January 21, 2010

The UK Service Chiefs Debate the Nature of Future War

There will be a general election in the UK this year, after which whoever wins will carry out a defence review.

There will be a general election in the UK this year, after which whoever wins will carry out a defence review.

This will be the first since the 1997 Strategic Defence Review, which re-focused the UK’s armed forces from their Cold War role towards being a “force for good in the world”. The preliminary work is already underway and, not least because of substantial pressure on the UK defence budget, it seems that even key acquisition projects will be up for debate. These include, notably, the future carrier programme, the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) programme, the Typhoon (Eurofighter) programme and even the independent nuclear deterrent.
Behind the debate about projects, however, is a more fundamental debate about the nature of future war, a debate which the heads of the armed services are conducting to an unusual degree in public. Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies this week, the Chief of the General Staff (head of the British Army) General Sir David Richards, argued for a better balance in defence planning, meaning in his view greater investment in capabilities to operate among, understand, and influence people – “‘boots on the ground’, riverine and high speed littoral warships, UAVs, transport aircraft and helicopters” – at the expense of higher end warfighting capability. “Hi-tech weapons platforms are not a good way to help stabilise tottering states – nor might their cost leave us any money to help in any other way – any more than they impress opponents equipped with weapons costing a fraction,” he said. To be clear, General Richards is not seeking to eradicate the UK’s warfighting capability, but to reduce it, arguing that by removing some very expensive, hi-tech capabilities, the country would be able to afford a great deal more, cheaper capability to use in conflicts like Afghanistan.
It would be easy to accuse the General of the cardinal sin of defence planning – preparing to fight again the current or last war. But the British Army seems convinced that the type of conflict we see today is the type of conflict we should expect in the future too. In a speech at Chatham House last May, General Richards’ predecessor, General Sir Richard Dannat was certain that “we are now witnessing some clear signals to the nature of future conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan are not aberrations – they are signposts for the future”. More memorably, UK General Sir Rupert Smith, a former DSACEUR, opened his well-received The Utility of Force with the unequivocal statement: “War no longer exists”, before introducing his idea that the paradigm of interstate industrial war has been replaced by that of “war amongst the people”.
General Richards’ dark blue counterpart, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, unsurprisingly took a different view. “We must look beyond Afghanistan… we must be prepared for surprises and strategic shocks,” he told a defence breakfast audience in the City of London. Among the Admiral’s message were that the credibility of the armed forces depended on their ability to deliver hard power, including in high intensity warfare, and that future armed forces needed to be flexible (with a plug for his own service – “the Royal Navy’s range of capabilities and force structures today, along with those planned for the future, exemplify what can be achieved with forces that are constructed and manned to be flexible, thereby maximising their utility as military instruments”). Departing from his prepared script, he added that in the review he would be pushing the case for armed forces to be seen as a “preventative deterrent mechanism.”
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton has yet to make his case, but it seems unlikely that he will concede that the UK has too much airpower.
Britain remains one of Europe’s leading defence powers, with an annual budget of around GBP 32bn (2.5% of GDP), and the outcome of this debate will have an impact on NATO’s overall military capabilities, and certainly those of the EU. And the ideas surfacing in the debate will impact the UK’s position on the new strategic concept under discussion by NATO.
There are strong reasons to believe that the Admiral’s view will get a good hearing – although these are probably as much to do with prestige, Britain’s view of its place in the world and industrial interests as they are to do with a belief that the UK will find itself deterring or doing any serious warfighting against a conventional opponent in the medium term. But it is probably the General who has the upper hand in the debate. Getting Afghanistan right is seen as hugely important in the UK defence establishment and the Army, which has been portrayed in some quarters as having been sent out to do a dirty job, by callous politicians who are not even prepared to provide the proper equipment, has won a great deal of public respect and sympathy.
So it is very possible that the UK defence review will indeed see a shift away from expensive maritime and air platforms in favour of the sort of capabilities the Army is advocating, away from the ability to conduct large-scale state-on-state war in favour of the ability to conduct war among the people. Is this a risk? Of course, but defence planning is about managing rather than eliminating risk. And as General Richards notes, “Having learnt the lessons taught by AQ, the Taliban and many other non-state actors, and thought how to exploit them perhaps on an ‘industrial’ scale, why would even a major belligerent state choose to achieve our downfall though high risk, high cost traditional means when they can plausibly achieve their aims, much more cheaply and semi-anonymously, using proxies, guerrillas, economic subterfuge and cyber warfare?”

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