hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 27 March 2020

Operation Infektion 2020

“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four”

Albert Camus, The Plague

Operation Infektion

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 March. How are China and Russia using ‘desinformatsiya’ to exploit the COVID-19 crisis in Europe? Today (0930 hrs EST/1530 hrs CET), the impressive Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington will hold a virtual panel discussion entitled Infektion Points: Russian and Chinese Disinformation on the Pandemic (  The panel will include an old friend, Ed Lucas, Senior Vice-President at CEPA, as well as Jakub Janda, Executive Director at European Values, who has just written a fascinating paper entitled Chinese and Russian Disinfo Ops Compared and Contrasted ( The panel blurb refers to a little known Soviet disinformation campaign, Operation Infektion, and for good reason.

Operation Infektion, Operation Vorwaerts II or Operation Denver, as it was variously known, was a joint ‘information operation’ between the KGB and the East German Stasi.  It began in 1983 with the aim of fostering anti-Americanism in those European states hosting US forces at the height of the Euromissiles crisis, during which Moscow came close to decoupling the defence of Europe from the US strategic nuclear umbrella.  The narrative (all offensive KGB operations were built around some form of narrative) was that the Americans had ‘invented’ HIV/AIDS at Fort Derrick in Maryland and had intentionally-spread the disease across Europe.

Operation Infektion 2020

A variant of Operation Infektion seems to have been launched by Moscow, with much of it focussed on social media, to undermine the ability of European states to effectively manage the crisis. As such, Operation Infektion 2020 is simply the latest variant of applied disinformation in Russian statecraft.  The so-called ‘Bronze soldier’ campaign in Estonia in 2007, the run-up to the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as a sustained campaign to deflect responsibility for the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian Army BUK missile, all conform to a pattern of Russian information operations.

The March 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, was another such case when two members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 bungled an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. Of late, Moscow has also tried to blame Warsaw for the outbreak of World War Two and mask Russia’s role in the ‘secret protocol’ to the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which carved Poland up between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps most cynically of all, Moscow has tried to shift responsibility for the 1940 Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, even though former President Mikhail Gorbachev formally apologised for the war crime.

COVID-19 disinformation

This month the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) identified some eighty Russian COVID-19 disinformation injects over two months. The Guardian newspaper in London stated that “Coronavirus was claimed [by Russian disinformation] to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax”. According to the EEAS, the specific aim of Russian disinformation is to undermine popular trust in European health-care systems, whilst European Commission has also confirmed a marked increase in Russian disinformation efforts to that end since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

Some of the claims are absurd. For example, in February Sputnik radio claimed that Britain and certain international organisations were seeking to force China to open its markets through force, in much the same way the British Empire did at the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and thereafter in what the Chinese call the ‘unequal treaties’.  Russian disinformation is also amplifying claims made elsewhere to avoid Moscow’s ‘fingerprints’ being found on any one specific campaign.

China?  On Wednesday, the G7 meeting failed to issue an official communique because Beijing took exception to US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo’s repeated assertion that China is the source of COVID-19 and that Beijing’s initial bungled efforts to suppress news of the outbreak helped facilitate its global spread.  Worse, like Operation Infektion in the 1980s, the Chinese have also stated on the record that it was the American military that imported the virus into China. Why?

The effectiveness of disinformation does not depend on whether or not the information being peddled is believable by all, but believable where it matters in constituencies critical to the realisation of the broader national interest. Russian disinformation is as much a strategic reflex as a cohesive strategy, itself reflective of the strategic spoiler role Moscow has adopted, particularly in and around Europe.  For Beijing two huge audiences are critical: the domestic audience, and the audience across much of the developing world. At home, the Communist Party of China is like the Pope, infallible, and must not be seen to fail.  China is also in strategic competition with the US across much of the world. Absurd though Chinese disinformation may seem to most Western ears, it will have traction in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Why is disinformation dangerous?

Disinformation is also how future war would start.  Operation Infektion was part of so-called Russian ‘active measures’ (aktivinyye meroproatia). Active measures were part of a broad strategy of offensive influence operations conducted by both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence (GRU) as part of what today I call 5D warfare: the considered and co-ordinated application of disinformation, destabilisation, deception, disruption and coercion through implied destruction.  The strategic aim was, and is, to keep European states permanently politically and socially off-balance, and to exploit all and any divisions between the US and its European allies to thus undermine the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance.

As I write nine Russian warships are testing Britain’s defences. The Royal Navy has responded with at least seven surface ships. The Russian objective is to test the ability of the British state to respond militarily when some 10,000 British military personnel are engaged in supporting the civil authorities at a time when all other instruments of state are under intense pressure. 

In fact, the Russians are doing the British a favour by reminding London of the strategic implications of the current crisis.  Given all the money the British Government is pumping into crisis response the first instinct of HM Treasury will be to further limit investment elsewhere, most notably defence. With the Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign, security, defence and development policies underway, and the search for a new balance between defence effectiveness and efficiency, the current Russian incursions are a timely reminder of how Russia would seek to exploit disinformation for military ends in a future crisis.

Jekyll and Hyde China?

China?  Beijing is a Jekyll and Hyde power.  China’s Dr Jekyll offers support to Europe’s crisis response, whilst China’s Mr Hyde seeks to exploit it.  As for collusion between Russia’s Mr Hydes and their Chinese counterparts, they are clearly sharing ‘best practice’ about the utility and application of disinformation, and both are clearly engaged in advanced information operations.  Indeed, the very Jekyll and Hyde nature of China’s operation is fostering uncertainty, which is a strategic end in itself.  However, the extent to which Beijing and Moscow have adopted a joint approach is as yet unclear.

However, Europeans should be under no illusion; there is a broad strategic information operation to exert Chinese and Russian influence to divide European states and/or undermine their ability to govern effectively during the crisis. Russia cannot help itself, but I had hoped (still do) that China, in particular, would adopt a more Mr Jekyll approach to dealing with the pandemic.  Sadly, over the past week it is Beijing’s Mr Hydes who have the whip hand over policy preferring concealment and confrontation to collaboration and co-operation.

In time, disinformation campaigns do reveal an inelegant truth, à la Camus, about those who commission them.  The problem is that by the time two and two has been added up to four the damage done can be grievous. As for Europe’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it should finally remind its leaders about a fundamental truism of geopolitics – s**t happens!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 19 March 2020

COVID-19: The Silk Road Pandemic

“Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”.

J.G. Ballard, “High Rise”

Headline: COVID-19 is a human tragedy, not the prelude to war. The enemy is a pathogen, not a state and policy and strategy should be shaped accordingly. Expert assessments suggests that as many as one in fifty under the age of seventy of those infected could die, and up to one in six of those over 70 with underlying health conditions. Protection of vulnerable groups is the marked of a civilised society. However, historians of the future will wonder how a relatively mild virus could bring the global economy to its knees so quickly. They will possibly conclude that the twenty-first century world, far from being a globalised economy was, in fact, a hybrid interdependent anarchy to which shock was endemic and routinely magnified. Consequently, some have predicted the end of globalisation.  China is the epicentre of the pandemic and will need to change. It is particularly inappropriate that Beijing has, instead, begun hectoring others, most notably the US. An effective strategy will require collective action across the epidemiology, politics and communications. Whilst there are doubtless lessons to be learnt about how to build more resiliency and redundancy into the globalised system, it is only through a global effort that the threat will be contained and then reduced. The blame game should stop and the action game begin. 

The Silk Road Pandemic

It is a bolt from the blue! The early spread of COVID 19 seems eerily to follow the old Silk Road that from China to Europe via Iran.  COVID 19 has some similarities to the Black Death of the fourteenth century in that is a trade route pandemic, albeit a very twenty-first century variant and as such a disease of globalisation. Like trade, the pandemic is now spreading far beyond that corridor and rapidly, replacing much of the trade that sustains the globalised economic system. In such circumstances, humanity, or rather those that govern it, have a choice to make: act irresponsibly by blaming others or find a way to work together to confront and deal with a threat common to all.

Contemporary Globalism is part of the problem.  Far from being the community its more ideological adherents claim it is more a form of interdependent anarchy. Consequently, a relatively small event or group can create enormous shock. Such shock is not confined to the spreading of disease. 911 and Al Qaeda spawned the Global War on Terror, a small group of bankers triggered the 2008 financial crash and the precipitant decline of Europe and the accelerated rise of China as power shifted from West to East. All the serious evidence suggests COVID 19 began in Wuhan in November as a pathogen leapt from one species to another and within four months much of the world economy is shutting down.

At the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak China represented 3% of the world economy, whereas today it represents 17%.  In the past, most such contagions tended to be localised. Travel was far more restricted, lockdowns at times of plague were far more common, and people died far more quickly limiting the ability of any contagion to spread. There were, of course, exceptions. The Black Death which swept through Asia, Africa and Europe in the fourteenth century also spread along the old Silk Road and sea-borne trade routes.

Why China and why now?

The demand for fresh meat slaughtered in the traditional Chinese manner now poses a clear and present danger to the well-being of humanity. Why? For all the growth in China’s power and wealth since 1989, the Middle Kingdom is a huge populous country full of very poor people.  There is a profound friction between the twenty-first century state Beijing likes to project to the world, and the reality of rural poverty and the rapid growth of an urban poor still wedded to traditional practices such as ‘wet [blood] markets’.  The average GDP per capita in China is still only around $10,000 per annum (with millions living on incomes far below that) compared with US GDP per capita at $65,000 per annum.  Living conditions are often appalling with huge numbers of Chinese families crammed together in high-rise poverty.  Chinese cities have become natural breeding ground for pathogens able to leap from one species to another.  

Beijing has tried to limit such practices. However, state action has simply pushed the business into the unregulated back alleys of Chinese cities. Given the reputational and actual damage to China that will be caused by COVID-19 Beijing is now taking stringent action to deal with the threat.  Equally, containment of COVID-19 is also likely to see a lurch towards an even more control-obsessed, autocratic Chinese state.  

Strategic consequences and implications

The COVID-19 pandemic will also have profound strategic consequences, of which the health crisis is simply the first. Over time the crisis will spread to all other areas of statecraft from the economic to the military. The world’s two power autocracies, China and Russia, are particularly vulnerable. The signs are already ominous with Russia already suffering. The price of benchmark Brent crude oil has collapsed from $55 per barrel in December to $29 today. Russia needs to export its oil at around $70 per barrel for the Russian economy to be sustained. In the first quarter of 2020 Chinese manufacturing production dropped by 13%, the fastest and largest fall for fifty years.

Autocracies tend to share certain characteristics when under pressure.  First, the primacy of the state over the individual is reinforced, with elites seeing themselves as the very embodiment of the nation and indispensable to it.  Both Beijing and Moscow are already moving to exert even more control.  President Xi is already the president-for-life of China. If, as seems likely, President Putin succeeds in his efforts to remain president at least until 2036, Russia too will become more autocratic. Second, such elites also fear their own people. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese Communist Party offered a new ‘deal’ to its burgeoning middle classes: sustained growth in their prosperity in return for their continued unquestioning of power of the Party. That deal could fail.

History also plays an important role. Both Xi and Putin were shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fear the consequences of a sustained period of economic decline on their ability to hold onto power. President Putin is already suffering from falling popularity.  In such circumstances, Russia could retreat even more into a reflexive nationalistic and militaristic posture with the West, the source of most of Russia’s foreign-generated income, routinely cited as a threat.  In such circumstances, China too would likely become far more aggressive, with Taiwan particularly vulnerable.  Therefore, the possibility of both power autocracies embarking on more military adventurism must not be discounted as a downstream consequence of COVID-19.

As China cracks down on internal dissent the legal frameworks that enable Western multinational corporations to operate therein will also likely become even more onerous. Many Western companies could well seek to ‘re-shore’ their operations back to the US and Europe, exacerbating the economic crisis in China. At the very least, many such corporations will (and should) move to end their over-reliance on Chinese supply chains vulnerable to catastrophic failure or political disruption. 

Europeans and the EU are once again major victims of crises made elsewhere, with Europe now the epicentre of the pandemic according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  There is also a profound danger is that over the coming months the COVID-19 crisis will merge with a renewed refugee/migration crisis. Such a complex crisis will not only test European solidarity but also place all systems of government in Europe under the utmost strain, with economic consequences for at least a decade.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Europe’, with its focus on free movement of goods, services and people will likely need to be reconsidered. Europe, and indeed the wider West, could well suffer from another profound political shock. The scale and complexity of the crisis will doubtless reinforce the attractiveness of extremist political parties. 

Strategic choices

Faced with the strategic and political choices inherent in the COVID-19 crisis there are essentially two options for all the states involved: cohesion or fragmentation.  It is cohesion that should be the aim.  Any other approach would simply guarantee a lose-lose outcome for all.  However, any such strategy will require all the responsible powers to craft a complex new strategic agenda that pre-supposes a level of mutual trust that is in short supply.  Any such agenda would require (at the very least) the following elements over the short and medium terms, across a range of sustained actions from the epidemiological strategy to the grand strategic with effective strategic communications vital. It will also require a marked change in both the tone and nature of state behaviour.

China is already seeking to shift the blame for COVID-19. Moreover, not for the first time Beijing’s obsession with secrecy has helped turn an outbreak into global contagion. The re-emergence of Zhao Lijian, a particularly feisty Chinese nationalist as Foreign Ministry Spokesman is also not a good sign that China is willing to act collectively. His claim this past week that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the US military is simply preposterous and US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo has rightly complained. If Beijing adopts such a posture and refuses to acknowledge that two months of Chinese mismanagement during the early stages exacerbated the crisis, then it will be hard to treat China as a responsible strategic actor.

Equally, states must avoid appearing to condone conspiracy theories. There is an apochryphal story that in 2003 the SARS epidemic began when it escaped from the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.  Given the proximity of the laboratory to the contemporary outbreak concerns continue to be expressed about the safety of the facility. However, the US, in particular, must be careful not to begin a tit-for-tat blame game that would draw it into an equivalency trap. At present, there is no evidence the Chinese designed the pathogen and then lost control of it.  In any case, COVID-19 would be a strange offensive weapon as it only really affects people beyond the productive/warfighter age and only, normally, very mildly. One might argue that because the virus places Western healthcare systems under intense strain it could be a form of attack. However, China has so many other means to attack Western critical infrastructure if it so chose. The pandemic will have a serious impact on China's foreign income, with profound implications for its future economic performance and Beijing’s emergence as a military superpower.

The COVID-19 strategic agenda

Shorter-term epidemiological strategy can draw lessons from the response to the 2003 SARS contagion. Brian Doberstyn, who in 2003 was director of the WHO Western Pacific Region’s Division for Combatting Communicable Disease, identified three main lessons: transparency and a willingness of states to admit the scale and pace of early infection; the utility of proven past practices in harness with twenty-first century science; and the rapid and effective global scientific collaboration to enable the early mapping of the genome of the virus. He also identified a critical causal faction, “animal husbandry and marketing practices seriously affect human health.

Rebuild strategic public private partnerships: One consequence of globalisation has been the progressive decoupling of Western states from Western corporations.  The very idea of the multinational corporation is the antithesis of the nation-state.  A strong partnership between the public and private sectors IN states will now be crucial, and not just to limit the economic damage.  In the immediate future, vaccines must be developed and ventilators made to treat the severely ill. 

Begin a forensic audit: WHO is a flawed institution, primarily because it reflects the tensions between the states that pay for it.  However, as part of confidence-building the WHO should be charged with conducting a proper strategic audit into the crisis with the enquiry ring-fenced against any external political interference.  This will not be easy. Many years ago I was seconded to the UN in both Geneva and New York and saw the gap between reality and UN reality. If such an audit is not possible, then the US and its European allies should conduct such an audit independently to ensure lessons are identified, best practice disseminated, and new structures identified.

Treat pandemics as a threat to the state order: Better intelligence and early warning indicators will need to be established, first response needs to be faster, more assured and better co-ordinated, healthcare systems (both public and private) need to be better prepared, critical infrastructures need to be made more resilient, with redundancy built into information networks and redundancy built into state structures. Critically, better early understanding about the scope of any threat will need to be established. Over-reaction is as dangerous and under-reaction. Ultimately, it is the robust state that must be at the centre of any crisis response.  

The death of globalisation?

COVID-19 happened because of a failure of policy in China and an absence of structure elsewhere, particularly in Europe.  It was made worse by ideological globalism and the abandonment of common sense by leaders.  Critically, Western democracies have become over-reliant on one autocratic source for many of the supply chains which sustain their respective societies. However, those who believe time can be rolled back and globalisation abandoned have to ask themselves with what?  Contending, hermetically-sealed and confrontational blocs?  Yes, Western states need to better protect themselves from crises made elsewhere, but what has been missing for far too long is the considered practice of statecraft in globalisation.  Indeed, globalism has been seen by the naively ideological as an antidote to statecraft.  The dark side of globalisation, of which COVID 19 is a consequence, must therefore be gripped and structure built to mitigate its dangers. However, it is not a time to abandon globalisation for to do so would be to cut the very connectedness that mitigates the nationalism and militarism that would doubtless come to dominate both Beijing and Moscow if they were completely denied access to Western markets.

At home, Western democracies must again reconsider the balance to be struck between liberty and security, between secrecy and trust. In short, the state will need to better know where people are and shape how they behave. Critically, European democracies must stop treating their citizens like children and recognise (as some now seem to be doing) that true security can only come from a genuine partnership between responsible citizens and an effective state. Above all, governments must act. Too often in the past promises of necessary corrective action have been eroded by special interests groups with access to power once a crisis no longer grips the news cycle.

COVID-19: the echo of history

The test of any system is how it copes with shock. COVID-19 has shown that globalisation, as a structure of power is profoundly fragile. The globalised international system is, at best, a virtual interdependent anarchy in which state sovereignty has very little influence, particularly European state sovereignty. Contemporary globalisation is also dependent on two competing poles of power for stability – the US and China. As such, the globalised world looks ever more like the contentious dependencies in Europe prior to World War One, as the in-between states were forced to choose one side or another.

In that light COVID-19 is as much a warning as a crisis. Indeed, unless collective action is taken a truly mass extinction humanity-culling pandemic could one day come down the same old Silk Road as COVID-19.  Conversely, collective action against a common enemy might just help promote a more stable world order.  If not, then the 2020 COVID-19 crisis will do much to shape international relations in the twenty-first century, and not for the better.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 13 March 2020

Afghan Fables

“You have the watches, but we have the time”
Taliban commander to Canadian former Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier

In an article for The Times on March 7th, entitled “Our Afghanistan heroes died for nothing”, respected columnist Matthew Parris placed much of the responsibility for what he believes to have been British hubris in Afghanistan squarely on Britain’s deployed military commanders. Parris was responding to a letter, also in The Times, from the same military commanders expressing concern that a hastily agreed peace deal between the Americans and the Taliban could compromise the Afghan people, the many gains they have made over the past nineteen years, and again risk Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorism. The right of Parris to write what he thinks is his stock in trade and a core freedom in a free society. However, his influence and standing also imposes upon him a particular responsibility to be fair and factually correct. On this occasion Parris failed both those tests. 

Fairness and Fact

British military operations in Afghanistan must be seen against the backdrop of then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s concept of liberal humanitarianism and the post-911 Global War on Terror.  Indeed, Britain’s support for the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a politically-driven merger of the two agreed to by all Allied countries, many of which committed forces; Britain being prominent among them. 

Then General Sir David Richards, now Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux, one time commander of ISAF, comes in for particular and unfair criticism. First, it was not General Richards who used the phrase, “use it or lose it’, implying a gung-ho disregard for reality. Rather, Richards fought hard with London to secure the vital additional forces and resources which he counselled were critical for the Helmand campaign. Second, Richards allegedly told then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, that not only was the overall campaign under-resourced, but that the coalition was failing to meet the expectations of the Afghan people.  Rumsfeld’s reply was “I don’t agree general, move on”.  Third, to quote US General Dan McNeil’s description of the British strategy in Helmand as “dysfunctional” and its reconstruction effort as “fraudulent nonsense” is profoundly misleading. Some US commanders viewed non-American efforts through a ‘not invented here’ prism. General McNeil succeeded Richards as COMISAF and was dismissive of many of his predecessor’s innovations.  Fourth, many of the in-country challenges faced by the deployed commanders were caused by political box-ticking in London.

The most stinging criticism by Parris is that Britain’s generals wish to continue fighting a failed campaign.  This is plain wrong. Richards and other commanders repeatedly called for a peace deal with the Taliban.  However, for such a deal to succeed it had to be driven by progress in Afghanistan rather than electoral calculations in Washington. 2020?  

Ends, ways and means?

Matthew Parris is right to highlight the tensions between the ends, ways and means of the British campaign in Afghanistan, and the many lessons that need to be learned. He is wrong to deflect responsibility from London onto Britain’s deployed military commanders for what he now perceives to have been a failed campaign in Afghanistan.  First, only time will tell whether the campaign was a failure. Second, responsibility for any such campaign must ultimately fall on those who commissioned it. Yes, the costs associated with buying military equipment off-the-shelf in the form of urgent operational requirements was exorbitant. Yes, there were failures on the ground and profound mistakes were made. However, Afghanistan is a complex place, Britain was subject to policy and strategy made elsewhere, and many of the problems faced were the result of defence planning assumptions in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Put simply, Britain’s political leaders failed to adequately plan for the attrition of a long-campaign at a high-level of operational intensity in a complex place far from home, let alone two - Iraq.

Therefore, to suggest that the 500 British servicemen and women who died and the 4500 who were wounded, many of them grievously, did so for nothing is to demean them and the force they were proud to serve.  As for Richards, three characteristics defined his leadership – humanity, support for the well-being of the Afghan people, and a desire to get the campaign over as quickly and as effectively as possible so that the men and women under his command could return home.

“You have the watches, but we have the time”

As that Taliban commander said, “You have the watches, but we have the time”.  The inference being that for all the technology and capability Western powers brought to Afghanistan, ultimately a lack of strategic patience would ultimately defeat the coalition. Hopefully, I am wrong. It would not be a first and I can only hope Afghanistan find relief from the extremists, warlords and strategic predators that border it.  Forgive my cynicism, but I am not hopeful.

As for Britain, Parris betrays the thinking that informs much of Britain’s contemporary elite. For him, Little Britain is a small country lost in a post-imperial fantasy about imagined power. His notion of the British ‘interest’ is for a still significant regional-strategic power to withdraw onto its nuclear-armed island and leave dealing with danger to others. Nothing would make the world more dangerous, more quickly than such strategic irresponsibility.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Ends, Ways and Has-Beens?

“The model is known as ‘ends, ways and means’, where ENDS=WAYS + MEANS. Ends are defined as the strategic outcomes or end-states desired. Ways are defined as the methods, tactics, and procedures, practices, and strategies to achieve the ends. Means are defined as the resources required to achieve the ends, such as troops, weapons systems, money, political will, and time. The model is really an equation that balances what you want with what you are willing and able to pay for it, or what you can get for what you are willing and able to pay”.
Brigadier-General (Ret.d) Denis Laich

Another bloody British defence review?

Alphen, Netherlands. March 5, 2020. They’re off! Another British defence review feeding frenzy is underway. The 2020 Integrated Review is nothing less than an attempt to consider in the round Britain’s entire foreign, security, defence and development approach. Nominally led by civil servant Sir Alex Ellis, but greatly influenced by Dominic Cummings, the eminence grise of the Johnson administration, it is also charged with considering Britain’s future security and defence in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, far better value-for-money defence procurement, as well as how to best afford the new defence technologies that are entering the multi-domain battlespace. Implicit in the review is the re-positing of British strategic ambition not just to realign the ends, ways and means central to effective defence policy, but also to make a clear statement about the place of contemporary Britain in the world.
Having just this week completed a major new book for Oxford on Future War and the Defence of Europe, which I have co-written with two US generals John Allen and Ben Hodges, it is clear that the ambition implicit in the review (and correctly so) will be no mean feat if the Government successfully pulls it off.  Sir Max Hastings, writing in The Times, expressed some cynicism about the entire process. It is cynicism I share.  First, if the Integrated Review is simply a rerun of Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010, which was a defence cull presented as strategic efficiency, or Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, which was an unfunded set of aspirations that made worse the already dangerous imbalance between ends, ways and means from which Britain’s armed forces suffer, then it will be yet another exercise in defence-strategic pretence. Second, and no disrespect intended to anyone, for all Downing Street’s talk of a radical approach there is little or no evidence thereof in the method of the review.  Critically, there are no ‘red teams’ of acknowledged experts to challenge Establishment thinking. Indeed, I would be much more reassured if real experts, such as Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Professor Paul Cornish, and Professor Andrew Dorman had a formal role in support of the review.

The most important question the review must answer is clear: what is Britain’s place in the world?  The answer to that question will underpin all the assumptions about Britain’s relative power upon which any such review must draw. It is also relatively easy to measure. According to the International Monetary Fund Britain in 2019 enjoyed the seventh biggest economy in the world by nominal GDP, but only the ninth biggest economy by power purchasing parity. According to Britain has nominally the fifth biggest defence budget in the world, but only the eighth largest when one considers military power purchasing parity.  In other words, Britain remains a very significant regional-strategic European power, and a power of some weight in the wider world. However, Britain is no longer a world power, let alone a ‘pocket superpower’, a phrase I rather mischievously invented years ago in a piece I wrote for the International Herald Tribune.
Britain’s defence-strategic assumptions
Given Britain’s relative weight of power what are the defence strategic assumptions that should underpin the review? 
First, whilst the United States will remain Britain’s closest security and defence ally, the Americans might, in extremis, no longer be able to defend either Britain or the Europe of which it is firmly a part without the British doing far more for their own defence and Europe through an adapted NATO. This is not because the Americans are withdrawing from Europe but rather the worsening global over-stretch from which US Armed Forces suffer.
Second, Britain will need to rely more on European allies, even as it leaves the EU, albeit through NATO. At the very least, and to demonstrate Britain is seriously committed to equitable transatlantic burden-sharing, London must be seen to be defence serious.  For example, Britain could seek to co-pioneer with France and Germany a high-end, twenty-first century ‘heavy’ fast, first responder European force able to deter and defend in and around the European theatre and across multiple domains.
Third, only Britain and France retain any globally-relevant defence-strategic weight in Europe. Therefore, Britain should join with France in promoting greater European defence-strategic responsibility, partly by buying into autonomous European strategic enablers. Much will depend on the strength of the Franco-British alliance ten years on from the 2010 Lancaster House Agreement. However, whilst Paris seems to keen shore up its defence-strategic relationship with Britain, it is also seeking to inflict real damage on the British economy as punishment for Brexit. In other words, Paris cannot both secure a good defence relationship with Britain without a good trade relationship because for London both are equally strategic.
Fourth, Britain will face both peer strategic competitors and sophisticated non-state actors employing complex strategic coercion against Britain and its people.  Therefore, Britain must balance both credible defence and deterrence with effective engagement. The mosaic of new threats Britain must confront in an information-digital age will range across 5Ds of disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption, and implied and actual destruction. It will also be a form of warfare in peacetime. Confronting, scaling and adapting to meet such threats will also require a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship between civilian-led security and military-led defence, as well as a far more profound, efficient and intimate partnership between them.
Fifth, for a power such as Britain defence has at least two strategic roles to play: defence and deterrence as a public good per se, and defence as a lever of influence over allies.  Britain might be able to generate the high-end capabilities to undertake such roles, but it is unlikely to ever have the capacity to sustain them over time and distance.  Such tension could well be further exacerbated given the balance Britain might well have to strike between deterring/fighting a short, high-intensity conflict (possibly in mega-urban environments) and engaging in a long, low-intensity conflict.   
Sixth, in the third decade of the twenty-first century credible deterrence will demand of Britain’s armed forces the proven capacity to operate simultaneously across the multi-domain battlespace of air, sea, land, cyber and space.  British forces will also need to far better exploit information and knowledge to strategic advantage. This pre-supposes not only a deeply joint/integrated force (something the new UK Strategic Command at least implies), but also a British ability to influence combined forces, either in a NATO context or via coalitions of the willing. Specifically, Britain will need the command resources and structures to enable it to act as an alternative command hub if the Americans are busy elsewhere.  Such unity of effort and purpose will only be fashioned if the Service Chiefs of the Navy, Army and RAF speak with one voice to ministers. Sadly, all the signs are that even with the modest increase in UK defence expenditure that is being signalled, the Service Chiefs are again fighting each other over where those resources should be invested. That must stop!
Seventh, technology will drive defence strategy to an unprecedented extent over the next defence planning cycle.  Defence futurists tend to exaggerate the speed with which new technologies are entering the battlespace.  For example, whilst super-computing is playing an ever more influential role in warfighting it will be a decade and more before the kind of quantum-computing able to drive really artificially intelligent swarms of drones is likely to be realised. However, such technologies (and many more) are coming and must be factored in, alongside the increasingly ‘kinetic’ impact of offensive cyber. Hypersonic weaponry is already a fact.
Eighth, where one stands depends on where one sits. Britain is an island off the coast of northwest Europe. Therefore, it makes little or no sense for Britain to make a huge investment in a continental land strategy. That is the job for the Germans, French, Poles and others. Rather, Britain can add real value in pioneering multi-domain power projection relevant to high-end European defence and transatlantic burden-sharing, particularly for maritime, amphibious, air operations. Such a concept would necessarily be centred on a new and much broader concept of Air Power that would also include information power, cyber power, space power, as well as strike and air defence. Much of Britain’s future power projection, upon which almost all forms of future defence will rely, will also require a very tight technical relationship between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.  Such a vision in no way downplays the vital role of the future British Army. Edward Grey (not Lord Fisher), Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of World War One, once suggested the British Army should be a projectile fired by the Royal Navy. It should be very rapidly power-projectable alongside the Royal Marines. Indeed, Britain has an opportunity to lead the way to show how mid-sized powers can project military force. Ironically, with two new British heavy aircraft carriers just commissioned, and if they are properly protected, the Royal Navy is on track to develop into just such a force.
The true cost of defence-strategic pretence
Of course, there is always an alternative.  Britain could continue to do what it has been doing for more than a decade: muddle along in a defence-strategic fog, continue to draw down what is left of its small force in continental Europe, engage in a bit of strategic dabbling in places like Libya or Syria, but do nothing like enough to make any real difference, and possibly make things worse, and/or simply hide behind its nuclear deterrent.  Time after time I have heard leaders of other countries complain about Britain’s creeping propensity for strategic and defence pretence. Too often, British prime ministers, with David Cameron to the fore, have been obsessed with giving the impression Britain does more than it actually does, which has not only really annoyed Washington at times, but is unfair to the superb British servicemen and women too often asked to closed the yawning gulf between strategic and political reality. 

The greatest danger is that Britain’s leaders come themselves to believe this nonsense.  One only has to read q February 2020 National Audit Office report to realise there is a very real danger of this happening.  Entitled, “The Equipment Plan 2019-2029” the report is blunt: “We…consider that aspects of the Department’s [Ministry of Defence] affordability assessment continue to be over-optimistic”.  Worse, the funding shortfall for new equipment quite probably far higher than the £13 billion worst-case estimate of the MoD. Is this the real price of defence strategic pretence?  For that to change London will finally have to recognise that far from being a cost, effective defence of the realm has a very high value, both politically and strategically.

Ends, ways and has-beens?

In conclusion, the real choice implicit in the Integrated Review is essentially simple: given Britain’s relative weight in the world are the British willing and able to play a serious role with allies and partners commensurate with such power? Or, is the Integrated Review going to be yet another British exercise in dressing short-term parochial politics up as long-term defence strategy? If the latter then the real victims will be the ‘new few’; that ever smaller band of brave British and Commonwealth brothers and sisters in British uniform who again find themselves on the front-line of danger on our behalf, ill-protected, under-equipped and even more under-funded, and forced to act as a political and strategic fig-leaf for free-riding British politicians cynically masking their strategic illiteracy by routinely calling them the ‘best forces in the world’, even as they deny them the resources they need to do the jobs they must do.

One final thing: the Integrated Review will also reveal the extent to which the London Establishment actually believes in Britain, as a strategic brand, as a power, even as a country.  If the Integrated Review is, indeed, to be another monumental exercise in defence-strategic pretence then it will simply reveal to the rest of us that they don’t, in which case why the hell should the rest of us? There can be no place for nostalgia or sentimentality in Britain’s Integrated Review, not in this world. Equally, there can be no place for self-delusion or London’s continued appeasement of an increasingly dangerous reality.  The people of Britain, and the people who serve her, deserve better than that, Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings.

Ends, ways and has-beens? Only if London do deems it. You see, Britain is not simply a power, with its experience, Britain is an expert power, but only if London has the intelligence to use it! Critically, such intelligence will also demand of London the one thing that has been lacking for far too long – sound strategic judgement.

Julian Lindley-French