hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Operation Hookless

 Operation Hookless

 September 30th, 2021. Operation Hookless, or the Australia, United Kingdom, United States security and defence pact (AUKUS) as it has become known, began in a rather unexpected way.  In March 2020, the First Sea Lord (Chief of the Royal Navy) Admiral Sir Tony Radakin attended an important but nevertheless routine meeting at the Australian High Commission in London.  At the meeting he met with Vice-Admiral Michael Noonan, the Chief of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).  Noonan explained that Canberra was increasingly concerned about growing capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The Australians are particularly concerned about the new Type 095A nuclear attack submarine, and the ability of the French-designed Short-fin Barracuda/Attack-class to meet Australia’s strategic needs.

The Australians enquired if London, and possibly Washington, would be interested in helping the Australians build a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines that would be faster, stealthier and with unlimited endurance than the planned conventional diesel-electric submarines the Australians were building in Adelaide under a 2016 contract with the French Naval Group. At the meeting the Australians said that endurance and the ability to undertake stealthy surveillance were particularly important capabilities for them to have.  The Australians already had a close and trusted relationship with the British through the Five Eyes intelligence community and discussions were taken forward.

Thereafter, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence in London, took over responsibility for dealing with the request (which was given the codename Operation Hookless).  Hookless also had the full backing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wanted a much deeper strategic relationship to emerge from it (AUKUS).  Such was the sensitivity of the negotiations that in London only ten people were kept in the loop. The British then approached the Americans. This delayed the negotiations somewhat as the request had to pass through the laborious Pentagon machine during a Washington election year.  This delay caused concern in Canberra as the Australians were under growing time pressure as they were fast approaching a contract requirement which would see the costs of the French contract increase exponentially.  Eventually, the new Biden administration agreed in principle to the pact, the final shape of which was agreed behind closed doors by Biden, Johnson and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the June 2021 Carbis Bay G7 meeting in Cornwall.

The stuff of AUKUS

The three main elements of AUKUS are the strategic alignment of the US, UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, the building of eight new SSN for the Royal Australian Navy, and collaboration over future defence applications of artificial intelligence, machine-learning, quantum computing and cyber warfare (Australia already has a strong research base in such areas). The building of the eight RAN SSN will also be part of a new “special nuclear relationship”.  Whilst the Australian Government will take the final decision on what specific system to purchase in 2023 the British seem to be best placed.  Last week, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, committed £160 million to the development of the Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement Programme (SSNR), including the award of two contracts to BAE Systems Maritime and Rolls Royce.  The SSNR programme will begin to replace the current Astute class SSN starting in 2035, five years after the Australians were due to take delivery of the first Attack-class submarines.  They will likely be driven by a variant of the new Rolls Royce PWR3 nuclear propulsion system under development for the British Dreadnought-class SSBN currently under construction.  It is no coincidence that Australia is also planning to take possession of the first SSN in 2035.

By some measures (Naval Technology magazine in the US) the Astutes are the world’s most capable nuclear attack submarines, although they lack the vertical launch tubes on the Virginias.  The Astutes also have a smaller weapons payload than the Virginias (but more torpedo/cruise missile tubes than the nuclear-propelled variant of the French Barracuda class). However, the crew per boat is a quarter less (98 versus 135) which will matter to the personnel-constrained RAN.  The Astutes also have unlimited range and endurance (like the Virginias but unlike the Barracudas which need to be refuelled every ten years).  The electronic countermeasures on the Astutes are also extremely capable, and they are faster underwater than the Virginias (30 knots versus 25 knots).  The Astutes are also specifically designed for surveillance, infiltration and exfiltration operations which is high on the Australian wish-list. They will also give Australia access to advanced (and upgradable) American and British weapons systems. 

Australia’s nuclear options

The Americans could offer a late block Virginia variant, but that is unlikely because the US Navy will need all 66 of them and block four Los Angeles class boats will be too old by 2035.  The same applies to the British Trafalgar-class SSN the last two of which are beginning the decommissioning process.  Although HMS Audacious, the latest of the seven Astute-class SSN, was commissioned into the Royal Navy last week, the Royal Navy does not have, and will not have, enough Astutes to hand any over to the Australians. The Americans are also unlikely to give even the Australians or British access to some of the black box technologies being developed for the planned SSN (X).  

Ironically, it is the very troubled story of the early days of the Astute programme that may be indicative of the likely way ahead for the Australians, not least because Prime Minister Johnson directly linked AUKUS to highly skilled British jobs.  In March 1997, the British Government signed a contract with what became BAE Systems and Rolls Royce to build the Astute-class.  However, when work began in 1999 the design was incomplete and the 30,000 strong skilled workforce that had built the British Vanguard class SSBN over a decade before had been reduced to 3,000.  In short, BAE Systems had overreached itself and it was only with the appointment of General Dynamics Electric Boat (together with an American programme director) as part of a US Navy contract that the Astute programme began to recover.  Those problems have by and large been resolved, albeit at great cost to the British taxpayer.  In other words, by joining SSNR the Australians would be buying into a well-established and up and running programme that combines both American and British expertise.

Therefore, the most likely solution for the Australians is to join the British SSNR programme with the caveat that their variants will have more US technology built into them than their British counterparts to ensure they are suitable for operations in the Indo-Pacific, as opposed to the North Atlantic or Mediterranean. The eight submarines will likely be built at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide where the RAN variants of the new Type 26 Hunter-class frigates are also being built by a consortium led by BAE Systems and where the Attack-class submarines would have been completed.  Unlike back in 1999 at the Devonshire Hall Barrow shipyard back where the Astutes are built, the Osborne yard already has a skilled workforce in place. The Australians are also used to co-operating with the British because the Type 26 frigates are also being built for the Royal Navy (Town-class) with the first three ships, HMS Glasgow, HMS Cardiff and HMS Belfast close to completion, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy as the Canadian Surface Combatant.

One final thought. Australia’s first nuclear powered submarines could well be named the Odin-class and the first two boats given the honour of carrying the same name as the country’s first two named submarines, HMAS Oxley and HMAS Otway.  

 Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 20 September 2021


“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow. It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways, and amplifying our ability to collaborate recognizing there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners”.

 President Joe Biden, September 15th, 2021

Future war and forever friends

September 20th, 2021. The Australia, United Kingdom, United States trilateral security and defence pact (AUKUS) is the future of a West that is increasingly about shared global values rather than any one place. Such coalitions of real power will provide a form of deterrence and defence insurance for smaller powers than more formal alliances of pretend power.  Why AUKUS?  Why are the French so upset? What are the costs and benefits for the countries involved? Could France have joined AUKUS? What are the geopolitics of AUKUS? AUKUS was certainly a good news distraction from all the bad news over Afghanistan.  It allowed President Biden to shift attention away from the disastrous end of one of America’s ‘forever wars’ and focus attention instead on preventing future war with ‘forever friends’.  One other thing is clear: there is so much more to this pact than is in the public domain.

Why AUKUS? America and Britain will provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) that will replace the twelve Attack/Barracuda-class advanced diesel-powered submarines being built under a contract with the French. The cost to Canberra of breaking the 2016 contract with the French, which was worth some 50 billion dollars Australian (circa €31bn), will be some 2 billion dollars Australian. In fact, the programme was in already in deep trouble.  As one unnamed French official told Le Figaro, “The Australian government had lost confidence in the ability [of Naval Group] to deliver the submarines on time. We haven’t done the job properly”.  Australian politics and its strategic requirement have also changed markedly since 2016 when the contract was signed. In the face of China’s growing submarine force Australia has been forced to overcome political concerns about the use of nuclear-powered submarines. Canberra has also become increasingly concerned that the French submarines would simply not be fit for Canberra’s future strategic purpose. The sheer distances involved in operating in the Indo-Pacific are enormous making endurance a vital requirement for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), which also recognises a growing need to conduct stealthy surveillance operations close to Chinese ports.  Both of these factors alone make the Attacks/Barracudas obsolete even before the planned delivery of the first submarine in 2030. 

An AUKUS moment

Why are the French so upset? In the wake of President Biden's announcement of AUKUS one could almost feel the waves of Gallic indignation rippling out of Paris.  Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, sounding strangely like German General Groener at the end of World War One, said, “It’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed.”  Gerard Araud, the former French Ambassador to the United States, tweeted, “The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded [of] this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie.” 

The French certainly have legitimate concerns about the technology they have already transferred to the Australians under the contract, but it is the subterfuge used by three ostensibly close strategic allies and partners which has so upset Paris.  As late as August 30th at the Inaugural France-Australia 2+2 Consultations, the two countries issued a statement saying that “These first discussions in such a format reflect the very high level of France and Australia’s strategic and operational cooperation. The ministers discussed our joint strategic analysis of the Indo-Pacific environment and signalled France’s wish to act jointly with Australia to achieve an open Indo-Pacific area based on upholding national sovereignties and international law, particularly the freedom of navigation….They agreed on the next steps for strengthening our bilateral defence cooperation as well as our industrial partnerships with the aim of maintaining this momentum and deepening the enhanced strategic partnership that has united France and Australia since 2017".

The meeting also committed Australia and France to strengthen industrial and capability-centred cooperation and re-stated the importance of the future submarine programme. The two countries also launched negotiations focused on strengthening and diversifying military cooperation in support of the posture of French forces in the Indo-Pacific. As the Australian ministers sat down at the table with their French counterparts they would have known (unless they were not in what was a very tight loop) that AUKUS had already been agreed in principle at the June meeting of the G7 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, and that discussions had been underway for some eighteen months.  Hardly cricket.

AUKUS and the Americans

For the Americans, AUKUS is the beginning of a new chapter in its changing global strategic posture built on the need to maintain both deterrent and defence strength-in-depth in multiple parts of the world and across multiple domains.  In Europe, for all its travails, NATO remains the mist efficient mechanism for organising Europeans into a form of defence that is both credible and can ease US burdens. Burden-sharing will be one of the big issues in the forthcoming NATO Strategic Concept.  For most Europeans, including the French, their respective national defences are bolstered by the American presence thus reducing both the risk and cost of an entirely European defence. NATO also reinforces the legitimacy of global American defence leadership.

AUKUS will over time do the same, albeit in a very much more informal ‘anglosaxons’ sort of way, much like the Five Eyes intelligence club.  AUKUS and NATO are also vital if the US is to ease the growing over-stretch to which its armed forces are increasingly subject because of the rise of an aggressive, militaristic China, and its ‘mini-me’, Russia. AUKUS is thus a precedent and not just for Australia, the UK and US. Over time, other democratic powers could join, such as Japan and South Korea, not to mention Canada and New Zealand (if Jacinda Arden can ever be persuaded to stop virtue-signalling from atop Mount Olympus), and possibly even India.

Australia is a strategically-located, important ‘middle power’ with long and trusted links with both the United States and Britain.  Given that every other facet of modern life is being globalised so is security and defence and AUKUS is part of that process.  However, unlike much of Europe, which uses the European Union to protect itself against globalisation, the AUKUS powers are in many respects far better placed to embrace it. In effect, Australia and Britain will become (again) unsinkable bases for American power and the two organising hubs for coalitions on America’s Atlantic and Pacific flanks.  This will also help keep US national security strategy credible in the eyes of adversaries.

AUKUS and the Australians

There is a rather funny but silly film doing the rounds on the Internet in which senior Australian officers try to explain to a minister why they need more money to defend against Australia's biggest trading partner.  Here’s why. Since Australia questioned China’s explanation about the origins of COVID Beijing has become increasingly aggressive towards Canberra by using trade sanctions to damage the Australian economy, as well as engaging in extensive cyber-attacks and espionage to coerce the Australians. China might be Australia’s biggest trading partner, as it is for many countries, but it also led by a regime that can turn very nasty, very quickly. AUKUS anchors Australia firmly into an American-led global pact of defence democracies and reminds China that Australia has powerful friends.

In short, AUKUS, of which the subs are but a part, better protects Australia against Chinese threats than France ever could or ever would.  And, for all the post-AUKUS bluster Beijing understands perfectly the meaning of AUKUS precisely because China respects power. Beijing will be thinking hard right now about how to respond.

AUKUS and the British

The British situation with the French is the most complicated, not least because of the proximity of the two old European powers and because of the already toxic political relationship between London and Paris. There will certainly be a degree of schadenfreude in parts (not all) of London’s body politic over AUKUS, in spite of Boris Johnson’s claim that the Franco-British relationship is “rock solid”.  As one senior German colleague said to your correspondent there can be no question some element of retaliation is involved on the British side for France’s hard-line over Brexit.  These kind of periodical Franco-British bust-ups are hard-wired into an ancient relationship. The strange thing is that Paris really does not believe (remarkably) it has taken a hard-line over Brexit which reveals the level of political dissonance that exists between London and Paris.  Some in Paris even suggest that Brexit is now merely a legal-technical matter to be handled by the European Commission. That is pure Gallic nonsense because in Paris everything is political, even if it pretends to be legal.

The French are also again being rude about Britain. Ho hum. With the voice of de Gaulle echoing through the Elysée Palace France has again accused Britain of being a wholly-owned strategic subsidiary of the Americans.  This is not just the latest proof of the contempt in which President Macron holds Britain, but also a mark of French frustration with a country that France both needs and annoys Paris in equal measure.  France’s clownish anti-British Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, went as far as to suggest that AUKUS, “was a return into the American lap and a form of vassalisation”.  Putting aside the reliance of the French armed forces on American strategic enablers to undertake any military operation of any scale, as well as the amount of advanced US technology in French submarines, it is true the British have pretty much been a junior partner of the Americans since at least 1956, probably 1942.  What the French do not like to admit is that they are too.  Being a junior partner of the US certainly does not stop the British saying what they need to behind closed doors to the Americans and often very bluntly. And, as AUKUS attests, the British still have more influence in Washington than the French. Far from being strategically-isolated in the wake of Brexit Britain is finding its place in a coalition that by any stretch of the imagination is an Anglosphere.  In other words, Britain is doing what it has always done, adapting. What the French and others fail to appreciate is that AUKUS is not just built on enduring historical and cultural ties. During the long campaign in Afghanistan it was only the British and Canadians (along with the Australians) who were willing to operate permanently with the Americans in the most dangerous parts of the country, Helmond and Kandahar, with all the loss of life that entailed.

Much of the praise for AUKUS (and he should be praised for it) must go to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has shown a steely determination to look after post-Brexit British interests just as determinedly as President Macron looks after the French.  As Johnson said, “We will have a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise, and perhaps most significant, the UK, Australia, and the US will be joined even more closely together.”  Not only has London been able to keep a secret (for once) but Johnson has also shown that he is the first ruthlessly strategic British prime minister since at least Tony Blair, more likely Margaret Thatcher.  As the French are all too clumsily demonstrating he will need to be ruthless.  Macron, like so many of the bien pensants in both London and Paris, under-estimates Johnson the leader. 

At the root of the tensions is Brexit. The French continue to remind the British that Brexit means Brexit.  However, any powerful state outside the EU is duty bound to craft its own foreign, security and defence policy and the British are doing just that.  Every time the French utter their Brexit is Brexit mantra the British should remind the French that power is power. Johnson’s strategic reasoning for backing AUKUS thus makes sense for the world’s fifth largest economy and fifth biggest defence spender which invests almost a quarter of Europe’s defence spend and which is Europe’s most capable military power. Given that, AUKUS also puts the recent and ambitious Defence Command Paper and Integrated Review 2030 in their proper strategic context. London must now follow through with its promise to increase the British defence budget by 10% over the next four years and that will mean surviving the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.  The French know full well that defence power buys influence and thus has a high value in this increasingly Machtpolitik world. The despatching of the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific was clearly done knowing AUKUS was in the pipeline and whilst it was undoubtedly showboating, it was showboating for a reason.

For all the tensions between London and Paris over the past few days it is also noticeable that apart from cancelling a meeting between the French defence minister, Florence Parly. and her British counterpart Ben Wallace, Paris has not withdrawn its ambassador to the Court of St James.  Naturally, Le Drian justified the decision with a Pernod-sized dose of Macronian sarcasm by saying that, “we are familiar with Britain’s permanent opportunism [patrician heal thyself] and in this case they’re the spare wheel on the carriage”.  The real reason for France treading a fine line is that the military and defence-industrial relationship between Britain and France remains vitally important to both countries and needs to be preserved for the future (and not without irony secret co-operation over nuclear sustems). Britain and France also co-operate well on the UN Security Council. 

AUKUS and the French

Even if France has some grounds for complaint the French are hopelessly over-playing their hand. To withdraw its ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington, the first time since 1783 in the case of the latter, and to cancel an event celebrating France’s alliance with the US is just downright petulant (ironically to commemorate the French victory over the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Capes in September 1781). The simple fact is that Paris screwed up the submarine contract with the Australians and enabled the Americans and British to out-manoeuvre France using the very kind of statecraft in which Paris prides itself.  At the very least, France’s foreign intelligence service, DGSE, should have picked up that something was developing between the three ‘anglosaxon’ powers, but they failed.  Paris also had enough indicators that the Australians were becoming increasingly concerned about the submarine contract.  As the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “I think they [the French] would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns about the capability of the Attack-class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made it very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest”.

Where does France go next? With the French presidency of the EU about to begin in January Paris will make much of the need for European strategic autonomy in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco and now AUKUS. The irony is that France is right about the need for more European strategic autonomy because a more capable Europe is vital for the future of both Europe and NATO, but the paradox of such autonomy is that it will only ever be realised outside the EU. Autonomy is a function of military power not words.  In the European context any such vision will only ever be realised if Britain is party to it and yet France has done all in its power to alienate Britain in recent years over Brexit. Whatever happens in the forthcoming German federal elections there seems little chance that Berlin is going to become a defence-strategic actor worthy of its economic power anytime soon, and no other European state has any particular desire to support French ambitions. If France wants access to Britain’s strengthening armed forces and intelligence services Paris will need to negotiate and compromise over Brexit.

Much now will depend on how France chooses to respond in the mid-term.  If, after a period of reflection, France adapts to AUKUS and rebuilds its defence relationships with Australia, Britain and, above all, with the Americans, then the damage can be repaired. If, on the other hand, France fulfils its threat to end military and even trade co-operation with Australia, and/or seeks to further damage Britain by deliberately exacerbating the cross-Channel migrant crisis or even, heaven forbid, by discreetly supporting Scottish independence, then AUKUS could mark the beginning of a very serious rupture indeed.

AUKUS and China

Of course, all the above is a strategic sideshow to the main event of AUKUS – China.  The single most important change factor is China’s growing maritime military power projection capability which is shifting not just global geopolitics, but the very shape and structure of Western alliances, coalitions and regimes. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now has more ships than the United States Navy (USN) and, critically, unlike the Americans the overwhelming bulk of the Chinese force is concentrated in the eastern Indo-Pacific.

Power is like a light to moths.  Whether they want to or not moths are irresistibly drawn to it and in the Indo-Pacific there are two lights that shine bright – America and China.  US-China strategic power competition in the Indo-Pacific will be the defining geopolitical contest of the twenty-first century and AUKUS is the first real step in realigning American-led Western strategy with power and threat.  As long as China remains belligerent and bullying others will doubtless want to join it. AUKUS is thus the product of a complex strategic shift in which changing strategy, threat, requirement and method is interacting with geopolitics, history, even culture. 

France thus has a choice to make about whether it wants to be part of this US global strategy, or stand apart from it.  Indeed, far from post-Brexit Britain being strategically isolated, as some have suggested, it is far more likely that France is in danger of becoming strategically-isolated from where the West’s real defence power lies. 

The future of AUKUS

Could France have been part of AUKUS? For all the current tensions AUKUS must be seen in the context of a massively bigger strategic power picture. Not only is AUKUS in many respects the future of Western-led geopolitical networks, but the Americans and the British also need the French because real power still resides with powerful states. Proof?  Interestingly (or perhaps not), just as Canberra, London and Washington were announcing AUKUS, Brussels was launching the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy.  No-one noticed because to paraphrase Hobbes covenants without the sword are but words and of little use to any European. Equally, at some future point it would be in London’and Washington's interest to find ways to associate Paris with AUKUS, possibly as a party to the technological developments, but then it takes two to tango, possibly four. The research and development of military applications of artificial intelligence, cyber technologies, quantum computing and new unmanned underwater systems at the heart of AUKUS will be vital to the future military capabilities of all Western Allies (see my new book “Future War and the Defence of Europe” (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2021).

Equally, France needs to learn some lessons from these past few days because there are at least three good reasons why France was not invited to join AUKUS.  First, whilst Paris is quite willing to play power politics when it suits the French tend towards a much more formalistic, legalistic approach that is in stark contrast to AUKUS.  Second, the Biden administration has been disappointed by French attempts to water down NATO’s position on China. The language of the June 2021 Brussels NATO Summit Communique was clear: “China’s growing influence in international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance. We are increasingly confronted by cyber, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats, including disinformation campaigns, and by the malicious use of ever-more sophisticated emerging and disruptive technologies”.  Immediately after the Summit President Macron sought to water down the language and thus the importance of China to NATO.  Third, France would probably never have agreed to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology to the Australians and any attempts to involve Paris in the early stages of AUKUS would have almost certainly seen France do all in its power to destroy it.

Is AUKUS the first real evidence of a profound split in the West between an Anglosphere and a Eurosphere?  It is highly unlikely. Few other Europeans have come to France’s defence over AUKUS and so many other Europeans are determined to prevent just such a split from happening to keep the Americans and British engaged in continental defence. 

AUKUS and Submarines

AUKUS is nominally about the relative capabilities of submarines, so what of it? The new Chinese Type 095 nuclear attack submarine will be the stealthiest and most capable such boat the PLAN have ever deployed.  Australia needs a counter-submarine capability that can match it.  The merest glance at the relative capabilities of the Attack/Barracuda class and the Type 095 demonstrate what a good waste of money it has been for the Australians to cancel the French contract.

The alternative?  AUKUS offers the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) a leap in technology and capability that would otherwise not have been possible or affordable.  Although reports suggest the eight new nuclear hunter-killer submarines will be built with US technology they are more likely to be based on the British Astute-class than the US Virginia-class (in a recent US study the Astutes were deemed marginally superior to the Virginias).  The Astutes have a smaller weapons payload than the Virginias, but the crew per boat is a quarter less (98 versus 135) which matters and they also have unlimited range and endurance (like the Virginias).  The electronic countermeasures are also extremely capable, and the Astutes are faster underwater (30 knots versus 25 knots).  They are also specifically designed for surveillance operations as opposed to purely counterforce operations, which is high on the Australian wish-list. They will also give Australia access to advanced (and upgradable) American and British weapons systems.  If the Australians do decide in 2023 they want an upgraded Astute then BAE Systems Maritime and Rolls Royce will need to deliver because it is unlikely the Americans will give even the Australians or British access to the planned SSN (X) they are working on and the black box technology therein.

The AUKUS squad

AUKUS is a new strategic pod of hunter-killer powers who have decided to swim together in the same troubled Pacific waters. As one senior US official put it AUKUS is “a fundamental decision that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations”. Remember, not only do AUKUS hunt in pacts, blood is thicker than Bordeaux!

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 6 September 2021

Summer Essay: A Failure of Will and Competence


Julian Lindley-French

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Abstract: This food for thought essay considers the wider strategic implications and lessons for Europeans and their future defence in the wake of the defeat in Afghanistan. The core message is that for the sake of the transatlantic relationship and Europe’s own defence if European leaders continue to adhere to a political culture marked by strategic illiteracy, political short-termism, and defence pretence Europe could well be heading for disaster. Unfortunately, liberal European political leaders, particularly those in Western Europe, seem to have little idea about how to address the twin threats posed by ultra-conservative violent extremists and ultra-nationalist Great Power Competitors.  NATO is the only institution capable of mounting both credible deterrence and dealing with the worst transnational threats. American political fatigue and military over-stretch has also revealed the extent of Europe’s wilful weakness which only a profound change in European political and strategic culture is likely to change.  NATO is making much of the need to strengthen the political cohesion of the Alliance.  In fact, political cohesion is a metaphor for the threat that the North American and European pillars of NATO could be decoupled.  To succeed the NATO 2030 Agenda will need proof of European willingness to share far more of the burdens of their own defence.  A Europe Agenda 2030 should place the strengthening of the NATO European pillar at the very core of the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept.

September 6th, 2021.

Four American presidents…

After four American presidents, tens of thousands of lives destroyed and broken, and billions of dollars spent the Western-led coalition has succeeded in replacing the Taliban with the Taliban.  Why did the West abandon Afghanistan so catastrophically, and what are the strategic implications for Europeans? The real reason was not just the pre-conceived ‘America First’ view of President Biden.  What led to his holding that view was a long-held belief that the war was unwinnable.  Dig deeper and one finds growing US concerns about the cost to them of a lack of European unity, political will, bureaucratic competence and military capability and capacity all of which are steadily undermining NATO and which again threatens to decouple the United States from its European allies.  Naturally, political distraction machines are at operating high speed on both sides of the Atlantic to mask the scale of the failure.  For all the spin liberal Europe’s now many ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist enemies which surround it will not have missed the essential point: Europeans no longer have the will, the competence, the political fortitude, or the strategic patience to face them down.

There were failures of strategy in Afghanistan.  In spite of all the efforts to ‘de-conflict’ tensions between the counter-terror, stabilisation and reconstruction and counter-narcotics campaigns such frictions were at times all too apparent.  Depending on who was in command, and some new commanders did have a tendency to re-invent the wheel, the campaign was a bit like conducting the strategic bombing campaign against Germany from the air, whilst implementing the Marshall Plan on the ground.  This was not a failure of structure. In three reports I wrote for commanders between 2008 and 2014 it was evident that political leaderships, particularly in European countries, were ever less interested in military advice.  After 2010 the problem became acute as political leaders egregiously cut European defence budgets even as the military workload grew.  The ends, ways and means crisis that dogged the campaign throughout culminated in a public row between the British Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, and General Sir Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Commander of NATO.  Shirreff had warned that a further cut to the British Army of some 20,000 regular troops (20% of the force) in the middle of the campaign to be replaced by part-time reservists was “one hell of a gamble”.  He was right. Such frictions were not helped by the incredibly long and very varied screwdrivers each national capital applied to each of their respective operations on the ground. Consequently, both the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Operation Resolute Support were not so much a tight coalition of the willing and able, as multiple national mini-operations tied loosely together by Allied Joint Force Command.  A better name might have been NATO Operation Irresolute, Wholly Conditional and Utterly Inconsistent Rules of Engagement. This was not the fault of the many brave men and women who served and too often died on the ground, but the lack of political unity of purpose and effort at the highest levels of European governments. 

When America retreats

The strategic consequences? When America retreats the rules-based international order retreats and replaced by the anarchy of Realpolitik beloved by the enemies of freedom. Some will find that statement challenging given that some US actions have in the past have also appeared been questionable under international law.  It is certainly true that at times the US places itself above international law precisely to preserve it. When President Biden said last week that America no longer wanted to be the world’s policeman he was also saying that America no longer saw itself as the ‘Shining City on the Hill’, just yet another Great Power engaged in Great Power Competition.  By abandoning Afghanistan in the way they did the Americans have also destroyed the very concept of liberal interventionism and the very idea that American and its allies should always leave a place better off when they leave it.  Moreover, by retreating into a deterrence and punishment strategy the Americans and their Allies are also abandoning the very idea that the struggle for the twenty-first century peace is essentially one of values.  Power is now all that matters and international affairs will henceforth be conducted on the battleground ultra-conservatives and ultra-nationalists have chosen.  What is more likely is one of those very Washington periods of frenzied introspection about the nature of American engagement in this Huxley-esque not so brave new world. For all the talk of the new post-Afghanistan American isolationism the Americans will recover. 

Europe?  The withdrawal from Afghanistan has not only demonstrated how little influence Europeans have over US policy, but the extent to which Europeans have become the Great Strategic Pretenders. If Europeans do not escape from the curse of pretence under which they labour and soon they will court disaster.  They already are. The retreat from Afghanistan should remind Europeans that the US might not always be able to be present in strength in Europe all of the time. China and Russia are actively collaborating to stretch US military power ever thinner the world over.  Whatever happens now the future defence of Europe will depend on Europeans doing far more for their own defence.  If Europeans do not better share transatlantic burdens then they could soon find themselves bearing all of those burdens.  

Defeat in Afghanistan has also definitively marked the moment when it was no longer possible to pretend that US and European foreign and security policy goals, such as the latter exists, can be lumped together simply by appealing to shared values. In the twenty years since 911 and the intervention in Afghanistan both America and Europe have changed profoundly. 2001 was a particular moment in history and not simply because of 911.  For a brief American moment neo-conservatives gained power and believed they had achieved global hegemony in what turned out to have been an equally brief unipolar moment. In the immediate wake of 911 Europeans felt duty bound to follow the Americans come what may, if for no other reason to save NATO.  Afghanistan and Iraq soon disabused them of political hegemony and the coalition very quickly dissolved.  And then came the banking and financial crises caused by cowboy capitalists who did more damage to the superiority of the West than any peer competitor.  The crisis they caused catapulted China and Asia to the fore and both America and particularly Europe have yet to recover.  It is no coincidence that the Afghanistan campaign ran out of political steam soon after the crisis.    

The hard truth is that whilst Americans went to war in Afghanistan, the majority of Europeans entered that war with an entirely peacetime mind-set that never changed.  For the campaign in Afghanistan to have had any chance of working it would have required much greater political commitment from the West, far greater control on the money and arms the West shipped into Afghanistan, a far better system of shared and robust metrics to measure progress (or otherwise), a much greater willingness to share the risks of the campaign, and far greater unity of purpose and effort.  The Americans wanted the forces and resources of allies and partners, but also complete control over the campaign.  The Europeans wanted to influence the campaign, but were never willing to invest in the forces and resources needed to do so.  Rather, risk-averse European capitals became ever more concerned about political appearance and an addiction to long screw-driver, box-ticking projects that had more to do with the political situation back home than Afghanistan’s reality. As for the all-important wider regional strategy it simply never happened because China, Iran, and Russia were all too happy to see the West mired in Afghanistan, whilst India and Pakistan were conducting their own parallel cold war.

NATO: resetting or decoupling?

What of NATO? If the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept is to be anything more than another exercise in self-serving European short-termism and defence pretence (and it will need to be) it must be underpinned by political realism.  NATO’s two core missions are deterrence (not defence) and engaging transnational threats both of which rely on political and military credibility.  To that end, the 2022 Strategic Concept will talk much about greater Alliance political cohesion.  In fact, ‘cohesion’ is simply a metaphor for what will be a transatlantic battle to prevent the US and Europe from de-coupling.

The US is tired, politically divided, mired in debt, and in urgent need of reinvesting in itself, its people, and its infrastructure.  Europeans are increasingly isolationist word junkies, addicted to irrelevance, as the latest iteration of EU hope over experience will attest, the forthcoming and absurdly named EU Strategic Compass and the Initial Entry Force (IEF) will attest. European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) redux? At least back in 1999 Britain was still in the EU and without Europe’s most high-end capable expeditionary power it is hard to see quite where the initial entry bit will come from.  The so-called (missed) Headline Goal and the ERRF was a political exercise to mask Europe’s failings in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo campaign.  The IEF is another such exercise to hide Europe’s embarrassment in the wake of the Afghanistan defeat, simply because the forces of EU Member-States are now so weak they are incapable of securing one airport.

NATO faces another problem, a lack of leadership from the Alliance’s three major Powers, Britain, France and Germany.  There is no disrespect intended to the likes of Italy, Poland, Spain and others but NATO’s European pillar has always been built around these three states. Liberal Western European high political and bureaucratic elites have shown themselves to be incapable of dealing with ultra-conservative transnational and ultra-nationalist state threats because to do so would require them to abandon their delusional ‘world as they would like to be’ beliefs that have so undermined their competence as security actors. Enhanced ‘political cohesion’ would be meaningless if Western European leaders continue to lack the essential strategic and political will to properly confront the threats they and their Allies face?

The abandonment of competence in Berlin, London and Paris has been masked by American power but it can no longer be hidden.  Their political and strategic shallowness has now been laid bare together with the obsession with optics over substance and the 24 hour news cycle.  The lazy globalist ideology of such elites also stubbornly refuses that globalisation has a dark side that undermines the very political cohesion and resiliency which is the foundation of any credible NATO defence and deterrence posture or security engagement. Their steady erosion of what might be termed a European strategic culture for fear that some despot somewhere or other shouts ‘imperialism’.  Their deliberate confusion of moderate patriotism with nationalism and the offense it causes to millions of decent citizens who live outside the closed echo chamber of European elites.  Ultimately, this break down in trust between increasingly distant leaders and their citizens reveals Europeans leaders who no longer to trust their people, and European peoples increasingly contemptuous of their leadership caste.  Ancien regime?

A contest of wills

War is a contest of wills. Putin and Xi understand this. They also understand that contemporary warfare starts with the application of disruptive information against the weak seams of fragile societies.  Beijing and Moscow also understand the significance of the West’s defeat in Afghanistan even if the West is in purposeful denial.  That is precisely why Beijing invited Taipei to think hard on the lessons of America’s defeat in Afghanistan.  Would the Americans really defend Taiwan? Are the Americans not in any case committed to the eventual reunification of China?  Putin and Xi also understand the price an increasingly sentimental Western Europe is willing to pay for a comfortable life, unlike their partners in Central and Eastern Europe who understand the price of freedom. That line was crossed back in 2014 in Ukraine and then in Syria in 2015 when Russia moved decisively to fill a Western influence vacuum. There are those who routinely point out that Europe is stronger on paper than Russia, but then paper is pretty much all that Europe can offer.  The pot-marked pike-ways of history are littered with such paper when ostensibly weaker but more ruthless Powers defeated ‘greater’ but far softer ‘Powers’.

The most important objective now is to disabuse those of their prejudice that the West is weak and irresolute. Credible deterrence will depend on it.  Much of that effort will need to be European. Given the respective GDPs of Western European powers, their defence industrial and technological bases, and their populations much of that effort will depend on the leadership of Britain, France and Germany.  There is no doubt Europeans could mount a much better defence than they do, even in the face of COVID economics. Unfortunately, the usual mantra of Europe’s leaders is either they simply cannot afford their own defence or that no risk exists.  Both responses are contemptuous of Europe’s reality and Europeans will need to do far more for themselves if they are to close the yawning gap between the ends, ways and means of European defence.  What European leaders really mean when they say they are not able to afford Europe’s defence is that they do value security and defence highly enough as a public good to properly invest in it.  As long as the Americans feed their addiction they will continue to claim defence poverty so that they can spend on the very things that get them re-elected but which Americans now also need to invest in: education, health, social care, infrastructure etc.

Europe also suffers from a profound political crisis over the role and utility of military power in international affairs.  London has all but abandoned the land defence of continental Europe in the wake of Brexit and retreated behind its nuclear deterrent, whilst literally 'showboating' Global Britain by sending one of its new but under-equipped and under-protected aircraft carriers into the Indo-Pacific. Paris is forever grandstanding with its hypocritical calls for ever closer European defence integration and ever more European strategic autonomy, even though  Paris is neither willing to give up sovereignty over its armed forces to add substance to such vision nor invest the money required to match words with deeds. Worse, Franco-British relations, the core of any meaningful European defence, are at their worst since at least 1966 and France's then withdrawal from military NATO.  With Macron’s France pushing the EU hard to subordinate post-Brexit Britain that critical relationship is likely to get far worse before it gets better.

However, for all the strategic pretence of London and Paris the real problem is Berlin which is fast becoming a pacifist, mercantilist power which wants the benefits of leadership without the responsibility, partly out of fear of itself. The decision to abandon civilian nuclear power and the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline has led Berlin to rely overly on Russia for much of its energy mix. And yet, without the tight leadership of Britain, France and Germany a vaguely autonomous European defence that could ease the burdens on the US will be impossible.  Unfortunately, Nordstream 2 also drives a pipeline through the credibility of NATO deterrence.  Whilst no state power would consider attacking Germany, let alone nuclear-armed Britain and France, the lack of will and competence in Berlin, London and Paris allied to American military over-stretch is fast leading to a crisis of deterrence at the margins of the Alliance. It is only demonstrable US resolve and power that deters Russia in the Baltics or around North Cape and Svalbard.  The cost of offsetting wilful European weakness will become ever more politically contentious in Washington.  In other words, over the next decade America will only be able or willing to back Europeans if Europeans again do far more for themselves. Period. As the Americans would say.

NATO and Europe Agenda 2030

It seems fitting that I am writing this essay just as the ‘hot phase’ of Russia’s ZAPAD (West) 21 exercise is about to begin.  Some 200,000 participants will take part, 80 aircraft and helicopters, and as many as 800 pieces of military equipment, including some 300 tanks and 10 warships will take part.  Given the pace and scale of the post-Afghanistan threats facing Europe the only show in town remains NATO.  The only plan available is the NATO 2030 Agenda and the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept.  The only real strategic objective Europeans should concern themselves with the strengthening of NATO’s European pillar and with it a more equitable sharing of the transatlantic burdens of European defence.  Given that reality the Europeans do not need yet another exercise in strategic irrelevance such as the EU ‘Initial Entry Force’ which, if it ever becomes more than an EU Military Staff database, will again be too little doing not very much and never very often.  Rather, Europeans must ask themselves what is it they need to do to enable the Americans to continue to provide a security guarantee through NATO.  That means Europeans actually recognising the threats they face, as opposed to only recognising as much threat as they think their social welfare states can bear. Europe’s defence can no longer simply be paid for by what’s left after social security.

Therefore, to succeed NATO 2030 Agenda needs a Europe Agenda 2030. Firstly, Europeans must now move decisively to ease the threat that the US might become over-extended in the event of multiple engineered crises the world over.  Secondly, Europeans should by 2030 deploy a high-end, first responder, multi-domain future force which is fully plugged into the 2030 US command and control systems and structures, and reinforced by all the emerging and disruptive technologies now entering the battlespace. In other words, Europeans need to go far further than the strategically piddling ‘IEF’.  Specifically, NATO Europe must collectively aspire to the creation of an Allied Command Operations European Heavy Mobile Force of sufficient technological capability, with sufficient autonomous and robust enablers and thus 21st century manoeuvre and all arms ethos, to deter in and around Europe irrespective of pressures on US forces.  A force that will also be of sufficient mass to support front-line states to the south of the Alliance facing a host of transnational threats.  This is because for all the talk about seeking ‘improved’ political cohesion in the forthcoming NATO Strategic Concept the real ‘elephant in the room’ is the renewed threat that European defence is becoming decoupled from the Euro-Atlantic Area.

Thankfully, the building blocks to construct an empowered and enabled NATO European expeditionary sea-bed to space defence (in future all defence will be expeditionary by nature and necessity) are in place.  However, they must be markedly expanded, equipped with far more strategic enablers, many more robust expeditionary capable forces, kept at a far higher state of readiness.  In September, the Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm will reach full operating capability which will be vital for the future of land deterrence in Europe. The British Carrier Strike Group should form the core of a much enhanced NATO Europe maritime and amphibious capability, along with its French, Italian and Spanish counterparts.  The Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) needs to be widened and deepened and together with the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) help establish a new framework command for coalitions of European allies and partners.  This new NATO Europe will also need a host of new intelligence-gathering efforts and automated indicators that would give real European meaning to NATO’s all-important Warfighting and Deterrence Concepts.  Indeed, the real test of the relevance and realism of the 2022 NATO Strategic will be the extent to which it generates strategic depth by placing those two concepts front and centre together with the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC).  Above all, Europeans need to forge a new concept of deterrence with the North American allies across the hybrid, cyber, conventional and nuclear spectrums of future war.  There is one more thing: NATO cannot deal with transnational threats unless it also has a concept of intervention and engagement.  That does not mean more Afghanistans, but it will mean the Allies cannot simply ditch the very idea of stabilisation operations as simply too difficult to contemplate.

In the end, for all the many challenges posed by Afghanistan the defeat therein was ultimately a failure of political will and that will be the most difficult thing for Europeans to change. Years of avoiding hard choices has left the European political elite strategically illiterate.  Some will point to COVID as the cause of the malaise but as this food for thought paper demonstrates that failure that is European defence is a structural failure that goes back at least as far as the decades I have been working on it.  It is also a profound failure of leadership compounded by an EU mired in its own hyperbole and eternally practising to be a security actor. Twenty years on from 911 the defeat in Afghanistan will have profound implications for the Americans, not least because of the symbolism of its very timing. However, it is Europeans who in the end could well pay the highest price. 

Edward Gibbon, were he alive today, might well have written that when Europeans finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Europe ceased to be free and was never free again. 

Julian Lindley-French