Monday, 22 April 2019

Cambodia, Tanks & the Resurrection (Admittedly, not a headline I ever thought I'd write)

The big defence story at the moment is the revelation that Britain will soon find itself with less tanks than Cambodia. As expected, the defence community rallied around to counter argue that possession of equipment is not the same as possession of a capability. Which is absolutely true. But it also kind of misses the point.

At this stage the UK would have to scrape the bottom of every metaphorical automotive barrel it could find in order to field enough tanks for a divisional deployment, which supposedly is what makes the UK a "reference customer" in the bullshit bingo parlance of the current Chief of the Defence Staff. Thus, the fact that the UK can deploy more tanks at a longer distance than Cambodia is basically irrelevant. For better or worse, when measuring up against others you measure yourself against those at the top, not those at the bottom.

What's more concerning for me is that it seems to be yet another step down the path of the ultra-diversification of the armed forces - where the aim seems to be to have a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything - as no doubt the money saved will be used to bring the new Strike Brigade concept to fruition. We have fantastic fighter planes, but not that many of them, coupled with a very limited ability to suppress enemy air defences and to carry out airborne electronic attack. We have aircraft carriers, but only just enough escort ships to adequately protect them. Now we'll have shiny new 8x8 infantry fighting vehicles, but barely enough tanks to screen them or back them up if things go wrong.

What's even more concerning than that (not sure how many layers of concern I have, but apparently it's a lot) is the lack of strategic foresight inherent in this decision. Supposedly the government and the MoD was going to get better at all this strategy business, but I don't see much evidence of it myself. Allow me to explain by ranting about forward defence.

In our nations history there have been a number of battles that have become legendary for a variety of reasons. Many of these are used as teaching examples, to demonstrate certain concepts in operation. Both Trafalgar and the Spanish Armada for example are used as excellent examples of how naval power applied against an enemies main battle fleet could be used to shield Britain from a potential hostile invasion. Such victories, along with Poitiers, Agincourt, and Waterloo tend to be favoured, while defeats are normally framed in terms of how the plucky British spirit salvaged something of value from the jaws of defeat, a la Dunkirk. Battles such as Patay, Formigny and Castillon shall never be spoken of on this side of the channel, on pain of death.

One battle that I think doesn't get enough attention in terms of the strategic lesson it teaches us is the Battle of France. It gets lots of attention in terms of what the Germans did, but not a lot in terms of the implications for the UK. By failing to stop the German advance around the low countries the result was that not only was a major UK ally knocked out of the war, but it also brought German planes, ships and submarines right up to the Channel and gave them exceptional access to the Atlantic. The failure of the land component of the campaign caused the Battle of Britain as we know it and brought German submarines and their accompanying maritime reconnaissance planes to ports like Brest, significantly increasing the difficulty of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. 

As such there is a case to argue in the UK context for Forward Defence; the idea that the best place to meet the enemy is as far away from UK shores as is possible. The land component of that would require tanks, which is why the reductions are so alarming. There increasingly seems to be a view in the defence community that perhaps ships and planes can do it all and we don't need a strong army anymore. I would contest this point of view vigorously.

These days, NATO is our primary shield. But in order for that to work properly it has to be effective and that means on land, as well as in the air and at sea. It is not sufficient to simply palm off the land component to someone else and just say "ah well, the Germans can do it" on the basis that they're physically located on the continent and we're not. NATO relies on collective defence, which means collective responsibility. The fact that others scrimp and save, spending far below the recommended (and expected) 2% is neither here nor there. That doesn't absolve us from our own commitments.

The army provides the UK with a superb tool to help keep the enemies of the UK at arms length, facing down potential threats long before they become a serious problem to the mainland. The ability to defend allies and areas of interest abroad is as much a mission of the army as it is of the RN or RAF. Heavy armour will be an important part of that mission. Until proven otherwise it is still the dominant tool on the battlefield, to which all others are subordinated. 

Britain is one of the few countries with anything approaching recent experience in conventional, mobile, tank orientated operations. It is a head start that should not be thrown away lightly, least of all on the altar of some new age revolution in military affairs, where speed and "agility" are presumed to be an adequate replacement for big guns and a well protected skin.

The tank has been proclaimed dead many times before, yet inevitably comes back from the grave to prove its worth again and again. One day it will finally go off to meet it's maker, but not yet. There's a certain irony that as many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus - probably the most famous comeback king in history - many people are beginning once again to write off the ultimate comeback king; the tank.


  1. Tanks in Germany, defend only Germany.

    It's just madness for the UK to cut, Deep Sea ASW assets to fund tanks, and Germany to cut tanks to fund DSASW.

    Forward defence is all well and good, but, tanks in Germany are only "forward defence" on that flank, and historically has been a bad idea.

    Tanks in Germany are worthless if Japan invades Burmese East India, and they're useless if France folds like a cheap suit and our badly depleted ASW assets that are sized to stop submarines leaving the Danish strait instead of Brest

    1. Contributing ground forces to a vital alliance for UK interests is not a bad idea. Having British Heavy Metal so near Scandinavia and Poland would apart from contributing to collective deterrence, place Britain within driving distance of some very interesting defence cooperations.

      Tanks are also no less deployable from a base on mainland Europe. Just like American material from Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway was regularly deployed to Iraq, British heavy metal would not be static and undeployable force.

      In the end, I suppose my final argument for basing British Heavy Metal is political. It would be a display of commitment to NATO and Europe. British and European displays of commitments toward each other can hopefully avert a dearth of trust until post-Brexit relations can normalise. I would also suggest that Britain should endeavour to actively engage in at least some of the non-EU regional defence cooperations to offset reduced influence over EU defence integration.

  2. I am not sure whether forward deployed is a better option than maintaining an expeditionary capability. I agree that it is best to keep the threat as far away as possible but a deployable expeditionary force including tanks is potentially more flexible than a forward deployed one.

    Regarding equipment numbers we do seem to have chosen the Tiger tank model rather than the Sherman. Our kit is great but heavy on the maintenance and logistics and difficult to build in numbers due to the cost/resources required to create them. History suggests this may not be the best option when fighting a peer.

    Good to have you back. I enjoy your posts.