Too often defence pundits stack up the supposed military strengths of potential protagonists as a starting point for justifying either to increase or cut defence expenditure.
We talk of numbers of tanks, numbers of aircraft and numbers of troops and assume that parity in this system or that weaponry somehow acts as a deterrent against war against either state or terrorist actors.
That’s far too simple. But it does count for something.
We have, since the major 1998 Strategic Defence Review rather hoped, along with the rest of Europe, that Cold War tensions, apparently eased since the fall of the Soviet Union, would deliver a peace dividend.
Sure enough, rather than have a defence strategy geared around the worst possible scenario, we have procured and organised our armed forces around the hope that nothing really serious could happen.
Of course, then there was 9/11.
9/11 and America’s invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty made Britain and other treaty partners send troops and assets to fight in Afghanistan. Then there was 2003, and the second Gulf War. But in both these conflicts Britain and its allies have only faced technologically inferior and largely irregular forces.
With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its interventions in Ukraine, actions in Georgia and now by fighting and defeating ISIS in Syria, we have witnessed Moscow’s prowess both in winning wars by regular or irregular means and gaining territories without the slightest danger of NATO or US opposition. But during all this time, whilst Russia has relentlessly modernised its equipment and professionalised its armed forces, Britain and Europe, particularly Germany, has run its own capabilities down, to levels which are at least risky, and could be catastrophic.
Statistics relating to defence spending as a proportion of GDP are meaningless, as Britain is notoriously poor at converting procurement pounds into tangible military assets; however, we supposedly spend 2% of GDP on defence. Germany only 1.2%. Russia at least 5%. Probably more. But whilst Britain and Germany struggle with obsolescent systems and particularly sheer lack of numbers of aircraft, ships and troops, Russia has invested in state-of-the-art weaponry…and has lots of it.
As it stands today, Britain has only 4 fighter aircraft on quick reaction alert at any one time (2 at RAF Lossiemouth and 2 at RAF Coningsby). Britain has no land based anti- aircraft missile defences at all if one excludes the ancient and extremely vulnerable short range Rapier systems which came into service in 1971 or the hand held Starstreak system, which is a last-ditch weapon with a range of less than 4 miles. Just so you know, only airfields are defended, and only out to 5 miles.
Russia has, with its superb long-range S-400 system alone at least 1200 launch tubes with an undisclosed number of missiles deployed in 41 battalions within 21 artillery regiments. These are up-to Mach 11 missiles with ranges of about 250 miles and can reach space. Stealth is no defence against the S-400 guidance radars.
So why is this even relevant?
Simply because if Russia did decide to invade the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania it would have the capability, with its missile air-defence shield alone, to dominate the skies as far as Germany, from bases entirely in Russia. We are not even counting its incredibly capable air force, tested in Syria, with its intercontinental-range supersonic heavy bombers and air-superiority fighters (it has over a thousand of them) that would make mincemeat out of Britain and Germany’s totally obsolete Tornado ‘force’.
By the way, Britain can only fly 6 attack aircraft (Tornados) at any one time and Germany 19. The rest are cannibalised for parts. As for Typhoons, Britain and Germany’s only true fighters (of which there are less than 80 deployable), none could be deployed that were not within range of Russia’s air defences by land or sea.
So, back to the title of this essay “Dead in a Day”. I had a long conversation with a very senior recently retired army officer just a few weeks ago, ahead of the RUSI lecture regarding defence given by General Sir Nick Carter (watch here). He used the expression to describe what would likely happen if there were a conflict in the Baltics.
As the Baltic states are in NATO we would be obliged by treaty to attempt to defend them if Russia decided to invade. If in the unlikely event that we, as part of a NATO force managed to respond without being shot out of the skies or overwhelmed in a day by vastly numerically superior and better equipped ground forces, Russia could, with naval assets in the Atlantic, Black Sea and Mediterranean providing an anti-aircraft shield over the entire most of Western Europe and by using long range aviation, wipe out the RAF and the Luftwaffe in a day on the ground or as they took off.
Russia could also wipe out the two defenceless QE carriers docked in Portsmouth and all the Royal Navy’s Daring Class destroyers which are currently in port using long range stand-off missiles, against which Britain has ABSOLUTELY NO CURRENT DEFENCE. In one day.
There would be no nuclear exchange from either side.
NATO countries like France, Italy, Spain and Greece might well be reticent to fight actions supporting Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia if the likelihood were that they would suffer a similar fate to us.
Imagine the utterly catastrophic results of that, politically, militarily and economically.
Or don’t, if you want to stick your head in the sand like Germany and like Mrs. May and just hope for the best.
Lying to ourselves about the capabilities of ‘special forces’ or tiny deployments of men and machines in Europe or convincing ourselves on the willingness of our European allies to have a punch-up with Russia does not fool or scare President Putin in the slightest.
Nor does an arbitrary increase in largely wasteful British defence spending, combined with our ludicrously ambitious policy of policing anything other than Britain or its near-neighbours.
We really must start thinking about the priority of territorial defences of the UK, including high grade anti-aircraft systems and the protection of our own trading routes by dramatically increasing the size of the Royal Navy. Scrap the useless carriers which can only be used for power projection and which are neither defendable or will even fully equipped for another 10 years.
Let Europe defend its own territory or, like Germany, riding off the back of the United States and Britain, it will continue to drain OUR resources whilst putting Britain at risk of conflict with Russia about territories three-thousand miles away in the East. We could not defend Poland in 1939, we certainly cannot defend Estonia in 2018.
It’s time Britain looked after itself and adopted the policy of the porcupine, a tasty morsel, but not worth the pain of attacking whilst easier prey is available.
That should be our policy to refine, develop and act on. Quickly.