Article commissioned by Critical Reaction, a website on politics, culture and books.
“To understand why we have ended up with the SDSR we have, we need to see how these pressures came to be arranged just so. Doing so also explains why a fundamental strategic choice is necessary for Britain. We then to realistically see what the structural impacts of such a choice will be, and where this will leave Britain’s world role as a result. Britain’s armed forces will be transform over the course of the next five years, and that process will be governed by the SDSR, whether or not it has been the worthy exercise it could have been………………”
My thanks to the Critical Reaction team for the opportunity to write for their excellent site.
The Strategic Defence & Security Review has been an unedifying spectacle to witness, but this is a result of the competing pressures – operational, political, fiscal and doctrinal – which the armed forces are under. To understand why we have ended up with the SDSR we have, we need to see how these pressures came to be arranged just so. Doing so also explains why a fundamental strategic choice is necessary for Britain. We then to realistically see what the structural impacts of such a choice will be, and where this will leave Britain’s world role as a result. Britain’s armed forces will be transform over the course of the next five years, and that process will be governed by the SDSR, whether or not it has been the worthy exercise it could have been.
A consensus emerged from the end of the Cold War that there should be a peace-dividend allowing the nation to reduce military spending from over 4% of GDP in order that it might be diverted to more socially useful ends. The government of the day held a long and considered Defence review resulting in the SDR98; a document detailing how the Armed Forces would be configured to implement a new world role for Britain, that of liberal interventionism, a mechanism for holding governments to account for their failure to uphold international law, and to meet international norms regarding basic human rights, which in the last resort could be enforced by expeditionary warfare.
As a result the Armed Forces resembled a mini-US, capable of broad spectrum power projection including the following key strategic capabilities: an army capable of fighting protracted and high-intensity wars; a navy capable of deterrence and over-the-horizon forced entry engagements; an ability to conduct theatre level engagements out of area with all the C2ISR that entails; and lastly a strategic deterrent.
Since, at the time of the SDR 98, the Defence budget occupied merely 2.7% of GDP during a period of rapid economic growth, this was actually a viable proposition. It was a stretch, but if this budget priority coexisted with continued growth then this was indeed a defence we could afford. But it wasn’t to be. The Defence budget slipped from 2.7% of GDP in 1997 to 2.2% in 2008, before the recession arrived which killed the economic growth that compensated for defence inflation. However, most lethally, Britain was embroiled in two wars whose endurance and intensity exceeded the planned operational tempo, and which the government paid for by hacking out chunks of the core Defence budget for operational costs, and accepting procurement programs which were completely unfunded.
It should be clear that broad spectrum power-projection hasn’t been affordable for some time, a fact compounded by the Gray report which effectively represents a 10% cut over the next decade, the Treasury insistence on Defence funding of the acquisition costs of the Trident replacement which represents a further 2% cut, and, a Treasury demand for up to a 10% reduction as part of the Defence contribution to balancing the country’s shattered public finances.
If we are not to be capable of broad-spectrum power projection in the furtherance of the British national interest then we have but two choices; to become a narrow-spectrum Great Power, or, alternatively, to concentrate on home defence and give up a leading role in international affairs. The latter option only requires the following two duties: autonomous obligations for the UK’s defence, and contributory obligations for collective defence, whereas the former adds two more. Namely the requirement to be able to effectively wage elective war of both the autonomous and the contributory kind, for, presumably, reasons of national interest. There is nothing immoral in the latter ambition as we have an interest in promoting an international rules based system where laws and norms are adhered to. Responsibility to Protect, a ‘norm’ now quite accepted in International Relations is a case in point. Britain’s position on the Security Council is in part justified by the strategic bargain with friends and allies that we will work to achieve collective security in the widest sense. Thus do we need a force structure that provides an expeditionary capability in addition to meeting the basic and local requirements of collective and national defence.
The reality of Britain’s position in the world today is that while Britain will likely remain the seventh largest economy by 2050 our influence will inevitably decline as new powers rise. That we will need partnerships which will act as force multipliers in pursuit of British interests is the first reality realists should acknowledge. Second is the fact that we are inescapably an integral part of Europe, and it behoves us to encourage our immediate neighbours to become an effective instrument with which to leverage their combined diplomatic effect. A third and reasonable expectation of reality is the projection that the USA will remain the most significant international actor for perhaps the next forty years, and that we should work to discourage their declining interest in us by making Europe a valuable future partner. And the fourth fact is that outside of this EU/US axis we are allied to some of the fastest growing developed and developing economies. However, they exist in unstable regions and would benefit from the certainty of swift and strategic military assistance.
Europe has long tended to overestimate the value of soft-power, and taught a brutal lesson during the Balkans crisis. The result of this was the agreement to perform the Petersburg tasks: humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks & disarmament operations, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking, and support to third countries in combating terrorism. In short the softer security elements separable, not separate from NATO’s obligation to manage territorial defence. Tony Blair’s government should be recognised for the St Malo achievement. By pooling sovereignty at an inter-governmental level (rather than delegated to a supranational level) the rest of Europe was persuaded, at least in principle, to perform security tasks in its near abroad, and for nations to specialise where necessary to facilitate this. This ‘uploading’ of British preferences was a vital first step, but London’s task is to see that Europe becomes a strategic actor in its own right. This requires instilling the collective will to act militarily abroad, and with harmonised structures capable of achieving this.
The US is in the process of gradually disengaging from Europe as its alters its posture to face the challenges of 21st century Asia, and the task for Britain is to retain the engagement of the world’s only superpower in order that this relationship remains a process whereby British interests are advanced. Europe, as a result of declining demographics in the wider region, is destined to become a strategic backwater in the 21st century, as the dominant economies in the next forty years will be China and India, with other extra-European actors biting at their heels. Accordingly, Britain’s utility to the US as an unsinkable aircraft carrier will diminish. As American hegemony declines in the face of aspiring new powers it will search for partners to share the burden and confer legitimacy, and Britain’s influence with the US will derive as much from creating and leading an effective Europe as it does from providing military assets. It is a judgement for Britain to make as to where it will gain most advantage – from a military that will enhance EU effectiveness, and thus build a superpower partner, or a military that will most effectively complement US requirements for sustained ground presence, by supplying force that confers multilateral legitimacy on US operations.
With regards to those nations, outside of the EU/US axis, whom we seek to influence, an expeditionary capability is both essential and entirely complementary to our obligations to overseas dependencies.
If Britain is therefore destined to become a narrow-spectrum power then it is restricted to two fundamental choices; maritime or land, and the choice will be governed by which is deemed most complementary to the goals set out above.
The choice of maritime or land is not absolute, our direction is constrained by our commitment to national and collective defence, but it does represent an emphasis that will preserve strategic capability for power-projection over one domain or the other. National defence requires a bare minimum over the land, sea and air domains of the following: an army of at least five brigades to permit defence of the homeland at division level, and defence of overseas territories at brigade level; a navy of a dozen major warships to protect the home waters; and an air-force of four air-defence squadrons to protect the skies above Britain. In addition to this we require sufficient strategic air/sea-lift to move those military assets in defence of overseas territories. Collective defence could add another brigade, so we can deploy a division against an Article V style threat, as well as two squadrons of strike aircraft, and a further three warships for standing tasks.
Everything beyond the absolute requirement for collective and national defence is the realm of elective and expeditionary warfare, and this is where the debate over the SDSR has become nasty and fraught with factional infighting. Each service is quick to claim that it can provide a tailored solution for autonomous and contributory warfare outside of obligatory requirements, and each is quick to claim that its elective solution is complementary to obligatory requirements, and thus cost effective.
The land argument takes the theme that Rupert Smith’s “wars-among-the-people” will come to characterise future conflict, where enduring and dispersed insurgencies will require significant ground forces to dominate a theatre over an extended period. Ideological conflict will be a generational affair and will require sustained effort on a wide scale to prevent failed states becoming hot-houses for new threats to home security and national interests.
At present there are nine combat brigades (including the Royal Marine brigade). This is sufficient to enter a theatre of war with three brigades, and thereafter to sustain a brigade and a battlegroup in theatre. If a land based doctrine is adopted, such as the “Global Guardian” described by RUSI, we might expect the army to increase in numbers from 105,000 to 110,000 on the premise of sustaining nine brigades which with a little juggling of harmony guidelines, would permit the sustained presence of a division in theatre, and justify the framework nation status that brings with it significant command input. The Navy would lose the amphibious fleet and carriers, and thus the justification for the Marines, leaving rapid reaction operations to airborne-forces limited to battle-group level.
The land doctrine’s utility for contributory warfare would be significant as it would provide forces for peacekeeping, collective defence and peacemaking at division level, as desired by the EU and US respectively. Its utility for autonomous operations would be problematic for, although the army is looking to create a lighter logistical footprint for its medium weight forces, staging such expeditionary operations requires host nation support for both deployment and supply, incurring considerable cost in time and political capital, and outside of US logistical support would be unlikely to deploy at more than brigade level.
The maritime doctrine considers the Georgian war as characteristic of future conflict, where regions subject to geopolitical ‘shocks’ will encourage states insufficiently wedded to the international system to renationalise their foreign policy and thus justify unilateral external action. The chosen response to this problem is the British “manoeuverist approach”, where freedom of the sea allows one to apply surgical force to an enemy’s critical weaknesses, rather than blunt force against the enemy’s main strength. It provides the ability to deploy, insert, command, and sustain a reinforced brigade in theatre, with full access to C4ISR in theatre along with organic air support. While the concept of “Go first, go fast, go home” has been tested to destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains a viable posture for a nation specialising in theatre entry, as long as there are follow-on nations to relieve the burden.
Of the nine present combat brigades mentioned the two of especial importance to this doctrine are the Royal Marine brigade and the Air Assault Brigade. If a maritime doctrine were fully adopted, such as the “Strategic Raiding” described by RUSI, we might expect the army to contract to 80,000 men on the premise of sustaining five medium-weight brigades in addition to the two expeditionary brigades, which under the harmony guidelines would permit the sustainment of a brigade for contributory operations, as well as brigade strength rapid reaction forces. In US led coalitions UK forces would clearly be subordinate to US command at the theatre level, however EU deployments would allow theatre control of wider coalition assets. The Navy would keep its amphibious fleet, carriers, and Marines, and would be capable of wider deterrence/presence missions deemed essential for Defence diplomacy.
The maritime doctrine’s utility for contributory warfare would be modest as it would only be capable of providing force for peacekeeping, collective defence and peacemaking at brigade level, and would limit our influence within the EU and US. Its utility for autonomous warfare would be considerable as it would permit brigade level rapid reaction forces for defence of overseas dependencies, and in support of allies and interests. Its utility for conflict prevention is likewise considerable given the ability of amphibious forces to be rapidly positioned, remain poised to intervene, and then move on once the threat has passed – true strategic mobility is their ace.
In the short term, leading up to 2015, the structure of the armed forces will rightly be concentrated on the Afghanistan mission so we are unlikely to see much change to the army other than a gradual reduction in heavy armour, and a slow return from Germany as closing RAF bases free up space for returning brigades. It is quite possible that much of the amphibious fleet will be put into extended readiness in the same period, or scrapped, depending on the outcome.
The land doctrine would be a comfortable choice for the EU as well as the US: for the former it would provide a UK with plenty of boots on the ground to conduct soft security tasks in Europe’s near abroad, for the latter it would likewise provide a UK able to join enduring counter-insurgency wars.
The problem for Britain’s ambitions in Europe is that a land doctrine does not add anything that Europe doesn’t already have a great deal of, medium-weight brigades. It would undermine the St Malo pressure to forge Europe into a broad spectrum power over all domains: land, sea and air. Further, an EU that is struggling to be seen as a serious strategic partner would also be hard pressed to explain why its most capable naval power, in a group that is mostly devoid of maritime power projection, has transformed itself into a land power. The perception would be that the Britain had once again chosen the US over the EU, and was this not evidence that we were never truly committed to European Defence? Having British forces frequently hip-deep in unattractive American wars has, in addition, all too visibly encouraged the smaller European partners to let their defence spending atrophy. It has only been when our commitment to European Defence has visibly matched that of France that we have been able to persuade the smaller nations that collective defence is an obligation and not a right.
In contrast, Britain’s ambitions for the US under a land doctrine would no doubt benefit in the short term by being able to sustain a division in theatre wherever this generational epic of failed-state conflicts alights next. We would thereby demonstrate a commitment to the US that would no doubt be reflected in their maintenance of the intelligence and technology sharing functions that forms the real and, for us, beneficial core of the special relationship. However, as America’s interests move further east would the British public be willing to follow the US into wars that are perceived to be ever more remote from what’s recognisable as our national interests? In the 2020 time-frame, without a willingness to fight US COIN wars alongside them, and unable to present Europe as a willing and able partner in 21st century geopolitics, how will Britain keep the US engaged in our interests?
The maritime doctrine will be an easy sell within the EU but a difficult proposition for the US, for the former would perceive it as a move away from being an auxiliary for American ambitions, and the latter would likewise recognise the loss of a partner capable of making a significant contribution to enduring land operations. It could be all too easily seen as the British firing a continental bullet, and being willing to peacekeep to the last Frenchman.
Regardless of the chosen force structure, the problem for Britain’s ambitions in Europe would be to persuade European nations that they need to involve themselves with the harder edge of security provision – with peacemaking rather than just peacekeeping – for only this will prevent Europe’s abundant soft-power from being hamstrung on the international stage, and thus not co-opted to British ends the way we aim to co-opt American power. The challenge will be to push these nations to think of European security as a concerted whole to which they can contribute, rather than an irritation made irrelevant by the US security blanket. This does not require a Euro-army, or any further institutional integration, merely the fulfilment of the inter-governmental cooperation secured by Tony Blair at St Malo in support of the Petersburg tasks. This author takes the view that this will be more readily achieved if Britain configures its forces to meet the maritime element of the power projection spectrum for the reasons stated above. We can and should offer leadership.
The challenge for Britain’s ambitions for the US under a maritime doctrine lies in convincing Washington that reducing our capability to support their forces in theatre will increase the probability of delivering the EU that can be a genuine partner in a post-unipolar world. American scepticism of European commitment to deliver effective military capability is well justified. The cost of a maritime doctrine may be considered very-long odds contrasted against the capability we provide today. On the other hand, the US State Department has always be keen to see Britain thoroughly enmeshed in ever-deeper-union, presumably on the logic that if there is to be an EU it might as well be both effective and friendly to American interests, neither of which is assured without British involvement.
The question why
Britain’s Grand Strategy must be to retain the ability for sovereign and strategic power projection inside an ever more multi-lateral world. But that world will be one where our interests are best served by us delivering a NATO in twenty years time which is not fixed on Article V defence of European territorial integrity, but instead provides a genuine institutional bond linking the security and prosperity of North America and Europe. The needs of the West in its most vulnerable century arguably since the 15th is best met an SDSR mandating a maritime future for Britain’s Armed Forces: we have a role to play, and should not be afraid of doing so.