Alphen, Netherlands. 26 May. She is quite simply the most famous warship in the world. Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the epoch-making 1805 Battle of Trafalgar Victory sits at the heart of Portsmouth naval base, a “wooden wall of England” even today exuding power and naval majesty. Half her one hundred and four guns point protectively, poignantly and defiantly towards the Continent. Still the Fleet Flagship of the First Sea Lord (Head of the Royal Navy) Victory is the very symbol of both British naval power and Britain's past grand strategic influence. As such Victory is so much more than a ship.
Dining Friday on Victory with First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas at the Chiefs of European Navies (CHENS) conference Victory spoke to me. Whatever the politics of Europe (and there has been a distinct outbreak of politics this past week) unless Europeans can together face the hard strategic reality Nelson’s grand old ship was built to confront Europe could in time face disaster in this fast-coming, fast-dangerous age.
In that spirit I put four questions to the assembled Band of Brothers. Are we Europeans credible as a strategic community? Are European navies ready and able to fight a war? Have European governments and their armed forces gripped the sheer pace and scale of change? Can Europeans embrace the mind-set change twenty-first century grand and defence strategy demands? To each question the response was a deafening and very strategic silence, save for two British senior officers who perhaps felt I was rocking the boat just a tad too much. Moi?
Strategic logic would suggest that as the balance of military power begins to shift decisively away from Europe and if European governments are not prepared to spend more on defence (which they are for the mostpart not) they must do more together. Unfortunately, the meeting revealed all too clearly the barriers to such co-operation and the extent to which politics is polluting strategy.
To open the meeting Britain’s Secretary-of-State for Defence Phillip Hammond made all the right noises. Future threat will be demanding and the maritime component vital. He rightfully talked about the challenge of affording cutting-edge capabilities. It is indeed impressive how Hammond has in a short space of time re-established some level of prudent financial discipline and sound project management in Britain’s infamously inept and shambolic defence procurement process.
However, whilst celebrating the launch of the new British super-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on 4 July (Independence Day?) Hammond was strangely quiet about the fate of the second super-carrier HMS Prince of Wales. Moreover, that very day Hammond engaged in a spat with the Labour Party that I may have triggered over Britain’s (an island) lack of a capable and vital maritime patrol aircraft. Instead of focusing on how best to close this dangerous capability gap the Secretary-of-State wrote to The Times to engage in an utterly pointless debate about who actually was responsible for cutting the programme and when.
Next, EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki made a speech in which she called for a “European Maritime Security Framework”. On the face of it such a Framework makes perfect sense. In reality this was yet another attempt by the European Commission to marginalise the European nation-state and use insidious function to expand the EU’s power footprint and the Commission’s power. The debate over where co-operation should take place has added to the paralysis that is affecting the vital need for European defence cohesion. Indeed, in the Commissioner's remarks there was a clear whiff of a future European Navy.
There was however another HMS Elephant in the room – trust. The wonderfully-named HMS Elephant was Nelson’s flagship at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen at which the Danes had their fleet somewhat deconstructed for failing to unequivocally understand that Denmark needed to be on the British side in the Napoleonic Wars. Silly people! If Victory is an historic metaphor for decisive leadership Elephant is a metaphor for trust, or rather the lack of it.
For European armed forces to be credible across the twenty-first mission spectrum from the low-end to the high-end and across time and distance a profound and radical shift in strategy, ambition and posture will be required. And yet I saw no evidence of such a fundamental mind-set shift in the making. Put simply, Europeans will only invest in each when they are certain that it really is all-for-one and one-for-all rather than the current 'after you please' approach to crisis management.
Worse, after a bruising decade of struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, a massive economic crisis and deep, deep defence cuts military leaders in many European states are simply despair of their political leaders and at a loss of what to do about it. This week the chiefs of France’s armed forces threatened to resign en masse if Paris added cuts of a further €2bn per annum to those already agreed in 2013. On the brand-new state-of-the-art destroyer HMS Dragon I had lunch with Admiral Rogel, Chief of Staff of the French Navy. The Admiral struck me as a very sensible man with both vision and drive. For French Service Chiefs to threaten such a step there is clearly something very badly wrong.
What to do? If Europeans are to shape the twenty-first century rather than become victims of it they must together return to strategic first principles. That means a focus on the development of advanced military capabilities whilst at the same time preserving a modicum of political flexibility such capabilities would afford.
Critically, for all the whingeing and wining of other Europeans Britain and France remain the key European powers. If the two countries can forge a real strategic partnership then there is a chance that other Europeans will begin to organise themselves around such a pole of military power whatever flag such a force operates under.
Leadership by example will be vital. Therefore, both countries must fulfil all their capability pledges and London and Paris must make the funding available to do so however hard that might be. Indeed, if London really does cut or simply park HMS Prince of Wales indefinitely then the British can effectively say goodbye to the defence leadership of Europe. Like Victory the 2 ‘QEs’ are not just warships they are symbols of strategic ambition and influence.
There were two other elephants in the room which by their presence suggested an increased need for effective European defence co-operation. Two senior American admirals reminded the Europeans present of the deep paradox at the heart of transatlantic relations; the more strategically-irresponsible Europeans retreat from sound defence the greater their dependence on an increasingly over-stretched and despairing United States.
Sadly, I am not hopeful. Such is the strategic and political denial of the political elite and the endemic short-termism with which they are afflicted that defence under-investment in Europe is now the very DNA of declinism. Indeed, one would have thought given Russia’s aggression in Ukraine that European leaders would finally be ready to wake up and smell the defence coffee. Not a bit of it. Europeans politicians are fast retreating from any such ideas firm in their fantasy that the Americans will always be there to protect them. In future there is a very good chance they will not.
HMS Victory is famous for what she represents – strategic ambition, political will and fighting power. Nelson’s victory ushered in two centuries of not just British naval power but British and American grand strategic power. And in time the values the two countries came to espouse as they eventually forged the West. Today, that supremacy is being ended before my eyes with history on steroids. This is partly due to the emergence of China and the military re-emergence of Russia. However, the main culprit is a European refusal to confront the implicit grand strategic test of which Victory speaks and which in reality CHENS was about.
Europe will not find its place in the world until Europeans face up to the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. For that to happen Britain, France and the rest of Europe must really decide what kind and level of actor they want to be and if they really want to play power any more. My sense is not. Prove me wrong.