On Strategy – What Is It

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A Guest post from Chris.B

So, TD is on a drive this summer to turn the debate temporarily away from shiny equipment and things that either blow other stuff up or can be fitted inside an ISO container (tip to other contributors; get your container reference in early to improve chances of getting published) and instead the focus is shifting slightly towards strategy.

I always find that at this point it’s useful to come up with a definition, hopefully one that everyone agrees with, or at least one that people can follow through the course of the article and ensuing comments section, a common terminology which everyone understands. On that note, my personal preferred definition of strategy comes from the free online dictionary, dictionary.reference.com;

Strategy – a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result

A plan for obtaining a specific goal or result. I like that. That’ll do me nicely. And so it is that this summer we – the think defence community – find ourselves discussing plans for obtaining a specific goal or result for the UK, presumably through the lens of the military. But immediately we come up against our first problem.

What is the goal or result we’re looking for?

You can’t develop a plan to obtain a specific goal or result without first knowing what the goal or result actually is. Now it could be argued that the goals of government are many fold and could include everything from economic growth to the health of the population. As this is “Think Defence” however, it’s probably best we restrict the scope of this article to just the goals of defence and not the entire remit of Her Majesty’s Government.

But even then we encounter another obstacle. The diplomatic service, UK Border Force, police and domestic secret intelligence services all play a role in UK defence. Thus really we have to go one step further and narrow the discussion down to “defence of the UK by military means”, such as the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

And herein lays the core problem with discussing strategy as it relates to the defence of the UK. In just the first few paragraphs I’ve already done what so many have done before me. I’ve swept aside a number of critical components of UK defence in favour of purely military solutions. Such a state of affairs will invariably plague any discussion about UK defence and highlights the critical need where possible to have joint discussions, not just joint in the context of the three armed services, but joint in the sense of bringing all interested/involved parties to the table.

That problem acknowledged we’ll move on, but treading carefully.

The next problem we have to deal with is trying to define just what the goal or result is that we’re looking for when we talk about “defence of the UK by military means”?

From one perspective this might just mean protecting the territorial integrity of the UK. That sounds easy until you consider the fact that the UK has a number of overseas territories that depend on the UK for the ultimate guarantee of their sovereign soil. Just to add to the challenge they are dispersed widely around the globe, often in quite remote locations such as the Pitcairn Islands or Ascension Island, or in the case of somewhere like the Falkland Islands they are right on the door step of a potential aggressor.

Even this though is not a satisfactory explanation of “defence of the UK by military means”. As a member of both the United Nations and NATO we are obliged under certain articles to come to the aide of other nations and their people, either as a military ally in response to hostile acts, or as a compassionate and capable nation who has sworn in treaty to uphold international law.

Article 5 of the NATO charter provides a perfect example of this (and indeed may soon be invoked by Turkey), stating that; “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

Thus an attack on Albania is by extension considered an attack on the UK, and although the UK is not specifically obliged to respond with military force, the implication of the treaty is that it would. Certainly the expectation of the Albanians would be for a military response.

By this measure, and measures like it, the “defence of the UK by military means” can quickly grow to encompass its allies and other foreign actors seeking military assistance, such as the Libyan rebels in 2011 and the Syrian rebels in 2012, or issues such as upholding international law by combating piracy, as well as the illegal movement of drugs, weapons and people.  The addition of these factors above and beyond the strict defence of UK sovereign territory further clouds and complicates discussions of strategy.

It also brings us back to the original question; what is the goal or result we are planning for? World peace? Peace for us and our fellow Europeans? Peace for NATO signatories? Or just peace for us, the UK, the rest of the world be damned?

Even if we took the slightly callous attitude of opting for just peace for the UK, there is still a complex web of issues to be considered such as energy security and food security. The UK imports energy products roughly equivalent to what it produces domestically, either for consumption or export. Food wise, the UK imports basic food staples, processed foods, meat, fruits and agricultural produce from all over the globe. We also export many billions of pounds worth of products annually to nations both regionally and globally.

This means that our way of life here in the UK can be negatively affected by events abroad, many miles away from our actual homes and businesses. Our energy and food supplies can be disrupted by military actions without a bullet, bomb or shell ever being expended on, above or around our nation’s territory.

The rational move then would be to identify every last one of these myriad of challenges and figure out a way to counter each one of them. Which we would undoubtedly do… if we possessed a crystal ball that allowed us to peer into the future. Sadly we do not and thus at best all we can do is “horizon scan”; trying to identify likely threats in the near to medium term while being aware of, and reasonably prepared for, the possibility that we may miss something.

But even here we face problems in trying to define what actually poses a threat to us in the short to medium time frame. A classic argument that highlights this discord and comes up on a regular basis is that we are an Island nation, dependent on the seas for trade.

Now strictly speaking this is true. However, the implicit suggestion that follows the “we are an Island” argument is that in order for that trade to proceed unmolested we must have command over large swathes of the world’s oceans.  The reality is that most of that essential trade travels by sea without ever leaving the European Union.

Food imports are a perfect example. The majority of the UK’s food imports travel overseas from the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and Italy. Combined these nations make up about 60% of UK food imports and provide most of the basic staple foods. Much of the remaining 40% of food stuffs imported tend to be goods that are either considered luxuries to a degree (New Zealand Lamb), cannot be grown economically here in the UK (Bananas), or are simply out of season products in the Northern Hemisphere.

To what degree control of the global oceans would be required to facilitate the continued import of these products is debateable, especially now that many of the fruits from distant climes are being flown in by refrigerated air cargo.

Energy imports are also a concern, as noted above, but perhaps not as much of a concern as some would believe. According to recent figures released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the UK was a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011. About 65% of crude oil imports come from Norway, followed by Russia, and small amounts from Nigeria and Libya, then a multitude of very minor suppliers. Coal is predominantly sourced from Russia, Colombia and Australia, with Russia making up about half of all coal imports.

In the short term, gas imports would be considered the most vulnerable. The majority of UK gas is imported from Norway, or through the BBL pipeline with the Netherlands, but Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imported from Qatar has also grown significantly in recent years and thus represents a source of vulnerability when the ongoing issues with Iran are considered.

Still, there is still a lot of leeway here. In addition to efforts by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to build pipelines that bypass the Straits of Hormuz, there is a lot of development going on around the world in the arena of LNG production. Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt and Trinidad & Tobago are all emerging as strong sources of LNG that could access the UK market quite easily.

And while there is strong demand for LNG from other countries too, there are two further developments that could ease the pressure. The first is the rise of Australia as a major LNG supplier, which with the correct investment could occur in the next ten years. Due to shorter transportation distances they would effectively wrap up the Asian markets.

The US also has potential to become a significant player in the market, with investment needed in the infrastructure of its southern ports to really break out as an exporter. US LNG reserves are being revised down as of late, due to suspected over reporting in the previous few years, but their supplies still remain significant. Canada is also likely to emerge as a potential player for European markets.

Only once we have considered all these issues and come to some consensus about what we consider to be the major threats that require “defence of the UK by military means” can we begin to formulate our plan for obtaining a specific goal or result.

But even then we face a significant challenges; economy.

Economically speaking the UK has found itself in a situation of rather dire straits, with significant debt service payments being made each year. The current government has elected to approach this problem with the “Austerity Model”, cutting back future spending to both reduce future debt requirements and to suppress the future cost of borrowing.

That means that money has been cut from the budgets of all government departments including the Ministry of Defence. This naturally has an impact on the plans we make to obtain our defence goals and results. Without the required funding it is simply not possible to pay for the entire wish list of personnel numbers and equipment programs that the services would otherwise desire in order to achieve the “defence of the UK by military means”.

As such, some capabilities that would normally be considered important or at least very useful will instead have to be “gapped”; going without until some unspecified time in the future at which the point the capability can be regenerated. In some cases the capability can be sustained, but only at a reduced level of some form.

So it is that we finally arrive at true strategy, deciding on a plan to achieve our desired goals and results. It is here, once all those other factors have been considered, that we can finally start to talk equipment and formations. Yet even here a further challenge lies.

It is a well known fact that a degree of rivalry exists between the services and that such rivalries extend all the way to the very top of each of the respective service food chains. Often then a propaganda war breaks out between various sides, all hell bent on trying to seek approval for their services solution to a given problem.

This creates additional friction in the strategic decision making process that in a perfect world would not exist, with everyone agreeing on the best solution based on pure merit. In theory the Falkland Islands provide a good example of this.

The Islands are under a certain degree of threat from Argentine aggression, though how much is open for debate. They certainly can’t be left unattended, I’m sure we would at least agree on that. But to defend them you could conceivably go one of three ways; air, sea or land.

The pure air defence would likely consist of the current arrangement with four Typhoons plus a tanker deployed to the Islands, but with extra funds set aside for a Maritime Patrol Aircraft and upgrades to the Typhoon to allow it to engage surface threats at stand off ranges. Defence of the base would fall to the RAF.

The pure sea defence would likely centre around the current permanent deployment of a warship to the Atlantic Patrol Task South, possibly a permanent submarine presence, but mainly the argument that an aircraft carrier could be sent south in the event of a successful invasion and simply win the Islands back.

The pure land solution would doubtless tackle the problem with a well stocked Infantry Battalion, routine patrols, some distributed air defence systems and a promise to hold on and make any invaders life a nightmare until reinforcements could be sent.

All three solutions have some validity, in reality the answer is a kind of mixture of all three. The problem is in making sure that individual service perspectives do not sway the debate from the most efficient and effective, shall we say optimal, solution for providing “defence of the UK by military means”.

And so it is that we reach the end of this particular discussion. My main hope is that this will serve as a background reference for scrutiny when viewing later submissions by all parties on the subject of strategy, to try and highlight some of the pitfalls and concerns that have to be considered when thinking about a strategy for the defence of the UK by military means.

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