Max Hastings: "British Military Thinking Must Get Cleverer"


War Hero
Financial Times

Some of us have long warned that the Royal Navy was setting a course towards self-immolation by insisting upon purchasing two giant aircraft carriers. So it now appears. Following last week’s defence and security review, announcing 8 per cent cuts in the defence budget, the government said the armed forces would “remain fully capable of making their contribution towards global securityâ€. But what can that contribution be?

There is no money to buy a credible force of fast jets to fly off the aircraft carriers: just 10-12 US-built F-35s will be deployed afloat, and only one carrier is likely to see service. Most strategists believe such behemoths will prove shockingly vulnerable in any future major conflict. Britain will lack the small, handy frigates it needs for such real tasks as anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea.

The navy’s plight has been brought about by the refusal of several generations of its senior officers to think convincingly about future threats, budgetary limitations and plausible roles for warships. Successive governments and weak chiefs of defence staff have failed to make them do so. Labour behaved with ruthless cynicism in approving the carriers chiefly because they meant thousands of jobs in its northern constituencies.

The army faces a future in which it can field only a single brigade of 7,000-8,000 men including support elements for sustained operations abroad. Contrast this with the 33,000 British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland during the worst of The Troubles 35 years ago. Planners are debating the doctrinal implications of a new world in which they lack mass.

Even the US Army lacks numbers to dominate a big battlefield. What does that mean? A soldier with whom I lunched this week pondered aloud: “Let’s say there are 30 rooms in this building. If al-Qaeda or Hizbollah set about defending it seriously, we would need a battalion to take it.†In other words, about a third of Britain’s future deployable infantry combat power would be absorbed by a mission to assault a single large structure. That is how small we shall be.

A decade or two ago, western military thinking favoured compensation for limited mass by focusing combat power on decapitation – destruction of the enemy’s command and control. This made sense against the Warsaw Pact, but the Israelis, Americans and British alike acknowledge its irrelevance against new enemies who have no recognisable command and control centres (even if their distant leaders can be targeted and killed) but instead deploy small groups of fighters acting independently. Each one must be engaged and taken out.

At the heart of General David Petraeus’s successful Iraq strategy was imaginative exploitation of substitutes for military mass: “just good enough†local forces, and above all money. Huge numbers of militia fighters were bribed to quit the battlefield – cheaply at the price, most people would say. Limited forces of western soldiers focused on killing hard-core insurgents, while paying off “accidental guerillasâ€, to use Australian guru David Kilcullen’s phrase.

It remains to be seen whether the same tactics work in Afghanistan. In many situations, there is no plausible substitute for “boots on the groundâ€, yet the US Army is never again likely to have enough of these. The British certainly will not, and their planners believe the only realistic expedient is to work towards providing a brigade capable of operating as a fully-integrated component of a US division.

The British must familiarise themselves with US military language and vernacular, and ensure communications and computer systems are interchangeable, as today they are not.

Almost the only good news to come out of the defence review, unconvincingly entitled A Strong Britain In An Age Of Uncertainty, is that David Cameron’s personal intervention has secured delays in some big decisions. The Trident replacement is being deferred long enough to consider means of replacing the nuclear deterrent at a lower level and smaller cost.

There is scope for further substantial cuts in the Royal Air Force’s fast-jet holdings. Reductions in the army’s tank and artillery holdings make sense, but the case is strong for preserving infantry strength, even when Nato leaves Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Britain needs a big commitment, probably with European partners, to strengthen its unmanned drone capability, a vital part of future warfare.

An American friend this week expressed bewilderment that the UK is further shrinking its armed forces, when it already spends less than half the US percentage of gross domestic product committed to defence. Whatever mitigation is entered about quality, he said, what is left looks pretty threadbare. US administrations have always valued UK participation in military operations more for the political cover than the punch. This perception will become more emphatic.

I responded that the British cherish their soldiers but are politically indifferent to defence, which sways no votes. Moreover, British involvement and perceived lack of success in two unpopular wars has further diminished military clout. Much more radicalism will be needed to restructure the armed forces for the 21st century, burdened by the twin curses of Trident and the carriers.