Eight Reflections on the Select Defence Committee's Report on Strategic Lift

Airbus A400M

In no particular order:

1. The House of Commons Defence Committee Report on Strategic Lift correctly highlights a number of issues of concern. 

However, despite the difficulties of mounting distant and enduring expeditionary operations, empirically the UK possesses the finest Strategic Lift capability in Europe.  With obvious regard to current commitments, the potential this gives Her Majesty’s Government to either conduct independent military endeavours, make an effective contribution to US-led coalitions across the globe or to provide leadership to a European (i.e. non-US) expeditionary venture should not pass unnoticed.  Such capacity for Strategic Lift is not merely a military attribute but an instrument of foreign and security policy.   

2. The MOD is certainly emerging from a period where it has experienced difficulties with Strategic Lift (e.g. regular ‘customer’ irritation), but the trend in its force projection capability has the right vector.

More Tristar aircraft are becoming suitable for flight in hazardous theatres, lessons identified from critical feedback are being implemented and the tremendous benefits of operating C-17s will be further exploited through both ownership of the previously leased aircraft and the addition of a 5th airframe.

3. However, despite the improvements outlined above the prospects for an enhanced Strategic Lift capability are framed in uncertainty. 

Although there appears to be little risk associated with the planned delivery of 4 Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary) vessels, the plans for introducing the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA, an Airbus A330-200) and the A400M transport aircraft are far from secure.  As a vanguard Private Finance Initiative (PFI) the FSTA project is entering unknown territory.  The Committee rightly mentions the current absence of necessary funding for the PFI and the implications for the existing AAR fleet of any further delay in the contract; but as AAR assets are absolutely fundamental to Air Power’s successful contribution to expeditionary operations it might also have probed the mechanics of the PFI agreement (i.e. once the aircraft are in service) more deeply.  This is an area where assurances must be unashamedly exposed to robust scrutiny.

4. Recourse is made in the Report to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and its requirement for an expeditionary capability. 

Despite the addition of a New Chapter in 2002, using SDR as the foundation for future military planning is increasingly questionable, not because the requirement for expeditionary operations has evaporated but because the context and nature of those commitments has changed.  Firstly, in 2002 the public and political appetite for foreign interventions was strong but the experience of Iraq has substantially shifted popular opinion in the UK away from discretionary military ventures.  Secondly, the requirement for a rapid projection and recovery of combat power envisioned in SDR is undermined when the delays caused by the interjection of political approvals prevents ‘rapid’ military deployment and the enduring character of stability operations seriously calls into question the accuracy of the label ‘expedition’.

5. The importance of Strategic Lift is proportional to the extent a nation wishes to adopt an expeditionary policy. 

If the UK is committed to such a policy then there are other issues which should also be explored because they affect the Strategic Lift requirement.  These include the use of overseas garrisons/facilities and the utility (or not) of pre-positioning items of equipment in potential theatres of operation.  To investigate Strategic Lift without such contextual considerations is to overlook an important aspect of the UK’s ability to project military power across the globe.

6. The Report correctly highlights that both military and political decision-making take time, but it does not distinguish between them. 

This is misleading as it gives the impression they may be equally responsible for the delayed deployment of forces when this is not the case.  The military planning cycle is a flexible process that matches the needs of the situation to produce a mission directive or plan that meets the required circumstances.  Hence, the planning process may take hours, days or weeks, but importantly it is possible within the time required to physically deploy the force.  For the sort of operation that would employ the small number of spearhead units which are kept on immediate readiness the military planning process could be completed in a number of hours, but for larger deployments which draw on military units that are held on longer notice to move (NTM) periods the planning phase can be extended accordingly.  Naturally, if a unit’s NTM period is not initiated until its chain of command issues the necessary order then the planning process must give the earliest possible notice of that requirement, but in practical terms it is unit readiness to move that limits the speed of deployment not the military decision-making/planning process. 

If an expeditionary deployment is delayed for want of a decision it will almost certainly be a political hold-up.  This is not to cast aspersion at politicians as military ventures must meet political objectives and the deployment of armed forces is a signal of intent that Government must be content with, but as even some NTM decisions are dependant on Ministerial agreement the Committee could have emphasized the greater impact that political decision-making has on the deployment process and the consequent use of air or maritime assets for Strategic Lift.  With the Prime Minister’s announced intention to include parliament in future decisions to go to war it is possible that political delays will increase accordingly.  On one hand this might provide a longer lead-in period to combat in which greater emphasis may be given to using sea-lift assets, but conversely as political and military timelines routinely conflict (e.g. diplomatic verses operational imperatives) it might reduce the time between a parliamentary approval and the commencement of combat, thereby placing greater emphasis on the need for air-lift. 

7. The Report outlines the processes for employing additional (i.e., non-Service) Strategic Lift assets to establish an air or sea-bridge.  They are not the same. 

One interesting difference is that before trawling for commercial sources of additional shipping the MOD considers using assets belonging to other militaries:

The first option to obtain additional shipping is through the use of allied shipping provided through the Sealift Coordination Centre, which allows allies to make use of spare capacity from other nations, on a repayment basis. The MoD stated that the cost of this shipping was less than for chartered commercial shipping and the capabilities of the vessels and their condition was well known. (Report page 12)

No evidence was provided to suggest that the same methodology is applied to air assets, where a much greater emphasis is placed on sourcing additional aircraft from commercial suppliers, not military allies (within the 7-nation European Air Group there is a European Airlift Centre which attempts to improve air-lift coordination etc, but its absence from the evidence given to the Committee reflects its significance).  There may be sound historical reasons why allied air forces are not considered a natural first alternative for extra aircraft, but the anticipated buys of A400M across Europe suggest this position should be reviewed.  According to evidence provided to the Committee by Airbus, of the 180 airframes currently under contract Germany has ordered 60 aircraft, France 50 aircraft and Spain a total of 27.  The UK is ordering 25.  These figures are interesting in that they do not seem to reflect the number of expeditionary operations these nations routinely conduct.  Like the UK, France does indeed have a large number of overseas military commitments, but it is difficult to believe that they require an A400M fleet which is twice the size of the planned UK fleet, or that Germany would routinely utilize the capacity provided by 60 airframes. 

Given the apparent disparity between national appetites for expeditionary ventures and the procurement of A400M it seems that by the middle of the next decade European allies may hold a significant spare capacity of air-lift assets that the UK should look to exploit before it pursues commercial alternatives.  If this entails a commitment to join a European Air Transport Command (EATC - recently agreed between Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands ) then the Committee might recommend a cost-benefit analysis of that option.  On current orders the EATC members would command a combined fleet of 117 A400Ms (not to mention other types of transport aircraft) so in future this avenue may provide a very real alternative to civilian contracts.

8. The issue of A400M and the procurement of the Army’s planned Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) vehicle should be revisited. 

As most casualties on current operations are caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) vehicles are consequently up-armoured to provide greater protection.  Naturally, FRES should incorporate the lessons of actual combat so it must provide a suitable level of protection from IEDs.  The original specifications for FRES pre-date current experience so incorporating additional armour will add to the vehicle’s planned weight and there would be a point when FRES becomes too heavy for an A400M (even with a reinforced floor) to carry.  As the FRES programme is still in its early stages neither the basic vehicle weight nor the nature of the additional protection can be confirmed so there is a possibility that FRES may not be deployable by A400M.  Consequently, the Committee correctly identified the risk that FRES may not be rapidly deployable (via A400M) but it did not note that unsuitability for the A400M did not necessarily prohibit an up-armoured FRES being deployed by C-17.  In addition, the use of modular armour, tuned to a particular threat and applied to a basic vehicle once in theatre, may provide a pragmatic solution to this dilemma and having been discussed in evidence might justifiably have been incorporated into the Report’s recommendations. 

The (unpalatable) question that begs addressing is whether the UK’s future ability to rapidly project military force should be constrained by IEDs?  I.e., should a tactical factor impact strategic options?  Naturally, duty of care obligations demand that casualties be minimized and in extremis they might also have strategic implications, but it is perhaps unrealistic to pursue a course of action to eradicate them, especially if the desire to provide force protection impinges on the ability to achieve a given mission with repercussions that expose Service personnel to greater danger.  The balance of risk calculations commanders face when juggling force protection with mission objectives are complex and specific.  An air-portable FRES that cannot protect its occupants from IEDs may be of dubious use, but it may be far better than an up-armoured FRES that arrives by sea in 3-weeks time. 

Paul Smyth
Head, Aerospace Programme

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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