COVID-19: The Silk Road Pandemic

By Julian Lindley-French

“Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”.

J.G. Ballard, “High Rise”

Headline: COVID-19 is a human tragedy, not the prelude to war. The enemy is a pathogen, not a state and policy and strategy should be shaped accordingly. Expert assessments suggests that as many as one in fifty under the age of seventy of those infected could die, and up to one in six of those over 70 with underlying health conditions. Protection of vulnerable groups is the marked of a civilised society. However, historians of the future will wonder how a relatively mild virus could bring the global economy to its knees so quickly. They will possibly conclude that the twenty-first century world, far from being a globalised economy was, in fact, a hybrid interdependent anarchy to which shock was endemic and routinely magnified. Consequently, some have predicted the end of globalisation.  China is the epicentre of the pandemic and will need to change. It is particularly inappropriate that Beijing has, instead, begun hectoring others, most notably the US. An effective strategy will require collective action across the epidemiology, politics and communications. Whilst there are doubtless lessons to be learnt about how to build more resiliency and redundancy into the globalised system, it is only through a global effort that the threat will be contained and then reduced. The blame game should stop and the action game begin.  

The Silk Road Pandemic

It is a bolt from the blue! The early spread of COVID 19 seems eerily to follow the old Silk Road that from China to Europe via Iran.  COVID 19 has some similarities to the Black Death of the fourteenth century in that is a trade route pandemic, albeit a very twenty-first century variant and as such a disease of globalisation. Like trade, the pandemic is now spreading far beyond that corridor and rapidly, replacing much of the trade that sustains the globalised economic system. In such circumstances, humanity, or rather those that govern it, have a choice to make: act irresponsibly by blaming others or find a way to work together to confront and deal with a threat common to all. 

Contemporary Globalism is part of the problem.  Far from being the community its more ideological adherents claim it is more a form of interdependent anarchy. Consequently, a relatively small event or group can create enormous shock. Such shock is not confined to the spreading of disease. 911 and Al Qaeda spawned the Global War on Terror, a small group of bankers triggered the 2008 financial crash and the precipitant decline of Europe and the accelerated rise of China as power shifted from West to East. All the serious evidence suggests COVID 19 began in Wuhan in November as a pathogen leapt from one species to another and within four months much of the world economy is shutting down. 

At the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak China represented 3% of the world economy, whereas today it represents 17%.  In the past, most such contagions tended to be localised. Travel was far more restricted, lockdowns at times of plague were far more common, and people died far more quickly limiting the ability of any contagion to spread. There were, of course, exceptions. The Black Death which swept through Asia, Africa and Europe in the fourteenth century also spread along the old Silk Road and sea-borne trade routes. 

Why China and why now? 

The demand for fresh meat slaughtered in the traditional Chinese manner now poses a clear and present danger to the well-being of humanity. Why? For all the growth in China’s power and wealth since 1989, the Middle Kingdom is a huge populous country full of very poor people.  There is a profound friction between the twenty-first century state Beijing likes to project to the world, and the reality of rural poverty and the rapid growth of an urban poor still wedded to traditional practices such as ‘wet [blood] markets’.  The average GDP per capita in China is still only around $10,000 per annum (with millions living on incomes far below that) compared with US GDP per capita at $65,000 per annum.  Living conditions are often appalling with huge numbers of Chinese families crammed together in high-rise poverty.  Chinese cities have become natural breeding ground for pathogens able to leap from one species to another.  

Beijing has tried to limit such practices. However, state action has simply pushed the business into the unregulated back alleys of Chinese cities. Given the reputational and actual damage to China that will be caused by COVID-19 Beijing is now taking stringent action to deal with the threat.  Equally, containment of COVID-19 is also likely to see a lurch towards an even more control-obsessed, autocratic Chinese state.  

Strategic consequences and implications

The COVID-19 pandemic will also have profound strategic consequences, of which the health crisis is simply the first. Over time the crisis will spread to all other areas of statecraft from the economic to the military. The world’s two power autocracies, China and Russia, are particularly vulnerable. The signs are already ominous with Russia already suffering. The price of benchmark Brent crude oil has collapsed from $55 per barrel in December to $29 today. Russia needs to export its oil at around $70 per barrel for the Russian economy to be sustained. In the first quarter of 2020 Chinese manufacturing production dropped by 13%, the fastest and largest fall for fifty years. 

Autocracies tend to share certain characteristics when under pressure.  First, the primacy of the state over the individual is reinforced, with elites seeing themselves as the very embodiment of the nation and indispensable to it.  Both Beijing and Moscow are already moving to exert even more control.  President Xi is already the president-for-life of China. If, as seems likely, President Putin succeeds in his efforts to remain president at least until 2036, Russia too will become more autocratic. Second, such elites also fear their own people. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese Communist Party offered a new ‘deal’ to its burgeoning middle classes: sustained growth in their prosperity in return for their continued unquestioning of power of the Party. That deal could fail.

History also plays an important role. Both Xi and Putin were shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fear the consequences of a sustained period of economic decline on their ability to hold onto power. President Putin is already suffering from falling popularity.  In such circumstances, Russia could retreat even more into a reflexive nationalistic and militaristic posture with the West, the source of most of Russia’s foreign-generated income, routinely cited as a threat.  In such circumstances, China too would likely become far more aggressive, with Taiwan particularly vulnerable.  Therefore, the possibility of both power autocracies embarking on more military adventurism must not be discounted as a downstream consequence of COVID-19. 

As China cracks down on internal dissent the legal frameworks that enable Western multinational corporations to operate therein will also likely become even more onerous. Many Western companies could well seek to ‘re-shore’ their operations back to the US and Europe, exacerbating the economic crisis in China. At the very least, many such corporations will (and should) move to end their over-reliance on Chinese supply chains vulnerable to catastrophic failure or political disruption.  

Europeans and the EU are once again major victims of crises made elsewhere, with Europe now the epicentre of the pandemic according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  There is also a profound danger is that over the coming months the COVID-19 crisis will merge with a renewed refugee/migration crisis. Such a complex crisis will not only test European solidarity but also place all systems of government in Europe under the utmost strain, with economic consequences for at least a decade.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Europe’, with its focus on free movement of goods, services and people will likely need to be reconsidered. Europe, and indeed the wider West, could well suffer from another profound political shock. The scale and complexity of the crisis will doubtless reinforce the attractiveness of extremist political parties.  

Strategic choices

Faced with the strategic and political choices inherent in the COVID-19 crisis there are essentially two options for all the states involved: cohesion or fragmentation.  It is the latter option that should be adopted.  Any other approach would simply guarantee a lose-lose outcome for all.  However, any such strategy will require all the responsible powers to craft a complex new strategic agenda that pre-supposes a level of mutual trust that is in short supply.  Any such agenda would require (at the very least) the following elements over the short and medium terms, across a range of sustained actions from the epidemiological strategy to the grand strategic with effective strategic communications vital. It will also require a marked change in both the tone and nature of state behaviour. 

China is already seeking to shift the blame for COVID-19. Moreover, not for the first time Beijing’s obsession with secrecy has helped turn an outbreak into global contagion. The re-emergence of Zhao Lijian, a particularly feisty Chinese nationalist as Foreign Ministry Spokesman is also not a good sign that China is willing to act collectively. His claim this past week that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the US military is simply preposterous and US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo has rightly complained. If Beijing adopts such a posture and refuses to acknowledge that two months of Chinese mismanagement during the early stages exacerbated the crisis, then it will be hard to treat China as a responsible strategic actor. 

Equally, states must avoid appearing to condone conspiracy theories. There is an apochryphal story that in 2003 the SARS epidemic began when it escaped from the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.  Given the proximity of the laboratory to the contemporary outbreak concerns continue to be expressed about the safety of the facility. However, the US, in particular, must be careful not to begin a tit-for-tat blame game that would draw it into an equivalency trap. At present, there is no evidence the Chinese designed the pathogen and then lost control of it.  In any case, COVID-19 would be a strange offensive weapon as it only really affects people beyond the productive/warfighter age and only, normally, very mildly. One might argue that because the virus places Western healthcare systems under intense strain it could be a form of attack. However, China has so many other means to attack Western critical infrastructure if it so chose. The pandemic will have a serious impact on China’s foreign income, with profound implications for its future economic performance and Beijing’s emergence as a military superpower. 

The COVID-19 strategic agenda

Shorter-term epidemiological strategy can draw lessons from the response to the 2003 SARS contagion. Brian Doberstyn, who in 2003 was director of the WHO Western Pacific Region’s Division for Combatting Communicable Disease, identified three main lessons: transparency and a willingness of states to admit the scale and pace of early infection; the utility of proven past practices in harness with twenty-first century science; and the rapid and effective global scientific collaboration to enable the early mapping of the genome of the virus. He also identified a critical causal faction, “animal husbandry and marketing practices seriously affect human health. 

Rebuild strategic public private partnerships: One consequence of globalisation has been the progressive decoupling of Western states from Western corporations.  The very idea of the multinational corporation is the antithesis of the nation-state.  A strong partnership between the public and private sectors IN states will now be crucial, and not just to limit the economic damage.  In the immediate future, vaccines must be developed and ventilators made to treat the severely ill.  

Begin a forensic audit: WHO is a flawed institution, primarily because it reflects the tensions between the states that pay for it.  However, as part of confidence-building the WHO should be charged with conducting a proper strategic audit into the crisis with the enquiry ring-fenced against any external political interference.  This will not be easy. Many years ago I was seconded to the UN in both Geneva and New York and saw the gap between reality and UN reality. If such an audit is not possible, then the US and its European allies should conduct such an audit independently to ensure lessons are identified, best practice disseminated, and new structures identified.

Treat pandemics as a threat to the state order: Better intelligence and early warning indicators will need to be established, first response needs to be faster, more assured and better co-ordinated, healthcare systems (both public and private) need to be better prepared, critical infrastructures need to be made more resilient, with redundancy built into information networks and redundancy built into state structures. Critically, better early understanding about the scope of any threat will need to be established. Over-reaction is as dangerous and under-reaction. Ultimately, it is the robust state that must be at the centre of any crisis response.   

The death of globalisation?

COVID-19 happened because of a failure of policy in China and an absence of structure elsewhere, particularly in Europe.  It was made worse by ideological globalism and the abandonment of common sense by leaders.  Critically, Western democracies have become over-reliant on one autocratic source for many of the supply chains which sustain their respective societies. However, those who believe time can be rolled back and globalisation abandoned have to ask themselves with what?  Contending, hermetically-sealed and confrontational blocs?  Yes, Western states need to better protect themselves from crises made elsewhere, but what has been missing for far too long is the considered practice of statecraft in globalisation.  Indeed, globalism has been seen by the naively ideological as an antidote to statecraft.  The dark side of globalisation, of which COVID 19 is a consequence, must therefore be gripped and structure built to mitigate its dangers. However, it is not a time to abandon globalisation for to do so would be to cut the very connectedness that mitigates the nationalism and militarism that would doubtless come to dominate both Beijing and Moscow if they were completely denied access to Western markets. 

At home, Western democracies must again reconsider the balance to be struck between liberty and security, between secrecy and trust. In short, the state will need to better know where people are and shape how they behave. Critically, European democracies must stop treating their citizens like children and recognise (as some now seem to be doing) that true security can only come from a genuine partnership between responsible citizens and an effective state. Above all, governments must act. Too often in the past promises of necessary corrective action have been eroded by special interests groups with access to power once a crisis no longer grips the news cycle.

COVID-19: the echo of history

The test of any system is how it copes with shock. COVID-19 has shown that globalisation, as a structure of power is profoundly fragile. The globalised international system is, at best, a virtual interdependent anarchy in which state sovereignty has very little influence, particularly European state sovereignty. Contemporary globalisation is also dependent on two competing poles of power for stability – the US and China. As such, the globalised world looks ever more like the contentious dependencies in Europe prior to World War One, as the in-between states were forced to choose one side or another. 

In that light COVID-19 is as much a warning as a crisis. Indeed, unless collective action is taken a truly mass extinction humanity-culling pandemic could one day come down the same old Silk Road as COVID-19.  Conversely, collective action against a common enemy might just help promote a more stable world order.  If not, then the 2020 COVID-19 crisis will do much to shape international relations in the twenty-first century, and not for the better.

Julian Lindley-French

Interests, Ethics and Rules: Renewing UK Intervention Policy

By Paul Cornish, Nigel Biggar, Robert Johnson and Gareth Stansfield

Following events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, the post-Cold War inclination to foreign intervention came to a grinding halt. In a speech to the US Republican Party conference on 26 January 2017 former Prime Minister Theresa May voiced what had become the new received wisdom when she argued ‘The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’ Yet intervention is regaining its place in the national strategic debate in the UK and elsewhere. Sophisticated and urgent questions are once again being asked of governments, international organisations, political and military strategists and civil society; questions which deserve a considered and intelligent response. If intervention is ‘bad’ then could non-intervention be even worse? If we are entering the era of ‘westlessness’ in international politics then who will fill the space left by western interests and values?

Co-authored with Nigel Biggar, Rob Johnson and Gareth Stansfield my new report Interests, Ethics and Rules: Renewing UK Intervention Policy was published by Cityforum on 11th February 2020. Commissioned by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, the report is an invitation to think closely and constructively about the circumstances in which the UK national interest might become engaged in some natural or man-made crisis around the world, and what that engagement would imply in organisational, decision-making and practical terms.

The report acknowledges that intervention has been, and remains, a deeply contested concept, on political, diplomatic, moral, legal and strategic grounds. The authors argue, nevertheless, that there are two sets of principles in which in which UK national interests are directly engaged and on the basis of which intervention, in one form or another, might properly be contemplated. The first of these, humanitarian intervention is the most familiar (and contested) and concerns the response to death, injury, hardship and disease caused by natural disasters, or the prevention/mitigation of man-made disasters such as violent atrocities against unarmed people, the forced relocation of populations or the abuse of internationally accepted human rights standards. In the worst imaginable case, if another genocide took place, on the scale perhaps of that in Rwanda in 1994, it seems unlikely, if not inconceivable that militarily capable, internationally minded governments around the world would turn their backs on the atrocity even as they knew it was taking place. What would be said of these countries’ diplomatic, cultural and moral standing if they were seen to be shrinking back into their so-called comfort zone and to be tacitly condoning some gross and highly visible violation of human rights? In the digital age these governments could scarcely claim not to be unaware of the crisis and its consequences. We argue that the case for humanitarian intervention has not been consigned to history and that the UK and other, like-minded countries have an unquestionably principle-based, national interest in the human condition around the globe.

Just as it makes no sense, in our analysis, to claim that the UK has no moral national interest in the human condition around the world, so we argue that the UK has a concrete national interest in the operation of the international system. The second set of principles are therefore more practical in character and concern the stability, security, functionality and predictability of what has become known as the ‘rules-based international system’ (RBIS)); a system in which the UK not only exists, but upon which it is fundamentally dependent. That system appears increasingly vulnerable, however. The RBIS is being challenged on many levels – intellectual, political, economic and strategic – and for various reasons; whether to debunk it as a political idea born some decades ago, disable its authority for narrow reasons of national interest or in specific circumstances, or discredit it altogether as a normative account of international politics. US President Donald Trump has surprised many by becoming the denigrator-in-chief of the RBIS – a system which the US might fairly be said to have invented. As one critic of the Trump Administration’s position has noted, ‘The leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the free world.’ Neither do some others: President Putin of Russia has insisted that ‘The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population’; and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China has shown himself to be less than enamoured with the RBIS.

For a wide range of diplomatic, financial, economic, cultural and security reasons, therefore, we argue that UK national interest cannot be anything other than directly engaged in furthering these moral and practical principles, even to the point of intervening in their name. Our report is not some vainglorious call to arms, however. Instead, we argue that the intervention debate is changing its terms and that in this evolving and uncertain mood, politicians and strategic leaders in the UK and elsewhere, including in international alliances and organisations, will increasingly be expected to explain both their decisions to act and their decisions not to act. Intervention is back, whether governments like it or not.

The report is available at

PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Making Security a “Kitchen Table Topic” in Germany

Its about engaging the public which has been excluded from foreign and security issues too long dominated by the elites.

By Dr Alexandra Schwarzkopf

Seventy-five years after the end of World War Two, Germany is a major economic and democratic power. I think  it’s time for us to assume more responsibility worldwide.

And especially given our past, we should vigorously contribute to the defense of our allies and the democratic world order to which post-War Germany owes so much.

To do this we need a societal debate – a kind of citizens forums – about German foreign and security policy as part of a broader debate about its strategic role in the world of the 21st century. The most populous and biggest economic power in the EU cannot be a bigger version of Switzerland. Germany’s “strategic beauty sleep” must end.

Until now, both foreign policy, and even more so defense policy, have not been of particular interest to a large part of the German population. This is even true when German soldiers are deployed to a conflict zone. One can say this has never really been different. And besides, the average citizen has enough to do with family and work. 

Nevertheless, just because it has never really been different, it does not mean that it must always remain that way.  Take the enormous growth of the global climate change movement. Whatever one may think about it, it demonstrates that large parts of the population, and not only young people, do have time to deal with a complex topic which goes beyond their day-to-day challenges because they believe it affects their life.

So how can foreign-and-security policy become a “kitchen table topic” like the climate change topic has become?

In a number of ways. The first is communicating to citizens 

the importance of foreign policy and security matters to their personal situation. Once they really think about it, most citizens would probably not question that protecting one’s borders, trade routes and communication systems is crucial for their continuous prosperity and political stability.

That is why politicians of all parties, as well as experts and members of the Bundeswehr (armed forces), should go on the public offensive and make the population aware about foreign policy and security issues and their effects on the individual citizen. 

This could be done by meeting in town halls and other public places and not just confining them foundations and think-tank premises. And don’t forget about going to schools, colleges and universities. 

Also, larger numbers of professors and students should be included in security and foreign policy conferences such as the MSC. In other words, don’t have security and foreign issues dominated by the elites. The media has a super important role to play as well.

Secondly, to be become a real “kitchen table” the topic has to be framed in a more positive way. Its not only about focusing on threats. Its about trying to explain how foreign and security policy actually can resolve conflicts. If peace and security as an outcome of a successful foreign and security policy is more emphasized, maybe more Germans will be willing – despite our past – to accept military strength as one necessary pillar of security policy.

So once the debate on foreign policy and security issues is associated with safeguarding people’s physical and economic security, defending allied states and preventing genocides, security policy just might have the real potential to become a topic average citizens want to talk about at their “kitchen table”.

Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, citizens must be confident that once they get involved in these debates, their voice will be heard. If that is the case then unsettling and upsetting developments in foreign policy, higher defense expenditures or soldiers’ casualties might not cause them to turn their back on the topic and say “I don’t want to hear about it”.

Instead, there could be the realistic chance that citizens will “want to hear more about it”, and become active participants in the debate on foreign-and-security policy. It might even lead to a broader debate on Germany’s strategic role in the 21st century.

Dresden 75: Is Europe Making America Weak?

“There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked…There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame.”


Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five


Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Seventy-five years ago, on the night of 13-14th February, 1945, seven hundred and sixty-nine Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers of 5 Group, Bomber Command attacked the ancient German city of Dresden, escorted by some three hundred and fifty P-51 Mustang fighters. Codenamed ‘Plate Rack’ the main bomber force was led into the attack by nine Mosquito ‘Pathfinder’ aircraft who ‘painted’ the historic centre of the city with marker flares. The next day, five hundred and twenty-seven B-17 bombers of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF)continued the attack, escorted by some four hundred P-51s.  Dresden was devastated with estimates of those killed ranging from between 22,700 to 25,000, the massive majority of whom were civilians.  The RAF lost six Lancaster bombers, whilst one US B-17 was destroyed. Dresden was the culmination of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and was controversial even in 1945.  The origins of ‘Dresden’ were manifold, not least the need to send a message to the Soviets about the firepower of Allied air power as war’s end approached.  However, Dresden was also the culmination of a descent into calamity that began with the rise to power of Hitler in the early 1930s, and the irresolute response of Allied democracies to the threat Nazism posed to European peace.

As the commemoration of this truly epic European tragedy were being solemnly enacted I was also in Germany at a side-event of the Munich Security Conference.  The Loisach Group is a high-level US-German team, co-organised by the George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference.  The aim of the Group is to promote something in which I believedeeply; a close, twenty-first century US-German strategic partnership itself deeply embedded in an adapted and modernised NATO. An Alliance which remains the central, credible pillar of legitimate Allied defence and deterrence.

Munich 2020

To be honest, I thought twice about attending the meeting as I am in the last throes of completing a book, which consumes most of my energy and attention.  There were other reasons.  First, I am tired of attending meetings at which Europeans brilliantly and eloquently describe the challenges of European security, then do very little about them.  Britons and Germans have become particularly effective at this particular skein of defence pretence.  For example, news that the Royal Navy’s new class of frigates will be delayed simply compounds the farce that Britain remains a Tier One military power.  Just look at what the Americans and Chinese are building. Second, it is hard for me to see any real progress in the US-German strategic relationship until the political relationship improves.  With the US facing presidential elections in November, and Berlin engaged in a seemingly endless bout of political navel-gazing, the best that can be said is that the relationship is on hold. Third, I am also tired of listening to pious speeches about shared transatlantic values and Europe’s strategic ambitions from people who have little or no willingness to defend the former and do even less to realise the latter. Finally, I see little evidence that elite Germany is making any effort to understand the American strategic challenge or its implications for the future security and defence of Europe.

Indeed, Germans seem unable or unwilling to recognise America’s changing and deteriorating strategic reality.  It is as though President Trump has become an alibi for the refusal of Germans to face up to their strategic responsibilities as Europe’s leading democratic power.  Even if they agree in private about the nature of emerging threats German leaderstoo often talk as though German power must remain a secret from the German people for fear the reality of the strategic responsibility such power would bring might prove too brutal an awakening. Worse, every opportunity is taken to criticise the US even though the evidence clearly shows a Washingtonstill willing to commit huge resources to the defence of Europe. Take the European Deterrence Initiative.  There was some mildly hysterical coverage in the German press last week that ‘EDI’ was being cut. As one very senior American pointed out at the meeting as each EDI project reaches fruition the investment naturally reduces.

Time is pressing. This week, IISS published their latest Military Balance report in which they noted global defence expenditure had risen by 4% in 2019. Much of that hike is driven by increases of almost 7% in both the US and Chinese defence budgets, with a particular focus on the development of new technologies for the twenty-first century battlespace.  The US increased its defence budget by $53.4 billion, which is about the same amount as the entire British defence budget.  Part of the US rationale is to offset China’s better military purchasing power by which Beijing gets more firepower per yuan invested than the US per dollar.  It is also an attempt to solve America’s critical strategic dilemma: whilst China can focus its military effort the US has to cover threats the world over. It is a dilemma that is only going to become more acute.  IISS described China’s military modernisation as, “…striking for its scale, speed and ambition”.  Europe?  Europeans did increase defence expenditure by 4.2% in 2019, but that only brought defence investment back to 2008 levels. That begs a further question. Is Europe burden-sharing, or is it just a plain burden on the Americans?

Europe Defender 20

Words and actions? As the Munich meeting got underway the Americans were bringing in an entire armoured division from the US as part of Exercise Europe Defender 20.  Whilst not on the scale of REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises of the Cold War, Defender 20 is the largest such exercise since its end. Designed to bolster high-end Allied defence and deterrence Defender 20 will see some twenty thousand US troops arrive via five ports in Northwest Europe, as well as thirteen thousand pieces of heavy equipment, to engage across eight separate locations alongside eighteen allies. As an aside, a British battlegroup was also disembarking in Antwerp in support of their allies.

The fact that the Americans are having to make such an effort is indicative of the malaise deep in the German heart of European defence. Impressive though the American force is in an emergency it could well be needed elsewhere, most likelyin what Washington now calls the Indo-Pacific.  If NATO Europe was truly capable such a force would not be American at all, but European, with a powerful German armoured division at its core.  A German armoured division? One can almost hear history weeping at such a thought.  And yet, that is precisely the kind of high-end, heavy, fast, twenty-first century first responder European/German force that NATO needs if DETERRENCE, the business the Alliance is really collectively in, is to be credibly maintained. And yet, modern, free, democratic Germany seems to be lost in denial about its responsibilities as leader.  What could the Bundeswehr really deliver in the event of another European emergency? Minor additions to the German defence effort do little to solve the essential dysfunctionality of the Bundeswehr which will not be resolved until there is a profound change in Berlin’s strategic posture and mindset.  

European weakness makes America weaker

Forcing over-stretched America to send forces to offset the choice European democracies have made to decouple their own defence efforts from threat and changing reality is not a sign of Allied strength. It is a mark of the dangerous complacency and tendency towards comforting self-delusion to which Germans are particularly prone. There seems to be astrange belief that if threats are talked about long enough by people high enough in the political pecking order thatsomehow such danger will evaporate. It is nonsense; a wilful European act of weakness that threatens to make America weaker where it matters.

Dresden was the tragic culmination of failed deterrence and the tragic cost of such failure. It was a product of irresolution and the consequent disproportionate proportionality caused by democracies preferring to see the world as they wanted it to be, not as it was.  For the sake of all those who lost their lives in the Dresden firebombing, on all sides of the conflict, let’s not go there again.

Julian Lindley-French  

PREMIUM TAG BLOG: (Some Worrying) Future Transatlantic Security Options*

The current collision between history and disruptive forces of change poses a huge challenge to the United States, Canada and the European democracies. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy and the transatlantic alliance must take the steps necessary to ensure their future.

By Stanley R. Sloan

As 2020 hits the ground with many bangs, those of us working on transatlantic relations face questions about near-term US-European security futures.

There is little mystery about the threats and challenges facing NATO and EU members. They include Russian intrusions, radical Islamist terrorism, and creeping Chinese intervention, adding to the internal challengeof illiberal politics undermining liberal democracy. So against this backdrop, let’s consider first some future scenarios.

I suggest three broad possibilities for the future of the transatlantic alliance: substantial continuity, radical positive change and radical negative change

First, substantial continuity. In this potential future, very little changes the trend lines that have been laid down by history.  

The United States remains committed to participate in the defense of Europe, to deploy substantial numbers of troops in Europe, and to retain military leadership of NATO with a senior American general serving as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.  

Also in this scenario, a post-Trump administration triesto repair damage done to US leadership of the alliance, without abandoning US burdensharing concerns.  

All current allies remain in the alliance, despite some wavering (Turkey) and others experimenting with forms of democracy that do not conform to liberal democratic values.

With the United Kingdom having abandoned EU membership, the EU continues, with some modest successes, its attempts to give the Union a more substantial integrated military capacity.  

The UK makes cooperative military arrangements with former EU partners while seeking a continued “special relationship,” including intelligence sharing, with the United States.  

In this potential future, several allies spend around 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 as agreed at the 2014 Wales summit, while others fall short.  

Second: radical positive change.

In this future, the goal of a more balanced transatlantic relationship comes more clearly into view.  The United States remains committed to the alliance while supporting European efforts to take on more burdens and responsibilities in the alliance.  

The members of the EU make substantial advances in coordinating and even selectively integrating their defense establishments.  

A true European army controlled by a politically united Europe remains out of reach. But all EU members increasingly sacrifice bits of their national control in a variety of pragmatic cooperative arrangements.  

The UK, despite its departure from the EU, commits to thorough defense cooperation with EU members, while remaining fully committed to NATO.  

Increased European defense spending is accompanied by the revitalization of the European defense industry, with multinational firms and co-production arrangements setting up a healthy competition across the Atlantic. At the same time, the US-European competition for sales is moderated by better transatlantic defense industrial cooperation.  

The stronger European contribution to defense is acknowledged with alternating European and American Supreme Allied Commanders of NATO as a transition to a possible future in which Europeans routinely hold this post.  

The role of Secretary General also alternates between prominent European and North American political leaders.

Third: radical negative change

This scenario presents a much darker future.  

The United States essentially abandons its transatlantic commitments and leadership roles.  The European allies fall into disputes about how to maintain their security and provide new leadership.  

Such a scenario could begin with the reelection of Donald Trump.  

In this hypothetical scenario, the United Statescontinues the process of abandoning its international leadership and decides to remove all US forces from Europe. Trump tweets that he and Vladimir Putin have agreed that such a move would promote peace and security in Europe.  

In response, European allies discuss creating strong, integrated European defense structures to replace the transatlantic NATO one.  But they find it too challenging politically and financially.  

Even the overwhelming cost estimate projected in 2019 by the IISS for the EU members to create a defense system as capable as that of NATO turns out to be overly optimistic.  

Several member countries suggest that the EU should follow the US lead and sign a peaceful relations/nonaggression accord with Russia.

While some commentators immediately label this “the 21st century Munich,” most European governments decide they have little choice.  

In addition, this accommodation with Russia strengthens illiberal pro-Moscow parties throughout Europe.  That leads to the election of several national administrations that lean toward fascist forms of governance and away from liberal democracy.  Adieu NATO. Adieu the West as we know it. Russia will have achieved its long-term goal of destroying the transatlantic alliance, with connivance and weakness by European governments.

The future

With all its imperfections, the current transatlantic security system, with its twin institutional pillars of NATO and the EU, makes a strong case for preservation, even if it requires reform.  

Those who argue for abandoning this arrangement bear the burden of proving that they have a better idea.

The current collision between history and disruptive forces of change poses a huge challenge to the United States, Canada and the European democracies. Those of us who believe in liberal democracy and the transatlantic alliance must take the steps necessary to ensure their future. Choices at transatlantic ballot boxes will influence which future we choose.  They had better be informed choices…

*This brief is based on the draft text the author prepared for a presentation in Copenhagen in December 2019 whose presentation was vetoed by the US Embassy, which was a cosponsor of the conference.

Permanent Putin Power

“Autocracy is a superannuated form of government that may suit the needs of a Central African tribe, but not those of the Russian people, who are increasingly assimilating the culture of the rest of the world. That is why it is impossible to maintain this form of government except by violence”. 

Nikolai Tolstoy

Alphen, Netherlands. 22 January.  Russia is a relatively small, relatively corrupt state that governs the world’s single biggest political land mass, governed by President Putin who has been in power for twenty years and who, under the existing constitution must finally step down in 2024. However, President Putin also believes he is indispensable to Russia. Therefore, Russia is about to witness what passes for political reform. As so often in Russia history it is the wrong reform by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Central to Putin’s ambitions is a desire to ensure the health and wealth of him and his family during any future succession. In his annual State of Russia address President Vladimir Putin proposed a series of constitutional changes that would effectively make him Russia ‘power for life’, even if he is not actually the President of the Russian Federation. Why does Permanent Putin matter? What are the proposed changes? Who will benefit? What are the strategic implications, what to expect now and, finally, what to do?

Why does Permanent Putin matter? Last week, at a high-level meeting in Switzerland, I was asked by a senior figure why Russia posed a threat. It is to do with the nature of autocracies, their fear of political reform, and a tendency towards military adventurism when their own contradictions catch up with them, I responded. Moscow is unable to carry out the vital social, economic and political reforms that would benefit the Russian people for fear that those very reforms would topple the regime from power.  Unwilling to carry out such reforms autocracies historically have turned to oppression at home and aggression abroad and constructed a security state to that end.  Putin’s Russia is no different. Incapable of reform Moscow is locked in its own eventual demise and because of that more military adventurism is likely as the regime lurches from one engineered crisis to another.   

What are the proposed changes? Putin called for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would nominally increase the power of both the parliament (Duma) and the State Council, hitherto an advisory tool for the Kremlin.  As President Putin announced the proposed reforms former Russian president, and erstwhile Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, immediately stepped down. To maintain his complete authority President Putin will either return to the post prime minister or become the chair of a strengthened State Council. Indeed, it is not entirely inconceivable that Putin could change the Russian constitution from a presidential to a parliamentary system so as to ensure the prime minister’s office becomes the real power in the land. 

Who will benefit? Apart from Putin himself there are several close allies who would seem to benefit from such changes, mainly because their very mediocrity means they pose no threat to Vladimir Vladimirovich, to whom they all owe their power and allegiance.  The ‘stars’ of Duma Speaker Vyacyheslav Volodin and Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Anton Vaino both seem to be in the ascendant, and either could be named at some point as a puppet successor to Putin.  The new Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who will ensure the changes Putin proposes are carried out, is also a possible candidate, although he has been given the poisoned chalice that is constitutional reform.  For obvious reasons, the so-called Siloviki, Putin’s apparatchik base in the ‘power ministries’ that deal with foreign affairs, security, defence and intelligence will be untouched by the proposed reforms. Critically, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, remain in office, although the former is closer to Putin than the latter. 

What are the strategic implications? Unable or unwilling to risk the thoroughgoing reforms Russia needs it is likely Moscow will redouble its efforts to convince the Russian people they are under threat from an insidious West to justify the regime’s hold on power.  The central paradox of Putin’s foreign policy has always that it bites the European hand that by and large feeds it. Whilst Russia relies for much of its income of the export of hydrocarbons to its European neighbours, it also routinely paints those same neighbours as part of a ‘fascist’ western conspiracy to force Russia into strategic tutelage. Expect such fabrications and provocations to continue. 

Permanent Putin will also make much of his ‘friendship’ with that other President-for-Life, China’s Xi Jingping. Both China and Russia are likely to make common grand strategic cause against an increasingly global West, more idea than place, as and when it suits them.  One of many paradoxes in Putin’s position is that not only is Russia’s relationship with China today a bit like contemporary Britain’s relationship with the United States, or ancient Athens to ancient Rome, the greatest threat to the Russian Far East is posed not by Washington, but Beijing. What binds them is that both Putin and Xi are latter day ‘tsars’ who see themselves in strategic competition with the world’s democracies. 

It is also hard to deny that the intensity of that competition, the economic pressure being exercised by Beijing on many states, as well as pace and scale of the arms race underway between the US and China (about which Europeans are in denial).  Some form of Second Cold War is now clearly underway, although Frigid Peace may be a better description.  A war that is already taking place across the ‘grey zones’ of hybrid and cyber war, and which could, heaven forfend, one day break out into a true hyperwar in which a whole host of exotically devastating technologies are unleashed. 

What to expect now? Expect more Russian defections from the norms of international relations. This is because many of Russia’s paradoxes and contradictions are policy intractable. Whilst Permanent Putin will make some efforts to improve the lives of Russian citizens at the margins, nothing will be done that could threaten the regime’s grip on power.  Russian foreign policy towards Europe will thus be a distraction strategy designed to give the impression Moscow is out-foxing Western powers. This will involve a series of defections from international instruments, such as the INF Treaty and international norms, such as the seizure of Crimea by force. Increased interference can be expected in a host of European states from the North Cape to the Arctic, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, all of which will be designed to give the impression of a clever, nimble Moscow that hints at Soviet power of the past, routinely confounding a lumpen West. In fact, over time the strategy cost Russia and its people dearly.  

What to do? To preserve peace and limit Russia’s strategic opportunism the United States must first remember it is the leader of the West, global or otherwise. Second, Washington must also realise it no longer has the power alone to prevail across the conflict spectrum against the Chinese-Russian partnership from jawfare to warfare. Third, Europeans, and other allies and partners of the US, need to realise that only by the sharing of America’s growing strategic burdens can they assure their own peace.  For Europeans that means, first and foremost, becoming united enough diplomatically, and strong enough militarily, to ensure peace in and around Europe. And, in so doing, help keep America strong where she needs to be strong. 

Sooner or later Russia will have to stop biting the European hand that feeds it and realign its strategic and economic interests.  In what could be a lengthy interim that means the sustained application of sound defence and credible deterrence in the face of Russian opportunism, allied to a willingness to consistently and constantly talk to Russia. Such a dual-track approach offers the best hope of giving Russia the soft landing both Russians and Europeans need as Moscow inevitably falls from the heady heights of its own manifold contradictions.

In other words, Europeans speak with Russia, both softly and firmly, but also carry a sufficiently big stick to ensure Moscow strategic opportunism does not become grand delinquency.  For, as Vladimir Vladimirovich will one day discover, time waits for no man, not even him.

Julian Lindley-French

Is World War Three Imminent? Strategic Trends 2020

Is World War Three Imminent?

Strategic Trends 2020

The Annual TAG Report

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair, The Alphen Group

10 January, 2020

This TAG Annual Report considers the analysis of its members over the past year given the security and defence challenges of the coming decade. Change is the constant theme running through all the analysis; a changing security environment, a changing transatlantic relationship, a changing Europe, above all, profound change to the very way security and defence are to be afforded, by what and by whom, as rapidly changing geopolitics, strategy and technology combines in dangerous concert in the 2020s. What is to be done?

Dragons, devils and TAGGERS

Is World War Three imminent? As the world enters 2020, and in the wake of the US killing of Iran’s Major General Qasem Suleimani, one could be forgiven for thinking so given the hysteria in much of the press coverage. If ever there was a time for sober and expert strategic reflection it is now. Strategic sobriety in the face of danger is the mission of The Alphen Group (TAG), an informal network of respected and experienced practitioners and thinkers set up in 2019 to consider not only threats and challenges, but also to offer practical solutions.

If there is one single, elegant message from the TAG’s first year of online reflections, as well as meetings in The Hague and Berlin it is that the need for balance of analysis has never been more important. Certainly, the world is becoming more complex, but is it becoming more dangerous, and if so where and to what extent? There is a danger that that the coming decade could dissolve into a mix of contested geopolitics and regional and societal fracture of such toxicity that world peace is threatens. Perhaps the TAG motto should be thus: beware self-fulfilling prophecies. For Americans and Europeans, the quintessential challenge is one of such complexity and how to maintain relevance, cohesion and effectiveness in what is now a venerable transatlantic relationship. In a series of Premium TAG blogs, the tensions and challenges of change and complexity are all too apparent.

New defence futures?

In A New Defence Future for Europe: Minimum Defence, Maximum Deterrence, Professor Rob de Wijk, Chairman of The Hague Centre for Security Strategy, argues that Europeans will only be afforded deterrence if they themselves can deter aggression. De Wijk calls upon Europeans to invest in a ‘Strategic Autonomy Doctrine’ focussed on a revitalised EU Common Security and Defence Policy, part of, but not subordinate to, a modernised transatlantic relationship. Europeans, de Wijk argues, should move away from classical ‘heavy-metal’ concepts of force-on-force if Europeans are to afforded security affordably in a digital age. Critically, Europeans should invest in small ‘trip wire’ forces that act as both sensors and deterrents for a new kind of digital defence, with offensive cyber to the fore, allied to a modernised European nuclear force to afford Europeans control over what remains the ultimate deterrent. The cost of de Wijk’s radical defence vision? If Europeans created a truly ‘common’ capability ever current investments of some $264bn per annum should be enough.

Rob de Wijk is essentially reinvents the idea of ‘deterrence’, and in so doing signals a protracted debate about its very nature. However, whilst Professor Holger Mey offers a sober reminder that Europeans “…cannot escape nuclear reality”, and reinforces the centrality of such weapons to Europe’s future defence, he reinforces the idea of common European responsibility for deterrence. In Extended Nuclear Deterrence Revisited, Mey confronts some hard, often uncomfortable truths. With much of the nuclear arms control regime that has underpinned European security and stability for over thirty years now in tatters a new form of nuclear arms race is also underway, at least on one side of the nuclear ‘balance’, thus threatening the very idea of ‘balance’ upon which Europe’s security and defence has been established since at least 1949 and the founding of NATO.

The essential challenge Mey poses is also relevant to all those engaged in another arms race = the race to exploit new exotic technologies in the battlespace, that could become one of the defining features of the 2020s. Whiles nuclear weapons, or any or all weapons of mass disruption and destruction could theoretically be banned if verification regimes were sufficiently strong and trusted, one simply cannot dis-invent scientific knowledge or technical know-how. “The genie is out of the bottle”, as Mey puts it. Consequently, there can be no escape for Europeans or anyone else from nuclear reality. Policy should be focussed on shaping the enduring strategic reality of nuclear weapons given their continuing ultima ratio role in deterrence.

In echoes of de Wijk, such an effort would places a particular onus on the non-nuclear member of the Alliance, many of which are uncomfortable with such weapons, precisely because nuclear weapons would be central to European strategic autonomy. As Mey states, “As long as nuclear weapons exist and are part of the reality in international relations, non-nuclear members of the Alliance should do everything from their side to keep deterrence credible”.

Grand strategy 2020s

THE defining grand strategic feature of the 2020s will be the new bipolarism and the geopolitical contest between the two superpowers 2020s, China and the US. China is already exerting profound influence on Europe via the debt diplomacy of the Belt and Road. What is less accepted in Europe is the new super-tech arms race underway between Beijing and Washington that will increasingly demand the organisation of all national means – public and private – as both seek to dominate the transformation from high-end analogue warfare to high-end digital warfare via both human and artificial intelligence and across all the many domains of complex operations and societies. Europe? The consequent outcome of this race for Europeans will be the level to which they are subjects or partners. Europeans are extremely vulnerable to the penetration of their open societies and economies and thus the coercion implied. For Europeans, a major challenge of the 2020s will be how to resist such coercion, and what choices, forces and resources will be needed to achieve a minimum level of credible resistance.

As with all strategic change it is the great power dragons who occupy the rariefied atmosphere of the twenty-four news cycle. However, the devil of such change is usually in the detail. In two insightful and powerful pieces (Part 1 and Part 2) on the US Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative (JEDI), Professor Paul Cornish highlights the radical digitisation underway of the US security and defence posture, Washington’s seeming failure to make work the strategic public private partnership at its core, and the implications of such “uncertainty” for US strategic leadership in the 2020s.

Cornish highlights another problem of the age; what technology ‘winners’ to choose and how to embed them to effect in a future defence posture, particularly when it requires new forms of strategic partnership between the public and private sectors. Interestingly, there are again parallels in Cornish’s analysis of US uncertainty over the relationship between strategy, technology and capability, de Wijk’s assertion that Europeans will only ever be able to afford such a future defence if they become strategically autonomous from the US, and Mey’s thesis that once invented technology cannot be wished away. De Wijk’s ‘min-max’ defence-deterrence posture pre-supposes technologies as a solution to enhancing European deterrence. Implicit in Mey’s argument is not just the enduring utility and role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and defence, but also the impact on that role of new capabilities, such as hypersonic, glide and artificially intelligent missile systems. At the core of all 2020s debate over defence futurism will be a pressing strategic reality: the state or non-state (a digitised ISIS?) that best exploits data, information and knowledge could likely gain a critical advantage. Digital David versus analogue Goliath?

Peaces of mosaic 2020

European strategic autonomy need not mean transatlantic strategic rupture, but it will demand Euro-Atlantic transformation. Certainly, EU defence, NATO, force modernisation, military mobility, etc. and et al, will all be subordinate to this decisive strategic challenge of the 2020s. However, that is not to suggest that ALL security and defence will be focussed on the hyper end of hyper warfare. The very ‘mosaic’ nature of warfare across a spectrum of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar fires and effects means that very idea of ‘war’, its conduct and character will also change. For example, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges warning about the dangers of an instable Western Balkans must be heeded. He is right to call for the US, EU and NATO to work in close and constant concert to ensure Serbia and Kosovo achieve a sustainable peace. This noble aim is not simply because of the suffering in the region, real though it is. The very nature of future war, and the digital connectivities upon which it thrives, means a conflagration in one region could very quickly extend and escalate in the manner of an Australian bush-fire.

Hodges, until 2018 Commander of US Army Europe, also warns about the danger of becoming too enamoured, too quickly, with new technologies. The December 2019 NATO London Leaders Meeting reminded all the allies that stability and security require structure and organisation above all else. As the US enters the 2020s, it is facing a challenge to its leadership unimagined even twenty years ago. That challenge will demand of both Americans and Europeans new thinking in the decade ahead. However, that new thinking must take place within existing, albeit adapted structures, such as the Alliance, even in the NATO of 2030 will look very different to the NATO of 2020. Hodges is also right to counsel that in the rush towards the defence-exotic fundamental principles of force and resource must not be forgotten. Principles that underpin the practical challenges of defence and deterrence, such as moving military forces across Europe rapidly in an emergency, the 2020s need for Europeans to have again the political courage to consider the worst-case, and, above all, the 2020s need for Europeans to invest the forces and resources to assist the US in its global role, so that the US can continue to afford Europeans a credible security and defence guarantee.

The Master Principle

At the beginning of this annual report a question was posed: Is World War Three imminent? The answer is no. However, unless Americans and Europeans together maintain a shared aim – collective action to preserve the peace such a war might become dangerously plausible in the years to come. In 1926, Colonel J.F.C. Fuller established his ten principles of warfare. They included offensive action, surprise, concentration of force, economy of force, security, mobility and co-operation. The so-called ‘Master Principle’ was the selection and maintenance of the aim. The aim is peace. Here’s the cruncher; at core much of the challenge of peace will concern the generation and organisation of European power. The hope of a ‘common’ solution has proven to be elusive, and will continue to be so. If Europeans are serious about power, and they will need to be, strategic leadership can only come from Europe’s three residual strategic powers – Britain, France and Germany. European action is needed now.

It is perhaps fitting to leave the final analysis to TAGGER Jim Townsend, the former Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Eurasian Affairs at the Pentagon. In commenting on the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission Jim noted that there was now an Atlanticist at the helm in Brussels. As the 2020s begin, and with Britain about to leave the EU, it is perhaps right to finish this concise annual TAG report with a hope – that Atlanticism and Europeanism, far from being or becoming mutually exclusive, will transform to become the two unbreakable pillars of a global West, more idea than place, to which all democracies are affiliated in solidarity, and committed to upholding a just and legitimate democratic peace – whatever it takes!

Welcome to the 2020s. Welcome to the TAG!

Julian Lindley-French,
TAG Chair,
January 2020

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff joins TAG


I am pleased to announce that Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a renowned German analyst, author and strategic thinker, is the latest member of the TAG expert network.

Thomas is vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Berlin, and in charge of its activities in Germany. From 2013 to 2017 Thomas served as as an advisor to President Joachim Gauck, with responsibility for policy planning and speechwriting.

Thomas spent twelve years in Washington, including a time leading a GMF team focused on the strategic implications of the European financial crisis. He has been a member of GMF’s senior management for well over a decade and has led a host of strategic projects, policy programmes and globalisation projects. In a wide-ranging, successful career Thomas has also served as Washington bureau chief for DIE ZEIT.

In September 2019, Thomas launched his latest book, “The World Needs the West – A Fresh Start for a Liberal Order”.

Thomas, welcome to the TAG!

Julian Lindley-French


Why Britain’s new Aircraft Carriers are not ‘National Delusions’


This Annual Essay considers the implications of the attack by Sir Max Hastings on Britain’s two new heavy carriers, and the planned review of defence procurement by Boris Johnson ally Dominic Cummings for Britain’s ability to fulfil its commitments to NATO given the growing pressures worldwide on the United States and its armed forces.

“HMS Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth represent a colossal embarrassment to the Royal Navy and the armed forces, and should be likewise to a government that spends a moment thinking straight about national security. They reflect Britain’s besetting sin – an exaggerated sense of self-importance – together with an unwillingness to cut our cloth to match our purse and to recognise the revolution overtaking warfare”  

Sir Max Hastings, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions. The Times, December 14, 2019

Fact: The United Kingdom spent $56.1 billion on defence according to the 2019 edition of The IISS Military Balance. Britain is the sixth biggest defence spender in the world.

Folie de grandeur?

Alphen, Netherlands. December 17. It is September 2020. Following a brief report by Dominic Cummings on ‘waste’ at the Ministry of Defence, by the ‘Minister’ with Portfolio for Everything, it is announced that HMS Prince of Wales, the second of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, is to be scrapped. She was only commissioned in December 2019. Following the 2010 decision to break up brand new MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft this is the second time in a decade a British government has decided to scrap a brand new, expensive, strategic military asset. The result is another extended and major capability gap in the maritime strength, not just of Britain, but also of NATO, and imposing yet more burdens on an already over-stretched United States Navy. For a government that claims to have re-discovered patriotism the political symbolism would be dreadful. The damage to Britain’s strategic brand inestimable. The frustration in Washington unfathomable.

Last Saturday. Sir Max Hastings, who I hold in high regard, wrote a ‘Weekend Essay’ for The Times entitled, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions? He did not pull his punches calling the two ships “giants” and “behemoths”. In fact, at 70,000 tons neither HMS Queen Elizabeth nor HMS Prince of Wales are ‘giant’ by any contemporary standard. The 110,000 ton USS Gerard R. Ford is ‘giant, built to meet US strategic power-projection requirements. The two British platforms, and carrier-enabled power projection (CEPP) they support, have been designed to meet British and European requirements. As such they are ‘heavy’ carriers of sufficient size and capacity to undertake the suite of operations relevant to British strategic need – carrier strike, helicopter operations from anti-submarine to humanitarian relief, as well as delivery of the Royal Marines to what I call ‘Littoral-plus’ operations. 

However, peer through the unusually flowery language, which tends to get in the way of much of Sir Max’s argument, and he makes some valid points. His most important is to warn against what I call ‘big ship syndrome’.  Just because a ship is big does not mean it is either powerful or invulnerable. In the long and storied history of the Royal Navy there have been two ships named HMS Invincible that have been sunk, rather proving the point. The worst such example of ‘big ship syndrome’ was the ageing battlecruiser HMS Hood – ‘The Mighty Hood’ – sunk in the Denmark Strait in May 1941 by the then brand new and doomed German fast battleship, KM Bismarck.  The 1919 completed, and only partially modernised Hood, was no match for the Bismarck. Technology and capability had moved on and Britain’s flagship blew up with the loss of 1415 of her crew.  Hood was there because the Royal Navy was over-extended, but also because she had developed a myth of power based on the simple fact she was big and looked good. In terms of over-stretch and its consequences Britain could well be sailing into similarly rough strategic seas.

Sir Max also warns about the vulnerability of the two new ships to new anti-ship hypersonic missile technologies, such as the Russian Zircon system, new nuclear-tipped high-speed torpedoes, and the Chinese DF 26 system.  What is evident from emerging Chinese and Russian systems is that they have both undertaken a systematic audit of allied vulnerabilities, particularly forward deployed US carrier task groups. In the worst-case (the bulk of US forces are in the Pacific), the two British carriers would have to act as the credible command core of deployed NATO European maritime task groups, and provide a credible warfighting deterrent in an emergency with Russia. In such dire circumstances, they would also need to be as heavily-protected as the American carriers. Here is the nub of the problem – how? Absent the Americans and the ships lack anything like the protective shields they would need, there being too few ships armed with too few systems such as Royal Navy’s new Sea Ceptor hypersonic anti-missile, missile.

At this point I part company with Sir Max, who also rather mischievously quotes me in his piece, implying that I am also a critic of the new British carriers. For the record, I am not. Whilst I would have preferred the ships to have been conventional carriers, operating the ‘C’ rather than the ‘B’ variant of the F-35, the return of Royal navy carrier strike is essential. And, whilst I am not questioning the quotes, nor even their selective use, Sir Max failed to add my rejoinder; that Britain could solve the ends, ways and means to which the Armed Forces are subject if its political leaders so chose.  It is politicians that created this crisis with the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, and it is politicians who can solve it if they believe security and defence as important to the well-being of the nation as health and education. Both reviews were incoherent political metaphors for drastic cost-cutting with little strategic regard or strategic thought. By placing hard defence austerity before sound defence strategy the link between ends and means was broken, and has yet to recover. Andrew Manley, a former senior defence civil servant, said this week that the reviews “…outlined too many objectives”, and led to available funds being spread too thinly across too many priorities. A better definition of a political culture that recognises only as much threat as one can ‘afford’ has yet to be defined.  

One of London’s many strategic delusions is to undertake reviews which set objectives based on an analysis of the strategic environment, and then simply refuse to fund the consequent strategy. However many ‘efficiency savings’ are made 2% GDP spent on defence is an historic low, given the possible causes and effect government itself has identified. It is a travesty of both policy and strategy made worse by the way that defence moneys are now calculated and spent. Worse, the consequent ends, ways and means crisis that has been foisted on the Services has also forced them into a kind of defence cannibalism, the very antithesis of the ‘joint’ force, as they fight to survive by consuming each other.  


At the core of Dominic Cummings’s arguments, which appears to be a softening-up process for some potentially shocking defence ‘choices’ by the new Johnson government, is a sense that the Ministry of Defence is inherently wasteful, with Britain’s ‘broken’ procurement system and the carriers it procured particular targets for his ire. Procurement is certainly a mess. Indeed, in matters procurement the words ‘British’, ‘smart’ and ‘defence’ can appear oxymoronic. However, that begs further questions. Why does British defence equipment cost so much, why does it take so long to field, and why does the British taxpayer seem to get so little bang for each public buck invested?  Yes, the ‘MoD’ must carry some of the blame. Equipment specification and requirement is too often vague and too ill-defined, platforms are ordered that too often end up looking like technology Christmas trees, designed to do far too much, resulting in equipment that does nothing particularly well. Contract drafting and management is often mediocre with oversight insufficiently rigorous, with inadequate ‘firewalls’ between gamekeepers (civil servants) and poachers (defence contractors) that give the latter too much influence. 

However, much of the blame lies elsewhere, with much of it the fault of politicians. For example, it does not help that Britain has only one prime defence contractor of note (Bae Systems) with a sort of half-share in Thales. It does not help when ministers repeatedly seek cost-savings during the build-phase that reduce capability and push up cost, or delay Main Gate decisions again boosting costs. It does not help that ministers can never make up their minds what type of equipment they wish to procure, or regularly change their minds about what they want any given asset to do. It does not help that defence procurement is often treated by ministers as industrial policy with jobs in sensitive places and constituencies, albeit understandably, more important than defence efficiency. It does not help that ministers repeatedly change their mind about the number of assets to be procured thus pushing up development and construction costs per unit.  Sadly, the aircraft carrier programme suffered from all of the above.

In fact, given all the costs, constraints and uncertainties British ministers imposed on the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, it is not only a miracle they were ever built, there is also an entirely different way to look at how they were built. In short, Britain managed to build two, large and complex naval ships even though successive British governments had done all they could to destroy Britain big-ship, shipbuilding industry. Indeed, there is a story of profound innovation to be told about how much of the British defence and non-defence supply chain rose to the challenge and afforded thousands of workers jobs and apprenticeships in prime, secondary and tertiary contractors across the entire country, but most notably in Scotland and the North of England.  

It is a story that also raises further politically-sensitive questions. Are many of these constituencies not the ones which Prime Minister Boris Johnson says put him in power? Are they not the blue collar northern constituencies, one of which is from where I hail, who are patriotically proud of the two British aircraft carriers as symbols of a still relevant Britain, not delusional Britain? Are they not the same constituencies who faced with the humiliating and embarrassing sight of HMS Prince of Wales being mothballed (at great cost), sold off, or scrapped, would not begin to wonder why they loaned Johnson their vote?

Little Britain?

Britain is not the power she was, but nor is she the ‘has been’ Little Britain that Sir Max seems to think. She is an important regional Europeans power in a world rapidly changing for the worse with the economy, technology and armed forces to match.  A country that is too powerful to hide from power, and yet too weak to engage it alone.  A country led by an elite establishment that too often seems resistant to the idea that Britain still has an important regional leadership role to play in defence.  

It is these people, and their lack of political leadership and resolve, who are the real cause of Britain’s defence ‘failure’. For too long Britain’s elite have been strategically illiterate content to view defence as little more than a contingency reserve for politically more convenient causes, rather than the first duty of the state. For too long they have seen the defence of the realm as a cost rather than the most important of values to be afforded. For too long they have talked the talk of Britain as a Tier One military power, but funded at best a Tier Three military power. 

My hope is that the intelligent Mr Cummings will realise that it is impossible to measure the ‘cost’ or ‘value’ of defence unless one also understands the ends, ways and means for which it exists. What is needed now, above all other considerations, is a proper analysis of Britain’s future security policy, of which defence policy is a part. Thereafter, a proper sizing and structuring of the British defence effort, with a sound defence strategy properly and consistently funded to ensure ends, ways and means are again aligned, not with how much London wishes to arbitrarily afford, but in response to the extant and emerging threats Britain must confront.  

Ultimately, Sir Max is contesting not just the force concept implicit in the two carriers, he is also questioning whether Britain can ever afford all the other capabilities Britain needs to exploit the full potential of the two ships, as well as fund the Army and Royal Air Force so they too can fulfil their allotted roles and tasks. Whilst his warning is apposite, the solution to the problem of Britain’s hollowed out forces must be a political one. Yes, Cummings can help squeeze more value out of Britain’s public investment in defence, and it is high time. Yes, Britain can rename commands and forces until the cows come home. However, until politicians start to properly address the ends, ways and means crisis in Britain’s defence the entire British security and defence architecture, from the National Security Council down, will continue to try to fulfil their ‘parochial’ missions by fighting each other to the point that the architecture itself is consumed.   

Britain’s defence imperative

The single most pressing imperative for British defence policy is thus: given the growing pressure on US forces world-wide, driven primarily by the rise of China as a military power, without the full commitment of Britain, France and Germany to properly lead NATO Europe across the multi-domains of contemporary and future warfare, the US will be simply unable to guarantee the defence of free Europe which she has since 1949 and the formal creation of NATO.

The appropriate military force that should emerge from such an exercise, given who, where and what Britain is, and given pressures on other allies, most notably the United States, should be a deeply joint, multi-domain force, plugged in to a tight government security and defence apparatus, able to lead coalitions by acting as command hubs. Surely, that is why Joint Force Command has been renamed UK Strategic Command? What Europeans need, with Britain to the fore, is a fast, first responder, high-end force that can uphold effective deterrence in and around Europe, even if the Americans are busy elsewhere. In the maritime domain only the British could lead such an effort. In that context, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are precisely what Britain needs: two British national strategic assets that communicate British strategic seriousness to American and European allies alike, act as national, Alliance or coalition command hubs, and offer potent carrier and amphibious strike. If used, equipped and protected properly they will prove their adaptable worth and value over many years of service in a domain where Britain is truly expert – above, on, below the sea, as well as deep into the Littoral. 

There is one final point – if aircraft carriers, such as HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are merely ‘convenient targets’, as one Russian admiral so inelegantly observed, then why are the Americans, Chinese, Indians, Russians, and a host of other countries either building or planning to build them?  Blue water carrier-strike is in vogue, not out of it, because so many countries realise it affords them a discretionary, declaratory and flexibly potent capability that few other platforms can match – still. A capability, by the way, that Britain not only created, but pretty much pioneered and perfected.

The case for Britain’s heavy aircraft carriers

So, let me conclude by making the case for Britain two ‘heavy’ (by no means ‘giant’) aircraft carriers.

Keeping close to the US: Post-Suez (post-Brexit?) British defence policy has been predicated on London maintaining a close strategic relationship with the US and its armed forces. As there is no European alternative, and unlikely ever to be, the rationale is sound. What assumptions must now be made for the maintenance of such a policy? This week published a piece by H.I. Sutton entitled “The Chinese Navy is Building an Incredible Number of Warships”  Rather like the Kaiser’s Imperial German Navy prior to World War One, the nature and capability of many of these ships clearly indicates the People’s Liberation Navy is determined to contest the high seas with the Americans.  The China challenge faced by the US Navy is realising such proportions it is now possible to envisage a major emergency during which the Americans may not be able to provide credible maritime-amphibious power in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Pacific, at one and the same time. Royal Navy 1935?

Easing US strategic burdens: It is no coincidence that one of the most enthusiastic champions of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers is the US Ambassador to the Court of St James. Whilst in the recent past the Royal Navy could function as an anti-submarine adjunct to the US Navy of small aircraft carriers, frigates and submarines, in the worst-case, which must again be considered, Britain could well be called upon by the Americans to act as alternative maritime Alliance or coalition command hub for the European theatre of operations.  That means providing the Naval Service with the assets and armaments to undertake such a role, including carrier strike. My concern is not so much with the platforms themselves, but with the refusal of successive governments to properly arm and equip them, and the escorts they need. Moreover, conventional thinking would suggest that with the current number of hulls in service (or more accurately available) the Royal Navy cannot both be some latter day ‘Corbett Navy’ and a ‘Mahan Navy’. And yet, with the creative use of technology, capability, capacity and alliance the core command force the ‘RN’ is creating could well fulfil its role and missions if London backs it. Moreover, for lesser contingencies than high-end deterrence/warfare the two carriers afford London great utility, as demonstrated by the French carrier Charles de Gaulle off Libya in 2011.  

Influencing Washington: There is still far too much sentimental nonsense spoken in London about the so-called Special Relationship. If Britain can assist the United States meaningfully in easing the strategic and force dilemma in which the Americans are now trapped, then Britain will have significant influence in Washington. If Britain does not, or worse, chooses not to, then Britain will have little influence. It was interesting to watch the US reception of HMS Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit to New York. On the surface at least, here was an American ally delivering high-end capability within the framework of the transatlantic relationship. With the new Johnson government in place, and the two new carriers both commissioned, Britain has an opportunity it has not had for some time to again be taken seriously by the Americans. London must now follow-through on that promise and, to coin a phrase, help the US Navy be great again, where it needs to be great, for all our sakes.

NATO Europe’s strategic maritime command hub: Sir Max complains that for high-end operations the British carriers will depend on the support of European allies, and that many of them are woefully deficient in both offensive and defensive capabilities. He is right. Indeed, I wrote a scenario that demonstrated the dangers of such weakness in a piece entitled Future War NATO that I co-wrote with former SACEUR General (Ret.) Phil Breedlove, US Marine Corps (Ret.) General John Allen, and the former First Sea Lord, Admiral (Ret.) George Zambellas. At the end of the article there is another scenario in which HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the NATO task group she leads, prevails precisely because the force is armed with the right ‘kit’ both to protect itself and exert deterrence. If European allies are not prepared to engage in the vital maritime aspects of collective defence then, given US over-stretch and the evolving character of warfare, it might be cheaper to end the pretence and scrap NATO now, MC400 and all!  My view is more positive. The Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, and the European maritime task groups they will lead, now provide a focal point for a European maritime warfare technology cluster. For example, neither the Royal Netherlands Navy, nor the Royal Netherlands Marines Corps, have little utility without the Royal Navy and the carrier strike and power projection explicit in Britain’s carrier-enabled power protection (CEPP). Britain needs to make the case.

Where can Britain best add strategic value now: The inference by Sir Max is that the two carriers (one carrier makes no operational sense, two only just) are not just destabilising the ‘RN’ with their cost and voracious appetite for crew, they also prevent the British Army from acting as an effective deterrent on the Continent, and undermine the RAF and air power.  Look at a map, and then consider changed and changing strategic circumstances. Britain is an island with centuries of experience in the use and application of sea power. Continental land strategies are relatively new to the UK. It would be strategic folly of the first order to ask contemporary Germany to take the European lead in providing the maritime aspects of collective defence, so why should Britain. The European land defence of Europe must be led by Germany, with that other continental power France. It is entirely proper and appropriate that Britain takes the lead in the maritime domain. Indeed, with the development of the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force Royal Navy power projection is vital for the support of military power during grey zone operations, particularly in the increasingly contested North Atlantic, Nordic, and possibly Arctic regions, especially if the US Navy is again busy elsewhere.  In other words, Britain is already pioneering the concept of the future joint force, now is the time to actively build one that can operate with allies and partners to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge and the comparative advantages which Britain enjoys. 

Platforms for new technologies: In a recent blog Dominic Cummings emphasises the need for new technologies to be applied to the British military space, such as space-based sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), as well as cyber and drone swarms.  He also echoes my calls for a NATO Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or NDARPA. He is right. However, the devil is in the detail. Space-based architectures will require allied collaboration with much of the heavy-lifting done by the Americans. Britain is to the fore in Europe in the considered development of AI in defence, but far more needs to be done. Britain’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities need to be much enhanced, even if much of that effort will be civilian, not military. Cummings also places great emphasis on the use of ‘intelligent’ drone swarms in the battlespace. In the maritime domain it will be platforms such carriers that will provide the bases from which they are launched, and the mass needed to swamp the defences of adversaries. In any case, for the foreseeable future British maritime strike will likely be a combination of manned air (F-35 Lightning 2), developing drone technology, helicopter-based (Merlin) anti-submarine capabilities, in addition to sub-surface defence provided by the Astute-class nuclear attack submarines, with air defence provided by Type 45 destroyers, as well as Type 26 and Type 31 frigates. That is, so long as they all work, and are all built as planned.

Overcoming British defence inertia

The real crisis in Britain’s defence effort is not caused by the aircraft carriers or by defence procurement. The real crisis is caused by the conservatism, inertia, and lack of innovation at the heart of the British defence establishment, allied to the strategic illiteracy of the British political elite. For too long Britain’s leaders have come to believe that the only operations that are important are so-called ‘hybrid operations’ at the lower to mid-range of conflict. They have become used to the idea of land-centric ‘discretionary warfare’ being the norm, possibly because it smells like the imperial policing of Britain’s past. What is needed is a fundamental re-think in both Westminster and Whitehall about what it will take to ‘defend’ Britain and its allies in the twenty-first century, and the ‘strength’ and ‘power’ maintaining peace through deterrence will require of Britain and its armed forces.  For even writing this I will again be cast by the Establishment as a heretic unable to offer a ‘balanced’ perspective.  Sadly, the word ‘balance’ in British establishment speak is merely a metaphor for the placing of short-term politics above sound longer-term defence strategy. 

Sorry, Sir Max, but I respectfully disagree with your thesis: Britain’s new aircraft carriers are not national delusions. The delusion is to fail to realise the centre of gravity of Britain’s defence effort is, and must, shift quickly and profoundly.  The delusion is to believe a power such as Britain has any alternative but to face the world as it is, not as its political leaders would like it to be. The delusion is to fail to consider where Britain can now add defence value, and where its particular genius can be best applied to ensure the democratic peace is collectively maintained. The true test of the forthcoming ‘Britain’s place in the world’ review, and the ‘all in’ (and hopefully-linked) integrated security, defence and foreign policy review, will be whether it has the necessary strategic ambition to set a still powerful Britain on the course for a twenty-first century defence, or it is yet more strategic pretence which imposes on the British people a higher level of risk than responsible government should ever allow. 

One final word: the Royal Navy is not seeking to rebuild Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, Sir Max. However, if Britain does not lead other Europeans in the increasingly contested strategic maritime domain around Europe, who on Earth will? It is my firm belief that Britain is still up to the challenge of a modest, but important military-strategic leadership role. Sir Max?  

Julian Lindley-French

The Boris Factor

“…we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister (Churchill) helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe – from Europe to Russia to Africa and the Middle East – we see traces of his shaping mind”.

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Boris Johnson

Boris uber alles

Alphen, Netherlands, December 13. It has been a long night, and I am pretty knackered. It has also been a stunning night. Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has inflicted the worst defeat on the Labour Party since 1935. Johnson is justifiably triumphant this morning. Indeed, he is now the most dominant figure in British politics since Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher. What does Boris’s victory mean for Britain, and what are its strategic implications?

In his 2014 book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson used the Great Man as a metaphor for his own political and strategic ambitions. Two themes emerged from the pages. First, Churchill’s profound belief in Britain, the British people, and the role Britain could and must play in the world. Second, and equally, Churchill’s awareness that whilst Britain remained a very significant power its days as a truly global power were numbered, that Britain itself was undergoing profound change, and that if Britain was to continue to exert influence a new realism was needed. ‘Boris’ now faces pretty much the same set of issues, turbo-charged by the relative decline in British power and influence since the height of Churchill’s relatively brief but decisive moments in power.

Boris’s domestic challenge

Brexit will now go ahead on 31st January, 2020 in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement. The defining word of 2020 will be ‘complex’. Indeed, I can already see Michel Barnier talking of ‘complexity’ as a metaphor for the very hard trade deal the European Commission will seek to impose on Britain, with particular flash-points over Northern Ireland, Britain’s ongoing commitment to EU funding, and the access of EU-flagged trawlers to British waters.  Johnson will also have to maintain ‘sound money’ and strike a balance between the many expensive promises he made during the election campaign whilst keeping Britain’s deficit and national debt under some form of control.

Johnson’s biggest challenge could well be Scotland. To paraphrase Churchill, whilst the decisive battle for Brexit may be over, another battle for Britain is about to begin. Last night, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalist Party made important gains and have been quick to suggest this morning that they have a mandate for indyref2, another Scottish independence referendum. Boris now has the majority to resist such calls, but Sturgeon also has the mandate to pursue them, even if the SNP failed to gain a majority for independence if one analyses last night’s vote.  And, both Boris and Sturgeon will be acutely aware that with Brussels no longer able to act as an alternative power in the UK, and given the dire state of Scotland’s economy, the road to Scottish independence also became harder last night.

Boris’s strategic challenge

There was a telling moment this week when the second of the Royal Navy’s new 75,000 ton aircraft-carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, was commissioned into the fleet. It was certainly canny politics by the Royal Navy to push through the commissioning of the ship before the election. In many respects, HMS Prince of Wales will be the litmus test of Johnson’s strategic literacy and his ambition for Britain’s place in the world.

In early 2020 Johnson will commission an integrated strategic defence review which will consider the security and defence effects and influence Britain needs to generate. If the review is another exercise in how much threat Britain can ‘afford’ then it will be strategic pretence, that would profoundly damage Britain’s most important strategic relationship, that with the United States, and the NATO Alliance in which that relationship is enshrined.  If, on the other hand, the review marks a genuine effort to consider in the roundest of rounds the still immense resources Britain commits to security and defence then Johnson may, just may, ease the ends, ways and means crisis from which Britain’s armed forces have suffered.

The Boris factor?

To properly understand the victory Boris gained last night one must understand the Yorkshire from which I hail, the heartland of that victory. It may be a generalisation but Yorkshire folk tend to be tolerant and respectful of diversity, whilst deeply proud of their own identity and culture. They only ever loan their support, never grant it.  They are broadly social democratic and proud of the adaptive welfare state sensible Labour once pioneered, and yet understand it must be paid for. They are moderately monarchist, but also deeply suspicious of class and entitlement, and hate any hint of deference. They are grounded and pragmatic, and utterly suspicious of the ‘isms’ to which too much of the unpatriotic British political class are in thrall. They are also deeply patriotic without being nationalistic, and yet contemptuous of those in the London elite who seem to believe Britain is little more than Belgium with nukes.  They understand Britain’s need for close alliances with fellow democracies across both the Atlantic and the Channel. And yet, they are firm in the belief that the politicians who act in their name remain subject to their sanction via the ballot box and that such sanction is reflective of a real relationship between voting and power. In other words, good old fashioned Yorkshire stubbornness and political common sense. Wherever one stood on Brexit, the chaos had to be ended.

If Boris is to succeed he must once again sell the idea of ‘Britain’ to its own people and the wider world. For too long the London elite have abandoned the idea of ‘Britain’ in an effort to accommodate globalism, regionalism, parochial nationalism, and multiculturalism. If there is be any meaning to Boris Johnson’s self-appointed One Nation Toryism it will be the championing of a Britain that is proud of itself as a country, equally comfortable with its diverse self, and sensibly ambitious about a power and its role in the world.

Over to you, Boris.

Julian Lindley-French