hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Britain Must Play Offence with Defence in 2017

“Britain spends some 7% of GDP on security in the round. Elements of this broad security spend that the Government has shifted into the defence budget to give the appearance of maintaining the defence budget at 2% GDP. It has done this by exploiting to the full the NATO definition of ‘other’ expenditure in support of deployable forces. This has been done primarily by shifting intelligence assets and resources not directly supporting the force to within the defence budget. Therefore, the ‘increase’ in the defence budget announced in the July [2014] Statement is unlikely to lead to enhanced fighting power, which was the political inference in maintaining 2% GDP expenditure on defence”.

Professor Julian Lindley-French, evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, November 2015

Alphen, Netherlands. 3 January. Britain must play offence with security and defence in 2017. Why? 2017 will be one of those inflection moments in geopolitics and Britain needs to influence it. Brexit, Trump, Russia, IS, and and a host of wider challenges to the fast collapsing Western world order 1.0 demands proportionate action by one of the world’s top five world economic and security powers. Consequently, invisible security power and visible military power must be at the core of Britain’s 2017 influence campaign in at least two vital strategic arenas; Brexit and the forging of a new hard-nosed strategic relationship with the incoming Trump administration.

Brexit: In my November 2016 remarks to the annual alumni meeting of University College, Oxford I said Brexit will not be resolved by the pettifogging process and legalism beloved of Brussels, small European powers, and Whitehall. Britain’s new relationship with the EU will be forged over power fundamentals such as wealth, security and defence. Unfortunately, the process-junkies of the London elite establishment simply do not get this. That once great newspaper The Economist, which today too often confuses ‘analysis’ with one-eyed efforts to thwart Brexit, mistakenly suggested in its Christmas edition that the EU may withhold security and intelligence co-operation if Theresa May seeks a hardish Brexit. Wrong. Britain’s security and intelligence services are by far the best in Europe, particularly in the fight against IS. Take the Dutch for example.  Whatever Britain’s future relationship with the EU the Netherlands would never countenance seeing co-operation end between its MIVD and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) because of some parochial, vindictive directive from Brussels. Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, including France and Germany.

Trump: Hard-headed businessman that he is President-elect Trump has already indicated he will judge America’s European allies on the extent to which they are willing to invest in their own defence, and their concomitant commitment to support America’s global security role. Trump’s litmus test will likely be the willingness of allies to meet the NATO defence investment pledge of 2% GDP on defence, of which 20% must be investment on new military equipment.

The problem: The strategic situation has worsened markedly since the disastrous 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010) and yet London sticks doggedly to too many of its already outdated prescriptions. Britain will blow both opportunities to influence Brexit and Trump if London continues to play defence pretence. London routinely trots out the mantra that Britain is one of only five NATO members that spend 2% of GDP on defence, and that London is investing some £178bn on new equipment. This is simply political rhetoric. As former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Houghton suggested in December 2015 the reality is that Britain’s armed forces are too small, hollowed-out, over-stretched, under-resourced, and increasingly stressed, with little or no relationship between roles, missions, capability and capacity.

The force challenge: Take the British Army. At 82,500 the Regular Army is too small, efforts to offset cuts to the force via the creation of a 30,000 strong part-time Reserve Army have failed, and much of the non-commissioned officer backbone of the force taken voluntary redundancy in disgust. Moreover, the insistence on cost-neutral investments (?) is forcing the Army to make bad choices, such as the December 2016 decision to scrap more main battle tanks simply to fund lighter armoured vehicles just at the moment the Russians are deploying significant numbers of the new T-14 Armata tank to NATO’s eastern border.  Much the same can be said for the Royal Air Force.  However, it is the Royal Navy which reveals the extent of that lack of balance in Britain’s unbalanced defence policy. This year it is likely the first of Britain’s two new super-carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth will be commissioned. I say ‘likely’ because my sources in the Trump camp tell me President Trump could well cancel the vertical take-off version of the F-35 to teach US defence contractors a lesson about excessive cost and poor performance. The problem is that the F-35B is the very aircraft for which the British carriers are designed and why the two ships are so big. Should the F-35B indeed be cancelled the two ships will either have to be re-designed (again) to handle conventional carrier aircraft, turned into gigantic helicopter carriers, or simply mothballed. The strategic and political impact of any of the above would be disastrous for London precisely because the two carriers are meant to be national strategic assets and statements of power.

The cause: Beyond including the cost of intelligence and ‘other’ items in the defence budget for the first time in its history Britain’s sea-based future nuclear deterrent is now funded from the defence budget.  At the current level of defence investment Britain can afford either a powerful conventional force, or a credible nuclear deterrent, but not both.  The result is that the credibility of both Britain’s conventional and nuclear forces is declining and in turn undermining Britain’s strategic influence at a critical juncture.

The consequence: No real increase will take place in force investment until at least 2019. Consequently, the Royal Navy will lack the personnel to properly man the two carriers because SDSR 2015 forced the Senior Service to make an absurd choice between capability and capacity at the operational expense of both. There is now profound uncertainty about when the under-hulled Navy will actually get the new frigates on order.  Moreover, its state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyers are effectively laid up due to a design flaw in propulsion and power systems. There is also much concern about the ability of a future deployed British maritime force to defend itself in the face of emerging anti-ship technologies.

The paradox?  The danger exists that the two great carriers, far from projecting power and influence, will instead become icons of strategic failure and incompetence. Certainly, those that need to know in Washington, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and elsewhere, understand this. This is the reason why Britain punches so far beneath its weight these days in international affairs.  

The solution: If Britain is to properly use its armed forces as a lever of strategic influence (as it should) it must do so by creating a force that can not only play a full and proper role in the contemporary and future defence of the Alliance (and not just the defence of Britain), but also help relieve the pressure on over-stretched US forces, and demonstrate the indispensability of Britain as a security and defence ally to Americans and Europeans alike. In other words, London must urgently rebalance Britain’s unbalanced defence policy so that investment in military assets is matched by investment in the numbers and quality of personnel needed to exploit those assets, together with the supporting structures needed to sustain the force across the entirety of its roles and missions.

The proposal: The British government very publicly announces an addendum to SDSR 2015 (it has been done before) in which it states that 2% of GDP will be invested in the future force, and that the cost of the new Successor nuclear deterrent programme will again be met from the national contingency budget. London should also announce that much of the funding diverted in 2015 away from defence will be reinvested in defence. Much of the rest of the shortfall, the Government should state, will be met from the gesture-laden, appallingly wasteful aid and development budget, too much of which has been revealed of late to be hopelessly out-of-control, and in terms of the British national interest by and large useless.

The conclusion: Will London have the strategic vision and the political courage to do this? Probably not. The price?  A loss of critical influence at the very moment when Britain needs not just to appear strong, but to be strong in the coming Brexit negotiations and the forging of new power relationships.

The bottom-line: IF London in 2017 is to influence the power fundamentals of its respective relationships with Europeans and Trump Britain must play offence with defence. To that end, London must stop being in thrall to accountants and penny-pinchers, and start re-capitalising all of its influence assets. That means more strategists in charge who properly understand power and its application.

Julian Lindley-French    

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