UK Defence: A Test Case

The success of the air and naval intervention against Libya in 2011, in which Britain is playing a prominent role, should be judged in terms of the effect it has on the Libyan people, their quality of life, and the cohesion of their country.

The World Today Published 1 May 2011 Updated 7 December 2018 4 minute READ

When the residents of Benghazi and Misrata ask “What did NATO ever do for us?”, there needs to be a clear, constructive and durable answer. And in spite of the tentative wording of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973, the unwritten goal of the intervention can only be regime change, whereby the grip of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his family – a striking combination of menace and eccentricity – is forever broken by one means or another.

The two British operations taking place under the mandate of UNSCR 1973 – Operation Ellamy (the air campaign) and Operation U0nified Protector (NATO’s maritime enforcement of the arms embargo against Libya) – could also prove to be extremely significant for British national strategy. After several months of evaluation, the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) were both published in October 2010. In light of Britain’s contribution to these operations, does the 2010 strategy review look fit for purpose?

At first glance, British national strategy has met the test set for it by Prime Minister David Cameron’s early decision to intervene. Royal Navy surface warships, attack submarines and support vessels, and Royal Air Force combat, reconnaissance, transport and fuel tanker aircraft have all performed as required. The intervention in Libya could therefore be said to have confirmed the wisdom of the ‘adaptable posture’ chosen by the authors of the SDSR as the best description of Britain’s overall strategic policy framework. Among several other things, the ‘adaptable posture’ would enable Britain to ‘focus and integrate diplomatic, intelligence, defence and other capabilities on preventing internationalmilitary crises, while retaining the ability to respond should they nevertheless materialise.’ There could hardly be a better script to describe Britain’s intervention in Libya – provided, of course that the intervention does not last too long or cost much more than the ‘tens of millions’ the Chancellor of the Exchequer appears willing to spend on it.

But there is another interpretation. Many of the military capabilities being used in and around Libya are destined for reduction or even ‘deletion’ under the SDSR, as the first steps towards ensuring that by 2020 Britain will have the ‘national security capabilities it needs’, without any ‘legacy equipment for which there is no requirement.’ HMS Cumberland, a 25-year old Type 22 frigate, was due to be decommissioned in spring 2011, along with the remaining two warships in her class. HMS Cumberland has been given a brief stay of execution, partly no doubt because the ship has an advanced signals intelligence capability, as well as command, control and communications systems which enable her to be a Flagship for maritime operations of the sort now being run off the coast of Libya. The Nimrod R1 reconnaissance aircraft, due to be retired in March 2011, will now remain in service for several more months before Royal Air Force (RAF) crews can begin co-piloting US Rivet Joint aircraft; a working arrangement which will cover the gap in capability before the RAF takes ownership of three of these aircraft in 2014. The Sentinel R1 stand-off airborne ground surveillance aircraft has also been deployed over Libya and is due to be scrapped once Britain has withdrawn from Afghanistan. Tornado GR4 ground attack aircraft have taken a leading role in the air operation (the newer Typhoon has so far been much less involved), yet in accordance with the SDSR the number of Tornado squadrons was to be reduced from seven to five on June 1, 2011, leaving a fleet of 136 aircraft which, the SDSR notes, ‘risk becoming outdated as threats continue to become more varied and sophisticated.’ Although the disbandment of the two Tornado squadrons will proceed as planned, their aircraft will now be distributed to other squadrons so that enough will be available for operations in Libya.

Plainly, it cannot be said that there is ‘no requirement’ for these warships and aircraft, and the obvious question to ask is whether Britain could have made a contribution to the intervention in Libya had the crisis developed later in 2011, when most of the decommissionings, disbandments and retirements would otherwise have taken place. Ironically, it is Britain’s very ability to contribute to the intervention in Libya in spring 2011 which shows not only that it would not have been possible to do such a thing in a few months time, but also that the credibility of the SDSR is in doubt. Security and defence reviews usually end ignominiously: as circumstances change, a national strategic posture comes to the end of its useful life and has to be replaced. But it would be unusual for a review to have a shelf-life of less than six months; if this is the fate of the NSS and SDSR then this review will have been one of the fastest failures in modern British strategic history.

The intervention in Libya is also a test case for the noble but rather tarnished and almost forgotten doctrine of humanitarian intervention – the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), published in 2001 and endorsed by the United Nations in 2006. The motive behind R2P was to ensure that outrages such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which approximately one million Rwandans were massacred, could not be repeated. Thus, the opening pages of R2P assert that ‘Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.’ Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party has recently taken a more cautious line on this matter. The Conservatives’ 2010 general election manifesto contained a number of relevant observations: ‘our policy must be hard-headed and practical, dealing with the world as it is and not as we wish it were’; ‘we are sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world’; and ‘we will support humanitarian intervention when it is practical and necessary.’ In a similar vein, in a speech in Cairo in February 2011 Cameron noted ‘I am not a naïve neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at forty-thousand feet.’ Yet within weeks of that speech British combat aircraft were flying over Libya on a mission to protect civilians from brutalisation by Gaddafi and his forces. And although the military goal of the intervention is tightly circumscribed by UNSCR 1973, the government’s not-so tacit ‘political’ goal is regime change so that the Libyan people can secure for themselves a better future and western Europe can ensure a reasonably peaceful neighbourhood. In other words, Britain sees itself contributing to the remaking of Libya (if not yet the world).

It is too early to know how and when the intervention in Libya will end. It is also too early to know the extent of the revival of R2P, if that is what is taking place. Might there soon be another population in need of UN Security Council Resolutions, no fly zones and maritime embargoes? Where next to debate whether ‘rebels’ should be armed in order to liberate themselves from oppression? What is clear, however, is that it will be difficult for Britain to extract itself very easily from either the incident (Libya) or the idea (the revival of R2P). It would now be unthinkable for Britain to absent itself fromOperations Ellamy and Unified Protector – perhaps on the grounds that military operations were meant to be concluded within a few weeks and that the costs are ramping up – and still retain credibility in and around Europe, with the United States and internationally. Equally, it seems unlikely that David Cameron could now rediscover his inner sceptic. In his statement to the House of Commons on February 28, Cameron made his ethically high-minded, universalist and regime-changing position clear: ‘we must not remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success. Freedom of expression, a free press, freedom of assembly, the right to demonstrate peacefully: these are basic rights’; ‘They are not British or western values – but the values of human beings everywhere’; ‘For the future of Libya and its people, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime must end and he must leave.’

As far as the intervention in Libya is concerned, British national strategy does indeed appear to be fit for purpose – but as much by luck as by judgment. National strategy is not just about policy goals any more than it is just about capabilities (military and other): national strategy is about ensuring a balance over time between policy and capability. Using language which resonates with military people, the 2010 National Security Strategy is clear that Britain should have the capabilities necessary to achieve its foreign and security policy goals: ‘a national security strategy, like any strategy, must be a combination of ends (what we are seeking to achieve), ways (the ways by which we seek to achieve those ends) and means (the resources we can devote to achieving the ends).’ The task of the SDSR is to ensure that the ‘ways and means’ are in place. The problem for British national strategy is that if foreign policy goals and commitments are to become more ambitious while military capabilities are being cut to the bone, then the essential relationship between ends, ways and means will come under increasing strain. Over the next five to ten years, will the SDSR be able to provide David Cameron with the ways and means to finish what he seems to have started, or will the 2010 national strategy and its ‘adaptable posture’ meet the same ignominious end as HMS Cumberland; in high demand but unfortunately not affordable?