TAG ESSAY: The Disintegrating Language of UK Defence

Written by Paul Cornish

Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century philosopher-practitioner of war, once observed that the analysis of war can prompt an ‘ostentatious exhibition of ideas.’ A ‘serious menace’, he suggested, is the ‘retinue of jargon, technicalities, and metaphors’ that ‘swarm everywhere – a lawless rabble of camp followers.’ Analysis of 21st century international security – in all its instability and complexity – can have a similar outcome. There is, however, no possible benefit to be had from approaching that which we find confusing, challenging and even frightening, with language that serves only to push understanding and reason ever further out of reach.

National defence raises vital questions. Who are our adversaries and what do they want? How and when should we respond, and with what purpose? Who should decide when to act and to what end? And how much will it all cost in political, military, economic and human terms? In any democratic society these questions deserve clear and unequivocal answers. That is the task of the long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (usually abbreviated to Integrated Review) expected to appear in January 2021. The case for more efficient and effective fusion of these complicated and costly areas of national policy and strategy – and the departments and agencies responsible for delivering them – seems compelling enough, if not obvious, to most onlookers. After all, why might anyone argue for an unintegrated or disintegrated approach to policy making and national strategy?  But by what measure will it succeed in answering these vital questions of national defence and by what measure will it succeed in communicating its message?

As well as showing how, when and where it should integrate with other areas of national policy, the defence component of the Integrated Review (IR) will be expected to explain the UK’s strategic outlook and the military posture and capabilities that will support that strategy. But is it too late to hope that this part of the IR will also be lucid and logical, and written in plain English? Part of the answer to the integration of national policies lies not only in how we analyse and act upon the problems the country faces, but also how we articulate our analysis and subsequent actions. It would make sense for all departments and agencies involved in the IR to use language in an integrating way. That is not a new or difficult proposition – it simply involves using language as it should be used, for the clear communication of shared (or shareable) meaning. Where security and defence and the resort to armed force are concerned there are important moral, constitutional, strategic and budgetary reasons for seeking clarity of expression. But the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces do, on occasion, seem keen to use English in a pretentious and often bewildering way: using modish expressions that are laden with meaning that is not generally meaningful; a coded language to which few have the key. 

The challenges to international security and national strategy in the early 21st century are not to be taken lightly. We might well be in need of a new language to understand the evolving strategic environment but, if so, a much better job needs to be done of it. In seeking to explain these challenges, defence analysts, commentators and practitioners resort either to commonplace terms of reference intended to reassure us that we already have the necessary intellectual and analytical equipment, or to a more theatrical approach which employs a wholly new and elaborately engineered lexicon, apparently intended to shake us out of our strategic torpor. The first of these hopes to domesticate and neuter the challenges we face, using vaguely familiar terms such as ‘persistent competition’ and ‘political warfare’. But what do these terms actually mean, and do they tell us anything new or even useful? To stay with these two examples, hasn’t international politics always been about ‘competition’, in one way or another? Doesn’t competition always ‘persist’, until the point that it is no longer competition? What would ‘non-persistent competition’ amount to?  And hasn’t warfare always been ‘political’? Isn’t warfare meant to have some political purpose and to come to politically recognisable conclusion? 

The combined effect of two approaches

The theatrical approach, on the other hand, seeks to reify both the challenges and our responses to them, turning loose metaphors into fixed, concrete terms with which to describe a dramatically changed and hazardous world and to animate our response to it. These terms are often signified by the use of Capitalised Nouns and Adjectives, as though they were proper names, the meaning of which is self-evident and beyond argument. Closer inspection, however, reveals many of these terms to be more confusing than convincing. The popular idea of ‘Grey Zone’ conflict, for example, tries to persuade us that the binary, monochrome distinction (‘peace’ versus ‘war’) that has for long governed our analysis of war and conflict can now be discarded in favour of a third option. But how is it possible to describe a notional no-man’s land between ‘peace’ and ‘war’ other than in terms of ‘peace’ and ‘war’? What is grey other than a blend of black and white? 

‘Hybrid Warfare’ is an especially bewildering term; a hybrid animal is one that is not only descended from its parents but is also, importantly, different from them. Thus, a mule is neither a ‘hybrid donkey’ nor a ‘hybrid horse’ – it is a mule. The distinctive feature in much of what is often described as ‘hybrid’ warfare is that it is not ‘warfare’ as traditionally understood but a new blend of political competition and organised violence. Yet if it inherits more from politics than it did in the past, then it is odd that only the non-dominant parent (warfare) is acknowledged. What sort of a genetically confused hybrid is this? Is it really a mule? Another term, ‘Next Generation Warfare’, suggests that armed conflict evolves in more or less discrete phases and that wisdom lies in identifying where we (and our adversaries) lie on the evolutionary continuum before competing accordingly. But the history of armed conflict has rarely if ever followed a neat and predictable course and seems even less likely to begin doing so in the early twenty-first century, given the pace and scope of technological change. If Moore’s Law is anything to go by, the ‘next generation’ might arrive next year, and another two years after that. How useful can it then be to speak of ‘generations’?

The combined effect of these two approaches – one to reassure and the other to dramatise – is to make much of the Western defence discussion incomprehensible and terrifying at worst and puzzling at best: are we facing problems which are broadly familiar and manageable, or something strange, unsettling and menacing? Yet the temptation to indulge in these linguistic gymnastics is very strong, and one the UK defence debate has not been able to resist.  

Persuasive analysis and important propositions, but coded language

The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC 25) appears to be the UK MoD’s principal contribution to the IR process – proposing the ‘strategic outlook and military posture’ mentioned earlier. The full version of the paper is classified and is not therefore available for scrutiny. However, judging by a brief summary of the document – Introducing the Integrated Operating Concept – published in September 2020, IOpC 25 offers a largely persuasive analysis of the 21st century security environment. Several important propositions are made, some familiar and others novel: the strategic context is diversifying, with a broadening range of strategic actors (and competitors); information and data technologies are developing rapidly; Western military advantages, such as air superiority, can no longer be assumed; nuclear weapons are being modernised and new ‘weapons of mass effect’ are under development; and the UK needs a ‘theory of winning’ which should, by implication, be comprehensive and integrated across government if it is to succeed against the range of complex international security challenges. The most interesting of the IOpC 25 propositions is that as well as being prepared to fight, UK armed forces should also be prepared to operate in circumstances where armed violence would be either unnecessary or inappropriate. This seems to be a form of active deterrence (of non-violent aggression), intended to complement the passive deterrence (of violent aggression) provided by the presence of capable armed forces. 

Unfortunately, however, the authors of IOpC 25 have also succumbed to the use of coded language. One such term, the ‘threshold of war’, is especially popular and appears no fewer than twelve times in the brief introductory document. The problem with it is not only that it is a relatively new idea originating in a distinctly Western view of the international order, but also that it is a very weak metaphor. It implies that war (or armed attack, or armed conflict) is a clearly recognisable state of affairs; that we will know when we have entered into it and when we have not. 

A continuum instead of a threshold  

The term has its origins in 1949; Article 5 of the Washington Treaty speaks of an ‘armed attack’ which could trigger the collective self-defence commitment among NATO allies. NATO’s Article 5 draws its authority in turn from the United Nations Charter, published a few years earlier, Article 51 of which refers similarly to the right to self-defence being triggered by an ‘armed attack.’ Yet although the precondition for the exercise of self-defence is armed attack, neither the UN nor NATO have yet defined the latter term. The so-called ‘duck test’ (“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck – it’s a duck”) seems to be the best guide. 

We also know that the 70 year old idea of a ‘threshold’ has barely kept pace with modern developments in international security. NATO has invoked Article 5 on one occasion – the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 – which was arguably more a demonstration of political solidarity than an Alliance-wide commitment to collective self-defence. In 2007 Estonia (a NATO member) experienced a series of cyber attacks which were so intense that some argued for Article 5 to be invoked. But the ‘threshold’ had not been crossed, at least not indisputably. This prompted a debate in NATO as to the nature of a ‘cyber attack’ and whether it should trigger collective defence or the weaker ‘commitment to consult’ under Article 4. The outcome is that NATO now considers that a cyber attack could indeed trigger Article 5, but only if and when the attack is ‘serious’ – a ‘cyber duck test’, perhaps. 

‘Threshold of war’, and its derivative ‘sub-threshold’, are not strong metaphors and neither do they represent the norm in strategic history and current practice. A more accurate image is that of a continuum from peace and stability through to violence and instability; the notion that there could be a single, clear dividing line between one and the other is probably unsustainable. The Introduction to the Integrated Operating Concept also sparks other concerns, such as the claim that our adversaries might have a novel and devilish plan ‘to win without fighting’ – but this is an idea with which we have been familiar for about 2,500 years, pace Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Reference is also made to the idea, derived from Clausewitz, that war has a constant ‘nature’ and an ever-changing ‘character’. We learn that the character of war is evolving ‘rapidly’ and ‘significantly’ and is ‘transforming’. But of course it is: this is what war does and is precisely what Clausewitz was getting at – we cannot on the one hand subscribe to his analysis and then appear to be surprised by it. The introductory document contains at least one other exaggerated claim – that a ‘new model’ of deterrence is not only required but has been discovered. We are told that the addition of ‘competition’ to the ‘traditional deterrence model’ will make it possible to ‘compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war.’ This is the logic behind the ‘operate’ proposition discussed above. But the raison d’être of deterrence has always been to manage competition and tension without the resort to armed conflict; modern deterrence does not require a ‘more competitive approach’ – it already has one. 

Intellectually lazy instead of lucid, solemn and uncluttered language

IOpC 25 also contains language which is far stranger. In what might be a nod to the Harry Potter school of strategy, we learn that we should be searching for ‘a North Star to help us develop the modernised force beyond 2030.’ Force modernisation is a critically important task of strategic risk management but it is not helped by fanciful language such as this. Nor is it helped by the idea that we should distinguish between ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’ capabilities; the first being destined for the scrapyard and the latter worthy of our investment. Who is to decide, when should we invest and on what basis? Military innovation has seldom worked in such a clear-cut and decisive way – one notable exception being the change by the world’s navies from paddle wheel to screw propeller which took place ‘almost overnight’ according to Matt Ridley in How Innovation Works. And in any case, to extend the metaphor ad absurdum, it might be useful to observe that sunset and sunrise do not happen simultaneously all around the world. 

The Western defence debate generates many insightful, informative and timely arguments. But it is also, sadly, home to a cottage industry of nonsense. The UK should not contribute to this – the language of national strategy and defence should instead be lucid, solemn and uncluttered. The UK defence establishment should avoid having a jargon-ridden conversation with itself. It should be clear as to the message it is seeking to communicate and should think more carefully about its intended audience (and how they use the English language). It should also avoid hyperbole. 

Introducing the Integrated Operating Concept claims that its parent document, IOpC 25, represents both ‘the most significant change in UK military thought in several generations’ and ‘a fundamental shift in military philosophy’. The first of these claims might be justifiable, pending closer analysis of IOpC 25, but the second much less so; if this is ‘philosophy’ (let alone ‘fundamental’) then I am Aristotle. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on 12 October 2020, Professor Tina Beattie, an academic and broadcaster, warned that ‘We are gradually anaesthetised to settle for the banality of words without substance, and jargon without meaning in our increasingly impoverished public discourse.’ She could well have been writing about the trend to pretentious obscurantism – the last resort of the intellectually lazy – that defines too much of the current security and defence discussion in the UK and elsewhere. But to make the point most vividly we should return to Clausewitz, whom some would describe as the only philosopher of war to have emerged so far in the modern period. Clausewitz made these memorable comments in his seminal On War (the Howard & Paret edition):

We will […] avoid using an arcane and obscure language, and express ourselves in plain speech, with a sequence of clear, lucid concepts. […] If concepts are to be clear and fruitful, things must be called by their right names.

Carl von Clausewitz

The Biden Doctrine, China and RCEP

“Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”.
President Teddy Roosevelt

Bloc mentality?

November 26th, 2020. Geoeconomics is geopolitics. An event took place on Sunday, November 14th that could potentially change the lives of Europeans. Press coverage? Minimal. Three are two immediate strategic questions implicit in the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). What are the geopolitical implications and how does the RCEP relate to China’s also just announced fourteenth Five Year Plan?

A bit of history. The First World War was caused by the extreme Prussian-centric nationalism and expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. However, Berlin also set in a motion a process that led to dangerous bloc mentality. With the fall of the wily Bismarck in 1890 the Dual Alliance, and then the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and for a time Italy, gradually went from being a defensive to an offensive pact as the domestic social and political pressures faced by the Prusso-German elite grew. By way of response the Franco-Russian Alliance was formed, which led in turn to the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, and eventually the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia. Such an alignment would have been unthinkable a generation before. Something else happened. As the blocs formed every action taken by the states involved began to be seen through the narrow prism of military power. Hammers and nails and all that.

Geoeconomics: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The geoeconomics. The fifteen nation RCEP could be possibly the largest free trade deal in history. Whilst it has not been China-led, the sheer magnitude of China’s economy and its ‘gravitational’ economic pull will inevitably mean it becomes China-centric. Whilst the RCEP does not completely eclipse the so-called Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) because both the US and India withdrew (mistake?) the RCEP will further shift the centre of regional and thus world economic gravity towards China.

The RCEP involves some 30% of the world population and, critically for China’s domestic need to maintain economic growth, could see $209 billion added annually to world income and by 203 $500 billion to world trade. Whilst such growth is good news for COVID devastated Europe both the nature of it and the locus for its generation will also further accelerate the shift of wealth and thus power from Europe. Critically, for COVID-19 damaged economies in much of the Indo-Pacific, RCEP could improve access for many of the states therein to Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding, with all the geopolitical implications that would entail.

Geopolitics: The Fourteenth Five Year Plan

Now, the geopolitics. In March 2021 China’s fourteenth Five Year Plan will be revealed. From what is known thus far China’s aim will be to enhance economic, technological and supply chain security. Much of the Plan will be devoted to easing the rapid urbanisation driven economic gulf that exists between Chinese cities and the countryside, as well as between rich coastal communities and the rural poor. There will also be a significant part of the plan devoted to strengthening internal security, given the social unrest and many disturbances that have recently broken out. Beijing is particularly sensitive to the danger posed to the regime if the ‘contract’ established in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre breaks down. Under that ‘contract’ China’s burgeoning middle class accepted the political ascendancy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in return for ever-improving living standards. Given the size of China’s middle class they matter.

Critically, the Plan will also contain major provisions for the further modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with the focus on “elevating the level of national security”. Given that Beijing sees Taiwan as part of ‘national security’ the implications for Taipei and regional strategic security could be serious. The specific aim of the Plan will be to transform the PLA from its current status as a twentieth century plus half-mechanised force still focused on old Communist-era military districts into a fully twenty-first century ‘informationised’ force designed to exert decisive theatre-wide influence and coercion. Given that the ‘theatre’ in question is the Indo-Pacific, by ‘influence’ the Plan clearly implies coercion of states therein (if needs be) and, in time, the exclusion of US forces. Central to the Plan will be the creation of a very large, high-end, integrated joint force, reinforced by civil-military fusion and a PLA Strategic Support Force. In other words, enhanced and sustainable military power projection allied to strengthened domestic resilience and people protection via the technologies of the new battlespace – hypersonic missile systems, artificial intelligence, drone swarms, bio and Nano tech, and super-computing leading to quantum computing.

Geoeconomics or geopolitics? China is no democracy and it would be easy for many in the global democracies to see all Chinese actions and the RCEP through the prism of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military building programmes, its illegal seizure of islands in the South China Sea, its routine breaking of World Trade Organisation rules (most notably intellectual property theft), and its digital and other forms of offensive espionage. There will certainly be those around President Xi who profoundly believe that coercion works.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

There is another way of looking at the RCEP and, indeed, how it influences the politics and strategies that will be both explicit and implicit in the Five Year Plan. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and China’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, which has done so much to undermine trust in the Chinese state, Beijing has realised that China has much to gain by being seen to observe international rules and norms, which is precisely what the US and its Western Allies want. It is also why democracies in the region, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and others, have signed up to the Partnership (the key is in the title). In other words, time will thus tell whether it is the RCEP or China’s Five Year Military Plan that will be the defining factor in both regional-strategic and by extension world security. At the very least, the RCEP should be given a chance to work some multilateral magic.

RCEP also establishes a template for a Biden Doctrine. For all the talk of climate change being the primary foreign policy focus of the President-elect’s team, it is China which will define the Biden Doctrine. As such, the Biden Doctrine will need to both engage China where and when Beijing observes the rules implicit in the RCEP, but if needs be confront and contain China when it does not. In other words, whilst RCEP implies risk and reward for all concerned (including India and the US) it also mitigates the tendency to see all Chinese actions through the prism of narrow militarism. Critically for the Americans New Delhi could well be in agreement with such an analysis.


At the same time, China will still be the overwhelmingly powerful force in RCEP, precisely because India and the US refused to join. There can also be no doubt that China sees itself in strategic competition with the US and the wider West. Such competition is implicit in the military modernisation aspects of the Five Year Plan. The test will be the extent or otherwise to which Beijing seeks to instrumentalise RCEP to exclude the US (and others?) from free trade in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s growth generator, and thus strengthen the perception of a US in decline. If it does then China’s stated aims in the Five Year Plan to strengthen China’s technological, economic and supply chain security will be decidedly anti-American, which in time would likely mean the RCEP falls apart.

Still, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is an important strategic demarche. It is also a success for the patient diplomacy of several mid-sized regional powers and the leadership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and should be celebrated as such. As such, the RCEP should also be seen as an attempt to use free trade to tie China into a rules-based multilateral framework of the type the West has consistently championed. The Biden administration, and the wider West, must also see the RCEP as a post-COVID geo-economic opportunity and treat it as such. However, there is always the chance it is also the harbinger of the geopolitical challenge that will be laid down in the Five Year Plan. In which case, the Biden administration would do well to remember the words of former President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”. One final thought. What a different world it would be if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) had been agreed. Ho hum.

Julian Lindley-French

The Alphen Group: V-Conference: “The Strategic Consequences of America’s Choice”

November, 16th 2020 

“It is time the European pillow became the European pillar”. 

Purpose: The purpose was to consider the strategic consequences of the forthcoming Biden administration and the strategic consequences with which the new Administration will have to deal, with particular focus on transatlantic relations and Europe.

Core message: The “mother of all challenges” will remain geopolitics. Therefore, the positive engagement and leadership of the United States in international affairs is still vital. Under Biden the transatlantic relationship will likely be more predictable, more of a partnership and thus better able to exert “shaping power”.  However, COVID-19 is forcing Allies on both sides of the Atlantic to focus on domestic matters with the available political bandwidth for foreign and security policy limited. The Biden administration will be more “decent” and better aligned with European values and multilateralism, but it will still demand Europeans do more for their own defence. America’s internal divisions will be Washington’s main preoccupation. 

The Meeting: The new Administration will spend at least a year dealing with domestic matters as Biden seeks to shore up the Blue Wall, even as the Democrats face divisions between progressives and realists. Trumpism will remain a powerful force in US politics.  Biden will seek to restore trust, transparency and truth in the transatlantic relationship, will rebuild American support for multilateralism, and ensure the US remains a ‘European’ power, but Washington will still demand Europeans share more of the burdens of risk and cost. Co-operation on cyber and climate change will also be highlighted. Europeans will need to understand (and do) the need for greater capacity and the ability to act across different domains. Regional actions against Jihadism may distract Europe from Great Power geopolitics, but the scale of the threat will demand greater European effort and continuing US enabling capacities in Africa.

Europeans, Germans in particular, must seize the ‘Biden moment’. A lack of European ambition could sorely test a relationship in which Berlin must now assume greater responsibility than at any time since World War Two. A New Atlantic Initiative is needed with NATO given a new Strategic Concept which reduces America’s military footprint in Europe, but confirms its presence. Further initiatives on resilience (with a focus on Article 3 of the Washington Treaty), deeper strategic partnerships within the Alliance, a re-commitment to make Europe’s ‘fat militaries’ leaner and meaner, and a common strategy on China should be fostered. Republican control of the Senate will make it hard for Biden to seek formal treaties in areas such as arms control. Canadians will focus on the Ottawa Group and support for WTO reform and solidarity against Chinese rule-flouting. 

JLF assessment: Behind the furore of the US presidential elections COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of China with profound geopolitical implications for both North Americans and Europeans. The future cohesion of the transatlantic alliance now demands both sides of the Atlantic increase their commitment and contributions to that cohesion. The sheer extent of the security agenda, allied to political and economic constraints also suggests the European pillar must assume greater strategic responsibility. In short, “the transatlantic relationship needs the EU to be a more powerful strategic actor”. There is place for neither illusion nor nostalgia. 

Julian Lindley-French

TAG PREMIUM BLOG: Dealing with Risks

By Holger Mey

Those who were surprised by the outbreak and world-wide spread of the Corona virus/COVID-19 had either no understanding of biology or history or both.  Everything that happened in recent months was foreseeable and foreseen as well as predictable and, indeed, has been predicted.  Experts had for many years warned that a pandemic comparable to the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 was about to happen sooner or later.  Even some politicians, such as President Obama, some years ago made alarming public statements to that effect.

Unfortunately, policymakers do not usually act in anticipation of challenges or threats, but rather re-act to events.  This is, on the one hand, understandable because the political agenda is comprehensive and requires constant adjustments and re-prioritization, and to take measures to prepare for contingencies that seem less likely are inevitably put lower down the to-do list.  That’s the nice interpretation.  On the other hand, and this is the not so nice interpretation, politicians in non-crisis situations prefer to promise good things to their respective peoples rather than confront them with harsh reality, such as a possible pandemic.  Shying away from confronting people with unpleasant reality and the need for appropriate funding and measures inevitably leads to inadequate societal preparation for the next crisis.

To some extent, the lack of precautionary measures, planning, and exercising in the area of civil defense, health care, disaster relief, protection of critical infrastructure, etc. is comparable to the lack of defense spending and military preparation during peacetime.  Historically, the result all too typically has been that societies later pay with both blood and money.

However, even among military planners there is a tendency to plan for only those scenarios that one would hope could just about be coped with.  The prevailing assumption tends to be that the opponent is either incompetent or cooperative, or both.  No more worst-case analyses, but rather best-case assumptions.  Little planning was “threat driven”, but rather “budget driven”.  Budget constraints led to a situation where it was more about making the Armed Forces efficient for peacetime rather than effective for wartime.

Much of life is about assessing likelihood.  As the physicist James Clerk Maxwell put it, “The true logic of this world is in the calculus of probabilities”.  There is a caveat. When it comes to security and defense (and insurances in day-to-day life) another factor comes into play: the level of possible or expected damage.  To put it simply, whilst “threat” is the product of “capability” multiplied by “intention”, “risk” is the product of “likelihood” multiplied by “level of damage”.  Military capabilities without any intension to use them do not pose any threat.  However, intentions change, which is why people speak of “potential threat”.  Risk, in contrast, is ‘intention agnostic’.  There may or may not be an intension, but a technical failure, human error, or a natural disaster, including a pandemic, can still present a severe risk.

Consequently, even a highly unlikely event can pose a significant risk if the damage it would inflict would be very high.  These are low-probability/high-impact scenarios’ and are precisely the kind of scenarios that cannot be neglected. Preparing for the worst reduces the likelihood that events that happen despite their low probability turn out to be extremely severe.  Resiliency requires an ‘architecture’ which demands hardening, immunization, emergency procedures, exercises and training, decentralization, diversification, autonomization of small entities, subsidiarity, an extremely competent research and development environment, a competitive industrial base, an effective and comprehensive health system, technical relief personnel, police, firefighters, etc. in sufficient numbers and sufficiently reinforceable.  That places a particular premium on flexible reserve force (stocks and people), and preparations for fast recovery, as well as the ability to mobilize civil society through effective civil defense. Thankfully, there are many ways to mitigate risk by preparing a society for the worse.  Moreover, there will be many positive effects for society, such as an improved and more robust health system, even if the worst case does not happen – or, at least, not happen soon.

There is still a small chance that this time policy-makers will learn from their past mistakes and their failure to prepare for a pandemic that was both predictable and predicted.  After the pandemic will be before the pandemic.  There are also many similarities with regard to war and military preparedness.  The difference is that preparing for the next pandemic mostly reduces its fatal consequences, whilst preparing for a strong defense not only reduces the fatal consequences of any future war, but also significantly lowers the likelihood that such a war would break out in the first place.  Can there be any better investment into the future?

Does America (Still) Want to Lead the Free World?

“We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it”. Thomas Jefferson

Checks and balances
November 5th, 2020. So, that was that! The Great Arsenal of Democracy has spoken…sort of. As I write the US is heading for a Biden presidency. However, the Democrats are likely to see their majority in the House of Representatives reduced and, crucially, fail to gain control of the US Senate.  If confirmed the real ‘winner’ is the US Constitution. The checks and balances it enshrines will ensure that a Biden White House will be an essentially centrist administration.  What does the last forty-eight hours suggest about the next four years for Europe and America’s leadership of the free world?

Many Europeans will be quietly celebrating this morning amidst the economic wreckage of COVID-19. At least the transatlantic relationship will return to some form of ‘business as usual’, some will suggest.  Wrong! It cannot and will not.  There are few concepts I can lay claim to but I was the first to suggest the foreign and security policy of the Trump presidency would be transactional. At the time I called upon Europeans to look beyond the politics of Trump at the structural challenges the Americans are facing, foreign and domestic. They did not.  Instead, Europeans have used President Trump as an alibi to avoid facing the hard security and defence choices they must now make. This is something, I fear, COVID-19 is about to make a whole lot worse.

The world is changing…
Some months ago I also asked a question: who will win COVID-19?  It will certainly not be Europe, but nor will it be the US.  The terrible twin titans of the post COVID-19 international system are geopolitics and geo-economics, neither of which are trending in the West’s favour.  The world is witnessing a profound shift in the balance of coercive power away from the democracies towards China, and by extension its piggy back partner, Russia. The economic and military rise of China also seems to be accelerating as a consequence of COVID-19 with profound implications for European defence and the transatlantic relationship.The defence strategic consequences?  In spite of the still awesome military power projection the US Armed Forces are still capable of even the mighty US Armed Forces cannot be present in strength in all places all of the time across the full spectrum of twenty-first century conflict.  Power is relative and for a state to exert such influence it would need to be uniquely strong in relation to all other possible peer competitors. There may have been a moment back in the early 2000s when some Americans thought the US enjoyed such power and could act as the Global Policeman (even if many Americans denied such ambitions), but 911, Afghanistan and Iraq quickly proved such pretention to be illusory, if not delusional. The coming years will thus likely see a kind of information-digital-hypersonic arms race in which the autocracies systematically seek to ‘short-of-war’ exploit the many vulnerabilities that are also the very essence of democracy.

…but so is America
Then there is the changing nature of America itself. A lot of Europeans still tend to view America through the prism of ‘the Greatest Generation’, which in tandem with Churchill’s Britain and Stalin’s Russia won World War Two. They forget the isolationist Vandenberg America of the 1930s and ignore the extent to which the US is again fast changing. There were two telling trends in this election. First, the percentage of white voters fell from 70% in 2016 to 65% in 2020. Second, the sheer scale of voting revealed a far greater engagement of minorities in the electoral process. This is to be welcomed. Political legitimacy in liberal democracies rests upon the need for the greatest number of citizens to engage.  Analysts too often tend to see geopolitics in terms of power indicators, which are often stripped down to size of a respective state’s economy and the relative power of its armed forces.  However, the ability of a state to apply power also rests upon a range of other, often intangible domestic factors. The power of the ageing ‘baby boomer’ vote was again apparent in this election. However, their future is behind them and twenty years hence the US will wear a different identity and political complexion.

Lessons from history?
In some important (although not all) respects contemporary America is not unlike late imperial Britain in the 1920s.  On the face of it, 1920 saw British power and influence at its zenith. Britain emerged from World War One victorious and in 1920 still possessed by far the largest navy in the world, the true measure of global power at the time. However, Britain was also mired in debt, not unlike the US today which faces a budget deficit of some 16% GDP, the largest since 1945, and a national debt fast approaching $28 trillion.

Britain was also deeply divided.  The 1918 Representation of the People Act and the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the franchise to all men and women over the age of twenty-one.  With two strokes of the Parliamentary pen the age of High Victorian Aristocratic Imperialists (of which Churchill was very much a part) was effectively brought to an end. To say the political and strategic consequences were profound is an understatement.  Britain had been in relative decline on the international stage since the 1890s as Wilhelmine Germany emerged as a European industrial powerhouse, America stopped colonising itself and began to look outward, and the Empire of Japan began to take its first tentative steps towards Great Power. Important though such change undoubtedly was Britain’s retreat from Empire accelerated far more quickly because of the changing nature of Britain itself.  

Downton Abbey America?
The shift in the Britain of the 1920s away from Imperialism and towards Disarmament was not just a consequence of the sacrifice of World War One. With the seizure of power by the political leaders of the bourgeois and working classes a British world view began to emerge that was very different from that of the Patrician order of old. That is the implicit story of Downton Abbey which any fan will recognise. In what was perhaps the first great struggle between imperial globalists and social nationalists the Great Depression then further accelerated change in the global, political and social order, just like COVID economics seems to be doing today. The change showed itself most clearly over the question of Britain’s role in the world, in particular what was then termed Indian Home Rule.  Gandhi, Nehru and others were successful (eventually) in agitating for Indian independence, but what is not often recalled is the support for such independence in Britain itself.

Masked by Britain’s subsequent role in World War Two it is often overlooked that much of 1930s Britain no longer had the political appetite to be an imperial power. With the political empowerment of the working class, both men and women, British politics rapidly became focused on the domestic struggle between entitlement, capital and labour. In Britain, such tensions took the form of events like the 1926 General Strike and the rise of the Trades Union Congress.  In contemporary social media driven America it is reflected in culture wars, entrenched politics of identity and the demand for far greater political and real investment in promoting racial and social equality.  There is also the huge task that any new Administration must face of modernising American infrastructure, much of which is clapped out. 

These immense domestic pressures the new Administration will face also begs two further questions of Americans. First, do Americans still want to lead the free world?  Second, if Americans do, how? Britain’s past may again prove illuminating.  The Naval Defence Act of May 31st, 1889 formally adopted the so-called Two Power Standard. This committed the Royal Navy to maintain twice the strength of the next two most powerful navies combined. On the face of it the Standard was a statement of British Imperial power. In fact, it was recognition that the French and Russian navies enjoyed the luxury of being able to make life exceedingly difficult for an over-stretched Royal Navy by choosing when, where and how to apply pressure the world over.  This is much the same dilemma the US faces today with the rise of China as a hybrid, cyber and potentially hyper war power, and Russia’s assertive coercion in and around much of Europe. In other words, for America to still lead the free world and defend Europe it will need to impose some form of ‘tax’ on the Allies to do it.  

Rise and Fall…
Britain’s decline was played out on the world’s oceans, as will America’s. Throughout the 1890s the challenge for Britain of controlling home waters, the Mediterranean and the sea lines of communication to Britain’s African colonies, India and the Eastern Empire became increasingly acute.  The appointment of Admiral Tirpitz in 1898 led to the eventual 1907 creation of Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet which was designed for one purpose – the defeat of the Royal Navy in Britain’s home waters. London soon recognised that in the face of such challenges Britain could no longer defend all of its interests everywhere, all of the time.

To solve the problem of what became known as imperial overstretch in January 1902 Britain forged the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The alliance helped transform the Chrysanthemum Throne into a regional-strategic Great Power, and all that happened thereafter, including the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The policy quickly paid strategic dividends to Britain with the crushing May 1905 naval defeat of Russia by Japan at the Battle of Tsushima (with at least one Royal Navy officer in attendance) and helped lead to the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. 

America? America is not Britain and its power fundamentals are far stronger than Britain’s ever was.  Therefore, if the US still has the will and political cohesion to lead the free world it can do so, but only in concert with committed and capable allies. In the Indo-Pacific that will mean deeper ties with Australia, South Korea and, of course, Japan. India? As for Europe, the Americans need NATO, but only if NATO can be transformed into a group of capable allies that can and will properly share risks, costs and burdens.  However, if such a new NATO is to be realised THIS America must want to lead and be willing to continue to bear the costs of such leadership, which will remain substantial.  Washington will also need to demonstrate the strategic patience needed to rebuild and maintain the alliances Washington increasingly needs. The alternative?  Look at Britain. A century ago London’s writ ran the length and breadth of the world. Today, London’s writ does not even run the length and breadth of Britain.

The difference between a President Biden and President Trump? They will be manifold, particularly in matters of style.  President Trump also saw American power as transactional because he for him international relations is little more than a protracted big business negotiation over global real estate. The transactionalism would be driven by a simple truth: the US has no alternative. Yes, there are many Americans who no longer confide in US strength and not a few who increasingly fear the power of the other, but the free world still needs American leadership and that leadership must both empower its people domestically and its allies globally. 

Julian Lindley-French

The NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept

“It is important to emphasise that the willingness to commit decisively hard capability with the credibility to war fight is an essential part of the ability to operate and therefore of deterrence…we cannot afford any longer to operate in silos – we have to be integrated: with allies as I have described, across Government, as a national enterprise, but particularly across the military instrument. Effective integration of maritime, land, air, space and cyber achieves a multi-Domain effect that adds up to far more than simply the sum of the parts – recognising – to paraphrase Omar Bradley – that the overall effect is only as powerful as the strength of the weakest Domain…We must chart a direction of travel from an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems.”

General Sir Nick Carter, “The Integrated Operating Concept”, 30 September, 2020

Exercise Joint Warrior

NATO’s Exercise Joint Warrior is underway. It brings back fond memories. In 2013 I had the honour of being an observer. Apart from ‘decorating’ the wardroom of HMS Westminster with the substantial and substantive consequences of my patent lack of sea legs, and being pretty ill for twenty four distinctly unmemorable hours thereafter, I gained an invaluable insight into the maritime-amphibious business of the Alliance. Joint Warrior 2020 finishes tomorrow having conducted a series of mainly anti-submarine and contested landing exercises in the North Sea and having involved over 6,000 personnel and 81 ships from 11 nations.  Critically, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was also present in tandem with the Royal Navy. The past? No. The future. 

The British-led exercise also pointed to the future by showing how a European maritime-amphibious future force could operate with the US future force in a contested battlespace. For the first time the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group was revealed with HMS Queen Elizabeth at its F35B Lightning 2 power projection core. The exercise was also taking place against the backdrop of NATO’s real twenty-first century challenge: how to transform the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture, what President Macron rather unfairly called ‘brain dead’ NATO last December, into the super-smart, agile force the Alliance will need by decade’s end.  

It is a force that if needs be must have the capability and capacity to act across the mosaic that is hybrid, cyber and hyper warfare. A transformation that must also take place whilst the coming COVID-19 economic crisis wreaks havoc with European defence budgets. Even today even Europe’s largest navies, the Royal Navy and French Navy, are so small that if they seek to carry our Mahanian sea control, à la the RN Carrier Strike Group, it can only be done at the expense of Corbettian sea presence.  Any smaller they will be unable to perform either role. The solution?  A deep combined European Future Maritime-Amphibious Force built around a command hub focussed on the British and French navies. The irony is that Britain’s departure from the EU may make such a force easier to realise now that the spectre of an EU Army/Navy has been removed from British concerns.  

Zircon and the US Future Navy

Future Allied defence and deterrence is not the only challenge implicit in Joint Warrior 2020. On October 6th, US Secretary for Defense Mark Esper previewed Battle Force 2045, the plan for the US future navy. Esper offered the vision of a five hundred ship US Navy comprised of both manned and unmanned ships. The essential points of the Esper Plan is for more nuclear attack submarines, 50-60 amphibious assault ships that could also be used as light aircraft carriers (this is ironic for the Royal Navy as it pioneered such ships and then scrapped them), large (1000-2000 tons) and medium (500 tons) unmanned ships, together with extra-large sub-surface platforms (50 tons) that can host hypersonic missile and Artificially Intelligent drone swarms, with the future fleet supported by 80-90 frigates and longer range carrier strike aircraft, both manned and unmanned, that have far greater ‘reach’ than afforded by the F35B Lightning 2. 

On October 7th, as Exercise Joint Warrior got underway, and as a sign of the challenge Allied navies will face, President Putin’s sixty-eighth birthday present was a successful test of a 3M22 Tsirkon (Zirkon) hypersonic anti-ship missile which can travel at over 1.2 miles/2 kilometre per second up to 1,200 miles/2,000 km. A message? Absolutely. NATO? In my speech to the Committee for Standardization at NATO HQ in Brussels at the end of last month I said that the next ten years will see the equivalent of seventy years of past military technological development crammed into it and more.  There are some good signs. For example, the US and UK already enjoy what might be called an AI Special Relationship, but far more needs to be done by the Allies to compete in what could be a deadly race between democracy and autocracy.  

The NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept (NSIOC)

The Plan? Certainly, NATO needs a new Strategic Concept that reaffirms the enduring purpose of the Alliance and its fundamental tasks given the fast changing nature and scope of contemporary and future risks and threats. Critically, the Alliance also needs a NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept that would populate General Carter’s vision with real resources, something the British alone will be unable to do.  This is because the essential challenge for NATO deterrence and defence concerns the balance the European Allies must strike post COVID-19 between cost, military capability, military capacity, technology and the fast expanding military task-list that is being generated by the new strategic environment.  The next decade really will be different and dangerous. 

That challenge is reinforced by the urgent need to effectively and efficiently organise cash-starved Bonzai European militaries into a force that can contribute meaningfully to Allied defence and deterrence, maintain interoperability in extremis with the US future force, and if needs be act as a high-end, first responder in and around Europe. As an aside, London should be congratulated for looking ahead but for the British there is also a profound danger that the forthcoming Integrated Review 2020, with its headline-grabbing focus on space and digital domains, will simply be yet another of those ‘clever’ London political metaphors to mask further cuts to Britain’s already waning fighting power. In other words, Britain’s future force only makes sense in a NATO context and only if it can work at the high end of operations with the Americans.

Thankfully, there are signs that such hard realities are beginning to be gripped. NATO’s new Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro Atlantic Area (DDA) is designed as a stepping stone en route to an adapted/transformed Alliance. It is also designed to deliver an unambiguous, consistent and continuous demonstration of Alliance military power with a commitment to operational purposefulness by emphasising not just awareness of, but also future effectiveness, across multiple warfare domains and in multiple geographic areas.

Given the level of strategic ambition necessarily implicit in NATO’s future defence and deterrence posture, including further reforms to the NATO Command Structure, the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept (‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’) now belongs to another age.  This is because NATO will have to engineer a new force and resource centre of gravity at a higher end of military effect whilst also securing its citizens from what I have called 5D continuous strategic coercion (deception, disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and implied destruction). 

The Path of Transformation

Realism is also needed as the path of NATO transformation rarely runs smooth and many Allies are still deeply reluctant to embrace the change needed to save the Alliance upon which they rely for their defence. In 2018 the North Atlantic Council tasked General Scaparotti, the then Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), to set out his ‘Strategic Thoughts’ about both the threats to the Alliance and the response.  This led to the 2019 NATO Military Strategy (NMS) which is entitled ‘Comprehensive Defence, Shared Response’ (CDSR).  The NATO Military Strategy adopts a whole of security approach and not only frames the development and employment of the Alliance’s Military Instrument of Power (MIoP), but also offers a road-map to the future. There are three core elements to the Strategy. First, it recognises the need for the Alliance to confront again geostrategic competition, as well as the dangers of pervasive instability and the strategic shocks they can trigger as central to the strategic environment with which NATO must contend. Second, the Strategy identifies Russia and Terrorist Groups (TGs) as the main strategic threats to the Alliance, given their depth, breadth, duration and complexity. Third, the Strategy recognises the need to move away from Crisis Response and both contest and counter these threats by developing a common capacity for competition and deterrent power in peacetime, crisis and defence. Critically, whilst NATO remains a defensive Alliance the 2019 Military Strategy also moves the Alliance from having a reactive posture to a deliberate strategy for force deployment and employment.

The DDA emerged from the Military Strategy under General Wolters, the current SACEUR to act as the bridge between the Military Strategy and is called (by me) the NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept (NSIOC).  This is because DDA is about the core business of credible defence and deterrence: warfighting in the Twenty-First Century. As such the DDA provides NATO with a coherent framework and approach to such a challenge by addressing military deterrence activities in peacetime and defence actions in crisis and conflict. DDA also addresses scale of threats and ambition of response by considering Alliance roles and tasks around ‘360 degrees’ of large-scale, long-term complexity. Critically, it also seeks to address something your correspondent has long been pushing for: strategic interdependency between the Alliance’s ability to address threats from Russia inside its area of responsibility (AOR), and Terrorist Groups outside its AOR.

Above all, DDA is an Alliance effort to fully understand that complex nature of modern warfare as a contest, where deterrence must demonstrate an informed and unambiguous ability to defend, whilst defence will demand control of several geographic areas and multiple domains of warfare simultaneously.  Critically, the DDA is analysis-led not cost-led and focuses on how Russia and Terrorist Groups not only gain geographic, domain and readiness advantage, but also how they operate over space and time. To that end, the DDA establishes clear geographic and domain Deterrence and Defence Objectives (mapped to activity) that would also impose tactical, operational and strategic dilemmas on adversaries.  As I understand it, China is not discussed at great length but the methodology could be applied to such an end.  The increasing role of advanced civilian-generated technology (AI, big data, quantum computing, Nano, bio etc. and et al) is also not addressed directly but is implicit.  

Exercise Joint Warrior 2020 must be judged against the backdrop of both the DDA and the NATO Military Strategy. What does it suggest about Joint Warrior 2030? Impressive though such NATO exercises may appear as a news item, power is relative and the maritime-amphibious domain is but one domain of Allied deterrent and defence effect that will need to be credible across air, sea, land, space, cyber, information and knowledge. In other words, the DDA opens the door to a smart NATO that all such exercises must contribute to by combining firepower, resiliency, manoeuvre and innovation.  Indeed, the DDA reimagines deterrence by denial so that is not simply a function of weight of force, but through active and hyper-fast reinforcement of what are known as ‘Fires’ (both multi-platform & multi-domain) held at depth and distanced underpinned by agile and robust command and control. As such, the DDA demands far greater and far more dynamic force readiness and responsiveness that will be critical to the multi-speed, multi-scale, multi-domain NATO that must be developed in the years to come as part of a future war NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept. 

Exercise Joint Warrior 2030

Exercise Joint Warrior 2030 has two distinct elements both critical to the high-end testing of both its maritime and amphibious elements. Much of the NATO Task Group is comprised of forces assigned to the new Allied Command Operations Heavy Mobile Force, some 90% of which is European.  The maritime element first establishes an air, sea and sub-surface defensive ‘bubble’ around the force using both manned and unmanned systems. F35 Lightning 2s, together with a raft of ‘loyal wingmen’ drones, also provide an extensive ‘umbrella’ for the force as well as undertaking a range of hyper-joint tasks ranging from surveillance to electronic hyper warfare, data gathering and aerial top cover. Below the surface British and French nuclear attack submarines, with their ‘loyal school’ of underwater unmanned vehicles, provide a similar defensive bubble supported by super-quiet Dutch and German electric-powered submarines. 

The amphibious element is where the changes in NATO materiel and doctrine of the last decade are most obvious. Some miles offshore a wave of landing craft and CB90 assault craft depart the British heavy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales and stealthily make their way to the shore.  At the spear-tip of the force is 45 Commando, Royal Marines, US Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the Royal Netherlands Mariniers, together with the new AI-enabled Joint Commando Air-Maritime Assault Force. Most of the force continues to the beach undetected, but halfway into the target part of the force veers away. From the decks of the assault craft ghostly figures ascend to the heavens.  3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines is going into action.  Equipped with the latest Mark 5 Gravity Jet assault suits the battalion represents the future of airborne assault https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xL02e4L-RQo&feature=youtu.be. As each commando rises into the night sky s/he carries an assault rifle and a series of small ground attack missiles. Heavier personal equipment is carried alongside by a personally-assigned ‘intelligent’ lift drone.   

As the Commandos begin the assault a further phalanx of ‘intelligent’ fast strike drones lift off the decks of the British aircraft carrier and make their way towards the littoral. Royal Air Force,  Royal Navy and US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning 2s are also warming up on the deck to reinforce the shock the Royal Marines, Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron are about to inflict.  Timed to match the moment of the enemy’s least readiness and thus create maximum shock and confusion, the SAS and SBS force move towards their respective objectives.  As they advance flying commandos appear from several directions at once and target each individually identified ‘mark’, whilst a swarm of AI drones probe and then penetrate enemy defences destroying their digital net. The Special Forces, now supported by the ground force, quickly seize the objective and establish a bridgehead for the follow-on force. Fleet Air Arm Merlin 3 helicopters with advanced noise suppression blades move in behind the intelligent machine attack drone ‘swarm’ so that the Royal Marines and their US and Dutch counterparts can maintain momentum from the Littoral.   

Fantasy? Some years ago I led a significant project for the commander of an important Allied navy into the future of so-called ‘brown water operations’. Entitled Effect in the All Water Battlespace: Riverine Operations the essence of the report was how best to fight and stay in a contested Littoral environment and at the same time reduce the cost per naval platform per operation through innovation, adaptation and a strategic partnership with key civilian actors, such as the Smit Tak and Mammoet.  To meet its goals the study combined strategy, innovation and technology to form new partnerships and ideas. Two key findings were that a) many civilian contractors are used to operating in contested zones; and b) much of the technology available to such contractors was far in advance of their military counterparts. The ultimate aim was to understand how an essentially European force could better fulfil its mission in the Littoral as quickly, effectively, affordably and successfully as part of what is known in the jargon as ‘ship to objective manoeuvre’. In other words, the report thought future. That is precisely what others are now doing. 

As Exercise Joint Warrior got underway another exercise was taking place, albeit on a wholly different scale. On October 1st, China’s National Day, a large-scale amphibious ‘invasion’ began which was designed to simulate an assault on Taiwan.  The exercise was a test of a People’s Liberation Army Navy Marines Corp that is currently being expanded from a 20,000 strong force of naval infantry into a power projection force modelled on the US Marines Corps some 100,000 strong. The PLANMC is indicative of the fast change underway around the world and places Europe’s increasing strategic unworldliness in stark relief. 

If NATO is to remain relevant it needs more than a new Strategic Concept. It needs a NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept and a NATO Europe Future Force that can demonstrate to themselves and their American allies that Europeans are at last willing to pull their strategic weight, meet the associated costs and take the necessary risks. Given the growing world-wide commitments of America’s over-stretched forces the credibility of Alliance defence and deterrence need nothing less. A good start? NATO HQ starts promoting the Concept for the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area rather than trying to hide it!

Julian Lindley-French

PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Tanks – For The Memory?

By Paul Cornish

The UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is approaching completion. UK defence reviews are usually accompanied by dire warnings as to the effect of any budget cuts on an individual Service’s capability or on defence as a whole. By some accounts, the fate of the UK’s 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks (MBT) is in doubt. Unfortunately that decision, and others, might be driven not by good strategic sense but by structural problems in the UK defence debate.

The first problem is a widespread lack of knowledge of, and interest in the purpose of a given military capability. For example, some might claim that the MBT has no role in modern warfare; that it belongs to a past era of armoured and mechanised warfare. But I am not confident that this era has yet been consigned to history. And if I’m right, then the MBT certainly still has a role. The modern MBT is a mobile, well protected and very destructive battlefield weapon system. It is also, admittedly, vulnerable; there are plenty of ways in which a 60+ tonne machine can be destroyed – mines, missiles, smart munitions etc. But in the last resort, the most dependable means with which to destroy a tank is … a tank. Rather than make questionable assumptions about military history, the better question to ask is whether the decline of the MBT is universally accepted – and it isn’t.

This brings us to the second problem – incomplete (or, at worst, tendentious) threat analysis. It would be wrong to claim that geopolitical adventurism, antagonism and even militarism have disappeared from Europe over the past 30 years or so. It would also be difficult to argue that the MBT no longer has a role when it would certainly feature in any large-scale military operations in eastern, central and western Europe. Russia has invested very heavily in armoured warfare, with a fleet of about 2,800 ‘active’ tanks (which it is modernising) and another 10,000 or so in reserve. For one European country at least, tanks are still in fashion.  It cannot be said that today’s Europe is stable and predictable any more than it can be said that MBTs are defunct. A genuinely ‘threat-based’ review (as is promised) would suggest precisely the opposite.

The third problem is best described as techno-fetishism. Part of the argument against the MBT seems to be that it stands in the way of 21st century technology. Certainly, this is a period of great invention and innovation, particularly in information and communications technology. But to argue that we should abandon ’the old’ because it’s old and embrace ’the new’ because it’s new, is simplistic. Innovation is about the application of ideas (and inventions) to the present, thereby achieving some improvement (practically or organisationally). Generally, however, innovation is not about changing the present overnight. Although it can at times have momentous impact, innovation is more often cautious and incremental. And when it comes to security and defence there’s a lot to be said for being cautious and incremental. The MBT is obsolescent; of course it is – it’s a human invention destined to end up in a museum. But there is a difference between obsolescent and obsolete.

The final problem is that of cost and ‘affordability’. The level of defence spending in the UK is not a law of nature – it is a political choice. Rather than trim capabilities to meet a declining defence budget, under the spurious reasoning that the threat picture points in this direction (when it does not), or because the military-technological future has arrived (when it has not), government should instead be hedging against unpredictable and undesirable futures which might nevertheless come our way. Government should be choosing to invest in Armed Forces to ensure they have the latency and flexibility to meet the broadest range of conceivable challenges, rather than assuming that we can relax and take a strategic holiday for a few years. The UK has tried this twice on a large scale – once in the inter-war years and once in the late 1940s – both times to our strategic disadvantage.

The fate of the MBT, and any other military capability, should be decided neither by quasi-historical projections, nor techno-fetishism, nor cost – but by strategy. Strategy is an attempt to engage with a future that is not merely uncertain, but fundamentally unknowable. But it must nevertheless be engaged with – decisions must be made in the present for the strategic posture of the future. It’s at this point that cash-conscious governments like to tell themselves (and the rest of us) that perhaps the future is less unknowable than is supposed, that they have the singular skill of peering into the future and finding, when they do, that the future is, uncannily, not too worrying and can, most conveniently, be managed on an even more limited budget or with some technological ‘fix’. Fine – but I’d prefer a MBT to a crystal ball any day.

Professor Paul Cornish served in the British Army’s 1st Royal Tank Regiment in the 1980s

September 15th, 1940!

“I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war for some time, if not indefinitely”.

Air Chief Marshal, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Dowding. May 15th, 1940

Weather: Heavy overnight cloud and rain clearing. Fine with patchy cloud in the morning giving way to strata-cumulus clouds at 5,000 feet providing 8/10ths cover.

September 15th, 1940:

0900 hours: Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrives at HQ Royal Air Force 11 Group, Fighter Command at Uxbridge and is greeted by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, Air Officer Commanding.

1030 hours: Radar (radio direction finding or RDF) stations of Chain Home at Beachy Head, Dover, Dunkirk (Kent), Pevensey, St Lawrence, Ventnor, and Westcliffe situated along the Kent coast and on the Isle of Wight, the personnel of which were mainly women of the Woman’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), detect two formations of 150 plus Luftwaffe aircraft forming up between Boulogne and Calais. 11 Group RAF fighter squadrons are placed on standby.

1100 hours: 200 plus Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do-17 and Do-215 bombers from 111/Kampfgruppe76 and KG73, escorted by Me-Bf109 and Me-110 fighters, are tracked flying NNW towards the English coast at Dungeness at heights of between 15,000 and 26,000 feet (‘Angels’ 15 and 26 in the parlance of the RAF ground controllers of the day).

1105-1120 hours: 144 RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires of (in sequence) 72, 92, 229, 303, 253, 501, 17, 73, 504, 257, 603 and 609 Squadrons ‘scramble’ and are ‘vectored’ by their Sector Controllers to meet the incoming Luftwaffe attack.

1130-1145 hours: RAF commanders confirm the target is London. AVM Park calls upon 12 Group (AVM Trafford Leigh Mallory) based to the north of London to cover the capital. These include the so-called ‘Duxford Wing’ of massed Hurricanes and Spitfires. 12 Group scrambles some 100 fighters of (in sequence) 41, 242, 302, 310, 19, 611, 249, 46, 1(RCAF), 605 and 66 Squadrons.

1200 hours: The first massed RAF attack of the day begins. The slow progress of the Luftwaffe bomber formation enables 12 Group fighters to join 11 Group and intercept the enemy with 11 squadrons above Maidstone and Ashford. The RAF’s strength comes as a shock to Luftwaffe aircrew and, whilst the Spitfire squadrons engage the fighter escort, the Hurricanes attack the bomber formation which begins to break up. Stragglers are attacked and several are shot down.

1215 hours: The Spitfires succeed in separating the Bf109 fighters from the bombers. The longer-range, twin-engined Me-110s are no match for the British fighters and are effectively forced out of much of the battle, in spite of courageous efforts by many of their crews to protect the bombers. Under intense RAF pressure the bomber force begins to drop its bombs randomly, whilst many turn prematurely short of London and seek to make their escape. Many of those that have survived are damaged, whilst those German pilots who bravely press on towards London are then confronted by 12 Group’s Spitfires and Hurricanes which ambush the bombers from a height of between 25,000 and 26,000 feet, some 3000 feet above the upper most layer of the bomber force. The weight of the attack is decisive and the Luftwaffe force is quickly broken up. There is no respite for the hard-pressed Luftwaffe crews. The RAF maintains the pressure on the enemy by continuously and repeatedly attacking the bomber force from all sides as it makes its now disorganised way back towards the English coast. Many of the survivors head first west of London before turning for home over Weybridge, whilst some 80 bombers take a more direct route, first down the Thames Estuary and then over Kent, harassed all the way by the RAF.

1230 hours: The first massed battle of what would eventually prove to be the decisive day of the Battle of Britain is over. The RAF has gained a vital victory. What was meant to be the Luftwaffe’s final destruction of Fighter Command is decisively defeated. However, September 15th, 1940 is far from over. As RAF squadrons land, re-fuel and re-arm the Luftwaffe prepares to launch the second major attack of the day.

1300 hours: Radar stations along the Kent coast again begin to detect another massed Luftwaffe force forming west of the Boulogne-Calais area, many of the aircraft involved have taken off from airfields in the Antwerp and Brussels region. AVM Park confirms the available strength of 11 Group’s fighters, but orders no action to be taken…yet.

1330 hours: Radar confirms the massing German force is larger than the morning attack and as yet the Luftwaffe’s targets are not clear to the RAF. 11 Group and 12 Group fighters are placed at ‘readiness’, together with squadrons from 10 Group (AVM Quintin Brand) which covers the West of England.

1400 hours: The Luftwaffe force approaches the Kent coast ((KG2, KG53, KG76 plus some elements of KG1, KG4 and KG26). This time the Luftwaffe gains a tactical edge by reducing the time it takes to mass the attacking formation. Moreover, the sheer intensity of the morning’s action has disrupted Fighter Command’s battle rhythm. Some RAF squadrons are still refuelling and re-arming whilst many of the pilots who had survived being shot down in the morning are not yet back with their squadrons.

1410 hours: RAF Sector Controllers place all 11 Group squadrons on standby and request ‘maximum assistance’ from 10 and 12 Groups. Five squadrons of the Duxford Wing (49 aircraft) from 16, 242, 302, 310 and 611 squadrons are scrambled. Crucially, AVM Park adjusts his tactics from the morning. He orders the bulk of the squadrons to hold back and patrol east, south and west of London. However, he also orders his forward deployed squadrons at Hawkinge, Lympne, Manston and Tangmere and Manston to engage the Luftwaffe fighter escort early in an attempt to force the Bf-109s to ‘dogfight’ and use up much of their limited reserves of fuel. This renders the bomber fleet exceptionally vulnerable to massed RAF attack.

1415 hours: The first bomber formations cross the Kent coast. Two other formations follow at 1430 and 1445 hours. The bomber fleet is again made up of He111, Do-17 and D-215 aircraft. The British estimate the strength to be between 150 and 200 bombers plus some 400 Bf109s and Me-110s as escorts. In fact, the strength is 170 bombers and some 300 plus fighters.

1415 hours: The first engagement takes place south of Canterbury. Other formations are attacked south of Maidstone and west of Dartford as RAF squadrons begin to harass the attacking force. The closer the Luftwaffe gets to London the more Spitfires and Hurricanes attack them. Bereft of an effective fighter escort the bomber force is quickly and badly mauled by 11 Group as (in sequence) 73, 66, 72, 249, 504, 253, 213 and 607 Squadrons repeatedly attack.

1450 hours: AVM Park’s decision to hold squadrons back, most notably the Duxford Wing, now proves decisive, even if many of the RAF fighters had been scrambled too slowly. 150 RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires attack the bomber fleet over the south and south-west of London. As in the morning the Spitfires attack the Bf109s and Me-110 fighters, whilst the Hurricanes attack the bomber force. Critically, the Bf109s are now at the limits of their range.

1500 hours: 303 (Polish) Squadron returns to its base at Northholt. In just over an hour of action they destroy 3 Do-17s, 2 Me-110’s and 1 Bf109 for a cost of 2 Hurricanes lost and 1 pilot killed. By the time Luftwaffe bombers reach London they are out-numbered by defending Hurricanes and Spitfires. They break off the attack and turn for the Channel and escape.

1600 hours: The last of the Luftwaffe bomber force is attacked as it makes its way across the English coast. Another small incoming raid of 10 He-111s is detected heading towards Portland for an attack on the Supermarine Spitfire factory at Woolston. It is engaged by 10 Group’s 152 (Spitfires), 607 (Hurricanes) and 609 (Spitfires) Squadrons. Several aircraft of the attacking force are destroyed and not one bomb is dropped on the factory.

September 15th, 1940, Battle of Britain Day, is over.


September 15th, 1940 was a turning point not just of the Battle of Britain, but of World War Two and the fight against Nazism. The RAF had won a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe and whilst they did not know it at the time, the victory effectively ended any chance Britain could be invaded. Without complete control of the air Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain, was effectively dead in the water. At least it would have been. Any attempt to cross the Channel with two Army Groups comprised of the best Wehrmacht units would have been suicide in the face of constant attacks by the RAF and the Royal Navy, which in 1940 was still the world’s largest. Britain would fight on and the RAF would begin the long and slow shift from the defensive to the offensive and the regular 1000 heavy bomber attacks on German cities. These attacks were hugely popular with a British people determined to ‘give it back to em’, but came at an appalling cost to RAF aircrew, German and other civilians.

To some extent ‘The Day’ has become shrouded in myth. The RAF claimed to have shot down some 185 Luftwaffe aircraft on September 15th. In fact, the number was 61, with twenty aircraft badly-damaged, whilst the RAF lost 32 fighters. By the standards of contemporary warfare the casualties were relatively light. The RAF lost 16 pilots killed in action and 14 wounded, whilst the Luftwaffe lost 81 aircrew killed with 31 wounded, although 63 aircrew were also captured by the British. Many were experienced men. Moreover, by September 1940 Britain was out-producing Germany in the construction of advanced fighters. Therefore, whilst the Luftwaffe was by no means a spent force on the evening of September 15th, 1940, the defeat came at the end of what had been a gruelling summer for the Luftwaffe. However, perhaps the greatest impact of the RAF’s decisive victory was psychological. For the first time in World War Two the Luftwaffe had faced a force equipped with advanced technology, excellent air defence fighters and very capable pilots and had been badly beaten.

The Battle of Britain had effectively begun on June 18th, 1940 when Churchill said to the House of Commons, “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is now over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin”. The RAF’s total strength at the outset of the Battle of Britain was 1,963 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe had some 2,550 aircraft. Not all British aircraft, of course, were front-line fighters. However, by the end of the campaign the RAF had lost 1,744 aircraft destroyed to the Luftwaffe’s 1,977 aircraft destroyed. Crucially, the Luftwaffe’s head of intelligence, Oberst Joseph Beppo Schmidt, repeatedly over-estimated Luftwaffe strength whilst chronically under-estimating both the fighting power of the RAF and the remarkable capability of the world’s first advanced air defence system. Indeed, Luftwaffe aircrew, who were repeatedly briefed that the RAF were down to their last few fighters, shared a grim standing joke each time they saw British fighters moving to attack: “Here come those last 50 British fighters…again”.

On the morning of September 15th Air Chief Marshal Dowding had 726 fighters at readiness, whilst the Luftwaffe had 620 fighters and 500 light-to-medium bombers, the bomb capacity of which was simply too ‘light’ given the strategic objectives. By comparison, in June 1942 RAF Bomber Command attacked Cologne with 1000 far heavier bombers, such as the Stirling, Halifax, Lancaster and Wellington types. The Germans also had no organised espionage network in Britain so they could not accurately know what damage they were doing, the state of either the RAF or the morale of the British people. They thought they had but most German spies were quickly captured by the British and forced to work for British Intelligence.

Luftwaffe High Command’s over-confidence also led them to make catastrophic mistakes. On August 15th, 1940, dubbed “Black Thursday” (Schwarzer Donnerstag) by Luftwaffe aircrew, Luftflotte V based in Norway was ordered to attack the north of England. The assumption was that all the RAF’s reserves had been moved south to cover Kent and London. They had not. Chain Home picked up a force of some 200 attacking aircraft early in its mission which was then badly-mauled by Spitfires from 13 Group (AVM Richard Maul) which covered the north of England. It was forced to turn and flee over the sea losing 23 aircraft for no downed RAF fighters. The escorting Me-110s even abandoned the bombers and formed so-called ‘wagon wheels’ for self-protection. The so-called Dowding System had prevailed again.

The Dowding System was critical to Britain’s victory. It used the ‘eyes’ of radar to rapidly inform a robust command chain of the strength, speed, direction and height of an attacking force. This enabled HQ Fighter Command based at Bentley Priory to quickly assess the size and likely targets of the force before giving each Group the information they needed to deploy its squadrons efficiently and effectively. Group HQ then passed on the information to Sector Controllers who scrambled the various squadrons. Crucially, the entire system was ‘hardened’ when it was built in 1937 to ensure it was both resilient and enjoyed redundancy of communications and was thus very hard to knock-out. That the system existed at all was due to decisions taken in the 1930s by the oft-berated Baldwin and Chamberlain governments. Such was its success that the Dowding System was to form the basis of many of the world’s ground-controlled air defence systems up until, and in some case even beyond, the year 2000.

The Luftwaffe was defeated because it failed to secure either of its primary strategic aims: to force the British to the negotiating table on German terms; or secure uncontested air superiority over the English Channel as a prelude to invasion. It also suffered a massive materiel loss over the three month course of the battle from which it never fully recovered, undermining its future effectiveness in Russia. The fault lay not with the mainly young Luftwaffe aircrews who showed great bravery, but with their commanders, most notably Luftwaffe Chief Reichmarschall Hermann Goering. He failed to understand the importance of radar to the British and also failed to exploit the RAF’s greatest vulnerability – 11 Group’s vital front-line air bases. They were often attacked but then allowed to recover because the Luftwaffe never fully understood the battle rhythm of the RAF and thus failed to exploit its vulnerabilities. Luftwaffe high command also failed to understand that the true test for the RAF was not the number of fighters it could shoot down, Britain was replacing them at a faster rate, but the attrition rate of the pilots who flew them. Dowding’s main concern was the rate of loss of his 2,353 British pilots. Thankfully, Britain had a golden reserve in some 574 foreign pilots from Poland (141 pilots), New Zealand (135), Canada (112), Czechoslovakia (88). Australia (36), South Africa (25), Free French (14) US (11), Ireland 10, and some 10 pilots from what is today Zimbabwe, the Caribbean and Israel.

One of the most important consequences of the RAF’s victory was the damage it did to both the prestige of Goering and the trust Adolf Hitler had in him. The first seeds of doubt that Nazism would prevail were sown in the mind of Hitler and his Nazi cronies by the RAF’s brave pilots. As dawn broke on September 15th, 1940 Goering and his Luftwaffe commanders had confidently expected they would, indeed, inflict the final, fatal blow on what they really believed to be the RAF’s few remaining Spitfires and Hurricanes. The sight of massed RAF air power waiting to ambush the attacks rapidly disabused already cynical Luftwaffe aircrews of their commanders’ folly. As Hans Zonderlind, an air gunner on a Luftwaffe Do-17 said of September 15th, “We saw the Hurricanes coming towards us and it seemed the whole of the RAF was there. We had never seen so many British fighters coming at us at once”.

Much of this complacency was driven by Nazi ideology and the German superiority it espoused. During the Polish campaign of September 1939, and the attacks on the Low Countries and France in May and June 1940, such arrogance was reinforced by success. The RAF punctured this arrogance. Much of it was down to one aircraft, R.J. Mitchell’s superb Mark V Spitfire and its Rolls Royce Merlin engine. There is no question the Spitfire got into the heads of Luftwaffe aircrew. The aerial scourge, and in many ways signature sound of the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg campaigns had been the ‘flying artillery’ that was the Juncker Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber. However, between August 15th (Adler Tag) and August 18th the Stuka’s suffered such heavy losses to both Spitfires and Hurricanes that they had to be withdrawn from the fight. As battle fatigue set in Luftwaffe aircrew constantly reported being attacked by ‘Spitfires’, when in fact the RAF had more Hurricanes.

It is still a matter of conjecture whether or not Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland asked Goering for a squadron (staffeln) of Spitfires. In some respects, the Me Bf-109 was a superior fighter. It could climb faster and due to its fuel-injected engine also climb higher than a Spitfire. The mix of cannon and machine guns also gave it more devastating firepower than the eight Browning 303 calibre machines guns with which both Hurricanes and Spitfires were equipped. However, the Spitfire enjoyed two critical advantages in air combat both of which were due to its two elliptical wings which could bear far more weight than the Me Bf-109. This enabled the Spitfire to dive and turn faster, as well as turn very tightly at lower speeds. And, of course, both Hurricanes and Spitfires were operating close to their own bases, whereas the Me Bf-109 was not, which negated many of its advantages as a hunter. Interestingly, by the time the last Spitfire was built in 1948 some 22,000 had been manufactured in 22 variants, including a navalised version, the Seafire. 12,129 of them were produced at the enormous Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory near Birmingham which began production in May 1940, albeit mired in very British managerial and industrial relations challenges. Critically, preparations had been made to massively increase British military aircraft production in the event of war with the 1936 Shadow Factory Plan.

The lessons for today? First, whilst the building of modern free Europe did not begin that day, it took a great stride forward. Democracy fought back and won. Second, even if distracted by as deep an economic crisis as faced by the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments during the 1930s a democracy must never abandon a sound defence or properly prepare to mount it. Third, that equivalency of military materiel and personnel is vital. Preparedness, readiness and robustness.

In tribute to the RAF pilots of many nations who defended Britain and a free Europe on a fateful day, and the many young women who made that defence work. In respectful memory of ALL the brave young men who lost their lives on September 15th, 1940, Battle of Britain Day. As Churchill famously said on August 20th, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Requiesce in Pace. Per Ardua ad Astra!

(With thanks to the Battle of Britain Historical Society)

Julian Lindley-French, September 15th, 2020