Saturday, 24 October 2015

Come Cheer Up My Lads: British Maritime Security

"We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

-Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

While a third of the world's merchant shipping no longer sails under the red ensign as it did in 1939, the UK's maritime sector remains significant and vital to national prosperity and international power. Britain's naval strategy plays an important role, but as part of a wider effort that provides maritime security in home waters and overseas. The business of securing and protecting the UK's maritime interests rests on the shoulders of an astonishing array of actors: the military, government departments, agencies and the private sector. From Royal Navy's enormous new aircraft carriers to the tiny coastal research vessels of the Environment Agency HMG owns, charters and operates a vast profusion of specialist shipping. This is why it's necessary to take a broad view of the UK's security at sea, a narrow examination of the military alone would fail to recognise that the navy is shaped by the maritime world in which it operates.

It would be easy to simply mention the existence of a "maritime world" in passing and never return to, or elaborate on, what it actually means. 71% of the earth's surface is covered by salt water, a vast space that is totally inhospitable to human life; without technological assistance. Despite this, the seas and oceans play host to an astonishing range of economic activity. This can be broken down into two broad categories: logistics and extraction. 90% of global trade goods are moved by sea, transported by an international fleet of over 50,000 merchant vessels crewed by over a million merchant sailors. The UK is even more reliant on the sea than most nations: moving 95% of it's traded goods and importing 40% of it's food by sea. The seas and oceans act as a vast international space, that has acted as the engine of globalisation for centuries. If the Internet is the world's information superhighway then the maritime world is it's economic superhighway.

Earlier I mentioned that the UK merchant shipping sector is no longer the all-encompassing leviathan it once was. Despite the sharp decline in it's size since the Second World War it remains a powerful and healthy entity. The practice of using "flags of convenience", registering ships in countries with few regulations and little ability to enforce them, has fundamentally changed the rules of the game with respect to where merchantmen are registered. Currently 1/3rd of the world's merchant ships are registered in two countries: Panama and Liberia, ~85% of these fleets are foreign owned. In total the UK manages some 53.9 million deadweight tonnes (DWT) of merchant shipping interests, even though only 12.6 million DWT is actually registered in the UK. Since 1998 the gross tonnage of the British flagged merchant fleet has quadrupled, riding a wave of globalisation and technological change. As of 2014 a further 24.2 million DWT were registered in the UK's crown dependencies and overseas territories, the so called "red ensign group". Of these, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda are prominent red ensign flags of convenience, which contribute to the economies of Britain's overseas territories. Aside from the UK's own merchant fleet, the City of London is a vital financial hub for the international maritime sector. It has a dominant position in marine insurance, holding a 33% market share in 2014, and provides a multitude of other financial services vital to the global maritime industry. In 2013, nearly a quarter of a million UK jobs were sustained by maritime services, mostly in logistics, with 140,000 directly employed in the sector. Of those 140,000 jobs just under half, are in the North of England and Scotland; providing job opportunities to people from communities in some of the most deprived areas of the country. In that year the maritime logistical sector as a whole contributed ~£10 billion to national GDP. The UK is now so deeply integrated into the system of globalised trade, and benefits so much from it, that the continued freedom of the seas to merchant traffic must be considered a paramount priority for any government and any security strategy.
90% of all goods are moved on the world's merchant shipping routes
As for extraction, from fish to fossil fuels and renewable energy the sea contains the resources necessary to sustain hundreds of communities around the UK. The North Sea's of oil and natural gas industry is almost certainly the most famous of these activities. Alone it supports ~450,000 jobs across the whole of Britain, enriches Scottish and Northern communities like Aberdeen, and contributed £32 billion to the national economy in 2014. Although North Sea oil and gas are believed to have now peaked, and the price of oil has dropped dramatically since the US "fracking revolution", UK-based companies like BP and Cairn Energy remain at the cutting edge of fossil fuel extraction techniques. The income from these industries looks set to remain substantial well into the future.

While it's a much smaller industry than fossil fuel extraction it is impossible not to mention the 15,000 fishermen that sail out of ports large and small around the British Isles. From the deep-sea high capacity fleets of Fraserburgh, North Shields and Grimsby to the myriad of small fishermen that sail out of Newlyn, Milford Haven, Plymouth and Poole the industry is alive and well. Although the UK fishing fleet has declined in numbers by 9% since 2004 it remains the second largest in Europe, by tonnage, after Spain. In 2014 the fleet landed 756,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish with a value of £861 million, a 21% increase in volume and a 16% increase in value of the total catch over the 2013 figures. The largest areas for fishing activity remain the North Sea and West of Scotland, with 62% of UK landed fish caught in those areas. While the fishing industry is nowhere near as economically important as North Sea oil and gas it remains the backbone of many communities, often in some of the most deprived areas of Britain.

Maritime logistics and fisheries are industries which have existed for thousands of years the seas around the British Isles also play host to an industry that is just breaking out of it's infancy: renewable power generation. Since the first two experimental offshore wind turbines off the coast of Northumberland were completed in December of 2000 there has been an explosion in the number of turbines and their generating capacity. There are currently 1452 offshore turbines which generated 28.1 TWh of electricity in 2014, accounting for 4% of total UK energy generation capacity. This is a boom industry at the moment, with 4000 MW of capacity already in place with a further 1700 MW under construction and over 5000 MW planned. The wind, wave and tidal energy sectors currently employ and support just under 35,000 jobs, a ~75% increase in five years since 2010. Some predict that the maritime renewable energy industry will create some 70,000 new jobs in the coming decade to 2025. Nearly half of the new jobs are likely to be connected to offshore wind. The renewable energy sector more generally remains an extremely vibrant economic environment, with healthy competition and a profusion of small and medium sized businesses employing 80% of workers. Once again we also find that the offshore arrays are located near areas where quality jobs have been scarce for some time. As North Sea oil and gas helped revitalise a number of towns and cities on the East Coast of Scotland so offshore renewables are slowly having a similar effect on coastal communities all around the UK.
The UK's economy relies upon the maritime sector for logistics and energy 
Amidst all the statistics about what the UK maritime sector does is one clear, simple and incontrovertible fact: the maritime sphere is vital to Britain's continued prosperity. Every single man woman and child that buys food from a supermarket, switches on a light, or works in almost any industry you care to name is, in some small way, reliant on the maritime sphere to continue providing those things continuously and cheaply. Those that describe the United Kingdom as a "maritime nation" are tapping into a fundamental truth about the country's place in the international system, it's greatest strengths and gravest vulnerabilities will always come from it's geography and sea. This is where the maritime security issue enters the picture. Protecting the myriad of seaborne activities, in home waters and abroad, that the British economy is dependent upon is an enormously complex task involving a diverse range of government bodies. Some, like the Royal Navy, are well known. Most, however, would be obscure in the extreme to members of the general public. It is essential to understand that their obscurity doesn't make them any less important. Fisheries protection for example is a complex multi-agency task, involving at least twenty surface ships and several aircraft from six government bodies. Without their contribution to enforcing the UK's laws on safe, legal and sustainable fishing activity the industry would be damaged by illegal and ecologically irresponsible trawling. It goes without saying that this would put many of the 15,000 jobs in that industry at risk, as well as many more further down the supply and processing chain.

Ensuring the security and safe passage of merchant traffic at sea is an even more demanding task, involving the efforts of the private sector, the military, a range of government organisations and international partners. The current system of international merchant shipping is built on navigational safety. Without accurate and constantly updated charts, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety Service, widely available meteorological information and the internationally agreed regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea the system of trade that we know today simply could not work. Britain continues to play an essential role in the maintenance of these systems. The UK Hydrographic Office is world renowned for the quality and accuracy of it's famous Admiralty charts, which 90% of the world's merchant ships use, and the met office's shipping forecast is issued four times daily on BBC Radio 4.  Both institutions have a near-unrivaled pedigree and are at the cutting edge of applying the latest technologies to the cartographic and meteorological fields. The UK, as a world leader in meteorological sciences, maintains two permanent and one summer-only Antarctic research stations run by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The Royal Navy's Antarctic patrol ship, currently HMS Protector, is relatively well-known because of her ancestor, HMS Endurance's, role in the 1982 Falklands War. What is less well known is that the BAS also operates two Antarctic research vessels: the RSS James Clerk Ross and the RSS Earnest Shackleton, with the former due to be replaced in 2019 by a new specially constructed polar research vessel. The activities of the BAS are essential for the continued international scientific investigation into, amongst other things, the long-term effects that climate change will have on the natural environment. Long term forecasts about how the Earth's climate will change, and how this will effect sea levels and weather patterns will allow coastal communities, ports and the maritime community to better prepare and hedge against potential environmental threats to their long-term sustainability.
RSS Earnest Shackleton, one of three UK vessels which operate in support
of the British Antarctic Survey.
From a relatively new challenge in the form of climate change to a problem that has existed for millennia, piracy remains a perennial issue which occasionally threatens the free movement of merchant shipping. The modern response has usually been international, because the globalised nature of seaborne trade means that many countries have a stake in ensuring that the flow of trade is not impeded by non-state actors. The response to piracy off the horn of Africa between 2005 and 2013 was the creation of two combined maritime task forces CTF 150 and CTF 151. Both involved, and were occasionally led by, the Royal Navy. Ultimately the international naval presence, combined with an improving security situation ashore and improved security measures by merchant ships, led to the collapse of Somali piracy in 2013.

Closer to home than Somalia and far more immediate than the potential effects of climate change Britain's maritime institutions play an essential role in providing human security. People trafficking, smuggling and illegal migration all pose threats to UK civil society and to many of the unfortunate people exploited by international criminal gangs. Intercepting illicit goods and trafficked people at sea is a far more attractive option than policing them once they reach British shores. Seizures of illegal drugs at sea tend to be measured in tonnes rather than pounds and have the potential to dent the formidable criminal industry in ways that policing alone cannot. Once again we find that tackling these challenges requires a range of government bodies working in tandem: from the intelligence services to HM Revenue and Customs and the Royal Navy. In this role the five customs cutters currently operated by HMRC have proven extremely useful. While unarmed under normal circumstances they have demonstrated their worth by acting as a visible deterrent through presence and monitoring, as well as taking a very active role in boarding, enforcement and constabulary duties around the UK. Interceptions and boarding operations by the customs cutters increased four-fold between 1999 and 2009 to nearly 2,000 operations a year. Some of these operations have resulted in the capture of huge quantities of illicit goods, early in 2015 the cutter HMC Valiant and the frigate HMS Somerset seized three tonnes of Cocaine with a street value of £500 million. Recently the government took the unusual step of deploying two of the cutters to the Aegean to help with the Mediterranean search and rescue effort related to the ongoing migrant crisis. HMC Protector and HMC Seeker were together responsible for rescuing 1650 people and arresting 26 smugglers while they were forward deployed.
HMC Valiant, one of HMRC's 42-metre customs cutters
While a range of civilian organisations contribute to the UK's maritime security in home waters it largely falls to the Royal Navy to protect British maritime interests further from home. As it stands the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary are the principal maritime arms of Britain's military. Between them they operate a force of 77 surface ships, 11 submarines, 33 specialist landing craft and 152 helicopters. The surface ships range in size from small patrol craft and mine hunters to the two new 70,000 ton Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers. While the presence of a sleek grey-hulled warship can often be enough to deter certain threats to the UK's commercial maritime interests, the prolonged presence of surface ships is usually necessary to achieve the desired effect. Since the early 1980s the Royal Navy's warships have patrolled the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf in order to ensure that body of water remains open to safe merchant navigation, especially for the large tankers bound for Europe through the Suez Canal. The deterrent patrol around the Falkland Islands has required a similar long-term commitment of the navy's limited resources. For patrol and presence tasks in global hotspots the navy currently relies on it's fleet of 19 surface escorts. The six Type 45 air defence destroyers and thirteen Type 23 general purpose frigates constitute the UK's front line maritime forces: forward deployed to trouble spots around the world.

To put it bluntly the number of these ships is currently woefully inadequate to support the level of defence activity required to safeguard Britain's maritime interests. The current force of 19 escorts in reality generates a deployable force of some 6-7 ships. The rule that three ships are required to keep one permanently on station, or available at high readiness, still holds true, vessels have always needed maintenance and crews need time ashore. Almost the entire escort fleet is committed to sustaining the UK's few remaining standing patrols in the South Atlantic, Gulf, home waters and the West Indies. There is no strategic reserve, no replacements available for losses to combat, sabotage, technical faults or accidents and few to no escorts are available to protect Britain's capital ships. In 2004 the New Labour government sold three relatively new Type 23 frigates to Chile, in 2010 the Liberal/Conservative coalition scrapped the four remaining Batch 3 Type 22 frigates. The replacement of 12 Type 42 destroyers with half as many Type 45s between 2003 and 2013 amounted to another cut of six hulls. In the decade between 2004 and 2014 the RN lost 13 escorts, almost half of it's major surface combatants.

For a country that is so totally reliant on the sea for it's survival and prosperity the current situation is nothing less than unacceptable. An opportunity currently exists to reduce the pressure on the escort fleet by bringing the new Batch 2 River class OPVs into service in addition to the existing Batch 1 ships, rather than as replacements for them. Forward basing these three new ships in the West Indies, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands would free up three or four high-end warships for operations elsewhere, in areas where their greater combat capability is required. Reintroducing a small but permanent RN presence in the Mediterranean, based out of Gibraltar, would also send a strong message to the Spanish; who have consistently violated the UK territory's sovereign waters in recent years. I would argue strongly that this is the only reasonable coarse of action in the short term, but in the medium to long term the number of escorts must rise. In the author's opinion the best way of achieving this long-term expansion would be to extend the Type 26 production run by at least seven hulls, to give a minimum of 20 frigates plus the six Type 45s. Crucially this increase could be achieved without increasing the total number of crew needed for the frigate fleet. Trained military manpower is a major expense and the smaller compliment of just 118 for each ship (compared with 185 for a Type 23) would allow the RN to man 20 ships with roughly the same number of people needed for 13 Type 23s. Combined with reduced pressure on the escort fleet as a whole, by handing over the Falklands and West Indies patrol tasks to forward based OPVs, this should allow the RN to hold a properly escorted carrier and/or amphibious group at high readiness, available for deployment anywhere in the world at short notice. Importantly, this should be achieved without severely disrupting ships' repair and maintenance cycles, and would also create a small reserve to cover unforeseen contingencies, accidents or combat losses.

The Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset, one of the UK's 19 remaining
surface escorts.
It is quite clear that Britain's maritime sector is both diverse and vital to its economic well being. Although the UK no longer sits at the heart of a global empire knitted together by maritime communications, the country's place as one of a very few centers essential to the management of the modern maritime order is indisputable. While a third of all the ships on the sea may no longer sail under the red ensign of the merchant navy; but 90% of them use British Admiralty charts, one in three is insured by a London-based company, and over a thousand ships are managed in some way by UK companies. Britain alone has more than half of the total offshore wind generation capacity in Europe and is the third largest producer of oil and natural gas on the continent after Russia and Norway. The UK moves 40% of it's food and 95% of it's traded goods by sea. The country is dependent on the maritime sector for hundreds of thousands of jobs, and millions more further down the supply chain.  This broad range of vital interests is supported and protected by an equally broad range of government bodies. From the warships of the Royal Navy, to the research vessels of the British Antarctic Survey, the fisheries protection ships of Marine Scotland to HMRC's customs cutters: Britain's maritime interests are afforded security every day by their work.

It is therefore shameful and shortsighted that Britain's premier means of safeguarding it's maritime interests should be in such poor shape. As I have discussed, the economic health of the UK depends to an extraordinary extent upon the freedom of the seas not only at home but also much further afield. The inner sphere of British maritime security is not in bad shape, with the return of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft almost an assured part of the upcoming SDSR the future looks good. However, when it comes to the needs of the outer sphere which guards UK interests further afield there is much left to be desired.

It is too rarely expressed that Britain is a maritime nation, for which the sea is the ultimate source of power and the ultimate source of vulnerability. By failing to understand those two words, and the vast, complex and vital systems they so neatly describe, we are failing to understand ourselves. This is something that each generation must learn and relearn, because working out who we are requires us "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

An Air Force in Crisis? The RAF and Forward Planning

It isn't being openly discussed yet, but the RAF is rapidly approaching a crisis point. Nearly half the fast jet fleet is due to be retired when the ageing Tornado GR4s pass out of service, likely in 2019. The F35, intended to cover the UK's requirements for manned strike aircraft, will not be available in numbers until after 2025 at the earliest. Without serious and considered action there is a potential risk that the UK could end up with 126 fast jets formed in only six squadrons, compared with the current level of 192 aircraft formed in 11 squadrons. Options, such as running on the 52 Tranche 1 Typhoons or the Tornado fleet itself, exist to ease the transition from Tornado to F35. That said, the Tranche 1 Typhoons will not be compatible with the new Meteor missile or the Paveway IV bomb, which would force the RAF to sustain their stock of older AMRAAM missiles for longer than expected. The likelihood is that the RAF will avoid the worst case scenario, probably by sustaining a portion of the Tornado fleet beyond the 2019 out of service date. This reprieve will probably result in a smaller reduction to nine squadrons, but the decline will likely remain irreversible. A realistic assessment is that no money exists to re-form squadrons once they are stood down. In comparison, re-equipping existing formations is the far more attractive option that should be taken whenever possible. That said, maybe it's time to consider more radical options, look seriously at what roles the RAF will perform in the future and the aircraft they will need to carry them out. Before any recommendations can be made though we need to take a look at the situation as it currently stands.

As it stands the air force seems determined to maintain a large and highly capable fleet of fast jets well into the future. Typhoon is shaping up to be a superb aircraft, with plenty of scope for upgrades to ensure it remains competitive even in the face of potential fifth generation opponents. Despite claims to the contrary F35 will be a very substantial step up from it's RAF and Fleet Air Arm predecessors: Tornado and Harrier. By current estimates the total fleet will be rebuilt back up to around 200 aircraft, once the UK's entire F35 buy is complete in the late 2020s, assuming that the total purchase exceeds the 48 aircraft already announced. This could leave Britain with a very overstretched force of front line combat aircraft. It would seem that Russia intends to maintain a higher level of pressure on the RAF's quick reaction alert (QRA) forces than the UK has seen since the end of the Cold War. It is undeniable that the UK's Typhoon FGR4s will increasingly be called upon to conduct overseas deployments and cover the strike role previously filled by Tornado, with this in mind it is concerning that four of the five squadrons of these invaluable aircraft will be permanently tied down defending the British isles. Looking at the likely rate at which F35B will come on stream, 12 aircraft per year after 2019, the RAF will not return to the minimum level of eight fast jet squadrons required to cover QRA and provide credible expeditionary forces before autumn 2025. A six year capability gap at precisely the time when the world is more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War does not seem very sensible. If the Tornado is retired as planned in 2019 then the UK will go from having an air force which is capable but hard worked to one that is barely credible almost overnight.

The situation does not look good either for Britain's ISTAR fleet. Neither the Sentinel R.1 or the Shadow R.1 are currently funded beyond 2018, and the expectation is that both aircraft will be retired at that point. Part of the Sentinel's ISTAR role is due to be covered by the new "protector" drone, but the likelihood is that some of the capabilities afforded by Sentinel will be lost with it's retirement.
The six big E-3D Sentry AEW.1 aircraft are badly in need of an upgrade, the other NATO members operating the aircraft are already in the process of moving to the USAF E-3G standard while the RAF seems to have been left behind. Without consistent investment in the aircraft, which the army recently helped save from the chopping block because of the unique capability it provides, the UK fleet will continue to gradually decline in operational utility. The single point of hope in the current ISTAR fleet is the RC-135W Rivet Joint, three of which have been purchased from the US at a cost of £634m. The UK has already had two of these aircraft delivered, with a third set for 2017, and they have already seen active service in the UK's contribution against ISIS, Operation Shader. Project Airseeker, the programme that delivered the British RC-135s, also includes plans for the long term maintenance and upgrade of the aircraft out to an expected retirement date of 2045. I have heard the possibility of using the P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the ISTAR role discussed, but I remain skeptical of any solution to the impending ISTAR problem that results in a serious diversion of this asset from it's intended role. The UK ISTAR fleet has, for a long time, acted as a serious force multiplier for British and allied aircraft. To see it facing a very substantial drop in numbers and capability at a time when the RAF is engaged in a serious bombing campaign in Iraq, and the government is considering expanding operations to Syria, appears to make very little military sense.
ISTAR aircraft like the Sentinel R.1 pictured act as significant force multipliers
Since the retirement of the Nimrod MR2 in 2010, and the cancellation of the MRA4, the UK has had no specialised maritime patrol aircraft. There are very strong indications that this situation will be resolved in the near future and that,  following the upcoming Strategic Defence and Spending Review, the UK will place an order for between six and twelve Boeing P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft. The type is already in service with the US Navy, and has been since 2013. While some lament the cancellation of the MRA4 it would have been increasingly costly for the UK to operate and upgrade a tiny number of these bespoke aircraft. At least with the P-8 Britain will get an aircraft that will be built in large numbers, with the cost savings that brings, and supported with upgrades throughout its service life. The P-8 also offers significant scope for development into a ISTAR platform. The US Navy have already put serious work into integrating the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor, which includes a powerful ground mapping radar similar in function to the one mounted on the RAF's Sentinel. The possibility therefore exists for UK P-8s to act as a part-replacement for some of the ISTAR aircraft due to be lost in 2019, as well as to regenerate the lost maritime patrol capability.

There are, however, areas in the current force structure that we can be more hopeful about. The airlift fleet looks set to remain healthy and stable in terms of numbers for the foreseeable future. The C-17 fleet has doubled in size since the first four aircraft were leased from the USAF in 2000, and all eight aircraft are now fully owned by the UK. In 2014 the MoD recommitted to the USAF/Boeing sustainment partnership that provides the upgrades and maintenance necessary to continue operating the aircraft in the long-term. There's good news as well on the other half of the airlift equation. After significant delays the A400M Atlas is finally starting to come into RAF service, with 22 aircraft planned to replace the 24 C-130Js currently in service. While this superficially appears to be a small reduction, there is apparently strong support for continuing to operate a few, estimated at between seven and nine, C130Js in support of special forces missions beyond 2022. If this is the case then the RAF could be looking at a small net increase of 5-7 airframes over the current fleet of 24 C130Js. There has been some concern expressed over the gap in tactical airdrop capacity since the retirement of the C130K between now and 2018, when the Atlas will take over this role. One possible solution is for the RAF to finally exploit the C-17's potential for tactical application in the parachute and airdrop roles, as the USAF have done. The long term prospects for the airlift fleet are promising, consistent investment and replacement of existing aircraft, on a near one for one basis, means that overall capability in this area will continue to improve.

The RAF's core fleet of  nine Airbus A330 MRTT tankers is now provided by the AirTanker consortium, under a private finance initiative drawn up in 2004. Known as the Voyager KC2 and KC3 in UK service the final tanker aircraft have already been delivered. Curiously, the contract also includes five additional aircraft marked for commercial use, one of which is already in RAF service as a transport aircraft. Like the fast jet force some of the Voyagers, currently two aircraft, are tied to the UK in support of the QRA mission. The remaining four have been stripped of their refueling gear and are in the process of being contracted out to act as civilian airliners, available for RAF use given enough notice and time to refit the gear. All of the Voyagers in British service are currently fitted with the probe and drogue system, this is an issue because several of the major aircraft already in service or soon to enter service (Rivet Joint, C-17 and P-8) are currently only compatible with the boom method of refueling. A boom is already available for the MRTT, and the cost of having them fitted to some of the existing fleet would not be prohibitive. Much has been said and written about the specifics of the AirTanker PFI, and how it provides a poor capability and poor value for money compared with the other options available. However, the situation as it stands means that the RAF is currently stuck with a lousy contract for the foreseeable future.
A330 MRTT of the Royal Australian Air Force fitted with the refueling boom 
There has been some recent good news on the future of the UK's fleet of UAVs. The Prime Minister's announcement that the MoD would look to purchase twenty new "Protector" drones to replace the ten MQ-9 Reapers that have seen near-continuous service in Afghanistan, and more recently Iraq and Syria. Currently it looks like "Protector" will be an upgraded MQ-9 Reaper with new communications equipment, improved endurance and weapons carrying capacity. The choice of Reaper is particularly good news because the UK has already spent time and money integrating the excellent Brimstone missile with the MQ-9. The decision to continue with the US-made drone is almost certainly the correct one. The type will continue to be supported by several major air forces, not least of which the USAF, for the foreseeable future and with that will come a rolling programme of upgrades and equipment allowing the drone to swing into other roles such as maritime patrol and signals intelligence. As for future UAVs like Taranis and Zephyr they both demonstrate the promising future applications for unmanned aircraft, but neither system is anywhere near mature enough to envision using them as replacements for conventional deep penetration strike aircraft (in the case of Taranis) or satellite imagery (in the case of Zephyr). As it stands UAVs like Reaper remain limited by their extreme vulnerability in the face of an opponent with any form of credible integrated air defence system.

Since the Merlin HM3s were transferred to the Royal Navy, to replace the "Junglie" Sea King Mk.4s in use with the Royal Marines, the RAF now only operates two types of heavy lift helicopter. The fleets currently stand at fifty two of the famous twin rotor Chinooks and twenty four smaller Pumas. Both types have been consistently upgraded, the newest Chinooks to the HC6 and older versions to the HC4 and 5 standard. The entire Puma fleet has now been converted to the HC2 standard and the last HC1s were removed from service in 2011. The MoD have also committed to purchasing an additional eight Chinook HC6s by 2017, a modest increase in the size of a fleet which has proved it's usefulness time and again in Afghanistan and Iraq. All in all the dual transport helicopter fleets operated by the RAF are in a good condition, while there is always room for expansion the current plan provides for a modest increase in airframes while also providing for a reasonably comprehensive upgrade programme.
The Chinook has seen hard service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with the fleet
being kept relevant by a rolling process of upgrades.
So, that's the situation as it currently stands. The RAF face serious challenges in a range of areas from fast jets, to ISTAR and aerial refueling. The service's core missions require certain force levels that have proven increasingly difficult to maintain alongside provisions for credible and capable expeditionary air forces. In light of the uncomfortable fact that the defence budget is unlikely to rise very significantly any time soon maybe it's time to consider a different future for the RAF, one that aims to ensure it's continued place as an essential partner in coalition operations and a potent force in it's own right. In order to achieve this with fewer fast jets available for the foreseeable future the RAF should be configured to fill a number of indispensable niche roles with it's expeditionary forces. I would consider areas such as "first day of the war" deep penetration bombing, carrier strike, suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), ISTAR, refueling, maritime patrol and maritime strike to be a reasonable set of capabilities to develop. These strike a balance between "kinetic" and support roles, aiming to use the RAF as framework air force that enables and enhances the effective participation of other, predominantly European, partners.

The key area for immediate development is ISTAR, the potential to use the P-8 as a capable asset in it's own right in this area should not be passed up. In order to ensure that the use of the P-8 in the ISTAR role does not compromise the UK maritime patrol mission, the MoD should look to purchase the full compliment of twelve aircraft. If the money and manpower can be found then continuing to operate Sentinel R.1 beyond 2019 would be a useful, although not essential, change to the planned force structure. The current plan to use F35 in the combat ISTAR role, acting as a medium altitude "information sponge" as well as a highly capable precision strike platform, will also help generate a broad-based ISTAR fleet with a diverse range of capabilities.

The RAF's fleet of E-3D Sentry AEW.1s should be upgraded to the E-3G standard as a matter of urgency, as they continue to provide a vital capability which is rare within NATO. The UK already owns the aircraft and has extensive experience operating them, allowing the British E-3s to decline in operational utility, because of a lack of upgrades, would be to waste an otherwise very capable platform. This would mean that current plans to retire the E-3 in 2025 would need to be revised. There is currently no serious alternative to the Sentry available to the UK that would offer anything like the value for money that upgrading the current fleet would. Until the USAF decide to replace their AWACS fleet Britain would not be able to benefit from the savings generated by a long guaranteed production run. The alternatives to Sentry, if it were to leave service in 2025 as planned, would be either the significantly less capable E-2D Hawkeye or the E-767 currently in service with the Japanese Self Defence Forces. The former is ill suited to the UK's needs for an AWACS platform, lacking endurance and the command and control ability of the larger E-3, which is vital to the effective provision of the QRA mission. The E-767 is essentially a compromise design, because the Boeing 707 upon which the Sentry is based is no longer being produced the Japanese had the E-3's rotodome and equipment fitted to newer Boeing 767s at significant expense. As it stands upgrading the current E-3 fleet and operating it beyond 2025 seems to be the most sensible option for the provision of AWACS in the medium term, until the US decides to replace their E-3s.
One of the six British E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft
The Carrier Strike role will be covered by the F35Bs in joint RN/RAF service, with squadrons stood up between 2018 and 2020 as currently planned. The advanced avionics of the F35B, which reportedly make it a far easier aircraft to perform carrier landings in, should in theory allow the RAF squadrons to rapidly swing between land and carrier based operations when necessary. In the author's opinion the current lack of an air launched anti-ship missile, a necessary piece of equipment of the maritime strike role, somewhat compromises the credibility of the UK's future carrier force. The simplest solution would be to buy the American-made Long Range Anti Ship Missile (LRASM), the expected successor to Harpoon, for both the Royal Navy's Type 26 frigates and the UK's F-35Bs. The Norwegian Naval Strike Missile is also an option, although it has yet to be integrated with the F35 and lacks the ability to attack land targets as a quasi-cruise missile like LRASM. There is also the potential that the american missile will be integrated with the P-8 in the future, the US Navy have already integrated the Harpoon block 1C missile on the aircraft and will likely transition to LRASM once Harpoon is replaced. 

Since the retirement of the excellent ALARM anti-radiation missile in 2013 the RAF has lacked credible SEAD capability, relying on the Royal Navy's submarine launched Tomahawk missiles, the Storm Shadow air launched cruise missile and allies to partially cover the capability gap. Without the ability to neutralise the range of increasingly sophisticated air defence systems being proliferated by Russia and China the RAF will be unable to independently "break into" hostile airspace without putting it's pilots and aircraft at significant risk. One of the critical reasons for the political usefulness of air power is that its use limits casualties and damage to equipment. The risk that aircraft could be shot down, and pilots captured, could be enough to raise the political costs of air operations to the extent where they would lose much of their political value. It is also important to remember that, once hostile air defences have been neutralised, allied air forces can more easily involve themselves in any follow-up phase of sustained air operations. In light of this the current solution to the SEAD requirement, the SPEAR 3 missile, cannot come soon enough.

As for the provision of aerial tanker aircraft my gut inclination would be to bin the AirTanker PFI altogether and buy the aircraft outright. However, the costs of doing so would likely be prohibitive so instead the best option would probably be to move the four Voyagers, currently leased to civil airlines, into RAF service and fit them with the centreline refueling boom. This will give the fleet the flexibility to refuel the Rivet Joints, C17s, P-8s and E-3s in UK service as well as a range of allied aircraft.

The fixed and rotary wing transport fleets operated by the RAF are both in good health and my inclination would be not to fix something that isn't broken. Beyond activating some of the C-17's tactical applications there is very little to be gained by changing much in this area.
The MBDA SPEAR 3 missile will regenerate UK SEAD capability
In order to sustain a broad range of ISTAR and "enabling" capabilities something will have to give. Some of the funds could be drawn from the MoD's 2014 £1.2bn equipment under spend, but even this may not be enough. Typhoon, as previously discussed, is overwhelmingly committed to QRA and there is almost no benefit to be had in cutting the single squadron available for expeditionary operations. I would argue that the UK needs the deployable air to air capability that squadron provides. Reducing the number of F35Bs would also be unwise, the aircraft will underpin British strike capability for thirty years out to 2048. Without an increase in the overall defence budget it is almost inevitable that the RAF will lose capabilities, like those provided by it's enviable ISTAR fleet, that make it more than a medium-sized air force and allow it to act as a framework for coalition action. Provided adequate funds to modernise what it already has, as well as buy vital new equipment like F35 and P-8, the RAF will remain a highly useful political and military tool. In short, there is a great deal which can be gained by continuing to properly invest in the aircraft the UK already owns. It will need to be accepted that, without substantial increases in defence spending, fast jet numbers will remain low and the government will have to make difficult decisions about where to employ its limited resources in this area.

The RAF are going to face a double crisis in the coming years, as ISTAR assets are retired and fast jet numbers may fall dramatically. While capability gaps in vital areas like maritime patrol and SEAD are due to be filled other areas will be increasingly strained. There is no easy solution to the lack of funds which has, along with poor spending decisions, caused the present problems for the RAF. In the author's opinion ISTAR should currently be the priority, delivered by a broad base of aircraft including the P-8 and F35B. This will allow the UK to continue acting as a framework nation in air operations and boost the combat effectiveness of British and allied fast jets. In order to achieve this long-term investments should be made in the E-3 Sentry and P-8 Poseidon. The former requires investment and a comprehensive upgrade programme while the latter needs to be ordered in significant numbers. The RAF desperately needs a long-term procurement strategy that makes the most of what it has, rather than sacrificing valuable assets in the hope of "jam tomorrow".

Thursday, 1 October 2015

A Very Special Relationship: Britain and the United States

Britain's relationship with the United States has increasingly come under attack from certain sectors of society in the last decade and a half. The Anglo-American alliance has been criticised as a deal that only benefits the United States and has actively harmed the UK's international standing. Much of this has come as a result of the leading role played by both states in the conflicts initiated as part of the "War on Terror". Britain's experience of the second Iraq war, and to a lesser extent the conflict in Afghanistan, has been profoundly traumatic. The popular narrative goes that we blindly followed the Americans into an illegal and unjustifiable war, in part because of the political and military closeness commonly described in the UK as the Special Relationship. However, the 2003 Iraq war, like the 1956 Suez Crisis before it, has neither destroyed nor significantly damaged the unique bilateral links that form the basis of the Anglo-American alliance. This is largely because the connections between the two countries run far deeper than foreign policy. In areas such as intelligence sharing, military training, shared operational experience, arms manufacturing, cutting edge military technology, overseas bases and nuclear weapons the UK and US remain the only states with such a wide range of deep and lasting connections.

While its origins date back to the darkest days of the Second World War, the contemporary Anglo-American alliance remains the centerpiece in the network of bilateral treaties and alliances constructed by both states in order to maintain global stability at the highest levels. The Anglosphere nations: Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are unique in their collective geo-strategic position. All are essentially strategic islands, bereft of direct military threats to their territory, and therefore they are able to take a more systematized and global view of their security interests. It is no surprise then, that these  states are the ones which currently underwrite the international order, giving institutions like the UN the political, moral, military and financial backing they require to remain relevant and muscular.

Despite this, it has become a running theme in British politics, especially since 2003, to criticise the Special Relationship as a one-sided deal that does not benefit the UK and which enables ill-considered American military action. In order to address this critique it's necessary to examine what, in practical terms, the UK gains from it's partnership with the United States. I have already outlined some of the areas where bilateral co-operation is exceptionally close, but the rational place to start is with the most high-profile link: the sharing of nuclear weapons technology. Contrary to popular belief the UK does not make use of US nuclear weapons. Britain has the independent capacity to build and maintain it's own warhead stockpile, centered on the two Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield in England. The weapons themselves are thought to be a modified "Anglicised" version of the American W76 warhead, with design details and certain components shared under the 1958 US-UK mutual defence agreement (recently renewed in 2005). For deployment aboard the Royal Navy's Vanguard class submarines, the British-built warheads are fitted to the 58 American-made Trident II D5 missiles leased by the UK and maintained at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems plant in King's Bay, Georgia.

While some have argued that this degree of nuclear co-operation creates an unhealthy dependence on the goodwill of the United States for the continued existence of the UK's deterrent, with some challenging it's status as an independent deterrent at all, the decision to employ Britain's nuclear weapons still ultimately rests with the Prime Minister. While it is certain that, if necessary, Britain could create wholly independent native weapons and delivery systems the costs of doing so would be high. With the current deal the UK balances independence with affordability and gains access to some of the most modern nuclear delivery vehicles in the world. Today, with the successor to the Vanguard class planned to enter service in 2028, Anglo-American co-operation looks set to increase. The agreement to design a common missile compartment for the next generation of British and American ballistic missile submarines is an especially important milestone for both countries. The cost to deliver continuous at sea deterrence for the UK is estimated to be £15-20bn over thirteen years for four successor submarines, improvements to infrastructure, refurbishment of Britain's warhead stockpile and the Trident II missile life extension programme. Including running costs the UK nuclear deterrent will continue to cost the taxpayer around £3bn per year (0.23% of GDP, as of 2015) and some 25% less than France's entirely independent force. In terms of US-UK co-operation around the nuclear deterrent, in the author's opinion, the UK continues to get a very good deal.
One of the four Vanguard class submarines which provide
the UK's continuous at sea deterrent
The next core area where the UK directly benefits from the Anglo-American alliance is in non-nuclear defence technology. The export and sale of US defence technology is controlled by their International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR), as of 2012 the UK has received a qualified exemption to these rules. The British government and a number of private third parties vetted by both governments can exchange and export unclassified information and defence equipment with little difficulty so long as the end user is one of the agreed parties. It is noteworthy that the US has only granted ITAR/EAR exemptions to two other countries: Canada in 1963 and Australia in 2013. Those who claim that the US' "real" special relationships are with Israel and Japan should note that neither country has anywhere near the same access to advanced American defence technologies as the UK and other anglosphere nations do. During the second half of the Cold War British warships had access to the latest signals intelligence equipment from the US. The urgent requirements of fighting the war in the South Atlantic in 1982 saw the Americans share the ultra-modern AIM9L sidewinder missile and the new automated Phalanx close in weapons system with the UK. More recently, when the Royal Navy's nuclear powered attack submarine programme ran into technical difficulties in 2003 Britain was able to tap into the expertise of the General Dynamics Electric Boat company and the US Navy in order to resolve some of the problems and control the cost overruns. The Astute class are now widely considered to be amongst the best attack boats in the world, gaining substantial praise from the US Navy (the most prolific operator of nuclear submarines in the world) when HMS Astute conducted her sea trials off the East coast of America. On the subject of co-operation on nuclear submarines, the UK has reportedly had a very high level of access to the US Navy's latest nuclear submarine reactor, the S9G, lessons from which will be used in the development of the next generation of British reactors, the PWR-3, which will power the successor deterrent boats and likely the next generation of attack boats after the Astutes as well. Once again the close relationship with the United States is saving the British taxpayer money, and helping the MoD to deliver the equipment that ensures that the UK armed forces remain highly capable in their own right.
HMS Illustrious, pictured in 1983, fitted with the American Phalanx CIWS:
an effective defence system against sea-skimming missiles like Exocet.
Another area where the Special Relationship remains deeply relevant is in military training and shared operational experience. In maritime operations the combined Anglosphere navies have been described as "an international city at sea", capable of conducting combined operations with an ease that few other allies can. This does not come easily, just because they all speak the same language doesn't meant that the different operating procedures and national idiosyncrasies don't get in the way of operating effectively together. What makes Anglosphere naval forces, and especially the partnership between the Royal and US Navies, different is that they have been exercising, training and operating together since 1945. A major change was the creation of the NATO Standing Naval Force Atlantic (now Standing NATO Maritime Group 1) in 1968 as a formal structure for co-operation between the European and North American navies. Over time the trust and operational experience built between the Anglosphere navies has come to be one of the great international success stories, to the extent that joint operations in areas of mutual interest like the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa have become the norm rather than the exception. In recent years we have seen RN Type 45 destroyers escorting American Nimitz class super carriers, and the US Navy has expressed interest in occasionally providing American escorts for the UK's Queen Elizabeth class carriers when they become operationally active in 2018. This would help relieve pressure on the already stretched British escort fleet, potentially freeing up valuable high-end warships for other tasks and contingencies.

A very high degree of combined training and operational experience has also been built between the land forces of the UK and the US in the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Access to US training facilities, like the simulated Afghan villages built in the Mojave desert, helped the British army work up it's units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. By training together and sharing operational experience, a process which has continued since the end of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the land forces of both countries have had the opportunity to learn from one another and develop new ways of approaching the operational and tactical challenges of counterinsurgency warfare. Joint US-UK medical facilities, like the hospital at Camp Bastion, undoubtedly saved the lives of many ISAF soldiers and marines over the course of the war. As did access to the US Army's large fleet of casualty evacuation helicopters. It is fair to say that the close co-operation of Anglo-American forces in Afghanistan undoubtedly saved the lives of many injured soldiers and improved the British Army's ability to fight the Taliban insurgency.
Royal Marines from 42 Commando exercise with the
US Marines in the Mojave desert
Lastly, and possibly more important than any other aspect of co-operation between the two countries, it is necessary to examine the enormous significance of the connection between the anglosphere intelligence services. Founded, like many aspects of the Special Relationship, during the Second World War Britain and America famously worked closely together in the field of signals intelligence (SIGINT) after the US entry into the war in 1941 in order to break the Nazi Enigma codes. Since the end of the war the Anglosphere intelligence agencies have worked more closely than any others. Bound together by the UKUSA Agreement into the "Five Eyes" network each country takes the lead in SIGINT for a particular area of the globe and shares it's information with the others. While broader Western intelligence networks exist, the "Nine Eyes" (including the five plus France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway) and the "Fourteen Eyes" (the nine plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden) none are nearly as close as the core network of five. Intelligence co-operation on this scale means the UK is an integral partner in what is likely the finest SIGINT gathering network in the world. The Special Relationship forms the cornerstone of this network, with British and American intelligence agencies working closely to counter a vast array of threats, ranging from terrorism to the proliferation of WMD and tackling organised and cyber crime. 
GCHQ, the UK centre for Signals Intelligence
By examining the breadth and depth of defence and intelligence co-operation between the UK and the US it is quite clear that Britain gains enormously from the Special Relationship. The fact that these ties are so often overlooked in the public debate on the continuing relevance of the Anglo-American partnership is lamentable. The decisions to take the UK to war in 2001 and 2003 were ultimately political choices made by the Blair government, influenced by a perception of an alignment in foreign policy interests for both countries during the "War on Terror". But, as I have outlined, the Special Relationship between Britain and the United States runs far deeper than foreign policy, permeating and enhancing almost all aspects of Britain's hard power on the world stage. The chief popular criticism of the partnership is that it creates a sort of blind servility to the US on the part of the UK, I would contend that this is not the case. British leaders have defied the United States in the past: Harold Wilson's refusal to enter the war in Vietnam, Thatcher's reaction to the invasion of Grenada, Major's caution on the US approach to Bosnia. Despite these instances of disagreement on foreign policy, just like the instance of unpopular agreement in 2003, the enormously close ties between the two countries endure. In 2011 efforts were made to re-brand the Special Relationship as the "Essential Relationship", suggesting a more pragmatic and less emotional connection. However, in the author's opinion either term could be used to describe it, because ultimately the US-UK relationship remains both special and essential.