Britain’s future strategic direction #4 – Reading the tory tea-leaves.

The Conservative Defence policy paper; A Resilient Nation is surprisingly ambiguous insomuch as the detail of the ‘what‘ and the ‘how‘ of future strategic thought is absent: What role do you want Britain to play in the world? How will you ensure Britain is able to fulfil that role?

As usual Think Defence have done an excellent breakdown of the policy paper so you advised to look there first, however the purpose of this article is to divine those ‘what’s’ and ‘how’s’ from clues provided by public statements and defence planning realities, in addition to the policy paper itself.

It would be inaccurate to ascribe RUSI concepts directly to Conservative thinking, just as the IPPR report contained only loose parallels in its recommendation, however they form an excellent framework around which to discuss the less crystalline proposals found elsewhere.

First those defence planning realities courtesy of the fifth RUSI paper on the Future Defence Review – Capability Cost Trends:

In the light of the respite likely to be achieved by a pay freeze in 2011/12, together with incentives for efficiency savings as a result of overall budget cuts, capability cost growth of 1.5 percent seems a reasonable central assumption.

A plausible ‘Central-Case Scenario’ for the MOD is a settlement equivalent to ‘cash plus’. In this scenario, the MOD would be awarded 0.5 percent annual cash growth in its core budget after 2010/2011. This would be equivalent to a 5% real reduction over the three years to 20123/14. Over the six years to 2016/17 it would mean a reduction of 11 percent in real terms.

The combination of these two trends means that the next six years are likely to see a reduction of around 20 per cent in numbers of service personnel, and a commensurate reduction in numerical military capabilities (major vessels, aircraft and ground formations).

This is clearly understood by the very able head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards:

“We cannot go back to fighting as we might have done ten years ago when tanks, fast jets, fleet escorts dominated the doctrine of the three services. Our armed forces will try with inadequate resources to be all things in all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risk is such that it’s too serious any longer to be accepted”

Change is coming, because to preserve even a few strategic capabilities will require losing all of the rest, and that will be the biggest shake up of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces seen in a long time.

Then we have the following quotes from Conservative shadow Defence Minister Liam Fox:

“What is not possible is for Britain to try to do everything. It’s clear that things as they are cannot continue. ”

“We are talking a whole-scale recasting of our foreign policy and security policy,”

So, we can expect radical proposals from the Conservatives then.

“We will need to be able to project power on a strategic level alongside the United States and France.”

So Britain is to remain a Great Power, and while the above definition would really only indicate the RUSI doctrines; Global Guardian, Strategic Raiding, i’m sure Fox has wiggle room to argue that the Contributory doctrine fits as Britain would ‘conduct’ strategic power projection via coalition forces.

“If other countries are willing to take up roles in continental defence that leaves Britain and France able to take on expeditionary roles,”

Again, that does not rule out any of the three doctrines above.

“We can either hammer on about burden sharing, or we can start looking at what countries will be able to do within their political, constitutional and military constraints. Far better in NATO that countries have roles which they are 100 per cent willing to carry out.”

Ah specialisation he says, but British history includes the great land wars of the twentieth century, the navy two-power rule of the nineteenth century, and the colonial levies of the eighteenth century, any of the three doctrines still apply.

“We must also remember that we are a maritime nation dependent on the sea lanes for 92 per cent of our trade. A time when the threat of disruption on the high seas is increasing is no time for Britain to become sea blind.”

Is that a significant remark in advance of Strategic Raiding, or merely a tactical play to keep people guessing?

“We must be able to defend our fourteen overseas territories and, of course, the main focus is on the Falklands.”

Again a reference with naval implications, is it merely a feel-good sound-bite, or does it portend something real?

“Afghanistan must be, and will be, our military’s main effort under a future Conservative government,”

This statement on the other hand might indicate the adoption of Global Guardian by default in order to properly resource the fight in Afghanistan.

“I’m personally quite keen on the concept of aircraft carriers and I’m quite confident in allowing the defence review to look at them, because if you want to see Britain’s role projected you have to have air power to project,”

This on the other hand appears quite unambiguous, Strategic Raiding looks more likely.

“I have spoken often of Britain’s need for external power projection and the carriers are a central part of that. I wouldn’t expect there to be much change in policy, although we will have to look at cost and we will have to look at aircraft mix as well”

Keep the carriers, but be flexible on what flies off them, still Strategic Raiding…….

“State-on-state warfare is viewed by many as an anachronism in the Twenty-first Century but until there is a radical change in the Westphalian nation-state system that has been around since 1648, state-on-state warfare remains a possibility-and one that we must be prepared for regardless of how unlikely  it may seem today.”

Oho! That would seem to be a black mark against the contributory doctrine.

“First, we know from bitter historical experience the difficulty of predicting future conflict- either its nature or its location. We cannot base our future security on the assumption that future wars will be like the current ones. That is why we must maintain generic capability able to adapt to any changing threats.”

This would appear to be a warning against any kind of over-specialisation, but implies a rejection of COIN as the dominant orientation for the army, and thus makes Global Guardian seem less likely.

“It is no longer possible to expect a fifth of the Army to be permanently tied up in continental Europe when such huge demands were being placed on the military by tighter budgets and the war in Afghanistan.”

Under an expeditionary doctrine British Forces Germany is an impediment, as it is a standing commitment to provide a large heavily armoured deterrent force, when we want light/medium weight force with zero commitments, able to deploy at need, but again is not indicative of a particular direction in itself.

There are those in the army who ridicule the plan to bring back British Forces Germany, but hold on, did we not already decide that we are likely to see up to 30,000 trained personnel go over the next four years, and isn’t the British Forces Germany exactly the kind of heavy force that won’t be required in future under any of the three relevant doctrines? If Global Guardian were adopted then a proportion of these tank and reconnaissance regiments will be preserved within the regular army and the rest re-roled, if Strategic Raiding is adopted then heavy armour might survive in the Territorial Army to preserve a key skill, but if the Contributory doctrine wins out then heavy armour is almost certainly gone as it is exactly the kind of skill we would ‘plug-in’ to our multilateral spine from host nations. Certainly the Army units of British Forces Germany must be favourites to absorb the manpower reduction, but exactly how many survive to be reconfigured as more mobile forces is dependent on the strategic direction chosen.

Then there is section 4.2 of A resilient Nation itself which reads like a veiled justification for Strategic Raiding, in effect Sierra Leone writ large as a test-case for a new-model-army:

4.2 Building a capacity for preventative action

When governments act early enough to deal with the causes of a problem, they can avert the need to spend vast sums later on large-scale intervention and reconstruction. This approach is both moral and sensible. Conflict prevention has to be grounded in the sort of foreign policy outlined above – one which is broad in scope and reach, based on the principles to which the British people adhere at home, of liberal democracy and individual responsibility, and which has many tools at its disposal. At its heart must lie the capacity for both early warning and strategic assessment of potential or emerging risk and instability, and for sustained and patient action which aims to create conditions conducive to stability both within and between states. This includes actions along a spectrum to:

• minimise potential sources of instability and conflict before conflict arises;

• tackle contributing conditions and influence the decision-making of relevant actors as tension rises; and

• manage and mitigate crises when they occur.

There is a wealth of evidence that conflict can be avoided, or resolved, by sensible and timely action.

There are a number of people cheering for the adoption of the army-centric Global Guardian doctrine, notably the respected military historian Max Hastings:

My own strongly held view, shared by some much cleverer people on both sides of the Atlantic, is that the only credible way forward is to undertake a drastic restructuring, which explicitly prioritises ground forces. We should plump for a properly funded fighting army with appropriate support, including helicopters and transport aircraft, and a big commitment to unmanned drones. In a rational world the RAF, already smaller than the US Marine Corps’s organic air wing, would be integrated with the army.

He has certainly nailed his colours to the mast, and this blog is willing to bet that those “much cleverer people on both sides of the Atlantic” are largely US/UK army staff officers, but there is no indication as yet that this wisdom is accepted in ToryHQ.

On the subject of strategic partners it is interesting to note the quote from Liam Fox; “Without doubt the United States and France are our two most important defence and security partners.” met with obvious reciprocity by Nicolas Sarkozy who has apparently gone cold on his earlier enthusiasm for EU defence:

In an attempt to lure the Conservatives into a friendlier stance, Sarkozy may be willing to offer concessions over the future of the European defence agency, seen by the party as the incubator for a future European defence force.

The Conservatives have threatened to withdraw from the body and the French may be willing to see it disbanded, or radically reformed, as part of a move to shift the focus to greater bilateral co-operation between France and Britain.

The greater French strategic interest is in ensuring greater co-operation between the two countries on defence procurement to ease the pressures on both countries’ budgets.

Given that both are interested in maintaining independent ability to project power there is a lot of scope for cooperation, and this blog thoroughly supports the acceptance by Britain and France that sovereign nation-states cooperating bilaterally and within NATO will be far more effective than any soggy framework the EU can provide.

In conclusion; this blog cannot provide any certainty on which strategic direction the Conservatives will pursue given the deliberate ambiguity of their position, but it is certain that the chosen direction will be highly polarised in the manner of the RUSI doctrines. This is because the continued desire to be a ‘player’ will necessitate deep capability cuts in order to preserve any manner of strategic function, it will be battlefield triage and it won’t be pretty. On balance it would appear that while all are viable and appealing choices, the Strategic Raiding doctrine looks slightly more likely, and the Contributory doctrine slightly less so, with Global Guardian attracting even bets in the middle.

Update – 28/03/2010

To see how Tory policy contrasts with that of current government; a labour dominated foreign affairs committee has declared the Special Relationship between the US & UK as over. The report is based on testimony given by Nick Witney who works for the European Council on Foreign Relations and currently working to set up the European External Action Service. Extrapolating from this we might conclude that Labour policy is leaning towards the IPPR report with a COIN heavy Contributory doctrine, based around a putative European Army.

5 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #4 – Reading the tory tea-leaves.

  1. Liam Fox also said this recently on a visit to the Clyde
    ‘I’m personally quite keen on the concept of aircraft carriers and I’m quite confident in allowing the defence review to look at them, because if you want to see Britain’s role projected you have to have air power to project’

    ‘I have spoken often of Britain’s need for external power projection and the carriers are a central part of that. I wouldn’t expect there to be much change in policy, although we will have to look at cost and we will have to look at aircraft mix as well’

    They go well beyond soundbites and I doubt that he’d make those statements given that he’ll have inside knowledge of Tory policy.

    There is a big political side to this decision as well, is any party who wishes to become a long term government going to risk it by involving this country in another lengthy land war with all that ebtails considering the public will is not there for it?

    The big problem is Britain cannot immediately transform to Strategic Raiding because of Afghanistan.

    I favour Strategic Raiding like yourself because it provides the U.K with a capability that few countries have whereas Global Guardian would simply replicate other countries capability.

    The tories have also said they don’t agree with the recent green paper in that Britain should retain the ability to act alone if necessary to protect British interests. I don’t see how the global guardian route leaves us capable of that.

  2. i may appropriate those quotes for the article, i hope you don’t mind.

    in fairness, even the Strategic Raiding option is not act alone in isolation, as after your assault force has done its Sierra Leone style task it is still necessary to provide Stabilisation or COIN forces, which is presumably tasked to another nation.

    it is not that Global Guardian has to be totally independent, rather it is that the capability in itself represents a ‘strategic’ use of power projection and therefore can primarily represent Britain’s strategic interests instead of just being a useful adjunct to someone else’s ambitions.

    Global Guardian is perfectly viable…………. as long as the public have the stomach to use it, which allows the government to credibly coerce with it, and thus is a threat that an adversary must take seriously.

    half the problem we had with GW2 is that Saddam didn’t take the threat seriously enough, and was as a consequence still sending out mixed messages about iraq’s WMD capability in order to preserve his regional importance, a fact that provided an excuse for us to invade.

    if our threat had been more credible then saddam would not have been so happy to play both sides of the game, and he might still be in power now.

    • By all means, the quotes came from this article in Scotland on Sunday about a week ago

      I agree Global Guardian is viable, but I don’t think any government will get the public approval to use it and perhaps they are aware of that.

      I tend to look at things more from a protection of British interests point of view. In my opinion, the South Atlantic will become a big issue over the next 20-30 years should Oil be found. Strategic Raiding would be capable of defending those interests (and of being a deterrent in the first place) as well as providing a useful capability to an alliance. Global Guardian could do the second and bring capability to an alliance but would it be capable of defending S.Atlantic interests without naval air power?

      Both are viable, but SR is the more flexible and would better defend our own interests.

      • My thanks.

        Agreed, one does not wield influence at the diplomatic table without credibility, and with the current intention to make war a parliamentary matter rather than an executive matter any war that smells like iraq or afghanistan is going to have real trouble getting authorised unless there is a clear and present danger.

        My perspective is that an Armed Force can either serve the limited purpose of home defence, or the extended purpose of a tool to achieve leverage in foreign policy, and for it to be the latter it has to provide real strategic power projection. In this current world of limited power projection the ability to do so ‘independently’ also grants the nation the status as a Great Power which increases the utility as tool for foreign policy leverage.

        I agree that SR provides the best fit.

  3. Pingback: A Resilient Nation – Another View | Think Defence

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