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UK politics

By Simon Roberts

The Defence Advisory Notice system or D-Notice as it is still often called is a voluntary set of guidelines aimed at helping the media with the publication of national security information. The guidelines fall under five categories: military operations, nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, ciphers and secure communications, sensitive installations and security and intelligence services personnel. It is the Defence Advisory Committee whom editors and publishers can choose to contact if they have any uncertainties with the stories about to be published. The committee consists of various members of the government, civil service and the media (both print and broadcast) and is chaired by the permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The vice chairman is always selected from one of the committee members representing the media in order to maintain parity and ensure both sets of interests are represented.

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By Jonathan Wilson

Preparing for the unthinkable to happen means that for the foreseeable future the UK is going to require some form of a nuclear deterrence to protect its national security interests. It would be unwise to assume that the current status quo of security threats emerging from non-state actors will remain throughout the 21st century. A political decision regarding the future of our nuclear deterrence will be required over the next five years should we wish to maintain a nuclear capability. During the election campaign the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had opposing views concerning the future of Britain's nuclear deterrence. The Conservatives backed Labours plans for a 'like-for-like' replacement and the Liberal Democrats opposed such replacement but acknowledged that Britain required some form of nuclear deterrence. Some estimates claim the renewal will cost £100Billion over a fifty year period and it has been argued that cheaper alternatives could provide a nuclear deterrence, such as the development of nuclear equipped Typhoon fighters at 1/10th of the cost. In the aftermath of the election the agreement made between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives placed the future of Trident in jeopardy, promising to include in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to 'ensure value for money.' Departmental infighting over who pays for the project between the MoD and Treasury has made it more likely that the project will be postponed or scrapped altogether. If the United Kingdom is to maintain its nuclear deterrence during the 'Age of Austerity' then it is essential that it should provide the British taxpayer with real value for money while delivering a guaranteed, affordable and most of all relevant nuclear deterrence.

Despite the change in threats to national security, nuclear deterrence has changed little since the Cold War. In order for deterrence to be successfully achieved it is essential to ensure that the state has a guaranteed nuclear capability that is protected form an aggressor's pre-emptive strike. The UK has since the 1960s maintained a so called second strike capability through four ballistic missile submarines which are deployed under the Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) policy. Under this policy at any one time at least one nuclear armed submarine is on patrol at any time, ensuring that a nuclear response is constantly available. Due to commitments under various international treaties and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) all of the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) - as defined by the NPT - have reduced the number of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. The UK significantly reduced its own nuclear stockpile after the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, with the dismantling of the air-launched free-fall warheads and through a reduction of warheads carried on the Vanguard-class submarines to around 160. Despite the reductions made by the NWS, the number of states developing or possessing nuclear weapons has increased. In the twenty-first century there are fewer nuclear weapons with more fingers on the button. Working towards a nuclear-free world and reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed should be at the heart of Britain's future deterrence, but not at the cost of national security.

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By Anthony King

On 19 June 2006, British troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade's 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, deployed into Sangin. It was and remains a defining moment of the Helmand campaign.

The circumstances of the deployment are instructive. The commander of 16 Air Assault Brigadier, Brigadier Ed Butler who had just flown into Lashkar Gar, contacted Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, the Commanding Officer of 3 PARA, on the radio: 'Stuart, we have got reports coming in that the district centre is about to fall. If we are going to reduce the risks to helicopters we need to use the cover of darkness and go before first light. Given that dawn is less than three hours away, I need to know whether you can launch the mission in the next 90 minutes'.

Tootal and his tactical headquarters 'quickly rehashed the pros and cons', rightly observing that they 'were here to support the government of Afghanistan'. However, the ultimate impetus for insertion was primarily regimental: 'Finally we were Paras and being asked to do difficult and risky things was what we were meant to be about'. Tootal confirmed that he was ready to deploy for a 24 hour operation only 20 minutes after Ed Butler's initial communication.

Four years and over a 120 dead British soldiers later, the withdrawal of British troops from Sangin has just been announced. Having lost 13 men (including attachments) in two months, 40 Commando Royal Marines, who are currently holding the line in the Upper Sangin Valley, will be replaced by a US Marine Corps brigade in the coming months. The Marines will suffer numerous casualties in Sangin but they, unlike the British, may have the combat power to secure the area.

It is clear now that Ed Butler and subsequent British commanders underestimated the scale of the problem in Sangin. Sangin is a dense population centre some 30 miles north-east of Lashkar Gar and its location and geography present intense difficulties for any security force.

Sangin is on the junction of the Helmand and the Musa Qala Rivers and has long been the centre of narco-trafficking in southern Afghanistan with routes running north to Kabul, east to Kandahar and west to Iran.

As a result of its association with drugs trafficking, Sangin is deeply significant to local magnates, including the Taliban, whose wealth and power is based on opium. In 2006, Sher Mohammend Akhundzada, who was the governor of Helmand under Karzai until his removal in 2005 when nine tonnes of heroin was found in his compound by the FCO, was one of the most powerful figures in the valley. His family influence endures to this day.

The presence of unwanted British troops represented a serious challenge to the dominant economic and political interests in Sangin, precipitating much of the fighting. Further complicating the situation,

the Upper Sangin Valley is fragmented by tribal and communal politics which has engendered high levels of hostility not only between the villages but towards any outsiders. Moreover, in the summer, the irrigated fields around the Helmand River become as vegetated as jungle while each farm compound, with thick mud-baked walls, forms perfect defensive positions; it is close and difficult country.

Apparently ignorant of the political and geographic complexities of Sangin, British troops were rapidly engaged in a desperate battle of survival in Sangin. On several occasion in 2006, the platoon house in Sangin district centre was in danger of being overrun and from 2008, as insurgents changed their tactics, British troops have been encased in belts of lEDs which have now costs scores of lives and prevented any substantial progress.

In many cases from 2006 right up to the present, the British have not been fighting a unified insurgency with a clearly identifiable goal: the 'Taliban'. More typically, British troops have been engaged by local tribal militias (some associated with Akhundzada himself) often making alliances of convenience with local Taliban commanders who bring with them additional skills, resources and fighters.

The withdrawal from Sangin is necessarily an admission of failure — at least to some degree. British commanders did not understand the political dynamics in the valley and, crucially, despite a worsening situation from 2008, have been unable to generate sufficient force ratios to pacify the hostile population.

In a sense, the Upper Sangin Valley had echoes with the Ypres Salient in the First World War. In both cases, British forces were accidentally deployed into an unfavourable tactical situation from which, constrained by political imperatives, they could neither withdraw nor which they could improve. As on the western front, British infantry soldiers have simply had to endure in Sangin for four years.

Nevertheless, although the Sangin episode should certainly be sobering to officers up and down the chain of command and might usefully feature as a historical lesson on future staff courses, the withdrawal is only a local set-back. It is not evidence of the failure of the British campaign in Helmand more widely. On the contrary, the withdrawal should be welcomed. Since December 2008, British commanders have sought quite properly to focus on the central population area of Helmand in and around Lashkar Gar. Operations Sond Chara and Panchai Palang were evidence of this attempt to concentrate forces in that decisive ink-spot and, in February 2010, Operation Moshtarak was successful in deepening security around Lashkar Gar, in Nad-e-Ali and Narah-e-Saraj. British troops have sought to strengthen their hold of these areas since that time.

The relief of 40 Commando from Sangin — and future battle-groups that would have been stationed there—will be a major benefit to the prosecution of Britain's campaign in this area. It will provide commanders with the resources to execute a now coherent counter-insurgency plan.

In addition, it will reduce the logistics burden on the Helmand Task Force very considerably. In 2006, British paratroopers nearly starved in Sangin and eventually had to be supplied by a Canadian column in armoured vehicles. Logistics in Sangin improved thereafter, but sustaining operations in the Upper Sangin Valley has been a severe logistical problem. Every month, a Combat Logistic Patrol of some 200 vehicles, escorted by Apache and preceded by reconnaissance troops, has had to be driven from Camp Bastion, along Highway 1 and then up the desert, parallel to the lED-ed Route 611, to supply the Operating Bases in and around Sangin. These Patrols have represented British military ingenuity at its best but they also demonstrate the mistake of deploying into Sangin in the first place without the troop numbers to secure the lines of communication. For the last four years, Task Force Helmand has conducted a counter-insurgency operation on highly unfavourable exterior lines of communication.

The withdrawal from Sangin alters the entire geometry of the campaign in a single stroke. British forces are concentrated in the centre of Helmand close to the Main Operating Base at Camp Bastion with a vastly diminished logistics burden and reduced lines of communication. Current and future British commanders will benefit hugely from the increased tempo which follows this rationalisation of the force lay-down.

After the withdrawal from Sangin, Britain's Task Force Helmand will control an area of just over 200 square kilometres while the US Marines Expeditionary Force has taken command not only of Helmand but also of Nimroz and Farah as the new Regional Command South West.

Britain's mission has shrunk while the American contribution has expanded dramatically. This re-balancing of effort may deflate British pretensions somewhat. Yet, ironically, the current area of operation to which the British mission has been reduced is precisely the area identified in 2005 in the initial UK plan for Helmand.

The Bastion-Lashkar Gar-Gereshk triangle, where all UK troops now operate, was then rightly seen both as the decisive and as a manageable area for the level of the British commitment. The British concept of operations in this area is now coherent and mature; it represents the most likely chance of success in the province.

However, even with this increase of force ratios and logistical relief which the withdrawal will bring, British commanders might remember the central lesson of Sangin. Afghanistan is all about politics and even the 10,000 troops now dedicated to Lashkar Gar and its environs will not alone be enough if

British military and civilian leaders fail to understand and engage with the key political actors in Helmand.

It is finally these leaders, the powerbrokers, who will bring peace to Afghanistan, not NATO's forces however brave and skilful they have been.

About the author

Anthony King is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are football, social theory and latterly, the military.

This article first appeared in the August 2010 edition Parliamentary brief, entitled 'Sangin is no loss', and is reproduced with permission.

 

By Chris Newton

It has been a long, strenuous, and difficult summer in the Ministry of Defence. As part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), it and the entire defence community has been grappling with two fundamental questions about the future. What will the future strategic environment look like? And what does this mean for our Armed Forces? There are those commentators who can, with a remarkable degree of confidence, say that they can predict what the future character of conflict will look like. Future conflict will be similar to the wars we have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 9/11 was a significant date that heralded a new kind of warfare.

But is this certainty in predicting the future justified when history always teaches us to expect the unexpected? History does not follow a linear, pre-determined path; it is about men and women making choices between alternative futures and scenarios. A gunshot in 1914, for example, completely destroyed an entire European and world order. So we should at the very least be open to alternative scenarios and future pathways. Moreover, there is another significant date has passed us by that could signal the change the world is about to face, and we could risk harming our future security and prosperity if we choose to ignore its significance.

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By Chris Newton

Throughout its period in opposition the Conservative Party continually criticised many aspects of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). This culminated in the party's opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and its defence provisions, including a mutual defence clause and permanent structured co-operation. Some commentators have expressed concern about the future of Anglo-European defence relations now that the Conservatives have been elected to power. But how justified are the concerns? Will the next few years prove to be the nadir of Anglo-European defence co-operation, a continuation of the past few years, or even an improvement from the past few years?

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The UK Defence Forum has recently published the above paper, written by James Gray MP in 2003. The paper forms part of the Forum's library of Grey papers and is available here.

 

By Christopher Newton

In 1981 it was naval power. Now thirty years later, it seems that the UK's air assets and the RAF in particular will bear the brunt of the government's cuts in another defence review. If the news reports are right, then the RAF is heading to be smaller than when it was in its infancy in 1918. There could be considerable reductions in the number of Typhoon and Joint Strike Fighter orders, and the Tornado fleet could be withdrawn earlier than planned. Reports also suggest that an aircraft carrier could be the price of the government's policy to fund the Vanguard class successor submarines from the defence budget and not from the treasury, although this now seems unlikely. Either way, the number of aircraft in the Navy looks set to be reduced considerably.

The logic behind cutting aircraft numbers is understandable enough. The war in Afghanistan is largely consuming the energy and resources of the ground forces, so they need to be preserved as much as possible. The Navy will always be required to protect British sea lanes and wider interests abroad, and it will probably be required to conduct counter-piracy and patrolling missions for the foreseeable future. And today Britain faces no threat from an opposing air force. If one of the three services has to face savage cuts, then surely it makes sense that it is the RAF?

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Dr Robert Crowcroft

We are all now accustomed to being assured that something called 'globalisation' has revolutionised the world over the last fifteen years or so, and is continuing to do so. Commentators, politicians and academics deploy the phrase willy-nilly, to frame an explanation for all manner of problems. 'Globalisation' is a catch-all. It seems sophisticated. People tell us that the phenomenon is changing everything, from the experiences of everyday life to the character of international politics itself. Trade, migration, and international organisations mean that the nation state system is weakening and being supplemented – or, according to some, even replaced – by a world of global governance, multinational companies and cross-border social movements. As a result, globalisation constitutes the most profound change to the Westphalian international system since its inception.

That all sounds very grand. Unfortunately, it isn't really true. It is a myth. More: it is a myth with a pernicious effect in misinforming and distorting public debate about contemporary international politics. Why is that? The theory of globalisation flows from an assumption that the key drivers of the international system are now non-state based entities and ideas. That could be the World Bank or it could be Burger King. And its advocates emphasise issues which generate a degree of international co-operation – like climate change, war crimes, economic crises and rogue regimes.

But the problem is that, when subjected to scrutiny, the evidence for such extensive co-operation doesn't really stack up. Still less does the co-operation that does occur constitute a systemic change in international relations. How much unanimity between nations has there really been on issues, like Iran, which present an obvious danger to much of the so-called 'global community'? Brokering agreement between separate polities remains as difficult as ever. Even the North Atlantic states, most menaced by Islamism, cannot agree between them on what to do and where. Remember Iraq. And for that matter observe Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan today.

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Globalisation tells us that the world is 'shrinking' and interdependence is increasing. I will deal with that claim in greater detail below, but for now the point must be made that all of this is based upon an assumption that there is, in the first place, a 'world' or a 'global' system that can be studied politically. In fact, that is a very big claim indeed. World politics is regional politics. The globe is divided into regions (North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and East Asia) and sub-regions, and states pay minimal attention to things that happen elsewhere. Only the US is genuinely 'global' because of its military and economic presence. But how many educated Europeans know the name of the Japanese prime minister, or pay attention to Columbian politics? Who would invest Japan with greater significance than France, despite Japan being a much more important country? Very few. And who can really blame them? The problems of those areas remain remote.

David Miliband, when Foreign Secretary, announced that 'power is moving to a global level'. In truth, the idea that there even is a 'global level' is a fallacy. International institutions lack real power, and only have it when the states they consist of can agree to do something; more often than not they are paralysed by those states. The rulings of the United Nations Security Council are mostly gesture, lacking in bite. Anyway, the most effective international bodies – like NATO, the EU or the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation – are regional, not global. Rhetoric aside, regional politics are what matters. Since the Cold War, the major states have continued to negotiate with one another directly and solve problems between themselves, with the most powerful having the most influence. The collapse of the bi-polar framework saw more states become increasingly relevant. What that means, far from offering any support to globalisation, is that the traditional bases of international relations have been reinforced, not weakened.

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By I.E. Shields

It is undeniable that the UK is in a financial mess, and it is equally incontestable that the present Government is determined to address the deficit since they believe that this is in the country's long-term interests. This article will challenge neither of these assumptions, but will look at the degree to which the present, and ongoing, Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is being conducted and ask whether we are in fact sleepwalking into a security disaster?

We do not know what the SDSR is going to conclude and this article is necessarily, therefore, speculative, albeit that it will not try to guess the contents of the Review. But what we do know is that the SDSR is being conducted at break-neck pace, by a very small circle of insiders (despite Government claims that it is inviting outside views: with such a compressed time-line there is insufficient time to undertake proper strategic analysis, let alone take into account external views). The results will be known soon, but we should anticipate little time for debate after the results are published, more likely an unseemly rush to implement what are likely to be hefty cuts.

And herein lies the biggest danger, not the reduction in spending, driven as it is by necessary financial considerations, but the lack of real scrutiny. There are suggestions, if not actual claims, that the Review will be based on, at least in part, a review of where Britain sees her place in the world and therefore (one might expect) how we are both to discharge our global responsibilities, and lever influence, not only to meet our own needs but also to play our part in maintaining the international order. These are lofty and laudable aims, and such a Review is to be supported and applauded. However, within such an ambition lies a potential danger: what if the conclusions are wrong? Now nobody can predict the future with much, let alone total, certainty. But scrutiny is needed for the price of failure – at best Britain's place in the world diminished (with concomitant implications for the national economy), at worse either this country or the way of life and international order to which we adhere under severe threat. No, this is not melodramatic, but a plea that the Review receives due scrutiny. But scrutiny from whom?

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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.

 


INTRODUCTION

Driven by globalisation, the world is rapidly and irreversibly changing. So too is the character of conflict: the Cold War is emphatically in the past. However, Defence has not changed apace. It must therefore transform in order to remain relevant and thus continue to secure UK national interests. The Army has conducted a detailed study, drawing on lessons from contemporary operations and the deductions from Defence's thorough examination of the Future Character of Conflict. Based on this, we have designed a relevant, adaptable and cost effective Future Force, which will continue to evolve as the demands of operations change over time and is designed to meet future threats and challenges. This work is known as Transformational Army Structures (TAS). The key word is transformational; the Army will continue to evolve.

Whilst TAS focuses on the Army's deployable component, the broader study encompasses all elements of the Force, including the Territorial Army, our Reserves and those which support the deployable component from 'the home base'. Furthermore, it is fully integrated with a number of other detailed studies focused on Equipment, Doctrine, Infrastructure and Personnel. This note focuses on the deployable structure, that which we must protect.

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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

 

Dr Robert Crowcroft, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

The blunt truth is that the SDSR process has not been a strategy exercise. The review was conducted with such speed that attention within the MOD and the Armed Services focused on where the axe will fall, not geopolitics and policy responses. Nor has there been time to convincingly reform the badly mismanaged procurement policies of the MOD. Fundamentally, the SDR has been a political exercise with spending as the bone of contention and – most important of all from the perspective of those ministers involved – personal credibility riding on the outcome. It is a personal and party struggle, not a clash over policy itself. The purpose of this essay is to highlight the high political context in which Britain's national security strategy has been created.

Since taking office in May, the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has been engaged in a long and at times fairly brutal power struggle with George Osborne, the Chancellor. The SDSR was supposed to provide a coherent framework for future defence policy but swiftly became a guerrilla conflict to ward off the Treasury's crusade for drastic cuts. Fox found himself immersed in a bureaucratic turf war with Osborne; a turf war in which the fortunes of both men was intimately bound up. One imagines that private meetings between the two have been angry affairs. Politically, the SDSR runs along a fault line within the Conservative party that has absolutely nothing to do with defence policy: specifically the mistrust of the 'Cameron project' and widespread disappointment that the election in May did not generate a Conservative parliamentary majority.

There are multiple ambitions at work here. Osborne's agenda is that he has to confound the doubters and prove himself a successful Chancellor. His political skills, highly rated by some, have long been questioned by others. His priority is to 'save the economy'; only by being able to make that claim will Osborne justify his billing. He simply has to pull it off. And the job is not just an opportunity, it is also fraught with danger. It is just as likely that the Chancellor will end up shipwrecked, either from an unresponsive economy or through bearing the opprobrium for painful cuts. To avoid this, he first needs to rein back state spending by every penny he can find, and secondly target the cuts smartly, on things which do not impact the daily lives of the public – like defence.

Osborne is also part of the Cameron faction of the Conservative party – tolerated but never loved by most MPs and activists. A second agenda in his rivalry with Fox has been to try and discredit the Defence Secretary as part of an internal Tory power struggle. Fox taps into a middle-class, no-nonsense strand of Conservatism that Cameron and Osborne struggle with: both are too cosmopolitan, and physically too baby-faced, to strike a chord. It is well-known that Cameron and Osborne do not like Fox, to say the least. Keeping people such as him from becoming a threat requires careful management, cunning, and a willingness to plunge the dagger in if it arises. The Cameroons clearly revelled in reports that Fox was struggling at the MOD in his first months. There is a clear 'win' to be had if Fox is seen to fail, or loses credibility in the eyes of the party. Defeating Fox is a crucial task in consolidating the Cameroons' hold on the party at a time of growing discontent over the alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Others who could theoretically be a threat have either shot themselves in the foot (David Davis), or been cleverly co-opted by Cameron as an air-raid shelter (William Hague).

The Conservative party must surrender to the Cameron agenda if the Coalition is to be a success, and it is by no means clear that it will do so. There are always plenty of people waiting in the wings – whether the ambitious or the bitter – who look for 'issues' and 'crises' to use as platforms to boost their position. Many such platforms will be available in the coming year, especially with the imminent Comprehensive Spending Review and future government legislation. Spiking the guns of someone like Fox would be both personally helpful to Osborne, and beneficial in party management terms to Cameron.

Fox, meanwhile, had ambitions of being Tory leader at one point, and he may still harbour them. A future lurch away from Cameron may see Fox become an acceptable candidate for the party. Whatever his plans, to fulfil them Fox must be a successful minister. He can't be seen to fail and therefore defeat to Osborne was unthinkable. In July, Fox went public with the battle and warned Osborne not to 'play fast and loose' with national security when the Treasury sought the shift the cost of the Trident replacement to the main defence budget. The overt posturing continued until early October and the leak of a private letter from Fox to Cameron warning of 'brutal' political consequences if 'draconian' cuts were imposed – swiftly bolstered by hints that Fox himself would resign. This forced Mr Cameron to come to the MOD's aid. Fox played it cleverly, outflanking Osborne on ground which resonates with the Conservative party and bouncing the Prime Minister into helping him by loudly emphasising the damage that Mr Cameron will sustain if he did not. For the Prime Minister, political good health was more important than destroying an enemy. Fox calculated this and by last week, he had won: Osborne's desired cuts of at least ten percent were reduced to just seven percent – still a significant fall of the axe, but not as bad as it could have been. In this staring contest, Downing Street and the Treasury blinked first. On 14 October, Fox was scheduled to attend a NATO meeting in Brussels, but decided to remain in London in order to consolidate his victory over the Treasury.

Where is the defence policy in all of this? Well, it isn't really there – and that's the point. The SDSR process has been carried out at great speed, and proved to be more of a budget battle than an analysis of Britain's needs. For instance, Fox's success, though on the surface a victory for 'security' over 'cuts', is not necessarily a victory for strategic good sense. Fox appears to be quite happy for the Navy to bear the brunt of the cuts, with a surface fleet slashed to just twenty vessels. To this author at least, that is a disturbing policy.

Mr Cameron's recent measures –the appointment of his own military adviser, and taking on the job of personally unveiling the SDSR– signal that the war with Fox is far from over. The Prime Minister does not want it to appear that the Defence Secretary has established his own personal fiefdom in defiance of Downing Street. On 18 October there were stories in the newspapers about Fox's partying lifestyle and drinking habits, which Fox quickly labelled a smear by internal enemies. Cameron would doubtless like to trap and maim Fox, but the indications are that he is too afraid of sustaining political damage if he supports Osborne, and has chosen to spare the military even if it means that Fox escapes the Treasury hounds. The Defence Secretary rubbed salt in the wound by gleefully telling the BBC that 'Well, I think it's always helpful to have the Prime Minister on your side in any spending round. And it's very clear that the Prime Minister himself is very committed to the Armed Forces'.

The result will be that Fox emerges looking triumphant, strong willed, and resolute: sure to chime well with a frustrated Conservative party. No doubt Cameron, Osborne, and their Notting Hill mafia will seek future opportunities to send out the hounds; and Fox's next challenge will be converting this victory into broader personal success. But, for now at least, the wily Defence Secretary has outsmarted his opponents. Where that leaves Britain's international strategy does not appear to be on the agenda.

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

The backgorunder to the Strategic Defence and Security Review - the National Security Strategy can be read here.

 
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