hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 27 January 2014

NATO: The Future of Western Military Power

Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. 27 January.  I am sitting in the lounge at Schiphol Airport en route to Washington to speak at the CSIS-NATO Transatlantic Forum on the future of the Alliance.  This is fortuitous…for NATO and the Americans.  It is about time Washington was again subjected to the Yorkshire world view. In the way these things are done in London the Ministry of Defence last week ‘leaked’ a report.  It is not clear if this was an official or not-so-official leak but the message was interesting and speaks volumes about Britain and the wider West’s future military posture.
 
The report suggests that Britain’s ever-expanding kaleidoscope of ethnic minorities have a problem with British troops tromping around their former/current homelands in the way British troops tromp.  Therefore, the report suggests, future British operations will no longer be based on the kind of big footprint one saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

To be frank this is one British change that cannot be pinned on immigration.  The massive bulk of the population, most senior officers and even strategy wonks like your faithful Blogonaut find it difficult to see how sending a small force a long way for a long time into a hopelessly complex political space makes strategic sense.  This is simply another of those moments when the common sense of the British people regardless of ethnicity trumps the tortured policy logic of Planet Whitehall.

In my new book Little Britain (www.amazon.com) my chapter on Britain’s Future Force calls for a radical rethink about the role and nature of force and its relationship with a changing world and changing society.  It also informs much of what I am going to say in Washington about NATO.

By 2050 most serious analysts (Exxon Mobil, CSIS, International Energy Authority, Goldman Sachs and Citibank) foresee a major shift in power from west to east.  To my mind it is exaggerated but it does at least point to a hyper-competitive and instable 21st century.  It is a future that will not only see the littoralisation and urbanisation of the world population but also the emergence of peer military power competitors.  Indeed, the military expenditures of China, Russia and other powers are burgeoning.   

For military planners this implies a radical assumption check. First, the use of force to change societies will become almost impossible even if the friction generated by societal change will increase.  Strategic security and human security will be clearly one and the same.  Second, good old-fashioned geopolitics will make a stunning comeback and with it Machtpolitik and Realpolitik. Third, technology will mass-multiply force.  However, given the nature of future operations it will need to be intelligent force.  Fourth, political will and global stability will inseparable.  Europeans will not assure security by sticking their heads in the Brussels sand and hoping change beyond Europe ignores change in Europe.

Small Western militaries in a huge cross-dimensional strategic space will need a single strategic mind-set overseeing strategic operating practice via connectivity and interoperability.  Given that assumption the West’s future force will need to be organically-joint and able to reach and dominate across air, sea, land, cyber and space.  And, given the balance to be struck between strategy, technology, manpower and affordability the core force will need to be small, intelligent and demonstrably lethal.  Equally, the force will need to be strategically and intellectually interoperable across government, with allies and partners and much more deeply embedded within society.

Forces that can simply operate to a very limited extent at the lower end of the conflict spectrum to the effective exclusion of all else will soon be obsolete – much like the Dutch military today.  Indeed, by sacrificing both capacity and capability even that limited low-end aim is now unachievable for the Dutch and many European forces.  Rather, the West’s future force must be built around a tight high-end military capability that can credibly engage to prevent conflict, to stop conflict and if needs be act as a strategic conventional deterrent.

By hook or by crook that is where the British are going – and partly why I wrote the book.  The British Future Force will be constructed around two large aircraft carriers.  They will be central to future task groups that can offer power projection and political discretion at one and the same time.  They will be platforms run by the Royal Navy but from which both the Royal Air Force and the British Army will operate.  They will also act as force hubs for colaitions. Critically, if the radical new concept of the Reserve Army can be made to work the Future Force will be plugged into wider society enabling a rapid surge of capacity if a high-end crisis develops…as it could.

NATO should look hard at the British experiment.  NATO is not the EU.  It is a politically-realist, hard-edged politico-military alliance built around worse-case scenario planning.  Future NATO must therefore be considering how best to generate and command the West’s future force via a hard-nosed analysis of the post-2014 world. 

Many think the withdrawal from Afghanistan is the end of NATO’s test.  In fact it is just the beginning.

Julian Lindley-French

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