Last Sunday, incarcerated by the rain, I was pleased to have my boredom relieved by the 1958 classic British war film ‘Dunkirk‘. Leslie Norman’s masterpiece tells the human story of the Allied defeat in the Battle of France and the astonishing effort which evacuated over a third of a million men from the beaches of Flanders in May 1940. The story is not exclusively military – yes, it tells the story of a section of infantry retreating before the rapid German advance, but more importantly it articulates the awakening of civil and military integration; a fusion which would, five years later, result in the defeat of the Nazis. Britain in the Spring of 1940 was not the unified and universally determined place of popular mythology, Dunkirk and the subsequent Battle of Britain forged that mould over the next six months or so. My point? Fusion Doctrine, the latest fad in Whitehall, is not all that original but it is essential.
In the film, Charles Foreman, a journalist played by Bernard Lee, takes his motor yacht across to France to play his part in Operation Dynamo. Stranded by the tide and in general conversation, he is asked how an Army which had shattered the Germans in 1918 could have been so humiliated by its vanquished enemy a little over twenty years later. His reply is that it was a matter of ‘Guns and Butter’, in the seven years leading to the outbreak of the War, the British and chosen butter while the Germans had chosen guns. While this summary is not wholly accurate, it does offer a warning from history: to neglect one’s defence and security is to make oneself a hostage to fortune. These two lessons – the critical importance of the Clausewitzian trinity (military, people, and government) and the need to prioritise defence over other governmental responsibilities – should be at the heart of the recently announced Integrated Review.
As always, things are not that simple: First, defence has been steadily de-prioritised since the end of the Second World War and is no longer seen by government as being worthy of its own pillar of national strategy, rather it has become a subordinate part of wider security. Secondly, while ‘Fusion Doctrine’ rightly recognises the need for a whole of government approach to national strategy, it misses the need to enhance national resilience, by which I mean the British people’s ability to cope with crises, both natural and man-made. Finally, and perhaps of most concern, is the presentism which afflicts public policy. At a recent business launch, the former Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, stated that if Defence believed that the forthcoming ‘Integrated Review’ was just a matter of re-balancing tanks, planes, and ships, it was sorely wrong. While her comments can be interpreted as a rallying cry for Defence to think in a more creative way, they also betray a neophile fascination with aspects of defence which are more influenced by science fiction than empirical design. Together, these factors give considerable cause for concern.
We in Defence do not help ourselves. The current Chief of the Defence Staff has repeatedly displayed his presentist credentials and the Army is locked into projects like Specialised Infantry, Strike, and the Army Operating Concept which are designed to prove its relevance as an arm of national security to a cynical Downing Street. This combination of a failure to correctly contextualise the changing character of warfare and government’s myopic insistence that investment must see an immediate return endanger national security, as does a fixation with five-year reviews driven by the electoral cycle. In short, in pursuit of budget share, all three Services are locked into a pursuit of novelty at the cost of effectiveness – well-trained people and precision combined arms battle are still our best defence, they may need to be blended with elements that enhance that effect (space, cyber, information), but to prioritise the enablers over the effect is to critically endanger UK defence in the future.
So what should the result of the ‘Integrated Review’ look like? It should be whole of government with every department of state pulling in the same direction towards a single strategic objective. It should make societal resilience a central priority with education and healthcare being as important to national defence as our armed forces – if we are to deter our opponents, we must improve both the sustainability of our societal model and the robustness of our people. In terms of the armed forces, the Royal Navy must be given the central role; post-Brexit Britain depends on secure global trading links and only the Navy can do this, does this mean more big ships? Probably not, but it means greater investment in capabilities which support Britain’s future. In light of that, and with a low likelihood of an increased Defence budget, both the Army and Royal Air Force will have to cut their cloth frugally. The Regular Army should concentrate on fighting on land, using information manoeuvre to enhance effect and an expanded Specialised Infantry to learn lessons for the rest of the Army and improve professionalism. The Army Reserve should be re-roled as a homeland defence and national resilience force – to pretend that a Reserve can be effectively equipped and trained on the cheap as a kind of follow-on force is yet another fallacy. Finally, the Royal Air Force needs to reconsider whether it needs a sixth-generation fighter when its strategic role is lift and its tactical role is ground support. Pointy jets may be sexy, but when your enemy is two blokes on a moped planting IEDs, a billion pound aircraft and similarly expensive guided munition is hardly economic.
This blog has been a rapid canter through the problems facing UK Defence as it embarks on yet another politically driven defence review. In an ideal world, a patient government would lay down a national grand strategy and provide adequate finance for all departments of government to serve it, it would ask Defence to match its capabilities to that strategy and understand that it is an insurance policy not a utility bill. Unfortunately, this will probably not be the outcome; ideas of Total Defence, an effective Operating Concept, and conceptual realism will, it is predicted, be subsumed by a wave of presentist nonsense and cost savings which will leave Defence as far less relevant than it was before. On that depressing note I will leave you, I’ll be back in March.
All the very best,