Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Big Picture on UK strategy

So I've been rambling a lot lately about a lack of strategic thinking for the UK. The question that follows that is simple; "Ok smarty pants, what's your plan? Hmm?"

Good question.
One of the pitfalls of suggesting alternatives is that defence is a big and unwieldy beast. For example I've just finished re-reading Heinz Guderian's book "Achtung - Panzer!" (almost literally, "Attention - Tank!") which is all about the use of the tank in the first world war and the future vision of German armoured forces as they stood in 1937. That's an entire book devoted solely to the subject of armoured forces which even then were in a somewhat fledgling state. Trying to lay out a thought process for an entire states armed forces is therefore not an easy undertaking.

For that reason much of my thinking on strategy will probably come out over time, through my various posts. If you go back through the archive you can see bits of it scattered about. But here I'll try and squeeze some of it into a small space, primarily looking at the big picture and not so much at the details.

And that big picture begins with the thinking that the UK's armed forces should be rebalanced away from grand, global thinking into a more regional context. This doesn't mean that British forces should never go on exercise outside of Europe or that British forces should never deploy away from Europe, rather that the routine thinking of the military should shift back to a more local context and the problems in our own back yard. The Empire is gone. Just let it go people.

Business can thrive globally and Britain can be a globally connected and globally engaged nation without having to send ships, planes or troops to prove it. It seems that in this day and age people are unable to prise themselves away from the idea that military power, diplomacy and economics are all significantly different things. They often cross paths and events in one sphere often collide with those of another, but fundamentally the UK does not need to be a global military power to be a global trading nation for example.

The strain that such global commitments have placed on the armed forces has been evident of late, with retention rates coming under pressure and shortages emerging in a number of trades. I have an old friend for example who is leaving the Navy soon because he has simply become burnt out with life away from home for months at a time on what he feels are unfulfilling and not especially useful deployments. That is one mans perspective, but it's something that has been echoed by others.

It's not just the manpower though, it's the equipment as well. The army is struggling by on vintage APCs and the Navy's Type 45 destroyers are struggling in the middle eastern heat. More critically, in order to meet the various far flung requirements it seems that material is often spread dangerously thin, with very little slack in the system for emergencies.

This is set against the backdrop of the rising threat posed by Russia. While everyone is getting excited about the prospect of nuclear wars and the like, the main threat posed by Russia is more conventional in nature and would likely stem from a repeat of the crisis in Ukraine, except this time probably played out in the Baltic countries and using the lessons learned from Ukraine. Either way, it's increasingly clear for the next few years Britain's attention needs to turn back towards its own backyard.

That should basically give you enough of a clue about where my thinking is, with a reshaping of the forces to dealing with more local requirements. 

I do not believe the UK needs to worry itself overly with far flung places. The British capacity for interventions in these places has proved limited and the US normally has any serious threat covered. If it doesn't... well then there's normally not a lot the UK can actually do about it anyway. If the US doesn't deal with Iran for example, what exactly is it that people think the UK would do instead? For this reason I think the UK needs to focus on working with NATO to protect the European theatre, which has always been the prime concern for UK governments, and which has always been the source of the most serious dangers that have faced our nation.

To give some context it might be useful at this stage to just skim over the three services and the general position I think each should adopt.

As far as the army goes, it's quite the timing that I've just finished reading Guderian's work, as I believe the army should be shifting to as much mechanisation as possible, and away from the abundance of light infantry forces. There are lots of countries that can do mass manpower. For the UK to be a useful ally to our NATO partners we should bring a capability on land that is of value. I believe much of that value can be offered through armour and the development of modern armoured divisions.

At sea I believe the Royal Navy should be turning its attention back to the North Sea, North Atlantic, Baltics and the Mediterranean. Again, this is not to say that ships can't be sent east of Suez, they would just do so on a less regular basis. Patrols in the South Atlantic and to the Caribbean would also become more of an occasional thing, instead of a permanent tasking. The focus would be on dealing with issues that are more relevant immediately to the UK, such as securing the southern flank of Europe and the need to face up to Russia in the Baltics and NATO's northern flank.

In the air I would like to see the RAF focused on aiding allies in their defence against aggressive Russian activity, thinking about how to defend NATO airspace beyond just air patrols, and how airpower can be used in combination with other arms to help avert another Ukraine style situation. Like the other services, the RAF would focus strongly on European defence, which in fairness is not such a big stretch.

Some may baulk at this. I would question why? During the cold war the UK was primarily focused on European defence and cast its net further only on account of territorial concerns, most of which are now defunct. What I'm advocating here is basically just a return to a general strategic position that has served the UK very well for a very long time, albeit it some things have changed.

In the past for example West Germany represented the boundary with Russia. That's where NATO focused much of its land combat power, because that's where the threat needed to be met. Today the border is further east and as such it stands to reason that NATO should position its defences there. Germany is no longer in the frontline. Poland is, sort of. The Baltic nations most definitely are. It would seem logical then that the army would preposition an armoured division for example in this region. If based in Poland for example it would have access to wide training areas, be in a position to support allies in the east of Europe, and could move north if required to support our Baltic allies.

I'm really not a big fan of this whole "Strike Brigade" concept either. I'm not sure why, but ever since the whole Pristina airport incident back in 1999 everyone has become obsessed with the idea of rapid reaction. Except it's one of those odd things where people aren't really obsessed with the concept, they're obsessed with the tools and structures that they think the concept needs. An 8x8 vehicle is really no more rapid in transportation terms from the UK than a tank or tracked IFV. When we allow for the use of transporters for tracked vehicles, any advantage virtually disappears at a meaningful level.

As such I'm a supporter of going heavy. Tanks, tracked IFVs, proper artillery support, new means for Electronic Warfare, drones etc. Basically taking the lessons of history, and of recent conflicts such as Ukraine, and rebuilding UK armoured strength using these as a guide. No more of this rapid reaction, strike brigade business, but focusing on hard combat power that can actually make a meaningful contribution when it arrives.

Ideally the drive would be towards two divisions. One as I said based forward, either in somewhere like Poland or even in one of the Baltic states as a proper rapid reaction force. The other other would be based in the UK, ready to be sent either to the continent for reinforcement purposes or elsewhere as the needs of defence require. Most importantly it would represent a genuine force that required a second thought in Moscow beyond just a battalions worth of largely immobile light troops. A degree of light infantry capability could be kept aside for various garrison roles such as Cyprus and to provide companies for overseas engagement work.

Probably the biggest shift would occur in the Naval sphere. My main concern currently is that the Royal Navy is being stretched beyond what it can genuinely cope with, as demands from government seem to continuously expand while resources diminish. I do not see the ongoing value in maintaining permanent rotations of warships to the middle east and to the south Atlantic as is currently the norm. While I can see the value in the occasional deployment of say a Type 45 or Type 23 to the Gulf region, I do not feel the Navy should be asked to expend valuable resources on this theatre.

The states of the Arabian peninsula will at some point have to take responsibility for their own security. They get plenty of assistance as things stand from the US and likely will into the future. I think it is difficult to argue that they need the presence of Royal Navy warships on a routine basis, especially when some of our NATO allies at home could use the assistance even more. What might Italy think for example to have two Royal Navy escorts available to help it police the migrant crisis in the med?

And I'm sure someone will be up in arms about the idea of discontinuing routine patrols of the south Atlantic in favour of more irregular visits, no doubt worried about the signal it would send to Argentina in regards to the Falklands Islands. This would be the same Argentina that struggles to keep its ships afloat even when they're docked in port. On top of this, as I've said before, if we consider the Falklands to be at serious risk of capture, then perhaps we ought to defend them properly up front, perhaps by a strengthening of the garrison? Now there's a novel idea.

With the introduction into service soon of the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers, combined with existing capabilities and a first class reputation, the Royal Navy is ideally poised to take a much stronger leading role in the maritime defence of Europe. Royal Navy expertise in issues like minesweeping, survey and anti-submarine warfare could be at the forefront of cooperation with nations from Scandinavia to the Med, backed by a hard core of first class warships such as the new carriers, giving real punch to NATO maritime forces in European waters. 

This isn't to say that the Royal Navy doesn't already have strong relationships with other European nations, that it doesn't contribute, or that through exercises like Joint Warrior it doesn't take a leading role. I'd just like to see the Royal Navy really double down on NATO cooperation in the regional sphere, and perhaps with the coming of the new Maritime Patrol Aircraft, take a lead role in anti-submarine work in the Atlantic, North Sea and in the Baltic sea.

In terms of the RAF things get a bit more complex to a degree. I have a post in the pipeline which will outline some of my detailed thinking a little more clearly, but the general gist of it is a desire to see the RAF think more about its operations in terms of the high end difficult tasks, shifting away from the recent bombing of pick up trucks type operations. 

It would also mean the RAF taking a more forward leaning role, as it did during the cold war. While some assets would be needed for the air defence of the UK, I think it would send a strong message if the RAF were to keep a presence forward like that proposed for the army, and not just with air assets. I'd like to the see the RAF, and the MoD in general, take the idea of things like surface to air missiles more seriously. 

While deploying four aircraft at a time for Baltic policing is fine, but it is asking a lot for these plus another four from another nation to cover the airspace over the whole Baltic region. It does smack a little of tokenism in some respects, possessing the ability to put on a show of force and escort any stray intruders away, but probably not capable of serious defence if Russia were to run another Ukraine style insurgency with air support.

There needs to be a shift of thinking as to how the air arm of NATO could actually intervene quickly in support of ground action to protect an alliance member. The advantages of air power have always been speed, range, surprise and concentration. The RAF, and indeed NATO as a whole, needs to think about how to tap into these attributes in a coordinated manner if needed to face down Russian aggression.

Broadly speaking then I see the strategy of the UK being one of taking a deeper focus on European matters and the threat posed by Russia, as opposed to adventures abroad. Perhaps if I have time I could break down my thinking of each of the three service areas in a little more detail, as this post is somewhat vague, but then strategy tends to focus on the big picture anyway. Bits like conventionally powered subs for the RN can wait for another day.


  1. Given the poor and rapidly declining relations we have with what remains of the EU, I am really struggling to see why, to paraphrase, the Defence of Eastern London is in Western Estonia.

    Is Russia really a threat to us?
    Or does Russia threaten us BECAUSE we threaten them and enable others to?
    If we wish to defend Latvia from Russia, why not defend Ukraine from Russia, or Georgia from Russia, or South Korea from North Korea, or Vietnam from China. There is a really strong case of "well we did it yesterday" when it comes to fighting on the Polish Plains.

    The Soviet Union may have been an existential threat to the UK, although places like Portugal, Spain, France and Italy didn't feel threatened enough to forward deploy ground troops. But Russia isn't, at least not conventionally.
    But by insisting on fighting a ground war against Russia in Eastern Europe, not only to we manifest a threat, we also sacrifice our ability to deal with it.

    The defence of the UK From Russia really sits at the Denmark Strait, the Norwegian Sea, and the Airspace above and around none of which is defended by armoured divisions around Warsaw, they require Air Superiority Fighters, Tankers, AWACS, Medium Bombers with lots of very good Anti Ship Missiles, and submarines and anti submarine ships. Most of which we are either completely lacking, or critically short of.

    1. Hello Dom,

      The EU and NATO are two very different bodies. We can be opposed to the EU as an institution but support NATO.

      The defence of the UK has always begun on the opposite side of the channel. Preventing threats from getting close enough to be threatening in the first place has been a cornerstone of UK defence. Failure to stop the German advance in WW2 opened Britain up to aerial attack and gifted Germany a string of atlantic ports to extend the range of its U-boat operations. Thus our interest is in stopping problems at their source, before they creep up towards UK borders.

      Defending the Baltic countries is about stopping Russia from edging westwards and detering it from playing games with other NATO allies. We're unlikely to see a full blown NATO vs Russia type war. It's much more likely be more a Ukraine-esque situation, with the need to fight rebels who happen to have "acquired" Russian equipment.

      I agree though that Russia vs NATO tends to be a dynamic of both sides being afraid that the other is out to get them, so they end up taking what appear to be hostile actions in the name of defence, which then tends to push the cycle around again.

  2. The problem with the proposed withdrawal from E of suez is two fold. Many of the Gulf nations are far more receptive to UK Regional engagement than than US. Bahrain has just built us a base. the US alos reply upon our assets, expertise and command staff to run all UK/US MCM ops in the Gulf. our MCM presence out there is one of the very few capabilities they simply cannot replicate from the LSD(A) to the 4 MCMs to the Command Staff they are all deemed crucial by 5th Fleet.

    1. Hello Anon,

      Those are all good points. At some point though we have to ask ourselves what we get out of these arrangements in return though, in the long run I mean. Also what are we losing in other lost opportunities. And finally there is scope even in a European focus for other activities such as these if they are deemed to have a sufficient pay off.

    2. Unsure how to enter name but it is APATS from TD. What we get out of those relationships and the capability we provide the US is the best use of the MCM capability in the AOR where it is most relevant. the chances of facing a mine threat in a European theatre is considerably less. The prid quo quo from the US is that if we supply a niche capability where they cannot they are far more likley to be responsive to providing capability where we need it. Watch for what escorts the RFTG through the BAB next week.

    3. Hey APATS, I had a sneaking suspicion it was you! You would have to create an account on blogger, but it's probably just much easier to sign your comments "APATS".

      I agree in the short run with all of your points above. My concern is where things are headed over the next few years and beyond if this whole cat and mouse thing with Russia continues and escalates. Of course in an ideal world the money would be there to do both as these are some of the less expensive capabilities on the books. When I finally get round to doing a more developed post on the Royal Navy based off this one it should become a little clearer. Eventually.