The United Kingdom is moving towards smaller, more specialized operations, backed by a better organized defense-wide logistics process. That is the perspective recently presented by Lt. Gen. Gary Coward, Chief of Materiel (Land) at the Defense Equipment and Support (DES), part of the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
As a direct result of the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now moving away from its previous ambition of being able to sustain a couple of medium sized deployments into two small/medium deployments: “We are now talking about complex intervention and stabilization operations,” he said.
While the rotorcraft side of the UK’s armed forces was underfunded for many years (Coward knows as he was the third commander of the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command, from July 2005 through to 2008 and had to manage many of the resource and capability issues that resulted from the earlier budget slash), he says that funding is currently less of an issue than it was.
Moving forward, the UK’s operational focus will be applied to three general areas: small non-combatant evacuations (similar to the evacuation of civilians from Lebanon in July 2006); complex interventions (with a focus on special forces operations); and enduring stabilization operations (conducted by a force of around 6,500-strong). This precludes one single operation of strategic importance or of national self-defense (which is currently not really seen as an immediate term threat—hence the risk of being without carrier aviation for several years). “But we never met the old requirement,” states Coward, adding that “we will carry a degree of risk whatever the requirement.”
Today’s main drivers for the rotary wing force are to support the strategic standing commitments including deterrent and counter-terrorism. Support for special force (SF) activity is also a significant underlying principle and the SF community’s tempo must be maintained under the current terrorist threat. There is also growing pressure to enhance medical evacuation and personnel recovery—potentially with a dedicated element being sought in the future (something the U.S. already does so well).
With the contractorization of engineering and support functions moving inexorably forwards as governments seek to amortize maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) costs over time, Coward warns against complacency. While acknowledging that a “blend of regulars, reserves and contractors are very much part of our whole force concept”, he is still aware that a fundamental change in balance and threat can happen at any time.
World events can affect the balance of force structure just as easily as they have in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War. Although contractors are very likely to be part of the team for the foreseeable future, Coward maintains that a core strength and knowledge regarding aviation engineering needs to be retained within the military personnel structure.
The balance in training between live and synthetic needs to be carefully judged and Coward suggests that the UK approach could to be more astute in order to get better value for money: “we still pay for hours we do not use.”
Decisions on equipment need to be extended through to not only the actual immediate users, but also those who may derive the most benefit from each particular system. There is a much better appreciation now of the power of information and the need to share it on the battlefield: “Apache with MTADS but without a downlink to troops on the ground is bizarre” he noted.
To spread the cost of having capability across the combined fleets of helicopters the most cost-effective solution must be to have ‘aircraft that are fitted for, not with, the cornucopia of equipment that gives them capability.’
To achieve ambitions such as these, but on a national defense-wide scale, there is a need to develop an end-to-end (industry to frontline) logistics information system that rationalizes the entire logistical process, rather than the current array of different procedures. “The thing that stops us from being clever is [the ongoing search for] value for money and lacking the information to pull the right levers. We have to invest in logistic information support,” said Coward.
He highlighted the value achieved in contracting for capability, particularly the integrated operational support (IOS) structures behind the Apache, Merlin and Sea King fleets (there is also the Chinook Through Life Customer Support program). He recognized that in ongoing operations such as Afghanistan, more contractors/field service representatives would be based in forward areas as cycling aircraft back was largely viewed as a waste of money.
The UK is going to be increasingly involved in smaller scale international operations and then in coalition. The industrial base needs to be more tuned into the military structure and processes streamlined. Lastly, this needs to lead to a better procurement process, learning the lessons of how Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) have been fielded, but tempered by a through life plan for equipment use.