The Think Defence site has begun a series of articles looking at new ways of structuring the forces with the aim of achieving the best bang for the buck, or Capability Plus in TD parlance. The first service to attract scrutiny is the Royal Navy. The articles are packed with informed detail, cast a harsh spotlight on many long accepted assumptions about what the Navy should do, and provide a number of excellent solutions for preserving and enhancing capability. The purpose of this article is first and foremost a recommendation that people should read them.
Additionally; both thanks and awe that TD has remained such a prolific writer throughout.
What does this blog wish to achieve from this post? First, to act as both a guide towards, and a glossary to, a set of articles that are well well worth your attention. Second, to provide some commentary on the broad themes of the series rather than the detail therein.
The series begins:
The gradual hardening of a bunker mentality within the RN resulting from decades of Treasury salami slicing, and a demand for the reintroduction of innovation in how the navy defines and executes its role.
The choice of reducing the escort fleet and task-groups in order to focus on the following missions; building local security capacity and defence diplomacy, disaster relief, mines countermeasures, maritime security and operations in the littoral.
The creation of a Hi-Lo force force structure with the high-end concentrated in a single taskgroup capable of small scale focused interventions at battle-group level, the core fleet consisting of 1+1 CVF, 1+1 LPD, 6 T45, 6 T26, 6 SSN plus RFA.
The other half of the Hi-Lo story focused on the desirability of retaining presence in naval affairs by creating a number of low-end Forward Presence Squadrons. These would include the Caribbean, South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, Far East, East Africa, and West Africa.
The reinvention of the T26 ASW frigate as a batch two T45 with modifications necessary to accept T23 equipment as these older vessels retire such as Artisan and 2087 towed arrays. The smaller number of six vessels would be compensated for via CEC AAW linkage to T45 and two Merlins.
An expansion of the reality of capability-plus for the navy, and how this builds on existing RN abilities in the fields of; littoral operations, mine countermeasures, and over the shore logistics.
The creation of a class of nine commercially derived vessels to supply seven operationally active units to the forward presence squadrons, with an emphasis on safety and security rather than combat duties. The aim being to provide highly modular ships with a price-tag of c.£75m.
The creation of an ad-hoc littoral operations group capable of integrating with forward-presence-squadrons or the single task-group as necessary. Supplied with a variety of vessels from 500t fast attack craft to CB90 style craft, in addition an an expanded hovercraft capability.
Finding an innovative way to preserve the Bay Class LSD(A) due to be paid off as a result of the SDSR, by supplying it to the DfID for humanitarian and disaster relief work, whilst retaining the ability to bring it back into temporary service as a dual-use system if necessary.
The reinvention of the C3 concept around the same hull as required for the forward presence vessel, with the intention of acquiring six units to rotate as necessary between the survey and MCM roles.
A reassessment of RFA roles, in particlar looking at whether a joint support ship might better replace specialised vessels currently in service, and whether temporary dock facilities could replace amphibious capability.
A summation of that which has gone before, noting the 2086 comments the series has seen registered at the point, and discarding the notion that the navy has suffered unduly in the previous decades.
Admin has at points noted that although we disagree on many things we are basically reaching for the same ends, and the limit of our difference is on where the emphasis should be placed to achieve these shared objectives. I agree.
Partly because I have no military expertise to draw upon, and partly because my core interest is in foreign-policy and the fusion between the military and politics, my interest in military affairs is most keenly focused on the-art-of-the-possible. The result is a series of questions that asks; how do you most effectively build military capability to achieve political ends, and one that is complementary to a public acceptance of elective military action. We can recognise that we are signatories to the Kellog-Briand pact against the use of war as an instrument of national policy, and yet realise that our position as a Security Council member comes with a responsibility for collective security as enacted through legal norms such as Responsibility to Protect. Likewise we must respect that elective war requires the assent, even if grudging, of the national electorate. Representative democracy in the 21st century Britain is rightly pushing the power to declare war away from the executive and towards parliament, and MP’s are quite aware that they must account for their actions to their constituents come election time.
When admin talks despairingly of the prevalent “we are an island you know” mentality, whilst at the same time noting the disproportionate interest of his readership in naval matters, this blog believes it to be symptomatic of a broader public acceptance of a naval-raiding style military posture.
The British people have by dint of our island/naval status become habituated to the continual easy success of our warlike ventures, at the same time as being blissfully unaware about the ugly and immediate consequences of having a bloody and protracted land war fought across our own front lawn. The ability to reach across the globe and apply surgical force at whatever critical nexus an enemy presents has shaped the public perception of war in the last 350 years. In short, while it has preserved an ‘enthusiasm’ for elective military action it has also restricted the type of action we are happy to ‘indulge’ in, and it certainly does not extend to ugly and protracted ground wars without a decisive and heroic victory in sight.
To bring this back to the broader themes of the naval series we have the single task-force as envisaged above:
With one carrier and LPD the single task-force is a one-shot party trick with no resilience and no depth to permit the surge of greater effect in time of general war. With the second carrier and LPD in extended readiness we have nine months at sea, realistically with only six at a ‘ready’ status due to training/work-up requirements.
Two task-groups that alternate between high readiness and low readiness is one way to get around this, another is to have the same vessels alternate into and out of the single task-group.
The benefits of always working with a multiples of two vessels are as follows:
1. There is always a task group ready which is essential for the rapid response that is deemed necessary for conflict prevention. We do not maintain a part-time capability to deploy a brigade in theatre because its deterrent effect would be negligible, why would matters be different in the naval realm?
2. There is always the necessary depth to surge force at a much greater capability by using sufficient preparation to deploy both the high-readiness and the low readiness groups in support of general war. It is fine to have an 1800 amphibious task-group available on a day to day basis, but we ought to be able to surge this to brigade strength if necessary, after all, the brigade is the principle land fighting unit of the British forces.
3. There is always a strategic reserve that prevents the loss of even a single high-value-asset from ensuring defeat, think carriers in the Falklands war. Having a single CVF or a single flag-equipped LPD is a serious weakness which may not be considered critical for a Sierra Leone style operation, but would not be deemed acceptable for any medium scale conflict against a state actor.
Further, I do not accept the logic of a reduction in the high-end escort fleet below an absolute minimum of eighteen, for the precise reason that two task-groups (or their single combined structure) cannot be rotated through readiness with less than this. The aim ought to be to operate eighteen to generate a standing task-group of six, and a serious task-group of twelve whilst leaving three for the home waters, and three in refit/work-up.
I remain to be convinced that the mantra of small-scale-force-insertions does anything to militate against sovereign capability at a medium (brigade) scale. Whilst I accept that this is mandated by the SDSR 2010 this is explicitly the result of the oversized commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade. Post 2015 the Armed Forces will need at least five years to recuperate, reorient harmony guidelines, and re-equip exhausted inventories, but none of this determines that sovereign operations at a medium scale are a thing of the past in the post 2020 world. Whilst a medium scale Deliberate Intervention may well be predicated on coalition operations, Power Projection, Focused Intervention, and Peace Enforcement certainly are not.
An extension to this debate has crept in from the follow on series on the RAF and thus mention must be made of the Joint Carrier Aircraft. This blog does not care what flies off the carriers (or from RAF FOB’s in support of strike missions), nor too does it care particularly whether there is a separate Fleet Air Arm for fast jets. What does matter is that there is a sufficient number to maintain a squadron of twelve jets on the duty carrier, with sufficient carrier qualified JCA pilots to surge to 36 jets at high-readiness. Arguably, with two carriers available for a general war scenario you would be looking to get 48 jets on board carriers for a limited duration given six months warning. Having said this, it is fully accepted that this is a JOINT carrier force and that an Afghanistan style detail could see the JCA fleet entirely detailed to that for a period of time. This rather argues for a minimum buy of 70-80 aircraft, even if that means reducing the typhoon fleet to 130-120.
As a final note on temporary docks and whether they could in part replace amphibious capability; the answer is no, because you still have to secure a safe landing from which to bring in reinforcements and supplies.
However, the most significant reason for retaining a permanent ability to generate a task-group in addition to brigade level rapid interventions is value-for-money in Defence Diplomacy. Being able to deploy just 1800 men for only six months of the year is not going to provide HMG with any useful coercive leverage at all, it ceases to be an tool with which to leverage strategic objectives and becomes nothing more than a nice-to-have. A significant portion of the defence budget would be thus be spent on assets of little deterrence value.
Having moaned and griped about escort numbers and single task-groups there is a great deal that I like in other suggestions:
a. The Hi-Lo force structure being something I have suggested before, but the transformation of this into the forward presence squadrons is a great idea, although I would limit it to the Caribbean, South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, Far East, with a fifth available where necessary. I also like the C3 theme with its integration with MCM/surveys forces for a common hull.
b. The re-use of the T45 hull and drive machinery as a method of maximising return on investment, and the decision to justify a lower number of T26 hulls by equipping them with two ASW Merlins as standard. I do believe there is a role for a non-specialised high-end warship, or C2 in common parlance. It would have a focus AsuW and littoral operations and thus provide picket duty in a task-force in addition to a brace of CB90’s for an EMF when acting in isolation (possibly a vehicle to enable TD’s littoral operations group?).
c. The dual-use of RFA assets such as amphibious ships for humanitarian missions especially if paid for by the DfID. However, I would transfer a second LSD(A) to the DfID and replace both with a pair of larger hanger equipped Enforcer class LSD(A)’s.
To conclude with the inevitable fantasy-fleet, but rendered in terms compatible with TD ambitions:
2x LPD – Albion class
2x LSD(H) – enhanced Bay Class
2x LSD(A) – Bay Class
2x LSD(DfID) – Bay Class
6x Forward Presence Squadrons
6x MCM/Survey Squadrons
Also worthy of mention; both Jed and TheMintCakeMaker have posted articles which further discuss themes of Admin’s naval series:
I look forward to the rest of the RAF series, as well as the Army series in the new year, my thanks Admin.