Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
A recent spat in the vitriol-filled columns of the South China Morning Post raised doubts about the readiness of the UK military. These statements prompted my research. This verified some of the claims, revealing a litany of poor decisions and waste. Most horrifying is the fact that troops had to fight with shoddy kit, unfit for purpose, in pointless wars.
History has taught us that trouble can come from unexpected sources. Catching nations unaware. The military has a pivotal role to play when things get nasty. Thus, it is disturbing to see the shambolic readiness of Her Majesties armed forces.
As things stand, the army has around 83,000 personnel. And that includes the reserves. Retention rates are getting worst, as soldiers leave for the less demanding civilian world. Attempts to massage the figures border on the desperate.
In the latest jolly wheeze, reserve soldiers get cited as trained having fired ten rounds on a 25 m range. Even if the soldier fails the fitness test, he still passes muster. All he needs to do is promise to come back later for another go. For reference purposes, the United States Marine Corp has around 185,000 active members plus some 38,500 reserves.
The Brylcreem boys are doing no better. The RAF is cut to six squadrons of frontline planes. At times defending UK airspace are no more than two interceptors. Should an enemy arrive in numbers, a response may well prove impossible to mount. For the moment, there are few operational bombers and no submarine hunting planes. That’s a concern for a maritime nation.
The late arrival of the expensive F- 35 Lightning is getting loads of publicity. At £70m a pop this is a lavish bit of kit. Unfortunately, reports suggest it's not all chocks away. Technical issues blight the plane, while its ability to fight is now in question. In recent runoffs against a Typhoon, the F- 35 lost every time. Pilots cite its low payload and lack of endurance. It would appear that its trumpeted capabilities are untested beyond computer simulations. Real-world conditions are taking their toll on this fancy box of tricks. Although, it yet may prove itself, the omens are not promising.
The RAF has taken delivery of 11 airframes to date, as it builds up a squadron. Currently, the RAF has on its books 143 Typhoons and 138 ageing Tornado jets. That only tells part of the story. 33 of the Tornados are not available for service. These await cannibalisation for spare parts. Meanwhile, over a quarter of the Typhoons are offline in the ‘sustainable’ fleet. In effect, this means the planes are moth-balled. Most of the Chinook fleet of helicopters, so crucial to trooping, also sits idle. How long it would take to activate this kit is not known. Some of the Chinooks have not flown for 20 years.
In the long run, drones provide a better option. These are not sexy as out goes the fly-boy image. Drones do the job, are cheaper to operate; have greater range, can loiter longer over targets, and are expendable. When it goes wrong, no pilot is at risk. Those who argue against drones suggest having a human see the target avoids civilian casualties. In reality, pilots are sitting thousands of feet away and using technology to see the hit point. It’s no different for a drone operator.
Anyway, evidence from recent operations points to mounting civilian casualties. It doesn't matter whether a drone or manned plane hits the target, innocents still get killed.
Should a large-scale conflict break out, the tempo of operations escalates. In no time the demands on equipment are extreme. Maintenance commitments for fancy kit and operational losses soon take a toll. At the height of the Battle of Britain, it was not unusual to have losses of 20 planes a day. Now, granted, warfare has changed. Nonetheless, we couldn’t sustain a campaign of that nature beyond a week. And can anyone say for sure a war of attrition would not occur?
The saga of the Type 45 destroyers points to failings in the Royal Navy. In mid-2016 all six Type 45s docked in Portsmouth. So what was the issue? Well, it appears the Type 45 doesn’t work at sea. The complex systems failed when powered up, as the engines couldn’t generate enough power. Plugged into the mains supply in port, it's all fine and dandy. Put to sea, turn on the systems... kaput.
The Type 45 warships got built in ‘blocks’ in different shipyards. The ‘blocks’ are then brought together for assembly of a whole ship. Unfortunately, the bits didn’t fit together. Misaligned pipes and hydraulics systems meant fitting patches. The result is piping under tension, storing energy, which could be released in rough seas. Whether this or lack of power curtailed the effectiveness of the Type 45s is unknown.
In April 2016, Type 45, HMS Dauntless was removed from active service until at least 2019. Her official status is ‘engineering training ship’ pending a refit. Why a ship commissioned in 2010, needs such a lengthy refit raises questions.
To add to the challenges, the navy failed to recruit enough sailors to operate all six Type 45s. Of course, BAE systems, who built the ships, is being paid to maintain them. Another cracking deal.
The Royal Navy has a track record of putting vessels into service with untested systems. HMS Ambush, an attack sub, was portrayed as the most advanced vessel in its class. Its sonar could detect targets thousands of miles away. Well, that's what the PR boys spouted. Then Ambush hit a huge and noisy tanker in the Med. The sonar and a fancy new periscope failed to see it. A lack of training and testing all contributed to this incident. Lucky no one got killed.
Next, we have the dozy decision to build two aircraft-carriers. The first "Big Lizzie” is stealing crews from other Navy ships because of a lack of recruits. Now the name ‘aircraft-carrier’ suggests “Big Lizzie” will have planes. Doh, no! There aren’t any currently available. The F-35 Lightning II is not online yet for carrier operations. Thus, the carrier is nothing more than a fancy ornament.
But, don’t panic here comes the cavalry. The US Marine Corp will use “Big Lizzie” for their operations. Of course, at the same time, our boys will get some training.
Adding to all the uncertainty is the survivability of carriers during a conflict. Supersonic missiles, approaching on a ballistic trajectory, mean current defences won’t work. Yet, vainglory Admirals love carriers. Big and flashy. Thus, you get to pretend you are a proper navy. The American carriers enjoy a large force of screening craft offering protection. Britain has no such capability.
Britain also has no airborne submarine hunting capability. Interesting fact; the UK donates £200m a year to India in foreign aid. That's about the amount of money needed to sustain a submarine hunting response. By the way, India has a fleet of submarine-hunting aircraft to protect its waters.
Inappropriate kit and bad decisions have consequences. In the early 2000s, at least 37 British soldiers died because of the failure to give them protection. In Afghanistan, the Brits drove around exposing themselves to roadside IEDs. Other nations trooped by air, thereby avoiding the IEDs. British helicopters were not available. Inter-service rivalry stalled a consensus on the type of helicopter needed. Then the Chinooks arrived late and went into storage.
Likewise, the use of the Snatch Land Rover meant troops had no protection against blast. In a self-serving myth, the generals sought to deflect blame for that to the politicians. It's true the politicians played a role. It's also true that senior military commanders made a mess of things. They failed to see new threats, then pursued personal and service agendas. They sent troops into the field with sub-standard kit and cannot escape blame.
The military loves to boast about its ability to respond to natural disasters. Much of its recruitment publicity material pivots around this role. Again, the truth is dismaying. Amid the destruction caused by Hurricane Irina in the Caribbean, British military efforts proved lacklustre.
Only one helicopter was available. The Lynx Wildcat has a limited lift load of 1,480kg. That compares with a Chinook, which can lift 8,600 kg. As the Royal Navy struggled to help, a dozen Chinooks sat mothballed in the UK. As a consequence British subjects were left to struggle for weeks. On adjacent islands, under French jurisdiction, the recovery was swift.
Short-sighted thinking and bright ideas have blighted the RAF in recent years. 14 Airbus planes were acquired for air-to-air refuelling and troop transportation. The smart part is the planes can be rented to civilian operators when not needed by the RAF. As usual these days, a private finance agreement managed the project. All good? Except the planes cannot refuel all types of RAF planes. To accommodate civilian use, the planes omitted the rigid refuelling boom system.
The partners in this deal is the AirTanker consortium. It stands to make a profit even if the RAF doesn't use the planes. Plus, if the RAF opts to deploy another contractor for moving troops, AirTanker can claim as much as £8,000 per flight. What a deal! In summary, the RAF has acquired tankers it can't use in all scenarios, and it pays for not using them.
AirTankers main competition comes from a company operating with Lockheed Tristar air-refuelling aircraft. These planes can handle all types of refuelling. Why’s that? These are former RAF aircraft sold off in 2014. If the RAF opt to employ their old tankers, they need to compensate AirTanker. Figure that one.
Finally, Britain prides itself on being a member of the nuclear club. That status buys it a place at the UN’s top table. It gets to play with the big boys, despite being a small island nation. Unfortunately, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is not as independent as we thought.
In June 2016, during a test firing of a missile from HMS Vengeance, something went wrong. After leaving the sub, the rocket flew off course. Never a good thing for a nuclear missile, although this one had a mock warhead. The US military contractor then destroyed it. Yes, the US military had control of the missile in flight. This incident revealed British nuclear weapons pass their telemetry through US systems. This event was on a range under test conditions, yet it prompts many questions.
The nuclear missiles are US manufactured, maintained and leased to Britain. Thus, the whole system is dependent on the US. France has an independent nuclear system, as does North Korea. The UK has a borrowed system. As long as the Yanks is well disposed the United Kingdom, that should be fine right? Questions about the extent of US control of Britains nuclear arsenal remain unresolved. With Donald Trump in the Whitehouse who’s worried?
As a side issue, Vengeance and her sister Vanguard boats all operate on Windows XP. Anyone who runs XP knows its limitations. Recent cyber attacks must be raising red flags.
Britain is not unique in generating hubris around its military forces. Passed down the generations are tales of individual acts of heroism and robust actions. Of concern though is that myths sometimes hide facts. And these truths can be unsettling.
Yes, we stood alone for a year against Nazi Germany. Although attrition ultimately won the war, with the Russians paying the price. The Allies aided by an endless supply of US material. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the audacious Falklands campaign was a close run thing. Had the Argentinians held out for another week, the British Forces faced exhaustion of their supplies. Victory hung on thread.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, notable failures raised doubts. The death toll of 453 in Afghanistan achieved nothing. Individual British soldiers fought with tenacity throughout the war, yet this effort was all for nothing. Let down by inferior equipment, inadequate training, and no clear mission. Layed atop this, bad strategic leadership.
In Basra, British troops got caught up in a vicious civil war that they couldn’t comprehend nor hope to control. In truth, the soldiers were there so the politicians could maintain a visceral relationship with the US. In the end, the British military had to hand over to the US and pull out. Inappropriate tactics, the lack of body armour, all contributed to what was a defeat.
Which brings us to 2017. Britain’s defences are rickety at best; not fit for purpose at worst. Poor choices made by military leaders, a lack of numbers coupled with slipping standards, mean a degraded fighting ability. Instead of focusing on the basics, grand projects attract all the attention and funding. A carrier is about power-projection, and there’s the issue. Britain is seeking to create the impression its still a big player on the world stage.
With Brexit looming, the economics of maintaining fancy military projects is looking dodgy. Some tough decisions are needed. For now, the Ministry of Defence is busy selling off military real estate to generate funds. But that’s a one-off shot of cash. Once sold the land is lost forever. The panglossian statements of the ever-efficient military PR machine can’t hide those brutal truths.
I’d suggest getting back to basics. Britain needs to recognise its no longer a mini-superpower. Then, it can move to configure its military forces for protecting the nation. Instead of getting involved in futile overseas wars.
Lastly, the young men and women who are in harm's way deserve the best kit and systems. They also deserve better leaders, both political and military. I am sorry to say there is abundant evidence that aren’t happening.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.