters in Defence when it comes to capability. On the one hand there is a natural desire to maintain high end warfighting capability, but most of the influence that the UK gets from its military is in fact far more down to the judicious use of personnel, training and visits than it is about a theoretical ORBAT. In a world where the bulk of UK deployments overseas are rarely above Company size in terms of manpower (e.g. training in Africa or a ship deployment to the south Atlantic or an RAF exercise in the UAE) , the possession of large capable forces is perhaps not hugely relevant. It may be the case that the UK only has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, but when most nations cannot deploy their armoured forces at any distance anyway, does this really matter when considering the impact on our influence?

In fact it could be argued that what really matters for UK influence are two very separate drivers. Firstly a need to maintain the soft power enablers like international defence training, access to courses, provision of exchange officers and so on. This sort of investment is more than ample to help support the bulk of defence relationships and makes a strong impact on UK influence overseas. For instance the presence of an exercising company group could send a positive message on the UK relationship with that nation, bolstering the local security capability and reducing need for western deployments in the region and in turn improving the bilateral relationship which sees further investment from that nation in the UK. There is often a range of second and third order benefits from a small deployment which typify the importance of soft power – you don’t need to deploy very much, but what you do deploy will be of value beyond its size.

Additionally there is arguably a need to maintain a cutting edge ‘high capability’ military force capable of working at the very high end of military operations. In other words investing in expensive capabilities like aircraft carriers, cyber defence, and modern fighter aircraft and so on. This is to ensure that the UK is able to send a message to potential coalition partners that it is serious about providing support to operations, and that it can work at the most intense level of operations. This is as much about reassurance (e.g. deployments, exercises and the occasional operation) to partner nations to show that despite the reports, the UK remains an exceptionally capable military power.

Hard Power or irrelevant for influence purposes?

But the challenge is in the middle – what Humphrey would perhaps call ‘muddy power’. It is one thing to invest in training, and high quality exercises where military skills are tested (e.g. JOINT WARRIOR or FOST), and it is equally important to support the very high end niche skills and capabilities that matter too (arguably Special Forces, Amphibious Forces, certain intelligence capabilities and Fast Jets), but what to do with the remainder? Does it really matter if the UK only has a small number of tanks and 82,000 soldiers? The majority of them will not be deployed, and the cost of conducting large scale overseas exercises is so vast that its unlikely that you would ever see many large scale exercises occurring in future. If as noted that there is no direct military existential threat to the UK, and if most nations themselves cannot deploy their military capability at any real distance, the question must surely be, what value is there in sustaining a large force which is held at readiness, but which does not provide unique capabilities to our allies, and which is unlikely to work regularly in large numbers with overseas partners.

This is the curious issue – the UK derives immense influence from its armed forces, but it is rarely derived through calculations based on the size of the forces or the units which comprise them. In a world where presence is everything, is it better to focus on sending smaller units overseas who can work with other nations through defence engagement and build relationships and real capability, or is it better to have a larger military held at home but which cannot easily work with other nations.
In a similar vein, is it better to have a small number of very capable destroyers able to work at the high end of the influence scale, or is it better to invest in a much larger number of very simple platforms which do not have any real military value in a shooting war, but do allow a sustained UK presence in areas which may otherwise never see a White Ensign?

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Arguably at present the decision to focus on the high end and expensive assets is the right one. Allied nations want to improve their own capability and come to the UK to learn from our experiences, and understand how to use equipment to its full potential. A gentle move down the capability spectrum in order to improve numbers may help UK presence, but may reduce the desire of others to work with the UK – for instance, is it better to have two or three OPVs permanently in the Far East where they can work at a routine but low level with foreign navies, or is it better to do a biennial deployment of a T45 destroyer which other navies will be immensely keen to work with and see? Both help secure UK influence, and both help in their own way, but each comes at cost .

So, in an age where the UK is constantly told it is a power in decline, it is curious that the demand for access to UK courses and capability remains as great as ever. The Armed Forces remain a hugely influential tool for the UK Government, but is arguably far less about their overall numbers than the discrete presence or access to training. Meeting the ever more challenging balance between affording sufficient military force to defend UK interests at home, secure UK influence overseas and justifying maintenance of a large military which may not deploy in large numbers is going to prove ever more problematic. The sort of large military that many wish to see would probably not able to deploy to secure the influence that is currently achieved by a smaller military which may have less units and platforms, but where working with them is seen as hugely desirable by many foreign partners.

Striking the balance, getting value from the ever more expensive and ever smaller hard power in order to achieve ever greater soft power effects with defence engagement is likely to be the future balancing act facing HMG. It won’t be easy, and the only certainty is that to achieve the balance required to get it right the outcome will please no one and cause many more headlines about how the UK no longer matters as a military power at a time when nations are queuing up to work with, and learn from the UK. A very British outcome indeed!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Limitations of Power

Its been an extremely challenging few weeks in the international arena. Developments in Russia and the Ukraine have brought about the biggest challenge to regional security for nearly 25 years and seen a decline in Russia’s wider relationships with the West to a level not seen since the end of the Cold War. Across Europe there has been growing concern amid calls to raise defence budgets to meet the emerging perceived risk.

In the UK, some areas there has been criticism of the UK response, suggesting that the predominantly diplomatic solution sought by the UK, coupled with wider defence cuts means that the UK is no longer capable of defending itself, or exerting influence on the wider global stage to help lead in the situation. Perhaps most prominently, the former Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannat has said that the UK should consider leaving a brigade of some 3000 personnel in Germany to act as a visible symbol of British commitment to Europe. 

But is Russia really a threat to the UKs national security at present, particularly to warrant a substantial reorganisation of the Armed Forces? There is no doubt that Russia poses a clear risk to some countries in her neighbourhood with whom she shares land borders and where disputes exist. However, it is hard to see this risk translated into a wider desire to take on Western Europe in an existential battle for control of the map. Rather, it is a battle for influence and control of what the Russians consider to be their ‘near abroad’.

For the UK, the issue perhaps neatly sums up the challenge faced by policy makers now about how to exercise UK influence and interests. On the one hand it is easy to call for a significant increase in military expenditure and retain extra soldiers in Germany. But the question has to be what is gained by doing so? The UK defence budget is struggling to support the military we have now, and many years have been spent orientating it to a deployable expeditionary force capable of projecting a reasonable level of power at a significant distance from the home base. Based on the budget, this provides the UK with a reasonably sized Armed Forces capable of doing most military tasks. To shift this focus into a force more capable of defending external aggression from a nation like Russia isn't just a case of saying ‘here is a brigade in Germany’, but instead would require a very significant shift in the training, equipment and organisation of the Armed Forces back into a model not seen since the early 1990s. The money does not exist to do both, and arguably the UK armed forces personnel costs are so great, that enlarging them to any great size is simply not possible without a sustained build up over many years, and with a lot of extra funding.

The real influence the UK can bring to bear in a situation like this is not military in nature – it is rather the ability to co-ordinate diplomatic, financial, political and other influences together in order to allow the Russian regime to make a judgement on whether further action is in its best interest. The idea that deploying a British brigade in Germany will somehow change the Kremlin's assessment of the situation is highly unlikely in the extreme. What matters is the manner in which the UK and other European and NATO allies are able to come together to take wider steps to calm the situation.

While it is easy to suggest that somehow the UK is not a relevant player in these debates, the fact that the UK can bring significant diplomatic clout (e.g. UNSC membership, leading role in NATO, EU and so on) helps ensure its voice is represented at the table. No country on its own could realistically hope or expect to be able to force a step change in Russian policy in this matter. It is only by working together and building a coordinated package of responses that real pressure can be put on the Russian position. While doubtless some commentators would welcome the Prime Minister standing alone and forcing the issue to claim some kind of leadership, in the real murky world of international diplomacy, its far better to work together than take a well intentioned, but ultimately futile isolated stand. It is also worth noting that for all the talk of how the UK seems irrelevant, the fact that US condemnation has not moved the Russians, would suggest that there was little to no chance of the UK ever having the clout or effect that some commentators dream that possession of a larger military would give us.

The problem for the UK and other nations is trying to work out how to handle situations like this, where clearly unacceptable behaviour has occurred, but where military action is simply not going to happen. 25 years of focusing resources on power projection and soft power have ensured that the UK is well placed today to respond to wider challenges (e.g. piracy, low level intervention, UN missions, and disaster relief) and so on. But, they do not help the UK in a crisis like this where putting troops on the ground is simply not going to happen.

Does this mean a radical rethink is required, taking the British armed forces away from their interventionary role into one of deterrence, or does it mean that there has to be a tacit acceptance that there are simply some challenges that cannot be dealt with as some would wish? To change back into a BAOR configuration would be extremely expensive, and would make the ability to carry out the much larger number of defence tasks of real value to the UK far more difficult. For instance, the reports last week talking about how the UK needs to place far more emphasis on the Sahel in terms of stopping terrorist networks, building capacity and trying to ensure that the area doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists. This sort of work requires light forces, able to deploy easily and with a small footprint, and who are able to work as part of a joined up military, diplomatic, police, security and development group to improve the region. This isn't necessarily cheap, and arguably plays a far more vital role in the protection of UK interests than manning an Armoured Brigade somewhere in Germany to deter the Russians.

In a world where the Westphalian system is becoming a cherished memory, the problem is working out at what point, and at what level, it is possible to take a stand in favour of territorial integrity. For the West, it is easy to issue impassioned pleas, send out strongly worded statements of condemnation and threaten economic sanctions when a nation is threatened. For Western countries able to deploy military force, it is arguably possible in some cases to deploy to a neighbouring country and take steps to support the country under threat. But this only works when the West feels it is able to exercise military power in a manner which will not escalate into a wider global crisis – e.g. look at somewhere like Guatemala and Belize in the 1970s and the UK was able to deploy forces to act in support of Belizean territory without risk of escalating the Cold War. What though can the West do when faced with a problem between two nations which share a common border and where one is significantly more powerful and where escalation could lead to much wider conflict?

So, for the West, the Crimean incident has perhaps been a useful reminder of the limitations of force as a tool of coercion when you do not share a land border with a nation. It is telling that despite the strong opposition from NATO, which let us not forget remains arguably the most potent military alliance on the planet, the Russians felt they could act with relative impunity. This suggests that no matter how theoretically strong the military power is, there remains a significant difference between possession and willingness to employ it when not directly in the national interest.  Perhaps for the West the Crimean incident has served to also focus the mind that the military option is not the only way to resolve a situation. While Russia has gained the Crimea, it has done so at a considerable damage to its wider international reputation, and the West has rightly realised that economic sanctions are key to helping bring about long term change. While militarily the Russians possess substantial forces, the long term economic potential for the country will be weakened, and ultimately jobs matter more than bullets.

Looking ahead to the wider outcome of this, does it really change anything in terms of the UKs defence posture? The incident has clearly highlighted the importance of cyber-defence, particularly looking at the manner in which hacking seems to have become widespread and as much offensive as it was orientated to information operations. This will serve as a timely reminder of the importance of cyber security – even though it comes at a high price in terms of acquiring skills, equipment and manpower.

More broadly, it reminds us that the possibility of state on state conflict remains real, and that this is a good reason to continue training at the very highest levels. While it is easy to slip into a ‘train for peace enforcement’ mentality, the fact that this situation came about so quickly would suggest this is not always helpful. For the UK, it may help serve as a reminder that no matter how unlikely it feels, there is still a compelling case to train at this level. This though comes at a cost – the skills required to conduct these operations are expensive to train in, and easily lost. The challenge is whether the UK can continue to afford a large Army, or whether it reduces its force in size, but in turn produces one still capable of operating at the very highest levels.

A similar discussion could equally apply to both the Royal Navy, and the RAF, which continue to focus on operating in the most challenging of environments. As HERRICK draws to a close, and the current crisis becomes part of history books, the challenge will be to make a compelling case for the continuation of training at this level. If you believe the media reports, then the UK defence budget seems likely to shrink over the next five years as a result of the 2014 budget, meaning that very hard choices will have to be made as to where to invest effort. Publicly, reducing the forces in order to preserve a  high end capability will be very difficult to push through and be politically damaging. But, would the UK have more influence and standing in NATO by still being able to generate forces capable of tackling the more difficult tasks, rather than just having a large order of battle that is less effective?

The media, the public and many politicians will oppose cuts on the grounds that they leave the UK national security dangerously exposed. But, what is more dangerous – having more ships, tanks and planes, or having more but being able to use them to their full range of capability? One suspects that the arguments in the run in to the SDSR will be as much about emotion versus logic, and how one can make a good case for a possibly smaller military as being better for our protection.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Gone Travelling...

Humphrey is currently travelling on business, and is unable to do any blogging updates. The next article will probably be posted around 28-30 March, jetlag permitting!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

"And in other news" - the Armed Forces Pay Award and the Royal Navy opens fire on Plymouth...

Its been a quiet couple of weeks for newsworthy items on Defence blogging front. Humphrey has very deliberately not commented on the situation in the Ukraine, believing that his ability to comment meaningfully on it is limited, and that its far better to avoid adding idle speculation to what is a delicate and tense situation. Two items of news though did catch the authors eye, and are worthy of brief comment.

Firstly there was news last week that the Armed forces are to get a 1% across the board payrise in the current financial year. The reason this is interesting is the actual report written to underpin this, which contains a lot of really interesting insights into the current state of the Armed Forces – the full report can be found HERE.

The pay award for the UK Armed Forces is perhaps unique in its implementation, with a truly independent group of individuals spending the year studying the military, visiting them and hearing their concerns and looking in depth at specific issues, prior to making a recommendation to the Government as to the size of the pay award. This means that their annual reports make fascinating reading as they often highlight a wide range of issues and problems which would otherwise not be picked up.

Within this years report, the author noted several issues. Firstly, the ongoing issue as to whether UK service personnel are well paid relative to civilian life or not. It has long been a public view that the military are underpaid relative to what they do, but  this report suggests that independent research by a major consultancy firm shows that when compared to nearly 35000 other job roles and responsibilities, the overall remuneration package actually compares remarkably well to the rest of UK society. This year is the first time that any work has been done on pay comparability, and it is important because it places the military package in context to the wider civilian workforce.

The findings indicate that on a basic level, military base pay for both Officers is 100-109% of the median of civilian sector and Other Ranks is between 107 and 118% of the median. Interestingly when wider packages are taken into account, Officer pay falls to between 79-100% of the median. What the work suggests is that at present the military receive a pay award which compares very well with the wider public and private sector, although it does note that as the economy recovers, this may change.

The overall suggestion is that the Armed Forces enjoy a very good level of pay and reward relative to most professions (particularly for junior entrants), and it is only at the highest levels when this starts to fall behind. Such data is revealing as it weakens the case for a substantial payrise and undermines the argument of ‘poorly paid troops’ – as we move to a post HERRICK world, the reality is that even the most junior private will be earning roughly £18000 per year as a starting salary, which compares favourably to many other roles. One suspects that this work in future will play an important part in determining the size of pay awards – it is important that a situation is never again reached where the Military Salary is vastly behind its public and private sector peers (as in the late 1970s), but equally the UK has to avoid creating a situation where the military is an unaffordable force.

World Class comes with a large price tag to boot..

The report notes that the total cost of providing a 1% pay rise plus some allowance changes is over £80 million this year. This is worth remembering when people call for large wage increases, or increases to the headcount of the military – the current UK military is an extremely expensive beast to run and the only way large headcount increases could be sustained (e.g. manning an Army of 100,000 for the long term) is through either salary cuts or substantial equipment cuts elsewhere.

More broadly the report has some fascinating observations on the state of manning within some very niche, but utterly critical areas. For instance, there is some information on the seemingly parlous state of manning for the Strategic Weapon System operators (e.g. Trident) specialisation, particularly at the Senior Rate level, noting that at some critical areas, a 13% manpower outflow is forecast for this year. This shows once again the importance of retention at critical levels – you can recruit as much as you would like at entry level, but unless you can offer a sustained level of manpower, the ability to support crucial tasks like the nuclear deterrent is at risk. Similarly, looking at the level of manning in the diving branches, its clear that while recruiting targets are being achieved for new entrants, there are significant gaps further in the system – e.g. the Army is currently 43% under manned for its divers liability.

Another interesting point to note is the growing need to look again at the ethnic demography of the Armed Forces, which according to the report suggests that only 3% of the Armed Forces are made up from Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) groups at present. This is a worryingly low figure, particularly when the report also notes that within a few years, the BME group will represent nearly 25% of the target population for recruitment. How the Military is able to get a message across to encourage increased recruitment from this large pool is critical – encouraging a military which not only reflects the society it defends, but also is able to fully recruit from its available manpower pool is going to be a real challenge. It is absolutely vital that as society changes, the Armed Forces reflect and remain relevant to that society as a whole.

This is actually going to be a major challenge for the MOD over the next few years. Taking an organisation that has historically been an overwhelmingly white middle class group, and which will be located in a relatively small number of static locations which are not going to be in urban areas, and keeping it in the minds of a BME population which has not historically played a major role in the military is going to be a real issue. It will not be easy, but when one quarter of your recruiting pool comes from this group, it is vital that you get sufficient visibility and recruits from this pool, otherwise long term manning is simply going to be unsustainable.

The final comment of interest came from the experiences of the AFPRB visits to various sites around the UK, including Reserve units. Paragraph 2.4 notes:

“personnel told us that they thought recruiting the required number of new Reservists by 2018 would be a challenge and there was  widespread scepticism about whether targets were achievable. ”

This sense of scepticism is in sharp contrast to the official assurances at higher level that the ambitious recruiting targets will be met. That there was seemingly such widespread doubt is slightly worrying – the Reserve is going to be hugely involved in trying to meet these targets, and if this doubt exists, then instilling a positive atmosphere of success will be difficult. Given the scale of the challenge ahead, a great deal of work will be needed to overcome these doubts and put the force in place.

So, the AFPRB report is not perhaps the most exciting piece of news to break on MOD related matters, but it is one that often contains crucial small details which accurately highlight the experiences and conditions that the Armed Forces are expected to work under. As such, it is well worth reading to get a truly independent and informed insight into the issues facing the modern military today.

How it should be done! Firing a Stingray at sea

Stingraaaay, Stingray….
A less informed insight is perhaps the kindest thing that can be said though about some of the reporting on the incident in Plymouth this week. According to multiple reports, a Type 23 (HMS ARGYLL) reportedly had an impressive negligent discharge when a training variant of the Stingray Torpedo carried onboard was discharged by mistake, leaving the side of the ship and bouncing off a security fence before being stopped by a shipping container.

What was perhaps most depressing about the incident was the way in which breathless media reporting kept harping on about linking the presence of the vessel to the fact that there are nuclear submarines based in the dockyard. The manner in which a totally unrelated fact was linked to something else to add more drama to a story may get people to read it, but arguably generates far more scaremongering than would otherwise be the case (although it would perhaps be helpful if a certain Broadsheet had spelt nuclear correctly, rather than ‘nucleur’!).

Similarly the story generated a fairly appalling level of journalistic research, including several papers using the line that the Stingray was fired from torpedo tubes usually below the waterline, but exposed at low tide. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of a Type 23 would know that in fact the launcher is located as part of the rear superstructure which includes the hangar complex. Ironically, these clear assertions of fact were located next to pictures in the same article showing a torpedo being fired from a Type 23 – and yet seemingly no one thought to question the apparent mismatch.

What is depressing about this is that this sort of shock horror journalism is what will pass for most peoples understanding of what the Royal Navy is up to these days. Humphrey has blogged before about the challenges of getting the British Public to actually see media coverage on what the RN is up to (e.g. the so-called ‘Love Boat’ press release). It is stories like this though that seem to get the news – while understandable that people want to read of disaster and not good news, its depressing to consider the uphill struggle faced by Royal Navy PR when persuading the media to pick up on the day to day ‘good news stories’. Who wants to read about the importance of things like HMS PORTLAND doing Maritime Security Operations in West Africa, or the return of HMS MONTROSE from a hugely demanding mission in Syria, when they can instead read poorly drafted and researched hyperbole about the RN going to war with Plymouth instead?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The barbaric habits of the British Army today

Well it seemed Humphrey picked a bad week to go out of the country on business – Russia and Ukraine are dragging the West into arguably the worst crisis of the post-Cold War era. In the Gulf tensions are mounting between Qatar and other GCC nations, with ambassadors now being withdrawn. Venezuela appears to be on the verge of near chaos as a result of riots between opposition activists and the Government. Meanwhile in the UK the worry seems to be that some Army officers have adopted ‘barbaric’ eating practises.

Yes, ‘that’ memo is the subject of the latest article, mainly because it is so much more than just a ‘light hearted email’ but is in fact, to the authors mind at least, a fascinating insight into the quiet social revolution going on in our officers messes. The story so far is that a memo written by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 (UK) Division-  Maj Gen Cowan, and sent out to a fairly small list of 1* officers has been leaked to the media. In it he complains in three distinct areas about conduct today – namely, the conduct of an officer in the mess – particularly when eating. The manner in which some officers conduct themselves at dinner parties and guest nights, in particular the seating arrangements, and finally the standards and use of writing by some officers today. 

The reaction in the media has been one of predominantly barely controlled ridicule, seeing this as yet another example of a Victorian General completely out of touch with the modern nation and the standards of today. The defence being used is that the email was intended to be sent in a manner showing light hearted banter to try and get people thinking about how they conduct themselves.

Personally Humphrey thinks the General has made the cardinal mistake of trying to apply humour to an email, without considering how it may be read by others. No matter how you mean something to be read, the danger is that unless you know the author well, and can interpret the inflections and subtleties as you read it, then the danger is that it can be interpreted very differently. Its far better to have verbally briefed your concerns for onwards briefing, rather than commit them to a medium which can be easily passed on. In this case it has rebounded very badly, causing the Army a minor PR disaster at a point when it desperately needs PR wins.

At its most basic the Generals email highlights the growing social change in the military, and the manner in which it has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 years. When the Generals generation joined the Army, the expectation was one that Mess life was very much the centre of the individual officers personal life, inhabited for most of the year and with a small group of individuals living, working and socialising together. The shared camaraderie and opportunity fostered a strong team spirit, and built bonds which lasted a lifetime. Underpinning this was a shared sense of common values and conduct – one only has to look at the way that the three Officer training establishments used to conduct training in officer like qualities for many years. When people married and left the mess, they would usually inhabit the married quarters, and the Regiment or Service would work around the world as an extended family, particularly as it was less common for wives to hold down full time careers. Thus things like dinner parties and wider social gatherings were very common. 

Today though the mess as a concept is very different – the growth of home ownership or at the very least renting somewhere off site has massively reduced the numbers of full time ‘livers in’ who occupy the mess. The average officers mess is a ghost town at weekends, and the move to commercial catering such as Pay As You Dine (PAYD) means that many of the perks of mess membership seem to have quietly vanished.  Officers have partners and families The explosion in easily accessible social media such as internet, consoles, mobile phones and all the other means of staying in touch with friends means that people have very easy access to their wider social networks. Speaking to senior officers recently, they bemoaned that the modern generation of junior officers arrive in the military with already formed social networks outside of the armed forces which they prioritise above their military colleagues. In other words, there has been a shift between the generation where the military and Mess life was seen as a calling and a way of life to now where increasingly the Mess is seen as a temporary accommodation during the working week, and that real life goes on at home. 

While there are exceptions to the rule, Humphrey has noted that particularly in the last 10-15 years the Mess has played an ever less important part in the life of many military officers. The ease of returning home, the decline of the drinking culture and the fact that many people are just so busy now means that many of the standards and traditions that previously were taken for granted have fallen by the wayside. The dinner party lifestyle which occurred on the Patch, the regular mess dinners and the spontaneous unplanned run ashore seem to have slowly gone into decline. Much of the wider activity that made the military so much more than just a job is quietly disappearing and instead the Mess is becoming much more like a Travelodge – somewhere to eat, sleep and go to work and nothing more. 

What has not helped is that for the last 20 years the Armed Forces have been exceptionally busy on real world operations and the not had the time for living the ‘Garrison Lifestyle’ as was the case during the 1980s. The end of HERRICK though is perhaps drawing into sharp relief that the future for the British Army is going to be a lot more about life in large garrisons around the UK, with very little in the way of ‘real soldiering’ going on. The reaction to this email shows perhaps how much the Army has changed from being a static force, to one that has spent nearly two decades on operations and not having time to worry about the seating order at a dinner party. The large bulk of junior – mid seniority officers will have not known any life other than one where operations were the key driver, and a steady round of OPTAG, deployment, POTL, recovery and repeat was the norm.

Where does this saga leave the Army? Firstly it is hard to see how it is anything other than a minor PR disaster for the Army – having an email leak in this way merely goes to highlight all the concerns that people have about the perception of an out of touch military still fighting the last war. The salient points that the General did make (e.g. the unnecessary use of capitals and long words and other defence writing points, plus working on increasing public exposure to what the Army does) have been missed, particularly by a media gleeful to have pure comedy gold on its hands. Secondly it weakens the case for the Army in SDSR in the mind of politicians who will remember incidents like this – the good work done on operations is easily undone by a new minister who remembers the story of the Army officer more worried about cutlery than combat. The other two Services will doubtless be rubbing their hands in glee as they see an easy way to portray an out of touch Army spectacularly shoot itself in the foot.

The reaction in the Army is also telling. It highlights the growing schism between junior officers who see the Army as a career, but one in which they have to balance off their home, work and personal lives with more senior officers who see the Army as a lifestyle and a calling. There is no denying that society has changed, and that the mental image of the mess from thirty years ago is probably not the mess that many young officers want to live in now. As the Army returns to barracks, one has to ask whether many of the current crop of younger officers would want to put up with this sort of imposition on their lives, or if its enough to make them leave and go elsewhere? There is a fine line to be struck between insisting on the highest standards and conduct, and adding unnecessary and at times possibly ludicrous conditions on how you should eat and behave. Finally the letter does suggest that some in the Army do not recognise that the role of the partner has changed, and that offering marriage guidance suggestions (no matter how humorously intended) to a generation where the wife (or husband) usually holds down a very successful career and probably earns more than their Army spouse is a very easy way to build resentment from both the Officer and their partner, and is one more reason to encourage people to consider leaving.

 It is also probably not unfair to say that this sort of story may make potential recruits reconsider whether they event want to be in the Army full stop – if you were looking at careers, would you want to join an organisation that recognised your time was your own, or one that had senior people get het up over you eating a sandwich?

So, no matter that the memo was sent with the best of intents, it would seem to have backfired spectacularly and caused the Army one of its more easily avoidable PR disasters since the last Crimean War. It has reinforced the ‘General Melchett’ stereotypes so beloved of the media, and tarnished the reputation of an officer who has served with distinction for many years. In short, probably not the Army’s finest hour.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Mollifying the Mandarins - the payment of 'bonuses' to the Civil Service

It’s clearly that time again when having run out of other things to moan about, media ire is instead focused on the fact that the Civil Service have been paid bonuses this year. Stories in today’s media show that some £140m was paid out last year as bonuses for staff, including some departments where every member of staff received one. The bonus debate is a hugely emotive issue for many – to the public it brings to mind the images of bankers and makes them think of civil servants getting similar large pay outs just for doing their jobs. For many in the civil service though, the bonus brings up a sense of frustration – firstly for the fact it exists, and secondly because of the flak that they take because of it, when none of them ever asked to get one in the first place.

The whole argument in favour of paying a bonus is built on a very basic principle – namely the need to save money. It originates with the idea that by taking some of the annual pay award and awarding it as a special bonus, it is non-consolidated – in other words it doesn’t contribute to pensions. The more money paid out as a bonus in the short term , the less that is paid to the retired civil servant as a pension in the medium – long term. It’s a simple idea, but one that has quickly become very emotive to all concerned.

From a practical perspective the idea of recognising staff who go the extra mile is sensible. There are relatively few ways in Government to recognise the efforts of people, many of whom work extremely hard for the taxpayer and do a genuinely good job. There is no staff discount, no means of hosting a thank you party or throwing a Christmas drinks party and the nature of the work means many people often spend years in the same grade due to limited promotion prospects. The notion of an annual cash award to those who have gone the extra mile in comparison to their peer group makes a great deal of sense – but implementation is more tricky.

As a friend of the author once described – how do you work out in an office of 20-30 people, all of whom do the same job (e.g clerical work with very fixed references and very little opportunity to do more), how do you identify those who’ve gone the extra mile. In its early days the system provided a 50/50 chance of award – in other words, half the MOD got one and half did not. In the office of 30 with everyone doing the same job, it was an easy way to destroy morale overnight due to the seemingly arbitrary way in which the award was given.

Later efforts refined the system a bit more, and in some parts of government at least it is now firmly linked to the attainment of objectives. In other words, if you do your job to the standard expected, you receive a payrise and possibly a small amount of money as a non-consolidated lump sum (compared to previous years when you’d have got the full amount as a proper payrise). Reach beyond this, and you may find yourself getting a slightly larger amount in recognition of your efforts. Fail to meet the standard and you get no payrise and no bonus. Again, a good system and one that needs effective management and a good understanding of setting realistic objectives to succeed. Done well though and it hopefully acts as an incentive to staff to do their job against measured objectives (and failure to do so can start down the path to dismissal), and also encourages people to invest time in training to understand how to properly do objective setting.

How do you get the next generation of high quality civil servants?

 The sums involved are not large. The vast majority of people were earning maybe £200-300 before tax, if that. But, the fallout from it highlights the difficulty in the much more thorny issue of Civil Service pay. This was touched on earlier this week in the discussion about how much the MOD was having to pay on consultants to bring back in skills of people in DE&S who’d left in previous redundancy rounds because no one left had the skills to do the job. The challenge was to see whether it would be possible to use some of the consultancy money to adjust pay bands in DE&S to try and retain people rather than lose them and pay for a consultant.

How you balance off the natural desire to keep the Civil Service headcount and wage bill as low as possible, while simultaneously getting people to stay in with niche skills is a real challenge. No one likes paying more than they have to for people, and no one will ever win many votes for suggesting a large payrise for the Civil Service. But, there is clearly a growing issue that it is growing harder to retain people in technical and specialist areas if the money isn’t as good as it used to be.

 Ultimately MOD has need of people with very niche skills, these can take a long time to develop and train, and will be hugely valuable to other companies. As the MOD shrinks, promotion opportunities decline and people look to their career advancement and worry about paying bills, loyalty to the civil service is perhaps diminished. People see an organisation which while offering interesting work and a decent overall package doesn’t compete with employers for the mid seniority and specialist roles –in other words good project managers, technicians and so on. It is very common to see reasonably competent people leave MOD and go to the private sector for a 20-30% payrise, not because they want to leave the CS, but because the pay and prospects is simply not enough anymore.

While it is very easy to knock the civil service for failing to deliver, you can only work with the people and resources that you have to hand. People will walk for better money and the chance of development or career progression. If you are a mid-seniority C2 or C1 in somewhere like Abbey Wood  (middle management grades) then your chances of progressing up and through the system, or rising up the payspine to earn a salary which reflects your skills are slim. The only option is to leave and go to the private sector or become a consultant.

There is no easy way to fix this issue. No one ever joins Government to get rich, but equally plenty seem to be leaving to earn a living wage outside. Relocation of departments is one option – sending people to different parts of the country where the cost of living is lower and where a salary goes further. But if you look at the case of Bristol, where the cost of living is rapidly approaching London standards but without the equivalent London package, its very hard to keep a reasonable lifestyle ans attract good quality talent to join. The DE&S was looking for experienced project managers recently and was offering a starting salary of £36,000. Realistically how many people with the right experience would be willing to take a salary hit to join an organisation which still faces a very uncertain future.

The public image of a civil servant?

Humphrey wants to be clear – he is emphatically not suggesting that the civil service deserves vast pay rises. Frankly, for the more junior parts of the Civil Service, the payscale is very reasonable and roughly in line with the private sector. There is also a generous leave package available and reasonable employment conditions. But, as the economy gradually improves and  the private jobs market increases, the battle for talent will intensify. As jobs open up, it will be ever harder to encourage more experienced people to join an organisation where the salary scales simply do not offer credible return needed.

The danger is that the Civil Service gets excellent new entrants, but as they gain experience they will inevitably look outside. Much like many of the best Army officers leave in their late 30s, its likely that many of the best civil servants do the same, simply because they know the package on offer doesn't make it credible to stay.

When you consider that many civil servants can no longer afford to change locations as relocation expenses are not routinely paid any more, the real worry is of a civil service which over time becomes localised, with very little change of roles and experience for most staff, and led by a London centre where staff there are reluctant to leave the city, knowing they could never return. Humphrey would love to work out of London, but knows that the cost of doing so in terms of selling up and moving on would then price him out of ever returning to the London housing market.

Is it all doom and gloom? Probably not – the Faststream continues to generate far more applicants than are ever appointed, and most are of a very high quality indeed. There are always the idealists who will stay in the system for the long term, or those who do work which cannot be replicated outside of Government and for whom no salary can replace the challenging nature of what they do. Humphrey continues to believe that there is a good employment offer for many civil servants who enjoy not unreasonable salaries, and a reasonable set of conditions. But, he does worry that skills will be lost which are commercially transferable, and that over time this could present a real problem.

The real 'Sir Humphrey' - Sir Norman Brook - a great example of a truly great civil servant

The issue is one of whether Government is willing to risk all that most people that do stay on do so for the challenge, the opportunity and the nature of the work rather than fiscal and material reward. While it is easy to quibble over small things like performance related bonuses, it does add up to the question of what do you want your civil service to be, and what level of excellence do you want to attract into it at all levels? Exercise too much constraint on pay and the really good people that you either want to keep, or that you want to recruit in at more senior levels will simply not come.

There is no right answer to this age old problem, but it is a real issue. How do we ensure the Civil Service we have attracts the right talent, at the right levels and costs the right amount of money that the taxpayer is willing to bear? Answers to No11 Downing Street please!