NATO nations are waking up to the consequences of their defence investment decisions. Since the end the Cold War a combination of an eagerness to take a peace dividend particularly by European NATO allies, a series of counter insurgency conflicts, and a fascination with enablers such as C4I (Command Control Computers and Intelligence) rather than effectors such as so-called dumb ammunition and the associated delivery systems, howitzers and rocket launchers, has dramatically changed the profile of NATO’s capability. The focus of the anticipated Cold War conflict was a land war in Europe utilising tanks, artillery and infantry. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the response of NATO nations is demonstrating the truth that wars are ultimately fought and decided on land, and it is an error to assume that tanks artillery and infantry can be replaced by networks and data and what a former UK Chief of Defence called ‘a little light bombing’.
The laudable NATO support to Ukraine clearly shows that the alliance is dominated by the USA and that even the USA has allowed its ability to engage with peer or near peer adversaries to be depleted to a dangerous level. The Ukraine Support Tracker produced by Kiel Institute for the World Economy shows the extent to which the USA dominates the support to Ukraine that has been vital to success on the battlefield. European nations, including the U.K., are criticised for their lack of support. Some are accused of lacking the political will to support Ukraine, however a more prosaic reason for their lacklustre response is they simply do not have the materiel to go beyond what has been achieved to date.
Ten months into the war even the USA is starting to feel uneasy about the extent to which the flow of materiel particularly ammunition is depleting its stocks. There is talk on Capitol Hill about rejuvenating the defence industrial base to replenish the stocks of Javelins, Stingers, and ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ 155mm artillery ammunition. European NATO nations have been unable to outload munitions because the stockpiles have been run down such that they barely cover training demands. The European industrial base for munitions has been dramatically reduced since the end of the Cold War to the extent that huge investment is required to create the capacity necessary to rebuild the stockpiles to a level that would deter or match any future aggression. This industrial weakness may have been a calculation in the Russian decision to invade Ukraine and will be a factor again should the USA decide that its’ stocks are too low or those in Congress that do not see the benefit of USA support to Ukraine, only the cost, become able turn off the tap.
For Europe the challenge is clear; the balance of risk indicates that the stockpiles of ammunition should be rebuilt, although this is not a given. If the stockpiles are to be significantly increased, then the industrial base must be expanded. Here lies an opportunity for European defence, which is hampered by fragmentation in military and industrial dimensions. For example, whilst the USA has one type of tank (M1) and howitzer (M109) there are numerous different types in Europe. There are also numerous supply chains for munitions in Europe. Before individual nations commit to rebuilding stockpiles via separate but intersecting supply chains it would be prudent to pause and consider alternative models. Is it feasible to establish a common European family of munitions produced by a robust resilient supply chain? The simple answer is yes, it is feasible. The market for defence materiel, particularly munitions is a monopsony; the buyers shape the market. The supply chain for munitions is relatively complex however it would be a mistake to either leave the design of the munitions supply chain to market forces or to attempt to maintain national structures. An excellent first step would be for the European nations to align their munitions procurements to seek opportunities for commonality and to ensure that a resilient and effective munitions industrial base is developed.
UK Defence & Security who is concerned?
A recent article in the Financial Times caused me to look at the Ipsos UK Issues index for November 2022. It is perhaps not surprising that the issues that most concern the respondents to the poll are the Economy, Inflation, and Healthcare with Immigration and a lack of faith in politicians following closely behind. The placing of Defence and Security in tenth place should be a concern for politicians and all members of the defence establishment.
The figures from Ipsos are:
- When asked ‘What do you see as the most / other important issues facing Britain today?’ Defence and Security was mentioned by only 8% of respondents. This is a drop of 1% from the October poll, although the balance across other issues meant that Defence and Security rose one place to tenth in the overall ranking.There are more concerning data behind this lowly ranking.
- Of the 8% only 1% saw Defence and Security as the most important issue.
- The age group with the lowest concern about Defence and Security is the 18 – 34 years group.
So what? Is it any surprise that the cost of living and the decay of UK public services are of greater concern? No, it is not. However, when this poll is taking place there is a land war in Europe, with the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the UK Government takes every opportunity to place the blame for inflation and the huge rise in energy costs upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to other public services the public does not directly experience defence and security. There appears to be a potentially dangerous presumption that defence and security are secret matters that are being dealt with by clever people and robust scrutiny is neither feasible nor desirable.
The defence establishment does not encourage the public understanding of defence and security issues. To some extent the absence of public understanding is not seen as a problem by the defence establishment as where there is no experience or knowledge there is also light, or no, scrutiny. It is this lack of scrutiny and transparency that may have led UK defence into a dangerous state of Groupthink. The corollary of the lack of public interest or concern with defence and security issues is that the public is unlikely to respond when urgent action is required. This may range from resilience in the face of power cuts to the political hurdles and financial sacrifice required to build a European defence and security capability over the next decade that can bear a greater share of the burden of the defence of Europe from the USA.
The UK defence establishment – politicians, military, officials and industry – should take urgent steps to improve the public understanding of UK defence and the necessary alliances, including what being a member of NATO means and provide an insight on where, and how, their money is being spent. I propose an independent Centre for the Public Understanding of Defence. This may not improve the ranking of defence and security in the public’s perception; however, it would provide the basis for a dialogue that necessarily involves a broader range of perspectives that in turn would mitigate the risk of Groupthink. This may be uncomfortable for the UK defence establishment, but it will improve the UK’s defence and security.