hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 17 February 2020

Dresden 75: Is Europe Making America Weak?

“There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked…There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Dresden

Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Seventy-five years ago, on the night of 13-14th February, 1945, seven hundred and sixty-nine Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers of 5 Group, Bomber Command attacked the ancient German city of Dresden, escorted by some three hundred and fifty P-51 Mustang fighters. Codenamed ‘Plate Rack’ the main bomber force was led into the attack by nine Mosquito ‘Pathfinder’ aircraft who ‘painted’ the historic centre of the city with marker flares. The next day, five hundred and twenty-seven B-17 bombers of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) continued the attack, escorted by some four hundred P-51s.  Dresden was devastated with estimates of those killed ranging from between 22,700 to 25,000, the massive majority of whom were civilians.  The RAF lost six Lancaster bombers, whilst one US B-17 was destroyed. Dresden was the culmination of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and was controversial even in 1945.  The origins of ‘Dresden’ were manifold, not least the need to send a message to the Soviets about the firepower of Allied air power as war’s end approached.  However, Dresden was also the culmination of a descent into calamity that began with the rise to power of Hitler in the early 1930s, and the irresolute response of Allied democracies to the threat Nazism posed to European peace.

As the commemoration of this truly epic European tragedy were being solemnly enacted I was also in Germany at a side-event of the Munich Security Conference.  The Loisach Group is a high-level US-German team, co-organised by the George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference.  The aim of the Group is to promote something in which I believe deeply; a close, twenty-first century US-German strategic partnership itself deeply embedded in an adapted and modernised NATO. An Alliance which remains the central, credible pillar of legitimate Allied defence and deterrence.

Munich 2020

To be honest, I thought twice about attending the meeting as I am in the last throes of completing a book, which consumes most of my energy and attention.  There were other reasons.  First, I am tired of attending meetings at which Europeans brilliantly and eloquently describe the challenges of European security, then do very little about them.  Britons and Germans have become particularly effective at this particular skein of defence pretence.  For example, news that the Royal Navy’s new class of frigates will be delayed simply compounds the farce that Britain remains a Tier One military power.  Just look at what the Americans and Chinese are building. Second, it is hard for me to see any real progress in the US-German strategic relationship until the political relationship improves.  With the US facing presidential elections in November, and Berlin engaged in a seemingly endless bout of political navel-gazing, the best that can be said is that the relationship is on hold. Third, I am also tired of listening to pious speeches about shared transatlantic values and Europe’s strategic ambitions from people who have little or no willingness to defend the former and do even less to realise the latter. Finally, I see little evidence that elite Germany is making any effort to understand the American strategic challenge or its implications for the future security and defence of Europe.

Indeed, Germans seem unable or unwilling to recognise America’s changing and deteriorating strategic reality.  It is as though President Trump has become an alibi for the refusal of Germans to face up to their strategic responsibilities as Europe’s leading democratic power.  Even if they agree in private about the nature of emerging threats German leaders too often talk as though German power must remain a secret from the German people for fear the reality of the strategic responsibility such power would bring might prove too brutal an awakening. Worse, every opportunity is taken to criticise the US even though the evidence clearly shows a Washington still willing to commit huge resources to the defence of Europe. Take the European Deterrence Initiative.  There was some mildly hysterical coverage in the German press last week that ‘EDI’ was being cut. As one very senior American pointed out at the meeting as each EDI project reaches fruition the investment naturally reduces.

Time is pressing. This week, IISS published their latest Military Balance report in which they noted global defence expenditure had risen by 4% in 2019. Much of that hike is driven by increases of almost 7% in both the US and Chinese defence budgets, with a particular focus on the development of new technologies for the twenty-first century battlespace.  The US increased its defence budget by $53.4 billion, which is about the same amount as the entire British defence budget.  Part of the US rationale is to offset China’s better military purchasing power by which Beijing gets more firepower per yuan invested than the US per dollar.  It is also an attempt to solve America’s critical strategic dilemma: whilst China can focus its military effort the US has to cover threats the world over. It is a dilemma that is only going to become more acute.  IISS described China’s military modernisation as, “…striking for its scale, speed and ambition”.  Europe?  Europeans did increase defence expenditure by 4.2% in 2019, but that only brought defence investment back to 2008 levels. That begs a further question. Is Europe burden-sharing, or is it just a plain burden on the Americans?

Europe Defender 20

Words and actions? As the Munich meeting got underway the Americans were bringing in an entire armoured division from the US as part of Exercise Europe Defender 20.  Whilst not on the scale of REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises of the Cold War, Defender 20 is the largest such exercise since its end. Designed to bolster high-end Allied defence and deterrence Defender 20 will see some twenty thousand US troops arrive via five ports in Northwest Europe, as well as thirteen thousand pieces of heavy equipment, to engage across eight separate locations alongside eighteen allies. As an aside, a British battlegroup was also disembarking in Antwerp in support of their allies.  

The fact that the Americans are having to make such an effort is indicative of the malaise deep in the German heart of European defence. Impressive though the American force is in an emergency it could well be needed elsewhere, most likely in what Washington now calls the Indo-Pacific.  If NATO Europe was truly capable such a force would not be American at all, but European, with a powerful German armoured division at its core.  A German armoured division? One can almost hear history weeping at such a thought.  And yet, that is precisely the kind of high-end, heavy, fast, twenty-first century first responder European/German force that NATO needs if DETERRENCE, the business the Alliance is really collectively in, is to be credibly maintained. And yet, modern, free, democratic Germany seems to be lost in denial about its responsibilities as leader.  What could the Bundeswehr really deliver in the event of another European emergency? Minor additions to the German defence effort do little to solve the essential dysfunctionality of the Bundeswehr which will not be resolved until there is a profound change in Berlin’s strategic posture and mindset.  

European weakness makes America weaker

Forcing over-stretched America to send forces to offset the choice European democracies have made to decouple their own defence efforts from threat and changing reality is not a sign of Allied strength. It is a mark of the dangerous complacency and tendency towards comforting self-delusion to which Germans are particularly prone. There seems to be a strange belief that if threats are talked about long enough by people high enough in the political pecking order that somehow such danger will evaporate. It is nonsense; a wilful European act of weakness that threatens to make America weaker where it matters.

Dresden was the tragic culmination of failed deterrence and the tragic cost of such failure. It was a product of irresolution and the consequent disproportionate proportionality caused by democracies preferring to see the world as they wanted it to be, not as it was.  For the sake of all those who lost their lives in the Dresden firebombing, on all sides of the conflict, let’s not go there again.

Julian Lindley-French  

Friday, 7 February 2020

Leangkollen 2020: Europe’s China Challenge


“I think both sides [China and the United States] should work hard to build a new kind of relationship between big powers. The two sides should co-operate with each other for a win-win result in order to benefit people from the two countries and around the world”.



President Xi Jingping

The view from on high



Leangkollen, Norway. 7 February. Is Europe rising to the China challenge? No. Is the first truly global cold war underway? Not quite yet.  Is an era of cold, contested globalisation underway?  Most definitely.



The Leangkollen Conference is a gem of a security conference. Sitting high above the Oslo Fjord the gathering is perfectly placed to think big about big issues.  This year was no exception. My dear friend, Kate Hansen Bundt, and her outstanding young team at the Norwegian Atlantic Committee (DNAK), once again set the bar high for an as ever distinguished group to consider the challenge of China’s burgeoning power. However, what I heard also concerned me. There seemed to be a blind willingness on the part of some to not just accept the fact of Chinese power, but also the nature of it. There was also a dangerous equivalency expressed at times between the US and China in the mind of some of those Europeans present. Whatever one might think of President Trump there is a vast difference between the nature, the values, and above all the hope implicit in American power compared with that of contemporary China. 



What this dangerous slide towards equivalency also shows is how far Europeans have moved away from the hard years of strategic reality in which hard choices must be made and, at times, even harder choices. Europeans must take sides in what will be the great strategic contest of this age, and it is very clear which side Europeans must be on.  Sadly, too many Europeans leaders and commentators find it hard to accept that China’s rise is actually happening, the scale of the challenge China poses for the liberal world order, or that Beijing is anything but benign.  Indeed, a prevailing theme throughout the conference was that China’s power is over-stated, and that China is, at best, a regional power with bits of global outreach. This view strikes me as complacent in the extreme. The scale of China’s global-reach ambitions are reflected in Beijing’s suggestion that it is a ‘near Arctic’ power.



Furthermore, there are many power levers in Beijing’s growing grand strategic tool-kit. Whilst much of the focus is on China’s growing military might and reach, China’s use of debt and diplomatic coercion is far more effective on a daily basis than any supposed military threat.  And, Beijing has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to apply such coercion to force compliance and acceptance of its increasingly assertive global foreign and security policy. Take Djibouti. China secured a port with a loan to Djibouti it cannot possibly hope to repay.  How long before France and the US who also have facilities therein are asked to leave? Norway has also experience of such coercion. In December 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was scheduled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo. Not only was Xiaobo prevented from attending, Beijing put China-Norwegian relations into the diplomatic deep freeze for six years thereafter.



Nudging China



The ‘West’ is transforming from regional place into global idea and it is the idea of openness that China is contesting, or rather exploiting because Beijing is perfectly willing to use the West’s openness against it.  At stake is the very nature of globalisation and the kind of world that will emerge. If the West is to successfully ‘nudge’ China towards a more open society and market, Europeans will need to play their collective part.  Are they up to it?  The goal of a more open China would be a worthy one, for such a China would still be immensely powerful and compete with the West, most notably the United States. However, the dark side of China, and it can be very dark, epitomises also the dark, cold side of globalisation implicit in much of China’s contemporary challenge to the West.



If China succeeds in exploiting Europe’s need for money to maintain an illusion of prosperity even as its competitiveness declines dramatically, there is a very distinct danger that Europe would in time become a ‘debt colony’ of Beijing and subject to its bidding.



Make no mistake, Europe is on the front-line of this struggle, with the growing debt dependency of Europeans already distorting the cohesion of both the EU and NATO far more than a capricious President Trump. Worse, it is not just Europe’s smaller and poorer states that are vulnerable to the coercion implicit in China’s strategic outreach and assertive statecraft.  Britain’s decision last week to permit Huawei to construct ‘non-core’ parts of its future 5G network is both nonsensical and dangerous. Given the nature of 5G technology, and the myriad ‘internet of things’ it will power, there is every danger that service denial would cripple Britain’s critical infrastructure at a critical security juncture, whatever ‘safeguards’ are built-in.  China is an authoritarian state driven by the need to control, and at times coerce. Provide such a state with the means to exert control and it will, and at a moment it deems most appropriate to meeting its strategic ends.   



The essential point about power is that unless infused with values it is inherently amoral. It is power. If ever this China was to have a twenty-first century unipolar moment then rest assured China’s statecraft would take on all the aspects of a Chinese state willing to go to great lengths to force compliance.  Such coercion is already being applied across the civil-military spectrum via debt, to espionage and the implied threat of the use of force. A senior British official told me last week that China has more spies in the UK than any other state.



Europe and China



For all the friction there is some hope that China can be nudged towards the role of responsible global citizen. Unlike the Cold War there is nothing irreconcilable about the US-Chinese relationship.  Deals can be done with China, accommodations made. And, Europeans, together with the other democracies that make up the Global West, can act as interested friends to both the Americans and Chinese by helping to mitigate any drift towards ‘irreconcilability’ in the US-China relationship, not least by nudging both back towards multilateralism and the trust it builds. For Europeans to play such a role they will need to collectively convince Beijing that partnership with China does not imply submission to it. For Americans to play their allotted role will require that Washington re-learn the arts of complex coalition leadership.



Is Europe rising to the China challenge? Not yet, but collectively Europeans will need to. Is the first truly global cold war underway? No, but cold, contested, dark globalisation is a new form of a new ‘arms race’ in China’s quest for global dominance. Like it or not, Europeans will need to take part in that race, if for no other reason than it is China that is increasingly making the rules, including the future shape of conflict. 

‘Respect’ should be the mantra Europeans should adopt in dealing with China. Respect for China, respect for its power and, of course, respect for its people and potential.  Equally, Europeans must also ‘respect’ the nature of the Chinese state, the dark sides of its growing influence and power, and the threat it could pose, and develop the resilience needed to resist Chinese coercion, both implied and actual, overt and covert.

Cold globalisation and the bipolar US-China contest for global power is a fact.  The outcome will decide not only the nature of the twenty-first century, but which values and ideas will dominate. In that sense there IS an ideological edge to the challenge China poses to the West, even if it is nothing like the contest that suffused the Cold War. For Europeans, the China challenge will also decide if they have the collective will and power to be strategic partners and, at times, critical friends of China, or simply yet more strategic prey.


In other words, no more China wishful thinking, Europe.  Realism, respect and resiliency.



Julian Lindley-French


Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Permanent Putin Power


“Autocracy is a superannuated form of government that may suit the needs of a Central African tribe, but not those of the Russian people, who are increasingly assimilating the culture of the rest of the world. That is why it is impossible to maintain this form of government except by violence”.

Nikolai Tolstoy

Alphen, Netherlands. 22 January.  The Russian Federation is a relatively small state that governs the world’s single biggest political land mass, governed by President Putin who has been in power for twenty years and who, under the existing constitution must finally step down in 2024. However, President Putin also believes he is indispensable to Russia. Therefore, Russia is about to witness what passes for political reform. As so often in Russia history it is the wrong reform by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Central to Putin’s ambitions is a desire to ensure the health and wealth of him and his family during any future succession. In his annual State of Russia address President Vladimir Putin proposed a series of constitutional changes that would effectively make him Russia ‘power for life’, even if he is not actually the President of the Russian Federation. Why does Permanent Putin matter? What are the proposed changes? Who will benefit? What are the strategic implications, what to expect now and, finally, what to do?

Why does Permanent Putin matter? Last week, at a high-level meeting in Switzerland, I was asked by a senior figure why Russia posed a threat. It is to do with the nature of autocracies, their fear of political reform, and a tendency towards military adventurism when their own contradictions catch up with them, I responded. Moscow is unable to carry out the vital social, economic and political reforms that would benefit the Russian people for fear that those very reforms would topple the regime from power.  Unwilling to carry out such reforms autocracies historically have turned to oppression at home and aggression abroad and constructed a security state to that end.  Putin’s Russia is no different. Incapable of reform Moscow is locked in its own eventual demise and because of that more military adventurism is likely as the regime lurches from one engineered crisis to another.
   
What are the proposed changes? Putin called for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would nominally increase the power of both the parliament (Duma) and the State Council, hitherto an advisory tool for the Kremlin.  As President Putin announced the proposed reforms former Russian president, and erstwhile Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, immediately stepped down. To maintain his complete authority President Putin will either return to the post prime minister or become the chair of a strengthened State Council. Indeed, it is not entirely inconceivable that Putin could change the Russian constitution from a presidential to a parliamentary system so as to ensure the prime minister’s office becomes the real power in the land.

Who will benefit? Apart from Putin himself there are several close allies who would seem to benefit from such changes, mainly because their very mediocrity means they pose no threat to Vladimir Vladimirovich, to whom they all owe their power and allegiance.  The ‘stars’ of Duma Speaker Vyacyheslav Volodin and Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Anton Vaino both seem to be in the ascendant, and either could be named at some point as a puppet successor to Putin.  The new Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who will ensure the changes Putin proposes are carried out, is also a possible candidate, although he has been given the poisoned chalice that is constitutional reform.  For obvious reasons, the so-called Siloviki, Putin’s apparatchik base in the ‘power ministries’ that deal with foreign affairs, security, defence and intelligence will be untouched by the proposed reforms. Critically, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, remain in office, although the former is closer to Putin than the latter.

What are the strategic implications and what to expect? Unable or unwilling to risk the thoroughgoing reforms Russia needs it is likely Moscow will redouble its efforts to convince the Russian people they are under threat from an insidious West to justify the regime’s hold on power.  The central paradox of Putin’s foreign policy has always that it bites the European hand that by and large feeds it. Whilst Russia relies for much of its income of the export of hydrocarbons to its European neighbours, it also routinely paints those same neighbours as part of a ‘fascist’ western conspiracy to force Russia into strategic tutelage. Expect such fabrications and provocations to continue.

Permanent Putin will also make much of his ‘friendship’ with that other President-for-Life, China’s Xi Jingping. Both China and Russia are likely to make common grand strategic cause against an increasingly global West, more idea than place, as and when it suits them.  One of many paradoxes in Putin’s position is that not only is Russia’s relationship with China today a bit like contemporary Britain’s relationship with the United States, or ancient Athens to ancient Rome, the greatest threat to the Russian Far East is posed not by Washington, but Beijing. What binds them is that both Putin and Xi are latter day ‘tsars’ who see themselves in strategic competition with the world’s democracies.

It is also hard to deny that the intensity of that competition, the economic pressure being exercised by Beijing on many states, as well as pace and scale of the arms race underway between the US and China (about which Europeans are in denial).  Some form of Second Cold War is now clearly underway, although Frigid Peace may be a better description.  A war that is already taking place across the ‘grey zones’ of hybrid and cyber war, and which could, heaven forfend, one day break out into a true hyperwar in which a whole host of exotically devastating technologies are unleashed.

What to expect now? Expect more Russian defections from the norms of international relations. This is because many of Russia’s paradoxes and contradictions are policy intractable. Whilst Permanent Putin will make some efforts to improve the lives of Russian citizens at the margins, nothing will be done that could threaten the regime’s grip on power.  Russian foreign policy towards Europe will thus be a distraction strategy designed to give the impression Moscow is out-foxing Western powers. This will involve a series of defections from international instruments, such as the INF Treaty and international norms, such as the seizure of Crimea by force. Increased interference can be expected in a host of European states from the North Cape to the Arctic, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, all of which will be designed to give the impression of a clever, nimble Moscow that hints at Soviet power of the past, routinely confounding a lumpen West. In fact, over time the strategy cost Russia and its people dearly.

What to do? To preserve peace and limit Russia’s strategic opportunism the United States must first remember it is the leader of the West, global or otherwise. Second, Washington must also realise it no longer has the power alone to prevail across the conflict spectrum against the Chinese-Russian partnership from jawfare to warfare. Third, Europeans, and other allies and partners of the US, need to realise that only by the sharing of America’s growing strategic burdens can they assure their own peace.  For Europeans that means, first and foremost, becoming united enough diplomatically, and strong enough militarily, to ensure peace in and around Europe. And, in so doing, help keep America strong where she needs to be strong.

Sooner or later Russia will have to stop biting the European hand that feeds it and realign its strategic and economic interests.  In what could be a lengthy interim that means the sustained application of sound defence and credible deterrence in the face of Russian opportunism, allied to a willingness to consistently and constantly talk to Russia. Such a dual-track approach offers the best hope of giving Russia the soft landing both Russians and Europeans need as Moscow inevitably falls from the heady heights of its own manifold contradictions.

In other words, Europeans speak with Russia, both softly and firmly, but also carry a sufficiently big stick to ensure Moscow strategic opportunism does not become grand delinquency.  For, as Vladimir Vladimirovich will one day discover, time waits for no man, not even him.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Analysis: The Strategic Implications of the Soleimani Crisis


January 9, 2020

Abstract: The purpose of this analysis is to consider the strategic implications of the Soleimani Crisis and its impact on US and European policy at the start of the 2020s. Whilst a major war is unlikely to break out as a consequence of this crisis, a major war could be triggered at some point during the next decade, given the political and strategic tinderbox that is the Middle East. Given the region’s importance to Europe why do Europeans have so little influence over world affairs at the start of what looks like a potentially tumultuous decade?  

"Nobody could say that from any one moment war was an impossibility for the next ten years ... we could not rest in a state of unpreparedness on such an assumption by anybody. To suggest that we could be nine and a half years away from preparedness would be a most dangerous suggestion”.
Arthur Balfour, former British Prime Minister, 1919.


Assessment

Headline: In a perhaps chilling taster of the coming decade of power and fracture, President Trump last Friday ordered the killing of Iran’s most influential military officer and second most important political figure, Major-General Qasem Soleimani. Iran responded by launching twenty-two medium-range ballistic missiles at US forces based at Iraq’s Al-Asad base and Arbil in Northern Iraq. Is war imminent? Unlikely. Iran does not appear to wish to confront US armed forces head on, probably because Tehran has an informed appreciation of the power the Americans could unleash if so moved. The immediate strategic choice both Americans and Iranians face is whether the greater threat to them is posed by Daesh, or each other.
 
Implications: The crisis is by no means over and the Middle East is extremely volatile. Soleimani might have been the very essence of Iran’s regional-strategic imperialism and Tehran’s strategy of destabilising its neighbours through a host of proxy wars, but he was only the architect of the strategy. Soleimani successfully blurred state and non-state action, which is at the heart of this crisis and the changing character of war in the region and beyond.  His importance to the Tehran regime should not be under-estimated, nor the symbol of Iranian power he represented, and Iran greatly feels his loss. Soleimani was Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the central pillar of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), and the de facto Iranian Chief of the Defence Staff, much to the discomfort of the Iranian Army and parts of the regime led by President Rouhani.
 
In the wake of the missile retaliation it is highly likely Iran will intensify its proxy war in Iraq against US and allied forces, with potentially profound regional-strategic implications, because it believes it is succeeding in dismembering Iraq and forcing what is left into its sphere of influence. If that happens the further implications would be far-reaching both for the region, Europe and the world beyond. Iran clearly thinks the West might be entering what could be the final phase of a military withdrawal from the region, much to the benefit of Tehran, Damascus and Moscow. The Kurds are close to seceding from Iraq, which would almost certainly see Turkey move in force into the north of the country.  Western efforts to counter Daesh and strengthen the Iraqi state would end.  The NATO Training Mission-Iraq has already been suspended, although the Alliance has promised to up its counter-terror activities. Iran has also suspended its participation in the admittedly moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US withdrew in 2018. Tehran has also promised to again begin refining uranium, albeit at a level below weapons grade. The danger to Iran is Daesh, which is reconstituting, albeit in a more fragmented and digital form than hitherto.

For all Tehran’s bullishness the Iranians are right to be cautious about triggering a large-scale force-on-force clash with the Americans, something Moscow has no doubt emphasised to Tehran. Iran has gained much from being seen to tweak the American tiger’s tail, which has helped the Persian state galvanise anti-US forces across much of an Arab world with which Tehran has traditionally had a complex and difficult relationship.  For Tehran to put its head in the tiger’s mouth would invite the Americans to bite it off. Moreover, by skilfully making itself a pivotal power in the Middle East, Tehran has also built powerful alliances beyond the region, most notably with President Putin’s Russia, although Iran’s relationship with Turkey has worsened since President Erdogan’s 2019 decision to launch a military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria.

China could also now play a critical role in a region where Beijing’s influence is growing. In 2019, Iran signed up to China’s One Belt, One Road plan, with Beijing now assisting the Iranian armed forces with training and the development of advanced military systems. China, a major market for Iranian oil, has also said it could even go to war to protect Iran, although there is little sign of Beijing wishing to do so in this instance. It is likely Beijing is also urging caution on Tehran.

Strategic implications I: lawfare versus warfare

What do the events of the past week say about Western cohesion and European influence? Neither the US nor Europe writ large have a strategic plan, let alone a shared plan, to help move the Middle East beyond the matrix of unstable balances that constitute the cold peace therein: sectarian, regional-strategic and geopolitical.

Europeans have adopted an essentially legalistic response to this crisis. The specific point at issue for them concerns the right of a state to act pre-preemptively in self-defence.  In 1837, British forces chased American and Canadian rebels up the River Niagara on board a boat named the Caroline into US territory, and then destroyed it. The British claimed they were acting in self-defence. The ensuing 1838 Webster-Ashburton Treaty set a precedent in international relations that has hitherto acted as a benchmark.  The so-called Caroline Test for self-defence deems an action must be “…instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”.

The principle is important for Europeans given the damage Realpolitik has done to Europe in the past. There is a profound sense in many European capitals that the world is slipping back to ‘might is right’, and that if the world’s most powerful democracy is seen to disregard such prescripts it establishes a precedent that autocracies, such as China, Russia and, of course, Iran, will exploit.  Interestingly, the US has traditionally taken a slightly different ‘shining city on the hill’ view of international law and its right to act unilaterally. Many American leaders have believed the essential purpose of such law is to constrain Europeans from taking extreme action against each other.  In other words, the US has always seen itself as a form of Leviathan in international affairs. At critical moments Washington reserves the right act in what it deems to be the common public good and the maintenance of order in international affairs.   

Strategic implications 2: Europe and the cauldron of geopolitics

With the emergence of the EU as an international actor, complete with its own legal identity as an actor, Europeans have retreated steadily from power politics. This is even as their power to influence events and people has been further eclipsed by the return of said power politics. However, there are several other reasons why European influence over the Middle East is weak. First, historic European interventions in the region by the British, French and Italians are blamed by many therein for much of the contemporary fissions of the Middle East. For example, the Iranians tend to see a British plot round every Tehran corner. Second, many Europeans believe the Middle East is simply too complicated and too difficult to engage to effect. Establishing an effective European policy and strategy for the region would be hard. Where to start? To what end? With what means and over how long?  Third, the Middle East is seen by many Europeans to be the responsibility of the United States, albeit an America that wobbles uncertainly between strategic engagement, punishment and withdrawal. Washington’s not-at-all clear policy-planning process exaggerates Iran’s power and influence.  The Trump administration’s desire to both ‘bring the boys home’, avoid complex foreign entanglements, and defeat Iran are not compatible.

And yet, many whilst Europeans disagree with the Americans over how to resolve the many regional tensions which abound in the Middle East, particularly the critical regional-strategic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that Iran manipulates to effect across the Levant, they are also content to hide behind the US. As with so many difficult strategic issues Europeans complain about the Americans, but are only too happy to cede leadership to them.

Strategic implications 3: Europe’s real crisis management challenge

There is a wider concern that Europeans need collectively to address. Moments of dangerous confrontation, such as the Soleimani Crisis, reveal the extent to which Europeans have become locked into a seemingly interminable exercise of strategic and political navel-gazing that is the European Union, Many Europeans now routinely absent themselves from external danger by explicitly pleading the need to focus on institution-building, and implicitly the ‘enduring’ need to protect themselves from each other.  Consequently, decision-making in action is now so complicated that inaction has become the European strategic method, an alibi to justify doing nothing.

The most egregious example of this is the failed experiment in common inaction that is the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the lamentable Common Security and Defence Policy. For too many Europeans, Brussels to the fore, geopolitics has become a game of living Stratego, in which inaction has few or no consequences, and in which appearance rather than substance is what passes for statecraft – the art of pretending to conduct state affairs in strategic complexity.

The 2020s will surely disabuse Europeans of such complacency, the only question is when and to what extent the shock when it comes.  The US-Iranian stand-off, for that is what it is, must remind Europeans that if they fail to engage more fully and more effectively in world affairs they will surely become victims of them. Therefore, Europeans must urgently re-engage threats rather than export that responsibility to others, and by so doing impose difficult choices and actions on them, and then complain when the manner and nature of any such action is not to their liking. 

The Soleimani Crisis also reinforces the need for Europeans to exert greater influence over the choices made by an America ever more in need of capable, able and willing allies. Allies that are also able and willing to share risk with Americans, and thus earn the right not just to speak truth to American power, but be heard by it.  A Europe that no longer bleats from the strategic side-lines in the vain hope that the toxic power of adversaries and enemies will somehow leave it alone in a world increasingly characterised by strategic predators and prey. A Europe that no longer seeks a free ride from anyone and which no longer goes strategic AWOL when it matters.  A Europe that finally ends the strategic vacation upon which, for too long, too many of its leaders, have slumbered.

Course of action: the E3 must lead

Common European inaction is dead, long live collective European action. Such leadership can only come from the so-called ‘E3’, Britain, France and Germany, working in concert.  The Joint Declaration on the crisis by Prime Minister Johnson, President Macron, and Chancellor Merkel, clearly points to such a future. Europe’s two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France, in conjunction with powerful Germany, must lead Europeans back to strategic seriousness.  Such a proposal may seem counter-intuitive given Britain will this month formally leave the EU. However, far from drifting apart the three powers must make strenuous efforts to realign their foreign and security policies.

The EU? For all its failings as a tool of statecraft the EU still has an important role to play in securing Europe’s external border and promoting coherence. However, only the E3 have any chance of corralling Europeans to effect in the face of the dangerous geopolitics of the 2020s, and afford the US allies of real substance who can both support and constrain Washington, as and when required. For that to happen Berlin, London and Paris must themselves rescue their own respective strategic cultures from the defeatism, short-termism, declinism and strategic introspection which has for too long afflicted all their respective elites to some extent or another.   In other words, they must again learn to think big and act big together!

The specific focus of E3 efforts in the immediate aftermath of this crisis should be the rehabilitation of the JCPOA.  The specific outcome Europeans should seek is the return of the US to the Accord, in return for the lifting of some sanctions on Iran and, critically, the opening of discussions to include limits on ballistic missile arsenals in some form of protocol. It will not be at all easy for Europeans to achieve this, but as Churchill once said, ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. In any case, effective statecraft is not the practice of the easy.

Conclusion: Europe now end its virtual Ten Year Rule

The Soleimani Crisis is simply another marker on the descending road towards a Middle Eastern war. It is the absence of strategy and statecraft that makes the Middle East so dangerous, to itself and the wider world. Just as there are never silver bullet solutions in Europe, there are certainly none in the Middle East. Europe’s very experience of conflict mitigation at home could at least help prevent the worst effects of a Middle East sliding steadily towards another major war. However, for Europeans to collectively play such a role they will need to generate a level of strategic ambition, responsibility and cohesion they have hitherto only pretended to aspire to. Europeans must thus stop talking the talk of power and values, and finally walk its walk.

In August 1919, at the behest of the then Secretary of State for War and Air Winston Churchill, Britain adopted the so-called Ten Year Rule. Under the Rule Britain assumed that it would not be engaged in a major war for at least a decade, and thus could cut defence spending accordingly.  In March 1932, shortly before the rise of Hitler in Germany, Britain scrapped the Ten Year Rule. In 1934, following the collapse of the Geneva-based World Disarmament Conference, and the effective defenestration of the League of Nations, Britain embarked on a massive military rearmament programme which helped it narrowly avert defeat in 1940.  Too many European leaders are trapped into a kind of virtual Ten Year Rule that affords them the comforting blanket of delusional false security. Europeans cannot be safe, nor will they make its own region or the wider world safe, if they continue to hide in the virtual world they have created and continue to justify their choice to be weak.

This is because sooner or later the dangerous world on Europe’s doorstep will engulf it.  The Middle East is but a symptom of a wider geopolitical malaise, in which balances of power and spheres of influence are magnified through the lens of many hatreds. The world’s two superpowers, plus a host of other powers, some in the Middle East, are once again engaged in an arms race.  In that light, more than ever, the world needs an engaged Europe, a Europe credibly able to exert influence in all its forms, a contemporary Europe that can credibly and collectively uphold the values it claims to espouse.  A Europe willing to exert the one thing that has been sadly missing for so long – leadership.  Peace will need defending, as will democracy and freedom, and Europeans will be needed to defend them.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Why Britain’s new Aircraft Carriers are not ‘National Delusions’


ANNUAL ESSAY

This Annual Essay considers the implications of the attack by Sir Max Hastings on Britain’s two new heavy carriers, and the planned review of defence procurement by Boris Johnson ally Dominic Cummings for Britain’s ability to fulfil its commitments to NATO given the growing pressures worldwide on the United States and its armed forces.

“HMS Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth represent a colossal embarrassment to the Royal Navy and the armed forces, and should be likewise to a government that spends a moment thinking straight about national security. They reflect Britain’s besetting sin – an exaggerated sense of self-importance – together with an unwillingness to cut our cloth to match our purse and to recognise the revolution overtaking warfare” 
Sir Max Hastings, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions. The Times, December 14, 2019.

Fact: The United Kingdom spent $56.1 billion on defence according to the 2019 edition of The IISS Military Balance. Britain is the sixth biggest defence spender in the world.

Folie de grandeur?

Alphen, Netherlands. December 17. It is September 2020. Following a brief report by Dominic Cummings on ‘waste’ at the Ministry of Defence, by the ‘Minister’ with Portfolio for Everything, it is announced that HMS Prince of Wales, the second of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, is to be scrapped. She was only commissioned in December 2019. Following the 2010 decision to break up brand new MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft this is the second time in a decade a British government has decided to scrap a brand new, expensive, strategic military asset. The result is another extended and major capability gap in the maritime strength, not just of Britain, but also of NATO, and imposing yet more burdens on an already over-stretched United States Navy. For a government that claims to have re-discovered patriotism the political symbolism would be dreadful. The damage to Britain’s strategic brand inestimable. The frustration in Washington unfathomable.

Last Saturday. Sir Max Hastings, who I hold in high regard, wrote a ‘Weekend Essay’ for The Times entitled, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions? He did not pull his punches calling the two ships “giants” and “behemoths”. In fact, at 70,000 tons neither HMS Queen Elizabeth nor HMS Prince of Wales are ‘giant’ by any contemporary standard. The 110,000 ton USS Gerard R. Ford is ‘giant, built to meet US strategic power-projection requirements. The two British platforms, and carrier-enabled power projection (CEPP) they support, have been designed to meet British and European requirements. As such they are ‘heavy’ carriers of sufficient size and capacity to undertake the suite of operations relevant to British strategic need – carrier strike, helicopter operations from anti-submarine to humanitarian relief, as well as delivery of the Royal Marines to what I call ‘Littoral-plus’ operations.

However, peer through the unusually flowery language, which tends to get in the way of much of Sir Max’s argument, and he makes some valid points. His most important is to warn against what I call ‘big ship syndrome’.  Just because a ship is big does not mean it is either powerful or invulnerable. In the long and storied history of the Royal Navy there have been two ships named HMS Invincible that have been sunk, rather proving the point. The worst such example of ‘big ship syndrome’ was the ageing battlecruiser HMS Hood – ‘The Mighty Hood’ – sunk in the Denmark Strait in May 1941 by the then brand new and doomed German fast battleship, KM Bismarck.  The 1919 completed, and only partially modernised Hood, was no match for the Bismarck. Technology and capability had moved on and Britain’s flagship blew up with the loss of 1415 of her crew.  Hood was there because the Royal Navy was over-extended, but also because she had developed a myth of power based on the simple fact she was big and looked good. In terms of over-stretch and its consequences Britain could well be sailing into similarly rough strategic seas.

Sir Max also warns about the vulnerability of the two new ships to new anti-ship hypersonic missile technologies, such as the Russian Zircon system, new nuclear-tipped high-speed torpedoes, and the Chinese DF 26 system.  What is evident from emerging Chinese and Russian systems is that they have both undertaken a systematic audit of allied vulnerabilities, particularly forward deployed US carrier task groups. In the worst-case (the bulk of US forces are in the Pacific), the two British carriers would have to act as the credible command core of deployed NATO European maritime task groups, and provide a credible warfighting deterrent in an emergency with Russia. In such dire circumstances, they would also need to be as heavily-protected as the American carriers. Here is the nub of the problem – how? Absent the Americans and the ships lack anything like the protective shields they would need, there being too few ships armed with too few systems such as Royal Navy’s new Sea Ceptor hypersonic anti-missile, missile.

At this point I part company with Sir Max, who also rather mischievously quotes me in his piece, implying that I am also a critic of the new British carriers. For the record, I am not. Whilst I would have preferred the ships to have been conventional carriers, operating the ‘C’ rather than the ‘B’ variant of the F-35, the return of Royal navy carrier strike is essential. And, whilst I am not questioning the quotes, nor even their selective use, Sir Max failed to add my rejoinder; that Britain could solve the ends, ways and means to which the Armed Forces are subject if its political leaders so chose.  It is politicians that created this crisis with the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, and it is politicians who can solve it if they believe security and defence as important to the well-being of the nation as health and education. Both reviews were incoherent political metaphors for drastic cost-cutting with little strategic regard or strategic thought. By placing hard defence austerity before sound defence strategy the link between ends and means was broken, and has yet to recover. Andrew Manley, a former senior defence civil servant, said this week that the reviews “…outlined too many objectives”, and led to available funds being spread too thinly across too many priorities. A better definition of a political culture that recognises only as much threat as one can ‘afford’ has yet to be defined. 

One of London’s many strategic delusions is to undertake reviews which set objectives based on an analysis of the strategic environment, and then simply refuse to fund the consequent strategy. However many ‘efficiency savings’ are made 2% GDP spent on defence is an historic low, given the possible causes and effect government itself has identified. It is a travesty of both policy and strategy made worse by the way that defence moneys are now calculated and spent. Worse, the consequent ends, ways and means crisis that has been foisted on the Services has also forced them into a kind of defence cannibalism, the very antithesis of the ‘joint’ force, as they fight to survive by consuming each other.  

Who is really screwing up Britain’s defence?

At the core of Dominic Cummings’s arguments, which appears to be a softening-up process for some potentially shocking defence ‘choices’ by the new Johnson government, is a sense that the Ministry of Defence is inherently wasteful, with Britain’s ‘broken’ procurement system and the carriers it procured particular targets for his ire. Procurement is certainly a mess. Indeed, in matters procurement the words ‘British’, ‘smart’ and ‘defence’ can appear oxymoronic. However, that begs further questions. Why does British defence equipment cost so much, why does it take so long to field, and why does the British taxpayer seem to get so little bang for each public buck invested?  Yes, the ‘MoD’ must carry some of the blame. Equipment specification and requirement is too often vague and too ill-defined, platforms are ordered that too often end up looking like technology Christmas trees, designed to do far too much, resulting in equipment that does nothing particularly well. Contract drafting and management is often mediocre with oversight insufficiently rigorous, with inadequate ‘firewalls’ between gamekeepers (civil servants) and poachers (defence contractors) that give the latter too much influence.

However, much of the blame lies elsewhere, with much of it the fault of politicians. For example, it does not help that Britain has only one prime defence contractor of note (Bae Systems) with a sort of half-share in Thales. It does not help when ministers repeatedly seek cost-savings during the build-phase that reduce capability and push up cost, or delay Main Gate decisions again boosting costs. It does not help that ministers can never make up their minds what type of equipment they wish to procure, or regularly change their minds about what they want any given asset to do. It does not help that defence procurement is often treated by ministers as industrial policy with jobs in sensitive places and constituencies, albeit understandably, more important than defence efficiency. It does not help that ministers repeatedly change their mind about the number of assets to be procured thus pushing up development and construction costs per unit.  Sadly, the aircraft carrier programme suffered from all of the above.

In fact, given all the costs, constraints and uncertainties British ministers imposed on the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, it is not only a miracle they were ever built, there is also an entirely different way to look at how they were built. In short, Britain managed to build two, large and complex naval ships even though successive British governments had done all they could to destroy Britain big-ship, shipbuilding industry. Indeed, there is a story of profound innovation to be told about how much of the British defence and non-defence supply chain rose to the challenge and afforded thousands of workers jobs and apprenticeships in prime, secondary and tertiary contractors across the entire country, but most notably in Scotland and the North of England. 

It is a story that also raises further politically-sensitive questions. Are many of these constituencies not the ones which Prime Minister Boris Johnson says put him in power? Are they not the blue collar northern constituencies, one of which is from where I hail, who are patriotically proud of the two British aircraft carriers as symbols of a still relevant Britain, not delusional Britain? Are they not the same constituencies who faced with the humiliating and embarrassing sight of HMS Prince of Wales being mothballed (at great cost), sold off, or scrapped, would not begin to wonder why they loaned Johnson their vote?

Little Britain?

Britain is not the power she was, but nor is she the ‘has been’ Little Britain that Sir Max seems to think. She is an important regional Europeans power in a world rapidly changing for the worse with the economy, technology and armed forces to match.  A country that is too powerful to hide from power, and yet too weak to engage it alone.  A country led by an elite establishment that too often seems resistant to the idea that Britain still has an important regional leadership role to play in defence.  

It is these people, and their lack of political leadership and resolve, who are the real cause of Britain’s defence ‘failure’. For too long Britain’s elite have been strategically illiterate content to view defence as little more than a contingency reserve for politically more convenient causes, rather than the first duty of the state. For too long they have seen the defence of the realm as a cost rather than the most important of values to be afforded. For too long they have talked the talk of Britain as a Tier One military power, but funded at best a Tier Three military power.

My hope is that the intelligent Mr Cummings will realise that it is impossible to measure the ‘cost’ or ‘value’ of defence unless one also understands the ends, ways and means for which it exists. What is needed now, above all other considerations, is a proper analysis of Britain’s future security policy, of which defence policy is a part. Thereafter, a proper sizing and structuring of the British defence effort, with a sound defence strategy properly and consistently funded to ensure ends, ways and means are again aligned, not with how much London wishes to arbitrarily afford, but in response to the extant and emerging threats Britain must confront. 

Ultimately, Sir Max is contesting not just the force concept implicit in the two carriers, he is also questioning whether Britain can ever afford all the other capabilities Britain needs to exploit the full potential of the two ships, as well as fund the Army and Royal Air Force so they too can fulfil their allotted roles and tasks. Whilst his warning is apposite, the solution to the problem of Britain’s hollowed out forces must be a political one. Yes, Cummings can help squeeze more value out of Britain’s public investment in defence, and it is high time. Yes, Britain can rename commands and forces until the cows come home. However, until politicians start to properly address the ends, ways and means crisis in Britain’s defence the entire British security and defence architecture, from the National Security Council down, will continue to try to fulfil their ‘parochial’ missions by fighting each other to the point that the architecture itself is consumed.   

Britain’s defence imperative

The single most pressing imperative for British defence policy is thus: given the growing pressure on US forces world-wide, driven primarily by the rise of China as a military power, without the full commitment of Britain, France and Germany to properly lead NATO Europe across the multi-domains of contemporary and future warfare, the US will be simply unable to guarantee the defence of free Europe which she has since 1949 and the formal creation of NATO.

The appropriate military force that should emerge from such an exercise, given who, where and what Britain is, and given pressures on other allies, most notably the United States, should be a deeply joint, multi-domain force, plugged in to a tight government security and defence apparatus, able to lead coalitions by acting as command hubs. Surely, that is why Joint Force Command has been renamed UK Strategic Command? What Europeans need, with Britain to the fore, is a fast, first responder, high-end force that can uphold effective deterrence in and around Europe, even if the Americans are busy elsewhere. In the maritime domain only the British could lead such an effort. In that context, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are precisely what Britain needs: two British national strategic assets that communicate British strategic seriousness to American and European allies alike, act as national, Alliance or coalition command hubs, and offer potent carrier and amphibious strike. If used, equipped and protected properly they will prove their adaptable worth and value over many years of service in a domain where Britain is truly expert – above, on, below the sea, as well as deep into the Littoral.

There is one final point – if aircraft carriers, such as HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are merely ‘convenient targets’, as one Russian admiral so inelegantly observed, then why are the Americans, Chinese, Indians, Russians, and a host of other countries either building or planning to build them?  Blue water carrier-strike is in vogue, not out of it, because so many countries realise it affords them a discretionary, declaratory and flexibly potent capability that few other platforms can match – still. A capability, by the way, that Britain not only created, but pretty much pioneered and perfected.

The case for Britain’s heavy aircraft carriers

So, let me make the case for Britain two ‘heavy’ (by no means ‘giant’) aircraft carriers.

Keeping close to the US: Post-Suez (post-Brexit?) British defence policy has been predicated on London maintaining a close strategic relationship with the US and its armed forces. As there is no European alternative, and unlikely ever to be, the rationale is sound. What assumptions must now be made for the maintenance of such a policy? This week Forbes.com published a piece by H.I. Sutton entitled “The Chinese Navy is Building an Incredible Number of Warships” https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2019/12/15/china-is-building-an-incredible-number-of-warships/#743118bd69ac  Rather like the Kaiser’s Imperial German Navy prior to World War One, the nature and capability of many of these ships clearly indicates the People’s Liberation Navy is determined to contest the high seas with the Americans.  The China challenge faced by the US Navy is realising such proportions it is now possible to envisage a major emergency during which the Americans may not be able to provide credible maritime-amphibious power in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Pacific, at one and the same time. Royal Navy 1935?

Easing US strategic burdens: It is no coincidence that one of the most enthusiastic champions of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers is the US Ambassador to the Court of St James. Whilst in the recent past the Royal Navy could function as an anti-submarine adjunct to the US Navy of small aircraft carriers, frigates and submarines, in the worst-case, which must again be considered, Britain could well be called upon by the Americans to act as alternative maritime Alliance or coalition command hub for the European theatre of operations.  That means providing the Naval Service with the assets and armaments to undertake such a role, including carrier strike. My concern is not so much with the platforms themselves, but with the refusal of successive governments to properly arm and equip them, and the escorts they need. Moreover, conventional thinking would suggest that with the current number of hulls in service (or more accurately available) the Royal Navy cannot both be some latter day ‘Corbett Navy’ and a ‘Mahan Navy’. And yet, with the creative use of technology, capability, capacity and alliance the core command force the ‘RN’ is creating could well fulfil its role and missions if London backs it. Moreover, for lesser contingencies than high-end deterrence/warfare the two carriers afford London great utility, as demonstrated by the French carrier Charles de Gaulle off Libya in 2011. 

Influencing Washington: There is still far too much sentimental nonsense spoken in London about the so-called Special Relationship. If Britain can assist the United States meaningfully in easing the strategic and force dilemma in which the Americans are now trapped, then Britain will have significant influence in Washington. If Britain does not, or worse, chooses not to, then Britain will have little influence. It was interesting to watch the US reception of HMS Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit to New York. On the surface at least, here was an American ally delivering high-end capability within the framework of the transatlantic relationship. With the new Johnson government in place, and the two new carriers both commissioned, Britain has an opportunity it has not had for some time to again be taken seriously by the Americans. London must now follow-through on that promise and, to coin a phrase, help the US Navy be great again, where it needs to be great, for all our sakes.

NATO Europe’s strategic maritime command hub: Sir Max complains that for high-end operations the British carriers will depend on the support of European allies, and that many of them are woefully deficient in both offensive and defensive capabilities. He is right. Indeed, I wrote a scenario that demonstrated the dangers of such weakness in a piece entitled Future War NATO https://www.globsec.org/publications/future-war-nato-hybrid-war-hyper-war-via-cyber-war/ that I co-wrote with former SACEUR General (Ret.) Phil Breedlove, US Marine Corps (Ret.) General John Allen, and the former First Sea Lord, Admiral (Ret.) George Zambellas. At the end of the article there is another scenario in which HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the NATO task group she leads, prevails precisely because the force is armed with the right ‘kit’ both to protect itself and exert deterrence. If European allies are not prepared to engage in the vital maritime aspects of collective defence then, given US over-stretch and the evolving character of warfare, it might be cheaper to end the pretence and scrap NATO now, MC400 and all!  My view is more positive. The Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, and the European maritime task groups they will lead, now provide a focal point for a European maritime warfare technology cluster. For example, neither the Royal Netherlands Navy, nor the Royal Netherlands Marines Corps, have little utility without the Royal Navy and the carrier strike and power projection explicit in Britain’s carrier-enabled power protection (CEPP). Britain needs to make the case.

Where can Britain best add strategic value now: The inference by Sir Max is that the two carriers (one carrier makes no operational sense, two only just) are not just destabilising the ‘RN’ with their cost and voracious appetite for crew, they also prevent the British Army from acting as an effective deterrent on the Continent, and undermine the RAF and air power.  Look at a map, and then consider changed and changing strategic circumstances. Britain is an island with centuries of experience in the use and application of sea power. Continental land strategies are relatively new to the UK. It would be strategic folly of the first order to ask contemporary Germany to take the European lead in providing the maritime aspects of collective defence, so why should Britain. The European land defence of Europe must be led by Germany, with that other continental power France. It is entirely proper and appropriate that Britain takes the lead in the maritime domain. Indeed, with the development of the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force Royal Navy power projection is vital for the support of military power during grey zone operations, particularly in the increasingly contested North Atlantic, Nordic, and possibly Arctic regions, especially if the US Navy is again busy elsewhere.  In other words, Britain is already pioneering the concept of the future joint force, now is the time to actively build one that can operate with allies and partners to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge and the comparative advantages which Britain enjoys.

Platforms for new technologies: In a recent blog Dominic Cummings emphasises the need for new technologies to be applied to the British military space, such as space-based sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), as well as cyber and drone swarms.  He also echoes my calls for a NATO Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or NDARPA. He is right. However, the devil is in the detail. Space-based architectures will require allied collaboration with much of the heavy-lifting done by the Americans. Britain is to the fore in Europe in the considered development of AI in defence, but far more needs to be done. Britain’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities need to be much enhanced, even if much of that effort will be civilian, not military. Cummings also places great emphasis on the use of ‘intelligent’ drone swarms in the battlespace. In the maritime domain it will be platforms such carriers that will provide the bases from which they are launched, and the mass needed to swamp the defences of adversaries. In any case, for the foreseeable future British maritime strike will likely be a combination of manned air (F-35 Lightning 2), developing drone technology, helicopter-based (Merlin) anti-submarine capabilities, in addition to sub-surface defence provided by the Astute-class nuclear attack submarines, with air defence provided by Type 45 destroyers, as well as Type 26 and Type 31 frigates. That is, so long as they all work, and are all built as planned.

Overcoming British defence inertia

The real crisis in Britain’s defence effort is not caused by the aircraft carriers or by defence procurement. The real crisis is caused by the conservatism, inertia, and lack of innovation at the heart of the British defence establishment, allied to the strategic illiteracy of the British political elite. For too long Britain’s leaders have come to believe that the only operations that are important are so-called ‘hybrid operations’ at the lower to mid-range of conflict. They have become used to the idea of land-centric ‘discretionary warfare’ being the norm, possibly because it smells like the imperial policing of Britain’s past. What is needed is a fundamental re-think in both Westminster and Whitehall about what it will take to ‘defend’ Britain and its allies in the twenty-first century, and the ‘strength’ and ‘power’ maintaining peace through deterrence will require of Britain and its armed forces.  For even writing this I will again be cast by the Establishment as a heretic unable to offer a ‘balanced’ perspective.  Sadly, the word ‘balance’ in British establishment speak is merely a metaphor for the placing of short-term politics above sound longer-term defence strategy.

Sorry, Sir Max, but I respectfully disagree with your thesis: Britain’s new aircraft carriers are not national delusions. The delusion is to fail to realise the centre of gravity of Britain’s defence effort is, and must, shift quickly and profoundly.  The delusion is to believe a power such as Britain has any alternative but to face the world as it is, not as its political leaders would like it to be. The delusion is to fail to consider where Britain can now add defence value, and where its particular genius can be best applied to ensure the democratic peace is collectively maintained. The true test of the forthcoming ‘Britain’s place in the world’ review, and the ‘all in’ (and hopefully-linked) integrated security, defence and foreign policy review, will be whether it has the necessary strategic ambition to set a still powerful Britain on the course for a twenty-first century defence, or it is yet more strategic pretence which imposes on the British people a higher level of risk than responsible government should ever allow.

One final word: the Royal Navy is not seeking to rebuild Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, Sir Max. However, if Britain does not lead other Europeans in the increasingly contested strategic maritime domain around Europe, who on Earth will? It is my firm belief that Britain is still up to the challenge of a modest, but important military-strategic leadership role. Sir Max?  

Julian Lindley-French