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OpinionShort Read

We aren’t ready for war; But COVID could help.

I finished Part One of this series by making the point that wars aren’t just won by breaking equipment, but by the ability to replace the equipment – and people – you have lost. In Part Two I will look at potential ways to start tackling this problem and explain how, rather surprisingly, the COVID pandemic may provide us with a realistic route forward. A lot to pack in but, as the new Top Gun demonstrated, sequels can be worth the entrance fee.

Failure to plan for the industrial requirements of war can be catastrophic, not least because it can lead to you losing the conflict. In 1915 a shortage of artillery shells caused by the inability of munitions manufacturers to scale up their operations led to a major political scandal, the downfall of Asquith’s government and his replacement by David Lloyd-George, not to mention the casualties sustained by men at the front who were having to ration ammunition.

So, what can a country do to ensure that it is not caught out when war looms over the horizon? There are numerous ways that nations can try to resolve this problem; They could employ a military which is large enough to maintain a regular drumbeat of orders from industry; they could maintain significant amounts of vehicles and equipment in storage, ready to be deployed in any future conflict; or they could subsidise the defence industry to maintain facilities and workers ready to surge production as and when required. Of course, there is one more option, one currently in use in the UK: hope that we won’t go to war, negating the potential requirement to expand in the future. Clearly, this is not a tenable solution.

All of these options have significant drawbacks. Maintaining a large military is difficult to justify given the wide range of interests competing for funds from the public purse, many of which are significantly more attractive to the general public and easier for politicians to justify than military spending. Further, in times of peace, a large military will unnecessarily deprive the wider workforce of tens of thousands of workers who could be more gainfully employed elsewhere in the economy, something that in the long term could stunt growth and make the national security outlook worse rather than better. Subsidising industry to maintain an industrial base capable of quickly ramping up production of military equipment is not an easy thing to do. Factories cost money to run and skilled trades people need to be paid. Even if a nation is successful in creating a subsidy scheme, the skill fade engendered through under-employment of a skilled workforce is likely to negate much of the supposed benefit. This would mean that should there be a requirement to surge production, the workforce would still need a period of time to “work up” their skillset and begin manufacturing products to the required standard quickly.

Maintaining a stockpile of weapons and equipment has a long history, with much of the UK’s historic weapons stores now on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Indeed, this can seem like the ideal solution, build up a huge amount of stock ready to be taken out and dusted off in the event of conflict. All you need to do is build a warehouse to keep it all in and then forget about it, right? Well, not quite. Holding weapons, equipment and vehicles in long-term storage comes with numerous problems. These stores must be maintained to a high standard, they must be upgraded regularly to keep up to date with stock in regular service, they must be guarded and regularly accounted for to protect from both criminal exploitation and foreign espionage. Oh, and you also need to find a bloody big warehouse to keep everything in. Some natures of military equipment – such as ammunition – have a shelf life, meaning that you cannot simply build up a large amount and hold it indefinitely. Other types of equipment must be stored in specialist climate-controlled facilities to prevent corrosion and rust. Due to the relatively high costs of storing equipment, and the low risk of negative stories appearing in the news if the stores suffer budget cuts, they are easy targets for penny-pinching spending reviews. Failure to properly look after your stockpiled equipment can lead to disaster when you actually need to use it, a fact recently demonstrated during the Russian invasion of Ukraine when a 40-mile long convoy of Russian support vehicles spent almost two weeks completely static, destroying the Russian forces momentum as they attempted to advance into Kyiv. This may have been caused by a failure to maintain the Central Tyre Inflation System (CTIS) on the vehicles, leading to the tyre walls rupturing when the vehicles were brought out of storage for use. In short, while stockpiling definitely has a role to play, it must not be the only option.

In order to be ready for conventional warfare, the MoD needs to maintain a manufacturing base and workforce, but without actually paying for it, and while still maintaining some equipment in long-term storage, but not so much that the cost outweighs the benefit.

Quite the conundrum, no? Thankfully, there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, and it comes from a supremely unlikely source; COVID-19. In early 2020 the Coronavirus pandemic surged through the global population, causing a worldwide shortage of medical equipment that no-one outside the NHS had heard of before. From facemasks to ventilators, critical shortages were beginning to appear everywhere and, given the global nature of the challenge, simply buying additional product wasn’t a viable option for the British Government.

One of the most severe shortages was of ventilators. In March 2020, the NHS had 7,400 mechanical ventilators, but forecasted a requirement for up to 90,000 beds with ventilators in a “reasonable worst case” scenario. Initially the government attempted to buy as many ventilators on the open market as possible however, within days it became apparent that this was not a viable option due to the pressures on the global ventilator market and wider supply chain. Therefore, on 16 Mar 20, the Prime Minister issued a call to arms, calling on British manufacturers to develop new designs that could be quickly brought into service, thereby dramatically increasing ventilator production with an initial target of 30,000 ventilators.

This challenge was taken up with gusto by British companies, who largely worked together as consortiums, the majority of which had no previous experience in the design or manufacture of medical devices. Broadly two separate approaches were taken with companies either designing and producing new devices that were simpler than existing ones on the market, or focussing on finding ways to scale up the production of existing designs.

The largest producer of ventilators under this scheme was the ‘Ventilator Challenge UK/Penlon’ consortium. This group modified an existing anaesthesia machine manufactured by Penlon, a small medical equipment company based in Oxford. The first modified units were produced only four weeks after the government’s call to action, with an astonishing 11,700 units completed by mid-July 2020. Through repurposing large manufacturing sites around the UK, the consortium was able to double production every few days and achieve a production volume 200 times the original rate. Of particular interest to this article is that the four major manufacturing sites came from very different industrial sectors, namely: Ford in Dagenham; Airbus in Broughton, North Wales; McLaren in Working; and STI Ltd in Hook, Hampshire.

How was production ramped up so quickly? Analysis by the group, “Scientists for Global Responsibility” a membership organisation whose main areas of concern are arms and arms control – and who will no doubt be thrilled to be quoted for an article on how to increase arms production – suggests that innovative use of technology to re-skill the workforces of the four major manufacturers taking part was crucial, “Approximately 1,500 technical staff were involved, and training was carried out at a distance using ‘mixed reality’ headsets. These were modified from virtual reality devices so that new templates and designs for the manufacture and assembly of components could be projected in front of the technicians’ eyes while they worked. An extra complication was that, of course, all this activity had to take place under ‘lockdown’ conditions – so workers also had to adapt to using new personal protection equipment, social distancing protocols, and video conferencing technology.”

For those at the back who are questioning the complexity of a ventilator compared to, say, a tank, it should be understood that ventilators are not simple pieces of equipment. Again, quoting from Scientists for Global Responsibility’s analysis, “To appreciate the complexity of this device, bear in mind that its construction is comprised of 700 individual parts, sourced from 88 suppliers. As one senior engineer involved in the project put it, each ventilator is “not quite as complex as a car”. Furthermore, the device had to pass through rigorous medical and engineering certification processes before it could be made available to the NHS.” This is proper, precision engineering on a serious scale for equipment that is designed to save lives, not a high school science project.

Not all COVID-19 procurement was a success, with allegations of poor practise and failing to meet procurement standards, but nevertheless a huge amount of medical equipment and other vital supplies were manufactured at incredible pace by a disparate range of companies without any previous medical experience. Although it must be acknowledged that military equipment manufacture has some specific requirements and challenges, industry’s response to COVID-19 provides a glimpse of how the UK could start planning for how to scale up military equipment procurement in the event of a future conflict.

How can all of this can be tied together? In his statement to the House of Commons following the release of the Defence Command Paper on 22 March 21, the Defence Secretary said that, “Our forces will still be able to warfight as their primary function”. My contention remains that, despite the protestations of those in MoD Main Building, the Army doesn’t give serious thought to the spectre of conventional warfighting. I stand by my statement for a simple reason; Warfighting involves being prepared to operate at scale, but our planning doesn’t address this fact or extend beyond the opening moves of any future conflict.

In any future conflict the UK can expect to suffer considerable equipment losses very quickly and our ability to manufacture new equipment will be vital. However, we must be realistic about the limitations of defence spending and the reality that we are unlikely to have a large pool of equipment either in regular use or in storage to draw replacements from. Clearly there is no silver bullet that will slay all the demons inherent in rapidly increasing production of equipment, but it is possible to give a range of options which could provide a framework to allow industry to quickly be repurposed in the event of a conflict. At the left of arc (yes, back to aphorism land) this could simply be a questionnaire fired out by the MoD to civilian manufacturers, identifying skill sets and machining processes prevalent in particular industries, cross-matching these with the skill sets required for production of various pieces of equipment and compiling a database recording the findings. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO published a table designed to inform governments around the world which industries would be best able to retool their factories to produce critical medical supplies. Defence should aim at the very least to emulate this example. At the right of arc, the MoD could set up a specialist project team comprised of a mixture of procurement managers and engineers from the Civil Service and Armed Forces. Working for DE&S, this team would be responsible for gathering information on UK industrial capability, identifying which companies could best be repurposed to support specific areas of defence procurement and working with industry to understand how this transition could work.

These may seem like small and unsubstantial measures to take, but when compared against the scale of the challenge we may one day face it is a vital first step. This article has mainly used the example of the tank to illustrate points of equipment attrition in conventional warfare, principally because MBT figures are relatively available and more reliable when compared to other equipment types, but it must be remembered that it takes many items to support an army in the field and all of them are subject to rapid depletion. After a few short months of sending supplies to Ukraine, who are reportedly firing around 3,000 155mm shells per day, some NATO countries are already finding their munitions stockpiles severely reduced. By early April 22, the US was estimated to have given about one-third of their stock of Javelin missiles to Ukraine, these stocks will take several years to replace at current production rates. That nations not directly involved in the fighting are seeing such a rapid depletion of stocks should be seen as a wake-up call for Western defence establishments. The experience of COVID-19 provides a once in a generation opportunity to assess how industry responded to unprecedented spikes in demand for specialist equipment and how these lessons can be utilised to support national requirements in future emergencies. The brief options outlined above may not be perfect, but they are a start. And, as we all know, an 80% solution is better than none.

RLC Alex

Alex has experience of logistic operations on land and at sea as a civilian, and is currently serving as an RLC Officer. He has previously written for the RLC Foundation Review.

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