Britain’s Future Strategic Direction #11 – Balance between sovereign and strategic effect

This article has been steadily brewing for some time, but its arrival has been hastened by the thoughts of a Think Defence article; Political Statement of Interest and Intent? It stems from the apparent internecine war between the Service Chiefs in the run up to the looming Defence cuts, and the alleged failure to consider first-principles and desired outcomes when formulating the SDSR.

This debate appears to revolve around the fading relevance of Single service tasks, and where the focus should settle in this new world of ‘jointery’.

This blogs opinion is that what is of primary importance is the right package for the right situation.

Want to enforce a no-flight zone – task the RAF.

Want to secure the straits or Hormuz – task the RN.

Want to keep the peace in Bosnia – task the Army.

For almost any larger task it will require all three, and here lies the pain.

There is no argument that we should accept the equal-pain of salami slicing, the force-structure should meet the likely and/or significant threats, no contention there. When we are talking about tasks in addition to the direct defence of the islands of Great Britain, we enter the realm of politics and influence. This is most cogently expressed by the prefixes; “sovereign” & “strategic” in front of the words; “force projection” when we are discussing military intervention. The principle point made here is the difference between elective and non-elective conflict.

Political influence is mostly readily exerted, and effect most efficiently achieved when Britain can say; “[I] will achieve [This]”

The [I] is important because credibility is weakened through every successive stage of negotiation required to achieve the [This]. In short we talk about credibility.

The [This] is important because effect is weakened through every diminution in the potential of the action, with the [I] eventually becoming irrelevant. In short we talk about capability.

Thus we have an important trade-off between how valuable each of the above statements are, as perceived by friends and enemies, and in relation to each other vis-a-vis compromise between maximum capability versus maximum credibility.

As is usual at this point we will revert to RUSI for the baseline assumptions, in particular the Global Guardian doctrine and the Strategic Raiding doctrine. If what can be termed Great Power status results from a combination of credibility and capability, the ability to shape the world in your image rather than morphing your own expectations to that of another, then either two of the above doctrines can be said to achieve it. What makes one more significant or appropriate than the other?

First one must look at each can achieve, and for whom. Through the prism of a Defence budget shortly to receive a haircut of up to 20% this blog would posit the following rough definitions:

Global Guardian is defined by the ability to surge three brigades into a new theatre of war, and to sustain a reinforced brigade with an additional battle group indefinitely. [persistence]

The advantages lies in the ability to control a theatre of war independently of allied forces with the associated command input that entails.

The disadvantages centre around the inability to enter into a theatre of war, rapidly or otherwise, without the assistance of the US.

Strategic Raiding is defined by the permanent and independent ability to enter a medium scale conflict with a reinforced brigade, at short notice, or sustain a battle-group indefinably. [permanence].

The advantage lies in the ability to act independently of US/EU/CW support, in defence of the British national interest regardless of whether that interest is recognised by others.

The disadvantage centres on the inability of sustain theatre level forces, necessary for the post conflict stabilization and reconstruction mission, with the concomitant loss of command input.

Why does Global Guardian lack sovereign ability? Largely because because we would lose the logistical tail provided by the RN that would allow the force to be both inserted into the theatre, and sustained in theatre, we would in short be dependent on the US for the large scale operations Britain forces had been configured to fight. No problem in itself, but europe is unable to provide either the credibility or the capability for its use, which leaves Britain at the mercy of US acquiescence to British strategic interests.

Why does Strategic Raiding lack strategic ability? Largely because Britain would be limited to independent medium scale operations, or as an adjunct to a wider scale coalition operation with little command input. We would mortgage off influence with big geo-strategic partners such as the US, maintained until now with the 15%/2nd-in-Command policy, in order to pursue our own narrow national interest limited as it is to medium scale conflicts. Would minor influence in multi-lateral operations offset this deficit?

The other major flaw with Strategic Raiding is that it does not truly accommodate persistence on a large scale, a valuable trait in today’s conflicts, set against this is a force structure that is responsive to the requirements of our far-flung dependencies to whom we have a duty of care.

Which is the more valuable? That depends on the aims and expectations of ones friends and enemies, both of which are dramatically influenced in a representative democracy by how ones electorate feels about conflict.

There is no doubt that Britain’s european allies, preoccupied as they are with the core mission of article 5 defence and low intensity peacekeeping, would be most enamoured with a British doctrine that concentrates on the maintenance of large conventional forces kept against ultimate need. We would either be in theatre already (article 5) or have no need to fight for entry (peacekeeping), so the lack of logistical tail would not be a problem. The US would no doubt be delighted for both political and military reasons if Britain retained the ability to sustain theatre level forces in the protracted and nasty COIN wars that have come to characterise the early 21st century, having a partner shoulder some of the burden is always useful. If they want British involvement in an operation that will require a fight for entry, they will provide our forces the necessary leg-up.

Set against this are the ambitions outlined in NATO’s new strategic concept, being drafted now and to be finalised in autumn, looking for a new more flexible and specialised NATO for the 21st century. Under this scenario, in addition to long-term stabilisation missions, and shorter term disaster relief, there is also a NATO (european) ambition for military intervention, and importantly; rapid-reaction intervention into active and contested war-zones. Having a nation that is both capable and credible at carrying out this mission will be an important symbol of NATO (europes) continued relevance, even if it is called upon infrequently. Britain could provide this role in a way that no other is equipped to do so. While France could provide the same capability and credibility (given additional investment), they like Germany and Italy have a more pressing requirement for large conventional ground forces.

Most importantly, the British people have by dint of our island/naval status become habituated to the continual easy success of our warlike ventures, at the same time as being blissfully unaware about the ugly and immediate consequences of having a bloody and protracted land war fought across our own front lawn. The ability to reach across the globe and apply force at whatever critical nexus an enemy presents has made the perception of war in the last 350 years a series of newspaper reports that starts with; “British ambassador confined to his residence whilst British trade ships denied port entry”, and ends with; “Royal Navy ships destroy blockade while Marines storm ashore to free ambassador”. In short it has preserved an ‘enthusiasm’ for military action that has long since been knocked out of our continental neighbours, but it has also restricted the type of military action we are happy to ‘indulge’ in, for it certainly does not extend to ugly and protracted ground wars without a decisive and heroic victory within sight. This is of course the major down-side of the Global Guardian doctrine, for it will entail precisely the kind of ugly and protracted warfare which the public is unable to support.

This, ultimately, is what sways the argument for this blog; the electorate must be able to accept elective conflict, otherwise there is no credibility regardless of capability, in which case the threat of military force has no utility as a deterrent against an attack on British interests.

Note, this debate around the most effective use of military force to achieve political ends is different from that of arguing for an Armed Forces capable of home defence only. This blog accepts that it is perfectly agreeable and acceptable for the majority of nations to limit their ambitions to home defence, but that is a separate argument only tangentially related to the question of how one achieves the most external political effect via military means.

And none of the above is to suggest that this blog advocates the abolition of the Army and RAF in favour of a British Marine Corps; merely that of the two militarily viable routes, only one is likely to achieve the active support of the voting public, and that will determine the utility of doctrine as much as anything else.

On a final note; although this argument is framed through the concepts of Strategic Raiding and Global Guardian, this blog does not advocate a fixation on one to the exclusion of all others, nor too does it believe the doctrines are intended to indicate a total polarisation of defence capability, merely a focus around which to sustain strategic capability in a time of greatly diminished resource.

Credibility vs Capability.

Update 10/08/10

An interesting article from Defence Management talking about the Navy’s prospects in the SDSR:

Despite the early success of the Royal Navy in demonstrating its agility and adaptability to the campaigns of Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, as an entity it has all but disappeared from the public eye. Irrespective of their parent service, all personnel serving in Afghanistan are erroneously labelled ‘troops’ and air support comes from the RAF alone. The needs and value of strategic sealift are never mentioned, leaving the Royal Navy badly exposed to further capability-sapping cuts. These cuts will come if our politicians fail to grasp that SDSR has to shape our future response to the security environment – rather than retrench our current warfighting capability – as a means of dealing with tomorrow’s challenges.
Those security threats will not be found in the mountains of Afghanistan, nor are they to be fought on the Westphalian Plain – instead they will likely be in the littoral of Asia or Africa, fought against non-state actors who challenge conventional superiority through asymmetric means. We will see an upsurge in repressed ethnic tension and increased competition for natural resources. Given these constraints, who among Britain’s armed forces can genuinely respond with flexibility and global reach? Outside niche areas the answer defaults to the Royal Navy – so long as it enhances its ability to operate across the full spectrum of maritime security operations and stops playing ‘boats in the bath’.

Update – 14/08/10

A fascinating speech given by General Dannatt to RUSI on Op Entirety and future force structures:

But when prevention fails we must be prepared to intervene as part of an alliance or coalition to enable the restoration of stability or, more remotely, to defeat conventional state-based threats. And this means that we must maintain the capability to generate at readiness, deploy and employ a sizeable force – based around a Divisional Headquarters – capable of manoeuvre in a US or Alliance Corps context. So, why a Division? Well, there are several important points about this level of commitment. Firstly that on a Large Scale operation, only a properly constituted Division will realistically secure sufficient political and military influence on the coalition leader, particularly prior to the start of hostilities, and historically our political masters have always sought to have a strong voice in coalition and alliance decision making. Secondly that we expect to conduct most large scale operations in a US led alliance or coalition, and a UK Division within a US or Alliance Corps provides a militarily viable and credible level of contribution. And thirdly because a Division gives politicians and military leaders the greatest ability to manage and reduce risk – risk of casualties because of the assets it controls, and long term risk as we can be more discretionary about where and how it is deployed and employed. A single Brigade begins to look token-istic and does not give that degree of assurance as it must, perforce, be embedded into a partner nation’s Division, and control of its destiny is largely surrendered.

Question – How do you deploy division level forces when you have only six brigades, what compromises must be made?

2 responses to “Britain’s Future Strategic Direction #11 – Balance between sovereign and strategic effect

  1. Ref ‘persistence’, ‘permenance’ and “today’s conflicts”. Does not the current and foreseeable financial environment suggest that any UK government would insane to get involved with another campaign requiring the current levels of permenance (9 years plus) ?

    Is it not possible to have strategic credibility and capability by acknolwedging that we do not have the cash to do “nation building” and thus our military policy will instead be based on “nation destroying” ? i.e. “dont screw with us, because we will find you and we will kill you” (I realise the diplomatic language would be rather less blunt….). Could this policy statement not be a credible backstop for foreign policy and the strategic direction of forces capability development ???

    • “any UK government would be insane to get involved with another campaign requiring the current levels of permanence (9 years plus)?”

      That would be ‘persistence’ under my definition, but I agree with the point you are making.

      “Is it not possible to have strategic credibility and capability by acknowledging that we do not have the cash to do nation building”

      Yes indeed, that would be a ‘permanent’ (i.e. 24/7) ability to deploy short-term force, or SR if you will.

      “Could this policy statement not be a credible backstop for foreign policy and the strategic direction of forces capability development ?”

      Rusi certainly seem to believe so, they coined the term SR after all.

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