The events of the last month have lead to me labelling events with a tag of “SeapowerState”, whether that was the pointlessness of Afghanistan, the move from Trade to Foreign Office for Liz Truss, or the defenestration of France’s Indo-PAC strategy by AUKUS. Gently pointing out the power of culture in Foreign Policy; exposing the tyranny of Mahan in how we understand “Sea Power” only as a deracinated military method, and not in its truest sense of a temporary and artificial cultural construct, willingly adopted, via systematic appropriation that then drives public policy.
And this is where the army is coming unstuck.
So what is a “Seapower”, how is that different from a “Sea Power”, and why does it matter?
Well, first Seapower is cultural identity that informs a national strategy, not a military strategy that is pursued via naval means. As Andrew Lambert very ably distinguishes; it is perfectly possible to be a Sea Power without having any of the essential cultural imperatives of a Seapower State. The US is the worlds greatest Sea Power, but its interests remain that of a continental power. China has the same cultural default.
And why is this continental norm the default?
It is precisely because Seapower is an artificial constructed identity that must be continually reinforced, as the cost of maintaining it is so great that it is only adopted from a position of weakness and in the absence of other better options. And then, still further, it is only possible for an insular territory, and only sustainable as long as that SeaPower State does not stand alone against a dominant regional hegemon. You do not do this willingly, and you would not sustain it needlessly.
What are the characteristics of a Seapower State?
They feature a pluralistic system of politics in the service of maximising external trade. A trade focus that runs right through society from its tax system to its openness to innovation, and comfortableness with heterogeneity. Necessary because of the huge burden this places on the state to sustain the military forces that guarantee that external trade. Trade-offs are made between safety and innovation, that arrive via policy in the regulation of business but equally are reflected at the personal level.
They feature a foreign policy that seeks to mitigate the essential weakness of their position. This by avoiding total-war scenarios; seeking to leverage coalitions in support of limited goals, sustained beyond the resources an adversary is willing to commit in its ambition for total victory. Oh, and of course limited goals mean you remain content to seek a negotiated outcome when exhaustion starves an adversary’s interest in perpetuating the struggle.
Above all they feature a culture that sustains a Seapower identity. That continues to reinforce that identity in the face of considerable erosion from the burden of sustainment and fear of its inherent weakness. In the past this could be witnessed in art and architecture; the cultural power of Turner or Cappelle, the docks of Carthage of Naval College of Greenwich. Today, compare the political weight of a Plymouth MP campaigning for the Navy vs the disparaging caricature of the grumpy retired Colonel complaining once again in the South Chevening Gazette. Today, go to any defence related forum and compare the breadth of topics and depth of replies as a contrast between Army and Navy. Look at the consequence of this disparity in public profile. It tells it own story.
So, do we exist in a Seapower ‘friendly’ setting today?
We didn’t, but arguably we do now.
The Cold War was an era where Britain faced an overwhelmingly dominant hegemon capable of successfully executing total-war on any adversary. Likewise, the trade network that sustained the naval power of the previous era had been broken by events in the preceding fifty years. The only way to survive was to be the bridge that would ensure an American guarantee against this local overwhelmingly dominant hegemon. We did that via our demonstration of commitment to Article 5 in Germany. Seapower identity was left to fade, but did not disappear entirely.
Today – as seen via the characteristics of a Seapower culture
1. Adopted by peripheral states from a position of weakness.
(precisely the position we find ourselves in now – as a price for seeking autonomy from the EU. divorced economically from the single market and the regulatory process that guides it, global britain is as much about economic future as it is diplomatic endeavour)
2. Pluralistic politics in the service of maximising external trade…
(gov’t is seeking to sustain consent for its policy agenda outside of normal heartlands, going the unusual route of promoting from DIT to FCO – and accepting social ‘risk’ in growth industries like Fin-Tech, AI, Biotech, Data, Medical, Energy and more)
3. …which has a circular dependency on the naval power that protects it.
(a consistent agenda of prioritising naval investment that begun in 2010, but has only accelerated in the defence reviews that have followed. big ticket naval items that threaten the whole procurement agenda if they fail continue to sustain political support, rather than getting cancelled or reprofiled when risk presents)
4. Ensures foreign policy has limited aims achieved via coalition.
(a consistent agenda of building bilateral and multilateral relationships in the part of the world that is recognised as the fulcrum of world power in the late 21st century)
5. Only works in the absence of a dominant hegemon – that seeks conformity with its preferences.
(the EU is not such a hegemon, despite the UK working to a quite different and ‘threatening’ Anglo-Saxon policy agenda that the bloc would dearly like to suppress in equivalence defined conformity. in combination with China and the US the UK exists in a multipolar system that is quite conducive to a trading ‘Seapower’ state)
Well, if you say so, but what does this theory-crafting look like in practice?
It looks like the UK seeking maximal autonomy to regulate growth industries such as Fin-Tech/AI/Data/Biotech in a competitive way.
It looks like the UK seeking to maximise the commercial visibility of those growth industries in foreign markets via agreements such as CTPP.
It looks like the UK abandoning peripheral aims which demand unlimited commitment, like Afghanistan, that serve no goal in enhancing the trade activity that funds the military instrument in the first place.
It looks like the UK building technology and security coalitions such as AUKUS with states key to balancing against powerful adversary’s.
It looks like the UK demonstrating its commitment to, utility for, and interoperability with, key coalition partners like Japan.
It looks like the UK investing in future generations of submarine platforms before the current generation is even fully in service.
It looks like the UK ensuring its military forces are inextricably linked with the investment agenda that supports the future economy.
And how does this impact the army?
In short, it doesn’t know what questions it can be the answer for, and so it dithers in a frantic search for utility:
While the army is busy procuring fleets of foreign built vehicles it no longer even wants, the RAF is able to embed its future capital programme at the heart of HMGs diplomatic agenda.
While the army is busy wondering what it might actually do with tanks, the Navy and Airforce have built themselves four-square into the heart of the HMG’s Foreign Policy agenda.
While the army is busy creating ever more wacky formulations of emasculated light infantry to solve marginal problems, the Navy is solving existential problems for HMG’s core allies.
While the army is digging ever deeper pretending that its core vehicle programs aren’t really failing, elsewhere we can see what true clarity looks like when matching resource to need.
While the army is generating headlines about how the SAS needs more posh officers, the navy is in the news for the First Sea Lord delivering AUKUS to the PM wrapped in a bow! Optics.
The army is failing. The IR was a fine document, the Defence Command Paper a dogs breakfast. The difference is that IR will still be directing activity in ten years time, whereas the “who” in who will be enabling those objectives in future Defence Command Papers is very much open to question!
What should the army be thinking about?
If the army had any sense of purpose – of what it can do for HMG – then we would have had a similar AUKUS style announcement for the Joint Expeditionary Force in Northern Europe.
It would have anchored the army in Poland, with the British army as the UK lead in European Nato, while bringing Poland into the Joint Expeditionary Force grouping.
It would have involved diplomatic initiative that brought Poland into the New Hanseatic League as an economic block that sought maximise capital and services access in participating countries.
It would have included a technology sharing agreement perhaps centred on Comms satellites, perhaps launched from Scotland.
It would be looking at joint procurement programs to bring interoperability with the key military actor in Northern Europe.
And not forgetting… the British Army is an expensive tool, how can its Land Industrial Strategy support UK industry such that it pays for its own upkeep?
Instead of a strategy for our own backyard, the army has drifted in complacency.
The UK as a returning Seapower State in the 21st century provides opportunities for the Army as well as the Navy, but for the Army in particular they need to have a laser focus on providing answers to HMG’s Foreign Policy problems, and not constantly reinventing interesting solutions to problems of its own devising.
The army no longer has that luxury.
Update – 07/10/2021 – Radakin becomes next head of the armed forces, and the Senior Service will guide the way in a maritime future: