“Your rank?” Captain Potts. “Well, that’s a matter of opinion”. Private Bailey.
Carry on Sergeant Film
Russia v Britain
Alphen, Netherlands, 10 October. Britain is conducting a major military exercise in Oman entitled Saif Sareea 3 (Swift Sword 3) with the specific objective of preparing British forces to fight states which have far stronger armed forces. Read Russia. SS3 comes a few days after Russia’s very large Vostok 18 exercise which has far stronger armed forces than Britain. Naturally, London is dodging the real question; why are Britain’s armed force sso much weaker than their Russian counterparts?
The hard truth is that what passes for British defence policy has left a country with a population of over 65 million and an economy nominally worth some $3 trillion with armed forces far too small for Britain’s international weight. On the other hand, Russia with a population of 144 million with an economy worth some $1.6 trillion has a security state (including armed forces) that is far too large and onerous for its international weight. Even if one compares the power purchasing parity of the two countries, which marginally favours Russia (at least nominally) the respective figures point to one inescapable conclusion: Moscow spends money on ‘defence’ at the expense of the Russian people, whilst what money the British Government does spend on the British people thanks to the criminal irresponsibility of bankers a decade ago comes at the expense of their defence.
Part of the reason for these twin imbalances comes down to the character of the two men who really and respectively run Russia and Britain. For Russia’s President Putin, Western Europeans are a bunch of weak, decadent states who are no longer capable of competing where to him it really matters in international relations, hard, military power. To Britain’s Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), the Big Business Almighty’s Chosen Representative in London and the man who is quietly but very effectively destroying Brexit, Britain’s armed forces seem to be an unnecessary luxury that messes up his beloved spreadsheet and adds little to the economy by way of productivity. For Hammond, and his merry band of unworldly post-academic, strategically-illiterate econometric modellers at HM Treasury defence is a cost, not a value – until it is needed.
A Tale of Two Exercises
SS3 involves some 5500 British troops deployed to Oman, supported by 18 tanks, 8 Typhoon aircraft and 4 ships. Compare Britain’s effort with the just concluded Vostok 18. Whilst much over-hyped by Moscow’s propagandists it probably involved at least 75,000 Russian troops, 1000 aircraft and up to 2000 tanks, possibly far more. Britain’s own recent history does not flatter SS3. Back in 2001 Britain held Exercise Saif Sareea 2 which saw a force deployed with four times as many personnel, aircraft, tanks and ships as it SS3. Even if one assumes the changed nature of warfare since 1981 Britain’s armed forces are today pitifully small given the range of tasks even this ‘we only recognise as much threat as we can afford’ British Government calls on them to meet.
Back in 1991 at the end of the Cold War the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), which for much of the struggle was seen by the then still Soviet General Staff or Stavka as a little more than a bump in the road for Russian forces on their way to the Fulda Gap, alone numbered some 53,000 personnel. Marshal Zaytsev’s Group of Soviet Forces Germany, or GSFG, totalled some 333,000 troops, 4200 tanks, 8200 armoured vehicles, 3800 artillery pieces and 690 aircraft.
SS3, Vostok 18 and 4D Warfare
Last week in Latvia I gave a speech about what I call 4D warfare in which disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and destruction combine to form a new interlocking warfighting concept that spans the so-called hybrid, cyber, hyper warfare spectrum. Or, to put it another way Russia is seeking to master a new form of coercive escalation that starts with RT (Russia Today) and the manipulation of social media, employs much of the Russian security state via the SVR, GRU etc., exploits new technologies such as cyber-warfare and hypersonic weaponry, and possibly ends up with Russia’s burgeoning and once again treaty-blurring and bristling nuclear arsenal. The aim of the Russians is clear; to exploit the now many seams in Western society, the defence of the West and the institutions and alliances through which defence is organised.
Specifically, Moscow’s force escalation combines information warfare with political warfare and if needs be a form of tailored, high-end warfare that exerts coercion on Russia’s adversaries at several escalation levels. Agility, joined-upness and innovation are the keys to the success of such a strategy and it would appear that whilst Moscow has made big strides forward it is suffering from the typical tensions with which any rapid expansion of security capability and capacity must contend. If the GRU’s bungled ‘clean-up/mess-up’ missions post-Olympic doping, Syria and Skripal are what they appear to be – utter, bungling incompetence – then the Russian state has neither mastered the new warfare nor escaped its particular talent for cock-up!
Which brings me back to Vostok 18. The impressive Russian Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, described one of the main purposes of Vostok 18 as being to create a culture at the key junior and mid-command leadership levels that encourages innovation via ‘non-standard solutions’ if faced with forces, events and circumstances that were not envisaged in the operational plan or Oplan – Moltke and all that. During the 1980s several massive Soviet military exercises revealed the same problem in that whilst elite assault formations were first rate the follow-on forces tended to be more mass than manoeuvre and liable to stall if all did not go according to plan.
Carry on Warfighting?
Given the challenge implicit in Vostok 18 the scale of Saif Sareea 3 might not be as comparatively comical as at first glance. Hopefully, the thinking behind SS3 reveals a senior British military leadership is thinking innovatively about how best Britain’s far smaller force could help frustrate Russia’s ‘thirty days but not much more crash, bang and wallop’ force in the event of a real emergency. Back to history. In 1982 the US Army in Europe adopted the doctrine of AirLand Battle which required land forces to manoeuvre aggressively and in close coordination to mount a dynamic defence against advancing GSFG forces. The land force was to be supported by air power and Special Operating Forces which would attack the follow-on echelons behind the elite Soviet and East German forward formations.
On the face of it SS3 looks like a 75% scale down of SS2 simply aimed at thwarting a Russian military advance by delaying it rather than defeating it and hoping to hell the Yanks are not too busy elsewhere and will show up in strength and in time. Or, rather, a much smaller road-bump than the BAOR on the way to the Suwalki Gap, but a road-bump nevertheless. However, given that even Gerasimov’s much vaunted Vostok 18 is, in fact, a much scaled-down strategic manoeuvre exercise compared with some of the ‘biggies’ the Soviets ran during the 1980s the scale is comparable. In other words, Gerasimov and the British have identified the same enduring weakness in contemporary Russian forces that dogged their Soviet forebears – a Russian attack must work like clockwork if it is not to stall and then fail.
Gerasimov’s concern about his force also explains why Russia has adopted 4D warfare. Ultimately, and although much updated, Russian military doctrine still dates back to Guderian and the German doctrine of Blitzkrieg in 1940. That is apparent in the nature and scope of Vostok 18 and the way it tested forces from the Central and Eastern Military Districts by setting them against each other in an effort to outflank each other via strategic and technology manoeuvre. Here’s the thing. The essential Russian weakness is that before each force could commence manoeuvres in opposite strategic directions it had to concentrate. Any such concentration of force tends to reveal intent and makes it vulnerable to a host of attacks. Thus, the real military-strategic purpose of 4D warfare is revealed; to reinforce Maskirovka (deception) and thus keep NATO allies permanently off-balance politically, strategically and militarily.
A NATO Aspirin for a British Headache?
Is there a method in British madness? If the British can combine intelligence, offensive and defensive cyber capability, Special Operating Forces and an adapted form of AirLand Battle with a new form of Follow-on Force Attack (FOFA) to effect then it could show the way forward for a new NATO doctrine that could in turn counter Gerasimov defensively at every level of the fires and effects he seeks to generate.
If that is the key to success will be an adaptive NATO. NATO is indeed adapting but it will not resolve its strategic failings unless it sorts out some of the nonsense at the operational and tactical levels. The other day a senior NATO operational commander told me he has to keep stocks of different headache tablets. Why? Because the forces in his battlegroup come from different nations and until an emergency is formally declared each nation’s force must use its own headache tablets. Worse, manufacturers’ warranties on military equipment remain perhaps the greatest impediment to Allied military interoperability because they forbid the use of ‘kit’ by any other force than the nation that purchased it. The job of NATO’s enhanced and tailored forward presence is to make General Gerasimov’s life as complicated as possible, but Allied rules of engaging with each other make defence far more complicated and thus prone to failure than needs be. This kind of NATO nonsense must make the Good General Gerasimov laugh out loud on occasion, were he prone to such occasional expressions of jollity.
Therefore, for all the almost comical variance in scale between Vostok 18 and Saif Sareea 3, if there is some method in British military ‘madness’ and the British really are working out which of seams in Gerasimov’s 4D warfare to attack and disrupt then all well and good. If not, SS3 does indeed look a little like one of those ‘Carry on’ movies beloved of the British in the 1950s in which incompetent but plucky little Britannia eventually prevails in spite of itself. Worse, such strategic pretence could reflect a British Army that is beginning to look ever more like Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force of 1940 – over-exposed, over-tasked, under-funded, under-manned and under-equipped. Any student of history will tell you where that fiasco ended up - Dunkirk!