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 the concluding Part III of a three-part series. You can read Part I here and Part II here.]
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Approaching the Review
We have spent some time on deterrence theory because we believe that in the present Covid-19 crisis and its financial and social consequences, the importance of our deterrent strategy and indeed an understanding of its foundations may be lost. We would urge that those addressing the review against the present challenging background, keep always in mind that whatever is proposed will bear on the credibility of a strategy that has served us well over many years and that deterring war is surely our principal objective.
In general, there are two possible approaches to a defence review. The first is, putting it very simply, to see what forces and capabilities we have, are in the process of constructing or have the ability to procure. These then can be cut or disposed of where they are judged to be too expensive and a strategy written subsequently to justify the resultant force structure. It is important to understand that while capabilities and equipment can be shed overnight, the creation of completely new capabilities, including providing appropriate equipment, properly trained manpower, suitable support facilities and operational doctrine is a key part of any capability. This takes in peacetime a long period; 10 years is not an excessive estimate, witness the replacement of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft. In the meantime, the nation is at the mercy of events which, as Covid-19 has shown, can have profound effect on the future, whilst being handled with whatever capabilities we have in service at the time.
The other approach, although it takes longer, involves more expertise and a good deal more work, is to conduct a global geostrategic review, determine what strategic role we, as UK, wish to be able to play in it, decide what defence and security capabilities we will require and then set out to acquire them. If this turns out to cost more than we wish to spend, as it might, then the initial strategic role and budget must be re-examined and reconciled. If the force structure is changed, the strategy must be too; and vice versa. But this approach too requires a long period of time to deliver a greatly changed force structure. Any ‘profound’ review must surely take this route, whilst remembering that events will not wait on our convenience.
The government of the UK appears to wish to play a major global role, influencing events globally and, presumably, wishing to remain a member of the Security Council P5. Unfortunately, playing a global role does not come cheaply. A nation’s ability to have significant influence abroad depends on a number of factors whose relative importance changes depending on who you are dealing with. But strong and demonstrably effective hard and soft power are both critical.
In the end, as Thucydides observed in the Melian dialogue in the 5th century BCE, a nation’s power and influence in the world depends, as it always has done, on its perceived ability to enforce its will when necessary. This in turn depends on our ability to outface opponents, if necessary with our military capability, at whatever level they challenge us. In a phrase – it depends on the credibility of our deterrence.
It is not our intention here to say that we should necessarily dispense with our nuclear capability, but we must bear in mind that continued erosion of our conventional and other non-nuclear capabilities must call into question the whole basis for credible deterrence. Thus. in our view an ISDR which aspires to be a fundamental and radical review, must, as a minimum:
- Analyse the global geostrategic scene and the trends emerging in it
- Examine the range of threats confronting us, both military and other
- Establish what our own aspirations are and what are the threats to them and be prepared to reset our aspirations if we are not prepared to afford them.
- Determine an appropriate mix of hard and soft power capabilities which appear convincing and credible not to ourselves, but to potential enemies.
- Ensure that we have a seamless, coherent force able to deal with the escalation ladder effectively to whatever level we feel we wish to afford, accepting the limitations that our cost limit imposes and making sure that every element of our deterrence posture, including all the elements of a survivable, coherent and credible nuclear deterrent if we decide to maintain one.
- Ensure that the plan has sufficient stability over time to allow sensible investment to be made and the defence and security forces to be developed and designed as planned
In advance of this, no part of our force structure should be exempt from review and no assumptions should be made. In particular this review must avoid falling into the trap of obsessing with specific systems and platforms. That is the professional job of military officers. Anything less would not represent a profound and thorough review of defence and security, and would simply be yet another in the long and dismal series of defence reviews which can only agree on salami slicing, which are misleadingly costed, which fail to provide adequate manpower and support, and which crumble under the pressure of real world events. This has been the fate of most defence reviews in the past half century and it is not an adequate or responsible way to address what successive governments of all colours have always claimed to be their first priority.
All this requires a level of intellectual and political honesty that has frequently been missing in defence reviews in the last generation. In particular, it requires close alignment between political ambition and military capability. Nothing could be more dangerous to national security than deluding ourselves about the level of real operational capability we can deploy at short notice. It is a very demanding challenge to all those involved in meeting the prime duty of any government
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 “As the world goes, right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. History is replete with examples of the truth of this statement
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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.