It was 70 years ago today that the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III took place:
March 24, 2014
March 22, 2014
Published on 30 Dec 2012
A unique record of the nightly air raids made on Germany during World War II. Archive colour footage from No. 1 Group, Royal Air Force operating Avro Lancaster bombers, in action, winter 1943. In the winter of 1943, RAF Bomber Command was sending massive raids almost every night into the heart of Germany. This is the story of one of them, an attack on Berlin. Although certain scenes had to be re-created for technical reasons, make no mistake, the raid is a real one and there are no actors.
Made by Air Commodore H.I. Cozens while station commander at Hemswell. This is the Only known colour record of the Bomber Command during WWII documenting a bombing raid targeting Berlin.
Another great find from the folks at Think Defence.
March 21, 2014
Published on 20 Apr 2013
On May 17th, 1943 the Royal Air Force carried out one of the most remarkable raids ever undertaken by any aircrew. On that night a squadron of Lancaster heavy bombers flew at low level across a blacked out Europe, towards the four great dams that delivered water and power to the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr. The aircrews had been trained for months to carry out this most daring and courageous of raids. Against a storm of anti-aircraft fire, they calmly flew their bombers in across the reservoirs, holding a specific height and speed, to deliver their strange cylindrical bouncing bombs, to explode against the face of the dams, and blow great holes in them. The factories of the Ruhr were crippled. 1300 German civilians died, and 53 aircrew were lost. For the very first time this programme explores both sides of a raid that has become an epic in the history of World War 2.
H/T to Think Defence for the link.
February 24, 2014
The Argentine government has announced it will be increasing spending on their armed forces by a third in the coming year. While this report in the Daily Express takes it seriously, it fails to account for the overall sorry state of the Argentinian economy … it’s not clear if there’s any actual money to be allocated to the military:
Buenos Aires will acquire military hardware including fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft weapons and specialised radar, as well as beefing up its special forces.
The news comes months before drilling for oil begins in earnest off the Falkland Islands, provoking Argentina’s struggling President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Last month she created a new cabinet post of Secretary for the Malvinas, her country’s name for the Falklands.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has refused to confirm that Britain would retake the Falklands if they were overrun by enemy forces.
The extra cash means Argentina will increase defence spending by 33.4 per cent this year, the biggest rise in its history. It will include £750million for 32 procurement and modernisation programmes.
They will include medium tanks and transport aircraft and the refurbishment of warships and submarines. The shopping list also includes Israeli air defence systems, naval assault craft, rocket systems, helicopters and a drone project.
As reported earlier this month, the economy is suffering from an inflation rate estimated to be in the 70% range, the government has expropriated private pensions and foreign-owned companies, and is unable to borrow significant amounts of money internationally due to their 2002 debt default. Announcing extra money for the military may well be the economic version of Baghdad Bob’s sabre-rattling press conferences … just for show.
On the other hand, military adventurism is a hallowed tradition for authoritarian regimes to tamp down domestic criticism and rally public opinion. Being seen to threaten the British in the Falkland Islands still polls well in Buenos Aires.
February 8, 2014
The problem of the Ministry of Defence is that in peace time the three armed forces have no one on whom to vent their warlike instincts except the cabinet or each other.
January 23, 2014
In the Independent, David Keys talks about the Grand Slam, the largest conventional bomb of WW2:
The final secrets of Britain’s largest-ever conventional weapon of war are being ‘unearthed’ by archaeologists.
Geophysics experts are using ground-penetrating radar and other high tech methods to ‘x-ray’ the ground, in a remote area of the New Forest in Hampshire, to shed new light on the most powerful top secret World War Two weapon test ever carried out in the UK.
The weapon – a bomb designed by the British aircraft and munitions inventor, Barnes Wallis, and codenamed ‘Grand Slam’ – was almost 26 foot long and weighed 22,000 pounds, substantially bigger than any other wartime explosive device ever developed by Britain.
The New Forest test is historically important because it heralded an expansion in the crucial strategic air offensive against key infrastructure targets in Nazi Germany. The first RAF bomber command Grand Slam sortie got underway within hours of the successful test of the bomb.
Four geophysical techniques – ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography – are being used by the archaeologists to assess the damage done to the large concrete target building which has lain buried under a vast mound of earth for the past 66 years.
December 24, 2013
Sir Humphrey is on-the-money with his disdain for “fantasy fleet” enthusiasts and those nostalgic for the days when the Soviet hordes were poised to descend on Western Europe at the drop of a helmet. While he’s talking specifically about the British army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force, the very same issues are being faced in all Western nations. He also explains why cuts to armies are easier to make than cuts to navies or air forces:
In broad terms the General noted the real difficulties for the armed forces in the current operating environment, noting “The advent of more diverse and less state based threats has become an increasing feature of the age. Most mature Western democracies no longer face existential state-on-state threats in classic force-on-force terms. Rather the challenges are more insidious. There are threats which relate to terrorism, to international crime, to energy resources and critical national infrastructure. There are challenges to our human security, our way of life; there are hazards which derive from the dangerous conditions attendant on a warming planet. And these are threats which have emerged in the rising domain of warfare: cyberspace”.
This is a useful reminder to those whose belief that force structures today do not allow us to defend against the encroaching Soviet hordes — there is a very good reason for that! It is genuinely difficult to envision circumstances at present where the UK would be dragged unwillingly into a physically existential battle for survival against another state. Instead our threats are more challenging — if you consider the damage that can be done from a well placed cyber attack, it could be argued that there is no need for a conventional military existential threat now. A well placed cyber unit able to carry out crippling attacks on national infrastructures, power and support services could probably do more damage in one fell swoop than a sustained air campaign could over many months. It may be better to suggest that we simultaneously do not face a credible military existential threat, but there is a very credible existential threat from both nations and third party groups from the cyberspace domain.
The question that always needs to be at the top of the agenda when discussing military spending is “What specific and general threats to the nation need to be warded against?” rather than “How many tanks/planes/ships do we want?” With the F-35 decision looming near for many NATO countries, the initial cost of the planes is only part of the economic picture:
For instance consider the cost of providing a fast jet training pipeline — from the initial flying training through to conversion aircraft and the provision of instructors, tactics schools, opposition jets for sorties etc — to sustain a pipeline for an ever small fast jet fleet looks horrendously expensive. When you consider that most NATO nations are going to be operating fleets of less than 50 fast jets in future, the cost of providing a purely national solution to the pipeline will be an ever larger proportion of the total budget. One can easily see a case for trying to provide a multi-national solution for many of the smaller nations, if only to keep them credibly in the fast jet game, otherwise in a few years time it may well be the case that they simply cannot afford to stay in the fast jet business.
Not to denigrate the army — I was an army reservist in my time — but the cost to train soldiers for the majority of combat or combat support roles is only a fraction of what is needed to train sailors or aircrew:
It is easy to focus on pure numbers and not look beneath at the make up of the force. For instance the Army requires a larger manpower pool, but its manning pyramid is perhaps disproportionately focused on providing lots of junior troops (Pts & Lcpls) who have the lowest salaries and often require the least amount of technical training. There is also some flex in the system in that you can bear a gap of a couple of junior troops or SNCOs on a Company or Battalion sized deployment. By contrast the Royal Navy relies heavily on a very skilled and technical workforce — the days of ships being manned by the press gang being long gone. To operate a Frigate needs highly skilled operators and engineers to run the very complex equipment on board. If you look the collective man years of training required to put a fully effective Frigates crew to sea, you are talking about needing centuries of investment. Even a junior weapons or mechanical engineering rating requires several years of training to be at the stage where they are operationally useful. By contrast an Army private can be doing a role in an infantry unit within a year.
This higher training footprint has several issues — it costs more to run the shore schools like COLLINGWOOD and SULTAN. It means the crews generally require higher salaries and retention incentives to stay in for the medium term, as the private sector will quickly try and lure disaffected sailors with higher pay packets. Additionally the impact of a well-qualified rating leaving can often have a direct impact on the ability of a ship to deploy. For instance, in the nuclear submarine fleet, the loss of a suitably qualified nuclear SNCO watchkeeper could theoretically prevent deployment of a submarine until the gap is filled. It also takes many years to train a replacement — people leaving early will leave gaps in the system that will take years to fill. What this means is that as training cuts bite, and deployments are extended to cover the gaps caused by having less ships available, the pressure on the RN workforce grows. The more people who leave early, the harder it is for the RN to keep ships at sea for the medium term. The problem also grows as the more gaps that exist, the harder those who are left have to work, thus increasing the likelihood of them leaving too.
And the folks whose views of a “proper military” are based on their early collections of Airfix ship and tank models:
It also served as a useful reminder that the ability to rapidly regenerate the front line no longer exists. If you browse the net, you quickly come across ‘fantasy fleet’ sites where discussions quickly veer into the impossible wishlisting of new ships for the RN. What is often forgotten is that to use the ships / tanks / planes, you need the training pipeline in place to support them. People forget that the 2010 SDSR slashed the underpinning training and support services for the front line. Not only were units cut, but the assumptions on how many people would be needed in future was also reduced. This means that the manpower and equipment to rapidly grow the forces doesn’t exist anymore. There is little point in saying ‘we need 20 extra frigates or 3 more Typhoon squadrons’ because the pipeline to produce that many people with the right skills in the right timeline simply isn’t there. The hollow force is a good demonstration of what happens when you focus on buying new equipment over investing in the equally vital support services linked to it.
November 30, 2013
We looked at the problems of setting up a Scottish naval organization last week, and now Sir Humphrey turns his attention to the proposed air force for a post-independence Scotland. The proposed air force equipment from the white paper included “a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) squadron incorporating a minimum of 12 Typhoon jets based at Lossiemouth” and “a tactical air transport squadron, including around six Hercules C130J aircraft, and a helicopter squadron”:
The first challenge is the Typhoon fleet and how it can be operated to best effect. QRA is a very expensive thing to do properly — it’s not just about having pilots based in a cockpit ready to take off. Setting up QRA is about having a Recognised Air Picture, a means of sharing information and communicating it to the airbase. It is about having the C2 links in place so that in the event of a scramble, the means exist for the senior decision taking Minister to be able to authorise a shoot down decision and then for the pilot to carry it out in an appropriate manner. This ability needs to be available 24/7/365 and is an onerous task on aircrew and support teams.
In the SDF the reality is that with only 12 jets available, their entire effort will be taken up doing QRA — assuming two training aircraft come over, this gives a squadron of 10 aircraft to generate 2 airframes on a constant basis. Take two out of the equation for servicing, two on the flight line and two being prepared to take over, and this leaves you with a flex of four aircraft to conduct all training and flying for the fleet.
The MOD currently estimates that Typhoon costs £70k per hour to fly (full costs), so assuming that it flies for 30 hours per airframe per month over a year (an averaged figure as there will be peaks and troughs), you suddenly realise that it would cost £2.1 million per month, £25 million per year to keep each aircraft going, or a total of nearly £300 million per year to ensure that two jets were constantly available for QRA. This is well over 10% of the putative budget. Add to this the operating costs of RAF Lossiemouth currently exceed £100m per year, and you realise that nearly 20% of the SDF budget is going to be taken up just to run QRA.
As Sir Humphrey pointed out in an earlier post on the naval question, there’s no guarantee that lopping off a “fair share” of the UK’s existing equipment inventory makes any sense for the quite different needs of an independent Scotland. Again, the right approach is to ignore the equipment question at first and instead analyze the actual needs — what does Scotland need their air force to do — rather than building a wish list of impressive machinery that almost certainly won’t provide value for the money. An independent nation needs to protect their own airspace (or be involved in alliances to provide that protection communally), but that requires identification of actual or potential threats to Scottish interests.
Another problem with automatically adopting the same equipment as the UK is that the supporting organizations and infrastructure will also have to be created to utilize the equipment:
The other problem is who actually supports the aircraft — a lot of deep level RAF servicing has been contracted out now, and these contracts will be null and void for the SDF airframes. The SDF will either have to spend a lot of money to introduce servicing facilities (which are not cheap) or it will have to enter into all manner of very expensive commercial arrangements with UK companies to get them to support Typhoon in Scottish service. This sort of arrangement cannot be skimped either — if you don’t service your aircraft, then you quickly lose the ability to fly them. As such a newly independent Scotland may find itself hamstrung by a need to pay a great deal of money in support contracts and servicing contracts and not capital investment in new technology.
The proposal to acquire C130s seems similarly expensive. There is not, and has never been a C130 basing presence in Scotland. This means that the SDF would need to pay out from the start to set up a C130 support facility and hangar in Lossiemouth. They would also need to find sufficiently trained crews and groundstaff – a small point, but the C130 fleet has been based at Lyneham and Brize Norton for nearly 50 years. Finding a sufficient pool of operators and support staff to uproot from their home to go to a newly independent Scotland is going to be a major challenge in itself.
November 27, 2013
Think Defence has posted a portion of the Scottish Independence White Paper dealing with defence issues. This includes an outline view of what is thought to be required for Scotland’s (non-nuclear) military establishment at independence:
One naval squadron to secure Scotland’s maritime interests and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and contribute to joint capability with partners in Scotland’s geographical neighbourhood, consisting of:
- two frigates from the Royal Navy’s current fleet
- a command platform for naval operations and development of specialist marine capabilities (from the Royal Navy’s current fleet, following adaptation)
- four mine counter measure vessels from the Royal Navy’s current fleet
- two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to provide security for the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, as the Royal Navy only has four OPVs currently, a longer lead time for procurement might be necessary
- four to six patrol boats from the Royal Navy’s current fleet, capable of operating in coastal waters, providing fleet protection and also contributing to securing borders
- auxiliary support ships (providing support to vessels on operations), which could be secured on a shared basis initially with the rest of the UK
These arrangements will require around 2,000 regular and at least 200 reserve personnel.
An army HQ function and an all-arms brigade, with three infantry/marine units, equipped initially from a negotiated share of current UK assets, and supported by:
- a deployable Brigade HQ
- two light armoured reconnaissance units
- two light artillery units
- one engineer unit deploying a range of equipment for bridging, mine clearance and engineering functions
- one aviation unit operating six helicopters for reconnaissance and liaison
- two communication units
- one transport unit
- one logistics unit
- one medical unit
Special forces, explosives and ordnance disposal teams will bring the total to around 3,500 regular and at least 1,200 reserve personnel.
Key elements of air forces in place at independence, equipped initially from a negotiated share of current UK assets, will secure core tasks, principally the ability to police Scotland’s airspace, within NATO.
- an Air Force HQ function (with staff embedded within NATO structures)
- Scotland will remain part of NATO‘s integrated Air Command and Control (AC2) system, initially through agreement with allies to maintain the current arrangements while Scotland establishes and develops our own AC2 personnel and facility within Scotland within five years of independence
- a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) squadron incorporating a minimum of 12 Typhoon jets based at Lossiemouth
- a tactical air transport squadron, including around six Hercules C130J aircraft, and a helicopter squadron
- flight training through joint arrangements with allies
In total this would require around 2,000 regular personnel and around 300 reserve personnel.
In addition to military capability following a vote for independence, the Scottish Government will establish core government capacity for defence functions, such as strategic planning, oversight and policy functions for defence and security. Given the importance of ongoing shared security interests between Scotland and the rest of the UK, we will ensure a partnership approach during the period of transition to independence.
Following a vote for independence, priorities for the Scottish Government capacity dealing with defence will be planning for the strategic security review to be carried out by the first Scottish Parliament following independence, based on the most recent UK National Risk Assessment and input from Scottish experts and academic institutions.
I linked to a couple of posts by Sir Humphrey on this issue that are also worth considering.
November 18, 2013
Unlike other branches of the US government, the Department of Defence still isn’t properly accounting for all its expenditure, says Scot J. Paltrow in a Reuters report:
The Defense Department’s 2012 budget totaled $565.8 billion, more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China. How much of that money is spent as intended is impossible to determine.
In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.
The consequences aren’t only financial; bad bookkeeping can affect the nation’s defense. In one example of many, the Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies between 2003 and 2011 as it shuffled equipment between reserve and regular units. Affected units “may experience equipment shortages that could hinder their ability to train soldiers and respond to emergencies,” the Pentagon inspector general said in a September 2012 report.
Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.
November 11, 2013
A simple recognition of some of our family members who served in the First and Second World Wars:
The Great War
- Private William Penman, Scots Guards, died 1915 at Le Touret, age 25
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
- Private David Buller, Highland Light Infantry, died 1915 at Loos, age 35
(Elizabeth’s great grandfather)
- Private Walter Porteous, Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917 at Passchendaele, age 18
(my great uncle)
- Corporal John Mulholland, Royal Tank Corps, died 1918 at Harbonnieres, age 24
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
The Second World War
- Flying Officer Richard Porteous, RAF, survived the defeat in Malaya and lived through the war
- Able Seaman John Penman, RN, served in the Defensively Equipped Merchant fleet on the Murmansk Run (and other convoy routes), lived through the war
- Private Archie Black (commissioned after the war and retired as a Major), Gordon Highlanders, captured at Singapore (aged 15) and survived a Japanese POW camp
- Elizabeth Buller, “Lumberjill” in the Women’s Land Army in Scotland through the war.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army Medical Corps (1872-1918)
November 9, 2013
As Robert Heinlein wrote, “The most expensive thing in the world is a second-best military establishment, good but not good enough to win”, which is both obviously true and not very helpful when you are looking at the biggest, best-equipped military force in human history. Since the end of the Cold War, there really has only been one country with a right to the term “superpower” (and for the Soviet Union, in retrospect it was more of a courtesy title anyway). The world still stands in the military shadow of the US Army, US Navy, and US Air Force.
But even superpowers have to face economic reality at some point, so it’s time to consider just how big the US military forces need to be to accomplish US goals. In The Atlantic, Eric Schnurer wonders if the defence budget can be trimmed without endangering national security:
Since protecting citizens’ lives is the first duty of government, public-safety functions are usually the last to feel the effects of tightened budgets. This is especially true at the federal level, where cuts to the defense budget are generally portrayed as assaults on the nation’s very existence. There are a variety of reasons to tread softly on any sort of defense cuts: You only get to err by under-defending the country once. The battlefield edge today, and even more so in the future is a product of advanced — and expensive — technologies. Those who put their lives on the line for the rest of us deserve the best equipment and protective gear, and the most reasonable pay and benefits, that we can afford.
But does that mean that we cannot cut the defense budget without short-changing national security? To hear some tell it the answer is “no.” But the Defense Department is part of the same government that most Americans abjure for its inefficiency, waste, and fraud. In fact, you can find just about everything that’s wrong with government in the defense budget. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, no liberal, has derided the Pentagon as the “Department of Everything” for its wide-ranging activities.
Of all the services that critics complain the Pentagon needlessly duplicates—from schools and rec centers to scientific research and grocery stores — the most expensive is health care. Ten percent of the Pentagon’s non-war budget — $53 billion—goes to health care. As with civilian health care, savings are achievable here but face implacable opposition from military retirees. But as no less a military enthusiast than John McCain said last year on the Senate floor, “We are going to have to get serious about entitlements for the military just as we are going to have to get serious about entitlements for nonmilitary.”
November 6, 2013
Strategy Page on the most recent intelligence coup by the Chinese military:
Taiwan recently admitted that it had suffered some serious damage when it discovered that one of its air force officers (identified only as “Major Hao”) sold many technical details of the new E-2K AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to China. Hao did it for money, and Taiwanese counterintelligence found over a dozen other Chinese intel operatives during the investigation that uncovered the E-2K leaks. Since the E-2K contains mostly American technology and is based on the E-2C use on American aircraft carriers, this intelligence disaster is going to cost America a lot as well. Since China now knows the details of how the E-2 electronics work, they can develop better ways to deceive and disrupt E-2 operations.
Earlier this year Taiwan received the last two of four E-2K aircraft from the U.S., where they have been sent for upgrading to the E-2C 2000 standard. The first two E-2Ks were sent in 2009. The upgrade cost about $63 million per aircraft. Taiwan bought two E-2Ks new in 2006 as well.
The Taiwanese E-2K is very similar to the American E-2C, which is being replaced with a newer model. In 2010 the U.S. Navy received its first E-2D aircraft. This is the latest version of the E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft that was originally introduced in 1964. The two engine, 24 ton E-2 was never produced in large quantities (fewer than a hundred are in use). Six years ago the E-2 fleet reached a milestone of a million flight hours.
The U.S. usually does not export the latest versions of electronic equipment. Thus the Taiwan leak means the older American E-2C is compromised but not (to a great extent) the most recent E-2D model. But the Taiwanese are justifiably afraid that there will be even more reluctance by the United States to sell Taiwan the latest versions of anything because of the successful Chinese espionage efforts in Taiwan. Then again, maybe not. That’s because that espionage works both ways. The Taiwanese have been very successful using the same tactics (offering cash or using blackmail and other threats) against the Chinese. While the American and Taiwanese tech is more valuable (because it is more advanced) it’s useful to know the details of the best stuff the Chinese have.
October 10, 2013
Sir Humphrey has read the British Ministry of Defence paper on Scottish options in a post-independence scenario and has a few thoughts:
The paper nicely highlights the reality that you cannot slice up defence assets and turn them into a coherent military force – ORBATs may look impressive, but dividing them into something more meaningful is particularly difficult.
Additionally the paper highlights the issue of how one takes a world class military, optimised for power projection abroad, and then carves off a smaller chunk of it to focus on missions for which it was not designed. For instance, the idea that Scotland would keep running a modern air force built around Typhoon seems interesting, but where does the pilot training pipeline come from, how is this affordable and what happens when the Eurofighter nations move to upgrade their aircraft? Is it truly feasible to imagine a relatively small Scottish Defence Force being able to shoulder the burden of paying the costs of sustaining an increasingly obsolescent Typhoon fleet, which is no longer at the same standard as its multi-national peers?
The problem facing a newly independent Scotland seems to be that the UK military assets are simply not appropriate for what will be a low level defence force in a relatively small country. Stripped of the recruiting, support and logistical contracts and pipeline that have sustained the equipment, one can imagine a future Scottish Defence Force burdened down with legacy equipment which requires expensive training and support to run properly, and which is too expensive to meet what will be a very small budget.
One could almost argue that rather than take much UK military equipment, it would be more sensible for Scotland to instead take a large cash payment and procure a low level defence force (with UK forces providing sovereignty assurance in the interim) which better meets their specific needs. So, procurement of low level OPVs, simple vehicles and so on – in other words start from scratch with something that is feasible, and not take on equipment that is designed for a very different role.
Update: His look at the SNP’s proposed military structure from last year is also worth reading:
At the moment, the current policy seems to be that on separation, those army regiments deemed Scottish will become part of the SDF. Similarly, an equivalent amount of manpower, roughly 1/8th of all UK military assets and personnel will be offered to the Scottish Government. In broad-brush terms, this leads to an Army of about 10,000 troops, 5,000 air force and 4000 navy/marines (say 19,000 overall).
Here is where the fun really starts. Firstly, the armed forces do not neatly break into component parts which can be divided up. An infantry battalion may have 650 people on its strength, but there may be many more from supporting arms such as REME and so on who will be there to maintain and support weapons and equipment. Do the SNP want to take the supporting arms too?
Secondly — how will they attribute manpower against specialisations — the RN for instance has a deeply specialised manpower structure, made up of composite branches – it’s not just a mixy blob of 30,000 sailors looking good and drinking rum prior to catching the eye of hairy women with tattoos, it’s a collection of branches and capabilities.
The author knows relatively few individuals who would willingly wish to transfer to any SDF. Most of the Scots personnel he knows are immensely proud of being Scottish, but are also equally proud of belonging to something much greater in the form of HM Armed Forces. They relish the challenge offered by soldiering in a military that has a track record for being employed aggressively overseas. How many of them will willingly want to transfer to a SDF that is unlikely to be used in any similar manner?
The SDF is going to have a challenging initial few years — it will inherit people at all levels, but probably not enough for any one role. It’s going to take time to grow personnel into the jobs required of them, and even if it started recruiting on the day of independence, it would still take 5-10 years to grow the critical mass of SNCOs and junior officers needed to manage and lead the organisation.
October 5, 2013
Sir Humphrey is back from his honeymoon and posts about the unfailing media habit of nostalgically looking back at the military of the Cold War era and contrasting it with the much smaller military of today:
When one looks back over the last 150 years, the possession of large military forces by the UK has been somewhat of an aberration. If you ignore WW1 & WW2, then the only period in which large forces were sustained was from 1945 until the end of the Cold War. This could only be done by relying firstly on large numbers of conscripts, then having to provide very low pay after the end of National Service. It is telling that once military wages began to catch up with, then overtake civilian roles, manpower quickly became increasingly unaffordable. Similarly it is easy to forget that this period is one of the very few in UK history where there was a clearly defined opponent, where UK forces had a clear role to play (e.g. maintain BAOR, defend the home base, conduct ASW) as well as support wider non NATO commitments. It is much easier to justify the retention of larger armed forces when you have a specific role in mind for them, and not just being held at readiness as a contingency.
In the UK we are perhaps guilty of looking back on the Cold War period as halcyon era where we had large armed forces, while forgetting that they existed to do very specific roles, and also encourage other nations to pull their weight too. The post Cold War era wasn’t some wonderful period where UK forces roamed the globe in glorious isolation emulating Palmerston’s views, but a period when the UK had to contribute to an international coalition and work with our partners against a common enemy. This is important to remember, for the argument that 30 years ago we had X frigates, Y jets and Z tanks compared to today’s paltry number is actually misleading. In reality much of this equipment was fully committed to NATO forces, and wasn’t easily available to support wider UK national interests beyond the NATO area. So yes, the UK had capabilities, but they were borne to meet a specific external threat, and not a general role.
Similarly, if one looks at availability, it becomes clear that in real terms UK capability for purely national tasks now isn’t far off what it was at the end of the Cold War. Speaking to a Naval friend who joined in the late 1980s, he pointed out that of the 47 escorts when they joined, nearly a third were usually tied up in refit. Add to this the tasking and working up of escorts for things like NATO commitments, and support to the South Atlantic, and suddenly that’s the best part of another 15 escorts committed. At best there would be a margin of some 10-15 hulls available for national discretionary deployments — not much more than is available today.
Yes, yes, but what about tiny Obscuristan with their 500 tanks? Britain is much bigger than Obscuristan, shouldn’t the British army have more tanks than them? And Fantasia has more ships in their navy than the Royal Navy does!
It is also important to realise when looking at these sorts of papers that nations have very different defence requirements. It is one thing to say we have less soldiers than say, South Korea, but we forget that we do not have a nuclear armed neighbour on our border with a leader who is not always a completely rational actor. It is entirely logical that some nations will have more military personnel than the UK — they have direct ground threats, or their need for manpower for other jobs means it is politically helpful to keep a large army to hand. For instance many states still conscript their troops, meaning on paper their army is vastly larger than the British Army, but this is only achieved through a ready pool of manpower who can be paid a pittance and employed on duties which are often as much about support local agriculture by working on farms, or support public order as it is about being a military force.
There are also many nations out there who on paper have large stockpiles of equipment (particularly in the Middle East) and this can easily be turned into a headline about how a tiny nation has more tanks than the UK. The reality though is that these purchases are little more than an insurance policy designed to coax the nations into feeling an obligation to support the purchaser in a real crisis. If one views defence sales to the Middle East as a means of these nations buying support through economic largesse then that’s probably not far off the mark. Many of these equipment buys are in fact often stored in the desert and left to rust without ever being used. The author has heard many tales of armouries full of weapons never removed from packing crates, or trained on and often forgotten about. On paper this is a capability, and in reality it is little more than a box of life expired spare parts. One difference between the UK and many other nations is that the UK is willing to genuinely use and ‘sweat’ its assets to get the most from its equipment purchases. Just because some nations have impressive arsenals does not equate to a genuine ability to use them to best effect.