In the wake of the 'Brexit' vote the discussions have now begun about where the UK might pitch itself in terms of its place in the world and in particular where it will go moving forward in terms of defence. Aside from the talk of international agreements, the EU army etc, already I've seen the varied interests in UK defence positioning themselves to make a move for additional funding going forward. And maybe now is a good time to sit down and just reflect on the UK's position in defence terms and to look at where we are and where we're going. The first stop I think might be to consider the three predominant positions that I see being discussed, each one advocating primacy for one of the three services.
The second group are army advocates, who argue that land warfare should be the pre-eminent domain of UK defence. Their position is that the UK has been heavily engaged in various ground engagements over the years and that to under sell land power is to risk sacrificing the UK's ability to make a meaningful contribution to international coalitions. Normally accompanied by comments about the army being at its lowest level since the days of Wellington and Waterloo. Land power advocates argue that expensive frigates and fast-jet fighters are nice, but they struggle to make a useful contribution in the modern context where peer on peer conflicts are significantly less common.
The final group are land based air power advocates, who propose a stronger role for the RAF, at the expense of the navy and army. They argue that the RAF has been heavily involved in a variety of conflicts going all the way back to the first gulf war in 1991 and that air power is the primary domain of modern warfare. They believe that air power can deliver the same or similar effects to land and naval based units, but in a more flexible manner and with less exposure to risk in terms of potential manpower losses. They believe air power to be at the core of modern warfare and do not see this position changing in the near future, essentially "future proofing" UK defence going forward.
Each of those positions has some merit to it, but each also has some deep flaws. Probably foremost among the flaws, applicable to each case, is that a lot of the assumptions made are based off of a different time when the UK had a lot more money to go around.
Naval advocates often hark back to the days of Nelson, while forgetting that in Nelson's day the UK was the pre-eminent global naval power. Britannia really did rule the waves back then. Britannia was also one of, if not the, richest nation of the time. It's coffers were flowing with money, though even then the tax burden placed on the public was high in order to meet the needs of war with France. Britain dominated the seas throughout the 19th Century, but gradually her grasp on the seas began to slip as Britain was challenged economically. High taxes and high GDP expenditure on defence sustained the Navy throughout the cold war, but it was inevitable that we would one day reach this moment where the US navy dwarfs our own and where Britain finds itself a "regional power" in naval terms.
Land power advocates try to conjure up the memories of Wellington, Marlborough and Montgomery. But again, those were different times. In each case those three storied generals had large enemies on the continent to temper the resolve of governments when it came to military spending. Each benefited from an economic situation that permitted the government to at least match to a proportion the spending of their foreign rivals, which allowed the UK to field a reasonably substantial army. And while advocates of the RAF may evoke the memory of the battle of Britain and the V-bomber force, those to were different times. The core threat to the UK was obvious and immediate, and the UK had both the financial power and the public willpower to support enhanced defence spending, including vast fleets of fighters and bombers. Today the coffers are somewhat less full compared to others and the public does not see either the immediate or the long term benefit in spending any more than a base minimum on defence.
Those last two points are really crucial for me, especially as someone who favours a balanced approach to the services on the principle that I think they can deliver more collectively and as a whole than they could if one were favoured over the others.
Defence investment will always wax and wain based on the economy and the public will to invest in it. Britain can't have an armed forces the same size as the US predominantly because the UK doesn't have an economy the same size as the US. It's one of the reasons I've started to introduce economy based articles into the blog (to a degree), because the state of the economy is the underpinning of defence. The future of our forces is fundamentally tied to the future of our finances. The only way to buck the trend when it comes to money is for their to be sufficient public capital invested in the armed forces that it permits additional financial capital to be invested. The US spends 4% of GDP on defence because it has strong public support for a large armed forces. The American public understands - either consciously or unconsciously - that America's globally strong financial position owes much to their globally strong military position.
It's all well and good to talk about how many ships, regiments and planes the UK had back in 1980, but the government back then was able to spend around 5% of GDP on defence. That's 150% more than it does today. Two carriers would become five. Two basic divisions would become 5. Seven squadrons of Typhoon would become around 17. The money for this exists in theory. It is affordable on paper. But in reality nobody is going to authorise the kinds of cross government spending cuts or hefty tax hikes that would be required to make the numbers work. For that reason longing after the old days is fine for sentimental reasons, but impractical in the real world. We are where we are and we have have to accept it and move on. Short of a major war looming on the horizon the UK defence community is going to have to accept that 2% of GDP is the future for the UK.
At which point the argument for a balanced spend on defence across the three services begins to run into problems.
Due to the limited nature of the spending, which then has to be spread across three services and includes the significant spending on the nuclear deterrent, it is inevitable that the UK ends up limited in each area. It's a difficult problem to explain on the basis that the capability that exists (or will exist in the coming years) is pretty good. A carrier battle group equipped with the latest generation of combat aircraft, the ability to deploy a land based wing sporting one the worlds most advanced and versatile fighter aircraft, an armoured division spearheaded by one of the most robust and capable tanks anywhere in the world today. That is not a capability to be sniffed at.
But at the same time nor is it a capability that has much legs by itself and nor can it really intimidate or influence without the aid of others. There are of course a number of nations that would struggle to match it in a straight fight, but outside of a select group of scenarios the UK is not really an independently capable actor. The problem this causes is that it makes even the current spend difficult to justify in the face of sustained opposition by those who would trim defence to provide for other areas of government spending.
You're going to have a tough time really convincing people that an armoured brigade would - in practical terms - be any less useful to an international effort than an armoured division. It is difficult to argue that deploying a single squadron of Typhoon instead of several squadrons worth would somehow cripple any coalition effort, particularly one that included the US. And I'm not sure you would convince many doubters that a carrier running just 12 planes and protected by a handful of escorts would somehow cause an allied effort to collapse, whereas 32 planes and a veritable flotilla of escorts for the carrier would get the job done.
It might seem based off this that supporters of each service can strengthen their arguments for a bias in spending towards their service. Could not a naval supporter argue therefore that less Typhoons would not cripple the country, while the extra money for a second carrier would greatly enhance the UK's influence? Could not an air force supporter argue that the UK does not need all the multitude of brigades that currently make up the army and that instead the cash would be better spent building the RAF to the point where it could field two wings of combat aircraft on operations? And could not a supporter of the army argue that the RN doesn't really need as many half-working destroyers and new fangled jump jets as it has and that instead this money could be better spent turning the army into a two division (Corps level) deployable force?
They all could. But then they all run into the next roadblock; how much of a difference would that in turn actually make? Having two carriers sounds grand, but it would be difficult to juggle them in such a way that they could both operate at the same time and it's unlikely that you would be able to rustle up enough aircraft for both to carry 36 planes into a conflict. Would two wings of RAF planes really generate that much of an additional capability compared to one? Would they even have enough ordnance to go around, given that one wings worth nearly burnt through the entire UK stock of Brimstone during operations over Libya? Would an extra division really add that much punch to the battlefield? Could the army even adequately transport and then support in the field two divisions, given that at times it has stretched itself very thin to support one?
Here then we find ourselves in a quandary. The UK military is in one sense over sized relative to its value and yet would require significant additional funding and investment to grow to a size that would genuinely enhance the contribution that it could make to a coalition in practical terms. I re-emphasise the point that the UK is able to make a useful and solid contribution to international efforts, but we are in a sort of halfway house where the UK is useful but not critical.
This is why I've been such an advocate of the idea of the UK as a kind of framework nation for smaller allies.
The UK has a lot of capabilities in unusual areas that a lot of other people don't. Systems like Sentinel, Airseeker, the UK's air tanker capacity, the new carrier and the excellent quality of ships like Type 45 and (we hope) Type 26, the Astute submarines, the UK's ground ISTAR capabilities, Challenger 2, GMLRS, the list goes on. The UK has lots to offer, but mainly in small packets. Given that many have questioned how the UK will integrate and work with European nations going forward post-EU, I think this is our most obvious and useful path.
It's a mantra that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog; using the UK as the foundation for others to bolt their capabilities on to. The UK may not have the resources to field two wings of combat aircraft by itself, but it certainly has the resources and the skills to provide the core of two such wings into which smaller allies like Italy or Spain can plug a squadron contribution. British carriers will equally be capable of hosting Italian F-35s. A carrier group could host all manner of friendly escort ships into its fold for anti-submarine and anti-aircraft duties. Britain may not be able to field two full divisions from its own forces, but it could most certainly field the basic core of two divisions in the form of a HQ and a brigade for each, onto which an additional Polish brigade and perhaps a composite brigade of Dutch, Danish and Norwegian forces could be attached.
The keen eyed reader will have spotted at this point that I made no mention of France and Germany, which is for a very good reason that I shall now explain.
Britain, France and Germany have an odd friendship. They are in essence all equals. Yet at the same time they all seem to consider themselves each others superior. This is one of the core reasons that partnerships between the three nations on defence programs tend to break down and in some cases go so disasterously wrong, because all three think of themselves as clearly being the primary partner and neither of the three is willing to accept a position that is subserviant to any of the others. Call it pride, call it arrogance. Call it what you like, but history has proven time and time again that the three struggle to work together due to their assumption of primacy. It's why I always groan when any suggestion is made that the UK should collaborate with either or both on some defence related procurement or task force, because it is akin to banging one's head (for one is in posh mode) against a brick wall and hoping for a result other than a sore head.
Rather than test this assumption to breaking point in the unforgiving crucible of live operations, I would posit a different idea, one that could help the European nations to work together under the auspices of the NATO framework and without the need for the creation of an EU army, which is only likely to face more resistance across Europe in the wake of the UK 'Brexit' (not that I expect the EU commission to recognise this of course). The proposition I would put forward would be for the UK, Germany and France (or indeed, France, the UK and Germany if you prefer. Or Germany, France and the UK...) to each take the position in Europe of being a 'foundation nation'. Thus it would not just be the UK bolting on allied capabilities to make its forces stronger. Germany and France (or France and Germany) would do the same, integrating smaller nations as sub-components into their larger land, naval and air force formations.
Just think of that on paper. Two armoured divisions that are British at their core, but supplemented by allies. Two armoured divisions that are French (or German) at their core, but filled out by allied nations. And finally two armoured divisions that are German (or French) at their core. That's six European armoured divisions, or three European armoured Corps, close to half the total number of allied divisions that were used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. A fairly substantial force I would suggest (though getting them all to agree to come along to any particular party is another story entirely).
In this way Europe can "pull its weight" in essence when it comes to international operations. It would provide a framework for operations under a NATO mandate that would replace the somewhat ad hoc style of NATO in recent years, especially when the US decides to drag its heels over the subject. It wouldn't be perfect and much would hinge on the nations in question all agreeing to action. Two British divisions sans their attached allies and allied supporting equipment would in fact just be two British brigades. But I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be made to work, especially if the cause for which they fought was sufficiently serious to prompt them all into action.
And at the grander end of the scale, in my most optimistic of moments, I can see the UK taking this one step further and expanding the concept beyond just the European sphere in keeping with my positive mood that a 'Brexit' will thrust Britain out there into the wider world. Imagine this future exercise scenario for example, albeit a highly hypothetical one;
A British carrier sets sail from Portsmouth with a group of Royal Navy escorts and supply ships in tow. On board are two squadrons of F-35, one from the Royal Navy and the other from the RAF. Also in the group is a Dutch Destroyer, a Danish Frigate and a Norwegian supply ship. The carrier group travels south and enters the Mediterranean, where it conducts an exercise with other European partners. It stops off in Italy for fresh supplies and picks up a squadron of Italian F-35s at the same time. The group sets off again and sails through the Suez canal, headed towards the Arabian pennisula.
Here an exercise is conducted with local middle eastern allies and the Americans. The Danish, Dutch and Norwegian ships now split off to spend the next few months working with the Americans as part of one of their carrier battle groups. The remaining British group heads east across the Indian ocean and links up with a new set of escorts from India, Australia and New Zealand. This commonwealth group now exercises in the locality, with Italian aircraft still on board, until it's time to part ways and head back home, leaving behind the regional allies but picking up the original European ships on the way back.
That is the kind of vision I can see for the UK military, in the air, land and naval domains. Britain leveraging its resources and leadership to help bring smaller countries who want to be more active into the international fold.
I know its my little hobby horse and I've ridden it a few times on here, but I do think it makes the most sense for the UK going forward. At a time when many are grumbling about the UK moving away from Europe and withdrawing, I think this would allow Britain to show the world that actually the opposite was true, and that Britain wanted to move forward and be more involved. It would also help Britain to truly punch above its weight in the proper sense of the term, instead of politicians just pretending to.