In the latest paper in the Royal United Services Institute Future Defence Review series, Michael Codner (RUSI Director of Military Sciences) presents a series of choices for the new government.
Placing the paper in context he makes the observation that whilst there is some political consensus amongst the new government, principally on the need for a strategic review, there are enough differences to make for an interesting debate. At a higher level and in the context of foreign relations there is a decision to be made on emphasis, do we lean more to Europe or the US and do we retain a nuclear deterrent?
Of a more pressing need is the choice on the structure and capabilities of the armed forces that might support these higher level strategic positions. Whilst he has laid out a number of choices in his previous paper it is probably safe to say that ‘we are not Belgium’ so this leaves a choice between two positions, strategic raiding or global guardian, or maritime or continental in the vernacular of the paper.
I fundamentally disagree with this position because it assumes that a compromise is neither likely or indeed possible, I do not think these options are as stark a choice as described. The fundamental basis for the paper is that the UK has to make a choice, that a fudge is not possible, the UK is in decline against the backdrop of India, China, Brazil etc so we must make this decision because we cannot afford ‘great power status’
This management of decline is something that we need to address, the UK is a great nation, whilst our economy is in the doldrums this is a cyclical thing, it will recover. We need to regain a degree of self confidence and the political will to assert our influence on the world. The UK has massive reserves of hard and soft power, we need above all else, to learn how to harness these different strands for the national interest, not some amorphous ‘force for good,’ a phrase that seems to have seeped even into the US forces.
To summarise my basic position, we need to absolutely avoid making a solid edged decision, because there is a danger we take the wrong one. Better to try and maintain as much as a balanced force as possible, perhaps emphasising one over the other. The problem with harsh choices, even those forced upon us by financial circumstances, is that they tend to produce results that lead to capability, equipment and skills loss that just when you need them, have gone. There are of course practical limits to this and we have to recognise that whilst trying to balance capabilities some will perhaps have to go.
The issue of defence inflation is mentioned, even an increase will only allow us to stand still, yet this is also the same for other public services, especially health. Mr Codner argues that the UK is the ninth largest economy in the world but is the fourth largest military spender and makes the conclusion that we pay more for defence than our economic status justifies. But this makes the relationship between influence and the size of our economy an absolute and neglects the differences in measuring spending (pensions, gendarmeries etc,) comparative purchasing power or even that spending does not actually always equal effectiveness.
The IMF and World Bank both rate the UK as the sixth largest economy in the world, not ninth. So if we are fourth in terms of spending on defence then the difference between fourth and sixth isn’t that great. Delving into the figures even deeper, the difference in size of economy between the UK and France, currently ranked at fifth, is small. Yet, French spending on defence is third. Percentage of GDP introduces even greater contradictions, Saudi Arabia spends the greatest percentage of GDP at over 9% but what does this actually include, if we take this as a measure we are ranked 43rd, yes 43rd.
None of this of course proves anything, defence spending statistics are as confusing, complex and arcane as tractor production statistics, one could prove anything.
Referring to the recent defence green paper, the report highlights the 9 strategic premises upon which the paper seeks to define our place;
- We are more secure today than at most times in our history
- The UK has a stake in the success of the international rules-based system and should maintain an active global military role which complements our diplomatic efforts and enhances our influence on wider international developments
- Our Armed Forces protect our interests. We also use our Armed Forces as a Force for Good
- We must preserve the reputation of our Armed Forces
- No relationship is more important than that with the United States and our relationship also increases our impact
- We must be able to undertake evacuation operations
- NATO is essential to conventional deterrence, reassurance, and collective defence and a robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO
- Our economy is exceptionally open to trade with many parts of the world and relies on the free passage of goods, services and information
- We have to begin the process of renewal of a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent because not to do so would effectively commit us now to unilateral disarmament
The green paper also concludes that the strategy of ‘go first, go fast and go home’ as proposed in the much vaunted SDR98 has not been borne out by the real world of the last decade or so. Yet another nail in the coffin of the PowerPoint fuelled fantasy that was RMA/EBO etc etc. The paper extends this by asking what can be learned from history. What the last decade does tell us is that the world is an unpredictable place and a balanced force is our best insurance against this uncertainty.
Casting an eye over the recent election, the paper describes four false dichotomies and three clear choices.
- US or Europe, is a hard choice between the two or would greater cooperation with Europe actually result in a stronger relationship with the US. The role of NATO is crucial here and the recent NATO strategic concept poses some interesting options for how this might be achieved. Some excellent analysis of the paper can be found here
- Security of Defence, will the review extend to wider domestic security concerns
- Home or Away, the paper argues that home defence might need an away capability
- Afghanistan or the Future, ‘the war or a war’, if the answer is Afghanistan as per Op Entirety then this will limit our strategic ability as capabilities are denuded to concentrate on one area
Three clears choices are then described;
- Trident or something cheaper. This is obviously a clear choice but given it is not likely to be included in any review makes it somewhat of a moot point. Every study and my opinion (for what it is worth) is that Trident is the only credible option
- Efficiency Savings or Risk Free Budget. Efficiency based cost savings might be possible but this might not necessarily support an expeditionary capability. This is a fair enough statement, whilst there are efficiency savings to be had they are likely to be difficult to achieve, after all governments since time began have been trying to be efficient. The only way significant savings can be achieved is if political and industrial concerns are removed from the acquisition process i.e. very unlikely
- People or Kit, both parties have committed to supporting ‘our brave boys’ but any welfare improvements will come at a cost to wider capabilities and not just equipment.
Moving on to a defence review it describes a logical sequence;
- Protect against direct threats (autonomous obligations)
- Meet government obligations (contributory obligations)
- Permit expeditionary operations (autonomous operations of choice)
- Extend status and influence (contributory operations of choice)
Types of Operation
These are the non negotiable elements, must haves. They are comprised of four tasks, defence of the UK mainland, domestic security within the UK, security & defence of overseas territories and evacuation of non combatants, the paper describes the types of capabilities that underpin these tasks.
1) Defence of the UK mainland – Although as the paper states we have collective defence via NATO we must also provide for our own defence and lists intelligence & surveillance, air defence and sea denial as basic capability areas. The question to really ask here is defence from what/who. Realistically there is very little direct threat that needs the application of military force.
2) Domestic security within the UK – In this the paper seems to be somewhat out of touch with reality, stating that the armed forces will typically support the civilian power. No they won’t. The latest doctrine on the defence contribution to resilience (JDP02) quite clearly states that the military contribution to UK security and resilience will be as an absolute last resort. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has seen local authorities, police, fore and other responders improve their capabilities to such an extent that in general, they don’t actually need the armed forces. There are a number of niche capabilities that are still essential for the armed forces to maintain in support of domestic security and resilience but these are niche and relatively low cost. I would prefer to see the armed forces transfer even some of these capabilities, like EEZ protection, to civilian agencies.
3) Security & defence of overseas territories – An obvious need but it is probably better to invest in defensive capabilities and political agreement rather than expecting our armed forces to go an retake those territories after we have allowed our defences to lapse in those areas. These overseas territories are in reality, quite few in number.
4) Evacuation of non combatants – Maritime and airlift capabilities are are the principal enabler, yes, this is an important and likely to be used often capability. UK citizens conduct business, go on holiday and travel all over the world. It is a reasonable expectation to be rescued by the armed forces should things go bad.
5) Defence of the NATO Article V Area – NATO is arguably the most successful security alliance in recent times, our commitments are clear but as NATO reforms and recognises changing realities the nature of those commitments may change.
6) Maritime Security – The paper makes the point that as a ‘maritime nation’ we are economically dependant sea routes and along with other geo strategic reasons means that we are obliged to provide a significant contribution and level of leadership alongside other maritime nations to maritime security. Perhaps reflecting his past career, the author I think, overplays this. Are we really any more or less dependant on the seas than say Germany or Australia, the global trading economy means that in reality all nations are equally dependant on the sea so why should the UK be a major contributor, Recent experience has also shown that the reality of our capability in this area is relatively limited, global trade has not ground to a halt as our collective failure to combat Indian Ocean piracy becomes ever more obvious.
7) Proactive Counter-terrorism – It is argued that terrorism threats are best tackled at source, the paper is at pains not to mention what type of terrorism but we are of course talking about fundamental Islamic terrorism. Mr Codner argues that principal instruments are special forces, specialist infantry (not sure what this is) and air power, supported by maritime basing in some cases. Is this a little too simplistic, proactive counter terrorism may use the full spectrum of capabilities including ISR or submarine launched cruise missiles for example, terrorism may take many forms.
Autonomous Operations of Choice
8) The classic example of this would be Sierra Leone, a single operation carried out without substantive support from other nations. The paper states that this operation started out as a non combatant evacuation and this is correct but part of that operation was to secure entry facilities for a larger UN force and one of those non combatants was actually a British officer attached to that UN force. That said, it supports the need to maintain this capability, no matter the armed forces are doing elsewhere.
Contributory Operations of Choice
9) Perhaps the largest and most important aspect of this section is contributory operations of choice, Iraq being a good example although operations in the Balkans might also be another good example. These are characterised by the UK providing elements of a larger force multi national force That force might be under the auspices of the UN, NATO or even the EU. The paper makes the very good point that the dividing lines between this and others may be blurred and ultimately interlocking. One might argue that Afghanistan sits in this category or number 7, proactive counter terrorism. The paper highlights the argument that once forces have been committed the difference between choice and obligation becomes academic.
It is in the nature of this contribution that the paper sees as the fundamental issue and links back to the previous paper, a Force for Honour. The choices presented are between maritime (Strategic Raiding) or continental (Global Guardian) and he makes the case that a more tentative maritime approach is more likely to have political and public support.
Is this actually the case though, de we have to chose between one or the other and is a maritime approach more likely to gain public support?
On the latter issue I am not sure, we have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and in that time seen a number of national, European and local elections. In none of this time has there been any significant public or political calls for withdrawal. All major political parties support the need for operations in Afghanistan and once operations in Iraq commenced, opposition tended to shift to supporting our personnel with the correct equipment and focussing on the legality of the operation.
There was no major debate between a maritime of continental approach, the public and politicians simply do not see the world with the same eyes as defence analysts.
I would not suggest that Michael Codner is simply taking this view because he is an ex Royal Navy Officer but one can see that ones past will always colour, however slightly, ones perceptions.
Getting down to the nitty gritty , Michael Codner states that it would be easy to define a core force structure for roles 1 to 4 and 6 but is it, there are still many questions to be answered here?
Do we need Typhoons for example to fulfill the QRA North and South roles, could a chepaer aircraft work just as well?
How can we best meet the demand of securing the maritime domain, Type 26 frigates or maybe something less capable, is maritime security best obtained by mentoring local forces?
What are these overseas territories and would their security best be obtained by cooperation or forward defence?
For the other obligatory categories (5 and 7) the question is, to what scale to do contribute. This is true but the questions must be asked what as well as how much. The appropriate contribution is described as whatever we are willing to and these would likely come out of the 1 to 4 categories.
It is at this point that Michael Codner shows a maritime preference in describing Typhoon and heavy armour as legacy capabilities, making the case that heavy armour could have some role in expeditionary operations but not to operations of obligation, whilst there is some truth in this it is not entirely accurate. Heavy armour (if we include Warriors, Challenger, AS90 and tank based combat engineering) could well be used in a number of obligatory categories.
The final stage in this process is defining and scaling the force strucures for expeditionary operations of choice, categories 8 and 9.
After autonomous operations and maritime security what is left is a fundamental question of do we concentrate on the Strategic Raiding or Global Guardian route as defined in his earlier works, and to what scale.
Continental prevalence he argues, provides for a continuation of of capabilities post Afghanistan. Maritime prevelance, allows for a rational expansion of categories 1 to 4, 6 and 7 and a greater ability to influence through inducement operations.
These are pretty big assumptions and need challenging.
How does a maritime strategy (which includes the crown jewels of CVF and JCA) follow on from a rational expansion of categories 1 to 4, 6 and 7?
Not sure an expeditionary carrier strike group has any relevance to the defence of the UK mainland or internal security, defence of overseas territories might be better served by actually defending them rather than planning to gloriously retake them and whilst evacuation of non combatants should be a core capability the types of equipment used do not necessarily mean the same or a logical extension for a maritime expeditionary choice.
The same with 6 and 7, a maritime expeditionary capability is not ideal for maritime security, far from it. It concentrates resources in a small number of very high end platforms at the expense of lower cost and lower capability systems that arguably make a greater contribution.
As for the ability to induce through persuasion because of a maritime focussed expeditionary capability, this is another one of those statements that is accepted as the norm but in reality is a little more difficult to actually prove. Did the fact that their were aircraft carriers practically bumping into each other in the Adriatic and Mediterranean stop the Bosnia Serbs, were Somali warlords deterred by the US carrier and amphibious strike groups off Mogadishu, what about the Taleban or Saddam Hussein.
He also states that a smaller Army would reduce the risk of embroilment, even if that might be in the national interest but costs would need careful consideration because specialist, agile, infantry would higher salary levels to attract and retain suitable individuals.
This one had me scratching my head, reducing bog standard infantry and making a smaller Army that comprises wholly of underwater knife fighting specialists would cost more because they would need to be paid better? No soldier enters the armed forces because of the great rates of pay on offer and increments and allowances for SF or jump pay might increase the cost slightly but in the wider context are simply a drop in the ocean. Come to think of it, I am not sure what the term ‘specialist infantry’ actually means.
He then goes on to discuss implications for specific capabilities.
Command, Control and Communication: High end C3 is an obvious core need but might change in nature depending on which strategy option is taken. I would argue that this would not be a significant change as open standards based systems become more prevalent.
Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Target Acquisition: Again, these might be similar but change slightly in nature depending on the option taken. We need to spend less on the means of collection and more on creating usable and actionable knowledge in the hands of the consumer.
Helicopters: The report makes the point that the need for rationalisation and improving availability are the key, definitely.
Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Ships: In combining these the report describes them vital for operation types 3 and 4, evacuation and security of overseas territories but states that the case for carriers is stronger if the maritime option is taken. This of course assumes that all carriers are created equal. Italy and Spain have a modest carrier capability for the same type of operation but don’t see the need for 2 65k tonne expeditionary strike carriers.
Fixed-Wing Attack Aircraft: Have a core justification in categories 1 to 3, again I would argue that it is not as simple as this, they also have a core contribution to make to other categories.
Infantry: The size of the Infantry is constrained by Afghanistan but after that will depend on the scale and nature of expeditionary operations. The point about specialist infantry comes into play again here but fails to see the whole cost of the infantry. Specialist infantry, by that I assume he means special forces types might cost more in allowances and increments but do they actually cost more in the round, this seems one of the weakest areas of the report.
Combat Support: Will be constrained by the size of the infantry.
Strategic and Operational Airlift: Common to either choice and dependant on the scale
Armoured Vehicles: The issue of adaptability to the prevailing environment is highlighted, citing the UOR process and suggesting that institutionalised off the shelf purchasing may be the way to go. Not sure how this would fit in with the short operational time scale of maritime focussed operation though, whilst UOR has been a success it is a fundamental admission of failure and not something to be aspired to. It creates many problems and as we have said many times, what happens if that shelf belongs to someone else? He also mentions the modularity options of air and maritime platforms, not sure what he means on this one either.
Surface Combatants: The issue of cost, number and capability are highlighted.
Heavy Armour: Displaying a worrying lack of awareness of what and where heavy armour has been deployed in operations in the last few years he makes the statement that the only strong argument for the retention of heavy armour, and one would assume its attendant armoured infantry, artillery and combat engineering, is for category 5 i.e. NATO Article V operations. He then goes on to state that this is a capability that is offered in abundance by our European neighbours. Quite frankly, this is a ridiculous statement and destroys much of the credibility of the paper. Heavy armour (including matching capabilities) has been deployed and successfully used in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has relevance and utility in many categories and although there is a strong argument for a reduction in numbers to simply relegate heavy armour to the dustbin is dangerously naive and uninformed.
Others: Other capability areas include precision engagement and network enabled capabilities remain strong capability drivers. Cyber attack is an interesting subject (although I am not a fan of the term), the paper argues that a strong military capability to defend against cyber attack will provide capabilities useful in domestic security. This seems like a very dangerous confusion of military and civilian capabilities with many constitutional issues to resolve. I think the whole issue of defence against electronic attack, in all their variety, is best handled by civilian agencies that are not hidebound by rank, career based pay scales and other restrictions. The military would be better places to fill in the physical aspects of the electronic defence picture and certain specialist areas. i will cover this in greater detail in a future post.
The report makes the conclusion that there is a logical sequence for defining the future force structure and that beyond obligatory operations the scale should be defined by what the nation can afford and willing to pay for.
The question being, what financial premium, above the 1.6% of GDP of a normal European nation, are we prepared to pay for to achieve/maintain world power status. We are not a normal European nation though, no other except France has a seat on the Security Council or aspires to great nation status. Whilst Germany might have a larger economy her influence on the world stage s much less than the UK or France.
An alternative is also described, become like Canada or the Scandinavians.
I like the report in a lot of places, it makes clear and logical arguments for a sequence that might define the defence review but there are several areas where the conclusions and proposals seem just plain wrong or skewed to the maritime option.
I would start with a series of questions
- Do we really have to make a hard edged choice between one or the other (Maritime v Continental)
- Do politicians and the public actually understand the difference
My answers are no and no.
What do I think…
1. We are a world power and should remain as such, France is not contemplating reducing her role on the world stage and neither should we.
2. The choice between one or the other is not as hard edged as presented in the report, things just are not that black and white.
3. I think we should try and maintain as balanced a force as possible to ensure we can still carry out our autonomous obligations, contributory obligations and small scale autonomous operations of choice. There are many options available on how we resource these and the answers may not be traditional or fit neatly within the capabilities as described in the paper.
4. Beyond obligatory requirements, contributory operations of choice, we need to recognise that we cannot be a mini me USA and carefully select capabilities that we can genuinely offer a coalition a world beating selection that afford real influence in political and operational decision making in that operation/coalition.
This means a hard central core, all arms, full spectrum capability.
Surrounded by selected capabilities that we do and do better than anyone else i.e. the UK becomes a go to nation for a range of capabilities that might actually encompass both maritime and continental options.
5. To make this achievable, we need a modest spending increase in the short term to compensate for a lack of funds in the last decade and dramatically better spending. Better spending means a serious review of political and industrial involvement in the equipment selection processes. Whilst there are strategic concerns in maintaining a defence industrial base, the cost of such should not necessarily be borne by the defence budget.