Written by Sir Jeremy Blackham and Sir Michael Graydon 



This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish it with their kind permission. This is Part I of a three-part series. 

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In their submission to the Integrated Defence & Security Review, the authors explain that nuclear deterrence not underpinned by credible conventional deterrence is a dangerous delusion. Whenever a new way of war fighting is developed, it does not ipso facto render existing forms obsolete. Rather it creates a new vulnerability. This truism is an essential part of the test for effective deterrence, which depends on a continuum of credible deterrence.

Some Contexts

The essence of dealing with threats, whether military or other, is to have identified those threats, actual or generic, which might arise and to make adequate plans to counter them. We must, too, ensure that we have the hard and soft power  available, properly manned and equipped as well as whatever other resources create real capability– industry, adequate stocks, friends and allies, treaty agreements etc – all available and ready.   If we doubted this, the Covid-19 experience should be a wake-up call to our response to national emergencies.  Such emergencies are unforgiving to those who fail to prepare.  Of course, there is a significant price tag to this, but the price tag for failure is very much higher on any measure.  Yet at the moment, even if you believe we have adequate forces for military and security emergencies, it is no secret that many of our capabilities are undermanned, insufficiently supported and do not meet their advertised specifications.

We now have in hand what is billed as the ‘the most profound review of Defence and Security since 1945’, described as ‘The Integrated Review of Defence and Security’.  Given the great depth and radical nature of the reviews of 1968, 1974, 1981 and even 1998, this is a big and ambitious claim.  If the security of the realm remains the first duty of Government, then this review must not just be profound, but a coherent, realistic and carefully judged review of the entire geo-strategic environment and of Britain’s role within it.  It must also deliver convincing means to respond to a world of increasing tension, in which nuclear weapons abound and environmental dangers, food shortage, disease and overpopulation pose existential threats to us all.

The United Kingdom has since 1945 relied increasingly on Alliances for its defence and security, particularly on NATO, on a so-called special relationship with America, and on shared strategies, principally deterrence, for its security. Without shared political alignment, alliances fare less well; the strongest are those based on mutual benefit. We can say therefore that Brexit adds considerable complexity to the task. Moreover, past experience suggests that our departure from the EU will  increase the pressure from France for a European Army and for a greatly increased European self-determination in the security field; without UK to argue against this, NATO could be seriously weakened. Additionally, whilst a new resident in the White House might change course, the tide of American connection to Europe and NATO under Trump is moving towards the far east and relationships are at a level of discord not seen for decades. The UK’s security can no longer be taken for granted.

Deterrence and Deterrence Strategy

Given the significance of deterrence strategy, a discussion of this issue, once widely taught and understood, deserves some explanation and analysis.  It is not simply about nuclear deterrence.  Fundamentally its purpose is to persuade a potential enemy that he cannot expect to succeed with a military, cyber or other attack without risking significant damage to his own interests if he persists.  He is therefore faced with an escalation from this level of aggression, and if this too is deterred in the same way he has serious choices to make, since the end of escalation is massive nuclear exchange from which no-one can gain; indeed humanity is more likely to be destroyed.  It is vitally important to understand that the success of deterrence does not reside in what we think about our forces and capability, but rather in what the potential enemy thinks – does he find our overall deterrence posture credible enough to deter him?

It follows from this that although we, in UK, have deliberately never foresworn the first use of nuclear weapons, any first nuclear use is so transformational in a conflict  that it is  unlikely  to be considered until our very existence is threatened.  If our conventional capability is such that we reach its limits at a level of force below an existential threat, an enemy is unlikely to believe that we would resort to nuclear weapons and we may be obliged to capitulate before any nuclear weapons are used.  In other words, weakened conventional capability renders the nuclear level of deterrence both incredible and irrelevant. Looking round the world at our potential adversaries, it seems plain that we are close to or beyond that point already.

Thus, any conventional military action must be deterred if we are to reduce the risk of escalation. The key here is that deterrence is a broad continuum; conventional deterrence also deters. The threatened use of conventional force, at a lower level of intensity, is genuinely credible because it is plainly usable. Any potential adversary is likely to believe in the possibility of its use, but only provided that it is also clearly sufficient for the particular purpose or operation to hand. And in so doing it can snuff out dangers before they escalate, thus preventing bad things happening and getting worse, and greatly reducing the risk of unstoppable escalation towards ‘nuclear territory.’ Nuclear deterrence that is not underpinned by serious conventional capability is a dangerous delusion.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon served as a fast jet pilot (Lightnings), later as Air Officer Commander in Chief Support Command during the first Gulf War and subsequently AOC in C Strike Command.  His final appointment was as Chief of the Air Staff.  Importantly for this article he once served as Assistant Chief of Staff (Policy) at SHAPE..  Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich. Subsequently he served as Deputy Commander in Chief Fleet and as Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for Capability.  On retirement he edited The Naval Review and is a visiting lecturer at KCL.  Both authors are frequently published writers and lecturers on defence and security matters. 

[To be continued tomorrow in Part II] 

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