The Importance of Alliances

Pictured are Royal Marines from X-Ray Company, 45 Commando, have taken part in a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel (TRAP) scenario during Exercise Trident Juncture 18.  They deployed from American CH-53 helicopters with a Para Jumper (PJ) Personnel Recovery specialist from the United States Air Force to rescue two downed Fast air pilots.


The Importance of Alliances


Within the global strategic framework there is a necessity for UK to cement its position within international institutions and alliances – the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), The Commonwealth, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (FVEY), Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) et al. In short the UK needs to articulate its Strategic position vis-a-vis national interests and its relationship with friends and allies worldwide.

Today, a revanchist Russia in the West, meddling and hostile Iran in the Middle East (ME) and Chinese hegemony in the East and Pacific can be viewed as overt threats to UK and allied interests. The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now larger than the United States Navy (USN) and when taken together with the expansion – technologically, quantitatively and qualitatively – of Russia and Iran this speaks to the need for UK to increase its international diplomatic and military cooperation through alliances.

For the UK the strategic importance of these alliances must drive Foreign and Defence Policy through leadership and example. Therefore, the recent announcement by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, of an increase in defence expenditure over the next 4 years should be most warmly welcomed as a step on the right direction. On one level it can be held up as an example of UK stepping up whilst some of European allies continue to drag their feet.

In the last few decades the USA has supplied the lions share of the hardware, resources and manpower in the Pacific, ME and NATO areas of responsibility (AOR) and this cannot continue. It is already a bone of contention in the USA notwithstanding the change in US President. The PM’s announcement is a good start and a useful marker for Mr Biden’s new administration to note when setting their future foreign policy objectives and international strategies.

Main Discussion

In the past, and certainly since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, complacent British Governments have been able to pare back Defence and Foreign Office spending, especially in the NATO AOR, by relying on the largesse of USA taxpayers to fill the gaps. In the Pacific, Far East and South China Sea British foreign policy, until recently, was to acquiesce to Chinese excesses – treat them like ‘peccadilloes’ rather than the affront to international law they are. Territorial border incursions, threats to free navigation, human rights abuses, and threats to the independent political and judicial status of UK’s former colony in Hong Kong are not trivial matters and if left unchallenged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will assume that it can transgress with impunity.

The Threat

Now, however, Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) is starting to wake up to the dual threat posed by Russia and China – but less so Iran. In the latter case the UK’s lack of a national strategy in favour of following European Union (EU) External Action Service (EAS) foreign policy has ensured that UK, Germany and France are currently at odds with their principal NATO ally, the USA. The question for an independent UK, freed from adherence to EU EAS policy, is whether our national interest lie more naturally in alliance with the USA, Israel and further afield?

The Integrated Review and Global Britain

As HMG wrestles with the financial legacy of its Covid-19 policy it must still decide what to do about Defence and Foreign Policy. The Integrated Defence and Foreign Policy Review (IDFPR) was to be the vehicle chosen for this task but may now not report until early in 2021, however, it is imperative that HMG completes the IDFPR in order to articulate HMG’s Strategic vision for UK.

It is welcome that the added pressure of a one year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement for the struggling Defence Procurement budget has been lifted. For this we must thank the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Ben Wallace, for getting the PM on side when he told parliament that the emerging and very real threats we face will not wait for the UK to catch up.

The 4 year CSR time frame offers HM Armed Forces and the Defence Industries that serve them some welcome surety as to budgeting but they still need long term continuity and a drumbeat of orders so that they can meet the future with confidence. Indeed, it would be more than helpful if in the long term a change to the current ‘annuality’ rules so beloved of HM Treasury could be agreed. However, most of all, what HM Armed Forces and Industry need is to know what HMG expects them to provide, over what time frame, to do what, where, when and why? The Strategy!

Alliances are a Major Driver

There is solid logic behind getting the IDFPR completed so that HMG can set its ‘Global Britain’ Strategy in context. Then fund the necessary military and diplomatic enablers required to ensure the strategy can be implemented guided by the answers to those what, where, when and why questions. In the vanguard of any strategic consideration for the UK must be an admission that ‘Full Spectrum Capability’ is only achievable in limited circumstances and that a major UK overseas operations against a peer adversary must be in conjunction with allies.

Ad-hoc Bi-lateral diplomatic effort and combined military strength can provide a response providing opportunities to pool and share resources but such arrangements can be sluggish to implement and complicated when multiple layers of military and political decision making are introduced at short notice. This is why Alliances like NATO, with an established political and military command structure, using pre-prepared and tested operational plans, offer more credible deterrence than ad hoc, crisis driven, coalitions.

In this respect NATO is the bedrock of UK, European, Canadian and USA defence and must continue to be so, especially in deterring Russia. However, the AOR for the NATO alliance is limited by Article 6 of the 1949 Atlantic Treaty1: Article 6 (1) For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack: • on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America… on the territory of or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer; • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

For UK to engage South of the Tropic of Cancer it may be necessary to look for allies beyond NATO as in previous UK out of area operations – ie Falklands – support from some NATO allies was half hearted at best. Which is why military agreements with the USA, India and FPDA2 nations are helpful in an emergency in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea or South Pacific.

However, the UK’s response, if facing down a threat from China, will require a more robust and formal arrangement/alliance. Therefore, it can be argued that UK Strategy must include a call for the creation of strong alliances with the USA, Japan, India and FPDA nations – possibly using the extant Indo-Pacific Treaty Organisation (IPTO) and inviting India and Japan to lead.3 The renewal of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) along NATO lines but with strong South Asia and Japanese leadership at its heart could fill the alliance gap and create maritime, land, air, space and cyber forces that, when combined and acting in concert can challenge, possibly deter, Chinese Hegemony.


HMG must recognise that its ‘Global Britain’ pretensions will remain just that until a fully articulated and funded UK Strategy has been put in place. The starting point for this will be the IDFPR now sadly deferred until early 2021. However, it is encouraging that the Treasury’s ‘single year’ CSR proposal does not apply to MOD and that the agreed 4 year settlement (an additional circa £16.5bn) will allow for more continuity and certainty within procurement programmes.

However, for ‘Global Britain’ to be meaningful and not just a mantra then an articulated UK Strategy must include a declaration of support for, and defence of, our allies beyond the NATO AOR. This recognises a step change in British Foreign and Defence Policy reversing the ‘East of Suez’ policy as originally proposed in the British Government’s Cabinet papers dated September 1967.4 This will mean that UK is willing to commit to providing military forces on more than a single front.

To do so requires an order of battle for HM Forces that is reorganised and reconstituted to allow for a possibility of having to commit to simultaneous military action in two geographically dispersed areas – North and South of the Tropic of Cancer. As no one nation (with the possible exception of the USA) can confront two peer opponents at the same time, pooling diplomatic and military resources within an alliance with pre-agreed and common aims and goals, is the most obvious solution.

Dave Tisdale

23 November 2020

About the author:

Dave Tisdale served in the RAF Supply and Movements Branch of the Royal Air Force for 25 years. He specialised in Tactical Supply with the Harrier Field Force, worldwide bulk fuel movement and storage and overseas major deployment planning. Inter alia Dave commanded two Flights and two Squadrons and served in 4 command appointments. RAF Coltishall (Jaguar Force), MOD Provisioning, HQ Support Command Aircraft Servicing Support, RAF Ascension Island, Supply and Transport Squadron RAF Valley, the joint Army/RAF Supply Squadron in the Cyprus Logistics Unit, G4 to UNPROFOR in Bosnia 1994/95 and finally as Logistic Plans and Operational Support in HQ Strike Command.

He spent 5 of his formative years prior to joining the RAF living in Singapore and during his service he led two teams on expeditions into the Trusan Valley area of Sarawak, Malaysia.

Dave is one of the founding members of DefenceSynergia