ROGUES, FAILURES, RESOURCES, TWITTER AND BLUE SKY
By John Reed
DSEi is a theatre of solutions. The 2009 show will be staged against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and will no doubt prompt a great deal of discussion regarding the most appropriate business model for changed circumstances. Yet, when its doors close and the circus moves on to its next venue it is likely that some fundamental questions will remain unanswered.
One will be whether the United Kingdom can afford a defence posture that compels it to punch above its weight.
The number of personnel in the UK armed forces has declined consistently since 2006 with strength the army now at less 96,000 active personnel (Source IISS The Military Balance 2009) as against nearly 113,000 in 2005-6. It is perhaps hardly surprising that with a continuing commitment to maintaining high troop levels in Afghanistan the familiar concern with ‘overstretch’ should have mutated to more serious doubts about whether the UK is adequately prepared to continue its traditional role as a leading military power.
The current economic climate has added to the argument that the UK is in a straitjacket imposed by the 1998 Defence Review, subsequent ‘landmark’ procurements including two carriers, three tranches of Eurofighter, JSF and a requirement that has to be settled by 2014 as whether to maintain a nuclear deterrent. The situation is one in which differences in thinking between the three services are already clear, but that has now been rendered more complex as the ‘rogue’ states Iran and North Korea seem likely to deploy their own nuclear weapons. In a phrase from the vocabulary of another era ‘they are still out there’ but it is difficult to believe that either the UK or Europe would have the political will to act independently
Nevertheless, there is a European dimension that extends beyond the nuclear issue to military leadership within the EU – ‘first amongst unequals’ status. France’s support for European defence collaboration cloaks such an aspiration and it is unlikely that the UK would surrender its nuclear status leaving France ‘in the driving seat’ as the sole European nuclear power. To that extent the Fortress UK mentality still exists and drives the ambitions of Britain’s navy and an air force that may still yearn for nuclear strike capability.
The ‘Fortress’ approach conflicts with what appears to the view within the army – backed by some ‘big hitters’ elsewhere in the UK defence community – that defence policy should be formulated around a need to provide stabilisation in failing states and less than state-on-state conflicts. This view chimes with that articulated in the United States by Michael Vickers an adviser to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and an arch-advocate of irregular warfare. Vickers argues that there is no ‘irregular versus conventional’ dichotomy and that the development of an irregular approach that melds Special Forces with ISR&T and other advanced technologies will provide not only a counter to asymmetric tactics but also a capability to systematically hunt down terrorist networks. It will in due course be interesting to assess this argument in the context of unfolding events in Pakistan. Meanwhile the US defence plan for 2010 includes a significant nod in Vickers’ direction with provision for additional special forces personnel, equipment and ISR/UAS assets.
Some commentators have stressed that success in future counterinsurgency operations will require ‘boots on the ground’ a policy that the US has – belatedly – adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan in preference to essentially unproven confidence in high technology, advanced C4ISR, and long-range force projection. They have however accepted that such an approach to the problems in failing states also requires significant investment in their armed forces and infrastructure and a coherent strategy for co-operation with community (read ‘tribal’) leaders at something more th