Copyright - Northrup Grumman Corp.

Copyright - Northrup Grumman Corp.

In late April the Guardian newspaper reported that the RAF had begun controlling operations by some of their Reaper unmanned air systems (vehicles) over Afghanistan from a new facility at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Defence confirmed figures that showed the UK had around 500 aerial drones in its inventory. Both announcements added fuel to a rigorous debate as to the morality of armed, autonomous vehicles and their employment.

As the UK does not participate in US air strikes against anti-terrorism targets, the debate (when not muddle with these attacks) is focused on the argument that allowing machines to ‘decide’ to kill represents a new weakening of the rules of armed conflict.

General discussions of the utility and cost-effectiveness of autonomous aircraft have become deeply intertwined with questions as to the morality of preemptive attacks against individuals. Unfortunately, this debate is not focused on the critical issues that UCAVs and the like will bring to the fore. In effect, the problem is one of the fundamental questions of war and self-defence. Such questions are simply being laid bare by the circumstances of man versus machine.

Despite the cause being modern technology, the underlying questions are the same as they ever have been since it first became possible to send a projectile beyond one's own regard, to kill whomsoever should happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet again, technology displays its ability to remind us of the moral or ethical questions we have failed to answer.

At it's heart, the UCAV debate is about the immediacy of self-defence. Killing, out-of-sight, heightens the sense of disregard for the consequences of one’s actions, as the concept of self-defence is most easily grasped as an imminent personal danger. But what of the consequences for innocent bystanders of one's defensive actions? The heart of the self-defence debate is the ambiguity caused by repercussions for a theoretical third person. The distant nature of such a third person gives rise to a very wide range of emotional responses, within a group or population.

Can it be moral to cause a persons death to prevent a killing?

If so, how can causing an unintended death be excused by the rationale of saving a life?

It is this moral problem that drives the debate about the use of lethal, autonomous machines, just as it does arguments as to the morality of any form or arena of conflict in which non-combatants are present. It is the impossibility of assigning binary moral judgments and binary fates to 3 or more parties. This remains the crux of the matter.

But believing that autonomous vehicles represent some fundamentally new moral landscape in this debate is mistaken.


All land on Earth is claimed as the legal jurisdiction of at least one country. All of the air above that land is similarly the sovereign territory of someone. Finally, all of the littoral waters of the planet, and the skies above them, are the property of a state.

Entering such an environment, deploying forces or launching weapons into them is an act of aggression designed to create some form of malevolence for the owner. Whenever an armed, autonomous vehicle is deployed into foreign territory the intention is to cause or facilitate destruction. In all cases, physical separation from the destructive act is mere semantics.

Can a machine legitimately defend itself against a human? This question hinges on whether one believes that the machine is a genuine barrier to harm befalling yourself or others. It is simply an extension of the logic of killing in defence of oneself or others, the remoteness of the weapon is a mechanical irrelevancy.

This is the central conceptual problem with drones, they allow the construction of enormously abstract definitions of self-defence. Such definitions depend on predicted threats emerging over vast geographic and temporal distances. Further, they permit such action without the political cost and forewarning of deploying conventional military forces.

Once deployed, these autonomous weapon systems are glorified missiles, reliant upon the sophistication of a difference engine to decide where and when to explode. Whether they find and engage targets or not is irrelevant. Logically and morally it is the intention behind their launching or deployment that governs the morality of their use.

To demonstrate the point here’s a little thought experiment. Consider a cruise missile equipped to identify targets of opportunity within the broad geographical confines of a military installation. Once identified such targets would be prosecuted with small, precision guided munitions.

Such a system would be a missile, yes? Not a UCAV? But all such a weapon requires is the means to bring its expensive power-plant and sensors home (to be reused) and it would be the very definition of a UCAV. In short, present definitions of drones and missiles turn on how financial favourable their operating model is, not on the finely balanced differences between the ‘determined’ fate of a launched projectile and the ‘decided’ fate of a munition that selects its own targets.

Whenever the deployment of an autonomous weapons system has hostile intent from its outset - such as penetrating another’s sovereign territory - the distinction between vehicle and missile is synthetic. Even in the global commons of oceans and skies, the decision to switch from the peace-time prohibition against action to one of war is to launch a weapon in the hope that it functions correctly and attacks only those one intends.


Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not an argument in favour of excusing the inevitable deaths of innocent people that must come to pass in the future at the hands of autonomous vehicles.

It is merely a plea to not allow the technical and practical complexity of this situation alter reality. Responsibility for these deaths must not be transferred from where they belong - with those who choose to employ such weapon systems. Yes, I understand and am comfortable with the command responsibility implications of that statement.

Autonomous vehicles are not ‘people’, they cannot be legal ‘persons’ because they cannot be punished for their actions - they cannot take ‘responsibility’. They are glorified missiles, mines and torpedoes, nothing more. Responsibility for their use must remain precisely where it does for other weapons, 'smart' or otherwise.

Decisions as to where and when to employ these, or any other weapons, is an embodiment of how a nation or society answers the moral questions of war and self-defence. This ‘moral logic’ is what determines the justification for and morality of armed force. As such the legal consequences of this logic must rest with those who took it upon themselves to proffer an answer. Such is the price of authority - responsibility.

Society must stop being distracted by the ‘how’ of death and war, it blinds us to the far more important questions of why, when and where a genuine argument can be made for self-defence - and where that argument is too abstract.

UCAVs and their brethren have the potential to make it safe and easy to kill. As that happens it will be all the more important to be clear what we are killing for.



Copyright - BAE Systems

Copyright - BAE Systems

Last week the National Audit Office released its most recent report on the continuing procurement of the Queen Elizabeth II class aircraft carriers. In particular, the NAO focus on the Ministry of Defence’s ‘flip flop’ between two versions of the US Joint Strike Fighter - the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing F-35B, and the Conventional Take-Off and Landing F-35C.

The report is a mixed bag, criticising the MoD for the immaturity of its analysis prior to the switch in variants in October 2010, but praising the responsiblility of the department in swallowing its pride and reversing itself once the true costs were revealed. In the end, the NAO estimates that £74 million was wasted in this fruitless exercise.

But how could it happen in the first place? Almost four years after construction of these vessels began how could the UK government still be on the fence about their defining characteristic?

Unfortunately, all this back and forth only serves to illustrate the lack of a real requirement underpinning the replacement of Britain’s naval air power.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the MoD needed to have a theatre, war or enemy in mind when it decided that it needed new aircraft carriers. But neither is it acceptable to spend tens of billions of pounds on the notion and aircraft are useful. There are many obvious scenarios that these ships could have been designed for, they were not.

Indeed, they have not been designed for any discernible purpose. The biggest clue to this is the equivocation over the most basic aspects of the carrier’s air wing. Conventional take-off and landing, short take-off but arrested recovery, short take-off vertical landing? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Twin engined or single engined aircraft? Wait and see. Late fourth, or early fifth generation fighter? Perhaps just the last man standing?

The MoD would no doubt argue that this is what is considered in the ‘trade-off’ studies that define a modern vessel, but this is nonsense. While the RAF and RN may have fixed their sights on the JSF at an early stage, the ships were under construction before the aircraft selection was whittled down even this far.

If you feel this is all academic for an aircraft carrier, that can after all carry many different types of aircraft, let me make myself clear. These are not just ships, they are part of a massive multi-billion pound composite weapon system that comprises the carrier; its aircraft; its sensors; its aircraft’s sensors; its aircraft’s munitions; the carrier’s escorts; the escort’s sensors; the escort’s weapons; and the land or space based sensors and communications that stitch the whole thing together.

These are not things that can be casually assembled. The interlocking envelopes of detectability, survivability, lethality and persistence must function perfectly to minimise each others weaknesses and maximise strengths if the perennially outnumbered Royal Navy is to be able to defeat a capable opponent.

Despite the threat environment that has been widely and frequently predicted for the near future, these vessels appear strikingly reminiscent of ships that might have been built 20 years ago. In spite of the Royal Navy’s obviously limited ability to procure numerous escorts, the vessel is a strikingly conservative design, devoid of meaningful signature reduction measures.

Further, the class possesses none of the enhanced protections that should be a prerequisite for a platform designed to conduct operations against a peer opponent with short-range STOVL fighters.

During the early years of construction, much play was made of the vessels stated ability to be converted to operate different aircraft, once a decision was made - STOVL, CTOL or STOBAR. Setting aside the practicality of such an assurance, this indecision is revealing. The type of aircraft to be operated has huge implications for sortie rate, deck alert posture, Airborne Early Warning and Anti Submarine Warfare capacity, the required support footprint, stand-off range from hostile forces, and capacity to project power overland. It is clear that the MoD was largely indifferent to the detailed capabilities of the vessels as individual units.

The only logical conclusion to draw from this ‘mission agnosticism’ is not a particularly edifying one.


The Type 45 destroyer, while possessing an impressive combat system, is too few in number and too light in missile armament to provide sustained protection from air attack when facing a peer or near-peer opponent. In such situations, it is doubtful that the Queen Elizabeth II class, and an air wing of F-35s (regardless of suffix) will be able to generate both the depth of air defence cover needed and project significant power ashore.

This combination of carrier, destroyer and fighter may well be able to protect itself, but it is unlikely that a significant residual capacity will remain, especially given the Lightning II’s limited range.

Some time ago, the US Navy gave a press briefing for the planned F/A-XX and UCLASS weapon systems. Amongst the images used during this presentation was a slide showing time on target estimates for various aerodynamic configurations and manned versus unmanned aircraft. Attention was focused on the depiction of a Carrier Strike Group operating 500nm from an enemy shore. What is noteworthy is that the info-graphic also showed a carrier and her escorts, without annotations, lying 1500nm out to sea. The suspicion is that emerging threats may force the US Navy much further from the action than has been the case for the last half century. This will have serious implications for the UK.

Technology moves on, tactics develop and previously decisive weapons become threatened themselves, such is the natural rhythm of every arms race. This is equally true of naval air power. As the maritime theatre becomes more dangerous one must be more cautious. Without the ability to negate these new dangers, carriers must operate at greater distances to maintain an acceptable level of risk. This requires aircraft of greater range. These aircraft are larger, they take up more space and demand a larger ship in order to accommodate a meaningful number.

The UK could have constructed a class of aircraft carrier sized to reflect the needs of prevailing operations, one that represented a cost-effective application of STOVL air power, while learning the lessons of the Invincible class. She chose not to.

The UK could have accepted a risk, nailed her colours to the technological mast and created a naval battle-group that, while modest in size, represented a true capability to make war against any opponent - a genuine military deterrent. She chose not to.

Instead, the MoD and Royal Navy chose the Queen Elizabeth II class, a class that is as curious a piece of defence procurement as there has been in quite some time. The class is precisely as much real estate as the Royal Navy supposed it could afford. But its potential is entirely dependant on the situation. In a low threat environment these are Strike Carriers, in a high threat environment they are Escort Carriers. The ships are simply not capable of being both simultaneously. They cannot carry enough aircraft to fight up close like the USN, they are not sophisticated enough to fight in another way, and they cannot operate the aircraft required to fight from long range.

The only way these vessels could fight a peer opponent is under the protection of the United States.


These ships are a combination of indecision and overreach that has the ironic consequence of stranding the UK’s armed forces in a no man's land. For the sorts of conflicts the UK will spend the vast majority of her time engaged in, they are a sledgehammer to crack a walnut; but in the case of a real conflict, against an opponent that constitutes a genuine threat, they will leave the  UK as the guy who brought a knife to gunfight.

The sad truth is that these carriers are Prime Minister Tony Blair’s foreign policy incarnate, the physical embodiment of his desperate determination to be seen standing next to the President of the United States.

With no tactical, operational, or strategic purpose, and no capacity to assume one, these ships are simply the military equivalent of trying to be cool by association.


Copyright - Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Copyright - Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

On Monday the French government released a defence white paper laying out objectives and structures, and outlining funding expectations for the next 5 years. Many have been pleasantly surprised that nominal defence spending will remain unchanged. In practice, this will mean that real defence spending will fall and cuts will be imposed on personnel, deployable forces, combat aircraft, warships and armoured vehicles. This following France’s recent reduction in planned purchases of battlefield helicopters. Still the bloodbath many had feared has not come to pass, yet.

As many nations have in recent years, France has continued the process of ‘slicing’ its capacity in various areas, rather than accept the loss of specific abilities. The problem is that this process of incremental reductions in numbers produces a steadily diminishing return.

Cutting 10% of the numerical strength of a unit or capability does not reduce the associated costs of that capability by 10%. Each military function that a force possesses requires a vast organisation to support it, Industry must have the design skills to develop the products needed, and the manufacturing facilities to produce them; infrastructure and capacity must be created to service and maintain these products; and personnel must be trained to utilise and maintain these products. Finally, command staff must be educated in the exploitation of these functions and exercises created or expanded to allow them to be properly rehearsed.

In most cases, these costs already dwarf the material costs of buying and utilising individual tanks, planes or weapons. Large warships represent, perhaps, the only circumstances under which incremental reductions can hope to produce a corresponding budgetary saving. Even then, the exceptionally large costs associated with performing upgrade and maintenance work on such vessels may still wipe out the savings unless and entire class can be withdrawn.

In fact, short of passing the vast majority of these associated costs on to another organisation by buying an existing product and tapping into an established infrastructure - as the UK has done with the C-17 and Rivet Joint - little can be done to substantively shrink these standing costs.

With each ‘slice’ an ever greater proportion of the costs of the armed forces are shifted out of the front line. This is not to say into the 2nd and 3rd echelons of the force, but rather the costs are concentrated into the management of the capability instead of the capability itself. Gradually, the force becomes ‘tail-heavy’ and unable to come to grips with the elaborate costs of equipping for, training for, and maintaining paper-thin capabilities.


Alexander the Great warned his generals that to defend everything was to defending nothing. His insistence that a concentration of military effort was essential to gaining a military advantage is fully applicable to the planning of a military force.

One cannot have a strategic defence without a strategy, but strategy means making a choice. It requires the weighing of pros and cons and the selection of a set of strengths one believes will prove decisive in the foreseeable future. Such a selection is a risk to be sure, but no one, least of all European nations, has the capacity to fun every possible option. The defence establishment in France, the UK, the United States and NATO has become strikingly reticent of making any meaningful predictions about future conflicts or technology.

None seem willing to take any risks without an immediate threat. The problem is that strategy is a choice, the choice to concentrate one’s efforts to achieve a winning advantage in a future conflict because the time will not be available once that conflict begins. With no one able to stand up and make the choice no advantage can be accrued and future conflicts will be as dependant on luck as those of the past.

When politicians and commanders are unwilling to be realistic, and make pragmatic choices as to which capabilities are genuinely key, the arithmetic of armed force worsens precipitously.

France, like most other NATO members, faces a familiar predicament of shrinking budgets and ageing Cold-War equipment. Choices exists but all of them are a hard look in the mirror for individual nations, and Europe as a whole.

NATO nations could stop using expensive expeditionary weapons for domestic defence in a region with a low threat level. The same could be said for task such as maritime policing which presently diverts multi-billion dollar warships into chasing pirates and drug smugglers at a cost of operations running into tens of millions of dollars per deployment.

European nations could accept that they are not going to take part in a peer conflict in the Pacific and create a genuine ability to react and intercede immediately in emerging conflicts and insurgencies to nip these dangers in the bud. In effect, put the lessons of Afghanistan in the bank and focus on Africa.

Or NATO members could finally accept their obvious interdependence, and create a shared ability to make war against a peer opponent by aggressive, coordinated role-specialisation and delegation of decision making.

This may seem drastic but, sadly, it is simply inevitable. America is moving on, and despite the fine phrases, will soon face its own test of concentration that will leave no slack for Europe to hide under.


Unfortunately, nibbling away at troop or vehicle numbers is just delaying the inevitable, while wasting money and goodwill into the bargain. It’s the decision making equivalent of repeating the question while you think of an answer.

We've heard the question enough by now, it is time to find an answer. To err is human, to err...arr... umm is unacceptable.


Copyright - Lionel Bonaventure/AP Photo

Copyright - Lionel Bonaventure/AP Photo

It's funny how being denied something can spur us to pursue it out of all logical proportion. While it is unlikely that the French government is actually 'playing hard to get', the UK's fanatical insistence on joint development of a light anti-ship missile seems increasingly emotional and prideful.

Events in recent weeks really do beg the question – what is so important about this missile?

Let's just recap the story so far. The UK and France both have light anti-ship missiles that will soon be obsolete. In November 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron and then President Nicolas Sarkozy signed the Defence And Security Co-operation Treaty. This called for (among other things) both countries to study the joint development of advanced munitions, one of which was a proposed replacement for the UK's Sea Skua light anti-ship missile.

As such MBDA's work on a Sea Skua replacement was adapted to meet the similar needs of the Marine Nationale to replace the AS 15TT.

Several lunches and a general election later, the newly elected French government launched a defence review in preparation for the publication of a new defence white paper. In the meantime, the government of Great Britain was becoming increasingly anxious to see the missile's development begin.

Finally, in January UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond lost his nerve and a flurry of correspondences ensued, culminating in a letter to Mr Cameron from the new French President François Hollande. The contents of the letter are unknown, but it clearly didn't contain the answer the British government was looking for. It would appear the French are hedging - if they weren't, why not simply announce their involvement?

While a face saving financial contribution is likely, the development of a new light anti-ship missile is not an immediate priority for a French force under significant financial pressure. This is understandable, the Marine Nationale has a number of other ways to threaten enemy shipping, making a new helicopter-launched anti-ship missile far from essential. All French frigates (La Royale doesn't classify it's ships as destroyers) are armed with Exocets regardless of the vessels role, and both her land and carrier based fighters can be similarly equipped.


In contrast, the Royal Navy's 'Daring' class destroyer has no offensive missile capability other than those of it's embarked aircraft. The UK's armed forces have no remaining air-launched, heavyweight anti-ship missiles of any kind and, with the planned withdrawal of the Sea King, no helicopters qualified to carry them even if they did.

When her remaining surface and sub-surface Harpoon missiles reach the end of their useful lives, Sea Skua and it's replacement – the snappily titled Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy) or FASGW(H) – will be the only game in town. At present, the AW159 will be the only UK platform qualified to launch these weapons.

Indeed, it's likely this impending 'missile precipice' is what is making the UK so desperate to get started - even on a lightweight missile named 'heavy'. After all, the UK foresees a key deterrent role for it's naval forces – the Falkland Islands.

Clichéd though it may be to bring it up again, the key to this oil rigs survival as a rallying point for Conservative MPs is just four fighter aircraft and a destroyer (or frigate).

The problem is that the four Typhoon FGR.4 fighters have only a modest ground attack capability. While they can employ Enhanced Paveway LGBs, these have never been tested against a surface combatant. It is also an open question whether the RAF has positioned scarce munitions, and scarcer-still Litening III targeting pods, at Mount Pleasant.

During Operation Ellamy in Libya, RAF Tornados were required to provide target designation for Typhoons using LGBs due to a shortage of Typhoon pilots qualified in ground attack. While it's possible aircrew rotating to the Falklands are qualified to employ laser guided bombs against hostile warships, it is a little hard to believe under the circumstances. The aircraft could be used in a conventional bombing attack against enemy shipping, but that would entail risking the island's only air defence capability in an action for which it is even less likely the crews had trained recently.

As such, once the Type 23 frigates are withdrawn or their missiles are too old to be reliable, the Royal Navy will have no practical means of destroying armed surface combatants other than helicopter-launched anti-ship missiles and nuclear-powered submarines.

So it could be argued that the UK's urgency makes some sense, even if the predicament makes none given how long the threat has existed. But this threat then begs further questions – why insist on joint development, why not just get on with development alone?

For that matter, why bother with such a development at all if the requirement is so urgent?

Off-the-shelf options exist that, while they may be less well suited to the minuscule AW159, are still practical. Weapons are available that can be air, box, or vertically-launched and have significantly greater capability than FASGW(H). It should be remembered that, given their range, both the Wildcat/FASGW combination, and the Typhoon's planned surface attack capabilities could be neutralised by a modern naval surface-to-air missile system.

Were Argentina to invest in such a system, the UK would need something far more capable than FASGW(H) to hold the Falkland Islands and, presently, would be forced to rely entirely on SSNs.


Rather than an imminent threat, it has been argued that the planned missile's technology is what is critical, that the design represents a capability that must not be lost, to do so would endanger future advanced weapons.

But, once again this logic simply leads to more questions – what is so critical about this weapons capabilities?

The weapon travels at a modest speed, it has a familiar guidance system, it has a relatively short range, it is designed for a single type of launching platform, and is intended to attack only moderately well defended targets. Where are the technologies of the future that will be critical to other projects?

Perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way round? The production run for the Storm Shadow's cruise missile has finished, and weapons expended in Libya will, apparently, not be replaced.

Brimstone has proved itself highly successful but a large stock of old missiles exists that can be converted to the new dual-mode standard before the RAF will require more weapons. Without an export order this will not sustain the existing workforce.

The 'light' component of the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapons 'complex' has been selected and the weapon is in production by Thales. The weapon's low-cost raison d'etre precludes duplicating production lines.

In the meantime, Raytheon provides the UK's arsenal of precision-guided bombs at a cost that could not possibly be matched by a new development. Given the existing need to replenish dwindling stocks, only the most cost-effective solution could be considered, leaving MBDA with no 'complex' weapons to build whatsoever.

Now that the Fire Shadow loitering weapon has been revealed for the Faustian bargain that it is – all the costs of a UAV with the requirement to blow it up at the end of every mission – the FASGW(H) is looking a lot like the 'ragged-end' of the UK's Team Complex Weapons initiative.

It would appear that money is so tight that half a light anti-ship missile program is all the UK can afford right now. Might this actually be more about keeping the lights on at MBDA in Britain than procuring the surface-attack capability the country actually needs?

Now don't get me wrong, if you want sovereign design capability you have to pay for it, but is this really the best we can do? Why does the UK continue to choose these quixotic, marginal products to develop?

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have placed all their air combat 'eggs' in the Joint Strike Fighter basket, yet the UK does not possess the type of small PGMs that are critical to getting the most from such a specialised aircraft.

Despite the fact that neither the F-35 or Typhoon will be capable of penetrating a modern integrated air defence network at the outbreak of a conflict, the MoD has not planned for the development of any affordable, tactical stand-off munitions – be they bombs or missiles – that could be used against air defences in large numbers.

Even though Tornado will be withdrawn in 2019, and the UK's ALARM missiles will be obsolete and time-expired at the same time, no plans exist to develop a replacement that could be accommodated in the weapons bays of the JSF or target the far broader set of emitters that can be expected on the future battlefield.

Regardless of the emergence of non-kinetic warheads for munitions, warheads that will be of critical importance in this digital century, the UK is not even funding a technology demonstration of the kind of modular munition that might combine and exploit these emerging forms of warfare.


Is a like-for-like replacement of a marginally important anti-ship missile really the best use of scarce resources? Can anyone be seriously surprised that the equally cash-strapped government of France is unwilling to fund such unambitious, make-work projects?

If we're going to fund weapons developments just to keep industry busy let's at least make something worthwhile, something desirable, something that is an investment in the future.


Copyright: Ben Curtis - AP

Copyright: Ben Curtis - AP

On Wednesday George Osborne announced that the UK would meet its goal of allocating 0.7% of gross national income to overseas development (foreign aid), that was first laid out in 1970 – better late than never.

In the same budget, the Chancellor announced that all departmental budgets, save health and education, would be cut by 1%. Predictably, this has caused much consternation amongst the conservative press and members of parliament. This despite the budget for overseas development also being cut – by around £135m this year.

For those with a decent grasp of the strategic importance of 'soft power' this situation presents something of a quandary  While the haphazard cuts to defence spending are lamentable  the case for increasing overseas development is a no brainer. The times when one's ability to intercede militarily is reduced is precisely the moment to do everything practical to lessen the poverty and despair of the world's most desperate young men.

Every healthy, educated child is a down-payment on avoiding or minimising a future conflict. But keeping people alive will only get you so far and that is why I won't be raising a glass to Mr Osborne this evening. For all the symbolism of the announcement, UK development policy still lacks an overarching goal or strategy that might multiply its effects.

Don't get me wrong, saving as many lives as possible (both literally and figuratively) is a worthy cause but somehow overseas development has never lost is power to disappoint. I know there is only one pie, and every idea leaves less money for the next, but if we really want to make inroads into the poverty level, especially in Africa, we're going to need a different answer. That answer is likely to have a lot more to do with economics than health care.


At some point the ridiculous notion took hold in public policy that business development should be left to business – overseas development is no exception.

This mindset wilfully ignores that fact that public policy in the west created the thing that Africa needs most of all – a prosperous middle class. The New Deal in the US in the 1930's created the American middle class out of the ruins of the Great Depression. In post-war Europe, the Marshall Plan helped sow the seeds of the rejuvenation and expansion of Europe's middle class.

Where is Africa's New Deal? Where is Africa's Marshall Plan? This isn't a call to create a charitable tsunami, it's about helping Africa's economy achieve its potential sooner rather than later. Give the continent the momentum it needs to overcome its own inertia and start gathering speed.

How? Roads, sanitation, irrigation, cellular communications systems, distributed energy production, digital records keeping, social logistics, Europe is over-brimming with these skills and the companies to export them. Why are we all so resistant to the patently obvious, historic lesson that you grow your economy by growing your markets?

As for corruption, where are the 'globalised' solutions that would turn the tables and make local graft less damaging for these populations? Mobile phones, mobile money, biometric identification, cloud distribution, the technologies exist to sidestep vast swathes of the polluted bureaucracies of corrupt nations, and offer economic security to their citizens.

Why are there no supranational pension, unemployment, and health insurance schemes? Europe, Canada, Japan, all have huge technical experience in these areas, and all have financial 'skin' in the reduction of corruption and construction of a social safety net in Africa.

Where is the economic coupling and direct investment? Everyone knows that even basic but reliable and ubiquitous infrastructure would be an economic 'game changer' in Africa, yet we still rely on commercial companies to make the case for investment to a room full of shareholders.

Western aid could 'seed' the development of the continent's economy and create a massive market for our own goods and services in the meantime. Waiting for business is a fools errand in a world of quarterly reports and maximising share holder value.

COIN or Coins?

I'm not a fan of the 'war on...' rhetoric but many of those celebrating the achievement of the 0.7% target are. So, in recognition of those people, I'll close this post with an analogy.

If you really want to win the 'war on poverty' then you're going to have to realise that you're fighting an insurgency – with everything that goes along with it. You can 'kill' your enemy until you're blue in the face, but this war can only be won with hearts & minds.

Want to win? Give people something to do other than fight.


Tin Can

It is said that quantity has quality all its own, the same could be said of the application of information warfare. On a modern battlefield there are literally hundreds of thousands of mobile and portable devices that can send and receive information over the communications networks. The sheer scale of this set of targets is likely to be a defining factor in the evolution of this form of warfare.

This vast array of devices include individual and formation level radios, vehicle mounted radios, and command & control radios; data-links between vehicles, between vehicles and munitions, between ground formations, and between individual soldiers and miniature Unmanned Vehicles; mobile phone type devices, tablet computer type devices, portable computers for all manner of command & control functions, and a sea of IP driven peripherals like cameras and sensors.

The problem with information warfare is that it shares many of the black and white qualities of biological warfare – if precautions aren't absolute then they are rather meaningless. The unforeseeable effects of allowing malware into an interconnected network of this scale boggle the mind. If such a network is to serve its purpose as a reliable instrument of command, control and communication it must be trusted implicitly. That trust can only be built on reliable, comprehensive security.

That security will have to start long before any of these devices reaches the battlefield. The fidelity of both their software and hardware must be assured during manufacturing, assembly and configuration, through transit, storage and deployment. Not only this, access to critical systems will have to be controlled during both operations and exercises to prevent compromises.

It is not only the scale of the security challenge that is striking, but also its scope. Devices will need to be protected against both physical and wireless infection whenever activated, they will require protections during third party maintenance, servicing or upgrade, and even from Electro-Magnetic Information Warfare attacks during day-to-day use.

When talking about these type of threat it is important to bear in mind that each device is an entry point into a broader network. Compromising a single tablet computer or mobile phone may seem a pitifully meagre objective but the prize is a beach-head within an otherwise in accessible network. Second and third echelon devices that spend peace-time interacting with the civilian world would be an obvious pathway for such sleeper attacks during war.

The biological warfare analogy extends further than merely keeping devices sterile. Almost every conceivable device that can be connected to a computer, mobile or digital radio contains a micro-processor to control its function. This list includes such things as batteries (yes, batteries), USB keyboards or mice, monitors, printers, webcams, microphones, storage drives, and many more. The electronics that control their workings, simple as they may be, are perfectly capable of supporting or incubating malware.

If any of these devices are compromised at any stage of their production, distribution or use they could be used to create a ‘viral reservoir’ with which to infect any device that was connected to them. The fact is that security on this scale will be extremely expensive. But it will pale in comparison to the cost of security breaches that may require vast quantities of suspect equipment to simply be written off.

The more disparate and convoluted the armed forces’ digital equipment inventory becomes, the more complicated and costly it will be to maintain these security measures.


Why am I making such a big thing out of the security of the lowest level of digital communications? Because it is at this level, at the tactical and sub-tactical level, that information warfare will make a day-to-day difference.

The battlefield has everything one would hope for if conducting a wireless or electro-magnetic information warfare attack - physical proximity; numerous mundane systems whose maintenance and software patching are low priorities; multiple targets of multiple types with varying security protocols; drastic time pressures on the users of devices and those monitoring networks, increasing the chances that mistakes will be made or corners cut; the ability to bring about compelling distractions at critical moments; and the ability to combine IW attacks with electronic warfare to digitally isolate an opponent.

The chances are minuscule that soldiers in contact with the enemy can afford the time to monitor the security of their digital systems. They will be relying on diagnostic software and remote monitoring, but these dependences can and will be exploited.

What’s more, the range of possible attack vectors is positively awe inspiring, and goes far beyond the traditional range of network or wireless attacks.

Peripherals like cameras, night vision systems, sensors, or battery chargers, could all be used to install malware. On the battlefield, their relatively simple protections against viruses could make them an idea target for electro-magnetic information warfare attacks. EMIW attacks seek to use advanced forms of electromagnetic induction to create digital signals in the cables that connect such systems to their parent computers. Over time, these low bandwidth transmissions can amount to enough data to install a virus. You can be sure that the range and speed of these attacks will increase dramatically in the coming years.

Individual and unit level unmanned and remotely-piloted vehicles will be another obvious vector. Given that data from these systems is expected to pass directly to mobile and portable computer systems attached to the communications networks, their encryption and security protections will have to be every bit as robust as any other device. If they are not, their media-rich data links will become the entry point of choice for malware attacks.

The bottom line is that tactical and individual systems are the most easily accessible and most numerous devices that can be targeted. They are also, due to the quantities required, likely to be developed and produced under considerable cost pressures. This will inevitably lead to more opportunities for exploits, either as a result of cost cutting during development, or a lack of urgency in software upgrades during their service lives.


You might be wondering why an opponent would go to all this effort to compromise the lowest level of digital communications, especially if it still wouldn't give them access to the separately encrypted network traffic. The answer lies in the difference between information warfare against a fixed network, and against an army of soldiers each carrying a range of personal electronics.

Sure, the dream scenario is installation of some all-powerful malware that can access functions, and give up tactical data and encryption algorithms. But none of that is necessary to gain a significant advantage.

Every one of these devices is connected to at least one wireless radio. Even without access to the IP based communications network, these transmitters would be able to signal their location and pass basic information.

Without control over the digital radio, compromised systems could still weaken encryption systems by resending identical messages using different keys and by sending pre-scripted messages in multiple encryption keys. Predetermined character sequences could be injected into message or file headers – invisible to ordinary users – and attached to every network communication, potentially amounting to thousands of ‘cribs’ over the course of only a few days of operations.

Multiply these security ‘micro-fractures’ by hundreds of compromised systems, and thousands of hours of operations, and an enormous volume of encrypted traffic could be at risk.

Compromised radios of mobile devices could also be used to launch Denial of Service and Distributed Denial of Service attacks against their own IP-based networks, or transmit jamming signals over critical frequencies. Beyond technical resources attacks, devices with tactical communications software installed could be used to generate ‘spam’ within the tactical information system, reporting false threats, false locations and spurious requests for information.

Then of course there is the physical functionality of these devices that could be subject to internal resource attacks. This sort of malware seeks to make devices unusable by generating millions of processor requests that saturate the system. Flattening batteries, disabling touch-screens or keyboards, filling hard drives with junk, any number of ways can be found to make a computer effectively useless.


Given that many of these exploits do not involve spurious traffic over the IP network, conventional network surveillance will not be able to detect them. For those that do, their first appearance is likely to be when they are being deployed for an attack. Indeed, malware propagation may well eschew IP-based transmission entirely and focus on short-range wireless transmission or (wait for it) ad-hoc EMIW.

In the most serious cases, such as low level radio emissions designed to allow geo-location by the enemy, blue-force SIGINT and COMINT will be critical to detecting malware infections. Correlation and analysis of unit level complaints and reports of malfunction must be acted on immediately. More regular maintenance and data inspection may be required, along with physically separated usage monitoring systems, if compromised systems are to be found during peace-time.

Any of these viruses could include ‘sleeping’ functionality to avoid detection before a conflict, and ‘napping’ functionality to frustrate SIGINT or network surveillance. They could also make use of ‘wintering’ capability, in which they write themselves into the firmware of peripherals like cameras, keyboards, printers, batteries or GPS systems to avoid detection during maintenance.

These attacks on tactical systems will be the front-line of an information warfare threat that is likely to take the form of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. But they will also be both the most likely entry point for ‘spectacular’ malware attacks against other parts of the military network, and the key to compromising higher levels of communications encryption.

The information they give up, and the misinformation they sow will be only the most frequent example of the consequences of making information a tool of war. It’s a brave new world.


Copyright - Wall Street Journal

Copyright - Wall Street Journal

This week the US Department of Defense announced its ‘roadmap’ for the rapid adoption of secure mobile devices, mobile applications, and tablet computers throughout the organisation. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the announcement came during an overlap between important exhibitions and conferences for both the mobile phone and IT security industries. At least it was easy to find people to comment on the story.

While the DoD’s plan does not concern the use of mobiles or computers on the battlefield, its emphasis on the need to secure these devices points to a growing preoccupation in this brave new world – Information Warfare.

Before we go any further, I know there are many strong opinions as to how this area should be referred to, and a passionate group exists who believe the subject should be named ‘cyber warfare’. I disagree, I think ‘information’ – data, software code, algorithms – are what is being fought over, it is the thing people are seeking unfettered control over. Meanwhile, ‘cyber’ refers to the devices through which the conflict takes place. For this reason, and because this was the term used in my education, I will be using the name Information Warfare. If you prefer something else, fair enough.

Information warfare is, at its root, a combination of espionage and sabotage. Modern technology has made information, rendered as ones and zeros, as tangible as it is ever likely to get. The ability to reach into an adversary’s computers and see this information is a massive advantage. It is, in effect, an extension of the code-breaking efforts that began in earnest just before the First World War. The transmission of mathematically encrypted messages is, in practice, an algorithmic function processed by a ‘distributed’ computer, composed of the two cyphering apparatus and the wireless radio linking them.

Modern information warfare is the direct descendent of this technology. Nowadays, however, the fact that a computer is a distinct, physical entity, and that the information within it is persistent, offers boundless new opportunities. Instead of merely intercepting information as it passes, one can alter the information, or remove it entirely. Because computers ‘run’ on information at the software level, altering or removing the information within them has almost limitless potential to harm them, the other computers they share that information with, and by-proxy, the humans that depend on them to make war.

In order to truly visualise the scope of the threat posed by information warfare it is important to bear in mind that computers run almost everything used in modern warfare. Sometimes the electronic systems are so simple that it is hard to remember that they are computers. Even incredibly simple devices contain significant quantities of software, and software is information. Alternatively, some computers are so large, physically diffuse, and composed of so many different elements that the system becomes almost invisible. If you’re struggling to picture one of these vast, virtual computers then may I suggest thinking of the global network of equity, commodity and currency markets as an enormous, approximation of a difference-engine. However, no matter their scale, such a ‘system of systems’ still behaves in the same fashion as a single, physical computer – and all of them can be corrupted in a similar fashion.

The second step in developing a real grasp of the scale of the coming challenge is to understand the unique consequences of computer driven communications systems – as distinct from the devices that supply and utilise the data that passes through them. Just like all technologies or methods, digitally structured communications have a unique set of weaknesses.

Gaining access to some of the information in a modern computer does not usually allow one access to all of the information within it. For this reason, altering or removing information is invariably just a stepping stone to breaching the next layer of security within the computer. Proper security design and judicious use of the appropriate encryption technologies can deny intruders access to critical data, and prevent an escalations of the seriousness of the ‘hack’. Various security, cryptographic and procedural vulnerabilities may have to be combined with specialised surveillance software, and considerable time, in order to get deep enough into a system to find critical information, or obtain total control.

These are the sorts of persistent threats that make the news headlines nowadays, and while it’s easy to see the massive value a comparable attack would have on a military network, it’s hard to see how the time involved would be practical on a fast moving battlefield. Unfortunately, this is the point at which an understanding of information warfare as directed against computer systems on the internet begins to fail us. This isn’t about technical knowledge, it’s a contextual problem. The value of a mundane piece of digital information is far greater on the battlefield than comparative information obtained from systems on the internet.

We’ll get into the altering and removal of information in later posts, before that it is important to understand the unique military potential of ‘information surveillance’.


As mentioned, not all computers are a single physical entity. The networked communications of a modern, western army resemble a vast, complex version of the original, virtual enciphering machines of the First and Second World Wars. Hundreds of thousands of individual soldiers, vehicles, munitions and computers constitute such a network, and all require a unique identity within it. Unlike the civilian internet almost of all their communications are wireless.

While many operations of a computer can be hardened and encrypted the most basic of communications between the physical components of that computer must be conducted openly, in order to ensure that each communication is conducted in a format that will be understood by both parts of the machine. Once this basic understanding has been exchanged further communications can be hidden and protected.

These open, unprotected exchanges are not a risk for a physical computer (yet anyway, but that’s for another post). But for a virtual computer (a system of systems) like a battlefield communication network, all of these basic exchanges take place in the open. Many will crow that the vast majority of these communications can be cloaked in other types of encryption, but the bottom line is that an open introduction must take place at some level. If it is too simplistic it will be that much easier to falsify, opening the network to the risk of resource management attacks.

Collected ensemble the fragments of identifying information that can be gathered from these communications will eventually constitute a digital order-of-battle of an opposing force. Obtaining these fragments will be information warfare’s primary function, before anything more fashionable. I know some may argue that ‘frequency agile’ systems exists to conceal these digital scraps, but these will be no match for future collection methods and technologies.


While the use of modern IP based communications offers unprecedented capabilities to share, fuse and compare information on the battlefield, it brings with it a cost that must be understood. No matter how sophisticated the protection of a network’s communications may be, each device on that network must know with whom it is speaking. It is inevitable that these basic protocols and authentications can and will be exploited to provide new detail to opposing forces.

Every technology, tactic or doctrine is a trade-off. All increase some strengths while diminishing others. The trick is to choose the right trade-offs for what you plan to do. Digitally structured communication networks have massive potential, but this is because of their structure. If you can see that structure, so can someone else.


Copyright - USAF

Copyright - USAF

In January the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation released its report on the F-35’s development activities during 2012.

Probably the most striking aspect of the document was the admission that the aircraft’s performance criteria would have to be modified, some by a considerable margin. Most controversial has been the increase in transonic acceleration times (M0.8 – M1.2) and the reduction in sustained turn rate – falling well below 5g for both the ‘A’ and ‘B’ models.

As might be expected, ‘experienced fighter pilots’ have appeared in the press complaining that these reductions will place the aircraft’s low and medium altitude performance somewhere in the late 1970’s. Reading the commentary I was reminded of an RAF officer (I believe) who referred to the Joint Strike Fighter as a “stealthy buccaneer”, an appellation that is looking increasingly prophetic to many.

At this point it’s important to bear in mind that the F-35 is a ‘strike fighter’ – that is to say a strike aircraft that can escort itself over the battlefield. It is not a ‘fighter-attack aircraft’ in the vein of late 4th generation fighters, like the Typhoon and Rafale. While the difference may seem semantic it is actually at the heart of the controversy surrounding the aircraft. This distinction is key to understanding the, otherwise quixotic, behaviour of the United States in defending the program.

US doctrine calls for the F-22, B-2, and (eventually) Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) to fracture an opposing nations Integrated Air Defence System into separate units that must then function individually. It is this ‘disintegrated’ ADS that the ‘stealthy’ F-35 was designed to neutralise.

Originally, the JSF was conceived as an aircraft with all aspect (360 degree) low observability, primarily, in the X Band, and parts of the S Band most typically associated with battlefield air defence systems. The theory was fairly simple and well practised on the F-117 – make an aircraft that could launch its weapons before reaching the range at which it would normally be detected. Repeat the exercise for airborne radars, like those on opposing fighter aircraft, and one would have an aircraft that was likely to be able to destroy its opponents before they detected it. Throw in the ability to passively detect enemy radars, with sufficient accuracy to launch an attack, and one has the ability to choose to engage or avoid an engagement, both against enemy aircraft and SAMs.

It is the same basic theory that underpins all stealth technology from aircraft to submarines, and it is a compelling advantage if it can be achieved. In the case of the JSF, that advantage would be restricted to shorter-range radars than was the case for the F-22, which was required to engage longer range threats and so requires radar stealth over a considerably broader frequency range.

In this way, the JSF was designed to be able to safely engage battlefield air defences. Alternatively, if attacking other targets, the aircraft would have the ability to evade, rather than strike, enemy SAMs.

Whether the F-35 still lives up to this ambition is an open question. The world has moved on from the aircraft’s late 90’s and early 2000’s era design. Russian and Chinese designers are pushing back hard with battlefield radars in the frequency bands that will give the aircraft the most problems. New missiles, distributed sensors, passive targeting systems, self defence capabilities and advanced ambush tactics have all eroded the ground on which the Lightning II can fight and win. Finally, successive versions of the aircraft’s design have appeared to de-emphasis all-aspect low observability in favour of a preoccupation with frontal stealth.

These trends have coincided with a subtle shift in the way the US armed forces talk about the future of high-intensity conflicts. The emergence of the US Air Force’s LRS-B, and the USN’s UCLASS programs further support the conclusion that US doctrine now favours fighting the early stages of a peer conflict from a range considerably greater than the F-35 is capable of achieving.

The F-35 is designed to fit within the American concept – active since the 1980’s – of a high/low mix. In short, a modest force of highly capable ‘enabling’ systems conduct attacks against key enemy capabilities. The destruction or suppression of these capabilities allows a much larger fleet of less capable and less specialised systems to safely support the sequential campaign that will defeat an opponent’s armed forces in the field.

This doctrine has the consequence of dividing the campaign into a short opening phase, and a more prolonged secondary phase. Though usually lasting longer than 24 hours, this opening phase, during which these enabling systems are essential, is often referred to as the ‘first day of war’. For the United States, the ‘first day of war force’ will ultimately comprise the LRS-B, UCLASS, and F-22 – geography permitting. These ‘kinetic’ systems will be augmented by information, electronic and electromagnetic warfare.

The opening phase of a campaign of this kind may actually last many days or even weeks. In a conflict that genuinely requires these ‘bleeding-edge’ capabilities, the threat to USN aircraft carriers and USAF land-based tactical fighters will likely keep such forces outside the theatre for some time.

This restriction will also apply to the F-35. The aircraft may well be a very survivable strike fighter but it is no longer a weapon that can be employed on the opening night of World War Three - the world has simply moved on. The design trade-offs that may have been made in the past decade are largely immaterial, the process has simply taken too long. Technology and tactics have overtaken the project’s meagre ambitions.


This state of affairs doesn't bother the USAF as they have never intended the aircraft to remain such a ‘first day of war’ capability far into the future. The aircraft was designed for ‘day two’ of the 1991 Gulf War and that is still precisely the aircraft the Air Force needs. Unfortunately, for the other partners in the JSF program the situation looks far less rosy. The aircraft will not confer the war fighting capability that it promised in the late 1990’s, and the technological gap between the United States and her allies will remain as wide as ever.

A dispassionate analysis suggests that only the UK, Israel, and Japan (and perhaps Turkey) have any genuine need for a low observable fighter aircraft. However, they all require a true ‘first day of war’ capability, as epitomised by the F-22, and without it their national security policies are merely placed holders for action by the United States. For the F-35’s other potential customers, the aircraft is likely to spend the vast majority of its life as a very expensive way of providing sovereign air defence.

Herein lies the real problem for partner nations in choosing a strike-fighter to fulfil a fighter-attack requirement. The world has moved on from the 4th generation of combat aircraft technology, without some semblance of enhanced survivability it will not be plausible to claim that a nation’s aircraft exist for anything more than national air defence. However, if these aircraft only exist for such air sovereignty tasks then few (if any) of NATO’s members need anything other than some new-build F-16s.

If Australia, Canada, and NATO’s European member states have a genuine need for a stealthy fighter aircraft then where is the JSF’s competition? Where is Europe’s JSF to contest the market?

The fact is that all involved – military, political, industrial, animal, mineral, vegetable – need the F-35 to be the only 5th generation show in town. In order to secure funding for a 5th generation aircraft, the very possibility of taking part in military action in the future has to be rendered as a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition.

Many military and political leaders fear that unless the choice can be presented in such apocalyptic terms, a large proportion of the voting public in NATO nations would opt to give up the ability to join such foreign adventures.

This is the sad bargain that explains the incoherence of the Joint Strike Fighter program - America wants what it needs, and the other partners in the JSF program want whatever they can get their hands on, just to stay in the game.

In the end, the F-35 will be precisely what its predecessors were – not as good as its makers claim, and not as bad as its detractors insist. However, unlike its predecessors, the aircraft will be a political, diplomatic and industrial watershed, and for that reason it deserves all the scrutiny it is receiving.

The program is western political and industrial dysfunction incarnate, but the aircraft itself is a modest technical and doctrinal increment. Contrary to the sound bites, it will be no substitute for the genuine ability to make war that will be needed in the decade to come.


Copyright Eurofighter - Crown Copyright 2011
Copyright Eurofighter - Crown Copyright 2011

Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s a phrase that comes to mind with surprising frequency when reading the NAO’s Major Projects Report for 2012. Like most people my first reading of the report was all about the numbers and the National Audit Office’s conclusions, but the more I pondered the substance of the document the more I came to wonder about the nature of the things that are being purchased.

These thoughts recurred once again when I read the NAO’s subsequent report on the MoD’s procurement plans for the next decade that was published three weeks later. I couldn’t help but be struck by how many of the projects were old hands, either survivors of the end of the Cold War, or replacements or stopgaps for Cold War projects that had been cancelled or delayed.

This should be quite troubling to anyone that understands the fundamental difference between the UK’s current posture and its posture at the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Once upon a time, the UK’s focus was almost exclusively on defending the UK and the area around it from Soviet attack. The Atlantic, Norway and Germany were the extent of the UK’s requirements for ‘expeditionary’ operations. Of course, UK forces could operate beyond these areas, and frequently did, but these operations did not materially alter the nation’s procurement priorities.

Anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic, armoured forces in Germany and amphibious mobility in Norway – these were the absolute rulers of the structure of Britain’s armed forces and defence industry. This triplet was crowned with long range air defence at home. For the UK, surface-to-air missiles were not an option, she needed protection against Soviet bombers armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles. These could be launched from hundreds of missiles – and later at least 1000 miles – from their targets, only long range interceptors could counter this threat.

With the addition of a few specialist capabilities, the ASW carriers destined for the North Atlantic and the assault ships assigned to the Norwegian theatre, could confer a respectable ability to fight ‘out of area’. However, this additional utility was never allowed to obscure the primary mission of these defensive instruments.

For this reason, the European defence industry that emerged from the Cold War had a deeply ingrained defensive mind set. The products these companies offered, and were developing, were inherently of this same outlook. The Eurofighter, the Future Large Aircraft (nee FIMA), the EH101, Storm Shadow (from the Apache), the ASRAAM, all are children of the Cold War and their design features and limitations speak to this quite clearly.

So what, you might ask? Adapt them to brave new world and off we go. Unfortunately, such adaptations are neither easy, nor cheap – and are rarely effective. The reason for this is that the design trade-offs between attributes such as size, range, endurance, lethality and survivability, cannot be altered significantly once they have been made. Contrary to popular belief, sensors, weapons and communications can only ameliorate the worst deficiencies of a repurposed weapon or platform – they cannot turn an inherently defensive weapon into a world class offensive system.

Defending Europe was a very specific problem. It required coverage of a large geographical area with a long perimeter. Coverage of this kind places an emphasis on numerical strength. Each ship of fighter can only be effective within the range of its sensors and weapons, therefore, in order to cover a given area a large number of such platforms are needed.

On the other hand, NATO’s numerical strength was all but certain to be inferior to that of the Warsaw Pact. The typical solution to this was to develop a technical superiority in a decisive capability, often by specialisation at the expense of other abilities. This inherent tension between numbers and sophistication (basically cost v’s capability) tended to settle into an equilibrium somewhere between the two extremes of small, low-cost platforms, and large, very costly platforms.

As mentioned, much of the UK’s current ships and aircraft were conceived, designed or developed under this ‘goldilocks’ paradigm of a balance between medium cost and medium capability. The problem with adapting these platforms to the requirement of the modern world is that this world is fundamentally different from the one before it – and requires of the UK a fundamentally different posture.

The UK no longer faces an existential threat at home. While the UK must maintain her air sovereignty, the threat today is barely comparable to that faced during the Cold War. What is required to meet the present threat is numerical strength. Numbers enough to ensure that all threats are met in a timely fashion, and with spare capacity in reserve, in order to ensure that calm, rational decisions can be made about potential aggressors or threats. None of this requires Typhoons or Joint Strike Fighters.

The UK no longer faces a threat of isolation from American reinforcements attempting to cross the Atlantic. The Royal Navy deploys the vast bulk of its surface fleet on guard duties, and police actions, against terrorists, pirates and traffickers. None of which demands a Type 45 destroyer.

What the UK needs, once again, is numbers. She requires a fleet large enough to maintain order by denying states and non-state actors the sanctuary of an absence of law or authority. She also needs the numerical strength to be present in regional trouble spots so as to respond to small crises before they can escalate.

Unfortunately, in addition to this need for the numerical strength to keep the peace the UK’s foreign policy and interests demand the technical superiority to wage war. Britain and her allies are frequently engaged in intensive expeditionary operations, many approximating high-intensity warfare. While the UK prides herself on making a commitment to these actions, the fact of the matter remains, the country is ill equipped to conduct high intensity, near-peer warfare saddled as it is with Cold War equipment and systems.

If the UK wishes to make a meaningful contribution in future she will need a far more capable range of ships and aircraft, a range that will be even less well suited to day-to-day peacetime activities.


In our post-Cold War world of expeditionary operations the needs of the UK’s armed forces have become stratified. On the one hand, day-to-day sovereignty at home and policing and anti-terrorism in the world at large consume the country’s entire fleet, when other operations must be carried out Britain must, inevitably, weaken its posture to release units to undertake them.

On the other hand, the nation’s determination to join, lead, and sometimes, make war against capable opponents, far from friendly support, places a crushing premium on the technological sophistication of her combat systems. Even where war is the last thing the UK wants, her contribution, alongside others, to the credible threat of force is essential to preventing military adventurism, escalation or miscalculation.

These two masters cannot be served by a modestly sized (surprisingly costly), ‘medium’ capability force. This is especially true when ships and aircraft are overly specialised. In order to afford these antithetical objectives the UK needs separate forces that can be masters of their respective trades.

In effect, a numerous force of defensive platforms suited to sovereignty at home and policing abroad, and a small concentrated war fighting force equipped for the task, without the compromises of other roles. Without such a force the UK will never be able to reverse the trajectory of increasing capabilities leading to rising costs and shrinking fleets.

The country must move beyond the present ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ posture built as it is one platforms that aren’t numerous enough to keep the peace, nor advanced enough to win a war.


Copyright - Airbus

Copyright - Airbus

It is one of the cardinal sins of design and engineering, to create the product you want, not the product the market needs.

This tendency is the curse of national industries that look to exports to improve their fortunes. In the pan-European defence industry this failing is especially widespread, in spite of the industries stated focus on exportable products.

Every potential client has a set of requirements specific to their posture, foreign policy, geography, location and financial means. When states with similar needs collaborate to develop vehicles or weapons, the results can be a very effective product – at least one as effective as the understanding that went into them.

The problem is that this focus cuts both ways. When collaborative developments first emerged, in Europe during the Cold War, the requirements of all involved were closely aligned due to the common threat of the Warsaw Pact.

Developing a fighter aircraft together was fine in the 1980’s when everyone had roughly the same air defence needs. Even fighter-attack was a practical proposition, when all involved were planning to attack the same thing. But even at this time of common threat, the outline of future problems was visible in the UK’s development of the Tornado ADV - necessarily a unilateral exercise, as no other partner in the MRCA shared the requirement.

In the modern world of expeditionary operations, these differences in mission have expanded exponentially. The tension between the operational and industrial needs of many European nations, particularly the UK, is mutating their procurement priorities. The A400M is a microcosm of this incompatibility. There is an inherent problem in collaborating on expeditionary equipment when you’re not planning the same kinds of ‘expeditions’.

The aircraft makes a great deal of sense for many of the partner nations in the program. It is capable of transporting the handful of commonly repositioned vehicles and systems that cannot be accommodated in a C-130 – medium-lift helicopters, wheeled armoured fighting vehicles, MRAP vehicles and SAM systems.

The aircraft accomplishes this without the cost of a true strategic transport such as the C-17, while remaining broadly comparable to the Hercules in terms of operating costs and short-field performance. It is a good compromise for nations that spend 90% of their time transporting vehicles and material around Europe and its Near Abroad.

When required, the A400M will be more than capable of moving vehicles and weapons systems to Africa or the Middle East for operations, or to the US for exercises. But these ‘strategic’ sorties will show the impracticality of the aircraft’s turboprop propulsion and the limited utility of the loadable dimensions its creators settled on. In these cases it will be clear that this aircraft is, in fact, a large ‘tactical’ transport that can serve some strategic functions.

Let’s be clear, all designs are a compromise. Design and engineering are about selecting the right compromises. Unfortunately for the UK, this particular compromise is rather the 'fuzzy end of the lollipop'. Britain and France require something akin to the inverse compromise – a small ‘strategic’ transport, but one that can serve the short-field, tactical functions of the C-130.

Such an aircraft would be a cost effective way of shuffling medium and heavy-lift helicopters, wheeled AFVs, UAVs and containerised support elements between the UK, the US, the Middle East, Africa, and (increasingly) the Far East. Short hops within Europe will be the exception rather than the rule once the UK completes its withdrawal from Germany, while Africa is likely to supplant the Gulf as a theatre of operations. The ‘imperatives’ are likely trump operational fatigue as they always have in the past.

The extraordinary operational tempo – and ever increasing size – of the RAF’s C-17 fleet point to the simple fact that the UK doesn't need an aircraft designed for cost effective tactical airlift. The UK needs a ‘baby’ C-17.

A twin engined transport with commonality of systems, avionics and (upgraded) engines with the C-17;  the same loadable height and width as its big brother, but a reduced length and payload; and the ability to operate efficiently at the speeds and altitudes required to utilise the civilian jet-ways.

Such an aircraft could effectively handle the ‘long-thin’ airlift and logistics operations that are characteristic of multiple small-scale operations, standing security commitments and permanent overseas training bases. This would leave the (upgraded) C-17 fleet free to handle the ‘medium-fat’ routes that are the bread and butter of long-term expeditionary operations – especially those involving a large contingent of ground troops.

The irony in all this is that such an aircraft is exactly what the United States will be looking for in the future. Once the logistical realities of the ‘pivot’ become apparent, and the 'VTOL tactical transport' flights of fancy crash and burn in the shadow of America’s national debt, the US will go looking for the moderate solution they should have embraced 10 years ago. This will be the incremental, jet-powered development that should have fought it out with the C-130J.

The United States possesses one third of all the military transport aircraft on earth. Over 640 of them are C-130s, with 138 still to be delivered. This is the prize awaiting an affordable 21st century, medium transport aircraft - and this the market that Europe and the UK has forsworn with the development of the A400M.

I know that some will say that the rest of the market is still up for grabs, but it won’t be once the USAF and USN make their selection. Just wait and see what the economies of scale of a home market four or five times the size Europe’s do to the appetite for the Airbus Atlas.

Then we’ll see if elephants can fly.


Copyright - Martin Acosta/Reuters

Copyright - Martin Acosta/Reuters

We've all seen it, someone buys their children a big, expensive, shiny new toy, and all the kids want to play with is the box it came in.

This is an increasingly fair analogy for the position of the Argentine government vis-a-vis the Falkland Islands. For all the heat and noise (and lord knows we must have piles of it to spare by now), Argentina neither has, nor wants, a substantive policy on the subject.

Obviously, any Argentine government that achieved sovereignty over the islands would be feted at the ballot box – even, perhaps, without reference to the human cost. But how long would this honeymoon last? One term? Half a term? Voters give few points for past performance, and good will is not transferable from one election to the next.

Without a solution to the country’s economic malaise, no party could expect such a love affair to span even two elections. At best, a victory over the Falklands would buy time, perhaps for unpopular reforms, but that is likely to be the limit of its usefulness.

In contrast, the status-quo is the gift that keeps on giving. With a conservative prime minister in the UK, and the attendant 1+1 = 2 foreign policy, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner can rely on every volley of nonsense being promptly returned.

What’s that you say? Might an Argentine President, low in the polls, not be tempted by some form of military adventurism? Of course that is possible, but at present its success is far from probable. The UK’s focus on air defence – particularly the deployment of the Type 45 – has blunted the effectiveness of Argentina’s late 80’s vintage air force.

That being said, several plausible scenarios can be constructed under which the UK’s handful of critical platforms – four Typhoons and a destroyer – might be overwhelmed. But this still doesn't answer the question of how Argentina could expect to hold the islands with such fragile lines of communication. Nor does it address how Argentina’s limited airlift capability could establish a bridge head against British land forces if Royal Navy submarines made transport by sea too treacherous.

The simple fact remains that while Argentina may be able to modernise her armed forces enough to capture the islands, it is fanciful to expect there to be enough money to buy a force that could hold them.

This brings us back to the peculiar nature of Argentina’s policy. Their actions suggest that, despite their statements to the contrary, the government of Argentina is more than happy with the status-quo. The clearest evidence of this is the simple, and profitable, nature of the solution to the Falklands question - and the fact that Argentina refuses to avail itself of it.

If Argentina wanted the Falkland Islands, all they need do is be as friendly as possible.

The islanders are thousands of miles from their nearest ally and in need of an economical means of exploiting their potential oil wealth. Argentina could provide it. If she wanted to, the country could bend over backwards to make themselves indispensable to the islanders. Trade, transport, investment, expertise, credit, refining capacity, pipelines, everything they could and all at little or no cost.

Why? Because, if the islanders become economically intertwined with Argentina it would likely be a matter of time – all be time measured in decades – before the high quality of life they enjoy would become largely dependent on the two governments continued cooperation. The next generation of wealthy islanders, accustomed to easy access to the cosmopolitan centres of South America, are unlikely to choose economic privation over generous political autonomy. It may be a distasteful strategy – rather like getting someone hooked on drugs – but Argentina has a once in a lifetime opportunity to exploit the Falkland islanders’ oil windfall for its own gain.

Just as China made herself non-threatening and indispensable to Hong Kong in order to win its willing reunification, so Argentina could with the Falklands. The question for the UK government is, how should they respond to friendship instead of hostility?


Copyright - NARA/US Government

Copyright - NARA/US Government

Winston Churchill once remarked that while he was always eager to learn, he did not always enjoy being taught. So it is with prognostications of death and destruction.

Scarcely a day goes by without some new prediction of impending disaster at the hands of some future conflict. Yet catastrophic reversals, when they come, still seem to catch the vast majority off guard.

At present, much of this clairvoyance centres on the vulnerability of modern society and technology to unrestricted Information Warfare. There can be little doubt that developed nations stand at considerable risk of human, material, economic and financial loses in the event of a ‘cyber-blitz’.

But rather like the Blitz on London, such a campaign can only be effective if it materially undermines a nation’s ability or willingness to make war. Horrific and lamentable as the Luftwaffe’s bombing of British cities was, its effect was to relieve the pressure on the real key to Britain’s survival – Fighter Command. This is because aerial warfare, just like information warfare, is a means to an end. Even the wars of the future will retain the same ultimate end – troops in the streets and flags on top of buildings.

If the means of achieving this – air power, sea power, information warfare, electronic warfare, electro-magnetic warfare – are diverted into general death and destruction they will simply have been wasted, unless such a diversion serves a clear military aim. Typically, this aim would be magnifying the effects of attrition caused by non-sequential engagements. In other words, by destroying the assets, factories and funds that should be replacing lost fighters, ships and weapons.

Whatever form it takes, war against infrastructure (just like a guerre de course) is a long game, it will not determine the outcome of a future conflict unless that conflict lasts a significant time.


Rather than look to one’s weaknesses in order to understand where the next painful lesson will come from, it is necessary to look to one’s strengths. Confidence points the way to future disasters far more clearly than our accepted short comings.

For the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia, that confidence, increasingly, takes the form of “Technical Warfare” – for want of a better term. I know that there will be complaints about my choice of words and definition, but we need a sensible short hand for discussing a component of modern war that does not take place on the physical battlefield - and is larger than any single technology or method.

Technical Warfare constitutes all methods and systems whose sole purpose is to locate, exploit or destroy communication, sensor or control technologies. It comprises two principle branches:

  • Technical Intelligence – ELINT; SIGINT; COMINT; EMINT; radio, microwave, electro-optical and acoustic surveillance; and network surveillance & intelligence.

  • Technical Attack – Electronic Warfare; Information Warfare; and Electro-Magnetic Warfare.

It is confidence in, and reliance on, technical methods that presents the greatest risk to these nations of a devastating reversal.

Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not a call for a return to a simpler time, nor an ode to blood and iron. It is simply a reminder that all warfare is based on deception. The capacity for deception, diversion and misdirection that is emerging within the field of Technical Warfare will challenge the West’s accepted strengths in a decisive manner.

On land and at sea deception and diversion are old hands. In the air these doctrines are younger and still not fully formed. Within the technical sphere they are in their infancy, but already a frightening outline is emerging. What makes this future so unsettling is the eventual confluence of IW, EW and EMW, and their combined ability to subvert the fidelity of the systems we rely upon to peer through the fog of war.

Not only can they deceive vital sensors, they can misdirect electronic systems to concentrate on imaginary foes, and divert or corrupt communications (even between humans) further sapping confidence and sowing confusion.

In the coming decades a new frontier will open in warfare. These new technologies will make war in the space between the commander and the actual, physical war they are trying to fight. Technical Warfare is about to weaponise the fog of war and make every radar return or data-stream a potential act of deception or sabotage.

Unreliable communications, degraded and erratic sensors, false data-streams, compromised systems, platforms and weapons (yes, even your own munitions) will blunt the effectiveness and reliability of all forms of data and intelligence.

I’ll be exploring this topic more in the coming weeks but I would like to leave you with this thought on its implications in peace time.

Critically important will be what this means for the strategic systems. Systems such as these allow nations like the US to avoid surprises, the paranoia that comes before them, and the hasty decisions that come after them. Missile warning, COMINT, satellite surveillance, all add to a confidence that encourages measured responses. Removing that confidence would be dangerous, the ability to exploit it, through technical deception, could lead to both a catastrophic event and a catastrophic response.

Consider the powerful sense of helplessness that pervaded the hours and days following the terrorist attacks of September 11th - and some of the ill-considered suggestions that helplessness encouraged. Now imagine such confidence shattering shocks were a daily possibility.

Pearl Harbour was an example of naval surprise on a strategic scale. Technical Warfare could allow such strategic-scale surprises with unprecedented frequency and diversity.


Copyright AP

Copyright AP

Last week the US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, was in Europe to talk about military cooperation and the ‘pivot’ to Asia.

He expressed the hope that NATO’s European members would invest more heavily in certain expeditionary capabilities, and that NATO, as a whole would join the US in becoming more active in the Far East. While these may be laudable aims, they are both impractical and self-defeating. If the United States wants Europe to pull its weight at home, and become more involved abroad, the solution is not a more expeditionary posture for NATO.

The problem with Panetta’s call to arms is that NATO is a defensive alliance. The reticence exhibited by alliance members in contributing troops to fight in Afghanistan is not peculiar to Europe. In truth, it is axiomatic of the difficulties inherent in asking someone to do something they didn’t sign up for.

It’s one thing have a NATO summit, spend a few nights in a luxury hotel, and then declare that those who wish to risk life and limb in some corner of a foreign field are free to do so. It is no great hardship to accept that those who wish to fight these foreign wars may wish to use the toys the alliance bought for doing so. But it's quite another thing when one nation's adventures are dependant on the men and machines of another, especially one whose electorate has no interest in participating.

Here in lies the real problem, that sharing and pooling requires collective decision making in order to function. But collective decision making is extremely difficult if you disagree about the necessity of risking people’s lives.

Some might argue that most of the ‘pooled’ capabilities would be innocuous enough to rule out this kind of problem, but that is nonsense. What if a country wanted to use pooled transport aircraft to perform an air-landing operation, or a contested parachute insertion? What if a critical, deep strike mission required an aerial tanker to come within range of enemy air defences, relying on escorts or EW for protection? How about a nation that needed to send a high-altitude UAV into a third-parties airspace to ensure the success of a hostage rescue mission?

The simple fact is that all military capabilities are inherently offensive. Even if they only enable another capability, without them such weapons or units would be impotent.

Any pooling arrangement inevitably asks the parent government to spend political capital to support and legitimise another country's operation. By definition, this will become ‘strategy by committee’ (even if it’s a committee of two), as the enabling government will insist on parameters and limits to govern the utilisation of its troops or its toys.

It is an inconvenient truth that pooling can only be certain to work in areas where everyone in the alliance has agreed in advance that they will participate in the fighting. In NATO’s case this means defensive operations only. Without certainty, pooling is just a vanity exercise.

That nagging doubt, that not everyone is willing to participate, brings us to the second of NATO’s post-Cold War fads – role specialisation. The notion of taking the most technically demanding and expensive capabilities needed for high-intensity operations and making each of them the purview of a small European nation (that is fairly certain not to participate in a high-intensity operation) is nothing short of asinine.

It places capabilities, critical to fighting expeditionary wars, in the hands of nations least likely to fight an expeditionary war; it saddles individual countries with the financial burden of supporting extremely expensive, niche industries with poor export potential; it destroys economies of scale by not requiring all NATO members to contribute directly; and it shackles unilateral actions to the same collective decision making problem as pooling.

This last point is critical. Threats of unilateral action – like that of France in Mali – can be instrumental in deterring aggression. Credible threats of military action can be highly effective in forestalling conflicts and encouraging negotiations. But this is only true of ‘credible’ threats, this will not be the case if enabling capabilities must be supplied by a partner whose unwillingness to become involved is apparent. Such uncertainty breads opportunism. Pending elections, the existence of already unpopular engagements elsewhere, dependence on foreign energy, materials or finance, any number of factors could make promises of intervention meaningless.

Finally, providing Patriot missiles instead of infantry can come to be seen as shirking ones responsibility, and it has frequently be spun that way by political opposition. When a handful of countries (large and small) always end up providing the meat and potatoes of an operation, while the rest show up with jelly and ice cream, an alliance can seem rather pointless.

Here in lies the rub. The UK and France would be better served by smaller, but fully formed, self-contained, expeditionary forces, rather than an abundance of ‘kinetic’ capabilities that are dependent on the enabling systems of fair-weather allies. This is a critical problem, as without Europe’s two big spenders, talk of pooling, specialisation, alliance capabilities, or ‘pivots to Asia’ will be entirely moot.

This of course brings us back, rather neatly, to the nature of a defensive alliance – a consensus to fight together no matter the particulars of the aggression. It is this consensus that is wanting in attempts to transform NATO into an offensive alliance, and its absence demonstrates how ill-suited NATO is to such a change in purpose. The purpose of the alliance is to make the military capabilities of its members greater than the sum of its parts. In a defensive alliance the way to do this is to concentrate on what everyone can agree on, defence.

Forget pooling capabilities, the alliance should be creating genuine, allied, defensive capabilities – and they should start with air defence. The next logical step for alliance air defence would be a centrally procured, owned, trained and commanded fighter force. The UK’s air defences are already run from Norway so what difference could it make? Proper regional command sectors could provide direct accountability if national security decisions had to be made, just as they do now.

A central air defence force, with organic fighters, airborne early warning and aerial refuelling, could be sized and procured solely for its task. It need not carry any of the expensive ‘expeditionary’ baggage of current, national capabilities. Such a force could provide a large contract, with real economies of scale, into which individual members could ‘buy’ in order to field similar aircraft for their national expeditionary warfare needs.

On the other hand, it would release the UK and France (and anyone else) to concentrate their forces and industries on high-intensity operations, while providing a pilot training system of unprecedented value for money. Such an arrangement could even prove a model for other areas such as maritime defence, maritime patrol, airborne SAR, defensive rapid-reaction forces, and even Special Operations.


NATO is a defensive alliance, and a hugely successful one. If it is to adapt it must play to its strengths. The way to do that is to follow the alliance's founding logic and truly collectivise the defence of Europe. The economies of scale, and the efficiencies of concentrating on a specific task, would release an enormous amount of revenue back into national budgets. This revenue could then be directed where ever it were needed most, be it to blunt the effect of budget cuts due to Europe’s fiscal crisis, or into the creation of forces genuinely suited to expeditionary operations.

NATO is good at its job, let it do more of it, not less.


Today I am pleased to post the first in a series of essays that will cover the entire National Security sector. These articles are extracts from a 2 year study called Project Byron. This study aims to examine the fundamental factors at work in all aspects of designing, developing, manufacturing, procuring, using and organising defence materiel. The study's aim is to provide an in depth 'red team' analysis that illustrates the forces, assumptions and limits that shape and influence the military industrial complex. In so doing it aims to revel the complex interactions that are driving the costs and risks in defence procurement.

I hope you find the answers revealing and surprising - after all who doesn't like surprises?



Copyright - AgustaWestland

Copyright - AgustaWestland

The Lynx Wildcat has secured its first military export customer with a win in South Korea – champagne all round!

While there’s no doubt AgustaWestland’s success is well earned, this is very much a case of being in the right place at the right time.

That the naval version of the aircraft has been successful is no great surprise. While the Wildcat is pricey for a light naval helicopter, it is well served by its systems and comes with the endorsement of an Anti-Submarine Warfare maestro in the Royal Navy. In comparison, the other light naval helicopters in this class are largely unknown quantities with little compelling argument in their favour, besides a lower price. But one must be careful when comparing the AW159 to the MH-60R.

South Korea operates a fleet of legacy Lynx aircraft and its frigates (in particular) are sized to support them. The Republic of Korea Navy placed a heavy emphasis on unit price during the competition because they face a daunting set of challenges, and a tight budget with which to overcome them. Their objective in this case was not an oceanic ASW capability, such as offered by the Seahawk, it was a highly specific set of operational needs for which the Wildcat was the ‘Goldilocks’ solution.

What is striking about this situation is that it is the reverse of that which created the Lynx Wildcat in the first place.

The Future Lynx (as it was then) was selected by the Royal Navy after its preferred solution, a medium-sized helicopter, was deemed too expensive alongside the triple-engined Merlin. The AW159 is precisely as much ASW helicopter as the Fleet Air Arm could afford. In the meantime, the Army Air Corps’ search for a replacement utility helicopter was similarly misshapen by budgetary pressure, eventually becoming the naval Wildcat’s country cousin – the Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter.

The irony is that AgustaWestland’s success in Korea rests on a design criteria that makes the Wildcat such a quixotic development in the first place – its size.

The market for small, highly sophisticated ASW helicopters is very much a niche, and an expensive one at that. The market for light battlefield utility helicopters, on the other hand, is considerably healthier – and potentially very healthy. Unfortunately, this market is dominated by military variants of civil aircraft.

Many of these aircraft have unit prices a fraction of that of the Wildcat. They have a community of operators that numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. This community supports a competitive, third-party network of training, maintenance and modification, and a large market for spare parts, insurance and resale, with consequently lower costs.

The AW159 was not designed to compete in this market, it was the dowry demanded of the UK government to entice Agusta into a marriage with Westland. This deal represents spectacularly poor value to all involved. It has shackled AgustaWestland to a poorly conceived project that stokes resentment at its special treatment. It continues the reputation of the UK helicopter industry (and Yeovil in particular) as a questionable return on a significant investment. Most importantly, it fragments the UK’s helicopter inventory yet again, adding cost and diverting £1.7 billion from the coherent procurement of medium-lift helicopters that the three services desperately need.

Most lamentably of all, this program has neutered the debate about why – in an age of air mobility – the British Army still has no organic ability to conduct aerial manoeuvre. Once again the AAC has been handed a make-work aircraft that it doesn’t need and can’t afford to waste money on.

Once the Sea King is retired and the Lynx fleet has been reshuffled after the introduction of the Wildcat, the UK will still operate a mind-boggling 9 different types of helicopter! This doesn’t include SAR aircraft. Nor does it allow for splitting hairs over legacy helicopters from Bell, Eurocopter and AgustaWestland that share no significant dynamic or electronic components – let alone engines – with the latest versions of those aircraft. Many of them have little more than a name in common. If this weren’t ridiculous enough, these aircraft will be fielded in a staggering 19 different varieties!

This is the real reason the UK spends so much and receives so little from its partnership with AgustaWestland. Given what has been spent in the last 20 years, the UK should be the centre of gravity of the European helicopter industry.

Instead, UK airborne forces entering Iraq in 2003 had to rely on the US Marine Corps for helicopters, and the two most widely praised rotorcraft in the British inventory were designed in the U.S.A.

Politicians insist that the UK needs a national supplier of military helicopters, when in fact, what the UK needs is far more military helicopters. If we carry on like this we can only afford one or the other.


Copyright - Imperial War Museum

Copyright - Imperial War Museum

The ‘hole’ has been plugged, all £38 billion of it. Plenty has been made of the how and the where but a far more important question is waiting to be asked.

In particular, did the ‘hole’ ever really exist? Was it ever more substantial than a wish list? A dream of power and influence that had no basis in fiscal reality? In other words, might what has happened have been inevitable at some time, be it by degrees rather than at a stroke?

The problem with the back slapping and introspection, unleashed by the process of cutting enough to plug the hole, is that they are distracting attention from something more important – that the root cause of this train wreck has not been addressed.

What’s more, addressing it is not just a case of trying harder. Real, intricate problems exist at all levels of the defence manufacturing and procurement system. Many are based upon fundamental misunderstandings as to why products are complex and expensive. Others stem from a broad ignorance of what businesses do, what they don’t do, and where management and analysis can improve things – and where it can’t.

Finally, a genuine unwillingness exists within the MoD to accept the critical role that structures and limits play in ensuring the financial practicality of any organisation or enterprise.

None of this is new and none of it can be solved with financial rigor or privatisation. These problems are written into the DNA of the defence industry. They exist and abide because the industry continues to embody the manufacturing model of its birth, at the dawn of the age of industrialised warfare in 1914.

Reforms have been attempted, some prescient and some preposterous (I’m looking at you Duncan Sandys), but they have been nothing but tinkering and a fresh coat of paint.

Why have they amounted to such meagre change? At its core the industry’s dysfunction is one of business model, and business models aren’t reformed, they’re replaced. Products may evolve by degrees but markets do not. They are created and destroyed by technology and need, and with this creation and destruction goes the business models that serve them.

This has nothing to do with outsourcing or the ‘service’ sector. It’s not about matching civil and military business cycles. Teaming agreements and national champions won’t help the problem in the slightest. It’s about the fundamental forces at work in the design, development and procurement of products for the armed forces – and ignorance of these forces, mostly in government.

This ignorance is funding the life-support of an industry that should have died of natural causes long ago. The cost of this life-support, and the conservative mind set it inspires, is to trap the armed forces in a quagmire of organisational nostalgia, preventing their transformation into a force structured for the present and future.


The financial future of the armed forces is darkly opaque. Will a slow, grinding decade of de-leveraging in Europe, America and Japan shackle Britain to growth rates of 1 or 2 percent? Will deteriorating demographics conspire with a weak economy to further drain defence expenditure?

An inability to continue as we have presents the opportunity to sow the seeds of a new industry.

Rather than bemoan the fact that an aircraft designed in the 1940’s, nine years behind schedule, and 300% over budget was scrapped, perhaps it’s time to learn the critical lesson at the heart of the debacle.

When a multi-billion pound procurement contract elicits no proposals under 30 years in age, something is wrong. When, apparently, commercially-minded companies fail to identify or pursue the opportunities inherent in being the first to re-occupy a deserted sector (populated, as it was, with zombie-products) something is wrong.

It’s time to stop crying over the milk and admit that we’re the ones that spilt it. It’s time to stop pretending that building weapons can have anything to do with pride or nostalgia. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves that good industrial policy is a world populated with the ships and aircraft of a bygone age – like Downton Abbey with nuclear submarines!

Unless we wake up from these day dreams and build a new industry – and keep building a new industry – the trajectory of defence inflation will never be reversed and the British and European industry will become increasingly impossible to sustain. This decline will come to pass just as surely as it has for every other industry that has clung to the methods and models of the past.

The world has moved on from the European Age, it’s time to accept that and move on with it… Our revels now are ended.