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

Operation Infektion 2020

“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four”

Albert Camus, The Plague

 

Operation Infektion

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 March. How are China and Russia using ‘desinformatsiya’ to exploit the COVID-19 crisis in Europe? Today (0930 hrs EST/1530 hrs CET), the impressive Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington will hold a virtual panel discussion entitled Infektion Points: Russian and Chinese Disinformation on the Pandemic (https://www.cepa.org/infektion-points-russian-and-chines)  The panel will include an old friend, Ed Lucas, Senior Vice-President at CEPA, as well as Jakub Janda, Executive Director at European Values, who has just written a fascinating paper entitled Chinese and Russian Disinfo Ops Compared and Contrasted (https://www.cepa.org/going-viral). The panel blurb refers to a little known Soviet disinformation campaign, Operation Infektion, and for good reason.

Operation Infektion, Operation Vorwaerts II or Operation Denver, as it was variously known, was a joint ‘information operation’ between the KGB and the East German Stasi.  It began in 1983 with the aim of fostering anti-Americanism in those European states hosting US forces at the height of the Euromissiles crisis, during which Moscow came close to decoupling the defence of Europe from the US strategic nuclear umbrella.  The narrative (all offensive KGB operations were built around some form of narrative) was that the Americans had ‘invented’ HIV/AIDS at Fort Derrick in Maryland and had intentionally-spread the disease across Europe.

 

Operation Infektion 2020

A variant of Operation Infektion seems to have been launched by Moscow, with much of it focussed on social media, to undermine the ability of European states to effectively manage the crisis. As such, Operation Infektion 2020 is simply the latest variant of applied disinformation in Russian statecraft.  The so-called ‘Bronze soldier’ campaign in Estonia in 2007, the run-up to the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as a sustained campaign to deflect responsibility for the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian Army BUK missile, all conform to a pattern of Russian information operations.

The March 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, was another such case when two members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 bungled an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. Of late, Moscow has also tried to blame Warsaw for the outbreak of World War Two and mask Russia’s role in the ‘secret protocol’ to the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which carved Poland up between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps most cynically of all, Moscow has tried to shift responsibility for the 1940 Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, even though former President Mikhail Gorbachev formally apologised for the war crime.

 

COVID-19 disinformation

This month the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) identified some eighty Russian COVID-19 disinformation injects over two months. The Guardian newspaper in London stated that “Coronavirus was claimed [by Russian disinformation] to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax”. According to the EEAS, the specific aim of Russian disinformation is to undermine popular trust in European health-care systems, whilst European Commission has also confirmed a marked increase in Russian disinformation efforts to that end since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Some of the claims are absurd. For example, in February Sputnik radio claimed that Britain and certain international organisations were seeking to force China to open its markets through force, in much the same way the British Empire did at the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and thereafter in what the Chinese call the ‘unequal treaties’.  Russian disinformation is also amplifying claims made elsewhere to avoid Moscow’s ‘fingerprints’ being found on any one specific campaign.

China?  On Wednesday, the G7 meeting failed to issue an official communique because Beijing took exception to US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo’s repeated assertion that China is the source of COVID-19 and that Beijing’s initial bungled efforts to suppress news of the outbreak helped facilitate its global spread.  Worse, like Operation Infektion in the 1980s, the Chinese have also stated on the record that it was the American military that imported the virus into China. Why?

The effectiveness of disinformation does not depend on whether or not the information being peddled is believable by all, but believable where it matters in constituencies critical to the realisation of the broader national interest. Russian disinformation is as much a strategic reflex as a cohesive strategy, itself reflective of the strategic spoiler role Moscow has adopted, particularly in and around Europe.  For Beijing two huge audiences are critical: the domestic audience, and the audience across much of the developing world. At home, the Communist Party of China is like the Pope, infallible, and must not be seen to fail.  China is also in strategic competition with the US across much of the world. Absurd though Chinese disinformation may seem to most Western ears, it will have traction in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

 

Why is disinformation dangerous?

Disinformation is also how future war would start.  Operation Infektion was part of so-called Russian ‘active measures’ (aktivinyye meroproatia). Active measures were part of a broad strategy of offensive influence operations conducted by both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence (GRU) as part of what today I call 5D warfare: the considered and co-ordinated application of disinformation, destabilisation, deception, disruption and coercion through implied destruction. The strategic aim was, and is, to keep European states permanently politically and socially off-balance, and to exploit all and any divisions between the US and its European allies to thus undermine the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance.

As I write nine Russian warships are testing Britain’s defences. The Royal Navy has responded with at least seven surface ships. The Russian objective is to test the ability of the British state to respond militarily when some 10,000 British military personnel are engaged in supporting the civil authorities at a time when all other instruments of state are under intense pressure.

In fact, the Russians are doing the British a favour by reminding London of the strategic implications of the current crisis.  Given all the money the British Government is pumping into crisis response the first instinct of HM Treasury will be to further limit investment elsewhere, most notably defence. With the Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign, security, defence and development policies underway, and the search for a new balance between defence effectiveness and efficiency, the current Russian incursions are a timely reminder of how Russia would seek to exploit disinformation for military ends in a future crisis.

 

Jekyll and Hyde China?

China?  Beijing is a Jekyll and Hyde power.  China’s Dr Jekyll offers support to Europe’s crisis response, whilst China’s Mr Hyde seeks to exploit it.  As for collusion between Russia’s Mr Hydes and their Chinese counterparts, they are clearly sharing ‘best practice’ about the utility and application of disinformation, and both are clearly engaged in advanced information operations.  Indeed, the very Jekyll and Hyde nature of China’s operation is fostering uncertainty, which is a strategic end in itself.  However, the extent to which Beijing and Moscow have adopted a joint approach is as yet unclear.

However, Europeans should be under no illusion; there is a broad strategic information operation to exert Chinese and Russian influence to divide European states and/or undermine their ability to govern effectively during the crisis. Russia cannot help itself, but I had hoped (still do) that China, in particular, would adopt a more Mr Jekyll approach to dealing with the pandemic.  Sadly, over the past week it is Beijing’s Mr Hydes who have the whip hand over policy preferring concealment and confrontation to collaboration and co-operation.

In time, disinformation campaigns do reveal an inelegant truth, à la Camus, about those who commission them.  The problem is that by the time two and two has been added up to four the damage done can be grievous. As for Europe’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it should finally remind its leaders about a fundamental truism of geopolitics – s**t happens!

 

Julian Lindley-French

COVID-19: The Silk Road Pandemic

By Julian Lindley-French

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

J.G. Ballard, “High Rise”

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

The Silk Road Pandemic

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

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

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

Why China and why now? 

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

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

Strategic consequences and implications

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

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

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

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

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

Strategic choices

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

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

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

The COVID-19 strategic agenda

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

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

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

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

The death of globalisation?

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

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

COVID-19: the echo of history

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

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

Julian Lindley-French

Permanent Putin Power

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

Nikolai Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Lindley-French

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

ANNUAL ESSAY

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

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

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

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

Folie de grandeur?

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

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

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

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

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

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

e

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

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

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

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

Little Britain?

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

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

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

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

Britain’s defence imperative

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

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

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

The case for Britain’s heavy aircraft carriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming British defence inertia

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

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

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

Julian Lindley-French