Uncompetitive Defence in a Competitive Age

Following the Integrated Review released last week, the British MoD released a report this week titled “Defence in a Competitive Age” detailing (or trying to detail) the changes this will bring to the UK armed forces. Much of this had been leaked in the weeks leading up, but the final text still deserve a look.

The general idea is well-known: a global Britain will need leaner and more mobile forces to be able to counter Russian and Chinese peer threats. Somehow that means serious cuts in numbers and retirement of some key systems, but lets go through some of the changes in order. The list is certainly non-exhaustive, and based purely on my personal interest.

The Royal Navy

7.23. The Royal Navy will invest £40m more over the next four years to develop our Future Commando Force as part of the transformation of our amphibious forces, as well as more than £50m in converting a Bay class support ship to deliver a more agile and lethal littoral strike capability. Forward deployed to respond rapidly to crises, this special operations-capable force will operate alongside our allies and partners in areas of UK interest, ready to strike from the sea, pre-empt and deter sub-threshold activity, and counter state threats. This will be enabled by the deployment of two Littoral Response Groups; the first in 2021 will be deployed to the Euro-Atlantic under a NATO and JEF construct, while a second will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. They will also be able to deliver training to our partners in regions of the world where maritime security is most challenging.

The focus on the Royal Marines and the littoral strike capability is certainly welcome from a Finnish point of view. The Marines are able to deploy rapidly and with a highly skilled force of a size that can make an impact. The conversion of a Bay-class support ship is an interesting solution, and I highly look forward to getting some details on the project. The JEF is also alive and well, which is good to hear from a Finnish point of view as it is one of the main tools that Finland has post-Brexit to ensure British interest in the Baltic Sea region is kept alive in an era of renewed East of Suez-ambitions.

Sandown-class minehunter HMS Pembroke (M107) alongside a US MH-53E Sea Dragon minesweeping helicopter in the Persian Gulf. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Lynn Friant via Wikimedia Commons

More worrying is the idea that a new “safer, faster and automated mine hunting capability delivered in partnership with France will replace all of the Royal Navy’s Mine Counter Measures Vessels (MCMV)”. The MCMV include six of the older and larger Hunt-class (commissioned 1980-1985) as well as seven of the newer Sandown-class (commissioned 1998-2001), and granted the vessels are slowly starting to show their age. However, the minehunting role is one that simply require hulls, and while remotely operated systems are of great value and becoming more and more important, I fail to see how exactly these systems are to operate without access to suitable vessels? If the answer is highly automated unmanned platforms with high endurance, it will in turn raise a number of questions regarding operations below the threshold of war where minehunting runs into a number of legal issues dictating where a vessel can operate and what actions it can take, as well as e.g. dealing with evidence collection for later attribution of mines encountered. Crucially, much as has been the case with unmanned aerial systems, exactly where the savings will be made is very much an open question. With minehunting in general being a rather overlooked field, the prospect of one of the major players facing a significant reduction in capability is worrisome to countries with interest in the eminently mineable Baltic Sea. I sincerely hope the Baltic countries can afford to snatch up and start operating a few more of the surplus vessels, because the Baltic Sea will need them in case of a crisis.

The cuts to the number of frigates isn’t as big a deal in my opinion as some have made it out to be. Yes, the situation isn’t exactly good, but in all fairness the Royal Navy has long since shrunk its number of surface combatants to a level where they will be able to do little more than provide escort to a very limited number of task groups or squadrons, and retiring two Type 23s earlier won’t affect that situation much in either direction. Now, if the ambition is to do more than escort two carriers and maintain a token vessel or two active in home waters, the number of escorts is obviously too small, but that isn’t solved by keeping the Type 23 in service longer.

The army

The Army is set to “become more agile, integrated, lethal and expeditionary”. Contrary to some rumours, this won’t be done by cutting all the tanks, but instead by cutting all the tracked IFVs. At the risk of being erased from every Christmas card-list of the whole Finnish tank-mafia, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better the other way around if one of them really had to go? Paring the upgraded Challenger III (tangent: yes, the obvious solution would have been to just buy the Leopard 2A7 and avoid facing obsolescence issues within ten years again, but that’s politically impossible) with the wheeled Boxer just seems to set up the mechanised units for a force mix where neither platform really can play to its strengths if it is to avoid getting separated from the other one. As such, this attempt at saving as much as possible seems set to leave the force worse of in the end than if the Army would have accepted that they can’t run a proper mechanised tracked force under the current budget, and then sat down and took a “hard-headed and unsentimental view of those capabilities that will be less relevant to the changing threat” and determined what to do instead.

To some extent the new Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team can be seen as actually having done that. It “will combine the Ajax’s formidable sensors with enhanced fires systems to provide long-range persistent surveillance for the coordination of deep fires.” That’s a lot of buzzwords, but it just might happen to be a similar revolution in combat ability as the combined arms armoured division represented in the interwar years, creating a unit through combining earlier capabilities in a new way into something that is bigger than the sum of the individual parts. However, and this need to be stressed, revolutions in warfare are very hard to get right if you are on a shoestring budget. And if you get the Deep Recce Strike-concept wrong, not only won’t you achieve the firepower overmatch to sweep your enemies before you like the Mongol hordes of old, but you will be left with a small number of dispersed and squishy targets that are no match for conventional heavy mechanised forces fighting under armour. Again, the devil will be found in the details. On the positive side, there seems to be the realisation that a serious(?) upgrade in long-range fires is needed for the system to work, and this includes upgrades to both traditional artillery and rocket artillery, as well as investment in the Spike NLOS missile system (EXACTOR in British service) and the AH-64E Apache gunships.

However, looking at the issues from the Baltic Sea region, a good argument can be made that the changes to the mechanised units really isn’t that much of an issue. The Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) recently released an interesting report looking at the availability of western forces in the defence of NATO’s northeastern flank, and came to the sober conclusion that “The UK-based mechanised infantry, due to its heavier equipment, would be more dependent on transport possibilities and thus slower to theatre than the other units. The heavy equipment would not be entirely dependent on sea or air transport, as exercises have been conducted to transport heavy tanks (MBTs) through the English Channel. However, the Army has few Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET), which would limit transportation abilities by land.”

Robert Dalsjö put it even more bluntly in a recent podcast discussing the report, where the noted that a combination of readiness issues and logistical challenges would mean that it would be two-three months before British or French heavy units would be on location in eastern Poland or the Baltic countries.

The British cuts announced now wouldn’t matter, as the British would in any case still be home drinking tea when the war ends.

Life being what it is, I get a sense that the UK MoD didn’t read the FOI report:

7.33. The restructuring of the Army means fewer units are required. The creation of Combat Service Support Battalions will require fewer separate units of logisticians, electrical and mechanical engineers, and medics.

Again, we’ll have to wait and see, but scrapping support units because the same capabilities are added in the form of organic battalions is one of those ideas that is good on paper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up leading to a reduction in capability.

On the positive side, there’s apparently continued focus on the parts that could (relatively) easily be transported to the northeastern flank, in the form of the new Ranger regiment and the very high readiness Global Response Force. The former is the current Specialised Infantry Group, consisting of four understrength battalions of highly trained light infantry. It is unclear to me to what extent their training, role, or equipment will change, or whether this is just a case of unlocking a slightly wider mission set under UK laws thanks to rebranding them as SOF? The situation is somewhat similar with the Global Response Force which is made up of the current 16th Air Assault Brigade and the accompanying 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, in essence paring up the paras and the Army Air Corps’ helicopters together into a single unit and deciding against calling it an airmobile division. Still, despite the somehow dubious claim of these developments being “new”, there is no denying that both units would likely be highly effective on the modern battlefield (as long as they can be somewhat picky about the terrain of the battlefield in question). The medium transport helicopter fleet, which currently sport four different types, will also undergo an upgrade and consolidate to a single new type in the mid-2020s.

The ROYAL AIR FORCE

Due to this focus on a smaller but leaner and highly mobile force, the airmobility arm of the RAF will obviously receive considerable investment.

Just kidding, there will be a significant cut in the removal of all C-130 Hercules from RAF service, the majority of which are the stretched C-130J-30 model (locally designated C.4) which entered UK serve just before the end of last millennium. The plan is to have all Hercs out of service by 2023, but on the other hand the A400M Atlas force will “increase its capacity and capability”. There is no indication how this increase will happen, presumably simply by flying more hours once the teething troubles all have been dealt with. However, the majority of Atlases are already delivered and the type has been flying operationally with the RAF since 2015, so one would imagine there isn’t much room for growth without ordering more aircraft (and RAF has earlier scaled back the original order for 25 aircraft to the current 22). Granted, the A400M is objectively a better and more capable aircraft than the stretched C-130J-30 in more or less all ways measurable, but that still doesn’t mean that cutting the number of tactical airlifters by well over a third won’t be felt.

Tangent: In the best of worlds, the obvious winner of this should be the Swedish Air Force which didn’t get a replacement for their small fleet of forty year old C-130E/H Hercules (locally designated Tp 84) in last year’s defence bill, meaning they will have to soldier on for at least another decade. I sincerely hope that somewhere money could be found to acquire a few of the now to be retired RAF-birds, which probably would be a cheap stop-gap solution (and most likely have quite a bit more life left in the airframes considering they are almost twenty years younger) that ensure safe working conditions for the personnel of the 71. Transportflygdivisionen and reliable fixed-wing air mobility for the rest of the Swedish Armed Forces in the decade ahead.

The fast jets have received much of the attention, but there’s quite little of substance in the final document. The plan to acquire 138 F-35B Lightning II ‘over the lifespan of the program’ (note that this didn’t necessarily indicate a fleet of 138 aircraft, but could include later batches to replace earlier ones) has now been truly shelved, but the report only states that UK will keep “increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered”. This obviously leaves quite a lot of room between 49 and the original 138, but UK Defence Journal quote sources stating that the First Sea Lord would have put the number at 60, with room to increase it up to “maybe 80” which would mean four deployable squadrons. In essence that would mean some kind of a minimum credible carrier strike force if both carriers are to deploy with wartime F-35 wings. This might or might not be tactically sound depending on your scenario, but it is safe to say that RAF might have to start looking at a combination of drones, Typhoon, Tempest, and cruise missiles, for the ISR and deep strike roles, because those F-35s could very easily become too busy for land operations in any serious war.

The older Tranche 1 Typhoons have mainly been doing QRA, such as this aircraft out of Number XI Squadron of RAF Coningsby intercepting a Russian Tu-95MS strategic bomber. Source: UK MoD / Corwn Copyright via Wikimedia Commons

The announced decision to retire the last 24 Typhoon Tranche 1 is not really news, as it was announced already in 2010, but saved by the SDSR 2015 when it was decided to retain the early air-to-air-only Typhoons. The move to keep the additional 24 airframes was then said to make it possible to “create two additional front-line squadrons from our existing fleet”, while now it is said that RAF will “continue to grow its Combat Air[sic!] capacity over the next few years as we fully establish all seven Typhoon Squadrons[sic!] and grow the Lightning II force”. No one has cared to explain how the Combat Air Capacity will grow in any meaningful way by keeping the number of squadrons constant while cutting the force with what six years ago was felt to be the number needed for two squadrons, but I guess the approximately twelve(?) additional F-35Bs will make the difference?

Some have questioned if the decision to retire the 24 Typhoons signal diminished UK interest in the Typhoon? I don’t necessarily think so, as noted the Tranche 1s were already living on borrowed time, and the decision to cut the F-35 buy by perhaps 45-55% will arguably leave the Typhoon playing a more important role – especially in the high-end peer conflicts, ISR, and air-to-ground mission sets – than what would have been the case with a 138 aircraft F-35B fleet and a full seven squadron Typhoon-force which included two squadrons of Tranche 1s. As such I don’t see the Typhoon retirement affecting HX in any major way (nor the F-35 cut for that matter. The UK F-35B/carrier strike concept was always far enough from the Finnish concept of air force operations that whether or not it was a good idea has little bearing on HX).

The decision to retire the E-3D Sentry fleet in 2021 and replace it with three E-7A two years later is just bizarre. Sure it will “transform our UK Airborne Early Warning and Control capability”, but mainly through being able to have perhaps a single AEW&C aircraft operational at any given time. Granted the E-7A is a significantly more capable platform and is likely to have significantly less down-time compared to the E-3D, but there is still more than a grain of truth to the classic military thought of needing three to have one in the field. And I have seen no statement regarding what to do during the two year break in UK AEW&C operations.

Conclusions

The report leaves key questions open, and despite some promising concepts and ideas it unfortunately seems that political considerations, counting cap badges, and crucially maintaining the visuals of a major power outweighed combat capability in the final considerations. Despite the talk of major changes and radically reform there is very little in the paper that feels different from a review simply aiming for significant cuts (approximately 11.5% of the Army’s Full Time Trade Trained strength, though current recruitment issues means that the number to go is approximately half of that). It’s hard not to think of the USMC and General Berger. His decision to take a no-holds-barred look at his force and then make radical changes to the force structure based on the findings may be controversial, but at least he led an honest attempt at trying to adapt his force for the current and future peer threats instead of just pretending to in order to justify cuts.

So let us end with a quote from @defencewithac‘s unrivalled thread on the review:

5 thoughts on “Uncompetitive Defence in a Competitive Age

  1. Swedish chef

    New Hercs for Sweden is a good idea. However, I sense that there might be an expectation from Brazil that Sweden would buy Embraer KC-390(?) as part of the Gripen E deal.

    1. Doubtful, but as there won’t be any new KC-390 orders in any case before 2030+, getting a used aircraft as a stop-gap solution to bridge the time until then wouldn’t rule it out in my opinion.

  2. Silver Dart

    Thank you for this very interesting point of view. Usually I’m more into your HX-related posts but these news from UK were difficult to miss. In France, it made some headlines mainly focused on nukes inventory increase and drones/automation push.

    Your angle is rather different and not very optimistic about the future of British forces tactical effectiveness.
    In France we face somewhat similar challenges and also struggle to make much needed ‘hard choices’ to do more than just saving the “visuals of a major power”… Does not seem very simple to get some clarity about what should be done.

  3. Pingback: Interview with Corporal Frisk about military reductions in UK | Romeo Squared

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