hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 22 February 2021

Britain, France and Germany need a Defence-Strategic Reset

 “I would like to recall that in 2017 President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Merkel set up a very ambitious agenda in armaments programmes, to foster our strategic autonomy……The one we are talking a lot about right now, FCAS or NGWS, is not only an incredibly ambitious technological project……Not only is it highly strategic, but it is also living proof of our trust in Europe, and more particularly in the strength of the French-German relationship. It is something that you can only do with true friends, the ones who stand by their word, who are well aware that our national destinies go hand in hand with our European identity and commitment”.

 French Defence Minister, Florence Parly, February 2021

A tale of three cities

February 22nd, 2021. In the wake of last week’s virtual NATO defence ministerial, US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd J. Austin III, said "I….stressed our ironclad commitment to the security guarantee under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty," and "I don't use that word 'ironclad' lightly. Our shared responsibility as allies – our duty – is to protect our populations and our territory. And to meet that duty we require what the secretary general refers to as credible deterrence and defense."  Amen to that, but what does credible deterrence and defence need?

The purpose of the meeting was in part to discuss the future of the Alliance with the new Biden administration following the publication of a report by the NATO Reflection Group that looked out to 2030. The theme of the debate was one of rejuvenation and reset. All well and good. However, they missed what is fast becoming a raging bull elephant in the increasingly China-paid for Euro-shop: the collapse in trust between Europe’s three most powerful cities, London, Paris and Berlin.

When I first read the Parly statement I must admit my first reaction was that she was having another ‘go’ at Britain.  Following Brexit Paris has seemed to revel in doing damage to Britain. From fishing to financial services and from shellfish to vaccines the Macron regime has missed no opportunity to put the boot into Britain.  In fact, Parly was having a ‘pop’ at the Germans for failing to follow through on their 2017 commitment to support the planned Franco-German-led Future Combat Air System or FCAS which, much like the F-35, is intended not only to serve as a NextGen fighter, but as the command hub for a whole host of ‘intelligent’ drones that would act as ‘loyal wingmen’.  The plan is to have the first prototypes of this Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) flying by 2025, but full deployment is not expected until 2040 and beyond.  The Germans are having cold feet.  First, they will probably need to replace their Eurofighter Typhoons earlier than 2040. Second, they are baulking at the cost of what some in Berlin see as a form of German state subsidy for the French defence industry. 

Plus ça change…?  

It would be easy to dismiss such frictions as little more than ‘plus ça change, but they go deeper and the implications for the Alliance are profound.  Indeed, implicit in the debate over European strategic autonomy that took place during the defence ministerial is an Alliance that is fast dividing into an Atlanticsphere and a Eurosphere, and a Eurosphere that is fast collapsing into a struggle between France’s strategic culture and Germany’s complete lack of it due to its profound unease at undertaking combat operations.  Indeed, one senior French parliamentarian has even suggested to the Germans it would be easier for the French to work with the British! Zut alors!

Two other critical factors were missing in the defence ministers’ debate.  First, the cost to Europeans of maintaining interoperability with the high-end US future force by 2030 and beyond, upon which the true credibility of NATO’s defence and deterrence rests.  Second, the vital importance for NATO of Britain, France and Germany working closely together to realise the high-level transatlantic defence cohesion of tomorrow.

Army of none?

So, what is needed to reset the British-French-German defence strategic relationship? Two things – realism and vision. First, London-Paris and Berlin must start a real and pressing discussion about the looming impact of future tech on tomorrow's European battlespace. Second, why Europe’s two future advanced defence tech programmes, such as the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS and the British-Italian-Swedish Tempest-FCAS, are looking to deploy manned systems post-2040, when most other peer competitors will be looking to deploy AI-enabled/AI drone swarms etc.  One only has to read the latest report of the US National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI) and its chair, Robert O. Work, or Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre to grasp the pace of development of so-called Autonomous Warfare Systems (AWS). Third, the real place of cyber, space and information in NATO’s future deterrent posture. Fourth, how best for Europeans to defend against the systematic AI-driven exploitation of Allied vulnerabilities within the hybrid-cyber-hyper war continuum.

There needs to be a much better understanding over why Europeans spend their respective defence budgets so poorly, the lack of a strategic culture that leads to such choices, and the exaggerated influence of defence-industrial parochialism. Europeans also need to accept that the ability of the US to continue to defend Europe will rest increasingly on Europeans, due to the changing nature of threat the US faces and the cost of US domestic renewal. Third, a much better European understanding is needed of the cost of maintaining critical interoperability with the high-end US future force. Third, the form and cost of ‘European strategic autonomy’, the ‘independent’ European security architecture it would entail, and the military capabilities and capacity that would be needed to underpin it? After all, ‘autonomy’ is a function of power, not words.

There is another issue. In an attempt to ‘renovate’ NATO after the bruising Trump years some Americans are trying to change the mood music by suggesting that because Europeans spend four times more than Russia on defence things are really not that bad. Frankly, it is irrelevant if Europeans spend four time more if they also spend ten times worse.  The true test of European defence credibility will be military power purchasing parity not nominal defence expenditure.  Indeed, the reason Europeans must spend more is precisely because such expenditure is the cost of Europe’s defence divisions. 

Tempest in a tea-cup or a complete FCAS?

Which brings me back to FCAS and Tempest-FCAS.  Or, to put it another way, why on Earth are their two FCAS programmes in Europe? FCAS and Tempest-FCAS should be merged but in the insane world of European defence competing national egos, defence industrial interests and differing specifications always trump (excuse the pun) logic.  There is also the hideous problem of the 80-20 rule which compounds the insanity.  All involved can normally agree on 80% of the solution, but it is the remaining 20% which kills co-operation.

Paradoxically, both the future solution and the future problems of both FCAS and Tempest-FCAS can be found in the F-35 Lightning 2, which is currently deploying in various forms with several European forces. The F-35 is going through exactly the same teething troubles as history teaches us will afflict Tempest-FCAS and FCAS.  First, because F-35 was the world’s first truly 5G platform it involves incredibly complicated technology much of which is still only working to point.  Second, in spite of being in-service for five years the plane is still very much in development.  Third, costs have exploded as a consequence leading the commander of the United States Air Force, General Brown to call for a ‘5G minus’ solution by which F-35 would operate alongside cheaper platforms (although Brown rejects upgrading the F-16). However, in spite of all of the above the simple fact is that F-35 IS in service. Moreover, F-35 affords pilots vital advantages over anything else flying or soon to fly in European air forces: situational awareness, the ability to penetrate advanced air defences and electronic warfare packages that offer intelligent counter-measures.   Critically, the aircraft is also at the beginning of a life-cycle that will see this flying hard drive upgraded exponentially over the planned 26,000 hours each aircraft will fly.

So, here’s a novel idea. Why not simply merge FCAS and Tempest-FCAS, compromise on some aspects of ‘spec’; recognise that even then the costs will be far higher than the prime contractors suggest (as will development and production), because they always are; share the costs more widely, recognise that no air force from past European experience is going to get anything that even smells a bit 6G until 2045 at the earliest; and run a joint development programme with the Americans that looks at an unmanned alternative.  One other thing; in the interim Europeans should buy F-35 (with offsets thrown in) to increase the production run and lower the costs of production, maintenance and in-life servicing. 

Will that happen?  Probably, in the end, but only after an awful lot of mutual recrimination and only after European governments are forced to confront the real cost of both FCAS and Tempest-FCAS in their post-COVID reality.  However, before any of that can be agreed Britain, France and Germany will also have to again rediscover they are friends and allies.  That would be nice.

Britain, France and Germany need a strategic reset and fast!

Julian Lindley-French



Thursday, 4 February 2021

Jibber Jabber and Jab-a-grabber

 Jibber Jabber: To talk in a rapid and excited way that is difficult to understand.

Oxford Dictionaries

A Northern Ireland no-no

Last Friday I held my head in my hands.  I had just heard that the European Commission was threatening to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement and impose a hard border across the island of Ireland. For anybody who spent any time in Northern Ireland as I did in the 1980s, and who believes in the peace-bringing 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), such an act was not simply stupid, it was downright dangerous.  Thankfully, the Commission was forced to back down even though a lot of damage was done to the fragile politics of the ‘North’. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum the Commission had been insisting there could be no border on the island of Ireland precisely to preserve the GFA and yet within weeks from the end of the Brexit transition period here they were threatening just such a move. 

Sadly, it gave the distinct impression that for the Commission what really matters is not peace on the island of Ireland but the weakening the integrity of the United Kingdom. How on Earth could Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and her team even ever have arrived at the point of making such a decision?  The answer is a sorry tale of bungling, arrogance, panic, jibber jabber and jab-a-grabber.

A tale of two responses

On January 30th, 2020 a meeting took place at the Nuffield Department of Medicine of the Oxford University Life Sciences team led by Sarah Gilbert, Adrian Hill, Andrew Pollard, Teresa Lambe, Sandy Douglas and Catherine Green. At that meeting it was suggested that an adaptation of technologies developed to treat Ebola and Mers could lead to a vaccine for COVID 19. After some toing and froing with potential US developers, and with the British Government to the fore, in late March 2020 the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca agreed to a partnership with the Oxford team and to provide the British with written undertakings of a guaranteed supply and only at cost. This was something the Oxford scientists had insisted upon.  On March 30th, Oxford University and AstraZeneca signed a partnership deal and on April 14th both signed a deal to provide the British Government with 100 million doses. In May 2020, businesswomen Kate Bingham was appointed by the British Government to ensure the effective use of British taxpayer’s money to develop an efficient supply chain under a task force that she led to effect and which also supported the development in the UK of two other possible vaccines.

Contrast Britain’s performance with that of the Commission.  In spring 2020, the French, German, Italian and Dutch governments became increasingly concerned at the Commission’s seeming inability to respond to the crisis and created their own Intra-Vaccine Alliance. Keen to work with the Commission the four governments ensure Brussels was closely involved in negotiations for what Italian adviser, Professor Walter Ricciardi, called “the common good”. As Ricciardi states, “We opened the door for the Commission to take over but even then it took time, even when we tried to speed up the process….There were some countries fully aware of the importance of the vaccine, but there were others that were reluctant to put money into this without guarantees of the result. That took time and the best possible energy of the Commission. They did recruit the best possible officers to do that, but it was a long process”. 

On June 13th, the Alliance signed a contract with AstraZeneca for some 300 million doses.  However, the Commission intervened to prevent the deal from being formalised and insisted it was responsible for ordering vaccines for the whole of the EU. Unfortunately, this led to three months of delay and the contract with AstraZeneca was only agreed in late August. Some had also wanted Britain to join the Commission’s EU-wide plan, but unlike EU member-states Britain would have been excluded from the governance of a vaccine invented in Oxford and produced mainly in the UK at sites in Oxford, Keele and Wrexham.

The situation then went from bad to worse.  The decision that regulatory authorisation would be conducted by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and not national regimes only slowed the roll-out further, as EMA protocols and process were markedly slower. One alleged reason for such tardiness was that should any vaccine prove dangerous liability would fall on the manufacturer and not the EU.  In September, a world-wide trial began of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It was paused a couple of times when some patients showed adverse reactions (and a Brazilian doctor who had been administered a placebo sadly died). However, by early November promising interim results of so-called phase three trials were complete.  

However, in early November 2020 the German company BioNTech announced it had made a breakthrough in the development of its own vaccine. In mid-December, Von der Leyen, clearly hoping for a vaccine developed in Germany/EU even tweeted, “It is Europe’s moment”, and announced that the vaccination of EU citizens would begin in late December.  She was premature. The problem was that the EU had failed to invest in the production base that would be needed to provide the requisite doses.  Indeed, whilst the UK had already committed €1.9bn, and the US €9bn, the Commission only invested €1.78bn of so called ‘risk money’ for the whole of the EU. In January 2021, the EU strategy came off the rails. Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna both announced they needed to reduce production of their respective vaccines to upgrade facilities and that they would only be able to resume full scale production in late February. The Commission still believed it would have access to some 400 million AstraZeneca doses over the coming year.  However, by January 29th, the Oxford vaccine had still not been approved by the EMA and due to a filtering problem at a plant in Belgium AstraZeneca could only deliver some 25 million of the 100 million planned EU-made doses during the first quarter of 2021.

At this point, the Commission began issuing threats against Britain claiming that British AstraZeneca plants were part of the EU contract.  Apparently, they even looked at customs records to see if AstraZeneca had shipped doses produced in the EU to the UK, but there was no such evidence. The British response was understandably blunt: given the contract Britain had with AstraZeneca any vaccine produced in Britain would first be administered to the British people.  The Commission responded by suggesting EU Member States could block the exports of vaccines to Britain, which is what finally led to the suggestion that the Northern Ireland Protocol might be suspended.  Thankfully, cooler heads in certain national capitals prevailed and forced the Commission to withdraw what many saw as a post-Brexit nuclear option.

Political irresponsibility

Why has the Commission gone out of its way to attack Britain? The only possible conclusion is that having failed the Commission was determined to shift both responsibility and blame. However, there might another possible factor at play: German Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.  2021 is a year of elections in Germany and the German press is incandescent with ‘VDL’s’ handling of the vaccine fiasco and has been looking for someone or something to blame.  For once, that something is not Britain, with one German newspaper even claiming to now understand Brexit.  However, the German political class has not been so magnanimous.  First, Von der Leyen was a CDU politician sent to Brussels by Chancellor Merkel in the wake of her pretty disastrous handling of the German defence ministry.  Clearly, the CDU does not want to be tarnished by Von der Leyen’s bungling of the vaccine. Second, it would appear Von der Leyen herself has political ambitions back home in Germany after her stint as Commission president.  This could explain why she appears to have tried to shift blame onto her Latvian Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, a very decent man whom I have had the honour to meet.

Jibber jabber or jab-a-giver

In writing this I am in no way crowing over Britain’s better performance.  Thankfully, neither is Britain and rightly so.  First, Britain has also made terrible mistakes in the management of the pandemic. Second, Europe, including Britain, will only begin to return to some level of normalcy (remember that?) when the greatest number of vulnerable Europeans have been sufficiently protected to enable a critical mass of economic activity to resume.  Third, I live in the Netherlands and have no idea when I will be offered a ‘jab’. In other words, the desired outcome towards which everyone should be working demands a pan-European policy and strategy if the best application of the best vaccines to the right people in the right places over an appropriately actionable period is to be realised. 

The real problem is that throughout this sorry episode the Commission has shown itself to be too rigid and inflexible to be an effective crisis manager.  It has also revealed itself unwilling to put aside the politics of Brexit and unable to adapt to meet the particular demands of the crisis. Rather than attacking the British to mask their own catastrophic handling of the vaccine contracts, which sadly has become the new normal for much of the European policy establishment, every opportunity should have been seized by all concerned to work together for the common good.

If the Commission is ever to become an effective crisis manager two things need to happen. First, the European Commission has to have the political self-confidence to properly assess and respond to its own failings.  Contrary to what some in Britain believe the Commission is not brim full of swivel-eyed ideologues, but it does suffer from its own form of Papal Infallibility. Institutions that are incapable of identifying and learning lessons cannot adapt and in time fail. Second, the Commission must stop treating Britain like some distant breakaway province that has dared to challenge its authority and more like the neighbouring state and partner that according to World Population Review in 2021 has the world’s fifth largest economy and fifth biggest defence budget. Sadly, this will not be the only crisis Europeans will likely face and will need to face together.

It is time to end the jibber jabber and when possible Britain should be a jab-a-giver but for everyone’s sake the Commission (and others in the EU) should end threats of a jab-a-grabber and all that would entail for the wider EU-UK relationship.

 Julian Lindley-French