22 April 2020

UK- the major military equipment acquisitions are being questioned. Lessons to be learned

Niculae Iancu

The Great Britain’s National Audit Office published the “Report on the defence capabilities of the Defence Ministry”. Under the subtitle “Delivering what was promised”, the report highlights the effectiveness of British investment in developing new military capabilities, its conclusions being all the more relevant now with this ongoing coronavirus pandemic, when the medium-term sustainability of defence and security budgets projections are being questioned inside the entire transatlantic community. The report criticizes both the British government and the defence industry for “delays and shortcomings in operating capabilities”. The huge costs of the entire development program package of new capabilities make it unable to be financially supported by the government, says the report. There are some lessons we should all learn

Image source: UK MoD

A definition of capabilities or what we think we know when talking about national defence capabilities

Capability is one of the many neologisms that entered the Romanian language during the security globalization era and the integration of our country in the Euro-Atlantic structures. Without this notion being included yet in The Explanatory Dictionary of Romanian Language, capability is used in the common security and defence language, often in synonymy with capacity. Capability received many meanings in the defence planning documents or in the military standards and procedures, more or less intelligible both for specialists and for the public. For example, the 2017 National Defence Strategy Guide claims the term capability refers to “all the measures and actions that include doctrine elements, organization, command, planning/training, endowment/procurement, infrastructure, personnel and interoperability, necessary to accomplish an objective and support the aimed effort”. Most likely, now everyone finds it clearer what this is about and can easily operate with this term regardless of its purpose of context. If not, we also discover another definition in a footnote of the White Charter of Defence, published in 2017, where capability means “the ability to execute actions to fulfil some objectives”. If you ask yourself how do you develop a capability when you are doing the action of driving a car with the purpose of getting to a destination or you have the curiosity to open the Romanian dictionary to see what’s the definition of action, as I did, you will see that action refers to an “act developed to reach a purpose”.

If the difference between the Romanian meanings of capability and action raises confusion, then maybe it is time to call on the definitions of different English magazines, wherefrom we got the term. The US Defence Department dictionary thinks capability is the “ability to complete a task or execute a course of action under specified conditions and level of performance”. The operational definition of capability in NATO is the “the potential expressed in quantitative and qualitative terms”, meanwhile for the NATO planners capability means “the ability to create an effect by committing an integrated set of doctrine, organization, training, equipment, leadership, personnel, infrastructure and interoperability aspects”, a definition that’s quite close to the meaning we have in the aforementioned national documents.

If we take a look at the allied language, we can see that the Australian military use capability as “the power to achieve a desired operational effect in a nominated environment, within a specified time, and to sustain that effect for a designated period”. I really wanted to give this definition as it introduces the term “power”. I still remember a discussion I had with an American researcher in the defence planning field who was saying that for us, the allies, the states from the former communist bloc, it is quite hard to assimilate the cultural concept of military capability. Among the many causes he mentioned, I remember an interesting idea. It sounds like that: the purpose of defence planning is not to build force structures, but to increase or provide the lethality of the armed force to a level that’s enough for fulfilling the deterrence purposes and defeat the enemy. And lethality is an expression of power, meanwhile power comes from capability directly. Therefore, developing capabilities must be an intelligent process and enough to reach a proper military power level to actually get to the purposes above mentioned.

What we can remember from all capability definitions is that, in general, the term can be explained through three different elements: (1) the technical and technological capacity related to existent resources, (2) the fight training understood as the ability to act, (3) the force structure or, in other words, the organization method and the conception of using defence resources.

The defence capabilities are essential for the national security

The defence capabilities support the accomplishment of the fundamental defence missions against the major security threats. These threats are endangering the territorial integrity, the national sovereignty and state’s capacity to promote and protect the interests everywhere in the world, to help the citizens and the allies.

For Great Britain, the National Audit Office reveals that all the military capabilities must support the accomplishment of the strategic demands related to the national defence policy and are registered in the National security strategy and the Strategic defence and security analysis. The development of new capabilities departs from identifying the strategic threats against the national security and the continuous estimation of combat capacity of those threats. When there are huge differences between the threat and the response capacity it is necessary to get new defence capability. If the ministry decides to develop those capabilities, it appoints a Senior Chief from a force category to “monitor the capability development”. The development process involves eight phases, which include the acquisition of equipment, the personnel training for the use and maintenance of the equipment and the provision of the necessary infrastructure to support them.

Endogenous and exogenous shortcomings in elaborating British defence capabilities

On September 30th 2019, there were 32 running programs seen as “top priorities” included in the Portfolio of major defence projects. The total acquisition cost of the equipment, for the multiannual projection, was 225 billion euro or 1000 billion RON, similar to Romania’s GDP in 2019. The 2018 total budget of defence was 45 billion euro, Great Britain being the seventh state in the world when it comes to military spending.

The broad reach of the entire defence capabilities development system comes also from the volume of involved human resources.  The British Ministry of Defence thinks that around 20.000 people, both military and civilians, are directly involved in different phases of the process. The total number of the military and civilian personnel within the Defence Ministry is 220.000 people.

The audit established the presence of a major risk determined by time. For a quarter of the most significant capabilities there are delivery delays, some of them being extremely important.  The delays are not only management or commercial risks. These can “affect the ability of the Defence Ministry to answer to the threats against the national security”.  Furthermore, the persistence of hiatuses can lead to “the extension of using current capabilities long after its expiration, for excessive costs”. The average time of delays is somewhere around 12 months for the elaboration of the Initial operational capability and 26 months for the elaboration of the Final operational capability, in NATO’s language. Other armies are also experiencing such delays.  For examples, the United States recorded, in 2018, an average delay of 27 months for the elaboration of the Initial operational capability, for 82 of its major programs. The most important is the delayed delivery or the inability to deliver the equipment by the providers. The defence industry becomes a critical part of the issue. In some cases, says the report, “the weak performance of providers lasted for many years and compromised the armed forces capacity to operate the delivered capabilities”. The providers are mostly British companies and British branches of some foreign companies.

Another important risk is human-based. The program teams of the Defence Ministry is experiencing a “a numerical and competences shortcoming” both within the command and execution level. For examples, for a fifth part of the projects, it was observed a personnel deficit bigger than 20%, given the larger context of the qualification and expertise deficits of the participant personnel. Specifically, it was observed a lack of engineering and commercial personnel and an increase of foreign consultancy dependency. Furthermore, the leading personnel are not enough as well and there are cases where “the same person participates to many projects”.

A special attention is given to the demerits of the training process, at all levels, whether it is organized at the producer, on simulators or in the operational field. The most important examples include the giant F-35 fight aircraft program and the UAV Protector program.

As expected, such an analysis included also the funding issues. The budgetary stability was affected by the continuous rethinking of funding priorities and objectives inside the programs, between programs and outside them. And this time, it is relevant the F-35 program example, whose budget was affected by funds reallocation through the funding of army’s logistic infrastructure. Moreover, the audit report shows that “the entire portfolio of programs cannot be financially supported by the British government”.

Another interesting side of this analysis included the situation wherein the Defence Ministry stated that is accomplished the programs’ development phases demands “but the performances did not reach the acceptance criteria and the performances testing was not finished”. The work procedures of the ministry allow such “exceptions” for different reasons, and they often called on expressions like: “the progress is good enough, even if it did not reach the criteria”. However, the report notes that such derogations have affected the military's ability to use capabilities in line with their purpose. Moreover, such deviations from the requirements would have required non-compliance plans at some point, but such plans were not prepared in most of the analyzed situations. Such situations are sometimes accompanied by a lack of clarity in the formulation of acceptance criteria, which has led to programs that have exceeded the declaration of final operational capacity with "a significant number of unsolved issues", such as the UAVs.

At the same time, the report suggests that there is a tension between the operational component and the capacity development component. The pressure of "the pace of technological progress and the evolution of the nature of the threats" causes the combat structures to consider that "the current procurement process no longer corresponds to its purpose". The systemic consequence would be that the ministry "encourages a culture of overestimation or opacity of capabilities’ development levels". It seems that operational structures want the acquisition of new functions to take place faster by "changing the business model" and "ensuring greater flexibility of procurement routes for new technologies". This last sentence would involve the introduction during the life cycle of a continuous updating process, a requirement that will make it inappropriate to fragment the process through the existing certification thresholds. The risk that emerges is the generalization of a tendency to "prematurely declare the achievement of capacity or to make uncertain the level where the capacity is found at a given moment", with obvious consequences in the actual operational capacity of the force structure.

Lessons to be learned

The purpose of the military capabilities use and development comes from the necessity to accomplish the national strategic objectives. A military capability is not a “simple equipment tool”, be it a tank. A capability is “a tank, provided by a trained team, which can communicate with other tanks on the battlefield, which can commit the identified targets and can be maintained and repaired during the entire life cycle.”

The military capabilities must match the strategic demands of the defence policy, established in the national security strategy and described in the integrated defence planning documents. The development of military capabilities stems from a continuous process of identifying and estimating major threats and the real potential to cope with these threats. In case of imbalances between the threat and the response capacity, a decision is needed that will lead either to the development of a new capacity to eliminate the gap, or to the assumption and tolerance of the security risk created by threat’s presence. The adoption of the first type of decision does not mean that the threat will disappear. This will mean entering developing a new capacity, without having the certainty of reaching the expected destination. Therefore, the evaluation and feedback in all phases of the process of developing and using a capability plays an essential role. Due to the fact that they are often formal or, even worse, completely missing, a critical vulnerability is emerging in ensuring the real potential of national defence. It takes a lot of objectivity, honesty and constructive dialogue to find solutions and not to hunt the guilty, as part of the effort made by all parties involved in order for a capacity to become and remain effective in achieving its purpose.

The defence industry is a critical element in the process of achieving defence capabilities. Whether the suppliers of military equipment and maintenance are indigenous or from abroad, the weak or lack of real capacity to fulfil the contractual obligations carries major risks. These stem from a number of factors that have consequences for the whole range of responsibilities and activities for achieving defence potential. Recurring factors include the lack of capacity and skills or the shortcomings of quality assurance systems, which are in turn determined by the lack of predictability and continuity of contracts in a market as specific as armaments.

Capability development is systemically affected by the lack of coherence of coordination and the inadequacy of allocated resources. At the same time, the long and very long duration of the major programs determines the chronicity of the composition’s instability of project’s teams. Also, the training level of project team members suffers, most of the time the accumulation of expertise is not sufficiently supported with people, time and financial resources. On the other hand, the internal knowledge deficit is not sufficiently filled with consulting services. In turn, the consultancy has developed the ability to make up results that are not as consistent on the merits.

As a conclusion, the reanalysis of a new defence capability is an extremely complex and difficult process, marked by many critical elements and exposed to a range of shortcomings, which can often turn into vulnerabilities and risks in reaching the initial objective. It should not be ignored or neglected the fundamental purpose, to accomplish the national defence mission. The involved costs are big and, therefore, the practice almost always proved that it cannot be supported by the governmental budgets just as the planning documents indicate. Many times, the consequences is that around and inside a major development program of a defence capability there are political, economic, technical, technological and human tensions. All of these are causes and effects of many shortcomings which, sometimes, are questioning the finality of investing that much in national defence. All the more in major non-military crises times, like this pandemic the human society is currently experiencing.

Time will show how will be invisible SARS CoV-2 enemy will take down the national defence capacity, by taking from the defence budget the absolutely necessary funds to make and maintain the essential security and defence capabilities. What certain for now is that, this time, the small leak cannot be avoided.

Translated by Andreea Soare