“We know that in tough times, cynicism is just another way to give up, and in the military we consider cynicism or giving up as another form of cowardice”
Britain’s Defence Crisis
Alphen, Netherlands. 26 June. Britain’s ends, ways and means do not add up, which means the ends, ways and means of Britain’s armed forces do not add up either. Consequently, the defence of the realm is in crisis. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss hinted as much when she warned last night that London would continue to only recognise as much threat as the Treasury would permit and that Britain’s Potemkin defence ‘effort’ would continue. Defence now joins a whole raft of crises NOT being dealt with by Government. With knife crime soaring justice is in crisis. With the population swelling, Britain faces an enormous housing crisis. With double-decker buses now being swallowed up by pot-holes, the size of Slough Britain’s infrastructure is crumbling. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration but the trains really are in crisis but arrive too late for anyone to notice. Then there is Brexit; there is always bloody Brexit!
And yet, top of the flops one finds the health crisis. As the Holy National Health Service (NHS) approaches its seventieth birthday there are real concerns that the United Kingdom will be unable to survive this black hole at the heart of the British state. Prime Minister May has managed to buy some time on health, as she does, by again sacrificing the strategical for the political by depriving the long-awaited Defence Modernisation Programme of the up to £2bn per annum or £20bn in total that would be needed to put the words ‘defence’ and ‘modernisation’ in the same phrase and mean it. It is amazing what damage an ideological commitment to low taxes, low spending and high demand can do to help those in charge ignore danger.
The consequences? At least the Germans are honest about free-riding on the Americans, even if they over-play the eloquence of history stuff. Years ago, I got into trouble (a much-visited place for me) by writing in the International Herald Tribune that for decades the Americans, French and British had told Germans not to spend too much on defence because of World War Two, whilst for the past decade Germans have told Americans and Britons they cannot spend too much on defence because of World War Two. Plus ça change? For years British ministers have banged on about the UK Armed Forces (UKAF) being the finest in the world, just as they were about to plunge a knife into what is left.
Arise Sir Max
Arise Sir Max Hasting. Now, Sir Max is something of a hero of mine whom I have followed for many years. My Mattis quote at the top of this piece is not aimed at him, although his ‘depressive realism’ about contemporary Britain is so hard at times that it to borders on cynicism. Rather, it is the culture of ‘managing decline’ that pervades the elite Establishment and which so undermines Britain’s strategic ambition. Writing in The Times Sir Max revealed put his finger on an essential reality of contemporary Britain: neither the country’s national strategy (in as much as there is one) nor its defence strategy are coherent and because they are not coherent nor are they sustainable. And yet I profoundly disagree with the conclusions Sir Max reaches. Reading the piece it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sir Max thinks Britain should abandon, Dante-esque, all hope of remaining a substantial power in the world and that its armed forces have ‘had it’. Sir Max believes that Little Britain is now so diminished and its people so decadent that London should simply concentrate on counter-terrorism because that is all a snowflake population understand. And, that if a real shooting war were to break out, say, with Russia Britain would simply not want to fight it. Sorry, Baltics! In fact, I do not think Britain would have much choice but to fight.
The article is less convincing when it discusses the now regular ‘not one of us’ Establishment sneer about the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. At least, Williamson, a fellow Yorkshireman, is trying to stand up for defence and embed Britain’s defence effort in some form of considered strategic logic, even if at times I too wonder if his manner may be self-defeating for himself and for the department he leads. ‘Crass’ is ‘la parole du jour’ to use against Williamson these days as he fights Prime Minister May and Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond. However, for all Williamson’s supposed rough edges the real political problem with defence is caused by May, who has yet to demonstrate any understanding of or empathy for security and defence policy, and Hammond who views the nation’s finances as little more than an exercise in cash flow management rather than the directing of vital public resources in essential public services, of which defence is one. Worse, it is hard to escape the conclusion that for May and Hammond (Clarkson?) the defence budget is little more than a secret contingency reserve for the NHS.
Still Managing Decline
There are now some seventy Conservative MPs threatening to vote down the forthcoming budget if the UKAF are not ‘properly’ funded but they also seem muddle-headed. The real question should not simply concern how much, but rather to what end? It is the three issues of purpose, structure and capability where the ends, ways and means crisis faced by UKAF really strike home. There is a profound and growing gap between the defence roles and missions assigned to UKAF, the military task-list such roles generate and the capability and the capacity to meet such demand. This crisis is not just strategically challenging it is also politically disastrous. For years Britain’s shrinking but highly-competent armed forces have been used to mask a culture of ‘managing decline’ which courses through the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster (Post-Traumatic Suez Disorder?). Central to Britain’s strategic brand, UKAF have tended to mask such declinism even as they declines and have thus been an essential generator of influence in key capitals such as Washington, Paris and Berlin.
Not anymore. UKAF may just about still be a ‘Tier One’ (to use the armchair analysts slogan of the week) force if such a force is defined as one that possesses nuclear weapons, some high-end strike and forced entry capability and a little bit of strategic lift. Indeed, a little bit of everything but not much of anything just about sums up UKAF these days. Ask any American in the know and even if they are being polite UKAF are now seen as little more than a Bonzai force – very pretty, still quite sharp, but very small.
Why has this happened? Leaving aside London’s lamentable conduct of Brexit negotiations (Brussels AND Whitehall on the ‘let’s limit the damage to the EU’ side and David Davis on the ‘let’s get the best for Britain but no clue how’ side) the state of UKAF reeks of the smelly culture of decline management that pervades the Whitehall elite. It also demonstrates once again that the Westminster political elite completely fail to understand the twin and linked concepts of influence and leverage in international relations. Worse, it also suggests that London does not think UKAF are actually meant to fight a major war if, in the worst-case, one should break out. Therefore, if UKAF no longer have a role, and if even limited military capability might lead to the Americans actually asking their British counterparts to again fight alongside them, would it not be best to reduce the force to the point of incapacity? No force, no Washington demand, no problem. One certainly cannot explain the state, size or nature of contemporary UKAF by trying to link the force to the threat.
New Thinking about ‘New’ Thinking
What is urgently needed is new thinking about ‘new’ thinking at the top in London. Brexit is having the same effect on Britain’s elite Establishment as the 1956 Suez Crisis did on their well-heeled forebears: a wonderful excuse to slide deeper into cynicism, exaggerated decline and, yes, policy cowardice. There is no reason if led with ambition grounded in realism, why a state with the power of post-Brexit Britain (a top 5 or 6 world economic power and a top 5 or 6 defence investor) could not far better align its national strategic effort with threat, power and ambition. Even though I remain a Big Picture Remainer I reject this nonsense that Britain’s departure from the ‘glorious’ EU will inevitably mark Britain’s demise. Put simply, no one knows. The EU is dysfunctional, as this week’s migration non-summit attests, and still far too obsessed with curtailing the power of bigger states in Europe than magnifying the collective or common influence of Europeans beyond Europe.
Where I really part company with Sir Max is over his elite Establishment defeatism. The other night in Rome I had a delightful dinner with a senior British officer and, yes, we probably drank a tad too much Brunello, or whatever it was. We both agreed that if one can look beyond the mess that is London an opportunity exists for Britain and its armed forces IF Britain’s leaders have the courage to seize the moment. Carpe diem, and all that!
The Americans are stretched thin the world over. The Germans have no intention of spending the c$70bn on defence that meeting the NATO Defence Investment Pledge of 2% GDP on defence would require for fear that defending Europe will lead to accusations of dominating Europe. Put simply, a hole in the market exists for Britain to provide a modest but powerful command hub for a host of allies increasingly aware that the conduct of medium-to-high end operations will be via coalitions rather than either the Alliance or the Union. Twenty years on from the St Malo Declaration the French clearly understand that which is why President Macron convinced London to sign-up yesterday to the distinctly non-EU European Intervention Initiative.
Balancing Ends, Ways and Means
Which brings me to where Britain’s ends, ways and means should meet UKAF ends, ways and means. To ‘modernise’ defence, ‘defence’ itself must be re-considered in the round if London is to engineer a new defence that strikes a credible balance between resiliency, protection and force projection. Yes, Britain lacks the heavy industrial base of old. However, the country still retains a whole raft of advanced science and engineering capabilities across the supply chain together with cutting-edge expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning, cyber and intelligence where much future war will be fought and future deterrence centred. The Defence Modernisation Plan is good as far as it goes but goes nothing like far enough. What this again reveals is a critical lack of imagination at the heights and heart of Government about twenty-first century threat and Britain’s role in dealing with it. At the very least, if Britain is to fix the broken supply, re-supply and procurement shambles UKAF need a twenty-first century version of the pre-war Weir Plan which helped ensure the country’s industrial base was better prepared in 1939 for a long war than Nazi Germany. Indeed, the source of the threat posed by Russia is essentially its re-focusing of much of its state, intellectual and industrial capacity on coercing others.
UKAF also need a new balance to be found and afforded between mass and manoeuvre and between human and technological capital. Years ago I had dinner with General Sir Mike Jackson at Ditchley Park in which he emphasised the value of a force having mass and that the UK had sacrificed it. He is right. And yet, with twenty-first century warfare now likely to stretch across a broad and new spectrum of coercion from hybrid war to hyper war via cyber war (see the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report John Allen, Sandy Vershbow, Giampaolo di Paola, Wolf Langheld, Tom Valacek and I completed late last year) ‘mass’ need not simply be generated by boots or metal. The emergence of new fighting technologies such as swarm and AI suggest virtual mass is now a very real option.
What about the here and now? Is the existing and near-future force really that hopeless? Yes, UKAF have been hollowed out to the point at which combat support services no longer meaningfully exist. However, take the Royal Navy as an example. Yes, the Naval Service has too few hulls but IF the two new heavy aircraft carriers (Sir Max calls them ‘behemoths’) are properly-resourced, reasonably-equipped and appropriately-protected (big ‘ifs’ I know) the UK will create a new strike force with platforms available to US Marine Corps that will also act as a command hub for Allied power projection and protection of deployed land forces. At the very least such a force will ease the increasing world-wide pressure on the United States Navy in a very meaningful way, which will afford Britain some influence in Washington and over American military choices.
It is to the future that Britain should look. Future UKAF will need to be competent war fighters across seven domains – air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Indeed, as a ‘Command Force,’ it is not beyond reasonable ambition for Britain to be at the forefront of such defence and deterrence efforts aimed at reinforcing comparative advantage over adversaries. Therefore, what is really needed is a considered analysis of where best to invest British defence resources that will always be constrained, whether Britain spends 2%, 2.5% or 3% GDP on defence, as a report last week by House of Commons Defence Committee report called for.
For that to happen the obsession must end with judging comparative defence capability simply on comparative headline defence spending. Defence purchasing power parity is what matters together with the outcomes it generates. Therefore, before a British government suddenly and miraculously discovers that reasonably-strong UKAF is an investment in real influence and splurges out money on some ill-defined end, the Defence Modernisation Programme should be expanded to consider what mix of forces, capabilities and people and what level of capacity will really be needed to meet considered defence ends. Then, and only then, will sound defence be seen as an investment rather than a cost, and defence and influence finally seen as a public good, not a public burden.
Si Vis Pacem…?
In his piece in The Times Sir Max referred to a dinner at which, ‘there were the brightest and best brains in the war studies universe’. They were probably also the most accommodating as according to Lord Heseltine, who also attended, the collected ‘stars’ offered little by way of new thinking. Now, there’s a surprise. My limited experience of such events has been one of carefully-controlled get-togethers put together by defensive senior defence civil servants ostensibly to ‘inform’ a minister or two, but in reality to ‘protect’ him or her from dangerous new ideas. Thus, such events are normally where the elite Establishment meet their ‘chums’ in the academic aristocracy in some nice, inevitably genteel setting where no-one speaks truth unto power for fear of not being invited back. No doubt these days there is also obligatory ‘diversity’. Disruptive thinkers? Not a chance. And guess what? Such groups, group-think, which inevitably leads to yet another ‘successful’ exercise in decline management…and so on and so forth.
The British elite Establishment are trapped in a virtual Ten Year Rule, all too happy to delude themselves that a major war involving Britain will not break out in the next decade. All they need so is look around! In the early Thirties, Britain at least had the sense to scrap the original Ten Year Rule which had been established in 1919 in the immediate aftermath of World War One. Vegetius once wrote, “Si vis pacem para bellum”, or if you want peace prepare for war. It is not warlike but prudent for Britain to again think about war because only by so doing can an innovative defence be mounted and deterrence re-established. If Sir Max is right and Britain is about to go into strategic retirement and that the main concern of Government really is to maintain a childlike public in its childlike state then Britain, Europe, America and the wider world will be a far more dangerous place for it.
Now, it is customary in conclusions of such pieces for writers to say that none of the above can be resolved until Britain has decided what kind of country and what level of power it aspires to be. This is nonsense. The world imposes roles on countries. The more powerful a country the more its own relative power imposes responsibilities upon it. The only choice Britain has is to face those responsibilities, and thus help the cause of peace, or shirk them and make the world a more dangerous place. Making even that limited choice will require leadership. Sadly, there are precious few leaders in London these days and on that Sir Max and I are in violent agreement.