By Think Defence
[Introduction by UK Land Power]
It’s the end of an era. TD is calling it a day.
For almost a decade, Think Defence has been one of the most fascinating and insightful online defence blogs. Founded at a time when people dismissed non-official commentary as ill-informed wishful thinking, Think Defence quickly established itself as a go-to resource for detailed briefings on strategy, policy and key capabilities. (It was also compulsory reading for engineers, logisticians, bridge fanciers and container geeks.) Championing UK Armed Forces, providing rigorous analysis of hot topics and a sensible forum of discussion for professionals and amateurs alike, any reader could be forgiven for thinking that the Think Defence blog was run by a team of 20-30 defence and security experts. Instead, it was created and run by one man with passion for all things military, devoting his time and energy free of change to all who were interested.
After 4,000 blog posts, 3.5 million words, 15 million page views, 1 million comments, and 18,000 followers on Twitter, Think Defence is read by Academia; Politicians, Civil servants in Defence Departments the world over; by Navies, Armies, and Air Forces; by Admirals, Generals, and Pilots; by the Defence Industry; and by legions of enthusiasts, many of whom are ex-service personnel.
Looking back at the blog’s achievements, highlights include the FRES masterpiece, which inspired a Parliamentary report on UK AFV procurement; providing stark and cutting analysis of the 2010 SDSR; highlighting the importance of UK shipbuilding; making a compelling case for the retention and renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrence, CASD and SSBN; presenting the implications of Carrier Strike and the need for more escorts; explaining why the UK needed to acquire the F-35B versus the F-35C for the carriers, which contributed to the reversal of the change; the importance of helicopters; and the need for defence to guided by a clear underlying strategy.
Thanks to Think Defence, the UK Ministry of Defence has developed a better understanding of the blogging community and now sees it as important constituent target audience that facilitates its own internal discussion and policy as well as supporting external communication initiatives. Ultimately, UK defence is in a better place because of Think Defence. For all these reasons, we have many reasons to be thankful. We wish him well and know he will still contribute, even if it is less frequently.]
It didn’t seem right to allow Think Defence to ride into the sunset without setting an ongoing Defence discussion agenda. So, I asked him to generate a list of key discussion areas that other bloggers may wish to explore:
DISCUSSION POINT ONE – COMBATING DISINFORMATION AND POOR INFORMATION
With declining trust in traditional media organisations, the speed that disinformation can propagate, polarisation of news organisations on political lines, tendencies for confirmation bias and increasingly sophisticated media manipulation there exists a ‘reality gap’ that will be exploited by enemies. To provide a counter, there has to be three key attributes; speed, credibility and humour. How does the MoD generate these, can it harness an informal network of external defence commenters, how does it enable ‘mission command’ in social media for those serving in senior positions and how does it manage the inevitable when it happens if it releases its grip? Is it time for a Corps of Memes?
DISCUSSION POINT TWO – LEARNING FROM NEAR HISTORY AND ENSURING LESSONS LEARNED STAY LEARNED
We spend huge amounts of effort learning about lessons from the past and applying them to contemporary issues but some of the most pertinent lessons are those from near history. When I look at the lessons learned compendium from Iraq or the history of FRES, or complex weapons, it seems that there are two things happening; institutional knowledge of the history of some major projects is poor, and lessons are forgotten, or ignored. From the outside looking in, one could be forgiven for thinking there is greater effort put into learning the lessons from Waterloo than the evolution of MRAV to FRES to MIV. With even the NAO Major Projects Report now consigned to history, how do decision makers stay informed and avoid forgetting lessons from near history?
DISCUSSION POINT THREE – BREAKING THE FINANCIAL CRISIS CYCLE
Every recent defence review has resulted in a reduced percentage of national wealth being available for defence, every few years the National Audit Office gives the MoD a kick in the teeth about the affordability of its aspirations versus the reality of its budgets. This then initiates a series of cuts, project elongations, and various compensatory activities to bring the budget back into balance. This is hardly a neutral activity and creates cascading problems. How does the MoD break the perpetual crisis cycle?
DISCUSSION POINT FOUR – THE SPREADING OF GLOBAL BRITAIN JAM
As the UK moves into a post Brexit world in the next few years the armed forces will have to cope with any negative outcomes and play a role in promoting the ‘Global Britain’ message. This comes at a time when one might argue the greater threat to the UK is actually closer to home, supporting European NATO allies against a revanchist Russia. There is a danger than deployment to the Pacific, basing in the Gulf and operations in Africa become nothing more than tokenism that convinces precisely no one. Is it better to do less in any one place but at a greater scale rather being everywhere all the time but only at a token level? Or more simply, how does the UK prioritise to ensure our finite jam is not spread so thinly to become invisible?
DISCUSSION POINT FIVE – THE FUTURE OF AMPHIBIOUS FORCES
Coastlines are changing, becoming increasingly urbanised, developed and observable, the days of ‘landing on beaches where the enemy is not’ will be challenged by a combination of factors, including enemy observation and precision fires. The role of UK amphibious forces must change also, do we need an ability to land and sustain over the shore, can we now realistically do this against anything but the merest of opposition, do we have an ability to demine beaches and very shallow waters, how do we defend against enemy precision fires and observation? All these questions, and our stagnating capabilities, point to 3CDO being of less value than we might think. The discussion should be how we evolve the Royal Marine, perhaps, into a more maritime and littoral security, raiding and JPR type role, how they are integrated with RN/RFA shipping plans, future aviation, port development and the Army’s STRIKE concept. Preserving them in aspic is not the answer.
DISCUSSION POINT SIX – THE FUTURE OF AIRBORNE FORCES
As above to the same degree but with different details. What is the role of 16AAB, is it realistic, yes, of course we all know that air mobile is not air assault and that parachuting is by and large a niche means of theatre entry, but does 16AAB exist to support the Parachute Regiment or the other way around? As we saw in Afghanistan, air manoeuvre is not something perfectly capable of being carried out by the rest of the field Army. Is it time to, as with the Royal Marines, to recognise the changing reality of airborne operations and change the underlying structure and role of the Parachute Regiment and 16AAB?
DISCUSSION POINT SEVEN – REGIONAL FOCUS AREAS
That the UK has responsibilities and interests in pretty much all parts of the world is not in question, linking in with Discussion Point 4 (Jam) how should UK defence and security (including DFiD) address the Caribbean, North Africa, Central Africa, the Pacific, Middle East, North/East Europe, Afghanistan and the Artic. One example, we have a rotating naval presence in the Caribbean for regional security assurance, counter narcotics and disaster relief. Is this best met by the current policy or would the ships and personnel be better deployed elsewhere, replaced by a combination of resilience spending and improving the capabilities of local forces and agencies?
DISCUSSION POINT EIGHT – RECRUITING AND RETENTION
There are as many theories to why we continue to struggle with recruiting and retention as there are on anything, have at, but practical solutions only.
DISCUSSION POINT NINE – THE UNMANNED REVOLUTION HOW FAST AND FAR DO WE GO
Is it time for the UK armed forces to make a big leap, or is the current incremental approach just fine? Defence capability development is by its nature a relatively conservative endeavour, the manpower demand of unmanned systems and support costs are not insignificant and many very real downsides exist. In one or two areas though, is there scope for making a bit bet and taking a big risk? ASW using ‘motherships’, manned unmanned teaming for armoured close combat, airborne strike and interdiction against extremely demanding targets, to name just three. When HMS Warrior was launched, all other naval vessels were rendered obsolete, is there something similar if the risk was taken?
DISCUSSION POINT TEN – SHAPES AND SIZES
Wherever possible, electronic systems and weapons should be bounded by the dimensions of a NATO standard pallet or 20ft ISO container so they can be easily transported, moved from one donor vehicle to the next, transferred from a land role to one at sea, tested and stored more easily.
So there you go, please discuss… ☺
I can only offer my heartfelt thanks to the owner of this blog, and many others that have offered their best wishes and kind words, it is genuinely touching. Although I am stopping writing, Think Defence is moving to an online archive site and I will still drop in now and then on Twitter. Please remember, for every single thing I may have got right, there were many more that were wrong, dipping into the TD archive reveals some right howlers. Who knows what the future holds, I may get round to writing that definitive guide to ISO containers yet, but for now, thank you.
And he couldn’t sign off without an image, but which to choose? A bridge or container? Why not both?