Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Lighter Frigate Debate: A Look "Under the Hood"

"Was I to die this moment, 'Want of Frigates' would be found stamped on my heart. No words of mine can express what I have, and am suffering for want of them."
-Horatio Nelson, August 1798

As those who have read my musings on the "lighter frigate" in the past may already know my views on the British government's plan, laid down in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, have been mixed. To some extent I continue to blow hot and cold on the issue. It is now apparent, to me at least, that there is risk inherent in all courses of action when it comes to replacing the Royal Navy's thirteen aging Type 23 frigates. The earlier plan, to build thirteen Type 26 frigates, appears to have fallen afoul of cost and potentially timescale issues. We can criticise the decision to cap the Type 26 build run at the eight anti-submarine configured hulls all we like, but the reality appears to be that BAE's construction yards on the Clyde could not deliver Type 26 at the required tempo without very significant investment (the "frigate factory"). One shipbuild per year was needed to replace the Type 23s as they leave service, without a significant decline in RN escort numbers, whereas the yard currently appears to be scaled for one Type 26 scale shipbuild per 1.5 years.

Presuming that BAE could have delivered at the specified rate of one Type 26 build every 1.5 years it would have resulted in a dramatic decline in the RN's number of escorts, with no realistic chance of recovery until the early 2040s. It would also have likely resulted in a concurrent construction programme, using the same yards, with the Type 45's replacement in the mid-late 2030s. This would have required the Clyde yards to at least double their output of complex warships, a hard ask indeed.

The 13 Type 26 option clearly had some significant problems of its own. It was by no means an "easy" option, requiring a 33% higher build rate than BAE were required to provide under their Terms of Business Agreement with the government, significant investment in new facilities to achieve that higher build rate. Coupled with a higher rate of orders than the MoD was likely capable of funding, without compromising other programmes and we've probably explained the majority of the "witches' brew" that produced the 2015 decision to cap Type 26 at eight hulls and build five or more "lighter frigates".

It's fair to say that this decision has caused more than its fair share of controversy amongst defence commentators. During these early stages hard facts have been very thin on the ground. Most of what we have to go on is based on a few "powerpoint" design concepts put out by BAE, BMT Defence Services and Stellar Systems and Sir John Parker's recommendations for reforming the UK military shipbuilding sector. Bluntly, it isn't a lot and until the government releases its "National Shipbuilding Strategy" at some point soon(ish) we will continue to speculate about the "Lighter Frigate/General Purpose Frigate/Type 31/Type 31e", mostly in the dark. 

It's been suggested that the Lighter Frigate essentially amounts to the "anyone but BAE" option and is a means of undermining their near-monopolistic position in UK military shipbuilding. For some commentators this prospect is deeply worrying, having the potential to fatally undermine the two remaining complex military shipbuilding sites in the country by starving them of orders. For others BAE's monopoly is painted as "the problem" and one of the key reasons why UK-built warships are more expensive than their overseas equivalents. I'm, personally, more inclined to agree with the former position. However, I also see the need for the Lighter Frigate and recognise that it isn't an entirely bad idea from several standpoints.

Firstly, even with a 25% slower build tempo, one Lighter Frigate every two years, escort numbers remain relatively stable; dipping to lows of only 18. 

Secondly, 8 Type 26 at 1.5 year intervals dovetail neatly with the projected start of the Type 45 replacement programme without the need for concurrency. This indicates to me that the "Lighter Frigate undermines BAE" argument may be too harsh. There is a steady stream of the sort of high-end complex warship building work that BAE provides on the Clyde available for those yards well into the future. 

Thirdly, one of the most astute criticisms is that bringing the Lighter Frigate from the concept stage, where we are at present, to a full-fledged design able to be built is going to take time and cost money. This is absolutely the case and where much of the risk lies. However, it is not impossible to design and develop a surface escort to a constrained timescale. Doing so may actually help avoid the problems which emerge when a steady stream of additions and amendemnts are made to a design specification the longer it takes to bring it to fruition. A process that, as Type 26 demonstrates, can add significantly to development costs. It may also limit the scope for bespoke or "revolutionary" components, with designers forced to turn to off the shelf equipment and machinery. A more constrained timescale for designing the Lighter Frigate may actually prove beneficial if it produces a well-executed, but conservative, design.

An earlier and much more modest iteration of Type 26

Fourth, there is justified concern about the viability of the proposed "block build" approach that is intended to spread work to other, smaller, yards around the UK. There are evidently issues with this approach related to the shortage of yards with the necessary skilled workforce, equipment and facilities to efficiently build blocks for a complex surface combatant. While work on blocks for the carriers appears to be a positive indication of their skills and capacity to deliver, it remains to be seen if a similar model can be made to work for the Lighter Frigate. The other issue with this approach is the apparent lack of a suitable "integration yard" (where the blocks are assembled into a functioning warship).

"The vessel should be assembled in a shipyard, backed by a company or alliance with sufficient financial and industrial capacity and capability to construct and commission and enter into the key sub-contracts."
-Parker Report, 2016

There are a very limited set of options on this front. While Sir John Parker's report suggests that BAE should concentrate their efforts on Type 26 their yards on the Clyde would be an obvious option, provided that the risk of concurrently building Type 26 and integrating blocks for the Lighter Frigate could be mitigated. Unfortunately viable alternatives are very thin on the ground. Babcock international's Appledore yard is too small and their Rosyth yard, where the carriers have been constructed, is soon to become the hub for UK nuclear submarine decommissioning. Cammel Laird on Merseyside have the facilities but likely lack the skilled workforce necessary to integrate a complex warship. Their performance constructing the UK polar research ship RRS David Attenborough may give some indication of just how capable they are in this regard. Harland and Wolff's yard in Belfast is large enough, but the company hasn't built ships (let alone anything as complex as a warship) for years, having diversified heavily into the offshore wind sector. Other "options", such as re-opening the Portsmouth construction yard, are little more than fantasy.

The options for the integration yard are extremely limited, realistically boiling down to BAE on the Clyde and Cammel Laird. The latter being a much more risky option that would almost certainly require a consortium that included BAE, to bring their skills and experience to bear, in order to make it work. It would also likely require an expansion and upskilling of Cammel Laird's modestly-sized workforce. Ultimately it might be better to focus efforts on a single complex builder, BAE on the Clyde. However, this could introduce risks to the Type 26 programme. The optimal means of mitigating those risks might be to use BAE as an assembly yard only for the Lighter Frigate, keeping all fabrication activities seperate by farming them out to the smaller yards.

Cammel Laird's yard in Merseyside
If the UK government is serious about building up a second complex military shipbuilder, it needs to consider the implications on continued investment in the Royal Navy and Fleet Auxiliary that will be necessary to sustain two yards. In shipbuilding consistent investment and orders are critical. It will be no different in this case than it is with BAE.

Overall, the Lighter Frigate is simultaneously necessary and difficult to realise. Contrary to some commentators' views, I'm firm in my belief that 13 Type 26 isn't the "magic wand" answer to this problem. A long-term failure to invest in military shipbuilding has led us to a place where there are no easy options. Blaming all of our woes on BAE's monopoly is unhelpful and disguises systematic failures in the government's military industrial strategy. "Competition" isn't a magic wand either, undermining BAE with no real alternative would be the height of irresponsibility. The only way to make a semi-competitive military shipbuilding system work would be to build a significantly larger Royal Navy, able to naturally support more than one major yard. In the author's opinion, the optimum solution would be to use BAE's Clyde yards as the integrator for the Lighter Frigate. Accepting the risk to Type 26 by giving BAE the confidence to invest seriously in their yards and expand the workforce to cope with concurrent builds. The alternative, Cammel Laird, is probably just too much of a leap in the dark at this stage. 

In the end this is about providing the navy with the number of ships it needs to carry out its duties while maintaining a sustainable military shipbuilding sector. 

Oh, and the idea that the UK will export loads of these things is probably bollocks.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Size Matters: Britain's Aircraft Carriers

"The aircraft carrier is truly amazing. I am amazed at the concept of the carrier, and the fact that it works. And it doesn't just work, it kicks butt.

-Lt. Barry W. Hull, VFA-81 Squadron, USS Saratoga, 1991

Why build big? It's a simple question asked frequently about the UK's two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Weighing in at just over 70,000 tonnes they are, by quite a long way, "the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy". Many have leveled criticisms against them because of their size, claiming they are little more than a vast vanity project, that their size makes them unsuitable for a "medium power" such as Britain and that they reflect a yearning for a status on the world stage that is undeserved. What these criticisms ignore is that there are serious practical reasons why larger carriers are, in most circumstances, a significantly better investment when compared with smaller "pocket carriers" such as the Invincible class ships the UK operated from the late 70s through to 2014; when HMS Illustrious was decommissioned.

Probably the key reason why larger carriers are significantly better than their smaller cousins is that they are a more efficient way of sustaining air operations from the sea. Generating the same effect with numerous smaller carriers, as some have suggested as a better course for the UK to follow, simply costs much more. The obvious consequence of this is that you get a force of smaller carriers that cannot deliver the same effect as fewer, larger, ships. The reason why this is the case can be neatly summed up with a single word: duplication. This is especially true of the manpower required to run two equivalent carrier forces, equal in "striking power", where the only difference is the size of the ships.  While the individual light carrier will undoubtedly have a smaller crew than an individual large carrier, you might need two or three smaller carriers to achieve the same number of sorties as a single, larger, ship and each still requires a range of highly trained crew members. To draw upon a real-world example: HMS Queen Elizabeth has a core crew of ~679, will carry and operate a tailored air group of 40 aircraft and can surge 110+ sorties a day. In comparison the 25,000t ITS Cavour has a core crew of ~451, an air group of around 20 aircraft and can surge approximately ~40 sorties a day. This means that, broadly speaking, in order to achieve the same effect as a single Queen Elizabeth you need approximately three Cavour-style light carriers on station, with manpower equivalent to double that of the larger ship. When considering the force structure necessary to ensure there are three small carriers available at all times for operations, taking the Royal Navy's current ratio of around 2 ships in maintenance for every 3 ships operationally available, you're looking at a fleet of five light carriers to achieve the same notional operational effect as a pair of Queen Elizabeths. Overall the model of smaller, more numerous, ships would require between 20 and 35% more manpower across the entire carrier force. At a time when the Royal Navy is hard-pressed to man its existing fleet a solution that involves adding up to a third more ship-side manpower to the carrier force is simply impractical and would add substantially to the force's through-life running cost.

As the ships get smaller their efficiency decreases markedly. Concepts for extremely small VTOL carriers, such as the one illustrated below, essentially amount to a reductio ad absurdum but nevertheless prove the point that greater numbers of smaller carriers become exponentially more expensive to produce the same effect in terms of available aircraft and sortie generation. Furthermore, there is also needless duplication in terms of aircraft maintainers with small carriers. It takes a similar number of trained engineers to maintain a small number of aircraft operated from a small carrier as it does to maintain a larger number on a larger carrier, once again duplication of functions across multiple platforms leads to greater manpower needs, reduced efficiency and increased costs across the entire fleet. The cost of the ship per aircraft carried also increases significantly as the platform becomes smaller. Taking into account that the RN, when presented with the opportunity to replace their old carriers, was instructed by the government that no more than two new ships would be procured it then becomes clear that two larger ships were the clear and preferable choice.
Concepts were produced for very small carriers, this modification of the "Type 43" destroyer examined the possibility of operating a pair of STOVL Sea Harriers from escorts. Image courtesy of D.K Brown & Moore's "Rebuilding the Royal Navy"

Sustained Operations:
The next major limitation on many smaller carrier designs is their capacity to conduct sustained air operations. This is due to a number of factors, but principally comes down to aircrew endurance, aircraft maintenance and supply limitations. As you can well imagine it is easier for a carrier with a larger air wing to conduct more sorties in a short-term high-intensity surge effort, however, their advantage becomes even more obvious when looking at sustaining a more modest number of sorties over a longer period of time. Facilities for planning and briefing multiple air operations are also more limited aboard smaller ships. Light carriers with smaller air groups place greater demands on a smaller pool of pilots and other air crew when sustaining operations over time, or compromise by reducing the number of sorties flown. Similarly, working a smaller number of aircraft harder to sustain operations leads to greater wear on individual aircraft, increasing the risk that they end up out of action without an available replacement. For example, during NATO bombing operations in 1995 Britain's "pocket carrier" HMS Invincible was struggling to sustain eight sorties a day with her eight embarked Sea Harrier FA.2s (and both Sea Harrier models had a reputation for being robust and reliable aircraft). A larger carrier with more aircraft embarked can better afford technical problems which prevent some aircraft from operating, because each individual aircraft's availability is less important when a large pool is available to draw from.

Logistics are also another crucial advantage of larger carriers, as greater space for fuel and stores makes them less reliant on frequent resupply operations which take time and prevent flying operations. The Invincible class were (despite some mid-life improvements to the quantity of ammunition they could store in their magazines) always tied very closely to their attendant fuel and stores ships. By comparison the Queen Elizabeth design can hold fuel and stores for around ~400 "strike" sorties, sufficient for five days of very high-intensity operations (defined as a first-day Surge of 110 sorties, followed by 72 sorties a day for four days) before needing to come "off station" in order to resupply fuel and ammunition. Alternatively, a more relaxed tempo could obviously be sustained over a longer period of time. Considering that the Libya air policing mission only required 36 sorties per day to enforce, after the first 11 days spent degrading Libya's air defences, QE could sustain a similar lower tempo operation without resupply for 11 days.

The Invincible class light carriers struggled to sustain air operations for an extended duration without reduced sortie rates and heavy dependence on attendant logistics ships.

Eggs and Baskets:
There is a superficially appealing argument that reliance on a smaller number of larger ships amounts to "placing all of one's eggs into a few very expensive baskets". While this may sound like an enlightened nugget of wisdom on the surface, dig a little deeper and you find that it's a flawed argument. Firstly, "hardening" a carrier force by using a greater number of smaller platforms only works if you have the escort warships to form multiple carrier groups. Without a sufficient number of these ships, which form a vital part of the carrier's layered defences, the available escorts will either be too thinly spread to be effective, or the carriers will have to be concentrated within the protected zone afforded by the available escorts. The first approach risks spreading available forces too thinly, dispersing them into vulnerable "penny packets", while the second only provides marginal benefits over having a single larger ship at the centre of the carrier group. Effective dispersal of the carrier force would multiply the number of effective escort groups required, something that is beyond the current capabilities of the Royal Navy. Secondly, a more dispersed carrier force would also require the dispersal of logistics support ships. As presently planned the UK carrier group will be supported by a large fleet tanker and solid stores ship, in comparison multiple smaller carriers would each require a roughly equivalent number of support ships (and would be more dependent on them, as their own fuel and magazine space would be more limited). If, broadly speaking, three smaller carriers are necessary to replicate the capability of a single larger carrier then the overall force will require something like triple the number of logistics ships and escorts; if the carriers are operated separately in order to take advantage of the dispersed approach. Even then, each group centered on a light carrier will have fewer aircraft available to contribute to the outer ring of its layered defense. This means that Combat Air Patrol (CAP) operations, designed to keep hostile aircraft away from the carrier group, would require a greater portion of the air group's effort and leave fewer aircraft available for offensive operations. What this means in practice is that the smaller carrier would be expending so much effort protecting itself and its escort group that its "punch" would end up being anemic.

The alternative approach to effective dispersal is concentrating multiple smaller carriers within the same group. This does have the clear benefits of not requiring nearly as many additional escorts and also limits the need to duplicate replenishment ships. The group's "punch" is also greater, due to the larger number of available aircraft for all duties, albeit spread between a number of ships rather than concentrated on one. Indeed, the concentrated approach was taken by the commander of the British naval task force that fought the 1982 Falklands War; with HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible operating together throughout most of the conflict. However, it is important to note that this means of employing smaller carriers sacrifices the key benefits of effective dispersal: the increased difficulty of locating the entire carrier force for the enemy, the ability to deploy the dispersed groups to different areas and the increased "coverage" this can provide (especially for anti-submarine operations). It is a fundamental principle of military operations that force be concentrated in order to achieve decisive effects, while a dispersed force may allow individual platforms to survive it is far less useful for striking hard blows against an adversary.
Operating a dispersed force of smaller carriers requires significantly more escorts and logistics ships and must still be concentrated in order to achieve decisive military effects in most circumstances.
I began this piece with a simple question: "why build big?" and the answer is now clear. When discussing aircraft carriers, from a purely functional perspective, size matters. Setting aside the soft power and symbolic implications of operating large carriers entirely, they're simply better from a pragmatic position. Smaller numbers of larger carriers are more efficient in terms of manpower, cost per aircraft carried and supporting ships than larger numbers of smaller carriers. For the Royal Navy, told that they would only get two ships to replace the remaining Invincible class carriers, the decision was clear and they chose to build two large, efficient and effective ships. This was, for all of the reasons discussed, absolutely the right decision for the UK. The new Queen Elizabeth class, once fully worked up, will be capable of conducting extremely intensive "short and sharp" air operations before exhausting her own supplies of fuel and ammunition or sustaining a lower tempo of operation for a significant time. They will be able to bring a decisive level of force to most engagements, instead of the small "penny packets" of aircraft aboard light carriers. Along with a properly constituted escort group the larger carrier is also capable of simultaneously defending itself and conducting meaningful strike operations when necessary. For those who claim that the UK's large carriers are simple a vanity project I would respond by stating that deliberately pursuing a more expensive and less effective solution, in the form of smaller carriers, because of a perception that they "better suit Britain's position in the world" is not only vain but unnecessarily introspective and downright foolish. When it comes to carriers, the UK has absolutely made the right choice. Bigger is better.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Jutland, One Hundred Years On

As I write this, almost exactly a century ago the Dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet and the German Navy's High Seas Fleet were in action off the Western coast of the Danish peninsula; sometimes referred to as Jutland. Over the course of one of the greatest sea battles ever fought the fate of the Entente and Central Powers hung in the balance. If Germany could break the "ring of steel", the Royal Navy's distant blockade, by isolating and destroying portions of the numerically superior Grand Fleet and ultimately wresting control of the North Sea from their enemies the war could have had a dramatically different outcome. However, thanks in no small part to the vast British naval construction programme, and reforms conducted in the years before the war, the German goal was never realised. The "ring of steel" held and the Entente prevailed.

That's the short version of what happened, but the reality was far more complex. The Royal Navy's war from 1914-1918 wasn't just a handful of famous fleet engagements; the names of which are written down in history textbooks. The action at the Heligoland Bight, the battle of the Falkland Islands, the battle of the Dogger Bank, Jutland and the Zebrugge Raid. While these were moments of intense action, they were atypical. A handful of days of fierce combat, where titans clashed on the high seas. While the courage of the men who went to sea in "the fleet that Jack built" (referring to the radical First Sea Lord John "Jackie" Fisher) is unquestionable, we often forget that courage takes many forms. It was never simply a question of a few isolated sorties to confront the German fleet. The First World War at sea was as much a grinding attritional battle as the conflict on land. The drawn out determination of men in all of Britain's warships, great and small, for four long, hard, years helped ensure the defeat of the Central Powers. Today and tomorrow we commemorate 100 years since the action off Jutland, but in a little over a day's time we will go back to our lives, and many will forget. For the men of the Royal Navy in 1916 each day after Jutland was another in the long hard months of training, sorties, scouting and blockade duty in the North Sea. Each day was another spent keeping the sea open to friendly shipping and firmly closed to hostile commerce raiders.

A day from now, when the hundredth anniversary of the battle Jutland passes, I shall still take another moment to remember the sailors who, after having witnessed the titanic clash of fleets, made ready to go to sea once again. While the great battlefleets on both sides often dominate the public view of the First World War at sea, the myriad of smaller ships: cruisers, destroyers and gunboats, on lonely stations, were just as crucial and crewed by men no less courageous. Jutland ensured the Royal Navy kept control of the sea, but it was how they used that control that really mattered.

It is to the efforts of all who served in the Royal Navy throughout the Great War I dedicate this poem, for our world is built upon their backs. I am eternally humbled by their courage, service and sacrifice.

"They bear, in place of classic names,
Letters and numbers on their skin.
They play their grisly blindfold games
In little boxes made of tin.
Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,
Sometimes they learn where mines are laid
Or where the Baltic ice is thin.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.
They seldom tow their targets in.
They follow certain secret aims
Down under, far from strife or din.
When they are ready to begin
No flag is flown, no fuss is made
More than the shearing of a pin.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames
A mark from Sweden to the Swin,
The Cruiser’s thundrous screw proclaims
Her comings out and goings in:
But only whiffs of paraffin
Or creamy rings that fizz and fade
Show where the one-eyed Death has been.
That is the custom of “The Trade.”

Their feats, their fortunes and their fames
Are hidden from their nearest kin;
No eager public backs or blames,
No journal prints the yarns they spin
(The Censor would not let it in!)
When they return from run or raid.
Unheard they work, unseen they win.
That is the custom of “The Trade."

-Rudyard Kipling, The Trade

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Beyond NATO: Part Two, An EU Army

"With its own army, Europe could react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state"
-Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

This is the second part in an ongoing series that examines some alternative European defence structures, that could arise in the wake of the US withdrawing its forces and security guarantees from the continent. As we've already seen in the "NATO Minus" scenario the Atlantic alliance would be very hard pressed to generate credible forces to adequately defend its external borders and deter potential Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. However, trying to muddle through by attempting to perpetuate as much of the status-quo as possible is far from the only option that would be open to European states, following American disengagement. One of the most superficially attractive alternatives would be the expansion of the European Union's (EU) defence identity and the creation of a single "EU Army" greater than the sum of its parts. An ongoing process of European defence integration is provided for in the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon:
"The Common Security and Defence Policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides. It shall in that case recommend to the member states the adoption of such a decision in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements."
A security guarantee, the "mutual defence clause", similar in practice to NATO's Article 5 is also included in the terms of the treaty:
"If a Member State is a victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States."
These components of the existing treaty could very well become the core of a more Eurocentric alliance in the event that NATO lapsed or dissolved following a US withdrawal from its structures. With the mutual defence clause and a broad statement, committing the members to creating "a common defence", that could be interpreted in many ways the EU has the tools to create a defence union. While the prospect of achieving the unanimous support of the Council of Ministers (i.e. the governments of the EU member states) for such a policy currently seems remote, the US pulling out of NATO could very well provide the impetus for a significant policy shift amongst many of the states currently reluctant to pursue the idea. If the decision was made to develop the EU, rather than NATO, as the core European defence alliance this would undoubtedly have profound consequences for the long-term evolution of the EU's role and the shape of defence on the continent.

However, while the groundwork may have been laid for the EU to assume a much broader and deeper role in European defence, little of substance has actually been built on those foundations. Some progress towards the goal of increased European defence integration was made in the early 2000s: the creation of the EU military committee (2000), EU Institute for Strategic Studies (2002). a European Security Strategy (2003) and the establishment of the European Defence Agency (2004), an EU Military Staff (2004) and EU Battlegroups (2007). While this may seem like an impressive timeline, tracking the progress of an increasingly mature European Union defence identity, a brief look at "the man behind the curtain" reveals just how hollow these structures really are. In reality the whole EU defence project to date amounts to little more than an organisation playing with a handful of feeble military instruments.

Take for example the EU Battlegroups that were heralded by Eurosceptics as the beginning of the end of their national armed forces, and by Federalists as a key step on the road towards a fully-fledged EU armed forces at the core of an increasingly state-like union. To date neither of those predictions have come to pass although, admittedly it is likely still too early to tell where the end point will be. However, what we currently have are a handful of toothless regiment-sized "rapid reaction" forces theoretically capable of deploying within 5-10 days and sustaining themselves for about a month, this can be extended to 120 days "if resupplied appropriately". When you consider that the combat capabilities of these formations are, frankly, pathetic it is unsurprising that deploying them remains politically impossible and that none have ever been used. The only conclusion that can be made about the EU Battlegroups is that their purpose is as a symbolic political project, rather than a serious attempt to create an EU military that is at all credible.
EU Battlegroups: small, toothless and nearly impossible to deploy. 
If the EU Battlegroups are currently the apex of the European Union's defence identity, then it is clear that if the organisation would have a very long way to go if it was to take on the expansive defence and security role currently provided for by NATO. One way of achieving this on a much shorter timescale would be for the EU to "adopt" the, now highly Eurocentric, NATO alliance following American withdrawal. This would have the very significant advantage of not having to build 70 years of military experience almost overnight, along with the continuation of mature NATO structures. Such an arrangement could also provide crucial impetus to progress Turkey's application for entry into the EU. Alternatively, "Europeanisation" of the NATO alliance may lead to political tensions that could see non-EU members such as Turkey and Canada depart altogether. The continued participation and commitment of non-EU states would almost certainly be in doubt, so long as they remained outside the formal political union.

Although the adoption of NATO as a "European" institution is a possibility that could be made to work, the practical difficulties in achieving this aim would seem to be quite significant. Under these circumstances it has to be asked that if NATO should lapse or fall apart, following a US withdrawal, how well placed is the EU to recreate its functions? From the perspective of institutional experience it's fair to say that the EU is extremely poorly equipped to take on NATO's principal roles of collective defence. The EU Military Staff itself remains incapable of conducting operations, instead delegating this responsibility to an "Operational Headquarters" (OHQ) drawn from an existing military alliance (such as the NATO Allied Command Operations centre) or a member state (such as the UK's Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood). While a parallel "EU Operations Centre" has existed since 2007 it is not a formal standing headquarters and would be assembled on an ad-hoc basis. This body's capacity to plan and conduct complex military operations, without extensive support from the member states, remains extremely limited. While a permanent standing EU operational headquarters would certainly enhance the institution's capacity to plan and conduct complex military operations, it is unclear why it would be necessary, when it would simply duplicate a capability that already exists across Europe. Currently there are headquarters in the UK, France, Germany and Italy (as well as the NATO HQ in Belgium) capable of acting in the EU OHQ role. In terms of command and control the EU remains almost wholly reliant on its members to provide the necessary facilities and personnel to coordinate complex operations. Without "adopting" the NATO OHQ, building the existing ad-hoc EU Operations Centre into a fully fledged military command and control facility would undoubtedly be a lengthy and very expensive process.

Another serious issue is the EU's lack of institutional military experience. To date EU operations on land have been characterised by their relatively small scale, low-intensity and multinational nature. Since 2002 five ground operations have been conducted under the EU Force (EUFOR) banner in the following countries: Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic. The largest of these operations (EUFOR Chad/CAR) comprised 4,300 troops drawn from twenty nations, of which 3,700 were actually deployed and 600 held in Europe as a reserve force. More than half the troops assigned to the operation were French, with significant Irish and Polish contingents also present. This relatively modest out of area operation suffered significant logistical problems from the outset, taking six months to achieve its full in-country operating capabilities and only then with significant additional support from the French and Russian armed forces. Only with the deployment of Russian helicopters in late 2008, in support of the EU mission, were these finally overcome.
Russian helicopters proved essential to solving EUFOR's logistical problems
during their deployment to Chad in 2008-2009.
Although the EU has some institutional experience with low-intensity peacekeeping operations, such as the ones listed above, its current capacity to do much more is doubtful; considering the significant problems it appears to have had deploying small forces overseas. On the European periphery the peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Macedonia are essentially a continuation of the NATO missions to those countries, the only things that have changed in practice are the overall commanders and the addition of the EU brand to the mission. Functionally these deployments have changed very little since their handover from NATO to the EU in 2004. Since 2008 there have been two significant EU naval operations, Atlanta and Sophia/Triton. The former was the EU's response to the spike in piracy off Somalia between 2005 and 2013 and the latter is the ongoing operation to deal with the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Operation Atlanta was part of a wider international effort, involving many other states through the multinational Combined Task Force 151. Its goals were limited and the operating environment permissive, essentially amounting to a complex maritime constabulary task far removed from high intensity war-fighting. As for the EU's Mediterranean operations, Sophia and Triton, both have (to date) failed to match the operational effects achieved during the Italian government's unilateral effort: "Operation Mare Nostrum" conducted between 2013 and 2014 but ended on cost grounds. If these missions were to be summed up with a single word it would be "unambitious". EU missions to date have been defined by their narrow scope, small scale, permissive operating environments and limited duration. This is likely indicative of the institution's structural inability to manage more ambitious or complex military tasks in its current form.

So what of the prospects of deeper integration and a unified EU armed forces? It is unquestionable that mechanisms do exist within the Lisbon Treaty to facilitate increased military integration, the ultimate goal of which is a "common defence". Although the terms used in the treaty are broad and any progress requires unanimous consent from the Council of Ministers (effectively giving every state a veto) it is fair to say that structural provisions do exist to facilitate more defence integration. However, the requirement for unanimity ensures that, in practice, very little real progress can be made towards an EU defence union at present. The final report of the Future of Europe Group identified this issue in 2012, suggesting that in order for progress to be made towards defence union the principal of unanimity would have to be given up in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and replaced by the Qualified Majority Voting system. Such a change would indeed be required if progress were to be made towards a more federated EU defence structure. That said, the prospect of member states unanimously rescinding their veto in this area currently remains a remote one. The key question therefore becomes: would a US withdrawal from NATO be a significant enough strategic shock to convince EU members to abandon the principle of unanimity on the CFSP?

Of course there is some possibility that such an event might trigger a much broader reconsideration of the EU's role as a serious European defence player and there will be some within the EU institutions that would push hard for it but, in the author's opinion, there would simply be too many structural problems to overcome in order to turn the EU into a credible military player. Such a significant change in the status of the union as the movement towards a meaningful defence union would undoubtedly trigger referendums in a number of countries and these would be plebiscites that the federalist position would be unlikely to carry, given the significant unpopularity of moves towards further political integration in a number of key EU states. Not least of which is the union's foremost military power: the United Kingdom. In practice an EU defence union could not work without the wholehearted support of Britain and France, something it is unlikely to receive for domestic political reasons rather than foreign policy concerns. Even if the vast political hurdles to such an enterprise could be surmounted, they would inevitably be followed by even greater practical issues. How would an EU military be funded, raised, trained and equipped? Taking on one of the core functions of a state, defence, would inevitably lead to the growth of other federalising pressures: centralised powers of taxation foremost amongst them. This is simply one of the many reasons upon which the "EU Army" concept falls apart, to build a credible army the EU would need to become far more like a state than it currently is and there simply isn't the appetite amongst the peoples of Europe to see that idea realised.

The closest that Europe has currently got to a unified military organisation, a "European Army" (albeit not an especially credible one) is Eurocorps. Established over three years between 1992 and 1995 Eurocorps is a multinational military organisation centered on a permanently attached combined Franco-German brigade. While Eurocorps is not an EU organisation it does explicitly state that its purpose is as a force that can be made available to the EU, along with other international organisations and NATO, when necessary. To date the Corps only has five permanent members: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Spain alongside five associate states: Greece, Italy, Romania, Poland and Turkey. While Eurocorps may seem to be a European Army in the making to an outside observer in practice it is in fact similar in execution to NATO's multinational Response Force and Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. The principal difference being that Eurocorps can also be used for or in support of EU missions, hardly a model for a future EU armed forces.
Eurocorps, a very long way from a real "EU Army"
The final assessment of the EU's ability to assume NATO's role of collective defence, in the event that the alliance lapsed or dissolved following American withdrawal, is that in all likelihood it could not. The EU's existing military structures are, in all honesty, pathetically feeble and principally symbolic. They are the follies of an almost exhausted federalist dream rather than a serious attempt at building a set of armed forces for the EU that could perform the roles currently covered by the member states themselves and coordinated through NATO. Although NATO could be "adopted" as an increasingly European institution, following US withdrawal, this would have the likely effect of driving a wedge between EU NATO members and non-EU members. A wedge that could potentially lead to the withdrawal of allies, such as Turkey and Canada, from European defence structures entirely. Furthermore, the political difficulties inherent in setting in motion the processes which would enable the creation of a European Army remain so great as to be almost insurmountable. They are tied far too closely to an unpopular federalist direction for the EU to gain the support needed to carry the creation of a single military force for the union through to its conclusion. The, almost certain, outcome would be a series of unwinnable national referendums on the issue, which would undoubtedly kill it.

The reality of the EU's military structures is that they are a "Potemkin Village", a symbolic facade with no real substance behind them. They cannot be relied upon to provide for Europe's defence because they are incapable of managing all but the simplest and lowest intensity conventional operations. In effect the institution would remain wholly dependent on its members and unified EU armed forces will remain an unattainable federalist dream.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Beyond NATO: Part One, NATO Minus

"NATO is costing us a fortune... we're protecting Europe with NATO but we're spending a lot of money."
-Donald Trump, US Presidential candidate

For the first time since the Western Alliance's formation in 1949 Europe has been faced with the prospect of a European security structure without the United States. Almost overnight a US Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, shook confidence in the NATO Alliance to its core by floating the idea of American disengagement. By framing the alliance as "obsolete" as well as unduly burdensome to the US he has opened the discussion on a fundamental matter of Transatlantic defence and security policy. While the withdrawal of large scale American combat forces from Europe continued at a steady pace after the end of the Cold War, from 213,000 US troops assigned to European Command in 1990 the American presence has since declined to around 30,000, there was never any serious indication that a total departure was plausible. Although the number of troops was reduced, in line with a perception that the Russian threat had also collapsed, politically the United States has remained a staunch ally and a the de-facto leader of NATO. It has continued to practically support the Article 5 guarantee that "an attack on one is an attack on all" with its conventional and nuclear forces.

However, now that we are presented with the threat (albeit still unlikely and remote) of a more or less complete US withdrawal from the alliance it is worth contemplating what structure or structures might take the place of the Atlantic Alliance, should the previously unthinkable happen. As the consequences of a US departure from NATO would have vast consequences that would spread far from the borders of Europe I shall try to keep the focus of this piece on the European continent itself, rather than looking further afield to the wider effects on the Middle East and North Africa. All the following scenarios assume that the US withdraws more or less completely from European security structures, potentially continuing to lease a handful of strategic depots and bases for their own purposes, but otherwise dispensing with the all-important political guarantee of security, currently provided by their participation in NATO. What follows will be a series of articles examining some of the possible alternatives, their relative merits and weaknesses and an assessment of their potential consequences.

NATO Minus

The logical starting point in this thought experiment would be to examine the viability of the NATO alliance without the support and resources of the United States. The immediate, and most mundane, problem facing the remaining 27 NATO members would be covering the funding gap that would be left by an American departure. Some 22% of the Alliance's budget (around €300 million in 2016) is currently funded by the United States, and that money would have to be found in order to maintain the civilian and military apparatus required for the organisation's administration. It seems likely that the four largest European contributors: Germany (14.6%), France (10.6%), the UK (9.8%) and Italy (8.4%) would bear the greatest proportion of the additional cost. A number of Eastern European countries, Poland foremost amongst them, may also be willing to accept the burden of a larger contribution to the NATO budget, as their proximity to Russia underscores the benefits of keeping the alliance going. However, the relative contribution of Eastern European states will likely remain small (collectively the 11 East European and Baltic states contribute ~7.2%) when compared with the major Western European contributors. Additionally, the burden would add yet more pressure to already overstretched national budgets at a time when economic growth on the continent remains largely stagnant or unimpressive.

While the United States is currently the de-facto leader of the NATO alliance, essentially primus inter pares, following its withdrawal the matter of leadership could become a point of contention. While on the surface the UK would be best placed to assume many of the command duties currently performed by US officers in NATO headquarters, having historically assumed key second in command roles, other members may be eager to recast the alliance as an institution no longer run and dominated by anglosphere nations. This attitude may also be inflamed by the perception of US withdrawal as a "betrayal" of the European continent, while the continuance of close Anglo-American ties outside of the "NATO Minus" alliance could further undermine the UK's chances of naturally assuming part or all of the US' current role. If not the UK, then France would be the next logical candidate; possessing modern and deployable armed forces similar to the UK's. However, France's relationship with NATO has historically been rocky, only recently returning to NATO's military command structure in 2009. This places France in the awkward position of only having had a comparatively short period of time to rebuild its experience of operating within NATO military structures and fears of a lack of commitment to the alliance could undermine France's potential to lead it. As the alliance's foremost economic power, and a committed member since 1955, Germany would certainly be a superficially attractive leader. However, constitutional issues with the use of force outside its borders and the burdens of history all but preclude this as a realistic option. Similarly, while Turkey would be unlikely to be able to leverage its position as the foremost land power in NATO to win leadership of the alliance its stature and relative status and importance within the organisation would probably rise. Ultimately no single member could fill the US' shoes as de-facto leader of the NATO alliance, the most likely outcome in the author's opinion would be that Britain and France would share the bulk of the posts vacated by the United States amongst themselves. However, continued close relations between Britain and the US as well as perception of a lack of French commitment to the alliance could undermine such an arrangement, in extremis this could even lead to the collapse of the entire organisation.

Beyond the budgetary demands of simply keeping the institutions intact more or less in their current form the NATO alliance would suffer a sudden and dramatic degradation of its conventional land capabilities. Although the alliance's European military forces would remain largely intact on paper, a significant proportion of the crucial rapidly deployable conventional formations would disappear. It is estimated that in just over a week the Russian Federation can generate up to 27 brigades near its border with the Baltic states, a significant proportion of which would be "heavy" formations: Mechanised or Armoured. In comparison, the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) could optimistically deploy three light airborne infantry brigades, a US armoured brigade combat team (BCT) and a medium weight Stryker BCT. Although it's possible that the remaining European members could replace those formations on paper, high readiness levels and appropriate positioning are the critical factors that make the US formations so vital. Positioned, as they are, in Eastern Germany it would prove difficult and costly to replace them by moving existing Western European forces with broadly equivalent combat power and readiness. Such forces would, in the short term at least, undoubtedly have to be Anglo-French and would likely scupper the British Army's intention to withdraw itself from its legacy Cold War bases in Germany. In the longer term it is possible that they could be replaced by new German formations, although constitutional and historical issues could potentially undermine a German-dominated VJTF if it remains committed to forward deployment in order to protect Eastern NATO members.

Another major issue is the current lack of experience and training for conventional war fighting activities. A decade of low-intensity counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan has left most European NATO members with military establishments that severely neglected their conventional arms. Rebuilding these capabilities will not come easy, requiring a concerted effort to re-learn and retain a raft of vital but highly perishable skills. One of the most concerning aspects of this problem is that, due to budgetary constraints, large-scale multinational training exercises have become increasingly few and far between. In order for the "NATO Minus" organisation to constitute a credible conventional deterrent to Russia it would have to address these problems, at great expense to its members.

Alongside the problems that would arise with alliance's continued ability to respond to a crisis on its frontiers, the withdrawal of the United States would have significant ramifications for its ability to conduct any conventional operations over an extended period of time. For many years there has been recognition of the deficiencies in theater-level logistics amongst European NATO members. In 2012 it was recognised that all but a few members of the alliance were incapable of independently deploying and sustaining their armed forces. Without US logistical support structures to count on many nations would find their military forces to be more or less immobile at the theater level, with undersized sustainment elements, and ill-equipped in terms of logistics to engage in protracted high-intensity combat operations. Rectifying or mitigating this critical issue would be an extremely high priority for European defence establishments if they wished to retain a credible conventional power. Recent war games simulating a conflict with Russia over the Baltic States suggested that while the VJTF would be rapidly overrun, in the longer-term NATO could potentially choose to mount a counterattack to restore the territorial integrity of its members. Without the robust logistical structures that the US Armed forces would bring to such an operation it is doubtful that the European members alone could achieve this outcome.

Logistics: a critical weakness in a NATO without the United States
Without the United States the existing problems inherent in the defence of NATO's most exposed members in Eastern Europe will be compounded significantly. With no large reserve force from the Continental United States available, as a conventional bulwark against Russia's ability to prevail in a "long war" scenario, the remaining European members would be left with very few good options. Essentially it would be a return to the extremely unbalanced conventional situation last seen during the Cold War, with token forces from "NATO Minus" acting as a more or less conventionally impotent nuclear tripwire. However, even this extremely circumscribed role would be of dubious value; considering the relative balance of nuclear forces.

US withdrawal would undoubtedly gravely degrade the remainder of NATO in this area. Taken together the total nuclear stockpiles of the "NATO Minus" organisation would amount to some ~500 weapons, or just over a tenth of the total US arsenal. The situation worsens significantly when delivery systems are taken into account, at most the Anglo-French strategic deterrents could deliver sustainable continuous at sea deterrence for the NATO area with two SSBNs carrying ~250 warheads between them. Even that figure presumes an increase in the number of missiles carried and a substantial uplift in the number of warheads fitted to them, over current levels and close to the maximum number of operationally available weapons for both countries. However, if current Anglo-French nuclear planning were to continue unchanged, that figure would be closer to 100 warheads mated to delivery systems and ready at short notice. This scenario presumes that the NATO nuclear sharing agreement would also come to an end, limiting the alliance's air-delivered tactical nuclear arsenal to France's 40 remaining air-delivered weapons. In such a scenario the nuclear balance would be horribly skewed in Russia's favor, with its stockpile of nearly 5,000 operationally available weapons, around 2,500 of which are mated to delivery systems. Even in the "best-case scenario", where Anglo-French nuclear forces are enlarged to the limits of what their current delivery systems and stockpiles could sustain, a nuclear guarantee of the whole European NATO area with only these forces would lack credibility. This possibility could leave the alliance open to nuclear blackmail from Russia, should the enfeebled deterrent fail to deter a conventional conflict. With such a wide margin of superiority in this field the Russians might also become emboldened to attack a NATO member and fatally undermine or collapse the alliance, judging that a nuclear response from either Britain or France would be extremely unlikely, given the vast disparity in forces.

At sea, the situation appears better with "NATO Minus" achieving rough parity with Russia's Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets in the number of nuclear-powered attack submarines (14 Russian to 13 NATO) and with almost 4-1 superiority in overall numbers of conventionally powered submarines (14 Russian to 55 NATO). In terms of surface combatants NATO would maintain a clear on-paper numerical superiority over the Russian Federation (108-24), the same would be true for aircraft carriers both under construction and in-service (6-1). However, what these numbers hide is the difficulty that these European naval forces would have conducting offensive operations against key targets, such as Russia's SSBN bastions and Northern bases, without the US Navy in the lead. Degrading and defeating Russian navy that adopts a largely defensive posture, operating under an umbrella of anti access area denial capabilities, that includes long range anti-ship missiles, a comprehensive and sophisticated integrated air defence system working alongside air and naval forces, would prove difficult for the remaining NATO navies. As with its land forces, geography positioning and readiness would all be major issues in the maritime sphere. While naval forces are inherently more mobile than their counterparts on land it would be wholly unrealistic to expect Greek and Turkish conventional submarines, that would make up nearly half of the "NATO Minus" SSK force, to be able to redeploy to the North Atlantic at a moment's notice. The critical issue would be institutional experience of that environment, something that can only be developed through years of training and operating in it. While the remaining NATO nations have a solid lead in surface combatants less than a third of them are capable and modern enough to effectively contribute to the defence of a task group, in the face of the latest generation of Russian submarine, surface and air launched anti-ship missiles. Similar worrying deficiencies could also be pointed to in the fields of anti-submarine and surface warfare.
Only around a third of NATO's surface combatants are modern and capable enough
to stand a chance against the latest generation of Russian anti-ship missiles.
Without the US Navy to carry a significant portion of the burden of offensive action between the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap and the Barents sea the alliance would find itself weakened significantly. Failure to adequately secure control over the Norwegian sea could have severe consequences for Norway, leaving its Northern territory and key air bases vulnerable to attack or seizure by Russian marine and naval forces. A contested Norwegian sea would make reinforcement of northern Norway by sea, using European marine forces, a much riskier proposition. Without the heavy equipment, amphibious and logistical capabilities of the US Marine Corps and US Sealift Command such an operation would become significantly more difficult to conduct with any real hope of success. Sustained naval activity north of the GIUK gap could plausibly be sustained logistically by dint of proximity to friendly bases in the UK and Nordic states. This could further degrade the perception that the alliance is capable of adequately defending its members, undermining confidence in the whole construct amongst those states most threatened by an increasingly assertive Russia. Maritime power projection operations further afield would also be much more difficult to support, as over half of the alliance's current auxiliary support shipping is American (counting fleet tankers, dry stores and combi-fuel/stores carriers). It also needs to be said, as with almost all of NATO's European assets, these are scattered across the continent and many are required as dedicated support for national naval activities. As it stands there is very little slack in the system and welding the naval auxiliaries of ten countries into a coherent logistical machine, that could approach the capabilities of the US Military Sealift Command's Combat Logistics Force, would be a very significant and, needless to say, extremely expensive undertaking. Replacing the lost capacity would require doubling the number of auxiliary support ships operated by the remaining NATO members, an unlikely prospect.

Furthermore, it would become substantially more difficult for NATO to confine Russian submarine activities to the area north of the GIUK gap without the intelligence gathered by the US-controlled Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS), the successor to the Cold War SOSUS seabed hydrophone arrays. With the closure of the last European IUSS station, RAF St Mawgan, in 2009 and the transfer of all its duties to a site in Dam Neck, Virginia, there no longer exists any possibility of continuing European involvement in the system without the active support of the United States. Without IUSS detecting and tracking Russian submarines operating in the North Atlantic would become much more difficult, degrading the overall NATO anti-submarine capability across the entire region. European nations would also have to provide for additional long range maritime patrol aircraft, in order to replace the P-8 aircraft the US plans to base in Iceland. These would have to come along with replacements for the remaining members' ageing fleets of Breguet Atlantique 2s and P-3 Orions.

The alliance would also undoubtedly be substantially weakened in the air by the removal of the US Third Air Force, headquartered at Ramstein Air Force Base in Western Germany, with subordinate formations spread across the continent. Not only would this entail the loss of six squadrons of fighter and attack aircraft: three F-15 squadrons based at RAF Lakenheath, two F-16 squadrons based at Aviano air base in Italy and one F-16 squadron at Spangdahlem air base in Germany, but these losses would fall upon some of the best resourced and most available air combat formations on the continent. Readiness rates for USAF F-15s and F-16s varies from year to year but has remained broadly stable at between 70 and 80%. In comparison the German Air Force, a particularly egregious example amongst European NATO members, only managed to achieve 38% availability for its 109 Eurofighter Typhoons and 42% for its 89 Tornado attack and reconnaissance aircraft in 2014. Similarly, the RAF in 2015 was classifying only 60% of its Typhoons and 47% of its Tornadoes as either "front-line" or "available". Although exact figures are unavailable, reports seem to indicate that the situation is similar in the French Armée de l'Air. Although some of these problems point to the difficulties inherent in keeping old aircraft running, sometimes beyond their intended service lives, they also indicate concerning weaknesses in logistics and maintenance. The Germans in particular have identified shortages of spare parts as a significant contributing factor to low availability rates for their combat aircraft. While European NATO members have large fleets of combat aircraft on paper the reality is that by under funding critical logistical and maintenance support structures the actual number of aircraft capable of conducting military operations is only a small portion of the overall fleet.
The USAF maintains some of the highest aircraft readiness rates
of all the air forces currently present in the European theater.
Although the Russian air force has also suffered from similar problems with low aircraft readiness rates (estimated to be 49% across the board for combat aircraft in 2013) the sheer number of combat aircraft possessed by the RuAF, 2,189 fighter and attack aircraft as of 2016, ensures that Russia would very significantly outnumber its NATO counterparts in Eastern Europe. Levels of Russian pilot training and competency have also improved significantly since the low point of the 1990s, where pilots were only receiving around 10% of the annual flight training hours of their US counterparts. As of 2012 Russian pilots of the Western Military District were receiving ~125 flight hours/year (compared to 200+ for contemporary USAF pilots). While historically NATO pilots were governed by an alliance requirement to achieve 180+ annual training hours standards appear to have been relaxed due to the cost of actually achieving this. The Armée de l'Air now operates a two-tier system where half its combat pilots receive 180 hours/year while the other half receive only 40 hours/year in combat aircraft and the remaining 140 in jet trainers, with plans to rush the second echelon pilots through a 60-90 day period of intensive training (equivalent to around 100 hours of flight time) should they be needed for front-line duties. While the USAF uses a similar system to this for its non-front-line squadrons it has sufficient depth in terms of the number of pilots and aircraft to be able to afford this two tier pilot training system. European air forces, often with fewer than 100 deployable combat aircraft, simply cannot afford to replicate this system without severely compromising their ability to act in the opening months of a major war. While the use of simulators as a means of cheaply increasing flight hours has been explored, it is still unclear how well this method of training works as a means of preparing pilots for the reality of air combat.

It must also be remembered that NATO air forces would not be competing on an even playing field with Russia's, the latter having invested heavily in its sophisticated Integrated Air Defence network. The Joint Commonwealth of Independent States (Joint CIS) air defence agreement allows for the establishment of a variety of Russian missile systems, radars and aircraft in former Soviet states such as Belarus. Russian land forces would inevitably move and fight under an air defence umbrella that would significantly complicate any effort to decisively halt them from the air. Neutralising these systems would require very substantial Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) capabilities. The only specialist SEAD aircraft in service in NATO, outside the USAF, are the 51 Tornado ECRs operated by the German and Italian air forces and Spain's F-16s. Current plans indicate that only the 16 Italian aircraft will carry the latest variant of the AGM-88 high speed anti radiation missile, the AGM-88E, required for SEAD operations. While alternative means of degrading the Russian IADS would exist within the "NATO Minus" organisation, air and sea launched cruise missiles such as Tomahawk and Storm Shadow/SCALP for example, sub-sonic missiles such as these remain vulnerable to being shot down by modern air defences and their effectiveness is by no means guaranteed. Meanwhile, plans to regenerate SEAD capabilities in the RAF with the SPEAR programme will not come to fruition for another decade.  

Subsonic cruise missile such as the RAF's Storm Shadow (pictured) may not be
capable of penetrating the latest Russian air defence systems 
Overall the military situation for NATO, should it be abandoned by the United States, would be bleak. The alliance's existing problems would all be very significantly exacerbated. Low levels of European investment in defence have made the alliance's current structure close to unsustainable without the support of the United States. Without their nuclear and conventional guarantee the Eastern European states that joined after the end of the Cold War generally, and the Baltic States in particular, would be rendered all but indefensible. What token forces could be assembled to resist a Russian attack would be rapidly overwhelmed, while the prospect of conducting a successful conventional counteroffensive would be remote at best. Extending the Anglo-French nuclear deterrents to the whole NATO area would also be problematic, suffering from a lack of credibility due to the vast disparity in nuclear forces. It is difficult to envisage a scenario where either Britain or France would use their nuclear weapons in defence of Eastern Europe. Indeed, the alliance would be left so threadbare, in the event of the US withdrawing its security guarantees and military forces, that the situation could actually precipitate Russian action to collapse what remained of the structure by attacking one or all of the Baltic states and demonstrate the alliance's hollowness to its members and the world.

If the alliance were to survive over the long term it would undoubtedly require its member states to invest significantly more of their national budgets in their military establishments, beginning a slow process of rebuilding conventional capabilities that have either been lost, pared back or badly run down. Even under relatively stable geo-political conditions such a cure would require vast expenditure and decades to take effect. In the final assessment it seems unlikely that NATO would survive American departure and if it did the remaining nations would be so badly overextended as to render the continuance of the alliance, in more or less its current form, a dangerous and risky proposition.

Monday, 21 March 2016

MACs and Jeep Carriers: A Useful Lesson From History

"We must assume that the battle of the Atlantic has begun... Extreme priority must be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week."
-Winston Churchill, March 6th 1941

At the height of the Second World War Britain, under immense pressure from Germany's U-Boat campaign, converted sixty one merchant vessels into auxiliary aircraft carrying ships. While thirty five were "CAM" ships (Catapult Aircraft Merchantman) equipped with a single last-ditch catapult launched Hurricane fighter, nineteen were fully-fledged flat topped "MAC" ships (Merchant Aircraft Carrier) capable of launching and recovering aircraft. Over the course of the War the Royal Navy also operated a total of forty four light "escort carriers". These ships were made necessary because of a number of factors but, fundamentally, they were built because the RN needed to close the "black gap" (the area in the mid-Atlantic beyond the range of land based anti-submarine aircraft where U-Boats concentrated their efforts). The presence of MACs and escort carriers helped to finally turn the tide in 1943 and ensured that Germany's 1944/45 commerce raiding campaigns would fail.

It's certainly worth asking why these ships were successful in their de-facto service with the Royal Navy, to the extent that it is claimed not a single merchant ship was lost from a convoy defended by a MAC. They certainly weren't very good aircraft carriers, even the largest couldn't operate more than four Fairey Swordfish biplanes and the aviation facilities were quite rudimentary. While escort carriers were certainly better than MACs as aviation ships, some were able to carry up to 24 aircraft and all had superior purpose-built aviation facilities, they achieved substantial tactical and operational effect for the same reason as the smaller civilian conversions. The reason for their success can be summed up in a single word: presence. While the air groups were small, especially when compared with the RN's fleet carriers, the MACs and escort carriers were comparatively cheap and available in large numbers. This meant that they could be used for convoy protection, as well as many other duties that the handful of hard-pressed large fleet carriers were too busy to perform. While around three quarters of the Royal Navy's escort carriers were built in the United States and loaned to Britain under the terms of the Lend Lease act, most were extensively modified by the RN, with all having their provisions for damage control improved and brought up to the RN's higher standards before entry into service.

So, what is the modern relevance of Britain's Second World War experience with MACs and escort carriers? Now we are, of course, no longer facing the threat of hordes of rudimentary diesel-electric submarines attempting to strangle our maritime communications. However, the fundamental lesson learned from that wartime experience was that inexpensive merchant-conversions, and aviation ships that exist below the capability of a fleet carrier, can enhance their larger cousins' availability by covering a wide range of low-end activities. In the Pacific the US Navy used its "Jeep" carriers (escort carriers) for a wide range of support and front-line activities, from transporting aircraft to launching strikes against Japanese forces in support of amphibious operations. While the ships themselves were generally unimpressive this was largely irrelevant, as their fighting power came from the aircraft they carried rather than the ships themselves. What we might now refer to as providing combat capability through "off-board systems".

Skip forward to the twenty first century and we find that aviation ships, below the level of a fleet carrier, continue to be valuable additions to many navies around the world. They come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes and, with modern helicopters, almost any large merchant ship can be converted into a somewhat capable aviation platform "on the cheap". RFA Argus, the UK's floating military hospital, was originally taken up from trade by the MoD in 1982 as the Contender Brezant before being purchased outright in 1984 and into an aviation training ship. She entered service in 1988. In this role she could carry and operate around six RN, Army Air Corps or RAF helicopters up to and including the largest rotary wing aircraft in UK service, the CH47 Chinook. Alternatively she could transport, although not operate, up to twelve Harrier-type VTOL aircraft. In a very real sense Argus, in her "aviation training" configuration, was the modern embodiment of the MAC ships of the Second World War. Her initial conversion proved extremely cost effective, costing only £45mn (~£120mn in 2016 prices). She also had the added benefit of only requiring a fifth the manpower of an Invincible class light carrier, just over half of which were actually Royal Navy personnel; with the rest being made up of RFA merchant sailors.

RFA Argus, the "modern MAC", has proved to be an incredibly valuable asset 
over nearly three decades of hard service.
Since her formal entry into service with the RFA in 1988 Argus has consistently been a busy ship. During the 1990-91 Gulf War she received her second major conversion, adding extensive medical facilities to enable her to act as the UK "Primary Casualty Receiving Ship" (or PCRS). She sailed or the Gulf with four Sea-King helicopters embarked, which aided in mine-clearance operations once she arrived in theater. In 1992 she deployed to the Adriatic, again with Sea Kings embarked, in support of the UK's contribution to the UN Protection Force in Yugoslavia. In 1997 she deployed to the West coast of Africa to evacuate UK nationals from the Congo. She was part of the UK's national amphibious task group that deployed to both Sierra Leone in 2000 and Iraq in 2003. She underwent a major life extension in 2009 before being deployed to the Mediterranean, ready to evacuate UK nationals from Libya in 2011. Later that year she was assigned to the counter-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden. Her most recent activities have included support for UK overseas territories in the Caribbean and aiding in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone.

It is notable that Argus, like the Second World War MAC, has filled the gap that exists below the space occupied by high-end aviation platforms designed for intensive war fighting. Indeed, the only time that Argus was trialed in such a role (she was used as a makeshift helicopter carrier during the international intervention in Yugoslavia) she did not perform well. However, as an auxiliary aviation support platform, used initially for training and later for a range of defence and security activities below the level of war, she has proved herself invaluable. Indeed, it's possible that the lessons learned from RFA Argus contributed to the development of the Bay class auxiliary landing ships, with their distinctive flat aviation decks aft of the main superstructure.

When her procurement, conversion and operational costs are tallied and compared to her service record it becomes quite clear that Argus has been, and continues to be, excellent value for money. She is the ultimate vindication of the relevance of the MAC concept for the 21st century. Considering this, it is concerning that the UK government has refused to specifically state whether she will be replaced with a similar platform after she leaves service in 2024. The loss of Argus without replacement in order to save money would, in the author's view, be a profoundly short-sighted decision. Considering how relatively cheap such a platform would be to purchase, convert and run, as well as the enduring utility of aviation platforms that can fill the sub-war fighting niche, the prudent choice would be to opt for a replacement with similar capabilities.

If RFA Argus has epitomised the enduring viability of the MAC concept for the RN in the twenty first century, then HMS Ocean has demonstrated that the fundamental guiding design principles of the WWII escort carrier still also hold relevance. Built for only £154mn in 1993 (£280mn in 2016) her construction costs were about the same as a Type 23 frigate, or less than a tenth the cost of a Queen Elizabeth class strike carrier. In order to achieve the low-cost she was built to reduced part-commercial standards and sacrificed other in other areas compared to a "full fat" fleet unit. She is limited by her inability to achieve high sprint and cruise speeds, has a relatively minimal self-defence armament and a noticeably shorter lifespan than ships built to full military standards. In exchange for these trade-offs the UK received a capital-size ship at a very low cost that was rapidly built and commissioned in four years.

While originally conceived of and built as a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) to support Royal Marine amphibious operations she, like Argus, has proved useful for a wide variety of rotary-wing aviation tasks. From her support of the UK intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 and the RM invasion of the Al Faw peninsula during the 2003 Iraq War in her intended LPH role to acting as a makeshift "strike carrier" with Army Apache helicopters embarked during the 2011 Libya intervention. Since 2010 she has repeatedly led the UK high-readiness Response Force Task Group on its annual "COUGAR" deployment and acted as an auxiliary heliport, moored at Greenwich, during the 2012 London Olympics. As of June 2015 she is currently serving as the RN's flagship. It is expected that she will decommission in 2018, nominally replaced in the LPH role by HMS Prince of Wales.

HMS Ocean in the light strike role, with Army WAH-64 Apache attack helicopters

Ocean, like Argus, the Second World War MAC and the escort carrier continues to demonstrate that "second rate" aviation ships are not only a viable concept, but continue to fill essential niches that large strike carriers do not sit comfortably in. Ultimately the use of a 70,000 ton supercarrier to conduct HADR operations with its aviation assets will, in most circumstances, be a waste of one of the RN's most potent war-fighting assets. Similarly, placing a Queen Elizabeth class close enough to shore to act in the LPH role places an extremely high value asset at heightened risk of attack. In both circumstances a simple and cheap aviation platform is a far more appealing prospect, leaving the "proper" carriers available to deploy at short notice to do what they're best at: deterring and defeating serious threats to national interests.

Over the last two decades Ocean and Argus have acted as an effective adjunct to the UK's front line carrier fleet, made up of two Invincible class light ASW/strike carriers for most of these ships lives, they have performed essential auxiliary and supporting roles that freed up the fixed-wing carriers for other, more important, duties. It is a great shame that Ocean will not be replaced with another cheap LPH, she has added great value to the Royal Navy over her relatively short life. However, there remains hope Argus may yet be replaced with a similar auxiliary aviation platform. Failure to do so would almost certainly heap additional burdens onto the strike carriers and waste some of their awesome capability. Just like our predecessors concluded during the Second World War, if we are to make the most of our fleet carriers we need to invest in the auxiliary aviation platforms necessary to support them, allowing them to go where they need to be; rather than tied up with duties for which they are poorly suited.