hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 1 October 2015

SDSR 2015: The Second Battle of (Max) Hastings

Alphen, Netherlands. 1 October. Sir Max Hastings is the doyen of British military history and strategy and more often than not an expert with whom I am in violent agreement. However, in an op-ed for The Times this week entitled, “Britain needs more in its arsenal than loose-lipped generals and No. 10 fudge” Hastings misses the point about the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) and the future force the British are (as ever) stumbling towards. The armed forces of Great Powers serve four purposes: to reinforce the state; to generate and project the influence of the state; to deter other states and those with pretentions to be a state from projecting their influence; and, if needs, be to punish and defeat the enemies of the state through violence. Therefore, given the world into which Britain and its armed forces are moving SDSR 2015 should champion a defence-strategic concept that enables Britain to exert political influence over allies and partners, and a future force established on what I call the Super Joint Force Concept.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have not suddenly become a No 10 spin doctor.  SDSR 2015 will indeed be the “fudger’s fudge” about which Hastings warns. Hastings is also surely right when he suggests there is a “…mismatch between commitments and military resources”.  Hastings certainly nails the strategic soufflĂ© that is David Cameron when he writes about the, “ minister’s eagerness to focus on the short-term terror threat, whilst running down the capability to participate in inter-state warfare, which may not be as redundant as he supposes”. Last week I briefed senior NATO commanders on the strategic direction and method of President Putin and the Kremlin’s belief that force creates “new realities on the ground”, as is now evident in both Ukraine and Syria.

However, having identified the malaise Hastings gets defence strategy wrong.  Indeed, in spite of his concerns about the need for Britain to think big about threat and risk the defence strategic implication at the centre of his article is wrong; that a mass of force is more important than a force that can truly project, credibly command, and effectively connect.

For example, Hastings complains that Cameron can do, “nothing to avert the catastrophe of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers…which are less relevant to Britain’s security needs than is the Great Pyramid”. He then compounds his error by pointing to the lamentably small size of the British Army at the outbreak of World War One.

First, Hastings seems to forget that Britain in 1914 was an imperial power with an empire built on the strength of the Royal Navy with land forces the world over primarily designed to police said empire. Second, it was reasonable for London to assume at the time that those great continental powers France and Russia could cope with Wilhelmine Germany’s Army.  Third, the role the British naval blockade played in bringing Wilhelmine Germany to its knees was vital to winning the war. Fourth, over the four years of the war it was the innovative mobilisation of British imperial land forces, and after a shaky start the development of air and land tactics together with new technologies, that led to the modern concept of military jointness. Britain’s imperial land forces also delivered the critical defeat of the German Army which eventually ended World War One.

A more open-minded view would see that the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will in time act as a core power component for the future force, affording Britain influence, power projection, and command thus reinforcing Britain’s strategic brand.  Indeed, they will be national strategic platforms that will happen to be run by the Royal Navy (after all they float - hopefully) upon which and from which one of the world’s top five military powers will be able to launch air, maritime and amphibious operations and from which significant land operations can be supported. When I speak to French colleagues far from wanting to scrap their one aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle they want more; and France is essentially a continental, land power. In other words, Britain's super-platforms will be currencies of power in and of themselves in an age in which power is back - big time.

Hastings’s critique of the new mobilisation structure also misses the point.  Yes, in a growing economy it is hard to recruit reserves, and yes there is a large dollop of political spin masking cuts to the regular force which the part-time force is meant to hide.  However, what really matters is the mobilisation mechanism upon which the Reserve Force relies and the break-out from the professional military ghetto that the Force implies and helps.  In a true national emergency Britain would be in a far better position than most allies to begin the process of the mass mobilisation of a twenty-first century democracy, something for which Hastings at least implies there may be a need.

Hastings also implies that the Army needs to be much bigger, but for what? However big the British Army it could never be big enough to prevail in sustained counter-terror, stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns over time and distance.  The 400,000 US Army was almost broken by Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, Britain’s forces will always need to work with allies – American, Canadian, European, and of growing importance the world-wide Anglosphere, plus Japan and possibly India.  That is why a future force that reinforces Britain’s traditional strategic virtues, updates them, and thus makes Britain an indispensable ally represents sound strategic and political investment for Britain. 

Given the centrality of the United States to British defence strategy of critical importance will be Britain’s ability to retain influence in Washington, which is as weak today as I have ever known it. And yet America's NEED for a British (and by extension NATO) military that can work to effect with US forces has probably never been greater.  Indeed, an over-stretched American military is under pressure from emerging great illiberal powers such as China and Russia abroad, and from its own sequestering politicians at home.  

Therefore, to meet the defence-strategic and force-strategic challenge Britain needs a cost-effective, powerful core or hub force designed to multiply power and project influence for Britain, its allies and the international institutions to which it belongs. The force must be able to act credibly and affordably across much of the conflict spectrum,  in and across government, in support of US leadership, and at times as a coalition leader, hub or framework.

Such a force would thus be informed by three defence planning assumptions: a) Britain will be dependent on allies and partners the world-over and thus the force must act as an interoperability and command focal point for multinational coalitions engaged in counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction operations; b) the force must enshrine a mechanism that enables a ‘surge’ towards the high-end of advanced expeditionary operations alongside the Americans, and a strong national defence in the event of a major national emergency; and c) force connectivity must be an essential element of credible whole-of-government crisis responses, particularly in the event of a major terrorist or state-sponsored attack.

Critically, if SDSR 2015 is to pass muster for more than five political minutes it must be seen to balance effectiveness, efficiency and affordability. That means finding new ways to balance ends, ways and means through a radical force concept.  That in turn means developing a super or deep joint force concept that promotes a new force singularity via a new relationship between the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force.  

A ‘balanced’ force would thus look something like this; the development by 2025 of a modern blue water Royal Navy, able to project, protect and sustain a pretty high-end, deployable Army of special and specialised forces (with support), and a Royal Air Force that can both protect the home base and reinforce and sustain the deployed force. Such a force will buy Britain influence, leadership and effect.

In the end, SDSR 2015 is not about the Army fighting the Navy fighting the Air Force over limited resources, much though many of them see it that way. SDSR 2015 is really about what kind of power Britain aspires to be in the twenty-first century, what kind of military power Britain needs to be, how much twenty-first century relevant influence and effect Britain is prepared to invest in, and to what extent Britain’s future forces will be able to cope with inevitable future shock. 

Therefore, SDSR 2015 must be seen in context as the first stage of a defence-strategic recovery programme.  If Whitehall and the Top Brass hold their nerve and for once evince a modicum of imagination and innovation what could (and I stress 'could') emerge from the political swamp that is SDSR would in military terms be quite exciting.

Clearly, SDSR 2015 will be a close run thing. Whilst the July decision to maintain defence spending at 2% GDP until 2020 enabled Britain’s armed forces to step back from the brink of irrelevance, it is only just. Indeed, SDSR 2015 will fail if it reinforces the pretence that Britain can afford the £100bn Successor replacement for the Trident nuclear system AND a credible global reach, highish-end, deployable conventional force from within a £34bn defence budget. SDSR 2015 will also fail if it ‘fudge’s’ Britain’s investments in so-called ‘enablers’ vital to the effectiveness and protection of the nuclear deterrent, and a deployed British force. 

However, if SDSR 2015 confirms an innovative British future force established on the Super Joint Force Concept then it will have done its job and Britain’s forces can look towards 2020 and 2025 and beyond with at least some cautious confidence. If not, and SDSR 2015 really is another astrategic exercise in ‘how much threat can we afford’, and/or a muddling-through trade-off between No 10, the Treasury and the three Services, then President Putin will be able to sleep easy firm in his belief that his strategic super-bluff will in time work.

Therefore, Sir Max, with respect, whilst you are right to be concerned about SDSR 2015 you are fighting the wrong battle, on the wrong ground, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. 

Julian Lindley-French          

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