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UK defence policy

By Dr Robert Crowcroft

The leak of a confidential letter written from Liam Fox to David Cameron has now been widely picked up in the press. The upshot is Fox's complaint that the Strategic Defence Review process is fast losing credibility and coherence – because of the Treasury's willingness to subordinate national security to a timetable chosen by Cameron and George Osborne for very political reasons – to try get the bad news out of the way, in one go, in the Comprehensive Spending Review. While one has to admire the political gusto of Cameron – and in the unlikely event he pulls it off, it would constitute a masterstroke – nonetheless Fox is right: that these kind of grave decisions cannot be taken in such a short space of time (while Guardianistas will vomit righteous indignation, the fact is that Defence is different from other departments, i.e. more important), and that there has been an inadequate scope for debating the future of Britain's role in international politics.

The basic problem is this: the UK is currently engaged in a war in Afghanistan, and will be there for about five more years. This requires proper funding of the ground forces which wage counterinsurgency conflicts. However, to fund the Afghanistan commitment, the Army will need to be shielded while the other services are squeezed – the aircraft carriers potentially face the axe, as do other classes of surface vessel, several kinds of aircraft, and even the Trident submarines. The strategic dilemma facing the country is whether future security crises requires long-term occupation and nation-building on the Afghanistan model, or whether the threat, and demands on the UK, will look quite different. If the future is not more Afghanistans, then favouring the ground forces now by badly weakening the naval and air power available to the country risks calamitous damage.

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By Jeffrey Sterling and Nick Butler

Over the next three weeks the coalition Government will make the most significant set of decisions on UK industrial policy which have faced any administration in the last four decades. Important enough in terms of Britain's strategic position in the world, the decisions on the defence budget to be announced by the Chancellor could also crucially shape the future of much of our remaining industrial and engineering base.
Attention, both within Whitehall and in the media has inevitably focused on the possible reductions in troop numbers, on the number of carriers and jet fighters we need, on the role of the Royal Air Force, and on the future of the UK's independent nuclear deterrent.

All are serious issues but equally important, and so far barely discussed at the meetings of the National Security Council which will advise the Prime Minister on defence issues, are the questions concerning the industrial capacity which must underpin any defence strategy.
No one can deny the serious economic circumstances facing the Government or the budget problems facing the Ministry of Defence in particular. The bow wave of commitments repeatedly "pushed to the right" - a piece of civil service jargon reflecting the tendency to extend the timescale of individual projects in order to spread the cost into future years - has been well documented. So too has the "bias to optimism" which has produced a persistent and repeated underestimation of costs.

Both are real and serious problems. As the Defence Secretary has said the MoD's finances are in a mess and must be sorted out. But Britain's future defence capability cannot be made the victim of punishment for past mistakes. Defence cannot be treated as just another Government department while soldiers are fighting and dying for their country in Afghanistan. Five years ago the UK devoted some 4.5 per cent of its GDP to defence. To reduce that proportion to only 1.6 per cent – which would be the effect of the proposals currently under consideration - would not only breach our commitment to NATO which has set a two per cent guideline but would also ignore the reality of the risks we face. Balancing the budget is important but so too is Britain's ability to defend itself and our strategic international interests in a dark and threatening world.

The definition of those interests and the scale of resources applied to their protection are matters for high political decision. But defence is not an abstract concept. The details of each assertion of defence policy depend on the underlying ability to deliver what is promised. In 2005 the Defence Industrial Review identified the key areas where Britain needed to protect and develop engineering and technical strengths to meet specific defence needs. The report was clear. While some equipment can be bought on the open, international, market other elements absolutely require indigenous industrial capability. The integration of complex information in the cockpits of planes , the management of information gathered from multiple sources which make up the most advanced Command and Control systems and cryptography – the protection of vital information – are not skills which can be outsourced even to suppliers located in countries with whom we are close allies.

At the heart of defence policy is the national interest and to protect that interest in extreme circumstances we need companies which can develop, manufacture, supply and then service each of key leading edge technologies. We need to retain the skills and experience of the individuals and teams spread across large and small businesses whose brain power has given Britain not just security but a source of real competitive advantage.

In many of areas UK companies hold world leading positions. Although some technology cannot easily be traded, much can – to the benefit of the balance of payments and to employment across the UK. Such trade can also bring direct benefits to our own defence. There are huge spin off benefits from a sector which now represents Britain's largest remaining investment in advanced manufacturing and high level engineering skills.

A prime example is in homeland security where the world leading technology developed in this country which tracks the movements and activities of individuals and groups through advanced data management technology helps protects both against terrorism and against organised crime. Much of that technology can be sold abroad and such sales can extend the security of people in this country by making other countries such as India and Pakistan safer against threats which respect no national frontier.

The analysis behind the 2005 Defence Industrial Review was extended and updated by work undertaken by the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Business and the Home Office before the General Election. That work, commissioned and led from No 10 by one of the authors, identified the crucial links between defence policy and industrial capability. That report also identified the extent and quality of the supply chains which underpin the strengths which exist today. Regrettably that report remains unpublished.

That report should be on the table for the National Security Council, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister as they take the crucial decisions on defence policy over the next few weeks.

Traditionally and beneficially major decisions on defence in the UK have been taken on a bipartisan basis. Both the Prime Ministers we have worked for, from their very different political perspectives, believed that defence was too important to be left to the bickering and pointscoring of party politics. That was the spirit in which the last Government launched the current Strategic Defence Review. The terms of reference were discussed on a cross party basis. The timetable for the review was deliberately set to run beyond the General Election and in order to ensure that the conclusions as far as possible could be reached without reference to short term political advantage.

The serious risk now is that hasty decisions driven solely by budget considerations will destroy that bipartisan approach and will pre-empt the serious work which needs to be done in analysing the threats and risks to our national interest. We need a defence strategy which is not only resilient in the face of a fluid and volatile set of risks but also and crucially a strategy which is matched at the industrial level by an absolute commitment to maintain the means of delivery.

Once destroyed by random budget cuts that capability cannot be recreated. To cut without thought for the consequences would be to imperil the security of the nation which is the first, and preeminent responsibility of any Government.

Lord Sterling was a senior adviser on industrial policy to the Government of Margaret Thatcher. He was also Executive Chairman of P and O SN.

Nick Butler was senior policy adviser on industrial policy to the Government of Gordon Brown until the last election. He was previous head of strategy for BP.

This is an extended version of a letter published in the Financial Times yesterday.

 

By Chris Newton

In order to prevail over Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism, democratic countries need to win the support of the people in Iraq and Afghanistan, the moderate Islamic community, and its own electorates. This is the crucial battleground in the 'War on Terror'. However, many academics and commentators have concluded that the Islamists currently have the advantage in this area. Just as the situation in Iraq in 2006 demanded a review into US military strategy, the situation today requires just as important a review into the west's approach to strategic communication. This article examines the flaws in the current approach and provides suggestions as to how the west can establish a better 'strategic narrative'. It predominantly takes a UK perspective.

Losing the war of words?

Scholars and analysts have not rated the west's efforts so far on this front. Indeed, the various opinions polls suggest that British public support for the war in Afghanistan is waning. Why? As David Betz suggested in an article on propaganda in 2008, there Islamist strategic narrative is more coherent than the west's. The Islamists tell a story of victimhood which its audience can relate to. It combines elements of truth, such as the Abu Ghraib incident, with fiction into an emotive narrative of western persecution and aggression. It disseminates its message across the world, using the internet and the media effectively. And as a result, regardless of how preposterous their claims are, the coherence of their argument makes it compelling to its target audience.

The western narrative, as David Betz showed, lacks coherence and is rather confused. The different objectives for the Afghan mission, ranging from getting rid of Al Qaeda to the elimination of poppy crops has confused people as to why we are really there. And given that the main military part of the 'War on Terror' is taking place in a distant land, the audience finds it difficult to relate Afghanistan to security in the UK and the west. What makes it even harder for a western narrative to gain currency is that so many of the public are cynical towards politicians and are consequently susceptible to anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, and anti-war narratives. This is because of the disintegration of unity and a lack of self confidence within western countries, especially the UK. Moreover, Islamist ideology is only one narrative that the west has to tackle in addition to the established narratives of Marxism and emerging narratives put forward by authoritarian rulers.

But is the west really doomed to fail here? David Betz contrasts the west's performance in the war on terror with western societies' marketing and public relations activities in business, fashion, and popular culture. Why can't we translate this success to the area where we need it most – war? In domestic politics, politicians hire public relations professionals to develop its own narratives about the state of the country and how they will change things. Political party offices hire people to monitor the words and actions of their opposition and they develop material that highlights inconsistencies and hypocritical actions. But for some reason, governments and news organisation are extremely poor at communicating to the public the inconsistencies of the Al Qaeda narrative.

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Extracts from a submission for the Strategic Defence and Security Review by Oliver Covile MP. Mr Colvile is MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and chairs the Royal Marines group within the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Forces.


The Strategic Defence and Security Review is being conducted in the context of a much wider public expenditure review. Public expenditure needs to fall as a proportion of national income to stabilise the public finances and to reduce the crowding out effects that public spending has on private sector economic activity.


Nevertheless, this paper argues for establishing the priority given to defence spending within public spending and national income as a whole.


The previous Labour Government's Green Paper (February 2010) assumed that defence should be planned within the current level of spending or less. I believe that this assumption needs to be explicitly abandoned by the Coalition Government. Defence of the Realm and its interests are a fundamental duty of any Government and a core belief amongst Conservatives.


Defence spending within overall public spending and national income

While it was right to reduce defence spending as a share of GDP after the end of the Cold War from around 5 per cent of GDP, the peace dividend sought in the early 1990s was too great.

The Options for Change White Paper went too far in reducing defence spending in relation to the international risks UK has to recognise and prepare to meet in terms of properly funded defence capabilities.

Having reduced the share of GDP devoted to defence to less than 3 per cent, defence spending after 1997 was subject to a further squeeze that pushed it slightly below 2.5 per cent of GDP in the mid 2000s, despite increased spending resulting from extensive overseas operations.

In my judgement this is an unrealistic basis for defence and foreign policy planning. Historically it is a very low level indeed, apparently lower than the previously lowest recorded proportion of national income spent on defence in 1930 when it was 2.6 per cent.

Not only has defence spending fallen as a share of national income but also as a proportion of total government expenditure. The ONS study in 2009 on public sector output productivity between 1997 and 2007 among other things exemplifies how public expenditure priorities have been changed.

The weight given to defence within General Government Expenditure by sector weight, fell from 15.1 per cent to 11 per cent. What this shows is that during a period when there was increased international risk and with more than two major protracted operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, at a time when public spending was rising rapidly, the priority given to defence was reduced.

In my judgment this priority need to be reversed. It is not a question of affordability but priority within public spending.
The proportion of public expenditure devoted to defence should return to a position that is at least comparable to that in 1997. I believe that the ratio of GDP spent on defence should return to a more realistic level closer to 3 per cent of GDP.

The principle issue about the level of defence spending is not one of affordability, but rather one of deciding political priorities.

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China, South Korea, Australia and Russia are all investing heavily in amphibious capability right now. So why is ours under threat?

The great strategist Basil Lidell-Hart once said that a self contained and sea based amphibious force is the best kind of fire extinguisher because of its flexibility, reliability, logistic simplicity and relative economy. Is that still true?

Currently the UK maintains 2 formations which have historically constituted the conventional element of our Response Force: 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade. The critical difference between these formations lies in the way they deploy to a theatre of battle / influence, the former by air and the latter by amphibious shipping. Traditionally the argument has been that a nation seeking to have global influence must maintain both. However, as financial pressures compel the Armed Forces to economise and assess ambition, it seems increasingly unlikely that a Response Force consisting of 2 Brigades is either plausible or necessary.

There are three options; keep both, amalgamate them, or scrap one or the other. The UK armed forces will be operating in a post-Afghanistan/Iraq era where the political, social and military appetite for conducting enduring stabilisation operations – in the way they have been conducted - will be significantly reduced. The 'selected option' would have to be resourced fully. Specialist Brigades need specialist equipment, people and training. This analysis considers what capability the UK needs from its Response Force, demonstrating via the components of fighting power that the Royal marines provides the UK with the best, single Brigade option and that resources are already in place.

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By Dr robert Crowcroft, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

Although it is important not to jump the gun and draw conclusions about what the Strategic Defence Review process will recommend for the future of the Armed Forces, nevertheless there are some early smoke signals emanating from Whitehall that are worth commenting upon. The most important seems to be the fact that, while all the Services face hefty cutbacks, the Government is going to protect the Army first and foremost; in other words, that the ground forces are to have primacy in how the UK military of the future is shaped.

Again, precisely what is going on behind the scenes is still unknown; so judgements are provisional. But it is evident that the Navy and the Air Force face the most severe swings of the axe. There have been multiple newspaper reports that where the Prime Minister has intervened it has largely been in ways that prioritise and protect the Army. On 11 October, for instance, the Times reported that David Cameron has 'signalled his desire' to save the Territorial Army from the cuts in it that were mooted; specifically, to 'resist' cutting the size of the reserves. On 16 October the Daily Telegraph revealed that, the previous day, Cameron personally intervened to quell a revolt by senior military figures – including the Chief of the General Staff – who made clear they 'would not accept' cuts to the defence budget that might hinder the Army's mission in Afghanistan. Cameron apparently overruled the Treasury's demand for a ten percent cut in defence spending in order to protect the size of the Army. These and other, hints from the Prime Minister strongly imply that the SDR will seek a slimmed-down military in which 'boots on the ground' receive the most support from the politicians.

There may be two forces at work here (or both could be playing a role). The first is that the Prime Minister has peered into the crystal ball and concluded that, in the coming years and decades, the gravest threats to UK interests will require a response shaped around land forces; and that the Navy and Air Force will both be of rather lesser importance. This almost certainly fits into a popular – if controversial – vision of future warfare in which conflict will take place 'among the people'. Counterinsurgency (COIN), low-level violence, and perhaps nation-building will be the tasks facing the Armed Forces. The second possible calculation in the Prime Minister's mind is more political: Britain is probably going to be committed in Afghanistan for most of Cameron's time in office. The under-resourcing of the mission in Central Asia became a major weapon with which to beat Gordon Brown; Cameron will be desperate to shield himself from the charge of failing 'our boys' at a time when the defence budget is going through major cuts. The last thing he wants is to be blamed for lots of deaths or, worse, an embarrassing withdrawal. More body bags are inevitable, and – as always – many will seek to attack the Government on the matter. Hence, short-term calculations of Mr Cameron's own political fortunes could be just as significant in shaping the future of Britain's Armed Forces as considered strategic judgement.

Whatever is driving this, the question must be asked: is the future of warfare really more conflicts like Afghanistan? If so, then configuring for COIN will probably be the right decision. And, with the intellectual rise of the war 'among the people' paradigm, many think that Western forces will, in future, wage precisely these kinds of conflicts over and over again – due to the spread of failing states and a 'responsibility to protect'; because of Islamist terrorism; and because weaker adversaries will seek to fight us in asymmetrical ways.

However, scepticism is in order before we decide that the current war is necessarily the challenge that we should prepare for in the future. Making that assumption may actually be dangerous. After all, most of the irregular/COIN conflicts entered into since the fall of the USSR have been wars of choice – for instance, the American intervention in Somalia, the British intervention in Sierra Leone, and the decision to try to keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. The most significant low-level conflict of choice was the American decision to stick around during the Iraqi civil war, rather than evacuating and blaming it on the inhabitants (which was, of course, also the truth). Instead the US committed itself to the long-term work of stabilising Iraq. Only the Afghanistan conflict was really a low-level war which the West had no choice but to wage. The other conflicts in which the West has engaged since 1991 – the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, the repeated bombing of Iraq in the intervening period between those struggles, and Kosovo in 1999 – were not COIN but conventional operations centred upon attrition. Therefore it is nothing short of ridiculous to conclude from the recent evidence that the future is somehow 'inevitably' going to be based around COIN. If anything, there is rather more evidence to suggest that the future will require conventional warfare of the standard sort.

This is especially the case if we look at the problem another way. Yes, there has been a marked increased in low-level violence, and insurgencies, across the world. However insurgency is nothing new and therefore does not pose the kind of conceptual problem that some academics and defence specialists seem to think. It should also be pointed out that insurgencies are very difficult indeed to wage successfully. When confronted with a functioning, competent state – like the IRA versus Britain, or the Palestinians versus Israel – insurgencies are typically a dismal failure. It was not an insurgency that won in Vietnam, but a transition to conventional warfare after the US withdrew. And though the Americans retreated from Lebanon and Somalia, the insurgents themselves were not the 'winners' of the struggles there either.

In addition – and this point is important – despite the prevalence of low-level conflicts, Western states have been very discriminating in selecting where to get involved – let alone how to fight. As indicated above, they have been fairly successful in the last two decades at managing to wage war in conventional ways, despite doing so in a world supposedly ready to suck them in to endless low-level violence. There is no reason to think that they will become less skilful (or, alternatively, unwilling to get bogged down) in the future. It seems more likely that wars such as Afghanistan will be the exception, not the norm.

Anyway, will democratic politicians, with their focus on the electoral cycle, want to go and do another inconclusive, protracted Afghanistan anytime soon? They won't, and this should be critical. COIN requires patience and commitment, above all else. It is largely a psychological matter – centred on willpower to stay the course, and, actually, on the question of whether we can be bothered engaging in it in the first place. Retaining public support for a protracted conflict is very difficult; democratic publics demand quick results. There is also a potential problem for liberal values in this type of warfare. In a minefield as dangerous as this, the natural inclination is surely to say 'why bother?'

Often the charge is made that the US cannot 'do' irregular war; specifically, that its military culture privileges firepower and therefore does not breed the necessary patience for COIN. However this assessment is problematic. We must bear in mind that areas where the US has withdrawn from COIN and low-level operations – Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia – were all far from the US homeland. Arguably there were few American national interests at stake, certainly not great enough to warrant bearing the costs of victory. When the US has been minded to do so, its military has performed admirably in this kind of warfare. Most recently, their performance in defeating Al-Qaeda and other insurgents in Iraq was a textbook model of COIN; and in the nineteenth century the Native Americans –located not thousands of miles away but in the continental United States – were crushed. The lesson, then, is that when it matters the US has stayed the course and won; hence, by extension, that the key issue in low-level, protracted conflicts, is old-fashioned willpower.

If the big issue in successfully fighting insurgencies, securing 'the people', and nation-building is a matter of political resolution, then we need to ask whether the will to wage this kind of war is really going to be there; whether public support can be retained; and – more strategically – whether vital national interests will even be regularly threatened in ways that necessitate protracted interventions. If the answer to these questions is no, then we need to think long and hard before concluding that 'insurgency' is the future model of warfare and that the British military should be structured around it.

Robert Crowcroft is a Research Associate at the UK Defence Forum and a specialist on British politics and defence

 

By Ian Shields, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

On 10 October the Prime Minister presented to Parliament the National Security Strategy (NSS), titled "A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty". This article will examine the Strategy's contents, and ask to what extent it achieves the aim of the introductory statement that "the security of our nation is the first duty of government. It is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity".

First, then, the contents. There is a disappointing but unsurprising number of criticisms of the previous administration that reek of party politics ("Unlike the last Government, our strategy sets out clear priorities" – p.5 – for example) when national security should be above such squabbling. The Strategy highlights the formation of the National Security Council, and explains how this will function in terms of reviewing the Governments list of security challenges, drawing together expert advice and offering broad changes in direction: all good, strategic stuff. It lays out, very clearly, in Section Three (see especially p.27) what are seen as the current priority risks, grouped into three tiers of importance. The highest tier comprises international terrorism, cyber attack, a major accident or natural hazard, or an international military crisis that draws in the UK. These are all entirely reasonable, and with the promise that the list will be kept under constant review and formally refreshed every second year, a sensible and open method of identifying threats. A state-on-state threat to the UK is, entirely reasonably, afforded lower priorities (a Tier Two threat if using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, Tier Three if conventional weapons only are employed in attacking us).

Much is also made of alliances, with the relationship with the US stressed as remaining the most important (see p.4) followed by the EU and then NATO. Again, this is entirely sensible and in keeping with the theme of living in a globalised world, and the new demands (and, therefore, security challenges that we face). The other broad theme that runs through the Strategy is the need to harness all the levers of national power (with particular emphasis on the diplomatic) to secure Britain's place. And finally, this NSS stress that it addresses only the ends and ways, the means being left to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Given that the SDSR deals with more newsworthy items such as troop numbers, ship orders and air base closures, and was to be seen as an element of the Government's spending plans, it is unsurprising that the SDSR has received much more attention than the NSS; whether this emphasis of public review is correct is less clear.

Having made the link between the NSS and the SDSR, and having claimed that the NSS sets the strategic direction and boundaries within which the SDSR should operate, it is clear that one should follow the other, and that they should be read in conjunction with each other – for without a strategic direction, how can the SDSR match the necessary means to achieve the ends and ways, particularly when defence procurement is itself so drawn out, and therefore requires a clear strategy?

And it is here that I start to struggle with the NSS. For the SDSR to have real meaning, the NSS must and should be the leading document, yet it has received scant attention in the blaze of publicity surrounding the spending announcements. The NSS makes much of our strength as a trading nation, with the added bonuses of English being the world's lingua franca for trade, and our geo-temporal positioning as part of Europe and straddling the time differential between the Far East and the US. But what is left unanswered is the key question of what role does Britain foresee herself playing in the future? While the NSS is strong on identifying some of the challenges the world faces in a globalised era, including such extremes as climate change and international, ordered crime, it singularly fails to give a clear articulation of the role this Government expects the UK to play, beyond some fairly broad, even banal, statements about maintaining order and upholding rights. And of equal concern is that this document claims to be a strategy, but looks forward little more than five years (convenient since that equates to the life of a Parliament, but hardly strategic in time-scale). It contains some well-crafted rhetoric, but gives little feel as to how or why further change might occur, how this might affect the UK, and what the country might do to influence the course of events in Britain's best long-term interests.

The Government is to be applauded for going as far as it has in producing this NSS, but it leaves too many nagging doubts. Has the Government really got a clear view on the likely course that world events will take? Does it see the world being uni-polar or multi-polar in the future? What will Britain's relationship to major, and regional, powers be? What is the most likely role for the EU, for the UN, for NATO, what part will we play and how will we influence their direction of travel? And w(h)ither our relationship with the US? Perhaps this was just too rushed; perhaps, since it is the first attempt at such a strategy, it is only a starting point; perhaps there is another, classified document addressing such questions. But perhaps it is also something of a missed opportunity....

I suspect that Pitt the Younger, one of William Hague's great heroes from history, had a clearer idea of the country's strategic direction when he came to power (and I am not referring to the period of the Napoleonic wars, but before those conflicts started); having carefully read this National Security Strategy I am unsure where the Government intends Britain to head, or how it envisages us reaching this undefined Nirvana.

 
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