How far does Britain go? A brief look at the concept of “UK interests”.
Great Britain is a small island, but one massively entangled in the international politic scenarios. Being the sixth economy of the world, and being a small island too, Britain depends on trade. Importations are particularly important, as they are the key of the island’s very survival. Trade is done, historically, mostly by sea, because the whole world, pretty much, can reached by sea, as oceans make up the 70% of the world’s surface, and most of the world’s population lives in a range of 300 miles from the nearer coastline, with most capital towns also being well inside this boundary. Since cargo planes became common, a portion of trade moved on faster aerial transport mode, but the high cost of moving stuff by air, and the very concrete difficulty of moving significant amounts of material by plane limit this at a very small fraction of the total. Indicatively, at least 92% of the goods moved by worldwide trade travel on the sea. For the UK, the figure is higher, reaching 95%. To give an idea, the Parliamentary Defence Committee has put forwards the fact that, was the Strait of Hormuz to be closed by enemy action (something which has happened already in the past) the country would have supplies for 90 days at best. And Hormuz is just one of several chockepoints in the sea routes that shape the world’s economy. Apparently less important for the UK, is the Strait of Malacca, for example: this is the only real route for Asia, and hundreds of ships sail along this straight each and every day. This Strait is vital for Japan’s survival, but is also fundamental to the health of the UK’s economy, as it is the way that all goods coming from and going to Asia have to pass through.
There’s been a time in which the UK controlled the three major chokepoints: Singapore dominated the Malacca Strait, the Rock of Gibraltar secured the entrance to the Mediterranean sea (and sealed enemies since as the navy of the fascist Italy in IIWW into it) and Suez was also british controlled. With Panama in American hands, the situation was safe. Now only Gibraltar remains, but the dependence of the country on sea trade has not decreased at all. There’s no overstating this simple point, much as the “we are an island” argument is loathed and mocked by some. The truth is, and remains, that the UK is the same small island it has always been: the same island that was nearly starved to death by german’s submarines in two different wars.
Although the major trade partners of the UK remain the US and Germany, the UK is expanding its exports towards Middle East and Asia: Qatar, UAE, Oman, India, Japan, Singapore, are all partners boasting expanding economies, and are the new markets the UK is actively trying to penetrate. The UK is heavily involved in many of these countries, as its investment in foreign economies is the highest in Europe. Direct Foreign Investment of the UK in foreign economies is massive, and the relevance of Foreign Direct Investment into the UK is just as important. This reliance, due to the UK’s economy being based on financial services, has a massive impact on the country’s well-being: in 2010, as part of the economic crisis, the UK saw a record 47% drop in foreign investment into the Uk, which fell from 91 billion USD to 46 billion. In 2009, India became the second largest investor in the UK after the US. This is just one of the many reasons behind Britain’s wide, worldwide interests: the stability of its markets, and the return of the massive investments made, is a matter of capital importance to the country. This inexorably expands the boundaries of the security interests of the nation.
The UK has also responsibility for a wide “family” of oversea territories that look at the UK for protection and security. This is not just the Falklands. This includes bases in Antarctica, islands in the Caribbean, and even a remote atoll in the Pacific, the Pitcairn island, which (thanks god) is not menaced by a nasty neighbor (no Argentina in sight there, luckily) and is not a valuable-enough target for anyone to claim. However, it does exist. And can be reached only by boat. While it has no real relevance in shaping the military strategy of the UK, I’m willing to believe that, was a disaster to strike the island, the UK would help, at least as much, in proportion, as it does with other countries, such as it nobly did for Haiti.
|In Red, the british Oversea Territories. In Blue, some of the countries where the UK has some of its current major interests, and also troops based in the area with an arrangement or another.|
The Falklands are well known, so I won’t spend too much time going into detail. I will make it evident, however, that two prized oversea territories are also in difficulty: one is the Carribean islands, plagued by drug-smuggling, done on the sea and even UNDER the sea, lately. That is criminal activity that hurts the local economy badly, and the end result is that that very same drug ends on the street of London. While the local government of the islands is guilty in not moving autonomously (see the cancelled order for the Offshore Patrol Vessels) to help putting a stop to the plague, the UK is failing at delivering enough capability in the area. The naval presence here should be much stronger, but this requires adequate funding. Another area where british military presence is considered weak is Gibraltar, where the Spanish boats of the Guardia Civil invade the territorial waters of the Rock daily, specifically to erode the operability of the base. A couple of recent turning points have been the extension of limitation of overfly rights to US planes bound to Gibraltar (Note: RAF planes bound to Gibraltar are not allowed to fly over Spain as a norm. Now this has been expanded by Spain to cover USAF planes directed to Gibraltar) and the Guardia Civil “assault” with boats on the US submarine USS Providence as it was in the port. Sometimes, someone is going to cause a mess, and at best, soon or later there will be a collision at sea. It is inexorable. Gibraltar is effectively under Spanish siege, and the local government has been asking more and more vocally for a larger and stronger Royal Navy presence to balance things out, as the police boats and HMS Scimitar and HMS Sabre are sorely outmatched and outnumbered.
I also want to take a closer look at Antarctica situation. The UK has several scientific bases in the area, and Great Britain was the first nation to put forwards a revendication of sovereignty over a part of the continent, putting forwards its claim as far back as 1908. Chile made its claim in 1940, and the area it revendicates partially overlaps the British one. Then Argentina put forwards its own clain in 1943, and unsurprisingly such claim does cover a both the british and Chilean area. There is currently a Treaty, the Antarctica Treaty, keeping such claims “frozen”, but this does not cancel the relevance of the revendications: Antarctica is not just ice, but the world’s largest reserve of potable water (70%), and this alone is of capital importance if we accept the future scenario of shortages in this vital resource. So far, we know that Antarctica is also very rich in terms of coal, but being the latest continent, under the thick ice there could be pretty much anything. The world’s last resources are down there. For now at least, the most valuable resources of Antarctica lie offshore, namely the oil and natural gas fields found in the Ross Sea in 1973. Exploitation of all mineral resources is banned until 2048 by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.
While now exploitation of the Antarctica is not possible, this area of the world is likely to become, one day, as vital to the world’s economy as today’s Middle East, and I believe it is indispensable for the UK to keep engaged in the area.
|A map of the bases in Antarctica and of the various claims filed in for the ownership of the last continent. Today it is difficult to really gauge the relevance of the area, but in the future, this is likely to become a point of massive interest.|
As to the Arctic, the UK has been far less active in defending its interests about the North Pole. The North Pole is notoriously a frozen ocean: differently from the Antarctica, which is a continent covered by ice, under the north pole there is the water where SSBNs from URSS and America loved to hide, undetectable. British submarines also venture under the pole at times.
No country owns the geographic North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic states that border the Arctic Ocean — Russia, Norway, the United States, Canada and Denmark (via Greenland)—are limited to a 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) economic zone around their coasts.
Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has ten years to make claims to extend its 200 nautical mile zone. Due to this, Norway (which ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) launched projects to establish claims that certain Arctic sectors should belong to their territories.
On August 2, 2007, two Russian bathyscaphes, MIR-1 and MIR-2, for the first time in history descended to the Arctic seabed beneath the North Pole and placed there a Russian flag made of rust-proof titanium alloy. The mission was a scientific expedition, but the flag-placing raised concerns of a race for control of the Arctic's vast petroleum resources.
Foreign ministers and other officials representing Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenland on May 28, 2008 at the Arctic Ocean Conference and announced the Ilulissat Declaration. Notably, some members of the Arctic Council, including indigenous peoples, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden were not invited to the conference and not party to the declaration, and there’s instent reports and rumors of a battle of claims for resources very intense. The melting polar ice caps are driving the northern rush by opening up potential shipping lanes, fishing grounds and exploration opportunities for oil and other resources. According to the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic ice coverage observed during the month of September has declined more than 11 percent on average each decade since satellite records began tracking levels in 1979. Shipping routes could open up in as few as five to 10 years, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and shaving days and expenses off travel time. The US Navy is already planning to deal with these new opportunities/challenges.
The UK is lagging behind for now, but we can all agree that, if new shipping routes open up in the North, the UK will be advantaged from them in its trade. But it will have to step up its responsibilities as well, as new challenges will emerge, and a new map of contrasting interests will appear. In the future, the extent of the Arctic revolution might be really massive, depending on which resources are found, and what routes become available. It is a process going on now: Canada plans an unprecedented exercise in Arctic warfare, Russia announced the formation of an Arctic force of at least two Brigades to “defend her interests”.
So, where does the UK have interests? Almost everywhere. The UK is one of the world's most globalised countries. London is the world's largest financial centre alongside New York. It is a world leader in most fields, including insurance for ships, via Lloyds, which alone means that the country’s economy is sorely damage by piracy, ships capture and other criminal acts at sea. As of December 2010 the UK had the third-largest stock of both inward and outward foreign direct investment (in each case after the United States and France), which means that the UK has lots of money committed into many countries around the world: all of these, because of the money convoyed into them, have an obvious and immediate relevance to the UK’s interests.
The British economy is boosted by North Sea oil and gas reserves, valued at an estimated £250 billion in 2007. Yet, these reserves are not enough anymore to cover the nation’s needs, if they ever were. In 2009, the UK produced 1.5 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of oil and consumed 1.7 million bbl/d. Production is now in decline and the UK has been a net importer of oil since 2005, hence another good reason to hope in a great oil find in the Falklands. As of 2010 the UK has around 3.1 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the largest of any EU member state.
British Petroleum is also extremely relevant to the UK’s interest, and the effects of the Deep Water horizon on the capitals of a large share of Great Britain’s population were a reminder of it.
In 2009 the UK was the 13th largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer in the EU. Production is now in decline and the UK has been a net importer of natural gas since 2004. In 2009 the UK produced 19.7 million tons of coal and consumed 60.2 million tons. In 2005 it had proven recoverable coal reserves of 171 million tons. It has been estimated that identified onshore areas have the potential to produce between 7 billion tonnes and 16 billion tonnes of coal through underground coal gasification (UCG). Based on current UK coal consumption, these volumes represent reserves that could last the UK between 200 and 400 years. However, this technology is still not exactly mature.
Other responsibilities and commitments come through the Commonwealth, NATO and European Union. Since Germany is still the nation from which the UK imports the most, and seen that European nations make for a huge share of the Export partners, engaging actively in Europe is also a necessity. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/feb/24/uk-trade-exports-imports
Commonwealth: it comprises fifty-four of the world's countries (including one currently suspended member), across all six inhabited continents. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world population, of which 1.17 billion live in India and 94% live in Asia and Africa combined. After India, the next-largest Commonwealth countries by population are Pakistan (176 million), Bangladesh (156 million), Nigeria (154 million), the United Kingdom (61 million) and South Africa (49 million). Tuvalu is the smallest member, with about 10,000 people.
The land area of the Commonwealth nations is about 31,500,000 km2 (12,200,000 sq mi), or about 21% of the total world land area. The three largest Commonwealth nations by area are Canada at 10,000,000 km2 (3,900,000 sq mi), Australia at 7,700,000 km2 (2,970,000 sq mi), and India at 3,300,000 km2 (1,270,000 sq mi). The Commonwealth members have a combined gross domestic product (measured in purchasing power parity) of $10.6 trillion, 66% of which is accounted for by the four largest economies: India ($3.6 trillion), the United Kingdom ($2.2 trillion), Canada ($1.3 trillion), and Australia ($824 billion).
|The Commonwealth: in blue, current members. In orange, former members and in green members with their membership suspended.|
The Commonwealth is too often undervalued in its importance, both political and economical. To provide an idea of its very real value, it is worth remembering that France itself has in the past asked to be accepted as member. At the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956, in the face of colonial unrest and international tensions, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet proposed to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden that their two countries be joined in a "union," with the Queen as head of state; when that proposal was turned down, Mollet suggested that France be allowed to join the Commonwealth, with "a common citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis."
Sudan, Algeria, Madagascar and Yemen have applied to join the Commonwealth. Of these four, Madagascar and Algeria were never British colonies or possessions. Even Israel and Palestinians have been reportedly close to asking to join the organization, more than once.
Fiji has its status of member currently suspended for failing to organize free elections after a recent coup. It is not the first time it happens: Fiji was not a member of the Commonwealth between 1987 and 1997 as a result of a pair of coups d'état, has also been suspended twice, with the first suspension being imposed from 6 June 2000 to 20 December 2001 after another coup. Fiji has been suspended once again, since 8 December 2006, following the most recent coup, this suspension only applying to membership on the Councils of the Commonwealth. After failing to meet a Commonwealth deadline for setting national elections by 2010, Fiji was "fully suspended" on 1 September 2009. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, confirmed that full suspension meant that Fiji would be excluded from Commonwealth meetings, sporting events, and the technical assistance programme (with an exception for assistance in re-establishing democracy). Sharma also stated that Fiji would remain a member of the Commonwealth during its suspension, but would be excluded from emblematic representation by the secretariat.
The Commonwealth and the Oversea British Territories provide a geographical evidence of the worldwide interests of the UK. To these we can certainly add some detail about long-date allies such as the rich sultanate of Brunei. Since Brunei's independence in 1984, forces have been stationed there at the request of the current Sultan, in a renewable agreement lasting five years at a time. The forces stationed in Brunei are available to assist the Sultan as and when required, but are also available for deployment overseas with other elements of the British armed forces if needed. As recompense, the Sultan pays up to £40 million per year to help support the British presence.
BGB is located at Seria and is centred around a light infantry battalion, which will be one of the two battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The battalion stationed in Brunei operates as the British Army's acclimatised Far East reserve, and is available for overseas deployment in the Far East region and beyond - the Brunei based battalion has been deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick on several occasions, and has also been deployed to East Timor and Sierra Leone.
The infantry battalion is supported by a small number of garrison troops that are permanently stationed in Brunei.
In addition, Brunei serves as one of the British Army's major training areas, specialising in jungle warfare, with the Jungle Warfare Training School (also known as Training Team Brunei) running the Jungle Warfare Advisor's Course and the Military Tracking Instructors Course in conjunction with the infantry battalion. The garrison totals approximately 900 personnel, including the 7th Flight Army Air Corps.
Another point of interest for the UK is Belize (Ex British Honduras, independent since 1964), which is a parliamentary democracy and a Commonwealth realm.
The structure of government is based on the British parliamentary system, and the legal system is modelled on the Common Law of England. The current head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Belize, represented in Belize by the Governor-General. However, the cabinet, led by the Prime Minister of Belize, who is head of government, acting as advisors to the Governor-General, in practice exercise executive authority. Cabinet ministers are members of the majority political party in parliament and usually hold elected seats within it concurrent with their cabinet positions.
Throughout Belize's history, Guatemala has claimed ownership of all or part of the territory. This claim is occasionally reflected in maps showing Belize as Guatemala's twenty-third department. The border dispute with Guatemala remains unresolved and quite contentious. Guatemala's claim to Belizean territory rests, in part, on the terms Clause VII of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859 which (supposedly) obligated the British to build a road between Belize City and Guatemala. At various times the issue has required mediation by the United Kingdom, Caribbean Community heads of Government, the Organization of American States, Mexico, and the United States. Since independence, a British garrison has been retained in Belize at the request of the Belizean government. Notably, both Guatemala and Belize are participating in confidence-building measures approved by the OAS, including the Guatemala-Belize Language Exchange Project.
After Belize achieved independence in 1981 the United Kingdom maintained a deterrent force in the country to protect it from invasion by Guatemala. The main British force left in 1994, three years after Guatemala recognised Belizean independence, but the United Kingdom maintains a training presence via the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) and 25 Flight Army Air Corps. BATSUB has been terminated as part of the SDSR cuts, even if some specialized training will continue to happen in the country.
160 civilian jobs will be lost, and the damage to local economy is evaluated in 5 million dollars, but even more worrisome for Belize is the increased risk of aggression from Guatemala.
Other UK interest areas are Cyprus, Oman and Bahrain. Bahrain in particular hosts a permanent Royal Navy presence for ops in the Gulf. UAE and Qatar are also relevant allies, with ties with them growing deeper and with their value to the UK economy growing.
The global nature of UK’s interests mean that:
- Alliances and collaboration are indispensable.
- Independent Expeditionary Military capability is also still indispensable, as not always will allies be able or willing to participate in operations, and many of these allies can supply numbers and support, but most of them are at a technological level inferior to that of the British Armed forces, meaning that often they’ll need help more than provide it. In even more cases, the allies capable to provide sizeable military contribution are likely not to collaborate (Germany in Libya, for example) or collaborate hitting far beneath their weight (Italy). Retaining full spectrum, high quality capabilities also make the UK a more interesting partner, for NATO, for the US, and for increasingly relevant countries abroad. I think we can all agree that alliances with countries such as India, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Brazil, all work in the interest of the country, be it economical or political. All these countries will have a greater interest in a strong Britain than in an irrelevant one.
- Deployability is essential. Fighting off an invasion on british soil is almost a sci-fi scenario today, and so is the idea of a major continental war in Europe. The only thing we are sure of is that the future military operations will be far away from home, and most likely in dusty places. The only military capability that matters is the military capability that can be deployed where it is needed.
- Presence, enduring and tangible, is indispensable to keep contacts with allies, secure the trade and provide conflict-prevention by means of deterrence, as international aid money in itself often won’t go really far.
- The military will be a part more and more relevant of disaster-relief operations, not lastly because the military has the means to deliver the help where it is required. This help will not be merely humanitarian goodwill, but part of an effort of conflict prevention.
- As part of conflict-prevention, the military can provide security, training and mentoring, support, intelligence and world class officer courses for allied personnel.
We have to be very careful in our assumptions about the hopes of success of conflict prevention: more often than not, they do not work. International Aid ends up more often than not being spent on objectives far different than that envisaged by the UK when it gives the money. When it is used in the “right” way, it is not in addition to domestic efforts, but in substitution of it, so that the helped nation can spend more of its money elsewhere. Often on weapons. This is an unfortunate truth, an uncomfortable one, but it is a truth. And it does not even begin entering the folds of the corruption that inexorably bites into aid money.
Similarly, pacification by military intervention is a very complex scenario, and one to be chosen only after accurate thinking, and with a good clarity about what has to be done, and how the target is to be pursued.
An instructive read I want to share is this extract from the Parliamentary Defence Committee of general Sir Rupert Smith, the integral version of which is available here. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmdfence/uc761-iv/uc76101.htm
General Sir Rupert Smith: I have extreme difficulty with the idea that conflict prevention is caused by fighting. My experience is that if you want to intervene in someone else’s fight, you’ve got to win it, and you might find yourself fighting all of them. Just be quite clear what you’re taking on before you start to talk about conflict prevention as an act of your armed forces, because you’ve got to beat the lot, albeit potentially, which was what America found once it was in Iraq.
Q327 Mr Donaldson: But you can use your armed forces before you come to conflict. Conflict prevention is not conflict resolution. They are two different things.
General Sir Rupert Smith: Again, the role of your armed forces in preventing that armed conflict from coming about has to be very carefully thought through and metered. Are you siding with one side or the other? Are you giving the threat, "If you start a fight, I’ll come and stop it"? What are you using that force for? Are you saying, "No, I’ll stand between you," in a classic UN way, in which case you have signed a blank cheque on that manpower until the other two parties have sorted themselves out?
Q328 Mr Donaldson: It might actually be training the local forces to deal with a perceived threat.
General Sir Rupert Smith: In which case, you have joined a side.
Q329 Mr Donaldson: Yes, but we have done that in many places-
General Sir Rupert Smith: Indeed, and look where it is got us sometimes.
Conflict prevention on paper is awesome. In the real world, it is not very efficient. More often than not, fighting ends up being necessary (Sierra Leone, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya…). The few conflicts that were effectively avoided, normally were avoided by taking one side firmly, sticking to the position chosen, and deploying consistent force to scare the enemy into inaction. And the only notable example I can recall at the moment is the british intervention in protection of Belize: the deployment of troops of the army at the border and the presence of HMS Ark Royal with her planes and her escorts stopped the war before it could even start.
If the list was longer, I could perhaps believe a little more in the concept. Instead, I see a single successful example, and one which involved a proper carrier strike capability and sizeable deployed ground forces.
Everyone can take his own conclusions out of it.
Regional building, economic aid, military assistance… all very good concepts on the paper. But meanwhile, even as US and UK pour more and more “help” into Pakistan, they help Bin Laden hiding, along with undoubtedly many other Taliban and terrorist leaders, they buy jet fighters from China at tens at a time – to target them at India, not at the terrorists and talibans breaking into theirown bases. The security of their nukes is a concern for the world, their loyalty questionable at best and all their efforts aim to teasing India into even more of an arms race as they deepen ties with China, and all but offer to Beijing a port to build a Navy base, to effectively trap India in the middle. There is something that clearly does not work with this kind of approach. It reeks of hopeless optimism to think that we can continue to go along this path. The money poured into Pakistan is not shaping their policy in the way we all wish.
Practically everyone agrees that the future will see the world shaken by bitter competition for resources increasingly rare, and that further problems (and/or opportunities and reasons for clashing) will arise from climate change. Yet, there’s equally strong arguing for a reduction in military capability, which at best is to be seen as overoptimistic. Are we assuming that all the problems we accept being part of the future will be solved without the use of force, either demonstratively or in actual fighting?
It seems naïve to assume so.
The uncomfortable reality of Coalition ops
If one looks at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the two Gulf Wars, all coalition ops, he will notice that the main contributors are, invariably, the US and, distant second, the UK, which immediately restricts the actual “coalition” frame in which we should reason and plan. Assuming that NATO will plug the gaps in defence capability is very risky, and not realistic for a number of reasons.
Both for numbers and for technology, the british armed forces have deployed the bulk of the “coalition” part of all these ops (save perhaps for Libya, where France has provided plenty). From AWACS to air refueling, to intelligence gathering (Sentinel in Libya and Afghanistan), from cruise missiles (TLAMs launched from RN submarines in the Balkans, on Iraq, on Libya etc) to amphibious landing forces (Al Fawn peninsula, Iraq 2003) all the way up to less tangible but just as vital experience and planning and command.
The “coalition” that so often gets mentioned these days, in the end means “the US armed forces”. Let’s face this truth once and for all. The European allies do not really like to get involved, and when they do, it is normally for “peacekeeping”: Germany, Italy, France itself, are happier to pour money into the rebuilding effort of Afghanistan than participate in the proper combat phase. As valuable as their contributions are, they often end up being smaller than it should be, and the combination of lack of political will, direct military experience and often lack of adequate kit means that the US and UK end up having to fill the most challenging (and thus most important) checkboxes, and do the fighting part. Afghanistan provides ample examples of it: countries that commit very limited assets, especially considering how much they have got back home (see Germany and France), countries that limit their combat role to almost none, countries that deploy airplanes, but do not allow them to attack ground targets, as bombs “are evil” and we are doing “a peace mission” (Germany and Italy, notably).
In times of budget cuts, everywhere, even in the US, the “coalition” is the excuse everyone use, but it is also a sheet that is getting smaller and smaller, and leaves a lot of the legs uncovered already, no matter how it is turned around. To make things worse, the smaller sheet is also riddled with holes, the “capacity gaps”, that are not just a british thing. The Italian air force has just received the first two of four air tankers from Boeing, for example, after a good few years of gap. Too late to be of use in Libya by the time they’ll be operative.
Sentinel R1 is the example of a capacity that only UK and US have. The Royal Marines are another area that has no real match in the European equivalents. The RFA makes up, alone, over 30% of the European capability in support at sea, and the Point Ro/Ro are an almost unique example of strategic lift. Similarly, the C17 is the top class (in the European side of NATO) in terms of air mobility, and the NATO collaborative plan to buy three of them is obviously welcome, but far from sufficient to plug a long-identified gap in capability.
If we want to aim at Coalition ops, we forcefully have to try and influence our coalition-partners in providing their help when it is needed, providing both quantity and quality. We also need to try and inform them on what particular capabilities we’d like them to retain, expand and provide. And the coalition, as a whole, should actively try to fill the acknowledged gaps: but this is not happening, and indeed the gaps in NATO are becoming more and more, larger and larger.
We must ultimately accept that we will have to listen to the allies requests and suggestions about what the UK should be providing to the coalition. And the very first voice that should be listened is that of the US, for obvious reasons. And the US notoriously want the UK to continue to be an active and global player in terms of:
- Nuclear deterrent
- Special Forces and intelligence
- Power projection
It is not a mystery that the US have expressed these “wishes” very vocally, even during the SDSR. Their desire of seeing the UK capable to intervene abroad (which inexorably requires carrier strike capability) is underlined by many things, such as the twinning of their CVN21 programme to the CVF.
If we aim at “coalition ops” but then ignore the requests of our allies about what we shoud provide to the coalition, we immediately start on a wrong footing.
Ultimately, the truth is that much of what the UK won’t be able to do, will have to be done by the US, or by no one else. And the US are getting tired of this kind of coalition work, in which the share of effort is totally out of proportion, burdening mostly on their shoulders. If the UK loses its own little share of vital “mission enablers”, the impact will be even more disproportionate.
Libya might be the first real, hard-nosed warning that the US won’t always be there to do the work. If they can land their warning and make Europe understand it, this war will be one of the greatest successes ever. Honestly, the US have done even too much. Had they done less still, the lesson would have been more easier to read between the lines and the events.
The allies, even the US, won’t always be there. They weren’t there in the Falklands. Tomorrow, there may be another unexpected scenario to which the UK MUST react but that is of no concern to the allies.
And that day, what the UK won’t be able to do won’t be done.
The reality of nation-building
Again, look at Libya. No one wants to get into the mud and deploy soldiers there in the fighting. Deploying troops is expensive, and land engagement, soon or later, will result in coffins returning to the UK wrapped in flags, with all political implications of this reality. Losses are of course possible also with a Air/Navy campaign, but far less likely given the massive difference in technology and firepower putting us in position of advantage.
The public has had Iraq and has had Afghanistan. It judged them more than enough. With the very effective words of Robert Gates, "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it"
Also, the UK simply can’t engage, alone, in “nation-building” wars. It can’t even take on “province-building” on its own, let’s be real direct. There simply are not enough troops to hold the ground, and there would not be even with an Army of 150.000 men. Sacrificing the “full spectrum” capability of the armed forces to focus on Afghanistan-like “holding the ground” operations is asking for lots of coffins while simultaneously destroying the nation’s capability to do anything else in a more conventional conflict. And it would not cost any less, to add insult to injury, as the need for force protection and for keeping losses down would dictate great expense in a whole range of vehicles, drones, planes and technology to try and keep the soldiers safe.
"We can't know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold," Gates said, "but we do know it will be exceedingly complex, unpredictable, and - as they say in the staff colleges - unstructured."
Future U.S. military interventions abroad will likely take the form of "swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations," which Gates said "is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions."
No one wants another war of that kind, and no one will want to engage in one unless it really can’t be avoided. The most likely (and acceptable) operations that the western militaries will have to face in the future will be swift (as much as possible), involve as little ground involvement as possible, and contemplate it only in as-clear-as-possible scenario, in which there’s a clear enemy and a side to support. Sierra Leone springs to mind. http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=5812835
Special Forces will remain the land element more likely (I’d say certain) to be employed practically in all scenarios. Evacuation of nationals from a foreign country (as in Libya’s opening phase) also remains a likely mission. Land intervention will be limited to the forms and cases that truly can’t be avoided, and ground ops will be shaped to last as little as possible, through use of massive technological superiority and, whenever necessary, crushing firepower.
For this to work, it’ll be indispensable to:
- Set precise targets for the mission.
- Come up with a strategy as clear and complete as possible.
- Engage with the locals to build up knowledge of the area and of the people, and possibly ensure that at least someone will be supportive for real instead of planting IEDs. This is work for the Special Forces.
- Deliver a swift and hard blow, conquered the agreed targets and, if necessary, hold them by the modern version of “digging in”, through FOBs, drone and soldier patrols and everything necessary.
The forces will inexorably need to be deployable. There will have to be means to deploy, support (both in terms of logistic and fire support) and sustain the contingent in the fighting area.
This can be defined as Strategic Raiding, which does not rule out Nation-Building effort. Quite the opposite. In many situations, before building can start, there will be the need to destroy, after all.
Everyone agrees that the strategy of merely eliminating insurgents in an effort to win the war can never succeed. If it could, 30-40,000 militants with Kalashnikovs and RPGs would not still be holding out against 150,000 soldiers from NATO in Afghanistan. It has only been in the past 12-18 months, where the military strategy has shifted to one of protecting population centres, thus enabling the all-important development and reconstruction efforts to take place, that genuine progress has been made.
The strategy must be to eliminating the conditions that give rise to support for the insurgency, not merely eliminating insurgents themselves.
Similarly, in Libya, too: we are not facing insurgents in there, but governatives. The difference ends there, however, as after the war eventually ends, Libya will need support, both economical and technical and military, to return to a situation of normality. Otherwise, it really risks to become a new Somalia, a land with no law, torn by violence between factions and clans.
However, this strategy is not about COIN. A “COIN strategy” does not really exist, since before a nation building effort can even start, there will be almost always an enemy to defeat and a climate of security to rebuild. Invariably, we will be facing the challenges of entering the area of operations. More often than not, to an extent or another, we’ll have to throw down the door. Always, in each and every case, we’ll be facing the challenge of logistically transporting and supporting troops above. We’ll have to deal with the challenge of deploying personnel in a continuous, enduring mission that, useless to hide it, will be quite long. And we will have to do it in a safe way.
“Strategy is the most important affair for a State, the ground of life or death, the path to survival or to extinction: it must be thought out carefully.”
Sun-Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter I
The National Security Strategy, followed by the SDSR, has promised that the UK role in the World has not been menaced by a decade of cuts in military capability and, in more than a case, in diplomacy too. It has been said that the increase (+34%) in Oversea Aid budget and the 0.7% of GDP target for aid has balanced the shrinkage, and someone has been courageous enough to suggest it actually improved the view the world has of the UK.
This is, at best, a delusion. While Aid has certainly a role to play in delivering security and conflict prevention, we should not tell ourselves such lies.
Julian Lindley-French, professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy at the University of Leiden, member of the Strategic Advisory Group in Washington, and member of the board of the NATO Defence College in Rome, has the knowledge to back his arguments, and his vision of the situation clashes massively with the scenario painted in the NSS, as he’s made clear in a recent Hearing before the Parliamentary Defence Committee. Notably, he’s observed:
“I live in the Netherlands; I have lived abroad now for 25 years. I am in Washington an awful lot, and believe me our influence is shrinking rapidly. I am seeing that and hearing that. I am working closely with the French, who are very frustrated by this almost pretence that is going on in London.
What strikes me, ladies and gentleman, about the National Security Strategy is that it paints a very big picture of a big world and then promptly cuts all the tools available to influence it. That strikes me as the essential paradox of the two documents. There is a certain brand, internationally, that is the United Kingdom, and that brand is primarily diplomatic and military. Both are tired, and both are being overstretched, because they are being asked to do too much on too little. I strongly suggest that that has to be gripped here.”
Being Italian myself, even without the direct experience, knowledge and engagement of Professor Lindley-French, I can certainly say that the UK has still a massive diplomatic weight, and especially still enjoys supreme respect when it comes to military matters. However, both are shrinking rapidly: years of cuts (often perceived as too brutal and badly thought-out) have depleted the consideration the rest of NATO has of the UK: once, what Britain did influenced the allies massively (an obvious example is the Harrier and the Invincible-class carriers, a concept copied everywhere), while now the UK appears often at odds with the direction followed by the alliance. Two examples being the scrapping of Nimrod MRA4 and lately Nimrod R1 too, which even the needs of the Libya campaign could not save, despite the initial reprieve that pushed back the OSD for a little while. These two cuts all but weakened sectors (Naval Patrol Aircraft and ISTAR) which are already at their weakest point ever within NATO. Similarly, NATO has expressed shock at the SDSR indication of retiring Sentinel R1, a capability currently unique in Europe, and literally provided only by the US with their J-STARS platforms. NATO is pursuing the AGS (Air Ground Surveillance) system, made up by six modified Global Hawk drones, to plug the gap at least a bit: the UK did not join the effort, having its own national capability in the ASTOR/Sentinel R1, which was also seen as an invaluable integration to the AGS itself, so that the decision of retiring them in 2015 has attracted nothing but criticism and shock.
The NSS has drawn heavy criticism itself: the picture of the world and the threats it outlines are widely regarded as realistic, but the means of reacting to these threats, and the measures outlined in the SDSR, are considered incoherent.
Professor Lindley crucified it without hesitation: “It is recognising only as much threat as we can afford.“
While actually explaining, shortly after, and with the agreement of the defence officers present at the Hearing, that the NSS as actually tried to recognize only as much threat as was affordable, but failed even at this, as the SDSR delivered cuts that clash with the NSS assumptions, and furthermore delivered a plan that continues to be not affordable. It is notorious that the MOD was saved a billion more in unfunded liabilities by the Treasury this year just because of Libya’s involvement, and it is also known that later this month a new study will report, with updated calculations on the immediate budget gap (a billion in 2012 has been for example suggested) and on the long-term gap (8 to 20 billion, depending on the source you want to listen to) that will have to be closed with the promised (but never confirmed) increase in funding to achieve FF2020.
Former Wing Commander Andrew Brookes, RAF, formerly part of Air Power Studies at the RAF Staff College and aerospace specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies for 10 years and now director of the Air League, which was formed in 1909 to encourage the nation to appreciate the vital necessity of air superiority, bitterly observed that: “I just think that Brits don’t do strategy. This is our fundamental problem. We have never done strategy. The Germans do strategy. Strategy is almost a dirty word. This is not strategy; this is almost a budget-driven laundry list, at the end of the day. We can put "strategy" all over it, and we can stamp it, but I do not detect a long-term strategy for, dare I say, solving the economic crisis-it underpins the way we do it-or a role in the world that fits our requirements, aspirations and where we should be. I was looking for all that in there. Sometimes people say, "If you do this, you will end up like a new Netherlands." Well, I don’t see anything wrong with being a new Netherlands. I look in vain for a strategy. All I see here is a long list of budget-driven devices, followed by a period of haggling, and at the end of the day, we call this a strategy.”
In other words, there’s no real choice of what to be, what to do, and no plan for doing it. Which even before the actual cuts, is the big problem.
The Coalition government continues to deny the shrinkage the SDSR has imposed to the country, but they are notoriously considered entirely wrong by mostly everyone. Wing Commander Brookes put it as: “Go anywhere now, and you see the sign. As the Americans say, when the rubber hits the road, you see that we do not have the influence that we used to have. We either pitch up with dodgy kit or with a lack of something, saying, "Please, can the Americans provide that? Please, can somebody do something else? Please, can we wait a bit longer?" If our strategy is to go out there to impress people with what we are delivering, I do not think we are doing it.”
But the most impressive and relevant observation comes, again, from professor Lindley: “The new enduring relationship-I will avoid the "special relationship" phrase-is ultimately, in Washington’s mind, with both Republicans and Democrats, built on our ability to leverage other partners, primarily Europeans but also Commonwealth members. If we lose that ability because of a profound perception of our decision not to be a major second-rank power, our influence in Washington will decline further. There will be very clear strategic, practical implications.
The specific impact will be on NATO, because what is generating and becoming very clear in Washington is that the Americans are increasingly becoming an Asia-Pacific power. What they will look for - in a sense, Libya is increasingly the test case - is Europeans under Anglo-French leadership to look after our bit of the world, which is a pretty rough neighbourhood, while an overstretched America deals with the epicentre of change in south and east Asia. If we cannot step up to that leadership role, and we are choosing not to adopt it, the fundamental assumption in the NSS that the Americans will always ultimately be there for our security and our defence is being undermined.
The question then becomes: what level of capability does Britain require to ensure that the Americans feel that they can invest in our future security defence because it is part of the overall whole? I was at a meeting in Tallinn a couple of weeks ago, and a German MP seriously said that Germany would not modernise its deployable armed forces, and that it would not even conceive of modernising nuclear forces, but that it might allow the Americans to pay for and put in place a missile defence system that protects Germany in Europe. The inference is that if we are moving inadvertently into that camp - the Dutch are certainly going into that camp - our loss of influence in Washington and, I would suggest, elsewhere, will be profound. The French, frankly, have a lot more traction than we do these days because they talk a better show than we do.
The tragedy, for me, for London is that after all the sacrifices of the past 10 years of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are almost snatching contempt from the jaws of respect, on the Hill in particular. I am not overstating this; that is the consequence of these two documents on the American political mind that considers these issues.”
In further evidence of this, Mrs Moon, member of the Committee, observed: Professor, […] I heard it perhaps from what I see in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am member, where there is a diminished role for Britain and a diminished voice, at a time when the message clearly is that America expects the NATO alliance to be largely managed from this side of the Atlantic, and not from their side. They are currently funding 80% of it and there is a requirement for us to stand up to our own defence. Is this stepping back something that is happening across Europe? Is it something that our defence review has allowed others also to step back from? That is what worries me-that we have almost given permission for others to step back, whereas in the past we were always pushing people forward to step up to do more.
Professor Lindley-French: “That is a fair point; the Dutch are a case in point. They were the one small to medium-sized continental European country willing to give a balanced force a go. However, they have been in retreat for some time now. Last month the Minister, in announcing a further swingeing cut, used our SDSR as basically the permission so to do. There clearly are implications there.
[NOTE: the Dutch have very recently rolled out their own SDR, and have announced their own brutal share of cuts, going as far as retiring their whole tank fleet and putting an end to their MBT story. This has caused, of course, concern in NATO, with hopes being expressed that “there won’t be others following the same example. After the cuts, the Dutch are now arguing for more sharing and pooling of resources within NATO and Europe both: once more, the approach is one of cuts, followed by a knock on the Alliance’s door. But past the door, there are other allies which also have cut and shed capability, so that the reality is that there is less and less and less at every round. I know there will be who says that this is a step towards an “European Army”, but the tragedy is that I don’t think it is the case. Such level of ambition is not yet there, and it might be a very long time before it ever appears, and moreover, the idea that European Armed Forces can be created by maiming the existing capabilities across Europe is so flawed that I struggle to imagine even politicians, notoriously not bright, coming up with it. Indeed, European Armed Forces would be welcome, compared to the mindless cutting going on at the moment.]
I fully recognise that there are a lot of European countries-mainly because of the German position, I have to say-that have been in retreat for a long time, aided and abetted by poor American leadership. I have made that point in the US several times-that the Americans have a responsibility to lead well, not just lead. Our interest is to renovate a strategic concept in Europe that ensures that there is a genuine European pillar of the alliance stabilising this turbulent world. That is our mission; and we are not stepping up to that plate. Any chance of bringing Europe back on strategic line, if you like, is, I fear, in danger of being lost.”
Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, an ex-naval Vice-Admiral who spent 41 years in the Navy, observes: “One of the consequences of what we have just been discussing is that, where we have decided to remove a capability or to take a capability gap, there is no one else in Europe about to fill it. They were not filling it before we removed it, and they are certainly not going to fill it after we have removed it.
I say, en passant, with respect to our retention or otherwise of influence, that the Chief of the French General Staff made a speech last weekend in which he described himself as astonished at what had happened in the United Kingdom. He announced - rather to my surprise, I must admit - that the French had always regarded the British Navy as a model. He followed that comment with a Gallic shrug. There is no question but that what we have done has been noticed in a major way by important allies.”
The picture is in front of our eyes, and the experts all agree that the situation has been mishandled and keeps worsening. NATO and Europe are losing weight, power and coherence at an alarming rate, and the US are growing more and more irritated with it, as many speeches from Robert Gates, defence secretary, and many others, have proven. The US, indeed, tried to influence the SDSR itself, delivering more than one warning, but were substantially ignored. France itself has joined the UK with a treaty it honestly puts great confidence in, but already now it is seeing a UK substantially unwilling to really follow along, and give to the plan and treaty a sense. France wants to cooperate with the UK to form the hard, leading core of the European side of NATO, and be the leaders of this half of the world, while the US take care of the major challenge of all, the rise of Asia. The UK, however, seems to not understand the gravity of the change and of the moment, despite “change” being one of the most common words on defence planning documents in the last 20 years, together with “uncertainty”.
Bitterly and a bit brutally, I think it is not wrong to say that the UK has not got a cue at the moment about what is going on and what should be done.
The Committee was swift in countering this with a point that I’m sure many would move: perhaps we do not want/need to be in such a leading position, and can retreat from the scene. The experts agree that this is a possibility, albeit a non welcome one, and only if framed in a proper strategy. Vice Admiral Blackharm expressed a concept I wholeheartedly agree with: “I think that the whole underpinning of this is economic. This is where the strategic document does not really give enough credibility to economics. Last night, and in Singapore at the weekend, the Secretary of State’s No. 1 point was that we have to get the economy right to do everything else, yet I do not see the economic debate coming out through this in any way to underpin everything that flows thereafter. I always tend to quote Adam Smith on this. As he said in Edinburgh 200 years ago, "Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence… but peace, easy taxes and a reasonably tolerable administration of justice."
It’s the peace we don’t get any more. It should be saying here that our No. 1 requirement is peace. When Smith said that in that century, we had been at war one year in two throughout the whole century. In this century, we have been at war one year in one. For 11 years this century, we have been at war. I look in vain for something that says, "Is that a fundamental requirement for the underpinning of everything we do?" Because at the end of the day, peace is what we need to build on and unless somebody says that emphatically, we are going to continue to go to war and spend money and not have enough of this, that and the other. That is my problem with this document and the whole strategy: unless we get the economics right, we are not going to do any of this and we are not going to get the economics right while we seem to go into conflicts almost at the drop of a hat.”
The point is that the UK is currently retreating, and very fast. But at the same time, it is struggling not to lose its influence and power on the international stage, by remaining an active player, and using the military tool to obtain the relevance needed and desired. Libya being an obvious example.
The point the expert make is that “retreating and attacking” isn’t working. It only stretches the military, puts unacceptable dangers and challenges down on the men on the ground, and delivers insufficient effect. Either the nation retreats and accepts the consequences of its retreat – loss of influence, dependency on others for its defence, loss of bargaining power and attraction for potential partners and allies – or keeps its rank and does it with a strategy and with acceptable levels of funding.
The second option appears the best one, and it is not past the possibilities of the UK, but past its current will. In practice, the UK has world power ambitions, but provides to its forces only ‘retreat’ funding. Or better, cuts.
The experts made it clear that while the Oversea Aid has a role to play in the overall defence structure, there still are doubts about its effectiveness, the rationale behind the current Aid plan, and about the opportunity of putting it in law. Professor Lindley observed: “There needs to be a much better strategic communications effort to explain why the development budget is increasing by 34% and diplomacy and defence are being cut significantly. If all three are part of an influence campaign, we want to see a balance in investment between the three. But, on the other hand, if aid and development, which increasingly seem separate from diplomacy and defence, are largesse, I would ask why we are giving the famous India all this money when it is going to launch 12 guided missile destroyers this year and it has a nuclear programme and a space programme. If Indian poverty is so important to India, given the levels of corruption in the Indian Government, frankly, and where their money is going, it seems to me to be a very poor influence campaign. If, on the other hand, they are truly largesse, there are other countries and societies in much greater need than rapidly growing India. Even on the assumptions of strategy and influence, the imbalance between the three pillars is very much open to question.”
I might add that we are getting extremely low value for money from helping Pakistan with all the money US and UK are putting into it. And while Pakistan is admittedly a very delicate and quite special situation, the results are definitely not encouraging: safety of the land routes from Karachi to Afghanistan has only worsened, despite the aid increasing. Delivery time for supplies that are trucked across the country and into Afghanistan is on a constant rise, forcing the US to expand a North route coming down into Afghanistan, UK advisors have been kicked out, and the US drones are being forced out of Pakistan’s bases. While I understand the many sources of tension, including the Abbotabad raid to kill Bin Laden, I cannot avoid thinking of this situation as a worrisome failure bought at incredibly high cost, including 650 millions for the sole education, plus military aid and other figures that make the total quite impressive. And interestingly, Pakistan spends 15% of its budget on Defence and 2% on Education. I have serious doubts on the feasibility of preventing conflicts by allowing foreign countries to spend more on defence as we cover the bill for their welfare, while also cutting our own defences. I don’t question Aid as a whole, I question the rationale of how it is often delivered, and I certainly do not support a 34% increase accompanied by massive cuts in Diplomacy and Defence. This is NOT a balanced plan, nor one that can work.
Wing Commander Brookes, in terms of Aid, also observes: “Why don’t we have a quick reaction alert for famine relief or disaster relief-to go to areas with helicopters, doctors and air transport-as part of a joint DFID-Foreign Office-Defence response, rather than just the old-fashioned stovepipe against whoever is the mythical great beast who is coming out?”
This is not a bad idea. Relief after a disaster, especially if well done, can deliver a massive effect, and leave a great, benefic mark in the memory of a distant country. Helicopters, air transports, and I might add, versatile ships such as Amphibs, besides, are just as useful for the military as for the Aid role, and we could certainly benefit from greater investments in them. I’m known for suggesting, more than once, that the paltry cost of keeping RFA Largs Bay could have been covered by the Aid Department budget, by “adopting” the vessel as a dedicate “prime choice” for delivery of oversea aid and disaster relief. Her performances in Haiti, after all, were formidable, and the next time such a disaster occurs, you can tell that there will be a demand for one of her sisters.
This is an imaginative and potentially very effective way to join things up. And deliver.
Professor Lindley in the end notes that, however, the SDSR might still deliver a good chance: “There is a very great danger that by default, if we hold our nerve, we could end up with quite a sound defence strategy. There will be two carriers, strategic mobility, Astutes-not enough, but in time you could build more over 20, 30 or 40 years-Type 45s and Type 26s. It is a concept whereby there is projectability, not globally but regionally-plus.
Almost 75% of the world’s population lives less than 100 kilometres from the sea. It is a defence strategy in which, given the capabilities envisaged, no one owns land, sea or air - no single service - as a genuine jointery comes out of this. We could actually have a defence strategy worth talking about, by muddling through and from the bottom up, which has nothing to do with the NSS or the SDSR. The issue is, can we hold our nerve over that longer investment period?”
“If the carriers - which I believe are important not only because of what they can do but because of what they say about our strategic seriousness - are built, if we have the other assets around them, we have a deployable military. Why is that important? Because I don’t think we will do more Afghanistans. I see no political appetite for engaging all our forces in one place over long periods and losing them.”
Professor Lindley, supported by both Brookes and Blackharm, is clearly a supporter of a Raiding strategy, with a very relevant naval component. Asked by the Committee if “another Libya” is a realistic scenario, he replies: “We could do Libyas, but even then, if you had a carrier off Libya, serious people have told me that air sorties would double the time over target and halve the cost. We are moving back, for want of a better phrase, to a punish, strike and support short-term defence strategic concept. I would definitely not want to build our future defence strategy on Afghanistan or indeed Iraq.”
And here, if you’ll read the whole hearing, you’ll have the amazement of seeing a RAF and RN officer agreeing wholeheartedly on the carrier strike argument, so much so that Wing Commander Brookes expresses regrets at the Tornado vs Harrier decision. A quite shocking read which get even more impressive when Wing Commander Brookes, RAF, notes that retiring the Nimrod has been endlessly stupid, by noting “we are a maritime nation”! But it is stuff for another post, perhaps, as my focus now is Strategy.
And professor Lindley ultimately highlights it as: “My first point would be that it is never a good idea to cut defence budgets when you are fighting one war, let alone two. We are still in Afghanistan right now, and we have the Libyan operations. Afghanistan is land-centric for the moment; that is very clear for the rubric of the SDSR. Part of the problem with the SDSR and the NSS is that they do not confront those realities, because those realities are uncomfortable. The idea that the United Kingdom would adopt a strike, punish and support strategy - you might have to find a different wording - is the reality of it.
All the evidence from my own analysis as a strategist is that we are indeed moving into a world of hyper-competition of unstable states, naive states, and state competition again over the next 50 or 60 years. That will be a reality in parallel with fragile states and everything else. Stabilising will take on as much of a classical form as a novel form, and that will include flying the flag, riverine operations and putting big, grey stuff a bit away from the littoral, but still being there and supporting land operations for a time ashore. All those elements require projectable capabilities.
May I tell a quick anecdote? I headed up a big project for the head of the Royal Dutch Navy on riverine operations. The idea was that although part of the problem with those operations-it was looking at Africa, primarily-would be that there was no infrastructure, air support or even land support, there are significant numbers of commercial assets that we could use to offset the cost of platformed operations. A lot of work went into it. The Americans were interested; they are now taking it up. [probably he is talking of the US Marines Mobile Landing Platform, which builds on civilian FLO-FLO ships] The Dutch were interested. There were creative solutions involved. The UK representatives-I will not say who-were very sniffy indeed.
One of the things that frustrates me about our country on these kinds of issue is that we do not explore creative solutions. One issue was that Smit International and Mammoet were represented in the conference, and the Brits said, "We can’t have civilians involved, because they don’t take risk." The chairman of Mammoet said, "Hold on a minute-we’re in Iraq," and his quote was, "We don’t shoot, but we get shot at all the time."
I am not suggesting that we are trying to rebuild the Grand Fleet; I am suggesting that we need a Navy that, rather like Fisher said, can launch the Army at times, with air power supporting, and which can do so in support of the United States, so that we can have influence in Washington, and leading European coalitions when we need to do so. We also need to look at the whole set of creative civil-military solutions to offset costs that are relevant to this century. We are simply not thinking creatively about how to solve these gaps”.
“Leadership is surely working with allies, particularly with UN allies and partners-those who provide peacekeeping forces-to improve their quality, so that there are more countries able to work with us and we are not reinventing the wheel every time. So, if we are doing the forced entry bit-to get in there and set things up-there is a much more natural synergy with potential partners, who can follow on, stay in places longer and in some ways have regional legitimacy, and perhaps more so than we do.
We have a strong leadership role that our armed forces can do in a kind of strategic defence diplomacy, where we are improving the quality of UN peacekeepers of EU colleagues, so it is not always us taking the body-bags”.
Lindley’s point can be very much traced all the way to the mentoring and collaboration between UK forces and Danish, Estonian and other forces within operations in Afghanistan. Considering the issues with having enough “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan, at first it might appear optimistic to assume that allies would step in to do the nation-building part of the job, but it actually has a sense. For example, Germany has steadfastly kept out of the Libya military effort, but has offered its troops for the nation-building phase afterwards. A whole European Battlegroup was put in readiness for a possible pacification role in Libya. Italy is also a quite willing country in this regard, and its Military Police (Carabinieri) and Advisors are quite appreciated in the delivery of stability, training for the locals and rebuilding support. Italy is normally quite eager when it comes to nation-building, even if its performances in Afghanistan have not been spectacular. It was in Iraq, it is in Afghanistan, and was a true top-player in opening UNIFIL II in Lebanon, where it still is a major player to this day. The list of contributing countries to ISAF is an endless one, and UNIFIL also includes many contributors: most of these countries lack the numbers, experience and at times kit to make sizeable, relevant contributions to the High-End fighting part of a possible scenario, but are quite ready to buy political leverage with deploying assets in the Rebuilding and Pacification phase afterwards. None of these nations has ever provided the kind of hard power the UK has fielded in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, in the two Gulf Wars: on closer inspection, it is not nation building that NATO lacks, but hard power. Reading the inventories of the major continental armies (from Germany to Italy and Spain), one is tempted to say that there is plenty of hard power, but this is very much potential: for a range of reasons, which go from politics to a concrete lack of logistic depth and strategic mobility means, these forces are largely anchored to the homeland, and never have been deployed in true force. France itself cannot vaunt any operation on the scale of the UK’s Telic. Libya is proving that, unless the US are doing the hard job, things do not quite work. So while putting boots on the ground is troublesome, forcible entry appears almost impossible unless it is done by US, UK and/or, secondarily, France.
An “Hard Force Raiding” approach would thus appear far more suited to maintain relevance within NATO, and is also the one approach that preserves at least a limited capacity of independent action. The loss of influence within NATO would have dire consequences for the UK, and it is a shift that is happening now, as professor Lindley notes: “A very, very senior person told me on Friday that the trajectory of these two documents could mean that the United Kingdom loses D-SACEUR-to the French, on current trajectory-because we are perceived as an unreliable ally, which is unfair but how it is being perceived.
[D-SACEUR: Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – the SACEUR is a US officer]
The Americans will not go on funding this bill, and there is going to be a row over missile defence. Congress has not woken up to the fact yet that the missile defence system currently proposed is one that the Americans will pay for that can protect Europe but cannot protect the United States. Already, a high-level congressional delegation last week at NATO asked the specific question, "Are there any US enablers being used for operations over Libya?" The US MilRep jumped in and said, "No." That is not the correct answer, and Congress will soon learn that. There are all sorts of implications. Whereas for the US, alliances are extremely useful but not critical, for the UK our influence in functioning alliances and international organisations is absolutely critical“.
“I think they [USA] would abandon Europe [If the UK and France stop being useful partners]. They would say, reasonably, "Look, Europe, you’re a strategic backwater right now. If you are not prepared to work with us to stabilise the world and our grand strategic mission, you can look after your own neighbourhood." The logical consequence of that is that this neighbourhood is rough. We would end up spending more, or we would take a much higher level of risk-probably the highest level of risk we have taken since the 1930s. That is the choice that we face.”
Indeed, it has now been revealed that not only the US is contributing drones, fuel, bombs, air tankers, Growler electronic war planes and ISTAR assets, but is still flying strike missions too, at least 801 so far, with 134 weapons releases confirmed. And the debate in the US is growing harsh over the issue. Moreover, even the relations with France, which recently hit an all-times high with the cooperation Treaty, are already strained. Lindley notes, interestingly: “I have close links in Paris and the feedback I am getting is very clear. The French are becoming frustrated with London. They are very serious about the relationship. They are concerned about the briefing by Downing Street not to expect too much from the treaty. They are concerned that, by the first anniversary of the treaty in November, there will be nothing to show for it, other than the Libyan operation. The French are serious about this, because of the reasons we have discussed. They face similar assessments and believe the partnership vital not only for their own security, but for bringing Europe to strategic seriousness. Their sense is that London is not taking this relationship seriously, which we should be so doing.”
These points, which I found incredibly interesting, reinforced my own beliefs about what kind of military power the UK should be, and what politic targets it would pursue by doing so. It fits within the picture painted during previous and successive hearings by defence chiefs of the present and of the past, and also fits perfectly within the analysis carried out by RUSI, and reflects the strategic thinking now going on in the US, in France and generally supported by experts from all over NATO. The picture painted is one that I recognize, and that shapes my opinion of what the future should hold for the british armed forces.
The whole Hearing Report is available here.
The Underlining Concepts of the Strategy
Being a Second-Rank world power is possible, desirable, and a better option than irrelevance. It is also an enduring ambition of the country and of all governments (at least in the words).
To be a Second-Rank world power it is necessary:
1 - To defend the homeland and the Oversea territories and interests
2 - to retain a limited but credible independent action capability
3 - to provide the allies in a coalition with what they genuinely need.
The equipment and structure of the forces must reflect this.
Point 1 is the one point common to all Strategies chosen. The defence of the UK comes first. Currently, however, there is no realistic possibility of invasion in the “old” meaning of the word. The realistic daily threats are Terrorism and Cyber Attacks. However, the security of the UK extends to that of the Oversea Territories, included Gibraltar (menaced politically), the Falklands (menaced politically and militarily) and Belize (to this day also menaced politically and militarily as well). The UK’s well being depends on the security of sea trade and on the security of the Energy flow that keeps the country running. Energetic independence must be extended as much as possible, but the imported energy which remains must be secure, which means an effort political, economical (ready availability of fall-back providers, for example) and military. The UK has also real interests in Antarctica, as ridiculous as this might sound today. In the world of tomorrow, both the ice (or better, the water in it) and the resources of the last continent might be nothing short of vital. The North Pole’s changing Geopolitical nature will also likely become of interest/concern in the future years, despite the lack of current interest (at least apparent) for the evolving situation, even while Russia makes another escalating move and announced the forward deployment of at least two Army brigades for the Arctic area. If this was the sole focus, it probably would mean a much smaller army with strong Garrisons in the Falklands and perhaps Belize, with reinforcement capability, a modest RAF, big special forces and big Navy.
But this is expanded by the needs of Point 2, and ultimately shaped in its final form by Point 3.
The country is tired of never-ending, expensive and bloody COIN operations. Iran and Iraq killed the appetite for any other attempt, both in the US and in the UK. Nor the Treasury nor the people would support another operation of this kind. The UK, even expanding the Army to 150.000 regulars, besides, would still only be able to be a contributor, and still be able to cover, on its own, a geographic area the size of Helmand (at best, and still without achieving the same “boots density” currently achieved thanks to American reinforcements pouring in), due to the particular needs of a COIN scenario. Considering that the main ally, the US, have officially no appetite at all for other COIN experiences, gear up for them is consistently incoherent with any logical consideration. An epic case of “preparing for the last war”.
Contributing in the right way means collaborating with France, to truly lead the European side of NATO, and buy true political leverage with the US, expanding its relevance instead of losing it.
In practice, UK and France will make up the leaders and Hard-Power providers of the European side of NATO, which will have to take an active focus on Africa and Middle East. The Americans have chosen their strategy, which to a great extent for obvious reason becomes the NATO strategy: for the UK, the ideal role is one of Hard-Power provider, or, as many would call it, Strategic Raider.
This will have a number of implications: for example, I would expect having CVF and CdG becoming regular visitors of the Gulf, among other things: the US would be more than glad to have even just one of their Carrier Groups relieved from Gulf duty, so to be free to focus on Asia without leaving the flank uncovered.
Within realistic budget constraints, the strategy to obtain the Status and Effects desired, will have to make choices. Due to NATO’s needs, to the configuration of the alliance, and due to the slots that remain to fill within it [namely: ISTAR, AWACS, Air Refuelling, Strategic Mobility (C17 and Point class RoRo both), amphibious power projection and Carrier Strike) and in recognition of the UK’s own needs, interests and geographic considerations, a Naval oriented strategy is the most appropriate. It will reverse the only real “Cold War relic” of the British Armed forces: the continental focus imposed by the British Army of the Rhine in the Cold War, with the RN acting as a pure, highly-specialized NATO contributor by becoming a massive ASW fleet meant to chase down Russian submarines in the GIUK.
The needs of the Cold War have warped the vision of reality, which tell us that ever since the IIWW finished, the UK has been constantly involved in Expeditionary Warfare. Throughout its History, the UK ruled the world (literally) with a small standing army, but a strong Navy capable to deploy it where needed and give it the baking of the big guns. The IIWW itself was largely shaped and decided by strategic sea mobility, amphibious operations and convoys. Even the continental war was shaped by Sea considerations, as expressed in Winston Churchill’s memories and in other books of leading officers.
The SDR 1998, albeit too ambitious, has the merit of having been a genuine Strategic Exercise (possibly the last, as the following ones never have been) which was largely right in guessing the world of tomorrow and setting a force structure more adequate to it. It gave us the current fleet of Amphibs and the Point RoRo, and finally set into stone the recognized need for a deployable army.
The new strategy will have to go further. The Army will have to shrink in numbers, while making deployability its religion: the “Rule of the Five plus Reserve” will have to be adopted in every relevant field to ensure the capability of deploying force and maintain it on the long period if necessary, even though the focus will be on short, high-end interventions.
The Navy and the Air Force will be somewhat advantaged, having their point of contact in Carrier Strike, and with the Air Force expanding ISTAR, Intelligence and Strategic Air Transport.
Be it disaster relief or counterinsurgency or high end warfare, there are persistent needs, common to all scenarios, which will be the main factors that shape the force structure [after the greatest factor of all, the budget allocated]:
- Knowledge of the area. This goes from Satellite imagery (which is invaluable also for the planning of a disaster relief intervention, as it is the fastest and at times the only way to assess the extent of the damage, locate the areas where it’ll be possible to operate, identify the obstacles such as destroyed bridges and ruined roads, so to know how to get where help is needed, and how to deliver it) to drone and manned-airplane reconnaissance, from AWACS to Rivet Joint. In counterinsurgency in particular, this surveillance will have to be as total and as continuous as possible.
- We will need Signals capability. Radio coverage for troops, Data-Link capacity to send imagery in real-time, and lots of satellite bandwidth, especially if drones are to continue becoming more and more common, more and more used.
- We will need strategic mobility and deployability. This cannot be overstated. We have no use for things we can’t transport where they are needed. If it is not deployable and sustainable, chances are that it won’t be useful at all.
- We will need amphibious capability. In Haiti it was necessary because the natural disaster had destroyed ports and airports, and the only real way to get stuff in was by helicopter, landing craft and mexeflote. Amphibs have proven invaluable in Iraq in 2003 with the Al Fawn raid, the Italians had to make their first true “amphibious assault” in 2008 to insert their forces as part of UNIFIL2 into a Lebanon devastated by israeli’s bombs, Japan and US ships have been fundamental to deliver post tsunami relief. Landing significant amount of forces in an unprepared harbor is a vital capability. The capacity to land troops along the shore remains vital in more military terms as well, and it represents a potential menace that forces the enemy to waste enormous resources into trying to defend all of its coastline. The longer the coast suitable for a possible assault, the more the enemy will be in trouble, even before an attack is launched. Amphibs are also extremely flexible, and make for an invaluable high-readiness reaction capability, exemplified by the Task Force Cougar splitting to launch Apache attacks on Libya and sending further ships and force off Yemen to be ready for an evacuation effort of british nationals in the troubled country.
- We will need heavy lift capability. By air and sea. Ultimately, most of the loads will travel inexorably on the sea, as the maximum that can be transported (at a very high relative cost, besides) is set by the capacity of the largest cargo plane. That is C17. Moving not even a division, but just a complete brigade, by air, is something that only the US can do.
- We will need air attacks. Close Air Support calls are continuous, and have been so in the Falklands as in Iraq, in Afghanistan as in Sierra Leone. Modern day operations cannot be completed without the capacity to protect ground forces from enemy air strikes, and the ability to hit enemy forces from the air. To ensure that air support is always available, timely and in a place of our choosing, the aircraft carrier is indispensable. Land-Based aviation will take a back-seat to Naval-capable airplanes capable to fight from both land and sea bases.
- We will need helicopter mobility. The more, the better.
- We will also need armor. Force protection dictates that the troops are given protected mobility, armoured vehicles and the right amount of firepower, which goes from the direct fire of a Challenger II to the indirect fire of the artillery.
- We will need range. The further away we can strike the enemy, the most deeply we can damage its capabilities, while simultaneously keeping out of the danger posed by its defence capabilities (in High-End Warfare). Range also means coverage (in COIN).
- We will need Special Forces. Always first on the ground, the Special Forces of the UK are widely feared and respected worldwide. They remain an area of absolute excellence which the US are keen to see surviving and expanded. The additional funding provided to them in the SDSR was perhaps the only one universally welcome decision.
The “raid” can be considered as the opening act of any military operation. The “nation-building” is not a substitutive strategy, but an element of the complete picture, which is valid in peacetime as a form of conflict-prevention (presence, international aid, military aid where effective) and which is likely to be required post-fighting to really fix the problems we aimed to solve when the mission started, but that will be preferably left to members of the coalition when possible at all.
In a future post I will look at a Force Structure meant to deliver the wanted effects, and that can fit realistically within a realistic budget.
RUSI report on strategy: Here