“Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job”.
Winston Spencer Churchill, February 1941
Summary: Too much of the risk of British military operations is being transferred to British service personnel by a growing gap between the ends, ways and means of British defence policy. Therefore, given the deteriorating strategic environment the very least the British Government must do is to increase defence expenditure from its current (and questionable) 2% of GDP to 2.5% GDP AND remove the cost of the strategic nuclear deterrent from the defence budget. Britain will also have to sort out failed defence procurement policy even if that means buying more off-the-shelf from abroad and separating defence policy from employment policy by forcing ‘national champions’ to offer better value for money. Failure to take either measure could well lead to one of those military disasters that pot-mark British history.
Limited Action, Big Implications
Alphen, Netherlands. 16 April. What are the military-strategic lessons for Britain from last week’s Syria strike and what did the action tell us about Britain and its armed forces? Put aside for the moment the official narrative emerging from London that last week’s action was simply in pursuit of humanitarian protection and to counter the use of chemical weapons. No, the action was part of a much wider geopolitical struggle with Russia and its new acolytes, such as Iran. The good news for the Armed Forces was that the action was ‘limited’. The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, compounded by deep defence cuts since 2010 have left Britain unable to mount anything more than a ‘limited’ action. The bad news is that coming operations are unlikely to be quite so limited.
Two events served to highlight the dangerously weak condition of Britain’s armed forces. Firstly, for several days last week in the Eastern Mediterranean an Astute-class Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine was hunted by possibly two super-quiet Russian submarines (known to NATO officers as ‘the Black Hole’) supported by surface forces as it tried to manoeuvre into position to launch Tomahawk Cruise missiles. The Russians only backed off when an American P8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft entered the fray. In the end, four missiles were Britain’s very limited contribution to a strike that saw the US launch 89 missiles and the French 12. Secondly, even though HMS Duncan, a modern Type 45 destroyer was in the region it was unable to contribute to the strike because the cruise missile launcher that was due to be installed was cancelled due to defence cuts.
Bad Policy, Worse Procurement
Part of the problem is Britain’s broken defence procurement system. The procurement of complex defence systems is not easy, as the Russians are also discovering. However, Britain’s ‘system’ of procurement (‘mess’ would be a better word) minimise the defence investment value of the relatively (it is all relative) few pounds London commits to the defence of Britain and its allies.
Take the Astute-class submarines and the Type-45 destroyers. The planned for seven Astutes have taken too long to build and according to the House of Commons Defence Committee cost 53% above budget. Contrast that with the Russian Varshavyanka (NATO codename ‘improved Kilo’) class of the Black Seas Fleet that stalked the Astute-class sub. The first was first launched in 2011 and all 6 had been delivered to the Russian Navy by 2016. The first of seven planned Astutes was launched in 2007 (HMS Astute) and the last (HMS Ajax) will not be commissioned until 2024 at the earliest. The Type 45s proved so expensive that the original 12 were first reduced to 8 and then 6, with most of the class in harbour undergoing expensive repairs. In other words, the Royal Navy has the destroyers London says it can afford, not the destroyers it needs. Consequently, the British are having to keep clapped-out Type 23 frigates of the Duke class in service until at least the mid-2020s at the earliest when the planned Type 26 Global Combat Ship is due to replace them. Again, 13 of the new Type 26 ships were envisioned and that is now down to 8. Some senior Royal Navy commanders are also concerned that these ‘cut-price’ anti-submarine ships will not even be up to the task for which they are being procured.
However, it is HMS Queen Elizabeth that shows a critical weakness at the heart of British defence policy – a lack of policy consistency. The carrier and her sister HMS Prince of Wales were originally conceived back in 1998 as part of the then Strategic Defence Review. In the twenty years that have passed from conception to completion ‘Big Lizzie’ was first meant to have catapults and arrester wire systems (cats and traps), then not, then in 2010 the new Government decided she should indeed have them, and then not. The result: time, money and military capability wasted, and in great abundance.
Which brings me to the P8 Poseidon that ‘saved’ the British submarine last week. Back in 2010, Britain was about to deploy the MRA4 anti-submarine aircraft. Five had been built at great cost to the taxpayer (the project was as per norm hopelessly over-time and over-budget) and I had even ‘flown’ the simulator at RAF Kinloss…and crashed! On the eve of their deployment, the Government scrapped both the project and the brand new aircraft. Indeed, I can remember standing in Hangar 4 of RAF Kinloss listening to a senior RAF commander who had flown up from London to tell his colleagues of the decision. As he spoke, a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft that happened to be at Kinloss for repairs took off to search for two Russian hunter-killer submarines that had entered British waters. Now, Britain is to procure 9 P8 Poseidon aircraft, at even greater cost. It is enough to make any taxpayer weep.
‘Can Do’ Will Not Always be Enough
Which brings me back to the military-strategic lessons of the Syria strike. A few years ago I paid a visit to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the base of the 1979-commissioned Tornado GR4s that delivered the 4 Storm Shadow missiles that struck Syrian chemical weapons facilities. These are very good people trying to do the utmost for their country with what they have been given. They ooze that ‘can-do’ spirit of British armed forces personnel who time and again manage to close the all-too-wide gap that exists between British defence policy, Britain’s military capability, and the desire of Britain’s politicians to give an impression of strength when all-too-often it does not exist.
The lessons of what happened last week off the coast of Syria, and what is happening too often these days in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, concern strategic pretence and its deadly consequences. It has also revealed the dangerous and growing gap between the capabilities Britain’s armed forces have and those they desperately need if they are to successfully deter and defend Britain and reinforce all-important NATO deterrence. Above all, the Syria strike also revealed the growing level of risk and threat the forces must face if they are to successfully carry out government policy. All too often in Britain’s past, this dangerous equation has led to disaster.
Balance Sheet or Balance of Power
Since the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, London has been trying to row back fast from what was already a limited set of defence commitments set against the wider strategic scheme of things. Whitehall, and HM Treasury in particular, has engaged in a whole raft of political face-saving exercises to pretend further defence cuts are not in fact cuts. The latest political coup de main is National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill’s review of national security capabilities. If there is no other lesson from Syria surely it must be that successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and allies, whilst satisfying to those charged with the weekly political management of Government business, it is potentially disastrous for the country.
At root, the problem with British defence policy is both political and cultural. Chancellor Phillip Hammond is so fixated on deficit and debt reduction he is impervious to the growing threats Britain and its allies face. Now, I understand the extent of the damage done to Britain’s economy by the 2008 banking crisis. Indeed, one only has to read the excellent studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to grasp the scale of the damage. However, there is an ideological aspect to Hammond’s thinking as he tries to engineer a public finance surplus. Unfortunately, Hammond also forces London to make a choice between a healthier balance sheet and a more secure Britain. What happened last week off Syria last week suggests strongly that the balance has to shift sensibly (but not totally) back to the latter. Theresa May needs to drive that shift and fast.
Britain is not alone amongst European powers in believing it can cut its armed forces at little strategic cost. For too long Europeans have mired themselves in the theory of defence policy rather than the hard reality. Yes, defence expenditure has begun to creep up in Europe but only from such a ridiculously low level that it has contributed actively to make Europe and the world much more dangerous than it need be. Europe does not need more acronyms, it needs more forces!
Give Them the Tools…
If British defence policy continues on its current trajectory and tasks expand across the conflict spectrum at a far faster rate than any marginal increase in real defence expenditure the risk associated with even limited operations will also grow exponentially. The consequence could well be another of those military disasters that pot-mark British history. The options are clear: either Britain abandons its ambition to remain a serious defence actor or it increases defence investment in line with ambition. Not to do so will only court an ever-growing risk of disaster and in so doing transmute the political risk of failed defence policy for political leaders into an exaggerated life and death risk for serving military personnel. Failure to align the ends, ways and means of British defence policy will also critically undermine both NATO and the transatlantic relationship as the Americans are already unimpressed by Britain’s pretence at burden-sharing.
Therefore, if Britain’s armed forces are to be given the tools to do the jobs that could well be asked of them Britain needs a real security and defence review that properly sets the roles and missions of the force in the wider context of British security policy and a dangerous world. Such a review would take into account the changing role of force across the new security and defence equation given the emergence of new technologies in pursuit of people protection and power projection. And, having conducted such a review British politicians would for once then need to stick to the commitments they make.
From my assessment of the deteriorating strategic environment, the very least Britain will need to do is to increase defence expenditure from its current (and very questionable) 2% of GDP to 2.5% AND remove the cost of the strategic nuclear deterrent from the defence budget. Britain will also have to once and for all sort out failed defence procurement policy even if that means buying more off-the-shelf from abroad and separating defence policy from employment policy by forcing ‘national champions’ to offer better value for money.
Britain’s Biggest Warship
On Sunday night I watched an excellent new BBC documentary entitled Britain’s Biggest Warship about the Royal Navy’s new heavy aircraft carrier (she is not a ‘super-carrier’ as the BBC would have it) HMS Queen Elizabeth. Captain Jerry Kyd and his impressive and mainly young crew are an outstanding team. Last year I sank her. Yes, I made a short film entitled The Second Battle of North Cape in which an impressive but under-equipped NATO Task Group led by ‘Big Lizzie’ was sunk in a 2025 confrontation with Russian submarines off northern Norway. The film is, of course, a worst-case scenario but every senior officer who has seen it has said it is realistic.
So, why did I make the film? My mission is to analyse strategic and military developments and assess consequences – particularly worst-case consequences. One former very senior British officer told me I had a reputation for hitting London over the head with a very long-handled hammer. He is correct. Naturally, London does not thank me for it, nor do parts of the military command chain, even though privately they often tell me I am right. Rather, they prefer academics and analysts who tell them what they want to hear because for London politics is still more important than strategy.
There was one scene in the BBC documentary when a compartment began to flood on HMS Queen Elizabeth. The crew fixed it with the professionalism that one would expect of the Royal Navy. Imagine that same situation in a war. The clue is in the name – warship. My fear is this – somewhere, sometime, those young, brave people who serve me and my nation so admirably will find themselves plugging the hole between Britain’s failed defence policy and the new, dangerous, potentially explosive reality they will face. They do not deserve that which is why I will keep pushing for a return of strategic sense to Britain’s leaders, and a British security and defence policy that is based on a reasoned assessment of the threats country and its allies face, not how much threat Britain’s politicians think Britain can afford.
The reason I push and will continue to push is that I am a Briton, a European, a historian and a strategist. My job is to study war: its past, its present and for me most worryingly its future. Uncomfortable though people like me may be for those charged with protecting ministers from bad headlines my job is also to call it as I professionally see it. The hard truth is that Britain’s armed forces are dangerously weak given the strategic environment in which they exist and Britain’s relative weight in the world. What will it take for Britain’s leaders to face up to that? As the film states at the end, “if only…”
Prime Minister May showed real leadership this past week. She now needs to prove her mettle on defence.