Alphen, Netherlands. 13 December. Last Monday over dinner in Brussels NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow stressed the importance of what had been billed as the EU European Defence Summit next week. He said it would generate momentum towards the September 2014 NATO summit due to take place in Britain and which would consider the Alliance beyond 2014. Then the news broke that the EU summit would not discuss defence until lunch on the second day and then only for 90 minutes half of which would be devoted to defence-industrial matters. Chatting Wednesday with a Royal Air Force fighter pilot of 100 Squadron next to his aircraft both the problems with European defence and a possible first-step solution presented themselves.
The problems: European defence is stymied on several levels. At the strategic level there is a growing cultural gap between the British and French, on the one hand, who remain committed to an expeditionary concept of military power, and much of the rest of Europe which is downsizing armed forces in line with Germany’s leap of faith into soft power.
At the operational level the toxic effect of over a decade of national caveats and red lines in Afghanistan has sorely undermined trust. The Americans, British and French can never be sure that the allies will be with them at the point of contact with danger. Consequently, the three powers cannot afford to step over the sovereignty threshold and abandon a full spectrum capability even if for the two residual European powers that means armed forces with a little bit of everything but not much of anything.
At the defence-industrial level the absurd plethora of metal-bashing basic defence industries in Europe are kept afloat by narrow vested interests, the need to keep people employed in the midst of an economic crisis and a growing interoperability gap between Europeans. The latter gap is now so acute that it is driving deep divergence in the capability choices that Europeans make.
The opportunity: Military innovation is vital. Spending a day in my native Yorkshire with Group Captain Steve Reeves at RAF Leeming and his professional and enthusiastic team I was struck by the need to re-think how European armed forces see exercising and training. The job of 100 Squadron is to provide “Red Air”, i.e. play the enemy, so that the latest generation of RAF fighters such as Typhoon and Lightning 2 (JSF) can preserve a vital war-fighting edge.
Two challenges: First, the Hawk aircraft used by 100 Squadron is over 30 years old and whilst good it will soon be unable to recreate the battle tactics of, say, the latest Chinese and Russian fighters. Second, all Europeans need to conceive a wholly different way of organising military power over the next decade if they are to have any chance of balancing military capability with capacity and thus be maintained as credible war-fighters.
In my January 2014 book “Little Britain – Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power” one of my arguments is that Britain’s armed forces must pioneer a revolutionary concept of deep or organic jointness. Indeed, only though organic jointness will the British armed forces be credible across the five domains of twenty-first conflict; land, sea, air, cyber and space. Britain has created a Joint Force Command to lead that process and in a sense RAF Leeming is fast becoming a Red Teaming hub. However, the effort goes nowhere near far enough.
My vision for a base like Leeming would be a Red Team Hub supported by an exercising and training development programme built on scientific and operational rigour. Leeming would become a place where knowledge, capability, technology and practice come together through synthetic simulation and exercising and training not just for the Royal Air Force, but also for the Royal Navy and the British Army. Knowledge of strategic and operational developments would help generate realistic scenarios, the best technology would fully exploit simulation, and operational exercising and training would really test military practitioners for the coming challenges.
Leeming's mission would be to drive organic jointness by bringing exercising and training properly in-line with force and equipment development and emerging challenges. If not the exercising and training capability could soon fall off a cliff and Britain’s armed forces would only be able to prepare for what they can do rather than what they need to do.
The European angle? The need to rebuild trust is vital. RAF Leeming already supports European allies and partners. By turning a base like RAF Leeming into a European Red Team hub European leaders could announce a defence win-win. Momentum would be re-injected back into an EU and NATO defence effort that is close to imploding and value-for-money would be demonstrable in these austere times. The good news is that in setting up the Operational Training Centre at RAF Leeming the Royal Air Force clearly shares at least some of my vision.
Sandy Vershbow said the NATO 2014 summit would be committed to 3Cs – capability, connectivity and co-operative security. If nothing radical is done the summit instead will be yet another exercise in strategic pretence. European defence needs something positive to say and Red Team Europe is it.