Early in this year the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the MOD produced a paper titled The Future Character of Conflict, an exploration of the threats Britain is likely to face in the next twenty years, in order to inform a future security and defence review. The document focuses on the changes in strategic priorities and capabilities of nations and non-state-actors, and how Britain might react to them. It is an extensive tract broken down into a series of disaggregated bullet points, so for the purpose of this post the most interesting themes have been collated for comment.
What follows is not an analysis of the of the text itself, rather a discussion of how those themes directly impact on the assumptions of the coming Defence review.
“Contrary to some perceptions, this shift will happen in a period in which we will have to defend, or at least secure, our national interests. There is only one way for Defence to position for an uncertain future and that is to be agile. Two of the generally accepted critical characteristics of agile organisations are the ability to decentralise resources and decision making and having uncommitted resources to deal with the unexpected.”
The first theme deals with that most obvious problem for British foreign policy; overstretch, for the last ten years have taken the Armed Forces well beyond the limited flexibility required in the SDR98. That document attempted to marry the conflicting demands of large standing forces capable of defending europe against multi-theatre and high-intensity conflict, with agile expeditionary forces capable of operating beyond NATO’s periphery as a force for ‘good’. While we created deployable HQ’s and acquired assets for strategic transport we retained a doctrine within the army and airforce in particular of stationary and immobile defensive capabilities. The fact that we created a few light weight brigades along with the some strategic airlift and sealift does not change the fact that it is difficult to rapidly deploy and sustain more than a few dozen of the few hundred fighter aircraft, or more than two of the eight army brigades. As is plain now the single deployment to Afghanistan, albeit unusually large is occupying all the UK’s deployable military resources. This is untenable if only because it provides no leverage and no response to new events. The answer must be to create a force structure capable of both persistent as well as permanent capability, with a foreign policy that clearly distinguishes between the two. There will always be a UN/NATO/EU mission that requires ongoing input from the UK, this must be accommodated for without preventing a temporary ability to achieve military effect elsewhere. What is being suggested is a structure that permits persistent rolling tasks separate a permanent ability for temporary intervention.
“Partnerships will operate through a shared perception of risk and reward, but will come at a price. For example, the UK could concentrate its resources on certain areas and rely on partners to provide the full spectrum of capabilities. More clearly identifying what our partners (especially the US) require of us and what we are willing to offer in return, will better allow us to focus on the practicalities of interoperability. A more comprehensive or ‘super-joint’ approach, if it can be made to work, would allow the full range of state instruments to be brought to bear. This may require more radical change across the national instruments of power, not to merge them, but to amplify their combined strategic effect.”
The second theme is a recognition that the SDR98 is no longer achievable, we cannot afford to be a US-lite and instead to concentrate on areas of capability where Britain adds real value to coalition partners, and not in those areas where we do not. We are strongly committed to europe, and this creates a desire to act cooperatively within the european branch of NATO, in addition to the US and Canada, but also with partners of opportunity where the situation requires. The key capabilities we bring to a multilateral operation are command and control, special forces, as well as other niche attributes such as MCM, these we should make available to our allies both extant and opportune. What is being suggested is that we consider ourselves a Contributory power acting as a ‘spine’ around which other nations capabilities are grafted.
“We may wish to consider a significant investment in preventative action, recognising that we may be required to fulfil this role concurrently in a number of widely dispersed areas. The spectrum of preventative activity, and the resources devoted to it, may require a refocusing of priorities within Defence. This should reduce the possibility of conflicts escalating into larger wars that would consume significant resources, and it could also provide a wider range of options to the Government. It has been assessed that £1 spent on conflict prevention generates over £4 in savings for the international community. It is not, however, possible to guarantee the effectiveness of prevention and, even with hindsight, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of prevent activities.”
The third theme is based on the premise of spending a penny now to save a pound later. There are endless potential conflicts both large and small that can be averted by demonstrating a commitment to a solution now, rather than after disaster has struck. At the smallest scale this could be an army training mission, a visit from a warship, or an airforce exercise with a friendly nation. On the larger scale it could entail military assistance to a civilian authority via a stabilisation force or even a declaration of ‘interest’ in the non-aggression of a third party. All have their utility, difficult as it is to measure a non-event. What is being suggested is the importance of both an ongoing ability to conduct low-level defence diplomacy and the unallocated resources to engage in military coercion at need.
“Deterrence must be credible enough to influence the perceptions of potential adversaries regardless of their mindset. There is considerable risk that simply because deterrence does not stop all of today’s threats – terrorists in particular – it may be viewed as having limited effectiveness. Deterrence is primarily about stopping high-end threats and, in their absence, it must be assumed to be effective. Prevention, including deterrence, containment or coercion, will be far more effective if it is backed up by credible military force. Afghanistan has become an enduring stabilisation mission with regional and global implications. Success, however defined, in Afghanistan is essential; even a perception that the UK has lost would affect our credibility in future operations, and credibility is vital for the strategic reputation that underpins deterrence.”
The fourth theme depends on credibility; the assurance that when a position is stated the opponent takes it seriously, for a nation cannot deter an event if the adversary either knows you have not the capability and/or the will to intervene. This again touches upon both persistent and permanent effect; the former important from demonstrated commitment to ongoing operations, Afghanistan being a notable example, and the latter from having uncommitted resources capable of realising that intervention. If your nation suffers from war-exhaustion then what credibility is to be given to deterrence containment or coercion come the first sign of resistance, likewise if there are no resources capable of enacting such policies. What is suggested is opting to avoid future OIF’s unless the provocation is intolerable, as such large and open-ended operations absorb all available capability and erode public tolerance for military action as time and tragedy accrue.
“The changing balance of power in international organisations will heighten the tension between the ability for the UK to achieve international legitimacy and the imperative to act quickly. Achieving this degree of internal legitimacy will take time, due to the likelihood that Parliament will require a UNSC Resolution; itself something that may become increasingly difficult to achieve when factors such as increasing global interdependence. Delays in decision making will impact operational tempo, putting a premium on more agile decision-making structures and processes, both nationally and within the alliance. The use of non-precision weapons, or the failure of precision weapons to avoid all collateral damage, while legally permissible, may generate adverse perceptions that undermine the legitimacy of operations.”
The fifth theme acknowledges a world that on the one hand demands greater legitimacy for military intervention and on the other, countries which exhibit a tendency for increased nationalisation of foreign policy, trends that sound contradictory only if you ignore the difference between those nations that are wedded to the international system and those that are not. Britain is a nation that will seek legitimacy for its military interventions from both its partners and its electorate, particularly after OIF, but those interventions will be increasingly aimed at nations that determine their own criteria for legitimacy. Recognition of this fact puts a premium not only on diplomatic agility, but also military agility once sanction is achieved. However, legitimacy is perceived in the eye of the beholder and critical time may be lost whilst coalitions are bartered for, so the ability to deploy independently on small and medium scale operations is a must if the initiative is not to be utterly lost. What is being suggested is the ability to deploy and sustain strategic and sovereign force.
“The idea that the UK could benchmark against general war and then ramp down for so-called lesser cases, will by 2014 be a flawed approach. In 2014 conflict may better be categorised as a mosaic of adversaries, threats, and responses. The RMA assumed it would be less dense: the opposite has been shown to be the case. In future conflict we may be forced, through strategic imperative or operational necessity, to engage our adversaries in areas that reduce the effectiveness of our capabilities and confer an advantage to indigenous combatants. Adversaries will avoid engagements that play to Western strengths; for instance, they will seek to deny us access to theatre, using all the political and military levers that they can deploy. They will also seek to disperse into an increasingly complex battlespace, including amongst the people and below ground, where we will struggle to dominate.”
The sixth theme is an argument against retaining a defence posture configured for general war on the periphery of the european union, it isn’t going to happen, and such an obsession will come at the cost of the expertise in C4ISTAR which permits us to react to situations in a timely and surgical manner. Given the current lack of funds for a Defence budget that can meet all threats there is a temptation to forgo expensive specialisms in favour of persistence on the assumption that numbers can achieve the influence and effect that training cannot. This is analogous to the 80/20 line of thought, and while it is true that we must relinquish the capability for high-end solutions at the broad spectrum, this does not mean we should accept mid-range solutions at the same, for to do so would turn the Armed Forces into a blunt and unwieldy instrument. What is being suggested is that the British Armed Forces must become more narrowly focused as an institution, shrinking those capabilities where we do not hold a competitive advantage amongst our peers.
“Resources and the Global Commons. Access to resources and the ability to move them will become an increasingly important facet of international tension and conflict. In the competition that may ensue, the UK, in concert with its partners, may be called on increasingly to secure its requisite portion of these assets. The World’s population is predicted to rise to over 8.3 billion by 2029, driving increased demands for resources, with 60% urbanised and six billion living within 100 km of the coast. Access to food and water will become increasingly challenging, and regions with acute shortages are likely to feel increasingly vulnerable. Some states will regard the security of their food and water supplies as issues of national survival and will act accordingly: a fight for survival may be visceral and unconstrained.”
The seventh theme accepts that a declining resource base across multiple spectrum’s will create situations that demand military response, and they will do so particularly in coastal regions, either 100km offshore for energy or food, or 100km onshore for populations centres and water supplies. This is an area dominated by the littoral and the riverine, and forces capable of operating over and above the environments will be key. Where forward operating bases can be found ground and air-forces will do fine, where they do not amphibious forces capable of exploiting this environment will be invaluable. To quote Andymed from the Warships1 forums; “The RM isn’t in the business of opposed landings but is instead a raiding force that is designed to skirt around defended positions and penetrate inland with great speed capturing and holding strategically important positions. Al Faw was in fact a classic example of this type of operation.” What is being suggested is the utility of naval, air and ground forces capable of dominating coastal regions with maximum discretion on timing, placement and force level.
This blog argues for a persistent capability to deploy a brigade in support of NATO/discretionary objectives, in addition to a permanent capability to deploy up to a brigade in support of British/non-discretionary objectives. The two can mix and match, either can be fully or partially deployed, and they can even deploy together in support of the same objective, but the two must remain distinct. The principal difference between the two lies in the fact that the former is ceaselessly tasked to meet multi-lateral commitments, whereas the latter is a contingency which we may choose to use at the request of partners. The operating assumption should be that we retain the ability in a non-discretionary general war to reconstitute force at the division level, but to use the brigade as the primary combat formation in all situations outside that circumstance. Raiding forces should be constituted as a brigade, and capable of being deployed and sustained as a brigade, but should expect to operate as battle-groups in the main.
Maintaining a separation between permanent and persistent forces will allow Britain to concentrate on being the Contributory partner of choice whilst preserving the ability for independent action in support of partners or its own interests.
Update – 11.09.10 – A leaked study from a Bundeswehr think tank talks of the foriegn policy limitations for oil-consuming nations in a post peak-oil world:
Oil will determine power: The Bundeswehr Transformation Center writes that oil will become one decisive factor in determining the new landscape of international relations: “The relative importance of the oil-producing nations in the international system is growing. These nations are using the advantages resulting from this to expand the scope of their domestic and foreign policies and establish themselves as a new or resurgent regional, or in some cases even global leading powers.”
Update – 12.09.10 – Here are the working assumptions that the SDSR process has drawn from previous work as it proceeds to completion of its own task:
Coined ‘the 2020 option’ the intention is structure the Armed Forces on the basis of the foreign policy goals the UK has set for itself at the end of the decade, the UK’s assessment of the future character of conflict and the changes in technology that will need to be incorporated. The result will be a “flexible, adaptable posture [that] will maintain the ability to safeguard international peace and security, to deter and contain those who threaten the UK and its interests, and where necessary to intervene on multiple fronts. It will also, crucially, keep our options open for a future in which we can expect our highest priorities to change over time”. That would mean an Armed Forces capable of maritime-enabled power projection, the capacity to control air-space to guarantee freedom of manoeuvre and the ability to deploy land power with the logistical strength to sustain it.