hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Freedom of Provocation?

 “The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked…These freedoms shall be exercised by all States with due regard for the interests of other States in their exercise of the freedom of the high seas, and also with due regard for the rights under this Convention with respect to activities in the Area”.

 Article 87, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The Lion and the Bear

June 30th, 2021.  Something High Victorian took place last week in the Black Sea.  The Old British Lion gave the Old Russian Bear a poke in the eye. Shortly after leaving the Ukrainian port of Odessa, and with Kiev’s permission, the British Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender exercised its right to freedom of navigation in waters off Crimea that Moscow now claims as Russian.  The two nuclear powers growled at each other, which was really the point, although just how many teeth were really involved, and to what extent they were bared, is disputed.  Moscow claimed that one of its aircraft dropped four bombs, albeit well in advance of HMS Defender, and that warning shots were fired by two patrol vessels.  Moscow also claimed that the Royal Navy had breached international law by entering Russian territorial waters, whilst faint hearts back in London warned of the danger of provoking Russia.  Given that virtually no state recognises Moscow’s claim to Ukrainian waters Russia seized illegally in 2014 the only possible law that comes to mind is the medieval law of conquest.  In other words, the very ‘law’ the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea seeks to banish.

History also resonated.  On October 5th 1853, war broke out between Russia, on one side, and Britain, France, Turkey and, err, Sardinia on the other.  There were many complex causes of the Crimean War but for the British side the main imperative was the Machtpolitik of empire and the need to prevent Russia expanding its influence into the Black Sea Region and wider the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire declined.  The result was a bloody five year war, much of it fought in Crimea, and a lot if it fought incompetently.  During the October 1854 Battle of Balaclava the British Light Cavalry Brigade infamously charged up the wrong valley directly into massed Russian artillery.  The ghost of British incompetence past re-appeared this week when an unnamed British senior civil servant apparently left top secret ‘UK Eyes Only’ documents relating to the Defender incident at a Kent bus-stop. If true it’s enough to make one weep. At least Britain and France eventually won the Crimean War.

Power and principle

For all the strategic theatrics last week Defender’s actions concern a fundamental principle of international law: the right to freely navigate international waters and to contest the claims of those who seize such waters by illegal means.  In that context, Defender’s actions should be seen as perhaps the first instance of the post G7 ‘community of democracies’ resisting egregious breaches of established international law by the Great Autocrats, China and Russia.  If that was indeed the intent then it was not exactly strengthened by the news that Berlin and Paris had sought to hold a summit with President Putin. The idea was quashed after several EU Member-States acted angrily to the proposal.  The Franco-German motor isn’t what it used to be? That said, in dealing with the Kremlin a Harmel-style mix of defence and dialogue is no bad thing.

The Black Sea incident could also prove to have been simply the first round of a coming strategic contest in which Beijing and Moscow use the British to send a message to the Americans. To ensure neither miscalculate the USS The Sullivans is also part of the force.  HMS Defender, along with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen had been despatched to the Black Sea from the new British Carrier Strike Group and its flagship the heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is now in the eastern Mediterranean. The Group is on a twenty-eight week mission to the Indian Ocean and the Far East during which port visits will be made to India, Japan, South Korea and with history again reverberating, Singapore.  The force will also exert its international navigation rights by sailing through the South China Sea which Beijing very dubiously claims as its own.  China will have watched the Defender incident very carefully and is no doubt preparing its own ‘welcome’.  The Carrier Strike Group can expect repeated Chinese attempts to penetrate the force’s air, surface, sub-surface and cyber defences. 

Nor is Moscow finished. Russia announced a snap live fire exercise off Syria during which the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic anti-ship missile will be deployed for the first time beyond Russia’s borders on two Mig-31K (Foxhound) attack aircraft. According to Moscow they will “monitor the actions of the aircraft carrier group”.  The Kinzhal is capable of speeds of up to 12,350kph/7670mph and has a range of some 2000km/1250 miles. The Foxhounds will be supported by three Tu-22M3 Backfire strategic bombers currently deployed to the Khmeimim air base, close to the British led force.  

Cohesion and coercion

The real lesson of the Defender incident is that if Britain or any other European ally is to contest such waters with powers like Russia and China it is vital the NATO Alliance is four square behind them as part of a coherent strategy to exert (by definition) ‘legitimate’ coercion.  Yesterday, NATO Maritime Group 2 began a major exercise in the Black Sea which involves Ukraine, the US and several allies, including HMS Defender, along with 31 other allied and partner ships, 40 aircraft and some 5000 troops.  Exercise SEA BREEZE 21 is clearly designed to send a message to Moscow as well as test the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture.  

Despatching HMS Defender on such a sensitive but important mission was a vital reminder to Russia that its seizure of Crimea and its repeated incursions into the air and sea space of NATO allies will be contested.  In a sense, Defender was giving the Russians a taste of their own vodka-laced medicine and that fact that it was the White Ensign in the Black Sea will at least have given Moscow pause for thought.  This is important because during August and September Russia will conduct the huge Zapad military exercise and, contrary to Moscow’s claims to have stood down, much of the 100,000 strong force that threatened Ukraine in March and April has not been withdrawn. 

Freedom of provocation?

On April 23rd, 1937 in the midst of the Spanish Civil War three British freighters, the MacGregor, the Hamsterley and the Stanbrook tried to enter Bilbao carrying food supplies. To prevent their passage warning shots were fired by one of Franco’s Nationalist cruisers, the Almirante Cervera, which was operating together with the armed trawler Galerna.  British destroyers intervened but the two Spanish ships bravely pressed on until round the headland steamed the enormous British battlecruiser, HMS Hood. She trained her main 15 inch armament on the Almirante Cervera which rather sensibly stood down. The three freighters entered port safely.  The lesson?  If one is going to play gunboat diplomacy, which is what HMS Defender was doing last week, then make sure you have enough of the right gunboats in the right place.

HMS Defender is a powerful warship and her officers and ratings conducted themselves entirely in keeping with the high traditions of the Royal Navy. Equally, Defender is just one ship and the only way to properly ensure international law prevails over Machtpolitik is if the democracies collectively demonstrate the will and the capability to enforce it. In the absence of both such freedom of navigation operations will come to be seen by the autocracies as little more than a bit of publicity-grabbing freedom of provocation.  International law is not an alternative to power but rather a constraint upon it.  Therefore, the only way to uphold such law in the face of those who would subvert it is to repeatedly and collectively enforce. Are there risks? Of course.  However, history would suggest the greater risk is to take no action at all.

Julian Lindley-French


Tuesday, 22 June 2021

EU and UK: A Fight to the Death?

 “A customs territory generally involves the removal of all internal tariffs, and a common approach to external trade partners. Regulatory regimes can vary within a customs territory but the removal of internal tariffs and associated barriers is generally considered to be fundamental to the nature of a customs territory. This fundamental reality is central to the way the Protocol needs to be implemented, given its clarity that Great Britain and Northern Ireland form one customs territory.”

 Article 4, Northern Ireland Protocol

Rump UK and the inner-British border

June 22nd, 2021. The tensions between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the Northern Ireland Protocol to the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement are not a legal dispute but a power struggle and should be seen as such. Failure to come to a working solution that would remove the inner-British border and further weaken ties within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could lead to far more than a trade war between the EU and UK. The future of both the EU and the UK are at stake.

It is 2030.  Ireland is unified following the 2029 Border Poll, albeit facing serious disruption from a large and angry Unionist minority.  In 2028, Scotland also left what was left of the United Kingdom following a 2025 referendum which Whitehall botched, and is now mired in an economic and financial crisis as Edinburgh’s public finances collapse and is desperately pleading with Brussels to allow accelerated membership of the EU.  England and Wales are still together but angry, isolated and divided. Much of the blame for the destruction of Britain is aimed at an incompetent London that for far too long had too often spent too much time obsessed with the irrelevant, whilst too often failing to grip the fundamentals of power and change and how to manage them.  Few Britons properly understood the full implications of B Brexit until it impacted them and their families. However, blame is also aimed at Brussels for creating the conditions that led to the collapse of fragile post-Brexit Britain.  Fantasy?  Paranoia?  There are those in the European Commission who would be only too happy to see such an outcome. They fear that if Britain that makes a success of diverging from EU rules and regulations others will be tempted to take the same route and they will go to great lengths to prevent such secession.

Leaked figures from the British Government tell a stark story about the EU’s implementation of the Protocol. The EU is now imposing more than 500 checks each day on the transfer of goods between the mainland and Northern Island across the Irish Sea. Up to May 23rd, there were 41,807 documentary checks at the now imposed inner-British ‘border’, of which 36,702 were documentary checks whilst 2,831 physical inspections of goods also took place.  As of June 81,000 checks in 123 days have taken place averaging 650 each day.  As a result, trading patterns have been transformed.  British exports to Ireland are down 39 percent in 2021 whilst exports to Northern Ireland from the Republic have increased by 40 percent compared with the equivalent period in 2020, and are 54 percent above 2018 levels. Trade from Northern Ireland to the Republic is also 61 percent above 2020 levels and 111 percent above 2018 levels. 

In other words, the EU is carrying out more checks at the inner-British border than along the entirety of the rest of the EU’s external border for fear that goods crossing the Irish Sea might enter the Union and damage the integrity of the Single Market. The EU is thus demanding a far higher test for the ‘integrity’ of the Single Market along the inner-British border than anywhere else around the EU’s external border.  President Macron let slip the EU’s political ambitions implicit in such figures when he suggested last week that Northern Ireland was not really part of the UK.  What is also clear is that London has profoundly miscalculated the attitude the EU would adopt in the wake of Brexit.  The Northern Ireland Protocol was only ever going to work if both parties to the agreement interpreted it in much the same way as the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the north of Ireland – creatively and in a spirit of constructive co-operation. The European Commission has no such intention and seems intent on taking the hardest of hard lines over how it interprets the Protocol.  It is strategic coercion dressed up as EU legalism. The lack of an effective mechanism for the settling of disputes is now all too apparent.  .

A Struggle to the death?

Why? There are no more dangerous adversaries than two fragile powers because relatively small matters can threaten their very survival and rapidly lead to a zero sum game.  Unfortunately, the United Kingdom is not the only fragile polis coping with the consequences of Brexit.  As Europe begins to move out of the pandemic the economic and political damage done by COVID-19 will become apparent along with the coming struggle between the European Commission and several Member-States over the next phase of European integration.  After all, it was Jean Monnet who suggested Euro-federalists should never waste a good crisis.

That is the context for the just launched Conference on the Future of Europe. It is really a metaphor for how the EU might spend far more of other people’s money. Or, to put it more directly, the future Europe will have four interlocking elements none of which will prove politically comfortable: the transfer of far more of Germany’s budget surplus and the relative ‘wealth’ of the northern and western European taxpayer to the east and south of Europe without upsetting the German taxpayer too much; mutualisation of much of the incurred debt of most EU member-states so that all EU taxpayer’s become responsible; increased borrowing powers for the European Commission thereby giving it the powers (and appearance) of a state; and alignment of the fiscal policies of EU member-states to enable the Commission to better impose discipline on the spending plans of said EU member-states.  

All of the above takes place when both the EU and Britain are engaged in a series of power struggles both within and without that will ultimately decide the future of both. However, post-Brexit Britain is not the only country with which the Commission is engaged in a power struggle.  On June 8th, the European Commission launched legal proceedings against Germany over a decision by the latter’s highest court, the Constitutional Court that the Commission considers to “…fundamental violations of EU law”.  The German court’s ‘crime’ was to reject the decision by the EU Court of Justice that the October 2020 issuing by the Commission of 17 billion so-called European social bonds were legal.  In a direct challenge to the authority of the ECJ the German court stated that the Luxembourg court had acted “ultra vires,” and gone its competence.  Brussels fears that the German decision might encourage Poland and Hungary, both of which are battling Brussels over the relationship between EU and national law.  The Commission is pursuing the case even though the issue at hand, the issuing of Eurobonds which began week ago, has been settled. The Commission claims that the German judgement “…constitutes a serious precedent both for the future practice of the German constitutional court itself and for the supreme and constitutional courts and tribunals of other member states”.  In other words, and as Commission spokesman Christian Wigand stated, “This could threaten the integrity of [EU] law and could open the way to a ‘Europe a la carte’”.  In short, a power struggle.  In fact, if any precedent is being set it is the issuing of bonds by the European Commission which will ultimately have to be guaranteed by the European (i.e. German) taxpayer.

It is against the backdrop of the geopolitics of Europe that the struggle over the inner-Irish border is taking place and why the Commission’s fears Brexit could pose an existential threat to its vision of ‘Europe’.  Ideally, the Commission and its backers would like to use the Northern Ireland Protocol to force the whole of the UK into compliance with EU rules and regulations.  However, so-called ‘dynamic alignment’ would mean the British accepting EU rules without any influence over them.  No self-respecting sovereign state, let alone a major power, could accept such an imposition.   

There is no alternative?

The European Commission backed by President Macron also claim there is no alternative to the Protocol?  Really? If one goes back to December 2017 and the so-called ‘joint report’ between the EU and the UK the principle of consent was established. The Commission seems to have conveniently forgotten this by effectively invalidating the democratic legitimacy upon which the Protocol is meant to be based. Article 18 of the Protocol is designed to ensure the Protocol is aligned with the Good Friday Agreement. In 2024, the Northern Ireland Assembly will vote on whether to maintain the trade elements in the Protocol and thus keep the inner-British border. The Commission seems to be gambling that rejection of the Protocol would lead to such trade friction as to render Article 18 of the Protocol little more than a fig-leaf of political legitimacy for London.  Equally, if the Commission pushes things too far London can trigger Article 16 of the Protocol and unilaterally suspend part of it, although that will almost certainly trigger a trade war with the EU.  Brussels and London came close to that last week as end of the so-called grace period for the transition approached. However, London sought a three month extension which has merely postponed the coming reckoning.


The real tension is most revealed by the relationship between the Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement which both sides claim to be intent on upholding.  Central to the ‘GFA’ is the concept of full freedoms across both the inner Irish border AND the Irish Sea. It is because of his profound concerns about the impact of the Protocol on the Good Friday Agreement which led Lord Trimble to highlight the fact that there are now more inspections taking place at the inner-British border than in Rotterdam or the entirety of the EU's eastern external border.  In other words, under the GFA there can be no inner-British border.

Strategic implications

Last week at both the G7 and NATO summits a central theme emerged; the need for the democracies to stand together in the face of big world challenges from autocratic powers such as China and Russia.  This past weekend’s ‘elections’ in Iran show the scale of the coming challenge.  Central to any such effort will be unity of effort and purpose between the major democratic powers.  Indeed, such Free World unity was implicit in the New Atlantic Charter whilst the NATO Summit Communique showed the vital need for Britain, France and Germany to lead Europeans together towards a much higher level of defence-strategic ambition.  Such ambition will be vital if the Alliance’s growing deterrence crisis and the over-stretch of US forces is to be eased.  However, such a vision will never be realised if Europeans retreat into yet another introspective ‘war’ over who runs Europe. Worse, a ‘war’ in which the EU in effect seeks to dismember one of Europe’s Great Powers ‘pour encourager les autres’.   

At some point France, Germany and, yes, the US will have to decide how far they will permit the ideologues of the Commission to push a hard political line against Britain in the name of Euro-legalism.  To be fair to the British they have made proposals that would remove the inner-British border but Brussels, Berlin and Paris (for that is the trinity that matters) have shown little interest in making the necessary compromises. That begs a question. Is it really in the interests of France, Germany and the US, let alone NATO, to see the United Kingdom humiliated and even broken up? Those are the stakes and that is clearly what some in the Commission would like to engineer. France clearly wants to push Britain into a corner, primarily because President Macron wants to crush any lingering attraction ‘Frexit’ might have for the French.  France will sooner rather than later have to decide which is more important for the French interest: punishing Britain for Brexit or rebuilding the vital strategic defence relationship between Europe’s two power projection nuclear powers which currently lies in tatters. France cannot do or have both.

There were many reasons why I decided that on balance Brexit was a bad idea. First, it was bad geopolitics. In today’s world Europeans need to be looking out at the world together, not tearing each other apart from within.  Second, it was bad politics. The EU is too important to Britain for London to abandon any influence over its future direction.  Third, I feared that the UK had become too fragile, too divided and too poorly governed with too many competing poles of power to survive the inevitable consequences of Brexit.  Indeed, even though I harbour deep and profound concerns about the future of democracy in the face of the European Commission’s power legalism I campaigned against Brexit for fear of what could now happen.  Some might see the Northern Ireland Protocol as a legal technical treaty issue. It is a power struggle.  However, with good will on both sides pragmatic solutions could, indeed, can still be found to ease frictions at the inner-British border, such as the broad adoption of ‘trusted trader’ agreements.  In the absence of such good will, which is in precious short supply, there is every chance that the struggle over the Protocol will turn into something much more dangerous, a struggle to the death between the EU and UK. Let’s avoid that please.

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

G7 and NATO: At the Crossroads of History

“This was a meeting which marks forever in the pages of history the taking up by the English-speaking nations, amid all this peril, tumult and confusion, of the guidance of the fortunes of the broad toiling masses in all the continents, and our loyal effort, without any clog of selfish interest, to lead them forward out of the miseries into which they have been plunged, back to broad high road of freedom and justice. This is the highest honour and the most glorious opportunity which could ever have come to any branch of the human race”.

Winston Spencer Churchill, August 24th, 1941

The New Atlantic Charter 

June 15th. On June 10th, against the stunning backdrop of Cornwall’s Carbis Bay, President Joe Biden of the United States and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom signed the New Atlantic Charter.  As the signing took place one of Britain’s new 70,000 ton heavy aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, could be seen sailing majestically offshore.  It was no coincidence. Eighty years ago in August 1941 Winston Churchill had arrived in Canada’s Placentia Bay on board another brand new symbol of the might of the Royal Navy, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Churchill was there to meet US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of world war at a crossroads of history as the sun was setting on the imperial age and dawning on what would prove to be the brave new Atlantic world. 

 Like the New Atlantic Charter the 1941 Charter was a deliberately ambiguous call to arms.  The US was still four months away from entering World War Two.  However, Roosevelt still wanted the British to sign up to America’s soon-to-be war aims, whilst Churchill was desperate for American military equipment to stay in the fight against the Nazis. At the meeting both agreed the Axis powers had to be defeated and, at Roosevelt’s behest, a new world order be established thereafter based on the twin principles of self-determination and free trade.  The Atlantic world was born.  

In fact, Churchill and Roosevelt disagreed about pretty much everything else.  Churchill even believed he could interpret the Charter’s call for self-determination in such a way as to preserve the British Empire.  Roosevelt, rightly, was having none of it and viewed European empires as part of the problem. Roosevelt’s gross strategic miscalculation came later in the war when he thought her could co-opt Stalin’s Soviet Union into becoming a partner in his vision of a United Nations and a Free World.  The Americans also miscalculated the destabilising effect of the rapid de-colonisation they insisted upon which helped the spread of the very Communism the US so came to fear in the 1950s. 

Implicit in the New Atlantic Charter is another crossroads of history and, not without some irony, the end of the Atlantic age.   Yes, the Western democracies will still afford the world a cornerstone of democratic peace, but given the shifting correlation of forces (à la Lenin) they will no longer be able to do it exclusively, not even mighty America.  In effect, the New Atlantic Charter marks the beginning of a new Free World Charter, which is why it was signed in the margins of the G7.  A call to arms for democracies the world over to stand up to the new techno-absolutism of China and Russia and reinvest in the great institutions of multilateralism which eventually grew out of the Placentia Bay meeting. 


It was against that Grand Strategic backdrop that yesterday’s NATO Summit of Heads of State and Government took place.  This is the season of summits.  Last week the G7 graced Cornwall’s wonderful north coast, and tomorrow Biden will meet Putin in Geneva.  The latter event will have personal echoes for me.  In November 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan went for the famous ‘walk in the woods’.  I was working just around the corner. It would be tempting to suggest such meetings are merely the theatre of geopolitics, but with Great Power competition (or GPC as the US State Department now calls it) back in vogue these meetings matter. 

It is always a bit of an ego-massage for authors when reality follows ‘art’.  Much that was agreed at the summit can be found in the pages of my new book Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press).  The Allies agreed to draft the ‘Next’ Strategic Concept by the June 2022 summit (just read the book!).  They also adopted the excellent NATO 2030 Agenda.  Crucially, NATO finally recognised that the Alliance must adopt a new defence and dialogue dual track approach to China. The rise of China as a military power of geopolitical weight is forcing the Americans to further stretch their already over-extended forces.  Any such factor that weakens US forces also weakens NATO and the American security guarantee to Europe. Indeed, anyone who suggests China has nothing to do with NATO is, to use a phrase, brain dead.

The theme of a new dual track ran throughout the summit. On the dialogue side of the NATO ledger there were calls for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.  On the defence side a new NATO Innovation Fund is to be set up and something curiously called the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic or DIANA (must be a British thing).  There was also agreement to extend capacity-building support for Partners and some waffle about climate change and reducing further the carbon emissions of Europe’s already very small armed forces (Bonsai climate change?)

NATO 2030: the real test

For me the centre-piece of the summit was the adoption of the NATO 2030 agenda and the agreement to draft of the Next Strategic Concept for the Alliance.  Both matter, or at least they should matter, because this time all of NATO’s nations need to actually mean what they sign up to.  It is getting too dangerous for the usual NATO summit declaration bromide because the next decade will be tumultuous and dangerous and if peace is to be assured NATO deterrence must be reinforced if it is to work in all cases including the worst-case.  The worst power Great Power case for NATO over the next decade is an engineered high-end emergency that takes place simultaneously in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and Mediterranean, the Arctic and Europe and which stretches US forces thin the world over. 

In such a scenario credible deterrence would rest on the three major European powers leading a NATO European pillar able to act as high-end first responders.  In other words, NATO 2030 and the forthcoming Strategic Concept will only be truly credible as foundations of the Alliance’s core deterrent mission if they also commit NATO Europeans to the creation of a high end European Future Force able to act across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.  A robust and fast European force will become even more important as emerging and disruptive technologies enter the battlespace and 5D warfare is employed against Europeans across the spectrum of disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied or actual destruction.  Indeed, artificial intelligence, super/quantum computing, big data, machine learning, drone swarming, hypersonic weapon systems are the future of ultra-fast warfare and must thus also be the future of NATO deterrence.

Today, the very idea of NATO deterrence must be expanded to create a new form of escalation dominance from hybrid war to cyber war to ultra-fast hyper war demonstrating to all and any adversary that any incursion onto Alliance soil would simply not be worth the risk. Credible deterrence is always built around a relatively strong conventional military force. Therefore, what should ideally emerge from today’s NATO Summit would be an Allied Command Europe Heavy High-end Mobile Force that could quickly to deter aggression AND support national forces in front-line states.  At the very least, it is vital that NATO with the big three Europeans to the fore re-conceptualise Alliance deterrence and the far greater role Europeans will need to play therein.  The sad reality is that they will not for all the strategically myopic and illiterate reasons discussed above.

NATO’s Black Elephants and Swans

So, everyone is happy? No. There were, as ever, a herd of Black Elephants and a flock of Black Swans at the summit.  As my friend Professor Paul Cornish has said, “The real threat to NATO and its cohesion are Black Elephants; risks that are widely acknowledged and familiar (the ‘elephant in the room’) - but ignored. When the elephant can no longer be ignored it is passed off as an unpredictable surprise (a ‘black swan’) by those who were slow to address it. NATO’s biggest Black Elephant is the reluctance of its member countries to spend on defence.”  The elephants and swans come in the shape of the three most powerful European states Britain, France and Germany (you can decide who is a swan and who is an elephant).

These three very significant powers are the core of NATO’s European pillar and yet the relationship between them is toxic as the strategic implications of Brexit play out.  Indeed, anyone who believes the implications of Brexit for NATO are limited should think again. The tensions are now so great that the credibility of NATO deterrence and defence is now at risk.

Credible deterrence rests upon sending an adversary a clear and believable message that any use of force will incur unacceptable costs.  NATO deterrence has always rested on three pillars: a sufficiency of relative military capability (usually American); a demonstrable strategic commitment to bear the risks and costs of deterrence; and tight European political cohesion during crises.   Unfortunately, the China-imposed global over-stretch of US forces has revealed the crisis at the heart of NATO deterrence caused by the dissonance that exists between the three major European powers and their commitment to afford deterrence to other, smaller NATO allies at the geographical margins of the Alliance.

Such strategic dissonance is not entirely due to Brexit.  It is partly due to sheer selfishness because none of them are really threatened by Russia or, for the time-being, China, and they know it. Britain is significantly increasing its defence budget but much of the new money will be on new things, such as cyber. London is also grappling with a host of post-Brexit domestic issues and has become overly bureaucratic, risk-averse and fragile. France is also struggling with a host of domestic issues. Macro-Gaullist Paris is also unable to give up on the Gaullist fantasy that the EU can do ever more on defence. The EU and PESCO have a hugely important role to play at the heart of a meaningful EU-NATO Strategic Partnership but the Union will never replace the Alliance.  Paris will deny such ambitions but deep down they are still there.  

Paris is also adopting an extreme hard-line interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to inflict real damage on the sovereign integrity of the only other truly strategic power democracy in Europe - Britain. Macron’s offensive statements on the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom represents wholly unacceptable interference in the affairs of an Allied country.  It is also utter hypocrisy and irresponsibility because Macron would never accept that Corsica is similarly semi-detached from France.  Consequently, I have now abandoned my life-long francophilia. France is no longer my friend.  As for Nordstream Germany it seems more interested in developing mercantilist relationships with China than Russia than sharing the burdens and risks of deterring them that its size and weight in Europe and the Alliance demand of it.  Berlin is abjectly failing to properly prepare the Bundeswehr for its vital future role as the core land deterrent in Europe.  And then there is COVID and the additional debt all Europeans must soon confront. 

Hubris and history

Perhaps the most important event is one I have not yet mentioned. Yesterday, I addressed the Brussels Forum that took place in parallel with the NATO Summit. I did not pull my punches. First, NATO is far more in the business of deterrence than in the business of defence.  Second, given the nature of twenty-first Great Power competition North Americans and Europeans will need NATO and each other more not less. Third, Europeans are going to have to do far more for their security and defence if the Americans are to continue to afford their post-war guarantee.  Fourth, if today’s NATO really has to defend in a high end emergency some of our fellow Europeans will be in the deepest of trouble. In other words, the greatest danger NATO faces is hubris.

On December 10th, 1941, four months after Churchill and Roosevelt had met in Placentia Bay, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of what was then British Malaya.  The decision to send her and the ageing battlecruiser HMS Repulse to those far-off waters without any air cover was an act of profound hubris caused by the profound gap that existed at the time between Britain’s ambitions and her capabilities for which some eight hundred and forty Royal Navy sailors paid with their lives.  

The New Atlantic Charter, the G7, yesterday’s NATO summit and tomorrow’s Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva are important moment precisely because they signify another crossroads in history.  For a changing West it must not become another lesson in hubris.  Indeed, all those who attended the G7 and NATO summits should reflect on perhaps the most important lesson of history: hubris is the father of catastrophe and catastrophe is timeless.

Defence is about doing.

Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 6 June 2021

NATO, Military Mobility and the Dark Defence Web

 NATO, Military Mobility and the Dark Defence Web


Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French

D-Day, June 6, 2021

   “We have to be ready for the hardest game”.

Admiral Robert Burke USN, Commander, Allied Joint Force Command, Naples

NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2021

The only true test of a major military exercise is if it properly prepares those engaged for a dangerous reality they may one day have to face.  Too often, such exercises are like Hollywood disaster movies.  When all seems lost there is suddenly a miraculous event.  The reality is that people and institutions only really learn from failure.  That is the essential message of two major pieces of work that we have just published.  Co-written with Gen (Ret.) John R. Allen our new book Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press) examines how Europe can be defended in a battlespace being transformed by new technologies.  Co-written with Lieutenant-General Heinrich Brauss a major report entitled Military Mobility: Moving Mountains for Europe’s Defence (Washington: CEPA)  examines how forces and resources could be better moved to bolster both deterrence and defence.

NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2021 is designed to test Alliance collective defence against the backdrop of an Article 5 contingency. Involving over 9000 troops from 20 nations, 18 ships, a submarines and some 50 aircraft the exercise not only stretches across the entirety of the Euro-Atlantic Area from North America to Romania it also spans the spectrum of hybrid war, cyber war and what is fast becoming the future of warfare, ultra-fast hyperwar. At its conceptual core is the urgent need to improve the interoperability and survivability of Allied forces in the most testing of environments, as well as their readiness.  NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2021 is also testing many of the assumptions that both the book and the report challenge. Steadfast Defender began on May 12th and will continue until June 22nd

NATO and the Dark Defence Web

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Britain’s Strategic Command has highlighted the urgent need for more ‘cyber warriors’.  As part of Steadfast Defender Britain’s new Carrier Strike Group under the command of HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of Britain’s two new 70,000 ton heavy aircraft carriers, will turn off all electronic systems, including mobile phones to simulate the loss of satellites, to counter cyber-attacks. However, such measures are hardly the advanced counter-measures and force protection allied forces will need.  Future War and the Defence of Europe opens with a scenario in which on the brink of a major emergency a deployed NATO maritime task force also under the command of HMS Queen Elizabeth suffers just such an attack. This leads to a host of critical poorly protected command systems crashing leaving the task force effectively defenceless.  Moments later two Russian hypersonic anti-ship missiles crash into Big Lizzie sending her and her crew of 1500 to the sea bed. 

In any future war such a deployed NATO force will need both defensive and offensive cyber capabilities as part a deep, integrated defence.  This is because China and Russia are daily engaged on the emerging dark defence web to identify defence vulnerabilities and ruthlessly exploit them.  Credible future defence will rest on a host of interactions between societal resilience, increasingly ‘robotic’ conventional military forces, cyber capabilities and the nuclear deterrent.  Given the entry of artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and soon-to-be quantum computing in the command chain it is vital the system is future proofed against such emerging and disruptive attacks.

Military mobility and the Black Sea

Endex will take place with a simulated attack by Russia on Romania.  Some of the planning seems to presume the entry of a large NATO maritime-amphibious force into the Black Sea.  However, permission for Allied ships to transit the Dardanelles will depend on Turkey which is not only an important NATO ally, but a pivotal player in the entire Black Sea Region but far beyond. In 1915, Britain and France found to their great cost what happens when they tried and failed to force the Dardanelles. Moreover, as the recent crisis on Ukraine’s borders attests Russia has placed a lot of military capabilities in its southern military district, including advanced anti-air and anti-ship capabilities.

Credible Allied defence of Romania and much of the Black Sea Region will depend on the ability to move forces and resources quickly across infrastructures that as yet do not exist.  This is a weakness that one of the co-authors of this piece rather painfully discovered as Commander of US Army, Europe.  Nor is the challenge merely one posed by out-dated or incapable infrastructure.  The CEPA report on military mobility in Europe is clear: “Romania is in need of major improvements to its air, road, river and rail infrastructure. Romania’s road infrastructure is not at all suitable at present for large deployments of forces due to narrow roads, weak bridges that would be unable to support large and heavy vehicles, and narrow tunnels.  There are also several river crossings in Romania where bridges cannot support armour (the Focșani and Galați bridges being the exception). Romania does have airfields which could be used by large aircraft to transport a spearhead force, such as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).  The Danube River is a major thoroughfare, but needs more ports of entry to be constructed and infrastructure improved along the length of the river from Germany to the Black Sea. If the River Danube is to be exploited as a corridor for mobility ferries on the Danube could provide a logistical reserve capability and should be developed by both Romania and Bulgaria. The Romanian rail system would be unable to transport a huge tonnage of equipment via rail, but could transport some military equipment at a relatively high speed”.

NATO’s Future Integrated Defence

NATO will soon embark on the drafting of a new Strategic Concept – the what, why where, when, how and with what of the Alliance. At its heart there will need to be a truly integrated defence across the broad spectrum from sensors to shooters.  To be credible such a system will need to be digital resilient and able to identify and respond to a host of attacks. Emerging and disruptive technologies are fast changing both the character and nature of warfare across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space information and knowledge in which all vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exposed and attacked.  ‘Defence’ itself will need to counter disinformation, deception, destabilisation, systemic disruption and coercion through implied or actual destruction. 

Future War and the Defence of Europe ends with a second 2029 scenario is which a deployed NATO task force is attacked but has been armed, equipped and worked-up to be able not just to respond but counter any such threat.  The attack takes place against the backdrop of a Europe replete with sufficiently robust civilian and military systems, structures and infrastructures to deny an enemy the spoils of illegal war at anything like an acceptable cost because of decisions taken now and which were enshrined in the December 2021 Strategic Concept.  

Therefore, the true test of exercises like Steadfast Defender 2021 will be whether or not the Alliance is really prepared for the kind of warfare it will soon face.  In that light, Steadfast Defender is a good start, but only a start of what must necessarily be not just the adaptation of Alliance defence and deterrence by 2030 at the very latest, but its wholesale transformation.  In other words, NATO must be hard enough to engage in what is already a hard game that will become ever harder.

Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 2 June 2021


June 2nd, 2021.  Today, I did something which every pet owner dreads. I decided to put my beloved cat, Benji, to sleep.  The decision came suddenly. Last week I had thought Benji to be a healthy and happy cat.  He had to go into the vet for some minor dental treatment but he would be out the same day and fully recovered within twenty-four hours, we were told. It was not to be.  After a week of unexpected suffering and Herculean efforts by my wife to find a cure this afternoon it was discovered that Benji suffered from an incurable illness.  It would not kill him overnight but would in the end take his life after a painful decline. Benji was always my cat, my little lad, with whom I had developed an incredible bond since we rescued him from a cat sanctuary several years to go. As a young cat he had spent a winter on Dutch streets and survived.  He was smart, tough and incredibly loving and to me he was very,very special.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say he was one of the loves of my life.  I had always said I would be with him when he died but I had hoped it would be several years hence. Today, I held his head and stroked him as he went and as he slipped into death he gave me one last affectionate head butt. Rest in peace, my little lad. Will will miss you, but you will always be in our broken hearts. Your loving dad, Julian