Developments in British military procurement

I recently had a bit of a ramble on here about procurement in Britain and the problems that have recently been faced, and it seems that I have not been the only one to have been concerned; a scathing independent review has been published by industrialist Sir John Parker in which the over-reliance of the HM Government on BAE systems has been brought under sharp scrutiny:

Sir John has highlighted the rampant inefficiencies caused by sourcing all shipbuilding contracts through one enormous conglomerate upon which the government is entirely reliant, and suggests a variety of sensible solutions including a continuation of the modular construction process that proved so successful with the new supercarriers:

Report recommends Type 31 Frigate build should be spread around UK

I would hope that producing all future ships in such a sectional fashion would allow for easy adjustment of vessels to meet changing situations; this concept of modular design has already been championed for the Type 26 Frigates, and hopefully will enjoy enough success to be shared in many future ships.

The only major criticism I can foresee arising from this report is from the Clyde, from whence I imagine the primary line will be to bewail job losses. Regrettably, improvements in defence procurement may lead to losses of jobs at established sites but it must be remembered that the primary job of defence spending is not to sustain civilian jobs; it is to secure the defence of the nation.

The report by Sir John is set to inform the National Shipbuilding Strategy upon its publication next year, which could well prove to be an interesting time in the Royal Navy; as over three decades of reductions in ship numbers may finally be reversed.

The government’s own piece on the report:

And a detailed analysis by Save the Royal Navy:

The Western lurch to the Right

Today’s announcement of the election of Donald Trump to become the next President of the United States is only the latest stage in a wave of discontented political expression sweeping the Western World.

Since the end of the Second World War, and with particular prevalence in the past three decades or so, the Western World has been dominated by left-wing and liberal ideals. The horrors of Twentieth Century right-wing politics have continued to inspire dread, and even more right-inclined parties like the British Tories have little in the way of truly right-wing motivation or intent.  (I will continue to use the ‘wing’ terms for political opinions throughout this piece for brevity, although I personally disagree with the idea that such umbrella terms can provide an accurate picture of divergent political opinions)

The political status quo of the Western World had been largely unchallenged in its liberal approach to the world, until the Financial Crisis of 2007-8. The dawn of a second Great Depression saw an increasing popular ire against the establishment surface, as many felt that a distant political and economic class had been gambling with their future and pursuing goals out of line with the opinions of those they had been elected to represent.

The political left wing has traditionally been associated with representing the views of the many, but after so long a period holding virtual hegemony they had essentially become the establishment that so many were beginning to rail against. Much of the anger has stemmed from the globalised world, with projects such as the EU and NAFTA presenting a picture of national politicians whose interests no longer prioritised the electorates to whom their position was owed. The excessive spending on international projects that actively undermined domestic industries and employment did little to stymie concerns that the political elite were out of touch.

The recent votes in the UK and USA for such radical alterations in the ways these countries will face the world are a natural consequence of an electorate who feel that their political establishment are at odds with their own concerns, whilst the campaigns and their aftermath have provided an eloquent description of the detachment of the two spheres.

The prolonged leftist hegemony of Western political thought had created a complacency that has been well demonstrated during the EU referendum and U.S. Presidential campaigns; both saw the establishment candidates relying more on condemnation of the alternative points of view than an advocation for their own. The huge and public outpourings of grief, hand-wringing, and condemnation in the aftermath have likewise done much to foster and encouraged a continued climate of mutual dislike and mistrust rather than maintain a society in which difference of opinion is to be respected. The refusal to consider the opinions of others, or demonstrate a degree of empathy, has done much to alienate electorates who largely do not possess the bigoted mindsets so readily applied to them by their critics.

The extent of the leftist establishment has come into sharp relief during these last campaigns. The endless processions of highly-paid experts and weeping celebrities that surfaced to urge people to vote safe did little to sway public opinion, and may in fact have actively undermined their cause. In Britain, in my experience, the Cult of Celebrity is a fickle one and many are disinclined to merely do as some wealthy person in the public eye bids them. Likewise, the respect afforded to experts (particularly in academia) appears to have drastically reduced – thanks in no part to the financial crisis, but also the ideological hegemony of many Western universities.

Many reports have emerged of ideological groupthink within places of higher learning across the Western World, in which dissenting ideas are banned and students run the risk of becoming pariahs for questioning a militantly leftist establishment. Someone close to me has recently started university, and found thenself alone in their views as their lecturers present successive classes on feminism and the evils of capitalism without recourse to a counter-opinion. Within the results of last night’s election was a statistic correlating the votes of US citizens with their higher education; the implicit suggestion was that only stupid people would vote for Trump as the vast majority of those with a college education turned to Clinton, yet it could equally be that those sent to American seats of higher learning are often being taught that there is only one way to think politically, and woe betide those who would consider Wrongthink.

The willingness of Western media to present slants on their stories has done much to exacerbate the issues of alienation; most Leave or Trump voters are not  frothing racists, and the aggressive condemnation of alternate opinions exhibited  does as little to endear people to the established left as the patronising assertions of elites that they know better. Many voters are tired of being told how to think, and an establishment that treats their concerns with such virulent scorn encourages an equally violent counter-reaction.

There is no inherently right or wrong way to view the world, and the division of schools of thought into only two camps immediately encourages an ‘us and them’ mentality. In the Western World of the moment, the rise of so many right-wing movements should serve as a lesson in the dangers of a closed minded system, whatever its beliefs. History is filled with the remains of systems that failed to appreciate the concerns of their people until it was too late and one can only hope that our modern establishments will remember this lesson and allow for peaceful change.


The best soldiers are not warlike

There is an ancient Chinese maxim which states that “the best soldiers are not warlike, the best fighters do not lose their temper” which remains a profoundly accurate observation that holds merit on a variety of levels.

Lao Tzu, who coined the phrase, was advocating for a subtle approach to conflict, in which he believed the best way to overcome ones adversaries was without bloodshed. The Chinese approach to warfare has oft been to minimise loss and achieve victory without recourse to the decisive battle so favoured by the West. In this aspect alone the Classical Chinese virtue may be observed in the saying, bestowing the thoughtful soldier with qualities admirable to his society.

In addition to the societal approach to war inherent in the maxim, however, further meaning may be drawn even to the individual level. From commander to frontline soldier it can be observed that violent aggression is a detrimental trait in soldiers; the ultimate fate of many warrior societies upon their encounters with developed armies should provide apr evidence of this. Much modern training in the West (I must confess I have little knowledge of training outside the Western world) is designed to weed out violent recruits and limit  aggression to the times it is most required.

The aggressive soldier is detrimental to their unit, as they will think less clearly in times of stress and may lash out impulsively rather than follow orders. The desire to attack and do harm is a personal one and deeply selfish, and will threaten to undermine the cooperation necessary for success on the battlefield.

At all levels of military thinking violence should not be the default response; the use of force should be measured and rational in order to achieve the ends without unnecessary loss of life. This is not to suggest that all military goals can be achieved without violence, but that its application should only be realised if it is appropriate. To this end the best soldiers are those to whom the use of force is a necessary evil, rather than a preferable choice. The best military leader is one who is able to suffer losses, cause harm, and use any means at their disposal to fight a war, but to also be unwilling to start one. 

Unilateral Disarmament

It has come to light that the U.N. is to begin discussions on unilateral nuclear disarmament, in a move that has shocked many within the international status quo. It is easy to understand why non-nuclear nations should wish to rid the world of the apocalyptic powers that others can wield, but it is equally to be expected that they should not demonstrate the perspective that has allowed for the current proliferation.

Deterrence by the threat of nuclear annihilation is merely the latest form of securing world peace through threat of arms – the overwhelming power of the Royal Navy served this purpose in the century between the fall of Napoleon and the Great War, whilst various military powers had likewise prevented large-scale wars by their power in the time beforehand.

It is an uncomfortable thought for many that peace should be maintained by the threat of violence, but it is an unfortunate truth that this has long proven the best means to deter those who would achieve their ends at the expense of their neighbours. As Churchill once said, ‘We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm’. Arms have proven throughout time to be the surest means to prevent bloodshed, and nuclear weapons stand as merely the latest iteration of this trend.

It would be possible to maintain peace in a world without nuclear weapons, as strong military forces were able to do before their advent, but th enuclear genie has been released from the bottle at this stage. Were many nations to agree to this idea and begin their disarmament, there would be no guarantee that all would do so, and those obeying the treaty would suddenly find themselves at an enormous strategic disadvantage – unable to safely compel the rogue state to disarm alongside them, and unable to rearm lest that be taken as provocation.

The unfortunate truth is that nuclear weapons have prevented an all-out war from erupting for almost 80 years; despite the dangers of the Cold War, cool heads prevailed. It was understood that only by seeming ready to do the unthinkable could it be deterred. The recent crises in world security, particularly those caused by Russia, are a result of a Western world that has forgotten the importance of the credibility of defence. A weakened conventional military likewise weakens the nuclear arm, as the last resort becomes increasingly relied in as the first response, and this has been taken advantage of. For nuclear deterrence to work, one must seem willing to launch an attack.

The aftermath of the Cold War has seen many forget the importance of nuclear arms in maintaining peace, and whilst their use should well appear abhorrent, their exsitence is the primary tool in the prevention of further global conflict. A readiness for war in all forms is the primary tool in deterring aggression, and the U.N. would do well to remember that good intentions alone are not enough to prevent the worst excesses of human ambition.castle_bravo_blast

The article in question:

Defence Procurement

Defence procurement can provide a vital foundation to national heavy industry and job creation. Indeed, many of the press releases heard in the UK about vital defence projects will often list the number of jobs secured above the actual defence needs being met.

Despite the obvious advantages of a robust defence sector, however, this nation has suffered in recent decades from what appears to be a lack of general oversight in defence procurement. Shortages of spare parts have left some forces, such as the Challenger Main Battle Tanks, without sufficient spare parts to sustain lengthy deployments, whilst shortages of munitions have led to ignominious withdrawals from campaigns such as the intevention in Libya.

Developments under the current government have seen a welcome shift in the approach to the military, with increases in spending and an apparent willingness to greatly improve the nation’s defence.  The development of a new MoD department to oversee procurement generated little attention but also demonstrated a desire to improve the support process for the Armed Forces. It is important for the next few years that this apparatus be used to not only procure impressive big-ticket items such as the new supercarries, but to also invest in the support network below them. New ships look good, but without sufficient munitions to supply them they will be no more than paper tigers.

The loss of the Royal Ordnance Factories in 1987 saw defence procurement handed from a state-run enterprise into a more competetive private venture. It was hoped that healthy competition would make defence cheaper, and the technologies provided better, but much of the competition has been eclipsed inm the country as multiple defence companies have been consolidate into the great colossus of British Aerospace Engineering (BAE).

BAE domninate government orders inthe country, and indeed rank highly among global defence firms, providing cutting edge technology and contributing in many multrinational projects but BAE, unlike such defence suppliers as Mitsubishi heavy industry, relies entirely on military orders to keep it running, whilst the MoD relies heavily on BAE to keep itself equipped. This vicious circle sees taxpayers money being used to largely sustain a privatised supply of military equipment. In a recent disclosure it appeared that the MoD had given BAE an extra £100 million on top of orders for OPVs in order to keep yards operational, to quote a Commons briefing paper:

“The provisional cost of the new vessels was given as £348 million but because the TOBA required a £230 million a year spend with BAE, the Defence Secretary estimated the additional cost to the MoD of the ships, over and above the payments the MoD would have had to have made to BAE, is less than £100 million… Philip Hammond, then Defence Secretary, admitted “we are effectively ordering the OPVs to soak up money we would have been paying in any case to have these yards stand idle.” *

Like the fabled military-industrial complex of the US, the British government has found itself bound to the fate of BAE – they cannot refuse to pay, as failing to support the yards would see the vast majority of defence support in the country go under, but they cannot afford to support buying more hardware. Whilst in the US the government are buying vehicles their military don’t need at the behest of private interest, the British government are selling ships they don’t have to in order to buy more.

A more competetive and free British military industry would obviously offer the government more options, whilst a more assertive state could likewise ensure its money was not being wasted. It is difficult to predict where the future of procurement will take us, but one should hope that whichever direction it is the needs of the nation are put first. As we separate from the European Union we can hope to see a greater level of investment in domestic capability – the enforced sale of HMS Invincible to be scrapped in Turkey rather than a British yard provides one example of how non-state intervention could damage our economy, whilst the closure of British steelyards due to lack of domestic orders should provide an example of what a lack of general industrial policy can do to a national economy.

It is easy to criticise procurement from the outside, espectially when it is linked to private interest, as stalled negotiations and endless teething problems with new technologies leave promising new designs firmly on the drawing board, but the British government in recent years is showing signs of progress. After the disastrous 2010 Defence Review the military has been hard pressed, but as several long-term plans have matured, and a new National Shipbuilding Strategycomes to the fore we do have reason to be hopeful.

A last concern in the field of defence procurement, however, is the increased focus on technologies: by emphasising the importance of technology one can be sure to get the best, but not the volume. As much of the press on new vehicles focusses on jobs, equally as much is focussed on advanced capability, but thiss comes at a cost. The Type-45 destroyers provide a perfect example; these ships are far and away some of the best in the world, but we only have six. With the multitude of commitments the Royal Navy has to meet, six surface combatants are far below th enumbers needed, especially at thier ticket cost – a £1 billion ship seems an unlikely choice for counter-piracy patrols, but at the current state the Royal Navy does not have any other units to use.

I do not mean to argue that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’ but in military terms one should have some volume to forces. With only 19 surface combat ships, and fewer than half the number of tanks of nations like France, there is little room for losses in the British military. The tanks and ships may be the best in the world, but in war losses and accidents do occur, and you need substantial reserves to accomodate them. (We do not even have the means to build more Challengers any more). Likewise, by spending vast amounts on tnew echnologies you also have less money to retain service personnel; without people to man the ships they are just as useless as those with no munitions.

This piece is less a suggestion of how to address the problems than a series of thoughts on the dilemmas that face those in charge of procurement, I would welcome suggestions on how to address them, and any discussion that could arise.


Where we stand in the world

Too many times have I heard the argument that our nation should constrain its actions for the simple reason that we are not as great as we were. It is true that there is no longer a world-spanning British Empire, but this self deprecating mindset would not simply maintain the status quo but actively retreat from world affairs and abandon any possibility for improvement.

Britain as it currently exists is still a powerful nation, and although much of our influence now lies in soft power – derived in large part from a legacy of greatness, and a robust financial sector – we still retain a large number of overseas commitments. In addition to the Commonwealth of nations, of which Britain is the head, there remain ten overseas territories in need of defence and support, and a multitude of alliances and friendly nations which we are obligated to support.

This is not to say that mindless intervention in all foreign affairs is the right course of action;  tactless interventions in recent years have done much to damage British prestige and encourage the aforementioned mindset of constraining national ambition, but to allow past mistakes to govern our future would be tantamount to announcing to the world our unworthiness to continue as a leading player.

Britain enjoyed a rare privilege among the empires of history: whilst most fell to outside invasion and the scattering of its people before a mightier foe, the British Empire faded from the scenes as a result of its greatest triumph – the victories of the World Wars. It was by virtue of this great rolling back of the empire that Britain was able to retain friendly relations across the globe, and not squander remaining resources on costly struggles to hold on to subject provinces. The process was not smooth, but was largely successful.

The withdrawal from empire demonstrated that Britain could retain her position on the world stage without the need to rule the world, and the Cold War that evolved throughout the same period demonstrated the need for her to do so.

It was the end of the Cold War that was to begin the sudden change of opinions towards British action overseas – the lack of a clear threat to our security saw people begin to question the need for a strong defence, as the old adage that ‘those who desire peace should prepare for war’ was forgotten. As the years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and many of those who served throughout it retired,  the institutional memory of the need for strength was likewise forgotten. Heavy-handed Western interventions soured public perception of the military, as budgets were quietly cut to curry favour with voters.

It is necessary to remember the human cost of war; conflict should never be the first response, but extreme problems sometimes require extreme solutions. The respect held in this nation for the service personnel lost in combat is great, but much of that remembrance forgets the cause. It is well that we remember that war bears a heavy price, but sometimes it is a price that may be necessary to prevent greater atrocity. When the US withdrew from Somalia, it was largely a result of their having lost 18 soldiers in the battle of Mogadishu – this was deemed too high a price to pay to stabilise the famine-wracked country, and it was left to a civil war that still continues today, 13 years later.

Since 2010 the British government has radically downsized the military, although this trend appears to have reached its lowest ebb and in recent years has shown signs of reversal. Despite the hammering taken by the British forces, however, they retain an ability act overseas, and whilst they are still able to act the government must be prepared to allow them to do so.

We should not forget our proud military in this nation; it is true that there have been some terrible things done in the past, but so too have great things been achieved; from eradicating the international slave trade to preventing the conquest of Europe on several occasions the British military has been used to achieve great things. The greatest dangers faced by many nations have often emerged during periods in which the use of military force has been looked down upon, and it is best to be mindful that peace today does not guarantee security tomorrow.

By approaching the world with an attitude not of meek acceptance but as a nation proud of its heritage and ready to meet its obligations, Britain could not only live up to her past but act as a force for good in the future. This piece is not intended to advocate for a militaristic foreign policy, but one willing to use all means at our disposal to achieve the ends not only of our own nation but the world as a whole. Soft power is just as capable of achieving great ends as hard, but a strong bedrock for both is a powerful military and a will to use it.

A new blog

I have opened this blog to essentially act as a running commentary on my thoughts in relation to modern military developments, in particular those in the United Kingdom. I cannot promise to post with any degree of regularity, but I hope when I do post it will at least be with coherence.

I have been a student of military history for the past 6 years, and recently completed my MA in the subject, and hope this will allow me to write with a degree of perspective. I will not pretend to be an expert, merely a commentator with a little knowledge.

Whatever follows on here, I hope it is of interest, and can encourage at least a little discourse.