Sunday, December 16, 2012

On the tragedy of Sandy Hook

Like most of the world, I'd never heard of Newtown, CT or Sandy Hook elementary school before last week; now, it has entered the unspeakable lexicon of horror, known worldwide. This happened to my hometown of Ipswich, UK in late 2006 - and it's an awful thing.

I write this as both an American and a Brit; and having lived and worked in both countries, I don't for one second believe that there is a greater proportion of the US population that is psychotic or murderous than the UK. Therefore, how can we explain the wildly different murder rates? To me, the only rationale explanation is that Brits with the requisite intent don't have the opportunity afforded by widespread firearms ownership to act on these impulses that their American counterparts have - and take, on a daily basis.

The alleged arsenal of the Sandy Hook mass-murderer: Glock and Sig Sauer automatic pistols and AR-15 rifle
I can conceive of no sensible rationale for civilians to hold semi-automatic military rifles (not required - and indeed useless - for hunting or target shooting) or hand guns of any sort at all - and certainly not in homes. The level of expert training and practice for these to be effective "protection" should involve range work of several hours a week to provide the required accuracy and target discrimination; less makes them a danger to the owner and - in the case of semi-automatic rifles - anyone within about 500m. Indeed, the 5.56mm rifle bullet can kill at 1300m - 4/5ths of a mile - though in fairness you'd have to have been very unlucky as aiming at these extreme ranges is a specialist skill.

If nothing else, the political recoil from the tragedy at Sandy Hook should lead to banning - and compulsory purchase - of the most dangerous weapons. This would include all semi-automatic rifles and their large calibre single-shot / bolt-action counterparts, along with a federal ban on the sale of their ammunition (e.g. 5.56 and 12.7mm rifle ammunition). Federal action is critical as the net is only as strong as that of the weakest state regulation. 

Keeping guns locked away is also a good idea - away from their ammunition, too
Add to this a requirement for every weapon to be licensed and ballistically tested, and kept in a locked container with ammunition held separately and securely, then we may see a reduction in some of the tragic accidents that make up a large proportion of US firearms casualties. None of these measures will impact legitimate gun-owners at all. Finally, we can impose taxes on ammunition to reflect the externalities that gunfire imposes on the rest of society. These will be very high, and over time will significantly reduce the amount of ammunition in circulation.

And no, none of this would have an impact on my rights as an American under the 2nd Amendment. But it would reduce the dangers to our friends and families in the US.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Any sign of an MoD Budget?

 (Lego, on a grand scale)

Er, no. But the lego of the carriers is going together.

We look forward to it with interest, etc etc.

Sorry to have been away. Will post some more soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

More muddle, less leadership

(What we're arguing about: An F-35C launched by EMALS at NAS Lakehurst, NJ - Look Mum, no Steam!)

It seems that the UK MoD's trials and tribulations with the 2012 Planning Round (PR12) which have been referred to here before, are now so serious that it can't be announced before the Easter recess. In other words, the MoD is tacitly accepting that it won't be able to start the 2012-13 financial year with a plan that is costed and deliverable.

Well done.

To the cynics out there who could point out that this is hardly anything new, you have a point. Indeed, it is so consistent with previous MoD fiascos that one could be forgiven for thinking that Liam Fox - he of the "broadly in balance" budget fiasco was still in charge.

Fortunately he isn't. But "Spreadsheet Phil" Hammond needs to get the budget balanced without undermining the UK's semblance of a strategy. And for as long as this involves the carrier programme, the correct answer is F-35C, EMALS and traps - a cheaper, less complex aircraft that takes twice the bombload half as far again, or half again as many bombs twice the range of the F-35B jumpjet.

If we're serious about Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP), then the F-35C is the correct way forward. Find the money and move on.

(And if you're having difficulty with the money, you could always cancel Trident.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Must be time for more inept MoD decisions

(F-35B - the most expensive way of getting half the bombload two-thirds the range of F-35C)

Those of you who read this regularly will know that the 2010 Strategic Defensive and Security Review (SDSR) made the sensible choice to replace the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35B) Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant with the carrier variant for use on the UK's new aircraft carriers. At the time, SDSR said of this (very welcome) decision:

"The last government committed to carriers that would have been unable to work properly with our closest military allies,"


"It will take time to rectify this error but we are determined to do so. We will fit a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the JSF with a longer range and able to carry more weapons. Crucially, that will allow our carrier to operate in tandem with the US and French navies."

And now, it appears that in the Planning Round 12 (PR12) decisionmaking the MoD are going to reverse themselves.


But as we pointed out in CentreForum's "Dropping the Bomb" paper last week, there is no reason to do this if you were prepared to cancel Trident. Here's the table from page 52:

 I give up. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

New RAF aircraft.... leased under UORs

(Not all RAF BAe 146s are created equal - here's the rest of the fleet from 32[TR] Sqn)

Some interesting news at a time of further UK MoD cuts: the RAF is to lease two BAe 146-200QC airliners to fly personnel and equipment around Afghanistan. The idea is to take the pressure off the RAF's small C-130 Hercules fleet, which has been on almost continuous operations since the initial deployments to the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Indeed, it was the operations tempo that led to the C-130K fleet finally being retired without replacement - as the Airbus A400M is running behind schedule and over budget.

What's interesting here is that this is being procured under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) which is normally funded directly from the Treasury via an additional appropriation for operations. (This is in addition to the actual additional cost of fighting - known as Net Additional Cost of Military Operations, or NACMO).

(UORs inbound!)

Now, back in ancient history (known as "2001") UORs used to be funded in full, with very few questions asked. This - and the failings of the conventional acquisition system led the UPR system to be the front-line's preferred route of getting the tools needed for the job in hand, and the costs exploded. This was made worse because UORs were by their nature temporary for a single conflict, meaning that the equipment would be withdrawn from service a maximum of 12 months after the end of the conflict - or the MoD would have to find the cash in their existing budget to sustain the equipment (known as bringing it into core MoD capability).

What this meant for the UOR kit was that there were rarely examples in the UK for large-scale training, spares were kept to a minimum (as it was a temporary expedient), and there was none of the conventional engineering and training support associated with conventionally procured equipment. But if the genius point for the hard pressed front line was that off-the-shelf kit arrived and worked (more or less), the fact that the Treasury's reserve paid for it made it a boon for the accountants faced with a deluge of overspends in the procurement budget. (And to the extent that defence industrial policy matters, off the shelf kit was often built outside the UK - often in the US, which didn't help Britain's defence industry too much.) 

And the sums were vast: the UK NAO estimates that UORs for armoured vehicles from 2003-11 consumed £2.8bn - in total, equivalent to about half of the annual equipment budget - whilst £1125m was spent on conventional programmes for similar vehicles, £718m of which actually resulted in ZERO actual armoured vehicles being procured in the conventional route. The net result is that the British military will be short of armoured vehicles until at least 2024-25.

Things got so bad during the mid-2000s with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Treasury finally said no, and told the MoD that there would be a cap, and that instead of UORs being "extra free money", above a ceiling, Treasury would reclaim the UOR cash from future years appropriations, further dragging the MoD's long-term planning into the mire. 

So how does this affect two secondhand BAe 146s?

At one level, not at all. The UK is going to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and it would pointless to procure this niche capability if we were to find it unnecessary in less than 24 months’ time. Indeed, this is precisely the situation the United States have found themselves in scrapping the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA)programme, with the expensive embarrassment of having purchased brand-new C-27J Spartans. Instead the UK will spend £6m + defensive modifications to provide a useful intra-theatre airlift option. So far, so good.

But it underscores the lack of planning and delivery of core MoD capability - in this case A400M tactical airlifters - continues to cause the panic button to be hit and UORs to be required. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

PR12 - More UK Defence Cuts?

(Philip Hammond: likely to make sure a balance sheet does. Good for him!)

Parliament rises on the 26th of March - it's taking a break until the 16th of April for Easter and constituency business. And before the Recess, it is expected that Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond will address the Commons to announce the outputs of the 2012 MoD Planning Round (known as PR12)  and explain how the MoD's budget has been trimmed from Liam Fox's being "broadly in balance" to actually, well, er, actually being in balance. And to do so with no increases in funding, and presumably with no clear source of magic pixie dust that reduces the costs of military equipment. 

In other words, there are going to be more cuts. In fact, I hear that something like between £3bn and £5bn is likely to be cut from the forward programme. We look forward to understanding how this is going to work out - it is most likely that this will not be outright cancellation of existing contracts (gets very expensive) but is much more likely to be those projects that haven't been signed - but which the forces are expecting to get. Ouch.

Let's see what they come up with - but it makes the case for retaining the Trident replacement programme at £25 - £33bn whilst taking more cuts in the conventional forces ever weaker.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

CentreForum Trident Report

(Shameless self promotion, I know... deal with it!)

Forgive my lack of posting - I've been totally consumed by getting CentreForum Trident paper finished. And now it is - you can get it here - and there's been lots of interesting media coverage. I'm deeply indebted to many people - the acknowledgements are there for a reason - but the one I most liked was from the UK communist Morning Star; only the comrades know the truth. (NB Irony Alert!) We also made the wonderful ArmsControlWonk - with thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis.

Normal service will be shortly be resumed...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Labour Does Defence Cuts(ish): Part Two

(Ainsworth addresses the Commons in December 2009 on defence cuts. He might have said "I've done some sums, and they don't add up. But don't worry, I'm not going to be here after the election to worry about that.")

Apologies for the lack of postings from here at SRM HQ - I've been very busy and, as they say, all will be revealed shortly. Thus, it is with apologies that this follow up to part one has been delayed - but here we are now.

The figures are stark: the UK MoD is broke, and despite the cuts from the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that we've discussed here and here before, there are reasonable grounds to assume that there are more cuts to come. Indeed, whilst Liam Fox told Parliament on 18 July 2011 that the defence budget was "broadly in balance", it must be assumed that "broadly in balance" actually means "not actually in balance, so more cuts are required".

But this is not news. Indeed, prior to the 2010 election, Labour belated recognized that they'd blown the budget. This was made powerfully clear in Bernard Gray's report, which famously described the budget as undeliverable under any likely future budget. This was demonstrated in his chart on p. 94:

 (Not ever going to work)

Moreover, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has made clear that Labour will accept the Coalition's cuts, meaning that Jim Murphy and his team need to meet the same challenge as the Government - find £74bn over ten years to balance the  defence budget. And that will mean a proper discussion of what the UK is going to do with it's place in the world, setting the Government's aspirations, and then providing the budget to cover them.

Jim Murphy, over to you....

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Anglican Human Rights

(His Grace Archbishop Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York)

Nothing divides the Anglican Church like homosexuality. This is hardly news, but the genius of Anglicanism has always been that it is most opposed to intolerance, rather than letting rip with hellfire, brimstone and heaven only knows what else. So when Archbishops - as John Sentamu of York has - start lecturing politicians on gay marriage, I get worried in a hurry.

I wade into this quagmire with reticence; the challenge is that the Anglicans have been going at this issue for years, and that there is little or nothing like a debate - instead there's lots of shouting from the anti-homosexuality side, and only a little less from the pro-human rights side. 

I deplore Sentamu's comments. And I hope he is slapped down by Rowan Williams - and David Cameron - quickly. The challenge that Sentamu's reported position holds is that it makes it ok for homosexuals to be discriminated against: imagine what the outcry would have been if he had held that Christian marriage was only acceptable between whites. Sorry, universal human rights are universal - and that includes homosexual couples. Christian love is not limited in this way.

Monday, January 23, 2012


This week is madness here at SRM HQ. However, ICC complementarity is a very live issue at the moment, especially as it pertains to Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.

In the spirit of not reinventing the wheel, here's an excellent piece on the current state of play from IntLawGrrls.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Those crazy Victorians

(Well, it can be a long walk. And it does rain. Quite a lot.)

In Britain, the majority of railways were built in the three "railway manias" - most famously 1844-46 but also again in the 1850s and 1870s - when something like the internet bubble happened for roughly the same reason; a disruptive technology that made the flow of information and services easier than ever before. Some of the routes promoted were outright fraudulent, others were directly competitive (there was no obvious reason to have two mainlines from London to Birmingham or three from London - Manchester), and until the 1923 grouping there were a plethora of lines - more than one hundred survived to join the Great Western, London Midland & Scottish, London North Eastern and Southern Railways.

But this very national network - reaching into odd corners (Laxfield), hopelessly romantic names (Ashby Magna), high peaks (Bakewell) and the mountain fastnesses (Cwm Prysor) and some - like Steele Road - that served nothing but the railway itself - would be cut back by Beeching and the failure of network economics. But some of the strangest bits of Victorian over-enthusiasm for railways survive. And the Snowdon Mountain Railway is one of the oddest.

So mass tourism came to North Wales in the 1880s and 1890s. And Snowdon (snow hill in Anglo-Saxon) or Yr Wyddfa (The Tumulus in Welsh) Wales' highest peak, stood proudly at 3,560ft over the lake at Llanberis, along with a number of paths to the top. But it's a steep walk, and besides, railways (in this case imported from Switzerland) could do almost anything - in the case, literally climb mountains. And thus was born the SMR.

It is steep.

(The lake at the top of the picture is the bottom of the railway.)

And since the opening, little steam engines (and in more recent years, some diesels) have pushed one or two coaches up the mountain. And continue to do so....


But the walk is also lovely, and if you come up the other side of the mountain, you can see this:

(And then you get to see steam trains at the top, and have a nice lunch in the new cafe on top too. Bonus!)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Torture is Wrong

(Enough to give God a bad name)

Briefly, Omar Othman, known as Abu Qatada, has a long track record for advocating the use of reasonably indiscriminate violence in support of political Islam. Terrorism, in other words. Today the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the UK couldn't extradite him to Jordan. But this is not the "liberal courts are coddling terrorists" mantra beloved of the Daily Mail and the other bits of the right wing press.

Rather, the Court seems to have ruled on the narrow issue that the Jordanian prosecution of Mr. Othman was likely to be based on evidence extracted under torture, therefore violating the right to a fair trial. Rightly so. But the ECtHR also accepted that the UK could rely on the diplomatic assurances provided by Jordan that it wouldn't torture Mr. Othman, and therefore in future the UK could do so again to States with questionable human rights record.

We shall see. All very interesting, and I expect Mr. Othman to face trial at some point. But after waiting for nearly a decade, it could be a while.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Labour Does Defence Cuts(ish): Part One

(MoD Men: Robertson (891), Hoon (2034), Reid (364), Browne (882), Hutton (245), Ainsworth(340)*)

Under normal circumstances, political U-turns are mocked by political opponents and denied by the U-turnee. Occasionally, U-turns are emblematic of a new leaf - classically, Labour's repudiation of Clause IV under Blair in 1994 - and last week we saw something unusual; a Labour shadow Minister in favour of spending cuts, and in particular, defence cuts. Step forward, Jim Murphy MP.

I'll deal with the specifics of the proposed Labour cuts in a future post - suffice to say, they are a long way from both a mea culpa for the damage of the unfunded promises of the Labour 1997-2010 years, but they are a start for Labour to make a credible economic policy.

But in reviewing Labour's record, I thought it would be fun to look at how long Labour's Secretaries of State for Defence were actually in office, and compare that with their Tory predecessors under Margaret Thatcher and John Major - ie, back to 1979. The point is that there is such a steep learning curve as a Secretary of State - especially for those with little or no background in defence - that the first six months or so Ministers will be learning as much as doing, with being really effective from about six months in.

So how did they do?

Two things are striking: first, Geoff Hoon's five-and-a-half years in office was remarkably - and abnormally - long. It wasn't a complete triumph, as Hoon presided over the mini Defence Review known as the "New Chapter" to the 1998 SDSR post the terrorist attacks of 9/11 - and then allowed the UK's forces to become completely over-stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst presiding over the disastrous procurement performance that would come to dominate the MoD's budget (and with it, everything else.)

Second, once you take Hoon out of the equation, Labour Defence Secretaries  served for an average of 65 weeks - suggesting that they may have had about six months cognizant of the issues to drive the change required. (John Reid is probably the honourable exception as he had a good defence background in opposition, but he was still in post for only a year, meaning that he wasn't about long enough to deliver change.) Worse, as the budgets reached breaking point under Gordon Brown's premiership, he was keeping his Defence Secretaries in place for about half the historical average - as well in Bob Ainsworth having picked a singularly unimpressive Secretary of State. More damningly, as Ainsworth was the only one who was promoted from inside MoD, he should have had the best handle on the Departmental challenges, but he was probably the poorest of the lot.

So what does this mean? Possibly not much, but it does point to the comparative lack of importance and oversight that the two Labour governments gave to ministerial stability after George Robertson got sent off to run NATO. And that lack of consistent leadership from the top bears much of the responsibility for the mess that MoD was in by the 2010 Election.

*Number of days in office.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

South African Mancunian retired to Gwynedd

(Rain in Wales? Maybe occasionally.)

Here at SRM HQ there is a soft spot for steam trains, hence the "Occasional Steam Train" series.

Today - in honour of Mr. Joe Fuller's birthday, we look at some of the most powerful 2ft gauge steam engines ever built - the South African NGG16 Garratts. A Garratt is a type of steam engine in which a larger-than-otherwise-possible boiler is carried on a paid of articulated power units, to make a smooth-riding and extremely powerful locomotive for its size. Though there were some standard gauge examples in the UK, including 33 on the LMS and the LNER's unique U1, Britain's most powerful steam locomotive, Garratts were synonymous with 3' 6" (Cape Gauge) systems in southern Africa, (though they also appeared in Australia, too), where despite being "narrow guage" were often larger than contemporary British practice on standard gauge.

But what concerns us here is 2' gauge super-power. Weighing in at around 60 tons and delivering over 21,000lb tractive effort, the NGG16s, behemoths of the narrow gauge, are more than twice the 24t weight of the iconic Ffestiniog Railway Double Fairlies like Livingston Thompson which produced less than 9,000lb tractive effort.

(Not a Garratt - a Double Fairlie)

And after retirement from South Africa, some of these Manchester built Beyer-Peacock Garratts (known worldwide as Beyer-Garratts) were repatriated as the ideal power for the rebuilt Welsh Highland.

Why are these Garratts so important? Well partly due to their size, they provide the capability to run profitable trains over the fabulous Welsh Highland Railway, something that the original line torn up in the 1940s never achieved. The WHR features a 1-in-40 ascent from the lovely village of Beddgelert to the base of Snowdon and then across farmland to Caernarfon Castle. It also runs through the breathtaking Aberglaslyn Pass, below:

Interestingly, one of those on the WHR is number 143, the last Beyer-Garratt produced, so in sharing the line with the first, K1, Wales now has the Alpha and Omega of these characterful engines that did so much to open up narrow gauge lines across the British Commonwealth in the first half of the 20th century.

(Last Beyer-Garratt ever... No 143 at Rydd Ddu)

So let's celebrate these returnees, and hope that they will continue to trundle visitors through the Snowdonia National Park for generations to come. Bravo!

(Number 87, one of the Belgian-built engines at Rydd Ddu - pronounced Writh-Dee, more or less.)

Happy Birthday Joe!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pointless Posturing Update

(Roosevelt said something about walking softly and carrying a big stick. Indeed. Old, but gotta love F-14s)

The pointless posturing of our title is by the Iranian regime. So it seems the Iranians backed down, and then having backed down, told the US Navy that it couldn't operate it's aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf (or, if you want to annoy the Iranians, the Arabian Gulf - isn't language funny.)

The US Navy gave Iran a stern ignoring. Quelle surprise.

And it will carry on until the Iranians need another external mini-crisis for internal political pressures. At least President Obama doesn't have to (although the GOP do, it seems). 

Good going USN.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

As ever, read the instruction manual....

When they built this:

(HMS Resolution, the UK's first SSBN arriving at Faslane in 1967 for the first time)

The good people involved wrote a book "The Nassau Connection" explaining how they did it - or at least how they managed the project.

(A short book. Sadly out of print.)

It's a short book, at just over 100 pages in a sparse civil service style, and is very interesting. So if you want to build something to replace this:

(HMS Vanguard, the first of Trident submarines arrives in 1994)

You'd do well to read this most interesting little book. Equally, if you think this is a silly idea (or even a very silly idea) then there's plenty of food for thought in this book, too. I'll post a fuller review shortly.

Monday, January 2, 2012

It's Morning in Arabia

 (The Gold Standard for political advertising, dammit. No wonder Mondale/Ferraro got stuffed.)

(Without apologies to the Gipper.)

Firstly, Happy 2012!

It's hard to believe that less than 12 months ago, I posted a tongue-in-cheek piece about autocrats' egomania after the thunderclap of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. Yet less than a year on, brave people are protesting (and dying) in Syriathree dictators have gone, with Tunisia, Libya Egypt and Yemen all standing at the dawn of a new and vibrant cacophony of politics and social change, with only Bahrain's regime looking like it has successfully suppressed popular anger. But it is unlikely to end here, as the siren calls of fresh air continue to echo around the Arab world, with unpredictable, but likely positive long-term effects. And crucially, an acceptance in the West that we can't reverse this tide even if we wanted to, so it's much better to be on the right side of history rather than having history's wave crash over you. 

Just before Christmas, Chatham House published a really interesting paper on Saudi Arabia's medium term economic and fiscal position which is fascinating (and for Saudis facing a demographic explosion, terrifying). Accountability is going to be key in making the choices that such a fiscal transition will require, so pressure for change will only increase. Interesting times ahead!