UPDATE: Literally seconds after posting this piece I was sent a link to this other one Britain’s Strategic Defence Review: The Real Questions which contains the brilliant phrase, amongst other good sense, which now forms the title of this blog post which was previously unimaginatively titled ‘Now that all the service chiefs have spoken…’ Don’t know thsi Nick Witney fellow but I like the way he thinks.
A month ago we had the publication by the MOD of the UK Defence Green Paper. At the same we had the publication by DCDC of the Future Character of Conflict study. In mid-January General Sir David Richards spoke for the Army in an address entitled Future Conflict and its Prevention: People and the Information Age. A month later Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton spoke for the RAF on Dominant Air Power in the Information Age: The Comparative Advantageof Air and Space Power. Just yesterday the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope spoke up for the Royal Navy in Delivering Defence Today and Tomorrow: The Maritime Contribution. All of this at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a cool place to hang out. We now have all the elements of the beginning of the debate: strategy, context, and service-level vision, right? More or less enough to work with, I think. So what do you think?
What I think, for a start:
The Defence Green Paper, on the whole, considering the constraints on its scope, I like it. I think it lays out the issues well enough. It doesn’t answer the big question about what kind of country we want to be, which seems to me the fundamental problem at hand, but that’s not within its remit. I also think for a paper entitled ‘Adaptability and Partnership’ it reflects an unimaginative binary pattern of conceiving Britain’s strategic alignment as, basically, with the US primarily or with Europe primarily. I really think we need to explore other options on which I have mused earlier.
The Future Character of Conflict paper I also found quite good. Apparently, the future is alliterative as it describes the future operating environment with five C’s:
- Contested—forces will have to fight for access to a theatre and for the freedom to manoeuvre in it;
- Congested –they will ineluctably be drawn into urban areas because that is where the enemy will dispose his forces if we choose to fight them;
- Cluttered –it will difficult to distinguish adversaries from the mass of local civilians, other international actors such as NGOs and development agencies, media, and even other friendly forces;
- Connected—key lines of communication will be vulnerable to attack and disruption; and,
- Constrained –legal and societal norms which are essential to the maintenance of legitimacy will limit the actions of the intervening force but not those who oppose them.
Actually, I think there is a misconception in the above on the reason that the ‘connected’ battlespace is important. It is not so much that key lines of communication are open to disruption and attack. Be that as it may, it is hardly a changed aspect of the character of warfare having been central to it since Jacob’s trumpets blew down Jericho’s wall. The importance actually lies instead in Sir David Richards’ speech (on which more below) which in which he said:
Conflict today, especially because so much of it is effectively fought through the medium of the Communications Revolution, is principally about and for People – hearts and minds on a mass scale. This is much more than just about cyber attack and defence, albeit this is important. At the press of a button, an embittered diaspora can be inflamed with a mission and furnished with the knowledge of how to construct a cheap but hugely effective weapon. Dealing with wars fought through internet proxies requires a cultural shift in our understanding of and approach to conflict.
Actually, that ‘push of a button’ bit is over-dramatic–it rather implies an immediacy to the threat which is I think more insidious; but the gist of what he says is in my view correct. Anyway, my point is not to critique the ‘Five C’s’ in detail. I am tempted though to throw a few more C’s in the mix of descriptors of the character of future of conflict—complex, chaotic, contingent, and most relevantly when we get down to the nitty gritty of what the service chiefs have to say, confusing.
The British Army, I believe, hits closest to the mark. Says General Richards:
We have traditionally viewed state-on-state conflict through the prism of putative tank battles on the German plains or deep strike air attacks against strategic sites. While these are still possibilities, they are increasingly unlikely – certainly at any scale. Let me pause on this for a moment because I have been misquoted and this is a fundamental point. State-on-state warfare is happening and will continue to happen but some are failing to see how. These wars are not being fought by a conventional invasion of uniformed troops, ready to be repulsed by heavy armour or ships, but through a combination of economic, cyber and proxy actions. Modern state-on-state warfare looks remarkably like irregular conflict.
Now certainly there is a debate to be had about what to do about this. Richards wants a big army able to exert mass and not just trigger pullers but ‘interpreters, cultural experts, intelligence officers, CIMIC personnel and all the others so key to understanding the modern battlefield with its nuances and subtleties.’ If I were in the Treasury I would write him a cheque because I believe that even after Afghanistan our impulse to intervene will be less diminished than some expect. It seems to me that there will inevitably be situations in which our best instincts urge us to do so; equally, I think it basically correct that our enemies will seek to come at us ‘asymmetrically’ forcing us to fight under ’5 C’ conditions which necessitate the sort of Army that Richards envisions. On the other hand, I recognize there are some who will disagree, arguing that we will not do this again for a long time. Not in the same way, I hope, but well, let’s see.
The Royal Navy, also strikes me as talking sense. I particularly like the questions which Admiral Stanhope asked:
- Firstly, what do you want to defend and what are the Standing Commitments for Defence?
- Secondly, we need to have a clear idea about what we as a country would aspire to do on our own.
- Third, where the UK is operating as a coalition member, how do we want to influence our partners?
These are good questions. And I also accept the point that ‘maritime forces possess the attributes of flexibility and interoperability that are at a premium in Defence thinking and which are the themes underpinning the Green Paper.’ This seems to me quite true. Naval forces bring a lot of things to the party. I’ve come to think that two aircraft carriers are a pretty sensible purchase. Certainly it is hard to see what other assets come with as broad a range of capabilities. If adaptability and flexibility are your priorities then a big flat-top gives you a lot of options to work with. (What should fly from them is another question). This isn’t just because of our current Argentine beef although it is true that Buenos Aires appears to be making the Admiralty’s case pretty effectively right now. (Oh, and now that the Falklands are a concern again can we drop the stupid idea of sharing the carriers with the French? If the Americans won’t help us fight for our oil exploration rights does anyone expect the French to? Hmmm… then again, Suez).
Which brings us to the Royal Air Force, I take the point which Dalton is making about the vital importance of air power ‘… air and space power isn’t an optional luxury that can be added to an erstwhile military operation on the ground or at sea; rather, it provides the essential foundation for any sort of military endeavour.’ Although I think that Rommel put it better:
Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chance of success.
But otherwise the piece bothers me. ‘Air power is unique’, he continues. But no, it is not, and the insistence upon this point is the most tiresome quality of air power theorists in my opinion. In any event surely one of the major developments in recent years is the de-speciation of fire: aerial bomb, mortar bomb, missile, artillery, whatever, so long as it produces the desired effect in the desired time and place what does it matter? Further,
There are circumstances when air power alone has the capability to achieve the desired political or military effects, just as in the 1920s and 1990s/early 2000s. And consider those situations where the financial cost of deploying significant land forces or the risk to life is judged unacceptable or when time for action is short.
No, no, it does not, and this is the second most tiresome irritant about air power theorists, the obsession with its independent war-winning power. What evidence is there for this? Kosovo? Or Iraq? What? And as for air power providing a cheap and quick solution where otherwise we would have to spend much treasure and blood, well, I quote Eliot Cohen on the seductive logic of air power like modern courtship ‘offering gratification without commitment.’ Hasn’t the lesson of the last decade been that there is no free lunch?
I could go on about the Typhoon but you’ve heard all the tirades. Frankly, the best we can hope for is that the Saudis can be convinced to buy a bunch at cut price. Basically, we need to accept that this is £20 billion badly spent. But I do find remarkable the interest of air forces (not just the RAF, even more so the USAF) in cyberspace which is evident in the speech. This is curious because to me I can’t think of a service less-mentally disposed to thinking about cyberspace. Yes, I know in may ways that this is the most technical service. But the thing with cyberspace is that it is only partly composed of technology with the other parts information and, crucially, people–cyberspace is mental space. It’s quintessentially ‘amongst the people’ and, frankly, I think that air forces have a lot of trouble getting into this frane of mind. Moreover, the key thing about cyberspace which makes it such a conundrum is that it lacks conventional dimensionality. It’s weird, therefore, and its weirdness clashes with our habitual patterns of classification. Air power theorists, on the other hand, are very much conventional with respect to dimensionality. The ‘third and fourth’ dimensions (air and space) are as central to their creed as the trinity is to catholicism. Bottom-line: I am utterly convinced of the importance of air power. I’m just not clear about the specific importance of the RAF.