In the previous sections was an examination of current plans, understanding their aspirations and limitations, a look at Italian and French capabilities, a call for more defence spending and finally, an overview of defence challenges facing UK.
The question at hand is how to best deliver against those tasks and challenges described above from a finite resource pool, a finite resource pool that is probably going to reduce in real terms in the next decade or so.
For each of the challenges, they MUST NOT be seen only in defence terms, any change must have a political and industrial aspect, even more-so on a post Brexit world.
In many ways, Norway will have much improved capabilities than during the Cold War but there are many similarities to the basic approach. The reason they are buying a disproportionately large force of F-35A aircraft is because their battle is a battle of airfields, as it was during the Cold War, i.e. air power will make the difference in keeping Russian submarines out of the Atlantic.
It is also our battle.
The first part of our joint approach is to co-operate on ASW operations by both operating a fleet of P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Both the UK and Norway will increase cooperation in this area in the coming years, magnifying the effect. We might share the integration costs for the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile (JSM) on P-8 and purchasing some for both the UK’s P-8 and F-35 fleet.
In addition to cooperating on the P-8, both the UK and Norway will operate the F-35, again, opportunities exist for enhanced development and joint support. In return for JSM integration and purchase, we should seek to engage Norway with the Meteor and SPEAR programmes. This would be a powerful defensive and strike capability, especially where the F-35’s capabilities would be of most use in defeating Russian land based anti-air missiles
Contra deals are often good deals.
Together, the UK, Canada, Denmark, USA and Norway are building a maritime domain awareness belt across the north which will provide timely intelligence, this needs to be an investment priority.
Apart from cooperation and coordination on the F-35 and P-8, and some possibility of reciprocal deals on complex weapons, the UK can also help Norway meet their defence objectives without compromising their delicate political balancing act in regards of Russia, and after all, we have to avoid assuming of Norway, permission is an obvious pre-requisite for anything.
Norway and the USMC are increasing cooperation; more training and a greater focus on the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway (MCPP-N) for example. I don’t think the UK can match this level of commitment but we can support and reinforce the joint air power element.
This is where I believe the UK and Norway should focus our joint efforts.
To keep the P-8’s flying, they and their basing locations have to be protected from air attack and raiding forces. To do this, the UK can usefully offer two capabilities that are politically low impact but in defence terms, very high impact
First would be the ability to surge deploy aircraft to Norway from the UK mainland or from the QE aircraft carrier(s). The RAF is very well practiced with expeditionary deployments at short notice with Typhoon but this capability needs to be preserved and expanded where required. Another possibility would be to use some of the UK’s F-35B fleet to deploy to Norway in support of the Royal Norwegian Air Force. This could be to the same places as any future Typhoon deployment but exploiting the F-35B’s basing flexibility would provide a better suited complementary capability. Whether from the QE carrier or deployed to dispersed ‘road bases’ or smaller airfields, avoiding the small number of RNoAF fixed locations increases targeting complexities for Russian forces and improved survivability. Norway will be closing the Bodø Air Station as part of their F-35A bring into service plan because of noise and other concerns, this might be an ideal candidate for occasional deployments and forward basing as it is not completely closing.
Second would be force protection for deployed aircraft and crew.
Russian special-forces will be tasked with denying operating airbases and killing aircrew etc., infiltrating via Norway’s very long coastline or higher north using air landing. In a previous proposal, I suggested the Royal Marines evolve to more of a littoral security force, reducing in size, concentrating less on amphibious force protection and landings at scale.
This is congruous with that.
It will also need the RAF Regiment to assume a more deployable stance and one that is equipped for extreme cold weather, perhaps taking over some of the RM’s Viking and BV206 fleet.
Conducting regular training deployments demonstrates both resolve and capability.
To summarise, in addition to naval and UK air tasks the UK’s approach to the Northern challenge should be focussed on politically cautious coordination with the Royal Norwegian Air Force on both P-8 and F-35, complex weapons and force protection by countering coastal infiltration and providing localised airbase defence. Above all, it is about the flexible deployment, protection and operation of airpower as it supports the ASW and ASuW mission to allow cross Atlantic reinforcement.
This plays to our strengths, provides meets both political and some industrial objectives, exploits existing or planned capabilities and above all else, achievable. Sharp eyed readers will at this point have spotted that in this strategy, the Army is not involved, and this is an Army focused piece, but this is deliberate.
If the North (and Norway) has some reluctance to be over antagonistic towards Russia, the Baltic States and the Visegrád Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), who all remember what it was like living under Russian occupation, are less reticent. Germany and Poland are much better geographically placed to provide security for the east of Europe, with the US and other European nations playing a supporting role, but German reluctance and some might say, strategic blindness, means this is still challenging despite the obvious warning signs from Russia and their improving capability.
The NATO Enhanced Forward Presence strategy involves four multinational battlegroups, one in Poland and each of the three Baltic States.
In any major conventional operation, Russia would seek to prevent reinforcement by NATO forces.
The Missile Threat website provides an excellent interactive mapping tool that plots Russian strike and air defence missile ranges on a map of Europe.
It should be obvious from this that Iskander missiles fired Kalingrad Oblast and Russia/Belarus hold at threat any deployed forces and their logistic support in the Baltic States and most of Poland, including those included within the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence group.
The border area between Poland and Lithuania is called Suwalki Gap and it has two major roads. The northernmost is the National Road 8 from the Czech border to Budzisko on the border with Lithuania as part of the international E67 route. To the south, the National Road 16, and there are a number of smaller crossing points. From Kalingrad Oblast the main northern route is well within the 50km range of the standard BM-30 Smerch rocket system which includes sub-munitions, HE and anti-tank mines. The longer range HE rocket has a 90km range, putting the southern main route within range.
The Russians have lots of Smerch rockets, lots.
The weather will also play a significant role, especially any spring thaw that produces lots of mud in an otherwise already marshy and wooded area.
None of this is news, everyone recognises the geographic conditions and force mismatch in the Baltic States, everyone understands the essential role of the Suwalki Gap and everyone understands their needs to be a balance between deterrence, reassurance and practicality. NATO forces are exercising across the region, defence spending increasing and various strategies being put in place.
The problem is that Russia has loads of options and NATO has very few, and those few conventional options such as deterrence by forward basing require such a huge uplift in deployed forces they remain unlikely. They also remain fixated on a conventional attack by Russia, the least likely of options, it is almost as if NATO is fixated on rerunning the Cold War. The path to nuclear escalation is also a very short one.
We need to ask a simple question, does a Battlegroup in each of the Baltic States deter Russia, if not, how many Battlegroups would.
I suspect the answer is more than NATO has.
If Enhanced Forward Presence has more political value than military, it brings into focus a complementary strategy, one of making such a conventional attack too expensive for Russia because they would be punished by NATO.
We also need to understand that more likely Russian hostility, and one which ‘heavy metal’ is least suited to, will be a range of intimidation and disruptive activity that prevents NATO nations from responding quickly and effectively. Whilst we might talk in general terms about deterrence by territorial denial or deterrence by counter attack punishment, the question is what part the UK should play in what parts of the spectrum of conflict that range from high intensity combat to cyber-attacks to actions by ‘little green men’?
For the North, the best option seems to be a combination of air and sea, for the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, naval forces will be of much less utility, and whilst they are much further away from the UK, this is also a game we need to have skin in.
Our strategy must be one of helping to increase the cost of Russian hostility such that it achieves deterrence. The key strands of this are; early warning, capacity building and counter-attack.
Early warning will be provided by the full range of technical and human intelligence capabilities, persistent surveillance and developing a sufficient understanding of movements to recognise a movement for what it is. Early warning should be in receipt of significant funding across NATO because the battle in the Baltic States is all about time. None of this would likely be very visible but is likely where the most value for money lies.
Capacity building should ensure the existing forces in the area become disproportionately effective for their size in punishing an invading force. This should be a joint strategy as improving land, sea and air is definitely something the UK can offer significant assistance with. This needs to be genuine capacity building, not just a training course, it needs industry involvement.
By improving Baltic State air defences, they will be able to resource their own Air Policing and relieve NATO of the job. Although this would need a fairly reasonable investment from the UK, creating a joint Baltic air force using surplus RAF Tranche 1 Typhoons would provide both a significant uplift but also have industrial benefits. This proposal would see RAF T1 Typhoons transferred to the joint force and replaced with new Tranche 3a Typhoons.
Although this would require a new funding line, it provided industrial, defence and political benefit for the UK and Baltic States.
Much like that for the North, deployment and dispersal exercises should be a regular feature for both the UK F-35B and Typhoon fleet, and yet another reason to resist any calls for splitting the fleet between the F-35B and F-35A.
Although the UK is the Framework Nation for the Estonian Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup and Contributing Nation for the Polish Battlegroup it could be argued that whilst the Estonian Battlegroup is an important role for the UK, it might be more effective to contribute to a highly mobile counter concentration force in Poland.
This would be a rapidly deployable force that is based outside Iskander range, southern Poland, eastern Germany, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. Politically, South Poland makes more sense and would seem to be more achievable.
When it comes to providing an effective counter force that must deploy at range, planners have two options.
The first option is to stick with the heavy armour and invest in a lot of transport capability. The second option is to design the force to be self-deploying by using wheeled vehicles but compensate for the lack of combat power inherent with heavy armour and compensate with indirect firepower and other means of protection, in other words, the Strike Brigade concept. Assuming Poland would like a permanent UK force, basing a Strike Brigade in southern Poland as part of a larger NATO response force makes a lot of sense.
Making sure this force can deploy will need more engineering and force protection capability than it would ordinarily have organically so in addition to the multinational response force, the UK can also mobile force protection and above all else, combat engineering.
This combat engineering capability would gap crossing, road repair and obstacle clearance capabilities. UK industry would also benefit as most of the equipment is available from UK sources. Pre-positioning in concealed locations near the Sulwaki Gap, perhaps hiding in plain sight in ISO containers, would reduce transit time. The objective here is to make sure any damage caused by Russian forces is repaired in advance of the arrival of the response force or that road/bridge infrastructure damage is rendered irrelevant as new routes across rivers are created.
Force protection from the south of Poland to north of Poland would require highly mobile forces, somewhat akin to the role that the Yeomanry provided during the Cold War. It also needs a powerful artillery and air defence component, backup with sufficient logistics strength and regular practice to deploy from southern Poland. Given combat aircraft are likely to be in short supply, long range precision artillery rockets can replace many CAS and Strike sorties.
To summarise, the UK should focus on early warning, capacity building and ‘doing our bit’ as part of Enhanced Forward Presence but the main effort should be in Poland, making sure a credible counter force exists that can deploy at speed and get through the Sulwaki Gap.
Yet again, capacity building is key, and this is where the Special Infantry Brigade concept shines through. But it must also be backed up with capability building activity as well, it must be joined up across service lines and include extremely close integration with DFiD, the FCO, BBC and industry.
Key focus areas should be light aircraft in support of counter poaching and illegal fishing, maritime security, medical and light infantry skills.
In addition to capacity building, the UK should commit to joining Operation Barkhane and supporting our French allies beyond strategic airlift.
Beyond those described above, the existing public duties, special-forces, overseas territory, training and civil resilience tasks remain.