“There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history”.
Winston Churchill, 2 May 1935
Alphen, Netherlands. 28 September. The Future of European Militaries was an excellent conference, attended by great people, and even greater friends, supported by Airbus, TNO in the Netherlands, and the British Ministry of Defence. This three day event took place at Wiston House, an English stately home nestled below the South Downs, “in russet mantle clad” that is the centre-piece of the Wilton Park conference centre. As I looked out of the gabled window across the rolling acres of a landscaped estate the endless false promise of an English summer was fast giving way to the genteel decline of an English autumn. With my co-chair and friend, Dr Robert Grant, I had the distinct honour of also acting as conference rapporteur. Next week I will begin writing the report that will at some point be put online. However, as I grapple with my first reflections I think the question I should pose this morning, and not a little provocatively, is this; do European militaries actually have a future?
The conference began with the showing of a new horror film I have just made with Scenarios4Summits in The Hague and for which I wrote the script and did the voice-over. I suppose one could say that my contribution combines the best of Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Jeremy Irons, with, err, Wallace and Gromit. Naturally, like my many books the film is brilliant, and very reasonably-priced, and tells the sorry digital tale of what happens to an under-equipped HMS Queen Elizabeth and its equally ill-served NATO Task Group when it comes under attack from a Russian future force armed with artificial intelligence-driven swarms of autonomous drone weapons. Unfortunately, I am as yet unable to share it with you, so think of it as where Stephen King meets General Gerasimov (Chief of the Russian General Staff).
My intent was to try and get the assembled expert throng to look above the deep and endless trenches of empty European defence institutionalism that stretch from the Swiss model of neutrality to the Belgian coast of nutty Euro-federalism, via (I have to say) the sensible vision of this week’s speech by President Macron (the Miracle of the Macron?). Indeed, I wanted to walk away from the conference with some sense of vision of a future European force. A future European force that, to my mind, must not only be strategically autonomous, but above all have sufficient real and digital mass and manoeuvre to be strategically assertive.
To realise such a future force and the deterrence and defence it would underpin such a force would need leaders to rise far above the petty-fogging incompetence of Brexit (on both sides). It would have the mass to be able to operate simultaneously or as a high-end warfighting ‘singularity’, and under a plethora of flags – EU, NATO and coalitions. It would need to be both able to stand-alone from the US with its own strategic headquarters to promote European strategic responsibility. It would need to demonstrate real European power support for an over-stretched America, as well as at times operate under US command, either EU or NATO command, and/or organised around one of the big European states as part of the German idea of a framework nation (although if you read my RUSI Whitehall Paper 50 of January 2000, Coalitions and the Future of UK Security Policy you will also find the idea there).
The force would need to be a digital deterrence and defence force designed to operate across the seven domains of twenty-first century military effect – air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge. It must be a high interoperability force built upon interactive knowledge with new kinds of European digital ‘warrior’ operating alongside American digital ‘dudes’, and ‘dudes’ in democracies the world-over in a fast future age in which a global West – more idea than place – is fast forming. Above all, it would be a European future force capable of fighting and taking the last fifty, bloody metres/yards that, whatever the technology, will forever need to be taken.
The future force would extend across a spectrum of roles and missions that stretch from the enhanced protection of our peoples to the augmented projection of legitimate power and influence. Indeed, it must be a force that re-introduces the very idea of ‘force’ to European leaders who simply do not understand that such force retains vital and legitimate strategic and political utility. Leaders who think ‘Europe’ IS the world, when in fact it is a small island of increasingly defenceless, self-obsessed, institutional civility in a real world in which values are again being fast eclipsed by violent might and the automatic ‘right’ it confers upon those armed with it.
The canary? When I left the conference yesterday with some fifty pages of notes I had the worrying vision of one delegate playing in my mind. He reminded conference of the canary down a mine. If the canary dies then gas is present and it is time to act. Unfortunately, the canary of European defence could well be already dead. Sadly, rather like John Cleese’s dead parrot of Monty Python fame, European leaders still it seems simply prefer to insist that it is simply asleep. No, this defence is dead, an ex-defence that has gone to meet its maker. Only radical European security and defence action in an age of radical uncertainty will bring it back to life.
European leaders are wallowing in a psycho-strategic Ten Year Rule. The Rule was adopted in August 1919 by the British Government of the day and assumed, “…that the British Empire would not be engaged in any Great War during the next ten years”. This enabled London to make massive defence cuts. It was scrapped in October 1933 with the rise of Hitler and enabled the British rearmament programmes that began in February 1934. Complacent elite Europe remains trapped in a latter day implicit Ten Year Rule in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
At times during the conference I must admit I looked around the ornate neo-baroque conference room to see where Bill Murray was sitting. Listening to people bang on about which institution - EU or NATO - should do what with not at all very much with forces armed with a little bit of everything, but not much of anything, and in spite of claims to the contrary, was like being an extra in Groundhog Day. I found myself reliving over and over in my minds those many conferences I had attended, some in that very same room, during the End of History, manageable crisis management world of the 1990s. Even the way we talked about the future gave me at times the impression it was a way of avoiding the hard truths of the present.
Make no mistake, people, we are entering again (sadly) a world in which existential threat is once again rearing its head, albeit this time through a Hydra-headed, multi-threat prism. What will it take, Europe, to re-animate that bloody canary? It was a great conference with great people who made a valiant effort to rise to the challenge I had set. Still, it is time to stop talking European defence, and time to act on it!
As for the film, should I go for a BAFTA or an Oscar? I think both – probably in the most unlikely sci-fi film section!