Every so often we pass a signpost in the road, but fail to see its message clearly. And only when other indicators come into view, much further down the road, do we recognise the approach of our destination or the unwelcome realisation that we are lost. I mean this in the non-literal sense, of course. Britain is on the road to creating a new military structure and capability, and little signposts are already in evidence.
For example, British and French airborne engineers, of 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault) and 17e Regiment du Genie Parachutiste, have recently taken part in Exercise Eagle Sapper in the North of England. Imagining a humanitarian relief operation, the engineers dealt with the consequences of a tsunami: infrastructure damage, impending famine, government breakdown and insurgency.
First, they moved from Suffolk to Northumberland where they bridged Kielder Water, the largest man-made lake in northern Europe, some two miles wide, with Air Portable Ferry Bridge equipment, which can be used as a conventional bridge or transformed into a ferry system. Second, they moved to Otterburn and built water supply points, bridged rivers, demolished things and defended positions from raggedy insurgents.
These are not unusual exercise scenarios. British troops, this time from 16 Air Assault Brigade, need to be able to deploy at short notice to carry out just such operations in the future. Planners clearly rolled up a number of threats and challenges in the one exercise, but scenario overload is excellent preparation for the complexity and confusion of military operations. The requirement to fight insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, while building national infrastructure, ranging from indigenous security forces to schools and hospitals, amply demonstrates the need for such training.
But the signpost is found in the jointness of it. Britain and France. Two moderate military powers coming together. Jointness is, however, nothing new. NATO demands increasing interoperability and harmonisation of standard operating procedures; numerous standardisation agreements (STANAGs), concerning diverse matters from ammunition calibers to environmental protection, are in place. But this exercise falls outside NATO auspices, and it reveals something new, or perhaps enhanced, in the way Britain will engage in future military operations.
We saw closer British and French co-operation during the Libyan operation of early 2011, when joint forces bombed ground targets, ostensibly to protect civilians under UN authority, but clearly aimed at assisting the uprising. Yet it was the earlier agreement, in 2010, to set up a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) that began this new and enhanced coming together of UK and French armed forces.
This new force is to be ‘capable of facing multiple threats up to the highest intensity, available for bilateral, NATO, European Union, United Nations or other operations.’ Full operating capability is anticipated by 2016, and Exercise Eagle Sapper is one step along the way.
Co-operation and partnership are the watchwords. Partnership also incorporates, or is due to incorporate, unmanned air systems (sometimes, and unappealingly, called drones), and combat air power, and transport aircraft, and submarine technologies, and more… This is not insignificant. In fact, this is huge, as they say.
We are currently travelling down a road which doesn’t exactly have an identified end point, but most certainly has a direction. The imperative is money – or the lack of it – and government is looking for ways to eke out greater capability for less outlay. We should applaud this, of course. But do we (the public) know we are on this particular road? Do we know why we have chosen the French, or they us? Have we considered something similar with our ANZAC cousins, or perhaps with the US?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Defence is an expensive business, and we have less and less money at our disposal for it. We need to find ways of maintaining capability at cheaper rates, and forging closer links with the French is obviously something we are exploring quite seriously. Just keep an eye on the signposts.