Alphen, Netherlands. 8 September. “The UK and U.S. are determined to play our part in ensuring that our peacekeepers are up to the task of protecting civilians, abiding by the rule of law, and honouring the UN principles of humanity, impartiality and independence”. This was the central message from US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in a piece in Today’s Times. The piece was written on the occasion of the “UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial” which Fallon will today host in London. The meeting begs a critical question that neither Carter nor Fallon were willing to address: can the West any longer undertake both peacekeeping and warfighting missions?
The facts. As of 30 June, 2016 there were 16 UN peacekeeping missions led by the Department for Peacekeeping Operations with 88,221 troops deployed from 123 countries, plus police and other support staff. Whilst Western forces provide important specialised support only some 5000 or 5% of UN peacekeepers actually come from the West.
The big elephant in today’s elegant Lancaster House room will be thus: how can ever-shrinking Western forces engage in ever more missions across an ever more demanding conflict spectrum demanding in turn ever more tasks and skills? Take the U.S. and UK; sequestration has critically undermined the ability of Washington to undertake longer-term force planning as modernisation has had to be sacrificed for readiness. Whilst on paper the US Army appears strong with some 450,000 active duty personnel, plus a US Marines Corps of 180,000 personnel, 40,000 troops are to be cut by the end of 2017. The British cut their tiny regular army down to 82,500 from over 104,000 in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Worse, problems with recruiting means the regular force is now only some 78000 strong, whilst the much vaunted ‘Reserve Army’ is finding it hard to recruit the 30,000 troops to ‘compensate’ for repeated cuts to the front-line force, which has seen limited modernisation too often come at the expense of readiness.
Michael Fallon said this morning that Western engagement in UN peacekeeping was vital to prevent weak states collapsing and consequent hyper-migration and terrorism. Back in the 1990s it might have been possible for Western forces to engage exclusively in peace-making and peacekeeping missions because in a relatively permissive post-Cold War strategic environment the idea of major war had been banished. However, as I will say in a major speech I will be giving in Geneva tomorrow, those days are long gone.
If NATO is to successfully adopt what it calls a “360 degree approach” not only will Alliance forces need to look simultaneously east, west, south north, up and down, if they are to be credible ‘deterrers’ and defenders they will also be called upon to operate to effect throughout the conflict spectrum from low-end peacekeeping, to peace-enforcement, engaged counter-terrorism operations AND prepare for a possible future major war. That will mean large, tightly-interoperable forces able to operate to effect across the seven domains of twenty-first century warfare – air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge.
Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, the great British military-strategic thinker said that all forms of warfare involve manoeuvre and attrition. At the lower end of the spectrum even relatively ‘permissive’ operations demand a large amount of manpower. As such peacekeeping operations are not ‘warfare-lite’, as many Western (particularly European) politicians like to pretend. As Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have demonstrated preventing a weak state tip into terrorism and migration-fuelling anarchy demands a grand strategic campaign involving the application of huge forces and resources over time and distance.
So, if the Alliance is to credibly defend Poland and the Baltic States, which is my firm commitment, NATO forces must also be ready to prevent a possible war with Russian forces, a strategic hybrid war with a nasty nuclear tinge. That means the forward deployment of NATO forces in sufficient strength and of sufficient quality, and with the demonstrable ability to reinforce quickly, overseen by crystal clear political will and deft decision-making, and underpinned by resilient societies.
So, can the West peacekeep and warfight? At present no. The Americans lack sufficient mass of force to do both, whilst the Europeans lack both mass and manoeuvre forces in anything like the strength, or indeed at the level of necessary military capability and capacity.
On the BBC this morning Michael Fallon was not even asked this pivotal question. Rather, after announcing 100 more British soldiers will go to the South Sudan, he then retreated into the now usual strategy-defying politically-correct guff about how important it is to get more women involved in peacekeeping, and to prevent sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. Yes, these are important topics. However, they are also part of a displacement strategy by politicians to avoid the real issue; sending 100 more British troops to peace-keep in South Sudan is 100 less British troops to defend the Baltic States. So small are European forces in particular that such choices really are these days part of a zero sum game.
If the West wants to peace-keep and war-fight seriously it will need to first act as the West and aggregate all of its forces and much of its effort. That means more and far more, far better forces than the West’s possesses today. For the democracies to suggest otherwise is to simply engage in yet more 1930s-echoing reality-appeasing political guff. The result of such guff is all too apparent in Europe's armed forces today; small forces with a little bit of everything, but not much of anything.