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  • Writer's pictureJames Maclaren

Redefining UK Defence Strategy: Why 3% Expenditure Matters

By James Maclaren

James Maclaren

It won't be long before the woes of creating a sustainable defence budget wil force the Government towards the release of yet another defence review. In it, we can expect to see UK military capability conveniently redefined under the Treasury imposed expenditure threshold and expect it to say little other than re-emphasise the threats, present the cornerstone of UK defence policy as NATO membership and laud its special relationship (for which we can read reliance) upon the United States. It is unlikely to consider the flaws in this assessment, or consider what, in a post-Brexit environment, will be Britain’s role in the world. The principle purpose of defence review appears to be to address the gaping deficit in the Department’s budget. This most recent mini-review follows hard on the heels of a supposedly complete review in 2015 and is the third since 2010. To the cynical, UK defence reviews have become too political, too scripted and too frequent.

Ministers are proud of the UK’s record in meeting the NATO expenditure target of two percent, one of only four countries in the alliance to do so. While they gloss over the creative accounting necessary to maintain this achievement and prefer not to dwell on the mismanagement and budget raids which have slowly hollowed out the UK’s military capabilities. They prefer to point to increases in the military’s equipment budget headed by new RAF combat aircraft and the re-emergence of carrier strike capability. Not much will be said about the Army, which in particular looks in need of refreshing, particularly in the high-intensity combat area. The combined effects of sustained operations in Afghanistan, under-recruitment and reconfiguration to concentrate on operations short of high-intensity have left it ill-prepared to face a resurgent Russian military capability.

To many the need for a defence review seems unclear – what in the nature of threats and challenges to national defence has changed that much? The UK managed to navigate the end of the Cold War without a defence review and it was only the politically motivated Labour Party manifesto commitment to its SDR in 1997 that brought about the first defence review since Dennis Healey, another labour defence Secretary ripped up the defence song sheet in 1967. The answer that will be given to Parliament will probably be not much. But in truth a great deal has changed to Britain’s strategic situation and there is now, more than ever, a need for a proper review which does more than the usual exercise of packing a great deal of foreign and defence policy padding around what is essentially strategic defence mismanagement.

Part of the padding refers to some assumptions and constraints that Government is unwilling to confront with fresh thinking. For example, that NATO is a cornerstone of our defence policy or that the NATO inspired 2% spending commitment is the correct level of national treasure to invest in meeting the national interest. Recent defence reviews have broadly come to the same conclusions and followed the same narrative, the role of Trident, NATO, relationship with the United States are unquestioned and are taken as cardinal laws. As Britain considers its role in the world after departure from the EU then confronting some of these unchallenged rules of defence policy may be unavoidable.

Defence capability follows trade. The power of the Royal Navy was founded upon the need to protect the nation’s sea lines of communication. In a world where the UK begins to see its trade interests expand beyond the European continent, then a steady reversal of the Healey doctrine of withdrawal East of Suez will take place. It will do so at a time when the world has become to look significantly more dangerous than the decades in which Britain hibernated into the European cave and carried out its Cold War. Britain will need to stand on its feet again and to do so will have to have the capacity to act militarily and potentially unilaterally. International solidarity has limits and while NATO may just serve its purpose as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, it is unlikely to have the appetite or resources to support its members whose national interests have moved beyond the continent or usual reach of the alliance. To suggest that Britain should continue to be Europe-focused for defence while its trade and commercial interests reach far wider, is not logical and defies the lessons of history.

An increasing reliance on internationalism for national defence faces challenge in three areas. One is that countries with different interests and outlooks cannot always be expected to support one another. US patience with Europe is stretched. Presuming thatt it would be willing to support British interests as it seeks a wider global role is asking a great deal. Second, Internationalism genders a false sense of complacency which is created by a multinational approach to capabilities and capacity. It allows nations to comfort themselves that renouncing a national capability is OK, because it is still there, just provided by someone else. But whether that is true or not depends upon the circumstances that it can be called upon. Britain’s interests will diverge from many NATO member states, and the need for autonomous capability that may no longer be available from an alliance partner will increase.

There is a third concern which has remained largely unspoken. The Americanisation of European armies has been continuing for some time. The reliance upon US leadership, military philosophy doctrine and procedures, never mind its unmatched range of capabilities is almost total. Any force operating in coalition with the US is obliged to follow its methods and conform to its organisations. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more evident than in the conduct of military affairs. It demands and expects from its allies, and it ignores that with which it does not agree.

The problem is that many feel the American way just does not work! The American way of war is weighted towards technology often at the expense of grasping the political, environmental and situational nature of conflicts. Americans assume the domination of technology will prevail and this leads them on a vast and expanding journey to build increasing technology and complexity into weapons systems. It is arguable whether the American idea that networking technology directing precision munitions has actually revolutionised warfare or has provided the crushing advantage over its opponents. Not only does a case exist to say that this view of war is flawed, it is too expensive for allies such as the British to follow. To do so requires expenditure on equipment so costly that forces and capabilities which may have greater utility, particularly in the lower end of the conflict spectrum must be sacrificed to pay for it. Continuing to support unreservedly the ability to ‘plug-in’ into US capabilities will result in possession of a few exquisite and tiny capabilities incapable of autonomous action. This presents a problem to a UK required to operate beyond the NATO umbrella or without the support of critical allies. Numbers still matter if a nation is to be able to win wars, or at the very least conduct major conflicts at scale.

The gaps in other capabilities which attempting to maintain technology alignment with the US creates, requires the UK to rely heavily upon US help during military operations. Key ‘enablers’ such as heavy airlift, command and control, strategic intelligence, reconnaissance, air to air refuelling give the Americans a de facto veto over future UK military operations. The US has never been shy of exercising such a veto if it perceived to be in their interests to do so. While the Government would point to existing UK capabilities in all these areas, they do not exist at the level required to conduct strategic autonomy. Slowly, but irrevocably, since 1967 and probably before then, the commitment to NATO, Europe and the US, with the exception of a brief ad hoc hurrah to the South Atlantic in 1982, British operational coherence to respond to national strategic requirements has been eroded.

The American military philosophy adopts essentially a centrist approach to the conceptual art of war. While it loves to consider itself an advocate of the manoeuvrist approach and decentralised command, it truth it seldom practises what it teaches. The US love of detail extends throughout its military organisations. The use of operational art, a military philosophy enabling junior commander’s freedom of action allowing rapid decision making within a broader intent, is quoted often, but practised little. The stove-piped juggernaut of American military planning and operations is widely emulated among European allies who seem unable or reluctant to challenge whether the huge planning organisations and the military bureaucracy they create, either work for the conflict they are in, or are right for their own organisations and capabilities. They mimic without question.

More worryingly as the challenges of the future strategic environment are confronted the reliance on the US may expose the largest flaw of all. They lose their wars, or certainly do not win them.

In recent years, Britain has been dragged into wars of the US making in which it has offered sufficient forces to share solidarity but not enough to make a difference or alter the strategic direction of a conflict. These half-wars, high in human cost and expensive have demonstrated British strategic weakness. There is an argument for a significant increase in the amount of national hard power which Britain can deploy accompanied by an increased reliance upon its own military philosophy and notions of using combat power which are both distinctive and effective. It is normal for the UK to deploy small formations and individuals to conflict environments and achieve success through their own wit and resources. To do so they understand the human environment and the interactions and interdependencies between combatants and civilians. This is at odds with an American approach which utilises mass, kinetic effect and centralised control, but which is less agile and able to adapt.

It is not as the misquoted Churchill speech suggests that Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, but a rebalancing of UK national interest into a global trade environment will require Britain to be able to defend its wider trade routes and interests. This will as true over the next decades as it was in Napoleonic times.

The need to lift our defence sights beyond the edge of Europe, be able to engage in high-intensity conflict without reliance upon American support and not necessarily in a way dictated by the US, means the willingness to develop a national defence strategy that will cost more than the comfortable, presentationally satisfactory limit of 2% of GDP.

The UK cannot aspire to global significance while hiding behind the European curtain of defence cooperation and limits on expenditure. In Europe, defence expenditure is largely about territorial integrity with minor participation in low risk small operations managed and led by others. The British defence challenge just became bigger. Increasing the UK defence budget to 3% of GDP is not just about filling in the deficit caused by bad management, it’s about changing the shape of UK defence strategy and building capability to meet future needs. Its deeper message would be that Britain is serious about becoming globally engaged and is willing to plot its own course on the world stage.

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