Military fashion delivers more than its fair share of acronyms and buzzwords, in a game of bullshit bingo the card would need to be the size of a newspaper.
As the COIN theory seems to being discredited and replaced with whatever comes next it is interesting to note that it’s predecessor seems to be making a comeback. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) ushered in a new vision of rapid deployments, sensor fusion, information superiority and replacing mass with effect. This was a brave new world in which forces would be rapidly deployed by air, see the enemy before they left their mud huts, fix them with advanced sensors, arrive in a hail of air portable allyness, destroy the enemy (who would have obligingly decided to face us mano a mano) then build a few schools and be home in time for tea and medals.
New medium weight vehicles, airlift, massive information superiority and other very very expensive equipment would replace ‘boots on the ground’
We all know that this particular PowerPoint fuelled fantasy fashion was dealt a very real reality check in Iraq and Afghanistan but the expensive vision that underscored the expensive concepts like the US FCS and UKs FRES seems to be making a comeback.
In the bitch fight that the SDSR has seemingly descended into the argument between the Army, which is traditionally manpower intensive and the RAF/RN which tend to be equipment intensive are at odds.
RUSI, playing the part of the tailor of new clothes suggested that the UK could no longer maintain a balanced force structure and presented a number of options, strategic raiding, which was loosely translated as being centred on maritime capabilities. Supporters of the Royal Navy, in the SDSR debate, latched on to this as manna from heaven because it in one fell swoop provided cover for calling for the Army to suffer a disproportionate reduction. It was also useful in the fight against the real enemy, the RAF that is!
It was and is argued that a raiding strategy is much more appropriate because we are an island you know and no government would likely entertain another commitment like Iraq and Afghanistan any time soon. So, donning the emperors old RMA clothes and calling them new, the brave new world will see UK armed forces reconfigured to a maritime centric raiding force.
It’s all very neat and all too convenient because its gives us all a reason to keep spending on equipment, maintain a strong navy and rarely ever actually get involved in any shooty stuff. The hard and dangerous job of stabilisation and reconstruction would be carried out by those more expendable others, like UN forces, once we had obligingly kicked the doors in and retired back to Blighty. An avalanche of newspaper columns, blog posts, think tank reports and forum comments have followed, all supporting the maritime raiding position in preference to anything else.
The other services haven’t been slow to jump on the same type of bandwagons, the Army think every single conflict will be like Afghanistan, a war among the people. The RAF highlight every incursion into the North Atlantic by Russian strategic bombers as evidence of the need for 400 Typhoon’s.
In many cases, Strategic Raiding simply creates a problem for others and is counter productive. It is sometimes used to justify having a capability to regain lost territory, usually the Falkland Islands, instead of the sensible and cost effective (money and lives) garrison and diplomacy. We also take comfort in the certainty that we will actually be in some sort of control of the nature of conflicts we are faced in, if anything the last 30 years has shown, it is that the world is unpredictable so the widely held view that future politicians will look at Iraq and Afghanistan and think twice is simply, yet another fallacy.
Everyone is in an unseemly rush to look beyond Afghanistan, hold on a minute, lets finish that one before spending too much time/money planning for the future.
It seems that convenient military fashion has trumped the eminently sensible approach of maintaining a balanced force.
If we go too far in one direction or the other we will be unable to adjust in time or at a sufficient level, if our capabilities sit at the centre of the spectrum then whichever unforeseen eventuality occurs we will be able to flex up or down as appropriate.
There is a big ‘however’
We can’t afford this at a high level so might have to choose which capabilities to scale back. We might think it reasonable to cut back on air defence fighters, main battle tanks or frigates but not eliminate them.
I still think it is entirely feasible to maintain a full spectrum of capabilities, at a smaller scale, and then choose which areas of capability we can expand. These would be expanded to a degree that we become the natural choice where they might be used in coalition, medium scale and above, operations.
Which these might be is of course the key debate but the result must be based on what is achievable, what is relevant to the most likely operational context and what delivers the most practical benefit. One might argue, based on likelihood and history, that this is some sort of land based COIN/Stabilisation operation supported by the maritime and air elements.
Above all though, we should forget the emperors new clothes of strategic raiding.