British Strategy in an Age of Uncertainty

DS is pleased to publish Dr James Bosbotinis’s  most welcome paper on UK strategy.

British Strategy in an Age of Uncertainty

Dr James Bosbotinis

British strategy is confronted by two distinct challenges. The first is an international system in a period of major flux characterised by a resurgent Russia, rising China, an increasingly prosperous and strategically important Asia-Pacific and instability across the Greater Middle East – the latter highlighted particularly by such threats as that posed by the so-called Islamic State and the consequences of the on-going Syrian Civil War. The second concerns the threat to Britain’s military posture and credibility caused by successive defence cuts. This is exemplified by such notable cases as ‘gapping’ Carrier Strike for a decade, foregoing a maritime patrol aircraft capability, reducing the Royal Navy’s fleet of surface combatants to just 19 destroyers and frigates, and the Royal Air Force possessing only seven fast-jet squadrons. Moreover, as Russia’s actions toward Ukraine and more generally since early 2014 highlight, the global strategic environment is subject to ‘sudden’ and major shifts that challenge existing perceptions and expectations (notwithstanding, in the Russian case, a decade of warning signals). In this respect, assumptions underpinning defence policy and force structure can be rendered obsolete in short order.

Ahead of the imminent publication of the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), this article first provides an overview of the evolving strategic environment, focusing particularly on the return of Great Power rivalries, state collapse and regional instability, and the importance of the globalised trading system. The implications for the future operating environment and Britain’s armed forces are then considered. Strategic uncertainty and the diversity of threats points to versatile and adaptable armed forces capable of responding to a myriad of contingencies, ranging from, for example, countering a terrorist threat to the UK emanating from a collapsing state, to contributing to deterring Russian ambitions in Europe. Finally, this article considers whether a maritime approach to national military strategy would provide Britain with the strategic means to fulfil its national policy goals in an age of change and uncertainty.
A Strategic Environment in Flux
The most pressing challenge arguably confronting British strategy in the coming decades is that posed by a shifting international system, most starkly illustrated by the return of Great Power rivalry. Of particular concern has to be Russia’s willingness to use military power – including direct force – to challenge the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. The Russian Armed Forces focus their training and development activities on preparing for large-scale operations, including the use of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, typically against the United States and NATO. Russia has also embarked on a comprehensive military modernisation effort intended to replace the majority of the Russian military’s current, predominantly Soviet origin, hardware with new systems providing a significant qualitative improvement in military capability. Further, Russia is also reported to be pursuing the development of weapon systems in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a key component of the US-Russia arms control process, and again highlighting the strategic challenge posed by Moscow as it seeks recognition of its Great Power status. It warrants mention that the Russian economy and industrial base serve as major constraints and may curtail Russia’s rearmament plans. However, economic weakness may not limit Russia’s ambitions and willingness to challenge the status quo, but rather act as a catalyst for action to create a more favourable position.
The rise of China, whilst not posing a direct military threat to the UK, will also be an increasingly important factor in British strategy, both as China expands its geographical reach and as it grows more assertive in the Asia-Pacific. Although the Asia-Pacific may be geographically distant from the UK, the region’s growing economic and strategic significance, plus enduring UK ties to the region, particularly via the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (encompassing the Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK), and the inherently interconnected nature of the international system, mean the region cannot be ignored. In this regard, territorial disputes – of which China is a major party – in the South and East China Seas, the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula or a China-US conflict (sparked for example by a Chinese attempt to forcibly reintegrate Taiwan), challenges to the rules-based international system, and the consequences for the global economy, are thus relevant to the development of British strategy. Notably the Foreign Secretary, in a speech given to the IISS in Singapore in January 2015, referred to Britain’s readiness to mobilise in support of friends and allies in the region; as will be discussed below, maritime forces, would be particularly suited to such a contingency.
The Middle East is likely to remain an enduring area of distinct relevance to British strategy, for three principal reasons. First, the destabilisation of the region (most notably in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen) and the increasing threat from Islamist terrorist organisations, especially represented by Islamic State, and their proximity, and intent to attack Europe, will likely necessitate targeted interventions alongside regional allies. Second, the region remains an area of intense geopolitical rivalry, involving both regional and extra-regional powers. In this regard, the regional context is likely to become more complex as Iran and Saudi Arabia both aspire to regional leadership, the United Arab Emirates pursues a greater regional role and as Turkey grows in strength and confidence. Third, the Middle East, by virtue of its hydrocarbon resources, remains of central importance to the global economy, whilst the Gulf states are seeking to diversify their economies, and the region sits astride key sea lines of communication linking Europe and Asia via the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf states to markets in Asia and Europe. For Britain, the Middle East is a major source of energy imports (particularly liquefied natural gas from Qatar), a customer for defence and other exports, home to many expatriates (for example, in the UAE), and allied states (such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE). Moreover, Bahrain is home to the UK’s first permanent naval base, HMS Juffair, established ‘East of Suez’ since the withdrawal from such deployments completed in 1971; HMS Juffair, opened in October 2015, will be capable of hosting the forthcoming Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
The stability of the international system itself constitutes a core British interest. The UK is dependent on the global trading system (itself dependent to a significant extent, on maritime trade and communications) and access to strategic resources overseas for its prosperity; for example, according the A. T. Kearney Global Cities Index, London is the second most globalised city in the world (after New York), and the UK as a whole is one of the most globally engaged countries. In addition, the globalisation of economic activity, in particular the development of global value chains, whereby different stages of the production process are located across different countries, means that instability in, say a region that is home to an element of a global value chain, or the source of an input (perhaps a natural resource), can have a cascading effect through the entire system. This is particularly so as global value chains are themselves interconnected. This is not to argue that British strategy should be based on a requirement to single-handedly defend the entire international trading system. Rather, it points to the need for Britain to be capable of responding in an agile and flexible manner, either unilaterally or in coalition, to potential disruptive threats, including at source. More broadly, it requires an ability to project military power in order, with allies and partners, to help to shape the international system.
The Future Operating Environment
In contrast to the focus on stabilisation and counter-insurgency of the first decade of the 21st century, British strategy in the coming decades will need to focus on higher-intensity conflict scenarios. This may include potentially operating in the face of advanced anti-access and area denial systems, such as precision-guided missiles and artillery, high-end air defences and submarines, and fifth generation combat aircraft: the Russian Sukhoi T-50 and Chinese Shenyang FC-31 are representative of potential fifth generation air threats. In addition, as demonstrated by Hezbollah in its 2006 conflict with Israel, and the capabilities possessed by the ‘separatist’ proxy forces in eastern Ukraine, the means to conduct high-intensity war fighting is not restricted to state adversaries. In this regard, British strategy has to take into account both the increased threat posed by non-state, and state proxy forces, and the resurgence of Great Power rivalry – represented in military terms at the highest level, by the possibility of conflict with Russia or China, or forces backed by Moscow or Beijing. In short, the combination of an increased military threat from potential adversaries, possibly backed or at least armed by a major power, and a less permissive geopolitical environment, may act as a significant constraint on the ability to secure access, basing and overflight (ABO) rights for expeditionary operations.
In its 2010 paper on the ‘Future Character of Conflict’, the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, described the likely future operating environment as ‘congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained’, and increasingly focused on urban and littoral (that is, coastal) areas. The importance of the littoral is highlighted by the fact that by 2020, 80 per cent of the world’s population will live within 100 miles of the sea, and that an ever-increasing amount of economic activity, ranging from fishing and tourism through to off-shore energy infrastructure, is occurring with this zone. Further, eight of the ten largest cities in the world are situated on the coast. Together with the growing hybrid (encompassing a mix of conventional, asymmetric and irregular) threat, the spectrum – ranging from low to high-end – of challenges likely to be encountered in the future operating environment point to a requirement for versatile and agile forces capable of operating against emergent threats and challenges. Moreover, due to the potential for constraints on ABO, British forces may have to gain access to, and operate where they are not invited: in such a context, maritime, or maritime-enabled, forces hold particular utility.
A Maritime Strategy?
First, it must be emphasised that a maritime strategy should not be confused with a naval strategy. For the purposes of this article, a Maritime Strategy constitutes a maritime approach to national military strategy: it is an inherently joint endeavour and building upon the inter-dependence of the three armed services, it should seek to integrate the efforts of the three services in pursuit of success, whilst exploiting the attributes of the maritime environment for operational advantage. In this regard, developing a cross-domain capability, as already possessed by the Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm, is central: that is, the ability to operate effectively across the physical environments (air, land and sea). In this context, it refers specifically to the ability to operate proficiently from the maritime environment into the land or air environments, utilising amphibious capabilities or carrier basing.
The utility of a Maritime Strategy draws particularly from two points. First, the ability to utilise the sea as a means of communication and access, provides maritime forces with the ability to exploit a manoeuvre space encompassing 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, free from restriction (the high seas are a global commons and warships have the right of innocent passage through international straits and archipelagic waters). The key attributes of access, mobility, versatility, sustainability and leverage enable maritime forces to exercise influence via a forward presence on a sustained basis. The aircraft carrier adds to this the ability to provide organic airpower, independent of access, basing and over-flight issues, whilst moving up to 500 miles a day, in support of national interests. Second, a maritime strategy links the sea with joint forces – it is not a naval-centric strategy. In this respect, the purpose of a maritime strategy is to enable access to, and shape the battlespace across the environmental domains in order to secure a positive outcome for the country’s national policy aims. That is, a major role for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force under such a strategy, would be securing access to the operational area and facilitating the deployment of ground forces by, for example, reducing the efficacy of enemy ground and seaward defences (precursor operations) and also through securing control of maritime communications, in order to allow their exploitation for the purpose of projecting power (at sea or from the sea) whilst denying their use to an adversary. From this, theatre access can be secured, even if not invited, thereby enabling the deployment of, and provision of support to the Army.
In essence, the principal focus for a maritime strategy is not equipment (albeit accounting for the requirement for maritime-capable systems as an enabler), but rather, conceptual. It is in this regard that the role of the Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm is especially significant; they are examples of forces with an extant cross-domain capability and possess the necessary ‘domain expertise’ required to facilitate the integration of units unfamiliar with the maritime environment into sea-based operations. The deployment of Army Air Corp Apache attack helicopters on-board HMS Ocean during Operation Unified Protector, the 2011 campaign against Libya, provides a practical example of cross-domain interoperability.
The Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers provide a significant opportunity for the development of cross-domain operations, and contingent on the RAF and Army Air Corp developing a certain level of maritime proficiency, the potential to confer those services with the ability to utilise sea-basing for short-duration operations such as staging into a theatre, the provision of specialist niche capabilities or Special Forces support. More broadly, the QEC, if policy allows the full realisation of their potential, could provide the core of an extremely powerful, versatile and credible maritime task group. For example, in the aforementioned case of a contingency in the Far East, a QEC-led task group, operating alongside a Royal Australian Navy Canberra-class-led task group, would provide a maritime intervention capability second only to that possessed by the US Navy.
Conclusion
The discussion in this article has been based on the assumption that British national policy will remain predicated (as defined in the National Security Strategy) on possessing the means to project power and influence, albeit on a limited scale, globally. The preceding discussion on the potential utility of a Maritime Strategy should not be seen as arguing for a naval-centric approach to Britain’s defence requirements. Rather, it is suggested that a maritime-enabled expeditionary approach to Britain’s defence and national policy needs may constitute an affordable, effective and credible solution for British national policy. Based on Britain’s dependence on the globalised trading system, an evolving international system that is increasingly multi-polar and unstable, and emergent military trends, a Maritime Strategy would provide the necessary means required to protect and project Britain’s interests in an uncertain strategic environment. Moreover, the adoption of such a strategy would facilitate a closer harmonisation of national policy, military strategy and defence industrial policy, thus contributing to addressing the problems of short-termism in British defence policy and the lack of a grand strategy (both issues are unfortunately beyond the scope of this necessarily brief article). Most importantly, this could aid in reassuring the UK’s friends and allies of British credibility, following a period of strategic shrinkage. Conversely, the flexibility, versatility and ability to go where one is not invited provided by a Maritime Strategy would serve as a potent deterrent to would-be adversaries, and remove one aspect of uncertainty in the evolving international system: the ability of Britain to respond credibly, either unilaterally or with allies, to emergent challenges to the system upon which collective prosperity depends.