Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Devil's Advocate: The future of UK defence

One of the most dreaded phrases in modern corporate speak has to be "Personal Development Plan". In theory PDPs are a good idea, designed to improve the workforce by giving them additional skills, something which benefits both the employer and the employee. It's the implementation that's the problem, normally because businesses struggle to identify what skills are actually useful to their employees and as such to them as a business. How to develop those skills is the second challenge. As much as it might pain some executives to accept, the reality is that a good piss up is still a better team building exercise than a weekend spent paint-balling and doing interpretive dance.

By comparison I have always found one method of personal development to be unusually helpful, that of formally arguing against your own position and beliefs. I find it quite instructive to play the 'Devil's Advocate' every now and again, as long as you do it honestly and earnestly (otherwise there's no point). In some cases it can lead you to change your point of view entirely. Sometimes it merely leads you to strengthen your resolve on your original position. It can help you to see the flaws in your current position, making you more aware of the challenges of a particular course. It can also help you to strengthen your debating position with others, by preparing you to convince the sceptical about concerns they have with certain elements of your argument.

And for those reasons today is going to be about me arguing against myself. Specifically, arguing against my recent post on the future of UK defence

I'm going to target a piece of the argument in particular, that being the idea of the UK as a potential "building block" nation onto which others could bolt their capabilities, as well as the idea of the UK building closer ties with smaller nations. And for a change, I'm actually going to tackle those arguments in the listed order!
The most obvious challenge to the UK as a building block nation is the capacity of the logistic chain to cope. The UK has in the past found it challenging to support division sized operations in the field. Britain has an unfortunate reputation with many Americans as the "Borrowers". If Britain can't sustain a division of its own, how would it cope deploying a single brigade and expecting smaller allies to produce another brigades worth of troops and equipment?

In theory (that wonderful phrase) the allies would come with their own logistic support to sustain the forces they deploy. In practice a whole division would need to call upon all of its logistic capability in order to sustain a rapidly moving operation. At any one time the leading elements would need to be properly sustained and having a mish mash of logistic support wouldn't 'cut the mustard' so to speak. This process would be complicated by the differences in equipment and thus in the need for things like spares. While some items are NATO standardised such as small arms ammunition, that is not true of significant swathes of the equipment that would be in use.

A half UK, half allied division as laid out in my original post could conceivably end up operating two or three different types of tanks, as many as four different types of infantry fighting vehicle, god only knows how many different types of small arms and radios, and even a variety of ration packs which may or may not be deemed suitable to the needs of a nations soldiers. It would take the logistical challenge of supporting a division, already a tough task on its own, and multiply the complexities even further.

The challenge becomes a veritable nightmare when we move from the land environment to the air environment. An air wing in the shape proposed, operating out of a single base, could find itself operating two or three different types of aircraft. And here there is much less commonality. A lot of British aircraft don't even use the same ammunition as many allies. While UK tanks might use different ammunition types to many allies in its main gun, in the air environment we could be looking at the entire works; missiles, bombs, anti-tank missiles, air launched cruise missiles, not to mention different engines, radars, cooling systems, electronic systems, defensive aids etc. While on paper they would be a cohesive wing, in reality they would simply be a collection of squadrons that just happened to be sited together under the same command.

At sea things get little better. The UK doesn't even use the 76mm gun which is common among many allies. Radar systems, torpedoes, missiles, counter measures, engines etc, all different. While all the ships might be able to communicate with one another and fight in the same battle space, the logistical challenge of supporting such a diverse group doesn't get much easier. The one relief is that naval warships seldom expend large amounts of ammunition on operations in the way that air forces do, and most resupply of things like air defence missiles would be done in ports anyway.

These arguments don't preclude the concept put forward in my post the other day, but they do make it more challenging to deliver than might otherwise be expected and pose a potential barrier to implementation. There is however a much bigger barrier, one that undermines the concept in a lot more serious fashion.

That is the efficiency of time and resources spent working with smaller allies vs the practical reality of who the UK works with on operations.

While some countries like Denmark and Norway have become more active in past years, such as contributing to operations in Afghanistan and sending assets to join the efforts against the Libyan government in 2011, the reality is that the UK only has a finite amount of time and money to spend on co-operative work with allies and must prioritise those allies which it will spend the most time working with on operations. That means countries like the US.

For good or for bad (as we shall find out tomorrow with the publishing of the Chilcot report) the UK has long had a close association with the US. Not only does the US represent our most important ally due to its size and capability, but the two countries have long shared similar political end goals. It is often said that nations do not have allies, only interests. Frequently the interests of the UK and those of the US align strongly. It is one of the reasons that the UK has been such a useful ally to the United States, not just because of its military capability but also because of its political alignment that often lends support to US actions on the world stage. 

When the UK parliament voted against conducting strikes on Syria in reponse to that country's use of chemical weapons it basically brought the entire US house of cards on the subject crashing down. Americans woke up to newspaper headlines proclaiming in almost hysterical terms that "THE BRITS AREN'T COMING!". It forced a major re-think of US policy on Syria and ultimately terminated the idea of US cruise missile strikes against the regime. What might have been the opening scene in the closing Act of Assad's story in Syria was instead turned into a political coup for Russia, which then went on to strengthen its (and Assad's) position in the region.

The argument then that the UK should re-focus on aiding smaller allies and helping to bring them into larger operations meets something of a roadblock when confronted with the reality that those allies may not always be so inclined to follow the UK politically, whereas the US and UK are normally - aside from the odd blip - very closely aligned in their political goals. Countries like Canada and Australia are often the same, but the diversity of nations suggested in my original post often have very different opinions to the UK on what does and what doesn't warrant a military response. The difficulty of trying to predict in advance which allies will 'come to play' would make it hard for the UK to foster the correct partnerships and would in turn make the case for sticking much more closely with those who it might consider 'reliable', such as the US.

And while I have strong misgivings about industrial partnerships between the UK and France, it also cannot be denied how strongly France and the UK have found their political interests aligning both recently and historically. Aside from differences over Iraq, which the French seem to have taken the correct line on (again, the results of the Chilcot inquiry tomorrow will prove most informative), the UK and France have long been strong allies with closely matched interests and a similar geopolitical outlook. They agree more frequently than they disagree on military matters and the recent work to build closer ties is likely to pay significant dividends in the future if called upon.

As for the bun fight over who would command a combined British/French force, well I'll leave that to others.


  1. I think I would argue it cant be a #coalition of the willing" it must be a pact of the already involved.

    Those islands down there will be mentioned

    The UK is likely to have to fight another war for the Falklands, not today, not tomorrow, but over the next 50 years.

    No amount of joint training and shared whatever is going to convince denmark to get involved.
    Even if they wished to, they have little if anything to offer us.

    Chile would have a very great deal to offer us, from basing, to mounting their own invasion.
    It wouldnt be free of course, we would likely be compelled to aid them should a hostile power attack, but that's generally how realpolitik works.
    Equally, Chile would offer little to the defence of Pitcairn, so we would need other regional powers in other regions.

    Some of them might be unpleasant.

  2. Nothing wrong with the idea of the UK being a "framework" nation in principle. That's what the ARRC is all about after all. But what's the big idea? What's our grand strategy? We can talk about creatively juggling means and ways all we want but devoid an actual end it will result in the sort of half baked force design proposals we are getting and will get as each "regime" comes to power and inevitably balances the books by re-branding (yuk) the forces to fit it's own narrow short term interests. A long term vision of the UK's role in the world is needed before our own forces can come on board let alone our potential allies.


    1. Without the money and the spectre of a major threat, most of UK strategy is basically just contingency planning for a variety of things that might happen.