This article has been doing the rounds over the last few days and in the run up to SDSR 2015 was seen by many as a timely reminder of just how weak the UK has become.
This article was written by a serving military officer from a NATO member state. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of any organisation or government.
Britain is not under attack, but its place in the world is under fire. The semi-official Chinese Global Times has denigrated the United Kingdom as ‘an old declining empire’ which engages in ‘eccentric acts it takes to hide [its] embarrassment’. The Russians are brazenly flying bombers close enough to its airspace that the Royal Air Force has to scramble fighter aircraft to deal with them once a month, prompting the Scottish National Party to claim that the North Sea is now defended by ‘fishing vessels and social media’. British commentators are accusing their own government of behaving ‘like Belgium’. Even its cherished Special Relationship with the United States appears fragile, as it turns out that America’s heir apparent, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was chuckling at ‘decline and fall of the British Empire’ jokes as recently as 2009. Fareed Zakaria has summed up the current consensus in Washington: ‘After an extraordinary 300-year run, Britain has essentially resigned as a global power’.
Starting with a strong statement to get attention is fair enough but when I read it I knew that, whatever the provenance of its author (who could by the definition, be British), was going to be infuriating.
Russians are brazenly flying bombers close enough that the RAF has to scramble fighter aircraft to deal with them once a month are they?
This kind of point is fairly easy to fact check, it is fairly easy to look at the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) numbers published by the MoD and bash them into a spreadsheet.
Now I am no statistician, but brazen, once per month, not since 2007. 2015 figures aren’t available, but I am guessing they won’t be significantly different, despite the flurry of headlines and Russian bluff and bluster.
If you can’t be arsed to fact check the opening paragraph of your article why should the rest be given any credence?
The North Sea, defended by fishing vessels and social media?
Anyone with even the most basic understanding of British politics would understand why the Scottish National Party made that claim, that it was from a newspaper report about the UK using social media and reports from fishing vessels to gain intelligence about Russian Navy movements. Fleet Ready Escort, SSN’s, the whole tapestry of offshore assets, aircraft and duty towed array frigate notwithstanding, what is wrong with exploiting social media and friendly vessels for intelligence purposes. Even the USA use it, a recent story in Yemen highlighted that in a region with probably the most dense ISR coverage on the planet, the first the US knew of a Scud missile launch from the Yemen into Saudi Arabia was from Twitter.
The Belgium comment has been done by a few people, I even wrote about it in 2010 after Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell publicly deployed the ‘Belgium Bomb’, even though he was careful in his words.
I know British politicians like to obsess about our place in the world, but the reality is we are a regional power with global reach and influence across many domains. As I wrote at the beginning of the year, SDSR 2015 – Britain’s Plans in the World, anyone who thinks Britain isn’t great it either uneducated, or French!
The review is now being conducted by a small team in the Cabinet Office, and will be published in the fall.
So our mystery author is an American!
On its face, ensuring that Britain remains a global power should not be a challenging task. Despite narrowly avoiding dismemberment in September, when 45% of Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom, and an impending referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, the quantitative foundations of British power are solid. The UK has the fifth-largest economy in the world and remains one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Militarily, it appoints NATO’s second-in-command and has the world’s fifth-largest defence budget, nearly £40 billion in 2014. The British people, in the words of pollster YouGov, remain ‘instinctively internationalist’ and although most of them want severe reductions in Britain’s bloated foreign aid budget, they also support high military spending and continuing global engagement.
So, why is there so much cynicism about the future of British power? Part of the problem is hopefully fleeting: the British government today has proved politically impotent, and has sat out negotiations over Ukraine and played a diminished role in the EU as the referendum looms. The far larger issue, however, is the one which this SDSR is seeking to address: Britain’s status as a global military power, which is part of the bedrock of its place in the world, is rapidly diminishing. This is not because Britain has chosen to decline—Albion is simply stumbling into irrelevance.
This is fair enough but whilst me may have played a smaller role in the Ukraine issue I think there has been a danger of the UK talking loudly and carrying a small stick.
The article puts forward three reasons why the Uk is finished as a global power…
The British government doesn’t do strategy.
Strategy is, roughly, the process of using ways (processes) and means (material) in order to achieve political ends. Although British politicians have never struggled to communicate ambitious ends, the British government is awful at cohering ways and means to achieve them.
This is a common and probably justified comment. We know that the SDSR was finance driven but then when you think about it, strategy is all well and good but you have to pay for it. The upcoming review will be conducted in a period of significant global conflict and uncertainty but anyone expecting some grand strategy is in for a big surprise, and yet for the lack of a grand strategy, British governments do have a baseline of understanding of their chosen way forward. We can all wish for more of course, but that is unlikely to be granted.
How about British pork barrel politics?
To make matters worse, much of the money that is still spent on defence will in fact further domestic political aims, rather than foreign policy ends. As Britain becomes increasingly insular, the old adage that ‘all politics is local’ is asserting itself. British Defence Minister Michael Fallon has already promised to ‘spare’ Scotland any significant defence cuts, and that is an astrategic promise that the ascendant Scottish National Party will force him to keep. Some politicians are also now asking the army and navy to prioritise addressing a burgeoning domestic refugee crisis (the police commissioner of Surrey specifically demanded Nepalese Ghurkas). Even when Britain tries to think globally, it seems only capable of acting locally.
In comparison with other nations, especially the USA, we have remarkably little pork barrel type issues in UK defence. With some exceptions, the UK defence market is probably the most open in the world, certainly more open than France, Germany or the USA. Yes there is the Scottish issue and we know that Scottish infantry regiments, despite being relatively poorly recruited were favoured over better recruited English regiments, but in the grand scheme of things this has a minor impact. There is significant investment in the Scottish defence industry and unit basing but the UK has to build ships and base submarines somewhere, and it has to have a nationally representative recruitment, so I fail to understand how this all of a sudden makes defence spending focussed on domestic issues at the expense of foreign affairs. Are Scottish infantry battalions unable to deploy overseas because they are Scottish or do submarine’s based at Faslane only patrol Scottish waters?
Although Prime Minister Cameron has labelled the Islamic State an ‘existential threat’ to Britain, the UK’s contribution to fighting them in the Middle East has been tiny, and Cameron has instead focused on countering extremism within the British isles. This is not how a world power acts—but without the ability to do strategy, we should expect no better.
Tiny, in comparison with who exactly?
This is unfair, ISIS is a global issue but not necessarily a significant threat to the UK so why should we be bothered?
We have discussed ISIS and the extents of our involvement many times but Russia is a world power, China is a world power, what are they doing to fight ISIS?
The next reason cited is value for money.
Britain’s huge defence budget has a huge ‘value-for-money’ problem which puts Britain’s military capabilities at risk.
Britain gets less value than it should out of its defence spending, and as long as this remains the case, the SDSR can do very little to help staunch the decline of Britain’s military might.The British armed forces today are peerless in only one area: inefficiency. In 2012, for example, Britain had basically the same military mass as French, but spent about 25% more to sustain them, only in part because the French are more willing than the British to plan to rely on allies for logistical assistance for sustained operations.
The author is starting to show their complete lack of understanding now.
Hang on, peerless in inefficiency, I call bullshit on that one.
And as for admiring the French because they rely on allies, am confused, it is fashionable to look at the French armed forces from a Top Trumps perspective and moan and groan about the UK but the simple reality for France is they don’t have the breadth of capability the UK has, has a number of glaring capability gaps that might not show up in a fantasy armed forces league table and has to rely on outside assistance for many out of area operations, a setup to be admired it is not.
Comparisons with the US
Comparing the UK and the US is even more illuminating, as the UK military desires ‘global reach’ and thus seeks similar capabilities to the US. Britain spent about $54 billion on defence in 2014, whereas America spent about $578 billion. America, however, got much more ‘bang for its buck’. On land, the US maintains about 2,400 M1-series Main Battle Tanks in its Army, most of which are new models purchased since 2010, and another 400 or so in its Marine Corps (the International Institute for Strategic Studies says the US has 2,785 MBTs in total). The UK, meanwhile, has only 227 aging Challenger 2 MBTs in service, which have the most outdated main gun in NATO and vintage optics. At sea, the US Navy has 273 warships afloat, while the Royal Navy is barely treading water with 19. In the air, the US Air Force and Navy have about 14,000 combat-ready aircraft, while the Royal Air Force has a mere 700. To sum up: the US spends about 11 times as much as the UK on defence, but for this amount it gets 12 times as many tanks, 14 times as many ships (it will probably be 16 times as many by the end of the decade) and 20 times as many planes.
Like for instance, despite the US spending 11 times as much on defence as the UK but gets 12 times as many tanks, the simple reason is pork barrel politics, not because the US Army actually want that many. Congress won’t allow the Army to stop production of the M1 so fresh of the production line they go straight into storage.
Efficient, do me a favour.
14 times as many ships, yes, by counting the ships we don’t and 19 ships is only the frigate and destroyer fleet, count on a like for like basis and the numbers come out in favour of the model of inefficiency that is the UK.
The author has evidently not heard of the term ‘economy of scale’
This comparison inevitably admittedly papers over some important differences.
No Shit Sherlock, as the kids might say
The British defence budget, for example, has had to deal with higher inflation since 2008, can take advantage of fewer economies of scale, and, despite its tendency to emulate American capabilities, has somewhat different strategic imperatives, such as the need to maintain a stable of 485 horses for ceremonial duties. But it also hides the fact that British military equipment is generally older and less versatile than American gear. Fundamentally, it highlights Britain’s numerical and managerial problems: even if Britain had a strategic narrative for what its armed forces should do, it no longer has the tanks, planes and ships to act like a global power.
Oh, he has heard of economies of scale.
Seriously, an article with aspirations to be taken seriously quoting the Daily Mirror about horses being an important strategic differentiator and reasons for the UK not being a global power, really, was it written by the lead author for the Beano.
To really promote efficiency, the SDSR team would have to ‘address the key question as to what volume of investment in security will generate the highest overall value to the UK,’ in the words of the Civitas report, and have the freedom to cut inefficient and expand useful programs within the defence budget. As it stands, it has neither power.
This is actually a good point, the difference between value and cost is difficult to find.
Britain’s leaders remain reluctant to provide significant forces to support globally important missions, putting Britain’s leadership role in NATO at risk.
Britain is a minor player in global military operations today. To wage what Prime Minister Cameron hyperbolically labelled ‘the struggle of our generation’ against IS, the UK has deployed a grand total of eight 1980s-vintage Tornado jets, which are only allowed to strike targets in Iraq. As a February report by the Defence Committee noted, this is a smaller force than those deployed by Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. To ward off Russia, the UK has sent four Typhoons to help defend the Baltic, roughly in line with what other NATO states have sent, and artificially inflated its role in NATO by providing 1,000 staff officers and enablers to ‘lead’ NATO’s new high-readiness task force. However, its land forces sat out two major NATO exercises in June, leaving allies wondering: where has the British Army gone?
Is the author taking the piss?
Eighties era jets, OK, carrying the very latest electronics and weapon systems much like the F16’s and F15’s I guess. Australia isn’t a member of NATO and being compared to those titans of NATO participation Germany, Spain and Italy is just ridiculous. What air despatch did Spain, Italian and Germany provide to the Yazidis’, how many Italian special forces are deployed, what about signals intelligence aircraft with a Spanish flag or Italian unmanned aircraft?
Oh yes, four fifths of the square root of none.
The UK is the second largest contributor to actions against ISIS.
Reading the article I found myself increasingly irritated because it was just shot full or factual errors and yet there was a lot you could agree with, the sentiment was right, the underlying facts, absent without leave.
Let me provide an illustration.
The greatest significant near-term risk is that Britain’s relationship with NATO will far apart. Ever since the UK abandoned NATO’s Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan and left Italy, Turkey, Germany and the US to pick up the slack, NATO staffers have been extremely suspicious of the UK’s dedication to the organization.
Operation Resolute Support has it’s own website, you can look at the contributions (latest figures for May 2015)
Whilst it is true that Germany has 850 personnel deployed, after the fighting, Italy 500 and Turkey 503, compared to the measly 470 British personnel, I do not think the UK will be taking any lessons from anyone on contributions to the Afghanistan mission. Am loathe to make a point off the back of dead service personnel but any casual look back at the numbers will see it was the UK doing the hard yards.
They are not fooled by Britain’s contributions of staff officers and support troops, which only serve to mask its minimal contributions of combat power. A growing number of them would like to see the second-in-command slot at NATO become a rotating position that rewards significant troop contributors, rather than an eternal reward to Great Britain for fighting WWII.They are unlikely to make that happen this fall, but in the long run, unless Britain makes serious changes to the way it does business, it is almost inevitable. This fact should provide an important inflection point for British defence thinkers as they ponder the ongoing SDSR. Although a new strategic narrative alone will do nothing to address the severe strategic and managerial deficits which have left Britain so feeble, it might help guide Britain in the right direction. Above all, a renewed dedication to NATO is essential, as is a renewed dedication to real strategic thought and efficiency within the British government which can underpin it in the long run. Unfortunately, almost no one expects this out the ongoing NSS and SDSR effort.
And with that, it ends.
Some of the sentiment I can agree with, there are harsh but true points within, but the means used to underscore that sentiment are clumsy, inept and inaccurate.
Have a read of the article in full, what do you think?