hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 27 September 2013

Defence Strategy and the Turing Test

Paris, France. 27 September.  Ah, Paris in springtime!  Well, it is September but it feels like spring. I flew in from Rome where I had spoken on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, which is the strategy equivalent of talking paint dry.  My reason for being in Paris was to talk grand strategy with senior managers of Thales, a defence-industrial giant.  As I spoke I could not but help think of the test Alan Turing once established for artificial intelligence to pass if it was successfully to mimic human thought and action.  Europeans need a similar test for the many EU, NATO and national defence strategies which plaster the walls of Europe’s rickety and ageing grand villa – do they at least mimic reality?
Defence strategy in Europe is a sort of ‘Strategic Reverse Half-Nelson’.  This is achieved by turning the strategic telescope around so every threat looks much smaller than it is and then halving the number by putting the telescope in front of Nelson’s blind eye.  To that end, most European states decide first how much of a military they wish to afford then write strategy to fit.  This is not exactly how strategy works.
Technology is the future of defence strategy.  Take the soon to be ‘flooded’ 65,000 ton British aircraft carriers.  The Royal Navy no longer launches ships but ‘floods’ them, which strikes me as somewhat nautically oxymoronic.  HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (good names eh?) will be in service until 2070 if that is someone else has not ‘flooded’ them both long before!  And that’s my essential point; by 2070 who knows what technologies will be out there and who will have access to them.  It is therefore vital technological redundancy is central to both strategy and technology design. 
Unfortunately, strategy is written by liberal arts majors (such as your blogonaut) under the command of liberal arts politicians.  ‘Strategy’ talks much of ‘futures’ together with ‘power’, ‘history’, ‘partners’ and ‘responsibilities’. ‘Change’ is also mentioned a lot.  However there is little real understanding of what really drives change, mainly because change costs money.  Therefore, as guidance for planning most defence strategies are not worth the paper upon which they are written.  Indeed, they are invariably about the political moment not the strategic future.
Just look at some of Europe’s recent great works of strategic art.  ‘Strategy’ for Paris and London goes something like this. “For some strange reason Johnny Foreigner cannot forgive us for being strong in the past and being horrid and would love to give us a good kicking.  Moreover, given we your leaders have made a complete mess of your society everyone hates us both at home and abroad.  However, we will list all of the things we should be doing to secure you but as we are basically broke and have no idea what to do we will also talk a lot about aspiration.  To make you feel better we will however build a few extremely expensive big, floaty things or even more expensive small, fast flying things and put lots of flags on them.  Sorry”. 
For the rest of Europe strategy goes like something like this.  “We have horrible neighbours who are now our ‘friends’. However, you really cannot trust these people.  We also have formerly strong allies who once promised to defend us from our horrible neighbours but did not.  Therefore, both our neighbours and allies must now pay for our defence.  However, as a sign of good faith we will send one doctor to support the strategic flights of fancy beloved of the formerly strong so long as she is nowhere near the front line”.  And then there is Germany the strategy of which can be thus summarised: “We upset everyone in the past but now we are back.  However, we really promise to be very nice this time and we will call ourselves ‘Europe’”.   
Strategy in Europe has thus become the antidote to strategy – a way of avoiding strategic reality by either pretending the world is not as it is or by recognising only as much threat as somebody else can afford – the Americans. 
Henry Kissinger once complained that he could never call Europe in an emergency as there was no telephone number.  Today there are a myriad of telephone numbers but all dear Henry would get if he called is the same Ansaphone message.  “We value your partnership but we are sorry all of our leaders are busy right now building ‘Europe’.  However, do leave your name, rank and telephone number and we might one day get back to you.  Please go on defending us and have a nice day”.
There is some good news.  Neither of Britain’s new aircraft carriers will be called HMS Invincible as this would certainly guarantee their 'flooding'. 
Strategy, capability, technology and affordability are intimately intertwined and defence strategy must thus be established on a proper understanding of all elements.  Too often it is not.   Something Alan Turing would have all too readily understood.
Julian Lindley-French

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