Monday, 30 May 2011

On Libya, aircraft carriers, and the importance of marketing


No illustration of Britain's defence cuts was so emotive as Ark Royal emerging from fog, homeward-bound to Portsmouth for its final decommissioning. Huge White Ensigns hung in the ship's hangar to greet the crowds, who had queued in long lines to bid farewell to the Royal Navy's flagship. But it was a sad day, for all that. The Navy had struggled to fight its corner in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which led to some poor decisions being made, which may yet damage the national interest. Losing the fleet's flagship a few years early was just the most poignant emblem of decline.

That was in part caused by 'back-to-front' pressure on the SDSR from the Treasury to keep fiscal realities in mind, with the UK facing an unprecedented peacetime national debt. Rather than conduct a serious strategic review, beginning by underlining what was necessary to maintain the country's defence policy, posture and priorities, the review began by defining how much needed to be cleaved, before taking the scythe to the country's armed forces.

Of the three services, the Royal Navy failed most conspicuously to grasp the need for adroit marketing and lobbying within those political constraints. The Army could rely on the short-term rationale of Afghanistan to guarantee its place in the queue for scarce assets. It will undoubtedly shrink after 2015, but it can probably afford to do so, and part of this will come at the expense of 40% of the MBTs built to meet the Red Army across the North German Plain. It won't lose any of the capabilities it has got now.

Not so for the Navy and the RAF, left to fight for the scraps. The 2015 deadline for Afghan withdrawal, combined with Westminster's naive willingness to believe that the UK would not involve itself in an overseas intervention in the meantime, had a major consequence: a scramble for remaining funds between the senior service and its youngest sibling. The RAF probably won that marketing battle, headlined by the nonsensical decision to keep the Tornado (also designed for a Cold-War-gone-hot scenario), at the expense of the Harrier (a much more useful aircraft, able to deploy flexibly in any number of roles on land or sea).

Intervention through Nato's no-fly-zone in Libya, at sea and in the air, has made a mockery of the SDSR within a matter of months from its release: potentially “one of the fastest failures in modern British strategic history”, according to Paul Cornish, an international security lobbyist at think-tank Chatham House. Damage to the UK's national interest will yet depend on what happens in the world over the next decade. Libya could be just a warning shot against strategic stupidity.

Much was made of the early contribution of RAF aircraft; Tornadoes flew initially from the UK and were refuelled in the air to transport small payloads to Libya at disproportionate expense. France and Italy, despite their relative proximity to Libya, opted from the outset to use aircraft carriers to cut the distances involved by crossing the Mediterranean, getting the most value out of sea-launched air power, from the Charles de Gaulle and Guiseppi Garibaldi, respectively. The French and Italians seem to have better maintained Admiral Jacky Fisher's notion that: "Our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we ought to be there five minutes after war is declared."

Since moving to Italian bases, the still-small number of Britain's Eurofighter interceptors yet equipped for ground attack has also become apparent. Clearly little or no vestige remains of Colonel Gaddafi's air force, so there is precious little work for air superiority fighters to do except 'police' an empty no-fly-zone. Harriers would be useful: the Italians are using them on their own carrier.

The Navy's role in Libya began by firing submarine-launched missiles at ground targets ashore, quickly followed by diverting scarce ships from deployments elsewhere, first to evacuate UK nationals and then to blockade the coastline. Many of these SDSR-canned assets are living on borrowed time, including HMS Cumberland and RAF Nimrod R1 aircraft, both of which were deployed just months from the scrapyard.

Cornish adds: "The obvious question to ask is whether Britain could have made a contribution to the intervention in Libya had the crisis developed later in 2011 when most of the decommissionings, disbandments, and retirements would otherwise have taken place."

Only months after the SDSR, Apaches are embarked on Ocean, bound for Libya.

Stepping up UK ground attack capabilities in Libya has meant using Apache helicopter gunships, four of which have been sent aboard HMS Oceanthe UK's helicopter carrier (or Landing Platform Helicopter, to use the ugly service jargon). There is a risk involved in this deployment. For starters, the limited UK Apache force is being stretched between two conflicts far from home. Added to this, attack helicopters like the Apache are vulnerable to shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles: the Americans lost twelve in Iraq to hostile fire.

There are alternatives, but they are in even shorter supply. The US Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog) tank-busting aircraft would be ideal as well as less vulnerable in the close air support role aiding rebel ground forces, while AC-130 gunships (a heavily-armed version of Lockheed's Hercules transport plane), can circle high over the battlefield under the protective cover of darkness. Both types can destroy more tanks and materiel with each sortie than fast jets, using cheaper munitions than the most expensive precision missiles, while operating at less risk if used appropriately. These aircraft types were deployed in March, in the opening stages, but the Americans seem unwilling to commit them in the longer term.

The Apache has been navalised by the UK to do a similar job to the Harrier. It has only recently been converted to operate from the deck of Ocean (and presumably also Illustrious, as the two ships take turns as the fleet's helicopter carrier). Until the Royal Navy's capable new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers enter service a decade from now, the fleet will not be able to provide more.

Grounds for optimism?

Construction work has started on the second of the two new carriers, said to be named Prince of Wales. Whether or not the ship, a major component of the SDSR's so-called 'Future Force 2020', will be fully fitted out for service is still not possible to say. That will depend on the UK's fiscal condition for the next decade. There is still a real threat that the ship might not be fitted out to full fast jet-flying specifications, or spend its life in a continuously one in, one out of port relationship with its sister ship. Other undesirable scenarios could involve the 65,000-tonne ship being shared with (or sold to) France, or else sold elsewhere abroad. Still, it's being built; that's a positive development; one step at a time.

Hopefully, the Treasury will be less hard up for funds by 2020. Libyan intervention is being borne by 2011's cash-strapped Treasury, at considerable expense. In order for 'Future Force 2020' to be more than a second-rate sham, the defence budget will need to rise considerably and consistently after 2015. This is one battle which must be won, and for which the lobbyists (for the Navy and the Armed Forces generally) need to prepare for now

What's in a name?

I'm no mathematician, or an economist. But there is more to budgets than bean counting. Why did the NHS budget swell so much under New Labour; why was it a ring-fenced sacred cow from the 2010 cuts; and why has been so staunchly defended from Conservative reform plans in 2011? The Armed Forces, esteemed as they are, cannot compete on the same level. Labour is the NHS's best friend, while traditional 'friends' or influence within Tory government were unable or unwilling to prevent the SDSR bloodbath.

Because of this, it's all the more vital for the military to embrace the dark arts of PR and savvy marketing. The Ark Royal is a great name for a ship, totemic, steeped in popular memory as well as glorious history. Prince of Wales: less so.

While speculation mounts about what the old Ark Royal might become once sold into civilian service (Thames heli-port or Hong Kong casino have been suggested), there is a very real possibility of a new Ark Royal. One of the greatest things that Prince Charles has ever done, is reportedly agree to a request, made behind the scenes by somebody with a head for marketing, that the Royal Navy's second new aircraft carrier, should not be christened Prince of Wales, but instead be named as the Navy's sixth Ark Royal. That would be a triumph of naval marketing skill. Disposing of an expensively constructed Prince of Wales would be politically awkward in 2020, but for a politician to decide to sell off or mothball a brand new incarnation of the Ark Royal would be much more politically unpopular.