Defence Policy

A Capital Mistake: Evidence and Defence in the Brexit Debates

Professor Matthew Uttley & Dr. Benedict Wilkinson

In one of his more exasperated moments, Sherlock Holmes turns to his long-term companion, Dr. Watson and chides him for his impatience, saying ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.’ Strong words they may be, but wise ones too. And yet, those who watch defence matters will have noticed that we are approaching a Brexit referendum in much the same position that Holmes warns Watson to avoid: lots of arguments and theories and ideas, but little evidence to back any of it up.

Over the last few weeks, the national security and foreign policy implications of a Brexit have become a key battleground. Everyone seems to have an opinion, even US President Barack Obama, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘[t]his kind of cooperation – from intelligence sharing and counterterrorism to forging agreements to create jobs and economic growth – will be far more effective if it extends across Europe’. The arguments on both sides are well-rehearsed: those in the ‘Remain’ campaign repeatedly claim that leaving the EU would ‘threaten’ the UK’s national security and global influence. They point to ‘grave security challenges’ and existential threats, including the rise of so-called Islamic State (DAISH) and resurgent Russian nationalism, and assert that the UK is in a ‘stronger’ position to deal with them from inside the EU. Those in the ‘Leave’ campaign have responded by accusing their opponents of exaggeration, egregious scaremongering and ‘Project Fear’ tactics.

Amongst the op eds, the interviews and the speeches, there is little evidence or rigorous analysis to substantiate claims made by either side. In our view, this is worrying: in the first place, it means that key elements of national security have been overlooked in what has been described as a ‘blizzard’ of sweeping claims and counter-claims over whether Britain’s defence and international status would be undermined by departure from the EU. Indeed, as we have argued in the International Affairs journal published by Chatham House and elsewhere, one of the most important omissions in debates thus far has been any consideration of what a Brexit might mean for Britain’s defence procurement and domestic defence industries.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of evidence and analysis raises the spectre of UK voters being forced to make their referendum choices without key information on the possible Brexit implications for a vital sector that provides secure military supply chains, ‘technology advantage’, and a domestic industry with an annual turnover of £30 billion and employs 215,000 predominantly skilled personnel as well as supporting a further 150,000 jobs in supply chains.

Without the data and evidence, it is difficult to understand what a Brexit might mean for defence procurement and defence industries. This is worrying because the Brexit debate is highly partisan and ideological, so there is the real possibility that long-term choices will be coloured by the politics of sovereignty versus the politics of integration, rather than evidence relating to the defence-industrial base and defence acquisition.

As things stand, the debate is being played out between four factions. On the one hand, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the importance of national sovereignty, but disagree on the implications of a British exit. On the other, there are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that subscribe to the goal of integration through ‘ever closer union’, but disagree on whether the UK is essential for, or an impediment to, that goal.

The domestic British political debate is likely to be dominated by cases presented by two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ that emphasise the ‘so what?’ for national sovereignty and independence. These factions are likely to rehearse the predictable and well-worn claims and counter-claims characterising the Brexit debate as a whole. The argument of the ‘pro-UK, pro-Brexit’ camp will be that ‘leaving will not undermine the national defence procurement options or industrial capabilities’ because EU integration in this sector has thus far been limited, so Britain would remain free to pursue a ‘sovereign’ defence procurement policy. Set against this, the ‘pro-UK, pro-Remain’ camp would argue that ‘there’s nothing to lose by staying in, but there are plenty of risks for the UK in leaving’. It would also argue that if the UK would be no worse off in leaving, then it would be no worse off in staying. Correspondingly, it is likely to reiterate the broader mantra that a Brexit might deter future foreign direct investment, and that Britain would have to comply with EU regulations when trading with Europe, but without influence on the future content and direction of those regulations.

The two pro-Brexit and pro-Remain ‘factions’ subscribing to the goal of ‘ever closer union’ are likely to produce narratives premised on assumed benefits from integration. A ‘pro-EU, pro-Remain’ faction is likely to argue that ‘leaving will undermine the EU’s defence industry so that the EU and UK will rely on the US to an even greater extent’. It follows well-worn assumptions in Brussels that the reluctance of EU member states to relinquish sovereignty has created protectionism and fragmentation in Europe’s defence procurement and industrial spheres. The solution to the ‘costs of non-Europe’ is a strategically independent European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) able to compete with large US defence contractors. On this basis, a Brexit will undermine the emergence of a genuinely competitive and strategically autonomous EDTIB, which, in turn, risks undermining the future of ‘security of supply’ of defence equipment sourced from within Europe, leading, in turn, to greater EU reliance on US-sourced defence systems. Against this and as we argue in the IA article, we envisage a pro-Brexit faction that argues that ‘a British exit will remove a barrier to other member states’ desire for “ever closer union” and a European Defence Union’. This perspective is likely to emanate from frustrations in European member states among those who feel that the UK is an impediment to EU integration.

Nonetheless, all of this is difficult to prove – not least, because of the dearth of data, the paucity of evidence and the absence of analysis. The real threat, amongst all this, is that British voters will be forced to chose between partisan and ideologically motivated claims and counter-claims. The risk is that they end up like Dr. Watson – making judgments without all the evidence and, perhaps, coming to regret those judgments.


Image: 47th Munich Security Conference 2011: David Cameron (le), Prime Minister, Great Britain, Dr. Angela Merkel (ri), Federal Chancellor, Germany, and Kevin Rudd, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia.. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Challenges for British Strategy and Defence Policy in 2016


British strategy and defence policy face a number of challenges over the coming 12 months. Some of these require close cooperation with allies, notably devising a common response to an increasingly assertive Russia whilst also formulating a workable approach to the Syria conflict (and the problems associated with it such as migration) and handling unfinished business in Libya. This is quite enough in the inboxes of senior decision-makers on the National Security Council, who will be earnestly hoping that no further crises are added to the pile (a clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, or North Korea going further than its past missile waving, let alone a clash in the international waters claimed by China). Two particularly pressing issues lie rather closer to home, one underway and the other only a possibility. The first involves taking forward the decisions announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of last November. The second is dealing with what could be a huge strategic shock (albeit not an unforeseeable one) in the form of Britain deciding to leave the European Union.

For understandable reasons, commentary on defence reviews tends to focus more on the initial announcements made in a blaze of publicity on its release rather than the more prosaic yet vital implementation stage that remains after the headlines have faded. It is here that some of the less appetising details emerge as small print is scrutinised, detailed plans devised to flesh out and implement the main announcements, and assumptions and reasoning are tested against reality – which can, unsportingly, change.

Reactions to the 2015 review were divided. On the one hand, the resources that the government chooses to devote to defence and security still do not seem fully commensurate either with its political aspirations or with the more dangerous and unstable world that the review described. The much hailed ‘2% of GDP’ target for spending was retained, albeit via some fairly startling accountancy gymnastics – not least the inclusion of several costs not previously counted as part of the defence budget. While these adjustments may well be permissible under NATO rules, adding them into previous British spending to provide a truly comparable figure further underlines how steep the reduction in spending has been over the past couple of decades. More fundamentally, the question remains of whether these resources are enough to fund the stated strategic ambitions of the government – which is where previous reviews fell apart, not least the initially welcomed 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Much of the vaunted new equipment is some time away from delivery, with several programmes slowed or delayed, with the resulting increase in cost; as so often with defence reviews, the jam is promised for tomorrow (or even later), while today offers something less appetising. Moreover, even this relatively modest budgetary settlement is by no means guaranteed, as the assumption of continued economic growth offers quite a hostage to fortune and the vicissitudes of the world economy.

Yet on the other hand, there were and are real grounds to be more positive, even if in a guarded fashion, along the lines of ‘it is a lot better than it could have been’. At the most basic level, this is arguably the first British defence review since the Second World War to display an increase in strategic ambition rather than a reduction. It can therefore be seen as a turning away from, if not yet a complete repudiation of, the declinist instinct that welcomes continuing contraction of Britain’s world role. In terms of resources, despite the chicanery involved, retaining the 2% pledge with some modest increases to come provides a solid basis to move forward and is a stark contrast to some (expectation managing?) rumours before the review. In a refreshing change, this financial settlement was set during the early stages of the review rather than at its end, thus avoiding the wearyingly familiar ‘knife fight in a phone booth’ that has consumed the single Services right to the end of previous reviews, and permitting a more thoughtful and constructive approach. Looking forward, while there is still pressure on budget holders to save money, they have the incentive of knowing that these savings can be reinvested where they choose rather than disappearing into the ever hungry maw of the Treasury. More broadly, in terms of structure and process, while the National Security Strategy that underpinned the review has been criticised as rather thin, it must be a step forward that the UK is considering all the broad aspects of its security in the round rather than in isolation and is making some progress in joining them up. Taking this further by strengthening the secretariat of the National Security Council might be an area to explore.

Whatever one’s conclusion on the review, producing a snapshot of the government’s vision for defence was the easy part. It has often been observed that formulating a strategy is easier than putting it into practice. One of the reasons that strategy is challenging is that the world does not remain static: difficult as it is to devise a British strategy – or rather a British contribution to an allied strategy – to deal with the various problems mentioned above, doing so will become all the more challenging should a strategic shock occur. A renewed crunch in the international economy could throw the ‘cup-half-full’ financial settlement into doubt, while it is usually a safe prediction that some entirely unpredicted crisis will emerge. Perhaps the biggest cloud on the horizon is a potential strategic game-changer that is all but in the diary, in the form of the possibility that the referendum on British membership in the European Union will result in a vote to leave.

The implications of this result would be enormous, albeit unpredictable in detail. Much would depend on the relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU that was negotiated in the aftermath of a decision to quit.

Such a decision would not necessarily indicate an inwardly-focussed ‘little Britain’ any more than a decision to remain would demonstrate support for the ‘little Europe’ tendency that can be perceived in parts of Whitehall as well as in some other European capitals. Britain would still seek to play a role on the global stage and would be as keen to retain a close partnership with allies in Europe as they would be keen to keep Britain involved. Continued free trade across the Channel and also some policy cooperation in a range of areas would be a mutual benefit. The atmosphere surrounding an exit could make this difficult, however. While economic rationality, let alone security considerations, would point to a positive settlement, this could well be trumped by irritation and resentment at the British departure – as well as by a desire to deter other member states from taking a similar step – resulting in a vindictive stance despite the costs. On the other hand, perhaps in the longer term, a decisive resolution of the ongoing question could be preferable to a Britain that is a reluctant member, always casting longing glances towards the exit.

Equally significant would be the impact of a British withdrawal on the two unions concerned. First, it would in all probability be followed by a new Scottish referendum on independence. While the collapse in the price of oil has made a complete nonsense of the economic blueprint of the Scottish National Party, such a referendum could well be swayed (like the one on the EU that would have triggered it) by the issues of the moment and sentiment, rather than cold economic rationality. It is likely that a British decision to leave the EU would be followed by a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom, with all the complications for defence policy that would ensue. Second, the implications for the European Union could be almost as problematic, and not only because the departure of the UK would see it lose a considerably greater proportion of its population and wealth than Scotland represents within the UK. The EU has not yet healed the self-inflicted wound of the Euro crisis, which alongside the flow of migrants from outside its common borders has exacerbated some of the long-standing (though usually glossed over) differences of national perspective among members. The UK’s departure would shift the Union’s balance of power away from the ‘northern’ block with its preference for economic openness and financial prudence, further deepening many of these tensions. A British exit would therefore cause considerable shock waves on the continent, well beyond the loss of a significant contributor to the EU budget.

This will therefore be a busy year for British strategy and defence policy makers. At best, they will be implementing a defence and security review against a backdrop of considerable international instability. At worst, they might need to undertake a fundamental rethink of the place in the world of a UK (or whatever it might be renamed) without Scotland and outside the comfort of the European Union. All of a sudden, the challenge of getting defence spending to add up to 2% of GDP might look easy in retrospect.

Image: HMS Victorious near Faslaxne, via flickr. 


Back to the Future? British Air Power and Two Defence Reviews 2010-15

Dr David Jordan

When the Prime Minister sat down in the House of Commons after concluding his presentation of the 2015 SDSR, he may have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction at the largely positive response it received, and not just from his own back-benchers. This may have become a grin by the time the positive media reaction became clear, with much of that based upon the news that substantial investment is to be made in British air capabilities.

For once, the headlines did not revolve around fast jets, with the decision to purchase nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft (MMA) taking centre stage. Often seen as a reversal of the 2010 decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4, more astute commentators noted that it was actually a logical conclusion to the process where experienced aircrew from the old Nimrod fleet became part of a ‘seedcorn’ programme, which saw them posted on exchange tours to allied maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleets to ensure that it would be possible to regenerate an MPA force in due course. The decision to procure the P-8 was an entirely logical consequence of this. While some of the seedcorn aircrew served with the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand air forces on the P-3 Orion, this is an aging (yet still effective) type, which was not going to be the replacement MPA for the RAF. Those who served on the US Navy’s P-8 force, on the other hand, can bring expertise of the type to bear as the MPA force regenerates at RAF Lossiemouth. While the stated plan is for a third of the overall purchase to be in service by 2019, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported to have been negotiating for the loan of a small number of US Navy P-8 airframes to expedite the process of returning an MPA to British service. It is not unfair to say that the government deserves some credit here with the seedcorn initiative, and the recognition that a decision needed to be made in this review. Had there been further delays, there would have been a considerable risk that significant number seedcorn aircrew might have left the RAF, wasting a relatively small and sensible investment.

While SDSR presents the P-8 as an MPA (Section 4.49), this should not obscure the possibility of the aircraft being used as an MMA with the procurement of additional airframes and the Airborne Ground Surveillance system. This aircraft might provide a replacement for the Sentinel R1 in the battlefield surveillance role in the early to mid-2020s. The Sentinel has become something of a serial survivor of reviews now, avoiding rumoured cancellation in the early 2000s, then having its life extended beyond its original retirement date, now to the early part of the 2020s. It would not be entirely surprising to see a further life extension, since the Sentinel has played a valuable role in a number of recent operations. If the type is not extended further, there will be a need to replace its capabilities, and the P-8 seems to offer the most sensible base for achieving this.

The fact that the P-8 is based upon the Boeing 737 offers another possibility, namely in the field of airborne warning and control. This is currently undertaken by of six Boeing E-3D Sentries (aka ‘AWACS’, from Airborne Warning and Control), which entered RAF service more than 20 years ago. Although the type has been upgraded, the question will arise as to how long it can remain effective in service, and whether or not it would be more cost- effective to procure the 737-based E-7 Wedgetail as a replacement. Since the E-3D appears just once in SDSR15, the question of what happens in this important – and often misunderstood – realm of air power seems to have gone unanswered.

Although SDSR is equally vague about the Beechcraft Shadow R1 operated by 14 Squadron RAF, this has more to do with its sensitive operational role and the concomitant lack of publicity. What we do know is that the aircraft will remain in service until at least 2030, after beginning life as an Urgent Operational Requirement which has been ‘taken into core’. In addition to upgrades, the current fleet of five operational aircraft and a trainer will be increased to eight operational airframes. Whether this means that the Army Air Corps’ equally mysterious Islander and Defender aircraft are to be retired or will run on unencumbered by the attention of the press and military commentators is unclear.

These were not the only developments worthy of comment, since the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) fleet will be boosted with the procurement of a new remotely piloted air system (RPAS), the Protector. The RAF currently operates ten of the (in)famous MQ-9 Reaper ‘drone’, while there will be at least 20 Protectors. The Prime Minister announced this procurement some weeks before the SDSR, amid much confusion as to what Protector was. It transpired that it was a renaming of the extant ‘Scavenger’ RPAS programme, and will involve an upgraded Reaper variant. This means that the RAF’s RPAS capability will be double what it is now; what is not so clear, though, is what the imprecise ‘more than 20’ (section 4.49 of SDSR) means. 21? 30? We could, in fact, have seen a commitment to an even greater level of RPAS use by the UK over the next decade or so, which has potentially interesting implications in terms of force structure – as the current ten RPAS are operated by two squadrons, will this mean an expansion in the number of RAF flying units? And if so, will the scheme to recruit RPAS-only pilots and systems operators increase?

Even allowing for certain areas where clarity is lacking SDSR15’s handling of airborne ISR assets seems encouraging, with the restoration of an MPA capability which offers interesting potential developments in terms of surveillance and AWACS replacements from the mid-2020s onwards, and an expansion in capabilities in the ISR field overall, even though there are some questions to be answered as to how that capability will be fully realised when the RAF’s personnel numbers are not apparently going to increase on the sort of scale that might be anticipated.

This was not the only ‘good news’. The C-130J Hercules transport, meant to be retired in 2022 was given a reprieve. There has been much debate as to whether the A400M Atlas was a suitable replacement, since it appeared to be too large to perform the Special Forces support role effectively. Although there was a belief that a small force of C-130s might be retained for this role, the decision to keep 14 airframes was perhaps unexpected. This effectively means that the reduction in transport capability presaged by SDSR10 has almost been reversed, although it must be noted that the extension of the Hercules is only until 2030. Coupled with the introduction of the Voyager and the growth of the Atlas fleet, SDSR15 appears to have set about reversing the decline of the fixed wing transport force. The policy for the support helicopter force, subject of much attention in the past decade, might be said to have been set as ‘steady as she goes’. The decision to introduce two Strike Brigades in addition to 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade suggests that the RAF and Commando Helicopter forces will be kept busy.

The same is almost certainly true of the RAF’s fast jet force. The venerable Tornado GR4, despite some bitter – and often wildly inaccurate – criticism from certain defence bloggers remains a critical part of the RAF’s forces. The review, though, makes clear that the Tornado’s time is drawing to a close (even though a further life extension would not be a surprise) as the Typhoon finally gains the ability to use Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles. That the Typhoon, always intended to be a multi-role aircraft in RAF service, has been hobbled by a multi-national MOU which caused years of delay to the introduction of its full range of capabilities is a lesson worth learning for those involved in future procurement. Until the three remaining squadrons disband in 2018 and 2019, the GR4 will remain at the forefront of operations, potentially completing almost 30 years of continuous operational deployments. The extension of the Tornado force reflects an issue dating back to 1991. Then, the RAF had 30 fast jet squadrons. SDSR10 would have reduced that to six by 2020, a reduction of 80% – yet the tasking for the RAF’s combat aircraft had not diminished by anything like as much. There is a case for saying that the end of the Cold War saw an increase in RAF fast jet deployments against a backdrop of continuing cuts, with little or no ‘peace dividend’. While the increase of the future force to nine squadrons from the planned six addresses some of the problems, it may well be the case that more units are required in due course, and it will be interesting to see how this is addressed.

In this context, the decision to retain two additional Typhoon squadrons and extending their service life until 2040, is welcome. The decision means that the RAF will end up with seven Typhoon squadrons, which was the originally-planned force structure for the type; a true ‘back to the future’ aspect of the review, albeit one which reverses a number of decisions made over the course of the last 15 years or so, not just the last 5. The ability to use the Typhoon in concert with so-called ‘5th generation’ aircraft has already been explored in exercises with the USAF’s F-22 fighters, and this has applicability for work with Britain’s purchase of the F-35B Lighting (or Lightning FG1 in British service).

The F-35 joint strike fighter programme has been beset with problems and vitriolic criticism; indeed, a number of commentators have called for it to be cancelled and for the UK to purchase F/A-18E or F/A-18F Super Hornets, to equip ‘cat and trap’ carriers. This rather misses the point. As well as the defence industrial implications of abandoning the F-35 and the likely diminution of British influence in coalitions without its ‘first night’ capability, it represents a misreading of what the F-35 will deliver, even in the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version. The actual position is perhaps reflected in SDSR15’s increasing the number of aircraft to be purchased by the mid-2020s, thus allowing one carrier to be at sea all year round with F-35Bs as part of the air wing if required. If the intention for a purchase of 138 F-35s is realised, this will further transform the capability of British air power, offering the ability to base 5th-generation aircraft both aboard the carriers and on land bases, making the aircraft not just a step on from the Harrier and Tornado, but a possible ‘game-changer’ in terms of the UK’s ability to project power. There are some potential pitfalls which need to be noted, though. The first is that the pace at which the F-35 is bought may well create a situation where the number of aircraft available to support embarkation aboard a carrier is, at least initially, insufficient. Although the importance of the Queen Elizabeth class to the projection of British air power has been obvious for years (as I suggested here 14 years ago), there is a risk that adopting a concept of use which sees most of the F-35 force tied to carrier operations for at least the first few years of the aircraft’s use might represent a reduction in the flexibility and potential capabilities that the F-35 offers.

The US Navy, for instance, demonstrated this with the deployment of around a third of a an F-14 squadron (VF-154) to a shore base during Iraqi Freedom, and although arguments that the F-35B simply cannot expect to be fully effective if the aircraft ‘hop and hop off’ the QE carriers are entirely valid, the risk of tying a valuable aircraft type to the carrier deck (or, if not embarked, back at base regenerating capabilities after a cruise) needs to be considered very carefully. As the number of F-35s increases, this risk will reduce. It does, though present a second problem, which is the risk of the question of ‘ownership’ being revisited, perhaps more by commentators than by practitioners.

This raises the risk of rejuvenating counter-productive inter-service which achieves little beyond getting in the way. Although not perfect, the Joint Force Harrier experience, with the emphasis very much on ‘joint’ was a valid model which can be built upon. Notions that the FAA should undergo considerable expansion so as to operate the majority of the F-35B force may appear attractive, but the likelihood – given the lack of any significant uplift in personnel numbers for either the RAF or the RN means that such a debate is largely nugatory. The key will be in ensuring that a balance is struck using the joint force, rather than getting becalmed in a circular debate over whether the F-35B is owned by the RAF or the RN; attempting ‘regime change’ at this stage is likely to cause more problems than it solves. The key issue here is one of balance, and as Viscount Templer’s committee which looked at the future of British air power in 1965 (concluding that arrangements were ‘broadly right’) observed, this was often lacking in considerations of air power. It is to be hoped, 50 years on, that this can at last be overcome.

A further consideration will have to be the amount of synthetic training that is projected for the F-35. It is entirely possible that as much as 50% of the training will be conducted in simulators, using encrypted networking capabilities to maximise benefits. SDSR15 did not discuss the burgeoning revolution in synthetic training, and this has obscured just how important a part of F-35 operations this is likely to be. Unless there is a mechanism for placing a significant networked simulator architecture aboard a QE class carrier, then there would be a real risk that the ‘traditional’ model of embarkation would reduce the efficacy of the F-35B force as a result of skills fade. Focusing on past debates between the RN and RAF over aviation is not going to be a helpful course of action when dealing with the F-35B. Whilst there is a risk of overstating just how significant the leap from 4th to 5th generation aircraft is – if only because much of this is based upon manufacturers’ brochures rather than hard experience – it is not unfair to observe that the latent capabilities of the F-35B mean that innovative thought and application of effort is going to matter far more than the imposition of traditional operating and training regimes.

And it is in the arena of training that concern must also arise. Although the RAF and FAA are to receive new aircraft and retain others for longer than planned, these aircraft are – obviously – useless without the personnel to fly and maintain them. It is not entirely clear how a nine-squadron strong fast jet force (vice a planned six), coupled with the purchase of the P-8, an increase in RPAS numbers (and potentially the number of simultaneous RPAS orbits) and the retention of C-130s, Sentinels and Shadows means that the RAF, in particular, is at risk of continuing to ‘run hot’. Given that the RAF ‘returned to contingency’ in 1991, carrying out more than three dozen contingent operations years before the drawdown from Afghanistan supposedly enabled a return to this form of operation, this is an issue which is notable by its absence in the discussion of air power in the SDSR15 document.

Overall, then, there was much to cheer from the perspective of British air power, as key capabilities are to be restored and/or enhanced. There are challenges, though: the risk of returning to outdated thinking about air power (perhaps a greater risk in this sort of format than in actual planning documents) could hamper developments if allowed to flourish, while the question of how a notable increase in aircraft numbers can be allied to ensuring that there are enough people to fly and maintain them remains a nagging concern. Yet SDSR15 should be welcomed from an air power perspective – recognising the importance of the environment to the prosecution of the UK’s military operations in a way which previous reviews have not and laying the foundations for the full potential contribution of air power in a properly ‘joint’ context to be achieved. If, by so doing, it marks the point at which snide comments about 100 year experiments (based upon a gross misreading of a remark by Viscount Trenchard in 1925) can be retired and replaced with mature consideration of what air power can most efficaciously deliver to campaigns, this may be its most significant achievement of all.

Image: A ground crew member with the Royal Air Force preparing a RAF Tornado GR4 ready for take off as it prepares to depart Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan for the final time.

OOOOHH Canada, Really?


The election of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son Justin to the Prime Ministership is a sad outcome for a number of reasons. Firstly, despite the majority of Canadians believing they have a moral and ethical superiority, obtained through universal healthcare and gun-control, they have shown politically that they are not. In an era of repeating Clintons and Bush’s, like last night’s dinner that is there for left-over lunch the next day Canada now has its own dynastic leader. The inability of a Canadian public that desired change to take the next logical and substantive step of accepting a national New Democratic Party leader, with a developed national platform and leadership experience, over a corrupt, secretive and furtive Conservative Party, speaks volumes about the low-level of political awareness throughout the nation’s voting public. Instead, the majority of Canadians, which were of course from the unproductive “have-not” Provinces in the Maritimes, along with Quebec and Ontario, anointed an inexperienced, unproven political “royal” to the nation’s highest post because “they knew him”. The reality is that Canadians and the world at large know nothing about the new Canadian Prime Minister. Largely that is because, at the age of 43 he has done little that is worth knowing about, apart from become part of the Quebec Liberal Party machine and their emotional posterchild. An incompetent Tory campaign and ten years of autocratic, manipulative and narrow-minded policy making, sprinkled with a liberal dose of corruption, made this a case of “not sure what we want we know what we don’t want”, election result. For other nations, what now can they expect from the new Canadian government and its leader as far as international relations and security are concerned?

The answer is even less than has come to be the norm under the Harper Governments. The Canadian military will not be sleeping easy in the aftermath of this result. Quebec-spawned Prime Ministers have historically been isolationist, parochial and almost completely devoid of any real desire or commitment to presenting Canada in a leadership role internationally. Their first and foremost imperative is domestic policy and minimizing the influence of external factors on Canadian politics to avoid any rise in a unifying nationalism. Regionalism is the Quebec Prime Minister’s weapon of choice, and so to create as much regional friction as he can in order to ensure the Maritime/Quebec/Ontario axis is secured, outsiders can look for the Canadian government to minimize its relations with America, NATO and any other partners, who would desire Canada make an open and obvious commitment that required a unified national will. Trapped by Lester Pearson and a history of Canadian engagement many moons removed now from the current Canadian political landscape, involvement in wars or conflicts in faraway places will not be something this Liberal leader will want to see Canada continue. In the 1970s his father had to be badgered and embarrassed by the Americans into fulfilling Canada’s commitment to GDP expenditure on NATO, resulting in the purchase of German Leopard Mark 1 tanks, a circumstance Trudeau senior never forgave the Americans for. The new Trudeau Mark 2 will have a similar desire to avoid spending on the military, as well as security agencies of all kinds, especially those oriented towards external relations or activities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) will do well, the Canadian Intelligence Security Services (CISS) probably less well. Relations with the United States are likely to become more difficult on defence and security matters, and certainly a need for an independent Canada in this regard will become a bigger part of the foreign policy narrative. Like his father, Justin Trudeau will no doubt see what the economic and political realities are when it comes to US-Canadian relations especially at a time of a Chinese economic down turn. With less India and Chinese investment and purchasing taking place, Canada’s resource-driven economy is vulnerable once again to market forces that it cannot control.

The need to re-construct the Canadian Armed Forces, in terms of the procurement of new land, air and maritime platforms will come under quick and painful scrutiny. Any programmes that had an international justification and not a simplistic and parochial sovereignty or national rationale, should be very concerned about their future. At best Arctic-oriented aspects of security and defence might hold some attraction, mainly because domestic jobs will be created in the Maritime, Quebec or Ontario, where shipbuilding and high technology companies are able to profit from government contracts. However, given the depleted condition of Canada’s defence industrial-base, and now a government that will not wish to buy off-the-shelf any large ticket items, the steady decline of Canadian defence capability of the next four years is to be expected. This further four years of neglect and perhaps even outright prejudice by the government against Defence, should just about eliminate Canada from any serious consideration for anything other than low-intensity operations. Thirty year old and counting equipment in all three domains makes the Canadian contribution to anything other than low level operations, or peace support, peace keeping, peace enforcement operations as much as can be expected. That, however, is predicated on a very big IF, on the part of this inexperienced and naturally left-leaning, isolationist leader to actual be able to generate enough caring to do anything as far as committing Canadian resources to international operations.

What can be expected from the Canadian government, along with university talking-heads, think-tank professionals, and others is a great deal of rhetoric and moralizing about Responsibility To Protect (R2P) and other fluffy, unrealistic international security policy left-overs from the last of the Chretien days in government. There are just about enough old senior Liberal Party members with some memory of such things still around. They will certainly be reminded of the R2P-type thinking towards international relations by the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto intellectual, double frappachino, café chat, international relations professional types that have made a career out of talking and writing about such things over the last ten years while they have wandered the political wilderness out of power. Now back in positions of influence and agency, a veritable flood of such escapist foreign policy suggestions will come flooding forth. The problem of course is that it is all talk and Canada has and will continue to be unable to be responsible in helping protect anyone, apart from itself. What Trudeau Mark 2 has to bear in mind is that for most of the world, in terms of international relations and affairs, Canada is irrelevant. Given that there is no serious ability for Canadian politicians to think in terms of international affairs and strategy, nor is there an expectation of strategic thinking being a necessary attribute, nor is there any serious capacity for it to occur within Canadian intellectual and academic circles, to say nothing of the inability of the professional civil service usually intrusted with such duties to perform such a task, the New Trudeau enters into a pit of despair as far as being able to formulate anything other than “business as usual” for a Canadian foreign and security strategy. So, business as usual with less should be the flavour of this government’s approach to such issues: benign (if you are lucky) neglect.

If that is something that he finds distasteful upon his first bites of power once in office, then Prime Minister Trudeau’s agenda for change is broad enough to allow him to try and raise the nation from its newly found bargain basement security partner position. Anyone, be it within or from without Canada, that feels now is the time for Canada to begin to climb out of the international relations and security morass into which it has fallen should strike while the iron is hot. Bombard the new leader and his close associates with as much international interventionism, international liberalism, realism, constructivist, or anythingism besides the old clap-trap of Canadian national security-ism. Open his eyes to the broader world and not just the Quebec-Ontario-Maritimes world view. If the canvass is still relatively blank, then who knows what ideas, narratives, or concepts might just take root in the virgin soil.

However, nations wishing to see any such change from Canada should not get their hopes up. With first having to learn how to govern, then establishing over the next year or two why he wants to govern, he will be into re-election mode by the time he realizes what he wants to govern. The good thing is, it won’t take much to make him better at international relations and security than his father, who was a completely inconsequential and irrelevant actor in this regard. If there is some Freudian father-killing aspect to Justin Trudeau’s political decision-making processes with regard to Canada’s international affairs, and there are signs this Liberal Government may be interested in internationalism of consequence, not just verbiage, other nations should immediately reward those small steps with praise and encouragement. For such an inexperienced and impressionable leader, such encouragement and reassurance could go a long way to fostering further confidence in travelling along such a path.

Image: Justin Trudeau at Canada 2020 on June 22, 2015, speaking on rebuilding the Canada-US relationship, via flickr.

Thinking about the Present and Future of US Military Power Projection

This is the third in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr Jeff Michaels explores the role of the military in US foreign policy.


One of the great ironies of so much of the commentary about US defence policy, or that which deals with its global implications, is that so little is understood about what the US armed forces are, and are not capable of, much less what they are actually up to, despite the enormous amount of evidence available about them.  Whereas during the Cold War, the limited amount of evidence about the Soviet military, much of it highly suspect, forced scholars and intelligence analysts to develop critical methodologies for interpreting it, contemporary analysis of the relatively ‘open’ US military system suffers from a false sense of confidence, with the result that there is far too little criticism.

The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps the sheer volume of detailed information about the US military is so overwhelming that only the ‘headlines’ receive attention. Perhaps the focus on individual crises reduces interest in a more holistic understanding of a highly complex and global system. Perhaps the US military is viewed as being so powerful that the practical limits of this power are not viewed as a subject for serious contemplation – a phenomenon particularly apparent during the counterinsurgency revival that is often associated with General David Petraeus. Or perhaps, the critical study of the capabilities of today’s armed forces, regardless of country, is not considered a priority for scholars working in the field, and the limits to the study of the US military is simply part of a broader trend.  On this last point, it is instructive that despite the billions of dollars devoted to the development of the Iraqi and Afghan military systems, institutions incidentally that are the key underpinning structures of Western policies in both countries, analysis of these systems have received very little interest or priority compared to any number of other aspects of the two conflicts.

Similarly, a ‘taken for granted’ mentality seems to exist where the US armed forces are concerned, especially among US allies whose own defence policies must account for US military power in one way or other. One prominent example of this mentality can be seen in the reactions, particularly in Europe, to the 2011 announcement of a ‘pivot’ (later ‘rebalancing’) to Asia, which was viewed as a major shift of US policy, and one that had important implications for ‘European security’.  By contrast, the actual military content of this policy received little attention.  Yet viewed with a critical eye, it was immediately apparent that the military content was relatively insignificant, not only in its own right, but also relative to other key developments in the operational roles and geographical dispositions of the US armed forces that have occurred alongside the large-scale withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this regard, a key limitation of most analyses is an over-reliance on a top-down approach in which policy direction is believed to derive from senior officials and will be implemented accordingly by the bureaucracy.  These analyses tend to give great weight to public statements of policy intent. Such an approach gives little independent agency to the bureaucracy, and mistakenly equates policy statements with policy action.  A more effective approach is to examine the interaction of the top-down with the bottom-up. Thus, to take the example of the ‘pivot’ again, this ‘new’ policy has typically been seen as deriving from the Obama administration. Almost no attention has been devoted to the roles played in promoting the ‘pivot’ by the US Navy and Air Force, nor of the US Pacific Command, nor of other actors in the wider US defence system associated with ‘peer competitor threats’ that had been marginalized in the post-9/11 period.

These bottom-up drivers are crucial to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of US policy. They are also essential to understanding the continuities and discontinuities of US policy.  The re-emergence of the ‘peer competitor’ in the US defence discourse is an interesting development in this respect, and also a dynamic one. Whereas several years ago, coinciding with the Asia ‘pivot’ discourse, China was emerging as the key future adversary, more recently US defence chiefs have referred to Russia as the top threat, followed by China, Iran and North Korea.  Interestingly, ‘non-state actors’ such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have fallen to the bottom of the priority list, possibly reflecting a cost-benefit appreciation, based on earlier experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the application of significant US military power, at great expense, has resulted in few positive returns.  Put another way, those sections of the US military that deal with the large-scale application of force,  to say nothing of political elites and public opinion, have lost interest in ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘stabilization’, and are quite content to defer these matters to those sections of the military that deal with the small-scale application of force – historically the norm for the US during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods.

Should this latest reordering of priorities be viewed purely as a reaction to external developments, or can a convincing case be made that infighting amongst different bureaucratic actors is at least partially responsible for this shift?  Actually, the external development explanation is less convincing than the internal development one, precisely because it is the actors within the US system that give these external developments meaning.  If one examines the origins of the ‘China threat’ discourse, and its evolution within the wider US defence discourse, relative to any actual ‘threat’ posed by the Chinese military what is striking is the way in which the emerging pre-9/11 ‘China threat’ disappeared once the ‘war on terror’ took centre stage.  In the decade after 9/11, Chinese military capabilities increased year after year, yet it was only with the marginalization of the ‘war on terror’ that the ‘China threat’ regained its prominence.  Incidentally, the marginalization within the US defence discourse of ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’ threats in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred despite little indication of any actual decline posed by those threats. In other words, a gap can be identified between the prevailing discourse and the reality on the ground.  Trendiness in US threat assessments can also be seen in the recent and rather random emergence of Russia as the ‘top threat’ in the US defence discourse, more than a year after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and with little significant change in Russian behaviour in the interim.

Whilst focus on changes in the US defence discourse is important, it can also be misleading by channelling analysis into certain areas and directing attention away from other areas, with the consequence that important developments are overlooked.  The various conflicts, threats, and issues previously mentioned in this article represent only a handful in which the US military plays a role or deals with on a regular basis.  By its very nature, the US is a global military power, and is the only country in the world with a logistics system able to project and sustain significant military power overseas. The maintenance of this system is not only an enormous administrative and diplomatic task in its own right, but it is also the fundamental ‘enabler’, along with the military’s regional ‘combatant command’ system, that drives the unique way in which the US military operates.  Nor has this system been abandoned in recent years – it remains fundamentally in place, and in some areas it is being expanded.  In recent years, arguments about US ‘decline’, often associated with ‘military decline’, or about a regional emphasis on Asia at the expense of other regions, have ignored the existence and crucial importance of this ‘global’ logistics system for the application of US military power.  Unfortunately, the broader political and military implications of these structures have received little or no scholarly attention.

One final point to note relates to the way in which the US military is coping with that other enormous challenge for all Western armed forces, namely the decreasing utility of military force and the increasing poverty of military theory.  The US may be theoretically able to project significant military power in any range of conflict scenarios given the capabilities it possesses, but two key obstacles are likely to limit its willingness to do so. The first is the decreasing political, public, and military appetite for large-scale, costly, and potentially lengthy interventions.   Given the costliness in terms of blood and treasure fighting poorly armed adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is almost unthinkable to contemplate even costlier action against more sophisticated adversaries.  The second obstacle, closely related to the first, has been the inability of the US and other Western military systems to find effective ways of employing expensive military forces that are politically, economically, and socially acceptable. Military ‘scripts’ for successful outcomes  in contemporary conflicts are notable either by their absence, or by their absence of mind, though in fairness this is largely due to the lack of reasonable policy ends set them by politicians and the constrained policy framework they must operate within.  Consequently, whereas it may be difficult to say how the US military will cope with this challenge, it is much less difficult to say that the future of US military power projection will be largely defined by the way it copes with it or fails to do so.

Image: USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 2 perform an aerial demonstration in the South China Sea May 8, 2006, Via Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Russians are coming!’ Well, not just yet…


There has been much sabre-rattling by Moscow recently. Russian military activity has increased markedly since the Maidan events in Ukraine in early 2014. Russian troops initially massed on Ukraine’s borders in what was ostensibly a scheduled military exercise, but which was also clearly a means of applying psychological pressure on Kiev. Then the situation worsened as Russia annexed Crimea without a shot being fired. This was a very skillful operation involving the Kremlin’s now well-refined information-warfare techniques integrated with the activities of a limited number of special forces. This was followed in eastern Ukraine by the appearance of the ‘little green men’ (who may or may not have been Russian troops) operating in support of the rebels seeking autonomy from Kiev. It may be taken as read, though, that there are, indeed, Russian troops operating today over the border in Ukraine. Equipment has been seen there that is only possessed by the Russian army and which can only be operated by Russian service personnel.

Beyond Ukraine, other instances of what might be called aggressive behaviour have been evident. Russian aircraft and naval vessels are – on a global scale – fraying nerves with their incursions or near incursions into someone else’s territory. Evident also in the last month or so has been a spate of major, and provocative, military exercises unrelated to the Ukraine situation – in, for instance, the Arctic and the Southern Military District (near Georgia). Additional excitement has been caused by an exercise in March involving the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range missiles into Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. Such a deployment brings several NATO countries within range of these missiles.

The Russian military seems to be very busy. But what are we really to make of all this? How worried should we be?

Well, the first thing to do is to take a step back and look at the nature of the recent Russian military modernisation process. On the back of oil money, the Kremlin has, over the last few years, been moving its military into the 21st century. This process has concentrated, in terms of the army (i.e., the Ground Forces and the Airborne Forces), on recruiting more professional soldiers, creating greater mobility and improving niche capabilities. In essence, the thinking was very much asymmetric – how to leverage a small number of assets so that they could create major strategic effect. Hence, a significant investment has been made in terms of special forces. Today, these forces are designed to work in tandem with Moscow’s newly enhanced information-warfare capabilities. The idea now, based on hybrid war principles, is that a target country (e.g., Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic States) can be forced either into surrendering territory or into outright submission using nothing much more than information-warfare attacks and the activities of a few highly-trained special forces. This combination was seen to work very well in the Crimea and may yet be seen to work very well in the Baltics.

However, while there has been significant investment in certain areas, the Russian defence establishment – regardless of any extra funding – cannot make up for the fact that there has been hardly any R & D investment since the end of the Cold War. The likes of Russia’s main battle tanks, fighters and bombers are more-or-less exactly the same models as those present in 1989. In many ways, Moscow thus feels weak: its conventional forces are no match for those of the United States and NATO. Moreover, the Russian army is also actually short of numbers. Several years ago, Vladimir Putin, in a search for domestic popularity, brought the basic term of conscript service down from two years to one. But if conscripts serve for only one year instead of the previous two then, using basic maths, the Russian army is roughly half the size it was under the two-year term. Then throw in the fact that Russia has a falling population and that there exists any number of deferral possibilities and the number of conscripts will be falling year on year. And, of course, conscripts who serve for just one year (including training time) are not really going to prove effective in any modern, high-tech military.

The shortage of troops has become evident as Moscow tries to maintain its current pressure on Ukraine. As units in its ‘vicinity’ need to be rotated off operational duties, new ones have to take their place. But they are simply not there. Units are now even being transferred from the likes of Tajikistan to plug the gaps – leaving that region more vulnerable to Islamist incursions from Afghanistan (one of Moscow’s major fears).

The issue now for Russia is that it has a military focused, at one end of the scale, on special forces for use in hybrid warfare and, at the other end, on a still reasonably effective nuclear capability. Russia continues to maintain, at huge expense, a triad system of nuclear weapons (i.e. delivered from air, land, or sea). But there is no balance; in the middle there is a relative lack of standard conventional forces.

Russia’s principal deterrence capability thus has to come from its nuclear missiles and not from its conventional forces. Given this situation, it might be expected that Russia would rattle its rockets along with all the other available sabres: it would want to scare the US and NATO over nuclear attack as well. That is, Moscow would want to change its military doctrine to reflect the fact that it was more ready to use such weapons if threatened. But this has not happened.

In the run-up to the publication of Russia’s latest military doctrine in December 2014, there was much dark talk of the fact that it would name-names in terms of just who Russia saw as its enemies and define the conditions for a Russian pre-emptive nuclear strike. Military doctrines of the Soviet Union/Russia have traditionally stated that nuclear weapons would only ever be used in response to a nuclear attack against itself, or if the state was being put in mortal danger through a conventional attack. It was mooted that the new doctrine would change this and lower the threshold of use. As it turned out, though, the doctrine did not name the US as an enemy and the threshold was not lowered. The new doctrine was thus quite conciliatory.

So, it is not all gloom and doom. Yes, Moscow is rattling sabres, but not as many as it might.

Image: “Modern T-90 tank of the Russian Army” by Vitaliy Ragulin – Репетиция парада.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

NATO at Newport: Back to the Future I


On October 24th 2014 the Defence Studies Department (DSD) marked the launch of its Regional Security Research Centre with a NATO roundtable held at the Defence Academy. The event also marked the start of a new partnership between DSD and the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) in Oslo. Led by Dr Tracey German and Dr Ellen Hallams from DSD and Associate Professor Paal Hilde, Associate Professor Johannes Ro, and Professors Magnus Petersson and Johannes Ro from IFS, together with Professor Mark Webber from the University of Birmingham and Dr Martin Smith from RMA Sandhurst. The event aimed to bring together academic colleagues, military staff, and students to reflect on the NATO Summit held in Newport, Wales, September 22-24. The analysis that follows provides a summary of the two key themes and issues that emerged from the roundtable: NATO’s ‘homecoming’, and burden-sharing and defence spending. The remaining themes, NATO enlargement and NATO-Russia relations, will be examined in a second post to be published later.

NATO’s ‘Homecoming’

Regardless of events in Ukraine and Crimea, the Newport summit would always have marked a key moment of transition in NATO’s post-Cold War history, as the alliance formally prepared to bring to an end the most complex, protracted and controversial mission in its 65-year history. Prior to Newport, debate on the alliance’s future in a post-ISAF era had coalesced around a growing consensus that NATO would ‘return home’ both in a physical and conceptual sense. Two main drivers may be identified behind the consensus to refocus on alliance fundamentals – collective defence, education and training and defence collaboration. First, a new self-confidence in Russian foreign and security policy became evident from 2007 and was expressed in the August 2008 intervention in Georgia. Sensing a potential threat from the East, several allies on NATO’s eastern periphery called for reassurance measures from NATO. Second, the withdrawal from Afghanistan formally initiated at the 2010 Lisbon Summit also marked the end of a decade in which NATO’s global ambitions had come to exceed the political will of most members. The end of ISAF and retreat from big operations, which over the two decades since the end of the Cold War had become the raison d’être of the Alliance, raised the need to reinvent NATO’s rationale. The first driver provided an obvious response to the question posed by the second: with the end of NATO’s age of big operations, collective defence provided a sound basis for the Alliance’s enduring relevance. The Ukraine crisis in a sense merely reinforced this trend. As late as February 2014, allies faced the prospect of a Wales Summit with no security agreement with Afghanistan and, in the words of a NATO ambassador, ‘the thinnest soup ever’ of other issues. The Ukraine crisis gave NATO a sense of mission and required allies to come up with a response to the new security situation in Europe. This was, in many respects, precisely what Newport delivered: a renewed emphasis on collective defence via the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) alongside other measures including an enhanced cyber-defence policy, a Defence Capacity Building Initiative, a new Defence Planning package, and a commitment to build on the Connected Forces Initiative established at Chicago in 2012, through increased training and exercises. The notion of NATO’s ‘homecoming’ thus has a certain political logic, imbuing the alliance with much-needed strategic focus and shoring up alliance solidarity and cohesion. There was considerable consensus among participants that NATO is indeed ‘coming home,’ not least because NATO does not have the stamina, willpower or ability to do much beyond its periphery. Ongoing instability in the Balkans and the ‘unfinished business’ of NATO enlargement will also likely ensure a focus on regional European security above and beyond global missions ‘over the horizon’ in NATO’s near-term future.

NATO’s new posture of reassurance and readiness was also deemed not to be without pitfalls, however. While providing ‘visible assurance’ to nervous allies in Eastern Europe it is less clear how it resonates with those nations on NATO’s Southern Flank, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Looking beyond the immediate future, NATO’s ‘homecoming’ may be viewed as a romanticised construct that plays principally to domestic audiences; while it may create a short-term unifying narrative, the security environment over the next decade may not allow such luxuries. A focus on European security cannot come at the expense of engagement with the alliance’s neighbourhood; indeed, the summit declaration noted that the RAP was also designed to contend with instability on NATO’s southern periphery and a key ‘side-issue’ at Newport was ongoing instability in Syria and Iraq. Herein lies the challenge for NATO: it must remain, at core, a regional alliance but with a global focus that ensures NATO is ready and willing to engage with crises on its periphery. NATO’s decision not to be directly engaged in Syria or Iraq was viewed by some as a fundamental error that raises questions over the alliance’s military utility for contemporary security challenges. For others, what matters is that NATO retains a readiness and ability to deal with potential contingencies should the fighting spill over into Turkey, and that even when there is no consensus within the alliance on a particular issue or mission, it continues to demonstrate its utility and relevance by acting as a basis for forming informal coalitions of the willing. This should not necessarily be regarded as a threat to NATO’s long-term future; for global missions and operations, NATO will likely be one actor among many. Depending on the nature of the crisis at hand, it may lead or coordinate operations through NATO command and control capabilities, as in Afghanistan, or it may opt to facilitate more informal coalitions. The summit declaration saw a tacit acknowledgement of such a trend, endorsing the Framework Nation concept as a means of generating more effective ways of groups of allies developing joint forces and capabilities. Nations such as the US and UK, as well as France and some smaller nations including Denmark and the Netherlands, will also continue to retain a global focus. Thus, while a priority has certainly been accorded to collective defence and cyber security, the question remains as to how NATO can maintain a balance between preparing for global contingencies while prioritising measures aimed at reassuring its eastern allies.


Central to maintaining such a balance will be generating increased defence spending and capabilities. Burden-sharing has long been a thorn in NATO’s side, but in the context of operations in Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the economic crisis and defence downsizing on both sides of the Atlantic, it has taken on added salience. Of particular note at Newport was the summit’s Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond which took the unusual step of committing the alliance to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. While the 2% spending commitment was welcome, a study for RUSI shows on current spending plans and growth projections the UK’s defence budget (excluding spending on any new operations) is set to fall to an estimated 1.88% of GDP in financial year 2015/16. The UK government’s push for the 2% declaration thus rings alarmingly hollow and even the most ardent NATO optimist has to concede it is a commitment NATO may well not meet. One might even view such a commitment – which remains aspirational given NATO has no enforcement mechanisms – as a backward step given that 10 years ago it was 3%, just one example of rushed initiatives pushed through by a UK government with one eye on public diplomacy. Yet while a modest goal, it represents a step forward for NATO, the first time such an aspiration has been codified, and an important signal to Washington that in the context of America’s own defence cuts and strategic rebalancing, European allies are taking their alliance responsibilities seriously. Should the UK dip below the 2% threshold only three NATO nations (US, Greece, Estonia) will meet the 2% threshold, a damning indictment for an alliance committed to closing the defence spending gap with Washington.

Moreover, the issue for NATO is not only how many nations can meet the 2% target, but how the 2% is spent. In this regard the summit was perhaps a missed opportunity for redefining the metrics by which defence spending is measured; spending 2% of GDP does not automatically translate into capabilities, and as the operation in Libya reinforced, many European allies still lack critical enabling capabilities that continue to foster an unwelcome dependence on Washington. While NATO has its own internal metrics for defence output, public debate continues to hinge upon the 2% threshold. This tends to obscure the underlying issues and reinforces a focus on inputs rather than outputs, yet it serves the political function of responding to persistent critiques from Washington over the past two decades over unequal burden-sharing within the alliance, and which continue – rightly or wrongly – to focus on the 2% threshold. Over the long-term the Newport commitment may do little to meaningfully close the capabilities gap with Washington, but in the short-term it was a much needed dose of political symbolism. It should not be overlooked either that Newport also contained a commitment to spend 20% of GDP on major new equipment and research and development. More optimistically, the 2% threshold might be better viewed as one piece in a wider jigsaw, including the 2012 Connected Forces Initiative, Smart Defence, the RAP and the Framework Nation concept that together demonstrate the beginnings of a more sustained and serious effort by NATO allies to shift the equilibrium within the alliance and generate a more equitable transatlantic bargain.

We would like to thank all the participants who made the roundtable a success and contributed to a wide-ranging debate. For further information on the Regional Security Research Centre visit

Image: A meeting of NATO secretaries of defense convenes during the 26th NATO summit held in Newport, Wales, September 4, 2014. US DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett.