Friday, 30 September 2016

The British Dilemma

I've talked recently about strategy, how it relates to the UK and the lack of a seemingly coherent UK strategy in the sense of having an armed forces that are shaped to meet some very specific strategic goals. But one thing I haven't talked about yet, one thing we always seem to forget, is what I like to call the "British Dilemma".

It's not a phenomenon unique to Britain by any means, but as this is a blog about UK defence we might as well view it through the UK lens. The British Dilemma is caused by living in a world where superpowers exist, of which the UK is not one of them, and living in a region of the world that is relatively safe, while at the same time possessing a substantial economy and as such a burden of expectation brought on by membership of the NATO alliance.

Fundamentally Britain finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It lacks the resources and the public will to even come close to touching someone like the US in terms of military strength, yet feels obliged to make some kind of contribution to international security and in particular to the collective defence of NATO, as expressed in the commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence. As such the UK is capable of neither real independent military action or of attaining the savings that would normally be associated with being a smaller, more regionally focused military power.

The UK is about to re-enter the aircraft carrier business for example. But it does so at the lower end of the business and will be capable of deploying just the one carrier on a routine basis, with a limited capacity in terms of aircraft deployed and with no true fixed wing Airborne Early Warning (AEW) system, which is generally recognised to be an important component of a modern carrier battle group. While the individual carrier will bring with it a strike capability that only a very select handful of a nations can match, it is unfortunately also the case that the carrier and its air arm has its limits. 

As the Suez crisis of 1956 demonstrated, even a large British, French and Israeli force could not act without the effective permission of the US. When the US decided to intervene at the political level the UK was forced to concede. Thus despite the sales patter, the UK in reality is not going to go around randomly exerting its sea based airpower on whomever it so desires any time soon. It will do so largely at the leisure of the US, accept in perhaps a handful of cases. And in those cases where the UK does work with the US, it effectively does so as a bit part player.

This is the crux of the issue for the UK. Our foreign policy is typically closely aligned with the US and we share broadly the same interests. Thus frequently (though most certainly not always) the US acts on our behalf when it flexes its military muscle. And quite frankly when it opposes our interests we're not really in a place to do much about it. The UK is neither powerful enough to stop the US nor powerful enough to act without it. In theory the UK is a military ally of the US. In reality its more of a sub-division of the the US armed forces at times.

But then comes the flip side.

If the UK isn't really needed any more to help police the world, then why doesn't it retract the size of its armed forces to a level more commensurate with its position in the world? Why not rebalance the RAF to one that focuses purely on home defence and defence of neighbouring allies? Slim the army back, away from expeditionary warfare to a more regional scale? Shift the Royal Navy away from its Pax Britannia mindset to more of a North Sea/North Atlantic patrol force? 

The answer is of course - as so often with defence - money. Only in a marked change from the norm the answer isn't not enough money. Here the answer is too much money.

The UK has committed itself to the idea of spending 2% of GDP on defence and of being an "active player", a "global leader", an "insert preferred buzzword bingo line here". As a result the UK has ended up in a position where the Tornado and Typhoon fleets are engaged in operations over Syria and Iraq at a level that is largely dwarfed by the US, but just sufficiently big enough for us to claim second place. A sort of silver medal syndrome that is all pervading, where it's ok to not be the biggest, as long as we're just slightly bigger than everyone else sans the US, in order to make sure we retain this position as America's most important and trusted ally; even though countries like Japan and South Korea are a lot closer to areas of major interest to the US than the UK is, and have effectively usurped the role that the UK used to play during the cold war of being major US strategic hosts.

It's a funding commitment that means the UK routinely deploys two warships to the middle east to essentially tow along with US forces in the region. While unquestionably something like a Type 45 destroyer offers a different capability to the mix of a US Carrier Battle Group, built as it was to incorporate the lessons of conflicts such as the Falklands, it's extremely hard to argue that said CBG would be incapable of functioning effectively without the presence of a Type 45 in its midst. 

And it's a funding commitment that led to the UK deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in numbers that proved insufficient to properly control the areas assigned to the UK, but high enough to once again claim that coalition silver medal. A commitment that now means UK troops are once again being thrust to the frontline of the rapidly cooling NATO/Russian relations. 

The UK is in effect trapped in a web of its own making. There's not enough money to be an equal player with the US, but there is a commitment to a level of spending that prevents the UK scaling back to a more modest level in keeping with a realistic assessment of its world standing, reach and strategic requirements. It is a very British dilemma.


  1. I’m not in agreement her. I agree with your earlier posts on Britain’s lack of defined interests, that can be communicated in clear and concrete terms. However, Britain’s enviable position make her a regional power with global potential. Every other European nation is constrained by geography or – a lack of – wealth and manpower.

    The British military shrinkage is the result of a decade – or two? – of procurement mismanagement and expensive wars in the Middle East. Neither of which served British interest beyond the abstract.

    Measuring up against the US is a British quirk - that non Brits don’t quite understand – but it is as you say, a useless measurement. Being the second biggest contributor to a failed campaign is noting to be proud of. Particularly if the campaign never supported you national interests.
    Maybe Britain should emulate the French? Instead of merging with the US post Suez, they chose to build coalitions – not against the US – to obtain strategic options and autonomy.

    When the losses incurred by Middle Eastern wars and failed procurements have been recuperated. Britain will have a potential; future – independent - power projection capability. That Force can be used to build a network of alliances in the Commonwealth, Europe and the Anglosphere to strengthen Britain’s latent power.

    With the much talked about return East of Suez, perhaps a good question would be why? What advantage does global policing offer the constabulary nation. Germany, Netherlands, Nordics, etc. trade in the far east without doing much defence policing along the trade routes.
    If UKs policy elite believe a constabulary posture is good for Britain; they should provide good arguments to support their case. I’m not sure a constabulary role is in Britain’s interest. I disagree that Britain can’t act as a global power, but I don’t believe modern Britain have the resources to waste on trivial or unimportant issues.

    Sorry if I got a bit long winded. I like your scepticism toward MOD talking points. Like most defence/foreign policy establishment, they need more sceptical questions than they get.

    1. UK defence has declined primarily because it no longer attracts the funding it once did, and likely wont again without a major war to shake things up. Can't spend money you don't have.

      The comparisons with the US are simple, and derived from the ability of the US to act with a level of effort that the UK cannot match. In order for the UK to do anything beyond small tasks it tends to need the US or a massive European coalition to provide the extra numbers.