Readiness and recuperation of the Armed Forces: looking towards the Strategic Defence Review - Defence Committee Contents

2  Readiness


10. Poor performance against target levels of readiness should not be taken to mean that the Armed Forces are not able to carry out their current tasks. The MoD was at pains to point out to us that the Armed Forces' primary focus has been to be prepared for and deliver on current operations and standing tasks. It emphasised that it was not possible for the Armed Forces to be deployed above Defence Planning Assumptions[6] and ready for the full range of contingent tasks at the same time. While many force elements within the Armed Forces were not at the appropriate level of readiness for contingent tasks, the Armed Forces could still react to emergencies, although with probable implications for operations in Afghanistan. The focus of our inquiry was not on current operations but on operations which the Armed Forces might reasonably be called upon to carry out at any time, that is, contingent tasks.

Readiness levels of the Armed Forces

11. The readiness levels of the Armed Forces to perform contingent tasks are low. In 2007-08, the MoD reported that more than half of the force elements had serious or critical weaknesses, although the position had improved slightly by March 2009 but fell again by June 2009 (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Readiness levels of force elements

Note: As of June 2008, the readiness metric was reviewed and subsequently re-weighted
Source: Ministry of Defence

12. In June 2008, the MoD assessed its own performance in generating forces which can be deployed, sustained and recovered at the scales of effort required to meet the Government's strategic objectives as follows:

    For the sixth consecutive year in 2007-08 the Armed Forces continued to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations which they are resourced and structured to sustain over time. Throughout the year they nevertheless consistently and reliably provided substantial forces at immediate readiness for current operations, deploying them to and sustaining them in theatre, and recovering them to their home bases at the end of their tours. It was therefore impossible for them to be ready at the same time for the full range of potential contingent operations provided for in planning assumptions, and contingent readiness levels continued to fall. The Department was consequently unable to meet the Public Service Agreement target for readiness. The Armed Forces maintained essential standby capabilities, such as for Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, but their capacity to take on additional operations is currently limited. [7]

13. In our Report on the MoD Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08, we expressed our concern about the MoD's performance:

    This continuing poor performance against readiness targets is serious. As the MoD's recent Autumn Performance Report accepts, it limits "the ability of force elements to engage in new contingent operations and military tasks". It also reveals the significant stresses which exist currently upon manpower, equipment, training and logistics. This puts into stark perspective the UK's capacity to sustain current operations into the medium term.[8]

14. One year later, in its Annual Report 2008-09, the MoD assessed its own performance in maintaining forces at the readiness it deemed necessary to respond to possible threats, assessed against the requirement set out in the Defence Strategic Guidance and the Defence Plan as follows:

    No progress. For some considerable period now, and throughout 2008-09, the Armed Forces have operated above the overall level of concurrent operations which they are resourced and structured to sustain over time. Throughout the year they nevertheless consistently and reliably provided substantial forces at immediate readiness for current operations, deployed them to and sustained them in theatre, and recovered them to their home bases at the end of their tours. It was not possible for them to be ready at the same time for the full range of potential contingent operations detailed in planning assumptions, and, consequently, contingent readiness levels have continued to suffer. While funding from the Reserve covers the immediate bill for operations, it cannot immediately address the impact on the Armed Forces of sustained harmony breaches, the impact on their ability to conduct the full range of training for contingent operations and any particular pinch-points in manning, all of which affect levels of contingent readiness. All of these impacts, and others, will take time to improve through the process of recuperation. While the Armed Forces continue to meet the demands of standing tasks and current operations their capacity to ready for contingent tasks continues to be affected. This does not impact on essential standby capabilities such as non-combatant evacuation operations.[9]

15. In November, the Secretary of State assured us that readiness had improved slightly as a result of the drawdown of forces from Iraq.[10] Readiness levels have improved since the end of March 2009, see figure 1 above.

16. We recognise that the Armed Forces have for some time been operating above Defence Planning Assumptions. We consider it unsatisfactory that readiness levels have been allowed to fall to the extent that they have. There are encouraging signs that readiness has improved since the withdrawal from Iraq. But the Strategic Defence Review will have to determine how the readiness of the Armed Forces should be balanced with the importance of maintaining a broad range of defence capabilities which are appropriately resourced.


17. In its Annual Report for 2007-08, the MoD summarised the readiness of the Royal Navy as follows:

    The Royal Navy had met all its operational commitments in 2007-08, both at home and overseas, despite a high level of operational activity, and continuing significant challenges in managing ship support and sustainability. The readiness of the surface fleet Force Elements continued to be affected by the decision to reduce support resources (the Reduced Support Period) in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and personnel shortages in a few specialist areas also affected the readiness states of certain force elements.[11]

18. In information provided to us, the MoD said that reductions in the resources for maritime logistic support to redirect funding elsewhere in 2004-05 and 2005-06 had led to deficiencies within sub-systems, equipment and manpower in individual units from which recovery is slow. Vice Admiral Boissier, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Fleet Command, told us that the reduction in funding for maritime support had taken a lot of managing. The reduced funding had forced them to use the spare parts off the shelf from which the Royal Navy was still recovering. They had also had to delay investment in more reliable equipment to replace those ships which are becoming old and increasingly fragile. For example, there were four mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs) in the Gulf with engines not as reliable as the Navy would like.[12]

19. Admiral Boissier said that any delay in the delivery of future platforms had an impact on readiness and the amount of work needed to make sure that ships are maintained and sustained at sea, for example, the replacement for the frigate force:

    I think the real example of this is Future Surface Combatant which is the replacement for our frigate force, which I think is due in service by 2016, or something like that. That is taking over from the Type 23 frigates which are the sort of mainstay workhorses of the fleet. The Type 23s were designed for a 16-year life but are going to be running for about 30 years. We can do that but there is a cost in financial terms and, also, in terms of the sheer effort in making sure they are ready to fight.[13]

20. Admiral Boissier emphasised that the Royal Navy had been focusing on current operations. It has been providing appropriate, sustainable equipment staffed with adequately trained personnel but only at the expense of readiness for contingent operations and recuperation to medium scale operations. For example, the Royal Navy was able to meet the current demands for destroyers and frigates but only at the expense of readiness for contingent tasks.[14] Admiral Boissier was also concerned about manpower shortages in 19 operational pinch point trades[15] such as senior ratings for strategic weapons systems in Trident submarines.[16] He explained that readiness was a complex issue and was dependent on many factors such as the current high tempo of operations and on getting procurement right but also on recruiting and retaining the right staff and training them properly.[17]

21. In its most recent Annual Report for 2008-09, the MoD summarised the readiness of the Royal Navy as follows:

    The Naval Service was particularly heavily committed throughout 2008-09. All directed military tasks were completed including a substantial deployment of Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel to Afghanistan. 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines provided the command Task Force Helmand and overall the Naval Service provided 29% of UK personnel committed to operations in Afghanistan. Royal Naval assets were deployed to the Horn of Africa to counter the growing threat of piracy and also provided the command element of the European Union counter piracy initiative. The Naval Service provided the last personnel of the UK 2* command element in Iraq, as well as training teams in support of the Iraqi navy. While commitment to operations was the main effort during the period, the Royal Navy continued to provide considerable resources to meet its standing military tasks in support of broader Defence aim, the principal focus being provision of the nuclear deterrent.[18]

22. A list of the Royal Navy's standing tasks is given below and we note that some of these tasks are not fully resourced:

  • Fleet Ready Escort (UK waters)
  • Atlantic Patrol (South)
  • Atlantic Patrol (North)
  • Mine clearance in the Northern Arabian Gulf
  • Security Capacity Building in the Northern Arabian Gulf
  • Offshore Patrol in the Falklands Islands
  • Ice Patrol Vessel to the Antarctic
  • Maritime Patrol support to Oman
  • Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group 1 (North Europe)
  • Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (South Europe and near East)

23. The Strategic Defence Review must address the procurement, capabilities and personnel issues, including harmony guidelines, arising from the resources which the Navy has been contributing to operations in Afghanistan. In particular, the Strategic Defence Review must determine whether further delays to procurement of essential equipment for the Royal Navy, such as the Future Surface Combatant, can be justified and whether the recent improvement in recruitment and retention should be used to reduce the level of undermanning in pinch point trades. Furthermore, consideration must be given as to whether the number of Royal Navy commitments should be reduced.


24. In its Annual Report for 2007-08, the MoD summarised the readiness of the Army as follows:

    The continuing commitment of ground manoeuvre, light and specialised brigades on current operations inevitably meant that the Army was unable to hold units at readiness for medium scale contingent operations. The Spearhead Land Element was available at high readiness for Contingency Operations throughout the year, culminating in a deployment to Kosovo in May 2008. Many 'enabling' assets were also double-hatted in support of more than one of the Contingency Reserves. In addition, the implementation of the BOWMAN programme continued temporarily to reduce the pool of deployable units. The increasingly challenging recruiting climate also has a substantial impact. Overall, the Army continued to run close to the limits of the level of operational activity it is able to sustain.[19]

25. One year later, in its most recent Annual Report for 2008-09, the summary of the readiness of the Army had been revised to this:

    The Army again continued to be committed in excess of the planning assumptions throughout 2008-09, the focus for operations and support has been on Afghanistan, as a medium-scale plus operation and on Iraq at medium-scale. As the operational requirements in Iraq have reduced we have been able to move to a more sustainable basis by ensuring that the majority of personnel have at least a 24-month tour interval. Unfortunately, this will not be possible, as yet, for some specialist personnel. Future operational demand is, however, likely to move closer to Defence Planning Assumptions. As a result of high operational demand, the specialist brigades and most contingency forces, including 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade (Royal Marines), have been rostered for operations in Afghanistan. Towards the end of 2008-09, the Army successfully rostered the Spearhead Land Element and the small-scale Contingency Battle Group (SSCBG). The tasks that the SSCBG could conduct were constrained by equipment availability. All contingency forces continued to share many enablers. [20]

26. General Lamb, Commander Field Army, told us that the Army was focused on current operations and operating above Defence Planning Assumptions:

    The reality is that the Army, on the current operations we are running, is about three times above the levels at which the assumptions place us. […] Our current commitment sees us running well in excess of two medium scales, so the Army is preparing for the current fight. The reality of where we are is not about contingency; it is actually ensuring that not the risk but the liability of the full command that comes with us, in my case for soldiers, is met, that we do whatever is necessary to ensure that we have the right manpower, of the right quality, that they are properly trained, that they are properly equipped and able to stay in the current fight. The Army is focused on this. The idea that current operations impact on readiness from an Army perspective is completely the wrong way round. We are committed to current operations.[21]

27. General Lamb believed that it was important to look to the future but stated that his primary focus was preparing for and sustaining operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.[22] The MoD told us that a small scale focused intervention, power projection and peace enforcement could only be done at the expense of current operations.[23]

28. To deliver on current operations, the Army has been forced to break harmony guidelines for many soldiers; we understand that, while the Army is generally breaking harmony guidelines, the Royal Artillery is doing so by 55% and the Infantry by 53%.[24] In addition, there are operational pinch point trades which are significantly undermanned resulting in the breaking of harmony guidelines—for example, weapons intelligence specialists and emergency and intensive care medical specialists.[25] In 2008-09, 10.3% of Army personnel were exceeding the guidelines of no more than 413 days separated service in any 30 month rolling period (which accounts for a 6 month tour and a 24 month tour interval).[26] As at 1 July 2009, the percentage of Army personnel breaking harmony guidelines remained at 10.3%.[27] Not only does the breaking of harmony guidelines impact on the readiness of the Army for contingent operations, it also puts a considerable burden on soldiers and their families.

29. Training is also a significant constraint on readiness. Much of the training of the Armed Forces has, of necessity, become theatre-specific for the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The training machine has in the past been diverted from regular training for operations in general to training specifically for personnel about to deploy or redeploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.[28] The MoD told us that it had also had to cancel a number of large-scale and joint exercises.[29]

30. As Chinook helicopters are central to the Army's operations, we asked General Lamb what the effect was of having so many Chinooks on deployed operations. He explained that out of a fleet of 49 helicopters, 30 were forward ready of which 10 were committed to operations. The remainder were going through modifications or were available for training. The Army was working the fleet hard and getting a high number of flying hours out of them. He would have preferred to have more Chinooks but the Armed Forces could manage with the current number. For example, another five Chinooks in Helmand would enable the Commander of the Task Force to manoeuvre in a different way giving more flexibility. The shortage had an impact on the training fleet, with forces not as air-aware in the Army as in previous years, relying on what they learn during operations.[30]

31. The Army has been working at full stretch. If readiness is to be improved, then the Army must return to being deployed within harmony guidelines as soon as practicable.


32. In its Annual Report for 2007-08, the MoD summarised the readiness of the Royal Air Force as follows:

    The RAF continued to meet its enduring Military Tasks and contingent overseas commitments successfully during 2007-08, contributing forces to UK-based operations and to theatres around the world. However, the high operational tempo had led to the majority of force elements reporting a weakness in their ability to meet planned readiness targets; in the main due to a combination of a lack of training opportunities, personnel and equipment outside of that committed in direct support of current operations. In addition, aircraft availability pressures, arising from operational losses and planned modification and maintenance programmes, and a temporary manning imbalance caused by the final phase of drawing down RAF personnel numbers have further reduced the RAF's ability to meet readiness targets.[31]

33. When asked in February what concerned him most about levels of readiness, Air Marshal McNicoll, Deputy Commander-in-Chief (Operations) Air Command told us that not all of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was as heavily committed as the land forces although there were a few exceptions such as the C-130 [Hercules aircraft]. A particular difficulty was that "in relation to readiness … in the air environment you need to train continually to keep any readiness at all. You cannot take a holiday from it and still maintain some extended readiness easily." His solution was "a manpower placement plan and that means that some of the forces which are heavily committed … are manned to over 100% in order to sustain current operations, and others of course have to be undermanned in order to free up the manpower to go and do it. The C-130 force is heavily committed in current operations and clearly has more manpower assigned to it."[32]

34. Air Marshal McNicoll and Admiral Boissier agreed that one of the challenges the RAF faces in terms of contingent operations was getting access to equipment to train pilots properly. Many of the fast jets and helicopters had been tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq and were, therefore, unavailable for pilot training. For example, current training for Harriers to fly off carriers was very weak and this situation could not be allowed to continue indefinitely. The Harriers had also been in theatre for four and a half years creating breaches of harmony guidelines and reducing core capability particularly at supervisory level. There was also little capacity for training on Tornados given their extensive use in Iraq. Air Marshal McNicoll told us that they intended to replace the Harrier fleet with the Tornado fleet in Spring this year.[33] We are aware that the MoD was unable to bring back the Harrier fleet and replace it with the Tornado as originally planned because of problems with the apron and the runway at Kandahar. We are pleased to see that this issue has been resolved and that the Harrier force has been returned to the UK. We expect the MoD to use the opportunity presented by the return of the Harrier Force to return to training the required number of pilots to fly off the carriers.

35. In its most recent Annual Report for 2008-09, the MoD summarised the readiness of the RAF as follows:

    The RAF continued to meet its standing military tasks and contingent overseas successfully during 2008-09, contributing forces to UK-based operations and to theatres around the world including the Gulf, the south Atlantic and Afghanistan. However, the enduring high operational tempo has led to the majority of force elements reporting weaknesses in their ability to meet planned readiness targets, due in the main due to a combination of the pressures on personnel and equipment, in direct support of current operations and reduced training opportunities. In addition, aircraft availability pressures, arising from planned modification and maintenance programmes and returning to manning imbalance have further reduced the RAF's ability to meet readiness targets.[34]

36. The MoD should, both in advance of and through the Strategic Defence Review, focus on regaining balance in the RAF, reducing the pressures on pinch point trades and reinstating essential training and exercises.


37. We asked who funded the costs of the Armed Forces personnel injured in Iraq and Afghanistan and consequently unfit for further deployment but retained in service. The MoD detailed its policy of offering employment to those injured on operations who wished to remain in the Armed Forces:[35]

    It is a concern, and I cannot pretend we have got an easy answer to that because we have to treat these people sensitively considering the commitment they have made to the nation. At the moment, we are committed to employ those people as much as we can in-service doing particular jobs which would make sense, in the sense of self-worth and enabling the recovery process.[36]

    As an Army issue it is very much a concern for us because, as you will appreciate, we have got to try and maximise the ability of the resource we have (the human resource) to deploy on operations. If there is a limit to that, and we are finding increasing numbers are unfit, that can only put pressure in those who are required to deploy. I do not know quite where we will find ourselves over this, but this is a very important issue.[37]

38. The costs of the medical treatment of personnel injured on operations, overseas and back in the UK are borne by the Reserve. However, the costs of retaining those personnel in service and the cost of replacing those who have died or left are traditionally borne by the MoD. The costs of employing injured personnel are often offset by the cost of employing a civilian or other military person to do the job. Training replacement personnel is expensive and time consuming but these costs are considered part of the general running costs of the Armed Forces. The number of personnel seriously injured or wounded in Afghanistan is growing with 158 injured in 2009 compared with 169 in the previous eight years. Nevertheless despite this increase, the MoD considers that the current costs are manageable. In the longer term, the MoD considers it may have to seek money from the Reserve for this and for continuing support to injured Armed Forces personnel. In particular, the Army is under pressure to maximise the number of personnel available for deployment on operations.[38]

39. We fully support the policy of offering continued productive employment to those injured on operations who wish to continue their careers in the Armed Forces. Whilst the MoD is content to fund continued employment and the cost of replacing those injured and killed on active service, we consider that it should apply for support from the Reserve as the number of personnel so employed increases and the costs of training replacements rise. We further call upon the MoD to ensure that all those injured while on operations have a real choice, after an appropriate period of rehabilitation, as to whether to remain with the Armed Forces or to seek employment elsewhere. We also recommend that, as part of its consideration of the size and structure of the Army, the MoD factors in an increase in the required size of the Army to enable continued employment of injured personnel without diminishing the capability of the Army to conduct operations within harmony guidelines.


40. Our witnesses on 3 February made it clear that the Armed Forces were stretched as a result of current operations.[39] They fully recognised that readiness for contingent operations has been declining which has resulted in a poor state of preparedness, and they acknowledged the need to pay serious attention to the problem.[40] Brigadier Abraham told us:

    In terms of our general preparedness, for contingent operations, anything we do beyond the very, very benign will have an effect on the enduring operations across a wide range of things—provision of air transport with defensive aid suites to get them there, the provision of battlefield helicopters with appropriate force protection, and so on and so on. Our ability at the moment to do anything with regard to the unexpected is largely only at the expense of the current operations.[41]

41. The then Secretary of State told us in April that success in current operations was his first priority. The Armed Forces were not able to undertake the full spectrum of contingent operations because of deployment on active, current operations and the extent of the training for deployment. He stressed that the Armed Forces were not weak operationally nor had the MoD taken risks with UK homeland security. The Armed Forces required to secure our borders had been fully operational and capable throughout the entire period of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.[42] He agreed that poor levels of target readiness had developed because of the high tempo of current operations.[43] This position was repeated by the present Secretary of State in November:

    Just because we are not structured or planning to run another medium-scale [operation] while we are involved in Afghanistan to the degree that we are does not mean to say that if an emergency arose we would not try to rise to it. We would have to rise to it, as we do, but that would obviously involve a stretch on our people. They have never been lacking in the past in terms of rising to the challenge but, yes, it would be difficult to conduct another contingency operation. It would not be something we are able to do while we are fixed in Afghanistan to the degree that we are.[44]

42. The MoD was unable to tell us how long it would take before the Armed Forces return to satisfactory levels of readiness. As we expect the MoD to have now further developed its recuperation planning, we invite the MoD, in response to this Report, to show us the expected trajectory for improvements in the readiness of the Armed Forces and the point at which it believes readiness levels will be satisfactory. We recommend that the new methodology and system adopted for the reporting of readiness should provide the same level of transparency and accountability to Parliament and the public as obtained in the past.

6   The Defence Planning Assumptions currently state that the Armed Forces are configured to carry out one enduring medium scale operation (some 5,000 personnel) plus one enduring small scale operation (some 700 personnel) and, in extremis, one small scale non-enduring operation, routinely and without overstretch. Back

7   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 Volume 1, HC 850-I, p 48 Back

8   HC (2008-09) 214, para 59 Back

9   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09 Volume 1, HC 467-I, p 12  Back

10   Q 406 Back

11   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 Volume 1, HC 850-I, p 52 Back

12   Qq 30-32 Back

13   Q 46 Back

14   Q 32 Back

15   Operational pinch point trades are those trades where current shortages have a detrimental impact on operational effectiveness. Back

16   Qq 44-45 Back

17   Q 53 Back

18   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09 Volume 1, HC 467-I, p 43


19   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 Volume 1, HC 850-I, p 53 Back

20   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09 Volume 1, HC 467-I, p 43 Back

21   Q 74 Back

22   Q 80 Back

23   Q 84  Back

24   Qq 129-130 Back

25   Q 83 and Ev 57-60 Back

26   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09 Volume 1, HC 467-I, p 70 Back

27   Ev 73  Back

28   Qq 29, 83 Back

29   Qq 134-138 Back

30   Qq 103-105, 238 Back

31   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 Volume 1, HC 850-I, p 52 Back

32   Q 106 Back

33   Qq 58-59, 120-123, 127 Back

34   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-09 Volume 1, HC 467-I, p 44 Back

35   Qq 188-190 Back

36   Q 188 Back

37   Q 189 Back

38   Qq 183-195, 204 and 315 and Ev 56 Back

39   Qq 48-49, 83-84 Back

40   Qq 26-27 Back

41   Q 84 Back

42   Q 276-278 Back

43   Q 278 Back

44   Q 463 Back

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