hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Ed Lucas: Back in the EUSSR

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever!”
George Orwell, 1984

Alphen, Netherlands. 30 December. Ed Lucas wrote a piece in The Times this morning which left me saddened and worried. Entitled, The EU empire’s a mess but we must stick with it, Lucas offered a vision of the future EU ‘empire’ that was closer to fascism and sovietism than liberal democracy. Now, I must confess I know, like and respect Ed Lucas and most of the time agree with him. His writings on Putin’s Russia are both realistic and persuasive. However, when I read this morning’s piece I wondered at times if Ed was describing Russia rather than the EU and had somehow got the titles wrong. Indeed, I searched in vain for irony which might have redeemed the future EU Ed has on offer.

Democracy is dying in Europe. That is in effect the central argument of the piece which can best be described as “oh well, democracy was not that important”. Rather, the piece implies an Orwellian vision of an EU that sacrifices democracy for efficiency and influence as something we are all simply going to have to accept. Never!

Ed’s EU ‘empire’ is constructed on three mini-empires – singlemarketland, euroland, and Schengenland.  He suggests that in the emerging blocworld (my invention) such structures will be the only way Europeans can be a) efficient; b) competitive; and c) free (to move). His central assumption is that by aggregating European state power via supranational structures Europeans will retain not only credible influence over big power, but the capacity for decisive action.

The assumption is dangerously flawed. First, the Soviet Union also contained diverse and disparate cultures many of which were forced into a currency and trading union that was inherently unsustainable. Second, the assumption that by aggregating power said power can then be turned into decisive action is also nonsense as it is more likely to simply become unwieldy. Indeed, the EU bears greater resemblance to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried as it is on the back of three giant elephants, themselves atop a ginormous and lumbering turtle, than anything vaguely resembling the US.

Only finally does Ed admit that democracy is a “problem”. However, he then goes onto say ‘tough’. If ‘you’ want singlemarketland, euroland, and Schengenland then such ‘considerations trump democracy”. In any case, he suggests, there is always the European Parliament. Oh really? Is that what passes for democracy in your vision Ed? A packed assembly that dilutes the value of citizens’ votes tenfold and which spends more time legitimising distant power than holding it to account.  

There is an implicit irony in the piece which is unless challenged by democrats Ed’s Orwellian vision may be proven correct. Democracy is indeed dying in Europe for the same reasons it died just after it began in Russia, and died before it even got started in China. Europe’s elites are offering people a choice in the form of the European Project; security and prosperity or democracy. It is of course a false choice and it is a choice dictators have offered over the ages to justify the over-concentration of power in a few inefficient self-serving hands.  However, that is the choice on offer as we Europeans enter 2016.

However, what disappoints me most about Ed’s piece is a complete lack of alternative vision. How about this? Political union is scrapped. The EU reverts back to a European Community of states. Some states able to qualify agree to a single currency, but under the control of nationally-elected parliamentarians who rotate through an oversight body.  Other states remain part of a single market which is the core of the project. There is a new political settlement between those in a shared currency and those without to ensure legitimacy, accountability, representation and influence are distributed in a manner befitting a super-alliance of democracies.

In the wake of the November Paris massacre I said I would abandon my support for Brexit. I had seen what damage the Scottish independence referendum had done to Britain’s capacity to act in a crisis. Make no mistake Europe is not just in one crisis but several and Brexit will indeed critically undermine the capacity of Europeans to deal with them. However, the solution is not to abandon everything that we stand for, to spit on the legacy of my forebears who fought and died in the fight against Fascism and sovietism only to create an EU that looks very like Orwell’s Big Brother.  If that is what is on offer I want out of the EU and my country with it.

In 1984 Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth. He is tasked with re-writing history to justify the current political position of the Administration. Smith changes newspaper and magazine articles to remove ‘unpersons’. However, in the end Smith is broken by ‘the Party’ and forced to accept the assertion that 2+2=5.  Sadly, I fear something not dissimilar is going to happen during the run up to next year’s Brexit referendum now that it has emerged that both Downing Street and the European Commission are going to rig the vote by massively outspending those campaigning for Britain to leave.

2+2=5? Is this all we have to aspire to in Europe, Ed? Is the only justification you can come up with for your ‘empire’ is that its collapse could be marginally worse than its survival? You are right, the EU Empire is indeed a mess and needs fixing. However, we must not “stick by it” at any cost, which is precisely what you appear to be suggesting.

Happy New Year, Ed!

Julian Lindley-French 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

2016: Ttipping Point?

Alphen, Netherlands. 23 December, 2015. 2016 will be a tipping point for the West between power and weakness. The other day I spoke at an event at the Clingendael Institute here in the Netherlands on the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Most of my colleagues were focused on technicalities and what for me are justified concerns about the relationship between power and the individual in the West. The elite penchant for grand architectures such as the EU and TTIP are shifting the balance of power away from democracy towards bureaucracy; efficiency at the expense of accountability through the creation of sham democracy.

Equally, in a room in which there were many elephants implicit in the debate over TTIP was the creation of a new American-centric West. Indeed, if one combines TTIP with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a new form of West becomes apparent, one which is more idea than place. All well and good? Well no. The problem with such grands dessins as TTIP, TPP and indeed the EU, is that far from aggregating the capacity of states to act experience suggests such architectures exaggerate inaction. The EU is the most obvious and dangerous example of that. 

Western powers will need to act. From Libya to Syria and on to Afghanistan the anti-state is defeating the state and by extension the West.   This morning David Miliband, Chairman of the International Rescue Committee, described the world as “interlinked but instable”. In Afghanistan the Taliban are threatening to take Sangin, a key strategic town in Helmand province in Afghanistan which over 100 British soldiers died defending between 2006 and 2014. If Sangin falls the chances of President Ashraf Ghani creating an inclusive Afghan state in which the Pashtun tribes invest will be much reduced and Western strategy will again be seen to have collapsed.

And yet 2016 will see the West on strategic hold. The US presidential elections will consume much of America’s political energy. Sure, the US administration will go onto automatic and holding operations will be conducted across the world. However, as America debates its next president much of the world’s many contended spaces will be vulnerable to adversaries. Russia will continue to be the West’s ‘frenemy’, co-operating on Moscow’s pro-Assad terms in Syria (forget the talk of a new peace process as Russia is not going to abandon Assad), whilst seeking to extend its influence over an arc from the Baltic States in the north through to Georgia and Central Asia to the south. Eurasian Union? China will continue its efforts to exclude the US from the East and South China Seas and in so doing push forward its long-term strategy to establish strategic hegemony over Japan, the Koreas, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

That EU will also continue to fail in the face of an unfixed Eurozone and a chronically mismanaged migration crisis. Then there is Brexit. It was strange listening to former British Prime Minister Sir John Major the other day suggesting that the EU had made Britain more prosperous, more secure, and more influential.  The EU is hopelessly over-governed, uncompetitive and insecure with much of the problem the EU itself! The EU’s open borders have helped migrants and indeed terrorists march at will across Europe. As for Britain Germany continues to block key areas of the Single Market which favour Britain, whilst France and Germany force Britain into a form of serfdom by denying Britain its rightful leadership place.

The only way to fix these dangerous structural problems is to create a new EU. Moreover, experience suggests a new EU will mean a) a new treaty; b) more elite bureaucracy in the guise of ‘ever closer union’; and c) less democracy. The new EU will also need a new political settlement for Britain and all non-Eurozone member-states if cost is to be matched by benefit of membership which frankly is ever harder to see.  Whatever happens it will take years before Europe’s infernal, eternal struggle over internal ‘ordnung’ is resolved and Europeans can at last play the role to which they should aspire in the world.   

With an EU unable to act, and major Europeans rendered incapable of action, Europe has been rendered effectively impotent. Worse, two of Europe’s major state powers Britain and France are too often constrained to act by the EU, whilst Germany now apparently takes it for granted that European ‘integration’ should effectively mean the abandonment of sovereignty by all other EU member-states abandon so that Berlin can govern Europe through Brussels. Reminds me of something.

Worse, the very existence of European states is now threatened by the Balkanisation of Europe. The EU helped almost destroy my country Britain in 2014 and could do so again if England votes to leave the EU next year and Scotland does not.  Indeed, all European states with significant minority groups are now threatened because minority nationalist groups invariably look to Brussels as an alternative to national capitals. This week Corsican separatists were elected in what is a region of France.  

For all the above reasons 2016 will be a tipping point. Until and indeed only if, the Americans elect a president willing and able to re-commit the US to leadership and the major European state powers break out of their EU-induced strategic torpor my fear is the West will continue to retreat.  Sadly, the world will be a far more dangerous place for the West’s retreat.

Hold on to your hats! 2016 is going to be a bumpy ride.

Merry Christmas!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 17 December 2015

2015: The Best Case for the Worst Case

Libenter homines id quot volunt credunt – Men freely believe whatever they want.
Gaius Iulius Caesar – De Bello Gallico

Upper Reading Room, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. Another world, another time. This is quite simply my favourite room in the world. Oxford’s oldest library drips with past learning. Before me the spires and cupolas of All Soul’s College stand proud. To my right the Radcliffe Camera soars in its Enlightenment certainty. Sadly, it is that very ‘certainty’ that today seems so alien in a world that teeters between the spires of creation and Stygian destruction. Last night I was a guest at the Royal United Services Institute to listen to the Annual Christmas Lecture by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the UK Chief of Defence Staff. His subject was Britain’s newly-minted Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) and his theme “Interesting Times”. I think that was British under-statement as I came away somewhat impressed, but also worried.

The test of good strategy is what happens when it fails.  Sir Nick delivered a solid speech that tip-toed between Britain’s invisible dividing lines of strategy, politics, diversity, and hard reality. At the end of his speech I posed a question. It was not perhaps one of my better conference questions as to put it bluntly I am knackered (tired). It has been a long year, I have worked and travelled extensively, and I need a break. However, Sir Nick clearly missed my point which was this. There is no mention of ‘war’ in SDSR 2015 beyond dismissing it out of hand. This to my mind suggests little appetite for the kind of worst-case planning upon which all sound defence reviews should be established. My question couched the challenge of ‘war’ in the context of Russia and the possibility of a major war in the Middle East. Thankfully, my friend Professor Paul Cornish added acuity to my rather blunt edge by raising a potentially aggressive China.

My point was not to suggest that Russia is about to embark upon a major war, but rather that such a war should no longer be dismissed as a planning scenario. To my mind there is a critical weakness in SDSR 2015 and the thinking behind it, in what is otherwise a solid security and defence review.  Moreover, it is a weakness that is not exclusive to SDSR 2015 and which helps to explain the failure of Europe’s elites to deal with the crises that are now breaking over and upon Europe.

Any worst-case strategic analysis worthy of the name would have suggested that a) Russia under President Putin was eventually going to prove difficult; b) in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring parts of the Middle East and North Africa were going to explode/implode; and c) given the complex nature and interaction between Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian, and Western European societies political Islamism would create some friction. 

Unfortunately, the refusal to think worst-case is compounded by worse-case change. An over-stretched American military, a rapidly shifting balance of military power between the non-US liberal ‘West’ and an illiberal Rest, and a financial crisis that devastated European security and defence credibility is pushing the worst-case ever closer to being the here-and-now case.

Just look at the 2015 (about to become the 2016) migration crisis. Given the mix of rapidly rising birth-rates, failing states, proximity, access, organised crime, and the gulf between rich Europeans and poor Arabs and Africans, it should have been clear to Europe’s that sooner rather than later huge numbers of the latter would up sticks and move to the lands of the former.

European leaders even had advanced warning of mass migration a decade ago when western European labour markets were opened up successively to eastern Europeans. What leaders had hoped for was the managed movement of a relative few. What they got was mass movement to the West took place which in Britain’s case has been so badly managed it could actually drive the UK out of the EU.  The tragic irony is that freedom of movement within Europe is one of Britain’s great triumphs in helping to win the Cold War.

The essential problem is that to think worst-case one needs a political culture robust enough to countenance the worst-case. However, because politicians so assiduously avoid the worst-case (even in private) the strategy piece of a defence review is rarely permitted to demonstrate that thinking is being conducted into the unthinkable. Rather, too many European politicians see the worst-case as devil’s work; as though those of us prepared to think the unthinkable actually want the unwantable. In fact we think the unthinkable precisely to ensure it remains at worst thinkable. The failure to think the unthinkable is now all too plainly visible in the form of the migration crisis.

The reason Europe lacks the systems and controls to cope with mass migration is precisely because European leaders refused to think the unthinkable, just as they did with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. This is because much of the European Project and the culture it espouses is built on an incredibly rosy view of how people behave. Consequently, EU structures, such as they exist, are often a series of Potemkin villages, flimsy facades which stand proud in the good time but have little or nothing to prevent them from collapsing in a storm.  Schengen is the most obvious example; a non-structure that ISIS is exploiting to deadly effect.

In a recent blog I gave SDSR 2015 7 out of 10. Sure, SDSR 2015 contains all the right buzzwords, as did Sir Nick’s speech; ‘utility’, ‘agility’, ‘strategy’, ‘diversity’, ‘innovation’, and that hoary old favourite ‘partnership’.  However, like much that passes for strategic thinking in Europe SDSR 2015 is still grounded in a culture of best-case planning, or how much threat can we afford.  Indeed, the review too often smacks of the old Ten Year Rule. Adopted in August 1919 the Ten Year Rule stated that “…the armed forces should draft their estimates on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years”.  2015 is not 1919, or even 1989.

SDSR 2015 is certainly better than SDSR 2010 but it still too easily allows SDSR 2010’s Future Force 2020 to now morph into Joint Force 2025.  Given what has happened over the last 15 year defence planning cycle can we really afford to be so complacent about the next 15 year defence planning cycle?

2015 has highlighted the strategy malaise at the top of European power and the refusal of leaders to countenance the worse-case. Surely, if 2015 has taught us anything it should be that we must collectively return to worst-case, not best-case planning. The latter will inevitably create structures and forces which will fail. Only the former can generate the necessary strength ad redundancy upon which sound security and defence are necessarily built.

2015: interesting times indeed. And surely the best case for the worst case.

Happy New Year and all that!

Julian Lindley-French    

Monday, 14 December 2015

Europe: Between Republic, Empire and Chaos

“…no amount of power can withstand the hatred of the many…For fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power; while affection, on the other hand, may be trusted to keep it safe for ever”.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Alphen, Netherlands. 14 December. Ten days ago on a flight from Amsterdam to Rome I re-read some of the Phillipicae; the fourteen great orations made by Marcus Tullius Cicero between 44 and 43 BC condemning Mark Anthony for his campaign to replace the Roman Republic with a permanent ‘Dictatorship’ in the wake of the March 44 BC assassination of Julius Caesar. One of Cicero’s many conceits was his belief that he could protect the Republic by supporting the adopted son of Caesar, Octavian. It was to prove one of history’s great miscalculations.  Octavian went on to become the emperor of emperors and destroyed what was left of the Republic, albeit in the very name of the Republic. A crude form of representative politics was thus replaced by the executive power of one man; Octavian became Caesar Augustus.

Last week in Bucharest I warned of the dangers of power without strategy. Watching Europe’s leaders and the EU fail to grapple with a succession of crises - the Eurozone, Libya, Ukraine, the migration crisis, IS, and Syria - reminded me of the dangers of making strategy without power. This week one of those seemingly interminable EU Summits will take place after another momentous year of momentous elite failure. One reason for the serial strategic failure of both the EU and European leaders is a Europe that hovers dangerously and ineffectively between an uber-pluralistic ‘Republic’, an ever-more centralised ‘Empire’, or just plain chaos.  Europe really is at an historic tipping point.

The EU has become a bloody awful way NOT to do things. This week’s Summit will no doubt continue that dubious tradition. EU leaders will no doubt talk at great length about the Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, Syria, Russia, and no doubt agree some Euro-technocratic issues. David Cameron will no doubt prattle on about Brexit and plead with his politely-disinterested fellow leaders to get him out of a political mess that is entirely of his own making. Never has a leader believed less in a policy of his own making, or defended it so badly. The Presidency Conclusions of little Luxembourg will then be briefly discussed, before the Netherlands is invited to sort out this unholy mess during the first half of 2016…and report back next June.

However, the one thing assembled leaders will not discuss will be the greatest challenge the Europe and the EU faces; how to aggregate enormous effective power through new ‘architecture’ without in so doing rendering said power so far from the individual citizen that the EU becomes a bureaucratic empire, and a representative democracy in name only.  One of the many reasons the Roman republic collapsed was the inability of Rome to govern an increasingly diverse empire, preserve the delicate balance between Rome’s aristocratic families who held power through the Senate, and hold meaningful elections that gave the Roman citizenry some sense that they too had a say in and over power.

The essential question is what balance to strike between collective and common action. The High Priests of Project Europe would suggest the only way is for the collective approach itself to be abandoned and ‘common’ policies be adopted in their place. In other words, if Europe is to deal with big challenges it must create a big new state called ‘Europe’.  However, the notion of ‘Europe’ is theology not action and in any case its very forced creation (for that is what it would have to be) would effectively mark the end of ‘Republic’ and the creation of ‘Empire’.

The genius of Caesar Augustus was to continue with the form of representative politics, but destroy the substance. Citizens stilled queued on the Campus Martius to vote, and Senators still met to debate. However, neither group had any power or any real influence. Indeed, the ballots they cast were meaningless, and the ‘laws’ they enacted simply rubber-stamped the will of Caesar, much like the European Parliament does today. 

Rome’s Imperial system worked for a time because it was led by able emperors who understood that efficiency and effectiveness were vital to ensure and assure one-man rule via the ‘legitimacy’ of delivery. Indeed, Roman ‘virtue’ became for a time equated with imperial efficiency, effectiveness and, indeed, expansion. In effect Caesar Augustus offered Roman citizens the same deal the Chinese Communist Party offers the Chinese middle classes today – slavery in return for prosperity and stability. However, the moment the emperors were no longer able to offer such a deal, or when absolute power corrupted insanely and the likes of Nero and Caligula gained power by right of succession, then Rome began its long descent to collapse and chaos.

Liberal democratic state power is the key to meeting Europe’s crises.  Indeed, Europe needs less common action and more collective action. Indeed, if Europeans are to be led back to safety, starting right now, it is vital Europe’s power states – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain - act. Only then will decisive action be at all possible and even vaguely legitimate. The EU would continue to function as a Senate and debate and advise power. And, of course, this new power oligarchy would need to be utterly sensitive to the views of other Europeans. It would also help if the three seriously big powers - Britain, France and Germany - could actually agree on big things and the need for solidarity at this time of crisis. However, as the risks and threats Europeans face together become ever more apparent Europe’s big powers will have little alternative but to stand together or fall divided. As for the EU, it is incapable of dealing with the crises Europe faces today, and too often is part of the problem.

Getting that balance right between power, action and legitimacy is the single most important strategic and political challenge the EU faces today.  It is a challenge that must be met by power.  

The EU: republic, empire, or just chaos?

Julian Lindley-French    

Friday, 11 December 2015

Hollow Politics: Power without Strategy

“Never was anything great achieved without danger”
Niccolo Machiavelli

Bucharest, Romania. 11 December. Credibility is everything in strategy. Watching John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, savage US Secretary of State Ashton Carter this week as I was about to brief Alliance commanders on NATO’s southern flank was sobering.  The argument between McCain and Carter essentially boiled down to the search for a ground force that could do the West’s bidding in Syria and how to pay for it.  However, implicit in the stand-off was a dangerous malaise that now afflicts all Western powers; how to achieve large structural changes in international strategy for the least effort and the lowest political cost. If Joe Nye once defined grand strategy as the organisation of large mean in pursuit of large ends what was witnessed in Washington this week was hollow politics or power without strategy.

For much of the Cold War NATO’s Southern Flank incorporated Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Today, it stretches across the Middle East and North Africa and indeed beyond. Much like Europe’s Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 NATO’s southern flank incorporates a plethora of tensions and conflicts all of which will require sustained strategic engagement by the West in support of regional states over decades if legitimate stability is to be re-established. However, the West has become a lame duck with lame duck leaders bereft of clear strategic or political objectives who are simply not up the challenges now posed. Perhaps it was a mark of how desperate things have become that Germany’s Chancellor Merkel was this week named by Time magazine as “Person of the Year”, having narrowly beaten IS leader al-Baghdadi to the accolade.
McCain also berated Carter and by extension the Obama administration for having no timeline for the campaign against IS. After all, the timeline is the essential backbone of any strategy. Critically, there is no absolutely sense of power applied over time, distance and cost towards any real end, other than the vague hope that air containment (for that is what the strategy amounts to) will somehow ‘degrade’ IS. In other words, a real anti-IS strategy would necessarily need a ground force that goes significantly beyond Carter’s suggestion of a “Expeditionary Targeting Force”, which sounds like something out of a Jason Bourne movie.

Such a strategy would also need a defensive as well as an offensive component, and far more joined-upness with allies than exists if it is to be sustainable. The Lebanese Prime Minister told David Cameron recently that he believed for every 1000 migrants entering Europe illegally there are at least 2 Jihadis embedded therein. This means some 16,000 IS fighters have probably entered Europe this year alone and now. And yet, all Europe’s leaders can seem do is quibble over which European institutions and which European borders should be strengthened and how best to get the ongoing influx off TV news. Talk about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Or is that ostriches sticking heads in the deck of the Titanic?   

The reason for this political nonsense is that no Western leader wants to be honest (so few are these days about anything of substance) about the vital strategic end implicit in the fight against IS; the restoring of stability across the Middle East and North Africa. Specifically, they do not want to admit they a) have no clue; b) cannot agree; and c) even if they could agree the time and cost required to achieve such an end. Air containment is thus the latest of the strategic placebos Western ‘leaders’ prefer to real strategy and action. Hollow politics means if a problem cannot be resolved before the next election ignore it as much as possible and use the words ‘long’, ‘term’ and ‘strategy’ endlessly.  When something ghastly happens express condolences in grave tones, talk vaguely about doing everything that can be done, and then move on.  

Take last week’s extension of Britain’s air strikes against IS from Iraq to Syria. To what end? Yes, attacking the oil exports from which IS benefits might help at the margins. Stopping financial flows to IS and disrupting IS cyber-propaganda might disrupt the group for a time. Professor Rosemary Hollis of City University, London made the valid point that stepping up air containment can only be a first step. That begs a question; what are the second, third, fourth and indeed many more steps that will be need to achieve the ultimate goal of returning political stability and physical security to Syria, the wider Levant, and in time the Middle East? Well, there will be no strategy until Sunni states across the Middle East agree to form an international coalition to fight IS on the ground, restore stability to the Levant, and stop the funding flowing out of them into IS coffers.

A coherent Western strategy? Hollow politics means that beyond the re-stating of lofty, ill-defined ends there will be no commitment of diplomatic, economic, let alone military means, because there is no political commitment to necessary ways, beyond symbolic air containment. First, there can be no strategy without US leadership and there will be no such leadership until at the very earliest after the November 2016 US presidential elections. Second, Europeans are incapable of crafting such strategy, due to both political and military weakness, and cannot even agree how to defend their own homelands and against which adversary – Russia or IS.

There is another essential Western dilemma reflected in and by hollow politics; the eternal confusion of values with interests from which Western power suffers nowadays and which render all strategic ends broad in scope, but limited in commitment. Contrast Western ‘strategy’ with contending Russia strategy. Russia has established limited strategic objectives on a relatively narrow end designed to leverage much wider strategic effect and is investing the necessary means to establish the strategic end as credible. However, the Russian end is not the preservation of the Assad regime, which is merely the means, and most certainly not the destruction of IS, which for the Russians is merely a sideshow. The end is the preservation of a Russia-friendly Syria and specifically an air and naval base in Syria which Moscow sees as vital to ensure Russian influence and interests can be maintained across the Mediterranean basin and much of the Middle East.  In other words, Russia has little concern for the broader stability of the Middle East so long as it does not affect Russia’s ability to use the Middle East as a platform for its interests.  

What air containment also reveals is a refusal to confront cause and effect beyond the ‘something must be done’ manta central to hollow politics. IS only numbers some 30-40,000 fighters which could be defeated in relatively quick order on the battlefield, especially so if they continue to aspire through the Caliphate to the creation of a relatively conventional military force. However, implicit in the Syria conflict is the very real prospect that the West could soon find itself not only embroiled in a general Middle Eastern war between states, and a simultaneous religious and sectarian war, that would look much like the gruesome 1618-1648 Thirty Years War. Sadly, such a war could be hastened not delayed by Western inaction and irresolution.

In that light air containment is merely the putting of a small Western toe into very hot water. As such, unless the air containment of IS is accompanied by revealed strategy and commitment, precisely because there is no revealed relationship between ends, ways and means it will soon come to be seen as an extension of weakness, rather than a statement of strength. ‘Strength’ in this instance would need to include a demonstrable determination by Western powers to use ‘all necessary means’.

Now, there are times when sound statecraft demands military action in a political and strategic vacuum. There are indeed times when power must be used in the absence of strategy in an effort to change the relationship on the ground between ends, ways and means.  Such action is taken precisely to create the conditions for successful strategy. However, the current action masks no such intent. Rather, they are the lame duck actions of lame duck leaders either clueless as to the reality of the threat posed to and by what is happening in the Middle East, and/or determined as ever to keep reality filed in the too politically difficult file. In other words, it is hollow politics masquerading as strategy.

Talking of lame duck leaders. David Cameron was also in Bucharest this week pretending to negotiate a new relationship for Britain in the EU. At least I was in Bucharest doing something serious!

Julian Lindley-French  


Monday, 7 December 2015

Triple Track: NATO Nuclear Deterrence is sad not M.A.D.

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 December. Seventy-four years ago today the United States Pacific Fleet was struck by a ‘bolt from the blue’, as the Imperial Japanese Navy sank much of the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor. During the Cold War the US strategic community was constantly exercised by the threat of a nuclear ‘bolt from the blue’ from the Soviet Union.  In the years after the Cold War it appeared that the threat of nuclear mutually assured destruction or M.A.D. had been cast into history. However, with Russia now rattling nuclear sabres almost weekly nuclear deterrence is back on the strategic agenda. What got me thinking about M.A.D.-ness was an excellent conference I attended last week at the NATO Defense College in Rome entitled, “The Future Deterrence Requirements of the Alliance”.  What struck me was not the similarities that exist between the Cold War and today, but rather the differences. What was also clear to me is that NATO nuclear deterrence has become sad not M.A.D?

NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and posture is close to failure. Paradoxically, it is a failure made all the more likely by the weakness of NATO’s conventional forces in preventing the kind of limited war with big weapons strategy for which the Russians are now daily preparing. Let me explain. The distance from the border of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to that of Belarus is at best 60kms (40 miles) across Poland and Lithuania. If Russia wanted to seal the Baltic States off from the rest of NATO Moscow would first close that gap. Having established a fait accompli with conventional military force Moscow would a) order forward deployed NATO forces out of the Baltic States; and b) threaten the use of its burgeoning and treaty-illegal short and intermediate range nuclear forces to prevent any kind of NATO response – conventional or nuclear.

In such circumstances it is hard for me to believe many Alliance political leaders would be willing to go to war, let alone American, British and French leaders unleash their strategic nuclear weapons. In effect, Russia would have applied to effect nuclear superiority, and in so doing proven to further effect a key dictum of Sun Tzu; that the ‘best’ wars are built on an irresistible fait accompli, just like Crimea.

Deterrence theory, and all the associated wonkery that goes along with it, relies on an essentially simple premise; that in the event of war an adversary can never be sure that the attacked would not resort to the use of nuclear weapons and quickly and has the will, capability and intent so to do. In NATO’s case the theory is adjusted to include the nuclear defence of the territory of allies, not just the three NATO nuclear weapons states. When I look at the political classes of all three NATO nuclear states I simply no longer believe that NATO leaders would resort to the use of such weapons if faced with an essentially limited war on NATO’s eastern flank.  And, if I do not believe it I am pretty damned sure Moscow does not believe it.

My doubts over the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent posture are manifold. NATO does not in fact have any nuclear weapons and has no political consensus over their role or use. The US nuclear arsenal is having to play a multipolar deterrent role the world over which leads to a very different strategic calculus than the bipolar strategic symbiosis that existed for much of the Cold War. France has a robust nuclear policy and some ‘sub-strategic’ nuclear forces.  However, its limited sub-strategic air-based nuclear force would be unable to penetrate an increasingly sophisticated Russian air defence system. The British (being the British these days) are about to spend some £31bn on a new “Successor” strategic nuclear system whilst British political leaders (and not just Jeremy Corbyn) repeatedly imply they would never use it. 

My sense is that neither Britain nor France would conceive of using nuclear weapons unless as a response to nuclear use by an enemy, and for all the rhetoric to the contrary, neither power would use such weapons unless their own soil had been so attacked.  And it is that problem of decoupled proportionality that is rendering to my mind NATO’s nuclear deterrent posture ‘incredible’.

Paradoxically, the nuclear capabilities assigned to NATO are more than enough to deter against a nuclear attack by a major power, and yet are utterly unusable in the event of the nuclear-fringed conventional threat Russia poses. Even in the case of a nuclear strike by a state like Iran I find it hard to see that any of the three NATO nuclear powers would respond in kind to the use of one or two first generation warheads, even against a NATO ally.       

In effect, NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrents are also in danger of becoming ‘de-coupled’ with no credible ‘escalation’ on offer from the use of conventional forces to the use of nuclear forces. It is ‘de-coupling that is reinforced by the strange estrangement from NATO of the Alliance’s three nuclear weapons’ states. The US sees NATO very much as a side-show. The British talk NATO but never match words with deeds. The French have only just re-entered the NATO integrated command structure and remain NATO-sceptics, in the same way the British are EU-sceptics.

Worse, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group is kept at the margins of policy planning precisely because NATO’s 28, soon-to-be 29, nations cannot agree about whether to deter Russia or debate with Russia. As for NATO’s fabled ‘dual-capable aircraft’, most of which belong to the Alliance’s non-nuclear states, these are legacy systems that whilst capable of carrying nuclear weapons would no longer get through Russia’s air defences. Indeed, ‘NATO DCA’ is either outdated, incapable, or both. As for missile defence it is the wrong system, defending inadequately against the wrong people, incapable of being upgraded to defend against a Russian threat (whatever Moscow says), paid for by an American taxpayer who it will not defend!  In other words NATO missile defence does not fly strategically, politically, or technically.

However, the real danger posed by NATO’s conventional and nuclear decoupling is the danger that the nuclear use threshold will fall by mistake if the choice is surrender or nukes. By deploying short and intermediate range nuclear systems Russia is implying that it has already lowered the nuclear threshold, intimidating its neighbours with implied and applied irrationality.  Indeed, much of what is today called the Gerasimov doctrine (after the Chief of the Russian General Staff) looks much like the Ogarkov doctrine of the early 1980s which also implied a warfighting use for nuclear weapons.

So, how does NATO defend the Baltic States and indeed other allies? A senior American friend recently warned me against implying the Baltic States are indefensible. He is right. To my mind the Baltics must be defended. However, if a credible defence is to be established such a defence must be placed in its proper strategic context. First, NATO must protect both its eastern and southern flanks. That means conventional forces in sufficient strength to deter, prevent and interdict on both flanks. Second, to defend the Baltic States, NATO conventional forces in sufficient strength must be forward deployed to the region to act as a trip wire to further Alliance escalation in the event of Russian aggression.  In other words, NATO needs a forward deployed NATO forward deterrent. Third, the Russians must not be allowed to plan an attack that joins Kaliningrad to Belarus at little or no cost. Kaliningrad must be considered a NATO target for conventional forces in the event of Russian aggression – even if Russia deploys Iskander M and other nuclear systems to the enclave.

However, it is NATO’s ability to escalate conventionally that is most in need of attention if NATO deterrence is to be restored to credibility. Behind the Spearhead force agreed at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit powerful conventional forces must be deployed forward that increase the risk to Moscow of even the most limited of incursions. At the very least this would need a NATO force that looked something like the Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force of the past which combined both mass and manoeuvre.

Therefore, to restore credibility to NATO’s deterrent posture next year’s Warsaw Summit should enshrine a new triple-track approach.  Track one would involve the reinvigoration of the conventional and nuclear deterrents of the Alliance. Specifically, the three Alliance nuclear weapons states would publicly re-commit to the credible maintaining of NATO as a nuclear alliance (and mean it). Track two would see the 26 other NATO nations re-commit to enhancing their conventional forces as part of a reinvigorated NATO non-nuclear deterrent, with the stated aim to keep the threshold for nuclear use high. Track three would see the Alliance put forward new arms control proposals designed to lessen tensions between Russia and the Alliance via an initial redeployment of both nuclear and conventional forces, but only in the event of a change of policy in Moscow.

Nuclear weapons are scary and most western liberal politicians and indeed peoples would rather not think about them. However, in the world into which NATO is moving the more the West's conventional military power is eclipsed by illiberal power the more NATO will rely on nuclear weapons, 

We do not want to wake up to another Pearl Harbor! We must make sure we do not!

Julian Lindley-French           


Monday, 30 November 2015

Turkey has Russia and the EU in Dire Straits

Alphen, Netherlands. 30 November. Power politics has and always will be about exploiting space and people over time and distance, to exert the influence of the strategically strong, over the politically weak.

Look at a map of Eastern Europe and Western Asia from north to south. For the Russia Black Seas Fleet to sail from its base at Sevastopol via the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean it must first pass through the Bosporus directly in front of Istanbul, then sail south through the small Sea of Marmara, and finally on past Cernak into the Dardanelles straits before it can enter the Mediterranean.  The distance between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is some 60 miles or 85 kilometres, all of which is under firm Turkish control. In other words without Turkey’s approval Russia’s Black Seas Fleet and Sevastopol, Russia’s only south facing warm water European fleet naval base, is rendered useless.

Consequently, if Turkey turns against Russia in the wake of last week’s downing of a Russian SU-24, much of the strategic rationale behind President Putin’s illegal seizure of Crimea is threatened. That is why for all Moscow’s bluster Putin knows all too well it is the Turks not the Russians who hold most (not all) of the strategic cards. Indeed, the Russian Black Seas Fleet is vital to wider Russian ambitions across and around the Mediterranean basin.

This is not the first time in history the Dardanelles and the Bosporus have been a grand strategic flashpoint. A century ago in December 1915 Allies forces were about to be withdrawn in the face of heroic Turkish resistance after Churchill’s failed attempt to force the Dardanelles with the Royal and French navies, and to take the Gallipoli Peninsula with an Allied Expeditionary Force of mainly British, Australian and New Zealand troops. The aim was to push Istanbul (Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453) out of its alliance with Wilhelmine Germany, and thus out of the First World War. The expedition was a spectacular failure as I saw for myself on a visit to Gallipoli as a guest of the Turkish Government.

In fact, Russia and Turkey (or more precisely the Ottoman Empire) have been fighting over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus ever since Moscow decided an all-year round warm water port was an essential Russian interest.  In 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, British and Russian forces blockaded the Dardanelles.   When Istanbul lost the 1828-1829 Russo-Turkish war Moscow forced the Ottomans to close the straits to all non-Russian (i.e. British) forces. European powers became alarmed by Russia’s de facto control of the straits and Moscow’s ambitions to extend its influence into the Mediterranean and the wider Middle East. Nothing new there then.

In 1841 at the London Straits Convention Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Prussia, using the precedent set by the 1815 Congress of Vienna, forced Russia to agree that in peacetime only Ottoman warships could traverse the straits. During the 1853-1856 Crimean War the Royal and French navies actually traversed the straits into the Black Sea to blockade Sevastopol with the aim of denying Russia the very same warm water port that is deemed vital to Moscow’s twenty-first century grand strategy.  Indeed, the 1856 Congress of Paris which reaffirmed the 1841 convention is still in legal force today!

So, President Putin might make much play of deploying highly-advanced S400 anti-aircraft missiles to the Russian Air Force base at Latakia in Syria, and yes those missiles can reach deep into Turkish air space. He might also escort his SU-24 fighter-bombers with fighters, and hit Turkey with limited sanctions. However, implicit in Turkish President Erdogan’s warning to Russia “…not to play with fire” over the downing of the SU-24 is the inference that it is Istanbul not Moscow that has the strategic upper hand.

Now, turn aforesaid map around and look at it from west to east. All the Syrian and other refugees using the northern route from the Middle East to Europe have to cross the self-same Bosporus. Yesterday Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu met with EU leaders in Brussels at an EU-Turkey summit. Again, Istanbul not Brussels (or the real power capitals of Europe) held most of the cards. Ankara is using the migration crisis as a means to exert pressure on fellow Europeans (Turkey is both a European and an Asian country) by turning migration flows on and off like a tap. Greek officials reported in October that in the wake of a previous high-level meeting with the Turks the migration flow suddenly eased.

So what does Turkey want?  On 12 December, 1999 Turkey was officially recognised by the EU as an official candidate state. Ever since then the EU has pretended to negotiate Turkish membership, and the Turks have pretended to believe them. No more! President Erdogan’s mandate was markedly strengthen in Turkey’s June 2015 presidential elections. In return for controlling the migration flows into Europe President Erdogan is determined to force the EU to take Turkey’s membership far more seriously, and force visa-free travel for Turks upon a reluctant EU. At yesterday’s Brussels EU-Turkey Summit desperate EU leaders were willing to give President Erdogan pretty much all he wants.

Scratch the surface of European politics and one finds history. European fears (for that is what they now are) of such a huge wave of mainly Muslim migrants runs deep in the DNA of Europe’s collective historic memory. Between 1529 and 1683 the Ottomans made repeated incursions into Europe, culminating in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Inter-mingled with the fear of migrants is that historic fear of Ottoman conquest, even if many Europeans do not realise it. It is a fear that runs deep in contemporary politics.

Presidents Erdogan and Putin also understand each other, and indeed power politics far better than Europe’s many little leaders.  Power politically both the downing of the Russian plane and the migrant crisis demonstrate Turkey’s ‘strong’ grand tactical position. However, Turkey must be careful not to confuse a strong grand tactical position with a strong grand strategic position. Indeed, being so close to Syria and the wider Middle East it is also evident that strong NATO allies and EU partners will be vital to Turkey’s long-term security.  Consensual (not forced) Turkish EU membership will also be vital to this pivotal power’s future stability and prosperity.

Critically, Ankara does not want to spend too much strategic energy looking over its shoulder north at an aggrieved Russia. Just look at a map, watch this space and indeed twenty-first century power politics at work!

Julian Lindley-French          

Friday, 27 November 2015

Syria: Beginning, Muddle, but no End

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.

Albert Einstein

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 November. The West’s Syria strategy has a beginning, a muddle, but no end. One hundred years ago this week Albert Einstein gave the world his general theory of relativity. Part of the theory suggests that space and time can become so distorted that light can no longer escape – black holes. Syria has become the political equivalent of a black hole into which rationality pours, but from which no hope emits. It is as though one relatively tiny political space has become so dense, with so many competing and contending hatreds, that Syria threatens not just itself, but much of the political universe beyond. Ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical forces are being sucked into the Syrian black hole whilst strategically-challenged Western leaders have no idea what lies beyond. Indeed, Syria is beginning to warp of the very fabric of the international system and with it the space-time political continuum.  Indeed, it is a struggle that begins to look ever more like Europe’s terrifying Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 than the effects of the small dying red dwarf that is Syria.

Yesterday in London British Prime Minister David Cameron produced a 36 page dossier (ghosts of Tony Blair and Iraq?) in an attempt to convince Parliament to end a nonsense. The RAF can attack IS up to the non-existent Iraqi-Syrian border, but not beyond. In fact, all the debate achieved was to underscore just how fragile Britain and its foreign and security policy has become, and how close the opposition Labour Party is to political oblivion. Far more important to events on the ground and in the air over Syria was the de facto alliance announced yesterday between France and Russia. Rather, the false assumptions in Cameron’s dossier did at least reveal the lack of anything one might conceive of as a comprehensive Western political and military, offensive and defensive strategy to deal with what is fast becoming of one of the most dangerous post-Cold War crises the West, the Middle East and the wider world has faced.   

Ethnic tensions: Syrian has been riven by ethnic tensions ever since the minority Alawhite community seized power in Damascus through President Assad’s father and the Ba’ath Party in 1966. What is left of Syria Syria is 90% Arab, with some two million Kurds plus other smaller groups making up the balance of a 22 million population that grew by over 300% prior to the outbreak of the war. It is a demographic shift reflected across much of the Middle East as are many of the ethnic divisions.  

Ethnic and Sectarian tensions: Ethnic tensions have also reinforced the sectarian divisions that have in turn helped Islamic State to grow rapidly since its founding in Jordan. Syria is 87% Muslim with Shias making up 13% of the population, as against 74% Sunnis with the rest comprised of small Christian, Druze and other communities.  In the past the Ba’athist constitution protected minorities and until those self-same minorities feel secure peace is unlikely to be re-secured.

Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #1: There is now a very real danger that ethnic, sectarian and regional tensions will also merge. In Iraq tensions between Sunni and Shia tribes are reinforced by divisions between the Arab and Kurdish peoples. Such divisions continue to threaten a weak Baghdad government. If the Baghdad government falls Iran would likely intervene more deeply in Iraq, which would at the very least alarm the Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Turkey seems unlikely to permit the appearance of a fully-autonomous Kurdish ‘state’ with profound implications for Ankara’s own eastern provinces. 

Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #2: The Syrian war is first and foremost a threat to what might best be described as the region’s many precarious states in the region. In the wake of the unfortunately-named Arab Spring (perhaps the less catchy but more accurate title would be the emaciation  of the Arab state) the precarious states include Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon all of which suffer from a potent mix of contending ethnicities, sectarianism, economic decline, and enduring political tensions between states, rulers and peoples. Moreover, through the spread of both al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, ‘precariousness’ extends to sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa. There is also the very real chance that nuclear-tipped Israel could be dragged in, especially if Jordan is threatened by some form of new Intifada that further exacerbates tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ethnic, Sectarian & Inter-Regional Tensions: The Syrian war has profound implications for not just the Middle Eastern region. Indeed, through the mass migration of millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and others, Europe in being dragged into the Middle Eastern conflict.  The 13 November terrorist attack on Paris was an extension of the sectarian divisions that have riven Syria and much of the Middle East. Radicalisation of members of the many North African, Sub-Saharan African, and South Asian Diasporas that now live in Europe means that a very small minority of people now pose a very real threat to Europeans of all ethnicities and beliefs.    

Ethnic, Sectarian, Regional, Inter-Regional & Geopolitical Tensions: The Syrian war is also generating growing geopolitical tensions. Do not be fooled by Russia’s desire for co-ordinated air strikes. Beyond a rapprochement with France Moscow has no intention of a formal alliance with the West to defeat IS. Rather, Moscow wants a free hand to strike anti-Assad forces under the guise of its own war on ‘terror’, a strategy which is also implicit in the Franco-Russian accord of yesterday. Indeed, this war within a war is also implicit in the hidden stand-off between the West and an unlikely coalition of Russia, Iran & Syria.  Russia and Iran seek extended pan-regional and/or inter-regional influence at the expense of the West.  Turkey is also a regional and inter-regional player. Tuesday’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi 24 by Turkish F-16s was as much about protecting Turkic tribesman in northern Syria against Russia’s pro-Assad air strikes, as it was about any possible violation of Turkish airspace by Russian forces. Given Turkey is a NATO member that one incident combined ethnic, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical tensions into one dangerous moment and epitomises the wider threat the Syrian war now poses.

Crafting Comprehensive Strategy: The first task of the statesman is to recognise the Syrian war for what it is; the epicentre of conflicts across the Middle East that are now breaking out of one region and beginning to de-stabilise others. That is why a comprehensive strategy is needed that works to effect equally at the ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional and geopolitical levels. However, such a strategy can only be crafted by big power. Here the main problem is the absence of real American strategic and political leadership (Europe is incapable). Worse, it is hard to see how such leadership will be forthcoming for at least a year from a US distracted by next November’s presidential elections. Hope now is that the big (and regional big) power Vienna Process (Congress of Vienna?) will generate sufficient unity of effort and purpose to craft big, sustained strategy. Do not bet on it! Such a strategy would mean the United States, Russia, the major European powers, together with Iran and the Gulf States agreeing at the very least the war must be contained, IS destroyed, and thereafter a political roadmap crafted for Syria.

In the circumstances and in the absence of true strategic commitment the best to which can be aspired is sustained pragmatism. Any action to degrade IS is to be welcomed. However, clarity of strategic thought would suggest separating the anti-IS strategy from the political future of Syria strategy to ‘de-conflict’ the divers interests of the partners in what is a very loose de facto coalition. Equally, any such ‘strategy’ must be grounded in political and strategic reality. In his speech to Parliament yesterday Cameron claimed the existence of some 70,000 ‘moderate’ non-Islamist, non-regime ‘ground troops’ that the air campaign should support in the fight against IS. This is a very optimistic definition of both ‘moderate’ and ‘ground troops’.

Einstein suggested that the only way to counter the unimaginable gravitational pull of a black hole is with countervailing superior power. If the Syrian black hole is to be closed such power will mean far more than superior kinetic force. In the short-term the need to prevent IS from extending its evil mandate both in the region and beyond is vital. However, until the wider conflict is brought to an end all parallel and subsequent actions will take place in a political vacuum. At the very least, a serious Western strategy would recognise that such is the danger this conflict poses conflict resolution will take a lot of time, immense resources, huge power and loss. And yet I see no Western leader will to admit that. However, Western powers must at the very least seek to regain the strategic and political initiative they have lost to Russia of late by crafting something that would at least approximate to a draft comprehensive Syria strategy.

Syria: dreadful beginning, appalling muddle, but no end in sight.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

SDSR 2015: Debt, Defence & Events

“Our Armed Forces and security and intelligence agencies (the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, and the Government Communications Headquarters) are respected around the world for their capability, agility, reach and ability to fight and work alongside our close allies. We took tough decisions to balance the defence budget in 2010, and are now in a position to invest in the highly deployable Armed Forces that we need to guarantee our security”.

National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 November. Britain spends about £35bn annually on total debt interest, which is about the same as Britain spends on defence. NSS 2015 & SDSR 2015 (hereafter SDSR 2015 unless specified) is a conscious attempt by London to balance the growing demands for enhanced security and defence, with the Government’s determination to eradicate debt interest payments and achieve a budget surplus by financial years 2019-20. So, if one peers through the relentless political spin that has accompanied the launch of SDSR 2015 will Britain’s security and defence be stronger or weaker?

As SDSR 2015 was launched a Russian Graney-class nuclear attack submarine, believed to be the Severodvinsk, had entered British waters. A week prior Islamic State militants had killed 132 people and wounded over 300 in Paris. Yesterday, two F-16s of NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian SU 24, killing one of the crew members. No wonder Prime Minister David Cameron chose to deliver SDSR 2015 to Parliament rather than Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, as would have more normally been the case, in more normal times. That is precisely the essential point about SDSR 2015; these are not normal ‘let me get off the strategic roundabout whilst I fix the economy’ times. Thus, ultimately it is against those ‘times’ that the SDSR 2015 must be measured. 

“National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom”, is 96 pages long and does exactly what it says on the tin – merges strategy, security, debt and defence. Being a defence wonk I have spent the last thirty six hours or so trawling through SDSR 2015 and my sense is that Britain is as ever trying to execute a politically perilous defence-strategic balancing act. Much of the analysis of Britain’s changing strategic environment in SDSR 2015 is sound. Moreover, although essentially resource-led SDSR 2015 does at least try to balance affordability with strategy. As such SDSR 2015 is far superior to its predecessor SDSR 2010, which was slash, burn, panic and preach. Even so, SDSR 2015 remains replete with the tensions that are inherent to Britain’s taut defence budget. The slightest shock, and or commitment beyond what are now very limited defence planning assumptions, could bring the entire SDSR edifice crashing down.

SDSR 2015 and Britain’s Strategic Dilemma: All democracies struggle to balance security, strategy, defence capability and capacity, and affordability, or ends, ways and means as it is known in the business. For the world’s fifth largest economy and a top five military actor, and a country which for all the sneering of many (all too often fellow Europeans who make no effort to pull their defence weight) Britain maintains influence and seeks to maintain influence at the core of all the major international fora. Indeed, enabling such influence to achieve cost-effective security and defence is the strategic method behind SDSR 2015. However, the extent to which power in all its forms can be invested in by the British remains an eternal dilemma for London, a dilemma this British government has struggled with more than most. And, it is a struggle that is all-too apparent reading between the lines of the three stated National Strategic Objectives in SDSR 2015: protect people; project global influence; and promote prosperity.

New Money? Much political spin has been woven by the Government these two days past about new money to be invested in defence. Indeed, SDSR 2015 makes much about maintaining defence expenditure at the NATO guideline of 2% GDP until financial year 2020-21. Much has also been made about the commitment to increase defence spending in real terms each year over the same period, and funding an ‘additional’ £12bn bringing the defence investment budget up to £178bn over the next decade. However, close analysis reveals much of this ‘new’ money to be existing resources re-tagged. It is a re-tagging effort that is particularly apparent when it comes to the ‘increased’ intelligence resources, counter-terror spend, and the investments to be made to counter hybrid warfare and cyber-warfare.

Creative Defence Accounting: If one compares the 2015 defence accounting model with the 2009 defence accounting model British defence expenditure on current projections could be as low as 1.7% GDP by 2020. This is because the 2015v model includes both the cost of the nuclear deterrent and so-called ‘other’ mainly non-military items of expenditure that are within NATO's definition of defence expediture, but not traditionally the British definiion. The most worrying aspect is the degree to which Britain’s world class diplomatic machine, the transmission between national strategy, power, influence, security and defence remains under-funded. There seems something dangerously churlish in the Government’s attitude towards the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Britain’s diplomats that seems to be driven by Chancellor George Osborne’s mistaken belief that foreign policy can be reduced to mere mercantilism. 

The Bottom-Line of SDSR 2015: Britain spends around 7.4% of GDP in the round on security and all the evidence suggests that the government has simply shifted money around within that pot and created a Joint Security Fund to act as a crisis contingency reserve. Even the much-lauded $12bn increase in the defence equipment budget will include a minimum of £7bn (and as much as £11bn) of ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts). Much of those cuts will see some 30,000 MoD civilians cut, many of whom were engaged after SDSR 2010 to replace military personnel. 

Britain’s Strategic Core force: The headline of SDSR 2015 is that Britain is committed to the creation of a small, reasonably ‘balanced’ force at the higher-end of capability able act as a core or hub force to offset a lack of capacity. This is sound thinking. As I suggested in my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power it is about time London abandoned the ‘little bit of everything, but not much of anything’ force to which every defence review has been committed since at least 1967. In the book I argued Britain needed a core or hub force which could reach across government in times of national emergency, and reach out to allies and partners. Such a force would take pressure off an over-stretched US, and/or act as a coalition command hub for European or non-European coalitions under a NATO, EU, UN, or any other flag of strategic convenience. To that end I am excited to see the Joint Force Concept and Command brought front and centre in the Future Force and its commander given an extra star. Now, I am not for a minute claiming any credit for this (oh, go on then just a bit) but by 2025 when all the force elements in SDSR 2015 come together Britain will have generated just such a core or hub force. And, should the strategic environment worsen the possibility does indeed exist to expand the force, albeit at cost and over time. 

Security and Defence Strategy: SDSR 2015 quite deliberately blurs the lines between security and defence which enables the government to mask even more cuts as efficiencies. Indeed, the aim of hiding cuts is the reason for merging NSS 2015 and SDSR 2015, most notably the blurring of lines between the strategic counter-terrorist strategy and what Professor Mike Clarke suggests will be the “strategic raider” role of the British future force. SDSR 2015 in effect abandons mass for manoeuvre with British forces to be instead postured to conduct strategic deterrence, high-end counter-terror operations, and through carrier strike, some limited level of both power and force projection. Sustained counterinsurgency à la the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq is all but abandoned in SDSR 2015.

Royal Navy: This shift in defence strategy is most obvious in the new ‘balance’ SDSR 2015 imposes on the Royal Navy. Since the time of Drake in the sixteenth century the Navy has endeavoured to undertake both sea control and sea presence. The surface fleet is already down to 19 principle surface ships and SDSR 2015 claims to want to preserve that number. However, the reduction of the planned Type 26 Global Combat Ships (frigates) from 13 to 8 (with 5 more to come later?), the possible mothballing of one of the Type 45 destroyers, and problems with the life-extensions of the Type 23 frigates, makes me wonder if sea presence is any longer feasible. Force projection does not escape with the planned withdrawal of HMS Ocean. Moreover, there is also a possible reduction in the number of Astute-class nuclear hunter killer attack submarines from 7 (already cut from 8) to 4. My estimate is that the Navy could be reduced to a fleet of two super carriers, one amphibious assault ship, 8 new frigates (but only by 2030), and 5 destroyers. What is self-evident in the balance the RN is trying to strike is the impact of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (of which I am a fan) on the crewing crisis the Navy now faces. Even to crew the modest planned force the Navy still needs an additional 4000 personnel. Under SDSR 2015 it will get 450. 

British Army: The Army will be re-organised into two 5000 Strike Brigades, organised around the Parachute Regiment and other armoured infantry brigades, with much of the rest of the force configured to sustain those two brigades. There will be some limited capacity to ‘surge’ via the so-called Reserve Force. However, the only significant new technology the Army will receive will be a new Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle to enhance battlefield manoeuvre. Paradoxically, whilst the government makes much of the £2bn of ‘additional’ resources to be invested in Special Forces, it is hard to see how such a quality force can be recruited from such a small force base of some 82,500 soldiers. Therefore, taken together SDSR 2015 would appear to imply an abandonment of Army 2020 and the Reaction and Adaptable Force concept at its core. Or, rather SDSR 2015 now offers an Army 2025 concept that again changes the main mission of the force and looks too much like a hasty response to the Paris attacks.

Royal Air Force: The RAF which is desperately in need of modernisation will fare slightly better than the RN or the Army, with two additional Typhoon squadrons of twelve aircraft each being brought out of store. Moreover, the delivery of some 42 F-35s will be accelerated to be available for both the Fleet Air Arm and RAF by 2023, 24 of these aircraft will be on the new aircraft carriers. However, whilst a commitment is made to purchase 138 F-35s by 2035 I am still unclear as to the year-on-year build-up of the force and the RAF/RN split. Critically, eight C-17s plus some 22 A400M transport aircraft will also be retained, together with a force of 14 C-130Js. However, the number of such aircraft a US Stryker Brigade needs in support is markedly larger than is likely to be available to the British Army’s Strike Brigades.

Future Force 2025: What was Future Force 2020 has now in effect become Future Force 2025 in SDSR 2015 with slippage in both force reforms and big ticket procurement programmes. It is certainly good news that the UK will purchase all 138 F-35Bs, although God only knows what world Britain will find itself in by 2035. It is also good to see that nine Poseidon P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be purchased, although 12 would make more operational sense, although they are hideously expensive. Interestingly, five years ago I was in Hangar 4, RAF Kinloss, home of the Nimrods and planned home of the MRA4 replacement, to hear Assistant Commander-in-Chief Air Ops announce that all nine MRA4 aircraft, both new aircraft and those under construction, would be broken up. As he spoke an ageing American Orion aircraft took off to look for a Russian submarine that had entered British waters. Plus ça change? It is clear that neither the future carrier-strike force nor the Successor-deterrent would be able to operate at an acceptable level of risk without an ‘MPA’ capability. And, given that these two capabilities are in effect the twin pillars of SDSR 2015 such protective investment is critical.

Tension between Defence Strategy and Defence Budget: With the “Successor” programme to replace the four Trident-armed Vanguard-class submarines now increased from £25bn to some £31bn over a decade from next year’s likely ‘Main Gate’ decision to proceed, and with no new real money being injected into the British defence budget, given existing pressures on investment choices the cost of the new deterrent will continue to warp defence strategy. The consequences are already apparent. Implicit in SDSR 2015 is the extension of planned defence-equipment programmes and a reduction in numbers which means loss of economy of scale and increased costs. This factor would well explain much of the 'additional' funding in SDSR 2015 which if correct would represent a poor return on defence investment for the British taxpayer. Nothing new there then. Critically, SDSR 2015 has not resolved the SDSR 2010 failing; a hollowed-out force vulnerable to surprise and shock that could turn very quickly into a fragile or even a broken force if over-extended.

A Resource-driven SDSR 2015: My conclusion on SDSR 2015 remains the same as the core evidence I gave last week in London to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee; Britain is trying to create both a strategic nuclear deterrent and a global-reach conventional strike force on a defence budget which can probably afford one or the other, but not both. At the House of Commons Defence Select Committee I also said that I feared SDSR 2015 would be back of a fag (cigarette) packet politics dressed up as strategy. That was probably a bit hard. However, having read the document SDSR 2015 is still clearly resource-driven, rather than strategy, threat or interest driven.

Britain’s Critical Strategic Question: SDSR 2015 still fails to answer the seemingly eternal problem Britain has faced since at least the end of World War Two; how to be a pocket superpower on the cheap? Which is after all the implicit ambition of SDSR 2015. Why else have super-carriers, nuclear attack submarines, and a strategic nuclear deterrent? Indeed, until Britain’s all-too-often strategically illiterate leaders finally decide just what kind of power Britain seeks to be in this world that question will never be answered.

Does SDSR 2015 Make Britain Stronger or Weaker? Marginally stronger. However, debt reduction is clearly still more important to the Government than defence which suggests that on balance SDSR 2015 is a) a more political than strategic review; and b) the Treasury’s continued grip on Britain’s defence strategy reinforces the ‘how much threat can we afford’ culture that still permeates Whitehall. And, all of the above is predicated on the assumption that the British economy will continue to grow at 2% per annum, which is one hell of a big ‘if’.

7 out of 10: For all the lacunae and weaknesses in the document SDSR 2015 is a damn sight better than SDSR 2010 which simply threw the strategic bath out with the defence bathwater (or is it the other way round?). Moreover, it is a far better ‘strategy’ than anything I have seen elsewhere in Europe (most notably here in the Netherlands) to close the strategy, capability, capacity, affordability gap. For those reasons I think in time SDSR 2015 will be seen as a turning point in Britain’s defence strategy. SDSR 2015 at least implies more assertion, and a better understanding of the role armed forces play in power and influence. If Britain follows through on its defence investment plan Britain’s influence with allies will increase, most notably in Washington, Berlin and Paris, rational adversaries will indeed think twice before incurring Britain’s ire, and Britain’s influence will be strengthened in domains far beyond the strictly military. Therefore, whilst I gave SDSR 2010 4 out of 10, I am prepared to give SDSR 2015 7 out of 10, but only if all the commitments made therein are honoured.

Winston Churchill once said: “However beautiful the strategy, one must occasionally look at the results”. That is surely right. The gravest danger to SDSR 2015 is that it will simply get blown away by events.

SDSR 2015: debt, defence and events.

Julian Lindley-French