Defence And The Strategic Deficit By….

Posted on November 27, 2010


Author: Ironduke99

So, the not-very-well-kept secret is out. The SDSR or strategic defence and security review, which could have irrevocable consequences for Britain’s standing in the world, is turning out to be neither strategic nor particularly to do with the country’s long-term defence and security needs. It is, instead, going to be about politics.

It is not just Liam Fox, the embattled defence secretary, saying this as a way of fighting his departmental corner. The mutterings around Whitehall have been growing consistently louder, that the SDSR has been imploding.

Should anyone be surprised by this? Is it not always about politics? Read C. P. Snow’s “The Corridors Of Power”.

Still, Dr Fox is in danger of becoming the Francis Pym of his generation. Pym was Margaret Thatcher’s first defence secretary. In the face of the early 1980s recession and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, he held out against defence cuts that he felt could not be justified strategically. In the end, Mrs Thatcher shunted him aside and replaced him with someone to sort out the books, namely John Nott. And the rest, as they say, is history.

John Nott’s planned cuts in the Royal Navy were perhaps the most striking example of a post-war defence review whose judgements were almost immediately turned into nonsense by the intervention of the real world – in this case, the invasion of the Falkland Islands. More than that, the signals it sent out – or rather that it reinforced – helped shape events.

Of course, there are still those who argue that the strategic judgements underlying the Nott review were perfectly valid. NATO, the Central Front in Europe, and keeping the Americans engaged were the Thatcher government’s strategic priorities. It was the Navy that had to give. Even some admirals agreed with him, he and his supporters insist.

The trouble with all that is that most of the Nott conclusions were based on land-centric assumptions about how a war in Europe would erupt that were perhaps the least likely to occur. They also ran in the opposite direction to the way the US thinking was shifting at the time. And they were mainly based on assumptions about naval warfare reached by advisers who actually had no experience of conducting it.

A large body of today’s commentariat tends to sneer at the mention of the Falklands when defence is discussed. But all the mistakes listed above are occurring again. And they are compounded this time by the total lack of a driving strategic vision (something that at least Margaret Thatcher had) or an overriding strategic imperative (ie the Cold War), which could at least shape a serious debate.

As is now generally agreed, the one thing that has been most significantly absent has been what President George Bush Snr would have dubbed “the vision thing”. There have been some honourable efforts to inject strategic perspective – such as Professor Michael Clarke’s – in order to correct that particular deficit. But they have been few and far between.

Supposedly, the national security council has alighted on an agreed conceptual framework, of “adaptable Britain”. It splits the difference between retreat to a disengaged fortress homeland defence and straining to sustain interventionist aspirations.

But the label smacks simply of convenient, but rather meaningless, branding. Even if it is a genuine ambition, the way the political calculations seem to be heading in terms of where the defence axe will fall seem set to produce the least adaptable approach of all.

There is here an almost perfect storm of financial meltdown and a rush to cut, the tyranny of a grim, grinding current operation, and a more than usually unfocused future, played out on the unfamiliar terrain of coalition government, with an inexperienced ministerial team, and a largely disengaged public (at least where defence is concerned, if not in terms of overall cuts). In those circumstances, a genuinely strategic review, balancing immediate needs – budgetary and operational – against a genuine consideration of future risks and responses, was perhaps always an impossible dream.

The tyranny of Afghanistan, and for that matter Iraq, has skewed the debate in another way. It has given media profile and lustre to a cohort of generals and pro-Army lobbyists who can now command attention in what passes for the public debate in a way that their naval and air force counterparts cannot.

That has shaped not only the thrust but also the language of the argument. “Aircraft carrier” and “fast jet” have almost become terms of abuse. And they are not just aircraft carriers, they are “super-carriers”, emphasising extravagance. “Behemoth” has become an indispensable label in any critique of the carrier case.

Thus, the carriers have become the poster children of top-brass hubris. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, everyone knows the price of the new carriers, but almost no-one their potential value.

So, we have had the generals Richards, Dannatt, Guthrie et al opining in speeches and the media about how now really is the time to save the admirals and air marshals from themselves and their misguided virility symbols. They have, of course, been supported by eloquent cover fire from a mixed cohort of the military school of lobbyists and concerned commentators. Bizarrely, some of these commentators seem to argue that the Navy and air force should be chastised and punished for depriving the Army of the necessary means to fight wars which, almost simultaneously, these same individuals also argue the country should never have got involved with in the first place.

All this makes it imperative to rebalance the soundtrack of the debate. At the very least, the Army must be challenged that its perspective is the forward-thinking, realistic one, and that it is the Navy and air force which are trapped in the past. How is it that the Army has got away with this?

The paradox is that, of all the services, it is the Army which should really be searching its soul. It is the Army that is posed the most profound questions by what has unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the character of both current and possible future conflict, and by any real strategic assessment of Britain’s place in the world, its interests, and how best to protect and defend them. It is the Army that needs to be most seriously questioned about its level of ambition, and whether it is remotely realistic. It is the Army – not the Navy or the air force – that is clinging on to the legacies of the past.

None of this is in any way to diminish the enormous devotion and sacrifice of those who have fought and died in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But these embroilments should actually thrust into sharper focus the question of whether, now or in the future, the right defence and security solution for a country like to Britain is to strive to be able to make such ambitious, prolonged, “boots on the ground” commitments again.

Having significant, highly-trained, high-impact ground forces to achieve specific, defined missions is one thing. Pretending still to be able to field large, long-term garrisons to do nation-building is another.

Of course, while Afghanistan remains full-on, the Army must have what it needs. But this should not be used as a Trojan horse argument not just to defer but actually to deflect cuts in the Army, when reformed, better-equipped land forces around 80,000-strong may fit the country’s enduring strategic needs better than the current force of 100,000. How can it be a logical way forward for the defence posture of a country like Britain, with its globally tiny population, to gear up for further manpower-intensive, messy, campaigns that all Western societies will find ever harder to prosecute and justify?

Long-term demographics argue against it. Trends in public attitudes to casualties, whether friendly, civilian, or even enemy, raise the barriers to the successful use of force in this way ever higher. The incessant exposure of prolonged military commitments to the media spotlight will only increase. It all plays to every Western weakness, and every likely adversary’s strength.

Of course, it is a question of balance. But to tilt that balance now even further in favour of land forces seems to be the solution least likely to sustain Britain’s strategic influence and leverage in the long term, if that is the aim (and of course some may question whether it should be).

As one American friend put it, Britain’s problem is that its army is big enough to get it into trouble, but not big enough to get it out. And there is no realistic prospect of altering that equation, so it may be best to stop pretending otherwise.

The Army narrative is that, if only it had been able to deploy “critical mass” in southern Afghanistan from the outset, things would have been different. But the Americans are struggling to achieve critical mass when they have total land forces of more than 800,000, compared to Britain’s 100,000.

Again, the well-worn refrain is that armies are cheap and navies and air forces are exceptionally expensive. Well, no, actually. Armies are relatively cheap to equip, but massively costly to use, in terms – to coin a now over-used phrase – both of blood and treasure.

Just the financial bill for Afghanistan already exceeds the likely total cost of building AND OPERATING those hateful two planned aircraft carriers for their entire expected 50-year life span. Part of the Navy’s problem is that Britain has not had real, fully-fledged aircraft carriers for nearly two generations. The current mini-carriers have performed way beyond expectations and their original design parameters. But they have always really only been able to offer a token of what proper carriers can achieve. Quite simply, policymakers in Britain have forgotten what they are missing.

Carriers offer flexibility, options, and real clout without quagmires. And not just for some far-fetched future Battle of Jutland or high-seas naval war, but real, serious, and perhaps impending potential crises, with Iran, Pakistan, even potential strategic duelling between India and China, say, or mounting rivalries in south America (and dare one mention the Falklands again?).

Yes, security concerns now go beyond the application of conventional armed force. There is the cyber threat, and the real security preoccupation of most ordinary citizens today – the terrorist attack on the street. But, as the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, has recently pointed out, the latter is as much to do with governments and societies making judgements about legislation and civil liberties as it is about massive reallocations of security resources.

It is often said that at the heart of the argument is a fundamental difference between the Army on the one hand and the Navy and air force on the other about the character of future warfare. The generals are the modern thinkers, and “get” the notion of modern wars amongst the people, while the admirals and air marshals fly off with fanciful notions of a return to “state-on-state” war, the remoteness of which makes their extravagant equipment projects unjustifiable.

It is a caricature. Everyone accepts that warfare in the future will be different from what has gone before, more hybrid, more complex, with all adversaries – both state and sponsored non-state – looking for unconventional means with which to attack. The question is where to place the balance of investment for Britain to achieve the maximum strategic benefit.

And if “adaptable” is the goal now, the real lesson of Afghanistan is that, if there is a type of commitment that is truly draining of any chance of strategic adaptability, it is that. Getting stuck in a ten-to-15-year commitment has eradicated any prospect of the country being able to respond significantly to any other contingency, should it arise. It is another way in which strategic choice is removed.

Even when Afghanistan is over, it will take years for the armed forces to recover properly. And, while Britain has been preoccupied with it, and Iraq before, it has lost real strategic ground in areas of proven and prolonged strategic value, like the Gulf as a whole, and left a gap that others (France and China to name but two) have been happy to fill.

On the counter-terror front, the idea that even the United States has the stomach to do the likes of Afghanistan again and again is fanciful. The recipe for future engagement – off the Horn of Africa or wherever – is more likely to be stand-off strikes with planes and drones, and elite or special forces for intelligence and raids, and if necessary to mount fighting evacuations of British and other nationals. And, in many cases, these will be deployed most flexibly from the sea – either from carriers or amphibious ships.

In terms of wielding influence, carriers cover more bases (metaphorically and literally) than other weapons. There is, first, the argument that they are four acres of sovereign territory that can placed almost anywhere, to free one from the need to go cap in hand to other countries for basing rights.

And here is another paradox. Fair-weather friends are always more likely to say “no” to basing rights when they know you have no alternative, and are equally more likely to be amenable when they see that you do have options.

Again, the strategic situation is so fluid now that Britain cannot easily judge where to position itself. Should it be always joined to the United States, more European, or more seeking strategic partnerships with Asia’s risers? In a military context, at least, carriers again cover the bases.

If the United States is still Britain’s indispensable partner, carriers are a language the Americans understand (whereas Britain’s land commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have actually backfired in terms of impressing Washington). That will be even more the case in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to hold Washington’s attention as it looks ever-more intensely east itself.

One of the most facile arguments against the new carriers is that Washington does not care if Britain has them or not, because the US Navy has plenty of its own. In fact, America’s admirals are fretting mightily over their dwindling carrier force just as the challenges to US maritime dominance are really starting to take shape.

The Americans will soon have just ten carriers. So, two full-sized British vessels would make a real difference. In contrast, as has been said, total US ground forces are more than eight times the size of Britain’s. The logic of the numbers game is that carriers are potentially more valuable to Britain’s most important ally.

Yes, committing ground forces is always the ultimate political test. But that is because it is also politically and strategically the costliest, and the most difficult commitment from which to untangle oneself.

Equally, aside from the “junior partner to the United States” role, the carriers would provide the core of a go-it-alone joint European capability, should the need arise. And in terms of impressing the rising powers of India and China, both are at the head of the queue of countries trying to join the carrier club themselves. They look at the world and realise that if there is one conventional weapons system that has had more strategic impact than any other in recent decades it is the (ok, American) aircraft carrier (although some might argue the case for the Kalashnikov assault rifle).

And, of course, all of that is before one starts considering the role of aircraft carriers as massively valuable soft-power hearts and minds assets for humanitarian disaster relief. In the recent Pakistani floods, one of the new carriers could have acted as a base for more Chinook helicopters than the entire helicopter lift capacity of the Pakistani armed forces.

It is probably a pitch too far to suggest that carriers are cheap, but not that they are great value for money. No modern warships have been more tellingly and regularly utilised than America’s carriers.

And each of Britain’s new “behemoths” will be able to deliver a hefty chunk of what an American carrier can deploy at half the building cost. They are actually designed to be more adaptable than their American counterparts. And they will operate with just third of the crew of an American carrier – a massive saving over the ships’ lifetimes.

Yes, the aircraft to operate from them add significantly to the costs. But these are aircraft that will be needed anyway. Britain cannot opt out of the kind of fifth-generation stealth capability that the proposed Joint Strike Fighter represents when every other country that is looking to have serious defence capability in the future is opting in. And being able to operate them from carriers will make them massively more useful.

The final aircraft numbers will be lower than originally envisaged, that is for sure, and probably a good decision. A mix of fewer Joint Strike Fighters and more advanced drones is beginning to look increasingly sensible. But, again, using the carriers as future bases for the next generation of drones will add greatly to the policy options list.

Frankly, the carrier argument should have been settled a long time ago. It is a ludicrous indictment of the government machine that the carriers, one of the key issues at stake in the last defence review twelve years ago, are still not built, and have become a focal point of this review. The delays and prevarication have only added to the final bill. And that, actually, is not chiefly the Navy’s fault. It is much more to do with political double-dealing and anti-carrier trench warfare by elements of the Whitehall bureaucracy, for which the taxpayer will end up paying the price.

At about the same time that the Labour government first gave the green light to the carriers, the Cunard Line announced plans for a new flagship, the new Queen Mary, which at 150,000 tons is more than twice the size of the Navy’s hoped-for flagships. She has been built and has celebrated her sixth year in service already. In the interim, Cunard has also commissioned two more liners, each bigger than the carriers, and the second of which will enter service in a few weeks.

On top of that, the admirals may rightly complain that they have paid at least twice over already for the carriers. They did a deal with George Robertson to accept fewer frigates and submarines in the 1998 defence review. They had to pay again with further destroyer and frigate cuts when more economies were demanded in 2004, in part to sustain the Army.

The generals berate the carrier commitment for depriving troops of vital equipment. In fact, the Navy has already forsaken billions of pounds of new warship orders in the last few years partly to help keep the Army going in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will no doubt pay for the carriers for a third time in this review, if it is to keep them at all. Even some in the Navy wonder if the carriers are worth that cost, but they are. They represent a capability that, if given up this time, will never be regained.

It would be a tragedy if the history of the 1966 defence review, when the Navy had its last bid for big carriers torpedoed, was allowed to repeat itself. The country has paid a price – in “blood and treasure” – of options foreclosed ever since.

Many have blamed the 1982 Falklands War entirely on the navy cuts imposed by John Nott’s review of the previous year. But that was, in fact, just the last straw.

History has never heard of the 1977 Falklands War, when tensions were also high. And that was not for the dubious reason put forward by David Owen, the foreign secretary at the time, that Britain secretly sent a small flotilla that the Argentine junta probably did not even had been despatched.

It was because the Royal Navy still had its last full-sized aircraft carrier, the previous, beloved Ark Royal, which it had clung on to for as long it could after 1966. Her continued existence meant that the Argentine leadership was in no doubt that, had an invasion been attempted then, the Navy could have steamed south and bombed down-town Buenos Aires if necessary.

By 1978, the old Ark Royal had gone, and with her that credible deterrence. Margaret Thatcher may not have been aware of that (according to then First Sea Lord, she was surprised Ark Royal had been scrapped) when she contemplated her options at the beginning of April 1982. But her adversaries in Argentina clearly did. The price of miscalculation on both sides was high.

Commentators may muse sagely on whether armed force has any real bearing on a country’s true clout in this globalized world, or whether it really is all down to economic strength. They often ignore the fact that any debate on the relative merits of hard and soft power is only possible because of the backdrop of an international order made possible largely thanks to a US-led hard-power security umbrella.

That, and the stability of an international system that allows trade to flourish uninterrupted, are still things in which Britain has a huge stake, and where the country’s long-term strategic interests lie. And, in an age when America’s relative position is being challenged, its attention is increasingly distracted, and other powers increasingly jockey to have their say and exercise their influence, Britain must weigh carefully what it can most usefully bring to the table. And in that context, “aircraft carriers in the water” may prove to be a more valuable and less costly currency in the long term than “boots on the ground”. That is strategy and politics.