Britain’s future strategic direction #9 – What should our NATO allies expect of us?

When we talk of Britain’s future strategic direction it doesn’t pay to ignore the single most important military alliance on the planet, the alliance formed in the aftermath of WW2 as a reaction to the threat from from the USSR, who through their combined efforts would preserve the peace and security of its members.

Today, in 2010, that original threat is defeated and the world a safer yet more chaotic place with many new challenges, so NATO seeks to redefine its mission and Britain must ask itself what capability it can most usefully provide to ensure collective security in the 21st century?

The first question is whether NATO is still relevant in this brave new world, for it is undeniable that Europe in the 21st century is a backwater of international affairs in a way that hasn’t been true for five hundred years. Today, America is a declining hegemony, and Europe is eclipsed as a source of economic growth by the likes of China, India and Brazil not to mention various regional power-blocs that all jockey for influence in international affairs.

The answer is obvious, for the same reasons mentioned by RUSI; Great Power creates the following benefits:

a) Thucydides wisdom – all nations seek power for reasons of fear, interest and honour

b) The Strategic Bargain – where we work with partners to ensure collective security

c) National Obligations – Uninterrupted access to economic recourse & Defence of the Realm

d) Military Aid to Civilian Authorities – a resource to resort to in times of natural disaster

Arguably the latter is a matter that can be dealt with by individual sovereign states, but the first three require a collective response at least as far as Europe is concerned. However, Europe suffers too many demographic & geographic disadvantages for it to wield influence in the world in sufficient measure on its own merits over the long-term, most notable of which are its declining and ageing population and lack of access to strategic resources. Here the value of NATO shows its worth for it is the only contractual obligation between Europe and America, and it is one that has been forged at length through testing times and shown to be a thoroughgoing success. There is no escaping the universal truism of international affairs:

Capability + Will = Influence + Security

The only significant internal threat to this alliance is EUropean naval-gazing and the consequent fear on America’s part that the alliance is a one way street, with Europe unwilling to spend appropriately on collective defence, leading the latter to suspect that Europe is a fair-weather friend. America cannot afford this lapse even from its position of strength, and Europe certainly cannot from its evident and growing weakness, thus do we have the NATO policy paper – NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement.

What does the paper tell us? First that NATO envisions four primary mission profiles:

1. To deter and defend against existential military threats to treaty members (article 5).

2. To defend against non-article 5 threats such as ICBM’s, WMD’s, terrorism, cyber-attack, and interdiction of supply-lines.

3. To deploy and sustain force outside of the treaty area in defence of members and members strategic interests.

4. Managing partnerships with outside bodies and civilian agencies to achieve better effect in the first three.

The first mission is the one that has always existed, the second a response to the chaotic threats evident in the post cold-war era, the third a recognition that globalisation has not only made us more interdependent but also increased tension, and the fourth that these modern problems require far more than a purely military solution.

To look at this from the point of view of a SWOT diagram:

Strengths – NATO is still the pre-eminent military alliance in the world.

Weaknesses – Europe has failed to specialise, and failed to spend, failed to be deployable.

Opportunities – Russia and NATO have defensive doctrines, conventional threat is unlikely.

Threats – Unconventional threats both within and without the treaty area.

Now we must ask how would NATO would seek to remedy and capitalise upon these factors and create a force structure that meets its four primary mission profiles. The following changes are required:

Nato Rapid Reaction Force – should be prepared for Article 5 and non-Article 5 operations, and should participate in all significant training exercises.

Conventional – Treaty nations must capitalise on commonality between Article 5 and expeditionary, to understand C4ISR as NATO’s operational glue, strengthen special operations capabilities, enhance maritime situational awareness

Reform – Truly multinational formations, further national specialisation, combined NATO/EU defence capabilities agency,

Comprehensive – Create cadre of civilian specialists for rapid deployment, non-veto decision making for non-Article 5 decisions, and giving Sec-Gen per-delegated authorities based on agreed RoE for emergencies

Nuclear Weapons – widely shared responsibility for deployment

Ballistic Missile Defence – expand active layered theatre BMD system

Cyber-Attack – Allied early warning network, creative passive and active defences

How does Britain fit into this? The first factor to recognise is that it is no longer necessary to maintain Armoured & Mechanised forces in Germany, Russia is not the Soviet Union and will have a population smaller than that of Germany alone in the next forty years, and NATO now has surety that it operates a purely defensive strategic doctrine. In short; British Forces Germany is an anachronism and we can start with a clean slate, with the additional benefit that it would do much to improve relations between NATO and Russia. One way of approaching this clean slate is to come back to the four strategic capabilities of the British Armed Forces as stands:

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.

Then, to consider these against the four principal NATO missions defined above, and to see which capabilities the major European NATO nations cannot perform in an effort to find a best fit against the evolution required for NATO’s new direction:

The UK can notionally perform all four, but at best we can expect to keep three given present financial difficulties.

France can provide capabilities one, two and four.

Germany can provide number one.

Italy can also provide number one.

There would appear to be no lack of the first capability, and only two capable of the second. As far as this blog is aware the only nation capable of the third is Britain, and both France and Britain are capable of the fourth, but we also need to consider the specialist functions required by NATO.

France has a significant naval/expeditionary capability, and remains the largest military spender on the continent, so it should focus it conventional forces on Article 5 defence as well as deployable and sustainable forces. France has significant advantages in the areas of missile technology so it may prove sensible for it to be the focus of European ballistic missile defence efforts.

Mission 1. Conventional Forces and Nuclear Deterrent

Mission 2. Ballistic Missile Defence

Mission 3. Global Guardian and Strategic Raiding doctrines

Britain has a fairly major advantage in C4ISTAR given its history of maritime surveillance, deployable divisional headquarters, investment in sensors and UAV’s, and large intelligence infrastructure, so it would make sense for Britain to be the multilateral spine around which NATO’s truly multinational formations be built. Britain also has a fairly significant advantage in the provision and support of special forces.

Mission 1. Nuclear Deterrent

Mission 2. Terrorism and Special Forces

Mission 3. Strategic Raiding and Contributory doctrines

Germany possesses an advanced and well-trained army capable of sustained deployment given recent investments in logistic capability.

Mission 1. Conventional Forces

Mission 2. Supply-lines and WMD’s

Mission 3. Global Guardian

Italy also possesses an advanced and well-trained army capable of sustained deployment given recent investments in logistic capability.

Mission 1. Conventional Forces

Mission 2. Supply-lines and Cyber-Attack

Mission 3. Global Guardian

Political ramifications aside, the desire for widely shared nuclear capabilities would argue in favour of both France and Britain retaining their nuclear deterrent.

The second tier NATO nations such as Spain and the Netherlands might be persuaded to direct resources towards the fourth mission profile; that of non-military support for out-of-area operations, as well as maintaining sustained availability of a combat brigade for extended deployments.

The less significant spenders among NATO Europe should be encouraged to occupy military niche roles much as they do very successfully today, whilst maintaining a force structure capable of sustaining 10% of their capability out of area as per NATO guidelines. This might sound superfluous, but even countries such as Estonia can enhance their sovereign independence by being capable of supporting their equally vulnerable neighbours from external aggression.

None of the above should indicate that there is no role for Britain in boots-on-the-ground, rather that specialisation is required if cost efficiencies are to be achieved.

Where does this leave Britain?

There is a strong argument against the maintenance of a large, broad spectrum army capable of fighting protracted and high-intensity wars, as it is capability widely available from other European NATO nations. Whilst it is true that it has been difficult to persuade European nations to contribute to counter-insurgency operations, there is an opportunity to improve this by reaffirming their commitment to NATO’s new direction, in addition to removing operational restrictions and streamlining decision making by allowing non-veto interventions. This cooperation would be further enhanced if Sarkozy and Cameron can agree to roll the pointless European Defence Agency into the new NATO Defence Capability Agency, the combined result of which should be sufficient trust that countries will meet their obligations under this 21st century NATO doctrine.

As one of the highest spending nations on Defence with ambitions to Great Power status, there is also an argument for retaining a regenerative capability for military engineering through a paramilitary body focussed on peacekeeping. Further, that other specialist military functions such as heavy armour and artillery can be preserved as a regenerative capability through the Territorial Army.

Can Britain afford to lose the strategic capability of a large, broad spectrum army capable of fighting protracted and high-intensity wars? If any nation can then it must surely be an island nation on the periphery of a continent dominated by allies, with a strong navy and a nuclear deterrent to act as the final insurance.

The concept of “Go first, go fast and go home” is still viable, if we get NATO reform right.

Update – 20/05/2010

UKDF blogspot has just posted an interesting article on the importance of American engagement in Europe for Britain’s security, which has obvious parallels to the discussion of NATO here.

Update – 14/06/2010

An interesting article from the Kings of War blog discussing the the demise of EU defence ambitions to be replaced by common-security ambitions instead, welcome news if true.

2 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #9 – What should our NATO allies expect of us?

  1. Pingback: RUSI Capability Questions - A Review | Think Defence

  2. Pingback: RUSI Capability Questions - A Review - Think Defence

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