hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 24 May 2021

HMS Hood


 “…the danger persists that Europeans are moving inexorably towards a lowest common denominator European force, an analogue ‘European Army’ in a digital age which simply bolts together a lot of European legacy forces”.

Future War and the Defence of Europe

John R. Allen, Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French

(Oxford: Oxford University Press)


0559 hours, Denmark Strait time, May 24, 2021

Eighty years ago to the minute in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, a fifteen inch (38cm) armour-piercing naval shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck crashed into the starboard side of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood between the main mast and one of her aft main gun turrets.  The shell penetrated deep into the innards of Hood, pierced the armoured deck and then exploded in one of the shell rooms for the ship’s 4 inch guns, right next to where the shells for two of the Hood’s own main 15 inch batteries were secured. As Bismarck’s shell exploded the stored and ‘ready’ British shells joined together in an almighty chorus of cataclysmic death that sent a cathedral spire of flame towering over the doomed ship. As Hood exploded X turret, one of her two main aft gun batteries which weighed some 2500 tons, was seen soaring into the sky above the ship almost completely intact. Immediately, the entire forward section of the ship began to rear up as the Hood broke first into two sections, and then three, as the forward main magazines also ignited.  Within three minutes of the initial explosion Hood had vanished below the surface of the frigid North Atlantic taking 1415 men down with her.  Only three survived, Able Seaman Ted Briggs, Able Seaman Bill Dundas and Able Seaman Bob Tillmann.

Under the command of Captain R. Kerr CBE, and displacing some 47,000 tons, The Mighty Hood was the very symbol of British naval might during the interbellum. HMS Hood was joined in the action by the brand new, but effectively still incomplete battleship HMS Prince of Wales under the command of Captain J.C. (Jack) Leach DSO, MVO which was forced to undertake a drastic evasive manoeuvre to avoid hitting the rearing, burning, tortured wreck of the sinking Hood in front of him. Bismarck also struck Prince of Wales seven times during the action and Captain Leach was forced to make smoke to mask her range correctly broke off the action even though it afforded the Germans what appeared at first to be a major naval victory.  However, HMS Prince of Wales had also scored three hits on the Bismarck, one of which was in the forward oil bunker of the German ship and which would in time prove fatal.

Some years ago film was unearthed.  It is a unique record of the battle and includes the moment HMS Hood exploded.  It was shot by a brave German officer on board the heavy-cruiser KM Prinz Eugen which was escorting the Bismarck. There is an enormous flash on the horizon as HMS Hood blows up suggesting that the explosion or explosions which blew the Hood apart may have had the force of a low yield atomic weapon. In July 2001 David Mearns and his team at Blue Water Recoveries discovered the wreck of HMS Hood lying in the silt plains of the Irminger Basin some 270 miles/400km west southwest of Reykjavik at a depth of 1497 fathoms or 3000 metres. She rests in three sections with the bow on its port side some distance ahead of an upside down amidships section, whilst what remains of the stern rests a further distance away from the rest of the debris field. Astonishingly, some 300 feet (or 100 metres) of the hull appears to have simply disintegrated, testament to the force of the explosions that destroyed her.  

HMS Hood was soon avenged. Crucially, the salvo from HMS Prince of Wales that had struck Bismarck led to the loss a lot of fuel oil and she had also been flooded with over 2000 tons of sea water. Indeed, towards the end of the Prinz Eugen film it is clear that the German battleship is down by the head.  She was also listing 9 degrees to port. The damage was such that the German fleet commander, Admiral Gunther Lutjens, was forced to abandon her planned commerce-raiding mission (Operation Rheinubung) and seek refuge in Brest on the French coast. Three days later, at 0800 hours on the morning of May 27th, 1941 the Hood’s assailant capsized and sank taking with her 1995 of her 2200 strong crew. During an exercise in British sea power the Bismarck had been remorselessly hunted down by the Royal Navy, crippled by British carrier-based aircraft from HMS Ark Royal, and in what rapidly became a massacre effectively destroyed by the heavy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney under the command of Admiral J.C. Tovey, Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet.  The coup de grace was delivered by three torpedoes from the heavy-cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, although German accounts claim Bismarck was also scuttled. The shattered wreck of the Bismarck now lies at a depth of 2619 fathoms or 4790 metres some 470 nautical miles west of Brest.


The British fleet commander was Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland CB and controversy remains to this day about the tactics he adopted during the action. The intercept course plotted by Holland enabled the two German ships to engage both the Hood and Prince of Wales with their full armament, whilst the British ships could only engage with their forward main armament during the early stages of the action. However, the Royal Navy’s battle orders of the time recommended such an approach to reduce the profile of ships to the enemy, albeit at high speed.  Vice-Admiral Holland would also have been acutely aware of the vulnerability of HMS Hood to Bismarck’s plunging fire.  HMS Hood was a battlecruiser not a battleship, a flawed concept from the Edwardian age that sacrificed armour for speed in the mistaken belief the latter would protect her when under fire from ‘heavy’ opponents.  At the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 HMS Queen Mary, HMS Indefatigable, and the unfortunately named HMS Invincible, three forebears of HMS Hood, all exploded in very similar circumstances with great loss of life. Indeed, the then commander of the British Battlecruiser Fleet, Admiral D.R. Beatty GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO, PC famously remarked during the battle that, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. There was, a failure of concept.

Holland was clearly trying to following battle orders and had already ordered by Hood and Prince of Wales to accelerate to flank speed or 28 knots, which explains why the wreck’s debris field extends over some 2 miles or 3 kilometres.  However, Hood did not approach Bismarck and Prinz Eugen head on but on a converging course, which enabled the Germans to target the entire length of Hood from the start of the action. Holland had also begun to turn to port in an attempt to bring Hood’s aft main turrets into action, which at that speed should have taken no more than 30 seconds.  As a ghostly reminder of those terrible events eighty years ago today the large single rudder on Hood’s wrecked upturned stern, which also reveals her vintage, is indeed locked in a 20 degree turn to port. Mistakes also seem to have been made on board Hood in identifying the main target as Holland’s flagship first engaged the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen leaving Bismarck to open fire unmolested until Prince of Wales got her range, although the Germans similarly failed to engage Leach’s ship for part of the action. A review of the Prinz Eugen film on YouTube also shows some British shells falling far from their target with little or no grouping of the shells as they splash harmlessly into the sea, whilst German gunnery was excellent throughout the action.  

However, perhaps the greatest error made is germane to my new Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe co-written with my friends and colleagues General (Ret.) John R. Allen and Lieutenant-General (Ret.) Ben Hodges. HMS Hood was known as ‘good, old Hood’ in the Royal Navy and by much of the country. Her image almost gave her a political allure.  Unfortunately, whilst the British tended to remember the ‘good’ they also tended to forget the ‘old’.  Launched in August 1918 at the end of World War One, by the spring of 1941 Hood was in reality no match for the Bismarck. There had been plans in the 1930s to completely refit her as a fast battleship, but due to funding constraints in 1937 such ‘modernisation’ had been only partially completed. In other words, Hood’s destruction was sorry testament to what happens when poor concept and ageing technology is over-reached by strategy, budget constraints and hubris. It is not without some tragic irony that part of the funding that had been earmarked for the modernisation of HMS Hood was diverted to complete the then new ‘KGV’ class of five battleships, one of which was HMS Prince of Wales, and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.  


So, why was an ageing battlecruiser and an as yet not fully worked-up battleship sent to tackle a state-of-the-art German battleship? The short answer is that the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet had nothing else of note to send.  By May 1941 Churchill had become extremely worried about the menace posed by German U-boats to war-sustaining Atlantic convoys.  Even though at the time the Royal Navy was still the world’s largest naval force it was spread thin across several theatres. For Churchill, the fate of the war hung in the balance and the thought of the Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic and wreaking havoc on the convoys was a terrifying prospect.  Perhaps the ultimate irony is that for all the cataclysmic pathos of the Battle of Denmark Strait on the morning of May 24th, 1941, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales actually succeeded in their primary mission of blocking the KM Bismarck from entering the wider Atlantic.  

Why does the tragedy of HMS Hood remain relevant?  It is because her fate was sealed not simply by the guns of the Bismarck, but by peacetime defence policy which had failed to sufficiently align strategy, technology and capability with changing reality.  In May 1941, the Bismarck was an ultra-modern battleship which combined speed, armour and firepower. Moreover, Bismarck’s own fate is equally relevant - technology, however good, cannot ever atone for bad strategy

Future War and the Defence of Europe

Today, General (Ret.) John R. Allen, Lieut. Gen. (Ret.) Ben Hodges and I will take part in the first Washington launch event of our new Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe hosted by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).  If you wish to attend (and you are most welcome) you can register via  Relevance?  Without prudent defence policy in Europe there is no reason to believe something like the loss of Hood could not one day happen again.

As the forward section of HMS Hood slid beneath the waves with the bow pointing almost vertically into the air ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets, her two forward most batteries, barked out a last angry salvo. It may well have been that the guns were loaded and the firing circuits closed as the ship sank. It was also quite possibly the last defiant act of a brave but doomed sailor or Royal Marine on board a dying ship. In August 2015, HMS Hood’s ship’s bell was raised from the devastated wreck almost exactly above where the main aft magazine had exploded on that terrible day back in 1941.  It now sits proudly in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, close to the berth of a new HMS Prince of Wales, a 70,000 ton aircraft carrier. 

The 1941 HMS Prince of Wales? Her fate is also germane to the new book. She was sunk by Japanese air power three days after Pearl Harbor together with another ageing battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, on December 10th, 1941 off the coast of modern day Malaysia. Force Z lacked air cover because their accompanying aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had previously run aground on her maiden voyage. Worse, poor co-ordination between Force Z and the Royal Air Force stationed in what was then British Malaya meant the force was insufficiently ‘joint’.  The lack of vital air cover can also be attributed to closed minds on the part of some senior RN officers about the threat posed to capital ships by aircraft and rapidly improving torpedo technology. 

Between May 24th and May 27th, 1941 some 3400 Europeans were killed-in-action at sea.  My grandfather narrowly escaped the ghastly fate of being trapped in a sinking warship, and my great-uncle succumbed to it.  Therefore, this heartfelt article is in tribute to all those who gave their lives on board HMS Hood and KM Bismarck, British and German alike.  Once enemies, forever friends.

Requiescat in Pace. Rest in peace. Ruhet in Frieden. Venter Secundis. 

Julian Lindley-French


Wednesday, 19 May 2021

CEPA Washington Book Launch of Future War and the Defence of Europe May 24th, 2021

Dear Friend and Colleague, 

I have the pleasure to invite you to the first Washington launch of my latest book "Future War and the Defence of Europe" (Oxford: Oxford University Press) co-written with General (Ret.) John R. Allen and Lieut. Gen (Ret.) Ben Hodges. The event will be hosted by the Center for European Policy Analysis and will take place at 1100 Eastern Daylight Time in the US, 1700 hours BST in the UK and 1800 hours CET. 

You can register via the link below:

Monday, 17 May 2021

A Better Way?

 “When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, An' go to your Gawd like a soldier. Go, go, go like a soldier, Go, go, go like a soldier, Go, go, go like a soldier, Soldier of the Queen!”

The Young British Soldier

Rudyard Kipling

Soldier of the Queen 

May 17th, 2021. For many men and women who served on or near the ‘spear tip’ in Afghanistan or Iraq ‘strategy’ is a dirty word - a very long and often dysfunctional screwdriver that put them in harm’s way and for thousands proved fatal.  A screwdriver in the hands of a few leaders thousands of miles or kilometres from some lonely foxhole or isolated slit trench who had little real idea about the ends they ordered to be achieved, refused the means needed to realise such ends, or had no idea about the best ways to apply them.  Political leaders who too often simply willed success or mouthed ‘strategy’ that bore little relation to the real challenge on the ground, or the tactics that were needed to meet such a challenge.  Politicians for whom too often ‘strategy’ was in reality an extension of their own grubby political ends, leaving the Soldiers of the Queen or Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chancellors et al to sort out a mess of their own making.  If there are two over-arching lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq they are these: do not go to war with a peacetime mind-set; and do enter in a long war whilst trying to cut defence budgets.

 The price of such politics is a heavy one that every citizen should understand. Ghastly images of the death and suffering of comrades in arms that will be seared on the consciousness of Veterans for life. The transparent miasma that is the burning, glowing skin of the dying friend that will never be washed away from a Veteran’s soul.  An indelible, insidious, never-to-be washed away smell that is as much of fear as of flesh and once experienced can never be expunged from those sweat-induced moments during restless nights.  The 5G seared image of shot comrades as the mortal cold of death creeps across bodies watching them desperately fighting to stay awake before they fade into shock and then slide into death surrounded by their own life force bleeding out.  It is the sound of the post-battle which is rarely one of screaming, although there are those who scream, but rather the hum of those groaning under the weight of their injuries, their courage and their fear, as morphine patches reduce breathing, blood pressure and over time a last desperate hope. 

Even those who pass the life and death test of triage and are medevac’d out ‘just in time’ to some remote field hospital still leave parts of themselves in that desolate place, whilst that desolate place comes ‘home’ with them.  A home that can never quite be home again. A more-than-memory of the obscene and desolate beauty of a place far, far away about which they knew little of which they almost became eternally part.  A ‘beauty’ that can be triggered, strangely and perversely, by the sight of a bird, the sound of sheep or cattle, the rustling of crops in a field of wind, or the smell of grass.  Indeed, often such beauty is a constant companion in the midst of their own desolation and that place that travels with them and from which no traveller can ever really return.

Walking among the rest of us today are thousands of such people, our Veterans, who are here but not really here, part of us but yet separated from us by a valley as deep and wide as any in the Hindu Kush.  Veterans who suffered for a strategy designed on our behalf, about which few of us ever bothered to understand, and even fewer these days care.  Never has the gap between defender and defended been so wide in democracies, and never has the gulf between those who risk their lives on our behalf and the rest of us been so deep.  Some compensate by seeking the company of those who shared the experience.  Others, broken by it, retreat first into isolation and then hopelessness unable to live in the desolate place and the ‘home’ place at the same time. Some simply endure a lifetime of angry detachment from the silly slights and perceived injustices of civilian life.  Is this for what they fought and for what friends died?  Who are these people so familiar and yet so distant who whinge and wail?  For them, our Veterans, the greatest courage is in the forbearance to live with the impossible lightness of being others.

A failure of strategy? 

Make no mistake, historians will look back on the twenty years post 911 as a failure of strategy. If planning, as Moltke the Elder once said, fails upon contact with the enemy, strategy too often fails upon contact with politics.  In that light, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan marks not just the end of the post-911 era, but also the true end of the post-Cold War era during which in theatres as far ranging as Bosnia to Afghanistan ‘strategy’ too often involved hard pressed commanders with relatively small forces and often inadequate resources too often trying to generate big change in distant complicated places at the behest of too often only partially interested political bosses.  Bosses who too often wanted to ‘win’ in places where winning and losing is meaningless. Bosses whose very idea of limiting cost was as much about their own political skins as those they ordered into such places. Bosses who too often talked in the soaring slogans of the grand macro about liberal humanitarianism and its ilk, whilst young men and women tried to make it happen in places where there is only ever a myriad of micro realities.  The grand political architects of Grand Strategy who could not properly explain what they really mean even to themselves and who all too easily retreated into false mantras and false metrics to explain progress where little or none was really apparent on the ground. 

Changing lives forever in ancient complicated places was to be achieved by new joined up, coalition warfare reinforced by whole of government efforts in which the civilian and the soldier would be forged into a ‘comprehensive approach’ that would see ancient Afghanistan and Iraq transformed into something if not irredeemably modern then no longer a threat to itself or others.  Instead, a ghastly ‘alliance’ emerged between the irredeemably pre-modern and the chaotically post-modern.  Sadly, the comprehensive approach was never quite comprehensive enough as diverse bits of foreign real estate were placed under the very different control of very different countries with very different levels of commitment and completely different ‘rules of engagement’. Shared risk is the very ethos of any coalition.  The risk was there, but it was never equally shared.  Even those ‘PRTs’ under the control of the major powers suffered from interminable turf battles between civilian and military agencies with many of the former back in national capitals proposing projects and investment that had little to do with campaign design in theatre and everything to do with domestic politics. And all of the above swathed in a never-ending and ever-changing tsunami of often meaningless acronyms.

Yes, those predicting disaster in Afghanistan might be premature, as Stefano Stefanini and I suggested in a piece last week.  Equally, whatever now takes place in Afghanistan and Iraq there can be no excuse for failing to properly understand why so many of the political objectives set for the respective campaigns went unrealised.  That would not only be delusion, but denial and deceit for the massive majority the blame (and it is blame) lies at the political level, with people too many of whom spend their life seeking reward without risk.  The military level?  Too often very able commanders were also forced by the constantly changing political landscape above them to become oven-ready politicians. Yes, mistakes were made, sometimes egregious mistakes, but from my experience the majority of commanders in the field were good people trying valiantly to find a way to close the gap between the ends, ways and means imposed upon them.  The armed forces will doubtless learn lessons with a view to becoming better at what they do, although whether they are the right lessons is open to question. 

The politicians? Ultimately the use of force is always for political ends and no commander, however brilliant, can succeed in a political vacuum in which the ends are willed without either the means or the ways.  In the wake of COVID 19 there is also the danger that the political class across much of an eternally and strategically lukewarm Europe will now lurch to the other extreme of strategic pretence by convincing themselves they will have the discretion to only fight ‘wars of choice’, and then choose not to fight any wars at all, be they of choice or no choice. The maintenance of democratic peace, like it or not, needs democracies with teeth.  Otherwise, the ‘free’ simply become prey for the predatory autocrats of the ‘unfree’.

The better way…

Make no mistake, the West, Europe in particular, is at a strategic tipping point between future peace and future war.  The consequence of the last twenty years is a profound crisis in Western policy precisely because of a failure of Western strategy, and yet it is now that future peace needs to be forged.  The temptation for many leaders will be to retreat into the abstract and the academic and talk endlessly about big but meaningless ambition, of ‘grand strategy’ and ‘strategic autonomy’.  No. If we, the democracies, are to collectively secure and defend ourselves in the face of all the threats we face then together we must have the courage to properly face up to what went wrong in those large faraway countries to which we sent our young men and women in uniform on our behalf and about which we should have known far more and far better.  The courage to undertake such a review can only come from the political top and for once it would be nice if it could also be politically honest.  No whitewash will suffice. 

The better way? 1. Choose carefully where and when we invest force and resource in pursuit of our collective national interest. 2. Have a clear understanding when designing a campaign between vital interests and desired values. 3. Do not pretend that any such venture will be cheap or quick or that we have all the answers at the outset. 4. Have the political imagination and structure that can adapt to change.  5. Create multinational and national civilian and military systems that are really joined up by building relationships across stakeholders before a crisis, not during it.  6. Create an information brokerage that can capture and fuse good intelligence and good ideas from all expert sources so that strategy and tactics are in a constant process of development. 7. Create a culture of ‘metrics’ which measures what needs to be measured and not what political leaders want to hear. 8. Do not use armed forces as a solution for the failure of others across the security-stabilisation-reconstruction-governance spectrum. 9. Own a campaign at the highest political level for its duration. 10. Treat citizens as adults and explain the costs of any such venture undertaken on their behalf. 11. Do not enter into such ventures with any form of hubris and recognise the limits of what is possible. 12. Do not embark on such ventures often and understand the risk of tying down a large amount of force and resource in one place for a very long time. 13. Unity of purpose and effort is critical.  14. Do not allow any nation to join a coalition if they are not prepared to share risk.  15. If none of the above, don’t bother.

Above all, have the political and bureaucratic courage and resilience to really learn the lessons of warfare in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and have the courage to implement them, even if that means listening to people who do not think or look like us. The greatest challenge of all will not only be our willingness to learn but to avoid that most ‘democratic’ of reactions and simply turn and walk away. For at this tipping point in world affairs, for that is where we have arrived, we the democracies face a crisis of both strategy and conscience.


At the going down of the sun…


You see, those young men and women who died often lonely deaths ‘out there’ did so for us all and no amount of indifference or ignorance can relieve any of us of that responsibility, which is why we should also at least try and understand.  Kipling’s young British soldier dies in Afghanistan because he was merely at the sharp end of a 9000 mile long imperial screwdriver. Then, now, and into the future, and whatever the war to end all wars, there will be always more ‘politics’ and endless talk of ‘strategy’. However, in the end the fight always comes down to a few good men and women placed in great danger on our behalf.  The rest of us owe them not only a profound debt of honour and gratitude but the courage to look squarely at our own failings and our failures so that we become better at what strategy for democracies should be all about – the preservation of a just and secure peace.

To finish, let me play fast and loose with Siegfried Sassoon. Good-morning; good-morning!’ the Politician said, When we met him last week on our way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack, As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

So, do ‘we’ have the courage to face the next test and really looked at what worked and, above all, what has not these twenty years past?  Will we ever learn? 


At the going down of the sun…

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Twenty Years On: Afghanistan and NATO

 “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty”

 Alexandre Dumas




Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French


‘You had the watches, we had the time’?

Ominously and tragically, May 8th’s ghastly massacre of schoolgirls at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School has nothing to do with ‘foreign troops’ and everything to do with the Taliban signalling their determination to roll back the social gains made by the Afghan population, especially women, in the last twenty years of foreign presence. Given the implications, whether or not the Taliban carried out the attack is scarcely relevant because it fits into a sadly all too familiar pattern of targeting civilians to terrorize them and undermine support for the Kabul government.  The attack also begs two critical questions. First, is Afghanistan’s future doomed to be a repeat of its violent and tragic past?  Second, will the future of Afghanistan also be the yardstick the future Alliance will be measured against?

The Taliban like to say that whilst the West had all the watches, i.e. the technology, they had the time.  All they had to do was wait and the US and its allies would lose strategic patience and leave Afghanistan.  The dust has still to settle on President Biden’s recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan twenty years on 911 and the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Not surprisingly, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was unsurprisingly upheld at NATO’s April 14th “jumbo” Ministerial.  The Kommentariat have been predictable in their predictions of a now doomed Afghanistan and if such commentaries are to be believed the Taliban will soon have both the time and the watches to re-conquer Afghanistan. However, drawing up a balance sheet now on the Atlantic Alliance’s twenty-year long commitment to the Hindu Kush is premature. Therefore, assuming that the withdrawal of the Coalition takes place in reasonable good order and the Taliban resists the temptation to try and give it the appearance of a rout, the overarching question of what post-NATO Afghanistan will be like will remain unanswered for some time. That is a big ‘if’. Over the past week the Taliban launched several attacks on Afghan forces.

More than 3,500 military and other personnel from thirty one countries paid the ultimate price and yet the Allied commitment to Afghanistan held, usually with parliamentary support and without any significant backlash from public opinion.  Indeed, the decision to withdraw has more to do with US policy than mission fatigue. Indeed, the European Allies were prepared to stay on in Afghanistan in support of the non-combat Resolute Support Mission (RSM). However, the Trump and Biden administrations both concluded it was time to terminate the counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns, in the face of contrarian advice from several military and intelligence agencies. President Biden made it clear that whilst he is aware of the military arguments against the withdrawal, he believes that there is an overwhelming political and geopolitical rationale in favour of doing so. With the US the reason for NATO being in Afghanistan in the first place, as well as the country that has borne a disproportionate burden in terms of blood and treasure, once Washington decided to quit it was natural the other Allies would follow. 


Four AFG questions


The decision to withdraw also raises four specific questions that also need to be tackled while remembering, and paying tribute to, the men and women who served in Afghanistan and recognising the remarkable solidarity shown by Allies and partners alike. [1] What did NATO achieve and what did it not achieve in Afghanistan?  Did the Taliban defeat NATO?  Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?  If so, where does the implied new strategic ‘vision’ leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?


What did NATO achieve and not achieve in Afghanistan?


Any such assessment immediately faces a profound difficulty because NATO never defined an end goal. At the ministerial the Allies were informed by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, that the basic campaign goal of degrading and uprooting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations had been achieved. However, that important but relatively narrow goal, one which was originally set by President Obama in 2009, had always been part of a broader campaign design that included counterinsurgency operations, support for the democratically-elected Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA), nation and capacity-building, and promoting wider regional stability. Given the Alliance’s complex aims NATO’s scorecard should thus be broken down into three categories each of which has a very different level of achievement. 


Counter-terrorism: by helping to defeat and uproot terrorism in Afghanistan, both Al Qaeda and Daesh, and in partnership with the US Operation Enduring Freedom, NATO can claim ‘mission accomplished’, not least because the Taliban seem to have learned an important lesson and are for the moment committed to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a terrorist safe haven.


Counterinsurgency: NATO failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency or pacify Afghanistan, even at the peak of the so-called ‘surge’ between 2010 and 2011. In military terms, the best that can be said for the outcome is that it is a draw, although that assessment could change if Afghanistan descends quickly into renewed chaos.


Nation-building: with regard to building up resilient and enduring national Afghan institutions and a legitimate and effective GIROA the results are at best mixed.  The aim was to develop self-sustaining Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (both Afghan National Army (ANA) and police), improve human rights, support civil society, promote women’s rights and education, as well as establish more effective governance and rule of law across the Pashtun, Hazara and Tadjik homelands beyond Kabul.  It is hardly surprising the results are mixed given the sheer complexity of the campaign, and the need to coordinate efforts with the UN, EU and a broad coalition of nations. Whilst the Alliance did much of the heavy-lifting and can be proud of its overall engagement, it failed to curb corruption and drugs trafficking. That will have consequences for the future stability of Afghanistan. Critically, the withdrawal will undoubtedly jeopardise much of the progress that has been made on human rights, the status of women in society, as well as basic freedoms.


In other words, whilst NATO achieved a great deal in Afghanistan the Alliance fell short of “winning”, even though history would suggest the very idea of ‘winning’ is not one foreign powers are advised to take with them into the Hindu Kush. Moreover, much of the good work that has been done could be quickly if the Taliban succeed in unconditionally returning to power and/or if the country falls back into warlord infused chaos and regional proxy wars at the behest of China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. There must also be renewed uncertainty about the future role of Afghanistan as a possible haven for terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Daesh have been dislodged, but they could still come back and again only time will tell. Lastly, even if terrorist groups fail to re-establish bases in a Taliban ruled or chaos prone Afghanistan people could well vote with their feet and flee across borders into neighbouring countries, aided by human traffickers. In such circumstances, existing refugee flows into Europe could easily again turn into a new migration surge. This would not only be destabilising for Afghanistan’s neighbours, most notably Pakistan, it would also reinforce immigration fatigue and fears in both America and Europe.   


Did the Taliban defeat NATO?


That will certainly be the Taliban narrative in the coming months, and one which the US and NATO should be keen to dispel.  Much will depend on the Alliance’s demonstrable ability to withdraw in full order, rather than what appears to be a hasty rout.  Indeed, the conditions under which NATO troops leave the country may help partially counter any perception that the Alliance “lost” in Afghanistan. Equally, nothing will change NATO’s bottom line which the Taliban and others will be only too keen to capitalise on: NATO was forced to withdraw, just as the Soviets were in 1989 and the British did so before them between 1947 and 1950. Consequently, NATO’s pending withdrawal will doubtless feed the long-held mantra that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”.   


For NATO the beginning of the end began with the approach Trump administration adopted to negotiations with the Taliban. From the beginning of the talks Washington refused to the make the withdrawal “conditions based”, which at times made the negotiations look like a form of complex unconditional surrender, something the Taliban were only too keen to exploit. The Biden administration has already made some adjustments to both the timeline and the narrative, even briefly postponing the deadline for talks, but it has not changed the prevailing assumption in Washington that it is time for the Americans to get out. The Taliban has thus been able to maintain a cavalier attitude towards any proposed political process, both national and regional, because as far as they are concerned they have won.


Only time will tell if they have and that the interests of the Taliban and the Pashtun are sufficiently aligned to enable the former to ride a withdrawal wave and take Kabul? Or, that Afghanistan is on the verge of another ghastly civil war similar to that which created the conditions for Al Qaeda and Daesh to exploit prior to 2001.  In the near term, the Alliance’s (and Washington’s) nightmare is a Kabul that turns into another Saigon 1975 as the last remaining Allied personnel are forced to make a panicked departure as the Taliban takes over. If, as seems quite likely, protracted territorial fracturing and infighting ensues in which no one ‘power’ emerges who can claim to control the country three dynamic factors will be at play: Kabul’s stronger conventional military capabilities versus the Taliban’s superior asymmetric tactics; continuing assistance from both the US and some Allies to the Kabul government in an effort to beef up its capabilities (after all, there is still the NATO-Afghanistan partnership); continued two track negotiating processes underway between the Taliban and Kabul, as well as with the other regional powers under the auspices of the Istanbul Conference.  Unfortunately, the signs are not good as the Taliban repeatedly threaten to desert the Istanbul meeting and show little interest in a national power sharing agreement that will be critical to any future peace. Posturing or hubris?


Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?


The short answer to the second part of a complex composite question is “yes but…” President Biden when announcing the withdrawal said that there will be never a good moment for withdrawing so the US might as well do it now.  Moreover, if Washington postpones the withdrawal, Biden argued, no matter for how short or long a time, the US will sooner or later face exactly against the same “this is not a good moment” accusation. In other words, Biden believes that beyond what has already been achieved, especially by the counterterrorism effort, the Afghanistan stalemate simply cannot be broken.  Interestingly, the US position differs markedly from that of the nineteenth century British who deliberately exploited such a stalemate to keep the Russians out at the time of the Great Game. China?


However, there is a more pressing strategic imperative. First, for the Americans their Afghanistan effort has become disproportionate to the purpose it was meant to achieve, just when Washington must also confront the military rise of China and the resurgence of Russia.  Second, if the challenge of Great Powers and other state actors, such as Iran, is now the priority for the Americans the US can no longer afford to be ‘distracted’ by a resource and policy-draining seemingly interminable campaign in Afghanistan. Some in the Administration believe that whilst there is an undoubted risk of a Taliban take over the failure of GIROA, and eventually a new terrorist safe haven, Afghanistan would not be unique. There are already potential terrorist safe havens in Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen and they can be better dealt with by more tailored responses given progress in understanding such insurgencies and how to deal with them without the need for large-scale and extended expeditionary campaigning.


In other words, twenty years after 911 its influence on US policy whilst still evident has definitely waned.  In effect, Washington’s policy has gone full circle with the US having returned to a posture of leaving the fight against terrorism to a mix of targeted counterterrorism rather than extended expeditions allied to a willingness to live with failed States. Incidentally, such a shift in posture casts into history President Trump’s assertion that “NATO is obsolete because it doesn’t fight terrorism”.


Where does this new strategic “vision” leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?


It is this question that is perhaps the most pressing for the Alliance. NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan fits somewhat neatly into an emerging Western world-view that international terrorism and its Salafist-fundamentalist roots whilst still there must now play second fiddle to a more traditional concept of geopolitics.  Or, to put it another way, the worry now is China, Daesh can be dealt with on an as and when basis. Consequently, the once dominant focus on COIN will now be side-lined (along with its myriad experts) whilst counterterrorism will only be carried out as a form of strategic background noise to a renewed emphasis on high-end warfare and its deterrence.  Mistake?


In adopting such a posture the US is undoubtedly taking a two-fold risk, and it is only to be hoped there is some calculation behind it. The first risk is Afghanistan itself. Washington believes that either Afghanistan will not return to Taliban absolutism and barbarism or that, once back in power, the Taliban will not again allow terrorist organisations to settle in or plan attacks against America. The second calculation is that the terrorist threat can be countered at a distance through proxies and allies. For NATO this implies an American vision for ‘burden sharing’ that will be more than simply an issue of financial cost, but also tasks, risks and responsibilities. Moreover, with the British following the Americans back onto to the military ‘uplands’ of high-end deterrence and defence that begs other questions. For example, will the Europeans really ‘take care’ of their North African backyard, as France is doing (to a point) in Mali and Italy should do in Libya?


Twenty years after: Afghanistan and NATO


Twenty years after 911 and NATO’s entry into Afghanistan the change in US threat assessment and priorities has one further and possibly enormous implication for NATO. If Afghanistan is no longer relevant, or significantly less so, would the Balkans also be less relevant in American thinking if conflict should again break out there in? What about other local and regional theatres that over the past three decades have been deemed sufficiently threatening to justify extended non-Article 5 operations? Plainly, there cannot be a one-size fits all approach to crises, as each crisis has its own very specific characteristics, constraints and thus rationale for intervention or non-intervention. However, the emerging US worldview that led to the decision to withdraw abruptly from Afghanistan will doubtless also lead NATO towards a renewed focus on its core business of high-end deterrence and defence at the expense of what Washington now deems as peripheral commitments. In the medium-long term will the withdrawal from Afghanistan constrain the Allied footprint in Kosovo and Iraq?


President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is genuinely strategic because implicit therein is a fundamental American reassessment of the international security environment.  For NATO, the consequences cannot be over-stated for when Washington sneezes it is usually the Alliance that catches a cold and America’s change in thinking will doubtless be reflected in NATO’s upcoming strategic concept a year hence. Great powers and state actors are indeed again the main actors in the theatre of geopolitics, which perhaps begs the biggest questions of all: as Europe emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will it be economically able and politically willing to follow the American shift back to the high end?  If not, what about the sea of instability to Europe’s south and the insurgencies and terrorism that continue to boil and fester therein?


Afghanistan? To simply abandon Afghanistan because it is all too complicated and/or because the West simply did not have sufficient strategic patience will certainly return Afghanistan’s future to the pit of a violent past.  The Taliban need to be in no doubt that their dream of a status quo ante is simply not an option.  The question then becomes how? After all, the thing about watches is that they tell the time and only time will tell…


Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French


Ambassador (Ret.) Stefano Stefanini is a former Permanent Representative of Italy to the North Atlantic Council and Brussels Director of Project Associates. Professor Julian Lindley-French has just published Future War and the Defence of Europe for Oxford University Press. They are both members of The Alphen Group.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

F-35 or F-All!

The F-35, history and technology blindness

Alphen, Netherlands, May 4th.  Should the Americans and the Allies abandon the F-35 Lightning 2?  That would seem to be the preference for some behind a sustained campaign against the aircraft in Washington and elsewhere.  If successful, any such decision would have enormous consequences, not least for the new British aircraft carriers that were designed around them. HMS Queen Elizabeth, will soon depart Britain for a globe-trotting mission at the heart of the new British-led Carrier Strike Group for which with the F-35 and its strike power is pivotal. 

On the afternoon of May 31st, 1916 the epic Battle of Jutland began with an exchange of salvoes between Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet, supported (or not) by the mighty Queen Elizabeth class Super-Dreadnoughts of the Fifth Battle Squadron, and Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper’s German battlecruisers.  On paper it should have been a one-sided fight because the British battlecruisers were faster and their main armament heavier than their German counterparts. This should have enabled the British to stand off at distance and pummel the German ships from beyond the range of latter’s guns.  Instead, Beatty closed the range either because he did not trust or understand the technological advantage his firepower afforded him or because he was suffused with too much of the Nelsonian ‘get close to the enemy’. The result of Beatty’s technology blindness was a disaster as his tactical mistake, compounded by excellent German gunnery and the British admiral’s preference for rate of fire rather than accuracy of fire, quickly led to the loss of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary both of which exploded with the loss of over 2300 men.

There is something of the ‘rate of fire’ versus ‘accuracy of fire’ argument in the F-35 debate.  Some of those who want to abandon the F-35 argue that it is not a fighter and that it would not be very good in a classical dogfight against Chinese or Russian fighters.  They are right. It probably would not be that good in such a scenario, but the entire ethos of its design concept is to ensure such a dogfight would never take place.  When fully developed its array of sensors and network-enabling command hub systems will afford an F-35 pilot far greater situational awareness and thus survivability against most adversaries. In time, its increasingly intelligent weapons array would also enable it to afflict both direct and indirect ‘fires’ on an adversary at great distance.  The greatest threat to an F-35 is far more likely to come from equivalent platforms, such as the Chinese J-20 or the Russian Sukhoi Su-57. Critically, the F-35 will soon be the only Allied aircraft capable of penetrating advanced Russian air defences supported by the S-400 ground to air missile system.   

The problem with the F-35

For all of the above I am no apologist for the F-35. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) has highlighted the appalling cost inefficiency of the F-35 development programme.  Much of this has been caused by running the development programme in parallel with the acquisition programme for a system that is at the very cutting edge of technology.  In fact, the causes of such problems also run deep within the DNA of most such ‘big ticket’ military technology programmes.  Too often both governments and defence contractors in democracies conspire to hoodwink parliaments and publics about the true cost of any such programme because if they were honest about the true cost many democracies would still be equipped with bows and arrows (I exaggerate for effect).  Such programmes have to be ‘sold’ politically which invariably leads to claims by their promoters they will cost half as much as they really do, take half the eventual time, create twice as many hi-tech jobs in hard-pressed places, and deliver twice the capability.  It was ever thus.  The Panavia Tornado back in the 1970s, the Eurofighter Typhoon in the 1980s (and many years beyond), and the Airbus A400 M today are all cases in point.  It will also be the case when France, Germany and Spain eventually overcome their absurd (but all too indicative) row over intellectual property rights for their proposed Future Combat Air System or FCAS, which if it ever enters service will not do so until the 2040s at the earliest.  And, much the same will no doubt be said for the alternative (absurdly) British-Swedish-Italian FCAS programme. Europe – from F-All to FCAS?

So, yes, the costs per F-35 platform are eye watering, as is the cost per flight hour given the maintenance required.  And yes, the current on board armament is limited compared with some non-stealth 4G fighters.  However, the F-35 is at the very beginning of a development programme which will gather pace over the next decade to such an extent that in fairly short order each aircraft will become a command hub in and of itself for a whole array of both space-based and air-breathing AI-enabled sensors, data links and weapons systems.  In other words, the F-35 is a putative force super-multiplier and must thus be seen as the transition between increasingly obsolete 4G analogue platforms flown by fast jet pilots today, and digital centric 6G and 7G future systems of the late 2030s and 2040s.  Given that context the real waste of taxpayer’s money would be to have invested in such a programme, and then procured a significant number of aircraft, only then refuse to pay for the software and hardware updates that will realise its full potential.  That would be akin to buying the latest and most advanced lap-top designed for super-computing, even quantum computing with upgrades, and then installing it with unsupported Windows XP

The F-18 fallacy and the future defence of Europe

What is the alternative and at what cost?  There have been calls in some countries to extend the in-life service of existing platforms such as the F-18 Super Hornet.  This would be a particularly dangerous false economy.  At the heart of my latest 2021 book, Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press), is a vision of the future battlespace in which Britain’s aircraft carriers might (hopefully not) have to engage.  Only a fully worked up F-35 with all the supporting electronics, digital ‘blocks’ and weapons systems could possibly survive long enough to complete the suite of critical missions that would be required in such a ‘space’.  An F-18 or some similar 4G system?  They would be like the TBF-1 Avenger torpedo aircraft that attacked the Imperial Japanese Navy on June 4th, 1942 at the outset of the Battle of Midway.  They were hopelessly obsolete aircraft crewed by very brave, doomed aviators who for all their bravery could inflict no serious direct damage on the enemy.

The simple fact is that critics of F-35 simply cannot offer a serious alternative to F-35 for any country that might have to contemplate fighting high-end warfare. This is not least because much of the cost of F-35 has already been ‘sunk’ and to change course now would be absurdly expensive.  Yes, the Americans might go for a mix of assets because they have the scope and size of force to invest in such ‘redundant’ solutions, although my sense is that when they properly consider their options they too will abandon the idea.  The paradox of smaller allies that operate the F-35, such as the British, is that given the investment they have already made after a wobble or two they will eventually recognise that they have little or no alternative but to see the F-35 through its life-cycle.  The British might possibly reduce the number of planned F-35s from the original target of 138 to say 60 or 70 aircraft (48 have been purchased thus far) i.e. spread the cost across the life-cycle, push for reduced maintenance costs, and offset some of the upgrade costs by reducing the planned number of aircraft.  

F-35 and the future battlespace

Some years ago I stood on the flight deck of the now scrapped 20,000 ton aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious alongside the then Chief of the British Defence Staff and First Sea Lord looking up (and it was up) at a life-size mock-up of an F-35.  Compared to the Royal Navy’s FA2 Sea Harriers of the time the F-35 was enormous and explains why HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales both displace over 70,000 tons fully-loaded. As the F-35 was being explained to me it became evident that not only would the aircraft afford both the ‘RN’ and the Royal Air Force a step change in capability, but that to realise its full operating capability would take many years of continuous software and hardware development and that any such process would be expensive. 

Therefore, having invested in the F-35 all the countries operating it need to understand how best to use them if capability and affordability are to be assured.  If, like Beatty there is a failure on the part of leaders and commanders to properly understand the technological advantage the F-35 affords them over other systems, or if they lack of trust in it due to tech blindness, then like Beatty the forces under their command will doubtless suffer a high attrition rate if they are forced to ‘dogfight’ in a role for which they are not designed. For all of its many undoubted problems the F-35 and the technology-enabling capability it represents IS the future of both air combat and strike and at least until the 2040s when NextGen Future Combat Air Systems are eventually (eventually!!!) deployed. 

The simple fact is that for most countries invested in the F-35, and given the 5G developments taking place elsewhere, it really is a case of F-35 or F-All!

Julian Lindley-French