A Rank Issue

It was recently announced by the Royal Navy that the internationally respected position of Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) is to be discontinued. The new position is one rank lower (Commodore) and in an intelligent bit of branding, to be called Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training. So still FOST, basically.

The response to this across the twittersphere was classically resigned. “It doesn’t matter” and “it’s happened before and the sky didn’t fall in” being typical.

I wonder though. Does rank dilution matter or not?

To answer this, I’m going to start with a base assumption:

The more senior the person is in a position the more experience they have and, based on the selection requirements for higher rank, the more capable they will be.

Now, I will concede that this is quite an assumption, especially the second half. We have all seen junior officers who knock spots off their superiors. Conversely there have been 2*s over the years whose thick stripe has felt like a tailoring error (no disrespect). But on average, assuming a functioning promotion system and when reviewed across branches, ranks and years, this assumption must be true.

In which case, the only reason rank dilution wouldn’t matter was if the wrong level was set in the first place or had become wrong over time.

Looking at the table below, there are certainly a number of positions that fall into that second category. A 4* Second Sea Lord and Commander in Chief Fleet being two good examples. In fact, size and shape of the top of the pyramid feels about right just now but beneath that there has been significant rank dilution over the years. Here are some of the ones I can remember (since 1990) – I am sure there are many others:

Senior Command

Fleet Commander4*3*2012Was Commander In Chief
Second Sea Lord4*3*2005
Flag Officer Scotland3*2*c. 1996
Commandant General Royal Marines3*2*1998

Establishment Command

Training establishment captainsScale A Captain**1* now 1st/2nd tour Captain1998Dartmouth, Raleigh, Collingwood, Sultan
Admiralty Interview Board1*Commanderu/k
**Last (fourth) job as a Captain, pre-ordained in almost every case for 2. Predates 1* as a substantive rank (c.’97).

Waterfront Command

Flag Officer Sea Training2*1*2000Now Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training
Flag Officer Flotillas3 x 2*1 x 1* and 2 x Captainc. 1995Devflot demoted to Captain ‘20

Sea Command

Aircraft carrier CaptainScale A Captain 1st/2nd tour Captain2020Was always second sea command as a Captain
P2000 CaptainSenior Lt/Lt CdrSecond tour Ltc. 2000


Chief of Defence Staff5*4*1997
Director Defence Medical Services3*2*1990s
Director Plans1* (per service)Single 1*2010s


CINC Naval Home Command4*N/ADiscontinued
Deputy Fleet Commander3*N/ADiscontinued


Flag Officer Submarines3*2*There are quite a few in this category that have been either discontinued or double/treble hatted
Flag Officer Naval Aviation2*2*There are quite a few in this category that have been either discontinued or double/treble hatted

Other than having a job set at a certain level to optimise output, there are other factors that determine the rank of a position:

  • Legacy (‘it’s always been that way’)
  • To support the overall branch pyramid and structure
  • To achieve parity with the other services
  • To achieve parity/credibility with other navies

All of these are fluid and it is therefore right that the associated ranks are periodically reviewed.

The first problem is that this is rarely the driver for change. Instead, it is more usually a desire to save money, either to pay for something else or to ingratiate individuals or ‘the system’ to the MoD. It often happens prior to a defence review or to bolster an individual’s pitch for promotion.

The second problem is finding evidence that either of these have ever been successful. But, because the initiatives come from the top and are (outwardly) to save money, woe betide anyone who objects – hence the pavlovian insistence that it doesn’t really matter.

This isn’t supposed to be an inter-service dig, and I have no evidence to support it, but the Army does seem to lag when it comes to its own dilution resulting in some headline differences, the Commandant of Sandhurst still being a 2* whilst the head of Dartmouth is ‘just’ a Captain perhaps being the most obvious.

Inter service parity is important here especially as overall numbers shrink and competition for the key Joint jobs becomes ever more fierce. Falling in line with the Army’s use of the Brigadier was one of the reasons the Navy substantiated the rank of Commodore in 1997. Add the dilution going on just now to the 20year cycle that these things seem to follow then add a splash of “nothing is sacred right now” and I’ll put a small wager that Commodore will be abandoned again in the next few years. This will be badged as a way of saving money but in reality will just create chaos at Joint selection boards.

In sum, will the Navy be thanked for its current diluting (and culling) at the next Defence Review? I doubt it. Meanwhile, the axe continues to fall and everybody says it’s fine.

I’ll finish with a thought experiment. If one extrapolates the argument that rank dilution doesn’t really matter, why not have all frigates, destroyers and submarines commanded by Lieutenant Commanders?

Postscript. There is a different-but-linked debate to be had about the overall number of ranks (often reckoned to be too high). This is nicely captured in this Wavell Room article written in 2018.

Walking the Hunt

Many of a Hunt Class’s mine-hunter’s hull-design characteristics are based on the requirement for it to accurately hold position at sea whilst prosecuting mines. Relatively large propellers & rudders, a bow-thruster, a rounded hull form & shallow draft all assist with this. These same characteristics also mean that it can ‘walk’ sideways during berthing and unberthing. A neat trick that can get you in and out of tight spots when required.

The principle of walking is simple, the execution, sometimes less so. In this instance you need to exit to the West and therefore:

1. Set bow-thruster to port (full)

2. Use a combination of main engines and rudders to provide counter-torque:

2a. Port ME ahead (slow)

2b. Stbd ME astern (half-ish)

2c. Rudders to stbd (xx degrees)

3. Get all this in balance and the ship should walk laterally to port.

4. Never forget ceremonial…

That’s the theory. As with everything maritime, it’s never quite that simple:

1. Because everything is in balance, if something changes (wind/tide/system fail) you can quickly run out of escape options.

2. You need to set up ‘the balance’ from the start of the manoeuvre. For example, the fwd engine/prop (2a) bites like your car with no synchromesh – if that happens too early, you’ll surge forward (bad). Timing is key.

3. The Hunt’s high sides, shallow displacement and rounded hull make them excellent sailing vessels. Any more than c.8kts of wind and your set up will need to be adjusted.

4. Compared to normal berthing/unberthing, ‘walking’ is quite slow.

But if you get it just right; everything nicely balanced, no fwd or aft movement (at all for bonus points!) and with precision control of the ships head using just the rudder, then you can get in and out of tight spaces, exit in a smart and seamanlike manner and show general cunning to your destroyer mates as they wait for yet another tug.

Footnote: a Sandown Class mine hunter can do all this at the touch of a button which is why they’re not to be trusted.

Second footnote: these are the kind of ship-handling skills that an automated mine-hunting force will not provide the commanders of tomorrow.

Commander Tom Sharpe OBE (Retd) was assigned to three Hunt Class mine sweepers in his career; HMS Chiddingfold as a Young Officer, HMS Brocklesby as a Junior Watchkeeping Officer and HMS Dulverton as the Captain (on Northern Ireland duties).

Sabering Seahorses

Yesterday, it was announced that there is to be Principal Warfare Officer badge. Noting that the crowd that care about this is small but passionate, here are my thoughts.

Background. A Principal Warfare Officer (PWO), in very brief, is the person who fights the ship. They sit in the operations room and aggregate multiple sources of data and information in order to make fighting recommendations to the Captain. You are the ships expert on Rules of Engagement and weapons delegations mean that you often don’t need to defer to the Captain to engage ‘the enemy’. You need an intimate knowledge of the operating parameters (primary and reversionary) of every weapon system and sensor onboard. This includes guns (many), radars, missiles, torpedoes, electronic warfare sensors, radio and satellite communications and the helicopter. The best have an advanced knowledge of how these all work from a technical perspective as well. You need to be able to talk to non-owned assets such as headquarters, ships in the task group, fighter jets, patrol aircraft and occasionally submarines. One of the PWOs will be the head of the Warfare Department and therefore responsible for the Operational Capability of the ship and one will be responsible for the ship’s programme from tomorrow out to 12 months. Get the job wrong and that’s probably you done. Get it right and it’s a major step towards your own command.

Confidence. Despite being so central to warship operations, the PWO group does sometimes suffer from a lack of confidence. “It’s a trade you default to if you don’t tick any other boxes”. Sometimes you come to it “if you have failed elsewhere”. In other words, it’s the opposite of an elite. Personally, I don’t think this matters – it’s just the way it is – but if you are susceptible to barroom ‘bants’ from other branches, and many are, then you can see how it might. Interestingly, the US Navy equivalent suffers from something similar, perhaps more-so in a surface navy so dominated by the carrier and therefore the aviator. Over there, this manifests itself in some bad behaviours. The hideous expression ‘eating their young’ was perhaps coined for USN SWOs although our very own submariners probably push them close. I understand that RAF Harrier mates would have had a shout back in the day as well! Nevertheless, this is never something to either do or be proud of and fortunately, with the possible exception of the late 90s, not a modus operandi that the RN has ever adopted. Nevertheless, Is the badge designed to address the business of not being in an elite?

PWO Course. The course that trains you for all this takes you to the dry-land of HMS Collingwood for a whole year. You will generally be in your early 30s, having done about 10 years in one or two of a wide range of pre-PWO careers. Navigators, fighter controllers, divers, minewarfare officers, aviators, submariners, engineers, reservists and deck officers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have all done the PWO course over the years. As you’d expect, operations room experience varies a lot when drawn from a base this diverse. With the list of expertise required of a PWO and the breadth of the pipeline that feeds the system, you can see why the training course is a year long – there’s a lot to learn.

Sea Time. Another possible reason for a badge would be to recognise the length of time a warfare officer is expected to be away from home at a age when they are more likely to have a young family. As an example, my four seagoing jobs prior to PWO course, spread over eight years, saw me at sea for 70% of the time. That’s 5.6 years ‘away from base port’. In my 10 years post PWO course, across five ships, I was 65% out of base port. So, in my 18 ship-based years, I was away from home for just over 12 of them. These are pretty normal figures and amongst other things, explain the sanctity of the one-year shore-based course in the middle of it all. I digress. My point, whilst contentious, is relevant – PWOs, along with submariners, can probably lay claim to the highest levels of domestic upheaval across their career, certainly in the Navy and perhaps across Defence (although I’m sure there will be some SF types who could have a tilt at this particular ‘prize’). Of course you are at the sharp end of a seagoing service so one can’t complain but that doesn’t mean that the sacrifice shouldn’t be recognised.

Existing Badges (for officers). With that as background, and before I get to the messy business of whether or not PWOs should have their own badge, it is worth noting just now many distinguishing badges there already are. Doctors, dentists, divers, pilots, observers, submariners, bomber submariners (most recent addition), commando course, special forces, parachutists, naval architects all have badges or wear coloured stripes to denote their trade or sub-branch. As far as I can tell, they are all here to stay. [Of historical interest, in 1863, engineers and logistics officers were ordered to wear different coloured stripes to denote their trade. These were disbanded in 1955 but their nicknames; pinky, greenie and ‘the white mafia’ live on. And because they’re nicknames, they all have offensive addendums.] Doctors and Dentists have kept their coloured stripes to distinguish them as non-combatants in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Reserves used to have a gold ‘R’ in the loop of their epaulettes – ditched as divisive in about 2003. The point is, the all-of-one-company notion is already wobbling. It also shows that in a service as old as the RN, ‘uniform’ is often anything but. Still, at least it’s not the British Army who knit their own trousers.

Next up I have divided much of the above into the pros and cons that often accompany this discussion both over the years, and now in response to this initiative.


– A PWO badge lies against the ‘all of one company’ ethos and is therefore divisive, perhaps more so as the navy shrinks. (However, see ‘Existing badges’ above).

– “Badges are for boy scouts”. Or, “it’s (American) bling”. You really need to see a US officer in their No1 uniform to know what this means and why some will object. No offence.

– Those that need to know you are a PWO already know – why the need to show it in a badge. (See ‘Confidence’ above).

– It is particularly divisive for the engineering heads of department in a ship. They have rank and responsibility equivalence to their PWO counterparts – why should they not have something similar?

– Cost. No idea what this will be in this instance but should we be spending money on this kind of thing in the current climate? 


– Pride in the branch. The breadth of expertise required of a qualified PWO is notable. ‘Jack of all trades’ is their greatest strength. ‘Master of all’ is hard to do but if you manage it, and at the say so of your CO, then why not have it recognised. Also, you’re at sea all the time – something to be proud of.

– Sense of identity. Building and identifying cadres such as this make the branch more attractive to both join and then stay (critical). 

– Pay. In the absence of a PWO pay-band (unlike nearly all of the others listed above) why would you not want a badge to recognise the hardship.

– They’re useful when working with other services and countries. There is some truth in this – being able to identify your trade when overseas can be useful, particularly when nearly everyone else does. 

Story Time. I’ll finish in timeless fashion with two ‘dits’. The first was in 2009 when the idea of a surface warfare badge (for all ranks and rates) was aired and nearly came to fruition. It came about because a senior Warrant Officer returned from what was clearly a bling-rich US trip (sorry, repeat theme) feeling rather under-dressed. He was sufficiently animated to fire-up the admiral to whom he was accountable who then ran with it. The idea was aired at the annual commanding officers’ forum where it generated a lot of discussion split broadly along the lines above but tending to dissent. The Warrant Officer protested publicly with the full authority of someone whose day job was to gather this kind of feedback with a, “I’ve spoken to Ratings across the navy and they are all massively in support”. Very few can/would dare counter that with one notable exception. A carrier XO, who was a forthright officer, said,, “can I ask who all these Ratings are, because I’ve got 600 in my ship and they all think it’s shit”. I’ve no idea if the PWO community themselves want this badge but beware the person who claims to understand all target audiences.

The second shows how divisive this subject can be. Badges for submariners were introduced in the 1950s, taking their current form of two non-distanced dolphins (making out) in 1972. I have it on good authority from someone who was there on both occasions, that submariners on hated them. Yet now they are the cornerstone of the branch – the green beret of the underwater world, maybe even the lyre of the volunteer bandsman. They are awarded in a ceremony that involves receiving them in a glass of rum which the proud recipient trades for never going on a run ashore again. It seems that we are a fickle bunch when it comes to these things and perhaps the real issue is just one of fear-of-change rather than anything more profound.

Summary. In my view, I don’t think the PWO badge is required. It erodes ‘all-of-one-company’ and the increased sense-of-team doesn’t offset this (or is even required). I also think that medals and stripes are enough bling on one uniform and that the target audience to whom this matters isn’t large enough to justify the cost. However, as long as this isn’t just part of a wider desire to meddle then there is good news. First, no one cares what I think and second, in three years time it will be as normal as dolphins, bomber pins, AB rank slides or any number of other initiatives the contentiousness of which was short-lived.

Good Mine Hunting

On April 4, the Wavell Room kindly published the first part of a blog on future mine hunting options for the RN. The link is here and the summary here:

“The Royal Navy’s mine hunting fleet provides the UK with a world-leading war-fighting capability that is on essential live operations in the UK and elsewhere every day of the year. It buys the RN considerable equity with our allies whilst providing both balance and mass to what would otherwise be a top-heavy fleet. As a training tool for both divers and future commanders it is invaluable.

Twelve replacement ships would maintain all this for roughly the price of a single Type 26.

Current ships go out of service in the next 10 years and thus far, I’m not hearing much noise about their replacements. I hope this changes in the near future.”

This sparked an interesting debate which I will try and summarise below. Since then, there has been a timely article in The Strategist outlining the increasing Chinese Navy mine threat.

It was made clear in the discussion that under the auspices of transformation, or automation, or both, a great deal of work on the RN’s future mine counter measures (MCM) capability has been done, particularly with the French in a collaborative programme called MMCM. This is a sophisticated and complex programme that includes, “Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), a super-performing new sonar (SAMDIS) carried by Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) or towed by USV and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Remotely controlled by expert operators from a Portable Operational Centre (POC), these would break new ground in collaboration and autonomy.” With MMCM as the backbone, much has been done towards “detecting mines without the need to put a ship in the minefield”.

What is less clear, both in the reading and discussion, is how this capability is going to be delivered in a sustainable and defensible manner. There are a lot of options but the direction of travel for the RN is not clear. The MMCM script says that “The solution would also be highly portable—being flown to mined areas in hours…” The vignette-based approach MMCM has adopted suggests that much complex logistical planning on how to deploy this capability has already taken place. But at the highest level, even the ‘fly-in’ methodology mentioned here can be challenged. For example, if the Iranians have just mined the Strait of Hormuz, you’re not flying there, or anywhere near, for some time. Note; this doesn’t mean you could safely operate existing capabilities either.

One reader kept citing “a suite of delivery options” without being able to articulate what they were. Other discussions centred on using either existing platforms (B2 Rivers) or planned hulls (T31). Again, no one I spoke to, inside or outside the wire, knew exactly what this meant. What is clear is that the list of tasks these hulls are going to be asked to do is increasing daily. There is no doubt that there is some good mine hunting technology out there. Nothing since my last post as alleviated my concern is that the RN is being seduced by this, possibly at the expense of its sustainable warfighting delivery.

The Belgian and the Dutch solution to this problem is to build a fleet of 12 x 2800 ton vessels from which their autonomous solutions can be deployed. These look excellent (and perhaps what a Hunt 2 should look like) but I’m not hearing of any UK plans for something similar. So why not? Is overall cost the problem? Or is there a concern that the expenditure could come at the expense of another capability? By coincidence, last weekend I posted parts of my 1994 undergrad dissertation. This examined the period where the RN effectively bartered away a mid-level capability – diesel submarines – for fear of losing an (element of) exquisite capability – nuclear submarines. (Noting that once you’ve lost a capability like that, you never get it back.) Or is it just ‘the fetish’ of pursuing new technology? More on this at the end.

My final point is that 90% of the discussion triggered by this blog focussed on new methods of networked mine detection. Almost everything else I cited as a positive for the current fleet of mine hunters was overlooked. The equity our mine hunting capability buys us with the US was largely overlooked as was the MCMs utility as the platform from which our world-leading dive capability is supported. The fact that the RN can scarcely afford to lose 11 platforms right now didn’t get a mention nor did their utility as a platform on which to give our aspiring leaders of the future something to cut their teeth on. In sum, almost every discussion was about ‘teching’ our way out of the need to put a ship in the minefield…and that’s it.

That these conversations didn’t happen on twitter doesn’t matter, as long as they are happening behind closed doors. Of course, with the Hunts in their early 40s, they need to be happening right now. If they’re not, or if the transformation bus is now moving so fast that even ‘looking at it funny’ can be career threatening, then we’ll simply end up with something that looks shiny and ‘clever’ but in reality is less capable than its antecedent. Spending our way out of this hole could even end up costing more. Zumwalt anyone?

To summarise this time around, I’ve asked some questions:

1.         Will the new technology be as good at detecting mines – Yes

2.         Will it be as good at mine disposal on a large scale – No

3.         Will it be ready in time for the current MCMVs going out of service – Not sure

4.         Will the delivery systems be (globally) combat ready in time – Probably not

5.         Will this system be as proficient in the secondary roles – No

6.         Will this suite of technologies cost less than 12 x new ships – Probably not   

7.         Is the RN in danger of sacrificing a global maritime lead role – Yes

I’ll finish with an interestingly provocative postscript from a USN senior about remote operations generally: “If you rely on offboarding/satellites or the electromagnetic spectrum for track analysis and/or C2 w/o a resident backup offline capability – in a peer war I will blind you, cut you off, make you mission ineffective and then steal or kill you – every time. The fetish.”

‘And e’en the Ranks of Treasury could scarce Forbear to Cheer’

This was written for the Naval Review in 1995 by Captain Richard Sharpe OBE when he was the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships. It speaks to the ongoing debate about the military’s freedom to communicate, sparked yesterday (21 Apr 20) by the reissue of the MOD’s guidance on “Contact with the Media and Communicating in Public”.

The habits of Dartmouth training die hard, and I found myself instinctively applauding Admiral Essenhigh’s [then Hydrographer to the Navy and went on to be First Sea Lord] riposte (As It Really Is Now – NR, Oct. ’94) to my dreary recitation of Orbat facts and new construction projections (As It Is Now – NR, July ’94).

Comment is free, facts are sacred. If Essenhigh is right, then the Commons Defence Committee is wrong. The former comments that the Navy is being fine-tuned to match the new challenges we face. The latter, in its Eighth Report published in September 1993, took evidence on the existing and projected numbers of operational ships and concluded: ‘In the event of war, the Royal Navy would be incapable of defending our sea routes on which we depend for our trade and the movement of Armed Forces. It is our view that this shortcoming poses a potentially fatal threat to the long-term security of this country’.

The Defence Committee’s judgement looks sound to me, but the issue here is that those who make decisions on defence expenditure are recognised by the Navy as being accountable to public opinion, and not just to the worthy labourers in the Ministry of Defence, a few of whom may sometimes be inclined to believe that their carefully crafted and detailed submissions form the only basis for government decisions. If you need to be disabused of this natural conceit, read Alan Clark’s diaries.

A point made many times in the NR is that the public’s knowledge of defence, and particularly of the sea services, is now far shallower than even 30 years ago, when a lot of people in every part of society had first-hand experience of either war at sea, or at least of national service in the Navy. Dealing, as I do almost daily with brilliant young, and some not so-young, researchers and reporters for the media and other opinion formers, you have to keep your sound bites very simple because most have no feel for what you are talking about. In these circumstances, an answer taken from the otherwise admirable Naval Staff Back Pocket Briefs is like presenting differential calculus to a primary school classroom. Even an experienced and well known television news producer was recently astonished by a day in a warship, which he said was quite unlike anything he had ever encountered before. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘were the purposes and workings of this remarkable institution kept secret from people like himself?’ This is not a criticism of DP(RN) [forerunner of RN Media and Comms and predates the centralisation to DDC] who is not a free agent and, although working in a culture which is institutionally secretive, does his best with a tiny staff to bring the Navy to the public’s attention. But why, in the days when Britannia ruled the waves, as the US Navy does now, did we never think to create a Navy League, as they have, with its own outspoken and freely available monthly magazine, and an organisation in Washington and every other state dedicated to never letting the American people forget the nation’s dependence upon the sea? Answers on a postcard to be sent to the Hydrographer of the Navy.

The issue of exposure to the media needs labouring because in the present defence climate, when the public perceives no military threat to these islands, the fight to turn even an ‘invitation to tender’ into effective warships needs more than the passive acceptance that the skilled internal management of decline is the only option available. Even brand new ships are now vulnerable. The four ‘Upholders’ lying alongside in Barrow set a precedent which we may regret. OTH, in his article ‘Who Will Speak For The Navy?’, puts the same question with greater clarity. The LTC is necessarily the top line to the Central Staff, but it certainly is not to those of us working outside Whitehall. It can be argued that the example set by Mike Graydon, the Chief of the Air Staff, with his outburst last year, achieved nothing because he was immediately forced to withdraw his public criticism of what was happening to his service. This is just another way of making the same point, which is that there is a defined limit to what you can achieve from inside a controlled. bureaucracy.

If you believe we need a strong Navy, it is a grave mistake to express public satisfaction with where we are now, particularly if you can be quoted as an authority. The Treasury is listening, and you may also discourage your less robust friends who want to help. This country can afford to spend more on defence, and if we wish to retain both the international influence and the expertise that our senior Ministers are always boasting about, we had better reverse the current decline in new ship orders, and soon. The era of explicit western dependence on the US Navy is drawing to a close, but is not yet over. Advocates of a Eurofleet, while earning good conduct points in some parts of Whitehall, are in danger of selling what is left of military reality for an excuse to cut even further into national capabilities. The effective use of military force requires a close connection with a credible political process.


Iranian response options after the death of Soleimani

The person. One of the most experienced and hardened military leaders in the world who rose to power during the Iran/Iraq war. Soleimani had a legendary status within Iran. His link to the Supreme Leader was well known as was his authority to act on his behalf. He was arguably the second most powerful man in Iran so should be regarded as more than ‘just’ a terrorist leader.

The lead up. What is not clear yet is whether this was a) long planned as part of the ongoing to-and-fro (noting that no response to the Aramco attack was seen), b) a shorter term escalation following on from the rockets that killed the US contractor, the counter strike in Kata’ib and the counter-counter on the US embassy in Baghdad, or c) a short notice target-of-opportunity that was too good to miss. I suspect c) but fed by b). The intelligence implications of his position being reported (live) from Iraq and that they (presumably) permitted the attack, should not be underestimated.

The response. The SL’s response options to this can be broadly categorised in four groups; military, proxy, counter-assassination and cyber:

1. Cyber. The recently reported increase in activity by Bahraini intelligence suggests that low level cyber activity remains ongoing. Iran could escalate this but, unless they get lucky, escalating in this arena against the US will only have one outcome.  

2. Proxies. Very hard to describe succinctly the breadth, width and latent capability of these, all of which could slowly ratchet up their efforts to cause chaos and confusion across the region. Continued attacks on embassies/outposts possible as is a renewal of attacks on civilians (such as the missiles fired repeatedly at the international airport in KSA). Continued asymmetric (rather than conventional military) activity in the Strait of Hormuz to be expected.

3. Counter assassination. Very hard to call this accurately but surely on their planning table. Could be a close friend of POTUS or a vocal supporter of his within the MENA region. No overseas drone capability so car bomb or something similar, within the next two years. Very unlikely to be done on US/Europe/APAC soil.

4. Military. A huge range of options here, none of which involve going toe-to-toe in a conventional sense. Theatre Ballistic Missiles, sea-mines and fast attack craft, if deployed simultaneously, could cause chaos, cripple coalition command and control centres, destroy  military hardware and would be very difficult to defeat. However, the Iranians will only take this option if they believe the Regime is under threat, if internal pressure to ‘do something’ becomes overwhelming or if they think they can do it and control the subsequent escalation. This last element makes this the least likely option for now (despite the clammer on Twitter).

Other countries. Easy to focus on this becoming Iran vs the US and lose sight of the other local, regional and international players. Oil prices (already) spiking and the effect this will have on the Far East being the most obvious example of the kind of second order effect that may determine the outcome.

Response Assessment.

– Low-level cyber activity to continue. Almost certain (>90%).

Targeted cyber attack on US soil. Realistic Probability (25-50%).

– Increase in nefarious proxy activity. Almost certain (>90%).

— …in the vicinity of major US mil hubs in the region. Probably or Likely (55-70%)

— …increase in civilian targeting. (Realistic Probability (25-50%).

Counter-assassination in due course. Highly probable (75-85%)

Military retaliation. Unlikely (due to difficulty in controlling the situation thereafter) but this depends on the SLs mindset and who is applying pressure on him to respond, both of which are almost impossible to predict. (15-20%)

A Matter of Balance and Mass

Why the Royal Navy needs both

Max Hastings rather depressingly suggests here that the new aircraft carriers are an expensive white elephant that are both vulnerable and reflective of muddled defence thinking. Below are some of my thoughts that may or may not add to this debate.

To deliver a sustainable range of naval capabilities; from coastal to deep water and from defence engagement to fighting, the make-up of the Royal Navy requires both balance and mass. Without the ability to strike from sea, balance has been missing since HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2011. The new carriers have plugged this gap albeit at some cost to the rest of the navy. The ‘fewer big ships’ and ‘more small ships’ argument would reopen this capability gap and also favours mass over balance and so is not the answer. (Also, see the US commentary on their Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) if you want their view on the survivability and therefore utility of these types of vessels.) When the T26 and the T31 frigates are online (fingers crossed for the latter in decent numbers), and presuming the excellent but ageing minehunters are replaced, then the RN will have a level of balance and mass that is as good as can be expected in the current resource constrained environment. 

Two other points. First, carrier vulnerability is overstated. The complexities of engaging a ship at range are significant (particularly when one has the option to shoot back) and often underestimated by those who think of this kind of engagement in terms of a lab experiment. Incidentally, the same goes for ‘transparent oceans’ and the (overstated) future vulnerability of our nuclear submarine force.

Second, our value to the US military in terms of experience, hardware, equipment they don’t have (rare but happens), intelligence, special forces, doctrine and good old-fashioned hardware is much greater than Max suggests. That we are in some way mocked by our US counterparts plays to a particular insecurity that resonates in an article but is something I have never seen close-up. In fact, quite the opposite. As for the carriers, they literally can’t wait for ours to load-share some of their tasks in the way that the Charles de Gaulle has been doing (with disproportionate diplomatic effect) for some time now.

So, keep the carriers. They’re good value for money and we have them now. The US nuclear carrier is first on the team sheet in any planning event despite those who don’t like them (even within their own navy) – ours should be too. Increase Frigate and Destroyer numbers, ideally across the board but certainly via the Type 31e which will provide mass whilst freeing-up the more expensive stuff to protect the carriers (balance). Then recruit and retain the relevant numbers to operate them all. If the navy finds anything ‘a colossal embarrassment’ just now it should be personnel shortages and not the new, and frankly excellent, carriers.

Crisis Communications and ‘That’ Interview

“My reputation is under increasing and now unbearable pressure. I have a communications team but they don’t really understand the weight of my responsibility. I think I need their help, but they’re telling me in so many words to do….very little. (Why do I pay them?) I’m a natural leader and charismatic communicator. I can blast my way out of this and prove to the world that I’ve done nothing wrong. ‘A couple of articles, tweets and a radio interview’, you say? I don’t think so. Bring out the cameras. We’ll do it in the giant room in the massive palace – perfect.”

It doesn’t really matter if you are a senior royal, a FTSE 100 CEO, a high net worth individual or the head of a complex public or military organisation, when a crisis breaks, usually through the media, if you haven’t done the preparatory work your reputation will suffer more than if you had. This preparation will have walked you through a number of graduated response options few of which would have been ‘shout from the rooftops’. And here’s why.

First, if you are going to come out fighting, you need to be very, very sure of your facts. What exactly happened all those years ago? If you’re not sure or can’t remember then you are already on the back foot. It will expose one of the universal truths of communications; that there is a gap between what the operator(s) and communicators of any given organisation are doing, or the ‘say/do’ gap as it’s sometimes known. If this gap isn’t closed then any subsequent words will either sound like spin (if the organisation isn’t doing anything to fix the situation) or worse, disingenuous/dishonest (if the crisis was born of poor actions). If you have done something (very) foolish and then choose the largest platform from which to confront it, you had better be very sure about what outcomes you are after and what your key themes should be or you will make things worse. 

The second piece of the jigsaw is to have a spokesperson (Royal/CEO/General etc) who is able to deliver both this key message, and the packages of information around it, convincingly whilst under pressure. The ability to deliver pre-arranged messages without looking like you’re delivering pre-agreed messages is a rare skill. Coaching and practice are essential. Emily Maitlis, who has been doing this for years, practiced the interview several times. Did he?

Finally, if these two are in place and you still plan to go on the front foot, then the channel through which you wish to impart your information has to be carefully considered, ideally by a group. If you don’t, and think you can ad lib, there is a real risk that either by gaff or omission you will end up creating a feeding frenzy. This also includes the manner of the delivery. If the centrepiece of your interview is humility, then the largest room in Buckingham Palace is not the best location. And why empathy for the victims was not the theme is anyone’s guess but poor planning, again, seems to be at the heart. Or perhaps he had advisors who only say what they think the boss wants to hear – a trait that is surprisingly common in the commercial communications sector.

As ever, there have been notable exceptions to these rules. Richard Farrington on the grounding of his ship HMS Nottingham blasted his way to the front with the, “Just as the sun comes up in the morning, if you run your ship aground you get court martialled.” quote. He demonstrated a willingness to accept culpability that had sections of the Australian press praising him so soon after the incident that the MoD’s attempts to gag him couldn’t keep up.

Likewise saying nothing can sometimes work. Whilst it will often create a vacuum into which the press and others will leap, Sir Michael Fallon’s repeated assertion in late 2016 in light of rumours of a Trident misfire that “we do not comment on the deterrent”, although not particularly pleasant to deal with in the MoD Press Office, kept the operational sanctity of that weapon in-tact and was therefore the right thing to do.

Normally, however, there is a middle ground. The advice, apparently given in this instance, to place an heavyweight article in a major US and UK outlet was good. If he wanted to amplify these words still further, then radio might have been a better medium. The ‘perfect face for radio’ is often a cruel jibe but the underlying premise is sound. You can reach a large audience without exposing many of your idiosyncrasies. In fact there are dozens of ways of reaching one’s target audience that are equally impactful but carry less immediate jeopardy than, say, Newsnight.

The communicator’s job is to identify what these should be through a series of steps starting with ‘what is the objective of the intervention?’. Then, who are the people whose sentiment you wish to change. Once you know these two you can work on the strategy or ‘idea’ to deliver the objective to the audience. This will involve considerable work to identify the message(s), the messenger, the channel and the context. Then, of course, you have to persuade the person in charge to accept your plan. Difficult to do if ‘forward leaning’ is in their nature. As the Commanding Officer of c230 people in a warship, not dissimilar to being a CEO, I’m pretty sure I used to occasionally overrule people who were advising me on what to say, so it’s no real shock when CEOs do it to me now as a communications consultant. At that point your role changes away from comms and towards one of leadership and persuasion.

To conclude, there are as many different types of crisis communications as there are types of crisis. But some rules apply to all. If you don’t prepare then your reputation will suffer more and take longer to repair. If you don’t have a cast iron handle on what you did wrong (or what is perceived to have been done wrong) and address it in the right way, then your bluff will certainly be called at some point – shouting more loudly will only make it worse. The Duke has significant pulling power; alternative less showy options would have gained traction wherever he tried to place them with much lower risk. CEOs everywhere should use the royal interview as a case study from which to discuss their crisis plans with their Directors of Communications. But in sum, if you’re a Crown Prince, then facing down the cameras might just work. If you’re a ‘normal’ Prince, then other options may be preferable.

LBC Interview

Transcript of LBC radio interview – Eddie Mair and Tom Sharpe. 13 Aug 19 at 5:20pm

It’s been weeks since tension between Iran and the UK flared over the seizure of vessels in the Med and the Gulf. Well now Iran says Britain might free its oil tankers soon. Tom Sharpe is a retired naval commander and a communication specialist at a Special Project Partners. Tom, what do you make of these optimistic noises coming out of Tehran?

Hi Eddie, it does sound a little bit like a rapprochement. We’re hearing three to four days for Grace 1 and then hopefully that means a knock on into Stellar Impero. This in part is an extension of the fluctuation of activity that is has been going on in that region for some time. As a warship operator out there, the tension has ebbed and flowed for years.  Sometimes the Iranians have been particularly aggressive and sometimes very calm. So this is perhaps an extension of that although it didn’t feel like it a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully when we get to these two ships released in a ship swap or whatever it’s going to be called, then we can go back to slightly calmer waters. However, I have my doubts because I think fundamentally what the Iranians want from this;  sanction relief and protecting the regime conflicts with what the Americans want, which is freedom of navigation, to reassure and to protect infrastructure and then, ultimately, a denuclearized Iran. Now if we can’t separate out that last bit from the reassure and protect shipping [tasks] then the two will always be at loggerheads, tensions will continue to ebb and flow and the risk of miscalculation in that small area of sea will remain very high.

I wonder how much attention Iran was paying to the fact that John Bolton, who was mentioned at our last story, he’s mentioned in this story too, the national security advisor for president Trump, has been in London.

I would imagine they’ll be paying fairly close attention to that because it may well determine what we do next. Clearly I’m not operating it that the higher echelons of politics, but we have caught ourselves slightly between two stools thus far. First, there is the US policy of “maximum pressure” and second, the EU attempt at starting a task force. And even in the last couple of weeks, through the changes of senior government, we have shifted our posture from one to the other. At some point we’re going to have to pick a side and I suspect the conversations today may determine those decisions and that will affect our posture in the Gulf. So I would imagine there’ll be looking fairly closely at how those conversations go today.

Thanks so much. That’s Tom Sharpe, retired naval commander now with Special Project Partners. Five thirty, here’s the LBC news…

Strait from the Hormuz’s Mouth

Communications Plan for HMS Montrose in the Strait of Hormuz

By Commander Tom Sharpe OBE RN (Retd); freelance communications advisor and Partner at Special Project Partners. This plan is based on GCS OASIS[1] methodology which identifies the Objectives and the Target Audience before attempting a Strategy.



Promote the Royal Navy’s and HMS Montrose’s excellence in delivering this task (before it becomes enduring and/or escalates)


Amplify the strategic foresight that saw a RN frigate forward-based in Bahrain

Demonstrate RN flexibility (above other, similar navies)

Reiterate the global currency that is freedom of navigation

Improve information flow with national and international media


Do not escalate with Iran

Remain right side of rapidly evolving UK political picture


Herein lies the problem, not just with this but with most military communications – it is not possible to target effectively the breadth of audiences listed below with the same set of messages (see initial reaction to Army ‘snowflake’ recruitment campaign). Different channels and approaches are needed almost for each line. If this plan were to be converted into activity, this would from a major part of the Implementation section (below).

Primary Audience

Decision Makers (DM) – Those who shape defence spending

Opinion Leaders (OL) – Those who can influence the DMs. Includes general public, think tanks, on-line defence groups etc

Media Advocates – Elements who show consistent support to the RN

Other Media (All Channels) – Target Audience in own right and route to DMs


Youth – Potential recruits

Navy Diaspora – Important for retention


US Government/Navy – A good time to be presenting as dependable

EU – Separate escorting task from requirement to uphold JCPOA

Iran – RN is there to protect shipping but also to deter/defend/fight if necessary


The current situation in the Strait of Hormuz, whilst unfortunate, provides an outstanding opportunity to showcase the Royal Navy and its contribution to the world stage. It is generating a high degree international interest and is receiving proactive, and often real-time contributions from many of the target audiences. US coverage remains characteristically forward-leaning. RN Communications posture must match this if it is to ensure all objectives are communicated to all audiences by us (and not someone else). Additionally, suppressing information from Montrose risks creating an adversarial atmosphere with the media who will find their information elsewhere. Judgement 1 – nothing in this plan is going to influence Iranian behaviour. Their drivers (removal of sanctions, safety of the Regime) sit above this activity. Judgement 2 – The Defence Correspondents Association (DCA) can be trusted to honour the requirement to maintain Operational Security (OpSec).

The number of people in the communications chain between the ship and the Secretary of State is high: Ship’s Public Relations Officer (PRO); Ship’s Captain; Bahrain PRO; UK Maritime Component Commander; US Navy 5th Fleet Public Affairs; Royal Navy Media and Comms; UK Permanent Joint Headquarters media cell; Commander Joint Operations; Military Strategic Effects (MSE); Directorate of Defence Communications (DDC); Special Advisors (Spads) etc. Any one of these can delay or block a fast-moving communications environment. The requirement to be proactive must therefore be understood by all – delegations are key. Similarly, the difference between (genuine) OpSec material and just ‘sensitive information’ is to be instinctively understood by all parties and not used as a reason/excuse to not communicate.


Selected elements of the Defence Correspondents Association (DCA) to be allowed onboard HMS Montrose (ideally on sailing from port visit). The risk of them getting held onboard due to operational contingencies is to be noted but accepted.

Selected Decision Makers and Opinion Leaders to be granted access next time the ship is on passage to/from a port visit.

RN Media and Comms and DDC Campaigns to align on a proactive, all channels media campaign to support the work of the ship(s) and wider coalition activities.

Embargoes to be used with caution. If a short embargo (less than 24 Hours) allows synchronicity between broadcast and print outlets then it should be permitted. Long embargoes to ensure the release of information synchronises with (distantly related) political announcements should not be used.

Holding back information in anticipation of a VVIP visit should be avoided.

Ship’s Captain and PRO to be allowed to make full use of owned channels. Clear operating parameters to be set – permissions to be treated the same as, for example, weapons release criteria.

Ship’s media posture to be as agile and instinctively understood (and drilled) as their defensive posture, manning posture etc.


Data analysis, polling and online diagnostics to be conducted and then reported on weekly and monthly to monitor effectiveness of Objectives reaching the Audiences.


[1] Government Communication Service: Objectives, Audience, Strategy, Implementation, Scoring