Military Experience and Covid-19
DefenceSynergia (DS) has been consistent in its message to Government that for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to be cohesive and fit for purpose five principal areas must be defined and funded: Readiness, Responsiveness, Resilience, Regeneration and Capacity (R4C). Failure to do so risks incoherence and reduced military effectiveness that would undermine flexibility of reaction and perhaps even the basis of any meaningful response.
The current military position offers the false sense of security, that everything is in place: plans, training, expertise, equipment, supply lines and personnel. The largely unfunded SDSR2015 ‘Future Force 2025’ means that readiness is only possible if considerable advance notice lead-time is available to respond, but in reality, this is restricted by a paucity of funded resilience and capacity. There is therefore substantial doubt whether HM Forces can regenerate to meet a future challenge.
This R4C list is not mutually exclusive, either. Focus on one at the expense of another and cohesion can rapidly be lost in ways that were predictable but not always acknowledged by our political masters. For example, the RAF may have over 100 combat fast jets but in reality, because of a lack of maintenance and spares support personnel and resources only a third are able to deploy, and then only in small units of between 4 and 8 aircraft.
We have witnessed the troubled Health Secretary and his willing but inexperienced ministerial colleagues trying to ‘fire-fight’ a hostile press response, as Covid-19 testing has relentlessly fallen short of expectations, we also notice – almost imperceptibly – that the Authority has continually varied communications to suit the circumstances. The original target of 100,000 tests by month’s end appeared met in capacity terms but not in numbers tested. Achieved input is meaningless if the output fails. Moreover, the distribution of PPE could not have been achieved without (stretched) military logistics assistance. This has been little mentioned by the government – perhaps to shield NHS and PHE failures from incandescent public criticism at a time when the NHS was riding high – and only low-level cover in the main Press ‘that military planners were shocked at poor capabilities in health procurement’.
Ministers have discovered through recent experience with Covid-19 health provisions what Defence Analysts have been saying about UK Defence for decades: operating at a peacetime tempo when the ‘rates of effort’ are more predictable – and are easier to adjust to fit operational priorities – does not allow a step up to maximum tempo for indefinite periods in a rapidly evolving crisis or counter surprise operation.
To enable a cohesive step-change in operational tempo requires in-place funding for Readiness, Responsiveness, Resilience, Regeneration and Capacity already built-in to the Defence budget, and for training, maintenance, support stocks and reserve infrastructure to be in place and ring-fenced. Ministers having seen first-hand how such measures insure against all the worst that can happen might then wish to transfer the principle into other critical Government Departments that hold responsibility for Security of the public and the continued Resilience of UK Strategic infrastructure. Indeed, a review of what constitutes critical infrastructure would seem somewhat overdue in the light of lessons learnt from UK’s unreadiness for pandemic response.
Over-stretched military resources cannot continually be called upon both to defend the nation effectively against conventional threats as well as pick up for the failures in other government departments. The acid test is this: Could we have coped with even two of such civil threats as concurrent massive flooding across the North, Covid-19, a major influenza outbreak as well as national offensive threats to our borders with the limited military capacity available today? Each civil threat might be supported alone, but more than one – and all possible, not improbable events – might have overwhelmed our capacity.
A complete overhaul of national strategy is required that assesses stress points for each part of a reassessed national infrastructure, our ability to respond adequately, and how to manage the attendant risks. Civil defence capability, and how its components are coherently drawn together, has been pushed to the rear for too long. Had this Covid-19 crisis been defence related on a similar scale the UK Armed Forces would most likely have been overwhelmed.