Britain’s future strategic direction #2 – And why I believe Think Defence are wrong.

The RUSI paper: A Force For Honour generated a lot of discussion on the web given the general interest in the Future Defence Review and how that will guide Britain’s strategic future, a notable example of which was the Think Defence series on the FDR.

Think Defence has written a great many discussion papers and other Defence related articles, all of which are interesting, most of which I find insightful and otherwise agree with, but I cannot say the same about their conclusion to the RUSI paper:

FDR – Raiding, Nation Building or a Bit of Both

FDR – Raiding, Nation Building or a Bit of Both

The Global Strike Option might seem to be the most sensible and attractive because it provides for a continuation of the heavy metal conventional war fighting stance that supports the need for aircraft carriers, significant air transport and other expeditionary capabilities in a traditional NATO envelope. We would only get involved in conflicts of choice and for a short duration, manning and harmony guidelines could be adhered to, casualties would be reduced and operational expenditure eliminated; Happy DaysIt could be reasonably argued that the state on state conflict as characterised by the first Gulf War is less likely, even inter state conflict is likely to involve irregular or asymmetric opponents. Most nations know full well they can’t hope to defeat a concerted NATO style all arms capability. Therefore configuring forces for these lower intensity ‘conflict amongst the people’ type operations would seem to be a reasonable and wise choice. Aircraft carriers, fast jets and Challenger tanks would give way to light forces, mentoring and other COIN type capabilities.

Is the answer a combination of the first 3 options, taking Option 2 as a major element but retaining a reduced size ‘global raid’ or expeditionary capability, perhaps scaling this so that we can contribute decisively in coalition operation (Option 3)

This would translate as a reduced size but fully capable core with a larger and more suited to COIN operations, outer.

Would this be feasible or sensible?

In short; no.

Combining Options 1, 2 and 3 is effectively what the Strategic Defence Review 98 specified, and evening dressing it up by removing carriers, tanks and some fast jets, doesn’t change the fact that it could barely be afforded on a stable increasing budget of 2.7% of GDP (2.7% GDP growth per year), and even reduced it simply can not be afforded on a budget that represents 2.1% of GDP, especially given the current lack of economic growth (cos defence inflation is a bitch).

The whole point of the RUSI report was that trying to achieve SDR under the present funding constraints would inevitably lead to Britain’s Armed Forces being a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none, and the purpose of the paper was to find a way of preserving Britain’s Great Power Status under the current funding paradigm. It would be death by a thousand cuts to continue as we are now, starting with ones like these:

Army training exercises cut by a third to save money

A record 80 training exercises were cancelled last year while the number of British troops in Helmand reached 10,000.

Figures show that the number of exercises conducted in the past three years fell by almost 30 per cent, dropping from 646 in 2008 to 462 last year. Meanwhile, the number of cancellations rose from 58 in 2006 to a high of 80 last year.

Royal Navy Fatal Cuts

It is quite obvious that more money is needed simply to cover day-to- day costs, such as training and spares.

Senior officers have spoken out over the shocking state of military accommodation, while the overstretched forces are having to cut back on training exercises because of severe budget problems.

Cutbacks for both the Royal Navy and the RAF

A planned visit to the USA by a Royal Navy carrier group led by the Ark Royal and RAF participation in Nato air defence exercises are among a number of high-profile plans to be axed.

The move has been ordered by Bob Ainsworth, defence secretary, as part of his insistence that the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces are put on a full war footing to deal with Afghanistan.

I could understand Think Defence opting for Global Guardian as their preferred strategy, it is a viable Great Power strategy achievable under the current funding paradigm and they are fairly army-centric after all, but even then I would disagree because there are other nations that could provide the significant and sustained COIN capability, and we have always been a naval nation that loves swift and decisive victories.

Mix-n-match isn’t an option.

10 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #2 – And why I believe Think Defence are wrong.

  1. Please do,

    My primary interest is to raise the profile of the Defence debate in this country in the run-up to the general election, whoever wins it Defence should be considered an important topic for all parties.

    I respect what Think Defence do for this very reason.

  2. Dear Jedibeeftrix

    I am a recent cont4ributor to Think Defence, with a history in both the regular (full time) Navy and the TA. I personally agree with you and have suggested that what we should concentrate on is providing niche capabilities within NATO or wider coalitions. For example the German and French armies are much larger than ours, but until recently we had a much better Navy for global use.

    Our amphibious capability is the best in European NATO (possibly the best outside of USN / USMC ?) so we should build on that capability, which in turn means a strong Navy to escort and support the amphibs.

    I would reduce the RAF to a single type of fast jet, the Typhoon. I would pull out of F35 before we throw good money after bad. The CVF is a whole other debate, but having nice shiny new carriers with no planes to fly from them seems pretty pointless.

    I will apologize in advance to colleagues who are actually out in Afghanistan at this time, but if the Govt. cant afford this ‘war’ then it should withdraw from it. I am not a fan of ‘nation building’ and subscribe to the global strike option presented by RUSI – we should be able to smite our enemies, conventional or asymmetrical, where ever they hide, but lets leave regime change to those that can afford it (if anyone truly can). As such I would reduce the Army even further (!) – again focusing on some core competencies that can do that others can’t.

    Finally, I would rebuild the RN general purpose surface fleet – escorts for the amphibs, showers of the flag around the world, useful vehicles of ‘defence diplomacy’ and ‘soft power’ and I would remind Lord Guthrie and others that up until the 1st World War the British Army was a weapon to be aimed and fired by the Royal Navy (!!)

  3. I too am a recent reader of Think Defence, in fact the site can claim some part in my motivation to start blogging, so thanks guys.

    You are right to point out that both France and Germany maintain much larger armies than our own, both capable of sustained COIN operations, and France in particular has a will to use it.

    Re the F35; it is not so much that i am keen on the F35, it is a fine platform that would serve admirably on the carriers, but it is the carriers I am keen on as i don’t see that we would occupy a strategic role in amphibious and expeditionary warfare unless we had them to force entry. The idea that a naval Gripen might occupy the role is clearly less desirable, but i’d rather that than lose the carriers in totality.

    I got the impression that TD used the phrase “Global Strike” to indicate the amalgam of “Global Guardian” and “Strategic Raiding”, but i presume you are referring to the latter?

    In that i am agreed, for to me it makes sense to take advantage of the situation you hold, and in Britain that is first and foremost our island status, so a Naval centric strategy not only plays to our strengths but allows the deployment of Army units wherever they are most effective as opposed to wherever they are least inconvenient.

    In no ways do i wish to see the army reduced, i sincerely wish that the ability to deploy sustained theatre level operations be kept, but that requires an electorate willing to boost the defence budget by 40%……… or make far worse cuts elsewhere.

    Were it my choice I would advocate a minimum peacetime spend of 2.5% of GDP, a standing select committee to determine if we are in fact at peace, stronger legislation to ensure that all operational expenses including attrition are covered by treasury appropriations, and an additional 40% budget hike for the next decade to make good the previous decades underfunding.

    In the absence of that, and any possibility that the electorate would swing for it in the next parliament, i am forced to consider the recommendations of RUSI; to preserve Great Power ability within the current funding constraints.

    Given that the British public has long been conditioned to accept swift and decisive expeditionary warfare, and that that capability is a desirable component of the strategic bargain, i feel it is only proper to advocate Strategic Raiding as a guiding doctrine for Britain’s future.

    The point about the electorate is key, because if the British public become war-averse in the manner of the continent (if only everyone were so), then it would make no difference if we were oriented for COIN, no government would be willing to engage in the activity, and that would make Great Power status redundant regardless of how many shiny toys we possess.

  4. I agree with all you say entirely, and yes my apologies, I am all for the RUSI “strategic raiding” option !

    However as for the carriers (saying this even though I did a stint in the Fleet Air Arm) if we can’t afford them, we cant afford them. We are not going to ‘force entry’ against anything that is even near to ‘peer’ capabilities, which leaves our amphibs for getting folk ashore on anti-terrorist raids in places like Somalia and Yemen (?). I think we should try to strike a deal with the French. They need a access to a spare carrier when CdG is in dock, so if we can strike a deal where the non-operational British deck is made available for flying training, and perhaps a jointly crewed training cruise that would be great. In which case we need to complete them with the same cats and traps as the CdG, in which case we may as well buy 50 Rafale……

    As for the electorate, well we dont govern my referendum, but no party appears to have the guts to stand up and present a message, whatever it may be, middle of the road mediocrity and governance by opinion poll has become the norm. If we can’t fund a certain level of conventional capability, then we should not be able to fund the independent nuclear deterrent, and we should give up our seat on the UN Security Council. All of which is fine by me, as long as politicians are honest about it !

  5. Taking the expertise of RUSI as a given, if they are happy that Strategic Raiding as fully envisaged is achieveable under current funding arrangements, then I will defer to their wisdom and continue to advocate carriers.

    If costs amd delays on F35 do spiral out of control then there is the option of pursueing Sea Gripen:
    Which might not be too hard a sell as BaE does own Saab i believe, and the carriers were designed to be converted to Catobar.
    We already have a [lot] of high end multi-role fighters (once they are all converted to Tranche3), so i’m not too concerned about losing what will only be 80+ F35’s in exchange for 60+ Sea Gripen NG’s at half the cost.

    We don’t rule by referendum, and a good thing too, but iraq and afghanistan were a traumatic experience for an electorate that expects to be more involved in the governance of the nation, also a good thing, which is why I would prefer a foriegn policy that is most acceptable to the expectations of the electorate.

  6. Another TD’er
    Quick Point
    “Taking the expertise of RUSI as a given, if they are happy that Strategic Raiding as fully envisaged is achieveable under current funding arrangements, then I will defer to their wisdom and continue to advocate carriers.”

    It was my understanding that “Strategic Raiding” would be funded by rolling the Army and Royal Marines into a single 20,000 strong force.
    In wages alone thats well over £2b a year saved, £1.5b a year in armoured vehicle capital (purchase) costs.

  7. My thanks, I only recently discovered the joy of blogging, and I’m delighted that others enjoy what I write too.

    Give it a whirl yourself, seriously, it is very rewarding. 🙂

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