Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 revisited

My initial reaction to 2010 is that I've had an eventful year, especially in its second half. As a reflective exercise, I've listed a few brief highlights (of sorts). Inspiration comes from Logan Mountstuart, protagonist in William Boyd's superb novel Any Human Heart, well dramatised this year by Channel 4. I've never been one for diaries. But at the end of each diary year, Boyd's Logan attempts to summarise his past twelve months, for good or ill, within the journal. With the aid of my own functional diary, I've decided to try something similar for 2010.

Joined "new entry" for the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). 
Ellie and I celebrated our 2nd anniversary. Valentine's Day in Camden for lunch, London Zoo, dinner by St Katherine's dock, and drinks on Tower Bridge. I went on a weekend break to Center Parcs in Cumbria with Ellie's family. I also bought a laptop.
Won a 'story of the month' prize for my work at Incisive Media's I spent a week at home in Yarm 'cat-sitting' for Victor. I also bought a new iPhone.
Learnt to march (after some difficulty), on an RNR weekend in Portsmouth.
Went to Frankfurt (for work), covering a financial conference. I also began this blog.
Jogged lots, trying to get fit prior to going away for basic training in Plymouth.
Passed out from 2 weeks new entry training at HMS Raleigh (great fun) on July 16th.
Visited Ellie's family in Edinburgh. I also began the processes of moving jobs and flats. Had my iPhone stolen!
Ellie and I moved into our new home. I moved jobs just over a fortnight later, becoming deputy editor, Reactions, writing for the insurance industry at Euromoney. I also began walking to work: a nice perk. First ever IKEA furniture-buying trip.
Travelled to Colorado Springs for a week (work, again). Practised rifle drill, as well as joining candidate wardroom class.
Marched with RNR for the Lord Mayor's Show. I wrote my first monthly features for the new day job.
Turned 26. Began writing defence news stories for a new (out of office hours) web project. Christmas in Yarm - first visit since March.

Aims for 2011:

  • Progress towards RNR commission;
  • Take driving lessons and pass my test;
  • Do more exercise;
  • Take a proper holiday.

That felt worthwhile, if only for my own benefit. I might repeat the exercise for 2011.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Women on the front line?

The role of women in the Army made the headlines today. The British Army has decided to maintain its ban on women taking on front line roles. Similar bans exist in the US Army and in Australia, while Denmark, Holland and Israel have fully integrated women to serve in any role open to the men. The UK has female tank commanders and fighter pilots. Women have been awarded top awards for gallantry, and also been killed and wounded in Afghanistan. But in the frontline infantry regiments - the ones that still expect to use the bayonet sometimes, hold ground and spend the most time in close proximity to the enemy - women are still disallowed.

The reason given in the latest UK review seems to put the blame for this ban on their male counterparts, suggesting that should a woman become wounded by enemy fire in the middle of a warzone, a male colleague is more prone to recklessness to rescue her than to rescue a male comrade in an identical situation. I can see the logic: men are prone to showmanship, acts of bravado, machismo and poor decision-making when women are involved. You need to make a sound risk appraisal before chancing a second casualty.

Whether women should serve in "close combat" is still a divisive question, and one to which I haven't yet formed a cohesive opinion. You can certainly look at the countries that do permit women soldiers to occupy billets at the tip of the military spear. For Denmark and the Netherlands, the question is not so important. They are traditionally liberal places, especially the Dutch. They don't tend to fight much either (okay, sometimes they've deployed peacekeepers in small numbers).

One gets the feeling the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has fully integrated women out of necessity. There have been many moments during Israel's history during which it's existance on the map has looked doubtful, encircled as it has been by hostile Arab states. Armies tend to forget the finer points of moral debate in such circumstances: a woman can carry out basic tasks like firing a rifle and killing people just as well as a man. The same goes for the Russians. With the enemy at the gates and Moscow under threat, the Soviets had no qualms with using women as snipers to hunt the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front - perhaps the most savage conflict between two twentieth century nations.

There are problems with transposing the rationales behind both sets of examples: the high-minded liberalism of the Danes and the Dutch on the one hand, and the desperation for national survival of the Russians and Israelis on the other. Neither provides a balanced example for the UK's professional military force, unfettered either by a desperation for manpower, or serious political interference over sexual equality to kill.

The debate over whether women should serve on UK submarines is a different kettle of fish, on-going, and centres on unanswered questions around pregnancy. There could be consequences for the operational effectiveness of the submarine (and nuclear deterrance) should she fall pregnant during  long deployment in a time when the country is at war or is under the threat of a war, as well as her own medical wellbeing in such circumstances. I think the latter is given as the reason for obvious PR  reasons, while the former causes more genuine concern.

Anyway, musing over for now. Here are a few articles I read today: here, here and here.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

North Korea: provocation without end

Today’s artillery duel between the two Koreas suggests that the hermit dictatorship is keen to keep pushing the boundaries of provocation. The North has issued one of its typical denunciations, accusing the South of instigating the firefight, which has reportedly left at least two South Korean marines killed, in addition to fifteen further civilian and military casualties.

The clash appears – as usual – to have been stage-managed by Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime. The South had embarked on a military exercise (which appears to have included live firing) close to the border, to which the North quickly responded by bombarding the (inhabited) island of Yeonpyeong. The South reportedly replied with some limited counter-fire against the North's coastal artillery batteries (no word, naturally, on DPRK losses), as well as launching some F16 fighters over the conflict zone, but these did not open fire. North Korea seems to have caused most of the damage.

This sequence of events begs a few questions. Firstly, why was the South conducting an exercise close to the North’s border? Sure, few would believe the North’s usual cock-and-bull story about the South attacking first, but why play war games in such proximity to the North if they provide it with the pretext for violence? Secondly, and this is barely a question at all, was this clash the result of central planning by the North Koreans? Almost certainly the answer is yes, to judge by the speed of their attack.

Most sources have been quick to link internal politics with the events. Kim Jong Un, recently promoted to general and now unanimously tipped to succeed his father, needs to galvanise the army behind him to pave way for an orderly transition before his sickly-looking dad hands over the reins. The link makes sense, presuming that Un played some sort of leadership role in managing today’s events, allowing him to showcase some leadership traits and stamp his authority over the military.

Yeonpyeong’s residents ran for cover as shells rained down, while in Seoul the stock market took a hit towards the end of the day’s trading, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government held a planning meeting from the safety of an underground bunker. But apart from that, it is notable that such a violent incident has led to such a limited response. Seoul’s residents are quite hardened to the North’s acts of provocation, living as they do within a short missile-flight away from its stockpiles of thousands of rockets, missiles and guns of all shapes and sizes, mostly pointed at the South Korean capital.

In the context of today, the torpedoing of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March may have represented a return to a period of extreme provocation. The regime flits between engagement at the negotiating table and throwing its toys out of the pram through violence and threats. It supposedly hankers after recognition as a nuclear power, as well as continuing to expect aid from its neighbours.

It is precisely because the North is such an economic basket case that the hands of its neighbours are tied. Nobody wants it to collapse, least of all South Korea and China, both of whom would face an immediate humanitarian as well as military crisis if the North became a failed state (with nukes thrown in for good measure).

China is of course the North’s traditional backer, but nowadays sees it as a minor embarrassment. The Middle Kingdom is managing its own economic revolution, aimed at becoming a global superpower by the middle of the century, and has no desire to see a wave of refugees spill over its Korean border. That is tying Chinese hands, preventing them playing the cards they hold in terms of influencing the North’s political and military leadership by diplomacy or withholding aid.

The South is blessed with a strong ally in the US, but not one which wants to go to war again on the Korean peninsula. The post-Cheonan US-South Korean naval exercise was motivated to dissuade the North from launching exactly the sort of attack it has today.

If the North can’t be bullied into behaving itself, and chooses to continue poking the South, then the danger is that the South could at some stage put a foot wrong in its own reactions to provocation. While world attentions are fixed on more believable, more modern threats such as terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, cyber security, energy rivalry, etc, etc, any misjudged or mismanaged response by South Korea to the North's provocation could quickly spiral out of control, re-sparking an old war that never quite ended in 1953.

25/11/2010 UPDATE: Media reports South Korean casualties of two marines and two civilians killed, plus an additional eighteen wounded.

26/11/2010 UPDATE: Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un visit site of North Korean artillery positions.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Royal Navy's missing decade

The Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR), published in the UK on October 27, emphasises a novel concept called "adaptable Britain". This is political shorthand for a dangerous gamble with the UK's defence capability, based on the threats the country is likely face before 2020, and whether it can react to them in time. The risk for the Royal Navy's carrier strike capability in particular is that it could emerge from a decade in hibernation in a similarly unenviable position to that endured by Russia's fleet within the past decade.

Political eyes are on Afghanistan. The government has commited to that conflict until 2015. The Army will keep its frontline forces intact until then. After that there must be cuts, but it will keep a brigade deployable globally. However, fiscal austerity means until 2015, the country will be capable of no new major operations, aside from any required on our doorstep and those using the MI5, MI6 security services and the military's special forces. These resources have sensibly been boosted against the threat of terrorism. That should see us through against extremist plots against the UK itself, and for launching small precision shows further afield (say an SAS Sierra Leone style repeat).

The RAF has taken a beating in the SDSR, as expected, because of the lack of likely scenarios utilising its fast jets in the sort of Cold War era, Red vs Blue, moustache-flexing dogfight it spent fifty years training for. Still, there's no guarantee we won't need to face (or contribute to) a campaign against a foe armed with decent aircraft and air defences (a full-blown war with Iran, or a brief skirmish with the likes of Venezuela or even Russia over increasingly scarce energy resources). So the RAF has kept its ageing Tornado fleet, while receiving a cut-down complement of the much more capable Eurofighter Typhoons.

The Navy loses its flagship the Ark Royal immediately. Predictably this has grabbed some headlines, and is a blow to pride, but practically speaking, has only fast-forwarded what was set to happen in three years' time anyway. More damaging is the loss of the Harrier fleet. Harriers have been doing much the same job as the Tornado squadrons in supporting ground troops in Afghanistan, but are operated by the Navy's Fleet Air Arm. For political reasons the RAF couldn't be gutted completely. So the Navy took the hit from inter-service politics: the Tornados stay on; the Harriers are being retired.

Unfortunately, politics aside, this decision has serious consequences for how "adaptable" the country can be with its remaining hardware. The Harrier can do many more things than the Tornado. It can operate from a small jungle clearing, provide effective close air support, engage enemy air and land forces, and land on the deck of a ship.

Still useful.

Without aircraft to operate, Ark Royal's solitary remaining sister in service Illustrious will be no more than a helicopter carrier for the next decade. The Ocean, a cheaper, less populous ship (albeit slower and less well protected) also helps fulfil this role within the fleet today. It is likely one of those ships will be retired in 2015, once the first new Queen Elizabeth class carrier comes into service. Even that will only have helicopters to operate for at least five years, until the F35 Joint Strike Fighter is available, in 2020 by the most optimistic estimate, but perhaps several years later.

The new Anglo-French defence treaty claims to address this problem, by presenting a picture of a joint British and French naval task group, with French escort vessels helping replace the destroyers and frigates cleaved by the SDSR. The Queen Elizabeth carriers can also be fitted with catapults, and will operate the catapult-launched, cheaper, conventional version of the Joint Strike Fighter. So far, so good. Before the F35 is ready, the vision is for French or US aircraft to operate from carriers where necessary.

The problem here is whether you really believe the French will put their defence assets - and people - in harm's way for an operation which the UK needs to launch at sea, but is not core to French strategic interests. The possibilities are many, but an energy-fuelled re-run of the Falkands War is an obvious possibility, made more likely by the potential for a scramble for oil or gas resources under the South Atlantic. For all the talk of a new Entente cordiale, the Élysée would probably only offer support at arm's length in such a scenario.

The problem then, is that the SDSR is taking a great gamble for the next decade, when another review will take place. The "adaptable Britain" concept is only adaptable to a point. It would not be flexible enough to send a UK task force to the South Atlantic in 2016.

Whether capabilities can be rebuilt in a decade is also in doubt. The Russians have already discovered this problem after a collapsing economy led them to allow their Cold War fleet to rust in inactivity for a decade. Will the Fleet Air Arm be able to operate effectively with fast jets after a decade idle? There is also great uncertainty as to whether the second new carrier, Prince of Wales, will join the fleet, or might be sold off in 2020. The need for two carriers in order for one to be operational seems obvious, but not necessarily to politicians.

The Economist last week suggested that this second carrier be operated on a time-share basis with the French, as I have proposed in a previous blog post. The timing of the next SDSR in 2020 could improve the prospects for the second carrier's survival, based on the threats faced and the state of the nation's finances. It would still mark a poor man's solution to bluewater capability, but having one-and-a-half carriers in 2020 would be a lot better than having only one.

UPDATE (10/11/10): Admirals write letter opposing the decision to scrap the Harrier force; say Falkland Islands left vulnerable to Argentinian attack: 

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Sarah Palin: "going rogue" for 2012

The Republicans might not know what to do with their midterm gains, but Sarah Palin's marketing team does. The most charismatic personality in American right-wing politics will seek to unite the powerful array of Republican Party and Tea Party interests that now own a majority in the US House of Representatives and drove some way towards getting one in the Senate. Palin wants to garner this strength behind her, before "going rogue" for the White House in 2012.

The following video is weak on words and strong on platitudes, but amid this dazzling marketing montage, you can detect two unmistakable points: Sarah Palin will be running for President of the United States of America; and that this has something, somehow, to do with a grizzly bear.

Palin has splashed some cash on a very talented marketing staff. Since receiving a media mauling as John McCain's running mate in 2008, Palin has cultivated some well-founded fears about engaging with the "lame-stream" liberal press. The video above is a fantastic opening move, and some great PR, but she will have to start swatting up on non-Alaskan economics and foreign policy questions before engaging toe-to-toe with the media prior to an election bid. 

Her message is simple. Unite behind Palin, and the Republicans can turn a successful opposition movement into something more cohesive: victory in 2012. The disparate spread of interests that converged to cause President Obama's discomfiture this November is now in a position to stymie further White House legislation, and force the use of the President's executive veto to prevent it from undoing the healthcare reforms achieved already by the Democrat administration. There is voter demand for the Republicans to start wrecking the President's healthcare plans that have so enraged opponents of any slide towards un-American "big government" concepts.

The problem is that the cards the Republicans hold are laced with negativity. It's now possible for them to use the House to block the budgets necessary for Obama's health plans and for stimulating the still weak US economy, but by doing so - and without suggesting an alternative strategy - the Republicans risk becoming the naysayers of US politics.

Whether Palin can secure political backing for the presidency is uncertain. The Tea Party movement certainly fielded some candidates with odd backgrounds. Tea Party-backed Republican Senate candidate for Delaware Christine O'Donnell was forced in October to announce "I'm not a witch" in her pre-election ad, after it emerged she had dabbled in such beliefs or practices in her teens.

O'Donnell lost, unsurprisingly. Palin isn't quite as batty, of course. She's more than capable of winning the nomination, but she's probably still unelectable across the country as a whole. Watching her in 2008 was cringeworthy. She is still probably far too right of the centre ground to win. The lady has some style, but it's doubtful whether she can come up with the detailed substance on the economy in a pre-election debate, or as an international stateswoman if elected.

To win in 2012, the Republicans should view themselves not as a leaderless rebellion, as is inferred by the Tea Party movement, but as the next government in waiting. The risk for the Republicans, is that by rallying behind the candidate who is most conspicuous, most charismatic, and closest to its core, the party will consign itself to naysaying and opposition, making it unelectable in 2012.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Blue water on a budget (2 of 2)

Liam Fox’s Ministry of Defence is clearly under huge pressure in the countdown to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), due for publication on October 27th. There are fierce battles going on behind closed doors in Whitehall (exposed publicly this week through Fox’s leaked letter to Cameron). It seems likely that the Royal Navy could get at least one of its two aircraft carriers, but the fate of the second seems perilously dependent on arch-bean-counter George Osborne.

If HMS Prince of Wales (the second planned carrier) is axed, the Navy might look to develop some interesting new ships as a compromise. HMS Ocean, the fleet’s one-of-a-kind helicopter carrier, has done a similar job to the Invincible class of light carriers in recent years, and would be a relatively simple design to replicate for a useful sister ship.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales (fingers crossed)

Should Prince of Wales be cut (and I argue that it should not), there are also more radical concept designs afoot. There are already reports of potential for Anglo-French development of a future frigate class. Building only one large carrier might also make it unnecessary to complete the last two of the Royal Navy’s Daring class Type-45 air defence destroyers.

The Daring class

The government squashed the rumours in recent weeks of an Anglo-French aircraft carrier sharing deal, only to this week reintroduce the notion of a deal with France for a joint underwater nuclear deterrent, designed to cut costs but frought with political pitfalls. Sharing a submarine deterrent might be subject to many political problems but would certainly be easier to operate in practice than sharing aircraft carriers. The practical difficulties of the shunned carrier sharing scheme were stacked against the idea: use of catapults (France) versus ski-jumps (UK), incompatible aircraft types (Rafale vs F35 Joint Strike Fighter (the JSF)), not to mention asymmetric geopolitical priorities (France doesn't fight much; the UK does).

Thankfully, Trident has never been called upon, contrasted to the Royal Navy’s carriers which are frequently called out to project British power or influence around the globe. For that reason the latest hinted proposal may have better sea legs than the carrier idea. Also, in a distinctly Strangelovian scenario, if the UK’s major cities fell victim to nuclear attack, the northern part of France would also be rendered uninhabitable (some small consolation?).

Anyhow, going back to the issue of affordable naval airpower, there are suggested alternatives to solely relying on two 65,000 ton behemoths – lovely designs though the Queen Elizabeth class undoubtedly are – for power projection at sea. The Army’s current case in its tussle with the Navy for scant fiscal resources hangs on the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan. The immediate need for more armed drones, helicopter transports, gunships, patrol vehicles designed to resist IEDs, body armour, and ‘boots on the ground’ is at first glance compelling. Moreover, it is the Navy’s infernal bad luck that Afghanistan happens to be a landlocked country, where we are fighting an insurgency against which the Navy is reduced (Royal Marines aside) to contributing only logisticians, administrators and medical staff to the Army’s war.

Troops want more Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan

The recent deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be replicated in other future warzones nearer coastlines, and perhaps even in the Indian Ocean to help combat piracy, should UAVs be used as carrier-borne aviation. This would not necessitate a fleet carrier. British defence manufacturer BAE has already produced a concept for a UAV carrier, based on the Type-45 destroyer hull, displacing an estimated 8,000 tons, as a cost-effective solution to the quandary of how to continue to maintain blue water capabilities on a budget.

Concept UAV carrier from BAE

All this talk of replacing fleet carriers with “UAV mini-carriers” might sound about as batty as replacing battleships with aircraft carriers did in the 1930s. However, there is one key problem with drawing such a parallel. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship because it could deliver a more potent blow and had longer reach than naval gunfire, as well as fulfilling a whole variety of different roles (such as anti-submarine warfare) which has placed it at the heart of the modern fleet.

Naval air power on the cheap they might be, but UAV carriers cannot replicate this flexibility. It is not impossible that the primary opponents faced by HM Forces in 20 or 30 years time could still be religious extremists and insurgents fighting long term, low intensity campaigns. But to base long term planning on this idea would be dangerously presumptuous. It is highly likely that the threat will change, just as surely as it has moved on from the Soviet tank formations once expected to roll across the North German Plain. In this respect, a UAV carrier only works against the threat of today. Even a middling power like Iran has the technology to shoot down cumbersome UAVs (and probably much more sophisticated aircraft) in droves.

But the UAV is also evolving. The unmanned craft currently in service over Afghanistan and Pakistan are only the first generation of battlefield drones. It’s commonly said that the current generation of fighter aircraft, such as the RAF’s Eurofighter and the expensive JSF will be the final generation of combat interceptors to contain a human pilot. The computer systems within these aircraft do most of the fighting without – as Strangelove would say – “human meddling”. The latest BAE prototype UAV, dubbed Taranis, represents the cutting edge in drone design. Designs like Taranis will in the future be able to launch from ships at sea, win air superiority, and project naval air power on sea and land.

BAE's Taranis stealth UAV design

However, taking the stealthy Taranis as a template for the future brings the argument full circle. It looks pretty big. It looks even more expensive. Launching it and its weapons against foes will probably require many more ground operators than previous drones. So in the long term you’ll need a pretty big, sophisticated and expensive ship to operate a Taranis-equipped carrier airwing at sea. Uh oh: better order that second carrier anyway.

PS: I apologise for the delay in writing this entry, but I have been extra-ordinarily busy. Within the past three weeks I've moved house, spent a bit of time away with the Navy, and started a new job. More coming soon.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Blue water on a budget (1 of 2)

Air power at sea has its price. Reports today that the UK and France may embark on a scheme to share use of aircraft carriers is just the latest indication of the severe budgetary strain facing Britain's Royal Navy. Speculation on an Anglo-French deal follows rumours that one of the Navy's planned Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers could be cleaved by the next Strategic Defence Review, set for Autumn, possibly being sold off to India. In that context, a co-operative project with France would represent the lesser of two evils for the two fleets: better to get cosy with Sarkozy than simply sell off the Royal Navy's future to another power - surrendering a portion of UK security and influence in the world for the next fifty years and beyond.

So much has already been invested on seeing the project through, that it can make little sense to cut and run now. Illustrious and Ark Royal, the two light carriers still in service, are coming to the end of their busy service lives. The previous Labour government significantly increased the cost of the ships through an irresponsibly shortsighted approach. “Save now, spend later” delayed the carriers by at least two years and added £1.1 billion to the 65,000 tonne ships' construction costs. The carriers' complement of F35 Joint Strike Fighters (also expected to be severely trimmed) is another source of financial strain attached to the project, tempting politicians to try to make do with one carrier rather than two. Meanwhile, construction of Queen Elizabeth is already well underway, while contracts signed for her sister ship, Prince of Wales, would make cancellation messy and expensive. Selling to a third party could only recoup a fraction of the investment.

Life for the surviving twin, should one ship be aborted, would be difficult: single ship classes are less efficient and put additional strain on the solitary ship, leading to a shorter service life. In addition to the carriers themselves, there are the six type-45 air defence destroyers (three of which are already built and three building) to protect the ships. There is very little sense in investing billions on state-of-the-art escorts if they have no new carriers to escort.

HMS Diamond, the third type-45,
undergoing trials before commissioning next year

History provides a precedent for the mistake of cancelling a carrier you have
already built destroyer escorts to protect. The 1966 defence review cancelled both the hulls of the CVA-01 fleet carrier programme, but too late in the day to cancel the type-82 class: the destroyers designed to protect the CVA-01 ships, leaving HMS Bristol as the sole vessel of the class, and a monument to a strategic folly which directly contributed to the awful closeness of the margin by which the Royal Navy task force managed to defeat Argentina in the South Atlantic in 1982.

Lessons from previous cuts:
HMS Bristol was done out of its job

The current government should learn the mistakes of its predecessors in that short-term penny-pinching risks strategic folly. Both
Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales should still be completed, even if that means sharing one of them with the French. It would be a tremendous waste to sell one off to another power, even to an ascendant ally like India. The French ought to want both of the ships to be built too, due to the technical and design problems that have dogged France's own solitary carrier, the unlucky Charles de Gaulle.

The French want a second carrier badly to ease the current burden on Charles de Gaulle, while keeping at least one deck operational at a time. Britain also needs two carriers too for the same reason. Surely then - if budgets do indeed force some sort of sharing initiative - the best arrangement would be for the first of the UK carriers to be brought into solely UK service, with the second ship being part of a sharing agreement. That would still give each country its own ship at any time, helping to counter concerns over the geopolitical differences that have dogged Anglo-French attempts to co-operate since Suez. Sharing the second of the two vessels would allow flexibility while giving both nations the efficiency benefits of having a second, shared vessel on stand-by. It would also be infinitely preferable to selling off Prince of Wales to a gleeful India desperate to develop its own carrier know-how for the first time.

The French Charles de Gaulle: problematic

It's stating the obvious to say that the Navy is tied to a supporting role in the current conflict in landlocked Afghanistan (Royal Marines aside), but planning several threats ahead makes a strong expeditionary fleet consistently vital to UK interests across the seas. Recent sabre rattling with Argentina over oil drilling around the Falkland Islands gave a brief focus on the Navy's ongoing presence in the South Atlantic to deter the threat of aggression against UK territory, citizens and econ0mic interests. Argentina's neighbours voiced support for the country's persistent claim to the islands. Venezuela's vociferous president Hugo Chavez even went as far as bragging (without foundation) that his forces could sink the Royal Navy if it tried to sail once more to the rescue of the 3,000 staunchly British islanders. The diplomatic spat was short and overblown but it also provided a useful glimpse of future resources-based conflicts.

The current drilling for oil by UK firm Cairn Energy off the coast of Greenland reinforces the point. Greenland is a self-governing Danish colony (just as the Falklands are a self-governed UK territory), but future oil wealth in the Arctic region could transform the vast island from a sleepy colony to an oil-rich economic asset over the next few decades. Since abandoning its submarine force the Danish navy has been limited to its own coastal defence, limiting it's ability to protect its own oil interests away from the Denmark itself should Cairn and others strike lucky. It could be up to those nations with economic interests in the region (like the UK, US and Canada) to maintain stability.

Competition for energy resources will fuel future naval clashes

The Arctic and North Atlantic could be a key flashpoint in future contests for oil and gas in the next several decades. Russia, grown rich by its own natural gas exports, has returned to old Cold War ways, flexing its muscles by probing maritime reconnaissance patrols over the North Sea and - more worryingly - cat and mouse games under the waves with UK submarines, actively challenging the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent. Canada has also begun to take Arctic geopolitics far more seriously in recent months in response to Russian sparring. Oil revenue-reliant Norway has found it prudent to do a deal with Russia to solve a long-held Arctic border dispute and this summer the two neighbours staged a surprising bilateral fleet exercise in the North Sea.

Rivalry over energy resources will probably become far more commonplace over the next 50 years as the world's natural resources grow scarce, US influence declines, and developing nations wield greater military power in an increasingly multi-polar world. If a cash-strapped Royal Navy is deprived of its current expeditionary capability in defence of UK interests, Britain will be unable to project power away from its own doorstep.

For a potential compromise solution to the pressures of maintaining a blue water fleet on an austerity budget, watch out for part two, which is coming just as soon as it gets written!

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Great Mind Game

Self-satisfied media tutting about the "unwinnable war" in Afghanistan has become so trite in recent weeks it almost beggars belief. Too many correspondents seem to genuinely believe they can offer fresh insight by repeating idle or well-worn truisms like "the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone", or even that (who knew?) "there'll be no ticker-tape victory parade in Kabul".

Call off the Red Arrows; quiet the Royal Marines Band; tell the Household Cavalry regiments they needn't have brought their horses and dress tunics to Helmand after all. What utter tosh. The fighting men and women are well aware of the severe limits to what they can achieve in combat, the knock-on consequences when civilians get caught in the crossfire, and - ultimately perhaps - hard truths about the times in war when it's necessary to consider making unpalatable deals with unbroken enemies. They also know that only through their daily fight, and its tragic cost in blood, can we press every advantage still available.

How many NATO generals are anticipating taking the salute at a WWII-style victory parade? Sometimes I think the almost century-old adage of "lions led by lambs", reinforced by the hapless general of Blackadder Goes Forth into the public consciousness, still beguiles the press today. The generals don't lack in experience, ability or judgment. It's a tribute to the quality of today's US army, for example, that an experienced, adroit counter-insurgency strategist like General Petraeus exists to instantly fill the vacuum left by the unfortunate recall of (the also highly able) General McCrystal to Washington.

The reality is the UK and US armed forces are among the elite few today with hard-won pedigree in fighting, more or less constantly, varied and tough opponents across the globe for the past 30 years. Bitter experience has taught them that counter-insurgency campaigns are not
black-and-white affairs, nor do they produce quick wins. Nor do they end with simple surrenders, total victories or grand parades.

Cancelled: full refunds for ticket-holders

The revelation of this week's classified US "Afghan War Diary", exposed by Wikileaks, certainly makes for some unhelpful service PR (to say the least), as well as providing fresh insight on the knife-edge situation in Afghanistan, but it doesn't alter the facts of the fight on the ground. It should not be forgotten that counter-insurgency in Iraq was almost unanimously angled by the media as an "unwinnable war", lost beyond redemption, before the tide was eventually turned through surge, grit and resolve. In Iraq there has been no glorious victory parade to celebrate the dwindling violence. But free elections have been held. European and regional airlines are now returning to Iraqi airports. Who'd have thought it possible back in 2007?

Politicians in the UK have again voiced arbitrary (election-based) dates - this time 2015 - for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not even the best informed combatant, spook, diplomat or journalist yet knows what compromise deals or tentative peace scenario could emerge in the territory (I won't yet say country) over the coming years. What we can say is that while civilian deaths might continue to go unreported and underestimated, Taliban losses have also been consistently downplayed to a press and public squeamish even about enemy casualties.

The Taliban has made plenty of costly mistakes itself. Its zealots have cowed many vulnerable Afghans into compliance, but they have also terrorised a large proportion of the population into siding with coalition troops. Before switching to the current, highly successful tactic of peppering the roads with hidden IEDs, they were too easily tempted into the folly of open scraps against the weight of coalition firepower, including some suicidal frontal assaults made on British positions in Helmand in previous summers.

Nobody (aside, perhaps, from George W Bush) believed Afghanistan would be a quick win "over by Christmas". The historical precedent is for guerilla wars to span a decade or more. So for now the military will continue to prosecute its long war, without parades or ticker-tape, maximising what can be achieved, before eventual egress from Afghanistan.

Update on 30/07/2010: For a well considered news piece in response to the 'Afghan War Diary' leak and questions over current strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, see the article "Don't go back" in this week's Economist.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

"My bank's evil and wants to take over the world" - Really?

Not going to happen

First, a disclaimer. I like to think of myself as an economic liberal. I dig competition, the invisible hand, laissez-faire, and I detest things like the Common Agricultural Policy and the speeches of Nicolas Sarkozy. I'm not one of these hippies who think finance is immoral or that the banks are evil. Conveniently enough in my case, ideology and self-interest are bound together, as my job is rather dependent on financial services.

I just don't see the sense in demonising banks. To me, caricaturing Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" is sensationalist crap. However, it is a juicy metaphor and mind sappingly simplistic enough to get anti-capitalist protesters jumping up and down on their fair trade bean bags. But for those of us who aren't high on catnip and don't believe the Da Vinci Code is a true story, it's pretty silly.

However, while we're on caricatures, I was tickled recently to learn that someone within Goldman had suggested that the firm's CEO Lloyd Blankfein should appear on Oprah. Personally I think it would make for dull viewing. Would Oprah ask some insightful questions on corporate governance or probe him on CDO issuance with respect to the SEC's ongoing fraud case? It would be some anticlimax for Joe Public should the dastardly face of demon finance turn out to be smart, middle-aged, middle-class, mild-mannered and bald.

"Well Oprah, first let me explain to folks at home how a CDO works."

Now - and I know this is whimsical so please bear with me - in an imperfect light, Blankfein could be said to bear a very slight, passing resemblance to Dr Evil, comic creation of Mike Myers and nemesis to spoof super-spy Austin Powers. Stay with me. Putting two and two together in my own innumerate way, I was instantly transported back to Dr Evil's appearance on Jerry Springer in The Spy Who Shagged Me. This is more what the public wants! Cue hilarity.

"I'm the head of an evil organisation. I don't share."
Dr Evil.

Oh, and it was revealed in January that the (very evil) North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has actually had a Dr Evil-esque secret lair built within a hollowed-out mountain. I don't think Blankfein has one.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Don't tell him, Danny!

"Who's responsible for these nasty cuts?"
asks the money-throwing welfarist.
"Don't tell him, Danny!" blurts Captain Osborne.

But seriously, this Liberal-Conservative coalition is a strategic masterstroke; I'm converted. I've even warmed to "Lib-Con" over "Con-Lib". It's hardly a fluke that Danny Alexander is the face of the coalition's cuts. Its just a shame that no Tory strategist can claim credit for such a decisive outmanoeuvring of the Liberal Democrats without risking instant political Seppuku.

The touchy-feely Lib Dems have rich reserves of political capital for the Conservatives to burn when it comes to delivering bad news. Alexander is the perfect messenger to announce the cancellation or suspension of £10.5 billion in delusional last-minute Labour spending. Before him it was David Laws who played the axeman perfectly, standing next to Osborne in the Treasury garden. You couldn't even see the strings.

Laws has since departed of course and for the Liberals too the honeymoon might be over. The Lib Dems will realise, like many new brides - once the sunshine in the Treasury garden has faded and the glare of flash bulbs outside Number 10 has softened - that marriage is a contractual institution. The stakes of not getting hitched were high. The post-election prospect of landing the political blame for a double-dip recession, the spiralling deficit, and fears of a rating downgrade all loomed large.

Quitting the marriage bed any time soon carries the same political threat. I think the coalition will last the course because it will require a much recovered economy for either Lib-Con partner to consider separation. When viewed in this light, Labour should get used to being Shadows. Lib Dem interests are still firmly aligned with the coalition and staying in power. Even if their job is partly to soften the blow of delivering bad tidyings.

Gordon, the rings please.

The Cameron-Clegg partnership represents the overlapping politics of both parties. Cameron claims (truthfully) to be a "Liberal Conservative", while Clegg stands on the more libertarian edge of his own party. To his left is the strong wing of "social liberals", still smarting at the collapse of the brief "Lib-Lab" pipe-dream.

The reality of office has already coerced the Lib Dem "u-turn" on their pre-election promise to delay cutting the deficit. But David Miliband, etc, can snipe from the hilltops all they like; cuts are not a political choice but an economic imperative. The Lib Dems in government positions have realised that and I have enough respect for the the UK electorate to believe they know it too.

Furthermore, as Nick Clegg remarked on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show:
"The outgoing Labour government was just throwing around money like there was no tomorrow, probably knowing that they were going to lose the election, making extraordinary commitments left, right and centre, many of which they knew they couldn't honour."
How do you like them Apples, Miliband(s)?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Labour and the North East: a Bad Romance

It's a common grudge in my home region (the North East) to blame the Tories for biting the bullet in the 1980s by ending state subsidisation of unprofitable heavy industries such as coal. However I have never heard the same people come up with credible alternatives for how a Labour government could have circumnavigated this reality, aside from continuous caving to over-mighty unions and throwing state money at dying industries.  
Skip forward 13 years and we see the North East facing comparable challenges. The region is still overall one of the UK's poorest. That obscures many success stories, with towns such as Newcastle reinventing themselves to business, and the region as a whole becoming more of a base for technologically advanced industries. That said, the number of businesses and entrepreneurialism among its 2.5 million population remains significantly below the national average.

Tougher to confront is the region's unsustainable dependence on public sector jobs. Indeed, continued reliance on state sector jobs has probably discouraged individual enterprise. When David Cameron says he will cut the fat of a state sector grown flabby under Labour, the reality is that the axe will fall on the North East more than elsewhere. He has bravely admitted as much. The number of government dependent administrative jobs in the region has climbed hugely under Labour. Many of my own friends have taken jobs dependent on the public sector after returning home from university, working within the administration of pensions, student financing, etc. I'm sure they'll continue to do well as individuals because they are highly capable people, but collectively their current roles now look less secure.

Gordon Brown has left the UK economy in its biggest crisis since 1945. We are not quite in Greece's situation yet, but it is feasible that we could be within a year or two unless a punitive austerity plan is put into place. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies Labour failed to explain in the run up to the election where 87% of the cuts they say are necessary must fall.

But the writing is on the wall. There must be a dramatic haircut of public sector jobs, and only a Conservative government is offering the "short-back-and-sides" which is necessary. The state cannot afford to pay so many administrative jobs related but unnecessary for the efficient functioning of key public services such as the NHS. David Nicholson, who runs the health service in England, has said that by 2013 it could slice 15% from its budget, meeting increased demand with the same resources. That would mean about 10% fewer jobs, with the axe falling on administrative roles.

So the outlook is again tough for the North East. With that in mind, it is surprising that so many people in the North East voted Conservative in this election. The region is still Labour's heartland and its most reliable political stronghold. It again returned an overwhelming number of Labour safe seats. So far, so predictable. But it also polled a quite remarkable 6.8% swing to the Conservatives. If that size of swing had been replicated nationally (rather than the 5% UK-wide swing observed), then we could by now have a Conservative government. A swing of 7% was required for a majority, but a DUP deal would have delivered the remainder.

Peter Mandelson's old Hartlepool seat stayed Labour but swung 12.8% to Conservative. Labour also managed to keep hold of Tony Blair's old constituency of Sedgefield but it saw an 11.6% swing to the Conservatives. My hometown of Yarm, within the Stockton South seat, went Conservative by a mere 332 votes - pushing out Dari Taylor, one of "Blair's babes" of 1997, since tainted by 2009's Parliamentary expenses scandal.

When the first early results came from the North East on Thursday evening, I was filled with pride at the numbers of people who seemed to have grasped the awful reality which Labour spin could never admit. They seemed to show the sham of New Labour's legacy, and the way forward for the rest of Britain. With history now in the balance and David Cameron at the doorstep of Number 10, I think they still do.