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Why Britain needs a more flexible military posture, for Europe and the world

On occasion, when viewing the international relations and security problems of the present time, the balance and order of the Cold War, with the relative stability that it bought, could seem preferable. However, international relations, security, defence, whatever the heading, is not a game of dreams and wishes but of dealing with the reality of what is the legacy of yesterday, the events of today and the possibilities of tomorrow. Too often though, the possibilities that are allowed for, that are planned for, are not the worst-case scenario, or even plausible worst scenario, but the worst case scenario that can be afforded with minimal financial outlay. This ‘putting the cart before the horse’ is a symptom as much of the quality of the debate as it is of the terms of reference used.

In Britain, this debate has descended into a debate not of strategy, or even equipment but of percentage – a legacy perhaps of the percentage arbitrarily decided for international aid and the agreements with NATO partners; but still an arbitrary percentage which apparently makes many happy, but which no one is really able to logically justify by itself. The figure after all is not a product of decisions as to spending, but is the spending cut backs which will be used to decide what is procured, what training is done, what defence and therefore what security Britain will have.

Now in reality Britain would never have the largest army in Europe, even if the Armed Forces were funded at the 2.7% of GDP (8% of total government spending) which was spent in 2000 prior to the ‘War on Terror’, let alone the current 2% (6% of total government spending) that has been ‘enshrined’ in the 2015 Budget. The odds of it being of significant impact in (the worst case scenario) a major European war are limited; as best illustrated by the tank situation. The British Army has 407 Challenger 2 main battle tanks (including 158 in storage and 22 driver training); something which does not stack up against Russia’s 930 T-90s, 4,688 T-80s (of which 4,500 are in reserve) and 10,255 T-72s (of which 8,000 are reserve). Yes, the Challenger 2 is most likely a better, more advanced tank, and a better maintained fleet than its current Russian opponents, but at 39 to 1 the odds are not in their favour – even if it is not Kursk style engagements.

What is more troubling is that these are odds which do not improve even when those ‘traditional’ European land powers that are part of NATO are added in to the mix. The Wojska Ladowe (Polish Army) has roughly 1,009 (including 379 T-72s in storage) comprised of a mix of German made Leopard II’s, Polish origin PT-91 ‘Twardy’ and upgraded Soviet origin T-72s. Germany are actually increasing their number of Leopard IIs in service from 232 to 328 (still a significant drop from their Cold War peak of 2,350 Leopard IIs). Of course, none of these numbers are factoring in how many tanks are deployed on operations, in maintenance or, in the case of the British Army, in Canada for training (usually around 40 tanks, or 10% of the total force, are at the British Army Training Unit Suffield, BATUS, in Alberta Canada). As with all equipment, however, the more that is available the less the impact of these capabilities on real combat deployments. Not only are the tanks in storage, so are large amounts of other vehicles including air defence units. Although as the land version of the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile system (a joint Royal Navy/Army/Royal Air Force development) is not likely to replace the Rapier (of 1982 Falklands War Service) any time soon, how useful they would be even if available is open to debate – either way the current situation leaves British forces dependent upon allies to operate under neutral skies or worse.

When applied to the Royal Navy (RN), the situation is even less rosy. In 2000 the RN had an escort strength of thirty-four frigates and destroyers, and a capital ship core comprising of the three Illustrious Class VSTOL carriers, the Helicopter Assault ship HMS Ocean and the Dock Assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. This meant due to the ‘rule of three’ (for every ship that is fully worked up, another two are either in transit, training or refit) the RN was always able to call on at least eleven fully worked up escorts and two capital ships to provide for commitments and contingency operations. The reduction in numbers has been due to much the same reason the Army cannot call on full tank numbers, although the RN also has to endure a policy of ‘mothballing’ whereby a ship is laid up to save money on personnel costs.

However, with a current strength of nineteen Escorts, and just HMS Ocean and the Dock Assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, it is now usually just six escorts and a single capital ship. In simple terms, in fifteen years the RN’s on call fully worked up and deployable strength has been cut by 50%. This was all done on the altars of peace, networking and financial hardship; unfortunately peace has not broken out, networking does not allow a ship (or any piece of equipment) to be in more than one place at any time and the financial hardship, while real, is starting to ease. The RAF has not fared much better. In fact, for a nation which has been involved in conflicts as continually as Britain has been (1968 was the last year Britain was not at war), the real surprise is not how little is spent on the armed forces but the fact that the armed forces still manage to deliver all that they do.

So with these few tanks, limited warship numbers and generally underfunded forces, how can Britain best contribute to NATO? The answer lies in how those forces are used.

During the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II Britain managed to benefit from its island geography; first by giving Britain’s leadership time to decide where to deploy force and then it made use of the access to the oceans to deploy those forces, decisively and in strength wherever they were needed. Whilst the dawn of the airpower age meant that the sea was no longer the impassable barrier protecting an island fortress that it once was, it was (and still is) a significant defensive asset, which even made air attack more challenging. To be effective though as a strategic policy it has to be committed to, and spending would have to be judged according to how it fits with that strategy – rather than a policy of trying to still pretend that everything can be done, and slowly hollowing out those forces to preserve that image while saving money.

The withdrawal of forces to Britain from Germany actually arguably makes the situation better strategically. If those forces were in Germany the temptation might be to send them by road straight into the fighting with the rest of our allies should the worst case happen in Eastern Europe, where the comparatively small contingent would get ‘swallowed up’ in the larger allied contributions. However, if the Navy is strengthened so that it can provide cover for a sea deployment to wherever those forces would be able to provide the most critical support/utility (even perhaps behind enemy lines, after the Royal Marines secure a beachhead), then the UK would be able to offer capability far outweighing its contribution size.

In this way the UK would provide the theatre entry forces in Europe that would then allow for the forces of ‘land powers’ to be funnelled in after them: i.e. immediately after the Royal Marines have secured the beachhead, a multi-role brigade would be landed to expand the area further, this would then be followed by an armoured brigade and possibly another multi-role brigade. These forces would then expand the secured area further, covering the landing and insertion of allied formations. In this way the British government would be able to make the most of the financial, technological and force competency levels to maximise their ability to influence events. This is especially useful for supporting small nations like the Baltic states, where there is not much space and if land is lost, then the support and of the sea will be of massive importance in providing the ‘strategic depth’ to regroup and repulse.

This is also a policy which would be strengthened greatly by the adoption of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee recommendations to procure at least seventeen Type 26 frigates; these extra four ships would give the RN a total of twenty-three escorts. This is a relatively small increase, but it would be progress in the right direction and would give the RN an on call force of seven to eight escorts. This is something that would be especially useful if all the River class OPVs are retained in service to act as presence and maritime security force multipliers; instead of the new ships being built to keep yards open being used to replace the relatively new ships still in service. Longer term, the numbers of vessels procured under the ‘Mine Countermeasure and Hydrograpic Patrol Capability’ programme might well need to be increased; perhaps even the Black Swan Sloop concept would need to be looked at more seriously.

The benefit of such policy would be the same equipment and skills, which the British forces already possess but which they would need to expand, but would allow for a self-sufficient force to be deployed elsewhere in the world should they be needed to. With Britain’s ongoing interests in the wider world, this would be advantageous considering the possible risk factor scenarios. This policy would therefore result in Britain being able to focus locally, but act globally – a requirement in a world where uncertainty has become the common theme (in contrast to the Cold War). This is something which could grow in utility as NATO’s interests and commitments spread beyond the area defined by Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty; for example, in places such as South East Asia or North Africa.

As with the flexibility of theatre, by using the sea to deploy forces there is also flexibility of action as they can be retained at sea until needed or withdrawn – they do not have to land unless the government orders them to. This would afford the government important diplomatic freedom should the situation change as well as not providing the potential Casus Belli of a build up of ground troops by keeping them in international waters. It should also be noted that the flexibility would still be useful should a BREXIT become a reality. This is because with the existence of NATO, plus common threats and a history of working together, should mean that in terms of security, defence cooperation and commitments, little will change in actuality. Of course, if things do change due to short term issues, then the fact that Britain will have organised its defence on the proposed lines, would enable it to still react to those situations as they happen, and when they happen.

Vol. 7, No. 57 (2015)

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