Britain’s future strategic direction #5 – Can’t we just fudge things and hope for the best?

One of the more persistent positions to found on the internet runs along the lines of fudge-and-hope, whereby we find ourselves yet again in a pickle with an underfunded strategic mandate and there is an instinctive reaction which that says just a few more minor cuts will make things good whilst we wait out the lean years. Politicians are of course happy to encourage this view, as they are always willing to promise “jam tomorrow”.

This relies on the misconception that, even now, Britain remains so capable that we can trim a little here, and little there, and still maintain an Armed Force capable of Great Power status. This misconception is reinforced by the UK’s ambition to position itself as a US-lite, whereby we maintain a sophisticated and diverse military structure that is easily capable of plugging itself into US operations, albeit on a smaller scale. Specifically; we wished to provide a force that equalled 15% of the US commitment numerically, with the same quality in order to achieve the second-in-command position, and thus retain some strategic input into operations.

The core reason for doing so was to maintain Britain as a significant player in world affairs, which is by no means a foolish objective as the ability to shape the world in your image ensures that the world does not reshape you in theirs. More to the point, this strategy was achievable under SDR 98, it was an excellent Defence Review that stressed the importance of key capabilities designed to maintain Britain’s influence in the world. The problem was that the government never funded it.

At the time of the SDR 98 the Defence budget occupied 2.7% of GDP during a period of rapid economic growth, it was a stretch, but if this budget priority coexisted with continued growth then the vision was indeed viable. This was not to be case however; the Defence budget slipped from 2.7% of GDP in 1997 to 2.2% in 2008, then the recession arrived which killed the economic growth that allowed for capability cost growth, and finally the poorly funded war in Afghanistan was paid for by hacking yet more chunks out of the Defence budget in December 2009. In short, SDR 98 isn’t happening.

So what were those key strategic capabilities that allowed Britain to justify its UN Security Council veto? As usual Think Defence have provided a thorough break-down of the SDR 98 objectives here, but I will attempt to boil them down further still to arrive at core capabilities that justify that seat at the top table:

  1. A large, broad spectrum army capable of fighting protracted and high-intensity wars.
  2. A naval capability that allowed rapid over-the-horizon forced-entry engagements.
  3. Ability to conduct theatre level operations out of area, with the C4ISTAR that entails.
  4. A Strategic Deterrent that for reasons of history brings significant political influence.

Although air-power is essential to the successful conduct of first three capabilities, I do not list it as a strategic asset in its own right because it plays a supporting role to the first two, and is only effective in the presence of the third. Air-power is a given in any high-intensity warfare no matter who provides the capability, but unless we are to replay the Battle of Britain it is not a key asset, and is then not relevant for its intrinsic strategic value of forward deployed forces as envisaged above.

It is also key that the fourth capability only has value in the presence of the first three, because unless you can project force you cannot offer capability in the UNSC, in which case you are without strategic ambition and thus maintain a deterrent only against the possibility of nuclear attack. The deterrent is first and foremost a political tool, and one with little utility unless you have strategic ambition.

There is some room for compromise around the stark doctrines provided by RUSI, and it is because they work under the assumption of keeping a strategic deterrent.If you treat the deterrent as just another strategic capability that provides political advantage via military means, then it is possible weigh its merit, find it lacking, and look to another capability in its stead.

So, if we accept the RUSI policy papers; A Force For Honour, and Capability Cost Trends, and we wish to retain a position at the top table of international diplomacy then we must look to preserve as many of the of the above capabilities under the current funding paradigm as possible, and reading between the lines that would appear to be at most two of the four.

The first three closely parallel the RUSI doctrines; Global Guardian, Strategic Raiding, and Contributory, with the fourth being a purely political capability that has historically justified our seat on the UNSC. Speaking of the deterrent; this is no worthless capability, as the greatest utility of force is that its threat can achieve political advantage, which is certainly the case with UNSC membership.

So here we come to the crux, accepting the RUSI wisdom, it is not possible to maintain any of those strategic functions if we are unwilling to sacrifice at least two of them, but which two should it be:

Should we keep assets one and three to preserve a land capability that could be termed US-lite; being able to man and run large ground ops?

Alternatively, should we opt for two and four, thus providing foreign expeditionary intervention with the insurance of the strategic deterrent?

Perhaps we should hedge our bets by keeping one and two in the hope that operational flexibility will preserve political influence in the absence of nukes?

The final option is three and four, sacrificing military capability in order to mastermind multi-lateral operations, relying on the insurance of the deterrent for home defence?

None of the options listed above are ‘bad’, all have their merits, but this blog considers that our island status combined with a public dislike of protracted COIN operations and the reality of future state-on-state war, make the Strategic Raiding doctrine imperative, whatever else it is paired with.

Update – 04/04/2010

It would appear that Think Defences focus on this issue of realistic capability is crystallising, and they have opted for assets one and three to be able to man and run large ground ops.

6 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #5 – Can’t we just fudge things and hope for the best?

  1. Personally I am for 2 and 3 because I don’t think what you term as the ambition that requires us to keep the deterrent as a political tool. However I doubt politicians of any ilk would be that honest, and I don’t see any of them giving up our nukes. SO that said, I am all for 2 and 4 and RUSI’s “strategic raiding” option, because I do not think any politicians and any government will ever have the political will to fund ‘nation building’ activities such as Afghanistan properly.

    Unfortunately despite the efforts of RUSI and a couple of blogs to push the issue, I agree with your opening statements, all we will ever git is ‘fudging’ !

  2. two and three would be interesting, because it would answer the fundamental security needs of an island nation, and allow significant influence as the leader of multilateral peace-keeping operations, without the disadvantage of a public unwilling to witness the consequences of COIN operations.

    definately worth consideration…………..

  3. Jedi, yes I think it could be characterised as 1 and 3 but with some elements of strategic raiding as well. Trident and the ability to do small scale strategic raiding as well

  4. Yes, perhaps it is, but in varying scales

    Which comes back to my main desire for as balanced force as possible, able to flex up and down and meet unpredictable needs

    The more I think about the RUSI options the more I think they are too neat, I don’t think the real world is that convenient

  5. I certainly agree that they are presented as highly polarised and inflexible options, and that more leeway does exist if you throw the deterrent into the equation.

    Where I am forced to submit to the power of their argument is the basic premise that the current spending regime demands that major capability cuts are implemented.

    I also agree with the RUSI logic that if we wish to remain a Great Power, we will have to sharply focus on a subset of the four strategic capabilities listed above.

    Failure to do so in the interests of maintaining a balanced force will reduce all of those core capabilities to the point where they are no longer strategic in their effect.

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