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.