Category Archives: U.K. Defense Policy

Patrick Porter on the Libyan intervention


Dr. Patrick Porter, currently of King's College London, has a worthwhile blog called The Offshore Balancer that is a great read regardless of the topic. Patrick is one of many great exports from Down Under and is the author of the brilliant Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (published in the UK by Hurst, in the US by Columbia University Press, in 2009) which I highly recommend.

Patrick can only be described as a classical realist and it is his application of this worldview to 21st century issues, along with his fine prose, that makes him worth noting. His recent postings on events in Libya are particularly refreshing.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Diplomacy, Strategic Theory, Thucydides, U.K. Defense Policy

Sheldon in RUSI Journal: Britain and Spacepower

Shout it from the rooftops

The journal of the Royal United Services Institution for Defence Studies RUSI Journal – is publishing in its forthcoming December 2010 issue an article by me titled "The Strategic Rationale for Britain in Space: Issues, Opportunities and Challenges." Anyone interested can read it here: Download The Strategic Rationale for Britain in Space – RUSI Journal December 2010

I am told that the online publication of the December 2010 issue is imminent, and the hardcopy should hit the streets just before Christmas.

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Filed under Arms Control, British Foreign Policy, Clausewitz, Diplomacy, Economics, Publications, Shameless Self-Promotion, Spacepower, Strategy, U.K. Defense Policy

Britain’s Looming Strategy Deficit

With the UK economy in worse shape than many can remember it is hardly surprising that spending cuts across the government are needed. What is surprising is the short term thinking that has prevailed over one spending cut in particular – defense. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Defence will see a loss of 16,000 personnel across all the services, with the RAF taking the bulk of the losses. The Daily Telegraph report observes that "If implemented, the cuts will mean that Britain will almost certainly depart
the world stage as a major military power and become what military chiefs
call a “medium-scale player”."

Any cuts, regardless of their rationale, are unpopular. Yet these cuts seem destined to come back to haunt the British government in years to come. This is because the proposed defense cuts have not been matched by an adjustment of British foreign policy ambitions. William Hague is probably the most intellectually suited man for the job of British Foreign Secretary in many years, and has emphasized emerging powers (the BRICs) as a focus of British foreign policy, as well as a continuing focus on the Transatlantic relationship with the United States. There is much to admire in Hague's foreign policy, though a hint of a deeper strategic malaise is evident in the following quote from a speech by the Foreign Secretary in early July:

    Fourth, the nature of conflict is changing. Our Armed Forces are
currently involved in fighting         insurgencies or wars-amongst-the-people
rather than state on state conflict, they are involved in counter-piracy
operations rather than sea battles, the projection of force overseas
rather than homeland-based defence. And security threats themselves are
more widely dispersed in parts of the world which are often difficult to
access, lawless and in some cases failing, where the absence of
governance feeds into a cycle of conflict and danger that we have yet to
learn to arrest but are likely to face more often.

This is utter nonsense, and bewildering. First, the nature of conflict has not changed – as any decent strategist from Clausewitz through to Colin S. Gray will tell you. This is not a semantic concern – such a statement implies a fundamental misapprehension about the nature and purpose of war and the underpinnings of the international order. Second, while it is certainly true that UK armed forces are currently fighting insurgencies, it does not mean that state on state conflict has been relegated to the dustbin of history and if the Foreign Office's idea that the future of conflict is basically
that which we are fighting today (and not fighting terribly well, it
might be said), then there are some very worrying assumptions wandering
the corridors of King Charles Street. And third – and bewildering – threats are certainly diffused and emanate from ungoverned/ungovernable spaces, just as they always have (as an aside, it is remarkable that people view the Cold War as the norm in international politics not as the aberration it really was), but it is notable that such threats are on a global scale, thus inferring the continuation of the traditional British global role.

What does all this mean in the face of a large cut to the British defense establishment? When senior politicians, officials and commanders state that somehow the nature of conflict has changed it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of war and statecraft. There is nothing new under the sun, and insurgencies are nothing new in the history of war or the British Army. The nature of conflict is eternal – peoples will fight in order to achieve their preferred political order – yet its character (i.e. how they fight) is forever changing because of changes in societies, technology, culture, and politics. To say that today's insurgencies represent a change in the nature of conflict is to confuse the shifting character of war with its eternal purpose. In the case of today's insurgency in Afghanistan, it is technology and the global political context of that conflict that makes it unique in terms of its character. In practical terms, this view of conflict suggests that senior figures in the British government seem unable to see things for what they really are and are thus primed to violate what is perhaps the most important advice offered by Clausewitz that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking."

There also seem to be worrying signs that the British foreign policy establishment has convinced itself that it can discern the future shape of the strategic environment with sufficient confidence, namely the future is like today! This will only mean trouble for Britain's armed forces that seem poised to have any sustained capacity for full spectrum operations decimated. As a result, a number of Hague's foreign policy assumptions will be found wanting at crucial moments.  A global British foreign policy will ring hollow without an armed forces able to have the global reach and capacity to back it up.

The austerity measures underway in the Cameron-Clegg government are necessary, and defense should not be exempt. But to perpetrate the notion that an activist, global foreign policy can succeed without a military able to support it in a sustained manner across the spectrum of conflict is a fallacy. If defense spending in the U.K. is to be cut, then there must be a concomitant review and subsequent trimming of British foreign policy ambitions. Anything less will produce a strategy deficit that the British taxpayer will be paying for decades to come, and British servicemen and women will be paying for even more dearly.

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Filed under BRICs, Current Affairs, Economics, Strategy, U.K. Defense Policy

A Return to Churchill’s “Ten Year Rule” for the UK?

Allan Mallinson, retired British Army Brigadier and author of outstanding military history fiction, proposes the return of Churchill's "Ten Year Rule" for British armed forces in today's edition of The Times (London*) - requiring them to plan on the assumption that for the next ten years "there will be no war against another nation's conventionally equipped forces …"

Mallinson makes a unique argument in the ongoing debate on the future of UK defense policy:

"For it would indeed be a risk. Critics can point to the debacle of 1939, but the problem with Churchill’s ten-year rule was not its concept but that there was no formal mechanism for review, so that when in the early 1930s the underlying assumption became unsafe, political expediency (appeasement) trumped rearmament. A National Security Council and a formal defence review would avert that danger."

In this regard Mallinson is correct, though he perhaps underestimates the inclination of politicians to dither even in the face of overwhelming threats and thus override or obfuscate formal mechanisms such as a UK National Security Council or a formal defense review.

While this is perhaps an obvious concern, Mallinson makes his killer point when he writes:

"This is not to advocate that we turn our backs on high-end-spectrum war. Recent debate, however, has focused too absolutely on the nature of future war rather than on possibilities and probabilities. The question is where to take the risk. Just as in the 1920s and 1930s, when, for example, the RAF put what little money it had into infrastructure — airfields, apprenticeships and R&D — so the Forces, while organising and equipping to fight their current wars, would contingency-plan vigorously, and above all imaginatively, for the worse-case scenarios of the future. Winning today’s wars would anyway reduce the risk of war tomorrow."

Mallinson hits upon the key strategic dilemna that face U.S. and British decision makers and which those calling for a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan do not seem to grasp – the rationale that got us there in the first place may have been ill-thought out and poorly executed, but we are there and we have staked our strategic repuations to success in one of the most volatile, yet key, regions of the world. It is better to strive for success – no matter how we define that word – than to turn tail only to reap the whirlwind that will inevitably ensue if we are to leave Afghanistan (and as a result Pakistan and a large part of Central Asia) to the vultures.

The only thing missing from Mallinson's analysis, however, is linking his revived "Ten Year Rule" to a fundamental review of British foreign policy aims and goals. Only by realligning U.K. grand strategy to more realistic and affordable foreign policy goals will any U.K. defense posture seeking to avoid high-end spectrum commitments have any prospect of success.

*Americans often refer to The Times as the 'Times of London.' No such paper exists, as I point out to any student of mine who erroneously cites it as such. The proper nomenclature is The Times (London). So there.  

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Filed under Strategy, U.K. Defense Policy