hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

NATO: Dambusting Inertia?

“I must study war and politics so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy”.

John Adams

London, United Kingdom. 23 May. Last Thursday marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the famous Dambusters raid and Operation Chastise in which RAF 617 Squadron destroyed or damaged three German dams vital to the Nazi war effort using a bomb (Upkeep) that bounced across water like a stone skipping across a pond before rolling down the dam wall and exploding.  The resultant destruction caused by the Mohnekatasprophe released millions of tons of water and killed a lot of people, German civilians and Russian and Ukrainian prisoners alike.  However, the raid was a master-piece of strategic, tactical and technical innovation the success of which shook the Nazi leadership. In other words, innovation. Is NATO any longer capable of such innovation?

This past week has left me feeling a bit like a bouncing bomb delivering talks in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the George C. Marshall Center, the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, and at a range of meetings in London, including a presentation for my friend Chris Donnelly at the Institute for Statecraft entitled Future War and Hard Choices: Policy, Strategy and Capability.  Naturally, I was brilliant and very reasonably-priced. As I refine my thinking in the face of emerging threats I am convinced NATO is not only pivotal to the defence of Europe but also the only place to properly consider and grasp the rapidly changing character of warfare. If not, Allied deterrence could fail.

Now, like many Brits of a certain age, but almost no Brits of any other age, I grew up with a certain received view of World War Two.  It tended to involve the defeat of entire Nazi divisions or the sinking of their battleships by a mythical figure called Tommy or his naval counterpart, Jack. Tommy and Jack, your average British soldiers and sailors of the age, was a titan of the battlefield. They were invariably armed with little more than a broken pen-knife, an elastic band, an anti-tank weapon that involved a large spring and discarded fairground equipment, and some strange secret weapon (‘kit’) invented by some clever ‘boffin’ in his garden shed.

Now, to get said piece of ‘kit’ to Tommy the boffin in the shed inevitably had to overcome all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles laid in his path by upper class idiots in Whitehall of such startling chinless incompetence they could only have been working for the other side – a bit like Brexit today. Finally, and normally because the immortal ‘Winston’ liked it, said piece of ‘kit’ was given a chance and the results were spectacular. Naturally, the Yanks (‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’) would make a film about it, make all the heroes American, and, of course, claim all the credit. It was ever thus.  It was, of course, all complete and utter bollocks, except the bit about the Yanks…and Whitehall.  NATO is beginning to feel a bit like that.

Burden-Sharing, Spending and Innovation

Much of the talk over the past week has been about the forthcoming July NATO Summit in Brussels. As ever, expectations are exaggerated. One thing seems clear: President Trump is going to deliver a blast about transatlantic burden-sharing, or rather the lack of it.  He is right. The defence of Europe is now in full-blown crisis because most Europeans simply do not spend enough on defence, fail to spend what they do spend at all well, and have not spent enough well enough for many, many years. As an aside, I have proposed to those in lofty places in Brussels, London and Washington that President Trump should be invited to deliver his warning on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s new 72,500 heavy aircraft carrier, preferably with the White Ensign flying behind him as he speaks.  The message? “With the right political will etc. etc...”

The need for more European money, or rather defence investment, is the natural and understandable focus of growing American ire. However, before significant amounts of extra money are invested in Europe’s armed forces they will need to be structurally reformed and a culture of innovation established. If not, Europe’s armed forces will become like Britain’s Holy National Health Service, a large, bottomless hole in the political road into which politicians pour millions of ‘virtue-signalling’ pounds to absolutely no actual effect. 

A Sentient Dreadnought?

The essential problem is that Europeans simply have no clue upon what to spend to generate security and defence effect in the twenty-first century. Consequently, there is a crunching disconnect between the level of ambition needed and the level of investment required.  A fundamental reason for Europe’s defence brain fade is that Europeans simply do not understand the likely nature of future war. During my several flights over the past week, I have re-read Amir Hussein’s brilliant book on artificial intelligence and machine-learning, The Sentient Machine. Now, I am cautious about the impact of new technologies on warfare, not least because military structures, both allied and not, tend to be replete with old mind-sets building long careers afloat on unrocked boats.  This is dangerous. NATO is facing a Dreadnought moment. In 1906 the British suddenly revealed HMS Dreadnought, a battleship that was faster, more powerful and and stronger than any other warship afloat and thus at a stroke rendered all other navies effectively obsolete.

The thing about Dreadnought was that its superiority was not simply a question of technology, but rather the fusion (current defence-strategic buzzword) of strategy, capability and technology via innovation.  I am currently writing my latest book The Defence of Europe with General John Allen and Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges. The paradox of the crisis in European defence is that it also presents Europeans with an opportunity to reform and invest in deterring future war via new thinking and new technologies that is rarely afforded Great Powers.  To do this Europeans needs to reach out to people like Amir Hussein to consider fully how artificial intelligence and machine learning could act as a force multiplier, particularly at the so-called human-machine interface. A sentient Dreadnought?

The European Defence Crisis: Dambusting Inertia

Which brings me back to the Dambusters again.  Regrettably, I am ever more concerned that the world could suffer another crippling systemic war unless the democracies act to stop it. However, if the European defence crisis is to end innovation will needs to break down the great dams of inertia that have created it.

As part of the work on the book, I am undertaking a systematic assessment of strategy, capability and technology to better understand what it would take to defend Europe in the twenty-first century. And, as part of that, what will Europeans need to do to keep America strong where she needs to be strong. Indeed, keeping America strong will be the only way for America to guarantee European defence if Europeans themselves are not up the task…as they are not.  There is no room for complacency. A report out this week by US Army Chief of Mark Milley suggests that if the cost of labour is removed from the US defence budget China is not spending much less on defence than the US.

Strategy in war now extends across a new scale of escalation from fake news hybrid war to robotic visions of hyper war via cyber-induced disruption and destruction.  Add new military capabilities to the mix, such as hypersonic weaponry, AI and deep machine learning and it is equally clear that not only will war become far faster, far more remote and far more automatic, but the transition from peace to war will also become far faster. In other words, other people’s technology is already fundamentally changing warfare. It is also dividing the world into illiberal predators and liberal prey with a new idea of ‘war’ that now stretches across the distinction between war and peace. Indeed, in many ways, we are already at ‘war’. However, with few exceptions, Europe’s prey politicians are in denial and do not want to think about it.  

We are all grasping to understand how new technologies will be applied to warfare and, particularly in democracies, if such technologies can be constrained via arms control. My sense is not and that democracies will need to consider applications where first hybrid AI will see increasingly intelligent machines augment humans in warfare, and, eventually, how and when AI will begin to replace humans leading to fully automated future war.

A NATO Future War Centre of Excellence

NATO’s task is to defend its citizens through collective defence.  By its very nature future war implies a big war and only the Alliance is best placed to consider the fusion of game-changing strategy, capability and technology. And yet, I see no evidence of the Alliance preparing for the credible deterrence of, or sound defence against, future war in anything like the systematic, innovative and creative way I and many of my colleagues believe necessary. Rather, much of NATO Europe is still refusing to recognise any threat that is either inconveniently too dangerous or even more so, inconveniently too expensive.  The worst example of this lunacy is rich Germany.  The state of the German armed forces is now so bad I really do begin to wonder if Tommy really could deal it a grievous blow - broken pen-knife, elastic band and all.  The Russians?

NATO has become a ‘bits and pieces’ alliance – a bit of force modernisation here, a bit of nuclear deterrence there, a bit of command reform here, a bit of hybrid there, and a bit of cyber over there.  What is lacking is a real NATO future war strategy within which to conceptually and practically embed twenty-first century collective deterrence and collective defence.  There is certainly no real understanding how to generate the vital new relationship between 21st century people protection and 21st century power projection upon which such deterrence and defence must will and must rest.

At the forthcoming NATO Brussels Summit in July leaders will discuss how to strengthen the transatlantic bond (yawn), how to build on NATO work with Partners to better fight terrorism (again), strengthen NATO’ Black Sea presence (interesting), and the stepping up of Alliance efforts to counter cyber-attacks and hybrid threats (quite interesting). Here’s my idea for the agenda: the UK should offer to host a NATO Future War Centre of Excellence which considers the Alliance’s role in future war in the round. Naturally, I would be its first director. After all, I am brilliant and very reasonably-priced…or so I keep on telling myself. Now, where’s my elastic band?

Julian Lindley-French 

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