Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Special Relationship to a Dependency Relationship

For those who haven't noticed, the United Kingdom this week has released a National Security Strategy and the follow-on Strategic Defence and Security Review. First, the good news: cuts are not as drastic as had been reported in UK papers the past few weeks. I guess the government was leaking a Doomsday scenario, because the final decision on defence cuts aren't nearly as bad as were leaked.

Other good news is that the UK intends to keep carrier-based aircraft (going through with the purchase of a carrier model Joint Strike Fighter), although after the Harriers are cut there will be a period when the UK will not have a carrier capability until 2020 when the HMS Prince of Wales is completed. But it's good news for the long-term interests of the UK (in my mind at least). Also, the UK will maintain defence spending around 2% of GDP, per NATO requirements (even if this requirement is rarely met by member nations).

Now for the bad news. There are probably quite a few people who think that these documents are full of bad news, but I'm going to focus on one aspect that I'm probably most qualified to speak to: ground forces. The cuts are atrocious. The SDSR sizes ground forces to the ability to conduct:
  • one brigade-level operation with maritime and air support for a long period of time, while also conducting:
  • one non-enduring "complex" intervention with up to 2,000 personnel, and
  • one non-enduring simple intervention of up to 1,000 personnel.
  • three non-enduring operations (presumptively with a brigade and a half?)
  • a limited-duration, one-off operation with 30,000 troops (according to the paper, 2/3 of the force deployed to Iraq in 2003).
A brigade is all they'll be able to field for any long-term operation, which then prohibits their ability to deploy a whole division in an emergency. A brigade. The government takes pride that the UK is one of only a few countries in the world able to do so. I'm sorry, but I'm not impressed. Granted, it's easy to sit here in the United States, a veteran of my country's forces and say who cares about your brigade. But who cares? A brigade is a very powerful organization, but if you keep in mind that it took no less than six brigade combat teams to surround and secure Baghdad during the Surge (or two very large divisions) - and that many of those brigades would likely be called a division (-) in most militaries around the world given their extra battalions. What does the UK expect they would be able to do with a brigade? Or a division. Short of a nuclear deterrent, the UK is positioning themselves to be virtually unable to project ground forces to meet their own strategic needs without significant support from coalition partners. By that, I mean the United States.

This is a tough pill to swallow given the very close US-UK relationship. With the UK so limited in their ability to use flexible force around the globe, they will undoubtedly require US assistance if their strategic needs obscure the "or"s on the lists above and "and"s become realities. To say nothing of the UK's obligations to NATO and EU operations. Secretaries Clinton and Gates have already stressed that cuts such as these decrease the alliance's capabilities and that other countries will expect the US to fill their own gaps. If you read the UK NSS, that is obviously their expectation.

But this will become untenable for the US. Every country is feeling a tightening belt and the US will be no exception once our current conflicts wind down. Who is to say the US will be able to fill this very large gap in Western capabilities? We don't know that the US will be able to in 10 years after we gouge our own defense budget. And that ignores our will to do so to come to the UK's aid when and where they may need us to. Yes, the UK needs to align their defense spending with their treasury means. But those means don't align with their security strategy. Which weakens the UK's security. And since they're going to depend so much upon the US, it is possible that these cuts could weaken the US's security as well. I said it a couple weeks ago and I'll say it again: the US needs to develop special military relationships outside of Europe because the utility and efficacy of NATO is decreasing - creating more risk for the United States and decreasing benefits to the US.


  1. 1. What sort of extended engagement do you see the UK undertaking that requires more than a brigade?

    2. Under what circumstances does the UK need to project land power to secure its own interests when the U.S. would not be involved?

    3. Doesn't it seem more feasible for a small country to develop and maintain a useful niche capability to add value to coalition operations and cement the alliance with a much stronger partner than to try to replicate that partner's capabilities on a smaller scale out of some misguided sense of pride and imperial nostalgia?

    Granted, this third point is a hard pill for the British to swallow, and it's one that has heavily weighed on Britain's national dialogue about security strategy and force structure. But it looks like they've come down on the side of austerity and reason, and I can't fault them for it.

  2. Answers to 1. and 2. - possible the Falklands. Or some such conflict. But according to the SDSR, they couldn't even effectively fight another Falklands because of what they have currently tied up in Afghanistan.

    As for 3., sure. If you're Estonia. Not the United Kingdom, who has real and historical interests throughout the world for which the US couldn't care less and shouldn't be involved in (like the Falklands). I don't think the UK should spend themselves into third world country to keep us happy. I am saying that their NSS doesn't align with the SDSR and they state that they depend on the US. Glad we could help... Now they need to de-scope their strategic interests to match their means.

  3. We're talking about the same Falklands war that Jose Luis Borges described as "like two bald men squabbling over a comb," right? Isn't that precisely the sort of goofy little post-imperial war that Britain's parlous financial state and place in the world mitigate against fighting?

    Recognizing that a great many Britons will view point 3 in the same way you have -- "sure, that's fine for Slobovia, but not for the descendants of the British Empire!" -- shouldn't we ask the question of "why?" What are the real and historical global interests that the U.S. shouldn't/doesn't care about? (Particularly those that can be effectively protected or advanced by large-footprint deployment of land forces.)

    And sure, if you're saying that the force structure doesn't match up to the strategic aspirations (as they're reflected on paper), ok, sure, fine, you're right. But as we know from our own (American) deliberations on this subject, a lot of times the budget and the structure comes before you rewrite the strategy/mission set. It's not the way it should be, but it's easier to shrink your mission set by saying "we don't have the cash/people/gear" than to enter the political arena attempting to deliver an appetite suppressant. Advocates of a reduced international footprint for U.S. forces typically recognize that the best way to make that happen isn't to try to convince folks in DoD or State or Congress or the White House that it's best for the U.S. not to play global daddy anymore, but simply to slash the budget and erode the capability to do so. It's better press.

  4. 1) Self-binding: this is a way of ensuring precisely that the UK does not engage in wars reminiscent of pride and imperial nostalgia

    2) Free-riding: self-explanatory, but when your coalition partner is the United States, there's not much you need to do that it couldn't do for you (although I think Gunslinger raises a good point)


  5. 1. I don't think that the issue is necessarily that one conflict would require more than a brigade, but that between EU, NATO and Coalition requirements the limitations of being able to run one major(ish) operation and two small operations might (will) create an operations tempo issue. That's going to change the UK's strategic calculus, undermining their ability/willingness to undertake far-flung operations. In addition, in the near future at least any step back in UK op tempo in Afghanistan means a step up in our own deployments, and we're stretched already.

    2. Valid point, but again, simultaneous commitments become an issue.

    3. Agreed, sort of. Becoming a complimentary power is clearly a better use of limited resources than useless redundancy. As such, I don't think committing to making new UK carriers into F-35 platforms is the worst idea in the world. That said, I think it's fair to say that the US-UK alliance is already pretty damn cemented. I haven't given a lot of thought to what the UK's strategic goals should be in the next decade, but I'm fairly sure they could aim higher than becoming a dependent American auxiliary.

  6. Aaaand Gunslinger said pretty much everything I had to say in the time it took me to write that. This is why I'll never make it as a blogger.

  7. @ Gulliver. Yes, but they wrote the strategy and the budget stuff at the same time. So I don't buy that. And if they want to engage less around the world - except for alliance obligations - great! And such cuts will help ensure it doesn't happen. However, the strategy still has global aspirations which they can't meet - they're basically signing up the US to support them. That's my issue.

    We don't know when their next Falklands will come (and lord knows it might be the Falklands again) or what capabilities they'll face. We now know they don't plan on being able to meet international obligations and react to such a scenario. The US is now their strategic depth.

  8. I'm personally ambivalent about the Falklands, surprisingly for a British Conservative. The fact that we "couldn't retake" the Islands because of our commitments in Afghanistan should act a deterrent, by making clear to the US that we would have to withdraw. Also, I think we have a strong enough garrison in the Falklands to repel an Argentinian invasion. So I think it's dubious as a guide for policy making.

    Personally, I think the SDSR should have been focused on strengthening the Navy, combined with an expeditionary capability. That's basically been the British "ideal" since the Elizabethan period. Unfortunately, the SDSR is too much "threat" focused, which has meant the government is trying to counter all kinds of potential though unlikely scenarios.

  9. Re: the U.S. as Britain's "strategic depth"... uh, so what if they view us this way? We're still well within our rights to only get their back in those instances that it makes sense to do so, and to talk them down in those instances when we clearly won't support them. No one is seriously worried about the UK getting involved in a war and then placing a 911 call for the U.S. to bail 'em out, right? That's not even remotely plausible, right?

    So really all we're grumbling about is a mismatch between what's on paper and what's real. And if we're gonna get all bowed up about that, I've got an excellent National Security Strategy for you to read.

  10. I'm using the Falklands as an example of the types of contingency operations that pop up that nations may or may not see at in their interests to fight. The SDSR pretty much prevents their ability to do that on their own, even though their strategy says they'll be able to. (yes, yes, ours sucks, too. We're not a model in strategy development, but we maintain enough capabilities to respond to contingencies).

    There is also the issue that our greatest ally cannot function as just that any longer. Just after we've learned a hard lesson on unilateralism, we've lost our best and biggest coalition partner who now could only provide a token force if we run into trouble.

  11. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

    Labour leader Ed Miliband said the review was a "missed opportunity".

    He told MPs: "It is a spending review dressed up as a defence review, it has been chaotically conducted, it has been hastily prepared and it is simply not credible as a strategic blueprint for our future defence needs."

    Where did we hear this before?

    The main criticism of past QDRs is that they have been largely budget-driven. As a consequence, they have lacked credibility and failed to achieve their main goal: formulation of scrupulous, farsighted, comprehensive strategy outlines based on U.S. national interests and the security environment, not on other political or budget considerations. Faced with a zero-sum budget outlook, the past three Secretaries of Defense have been incapable of prioritizing particular capabilities and programs over others and have instead opted to impose across-the-board cuts to satisfy policymakers' efforts to protect their cherished programs.

    That's Jim Talent and McKenzie Eaglen criticizing the 2010 QDR before it was even out, by the way.

  12. Gunslinger,

    I haven't read the documents, but I wonder what size of brigade they mean - one sized like a U.S. BCT, one with the 4 infantry battalions that UK brigades organically have, or a larger brigade like the ones that have operated in Iraq and Afghanistan? Last rotation, the brigade in Helmand deployed with 8 maneuver battalions (including two for police and army training/advising), a helicopter force, and 1-2 battalions each of engineers and artillery. The rotations before and after were a bit smaller, but that's still a big brigade.

    Regardless, I agree that it's pretty gay for a first-world nation like the UK to plan on being able to sustain only one brigade in the fight, even if it's a monster brigade. They talk a lot about how the high op-tempo is stressing the force, but at the very peak of sustained UK commitment to these wars (2007-8, when two brigade HQs and 9 infantry battalions were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan), a smaller proportion of the force was committed than either the U.S. Army or Marine Corps (or probably than, say, the Georgian military, for that matter). And although Territorial Army troops have gone to both Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm pretty sure not one full TA battle group has deployed...compare that to the amount of National Guard BCTs and Marine Reserve battalions that the Pentagon has shelled out. THAT is strain on the force.

  13. "Regardless, I agree that it's pretty gay for a first-world nation like the UK to plan on being able to sustain only one brigade in the fight, even if it's a monster brigade."

    "I agree that it's pretty gay for a first-world nation like the UK to plan"

    "it's pretty gay"


    Really, Tintin? Don't be intellectually lazy.

    -Deus Ex

  14. I think we have a strong enough garrison in the Falklands to repel an Argentinian invasion. So I think it's dubious as a guide for policy making.

  15. @ Tintin - the document says a brigade of up to 6,000 personnel. So roughly the same size as our brigades.

    And @ How To Get Your Ex Back, I'll refer you back to my comment at 1:32 yesterday. I don't mean the Falklands specifically. It's an example of a type of mission that the UK may see as in the interests (yes, that question for the Falklands themselves is a point of debate), but that the US will never involve themselves in. The dearth of deployable land forces now prohibits the UK from acting unilaterally in their own interests without affecting their international commitments. I'm not saying that the UK needs a bigger army to repel the Argentinians specifically....

    And to all, Aaron Ellis (thinkstrat) has some good high-view commentary over at Thinking Strategically: http://thinkstrat.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/some-initial-thoughts-on-the-nss-and-sdsr/

  16. Interesting debate fella's, my own thoughts are here:


    I am with Aaron Ellis re. a maritime doctrine, and we can barely support 9,500 troops in afghanistan anyway with our "i see no unfunded procurement" budget as it is.

  17. jedibeeftrix - great post, thanks for the link.

  18. Agreed - excellent post, jedibeeftrix. And same to Gunslinger.

    Although they didn't involve serious challenges for UK forces, the repeated deployments to Sierra Leone in 2000/2001 (notably reliant on 16th Air Assault and the ARG, respectively) are probably both more recent and more representative of British engagements in the near future than the Falklands.

    I would add to JBT's post, though, that last time I checked, the EU's military structures remained almost entirely a paper tiger.

  19. you are absolutely correct. that is why the St Malo stuff was largely an opt-in agreement, with the encouragement for others to opt in, but in the interim france, poland and the netherlands are useful partners for coalition operations.

  20. @ Deus Ex: Fine, "retarded" then.

    @ Gunslinger: 6,000 is a fair bit bigger than a U.S. Army BCT, isn't it? That sounds to me like a brigade with an extra maneuver battalion or two on top of what we would have (maybe just one...I think British infantry battalions are about to get bigger), plus a whole bunch of extra support like - I would hope - aviation.

  21. Do you not see a serious weakness in your arguement when you complain the UK will be reliant on the US (we wont) and then a few comments later, your complaining, and I quote, "There is also the issue that our greatest ally cannot function as just that any longer. Just after we've learned a hard lesson on unilateralism, we've lost our best and biggest coalition partner who now could only provide a token force if we run into trouble."

    Your complaining the UK might expect US help it runs into trouble, and that the UK cant be relied on to provide three divisions at US beck and call?
    Who actualy dependant on who here?

  22. Regarding the Falklands Islands.
    The Falklands islands are defended by the Nuclear Submarine Fleet.

    And An airbase of course.
    Assuming Argentina got the drop on Mt pleasant and destroyed the Typhoons on the ground, not impossible, but far from easy, the battle has barely begun.
    An invasion force couldnt be deployed by air, the ground forces would just destroy the aircraft as they tried to land on the two airstrips, unkless Argentina has the Paratroopers to seize the islands, with a military presence in the thousands.

    Any Air Bridge would be overtasked supplying a light infantry Brigade, so anything heavier would have to come over the sea, and anything coming over the sea would be destroyed, Argentina lacking the capability to hunt down HMS Swiftsure, never mind HMS Asute.

    But not only could Swiftsure sink any invasion/supply convoys, they could destroy the Argentine Navy in port and attack the Argentine Mainland with Tomahawk.
    If the Americans refuse to sell the UK any more, the French have already fired a Storm Shadow derivative from their submarines torpedo tubes.

    We probably could land a Mechanised Brigade on the Falklands, a Brigade that will have seen combat in Afghanistan Twice, it will be facing at most three light infantry Brigades that havent seen combat since their last Falklands disaster.
    It would be a total victory.

    But we simply wouldnt need to.
    The Argentine Mainland would simply be bombarded by the silent service.
    Once the electricity has gone down because the transmission lines are all severed, Nestor will back down or be strung up.
    A Couple of BROACH warheads should be more than up to the task of cracking the dams if they're really obstinate.

  23. Nice job again Gunslinger. I'd be curious for some thoughts on other aspects of the spending review, particularly as this pertains to the UK's much vaunted "whole of government" approach (eg, "the Stabilisation Unit). I've spent the last two days in the UK (conference with DFID and FCO). Anyway, another concern these colleagues expressed was: how to manage the civilian side of these endeavors given cuts in staff and in the case of DFID a 37% budget increase (with no staff increases--the number of times, at lunch when a DFID person asked the rhetorical, I get 37% more cash but no people to manage?...). Thoughts everyone?

  24. Interesting debate fella's, my own thoughts are here:


    Just wanted to note that I finally got around to reading this, and it's fucking outstanding. Really, truly, excellent strategic thinking (and writing), something that's in short order in any country these days. Would that our national strategy process could actually be so clear-eyed and thought-through.

    Seriously, everybody else: if you haven't read this, go read it.

  25. cheers, it only really deals with the political arguments, and not the military given the host, but it would have been a dissertation otherwise.


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