Britain, Brexit and NATO 2030

By David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

“In absolute terms, the United Kingdom spent by far the most on defence (EUR 47 billion in 2016). This represents around a quarter (23.7%) of the total EU expenditure on defence (i.e. around EUR 200 billion in 2016)”.

Defence: Member-States’ Spending, European Parliament, May 2018

What could a toxic Brexit mean for NATO? One of the essential messages of the NATO Reflection Group’s (NRG) NATO 2030: United for a New Era, which has just been delivered to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, is that there can be no transatlantic solidarity without European solidarity.  However, what is the point of European solidarity without Britain? It would be naïve in the extreme to believe the current tensions over a trade deal between the EU and Britain will not leak into other areas of policy. This could include London’s commitment to the defence of those countries perceived to be punishing the British for Brexit. 

First, Britain matters. In November, Boris Johnson announced that Britain will increase its defence expenditure by some 10% over the coming four years.  By 2024 Britain will spend some 2.12% of a $3 trillion (€3.3 trillion) economy on defence with a large part of the planned £16.5bn ($21.7bn, €17.9bn) increase spent on modernising its force posture. This compares with an average of 1.55% GDP on defence across the rest of NATO Europe.  In 2018 Britain already represented almost 25% of the entire defence investment made across the EU.  Britain’s relative defence weight has already increased with its departure from the EU and will increase further over the next four years as the British defence budget grows from the current £41.5bn ($55.7bn, €45.1bn) in 2020 to £51.7bn ($68.1bn, €56.2bn) by 2024. With Britain gone the EU 27 now spend some £160bn ($210bn, €173.7bn) which is a significant amount. However, in spite of efforts to get more ‘bang’ out of each euro-buck spent, the EU remains a woefully inefficient defence spender because of the way many of its member-states ‘invest’ in defence.  Consequently, Britain’s relative importance to the defence of Europe will increase over the coming years, the more so if the costs of the COVID-19 crisis see already constrained Continental European defence expenditure cut further. 

Second, the US must reaffirm the importance of Britain in NATO. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, Britain has lost a Union but has yet to find a role.  The Biden Administration will need Britain to be fully committed to NATO and the defence of Europe if it is to ease the burdens on the US for the defence of Europe. Therefore, the Biden administration should move quickly to co-opt Britain in the drafting of a new NATO Strategic Concept.  A new Strategic Concept would not only put Brexit in its proper strategic context, but also enable post-Brexit Britain to play a leading role in better preparing the Alliance to meet twenty-first century challenges. 

Third, Brexit could accelerate the decoupling of NATO. The US-UK Special Relationship remains the defence and intelligence foundation of the Alliance. However, the US-German strategic partnership is fast becoming the Alliance’s essential political relationship, even if Berlin like the EU still clings to the false belief it can generate geopolitical weight without concomitant hard power.  Under the guise of strategic autonomy there are also those on the Continent, most notably the French, who seemingly cling to the idea of an alternative European defence.  The consequence? Over time the Americans and British could quietly decouple from the land defence of Europe. Thankfully, Berlin is alive to the danger and has reaffirmed its commitment to Atlanticism. In a speech last month German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was clear: “The idea of strategic autonomy for Europe goes too far if it is taken to mean that we could guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the US. That is an illusion”.  Far from fearing a closer Berlin-Washington relationship London should do all in its still considerable power to foster it. At the same time, Berlin must also recognise the importance of Britain. 

Fourth, France must decide if it is Britain’s friend or not friend.  The hard-line position Paris has adopted over Brexit threatens to cripple the ever-fractious but vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Unfortunately, NATO 2030 will only ever be realised if US and European forces can work together in the most extreme of crises. Only the British and the French enjoy the strategic culture and understanding of force upon force on which any such ‘interoperability’ will depend. This is because the Franco-British defence pact is the hard, advanced military core of NATO’s European pillar. In November 2010, Europe’s two nuclear powers signed the Lancaster House Treaty which committed London and Paris to closer security and defence co-operation.  In the wake of Brexit the treaty should ideally be updated and expanded to include Berlin, Madrid, Rome and Warsaw. Other Europeans may object, but past experience suggests it is only when Europe’s larger states agree that Europe’s defence is strengthened, and NATO with it.  However, any such progress will only be possible if France stops seeking to punish Britain for Brexit. 

Implicit in NATO 2030 is a new defence ‘architecture’ for a new NATO that transforms Europe’s defence across a complex landscape of danger which could see the Alliance facing multiple high-level threats simultaneously.  For the balance to be struck between strategy, affordability, capability and shared risk and cost implicit in the NRG’s NATO 2030report a new European force will be needed.  This NATO European Future Force will need to be sufficiently capable to act as a European First Responder in any crisis scenario, particularly so if the Americans are busy elsewhere in the world. It would need to be demonstrably capable of both deterring aggression from NATO’s east and supporting front-line Allied nations to NATO’s south.  Consequently, thus this super-coalition of NATO Europeans would need to demonstrably operate to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Without a Britain fully committed to the defence of Europe any such force would simply be yet another European defence pipe-dream, and NATO 2030 with it. 

Britain led the creation of NATO in 1949, it must now help lead the way to NATO 2030. However, Britain, Brexit and NATO are inseparable and must be seen as such.  Deal or no deal years of Brexit political turbulence lie ahead and it will affect the Alliance. Therefore, whatever happens in the coming weeks this a moment for cool heads in Britain and amongst fellow Europeans.  In the dangerous world of which Europe is a part Brexit is a strategic sideshow. For the sake of NATO and the future defence of Europe it is time that Allies and Partners remember precisely that.  

David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

General The Lord Richards of Herstmonceux is the former Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom. Professor Julian Lindley-French is Chair of The Alphen Group of strategy and defence experts and author of the forthcoming Oxford book, “Future War and the Defence of Europe”.

Never Closer Union?

“DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe…, RESOLVED by thus pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty, and calling upon the other peoples of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts, HAVE DECIDED to create a European Economic Community…”. 

The Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957

Ever closer union?

December 2nd, 2020. Will the EU ever become ‘Europe’?  On the eve of the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the European Union, Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa last week gave a speech.  Costa highlighted the main fissure which has cut through the EU for most of its history: is the EU a vehicle for the eventual creation of a European super-state or simply a super customs union designed to protect European states from the vicissitudes of the world economy?  As Costa said: “This distinction is very important because the lack of understanding of this certainly led to the departure of the UK, which saw the EU as a platform for generating value, but not something that resulted from sharing fundamental values”. The tension between the two visions of ‘Europe’ also explains why the EU has always been part geopolitics and part domestic politics, and why the British have had such a tortured relationship with the idea of ever closer union. 

Costa was being a little kind in suggesting a “lack of understanding” on the part of the British.  The seeds of the forthcoming Brexit finalité (as much as there will ever be one) were sewn on 1 January 1973, the day the UK acceded to the then European Economic Community (EEC).  The prime minister of the day, Edward Heath, was never wholly honest with the British people about the political ambition inherent in the EU’s founding instrument, the Treaty of Rome.  That is why London routinely referred to the EEC as the “Common Market”.  Former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, who was intimately involved in the negotiations, put it this way, “Heath knew the EU would evolve towards a political union, and wanted to make certain the UK contributed to the way it was shaped. There was a realisation during the negotiations that we were setting out a direction of travel, and making certain that we had the right stops on the journey – but we didn’t have great arguments about the ultimate destination [finalité]”.  Only those opposed to Britain’s membership cast the EEC in the light of a political project and the ‘nightmare’ prospect of some future European super-state. 

The geopolitics of Europe

For Heath the emphasis in 1973 was geopolitics and preserving the influence of a declining, post-imperial Britain through the aggregated economic and political power of the EEC. However, Britain’s concept of geopolitics always differed from that of, say, Germany.  For Germans the domestic and the European were pretty much the same and their security could be realised only through the effective alignment of the two within the wider framework of the transatlantic relationship. At the time there was an inner-German border and on the other side the massed ranks of the Red Army. For centuries the British, or rather the English, had seen the purpose of geopolitics in Europe as preventing the emergence of any one single dominant power on the Continent.  For London the aim was precisely the opposite – to prevent the European dominating the domestic.  By joining the ‘European Project’ London hoped to ensure the EEC remained precisely that, an economic community of nation-states.  That was also the reason Britain was a fan of ‘widening’ the European institutions rather than ‘deepening’ them. This dichotomy caused a profound tension in Britain’s membership of the EEC from the start, because London was both part of the European journey and a brake on it.  In other words, Britain’s membership was not to promote an ideal but to ‘win’ a power struggle and was as much mired in the past as looking to the future. 

Interestingly, the power struggle implicit in the campaign for Scottish independence led by Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon also involves Europe.  Indeed, it would be immediately recognisable to any Scottish king prior to the 1603 Union of Crowns.  As such, it not only reflects an at times cartoonish Braveheart distrust of an imagined England (Edward Longshanks in a bowler hat?) in significant parts of her party, but also the re-emergence of Edinburgh’s age-old strategy of playing Europe against the ‘auld enemy’. Scottish independence may or may not happen, and Brexit may or may not be the cause, but it is hard to believe that given politics and history it would have been LESS likely had the UK remained in the EU. 

The ‘new’ euro-sceptics

Now that the British brake has been removed is euro-scepticism gone with them? No. The problem for the euro-federalists is that Britain was never alone in its euro-scepticism.  Indeed, when I worked for the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris some twenty years ago I can recall having regular conversations with diplomats from several EU member-states who would routinely tell me that their countries supported the British position on this or that, but could not say so publicly. Consequently, with Britain no longer there to take the euro-federalist flak, new euro-sceptics have emerged.  The most obvious and aggressive of the new euro-sceptics are Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki who object to what they see as the interference of Brussels in their internal affairs.  Put bluntly, Budapest and Warsaw under current management take the view that they did not escape the Soviet star to be shackled by the Brussels star (I will not refer to the colour of said stars for obvious and unfortunate historical connotations).  

There is also the so-called Frugal Four – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.  Their immediate and primary objection is to the planned €500 billion European Recovery Fund and the implicit debt mutualisation therein. Until May of this year the Frugal Four were the Frugal Five, as they were led by powerful Germany.  However, Germany’s decision to support the Fund seemingly left these fiscal conservatives marooned, although it is far too early to tell if Germany’s ‘defection’ is permanent as much of the German population remains deeply opposed to the debt mutualisation that would be needed to create a real European bank of last resort. Such a bank would be a sine qua non for any United States of Europe worthy of the name.   

The geopolitics of three

Critically, Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU.  The EU did not banish state competition in Europe, it merely created a new arena for it and like all international institutions helped ensure such competition did not morph into strategic threat.  In that light France is perhaps the most interesting and paradoxical of those now calling for ever closer union.  When Britain joined the EEC in 1973 it was after a decade of French objections and fears in Paris that British membership would be the thin end of an anglosaxon wedge.  Apart from the April 1969 resignation of President Charles de Gaulle, what seemed to shift the French position was the emergence of West Germany in the last 1960s as the economic powerhouse of Europe.  If the British wanted to ‘balance’ German power by joining the EEC, for all the post 1963 talk of a Franco-German axis, France also wanted Britain ‘in’ as insurance to balance growing German power. After all, 1973 was only thirty-three years after the Wehrmacht had paraded in victory down the Champs Èlysée and many of the heroes of the French Resistance were still in power.  Ironically, there were a few in the then West German capital, Bonn, who also wanted Britain to join the EEC, precisely to balance France. 

The French paradox? For all President Macron’s current rhetoric France never has, and never will have any intention of becoming some form of disaggregated ‘departement’ in some form of European super-state. Paris’s contemporary political aim is more about the exploitation of Germany’s budget surplus than the political architecture of the EU.  As such, Macron’s demarche must be seen as the latest iteration of France’s by and large successful European geopolitics and its far more pragmatic (ironic?) view of power and sovereignty than London.  For example, even though President Mitterand shared Margaret Thatcher’s concerns about the 1990 reunification of Germany, Paris moved rapidly to reinforce its embrace of the new Germany and firmly anchor it in what in 1991 became the European Union.  Britain, on the other hand, opted out of the very instruments in the Treaty of European Union designed to tie Germany in. 

Therefore, in the cold light of contemporary history the tragi-comic British experience of ‘Europe’ was not just the result of a profound gap that for so long existed between London elite’s understanding of its utility and the narrative they afforded the British people. It was also because Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU as the big three became the Big Two. The consequence? The new geopolitics of a Europe in which the German-centric EU is the gravitational political core is also one which sees three important losing powers on its periphery – Russia, Turkey and now Britain. As the Brexit negotiations conclude Berlin and Paris need to be aware of the implicit danger therein. Whilst Britain will never make common cause with the likes of Putin’s Russia there is a strategic imperative for the EU implicit in Brexit: how to ensure relations with important Third Countries on the EU’s periphery are not seen by those powers and their peoples as an attempt to dominate or damage them.  That will never work and I, as a Briton, would never accept it. Indeed, even if the UK becomes the rump UK that will still represent over 92% of the population and wealth of Great Britain and ‘England’ will continue to dominate the British Isles and carry weight elsewhere.  Something that Scots might also wish to ponder. 

Never closer union?

With Britain now gone from the EU euro-scepticism will not die, but adapt.  And, as Costa suggests, there is a further struggle about how to ‘manage’ power in Europe.  At its core is the eternal search for political balance in Europe.  On one side there are those who believe in top-down Europe in which member-states are essentially subordinated to supranational authority in the name of efficiency. On the other side there is bottom-up Europe in which power can only be legitimate if it remains close to the people. For that defining reasons the nation-state remains the essential guardian of political legitimacy, not least because it remains the locus of political identity. For one group, the member-state is effectively an instrument of Brussels, for the other group Brussels exists only to serve the member-state.  

The real challenge for ‘Europe’ thus remains what it has always been: how far distant can the power of the people become from the very people in whose name it is exercised?  This leads to the final twist in the Brexit story.  Since the creation of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 a constant theme running through English history has been the distrust of distant, unaccountable power that also informed the English Civil War and the American Revolution. In 1534 the first Brexit took place when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England and appointed himself as head. In Europe the age-old tension between church and state has been replaced by the struggle between state and super-state. 

The solution?  The solution is also implicit in the fissure that Costa identified: the search for ever closer union must never become a finalité for it is the very process of ever closer union which is the essential guardian of political balance in Europe. Indeed, if there ever is a finalité the EU could well be destroyed for once again there would be winners and losers and in the long history of Europe ‘winning’ tends to be merely the harbinger of ‘losing’. Given that, and even though I harbour profound concerns about Brussels and its political culture, the reason I campaigned against Brexit and believe it to be an historic mistake is because Britain can never absolve itself from Europe’s eternal search for political balance, because Britain is part of Europe.  Some Britons see Europe as the detour from Empire. In historic terms, Empire was Britain’s temporary detour from Europe. 

And, as the French rightly say, ‘les absents ont toujours torts’. 

Julian Lindley-French

The Biden Doctrine, China and RCEP

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

Bloc mentality?

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

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

Geoeconomics: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

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

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

Geopolitics: The Fourteenth Five Year Plan

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

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

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

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

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

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

Still…

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

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

Julian Lindley-French

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


Julian Lindley-French

September 15th, 1940!

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

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

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

September 15th, 1940:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiesce in Pace. Per Ardua ad Astra!

(With thanks to the Battle of Britain Historical Society)

Julian Lindley-French, September 15th, 2020

Integrated Review 2020 and the United Kingdom Future Force

This Analysis is necessarily a long one as it serves as my submission to the UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR 2020). It has been seen and commented upon by very senior people from across the Euro-Atlantic Community and is designed to challenge prevailing assumptions in London, not only about defence policy and the Review, but Britain’s place in a fast-changing world. It does not pull its punches. All best, Julian   
— / —
FOOD FOR THOUGHT PAPER
 Integrated Review 2020 and the United Kingdom Future Force
 By
 Julian Lindley-French
 September 3rd, 2020
 Abstract: IR 2020 and the United Kingdom Future Force 2030 considers the essential issues all strategic reviews should address given the challenges Britain faces today: health security versus national security, British defence strategy today and options for the future, the other Brexit and Britain’s abandonment of a continental strategy, the role of HM Treasury in national defence and the vital need for a threat not cost-led defence strategy.  The ‘strategy’ which IR 2020 crafts will have profound implications for Britain’s role in NATO and for the Alliance itself. To that end, Britain must invest the Alliance with the necessary strategic ambition and military capability needed to maintain all-important Allied defence and deterrence. The piece also considers the growing implications of US military over-stretch for the defence of Britain and wider Europe. Consequently, it calls on Britain to lead a Combined Arms approach to the development of a high-end, first responder European Future Force that exploits new Emerging and Disruptive Technologies. Critically, the piece considers what it would take for Britain to remain a real Tier One military power via a new look defence strategy and concludes by suggesting IR 2020 will be a tipping point not just for British defence but for Britain itself in an uncertain world with an uncertain future.  Are Britain’s political leaders up to the task?
 
 Anchor Quote
 
“We seriously doubt the MoD’s ability to generate the efficiencies required to deliver the equipment plan. In the past, the MoD has proven incapable of doing so—for example, in 2015, when only 65% of planned ‘efficiency savings’ were achieved. Even if all the efficiencies are realised, there will be little room for manoeuvre, in the absence of sufficient financial ‘headroom’ and contingency funding. This is not an adequate basis for delivering major projects at the heart of the UK’s defence capability.”
 
 House of Commons Defence Select Committee, 2017 (before the COVID-19 crisis)
 Bat power
 
Today is the anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two so consider this! Somewhere in China, sometime in 2019, deep in a dark Wuhan ‘wet market’ someone allegedly contracts a virus from a bat. A year or so later British defence policy, funding and investment plans, as well as many of its defence planning assumptions (DPA), lie in tatters. Meanwhile, Beijing forges ahead with a massive military modernisation programme that is exerting growing pressure on Britain’s critical ally, the United States. Just to reinforce the point last week China ‘tested’ DF21D and DF-26 anti-ship missiles in a move the Pentagon called “destabilising”. That is the unpromising back-drop to Britain’s delayed but finally forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR 2020). The Times suggests “…several billion pounds could be wiped off the MoD’s annual budget, which is £41.5bn this year”. The fact that the Review is being undertaken at the worst moment in the midst of the COVID-19 economic crisis as part of a wider comprehensive spending review (CSR) says everything one needs to know about the politics behind it. More ‘efficiencies’, more cuts.
The political purpose of the Review is thus clear: to find ways to raid the defence, aid and foreign policy budgets to pay for a COVID-19 crisis which has taken the national debt to over £2 trillion, whilst avoid giving any such impression. By weakening Britain’s defences further simply to pay for COVID-19 London risks swapping one pandemic crisis for another just as dangerous geopolitical crisis. Equally, if imbued with the necessary strategic ambition this era-defining Review could afford both London and the British defence establishment an opportunity. What are the defence policy options available to Britain’s beleaguered government?
Conceit, deceit and the magic military
 
Health security versus national security: Like many of my colleagues in academic and think-tankery I have been invited to submit my views as part of the usual feeding frenzy that accompanies such reviews.  Is it worth it? First, HM Treasury and Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor for Everything, seem to have already decided Britain’s defence course of action – more decline management. Second, should I legitimise (the real purpose of such submissions) a review that will almost certainly see health security funded at the expense of national security? Third, is IR 2020 really a strategic defence review worthy of the name? Since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review British defence strategy has had four essential strands all of which mask a growing gulf between ends, ways and means.  Cloaked in political hyperbole such reviews have driven an inexorable decline in the fighting power of Britain’s armed forces and the ‘hollowing out’ of its ever-smaller front-line force.
British defence strategy today: The result is what passes for defence strategy today. The use of nuclear weapons as an absolute guarantee against any existential threat to the British Isles with just enough intelligence capacity and expeditionary/high-end military intervention capability to convince Washington that London still remains an important ally, whilst maintaining the pretence that Britain remains a Tier One military power through commitments to the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) that London cannot possibly meet while stonewalling NATO concerns about declining British fighting power, particularly in the Land Domain. Fourth, placing the Alliance at the centre of British defence strategy whilst withdrawing from the continent.
Strategic defence and security reviews 1998-2020: SDR 1998 began this process of wishful defence policy projection when Tony Blair established his doctrine of liberal humanitarian interventionism and the use of the British armed forces as ‘force for good’.  Unfortunately, the defence planning assumptions underpinning the Blair Doctrine were blown away by 911, the Afghanistan War and the concomitant Iraq War. Consequently, the distance between the ends, ways and means of Britain’s defence policy became ever wider.
By the time of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) Britain’s armed forces were effectively broken. Worse, the banking crisis in which Britain found itself deeply mired forced the then British government to impose swingeing cuts of up to 20% on an already worn-out force. SDSR 2010 also established a ‘method’ that has, in effect, become a mantra for the ‘management’ of Britain’s military decline by claiming that central to its purpose was the need to “avoid the twin mistakes of retaining too much legacy equipment for which there is no requirement, or tying ourselves into unnecessarily ambitious future capabilities”.
SDSR 2015 was a partial attempt to begin the long-term recovery of Britain’s armed forces. It re-confirmed a commitment Britain had made at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit to make defence spending 2% of GDP of which 20% would be spent on new equipment.  SDSR 2015 also saw the adoption of two other British defence political ‘stratagems’: creative defence accounting and the use of magic military solutions.  In the 2015 SDSR the magic military ‘solution’ was ‘beefed up’ Special Forces that were to be the go to cure all for all and any pressures Britain’s markedly smaller Future Force might face.
Falling GDP due to COVID-19 means by definition a falling defence budget. Cue IR 2020. The political inference thus far is that IR 2020 is yet another metaphor for multi-dimensional cuts to the foreign, security, development and foreign policy budgets just at the moment when Britain no longer has access to the EU and its institutions.  It also takes place at precisely the moment when US forces are beginning to feel the heat of China’s military rise and the growing pressures that places on Washington’s ability to guarantee the defence of Europe, despite a predatory Russia.
The magic military: The magic military bit of IR 2020 (or 2021, or whenever it will be published) is cyberspace and black hole space. Cyber and space are important theatres of contest as I discuss in my forthcoming new Oxford book, Future War and the Defence of Europe.  The role of Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (E&DT) in future defence will also be vital. The real question, given there is already a £20 plus billion funding gap in the defence equipment budget, is where exactly should Britain invest in such technologies.  My fear is cyberspace and space are both perfect for defence ‘cutateers’ because they are unfathomable black holes the depth of which can never be measured. As the pioneer of the concept of 5D warfare in which complex strategic coercion is exerted across disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied or actual destruction I am fully aware of the important role cyber could play in modernising deterrence and defence. The same goes for artificial intelligence (AI). What AI?
 Critically, cyber cannot and will not replace fighting power and the platforms, systems and people that will be needed in sufficient quantity and at a level of quality needed to win the hard yards of twenty-first century peace. The advocates of ‘winning to the left of combat’ with cyber et al find it impossible to explain how.
Tank politics, cost-neutrality and the other Brexit
 
Cutting, investing and influencing: Sir Max Hastings has suggested that one should not be emotional about the scrapping of outmoded defence kit. He is absolutely right! He was responding to leaks from within Whitehall that Britain might scrap all of its ageing fleet of two hundred and twenty-two Challenger 2 main battle tanks and assorted other armoured vehicles. There is also talk of Britain’s frigate fleet being reduced from the already miniscule thirteen to the hardly noticeable eight, and slashing orders for F-35 Lightning 2s.  Britain used to have a little bit of everything, but not much of anything, soon it will not have very much of anything at all. This is important because if a small force cannot be in two places at once, a minute force cannot really be credible as a force anywhere at all.  A lack of mass means a lack of that most vital of commodities, influence. This, in turn, is critical for the most important function of any force – the power not to fight at all. Worse, the danger is not only that tanks, aircraft or ships might be cut, but that just a few of each are kept for political reasons to assuage lobbies of tankers, airmen and sailors thus further destabilising an already unbalanced force.
If such cuts were made due to sound military-strategic reasons then so be it. Just because Britain invented the tank does not mean it needs them a century later if they serve no practical defence purpose, although I know of no one in the infantry who does not feel safer (and is safer) for the presence of friendly armour. In reality the floating of such cuts by those inside the Review is simply because once again IR 2020 is being cost not threat-led. HM Treasury is insisting Britain’s smaller defence books be balanced at a lower level of funding and whatever cost to a force that to the budgeteers is all cost and no value. The obsession with ‘cost neutral’ defence reviews assumes that an ‘all things being equal’ strategic environment in which threats never increase or change.  Look at the world in 2020 even compared with 2020!
Fixing the defence-procurement shambles: Britain’s defence procurement is also a farce constantly subject to the shifting sands of political will with equipment programmes both cut and stretched in equal measure. One thing IR 2020 could do is to grip the defence industrial implications of the changing character of warfare and the technologies ‘defence’ will need. The very concept of the defence industrial base will need to change as AI and in time quantum computing enter the fray and massively accelerate the speed of both war and command.  Indeed, only a new form of a strategic public private partnership could master the change that is fast coming, allied to a new kind of Defence Growth Partnership (DGP).
 Threat-led or cost-led?
 
Britain desperately needs IR 2020 to be a genuinely threat-led review, the first since the Cold War. However, given that any such review will need to be paid for the economic and financial context is not at all promising. The crisis in British public finances is, indeed, very real with the national deficit now over £300 billion. However, the public finance crisis is also fast becoming a defence, NATO, transatlantic relations crisis because British governments continue to see defence as a peacetime luxury, even if they routinely speak as if the fight against COVID-19 is a form of ‘war’.  One cannot win wars with either a peacetime mind-set or a peacetime view of investment and London urgently needs to see both COVID 19 AND the deteriorating strategic environment as part of the same set of challenges. The choices are stark. London can either accept that the national debt is already so high that adding more defence costs to it will make little difference. Alternatively, they will have to look for other sources of funding, such as the £15.8 billion devoted the aid budget.  Either way, any meaningful attempt to close Britain’s threat-rhetoric-defence gap would necessarily see the British defence budget rise to at least 2.5% GDP and see all the costs associated with the nuclear deterrent removed from the defence budget.
HM Treasury and national defence: The worse nightmare of HM Treasury is a no deal Brexit and COVID-19 combining to drastically reduce the tax base and thus bankrupt Britain. Fair enough. However, simply making IR 2020 a slave of HM Treasury is self-defeating. To serve any purpose any such review must address the big picture of British security, defence and influence. The role of government is to strike a balance. It is not to recognise only as much threat as HM Treasury says it can afford.  If Britain is at ‘war’, as the Government suggests, then the spending guidelines need to reflect that imperative, as they did during World War One and World War Two. Any such expenditures must thus be seen as a form of war debt to be paid off at historically low fixed interest rates over many years and in combination with higher taxation.  That is the only possible way that Britain’s national ends, ways and means can be afforded in the wake of this crisis, let alone its military ends, ways and means.
Rational defence policy-making: It is vital IR 2020 establishes a rational for policy choices based on a real strategic assessment (not the political PR that are the UK National Security Strategies and the National Risk Register). However, there is little or no evidence the current regime has the political will or the vision or, indeed, a strategic culture that would enable it to undertake an exercise that would inevitably throw up some nasty and expensive surprises. Worse, so long as Government policy is driven primarily by ‘all things being equal’ HM Treasury economists secure money will always come before a secure Britain.
IR 2020, NATO and the military Brexit
 
The vital role of NATO defence and deterrence: NATO is the lodestar for modern defence and deterrence and it is vital the Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) is implemented in full. At the core of the effort is the modernising enhanced NATO Response Force (eNRF) and Britain needs to be front and centre of that effort. It is not. Indeed, the greater the stated commitment London makes to the Alliance in IR 2020 the greater the likely cuts to Britain’s forces.  For London NATO has become a metaphor for “we can no longer really afford to do this or that, so you our allies will have to do it”.  The problem is that every other European ally is doing the same thing, apart from the Americans and, yes, the Turks. The result is a NATO that is fast beginning to look like one of those Soviet propaganda movies of old which were all façade and no substance and in which ‘cohesion’ is everything.  There could come a day when NATO is forced out of the Baltic States due to American military over-stretch and European military weakness, but the ensuing communique would no doubt state that in spite of the ‘set back’ the Alliance maintained its ‘cohesion’.
The other Brexit: In August 2019, Britain conducted a military Brexit abandoning the land defence of the European continent by withdrawing the massive bulk of its remaining forces back to the UK. The remnant is a forward-deployed battlegroup in Estonia, a few units in Germany and some Special Forces stuff. How can such a posture possibly reinforce the two centres of gravity of NATO defence, deterrence and security? How could cyber possibly help NATO maintain high-end deterrence against Russia to NATO’s east and engaged support for front-line states facing the Mediterranean to NATO’s south?  Britain’s military contribution to both is already minimal which is demonstrated by Britain’s effective absence from any or all diplomatic efforts of any weight anywhere these days. Indeed, there is a very great danger that Prime Minister Johnson’s Global Britain will simply no longer matter even in its own strategic backyard – Europe. Given the still vital link between power and influence could IR 2020 make Britain matter even less?
Combined Arms and the UK Future Force 2030?
 
UK Future Force 2030? For IR 2020 to succeed it must look purposively out towards 2030 and mirror US efforts to modernise its forces by moving away from a focus on counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East and back to high-end power projection. However, the USMC is an intrinsically joint force. For such a vision to succeed Britain’s defence chiefs would not only have to stop fighting each other (and stop engaging in competitive leaking) they would also have to speak hard truth to political power and do so, for once, with one voice. If the National Security Council had any weight it could assist that, but it is a pale shadow of its US counterpart.
A new look defence strategy: If the nuclear deterrent is taken as a given (although all current and future programme costs should be removed from the defence budget), and assuming cyber defence (and offence) would be as much a civilian as a military cost, the centre of gravity of IR 2020 will necessarily concern the future of Britain’s high-end expeditionary/intervention forces.  Given the fact that any such British future force will need for the most part to rely on US enablers it is therefore logical to look to the US for a possible vision.
USMC and UKAF: The future of Britain’s expeditionary capability must be a deep joint force supported by Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (E&DT). In that sense, the US Marine Corps (USMC) is the most obvious parallel to the UK Armed Forces. Whilst the USMC has some 182,000 active personnel supported by some 38,000 reserves, the UK Armed Forces have some 149,000 active personnel supported by 44,900 reserves. Both the US Marine Corps and UK military are power projection forces, with both increasingly focussed on admittedly vulnerable carrier-enabled power projection (CAPP).  Not only is the USMC a possible source of vision it is also the natural partner of the British force and will operate F-35s from Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Combined Arms? Both the USMC and UKAF share other ‘virtue out of necessity’ attributes relevant to IR 2020. London’s abandonment of a continental strategy and the centrality of the nuclear deterrent in Britain’s defence strategy leads inexorably to a kind of rough military logic about the future of intervention. First, any such posture precludes the kind of mass force that would be needed to fight a high-end war with the likes of China and Russia. Second, the focus then becomes the creation of a small, but high quality, deep joint ‘strategic raider’ force focussed on one Strategic Command. Third, given the small size of such a British force and its ‘lightness’, like the USMC it would need to maintain a high degree of interoperability with the US Army and access US enablers. Indeed, it would be little more than an adjunct of US forces. For even this vision to be realised ‘UKAF’ would need to properly grip the concept of Combined Arms in much the same way the US Marine Corps sees it as central to its DNA.
Size and force structure:  The role of a small high-end force would be to undertake relatively long-reach but short duration ‘kick down the door’ Littoral plus operations in conjunction with allies, most notably the Americans. Given Britain’s existing defence investments any such scenario would necessarily see the Army providing a follow-on force for small spearhead formations of beefed up Special Air Service/Special Boat SquadronRoyal Marines, and whatever name is given to the Parachute Regiment given that drifting down into the twenty-first century battlespace a la Arnhem is no longer particularly safe (more on the role of the British Army later). The future of ‘airborne’ is assured, but it will be a very different form of airborne, possibly one in which even helicopters are replaced and the future airborne soldier is borne aloft by jetpacks operating with artificially intelligent drones acting as ‘friendly wingmen’. In other words, a smaller force package version of how F-35s might operate.
The Royal Air Force would have four primary roles: to support the Royal Navy by providing carrier strike; to ensure an assured level of sophisticated anti-access/ areas denial (A2AD) over British airspace and, with the P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, under British waters; to afford limited strategic lift for supply and re-supply of deployed forces; and, of course, to protect the nuclear deterrent as the submarines enter and exit Faslane (both the Vanguard-class and in time the new Dreadnought class nuclear-powered ballistic missile boats).
Level of ambition, area of operations: The good news is that whilst the military reach of the USMC is across the maritime-amphibious global battlespace of the Indo-Pacific where, of course, the USMC gained its stellar reputation, Britain is a European power and can focus its main effort far closer to home.  Interestingly for Britain the choices the Americans are making the implications for the future force structure of the ‘Corps’ include a much tighter joint ‘culture’ with the US Navy, even if the USMC is unlikely ever again to mount large scale forced entry amphibious operations. For the Americans the emphasis will thus be on high-speed, short-term, maximum shock, high technology raids (strategic raiders) against vulnerable parts of a high end peer adversary’s force posture. Britain?
Tier One and the cost of readiness? Like all recent defence reviews (and the fluff they are cloaked in) IR 2020 will no doubt claim that Britain will remain a ‘Tier One’ military power. The true test of such a claim will be the role of the British Army.  Here ‘UKAF’ would part company with USMC. The difference with the US Marine Corps would be the transformation of the British Army into a twenty-first century ‘heavy’ force that whilst relatively small would still be able to operate to high-end effect across the battlespace.  The political benefits of such a plan would be clear. First, Britain would still be able to exert leadership within the Alliance to which it claims to aspire. Second, such a ‘command hub force’ would also enable non-US allies to ‘plug’ into UK-led coalitions if the US was busy elsewhere. Third, it would enable the French and the Germans to ‘buy into’ a new British commitment to European defence.  However, the British would also need to keep a significant part of what would be a significant high readiness force at high readiness for significant periods. Not cheap!
Little force, little Britain: If IR 2020 really is to be another, “we cannot afford everything we really should” review it is hard to see the Army ‘winning’ given the changing character of warfare and Britain’s diminishing role within it.  If that were to be the case, and given how much money Britain has already ‘sunk’ (excuse the deliberate pun) into big ships and very complicated fast jets the logic would then be to invest in an all-out genuine and muscular maritime-amphibious strategy, with an air force tailored to support. At least such a capability would afford London more discretion over the use of force in complex scenarios, as naval forces can come and go albeit at the expense of reach. However, given the trade-offs implicit therein the Army would be reduced to little more than a lower-readiness, support for the civil authority, home defence force. If such a choice is indeed made Britain should at least have the decency to say to NATO and other allies that Britain no longer really does big land stuff, but will make a serious material contribution to collective allied maritime and air security.
That IS the essential defence choice IR 2020 must now make and whilst painful it might just allow Britain to retain a seat at top tables, and possibly ensure Britain holds onto NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.  The worst thing for Britain to do would be to continue doing what it is now doing – pretending to its allies, most notably the United States, that Britain remains a serious land power when it can no longer field anything like the force the NATO Military Strategy and Defence Plan assumes. The furtherance of such deceit could, in time, lead NATO into disaster.
Britain and the European Future Force
 
IR 2020 and US military over-stretch: There is another change factor IR 2020 must grip. The attrition of a decade of full engagement operations, allied to the rise of peer competitors means the Americans are also facing an ends, ways and means crisis that the new Administration (whatever it is) will need to address.  It is a crisis (for that is what it is) that will have profound implications for the future defence of Europe because it will put transatlantic burden-sharing front and centre of the US policy agenda.  They will have no other choice. Indeed, without the full and combined leadership commitment of Britain, France and Germany across the multi-domains of contemporary and future warfare the US will be simply unable to any longer guarantee the defence of a free Europe.
A European Future Force: Europeans desperately need to build a European Future Force worthy of the name to ease pressure on the Americans, and to reinforce the credibility of Alliance defence and deterrence if, as would be likely, future enemies force the Americans to fight in multiple theatres the world over at the same time. Such a European force would also need to be a deeply joint, multi-domain, multi-national force and plugged into a tight command security and defence apparatus (an adapted NATO?). Britain, France and Germany would also need to act as ‘high framework powers’ by enabling force generation, command and control of coalitions by acting as autonomous command hubs. Therefore, in the wake of Brexit, IR 2020 should commit Britain to play a committed leadership role in the forging of such a command group by updating and expanding the 2010 UK-French Defence Co-operation Treaty with the aim of forging a new European fast, first responder and high-end force designed to reinforce effective deterrence in and around Europe, even if the Americans are busy elsewhere. A necessary reality check must be inserted at this point. Any such European Future Force would need to be weaned off US strategic enablers to be truly autonomous. For example, the US today provides 65% of NATO’s ‘fast air’ and 90% of refuelling aircraft. Indeed, if IR 2020 is to have a scintilla of strategic ambition or imagination it is just such a vision it must espouse.
Otherwise…
IR 2020: yet another strategic pretence and insecurity review?
 
Some will consider this ‘intervention’ unhelpful. It is necessary. This is because the future of defence is on the offensive.  The lethality and range of modern weapons systems, both offensive and defensive, allows ‘defence’ to be prosecuted by forward forces supported by ground, air and maritime-based weapons deployed at depths well-outside the tactical defence area. Deterrence by Denial is now not simply the presence of massed heavy metal, but the integration of so-called ‘fires’. In that light, IR 2020 must not be judged by its political, but its strategic value. It must also answer three questions: does it set Britain on a course to play the military role a still major European power of its size and strength should play in the defence of Europe? Does it enable Britain to support US leadership and make an adequate contribution to the sharing of transatlantic burdens? And, does it help to prevent the possible defeat of NATO by revealing a British future force able and willing to act in extremis?
My fear is that none of those questions will be answered by IR 2020 and it will be the same ol’ British same ol’.  More of the same old defence pretence at which London has become the acknowledged master in which there is much talk of ‘ambition’ where there is none, more ‘commitments’ are made, even as the ability to meet them declines, yet more ‘efficiencies’ are called for that are little more than euphemisms for deep cuts, and in which defending Britain is a cost not a value. In other words, the same old mix of conceit and deceit that has done so much damage to Britain’s credibility and reputation as a power. For once it would be nice to be surprised by a British government that actually ‘gets’ the nature of twenty-first century power and is willing to prove it.
The domestic political implications of IR 2020 must also be gripped.  The recent spat between the BBC and huge numbers of the British people over whether or not Rule Britannia should be sung at this year’s Last Night of the Proms is sadly indicative of modern Britain. For the BBC the song is a nationalistic anachronism that reeks of jingoism. To millions of Britons it remains a leitmotif of national defiance. However, behind the culture wars there is something quite profound, the systematic deconstruction of British patriotism and national self-belief. As a trained Oxford historian I am the first to acknowledge the sins of the past and I am in sympathy with much of the ‘new thinking’, although I am profoundly concerned about the imposition of contemporary values on past actions. In that light the state of Britain’s armed forces is something of a metaphor for the state of Britain itself. With separatists in power in Scotland, and many citizens seeming no longer to care about Britain and its role in the world, could IR 2020 mark the beginning of the end of Britain itself?  After all, if the British establishment no longer believes in Britain as a power then how can the rest of us?  No state can be a power if it is deeply divided or is led by people for whom power is just pretend.
If that is indeed the journey upon which Britain is embarked then the implications for Britain, Europe, and all the world’s democracies are profound. Freedom cannot be defended by values alone, however well-intentioned. Indeed, freedom, power and defence are inexorably and intrinsically-linked. Freedom’s defence must thus always involve a sufficiency (no more) of military power given the scope and nature of the threats democracy faces. To be credible any such power must also communicate to allies, adversaries and enemies alike both the determination and the capability to fight if needs be. That was the lesson of the 1930s. Britain 2020?
IR 2020: tipping Britain into an uncertain future
 
Basil Liddell Hart once famously said that between 1919 and 1939 the British were ostriches, and when their heads were jerked from the sand their eyes were too angrily bloodshot to keep clear sight. IR 2020 is a tipping point for a declining Britain and thus should not be seen as simply another review. As such, it will reveal the extent to which Britain is a serious power to be treated seriously by friend or foe alike, or a posturing, paper, pretend power in which the appearance of strength is far more important than strength itself.  Indeed, watching Britain from abroad it is hard not to conclude that much of the London establishment suffer from what is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a type of cognitive bias in which they believe their nation/organisation is smarter and more capable than it actually is, and that allies and partners share such bias. Ultimately, Britain’s greatest weakness is not its inability to close its defence ends, ways and means gap, but the poor quality of Britain’s leaders, their strategic illiteracy and ingrained short-‘termness’, allied to a determined refusal and/or inability to lead Britain to the strategic role to which a state of its power and importance could still aspire. Prime Minister Johnson aspires to emulate his hero Winston Churchill. IR 2020 is his chance to begin that journey. Churchill was great not because he succeeded in easy times, but because he prevailed in appalling times. Over to you, Prime Minister!
The bottom-line of IR 2020 is thus: military threats are emerging and the nature of warfare is changing. The conditions for shock to happen are not only created through the design of aggressors but also the neglect of defenders. Given the strategic responsibilities of an advanced global trading power of some sixty seven million people that is a leading member of NATO and a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council Britain’s armed forces are fast becoming absurdly weak in relation to the threats they must face and the roles and tasks they are expected to perform. No amount of clever drafting can or will hide that reality!  Indeed, if Integrated Review 2020 is, indeed, more strategic pretence it is only to be hoped that some future enemy will be obliging enough to act in such a way that Britain’s defence planning assumptions do not simply collapse like the pack of cards they are, just as the Wehrmacht did in 1940.
Let me finish with the words of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, “…now we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top if we succeed in being defeated”. IR 2020?
Julian Lindley-French,  September 2020 

Summer Essay: Trump, Germany and the Pom-American Grenadier

“The Balkans [Europe?] are not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier”.

Otto von Bismarck 

The guns of August

August 4, 2020. On this day in 1914 World War One broke out because Great Power had created the conditions for relatively small events to trigger a major cataclysm. This is a story of two twenty-first Great Powers, America and Germany, both sleepwalking towards disaster, aided and abetted by a host of strategically delinquent lesser Powers, most notably Britain and France. 

Whilst the cause of World War One was primarily due to the egregious arrogance and miscalculation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Prusso-German elite the other Great Powers of the day, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Russia, also ‘sleep-walked’ into a conflict that for many came out of the August blue. In June, I wrote a piece entitled The Guns of August 2020? My use of Barbara Tuchman’s classic book was quite deliberate. My fear was (and is) that a mix of miscalculation, complacency, stupidity, opportunity and growing Russian desperation, allied to a coalescence of dangerous events, could lead to another surprise war in a Europe paralysed by COVID-19 and asleep in the August sun.  

The reason for my concern was President Trump’s decision to withdraw and move some 12,000 US troops from Germany, which he has now confirmed.  A decision that is sending a powerful message to friend and foe alike, and not the one Secretary of Defense Mark Esper would like that the US is merely “…following our boundary east, where are newest allies are”.   On cue Poland has agreed to fund the headquarters of US Army V Corps and the infrastructure and logistics needed for the basing of 4500 American troops and an additional 1000 rotational troops. On Monday, Esper stated that the US-Polish deal “…will enhance our deterrence against Russia, strengthen NATO, re-assure our allies, and our forward presence in Poland on our eastern flank will improve our strategic and operational flexibility”.

The move will certainly shorten the distance between the diminishing bulk of US force in Europe and NATO’s eastern border, but is the aim really to strengthen deterrence? In June President Trump said, “…we’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent. That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers.”  In other words, Trump is using US forces as a negotiating tool in a high-stakes game of poker with Chancellor Merkel in which the defence of Europe is the main chip. His message to Germany is brutally clear: if Germany and other Europeans fail to spend enough on their own defence, why should the defence of Europe come at the cost of even one American ‘grenadier’?  

Low politics, high stakes

President Trump is playing presidential politics with Europe’s defence. Political decisions have strategic consequences. This August a host of events will take place that reveal the extent of America’s strategic dilemma, the global military over-stretch from which its forces are suffering, and Europe’s utter and shameful indifference to the consequences of both.  Ironically, it is not Russian military exercises that perhaps pose the greatest threat.  If anything President Putin has scaled back KavKaz 2020 on the Russo-Ukrainian border.  Still, Russian forces and their proxies continue to act aggressively around Europe’s borders and the build-up of Moscow’s forces on the Ukrainian border must be watched carefully. In July, NATO also held the twentieth Sea Breeze exercise in the Black Sea Region with the US Sixth Fleet to the fore.  In any case, Moscow is fully capable of striking at short-notice almost anywhere from Northern Finland to Ukraine and into the Mediterranean. 

It is the politics of the European theatre and the relationship between Europe’s deteriorating deterrence and defence and events that is of most concern. Of particular concern are the August 9 elections in Belarus, or at least what passes for ‘elections’ in Belarus. There is an extraordinary campaign underway to unseat President Lukashenko which Moscow is closely monitoring. The extent of Lukashenko’s concerns were revealed last week when Minsk ordered the ‘arrest’ of several members of The Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with close links to Russia’s SVR (foreign intelligence) and GRU (military intelligence). The purpose was to demonstrate Minsk’s ‘independence’ from Russia. In fact, Belarus is firmly in Moscow’s strategic pocket and President Putin will go to great lengths to keep it that way, even using force if necessary.  Belarus is the hinge around which Russia exerts complex strategic coercion across the entirety of Central and Eastern Europe and across the spectrum of 5D warfare – disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and threatened or actual destruction. 

Papiertiger?

A senior American friend of mine was at an event in Washington last week on the occasion of a visit by the State Secretary of the German Ministry of Defence, Thomas Silberhorn. On the face of it all is well and good in the US-German relationship. Silberhorn not only re-committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear deterrent, he used the visit to announce Berlin’s decision to purchase US F-18 Superhornets.  Berlin is already committed to buying F-18 Growlers to replace the Luftwaffe’s elderly Tornado fleet. 

Unfortunately, Germany’s purchase of the F-18s reveals Berlin’s lack of understanding of the direction and utility of future force, and thus the extent of Europe’s own strategic dilemma. Berlin should have purchased the F-35 Lightning 2’s as the ageing F-18s will soon prove a false economy. They are good 4G platforms, but Europe is fast entering a 5G and soon a 6G world. The Germans bought the F-18s to placate the Americans and to have at least one system that for a time might penetrate Russian air defences. For a time. The utility of force is relative and changes all the time but Germany’s political class do not seem willing or able to understand that.  

For the past thirty years the main utility of force was as a super-police force in discretionary wars of the people. Now, the core utility of force is again fast becoming high-end deterrence which means a whole different kind of force, even if those forces will also need to contribute to a raft of stabilisation missions. If Berlin really wanted to assist the Americans it would instead focus on how it could better prepare NATO Europe for the defence and deterrence posture the Alliance will need across the hybrid-cyber-hyperwar mosaic of the twenty-first century conflict super-space. After all, Germany IS, to a very significant extent, Europe’s defence and technological industrial base. And yet, whilst Berlin is all too happy to sell advanced military stuff, it is not at all keen to invest in it. 

Papiertiger? What would the demise of Trump reveal about Germany?  Many German officials refuse to believe the US troop draw-down will ever take place, or it will have a minimal tactical effect. Many of them also assume Trump will not get re-elected in November and that a Biden administration would take a very different view. First, the US presidentials have yet to start and it is far too early to make that call. Biden has many weaknesses and frailties which Trump will mercilessly exploit.  Much like Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, it is also hard to believe much of patriotic Middle America will vote Democrat if the woke Left of the party continues to enjoy the influence it has today. Second, US military over-stretch will worsen.  Iran is about to conduct a major military exercise and Washington has been forced to markedly increase its presence in the South China Sea. US policy towards Europe over the sharing of burdens and risks will thus not change radically and a Berlin no longer able to use Trump as an alibi will need to think and act differently. Third, and most importantly, there can be no credible European defence without German strategic leadership and a strong US-German strategic partnership.  That means a Berlin finally willing to confront the political demons that prevent the emergence of a democratic German strategic culture. It will also mean a Germany that finally stops bolting down the political rabbit hole of the fantasy that is a common EU defence every time someone calls on Berlin to pay the price of leadership. 

Trump, Germany and the Pom-American Grenadier

World War Three is not about to break out tomorrow, but war in Europe can no longer be discounted, possibly as early as this month.  In that light Bismarck’s famous quote needs unpacking because it was not about the Balkans per se, but posed much more fundamental questions about the utility of force that are relevant today. What is the best use of US forces in Europe, and at what strength, to serve both the US interest and the defence of Europe? What should the German-led Allies do in support of those legitimate strategic aims?

The Pomeranian Grenadiers were something of a joke in the Imperial German Army, very different from US combat forces today. Bismarck cited them to contrast his policy of strategy underpinned by force with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s preference for force without strategy. Bismarck’s essential point was that policy in the absence of strategy was not worth the life of a single soldier, even in Germany’s most third-rate regiment, for it was doomed to fail.  President Trump’s decision is bad policy, Berlin’s reaction reveals a vacuum of strategy. 

Contemporary Berlin and Washington both miss Bismarck’s essential point: the peace of Europe is maintained via a complex matrix of constraining agreements and treaties reinforced by minimum but credible conventional and nuclear military force. Too much force and Europe becomes unstable, too little force and Europe becomes unstable.  Today, Germany has neither force nor strategy nor policy relevant to the threats it faces and the Europe it leads, whilst President Trump sees US forces in Europe only as a transactional ‘joker’ card in an obsessive poker play with a “delinquent Berlin” as he appeals to his voter base.  

There is another factor in the causes of World War One that is relevant to Europe today and which many Americans tend to miss, preferring instead to see ‘WW1’ as another European ‘civil’ war into which they were dragged. In fact, World War One was the first major war between democracy and autocracy. The very cause of the war was the fear the agrarian Prussian aristocracy in then Germany’s east had of burgeoning calls for democracy in Germany’s industrialising west.  For all President Putin’s put-downs of liberal-democracy, and as COVID-19 chaotic as it is, it is the fear autocracy has of real democracy which is driving much of the Kremlin’s strategy. 

The real cause of US-German dissonance and the weakening of the transatlantic relationship is the structural shift in geopolitics, America’s inability to be strong all of the time everywhere, and Germany’s refusal to recognise that Americans can only underwrite European peace if Europeans do far more for their own defence. Critically, such a defence will not only require German leadership, but more (and better) legitimate, democratic German armed forces. No-one in Berlin wants anyone to point that out. 

So, until there is a new and formal peace with Russia, and the Middle East and North Africa re-establishes stable states, across its region the security and defence of Europe will likely continue to ultimately rest on the lives of a relatively few ‘Pom-American Grenadiers’. At least they are first-rate. As for Americans and Germans they might heed the words of Albert Camus: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend”. 

Julian Lindley-French 

Little Britain 2? A Hard Rain is Cummings

“A hard rain is coming”

Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson

 

Brexit and COVID-19 have fundamentally changed all of the great assumptive lathes upon which all the tools of Britain’s external reach have hitherto been forged. There has never been a more propitious moment for a truly radical re-evaluation of Britain’s vital interests and how to secure and defend them. A radical such as Cummings might just be the man to break the defence pretence from which for too long London has suffered. However, the forthcoming Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Policy Review will need to be far more than the sum of his own prejudices.

 

A hard rain is Cummings

George Orwell once wrote that in times of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. At first sight the news that London is considering sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific to deter China has the ring of Gilbert and Sullivan about it, especially as the announcement coincided with a rumour that the British were also planning to scrap the building of three Fleet Support Ships necessary to make future such deployments possible.  For some strange reason the Americans tend to get a tad irritable when they are asked to use their over-stretched armed forces to support a bit of British grandstanding.  Still, this is the silly season and there are many balloons been floated about the forthcoming ‘Dom Does Defence Review’ (aka the Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Review) which will be led, as is so much of British policy these days, by Boris Johnson’s ‘Advisor for Everything’, Dominic Cummings.

There has been a fundamental problem with British security and defence policy since at least 1922: the yawning gap between ends, ways and means. Today, that gap is as wide as it has ever been. Listen to the rhetoric of the Johnson Government and the high summer of strategic pretence is in full bloom: Global Britain should do more on security and defence, but do it with significantly less money. To make this impossible equation ‘add up’ politically Cummings wants to hot-wire Britain’s defence by shifting the focus of Britain’s armed forces from the physical battlespace to the digital, the virtual, the orbital and the informational battlespace by downsizing the physical and the kinetic. Another of Dom’s prevailing assumptions is that such a shift can only be done if Britain relies more heavily on allies, most notably the US and NATO, even as it cuts the very British means the US and NATO need. In 2019 Britain effectively abandoned the Continental Strategy it is has followed since at least 1944 and effectively withdrew from the land defence of Europe.

Politics, as ever, is trumping strategy. London claims it will maintain the commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence and increase its real-term defence investment by 0.5% per annum.  A lot of this smoke and mirrors. The accounting method used to calculate British defence expenditure might meet NATO’s very lax standards but would not pass muster with any decent accountant. Critically, COVID-19 has already seen a marked contraction in GDP and the shift to space, digital and virtual (always expensive) could only be paid for either increasing the defence investment budget markedly (very unlikely) or by cutting further vital military ‘teeth’ formations, such as 21st century airborne (sadly predictable) and equally vital support and logistics, such as Future Support Ships.  Team Tempest and the much-vaunted Future Combat Air System? Let’s see where that goes.

Britain’s dangerous choice

The dangerous choice Britain now has to make which is implicit in the Review is thus: if Britain makes the wrong set of radical defence choices having caused The World Crisis – inadvertently or otherwise – China (and Russia) could well be the big strategic winners. If the UK goes all defence virtual and becomes the militant wing of soft power London will be complicit in worsening US military overstretch and further weaken the defence of Europe (a central theme of my forthcoming Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe). London has already retreated behind its nuclear shield in favour of some occasional strategic raider role. Global Britain?

Hard rain means hard truths. For all the current defence and deterrence pretence in the fashionable salons of London’s defense philosophes and their wittering about the ‘digital’ and ‘information’, warfare still ultimately involves well-trained and well-armed young men and women having ‘win’ hard yards and paying for it with their lives.  Beijing and Moscow understand this. Indeed, if one reads Chinese and Russian military strategies and doctrine both see the primary purpose and utility of the virtual, digital and informational as enablers for the physical, not as an alternative to it. Cummings does not seem to understand that. Worse, it is not at all clear that the current service chiefs will be sufficiently robust with their political master/s (Dom) about the damage that defence amateurism on steroids could do to Britain, its defences and its alliance. Indeed, ‘the Chiefs’ seem more interested in appeasing Dom by implicitly endorsing the nonsense that the digital, the virtual and the informational is all the ‘warfare’ Britain should aspire to fight.

Make Britain strong enough…

So, what is the British defence-strategic role Cummings should aspire to? There is a mantra Cummings should have pinned to his office wall: ensure Britain is strong enough where it is critically necessary; help keep America strong where and when it is strategically necessary, and make NATO work where absolutely necessary.

The US needs Europeans to do far more for their own defence and Britain, as an important European regional strategic power, needs to be at the core of any such European effort.  Forget all the nonsense about an EU common defence. The only way to organise such a US-supported European defence will be to construct it around Europe’s three major powers, Britain, France and Germany, and within NATO.  Indeed, NATO is the only available mechanism for the all-important transformation of a European defence effort that by 2030 (at the very latest) will need to credibly deter and defend across the physical, digital and virtual domains of 5D warfare: disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied or actual destruction.

Therefore, the forthcoming Cummings defence review (forget all the guff about an integrated approach) should be about generating sufficient British military power to buy influence in Washington and the Alliance, power is after all influence. The aim of the review should be the transformation of NATO into THE vehicle for the generation and rapid deployment of sufficient European force to deter and defend against both a high-end peer competitor AND support front-line Allies dealing with chaos to NATO’s south. The true and coming test of both NATO and Britain will rest on the ability of Europeans to mount a defence against the worst-case scenario in which adversaries exploit US military over-stretch by engineering crises in multiple theatres simultaneously. The EU? Adapt the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to focus on greater resiliency of critical command and security infrastructures, and make Britain a strategic partner.

Where Britain can add specific value

Defence reviews are about difficult choices, the Cummings Review is no different. Given the rapidly changing and deteriorating strategic environment Britain can add most value to its own future defence, that of its European neighbours and its American allies by helping create a high-end, first responder European Future Force. Such a force must be able to operate to effect across the multiple battlespaces of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge and NATO’s European pillar should be reformed with that single aim in mind. At the core of the force should be an Allied Command Operations European Mobile Force (based on the old ACE Mobile Force) and organised around a British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and other NATO commands that has sufficient twenty-first century military manoeuvre power to block a major attack on the Alliance (supported by relevant enablers, logistics and indicators) AND sufficient military mass to support front-line states to the south dealing with the consequences of engineered chaos across the Middle East and North Africa. If Britain’s Strategic Command is to match words with deeds the creation of such a force should be central to its mission.

In the wake of COVID-19 such a vision will not only demand more defence from states like Britain but far greater synergy between European forces and a profound change of mind-set on the part of European leaders. It will also demand that in spite of Brexit Britain, France and Germany march in strategic lock-step. Therefore, establishing the foundations of a new transatlantic/European strategic partnership should the single over-arching political and strategic aim of the Cummings Review.

The Cummings Review

Dominic Cummings is essentially right – a hard rain is indeed coming to Britain’s foreign, security and defence establishment and Britain’s strategic outreach certainly needs shaking up. Brexit, COVID-19, the publication of the Russia report by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and the rapid deterioration in Sino-British relations are the first heavy showers of the Gathering Storm.  Closing the woeful ends, ways and means gap from which Britain’s armed forces have for too long suffered not only needs to be grounded in geopolitical reality it must also do something inimical to the Westminster and Whitehall mind – put strategy before politics in pursuit of the national rather than the political interest.

The alternative is that the Cummings Review will turn out to be yet another exercise in strategic pretence, the musings of an over-mighty defence amateur with a chance to impose his particular prejudices on a defence establishment already teetering on the edge of dysfunction.  If Cummings is to do any service to Britain’s critical national interests in the wake of the COVID-19 disaster he will also need to answer two questions that too many British governments have for too long dodged: what kind of power is contemporary Britain, and what hard power role should Britain aspire to play?  The mushy furnishings of British soft power so beloved of the London Establishment will simply can no longer afford comfort in this world.

US and Indian forces will shortly begin a major joint military exercise. It is part of the emerging World-Wide web of Democracies that will contest the twenty-first century strategic space with China and Russia. Britain is a major strand of that web, albeit very much a Euro-Atlantic strand. Ultimately, the Cummings Review must understand that and end British strategic pretence or fail. To do that Cummings must properly consider the application of all national means in pursuit of Britain’s national interests but in the world as it is, not the world London would prefer to exist.

 

Julian Lindley-French

China: Power, Payback and Statecraft

“We are not dealing with the China of the 1990s or even the 2000s, but a completely different animal that represents a clear challenge to our democratic values”.

Francis Fukuyama

 

One China, One System

One China, Two Systems? No, One China, One system. For President Xi Jingping the 1947-29 Chinese Communist Revolution will not be complete until Hong Kong and Taiwan are brought fully under Beijing’s writ. Xi’s senses the moment might be fast approaching when the ‘correlation of forces’ are sufficiently in his favour for him to forcefully unify China. The imposition of National Security Legislation over Hong Kong by Beijing could well be but the beginning of the forced unification of China. Indeed, Chinese military exercises near the Taipei controlled Paratas/Dongsha islands could also signal stage two of the Plan is coming soon. This would involve the forced unification of Taiwan with Mainland China far earlier than the stated date of 2049, the centennial of the Communist Party’s seizure of power.

Critically, President Xi’s power exploitation of the COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on how Beijing really sees power and its determination to extend its writ across China, East Asia, and much of the rest of the world. There was something tragically quaint about Chris Patten bleating this week about a new dictatorship in Hong Kong.  Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong would have suspected even in 1997 at the time of the Handover that Beijing would at some point move to impose Chinese sovereignty over the Special Administrative Region long before the fifty years agreed. Like so much of British foreign and security policy these days the Handover was merely a device for a Britain in retreat to save face.

Xi’s rise to power

Fukuyama is right; Xi’s China is not the China of his predecessor Hu Jintao. The process of projecting power abroad is changing the very nature of the Communist Party, which now relies for its power base more on Han Chinese nationalism than ideology.

Whilst Hu was never more than primus inter pares, Xi is distinctly primus. In the wake of the Communist Party’s brutal 1989 suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square Beijing opted to re-build social cohesion by focussing on economic growth.  The policy was overseen by a cautious oligarchy which was focused on China’s domestic stability. Whilst it proved spectacularly successful it also led to a period of relative calm in China’s foreign policy.

All that changed in November 2012 when Xi Jingping became General Secretary of the Party. For eight years Xi has focussed on three policy goals. First, consolidation of his own power and that of the Party through anti-corruption drives and the establishment of greater censorship.  Second, a more aggressive policy of forced unification and military expansionism, particularly in and around the South China Sea. Third, the development of the People’s Liberation Army into a power projection force. The latter policy was accelerated in March 2018 when this Princeling of the Party became the de facto President-for-Life.

As President-for-Life Xi has far more in common with the Chinese emperors of old or Mao Zedong in his later years, than either Marx or Lenin. Indeed, under Xi the Chinese Communist Party is fast becoming a Chinese Nationalist Party, which is historically ironic given that it was the Communists that in 1949 defeated Chiang Kai Shek and the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) at the end of (Part One?) the Chinese Communist Revolution. Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists retreated onto the island of Taiwan and have been there ever since.

Kow-towing to history

How the Han Chinese see the world and China’s place in it is thus central to any understanding of Beijing’s contemporary foreign and security policy. The Han Chinese represent some 92% of the Chinese population and a shared culture and historical narrative that dates back some four thousand years.  They tend to be deeply patriotic, bordering on the nationalistic, with a particular view of Chinese history and the role of foreigners in it. Central to the Han Chinese world view is the idea of the Middle Kingdom or Central Kingdom that goes back to their origins as a series of communities clustered around the Yellow and Yangtse rivers.  For many Han Chinese it is the emergence of Imperial China and the Xia dynasty in the third century BC which fires the imagination.  Thereafter, China was at the forefront of technology, economy and philosophy for centuries.

This glorious (and often glorified) epoch of Chinese history sits in stark contrast to the humiliation the Chinese suffered at the hands of foreigners, mainly the West, from the mid-eighteenth century to the recent past. Indeed, there is a profound shared and collective sense of China having been mistreated and disrespected by European imperialists, Japan and US. Several tragic events stand out for the Chinese. The so-called ‘unequal treaties’ when Imperial Britain forced the Chinese to cede control of Hong Kong in 1842. The 1901 crushing of the anti-imperialist, anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion which also saw the defeat of the Imperial Army by an eight nation alliance of Austro-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States was deeply humiliating. The rise of Imperial Japan, the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and the 1937 Japanese Rape of Nanking, in which up to 300,000 Chinese may have been murdered, are further compounded by a continuing sense of outrage over further Japanese atrocities committed during the occupation prior to 1945.  US backing for Chinese nationalists during the Revolution, the 1949 Amethyst Incident and China’s decisive October 1950 intervention in the Korean War against US-led United Nations forces all help to shape the world-view of many millions of Han Chinese.

 

Pay-back

That same history also informs Xi Jingping and much of China’s contemporary civil, and in particular, powerful military leadership, which is also Xi’s power-base within the Party.  Consequently, a toxic mix of historical nationalism and power hubris is taking hold, reinforcing the sense in Beijing that the twenty-first century will be China’s century and pay-back time for all the many indignations and humiliations China has suffered at the hands of foreign powers. Critically, behind the Grand Overseas Propaganda Campaign, aggressive espionage and massive and routine cyber-attacks China is offering an implicit choice to the democratic world: embrace China’s rise or be crushed by it.

The paradox is that Xi is fast turning China into a very nineteenth century, twenty-first century imperial power in which balances of power and spheres of influence dominate policy choices and nationalism is routinely instrumentalised as insurance against economic decline and any domestic challenge to the Party’s untrammelled power. There is also little reason to believe Beijing will change course for the simple reason Xi thinks he is winning.  For that reason alone China is likely to remain inherently autocratic, periodically confrontational and routinely coercive when it believes such action will be to its advantage.

 

Statecraft and the Chinese Dual Track

What to do about Xi’s China? Statecraft is essentially the art of making others believe one’s own interests are their interests whilst avoiding shooting oneself in either the foot or worse the head in the process.  As such, statecraft concerns the constant adaptation of state postures and behaviours. Given Chinese assertiveness both before and during the COVID-19 crisis the relationship between China and many of the world’s democracies is in need of rebalancing, with European states to the fore.  Too many Europeans are too dependent on China for too many vital things and Beijing will not hesitate to use such dependence as leverage as and when it suits. However, talk of hard decoupling is also misguided because it might well precipitate the very outcome everyone should be seeking to avoid: war.  Like Imperial Japan in the face of the ruinous pre-war US oil embargo if Beijing believes there will be no better moment to act than now then military action might seem the only option for fear of Xi’s historic mission being denied.

Therefore, given the stakes and the scale of the challenge a China strategy worthy of the name would need to involve all the world’s major democracies (the Global West?) and balance realism, reason and resolve.  Any such strategy would also need at least ten basic tenets that equally balance defence and dialogue:

 

Reason:

  1. Unless hard proof emerges of malfeasance agreement that China will not be blamed for COVID-19 and recognition of all and any efforts by the Chinese to assist in combatting the pandemic.
  2. Renewed efforts by European and other US allies to convince China to use the UN to resolve all grievances and conflicts through international law, with arbitration to deal with specific disputes in the South China Sea. .
  3. Acknowledgement that China is a Tier One power and will be accorded the respect that such power commands.
  4. Acceptance that globalisation will continue and that whilst some reshoring will be needed to ensure supply chains are not reliant on one source no purposeful effort will be undertaken to damage the Chinese economy.
  5. Agreement to work with China on the creation of a new arms control architecture relevant to twenty-first century technology.

Realism and Resolve:

  1. A shared understanding of the minimum deterrence needed to challenge the assumptions of hard-liners around President Xi keen to seize a perceived opportunity.
  2. Systematic and aggressive countering of Chinese digital warfare, espionage and cognitive warfare through expanded deterrence across the conventional, digital and nuclear spectrum.
  3. Active and collective support for the US in its efforts to ensure the UN Convention on the Law at Sea (UNCLOS) is upheld, specifically when it concerns freedom of navigation in international waters.
  4. Determination by the US and its allies to respond to Chinese military activity and ambitions in the air, sea, land, cyber and space domains and actively respond to Chinese efforts to exploit new technologies in warfare from hypersonic weaponry to artificially-intelligent tactical and intercontinental systems.
  5. Identification of all strategic technologies from semi-conductors to systems architectures such as 5G and its future developments that must be fully sourced from within the community of global democracies.

The price of failure

Statecraft at times also involves the deliberate combining of obfuscation with consequence. The right of Taiwan and Hong Kong to self-determination will be the most challenging issue for the democracies.  For the moment, the safest course of action for both must be support for the status quo; autonomy short of independence.  Support for any other outcome when it is highly unlikely democratic powers would fight for either would be dangerous.  At the same time, Beijing must also be clear that aggressive action against either would see China be designated an aggressor and trigger a determined reaction from the democratic powers across the political, economic and, indeed, military spectrum. However, clarity is also needed with regard to consequence. Unfortunately, with hard-liners seemingly in control in Beijing it is hard to see how a war to force Taiwan under Beijing’s yoke can be avoided unless Xi’s China dramatically changes course.  The alternative is that Taipei accepts One China, One System, which is extremely unlikely given that the Chinese civil war never really ended. That stark reality begs two further enormous questions. Would the US go to war to defend Taiwan?  What would be the implications for US power and influence across the Indo-Pacific and, indeed, the wider world if it did not?

However, demonization of China would also be self-defeating and thus poor statecraft. The West must neither under-estimate the scope of China’s challenge, nor the extent to which Xi and much of the China he leads sees itself locked in a power or perish struggle. This is particularly the case now that COVID-19 has stripped bare the false politesse of power.

The great twenty-first century power ‘game’ is afoot. How we play it, and how well we play it, could well decide peace and war. The first rule of the ‘game’? Respect.

Julian Lindley-French

Reflecting on NATO 2030

May 13th, 2020

This Analysis is the guidance I am about to give to the Secretary-General’s NATO Reflection Group concerning my vision of NATO 2030.

“Power is as power does”.

J.K. Galbraith

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon. Let me begin by quoting J.K. Galbraith, “power is as power does”.

This briefing has five elements germane to your mission: 1. a strategic appreciation; 2. the worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO; 3. NATO’s strategic paradoxes and dilemma; 4, NATO’s critical needs; and 5. (and finally) my vision for NATO 2030. Given the importance of your mission I will choose my words carefully. You have the text of my remarks to assist you and all the arguments herein are much more deeply-developed in my forthcoming Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe, co-written with Generals Allen and Hodges.

Core messages

  1. Far from adding more tasks to NATO’s already wide but shallow capabilities and capacities, the Alliance should be ditching tasks that do not conform to its core mission of the defence and deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic area. Indeed, adding new tasks shorn of significantly increased resources would profoundly undermine the credibility of the Alliance.
  1. Even as NATO re-focuses on its core mission it must also properly consider the changing nature of that mission in the face of the revolution in military technology underway and how the future hybrid, cyber, hyper war mosaic will affect the Alliance’s ability to defend and deter.
  1. If the Alliance adapts together NATO could continue to be organised around a North American and a European political pillar. If not, function and capability will become the new organising Alliance principle, with NATO divided between a high-end, hi-tech, digital future pillar, and a low-tech, analogue, legacy force ‘pillar’.
  1. Or, in an emergency, NATO’s stronger members will simply step outside of the Alliance framework and function as a coalition of the willing and able.

Strategic Appreciation

Europeans are in denial about the nature, scope and speed of strategic change. COVID-19 could be the tipping point towards conflict for an increasingly precarious global balance of military power. However, whilst COVID-19 will doubtless accelerate change, it is unlikely to radically transform the nature of change itself. Indeed, if the strategic consequences of COVID-19 conform to past pandemics far from ending the threat of war, it could well accelerate it.

2030? Europeans are locked in a virtual Ten Year Rule. They do not believe a major war could happen in the next decade. COVID-19 could further detach Europe’s virtual world from strategic reality by creating a profound tension between human (health security) and national defence.

Critically, few Europeans understand the revolution in warfare underway, nor the implications of the growing over-stretch of US forces for the Alliance and European defence. Europeans, I fear, have also lost the political capacity to consider the geopolitical worst case. Specifically, the danger that the Alliance could face a simultaneous multi-theatre crisis in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on the Alliance’s Eastern and Northern flanks across the conventional and nuclear, and the analogue and digital spectrum.

At the very least, Europeans must begin to grip the implications of fast-shifting military power purchasing parity. First, by 2030, on current trajectories, the relative military power of China and Russia could have surpassed the Western democracies unless Europeans drastically improve their future war, future defence effort. Second, China and Russia will be able to exert pressure on the US and its allies at the weakest seams of the Alliance. Third, such power could well do what it can. Beijing and Moscow are not European liberal democrats.

Worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO

If Europeans effectively abandon the modernisation of national defence for health security in the face of a changing military balance of power they will force the Americans into a dangerous choice: defend Europe by offsetting European military weaknesses, and thus make their own armed forces relatively weaker, or effectively abandon Europe for the Indo-Pacific. As COVID-19 has demonstrated: shock happens!

NATO’s Strategic Paradoxes and dilemma

NATO suffers from a series of strategic paradoxes and a strategic dilemma that the NATO Reflection Group should consider:

NATO’s strategic paradoxes:

–   – European defence under-investment will likely deepen post-COVID-19, but the scope of NATO missions will likely expand;

–      –  China’s military rise will exacerbate US military over-stretch, but European military capability and capacity will be unable to meet the challenge of a European worst-case military emergency;

–         -Deterring Future War should be the centre of gravity of Alliance Adaptation, with a specific mandate to consider the impact of new technologies in the battlespace, such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, super-computing etc and et al. However, too many Europeans either want to fight past campaigns better, or adapt NATO to managing crises for which it is ill-suited (such as terrorism and assistance to civil authorities);

–      – Future war will demand an Alliance deterrence and defence posture that stretches across complex strategic coercion and 5D warfare from deception to disinformation, from disruption to destabilisation, and destruction. That, in turn, will require a deep strategic partnership with the EU and the nations. Such synergy simply does not exist;

–       –  Real Adaptation would see a new and critical balance struck between the digitalised military power projection upon which all credible 2030 Allied defence and deterrence will depend, and far more assured people protection via a more secure home base. There is no such ambition apparent.

NATO’s Strategic Dilemma:

Crises will not come in single packages. The specific dilemma is thus: how to ensure NATO has the tailored mass and high-end manoeuvre to simultaneously defend and deter on its Eastern and Northern Flanks and support Allies on its Southern Flank in the event of chaos across the Middle East and North Africa?

NATO’s Critical Needs

Given the defence and deterrence challenge NATO’s critical needs now are thus:

–          Drastically improved European force interoperability with their US counterparts;

–          Far faster political consultations over what constitutes an attack;

–          Far faster and more nuanced indicators, better shared analysis, much faster responsiveness, with forces and resources constantly at a higher state of readiness and able to seamlessly rotate during a crisis; and

–          Above all, much greater devolved command authority to SACEUR and SHAPE from the earliest stages of a crisis and throughout the conflict cycle.

My vision for NATO 2030?

  1. A new strategic concept that prioritises future-proofed Allied defence focused on a new system of deterrence across the hybrid-cyber-hyper war mosaic which intelligently adapts existing conventional and nuclear counterforce deterrence with digital counterforce.
  2. A Euro-centric twenty-first century Allied Command Operations heavy mobile force that closes the posture gap from which Alliance forces suffer and which could assure defence and deterrence in an emergency and when US forces are engaged across multiple theatres and multiple domains.
  3. Allied Command Transformation is charged with properly developing such a European high-end, first response digital-centric future force that can also act as a development platform for a future AI, big data, and increasingly robotic-enabled defence, via such programmes as the NATO Unmanned Systems Initiative.
  4. That such a force can also meet the interoperability challenge with the US future force.The European future force must, therefore, also be able to operate with US forces or autonomously across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge, and critically able to gain comparative advantage in contact.
  5. A NATO-EU strategic partnership worthy of the name that can project power and protect people by moving forces and resources quickly in and around Europe in an emergency to underpin deterrence, mount a defence, and respond to consequence.

Conclusion

The tendency since the end of the Cold War, and indeed for much of it, has been to place political compromise before defence and deterrent effect. The 2019 NATO Military Strategy was reflective of such a tradition. However, NATO and its nations will soon face hard choices and it is those choices the NATO Reflection Group should address.

NATO is ultimately strategic insurance against war in an unstable world in which strategy, technology, capability and affordability are combining for allies and adversaries alike.  NATO must thus be a high-end, warfighting military deterrent.  It is NOT a military EU.

Above all, Europeans must realise that in the coming decade a hard-pressed US will only be able to ‘guarantee’ Europe’s future defence if Europeans do far more for their own defence. COVID-19 or no! For once, the future of NATO really is at stake. If we fail to modernise our Alliance one day power really could do to some of us, what malicious and malevolent power can, indeed, do if not deterred.

Julian Lindley-French