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.