So today I'm going to delve into that murky world that we often refer to as "strategy".
Strategy is a big word. Just having a conversation about what that word really means could occupy a group of interested persons for several hours. For that reason I don't really want to get into that discussion. For the sake of this article let's just assume that it means the broad goals of defence as it affects the UK.
This will not be a massively comprehensive look at UK strategy - current or potential - just one portion of it; our interaction with our allies.
I say this because I think allies have never been more important to the UK than they are now. To some degree we have always leaned on other nations for support. Take a look at almost any battle during World War 2, especially as time wore on, and the list of nations that were integrated with the UK is impressively diverse.
Just looking at the Battle of Britain for example throws up a list of contributing nations that ranges from familiar Commonwealth names like New Zealand, Australia and Canada, to countries like Poland, Belgium and the then Czechoslovakia.
Since the formation of the Union we have fought alongside many nations in many wars. Old allies became later enemies and traditional enemies sometimes became close friends in our hour of need. Famous generals like Wellington and Marlborough were well used to commanding large foreign contingents in their armies.
Back then however, Britannia ruled the waves. These days... not so much.
Fundamentally the nature of Britains military standing in the world has changed. From the peak of the Victorian empire we have slowly and gradually seen a decline in the expanse of British influence and responsibility, resulting in a concurrent drop of both numbers of military personnel and of military expenditure.
This is where we find ourselves today, supposedly spending the NATO required minimum of 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, and even that is a figure that is skewed by things like Foreign Military Aid spending. Looking purely at the cost of things like personnel, basing, procurement, and the day to day cost of running the forces (operations in Afghanistan aside) the figure is around £30-33 billion depending on which set of figures you trust the most. That's a lot closer to 1.3% of GDP, and even if you include the aid spending it's still only around 1.6-1.7% of a weakened GDP.
Now as much as everyone in the defence community laments this figure and its continual decline, the reality is that money is tight right now. The government is struggling to bring down the deficit (which is what happens when you cut income as well as spending) and the economy is staying firmly and resolutely around the 0% growth mark.
We could talk all day about taking money from the Department for International Development (DfID) or leaving the EU and saving the money spent on that, but the reality is that neither of those things is looking likely to happen anytime soon. If you still think they will then I suggest you give up the drink, because it's not doing you any favours.
In this climate of funding decline, with the possibility of more cuts to come when the 2013 budget is announced in the coming weeks, how can the UK get the most out of its defence spending? How can it remain a significant force in the world, essentially on the cheap?
The short answer is; with great difficulty.
The slightly longer answer is; by setting geographic limits and turning to allies, not just for support, but as the core of our defence strategy over at least the next ten years. This means taking on a rather challenging and peculiar juggling act.
On the one hand, the United States still stands as our biggest ally. That's indisputable. Even when they commit to an effort only partially, such as the intervention in Libya, they still have the potential to outstrip the UK in terms of manpower and equipment. But with their own defence budget tightening and geopolitics being the wild beast that it is, the US is being forced to make some tough choices.
As powerful as the US is, they can't be everywhere at once. Certainly not in significant numbers. That means that the more pressing situation in the pacific is drawing much of the US attention right now. The so called "pivot to Asia" is happening, though it's not quite the abandonment of Europe that many seem to think.
It simply means that when times are tough and only so many resources are available to go around, the pacific theatre takes precedence right now. This does not change the fact that areas such as the middle east still hold a significant degree of importance for the US, just that for now that's not the major concern. And certainly that means Europe - being relatively peaceful as it is - drops down the list.
The US does and will continue to, maintain a presence in Europe. But that presence will be contracted somewhat. If something kicks off in Europe or on its periphery, and given that such an event is likely to be more modest in nature (such as the Libyan intervention), then the US will probably follow the Libya model and turn to NATO to handle the bulk of the mission.
The problem with that is that most of Europe is not especially well placed right now to step up to that particular plate. Economic rain clouds still hang low over the continent. Defence budgets across Europe are already starting to take their share of that strain. Just at the precise moment when the US needs Europe to be strong, is the precise moment that Europe is starting to creak heavily under the weight of the economic crisis.
What both the US and Europe needs more than anything right now is a middle man. Someone who has some clout from both a military and a diplomatic stand point. Someone who's not afraid to roll up their sleeves and fight if they have to. Someone who others can rally behind and who can leverage a diverse array of parties to their cause.
Someone like the UK.
Certainly there are other nations in Europe who may be bigger than we are. But they also tend to be the nations that like to avoid getting involved, even when there is clearly a significant interest to them. On the other hand there are many small, feisty nations in Europe that are keen to be more involved and to do more on the international stage for a variety of reasons, but who often lack many of the (forgive me for this) "enabling capabilities" to allow them to do so.
We in turn have many of these "enabling capabilities" such as aerial refuelling, large air transports, amphibious assault ships, large naval logistics vessels, and many of the more obscure and expensive capabilties that are required for expeditionary style warfare. This concept also applies to the middle east and to Africa.
The lynch pin to all this is making the UK armed forces into a core onto which other countries can essentially bolt on their own capabilties.
I should point out at this stage that this does not mean the UK can forgo many of the things that it expects allies to bring to the table. If we become utterly reliant on others to fill certain gaps then we become nothing more than a superbly equipped headquarters staff with nothing else for people build around.
Rather the idea is to utilise allies as an enhancement of our numbers in some of the capability areas that we already possess.
This might range from the small scale, where an ally provides additional artillery support in the form of an extra battery or (hopefully) a full regiment (as we know it) of guns, to support one of our land battlegroups deployed to a theatre. Maybe adding an extra ship or two to one of our naval task forces. Maybe throwing a squadron of fighter jets in to support a deployed wing of our own.
On the larger end of the scale, and this should be taken as an example of what I would consider to be the maximum we might realistically be able to achieve if all goes well, it could be that we're able to piece together entire brigades of allied forces to be integrated under British command as part of a large deployed force, perhaps itself a part of a wider international effort that involves American forces.
Instead of simply deploying a division sized force made up of two mechanised brigades, it might be that we are able to persuade allies to join us such that we can split our two brigades between two divisions, with the allied forces contributing the extra two brigades needed. This might take the form of one complete French mechanised brigade for example, with the other being a composite of Canadian, Australian, Danish, Dutch, Polish and Norwegian elements.
The same could be said of our airborne brigade or our amphibious commando brigade, where a composite force of similar allied units comes together to form another brigade, allowing us to put a division sized amphibious element and/or a division sized airborne element into a theatre.
At sea this could manifest itself in the best case scenario as multiple escort type vessels along with some amphibious assault/helicopter landing type vessels being contributed by allies, allowing us to either mass a significant number of ships into one task force, or sub-divide the task force into a number of components that are able to handle multiple simultaneous tasks, such as putting together and protecting an impressive mine countermeasures group, while also posing a threat to the enemy of a large amphibious assault elsewhere along their coastline.
In the air, this approach could see RAF squadrons paired off with an allied squadron, forming a number of wings that come together to form an expeditionary group, or even just a much larger than normal wing, one that could coordinate its various tasks and missions in a much more organised manner.
As I say, this represents very much the high end of what could possibly be achieved. The trick to this is finding willing partners and engaging them in the idea. That invariably means singling out those who are the most keen and giving them the most priority when it comes to seeking training opportunities.
At the minute we are getting along rather well with France, who seem keen for example on the idea of a Combined Joint Exepeditionary Force (CJEF). There are others however, and they need to be targeted with just as much vigour and given just as much attention. This doesn't mean that we should stop exercising with the US or the French, not least because of how invaluable our training with them is to the overall effectiveness of UK forces.
But what it does mean is that we should be doing more to demonstrate to some of our smaller allies that we are committed to the process of learning to work with them and to do so on a much larger scale, with an emphasis on how to integrate them into British command structures.
I sometimes wonder if the amount of effort we put in to making sure we exercise regularly with the US as a junior partner, especially given our somewhat limited resources, means that we often miss the chance to work as the senior partner with some of the nations I mentioned earlier.
I can see for example the Royal Navy's Response Force Task Group (RFTG) heading into the North Sea for two weeks, as opposed to the common deployment to the Mediterranean (or maybe as a prelude to it), and joining with many north European allies to conduct significant scale exercises in counter air, mine counter measures, anti-submarine work against our allies non-nuclear submarines, before heading off to somewhere like Norway to practice amphibious landings.
In the air it might mean inviting partner nations - especially those that seldom get the chance to take part in exercises like the US Red Flag (hat tip to Topman for reminding me that we're out there right now) - to come and use British training areas for a fortnight, such as our low flying areas in somewhere like Wales, followed by a trip north to test their skills on the Electronic Warfare Testing Range at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria (that actually doesn't have a runway, so they'd have to base nearby), before heading to somewhere like RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland for a weeks worth of air combat training over the North Sea.
On the ground this might involve inviting partners to come to Salisbury Plain for exercises that would involve a variety of mixed battlegroups (the largest organised group that Salisbury can handle), or doing something similar to the combined British/French artillery exercises that have been taking place on the Otterburn ranges in Northumberland. I would have suggested taking allies to do large exercises on the massive Bergen-Hohne Training Area in Northern Germany (by my rough estimates it's 10 miles long and 6 miles wide at the widest point) but it would appear that the future of the area as a British training facility could be in serious jeopardy with the UK withdrawl from Germany (while the BATUS facility in Canada will survive, despite being much harder to access and only usable for half the year, though it is a huge area).
But it doesn't just have to be in our back yard of course. We have a myriad of allies and potential allies to visit. Some are far afield, like Canada and Australia. These might be harder to service in the long term and so see less activity, but the lack of a language barrier may compensate somewhat for that. The Australians in particular have their own set of local problems to deal with, for which we have to accept that the Americans make better allies for them.
But both here in Europe and in the near abroad, opportunities abound. Our ties with many of the nations of the middle east are long standing and have proved very fruitful from a defence exports perspective, as the success of both the BAE Hawk and Eurofighter Typhoon have shown. Special Forces units from the middle east are also reported by some as having played a key role in organising the Libyan rebels back in 2011, especially those in the west who descended on Tripoli.
Cultivating further these relationships, as well as the good standing that has already arisen from our regular naval presence in the region could pay dividends in the long run, especially in another scenario where we're dealing with either a hostile nation or supporting a civilian uprising, that identifies closely with Arabic nations and their religious and cultural practices. The United Arab Emirates are a good example of a small country with somewhat limited capability that is looking to do more on the International stage.
I also wonder why it is that among all the e-mail and twitter updates I receive from the various MoD PR organisations that I always see the same names like the US and France pop up, but never seem to hear anything about more obscure places like Greece or Portugal or Croatia?
I accept that many of these nations do not have spectacular military capabilities, which is precisely why I think they would appreciate the chance to partner with and learn from our forces. And anyone who has Russian kit kicking around that we can practice against is always a bonus!
Again, a small ally like Croatia may not try and contribute much more than a handful of forces (their contribution to ISAF in Afghanistan has been very much on the scale of no more than a hundred or so troops at any one time), but as a certain supermarket chain is fond of saying "every little helps", providing it can integrate without causing more problems than it's worth, which is why the opportunity to train is so important.
Africa is also another consideration. The combination of oil and mineral wealth, with an under current of religious and tribal tensions makes Africa a hotbed for trouble. "Upstream engagement" as it's now known (basically training the local forces and working with them to develop their abilities to quell trouble without the need for large interventions) is another task worthy of looking at.
British forces can, as they are in Mali, provide small scale training teams to help develop the abilities of the African Union to handle problems on its own, while also giving UK forces valuable insight into the region and training in that environment, which should help to stave off the need to go piling in at some point, and preparing us for the fight if it comes to it.
In summary then, because I've been typing a long time and my hands are starting to hurt, I think the UK should try and adopt the role of being somewhere between the US and Belgium, two nations who always seem to be the target of comparisons when talking about British forces.
We should seek to engage our smaller but more determined allies, in particular those who live close to our own door step, and try to offer them a level of training that fits somewhere between what they do domestically and what they could be offered by the US.
We should take the stance of being a leader, a nation that can put down a tough core of capabilities onto which our allies seamlessly (he says) build. We should hark back to the days of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Britain tackled most of its big problems by calling allies to fight under its banner in a coalition, in order to face down the large opponents of the day (re; France or Germany, in what is sometimes referred to as the "Excessive Power Doctrine").
It doesn't mean we have to get involved in every last little spat around the world. We certainly shouldn't worry too much about events that take place past the tip of Arabia (which are better handled by others). But what it does mean is that we can work with smaller countries like our own, eager to contribute, to create force structures we simply wouldn't be able to generate alone.
Strength in numbers, so to speak.