Author Archives: defenceviper

Defence media in flux

The latest news that US information company IHS, which owns Jane’s, is merging with its UK rival Markit, followed by the announcement that venture capital firm Regent Equity Partners has acquired Defense News, has sent some shockwaves through the defence media establishment.

That the two largest free standing defence media outlets are going through such changes shows that no company is immune to the general trends in media and journalism overall, but also raises questions about whether new owners truly understand the value of what defence publishing can offer.

First of all there are concerns that further skilled journalists and editors will be laid off. In defence media, more than in other sectors, the real value of the company lies with the knowledgeable people it has in its employ – although we would say that.

However, somewhat uniquely defence programmes and acquisitions can drag on for years, even decades, so a deep knowledge is often critical, and this kind of detailed understanding of the defence sector is only built up through years writing the news, attending the trade shows and developing the contacts.

Most national newspapers and media outlets no longer have a specialist defence correspondent. Even if they do it is combined with another role, or seen as a transitional post before moving to something more high profile in their organisation after a couple of years. This makes the knowledge of a specialist defence journalist on trade publications even more important.

This is something that Regent Equity Partners should understand and take into consideration for its future plans.

This has happened before. In the case of Jane’s Information Group, when it was first bought out by IHS in 2007 there was a news reporter on each of the land, sea and air desks to accompany the editor. But resources were reprioritised and these posts slipped away.

In recent years that neglect has become a factor for all of us as the older generation of journalists have begun to retire without passing on their knowledge, and the pool of trainees that Jane’s used to provide has dried up.

Fewer in-house journalists covering day-to-day news puts more pressure on time-starved editors and forces them to rely more heavily on freelance journalists, who aren’t always specialists or native English speakers, leading to loss of deeper reporting.

The new IHS/Markit merger aims to slash $125 million of costs within three years, which raises legitimate concerns about where the axe will fall. Cost control was also probably a factor in the letting go of so many of the experienced journalists from Defense News.

Journalists are at the front line of information gathering, the daily news and reports that are written for online and magazines form a huge part of the base material from which the consultants and information analysts are able to make their judgements, which they sell on to business at a price. I hope that both the publications and their staff survive the cost analysis.

If they don’t it will be a poorer landscape for us all with less friendly competition. Other players, in defence publishing, such as Shephard Media, have over the past few years had to act more nimbly as the environment has changed.

There are now fewer individual standalone publications run by a single editor, than there once were. This is due to the changing nature of the media and the need to develop a quality online presence and provide more material through different mediums such as video, blogs and podcasts.

There have also been a crop of new online-only defence media outlets, particularly in the US, eschewing print completely. That hasn’t been our take on things where we see the need for a balance of the two.

You have to change with the times and adapt to a new environment. Some have struggled to adapt to the new defence climate since the end of the Cold War and the later drawn down of international involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Countries are just not spending as much on defence as they once were and that has reduced the flow of advertising and subscription revenues from the industry.

If the national media has cut defence correspondents with alacrity, the impact on trade media has been delayed.

For our part, Shephard Media – which has its 35th anniversary this year – has made the difficult transition from being recognised as a niche events company with associated magazines, to being solely a publishing outfit with its own range of handbooks, growing portfolio of specialist magazines – recently acquiring Military Training and Simulation News (MTSN) and Military Logistics Forum (MLF) – and a growing stable of editorial staff across the US, Europe and Asia.

There has been some consolidation in the defence publishing sector over recent years, but it still remains competitive. The smaller organisations have been able to adapt faster to the changing marketplace and remain focussed on their core activity – publishing magazines and providing news online.

But the larger firms with a more established presence and which have more resources are now coming under pressure.

That they are owned by companies that are not traditional publishers risks a lack of understanding of the importance of the assets they have – both in staff and the brand – and if the priority is cost cutting then a further breakup of defence publishing is not far off on the horizon, which would be a detriment to the industry and damaging to accountability.

Getting back in the game

The UK’s new conservative government is looking to back defence exports as part of its manufacturing and export strategy – designed to rebalance the UK economy – according to the recently appointed head of UKTI’s Defence and Security Organisation, Stephen Phipson.

Speaking at the Paris Air Show, Phipson noticeably radiated a new level of optimism, although that may have just been the result of turning up to a sunny Le Bourget – something that has been largely missing from recent shows.

The question is what does that really mean? Defence exports under the last coalition government could be said to have been somewhat lacklustre. Behind the scenes officials grumbled that beyond some prestige projects the coalition, and the Liberal Democrats in particular, were disinterested in supporting the defence industry abroad.

But Phipson says there has been a noticeable difference already since the UK electorate returned a Conservative government to power in May.

Freed from having to accommodate its Liberal Democrat partners, who were often queasy about defence sales, the new team at the defence and business ministries are now setting DSO some tough targets.

The government wants to see a doubling of defence exports over the life of the parliament. What that means in terms of the numbers will become clear on 30 June when the national statistics office releases its latest estimates on defence exports.

Big ticket items will therefore be important. Phipson remains optimistic that there could be more Eurofighter Typhoon sales for BAE Systems, although stiff competition from the Gripen and Rafale may put paid to those.

The campaign to get navies interested in the Type 26 frigate is also well under way. But with the rumoured unit price tag creeping up towards £800 million it could be out of the reach of most.

That will leave a lot of the grunt work to smaller, more agile players in the market. These second and third tier companies have a lot of different capabilities to offer. Phipson also reckons that cyber security will play an increasing part in the mix. There are some 3000 cyber security companies in the UK according to DSO and in the last year they signed contracts with foreign nations worth around £1.2 billion.

With a new cyber security strategy already in its second phase and a Strategic Defence and Security Review to complete before the end of the year there is a lot still in play.

For Phipson at least things are on the up as the UK prepares for its own defence industry jamboree in September. Good bye Le Bourget and hello the Excel centre!

Destination unknown

Caught up in the mysterious tides of social media as most journalists are now these days, leaving a few (dis)honourable elder statesmen, it is easy to forget that these new ways of communicating are as much unchartered territory for companies as they are for you.

For the larger aerospace and defence companies, able to throw resources at the conundrum – at least as soon as the boss says ‘we should be using that twitter thingy’ – the undiscovered country can be mapped and explored. But for other players in the market, the legend ‘there be monsters’ often puts them off from even dipping their toes in the water.

That can turn out to be a huge loss for them as social media can be an excellent message multiplier. That’s been the experience for Terma, at least since Jørn Henrik Levy Rasmussen (yes, we think it’s a cool name too) set out on a company journey with every intention of mapping the social media continent for the company.

Even without dedicated resources Rasmussen says that a proper social media strategy should be integral to any business’ communications. Terma formalised its social media strategy several years ago and its now beginning to pay dividends as it connects the company to its customer base.

Rasmussen acknowledges that social media should be handled differently than it would be for a commercial business but that it does help Terma get its message across globally. He also points out that in some regions, such as Asia and Latin America, even air marshals and generals are on twitter – but we wouldn’t count on the UK MoD endorsing that any time soon.

Rasmussen says that focusing on three main channels, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, has also helped. So far the company has eschewed Facebook, but only because without a dedicated team he doesn’t think that the company can be responsive enough.

Without dedicated social media goblins Rasmussen says that it has been up to everybody in the company to do a little bit. That probably also means giving everyone a little more freedom than some US companies I could name are comfortable with.

But for the intrepid Danes it is a formula that is working. There may still be monsters to slay and certainly the company has yet to encounter too many Trolls, but in mapping this new world Terma is finding that there are riches and wonders to be seized for the intrepid.

The dreaded ‘C word’

As I see it US military planners currently have a bit of a problem. Even as budgets shoot down following the end of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have to start looking at the ‘what if’ scenarios for the next 20 years in order to ensure that they have the capabilities needed when their political masters next call on them to defend US interests.

The assumption is the next major conflict to involve the US will be in that timeframe as for the last century at least the US has deployed its military might in major operations with that relative frequency.

Looming large in those ‘what ifs’ is the rise of China and whether its current assertiveness in its region could become a major problem for the US and its regional allies despite the interconnected nature of their economies.

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However, in public forums US military planners hardly ever use the ‘C word’ as if it’s some dirty little secret that can’t be shared outside the family. In some cases this can get to a certain level of absurdity.

I remember being at one briefing on UCAS-D when a military official was explaining the benefits an unmanned naval bomber would bring to the fleet. In explaining the range and stand-off capability one slide showed an unnamed coastline with range indicators of how far off the coast a US carrier group could be and still be effective. Despite the insistence of the briefer to the contrary it was the Chinese coastline turned through 90 degrees and helpfully given the OpFor traditional colour of red.

The reluctance to refer to China seems to have almost reached the limits of some form of inverted Tourette’s Syndrome where the mere use of the word causes speakers to swoon.

China’s bristliness is probably a large part of the reason why this is the case, but you have to wonder if it runs deeper and what damage this could be doing in preventing the military explaining what it needs to the public and to politicians in order to ensure the right funds are funnelled to the right projects.

The dangers of this were clear at the Surface Navy Association’s annual jamboree in Washington, DC this week.

US surface forces are in some amount of structural disarray having concentrated on a certain mission set, largely the projection of air power, since the end of the Cold War. China’s naval rise is forcing planners to look at the potential of large scale surface operations for the first time since the end of the Cold War and the loss of the Soviet navy as a peer competitor.

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The speakers articulated a vision in which the US Navy needs to be prepared for large scale surface engagements (well it was the Surface Navy Association) but sometimes the reasons for needing longer range ship-to-ship missiles became lost without being able to point directly to the threat they need to counter.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some in academic and political circles that obsess about the potential threat that China represents, but they are often outliers, and policymakers and the public in the US usually have more immediate concerns than what may, or may not, be happening in the South China Sea.

However, to paraphrase, without being able to say ‘it’s the Chinese stupid’, military planners lose an important weapon in being able to justify the level of preparedness they obviously think is necessary.

Privately they might be able to say we’re concerned about the threat a more assertive China may represent, but without being able to use the ‘C word’ in the public square then it is going to be difficult to argue for the resources needed when people are more concerned about their weekly grocery bill.

Teksi rules

For those of us covering the world defence exhibition circuit, it’s not unusual to suffer such hardships as traffic jams, badly air conditioned halls and being unceremoniously dumped off stands when someone important arrives – which, given our lowly status (let’s face it, I’m never going to buy my own APC), is not infrequently.

Somehow IndoDefence manages to achieve all of this and more, but you can’t help being somewhat charmed by the experience. Jakarta is a hideous, sprawling mess of a city and the traffic has to truly be seen to be believed (never get in a taxi in rush hour and be prepared to stay wherever you are for the entire time it’s raining). But in all that mess you can see a country that is running at warp speed in the direction of modernity and democracy and for the world’s largest Muslim country shows what can be achieved.

The rapid growth of the country’s GDP (still running at steady 6% or so a year) has translated into an effort to modernise both the armed forces and the domestic defence industry. Probably the best story of the week for me (mainly because I got it first) was the tie up between PT Pindad and CMI Defence on development of the Badak direct fire armoured vehicle (I still can’t call them tanks).

The partnership between the two companies shows how the defence industry can operate at its best.

Saab has a similar ability to work closely with domestic companies and I wouldn’t rule out the Gripen in Indonesia quite yet, although probably the last thing the TNI-AU needs at the moment is to diversify its fleet further. Although to be honest these constant fighter battles that all the AvGeeks get excited about (yes I’m talking to you Ozzie) just make me yawn.

There was one misstep from one of the better operators in the region, the Turks, who were supposed to sign a partnership arrangement on developing a medium tank (although how anything of only 20 tonnes is a medium tank I don’t know).

However, at the last minute the head of Turkey’s SSM pulled out of attending. Whatever the motives of the change of heart it seems to have upset the Indonesians and may well have set that programme back – PT Pindad engineers had expected to almost immediately head out to FNSS to start discussing the project.

Either way, everything these and other national defence industries have in Indonesia (relationships, cultural awareness, willingness to compromise/partner etc), continues to be severely lacking for some.

As is often the case in this part of the world, the US presence was confined to a self-imposed ghetto in one corner of the exhibition hall. Why Americans seem so intent on flying to Asia to spend their time speaking to other Americans is beyond me – maybe they’ve discovered how to sell via mass telepathy.

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The UK industrial presence was also, frankly, embarrassing, particularly for a government that continues to laud manufacturing and exports. Please, please can someone take some photos of how other countries do these things and plaster them to the lamp posts around Whitehall?

There is no doubt that there continues to be contracts to be won here in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

It is not the saviour of the general Western defence industry that everyone seems to think however. While US and UK companies were feasting on the fat of the protracted conflicts their governments got involved in during the 2000s, other countries were already looking in a different direction.

There is no doubt that they will be the biggest winner, which spells danger for some of the business strategies that have been put together in US and UK boardrooms in recent years.

Time to sign off from yet another defence exhibition for 2014 – my head of sales tells me that in some way, shape or form Shephard Media has been involved in more than 80 aerospace and defence events this year. So a big thanks to all those who’ve provided us with the news that makes the job.

Now, do I risk getting a taxi before 8pm or stay here in the Executive Lounge?

Private Practice

The sudden rapid increase in piracy attacks around the Horn of Africa and the, at first, slow response of the international community has led to the rise of a new form of protection for those shipping owners willing and able to pay.

The huge boom in private maritime security companies (PMSCs) has been startling and in a similar vein to their land-based counterparts the initial period of operations created something of a ‘wild west’ environment.

Somalia End of Piracy

However, as naval patrols have brought the incidence of piracy attacks down around the Horn, the environment has begun to change. Easy contracts have been harder to come by and there has been a shift towards increased professionalism in the PMSC community as they look to access new markets and provide a service benchmarked by quality.

In the latest issue of International Maritime and Port Security, Ian Simpson, general manager of Neptune Maritime Security, points out there has been a move by the community to set out and adopt internationally recognised standards, such as ISO (PAS) 28007, which can be used as a stamp of quality. These new standards are designed to give ship operators and owners the assurance they need when they hire the services of a PMSC.

The new standards will also be a handy selling point as PMSCs look to access new markets. As James Bridger explains in his article, there has been a big increase in the number of piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea. Recently there has also been an increased level of organisation to the attacks with pirates being able to pinpoint and target specific ships.

In this respect it would be easy to argue that this would be an ideal market for PMSCs. However, the littoral countries of the Gulf of Guinea prevent private individuals from carrying weapons in their coastal waters. This has altered the role that can be played by PMSCs in the region with advisory and consultancy services more in demand.

Similarly, South East Asia is also becoming a complex environment in which to operate. Low level piracy and theft remain the major issues in the region, although there is the occasional larger act of piracy. However, there are lots of cross cutting jurisdictions and complex political issues for PMSCs to navigate.

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Although there has been a shift in its concentration, piracy remains a real problem globally. As Simpson points out:

‘According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau, there were 116 reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea from January to June in 2014 globally.’

PMSCs have had to adapt to this new environment and not all have survived. There have been several recent announcements of companies going under as they fail to find new contracts or have difficulties being paid by some of the more shady shipping operators. However, it is clear that many of them are adapting to this new environment with gusto.

In the next issue of IMPS, Claire Apthorp will be exploring the environment that PMSCs must now operate in and will be talking to some of the companies about how they are meeting these new challenges.

That’s a load of tank

I woke up this morning to the news that the UK government has signed a £3.5 billion contract for the production of the Scout Specialist Vehicle. There had been rumblings for a while that the British Army was trying to push through at least one major procurement before the next election – Scout is supposedly boiler plate ready ‎and the announcement handily coincides with David Cameron’s trip to the NATO Summit where he can now say the UK is meeting its obligations and is tough on defence.

Scout SV

Leaving aside whether the procurement of the armoured vehicle is good for the British Army or UK industry (that will be more than ably covered by my colleague Tim Fish) what struck me most this morning was the UK’s breakfast news coverage.

For those that still get their news from the BBC (although I’m not sure who they are), they woke up this morning to hear that the UK government was investing £3.5 billion in buying nearly 600 new tanks.

You could say that an armoured vehicle is an armoured vehicle, but there is a hell of a lot of difference between ‎a reconnaissance vehicle and a main battle tank – I don’t care whether you have a specialist interest or are Joe Public, it still matters.

The mistake is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise in UK defence reporting by the general media, particularly when it comes to technology. In a recent Sunday ‎Times piece, a commentator suggested that the proliferation of RPGs and thermobaric munitions could mean that more airliners would be shot down over conflict zones in the future – no, no, no.

In an age when the right facts are usually only a Google search away ‎it shows just how little interest there is in the general media in ensuring that they get the basic facts right when it comes to the topic of defence. I accept this might be because it isn’t seen as an important area of journalism, but if TV news and the newspapers are falling so short on a subject area in which I have some specialist knowledge, then how can I trust the reporting on other areas I care about but have no deep knowledge, such as health or welfare?

Although I’ve mainly taken aim at the UK media, which is what I’m exposed to most, this does not appear to be a uniquely British phenomenon.

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Popping on to my Facebook feed overnight was an infographic from News Corps Australia posted by a friend living down under. The graphic purported to be a handy reference to how Australia planned to fight back against IS in the Middle East.

However, I’m at a loss ‎to understand how the US Air Force’s F-16 Falcon Thunderbirds display team is being brought in to the battle against the insurgents…

You could argue that the public often gets the news that it deserves. If there is no interest in defence matters then why should newspapers and news programmes invest in high quality reporting on the subject?

But that misses one of the main raison d’etres that the fourth estate ascribes itself in western democracies, ‎particularly when it comes to some of its special protections – to keep the public informed on the facts behind political decision-making even when they don’t care.

 

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