Friday, 9 September 2016

Does the UK really have a strategy?

Today I want to talk about something that has bugged me for a long time; Strategy. Or more pertinently, the UK's seeming lack of one.

Once upon a time strategy was easy. In fact, for many countries strategy is easy. Generally speaking a strategy is a response to something, a plan that helps you achieve a series of objectives. For a company it might be a sales strategy that is specifically designed to achieve the objective of increasing the number and/or value of their sales. For a country - at least in the realm of defence - strategy is about protecting yourself from harm and meeting a series of foreign policy objectives that protect your interests, short term and long term.

Take the Royal Navy for example.

Once upon a time the Royal Navy had a very clear plan for defending the UK, because it had a very clear idea about what the threat was that it faced. Fleets based on the continent, especially those of France, were the main threat. The prevailing winds around the UK tend to blow roughly west to east (a slight oversimplification). As such a fleet based near the western end of the channel could control access to it and dominate engagements along it. Ships based at the eastern end of the channel could keep ports in the low countries in check, and a pro-active approach to blockading could keep most enemies bottled up in port, or at the very least provide early warning of enemy movements. 

The Royal Navy contained a solid balance of vessels to achieve these tasks. Large and powerful vessels like the first-rate HMS Victory formed the core of the battle fleets, albeit in limited numbers due to the cost involved. 74-gun third rates bulked out the battle fleets, providing a good mix of cost, handling, firepower and survivability. Then a wide assortment of smaller frigates and sloops did a lot of the donkey work such as communication, reconnaissance, commerce raiding and some convoy work. Bases dotted around the globe gave the Royal Navy plenty of safe harbours to call at and stations to operate from. It was a fairly slick (for the most part) operation, driven by clear needs and goals.

This is how strategy should work. Define the problem, devise a solution, implement the solution. 

Now it's not always so easy. By the time the second world war rolled around things had gotten significantly more complex for UK defence. The advent of the aircraft gave Germany - a country that had no realistic chance at the time of matching British naval power - a method of simply bypassing it to get at Britain's heartland. Luftwaffe bombers were not interested in how many battleships or destroyers the UK had, because it they could simply fly over them to drop their payloads on important industrial, commercial and military targets. The channel had gone from being a significant barrier to a navigation aid.

Furthermore, German access to France's Atlantic ports enhanced the range of their U-boat operations and made their detection as they slipped out to sea more difficult. It also gave Germany airfields much closer to the Atlantic than previously considered possible, allowing German maritime patrol aircraft the ability to search the ocean for British convoys. These two elements alone made the Royal Navy's ensuing struggle for control of the sea lanes to and from North America significantly more difficult.

And yet bizarrely most of these problems were caused by a failure of land strategy. The defeat of the British and French ground forces in the Battle of France paved the way for the German push west, which in turn led to serious problems for both the RAF and the Royal Navy, which would not be relieved until the liberation of France in 1944, again by ground forces.

I bring this up partly to concede the point that strategy is not always as easy as it seems, but mainly to emphasise a fact that people frequently forget; that the strategy of land, sea and air are often intertwined, with a failure of one causing serious issues for others. I think it also helps to remind us of the absurdity of some arguments.

Take the Falklands Islands for example. I cannot count the number of times people have used the Falklands Islands as a justification for the UK acquiring aircraft carriers. "Without aircraft carriers, how could we even consider mounting an operation to recapture them like we did back in '82?" is the frequent refrain. To which the answer would be "if they're that important that we need to spend £7 billion on two carriers plus extra for a bunch of aircraft for them, then why don't we just defend them properly in the first place?".


See to me that argument for the carriers makes no sense. It presupposes that the best course of action is to leave a presumably valuable asset relatively unguarded and instead pour money into the means with which to retake it. Given that there are much better arguments for supporting aircraft carriers, this one just seems absurd, but it also points at a very weird form of strategic thinking that seems to be everywhere at the minute.

Look at the British army's plans for 2020 as an example. The plan seems to be to have no plan. When I sat down recently to do a hypothetical realignment of the British army to meet some of the current trends that seem to be emerging in things like electronic warfare and fire support, the thing that stood out most for me was just how little strategy seems to underpin the Army 2020 model. I tried to keep within the bounds of it, which turned out to be rather easy because the British army's plan for the future literally seems to just be "generate troops for just in case scenarios".

There is no real plan, no strategy. This unfortunately seems to pass to the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as well. All the documents talk about vague threats, terrorism (which is a domestic security issue) and the like, but none seem to have any clear idea of "x is the important threat, we shall counter it by doing y". Now without a crystal ball to see into the future then granted it's a little hard, but generally the UK has always had a pre-eminent threat for which it was focused on while allowing for contingency elsewhere.

For centuries that pre-eminent threat was from France. Then later Germany. More recently it has been Russia. None of those has precluded the UK from diverting resources when available to other theatres, but the UK has always seemingly kept in mind where the major challenge to its security and the security of its neighbours has been. 

Now? I don't see that same focus. We know Russia is rattling its sabre on the continent and of all the threats to European security (thus by extension UK security) Russia is probably the most prominent. So how has UK strategy adapted to this? It hasn't as far as I can tell. Aside for a small commitment of aircraft and a battalion of troops to the Baltics, the UK hasn't really responded to the threat from Russia at all. Where is the grand review of UK strategy in light of recent happenings? There doesn't appear to be one, it's just business as usual.

What makes it all the more bizarre is the way the UK retains certain capabilities but never seems to have a role for them. Take 16 Air Assault Brigade for example. The major advantage of air mobile forces is their speed and range of deployment. Offensively this lends itself to the surprise but defensively - as would be the case against Russia - these traits lend themselves well to a highly mobile reserve. Given the size of the Baltic region and the expectation that it would be a prime target for a re-run of the subversion tactics used by Russia against Ukraine, this would seem an ideal place to move 16 AAB to in order for it to fulfil its main wartime role and make the most of its on paper mobility.

Similarly it seems an odd time to be withdrawing UK armoured forces from the continent. They're not going to be facing down many armoured thrusts across the channel any time soon, and if not based in eastern Europe then why not send them to somewhere like Oman, where they would at least be poised ready for deployment to one of the areas where British tanks have seen their greatest use in recent decades? Why not be ambitious and seek to form two armoured divisions, one based in Oman and the other in say Poland? 

Of course we all know the answer, and the answer is money. Or rather a lack of it. That and the unwillingness to periodically review the military properly and shape it based on what the UK is most likely to need, as opposed to what is simply convenient at the time.

To emphasise that point, let's look at the two Royals, they of Navy and Air Force. The RAF has a plan on paper for the number of Typhoon squadrons that it wants and people are forever bemoaning the lack of numbers, but let me ask you what I think is the most important question; how many Typhoons do we actually need and what for?

No, I don't want to hear arbitrary answers like "well, the more's the better" or "well, UK air defence I guess". Have a real hard think. And while you're at it, why does the Royal Navy need 13 of the new Type 26 Frigates, aside from this number being the same as the number of Type 23 Frigates that we have now. Have a real, real hard think about this. What do 13 do that 12 can't or that 14 couldn't do better? And don't get me wrong, I'm not pinning you into the corner of having to say less. It could be more. What I'm looking for though are hard and fast reasons, based off a rational, impartial assessment of the needs of UK strategy.

To help formulate this argument a little, let me share with you a random little ditty about a discussion I had once with a US high school football (the American kind) coach. It was in response to an argument that had flared up on a coaching forum about the role of coaches in teaching young players to "be a man" and being a role model for them. In the face of a wave of insistence that it was absolutely appropriate for a high school coach to take it upon himself to become a father figure, I asked a very simple question; "ok, so who here actually has a formal plan for this? What is your structured approach to teaching a kid the lessons he needs to 'be a man?'"

The silence was quite deafening. With the exception that is of one chap who came back to me privately and admitted that he had no plan and asked for my thoughts on putting one together. As such over the next couple of weeks we e-mailed back and forth until he had in place a series of 20 minute talks for his players covering various subjects from drug use to warnings about college recruiters, all using football as a foundation to teach general lessons of life. The point being that despite all the hot air that was being chucked back and forth across that particular forum, with everyone stating their case vehemently and in the sound knowledge that they were absolutely right, in fact only one person had even sat down to consider what their argument actually meant in practice. One out of maybe 50 or 60 coaches had really taken the time to assess what he was talking about and turn it into something practical.

So about those Frigates then, what have you decided? The plan at the minute seems to be to acquire 8 that are capable of using a towed array sonar. But why 8 exactly? Is that enough? Is that too many? A chat I had a long time ago with a serving Naval officer pointed to 3.5 being the number of ships required to adequately cover a sustained task away from British waters, so two such tasks would require 7, not 8 ships. If you wanted to do three such tasks you would need to round up and go to 11, not 13. If you wanted four tasks you could do it with 14, but not 13. So why 13 Type 26 frigates, and why 8 with towed sonar?

Why five front line squadrons of Typhoon? What exactly do five do that four can't and six is too many for? Do you need two to cover the UK for example (north and south), or given the size of a modern squadron and the limited real threat of an air attack against the UK, can you get away with stationing one flight in the north and one further south? If Russia is back on the table as a major threat to the UK, why are more Typhoons not stationed forward in Europe to meet the threat at the front line, as opposed to waiting for it to push up against UK shores before we deal with it?

What about the RAF Regiment? Its primary purpose in the modern era is to protect UK airfields from a ground assault, particularly with an eye to protecting them from the kind of special forces raids that were popularised by our own SAS. So where are the UK bases most vulnerable to such attacks? The Falklands maybe? Everyone seems determined to believe that Argentina is permanently in the late stages of planning an assault on the islands, so would it not be reasonable for a company to be deployed there? What about RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus, one of the UK's most active airfields around the globe and a key base in the ongoing operations against ISIS? Would this not be a prime deployment site for the RAF Regiment right now?

Sticking with the theme of air defence, why does the UK not have a surface based anti-air system? The threat of an air attack on the UK is not huge, but I've seen plenty of people worrying about the possibility of some kind of attack, terrorist or otherwise against the UK, so why do we not have such a system in place? What is protecting the Quick Reaction Alert bases from a pre-emptive attack on them? And extending this out, why does the UK not have a deployable medium to long range air defence system beyond just "we'll park a Type 45 nearby, providing we have one available". Again let's look at RAF Mount Pleasant on the Falklands or RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. What is actually protecting these important bases against an air attack aside from fighters stationed there?

Flipping back to the Navy, what is the purpose - generally speaking - of the proposed general purpose frigates?  They wont be as capable in the anti-submarine role as a fully fledged Type 26, nor as capable in the air defence role as a Type 45, so what actual purpose do they serve? What is the role that only a GP frigate can cover? Support for overseas territories in the Caribbean? Do we really need a full on GP frigate for that? Protecting the Falklands? Can we not use our Type 45/26 mix for that? Can we not develop a small class of short range vessels suited ideally to that task, if we consider it so important?

And why is nobody talking about mine hunting and mine counter measures? Arguably this has been one of the UK's most important contributions to maritime security in the gulf region over the last decade or so, so why is it an issue that never seems to crop up, or at least only does in the most avid of military circles? Further - and just to confuse you - let's revisit that issue about needing 3.5 ships to cover a deployable task at distance. Much of this is caused by the transit times needed for ships heading out on rotation, so why do we not seek a more permanent base in a region like the middle east to cut out these transits, assigning a ship to it for prolonged periods and just rotating members of the crew in and out at intervals through air travel?

To put the cat among the pigeons, do we even need the ship there in the first place? Looked at in the hard light of a declining budget, what does a single "escort" ship do there that justifies the need to have 3.5 of them on standby for rotation purposes? Can we achieve the same end with a different approach? Or to turn the pigeons on the cat, do we actually need more ships in such a region and why? Hopefully you're beginning to see the problem I have with UK strategy. It seems very focused on justifying the means and not on the ends, which is a recipe for resource mis-use and sub-optimal approaches.

Something which occurs in defence procurement as well.

The UK has been tied to the US for a very long time and one wonders (for one is in posh mode at this late hour) what would the UK air fleet look like for example if instead of backing Typhoon, Tornado and Jaguar, Britain had instead simply opted for US offerings like the F-15, F-16, F-18 and/or the F-111? Would the UK still retain a conventional naval air capability perhaps, regenerated from the start with the use of the F-18 in mind? What about the systems carried on ships like Type 45, specifically the use of essentially bespoke European launch cells for the missiles? Does everything that goes on a British ship need to be British? What have we lost by not going with the Mk 45 cells from the US, thus opening up our ships to use whatever munitions the US can come up with for its own ships, given their massive research and development budget?

The UK supposedly has a defence industrial strategy, but it's not really clear what that strategy is. Paying over the odds for gold plated military equipment? We had the ability to go ahead with Typhoon by ourselves essentially back in the 80's, but we spurned the chance in favour of a drawn out European collaboration, the net result of which was paying over the odds for an aircraft in Typhoon's class, which arrived so late that it missed most of the major air campaigns where something like an off the shelf buy of F-15/F-16/F-18 would have been solid contributors.

Is it really strategic to make the MoD pay over the odds for equipment that arrives late and often lacks the upgrade and integration potential of US kit, just so the government can fluff its chest about British jobs, as if the sort of highly skilled people that do defence work would be working at McDonald's if it wasn't for our benevolent over lords? At what point do we look at the US ship based anti-ballistic missile capability and say "you know what, we could have that right now if we'd just stop pissing about with bespoke solutions to every bloody problem"? How many years will the army lumber on with antiquated equipment before somebody just makes a decision and bypasses the endless search for the tech of twenty years time, preferably before that tech itself becomes out of date?

That's not to say that all US equipment is perfect. Looking at the absolute shower that has been the F-35 program it's tempting to think we could knock up something with 80% of the capability and probably 80% of the cost by the middle of the next decade, which at this rate will be the time the F-35 finally gets cleared for full operational use in British service. Looking to the US is not always the answer, but I do think we need a more realistic look at our defence industrial strategy and what that actually means in practice.

Much as we need to look at our defence strategy as a whole and what that means in practice.


  1. Carriers are movable airbases and can bring British power to the world. It can recapture the Falkland’s and do other stuff. I don’t however think Argentina is in any place to launch amphibious invasions of anything.

    Sweden seems to operate under the assumption that they need between 70 and 100 air fighters to control its airspace. As Sweden is closer to Russia they probably need higher readiness - and maybe more fighters?

    What is the base in Oman supposed to accomplish? is it to make future campaigning in the Middle East easier or is it a diplomatic deployment. Does it generate options for UK governments?

    What’s the British Army’s role in Europe? I’d assume - with Brexit – Britain needs friends in the Union to safeguard British interest. Two deployable divisions – 1st heavy tracked and 2nd medium wheeled – and two rapid reaction brigades – 16 Air Assault and Royal Marines – would reassure allies and buy influence.

    One escorts deployed to foreign seas will probably not impress much at all. I’d favour regular deployments of task forces to the Indian ocean and strait of Malacca. A task force centred around a QE or a future Commando Carrier would be impressive. It might buy Britain influence and prestige.

    What does this cost? I don’t know, I’d also suggest British military must tie its tasks to British interests. Make the common Briton see that divisions and fleets in foreign lands provide his or her country with value in the form of security or economic improvements.

    Edit: Are you arguing 16 Air Assault should be permanently based in the Baltics or turned into a rapid reaction unit with the Baltics as an area of responsibility? In other words, pre-planned automatic deployment from the UK in case of green men scenario.

    1. Hi Sorings,

      The point is that if the Falklands are that important that spending £7 billion on carriers forms a big part in their justification, then that would indicate that the Falklands are probably important enough to spend money on to not lose in the first place. It was an argument designed to highlight some of the odd ways that people think about strategy (though I have little doubt that that scenario was not really a major concern. People wanted carriers and they were looking for any reason they could to support them).

      The base in Oman idea is to make people think. If the middle east is so important that we keep going back there, a rational strategy would be to forward base elements in the region. That we don't is more because of money than strategy.

      And so on and so forth. The piece was not so much about laying out some vision of UK strategy, but more to highlight the fact that most thinking that passes for strategy in government documents is actually about funding. Strategic reviews very rarely actually assess or articulate any kind of strategy, they are normally formalities of budget.

  2. Spending £7 billion Carriers is about acquiring a moveable airbase that can be sailed to any coast and bring British airpower on any foe. Using the Falkland’s as an argument signals a lack of imagination or a willingness to disguise the aggressive reality of carriers - Nations with aircraft carriers usually intend to wage war in other people’s backyards – and needed a defensive argument to support them.

    The lack of British strategy can – in my opinion – be traced back to Blair’s fetishism with “globalisation” and the mistaken belief that a problem, somewhere; is automatically a problem for Britain and the west. This lead to decade long campaigns in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very important for the surrounding nations; it was very important for Britain when India was the crown jewel of the Empire, but the British Empire is gone.

    In order to conduct strategy, you must have an idea about what your national interests are and how to achieve them. I’d favour seeing the Armed Forces as tools to gain influence. But what is that influence supposed to be expended on? What do the UK expect from Poland, in return for a UK lead corps – UK contribute one Division and corps HQ, allies provide the rest - conducting regular NATO exercises in Eastern Europe? Until a clearer picture for British interests is established, strategy is impossible.

    I like your blog by the way! Very thoughtful… makes me think before I speak (type).

    1. A lot of the argument re; Falklands/carriers has simply been people trying to save the project, keep it going. It highlights the tendency of even senior British officers to speak without really thinking about what it is they're saying, and the fact the defence committee memebers often repeat these phrases shows that even fairly simplistic arguments can skew the thinking of those in power. It damages our ability as a nation to think properly about strategy when we don't question such arguments fully. That is the point I was aiming for.

      I'd agree that Blair had a big hand in moving Britian away from defence based on strategy to defence based on intervention, but the desire to save money regardless of the strategic consequences began even before the time of him and Gordon Brown. Through the late 90's and early 00's a lack of a distinct major threat to the UK allowed this sort of thinking to pass without too many problems, but it is now apparent that the lack of true strategic thinking is coming home to roost.

      I absolutely agree on your last point. National interest needs to be clear first.

      And thank you for the kind words. It makes it easier to produce material when I know I'm not just rambling to myself like some madman!