hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 17 December 2015

2015: The Best Case for the Worst Case

Libenter homines id quot volunt credunt – Men freely believe whatever they want.
Gaius Iulius Caesar – De Bello Gallico

Upper Reading Room, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. Another world, another time. This is quite simply my favourite room in the world. Oxford’s oldest library drips with past learning. Before me the spires and cupolas of All Soul’s College stand proud. To my right the Radcliffe Camera soars in its Enlightenment certainty. Sadly, it is that very ‘certainty’ that today seems so alien in a world that teeters between the spires of creation and Stygian destruction. Last night I was a guest at the Royal United Services Institute to listen to the Annual Christmas Lecture by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the UK Chief of Defence Staff. His subject was Britain’s newly-minted Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) and his theme “Interesting Times”. I think that was British under-statement as I came away somewhat impressed, but also worried.

The test of good strategy is what happens when it fails.  Sir Nick delivered a solid speech that tip-toed between Britain’s invisible dividing lines of strategy, politics, diversity, and hard reality. At the end of his speech I posed a question. It was not perhaps one of my better conference questions as to put it bluntly I am knackered (tired). It has been a long year, I have worked and travelled extensively, and I need a break. However, Sir Nick clearly missed my point which was this. There is no mention of ‘war’ in SDSR 2015 beyond dismissing it out of hand. This to my mind suggests little appetite for the kind of worst-case planning upon which all sound defence reviews should be established. My question couched the challenge of ‘war’ in the context of Russia and the possibility of a major war in the Middle East. Thankfully, my friend Professor Paul Cornish added acuity to my rather blunt edge by raising a potentially aggressive China.

My point was not to suggest that Russia is about to embark upon a major war, but rather that such a war should no longer be dismissed as a planning scenario. To my mind there is a critical weakness in SDSR 2015 and the thinking behind it, in what is otherwise a solid security and defence review.  Moreover, it is a weakness that is not exclusive to SDSR 2015 and which helps to explain the failure of Europe’s elites to deal with the crises that are now breaking over and upon Europe.

Any worst-case strategic analysis worthy of the name would have suggested that a) Russia under President Putin was eventually going to prove difficult; b) in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring parts of the Middle East and North Africa were going to explode/implode; and c) given the complex nature and interaction between Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian, and Western European societies political Islamism would create some friction. 

Unfortunately, the refusal to think worst-case is compounded by worse-case change. An over-stretched American military, a rapidly shifting balance of military power between the non-US liberal ‘West’ and an illiberal Rest, and a financial crisis that devastated European security and defence credibility is pushing the worst-case ever closer to being the here-and-now case.

Just look at the 2015 (about to become the 2016) migration crisis. Given the mix of rapidly rising birth-rates, failing states, proximity, access, organised crime, and the gulf between rich Europeans and poor Arabs and Africans, it should have been clear to Europe’s that sooner rather than later huge numbers of the latter would up sticks and move to the lands of the former.

European leaders even had advanced warning of mass migration a decade ago when western European labour markets were opened up successively to eastern Europeans. What leaders had hoped for was the managed movement of a relative few. What they got was mass movement to the West took place which in Britain’s case has been so badly managed it could actually drive the UK out of the EU.  The tragic irony is that freedom of movement within Europe is one of Britain’s great triumphs in helping to win the Cold War.

The essential problem is that to think worst-case one needs a political culture robust enough to countenance the worst-case. However, because politicians so assiduously avoid the worst-case (even in private) the strategy piece of a defence review is rarely permitted to demonstrate that thinking is being conducted into the unthinkable. Rather, too many European politicians see the worst-case as devil’s work; as though those of us prepared to think the unthinkable actually want the unwantable. In fact we think the unthinkable precisely to ensure it remains at worst thinkable. The failure to think the unthinkable is now all too plainly visible in the form of the migration crisis.

The reason Europe lacks the systems and controls to cope with mass migration is precisely because European leaders refused to think the unthinkable, just as they did with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. This is because much of the European Project and the culture it espouses is built on an incredibly rosy view of how people behave. Consequently, EU structures, such as they exist, are often a series of Potemkin villages, flimsy facades which stand proud in the good time but have little or nothing to prevent them from collapsing in a storm.  Schengen is the most obvious example; a non-structure that ISIS is exploiting to deadly effect.

In a recent blog I gave SDSR 2015 7 out of 10. Sure, SDSR 2015 contains all the right buzzwords, as did Sir Nick’s speech; ‘utility’, ‘agility’, ‘strategy’, ‘diversity’, ‘innovation’, and that hoary old favourite ‘partnership’.  However, like much that passes for strategic thinking in Europe SDSR 2015 is still grounded in a culture of best-case planning, or how much threat can we afford.  Indeed, the review too often smacks of the old Ten Year Rule. Adopted in August 1919 the Ten Year Rule stated that “…the armed forces should draft their estimates on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years”.  2015 is not 1919, or even 1989.

SDSR 2015 is certainly better than SDSR 2010 but it still too easily allows SDSR 2010’s Future Force 2020 to now morph into Joint Force 2025.  Given what has happened over the last 15 year defence planning cycle can we really afford to be so complacent about the next 15 year defence planning cycle?

2015 has highlighted the strategy malaise at the top of European power and the refusal of leaders to countenance the worse-case. Surely, if 2015 has taught us anything it should be that we must collectively return to worst-case, not best-case planning. The latter will inevitably create structures and forces which will fail. Only the former can generate the necessary strength ad redundancy upon which sound security and defence are necessarily built.

2015: interesting times indeed. And surely the best case for the worst case.

Happy New Year and all that!

Julian Lindley-French    


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