Before entering the thick of the Force Structure 2020 posts explaining my thinking about the armed forces future, I deem necessary to add a new post about strategic considerations. I draw heavily from the latest US Defense Strategy document, that expresses concepts I agree with, and that are absolutely valid for the UK as well.
It is also indispensable for the UK to keep in consideration the strategic posture of the US, as they are the main partner and the main force the UK look up to for providing the numbers and capabilities necessary for the complex ops. So I’m going to report some passages of the US strategy document ”Joint Operational Access Concept” that are the concepts over which much of my reasoning for the future british armed forces structure is based.
Projecting U.S. military force invariably requires extensive use of international waters, international airspace, nonsovereign cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. U.S. access to and freedom of navigation within these global commons are vital to its national interests, both because the American way of life requires free access to the global marketplace and as a means for projecting military force into hostile territory. Even where the ultimate objective is the latter, operations in the global commons may be critical if an enemy attempts to gain strategic depth by pushing armed opposition out into international spaces. In fact, the contest over operational access can dominate practically all other considerations in warfare, as it did throughout the Pacific theater and in the battle for the North Atlantic during the Second World War.
This first point is absolutely valid for the UK as well. Operation Granby is perhaps the best example of this, as it required by far the most extensive use of international waters and airspaces, plus foreign nation support, cyberspace, space and electromagnetic spectrum. The UK is not at all less dependent than the US from sealanes and freedom of navigation: very possibly, it is even more dependent, in fact.
In peacetime as in wartime, the UK is heavily dependent on sealanes, and the most effective way to hit the UK, its economy and its military might, is interrupting freedom of navigation.
Defending freedom of navigation and port infrastructure in the UK is one of the most vital tasks of the british Armed Forces. Security of navigation and sealanes are also absolutely indispensable for the UK to apply power abroad.
The first way to deny UK power is making it impossible for the UK to deploy its forces. With over 90% of the equipment of a modern army still being pretty much bound to the sea for transportation (again, Gramby teaches), sealift and protection of sealift assets are perhaps the absolute priority.
Influences decisions on:
- Port and infrastructure security
- Naval escorts
- Maritime Patrol Aircraft needs
- Force Protection
Historically, a key way to mitigate the degrading effects of distance has been to establish forward bases in the anticipated operational area, thereby maintaining some of the capabilities of a home base at a distant location. The more capability and capacity that a military can amass at the forward base, the more it can mitigate the effects of distance. Moreover, permanent or long-term forward bases can assure partners and deter adversaries. The ability to establish new expeditionary bases, or to improve those already in existence, also can serve as deterrent options. Conversely, a forward base becomes a resource requiring protection and sustainment and can even become a political liability, often by causing friction with the host nation or within the region.
Forward basing, when possible, is a very effective way to preserve a point of access to, potentially, a whole region. The UK has some very important forward bases, with four being particularly relevant: Gibraltar, Cyprus, Bahrain and Diego Garcia. Diego Garcia isn’t very frequently used by british forces, but its relevance is incredible for the US, and its importance in the coming years will only grow. The US Navy recently announced that also a submarine tender vessel will be soon based there.
Forward bases, though, are expensive. In Bahrain, the UK based forces benefit from facilities and services often provided by the UK, including deployed Force Protection crafts for the defence of ports and moored ships. The british naval base in the area was shut in 1971, and the return of UK forces in the area in recent times builds on the presence there of the US’s Fifth Fleet.
To base troops abroad, an agreement with a host nation is indispensable. Regular investment, in money and manpower, is required to keep the base active and running. The investment can be very significant, depending on the amount of infrastructure needed and available. Bahrain is cheap thanks to the US help, but this is not at all always valid.
Basing troops abroad has a deep political impact, at home and abroad. Not always presence will deliver the hoped effects, and bases abroad can be met with changing local policies and with open hostility. Gibraltar is an example of base that carries with itself a significant amount of tension with Spain. The Falklands are not exactly a forward base today, but tomorrow they might be if the south pole continent, as many anticipate, will become increasingly relevant to the global economy thanks to the large untapped resources hidden under the ice, and it notoriously carries its own burden of hostility and political sensitiveness.
Forward bases are vulnerable to many factors, which include, potentially, waning internal support for their existence: the government of the day might well decide to downsize or shut down missions abroad as an easy saving.
They are vulnerable to local governments, which might change their mind and retire support (the US have experienced this situation with several bases in the Caucasus, being kicked out of several installations important for the Afghan effort. Pakistan can be seen, in its own way, as another example of the risks), they are potentially source of tension, offer unfriendly countries an argument to launch accuses on the media that influence the public opinion if not the international community, and they are also vulnerable to physical attacks, by conventional and/or unconventional means.
Forward basing of 5000 US soldiers in Saudi Arabia post Desert Storm, and their long-term presence, were perhaps the absolute main argument used by Osama Bin Laden to fuel muslim rage that shaped Al Qaeda: “great evil” forces on their sacred land was unacceptable. Consequences have been very, very serious.
Forward engagement is often preferable: no permanent on-land presence, but joint training exercises, naval presence, aid and disaster relief and other forms of engagement are a good solution, but do not offer the same “open door” for access in time of crisis that an established base represents. Balance, as in all things, is necessary.
- Decisions on forward engagement and forward basing of forces; partnering.
- Employment of naval presence, joint training and other collaboration
The presence of forward-deployed or other in-range combat forces at the beginning of a crisis can facilitate operational access—and sometimes even deter acts of aggression in the first place. Naval forces, which can remain on station in international waters almost indefinitely, are especially suited to such missions, as could be special operations forces inserted clandestinely. Air and space forces can exploit speed and global range to move quickly into position in response to an emerging crisis. That said, forward-deployed forces, like advanced bases, can be vulnerable to attack, particularly given a lack of advanced warning.
- Decisions on sea-lift, sea-basing, sea-logistics and Task Forces including a powerful forcible entry capability
In shaping its new Defense Posture, which in turn will determine force structure, cuts and investments, the US notes that future challenges are characterized by 3 main factors:
The first factor is markedly decreased support abroad for an extensive network of U.S. military bases around the globe. In an increasingly globalized world, there is much greater international competition for regional influence and access. Immediately after the Cold War, states had few partnership options other than the United States, but today numerous rising powers provide alternatives. Whether due to coercive threats or inducements offered by other powers, many states will be unwilling to offer the kind of long-term basing rights the United States enjoyed during the Cold War. Gaining basing rights for expeditionary operations is already a primary concern for U.S. military planners and diplomats, and that challenge is likely to grow.
The second factor is projections of severely contracting resources. Even were there an international appetite for it, the United States simply could not afford to establish garrisons around the globe in response to every plausible threat, especially in an era of dynamic uncertainty in which threats could emerge unpredictably.
The third factor is force protection. In an age of increased terrorism, increasingly affordable precision weapons, and heightened sensitivity to perceived impositions on national sovereignty, U.S. garrisons on foreign soil become both causes of friction and inviting targets. American sensitivity to casualties, especially to a garrison force outside a war zone, only exacerbates the problem.
These considerations are just as valid for the UK, either if acting independently or in coalition, almost certainly with the US themselves.
- Better efforts in understanding local cultures and issues
- Increased efforts in shaping solid and fair partnerships of common interests in the important regions
- Preserving and expanding the capability to apply, project and sustain power abroad, in the awareness that local support and bases could be insufficient/negated/inexistent.
The US strategy draws a painting of the future challenges that is very complete and convincing:
Future enemies, both states and nonstates, will see the adoption of an antiaccess/area-denial strategy against the United States as a favorable courseof action for them. Those able to field layered and fully integrated antiaccess/area-denial defenses in multiple domains may attempt to deny U.S. operational access altogether, while others with less robust and comprehensive capabilities may simply attempt to inflict greater losses than they perceive the United States will tolerate politically.
Any example of such a strategy likely will exhibit some common criticalelements, to include:
1) Long-term shaping operations prior to conflict, including information operations, designed to increase influence and build up antiaccess/area denial capabilities in a region and to encourage regional actors to deny the United States the political conditions that facilitate access.
2) Imposing a steeper cost than the United States is willing to bear—eitherthrough a catastrophic attack or an attrition-based defeat mechanismdesigned to create substantial casualties.
3) Creating as much strategic and operational depth as possible withinwhich to inflict casualties, even interdicting deploying U.S. forces bysabotage at their points of origin or ports of embarkation.
4) Attacking U.S. forward bases, whether by missiles, special operations units, or irregular forces—to include the use of weapons of mass destruction.
5) Attacking U.S. command and control and communications, especially long-range capabilities, to include space and cyber capabilities.
6) Attacking U.S. distribution operations at either fixed points or vulnerablechoke points in the lines of communications or through cyber attacks that disrupt logistics command and control.
7) Employing antiaccess and area-denial capabilities in combination to contest local air and maritime superiority and land freedom of maneuver.
Beyond those common elements, any example of an antiaccess strategy will conform itself uniquely to the capabilities of the enemy and other situational factors.
Forward bases, including mobile seabases, constitute critical access infrastructure‖ which supports the deployment of forces and supplies.The greater the capabilities and capacity that can be established at or flowed through the base, the greater the force that ultimately can be projected.Future enemies consequently can increasingly be expected to attack those bases as part of an antiaccess/area-denial strategy in an attempt to restore the penalty of distance.
IEDs themselves are an obvious example of attempts to impose an higher than acceptable cost on the public opinion and consequently on governments, aiming for a withdrawal decision. Another tactic seen in these years has been that of kidnappings, more than once ended in brutal executions and beheadings that were filmed and made available to the public to apply pressure.
The risk of said tactics actually working can be very high, depending on the resolution of the government and people facing these attempts. The very latest example of this approach in action is exemplified by the murder of unarmed French soldiers in Afghanistan which have sparked very serious reactions in Paris, with Sarkozy well aware of the impact that events such as those have on a public opinion already largely contrary to the long conflict.
Attacking forward bases is also something we know well: it is a multiface menace that goes from kamikazes to lone wolfs operating inside the bases with friendly uniforms, waiting for the occasion to strike, from mortars to artillery and rockets (the soldiers serving in Basra are well versed with the threat of RAM), from snipers all the way to cruise and even ballistic missiles.
Effects of these attacks can be very serious: a rocket attack on Kandahar on 14 October 2005 destroyed a RAF Harrier and damaged another, taking off 30% of available air support to troops until a replacement Harrier was flown in from the UK. Even more recently, in May 2011 a Navy base in Pakistan was stormed by terrorists who caused great damage, and in particular destroyed most of Pakistan’s P3C Orion fleet on the ground.
To reduce vulnerability, and to counter the very simple reality that we can’t have (and man and finance) bases everywhere, a solution is seen in seabasing:
[one option is] seabasing, which reduces sovereignty issues that often can preclude the establishment of forward bases. The inherent mobility of seabasing can complicate the enemy’s defensive preparations by making the objective remain ambiguous through holding a large coastal area at risk. It can enhance security by complicating the enemy’s detection and targeting.Seabasing options may be limited by capacity. One other option is to emphasize capabilities with minimal dependence on forward bases, such as amphibious, long-range strike, cyber, electronic, or space capabilities, either in primary or supporting roles.
The above considerations influence:
- Investment in Force Protection and C-RAM defences
- Investment in sea-basing, including sea-based logistics
- Amphibiousness and provision of deployable airpower from aircraft carriers
The air is another domain generally suitable for the early focus of effort, again because air forces tend not to operate in massed formations that make them vulnerable to catastrophic loss and because they tend to be broadly effective in bringing power to bear rapidly against other domains. Finally, special operations forces are valuable for locating, targeting, and destroying key enemy capabilities, as well as for cultivating indigenous resistance elements that can help disrupt the antiaccess/area-denial strategy. Like space and cyberspace forces, special operations forces likely will be in position, often operating in denied territory, in advance of the commitment of major forces to set the conditions for the employment of those forces. Operations to maintain or gain access in themaritime commons can build on these low signature operations, avoid high density threat antiaccess weapons, and maneuver to achieve surprise and rapid operations.
I entirely agree with the above, and Special Forces and RAF will have their own very relevant roles to play. Of course, the UK cannot afford a stealth, intercontinental, optionally manned heavy bomber like the USAF, but Long Range, Non Penetrating strike platforms and approach figure in my ideal strategy, alongside, in the longer term, a stealth, long range UCAV (ideally carrier capable) that will be the UK’s own strategic bomber, at much smaller ambition and cost levels, but still effective.
Ultimately, the target of the US (and of the UK, and of anyone else) when applying force abroad, by any mean, is to, very generally speaking, influence events ashore. Peoples and government and countries exist on land, and it is on land that the final result is to be obtained. This means that, whatever the strategy of the moment and whatever the medium chosen (land battles, air power, sea power, more often a combination of two or of all three), ultimately the results of the campaign depend on what happens ashore.
Land forces remain fundamental, even in a Sea-centered strategy. However, size and configuration of land forces have to be set on the base of a firm strategy that squeezes the most effect out of every single man and vehicle, within a physical and a financial boundary, a reality which is all the more felt by the UK than not by the US.
In terms of land forces, the new US strategy notes:
In contrast, large land forces generally will be the last to penetrate within range of an enemy’s antiaccess and area-denial weapons because of the potential for catastrophic loss. That is not irrevocably true however. Land forces, for example, could be used to seize advanced bases on the outskirts of an enemy’s defenses from which to project air and naval power into the heart of those defenses. Moreover, small land or surface naval forces, to include special operations forces, could infiltrate an enemy’s antiaccess defenses undetected.
Each [Land Maneuver] formation will operate in multiple domains as required. While maneuvering independently, they will maintain the ability to concentrate smoothly into larger formations as necessary. While they will be self-contained with respect to the envisioned mission, the joint force will be able to support them quickly with external capabilities as needed—principally additional air, space, electronic, and cyberspace capabilities, which can best mitigate the latency imposed by distance.
The modern, current structure of the US army is thus confirmed: the basic land maneuver formation, the Brigade Combat Team (Heavy, Stryker, Infantry, all with total strengths sitting between 3000 and 4000 men) is confirmed, as is the new asset of the army, with tens of modular Combat Support Brigades in the most various roles, ready to be assigned to this or that BCT, or within “larger formations” that are the Divisions.
Modern US Divisions, however, are merely modular Headquarters with an establishment of around 1000 men, that in peacetime oversee training and management of 4 BCTs each, but that can be deployed abroad to command totally different BCTs, of any kind, from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 10 per HQ.
This is possible because the US Army of today, modular, coherent force of Regulars and Reserves, can deploy, at any one time, a force of up to 20 BCTs, as we’ll see in the next post of the series.
The UK, which reasons on a very different, very smaller scale, cannot think to have tens of modular brigades to group up for the various tasks. It cannot afford to have BCTs of various types, as an army of 2 Armored Brigades and 2 Light Brigades couldn’t sustain any of them in the field in the long term in their intended form.
The solution found has been the Multi Role Brigade, a larger BCT that combines the capabilities of all three kinds of US ones, including heavy armor, wheeled medium armor (there’s the aspiration to get it in time, at least) and Infantry. The minimum number of homogeneous brigades needed to keep one deployed long term is 5, for the British Army.
So the MRB concept is set. I won’t move away from it, and I do not think there are realistic, effective alternatives.
I will, however, outline my vision for the whole force of the Army, including the ideal role and support that I’d want from the future, reformed Army reserve.
On April 12 the Army should announce the result of its planning for restructuring, and we’ll see how close I’ll be to reality. I expect my vision to be different, and probably more ambitious here and there than the real one will be, but it will be interesting to see this in time.
The United Kingdom remains depended on free trade and sealanes. It remains a nation engaged at global level, with far-reaching interests and with a number of Oversea Territories and allies that look at the UK for support. Consequently, high up on the list of priorities remains the capability to defend freedom of trade and navigation. The requirement for applying power abroad, Influencing, Coercing and Punishing remains real and supported by very tangible economic interests and not just by chivalrous concepts such as “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).
The risk of direct invasion of the UK mainland is currently extremely low, and likely to be low for a long time. High is instead the risk of terrorist attacks on specific infrastructure and/or towns and people. Particularly damaging would be terrorist attacks hitting port and energy infrastructures.
Risks exist of invasion and military/politic blackmailing against oversea territories of the UK, such as Belize and Falklands islands. Other oversea territories deal with cyclical natural disasters and drug trafficking (Caribbean territories). The UK is also tied by close relationships to many nations, from the Commonwealth to European Union, to the Northern Countries of Scandinavia. Through NATO, the UK has wide-ranging responsibilities, and is involved in the effort for producing security for countries menaced to this day, including Georgia and the Baltic republics.
Economic relations of growing importance tie the UK to Brazil and India. Old promises exist that tie even UK and South Korea (the peace document signed at the end of the Korean war contains the commitment of the allies, including the UK, to collaborate again, should it ever be needed, to keep stability and peace in Korea). Other relationships exist in the South East Asia, such as the 5 Powers Agreement, and a recent document signed with Vietnam.
Economic interests of the UK are global, and a heavy focus for security and energy needs remains on the Middle East: a significant portion of the UK’s oil, but in particular 50% of the UK’s gas supplies, still come from the Gulf. The implications of a Nuclear-armed Iran, or the consequences of piracy or worse of a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz remain absolutely grave for the UK.
In other words, while a direct military attack against the Uk mainland is absolutely unlikely, terrorism and attacks, direct or indirect, conventional or unconventional, against british interests overseas are much more likely. Economic, Historic and Political ties mean that the UK’s interests reach far away across the world.
Combined, these considerations make it evident that the Armed Forces must be able of preventing and reacting, and power projection is fundamental, as whatever crisis comes up next, it will almost certainly emerge far away from the UK.
The British Armed Forces are part of the tools that the UK possesses for Influencing events, Coerce and Punish. They must be kitted to do so at great distance from the UK, where it is more likely that their presence will be needed. They must be as independent as possible in doing this, to give the UK a credible sovereign capability and to make the UK an attractive partner inside a coalition. In a tight budget, where each investment has to be evaluated in context and demonstrate that it is more needed than another, strategic enablers are to be preferred and given priority against capabilities common and already available to most allies, or simple numeric strenght. Quantity has of course a quality of its own, but the quantity game never fit the UK, and certainly does not fit today's budget and perception of the military.
Seen with the prism of the new US Strategic Posture, of the new economics of the world and of NATO, the UK’s military role as part of the alliance becomes, despite cuts, a Leading Role that the UK has not had in a long time. Said leading role will be in cohabitation with France, and it is a new role that the US are once more encouraging, if not flat-out asking the UK to assume. France and UK have the budget, the force and the experience needed to constitute a leading, hard core for the European NATO, with the rest of Europe to pool resources and do things with coordination and collaboration, to put “flesh on the UK/France bones”.
The US strategy contains the specific admission that, as Asia becomes the main focus of the American attention and the resources are now too tight to be a “two oceans/two wars” superpower, an Europe able to look after its own neighbor with much less US assistance than in the past is an absolute necessity.
In this resource-constrained era, we will also work with NATO allies to develop a “Smart Defense” approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges.
UK Defence Minister Philip Hammond, in Washington for high level talks, echoed this sentiment in his own speech, recommending a thorough assessment of NATO's capabilities in order to subsequently stacke these against its current ambitions.Such an analysis would provide the basis for choices regarding
"greater pooling and sharing of capabilities; mission, role and geographic specialization; greater sharing of technology; cooperation on logistics; alignment of research-and-development programs, and more collaborative training."
"Prioritizing ruthlessly, specializing aggressively and collaborating unsentimentally. ... With budgets so tight, allies need to revisit approaches and ideas that might previously have seemed politically unacceptable,"
It becomes very much instructive to go back a few steps, to read what Professor Julian Lindley-French, Defence Academy of the Netherlands, member of the Strategic Advisory Group in Washington, and part of the board of the NATO Defence College in Rome, said to the UK Parliamentary Defence Committee on 8 June 2011.
His immensely interesting answers, which i had already underlined back then, do ring even more true now, and in particular this statement is of extreme importance:
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 [UK's] 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.
UK and France can work as a solid skeleton, providing a core of specialized capabilities and kit that the rest of Europe can beef up with contributions, if a proper coordination is established and if the UK comes up with a solid strategic concept that goes in this direction and finances it without constant hesitation and second thoughts. Who's followed this post and my comments from some time, knows that this has been my position for a long time, and that i was expecting the US review to take this direction.
The SDSR and the Lancaster Treaty have sanctioned the UK's interdependence on Allies anyway. A truth long known, in relation to need the US help for when the game gets serious. The best thing to do, accepted this reality, is to play a leading role in the interdependent alliance, and gain solid US support and appreciation by leading the European side of NATO, alongside with France.
Failing in stepping up to this role will spell a major drop in relevance of the UK and severely affect the “enduring relationship”, as Lindley-French effectively defined it.
The Armed Forces are and remain one of the most valuable tools in the UK’s box, more valuable than most people understand. And this is a painful but crucial time, that offers an opportunity hidden behind the pains.
Next post in the series:
Moving away from Divisions - Brigades, BCTs, and the future british army structure