With the budget tightening over the last few years (I feel like every post seems to start like that) decisions have been made over which capabilities to axe and which to keep, which to enhance and which to keep static or allow to fade. Understandably this has driven much discussion in the defence community, which in turn has led to a number of varying solutions being offered up.
But one of the things that plays on my mind when I read these various suggestions is "are we preparing for/thinking about, the right challenges?".
I get that relationship building and capacity building with foreign nations is a good thing and that through these programs we can head off certain problems at an earlier stage. I get that counter piracy and counter drug operations are a good thing in general, are sort of a part of our international responsibilities, and that in some cases like intercepting drug shipments headed for places like Jamaica we're having an impact that directly relates to the UK. But are these the things that really, really matter?
Let's talk about an example, one that has a tendency to get people hot under the collar; The Falklands War.
Let's not get into the politics of it, a detailed study or arguments about a re-run. Rather, when we look at histories of the Falklands war many people have a tendency to complain that the UK was not properly prepared for this conflict, that we should have had more carriers, better carriers, and better planes to fly off them, that the army was too heavily focused on preparing to fight World War 3 versus the Soviets in Europe, and that the RAF was the same.
The question we have to ask ourselves though is which conflict was actually the most important? If we had lost the Falklands War through being ill prepared, how much would that have really affected Britain in the long run vs potentially losing to the Russians in a major war in Europe? I would hasten to suggest that the latter would have been significantly more critical than the former.
The RAF, army and Navy may indeed have been geared much more to fight the Cold War than a war in the South Atlantic, but I'd suggest that there was a bloody good reason why this was the case. And it begs the question about our future and where we intend to splash the cash.
There's lots of talk right now about Global Guardians, Forward Engagements, Strategic Raiding and a variety of other bullshit bingo phrases, all of which point to the army, navy and air force becoming "lighter", "leaner", and "faster", in and out quickly etc, while putting in place contingencies for another enduring operation in the mold of Afghanistan.
But is this really where we want to be headed?
I'm not saying that another COIN war won't happen, indeed I've explicitly stated before on this blog that COIN wars choose you, not so much the other way around. And I'm not saying that the UK shouldn't invest in protected vehicles for such an operation. What I am saying is that these operations are really not critical to the UK in the long run.
By comparison lots of people seem very keen to dispose of the UK armoured fleet, or at least to put it into the hands of the reserves, despite this being a capability that has - since the inception of the tank - been a core part of the army and its most important missions. It's one of those things that we only deploy when it really matters (Tony Blair's bout of madness aside). As a consequence I would suggest it's one of the things that we would most want to keep.
Now exactly what capabilities qualify for this criteria of being "essential" is up for debate. Broadly speaking we're talking about preparing for the wars and campaigns that are critical to the nation and its major allies (NATO for example), as opposed to those that are nice but whose outcome is not decisive.
I appreciate that in some cases not even that criteria will help, as plenty of people would argue that campaign xyz could conceivably be termed critical to the UK, but I do think that it helps to narrow the focus a little. COIN campaigns abroad are typically not going to be critical to the UK. The need to recapture the Falklands is not really critical. The ability to bomb Libya or Syria as part of a humanitarian intervention is not really critical.
By comparison, helping to protect our neighbours is, precisely because of their proximity. Protecting key parts of our supply chain or nations that contribute heavily to it is. Protecting our allies, on the understanding that we would like them to do the same for us if required, is. In my opinion that is.
Just some food for thought next time you find yourself in a discussion about preparing for the next war/last war/preferred war etc.