Ruminations of the Usual Sacred Cows

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.


7 thoughts on “Ruminations of the Usual Sacred Cows

  1. Gunrunner says:

    “‘Air power is unique’, he continues. But no, it is not, ”

    Actually, I take a different view.

    Firstly, I think airpower is capable of engaging across all spectrums of the conflict, or avoiding some, because it is unique. Think Col John Warden’s five rings as a place to see where I am coming from on this. Airpower can “jump” from one center of gravity to another, virtually independent of what the other CoGs are doing.

    Second, airpower has now moved into a role that before was unthinkable—a primary fire. Airpower is now capable of being the primary fire with other forces in a supporting role. Think Gulf War I as the first example of this never-before-seen capability. Doughet thought of this, envisioned it, but due to technology, intelligence and weapons effects, was never realized until recently. After a relentless air campaign, ground units were in a supporting role to “mop up” after the primary fire decimated the enemy.

    Thirdly, cyberspace. Air forces are heavily reliant upon information systems, even more so that any other branch of service, not only for net connectivity for aircraft tasking before and during flight, but also because of the munitions they may employ that will be “network enabled.” Post launch, those weapons are on a network and controlled to the target pre-designated or adjusted in flight to another target all-together, or perhaps even destructed on the way.

    However, having said that, all services have a role to play in this environment, and with the NSA gobbling up most of the “warfighting” bytes and budget for this effort, they would naturally be the ones to be the train-and-equip for cyber-war. This won’t happen, of course, because of their famous levels of secrecy and obfuscation.

    My vote, a new and independent “space & cyber” command that serve as focal for addressing all technological and legal challenges that come with this medium of war.

    But that’s just me. . .

  2. Patrick Porter says:

    “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. ”

    China’s rumoured ‘Assassin’s Mace’ strategy supports this – first incapacitating as well as pummeling the enemy.

    On the other hand, there is a danger in speaking of this as though it is a known pattern, rather than just one more hypothesis about something we really cannot know with confidence. Preparing for an infinitely complex enemy attack could open up opportunities for a deceptively simple one, where the uniformed conventional forces strike without warning.

  3. Formerly Grant says:

    On the brief mention of proxy war, that’s actually something that deserves closer study. The U.S and Britain have certainly used it in the past (and the U.S could very well be doing so now) but I don’t know of any real examination of how it is done.

    • Pericles says:

      Geraint Hughes and Chris Tripodi have done excellent work on this, for example:
      Anatomy of a surrogate: historical precedents and implications for contemporary counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism
      Published in: Small Wars & Insurgencies, Volume 20, Issue 1 March 2009 , pages 1 – 35

  4. Gabriele says:

    Personally, i think that, asymmetric or not, the next wars will be away from UK territory. Some of the most evident possible areas of troubles are the Falklands, the whole Middle East and Iran in particular, and in future Asia.
    Counterinsurgency or state on state, you are going to need air support. (Even in Afghanistan, after all, it is essential) And you have no certainty to have allies and bases close to where you need them.

    These simple reasons, without going on and on with other observations, in my opinion underline one absolute truth. Be State on State war, be Counterinsurgency, be it disaster relief, in the next 50 years you’ll need the aircraft carriers. Many times.
    India is building two. China wants them. Russia dreams 6 battlegroups of aircrat carriers (and 4 Mistral assault ships as well). France would like to have another. USA are absolutely committed to no less than 10, and possibly 11 at least. Japan built new flat-top ships that could be used as little carriers. Spain and Australia have landing ships with skyjumps capable to take F35B and Harriers. Italy has the Cavour and the Garibaldi.
    They aren’t stupid. Whatever happens, you’ll need aircraft carriers. Also because 70% of the population of the world lives within a few hundred miles from the shore of the oceans.

    The carriers are what you truly need. Far more than Trident, to be sincere. But, anyway, i’m astonished that the Queen Elisabeth class is not marked as cornerstone of the whole strategy by both parties. Why the whole world considers them indispensable and Britain (an ISLAND, never forget it) doesn’t…? I think it’s absurd.
    Build both, i say. Fit catapults on them and buy F35C, that’s more powerful, has a far greater range and potentially costs less, even. Or, at least, will cost less to maintain, lacking the vertical-lift system and its mechanical complexity.
    Lease a bunch of Hawkeye from the US and you’ll be interoperable with both US and France. You can train crews in collaboration with them.
    The Cerberus radar suites of the Sea King choppers can be moved onto Merlin helos and used either to support of land forces (as in Afghanistan is already happening) or on board Type 45. Sending radar data from the helo to the Type 45, the chances of the missile system of the ship to intercept sea-skimming missiles is far greater.
    And 8 Astute submarines are needed, too.

    As to the army, an immediate cut could be Rapier. It is not needed, and was it needed… well. Sincerely. Enemy planes would just fly higher than its missiles can reach, and it would be useless all the same. It is outdated. The army can do without it until CAMM comes into service.
    The Regiments based on Rapier, ideally, could be re-roled to much needed light infantry. There would still be savings, not having to train people on radars and missile, no mainteinance and such. The overall number of soldiers wouldn’t change, either. And maybe it would be possible to find someone willing to buy at least part of the systems.

    Typhoons. 160 are more than enough, considering the difficulty of moving them to the effective battlefield.
    Oman might be a market, since it wishes to buy up to 24 fighters. Romania was planning 40 or so, too.
    An agreement could be reached to sell off Tranche 1 fighters of the RAF, which should keep the Tranche 2 and 3 and make them full swing-role fighters, capable to attack surface targets of any kind as well as enemy planes.
    The SPEAR program should be scrapped, for now.
    The MANTIS drone should be continued, instead. It would be far better than the Reaper, and thanks to the two engines instead of one, far more reliable too. (Predator drones are often lost because of engine failure, it already happened with a RAF one too)
    The METEOR missile should be acquired in smaller numbers, if possible.
    The TARANIS drone should continue its development… and possibly be made capable to take off from the carriers of the navy too. After all, it’s improbable to need it to bomb Berlin anymore.
    3 Rivet Joint spy planes should be acquired as soon as possible.

    This is what comes to my mind for the moment, after long thinking. What’s sure, is that, whatever the future holds, we need a forcible-entry capability.
    Aircraft carriers and a Brigade of Royal Marine Commandos with is ships. The Ocean will need to be replaced around 2018/2020… she should be replaced by TWO Mistral-like ships, i believe.
    And up to then, it would be awesome to retain the youngest of the Invincible-class ships and use it as commando helo-ship.
    I know there’s no money… but it is what the nation realistically needs. Otherwise, it happens to be left without a single LPH for months, or years even, when Ocean is in refit.

    It was a crime to scrap plans for a sister for Ocean. She proved invaluable in the years, and costed a ridiculous 250 millions. Build two would have been a true bargain. Not for the navy, but for the Nation.

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