Category: stupid procurement

RQ-170 upshot, part 2: the bubble

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.

Can you hear me now?

Well, here’s a contribution to the debate over the riots. The Thin Blue Trots’…sorry…Police Federation report has been leaked.

Among the failings highlighted by the federation, which represents 136,000 officers, were chronic problems, particularly in London with the hi-tech digital Airwave radio network. Its failings were one reason why officers were “always approximately half an hour behind the rioters”. This partly explained, it said, why officers kept arriving at areas from where the disorder had moved on.

The Airwave network was supposed to improve the way emergency services in London responded to a crisis after damning criticism for communication failures following the 7 July bombings in 2005.

It is being relied upon to ensure that police officers will be able to communicate with each other from anywhere in Britain when the Olympics come to London next summer. The federation wants a review into why the multibillion-pound system collapsed, leaving officers to rely on their own phones.

“Officers on the ground and in command resorted, in the majority, to the use of personal mobile phones to co-ordinate a response,” says the report.

It sounds like BB Messenger over UMTS beats shouting into a TETRA voice radio, as it should being about 10 years more recent. Not *this* crap again!

There’s surely an interesting story about how the UK managed to fail to procure a decent tactical radio for either its army or its civilian emergency services in the 1990s and 2000s. Both the big projects – the civilian (mostly) one that ended up as Airwave and the military one that became BOWMAN – were hideously troubled, enormously overbudget, and very, very late. Neither product has been a great success in service. And it was a bad time for slow procurement as the rapid technological progress (from 9.6Kbps circuit-switched data on GSM in 1998 to 7.2Mbps HSPA in 2008, from Ericsson T61s in 2000 to iPhones in 2008) meant that a few years would leave you far behind the curve.

And it’s the UK, for fuck’s sake. We do radio. At the same time, Vodafone and a host of M4-corridor spin-offs were radio-planning the world. Logica’s telecoms division, now Acision, did its messaging centres. ARM and CSR and Cambridge Wireless were designing the chips. Vodafone itself, of course, was a spinoff from Racal, the company that sold army radios for export because the official ones were ones nobody would import in a fit. BBC Research’s experience in making sure odd places in Yorkshire got Match of the Day all right went into it more than you might think.

Presumably that says something about our social priorities in the Major/Blair era? That at least industrially, for once we were concentrating on peaceful purposes (but also having wars all over the place)? Or that we weren’t concentrating on anything much industrially, and instead exporting services and software? Or that something went catastrophically wrong with the civil service’s procurement capability in the 1990s?

It’s the kind of story Erik Lund would spin into something convincing.

as for the Mahler, I think it could do with a helipad

China’s neo-con blogging fever-swamp, via (of course) Jamie K.

For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: “Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war.

A well-known music critic? Now that’s special. You don’t get detailed comment on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s seabasing capability from Martin Kettle when he’s in one of his SUCK ON MY CULTURE, PROLE moods, or indeed when he’s editorialising, do you? Does Brian Sewell take a view on whether the much delayed Maritime Afloat Replenishment Ship project should go down the Dutch/Canadian JSS route, perhaps building on licence from Schelde in the UK, or stick with specialised tanker and dry-replenishment hulls?

It’s a pity that this doesn’t mean their politics is any more pacific.

Better procurement

Via this Wired piece, I see that the US Special Forces are giving up on the various “Land Warrior” projects to load down soldiers with specialised electronic gear – some readers may remember the BBC documentary on one of MOD’s efforts in this line and the image of a file of soldiers attempting to move stealthily across Salisbury Plain with enormous objects like big plastic mushrooms lashed on top of their helmets. Instead, they’ve issued an RFP for software applications running on Android-based devices to achieve the same aims.

The RFP is here, and what an RFP it is too. It is, among other things, clear, and clearly drafted by someone with substantial technical competence. You try finding many contract managers who know what RFC 5740 specifies. From a technical point of view it’s pretty demanding: multiple video streams, reliable delivery, in an environment of restricted connectivity – rather you than me. (This 2008 RFP may be part of the explanation.)

However, it’s also true that a valid strategy for delivering high bandwidth traffic like video is to shift it from the classic unicast (i.e. one stream per user, from the same source) to a broadcast or multicast route. I wonder if whoever answers it will be an early user of the Stream Control Transmission Protocol, which among other things allows multi-homing at the connection level, so that the same connection between two logical addresses can involve more than one physical source?

This also reminds me of the mid-2000s IP Multimedia Subsystem hype – collaborative whiteboarding was an example use case that came up in literally every vendor presentation, and they would occasionally do demonstrations at conferences, which always turned out to be really awful. Sometimes this was because the server was back in Finland and the endpoints were roaming on a Singaporean operator’s 3G network, with hilarious latency consequences. Sometimes it was because IMS just wasn’t a very good idea.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 6 – Key Strategic Questions

And we’re there! Chapter 6 – Key Questions for the future SDR – attempts to sum up the Green Paper and set some deliverable goals for the full SDR process.

There are six key questions, which also get their own comments threads here; again, one of the salient features is how little there is about the relationship with the US and also that none of the comments seem to find this at all surprising. Not so long ago, suggesting any cooperation with Europe except for the strictest possible interpretation of NATO would reliably get you an avalanche of Tories accusing you of undermining the special relationship. Now, not so much.

It is likely that the American commitment to the NATO Alliance will wane in the next 10 – 20 years…The prospect here, indeed possibly the only prospect, is of closer ties with our European partners through development of the Common Security and Defence Policy….It is obvious that the continual paring down of national capability will end in a Euroforce. Whether this is perchance or by design is a moot point. I think the time has come to stop resisting this and start positively embracing it

The six strategic questions are as follows:

* Given that domestic security cannot be separated from international security, where should we set the balance between focusing on our territory and region and engaging threats at a distance?
* What approach should we take if we employ the Armed Forces to address threats at distance?
* What contribution should the Armed Forces make in ensuring security and contributing to resilience within the UK?
* How could we more effectively employ the Armed Forces in support of wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability?
* Do our current international defence and security relationships require rebalancing in the longer term?
* Should we further integrate our forces with those of key allies and partners?

There’s also this one:

* To what extent and in what areas should we continue to refocus our current efforts on Afghanistan?

The rest is basically a summary, but it’s interesting that a couple of specific policies make it through to the final cut:

Options for enhancing our cyber capabilities and structures to ensure we can defend, and take steps, against adversaries when necessary; and where we might increase our contribution to allied space capabilities or invest in our own national capabilities.

More for reference than anything else, here are the official military planning assumptions, and a list of operations since the 1998 SDR.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 5: People, Equipment, and Structures

So we’ve had the grand tour d’horizon; we’ve had the self criticism; we’ve had the very rapid skip over the nuclear issue; we’ve had a careful balance of general-purpose capability and counterinsurgent language. Now for some hardcore bureaucracy. It’s Chapter 5 of the SDR Green Paper – People, Equipment, and Structures.

This kicks off with the MOD’s personnel problems. As in essentially any organisation of the last 15 years or so, there’s an invocation of having to learn new skills many times in your career, etc, etc. There’s going to be a “whole force concept” review of how the MOD manages its people. There are warm words about looking after our veterans being a moral value. And then there’s this:

The provision of accommodation, for example, is a potential disincentive to home ownership and may not represent the best investment we can make in helping families and personnel deal with the demands of Service life.

I would have thought the disincentive to home ownership would be the wages, and the, well, demands of Service life. (How many mortgage lenders are cool with the idea that the signatory may get shot at any moment?) Seriously. What the fuck? Apparently they’re looking at “alternative models for accommodation”, which might be good if it involved killing off the Annington Homes money pit, but it doesn’t sound like it.

On equipment, the general theme of a renewed interest in industrial policy is there, although the section is very general indeed, in fact vague. Tellingly, the issue of operational sovereignty – which has flared up all over again with regard to the F-35 – is raised:

We will have to revalidate our overall approach to:
* Operational Sovereignty. Our Armed Forces rely on assured overseas sources for some important equipment and support but there are cases where specific industrial capability must be located in the UK for operational reasons

There’s also a nod to arms exporters, presumably to pass the document through the bits of the MOD involved with DESO and friends.

On organisational issues, the chapter contains a bit more meat; it appears a major re-apprisal of the MOD’s structure and business processes is coming, although the drafters warn that the costs of constant reorganisation have been a very serious problem.

Change must be considered carefully in the light of the risks associated with reorganisation highlighted in the Haddon- Cave Report. The future Review will offer an opportunity to re-examine the model and to determine whether and how we might be able to improve on it.

Haddon-Cave is the report on the Nimrod XV230 crash in 2006, which demonstrated that the Nimrod fleet was essentially unairworthy in its entirety and that the engineering and management systems intended to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of the MOD’s aircraft. A major issue it identified was the impact of constant organisational change – something of a theme throughout the public sector in the Blair era.

The chapter finishes with a ritual call for greater efficiency. There’s also this worrying statement, in the light of the bizarre property-booster bit:

the scope for further rationalisation of the defence estate;

Not again…

In short, if Chapter 3 was impressive, Chapter 5 is poor – with the exception of the reference to Haddon-Cave, it’s mostly either made up of truisms or else simply too vague to mean anything at all. And what on earth is this stuff about property? Notably, the comments home in on it at once; it’s also noticeable that by Chapter 5, the trolls have landed.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 4: Partnership

Next slide, please. At last, we’re there – Chapter 4 of the SDR Green Paper tackles the classic question of alignment with the EU, NATO, and the special relationships. And it’s a highly post-American document.

Our current relationships are mutually reinforcing. NATO remains the cornerstone of our security. However, as Europeans, we must take greater responsibility for our security together. Stronger European defence co-operation offers many opportunities, not least in the wider role defence should play in resolving conflict and building peace. The UK will greatly improve its influence if we and our European partners speak and act in concert. A robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO. Playing a leading role at the heart of Europe will strengthen our relationship with the US.

This is the strongest pro-European official statement on defence for quite some time, I think. You’ll observe that any contradiction between the EU and the special relationship is denied, but it’s also true that there’s not very much about the US here at all. In that sense, this is a radical statement.

The Review will need to determine where there is scope to increase the effectiveness of those relationships in delivering our security or to rebalance our investments across the organisations. In particular:
* how we can strengthen European nations’ contribution to global security, including through more effectively aligning resources and priorities;
* how we can further improve cooperation between NATO and the EU;
* how we increase equitable burdensharing within NATO and the EU, particularly with respect to operational deployments;
* whether there is scope for increased role specialisation or capability-pooling within NATO and the EU in order to create a more coherent and capable output;

These are the cliché questions, of course – why won’t Germany let their helicopters fly at night, does Europe really need quite so many conscripts, does Austria having a dozen Eurofighter really contribute to anything much. There is truth to them, although perhaps less than there would be if the US Marines didn’t impose their own national caveats on the US Army. It’s in their nature that they will only be settled by long and imperfect negotiation, and if the UK wants them settled, it will probably have to signal that it’s serious about European cooperation.

* whether we should increase our investment in UN peacekeeping, and in particular our contribution of forces to UN operations;
* where we could offer further assistance in strengthening the strategy and planning functions for UN operations at headquarters level; how we continue to streamline and improve the cost-effectiveness of each organisation; and

This suggests a possible use for the exportable surplus of generals identified in comments here.

* how we most effectively generate influence within coalitions and with our key partners

I would argue that an ally whose support is not totally certain has far more influence than one that will go-along-to-get-along with anything…and I suspect that so would the SDR drafters.

Beyond Europe and North America, the Review should consider the merits of formalising our long-standing bilateral relationships and where new and expanded partnerships could bring mutual advantage and reinforce global and regional security. For example, regional security organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union are already playing an important role in ensuring international stability and there is scope to further improve links between these organisations and the EU and NATO. In the recent economic crisis, the G20 emerged as critical to coordinating the response of the international community. Some argue that we must similarly expand the international security architecture to better include emerging powers.

I’m not sure if there’s much in this, but it’s encouraging that the drafting process isn’t focusing just on Europe and the Atlantic.

The “partnership” theme is also used to discuss working with civilian organisations, and the problems of building the reconstruction element of a counter-insurgency strategy. Although the word isn’t used, there’s quite a bit of the language – if Chapter 3 had a Gian Gentile-like concern for general-purpose capability and adaptability, Chapter 4 at least sounds more like Abu Muqawama.

We have made major strides forward with what is called the Comprehensive Approach – a unified approach to defence, diplomacy and development. There has been progressive improvement, driven particularly by our experiences in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, since early 2008 we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts and we now have an integrated structure, headed jointly by a UK senior civilian representative and the UK Commander Task Force Helmand, and focused on the rapid delivery of stabilisation effect in an insecure environment, alongside military operations.

The Stabilisation Unit – jointly owned and staffed by DFID, FCO and MOD – has improved the UK’s ability to plan, deploy and direct activities in fragile and failing states, including countries emerging from conflict. In particular, it has established a new Civilian Stabilisation Group with over 800 deployable external experts and over 200 civil servants with the right skills and experience to help countries recover from conflict….

Only local people will determine whether, in the long-term, a country or region will establish self-sustaining stability. They have a right to be consulted on the path that they will take towards that stability. Ultimately, they will lead and own this path. Their knowledge and understanding will also enhance the prospects of our success.

Sunday SDR, Chapter 3: Adaptability and Influence

Well, it’s going to be more like “All SDR, All the Time”, as I’ve just noticed that MOD is planning to close the consultation in two weeks. Here goes.

Well, Chapter 3 is in my mind the most impressive bit of the SDR Green Paper so far. It basically sets out the notion that, although the military have as usual succeeded in adapting to the conditions in the field and generally cracking on, the broader defence establishment – the MOD policy-making process, the defence procurement system, the intelligence services, the defence industries – have not done anywhere near as well in coping with constantly changing priorities.

The point is made that although the MOD succeeded, eventually, in turning around a fearsome number of Urgent Operational Requirements very quickly to support the Army in Afghanistan, the very need to issue so many UORs demonstrates that the main equipment programme was dysfunctional. Further, the defence establishment is put on notice that it will have to save money in order to fix the core equipment programme.

As far as answers go, the chapter suggests that there is a need to institutionalise the practice of having regular defence reviews, rather than holding them as and when the Treasury insists, and that this should be set down in an Act of Parliament. Further, they want to alter the strategic planning process – after Iraq, who could possibly object? – in order to “increase the ability of Ministers to direct change”, but also to “increase the authority of the Chief of Joint Operations”.

There’s obviously some tension between these goals – one increases the power of ministers, one the power of the officer corps and specifically the operational command structure rather than the Defence Staff. There’s a fine political balance here; if the intention is to boost both Northwood and the ministers, the corollary is less power for the Defence Staff and the civil servants.

Of course, the key to the politics here is procurement, because that’s where the money is and because technology eventually becomes policy. Chapter 3 suggests the following changes:

* generating more adaptable forces. Many of our forces are already operating outside their primary roles. We need to strengthen this trend towards taking on multiple roles;
* prioritising our investment in capabilities with wide utility, which are likely to be effective in a range of scenarios and against a range of threats. These would include, for example, support helicopters;

To put it another way, especially if there’s not much money around, the MOD can’t afford to indulge in hyper-specialised gear. Instead, equipment has to be general-purpose, in order to fit in with a strategy of trying to stay agile in the environment “characterised by uncertainty” laid out in Chapter 1. The helicopter example is nicely uncontroversial, but it probably won’t have gone unnoticed that it also fits the carriers.

* creating greater flexibility between Regular and Reserve Forces to ensure access to a wider range of skills and a larger personnel pool;

The MOD has been trying to do this ever since the last SDR decided that the Territorial Army was too big and needed cutting; after Kosovo, when an unexpectedly large mobilisation was needed, they changed course, but despite using the reserves heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they continued cutting the headline numbers until very recently. The reserves were also given a homeland security/anti-terrorism role, being asked to provide a battalion-sized Civil Contingency Reaction Force for each regional brigade. Experience of actual civil contingencies, like the 2007 floods, led this to be abandoned as the civil authorities found they didn’t have any need for a CCRF but did badly need almost every other specialisation.

* developing a greater understanding of the appropriate balance between technological edge and larger numbers of platforms;

This was a Hoon-to-Reid era trope – although the services wouldn’t get as many (tanks/ships/aircraft/whatever), high technology would make up the difference and therefore the costs of Iraq could be absorbed.

* relying on being able to reconstitute military capabilities, to enable us to access a full range of balanced capabilities with appropriate warning time without having to maintain those capabilities at all times.

To put it another way, if it’s possible to re-create certain specialities quickly, we don’t need to have them permanently on hand. This requires a different view of the industrial base – does this suggest that we need to pay more attention to keeping the industries involved in the UK?

Further, the procurement system is asked to:

# increasing our use of mature technologies when setting requirements. This would reduce the risk that research and development could lead to delays and cost increases in the programme;

# increasing our use of spiral or modular development, in which we build a capability to meet our current requirements but with the capacity to upgrade that capability by adding functions or technologies as they become mature or new threats emerge.

The Adaptability section checks out by admitting that the MOD struggled to understand what was happening through the 2000s, that it lacked understanding of the countries it operated in, and that it failed to make use of expertise available in other government departments, in academia, and in other institutions. They propose more openness and suggest “empowering the Concepts and Doctrine Centre”, their in-house thinktank. Unfortunately, this lacks credibility – at the same time as this statement was issued, the MOD is in the process of shutting down its Research and Assessments Branch, whose job this is, as the MOD’s favourite blog points out.

As far as influence goes, the chapter suggests that the military should be doing more advising, defence diplomacy, and the like, and also tackles the nuclear question very briefly. Essentially, it simply says that we need to make decisions now about Trident so as not to commit to disarmament by accident – this is a far more controversial statement than the SDR makes it sound, and it gives the strong impression that simply nobody wants to discuss it. It’s a let-down at the end of what is otherwise a very sensible document.

Sunday SDR: Chapter 2

OK, so it’s time for another chapter of the Strategic Defence Review as a Blog.

Chapter 2 begins as follows:

The use of force as an option is becoming more complicated. It is likely to become more difficult to use force in the way in which we have used it in the last two decades.

This is of course code for Iraq. The Iraq experience is a considerable theme through the chapter.

Many of our assumptions about joint working and expeditionary capabilities have been validated. But experience has shown that our operations have developed in more complex ways than we envisaged. We have sometimes underestimated the intricacy of working in multi-national operations and with non-military actors

To put it another way: We were right to expect we wouldn’t spend all our time in Germany. Further, we had to talk to the RAF. But one particular operation turned out to be much more complicated and much more serious than we allowed ourselves to imagine.

Looking ahead, The Future Character of Conflict will grow more complex. We are likely to face a range of simultaneous threats and adversaries in challenging operating areas – such as fighting in urban areas against enemies concealed amongst civilians. We are also likely to be subject to greater scrutiny from the media and public, both in the UK and overseas. Communications is now a key component of any campaign.

That seems to be communications as in “strategic communications” – PR, in other words. Nothing to do with being Better Off With Map And Nokia. Snark aside, again, this is the experience of Iraq glaring through.

Technological development, especially in the fields of cyberspace and space, may further change our understanding of conflict. It is likely to be more difficult to maintain our technological edge over some adversaries, or to bring that edge to bear on others, with a profound effect on the way we operate.

Anything electronic is now cheap, and the big power monopoly of satellite reconnaissance is breaking down.

There follows a list of operations and arguments that tend to support the 1998 SDR and the later New Chapter. They do not include Iraq, and only mention Afghanistan in passing on the grounds that we got there logistically, until we get to this paragraph:

Special Forces have demonstrated their value across a broad spectrum of activity, from operating alongside our conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to capacity-building with partners or hostage rescue.

However, when we get on to the “lessons learned”, we get this:

Our assumption that we could “go first, go fast and go home” has proved false. We believed that we could deploy our forces for the most difficult early intervention stage of a conflict, and leave the subsequent stabilisation and development tasks to partners. But we have not been able – or wished – to disengage as we had planned. We have therefore further improved our ability to sustain deployed forces, including, for example, through additional procurement of strategic lift.

I think this is important. Going first, going fast, and going home was very close to the early Rumsfeld view – airpower, strategic mobility, force protection, and an almost neurotic self-assertion towards allies. It’s rather what the European Council on Foreign Relations says here; Europe was meant to do the boring stuff. It reminds me of the old line about “America cooks and Europe washes up”. Well, if you never wash up, eventually you get typhoid. The reference to additional lift was the decision to lease, at vast cost, and eventually buy the RAF some C-17 transports – a sort of shadow of the concurrent procurement train crash around the Future Strategic Transport Aircraft.

The international and national policy and legal framework is having an increasing impact on our operations. Defence continues to make an important contribution to tackling terrorism overseas, following the lines set out in the SDR New Chapter in 2002. The role of Defence in working with other departments to tackle the drivers of terrorism, and to build security capacity, is crucial – although the scope for conducting overseas counterterrorism operations is narrower than envisaged in 2002.

Indeed – 2002, and the spirit of 2002, are a long time ago, and:

In many cases, our operations have developed in much more complex and dynamic ways than we envisaged and planned for, and we have not been able to adapt as rapidly as we would have liked.


In particular, in our focus on our geographical area of responsibility, for example in Basra, we may have placed insufficient emphasis on the multi-national operational level. In the later stages of operations in Iraq, the full integration of UK staff into US and coalition headquarters significantly improved the coordination of our contribution. We are taking that lesson forward in Afghanistan.

To put it another way: We thought we could ignore what was going on in Baghdad, Anbar, and Multinational Division South-Centre, and just crack on in Basra without rocking the boat. But it’s impossible to divide the problems of war, whether between land, sea, and air or between geographies within the same theatre. When they wanted war elsewhere, we opted out of the big decisions and lost the ability to say no effectively.

Our deployment of formed headquarters and formations for limited periods has not reflected the need for “campaign continuity”. We have now extended the tour lengths for key headquarters personnel and are looking at options that would ensure greater continuity throughout the headquarters. We are clear that we need to go further to produce better campaign continuity.

This was a problem for the Americans in Vietnam and also for the British Army in various counterinsurgencies. It’s probably common to all armies involved in a long war that isn’t utterly central to their worldview, because it’s driven by career structures. To be a general, you must have a general’s command, and why would you be a general if not to command? Further, what they usually command is a formation, and formations usually rotate. Ad-hoc geographical or functional commands are against the bureaucratic structures involved – perhaps it’s because of this that they are always necessary.

We have found it challenging to identify and rapidly implement lessons in doctrine. This is inherently difficult, but in some areas we have already moved a long way. The Army recently issued a new Counter-Insurgency Doctrine, and we now have a dedicated training facility for counter-insurgency in the UK.

Well, they’re right, really.

Often, innovation within the operation has minimised the adverse impact of these weaknesses. In our current operations, we have incorporated those insights into our strategic policy. Our Afghanistan/ Pakistan Strategy, and General McChrystal’s strategy, are based on a clear understanding of the challenges we face, a long-term vision founded on integrated political, development and military action and an overarching regional approach. Our Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) procedures are delivering the equipment our forces need as the requirements evolve. The Government has approved over £5.5 billion of UORs in Afghanistan since the operation began.

To put it another way – we muddled through, sort of. The reference to UORs corroborates this – part of the reason why the armed forces don’t buy all they need through UORs is that they go around much of the procurement process, in order to be urgent. This means, of course, that they may end up paying more, or getting less. On the other hand, the very fact that they needed to raise £5.5 billion worth of them for Afghanistan – that’s as much as the carriers – suggests that the normal procurement process is dysfunctional.

What about the future? It’s likely to be:

* Contested – access and freedom of manoeuvre – even as we attempt to deploy into the regional theatre – will have to be fought for;
* Congested – we are likely to be unavoidably drawn into urban areas, the littoral and lower airspace;
* Cluttered – we will find it difficult to discriminate between a mass of ambiguous targets – friendly forces, other international actors such as non-governmental organisations or development agencies, media representatives, local civilians and our adversaries;
* Connected – key lines of communication, including critical military infrastructure, maritime chokepoints and computer networks, will be vulnerable to attack and disruption; and
* Constrained – legal and social changes will place additional limits on our actions.

This is true, but hardly original. This is a good book.

Our preferred way of warfare – concentrating force, bringing technology to bear and seeking rapid defeat of our adversaries – may not be as effective as it has been in the past.

Is that our preferred way of warfare? I think this might need a debate. It sounds a lot like a classic statement of the American way of war, which may be the problem. Of course, nobody wants to disperse force, fail to use technology to best advantage, and seek endless, inconclusive struggle – but if Rupert Smith is right and struggle tends to be endless and inconclusive, and technology less decisive than expected, perhaps this should have some bearing on our preferences.

And here comes the dread word: “cyber”.

Cyber Space, in particular, poses serious and complex challenges for UK security and for the Armed Forces’ operations. Our increasing dependence on cyber capabilities creates opportunities but also serious vulnerabilities. Cyber attacks are already an important element of the security environment and are growing in seriousness and frequency. The most sophisticated threat is from established and capable states but cyber eliminates the importance of distance, is low cost and is anonymous in nature, making it an important domain, not just for hostile states, but terrorists, and criminals alike. Cyber space is critical to much of our military effort here and overseas and to our national infrastructure.

Note that the most sophisticated threat comes from states – not the main or the most serious threat. Of course, if the feared attack involves an electron microscope or a quantum computer, a state is the most likely attacker. But it’s in the very nature of information security that the great overwhelming majority of threats come from a huge diversity of tiny actors, and they are just as capable of doing serious damage as anyone else.

Further, defence against these threats tends to be the same – basically, sensible network management. The good news here is that there is no talk of giant firewalls or of “cyberdeterrence” – just of sensible security precautions. Further, the realities of the threat environment are taken seriously. No Dr. Evil plots here, nor cold war fantasies, just a space rather like the sea. The upshot of this is that the UK has far greater interests in keeping the infrastructure up, working, and open to all than it could possibly have in disrupting it. Very like the sea. The White House appears also to be heading this way, as Kings of War points out.

The National Security Strategy also set out the increasing challenges we face in Space. The Armed Forces’ dependence on space has grown rapidly over recent years. Access to space-derived information is now critical to our ability to conduct operations. This makes us vulnerable. The development of offensive counter-space capabilities is a particular concern. But, given our reliance on assets we do not control, there is also a risk of loss of access in periods of high demand – such as during large-scale operations or in the event of a sudden reduction in existing capacity. A continued close relationship with the US underpins our access to space capabilities. But we intend to look closely at how we contribute to allied programmes or develop national capabilities.

This is probably the most significant paragraph in the chapter. After 1971, the UK hasn’t tried to maintain its own reconnaissance satellite capability, nor has it participated in multilateral projects. It is thought, although as with everything between the UK and the USA, it is not written down in anything subject to ratification, that there is an understanding that the USA would share its overhead imagery with the UK. We know that this was turned down at least once during the Falklands War.

Tellingly, during the Iraq war, European countries fell in three groups. Those who had their own imagery – France and Germany. They didn’t participate at all. Those who got such a capability after the spring of 2003 – Spain and Italy. They left early. Those who had nothing at all – everyone else, basically. The outlier is Turkey, which didn’t have such a capability (although they did have representatives at the EU Satellite Centre) but didn’t get involved. Then, the Turks probably had good human sources in Iraq. They’ve since ordered a high-resolution photographic satellite from Telespazio of Italy.

Exactly what the US chose to share with us out of the wealth of imagery its national technical means, as they say, produced remains one of the great questions about the UK’s involvement in Iraq.

Research and development investment in defence technology in emerging nations has been increasing significantly over the past decade. Some key equipment produced by these countries is already as capable as equivalent equipment produced by the UK and our key allies and partners.

Civil investment in research and development, both nationally and globally, is now much larger than equivalent defence spending. Much of this research is developing technology – for example in communications, materials or biomedical science – which could be used in a military or wider security context. But the Ministry of Defence and our international partners in defence can expect to have less visibility of and expertise in such cutting edge technology than we have had in the past.

Loss of our technological edge in significant areas of military capability would have a profound effect on the way we operate.

This is the Arduino question; the proliferation of what used to be technology confined to the superpowers, or as Phil Hunt put it, what happens when a Congolese workshop with a RepRap can make a surface to air missile? Arguably, the key point here is that there is nothing we can do about it except for getting more like that ourselves – which comes back to the procurement economy.

As Kings of War’s David Betz says, this is an argument for general-purpose forces more than anything else. He also quotes the Navy as follows:

* Firstly, what do you want to defend and what are the Standing Commitments for Defence?
* Secondly, we need to have a clear idea about what we as a country would aspire to do on our own.
* Third, where the UK is operating as a coalition member, how do we want to influence our partners?

Sunday Strategic Defence Review Blogging: Chapter 1

So, here goes with the first in my series of posts on the strategic defence review as a blog.

Here are what the MoD thinks are the major forces that will determine the political environment:

The National Security Strategy sets out the key threats to the UK’s security and the underlying drivers of those threats. It makes clear that while there is no external direct threat to the territorial integrity of the UK, there are a variety of evolving threats for which we must be prepared, and different environments and domains in which we must be prepared to act, from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency to maritime security, cyber warfare and capacity-building in fragile states.

We believe five major trends will impact on the international context for defence in the coming decades. The rise of the Asia-Pacific region as a centre of global economic and political power will create a major global shift as dramatic as the end of the Cold War. Continuing globalisation will make the world ever more open and interlinked in communication, trade, culture and transport, and we must ensure that those lines of communication remain open if the UK is to prosper. We will see serious climate change, whose impact is likely to be most severe where it coincides with other stresses such as poverty, demographic growth and resource shortages. We are likely to see growing inequality in many parts of the world, as economic development creates new divisions within and between countries. Proliferation will remain a cause for concern. Several states continue to pursue nuclear programmes in contrevention of their NPT commitments. Terrorists will continue to seek to exploit nonconventional means including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials, with wider access to advanced technologies increasing the risks.

The first point here is something of a theme in the document – we state the problems, but have already decided what the solutions are going to be. This actually comes up in the very first paragraph of the executive summary:

The UK economy relies on trade and the free passage of goods and services. A stable international order is essential to our interests and security.

In the medium-term, success in Afghanistan is critical to UK security.

The next decades will see the development of a number of major trends, including a shift of power to the Asia-Pacific region and climate change.

Of course, anyone who relies on an executive summary deserves to be executed, but it is far from clear to me that the second point (success in Afghanistan) follows from the first or leads to the second, however you define “success”. It’s certainly a major alliance commitment, but its criticality to UK security is debatable, especially in the light of trade, international order, or the rise of Asian powers.

Similarly, there’s a sort of reiteration of standard War on Terror tropes – we’re asked to be very worried about terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destruction.

Going through that little list of horrors under trends, there’s an interesting point that is missing. The rise of new world powers is not a matter of debate, but what about the corollary? Arguably, the UK and France remain medium powers; but the big change is surely that the status of the US as sole superpower is on the way out. It’s not yet clear how much of this change is accounted for by Chinese or Indian success and how much by American decline, in so far as “decline” is a useful concept, nor how fast and how far it will go. But that it exists is indeniable.

Surely “Coping with US relative decline” ought to be high on the UK’s political to-do list?

After all:

International partnerships will remain essential to our security, both membership of multilateral organisations – like NATO, the EU and the UN – and bilateral relationships, especially with the US….Within this multilateral framework, the UK has a range of close bilateral security and defence relationships. None is more important than that with the United States. The relationship is based on common values and interests which will endure in the 21st century, to our mutual benefit. The UK benefits greatly from bilateral co-operation in the nuclear, intelligence, science, technology and equipment fields. Our relationship also increases our impact on issues such as terrorism, proliferation and transnational crime that affect our security but over which in today’s globalised world our national influence is limited.

As anyone who reads this blog will probably know, I reckon several of those points should carry the Wikipedian tag “citation needed”. A major theme of Chapter 1 is the importance of multilateralism and international institutions, not just the formal ones like the EU, UN, and NATO, but also informal international institutions like maritime trade and telecoms interconnection. This is not new in British politics – up to a point it’s an implementation of the so-called international society approach associated with thinkers like Hedley Bull and Martin Wight.

But a key problem here is what happens if the bilateral special relationship and the multilateral institutions conflict. Since the second world war, it’s been a central assumption of policy that there is no conflict – the US is supportive of the institutions, it benefits from them, and therefore there is no problem. Relax this constraint, however, and the compass starts to spin crazily. What if the US wants to tear up the UN Charter, split NATO, commit a gaggle of war crimes? And we have to relax the constraint – not only do we have the example of Iraq, but we admit that the role of the US is itself changing and its relative power declining.

The answer is surely that a major aim of policy is to maximise our ability to say “no”. Otherwise, either the institutions themselves break down or get used to drag at least some of the members along. Looking at Iraq, it’s worth remembering that it’s not enough to be small and pro-European; the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy all ended up contributing significant numbers of troops, but hardly enough to give them any meaningful influence over the Americans. (Hey, a full armoured division and most of the RAF wasn’t.) Alternative scenarios include the creation of new multilateral institutions (that we might not like), a revived UN based on a balance-of-power settlement, or a pre-1914 scenario with five or so similarly sized world powers competing.

To be fair, the drafters of Chapter 1 do seem to be aware that – as Bruce Sterling might say – whatever happens, things are going to get weird, or to put that in civil service prose:

It will be harder to predict which threats will emerge as the most significant, leading to a future international context characterised by uncertainty.

They also draw conclusions from that:

On the basis of experience in the United Kingdom and internationally, if we continue to search for a technological edge, including improved protection for our personnel, we can expect the cost of successive generations of equipment to continue to rise at above the rate of inflation

Am I right to read this as a call for general-purpose capability and the avoidance of expensive and hyper-specialised gear? A sort of Toyota strategy, perhaps not the best analogy to use right now. In fact, of course, the industries that have been best at doing what Toyota did recently are the ones that supply the UK armed forces. Chapter 1 also touches on that:

We will need to establish a better balance between operational output and supporting activity and between the quality and quantity of our major platforms.

To put it another way: enough with the cost overruns, and projects that spend £192m on PowerPoint presentations. This, of course, is much easier said than done and heavily reliant on the kind of people the MoD recruits to run its procurement operation.