hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Syria Strike: The Military-Strategic Lessons for Britain

“Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job”.

Winston Spencer Churchill, February 1941

Summary: Too much of the risk of British military operations is being transferred to British service personnel by a growing gap between the ends, ways and means of British defence policy. Therefore, given the deteriorating strategic environment the very least the British Government must do is to increase defence expenditure from its current (and questionable) 2% of GDP to 2.5% GDP AND remove the cost of the strategic nuclear deterrent from the defence budget.  Britain will also have to sort out failed defence procurement policy even if that means buying more off-the-shelf from abroad and separating defence policy from employment policy by forcing ‘national champions’ to offer better value for money. Failure to take either measure could well lead to one of those military disasters that pot-mark British history.
Limited Action, Big Implications

Alphen, Netherlands. 16 April. What are the military-strategic lessons for Britain from last week’s Syria strike and what did the action tell us about Britain and its armed forces?  Put aside for the moment the official narrative emerging from London that last week’s action was simply in pursuit of humanitarian protection and to counter the use of chemical weapons.  No, the action was part of a much wider geopolitical struggle with Russia and its new acolytes, such as Iran.  The good news for the Armed Forces was that the action was ‘limited’. The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, compounded by deep defence cuts since 2010 have left Britain unable to mount anything more than a ‘limited’ action.  The bad news is that coming operations are unlikely to be quite so limited.
Two events served to highlight the dangerously weak condition of Britain’s armed forces. Firstly, for several days last week in the Eastern Mediterranean an Astute-class Royal Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine was hunted by possibly two super-quiet Russian submarines (known to NATO officers as ‘the Black Hole’) supported by surface forces as it tried to manoeuvre into position to launch Tomahawk Cruise missiles.  The Russians only backed off when an American P8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft entered the fray. In the end, four missiles were Britain’s very limited contribution to a strike that saw the US launch 89 missiles and the French 12.  Secondly, even though HMS Duncan, a modern Type 45 destroyer was in the region it was unable to contribute to the strike because the cruise missile launcher that was due to be installed was cancelled due to defence cuts.

Bad Policy, Worse Procurement
Part of the problem is Britain’s broken defence procurement system. The procurement of complex defence systems is not easy, as the Russians are also discovering. However, Britain’s ‘system’ of procurement (‘mess’ would be a better word) minimise the defence investment value of the relatively (it is all relative) few pounds London commits to the defence of Britain and its allies.   

Take the Astute-class submarines and the Type-45 destroyers. The planned for seven Astutes have taken too long to build and according to the House of Commons Defence Committee cost 53% above budget.  Contrast that with the Russian Varshavyanka (NATO codename ‘improved Kilo’) class of the Black Seas Fleet that stalked the Astute-class sub.  The first was first launched in 2011 and all 6 had been delivered to the Russian Navy by 2016. The first of seven planned Astutes was launched in 2007 (HMS Astute) and the last (HMS Ajax) will not be commissioned until 2024 at the earliest.  The Type 45s proved so expensive that the original 12 were first reduced to 8 and then 6, with most of the class in harbour undergoing expensive repairs. In other words, the Royal Navy has the destroyers London says it can afford, not the destroyers it needs. Consequently, the British are having to keep clapped-out Type 23 frigates of the Duke class in service until at least the mid-2020s at the earliest when the planned Type 26 Global Combat Ship is due to replace them. Again, 13 of the new Type 26 ships were envisioned and that is now down to 8.  Some senior Royal Navy commanders are also concerned that these ‘cut-price’ anti-submarine ships will not even be up to the task for which they are being procured.
However, it is HMS Queen Elizabeth that shows a critical weakness at the heart of British defence policy – a lack of policy consistency.  The carrier and her sister HMS Prince of Wales were originally conceived back in 1998 as part of the then Strategic Defence Review.  In the twenty years that have passed from conception to completion ‘Big Lizzie’ was first meant to have catapults and arrester wire systems (cats and traps), then not, then in 2010 the new Government decided she should indeed have them, and then not. The result: time, money and military capability wasted, and in great abundance.

Which brings me to the P8 Poseidon that ‘saved’ the British submarine last week. Back in 2010, Britain was about to deploy the MRA4 anti-submarine aircraft. Five had been built at great cost to the taxpayer (the project was as per norm hopelessly over-time and over-budget) and I had even ‘flown’ the simulator at RAF Kinloss…and crashed! On the eve of their deployment, the Government scrapped both the project and the brand new aircraft. Indeed, I can remember standing in Hangar 4 of RAF Kinloss listening to a senior RAF commander who had flown up from London to tell his colleagues of the decision. As he spoke, a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft that happened to be at Kinloss for repairs took off to search for two Russian hunter-killer submarines that had entered British waters. Now, Britain is to procure 9 P8 Poseidon aircraft, at even greater cost. It is enough to make any taxpayer weep.  

 ‘Can Do’ Will Not Always be Enough
Which brings me back to the military-strategic lessons of the Syria strike. A few years ago I paid a visit to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the base of the 1979-commissioned Tornado GR4s that delivered the 4 Storm Shadow missiles that struck Syrian chemical weapons facilities.  These are very good people trying to do the utmost for their country with what they have been given.  They ooze that ‘can-do’ spirit of British armed forces personnel who time and again manage to close the all-too-wide gap that exists between British defence policy, Britain’s military capability, and the desire of Britain’s politicians to give an impression of strength when all-too-often it does not exist.
The lessons of what happened last week off the coast of Syria, and what is happening too often these days in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, concern strategic pretence and its deadly consequences. It has also revealed the dangerous and growing gap between the capabilities Britain’s armed forces have and those they desperately need if they are to successfully deter and defend Britain and reinforce all-important NATO deterrence.  Above all, the Syria strike also revealed the growing level of risk and threat the forces must face if they are to successfully carry out government policy.  All too often in Britain’s past, this dangerous equation has led to disaster.

Balance Sheet or Balance of Power
Since the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, London has been trying to row back fast from what was already a limited set of defence commitments set against the wider strategic scheme of things. Whitehall, and HM Treasury in particular, has engaged in a whole raft of political face-saving exercises to pretend further defence cuts are not in fact cuts. The latest political coup de main is National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill’s review of national security capabilities. If there is no other lesson from Syria surely it must be that successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and allies, whilst satisfying to those charged with the weekly political management of Government business, it is potentially disastrous for the country.  

At root, the problem with British defence policy is both political and cultural. Chancellor Phillip Hammond is so fixated on deficit and debt reduction he is impervious to the growing threats Britain and its allies face.  Now, I understand the extent of the damage done to Britain’s economy by the 2008 banking crisis. Indeed, one only has to read the excellent studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to grasp the scale of the damage. However, there is an ideological aspect to Hammond’s thinking as he tries to engineer a public finance surplus. Unfortunately, Hammond also forces London to make a choice between a healthier balance sheet and a more secure Britain.  What happened last week off Syria last week suggests strongly that the balance has to shift sensibly (but not totally) back to the latter. Theresa May needs to drive that shift and fast.
Britain is not alone amongst European powers in believing it can cut its armed forces at little strategic cost.  For too long Europeans have mired themselves in the theory of defence policy rather than the hard reality.  Yes, defence expenditure has begun to creep up in Europe but only from such a ridiculously low level that it has contributed actively to make Europe and the world much more dangerous than it need be. Europe does not need more acronyms, it needs more forces!

Give Them the Tools…
If British defence policy continues on its current trajectory and tasks expand across the conflict spectrum at a far faster rate than any marginal increase in real defence expenditure the risk associated with even limited operations will also grow exponentially.  The consequence could well be another of those military disasters that pot-mark British history. The options are clear: either Britain abandons its ambition to remain a serious defence actor or it increases defence investment in line with ambition. Not to do so will only court an ever-growing risk of disaster and in so doing transmute the political risk of failed defence policy for political leaders into an exaggerated life and death risk for serving military personnel.  Failure to align the ends, ways and means of British defence policy will also critically undermine both NATO and the transatlantic relationship as the Americans are already unimpressed by Britain’s pretence at burden-sharing.

Therefore, if Britain’s armed forces are to be given the tools to do the jobs that could well be asked of them Britain needs a real security and defence review that properly sets the roles and missions of the force in the wider context of British security policy and a dangerous world. Such a review would take into account the changing role of force across the new security and defence equation given the emergence of new technologies in pursuit of people protection and power projection.  And, having conducted such a review British politicians would for once then need to stick to the commitments they make. 
From my assessment of the deteriorating strategic environment, the very least Britain will need to do is to increase defence expenditure from its current (and very questionable) 2% of GDP to 2.5% AND remove the cost of the strategic nuclear deterrent from the defence budget.  Britain will also have to once and for all sort out failed defence procurement policy even if that means buying more off-the-shelf from abroad and separating defence policy from employment policy by forcing ‘national champions’ to offer better value for money.

Britain’s Biggest Warship
On Sunday night I watched an excellent new BBC documentary entitled Britain’s Biggest Warship about the Royal Navy’s new heavy aircraft carrier (she is not a ‘super-carrier’ as the BBC would have it) HMS Queen Elizabeth.  Captain Jerry Kyd and his impressive and mainly young crew are an outstanding team. Last year I sank her.  Yes, I made a short film entitled The Second Battle of North Cape in which an impressive but under-equipped NATO Task Group led by ‘Big Lizzie’ was sunk in a 2025 confrontation with Russian submarines off northern Norway. The film is, of course, a worst-case scenario but every senior officer who has seen it has said it is realistic.

So, why did I make the film? My mission is to analyse strategic and military developments and assess consequences – particularly worst-case consequences. One former very senior British officer told me I had a reputation for hitting London over the head with a very long-handled hammer. He is correct. Naturally, London does not thank me for it, nor do parts of the military command chain, even though privately they often tell me I am right. Rather, they prefer academics and analysts who tell them what they want to hear because for London politics is still more important than strategy.
There was one scene in the BBC documentary when a compartment began to flood on HMS Queen Elizabeth.  The crew fixed it with the professionalism that one would expect of the Royal Navy. Imagine that same situation in a war. The clue is in the name – warship. My fear is this – somewhere, sometime, those young, brave people who serve me and my nation so admirably will find themselves plugging the hole between Britain’s failed defence policy and the new, dangerous, potentially explosive reality they will face.  They do not deserve that which is why I will keep pushing for a return of strategic sense to Britain’s leaders, and a British security and defence policy that is based on a reasoned assessment of the threats country and its allies face, not how much threat Britain’s politicians think Britain can afford.

The reason I push and will continue to push is that I am a Briton, a European, a historian and a strategist.  My job is to study war: its past, its present and for me most worryingly its future.  Uncomfortable though people like me may be for those charged with protecting ministers from bad headlines my job is also to call it as I professionally see it.  The hard truth is that Britain’s armed forces are dangerously weak given the strategic environment in which they exist and Britain’s relative weight in the world. What will it take for Britain’s leaders to face up to that?  As the film states at the end, “if only…”
Prime Minister May showed real leadership this past week.  She now needs to prove her mettle on defence.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 13 April 2018

A Long Telegram: Syria, Russia and Comprehensive Containment

“…the Kremlin’s neurotic world-view is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”
George F. Kennan, the Long Telegram, 22 February 1946

13 April 2018

There are two issues really at stake as the US, Britain and France consider further military action against the Assad regime in Syria: the contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Syria and Russia; and the need to counter aggressive Russian expansionism.  Specifically, an explicit attack on Syrian forces in support of international norms on the use of chemical weapons will also be an implicit attack on Russia. The window between effective punishment and dangerous escalation is narrow.  Therefore, the coalition (other Allies are notable by their military absence) need to be clear about the relationship between the purpose of such an attack and the desired outcomes they seek. The only effective strategy for the West over the medium-to-longer term will be to reinvest with power the international conventions and structures it pioneered. That, in turn, means rebuilding the institutions that underpin such structure, most notably NATO.  NATO needs a new Strategic Concept, a new containment strategy that combines both collective defence and collective security and credible mechanisms for the considered application of escalating pressure on adversaries. Such a Concept should be prepared for the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Alliance in April 2019. 

The blood work of victims appears to confirm the use of chlorine in the erstwhile rebel-held Syrian town of Douma. The US, Britain and France have confirmed a joint determination to use military action in support of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to punish the Assad regime for crossing ‘red lines’ by again using chemical weapons. This week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also confirmed that the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack was high-grade Novichok.  This finding reinforces the circumstantial evidence that Russia undertook a nerve agent attack in Britain and could also be in contravention of the Convention.

There are supposedly eight targets in Syria under consideration. They include air bases, chemical weapons storage and research facilities.  This week President Trump who ‘Tweet-o-graphed’ US intentions warned both the regime and the Russians of the nature of any strikes, and implied their extent. Consequently, Damascus has moved to disperse its air and other forces, sending essential units and assets to the Russian air base of Latakia, thus complicating targeting options of coalition planners.
The US, Britain and France already have significant air and sea assets in theatre to launch a military strike. The US has also dispatched a carrier strike group centred on the 104,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.  The arrival of that force in the Mediterranean next week would significantly increase the capability of coalition forces and thus, in principle at least, afford coalition leaders the option of more robust intent.  

In 2016 Russia established an advanced integrated air defence system in Syria, centred on long-range S-300 and S-400 surface to air missiles with protection particularly strong of Moscow’s air base at Latakia and its naval facility at Tartus. If the coalition deems it necessary to undertake a broader campaign in Syria using manned aircraft, as well as missiles, the suppression of such defences will be vital. The Truman group has the capacity, particularly if used in conjunction with offensive cyber capabilities, such as those the British could bring to bear from its bases in Cyprus, and GCHQ in the UK.

The US, Britain and France believe they must act because by again using chemical weapons against its own people the Assad regime is placing at risk not only the Chemical Weapons Convention, but the entire non-proliferation and counter-proliferation regime that has for a century helped to curb the use of weapons of mass destruction.  Given that Russia has (in effect) also been found guilty of such use by the OPCW this week the relationship between action and effect the coalition seeks is complicated, to say the least.
Consequently, the coalition is emphasising the limited nature of any possible strikes. There is no ambition to seek regime-change in Damascus and every ambition to avoid any Russian casualties. So much so that behind the scenes the coalition has admitted to the Russians that Moscow has, in effect, ‘won’ in Syria and removed any meaningful Western influence.  Therefore, it is not without some irony that the attack is only likely to go ahead if there is some degree of Russian acceptance, if not collusion in it, particularly when it comes to targeting and warning.

The tension between ‘something must be done’ and ‘what can be done’ also raises a profound set of questions about the political and strategic utility of such a strike and whether it will demonstrate Western resolve or impotence.  The US has the military capacity arriving in theatre to escalate by engaging Russian air defences.  However, with the US mid-term elections taking place in November and President Trump having indicated a fortnight ago that he wants US forces out of Syria quickly such escalation is unlikely.  This is in spite of the White House need to distract from the damage the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller has already done and is doing to the Trump presidency. 
There is, of course, a wild card in this crisis that will be concentrating the minds of those Kremlin driving the war in Syria: the capricious nature of President Trump himself.  For that reason, Moscow will also be linking its assessment of the coalition’s intent to the military capability the Trump administration is building in theatre and taking appropriate counter-measures.    

Analysis of Strategic Implications
There are two issues really at stake in coalition considerations (the suffering of the Syrian people is sadly now taken as a given): the contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Syria and Russia; and the need to counter aggressive Russian expansionism.  As of today (13 April) the coalition has little option but to use military force because not to act would be a further blow to the West’s fast-diminishing influence in the Middle East and beyond. 

The essential paradox of any such action against Assad is that given the two issues at stake such action only makes sense if it is seen as a part of a wider set of policies and strategies designed not simply to punish a destroyed Syria, or even prevent a wider war across the Middle East, but also contain Russia. A Russia that is not only seeking to forge new anti-Western spheres of influence but is willing to use the most cynical of methods to realise such an end.  
Twenty-First Century Containment?

History offers some lessons for Western leaders as they consider their strategic options. The past containment of the Soviet Union, for all its clunkiness, was a considered strategy that established the framework for legitimate collective and effective deterrence and defence. Today, Western powers seem confused or just plain disagree about the ends, ways and means of military action in support of such a defence. As the world gets more dangerous that needs to end. At NATO’s forthcoming July Brussels summit the Allies must consider crafting a new policy of Comprehensive Containment and to that end a new Strategic Concept. 
This is because given current trajectories Russia and the West are inexorably heading towards another showdown, be it over Syria or somewhere else.  In 1946 George Kennan warned that Stalin was merely using ideology as “…a justification for the Soviet Union’s instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for the sacrifice they felt bound to demand…Today they cannot dispense with it. It is the fig-leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability”.  Thankfully, Kennan’s famous 1946 dispatch from the US Embassy in Moscow marked the moment that post-war Washington finally began to wipe away the cob-webs of self-delusion and recognise that Churchill was right: Stalin’s Soviet Union was no partner of the West and posed a direct threat to European democracies.

Kennan’s message was essentially simple: Soviet aggression must be contained by strengthened Western institutions and forces until Russia’s inner contradictions brought the USSR to collapse. Thankfully, Kennan’s dispatch was from the right man, writing the right thing at the right time from the right place.  The ‘Mr X’ (Kennan) article in Foreign Affairs, the Truman Doctrine, NSC 68 and, of course, NATO all followed as a direct consequence of Kennan’s insight.
For Stalin, today read Putin. Putin’s Russian nationalism is only marginally less dangerous than Stalin’s and if only because of contemporary Russia’s far weaker strategic and economic position in 2018 compared with 1946. Equally, it is that very economic weakness which makes Putin’s Russia dangerous and prone to extreme action.  Moscow’s development of advanced military capabilities is also doing a lot to offset such weakness, at least temporarily, even as it exacerbates it. That is why as Washington, London and Paris consider missile strikes against Syria they must also consider who is the real target for such action, by what means, and to what end.  
NATO Strategic Concept: Then and Now
If Russia is again to be contained how should it be done? The NATO Strategic Concept is the what, the why, the when, the where, and the how of Alliance action.  Last year, in my capacity as Lead Writer for the High-Level Steering Committee preparing the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative ( my senior colleagues and I spent a lot of time discussing an essentially simple question: to what end or ends NATO adaptation?  The last NATO Strategic Concept was agreed back in 2010 at the Lisbon Summit. It was, like all such efforts, a political compromise between those who placed collective defence at the top of the Alliance agenda, and those who wanted collective security to the fore. In other words, there was a split between those who wanted politico-military NATO to be primarily a military alliance and those who wanted it to be more a political alliance.

Such a division was hardly surprising given that the Lisbon Summit took place against the backdrop of the continuing counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns in Afghanistan.  There were also growing concerns amongst NATO Allies in southern Europe about the growing instability in Libya and elsewhere across the Middle East and North Africa.  At the same time, and in spite of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the hope still existed for a constructive dialogue with Putin’s Russia that might once and for all bat the Cold War into the long grass of history.
Since 2010 there have been Russian or Russian-inspired assassination attempts on the President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of Montenegro, the military annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with the loss of almost three hundred civilian lives, the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, snap military exercises that threaten NATO allies and EU members alike, cyber-attacks, social media attacks, attempts to interfere in both the US and European elections, and a nerve agent attack in a sleepy English city.  If Stalin justified strategic 'overlay' with ideology, Putin makes no attempt to justify such actions at all, other than by offering reality-defying denials of any Russian involvement or issuing dark warnings about US hegemony and NATO proximity.

Containing ‘Future’ War
Russia has designed new strategies designed to exploit the many gaps in Western societies and defences by employing disinformation, destabilisation and destruction as part of a disabling concept of aggression that forms a hybrid war, cyberwar, hyper war continuum.  In Russia, such thinking is at the heart of the Gerasimov Doctrine, as crafted by the Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.  In essence, the Gerasimov Doctrine is to use the threat of war with the means of war to force compliance short of war. The Doctrine places a particular emphasis on exploiting NATO’s deterrence gap between relatively weak conventional forces and its last-resort strategic nuclear deterrent. 

There is even some evidence Gerasimov foresaw the coming Western missile strikes. A month ago he said that Moscow had “reliable information” that Syrian rebels were planning to use chemical weapons, and that Washington would respond by accusing Damascus of committing an atrocity and launch missile strikes. Russia, Gerasimov said, “…would retaliate against missile and launch systems”.  If Gerasimov foresaw today’s unfolding scenario Moscow clearly has contingencies. How should the West counter them?
Strategic Concept 2019 & Comprehensive Containment?

There are no quick fixes. To counter Russia and its proxies the new NATO Strategic Concept must demonstrate the means and the will to defend the Alliance – both in area and out. However, to do so the Alliance must forge a new concept of deterrence across a range of integrated civilian and military options and tools: Comprehensive Containment. The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept is now hopelessly out-of-date and the only reason a new one is not being actively drafted right now is that the Allies cannot (as ever) agree on NATO’s twenty-first century role.  This is in spite of the Alliance having one of the most clear-sighted leaders in Secretary-General Stoltenberg it has had for many a year.
Such a Concept would require the merging of the collective defence and collective security means implicit in the current Strategic Concept into a much deeper joint operating model that would also form a new concept of conflict escalation that can exert pressure across policy, diplomacy and economy and in the military domain across land, sea, air, space, cyber, nuclear, information and knowledge.  That would mean a much more considered and joined-up Alliance, the strategic use of economic sanctions, strategic communications, support for partner states, offensive cyber capabilities alongside strengthened and more mobile conventional forces, streamlined command structures and other forms of ‘traditional’ but updated deterrence and defence postures, more devolved command authority, as well as preparing for the coming sentient machine warfare.  
A US-German Special Relationship?
If Comprehensive Containment is to be realised a new transatlantic special relationship will be vitally needed to provide the political backbone for Comprehensive Containment.   In 1946 the United States simply wanted ‘to bring the boys home’ after World War Two.  Kennan not only made clear that such a policy was naïve, in dealing with Stalin it was downright dangerous. Kennan also demonstrated that only the United States could lead such a defence of Europe and the West.  Today, the Americans are stretched thin the world-over, and facing a policy and strategy dilemma which Moscow is only too keen to exacerbate.

Back in 1946, some in the State Department harboured the illusion that the British could be maintained in strength to lead the defence of Europe.  However, Britain in 1946 was broken militarily after six years fighting for national survival. Britain today is not unlike Britain in 1946, a shadow of its former self. Today, London is broken politically and led by people with little sense of either history or strategy whose idea of balance is not about power, but balance sheets.  
Therefore, if a new NATO Strategic Concept is to pave the way to Comprehensive Containment it will need to be found on a new ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Germany.  However, such a relationship will not be easy to forge. Today, it is not Washington that this time needs a new Kennan, even if it needs an awful lot less of other things (Twitter?), it is Germany. NATO cannot be ‘adapted’ without a Berlin that is far clearer in its thinking about its role in Europe and beyond, willing to be far more assertive in its dealings with Russia, able to separate short-term economic from longer-term strategic interests, and accepts that coercion has a legitimate role to play in the security and defence of its own people and others.  The current Groko is unlikely to agree on such ambition for itself or the Alliance, even if it needs to, which is precisely why it is Washington, London and Paris preparing to strike Syria. Where is the German Kennan?

Syria and the NATO Question
To conclude, what is happening in Syria is about far more than Syria, even if some will say the coming Syria strikes will have nothing to do with NATO.  In fact, it will have everything to do with NATO. NATO will not survive if it distances itself or offers only tacit support to the actions of some of its key members, and most particularly the actions of its most important member at a moment of strategic crisis.  Indeed, one of the biggest threats to NATO is the kind of coalition that is preparing to strike Syria. Worse, without an agreed strategic concept that is more than the lowest common denominator of Allied agreement NATO action will be more the exception than the rule. And, without something like Comprehensive Containment, such action will also tend to be exclusively military and quite possibly futile. 

A new NATO Strategic Concept with Comprehensive Containment at its heart would not only help unify the Alliance but demonstrate an Alliance adapting to meet the risks, threats and challenges of the twenty-first century. It would also demonstrate that the Allies really do want to confront such threats seriously, and seriously together, and that the idea of a ‘360 Degree Alliance’ is more than mere summit speak. That, in itself, would be deterrence-in-action.
Kennan once said, “The United States should not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse”. However awful the acts of Assad and his cronies in the absence of wider policy and strategy missile strikes on a Syria led by a desperate puppet regime controlled from and by the Kremlin could look an awful lot like three elephants with little idea of what they are aiming to achieve in pursuit of not only a small mouse, but quite possibly the wrong one.

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

In Cold Geopolitics Syria is the New Belgium

“One very unpalatable but unfortunately clear reality is that the West is already engaged both in a form of cold geopolitical world war and a world-wide confrontation with terrorist entities; it needs the mind-set to face that”.

William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French, The New Geopolitics of Terror, 2017

Empty Covenants, Blind Swords

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 April. Syria is the new Belgium, a place where cold geopolitics is conducted with the people little more than expendable chattels in a new, misplaced Kiplingesque Great Game. It is a ‘game’ the West is losing, and which reveals the real transatlantic divide between a Trump White House that has power without a plan, and a Europe that has endless plans without power; a divide that President Putin is only too happy to drive his ‘troika’ (sled) through.
Thomas Hobbes once famously said that “Covenants without the sword are but words and of no use to any man’. Equally, swords without strategy are but blind flailing.  Empty covenants and blind swords are all too apparent in the ‘policy’ response of Europe and America to the latest and atrocious use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.  However, for all the ghastliness of dead and dying children to emerge from Douma there has been little coverage of the vacuum in Western policy and power that has enabled Syria, Russia and Iran to treat international convention with such impunity.  The Trump Administration talks of a “forceful response”, but to what end? With the exception of France Europe is either silent or masking its irresolution and spinelessness behind a façade of fake legalism. 
On 3 April outgoing US National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster made a farewell speech at the Atlantic Council to honour last week’s visit to Washington by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  During that speech, McMaster called for the West to counter Russia’s use of hybrid warfare via reform and better integration of Western power in all its forms. He also called for enhanced cyber defensive and offensive capabilities, as well as the need to enhance investment in security and defence. All well and good. However, McMaster left the critical lacuna to last when he called for the West to show renewed “strategic confidence” to defend “our values and our way of life”.
It is also the West’s collective loss of ‘strategic confidence’ and cohesion that is enabling Russia, an economic pigmy, to act with impunity, as it has done so for some ten years. It is a loss of will which is enabling Assad to treat America’s ‘red lines’ with scorn. It is the loss of both on both sides of the ‘pond’ which is enabling Iran to harbour ambitions of regional-strategic domination with the backing of Moscow.  And, it is such weakness that also underpins the lack of any consistent Western policy and thus permits ISIS and Al Qaeda to believe that whatever battles they lose they will eventually win the systemic war which they are fighting. 
The Art of Geopolitics
Much has been made of President Trump’s failure to understand the art of geopolitics, his neo-isolationist tendencies, and his seeming belief that international relations can be conducted as a series of one-off negotiated transactions between leaders. Last week’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark that he wants US troops out of Syria as soon as possible would certainly have emboldened Assad, Putin and Tehran.  However, Europe’s geopolitical incompetence is equally dangerous: Europeans have to stop talking about everything and finally start doing something about some things.
The central thesis of The New Geopolitics of Terror is that Syria is the epicentre of a series of tectonic struggles that are interlocked and interlocking – the future governance of Syria, global reach Salafist terrorism, a trans-border fight to the death between Turkey and the Kurds, the struggle for regional-strategic dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which also involves Israel and Turkey, and the new cold geopolitics between liberal and illiberal states with Russia leading the charge of the latter.   
The book offers four policy options for the West none of which are politically palatable.  The first option is pretty much what the West is doing – nothing. Yes, there may be the occasional punitive missile strike on Syria that makes the rubble bounce, but such pin-prick attacks simply reveal Western impotence. The second option would be to organise serious humanitarian intervention and support.  Such an effort would require a significant investment of money and skill and would at least keep the serious problems of Syria (and Iraq) in the face of public opinion. However, it would be to all intents and purposes a virtue-signalling Band-Aid on a gaping wound and do little or nothing to ease competing and contending interests. The third option, which President Trump seems to have ruled out and Europeans would rather not think about, would to undertake a serious military intervention to finally defeat ISIS and to end Syria's civil war, even if that means confronting Russian forces (and not just their ‘mercenaries’). Such an intervention doubtless prove expensive in lives, politics, and treasure.
The final option would be for the West to undertake serious military and other interventions to reshape the region, which would be even more expensive than option three. The risks involved would indeed be great and doubtless hasten the coming strategic showdown between elements of the West and Russia (which is now virtually inevitable). Such an intervention would also possibly alienate a China that might, just might still be willing to play a constructive role, in return for Western recognition that Beijing is a global actor.  
However, on balance, the worst option would be to do nothing.  Therefore, and at the very least, the West together should now formally engage on a thoroughgoing consideration of its options and be seen to do so. Even the impression of a West finally getting serious about a systemic conflict on Europe’s doorstep might help create more space for a negotiated end to the Syrian War. One other option may be to also invite China into the room. Russia? Not at this stage. Moscow would only see such an accommodation as weakness, not dialogue.  One thing must be clear to all: no one state can end these struggles, and any number of states will be unable to end them quickly.
Cold Geopolitics
This is one of those moments in the strategic affairs of states where leaders must not only demonstrate they understand cold geopolitics, but have the wherewithal and the sheer courage to craft enduring policy and strategy.  It will not be easy.  As Hopkinson and I wrote, “The greatest obstacle of all, in practice, is likely to be the unwillingness of Western publics and governments to do what is necessary, for the required time and with the appropriate commitment of resources, both human and materiel”.
When we wrote The New Geopolitics of Terror the Syrian War had not yet reached the next level of escalation as we warned it would. It now has. The struggles currently underway in Syria will shape the twenty-first century, in much the same way that the battle in Belgium shaped the twentieth century. Western leaders need to understand that.
Therefore, perhaps the best way to finish this blog is to echo the end of the book in which Pericles, the great leader of Athens is quoted. “Freedom”, he said, “…is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”.  That was also the essential message of McMaster’s speech.  Is the West up to such a challenge? No, not on current evidence.  

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Skripal: Countering (Again) Strategic Maskirovka

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

What is Strategic Maskirovka?
Alphen, Netherlands. 5 April. It is not what actually happened that matters, but what people want to believe happened. That is the key element in any successful disinformation campaign. In May 2015 I published a paper for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, of which I am a Fellow, entitled NATO: Countering Strategic Maskirovka. In the piece (which is, of course, brilliant and so reasonably-priced it is free and can be downloaded) I wrote, “Maskirovka is the traditional Russian use of military deception…Moscow has established a new level of ambition – strategic Maskirovka – by which disinformation is applied against all levels of NATO’s command chain and wider public opinion to keep the West politically and militarily off balance”.   This week Moscow has been in full Maskirovka mode in an attempt to discredit British claims that Russia is behind the 4 March poison attack on Sergei and Iulia Skripal. It has been aided and abetted by some not untypical incompetence from British officialdom who opened the door for a Russian propaganda drive and, of course, the Kremlin’s own useful idiots here in Europe.

Where is Skripal at? 
Sergei Skripal remains critically ill and is unlikely to recover following the use of the Novichok nerve agent. Encouragingly his daughter Iulia is showing some signs of recovery.  Both will need life-long care if they survive.  This week Russia has also sought to exploit an implied inference from Gary Aitkenhead, CEO of the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, that he could not confirm the “precise source” of the nerve agent. Read the full transcript of the Sky News interview as I have and Aitkenhead does not question Russia’s responsibility for the attack. Rather, he sticks to the narrow focus of his laboratory’s remit to identify the type of agent used and points to wider intelligence efforts that confirm the source and origins of the attack.  This morning the British revealed that they, “have a high degree of confidence in the location” of the Russian laboratory which is the source of the nerve agent. This is as much of a ‘we know you did it’ as British Intelligence tradecraft will ever confirm.  The full intelligence picture has been revealed by the British to the allies who continue to support the British case.  

Why now? 
There are two primary reasons for the latest Maskirovka offensive, Firstly, to distract from questions that Russia needs to answer about a possible breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Secondly, to divide the coalition of condemnation Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has skillfully helped to construct in the wake of the attack. Moscow’s employment of strategic Maskirovka will continue at today’s United Nations Security Council meeting at which Moscow will endeavour to discredit the 13 March letter from British Prime Minister, Theresa May to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter states that it was “highly likely” Russia conducted the attack.  Moscow tried and failed at a meeting yesterday in The Hague of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to secure a ‘joint’ investigation into the attack.

How is Russia conducting Maskirovka?
Strategic Maskirovka is one of a trinity of elements Moscow is developing in its future war strategy – disinformation/deception, disruption and destruction.  The methodology is designed to exploit the many seams that now exist in Western societies by forcing public opinion to blunt any meaningful policy response to Russian coercion.  Moscow’s strategy is aided and abetted by some European governments who do not want the extent of their vulnerability to Russian interference revealed. For example, when the Americans put their National Planning Scenarios online some years ago several European states demanded they be taken down for fear of revealing just how vulnerable they had permitted their states to become.

Who are the main targets of Maskirovka? 
There is a range of fellow-travellers and useful idiots in Britain and elsewhere in Europe who for a range of reasons want to believe the Kremlin on just about everything. There has been a collapse in trust between power and the people in many European states, of which Britain is to the fore.  For too long London has allowed the gap between rhetoric and reality to widen enabling Russia to build a ‘plausible’ case in the minds of unworldly elements in a brittle population.  They are being instrumentalised by Moscow to its strategic end.
Sadly, Maskirovka has been aided and abetted by academia. In a 2 April article for the Washington Post entitled Russia and the Art of Provocation, Lynn Ellen Patyk, a Dartmouth assistant professor, argued that Britain’s very response has reinforced the Kremlin’s world-view of provokatsiia and a Russia facing a grand anti-Russian conspiracy.  The message from the piece is clear: by expressing legitimate outrage to an act of Russian aggression on its own soil Britain is playing into Putin’s hands. Rather, Britain should have turned the other cheek.  This is nonsense. If Britain had indeed turned the other cheek the Kremlin would simply have concluded that Britain is so weak that Moscow could further intensify coercion without fear of sanction or reprisal. Part of the purpose of Maskirovka is to test the limits of Russian action.

What to do?
Firstly, Britain has to get its head properly around the future war of which strategic Maskirovka is a part and design a new joined-up deterrent across the new matrix of battlespaces which include information, cyber and force. Secondly, NATO needs to be a willing partner in the twenty-first re-creation of deterrence and defence. Thirdly, NATO and the EU together must forge a new balance between protection of peoples and projection of defence (this is one of my core reasons for rejecting Brexit) with countering Maskirovka to the fore with a hardened concept of strategic communications.

Is Skripal just about Britain?
No, Maskirovka is a challenge to the security and defence of all Europeans and beyond.  This week the presidents of the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - stood alongside President Trump in the White House. They celebrated a century of co-operation with the US and thanked the President for acting as the guarantor of their countries’ security and defence. Call me old-fashioned but the principle that peace-loving, democratic states, however big or small, should hold their own political destiny in their own hands is worth defending.  The Baltic States suffer interference and intimidation from their Russian neighbour on a daily basis.  If the British are unable to defend themselves from such aggression then just what credibility their defence of others?  

My information is clear: Russia either acted or commissioned someone to act to murder Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on 4 March 2018. The Kremlin did not want a large number of other British citizens and others killed or injured but that was the only limit on the operation.  Which begs one other question I once posed in a hard-hitting article in a Russian journal – what does Russia want?
Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

RAF 150?

“Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few”.

Winston Spencer Churchill

20 August, 1940

RAF 100

Alphen, Netherlands. April 3, 2018. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the oldest, independent air force in the world, and the world’s most iconic. Stood up on April 1, 1918 and formed from the merger of the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service the Battle of Britain image of ‘chaps’ in Spitfires and Hurricanes defeating the might of the Nazi Luftwaffe is an enduring image that underpins a view of Britain and the British even to this day. What does the RAF’s past say about the RAF of today, and what of its future?

The RAF in April 1918 was a massive force of some 22,000 aircraft.  It had established air supremacy over the battlefields of the Western Front, and it had pioneered the use of aircraft as strategic bombers.  On 8 August 1918 at the critical Battle of Amiens the RAF also pioneered what later become known as ‘Blitzkrieg’, the coordinated use by General Rawlinson’s III Army of aircraft, tanks and infantry to blast through the German front-line. Between the wars, the RAF even pioneered the use of aircraft as part of ‘imperial policing’ in places such as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).  

A Force for Good?

It was during the Second World War that the RAF really established its reputation as a strategic force.  During the 1930s Britain had steadily developed the world’s most advanced air defence system by combining radar (‘radio detection finders’), a highly-effective command and control system, and state of the art fighter aircraft.  In parallel, slowly but with increasing tempo, the RAF also developed a powerful strategic bomber force capable of striking targets deep in Germany, albeit at first with limited accuracy.

By way of power comparison on the nights of 14 & 15 November 1940 515 light bombers of Luftflotte 3 carried out a series of attacks on the English city of Coventry. Eighteen months later, on the night of 30-31 May 1942, the RAF carried out the first 1000 heavy bomber raid on the German city of Cologne.  As the then Head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris said, “The Germans have sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”.

Many contemporary historians question the strategic utility and indeed the morality of the revenge carpet bombing of German cities.  Even Churchill thought the February 1945 destruction of Dresden by some 800 Lancaster heavy bombers a raid too far, even though he was also aware of the message it sent to Stalin and the Red Army.  There are also questions about the value of investing of so much of Britain’s war effort in the bomber offensive and the butcher’s bill: of the 125,000 Bomber Command aircrew, 55,000 lost their lives.  However, for much of the war, RAF Bomber Command was the only way for Britain to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.  For much of the Cold War the RAF’s V-Force of Vulcan, Victor and Valiant bomber provided London with a strategic nuclear deterrent that also enabled a declining Britain to use the confrontation with the then Soviet Union to mask its own decline and retreat from empire.  

A Force for Innovation?

For me, the defining feature of the RAF has been innovation. For all the image of British ‘chaps’ and their ‘derring do’ the RAF was (perhaps) the least class ridden of Britain’s three armed forces, the most international (many nationalities either fought with the RAF or in it), and the most technologically innovative.  Two famous squadrons, 9 and 617, point to the centrality of innovation to the ethos of the RAF.  Indeed, innovation was a defining feature of such iconic high-precision raids as the May 1943 destruction of the western German dams and the October 1944 sinking of the 42,900 ton German battleship Tirpitz.  Both squadrons were also comprised of men not just from the UK but also from across the then Dominions and the United States.

It is innovation which must be the defining feature of the RAF over the next fifty years of its story if the force is to remain a major factor in Britain strategic influence and its future defence.  There will continue to be a demand for the RAF to project and supply British specialised land forces the world over and to play its full role in Britain’s future air defence and strike missions – both from land and the sea. However, the challenge for the RAF will be to overcome the very icon it has become – the image of ‘chaps’ – if it is also to reflect and make the most of Britain today, not just Britain past.

RAF 150

Can the RAF meet the innovation challenge?  As I have seen at close quarters over the years air forces tend to be run by fast jet pilots who tend to define themselves and the forces they lead as ‘eyes on/over target’ fast jet forces.  However, technology is fast changing the very nature of air power and the battlespace in which it must contend and fight.  Consequently, RAF 150 must and will be a force able to extend across six other critical ‘spaces’: air, sea, space, cyber, information and knowledge. RAF 150 will also be a force of drones as much as manned aircraft in which sentient machines will provide at least as much of the command picture and command decisions as people.

If politicians give the RAF the means to craft new innovative ways to pursue Britain’s strategic ends RAF 150 will meet the many challenges that will come its way.  Indeed, if there is one British force that is open to talent from wherever it comes and which can rise to the challenge of change and innovation the twenty-first century will impose on Britain and its forces, it is the men and women of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.

Happy birthday, RAF!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Brexit: On the Swiss-Irish Border

“One should not consider that the great principles of freedom end at your own frontiers that as long as you have freedom, let the rest have pragmatism. No! Freedom is indivisible and one has to take a moral attitude towards it.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Alphen, Netherlands. 29 March. One year from today Britain will sort of leave the EU and maybe begin a kind of transitional/implementation/extrication period.  Last week’s agreement over ‘phase two’ of the almost Withdrawal Agreement opened the door to a hoped for (or not) future relationship between Britain and the EU, which was given a helping hand by the quite definite stupidity and incompetence of the Kremlin.  Still, there are some issues of contention that still need to be resolved, most emotively the future status of the inner-Irish border between Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to be sure check the front cover of Britain’s still EU burgundy passports) and the Republic of Ireland or Eire (to be equally sure check the front cover of Ireland’s still determinedly EU passports). 
For the Irish and hard-line Remainers, there is apparently no solution to the border issue other than for the British to effectively handover Northern Ireland to the EU and thus Ireland.  And, in so doing, establish the precedent for other parts of the United Kingdom (Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland???) to secede from Britain to the EU…or scrap Brexit.  This position is, of course, complete nonsense and is simply the latest attempt to overturn the Brexit vote by those implacably opposed to it. 

Why is this nonsense? Two reasons, a Swede and the Swiss. Let me first deal briefly with the Swede. In an earlier blog on the Battle of Brexit (Analysis Paper: The Battle of Brexit, 2 March) I referred to a November 2017 European Parliament report entitled Smart Border 2.0; avoiding a Hard Border on the Island of Ireland for Customs Control and the Free Movement of Persons, written by Leo Karlsson, the former Director of the World Customs Organisation. As I stated, after quoting Karlsson at length, “…the only real barriers to solving the inner-Ireland border questions are the willingness to enact a fudge, and the time it would take to install the Karlsson system. And, of course, the political will so to do”

It is fudge which brings me to the Swiss.  For many years I either worked Geneva and/or lived in the neighbouring Canton de Vaud.  Prior to Switzerland joining the Schengen Zone in 2011 both the Canton de Geneve and the Canton de Vaud had a formal border with France and thus the EU…although at the same time it didn’t.  Drive over the border at, say, Crassier, on the road from Swiss Nyon to French Divonne and rarely would one meet either a Swiss or French douanier.  That said, I can recall one occasion when a Swiss-American friend of mine wanted to show a carpet she had bought in Swiss Lausanne to a friend in French Divonne. About 200m over the border a French douanier was waiting in ambush to undertake a customs spot-check that both the French and the Swiss conducted every now and then.  She had to pay a fine.

In fact, we residents knew of scores of places along the border where one could cross from Switzerland into France at which there was never any controlle.  In other words, for many years both the French and the Swiss adopted an entirely pragmatic approach to the border based on the principle that most decent people observe the law and that douaniers rarely if ever apprehend terrorists or hardened criminal gangs.

The French even turned their pays de Gex north of Geneva into a ‘special administrative zone’ under French control so that frontaliers, expats and French citizens who worked in Geneva, could so with minimum disruption. Every now and then the Swiss and the French would exert tighter, often intelligence-led controls at either Bardonnex or Ferney-Voltaire, but the spirit of free movement drove the border agreement.  There is no reason whatsoever why Northern Ireland could not enjoy the same status as the pays de Gex did, not least because the North is already a ‘special administrative zone’.

One year on from Britain’s sort of departure from the EU my sense is that the experience of the Swiss implies another paradox of Brexit.  Brexit is a symptom of an EU about to undergo significant change.  Some poor states will continue to seek to gather closely around rich Germany and call it Brussels-administered deeper political integration. A couple of other richer states, such as The Netherlands, may go along for the political ride, but that is by no means a cert!  Another group of richer, northern states will seek to avoid such a fate.  Consequently, a new kind of two-speed EU will emerge over the next decade. Indeed, Britain’s departure could well be hastening such change as recent developments have shown.  States that traditionally hidden in Britannia’s skirts are now openly expressing their determination to prevent further integration.
My reasons for rejecting Brexit were because I foresaw the dangerous world into which Europe is heading and out of solidarity with my fellow Europeans in Central and Eastern Europe who had fought so valiantly over so many bloody years for their freedom.  My focus today is on minimising the disruption to European security that could flow from Brexit.  Equally, I have accepted Britain’s democratic decision to leave the EU, unlike increasingly desperate Hard Remainers now calling for a second referendum to overturn the Brexit decision.  Last week’s agreement in Brussels over Britain’s withdrawal has left them whistling in the wind. 

Two things are apparent to me. First, Brexit is not the end of the Brexit story. Second, if the EU is to survive it cannot remain in the hybrid, ineffectual political space it currently occupies. The world is becoming too dangerous for that. My sense is that precisely because of the nature of change in the wider world the EU also stands on the verge of radical change.  And that within the decade there could again be a place for Britain as leader of a looser grouping of states in the EU but not subject to federalist diktat.  If not, and the rest of the EU really does embark on a journey to the centre of political integration then Brexit will simply be confirmed. 

On the Swiss-Irish border between intransigence and pragmatism.
Julian Lindley-French