As interesting and fun as our various discussions and hair brain schemes about the future shape of UK defence (capabilities and equipment) are, we all acknowledge that without an underlying concept of what the armed forces ‘are for’ we are indulging in nothing but fantasy fleets, however dour and grounded in fiscal reality they may be.
The Future Of series of posts makes a key assumption; defence budgets are unlikely to see a significant and sustained increase short of some major strategic shock.
Is this a sound bedrock for any future planning, probably not, but it serves its purpose and stops any thoughts of laser beam wearing sharks.
However, it is probably worth looking again at the underlying strategy that shapes foreign policy and in turn shapes the armed forces, so here are my ramblings on the subject of strategy, as usual, one view amongst many, not right or wrong.
There is much criticism of the lack of a grand strategy that guides the decisions of successive British governments and various interesting proposals to install some sort of council of wise elders to guide the inexperienced politicians, hedge against short term crisis management and provide breathing space for ‘thinking’ but as alluring as this might be it fails completely because if you have been elected by the people then you are not going to want, nor is it desirable, to be told, however gently, what you should be doing by some old farts who used to be important (unfair but probably realistic)
Politicians are elected to govern and there is quite enough power vested in the unelected ‘great and good’ as it is.
The role of a sovereign Parliament is to hold the government to account and it to this institution, however flawed, that we should look.
The people, through their Parliament, need to reassert their power.
Simply putting yet more unelected layers of influence into an already over complex government mechanism is counter productive. Even the much vaunted National Security Council and new Anglo US arrangements simply complicate matters.
Its composition and appointment process would inevitably be politicised and there is a real danger of groupthink setting in. Where Grand Strategy did work, the Victorian or Cold War eras, there were very clear enemies and/or objectives.
The world is a much more complex and nuanced place but strategy should still be very simple.
That is not to say there is no room for discussion, debate and free thinking on matters of grand strategy, far from it. This is why we have the House of Lords, RUSI, Chatham House, select committees galore, the Defence Academy, think tanks (various), the media and of course, the new media!
If there is to be some sort of higher level guiding, revising of proposal and tempering of rash decisions, surely this is role of the upper chamber and MP’s.
We Are All Doomed
No we fu##^&g well are not, there is a depressing and pervasive view that Great Britain isn’t that great anymore (I am guilty of this sometimes)
But this could not be further from the truth, look at our history, look at our contribution to world affairs and look at our potential, still, you will see plenty to puff your chest out about and think positive thoughts about.
This country needs to rediscover a bit of flair, a bit of self confidence and stop thinking of a million reasons not to do something.
Great Britain bought the world football, Darwin, railways and the X Factor, let’s not forget for a small island off the coast of Europe we have a lot going for us.
Where Values and Interests Clash, or Me Me Me
A grand strategy is where our liberal values of peace, love and functional democracies tend to hit the buffers because whilst it is obvious that Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Zimbabwe can do just about what they please no matter what we say, the same is not so true of others.
We all get a nice warm feeling about promoting democracy and gender equivalence but don’t care enough if it gets difficult or clashes with our national interest, we should stop hiding behind an ethical foreign policy (stop laughing at the back) and just be open and honest.
Instead of trying and failing to be a force for good in the world we should stop, realise that the world doesn’t give a toss what we think and knuckle down to putting the interests of the UK first, second and seventieth.
Grandstanding and posing is for amateurs and whilst we basking in the saintly glow from, for example, Sir Bob and Bono, the Chinese are busy pulling the rug from under our feet.
The ‘ends’ are therefore pretty simple, security and prosperity for the UK.
The Special Relationship
Like some clingy girlfriend (heard that on the radio this morning) the UK is constantly trying to show how important we are to the US and however we might reposition it as an essential relationship there are still elements of a complete lack of reality around the discussions. It is trendy to berate the UK/US relationship and anti Americanism is often simply jealousy dressed up as analysis the bare facts of the matter is that the US always acts in her best interests,
And why bloody well not, let’s not be deluding ourselves that we would be any different, good luck to them I say.
However, the UK does gain a lot from our relationship with the US in trade, military and intelligence matters, of that there can be no doubt but going forward we have to recognise that hanging on to the US coat tails and hoping for crumbs from the table, all whilst the US looks East, is a game of diminishing returns.
Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been of questionable strategic value and unless we somehow try and ingratiate ourselves with the US by assisting them in Asia then the relationship will become increasingly one sided. Libya has laid bare the military power of Europe and from a US perspective, being world policeman and getting bugger all thanks whilst European nations vow to fight the last American must be wearing rather thin and you cannot blame the US for going cool on us.
All nations have special relationships and we are no different, our relationship with the Commonwealth might be called special, we sign agreements with Brazil and France, have cross border intuitions with Ireland, integrate Dutch amphibious forces with the Royal Marines and of course there is our relationship with the EU. The US has many so called special relationships with Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and even Mexico.
We need a more realistic appraisal of where our interests lie and if that means we get closer with nation A or B then fair enough but this constant pandering to the US has to end.
The Lure of the Sea
Many people think the most sensible proposition for the UK is the so called strategic raiding or maritime centric approach. This is where I think the wisdom of the crowd is wrong but it is an appealing and in some aspects, logical choice.
Predictably, these arguments seem to have crystalised on a service centric basis;
If you wear light blue and sip Pimms, isn’t it obvious, without air power, sailors and soldiers lives are at risk, airpower can deliver strategic affect and we should have all the money.
Dark blue and the odd tot of grog; strategic raiding is the answer; after all, we are an island you know and would starve if the sea lanes were not kept clear, the future character of conflict document is wrong and we should have all the money.
Green, don’t raise the port decanter off the table; Afghanistan is the only game in town, COIN is the future and the future character of conflict document is good but not quite right, carriers are no good in a desert and we should have all the money.
None of these arguments hold up to critical analysis but it is Strategic Raiding that seems to have gained a lot of traction.
Gunboat diplomacy on steroids, which is what it is, is strategic thinking devoid of any real thought for the aftermath.
Supporters simply swish the consequences of our actions away with bold statement that after we have knocked the doors down and stirred up a hornets nest, other people (there is a whiff in some quarters of other people being brown), will pick up the pieces and provide the mass for ongoing stabilisation operations where it gets messy and difficult.
The bold assumption, that having a big raiding stick, usually centred on big flat boats with things that fly, provides a credible deterrent and can coerce or influence the actions of those ashore.
Sorry, yet more delusion, did Sadam decide not to bother invading Kuwait because of the USN in the Gulf, did Slobodan change course once the carriers were in the Adriatic, did the West Side Boys give up their hostages in Sierra Leone because we had Sea Harrier, did Mohamed Aidid give up when faced with overwhelming force sitting offshore, did the Taleban decide to give up Osama because of the F18?
No is the simple answer, it took the application of significant and sustained combined arms forces to achieve anything, if at all, in these situations and every one of them was as a result of failures in diplomacy or intelligence.
Extended strategic raiding, if I can call it that, defines almost anything but Afghanistan and the years after the initial invasion of Iraq as strategic raiding so with most of these theories, its all in the eye of the beholder.
The whole ‘we are an island’ argument is anachronistic and assumes that the UK is any more vulnerable to disruptions in the free flow of goods and raw materials than any other European nation. Is Holland more vulnerable to disruptions to the Suez Canal than we are, is France any more dependent on Middle East oil than we are?
Barring a few details, of course they aren’t.
If we are really serious about maritime security and isolation from food and fuel supplies then we should invest in port infrastructure, multiple pipelines, supplier diversity, gas storage, shale gas exploration, offshore renewable energy, sensible agriculture/fishing policies and cross channel security arrangements.
I am not sure why strategic raiding seems such a popular proposition and maybe it is me that is barking bad but not only does it seem like warmed over ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ fantasy where, after using our high technology sensors and rapid reaction capabilities, we launch from afar, kill the bad guys in a hail of effects based trickery, who will have conveniently decided to pit their weakness against our strengths, build a couple of schools in compensation for explosively destroying their country and be home in time for tea and medals. The aftermath, thats for others, we can crack on with shining our carriers and let others do the hard yards of building security.
Not sure the real world bad guys will be so obliging or predictable.
It also has the added bonus of requiring lots of expensive toys, industry and the chiefs will be over the moon because they can measure up to the French and USA instead of actually doing their jobs of securing the UK’s interests.
Strategic Raiding is the latest in a long list of military fashions and allows the service chiefs to keep their big ticket items; the answer is Typhoon, FRES and CVF, now, about that question.
Whilst I do not think a maritime centric strategy is right for the UK I don’t think we should be maintaining large ground forces to engage in extended COIN operations either.
We do not have the manpower and cannot afford it anyway.
The answer therefore (at least in my muddled thinking) is forward engagement and multi dimensional partnerships that build security, provide intelligence and opportunities for early intervention that might not always be military in character.
It isn’t very glamorous or exciting, its hard work, not cheap and the results might be ambiguous at best but I can’t see any other option that is realistic.
Trends and Mystic Meg
Looking into the future is a thankless task, no one ever remembers when you were right but if events turn out to be even slightly different to your predictions then everyone thinks you are an idiot.
In all our thinking we must recognise the nature of uncertainty but equally recognise that to hedge against every eventuality is the same as paying for asteroid insurance for your kitchen.
There are trends and patterns we can make reasonable and educated guesses about, an invasion through the Fulda Gap by the Russians is pretty unlikely for example. Glib maybe, but the point is a serious one.
The National Security Strategy actually made that point quite forcefully and elevated the risk cyber attacks and terrorism but the attacks on so called Cold War Relics TM masks a basic ignorance of the utility of Cold War Relics TM in all spectrum’s of military operations. Challenger 2 might no longer face the Red Army but they are still damned useful today, maybe not as many of them should be supported, but that is the point.
Where the SDSR went off the rails is that it consistently failed to actually take on notice of the National Security Strategy and descended into a lastminute.com orgy of cost cutting where horse trading, back scratching and back stabbing seemed to take precedence over anything else.
In its haste, politicians failed to control the uniformed grown ups and the end result was a series of incoherent salami slices, something that the government vehemently claimed would not happen.
As an aside, whilst everyone is looking East I think we also need to shift our gaze to Africa.
A Practical Notion
Having impressive big sticks is fine but using them generally means something has gone wrong somewhere else, usually an intelligence or diplomatic failure.
Instead of concentrating on creating capabilities for increasingly unlikely scenarios we should be shifting resources to a greater engagement with regional partners. Because of the increasing disparity between personnel numbers and personnel affordability it is obvious that we can no longer provide the bulk of land forces for extended expeditionary campaigns and do so is wasteful of such a precious resource anyway.
The proposed Multi Role Brigade is designed to provide such an enduring force package but a Brigade scale is really too small to be operational useful in this type of operation and I suspect the structure is designed to preserve as many senior officer posts and regiments as possible, regardless of the utility.
Resources should be concentrated on intelligence, diplomacy, building regional stability, partnering, civil affairs and languages for example, in order to making best use of our strengths.
That is not to say we disarm and turn into a nation of knife wielding social workers, far from it, but it does mean a greater emphasis on certain capabilities than others.
Instead of desperately trying to have both width and depth in a full range of military capabilities a re-appraisal is desperately overdue.
The woeful SDSR which over promised and under delivered needs to be neatly placed in the round filing cabinet, with all the other rubbish.
The TD approach sits on a number of principles
Principle 1 – Stomach in tits out
The UK needs to reassert its sovereignty and rediscover its self confidence whilst recognising practical limitations.
Although I am verging onto political ground here, this would mean a full repatriation of powers from Brussels and a reaffirmation of the primacy in law making of Parliament.
Principle 2 – We love you Simon Cowell
The UK has an enormous well spring of both perceived and actual capability in the military, diplomatic, academic, cultural, overseas development, sporting and industrial domains from which to draw, all of which can contribute to security.
We need to stand back, look at what we have and start to pull them together into a coherent approach. How popular is cricket in the UK and South East Asia but do we see the security value in exploiting this common passion, no, but we should be.
When was the last time Simon Cowell was invited to National Security Council, a flippant example perhaps but UK popular culture is hugely influential and should be viewed as a key thread in our security tapestry. I am not advocating sending Simon Cowell to Libya or Afghanistan but culture is important, hold on, that might not be a bad idea. Helmand’s Got Talent, the Taleban would give up in an instant!
People look at our hubris in Iraq and say we don’t really know about COIN, the US student has become the master. But look at Northern Ireland and then look at Basrah and Helmand, we have simply not applied the lessons we so painfully learned in Belfast and Londonderry to warmer and less rainy climes. Before the trendy words like comprehensive approach were even being talked about that is exactly what we did, combining military force with all the levers of state.
We suffer from stovepiped budgets and a lack of properly joined up thinking, let alone joined up doing, as the recent issue of funding for the BBC World Service or flogging off RFA Largs Bay amply demonstrate.
This principle therefore seeks to coordinate these disparate strands.
Merging the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development and elements of the security services into a single entity would be a significant organisational challenge but it would demonstrate intent, show that they are many facets of a single gem and by making them answerable to parliament, including their budget, deliver clear and unambiguous objectives to which they could all align.
Of course there will be much rustling of the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph but I simply don’t care for the has beens, wannabes and vested interests who would challenge such a merge.
The goal is to unify those three squabbling children into an effective force for the UK’s security and prosperity, generally speaking; that means other nations security and prosperity as well but we have to start being selfish.
Principle 3 – Break glass in case of fire
Regenerating capabilities from a small core is much easier than starting from scratch so as a hedge against uncertainty it would seem prudent to retain the full spectrum of capabilities, even at a relatively modest scale. This approach might not be wholly efficient in that it maintains forces and equipment for less likely contingencies but much like an insurance policy, it provides some measure of assurance.
We should therefore retain a hard central core of capabilities, in all domains but with graduating levels of readiness. There is a role for reserve forces in this approach, closely integrated with regular forces as a guardian of skills and capabilities. Reserve forces simply do not have the capacity to do this on their own and it is fallacy to think otherwise but they can play a large part in capability retention and continued development.
This principle also means the retention of a nuclear deterrent, form and function to be defined. It might have little relevance to the vast majority of operations but it serves a few of purposes, first, it is an insurance against the asteroid mentioned above, second, it infers a certain influence, third, it stops anyone indulging in a spot of nuclear blackmail and finally, it contributes to technology independence.
There are many arguments for and against nuclear weapons but the one that matters isn’t logical, it’s an emotional one.
Emotion trumps logic every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
The deterrent should stay.
Principle 4 – No man is an Island, not even an island
This means alliances, special relationships and partnerships.
NATO, the Commonwealth, Five Powers, European partnerships, the United Nations and numerous bilateral arrangements must all play their part, the more the merrier, there is nothing wrong with having lots of mates.
Our security capabilities must not only serve the UK’s interests but the collective interests of our international and regional partners, we must become a better neighbour but also recognise that our contribution to collective security must still be effective and worthwhile.
In capability terms, this would mean developing out from the central core a number of ‘capability plus’ functions that deliver a powerful contribution to multinational coalitions in response to collective security threats. This does not mean fooling ourselves that we can do everything or be a mini me USA and some of our existing capabilities would be scaled back into the core, but it would make sense to build on areas that we are already strong in.
Instead of the current situation, where we have the illusion of being a full spectrum military power but scratch the surface and you see a different story, the fur coat and no knickers illusion, we would clearly state that we are no longer such a power but in these certain areas, we are better than most. In other words, for capability x or y, the UK becomes the go to partner, in yet more words, useful, or in other other words, not a burden that the USA have along so as not to upset us.
When we talk about regional engagement and developing regional security we must actually mean it, put the resources behind it and keep on going. It will be difficult and there will be setbacks but it is the only approach that is feasible in the long term.
The classic inkspot theory is sound, but all the spots do not need to be wholly filled with British ink. This is where engagement with regional partners is important, instead of the ‘kick the doors down and engage reverse gear’ notion of strategic raiding, leaving others to shoulder 100% of the aftermath of our explosive entry, engaging with partners on an enduring basis means our limited resources are used to maximum effect.
Instead of providing the bulk of the manpower for stabilisation operations we can still provide elements of the theatre entry force (if that is needed) and stay engaged for the medium to long term, sharing the burden with others rather than abandoning them which will result in zero long term security benefit.
Principle 4 – Change you can believe in!
There is a fundamental disconnect between the illusion of ‘no strategic shrinkage’ and the impact of the SDSR, or David Cameron maintaining that we are a full spectrum military power right after the service chiefs have unanimously said we aren’t.
We need a strategic review of defence and security that has some credibility, one that actually takes those much heralded tough decisions instead of the weak kneed approach taken by every single review of recent times.
If we cast our minds back to the Haldane, Childers or Cardwell and Esher reforms these had credibility, whatever the outcome. They recognised there was a problem, had no truck with the happy clappy self delusion of the service chiefs or politicians and set about making effective changes with gusto. Crucially, these reports and reforms were not headed by insiders.
This is what we need, desperately.
Turkey’s don’t vote for Christmas the very last group of people we should be inviting to the reform campfire is those on the inside already.
Defence reviews have an unhappy past and certain familiar ring;
1981 (The Nott Review)
We have a choice. Either we can continue to pretend that there is no problem, that we can wish away the threat or imagine that the United Kingdom can somehow sustain, replace and enhance its operational effectiveness without a fresh look at how we perform our tasks. I see my task as a simple one, and no amount of special pleading from one part of our defence establishment or another will divert me from it. It is to form a defence view—not a single Service view—of how we can conduct our tasks within the Alliance in the defence of freedom and democracy.
1998 (George Robertson)
The Review is radical, reflecting a changing world, in which the confrontation of the Cold War has been replaced by a complex mixture of uncertainty and instability. These problems pose a real threat to our security, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or in some troubles pot yet to ignite.
2010 (Dr Liam Fox)
It will be a chance to have a clean break from the legacy and mindset of the Cold War and should be viewed as an opportunity for fresh thinking and change. Make no mistake; we need a step change not tinkering.
The grudging, finger nail scraping road to Future Force 2020 has been a slow but steady one, each time this decline is covered by a smokescreen of strategic thinking but it doesn’t fool anyone. The service chiefs refuse to give up on their parochial interests and vanity projects, vested industrial interests continue their vice like grip on budgets and successive governments have laboured under champagne tastes for foreign interventions and international grandstanding on a brown ale budget.
Nothing significant or radical ever actually happens; gold plated equipment cock ups and over stretched and under resourced forces being asked to do ever more.
Adaptable Britain is a piss poor joke, dreamt up by people who should really know better but don’t.
It maintains the fur coat, but throws the knickers out of the window, as soon as we have to do a spot of flashing; our exposed and unimpressive fanny is there for all to see.
There is a delusional fallacy that strategy should only be shaped by threats/objectives and not resources; this is usually mentioned by politicians on the eve of yet another review that reduces defence spending.
Here is what Dr Fox said on the eve of SDSR
Now, we could start with the money. And lots of Defence Reviews, since the war, have started with the size of the pot, then you see what you can buy from it. The trouble with that is that you end up with unintended consequences in foreign policy
Strategy should always be about resources, as the good doctor now knows only too well.
This is the point where I introduce, yet again, my favourite act of my favourite film.
The service chiefs are the fat kid and the treasury is Santa.
Even now, the MoD is banking on jam tomorrow, wishing for more in the 2015 review, if I were a betting man I would wager the MoD’s hand is going to be full of brown stuff and not folding stuff.
The MoD has to achieve some measure of financial credibility but equally, the politicians have to allow it to do so, so that means a credible, joined up review that faces up to reality.
A new review must look at the wider picture, clearly define roles and requirements and if sacred cows need to be culled, burned and buried, then let’s get at it.
For once in modern history, the forces need a credible defence review that has an equally credible financial underpinning.
Did I say it needs to be credible?
Start with a hard-nosed and realistic assessment of resources, threats and opportunities, realise the only thing important is the national interest and that advancing it is difficult.
Be pragmatic about partnerships but understand they are essential.
Wise up about being a full spectrum military power at scale.
Harness our considerable soft power resource; actually join up the dots rather than just talking about it.
Merge the MoD, FCO and DFiD
Maintain a core set of full spectrum military capabilities at varying readiness levels as a strategic hedge and to enable the UK to mount a small scale expeditionary operation with limited goals without assistance.
Surround the core with two sets of additional ‘capability plus’ areas.
The first would be an extensive mentoring, defence diplomacy, training and assistance force that can work with regional partners to help them to build their own security, provide intelligence and opportunities for early intervention. This would integrate with a wider national capability set that includes and integrates diplomatic, developmental assistance, disaster relief, academia, culture, sport and industry that is focussed on national interests.
The second would be a selected number of enhanced contributory capabilities that allow us to function as an effective and influential partner in coalition operations. The composition and nature of these would be open for debate but the goal is to become the ‘go to guy’ for capability x or y
Have a credible and radical review, reorganise and implement it without mercy or influence from vested interests.
Put the kettle on.