Plan for the Bosnians

The British Government is carrying out a defence review which will conclude in the first half of the year. On what basis should defence needs be decided now the Cold War is a distant memory? Should military chiefs still plan for high intensity conflict, or should they take more account of their allies, and the demands of disputes like Bosnia?

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 January 1998 4 minute READ

As promised in its manifesto and in an earlier document, the incoming Labour government announced in May a Strategic Defence Review (SDR). This was to be foreign policy led and the first step was for officials to draft a foreign policy baseline. The Defence Secretary was clear that whilst the review would naturally have to take account of resources, it should not be resource led. The Treasury had rather different ideas, but did not succeed in pressing them at that stage.

Outside bodies and members of the public have been invited to send the review their thoughts; seminars involving Ministers, officials and outsiders have been held; panels of experts have been established to look at particular questions.

Useful comment has appeared in public about major changes in force structure which the review might address. Rather than go over that ground again it may be more useful to consider some of the less obvious questions which have not received much public attention.

The review is an opportunity to consider the mechanisms of forceplanning, and how the British position links with that of NATO. The first part of that will be the subject of this article.

A more complex question which the SDR will not address is whether the £24 billion or so laid out on defence (£22bn), aid, culture, etc – all the instruments for projecting British interests in the world – is spent to maximise the effect on the national interest.

The active strength of UK forces is some 214,000, of which 112,00 are in the Army. The Royal Navy has 38 Principal surface combatants and 15 submarines; the RAF flys 450 combat aircraft.

The certainty is that resources will not be increased; indeed, at the end of the day, pressures from other expenditure programmes will probably require a cut in the defence budget.

At the same time, the experience of recent years has demonstrated new requirements of sustainability, mobility, and at least in certain respects, of readiness. British forces already are well ahead of almost all others in these areas but there is still much to do to adopt to current security needs. Almost all of these will mean additional resources, whether from outside the defence budget, or in practice by re-deployment within it.

The one partial exception is that some elements might be held at lower levels of readiness than in the past, although others will have to be at higher ones. It scarcely seems credible that the preparedness appropriate when the Soviet Union stood, heavily armed, in the centre of Europe, is required now with a weak Russia far away. The strategic deterrent should certainly be looked at in this context.

Free to choose

The area where the most consideration needs to be given to force planning procedures is perhaps in those activities once labelled Defence Role Three. This is where the British Government is free to choose to engage, or not, there being no Alliance obligation, nor absolute national requirement.

There has been change in the methodology of force planning, but there is scope for more. The activities and events which are likely to call for the engagement of British forces, with the exception of deployment in Northern Ireland, are not those which have driven force planning.

Defence of the United Kingdom and of its dependent territories, or major alliance activities to resist aggression, are unlikely to need early or substantial action. Instead there is a range of possibilities from disaster relief through peacekeeping and peace enforcement to a Gulf type engagement, which could require prompt intervention.

All these need mobility and the ability to sustain British forces for months rather than weeks. They are unlikely to require the United Kingdom to deploy any significant amount of specific kinds of heavy forces.

As regards ground forces, either the essential requirement will be to provide infantry with some combat support and combat service support (and possibly a good deal, relatively, of the latter), or there will have to be a judgement about what the United Kingdom must contribute to be politically credible, to have a seat at the appropriate table, and ensure that proper notice is taken in Washington of Lond o n ’s case.

A second key judgement to be factored in is what is needed, year by year, if the allies are to be encouraged to maintain suffic i e n t defence effort. This motivation of allies is almost certainly the most difficult of the force-planning questions, although the other important consideration, maintaining an insurance policy against Russia, is not without its difficulties.

No bad bear

Russia’s going to the bad in a way which would threaten Europe’s security is not in prospect, it is not likely, and it may well be very improbable. At the least it will not happen for a very considerable time.

Nevertheless the United Kingdom might well decide that though it does not need to cope in the immediate future with a major conflict of the sort envisaged during the years of the Cold War, it must yet maintain the capacity to re-constitute and re-generate. That means keeping an appropriate pool of skills, military and civilian, and a suitable industrial base, or at any rate a supply line.

So how might the SDR approach force planning? Though the Role Three type activities are almost by definition limitless, one possibility would be to assess what forces were required for Britain’s inescapable obligations – Northern Ireland, fisheries protection, the Falkland Islands garrison and so on. Other assets could then be added to enable the United Kingdom to play a role, as large or small as desired, in Role Three activities, taking account of available resources. There would then be a baseline against which to test how far other needs were met.

Linked with this, but essentially different because it is even more difficult to quantify, is the need to maintain cohesion and effort amongst allies. This has two aspects: sufficient contribution to convince the United States that it should remain engaged; and to inspire European allies to make appropriate contributions, joining Britain, should the need arise, to deal with a major regional conflict. It is not necessary for each and every ally to offer the full range of capabilities; indeed for smaller states that would not be practical.

There is no objective definitive measure of how much UK effort would be required for either objective. On the former, however, there must be combat capability, not simply financial or other non-combatant support.

It is not clear how far the strategic defence review will go in exploring these issues. It will certainly examine readiness, mobility, and sustainability. It is likely to start from a presumption that by planning for heavier high-intensity conflict it will provide the absolutely necessary insurance for the future. On that basis, there would be a range of capabilities to enable London to respond in significant measure to the Role Three type activities.

What is to be decided, however, is whether the review should also initiate force-planning from the other end, by considering the sort of contingencies which are actually likely to happen.

The defence secretary’s references to defence diplomacy, and the provision of suitable assets for that, suggest an understanding of the need to plan effectively for appropriate capabilities. The Ministry of Defence would still have to consider what more might be necessary to deal with the issues of reconstitution/regeneration, and alliance inspiration.

Intensity tangle

In such a revised approach it would be highly desirable for the review to clarify the tangle over high or low intensity, and high technologylow intensity.

As Bosnia has shown, a full range of platforms, and a number of heavy weapons, can be deployed on a peacekeeping or humanitarian mission. No one could suggest however that Bosnia represented high intensity warfare as envisaged for the central front in the Cold War.

Low intensity warfare was a useful concept when first developed. With the increasing variety of military operations, the development of technology, and the application of sophisticated intelligence gathering and weapons to what would otherwise be classified as low intensity operations, the whole area is in need of some sorting out. The essential distinction is between engaging a major enemy with a significant number of large and complex weapons systems or platforms, and involvement in other operations.

It is sometimes asserted that Britain must retain a full range of military capabilities and that it must not give up the capacity for high intensity warfare. British forces are contrasted favourably with a mere gendarmerie. The argument is then sometimes extended to reject the idea of basing force planning on operations other than high intensity warfare.

There is a logical flaw here. Planning for future Bosnias does not mean a soft option; it does not mean having no sophisticated equipment or no properly trained troops. What it does mean is having the troops and equipment, and all the sophistication necessary for complex operations, over a sustained period, often far from home base.

Troops who can go and do that can win in heavy fighting against a major enemy, particularly given time to reorder themselves, as would be the case for any major regional conflict in Europe. In short, there is good reason to start from a rather different set of attitudes toward different kinds of military activity than have prevailed in the past.