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The Road Not Traveled on Defense

January 14, 2010

It seems Allan Mallinson, writing in the UK Times has inadvertently hit on the future of warfare in a few simple paragraphs. Why is it so hard for our leaders to grasp?

The strategic defence review will take place at a time of even less money for defence. There are some instinctive defence truths that ought to be reflected in it. One is “want of frigates”, which Nelson said would be found engraved on his heart. The Navy must put on ice its obsession with capital ships. The Iranian hostages affair in 2007 and the recent hesitancy in coming to grips with piracy shows just how far that glorious service has slipped from the time of Napoleon’s lament that wherever there was a fathom of water, there you would find the Royal Navy. Recovering the real essence of the Nelson spirit ought to be the First Sea Lord’s greatest priority.

 The RAF, too, must transform itself from a fast-jet flying club into a tactical air force. It must shift its focus to helicopters and transport aircraft, whose pilots are the real light-blue heroes of current operations. But instead the Eurofighter, a ruinously expensive air-superiority fighter, is being subtly rebranded as a “fighter-bomber” — that’s like putting a roof-rack on a Ferrari and calling it a family car. This is no way to deliver fire support to ground troops.

 The Army, bearing the brunt of Iraq and Afghanistan, has to its credit been refocusing itself. Everything not related to current operations has rightly been put on hold. But it is just too small; even while we were still fighting in Iraq, several infantry battalions were cut. It is now, for instance, 4,000 under strength in corporals and ranks below (two battalions’ worth in the infantry alone); the very men needed at the sharp end.

Yet the recruiting tap is being turned off because there is no money to train and pay the men queuing to join. The Army needs its strength raised by at least 10,000, with an additional margin to take account of training and casualties.

Fighting the war, winning the war. These should be our priorities, not planning and fretting over some future obscure conflict, that suspiciously sounds like the ones we have fought in the past, and ironically keep the huge defense industries bloated during the Cold War on life support. It’s more about jobs and votes, the reluctance to fight our current wars and stop building useless weapons.

Many a politician has grown ripe with power off the defense spigot. Now its a choice of business as usual or do we grapple with new threats against civilization, which must be countered by each new generation, if we want our children to grow up safe and free. But it appears the older generation, my generation, wants to make the decisions for the new, even though the same ideas that won the last war no longer suffice.

So here are the lessons of a new era, learned from a decade of hard-slogging mixed with stumbling in Iraq and Afghanistan, and within the Gulf:

  • The Navy needs small warships, and lots of them. They must be used to watch the sealanes where pirates and terrorist smugglers are want to haunt. They can also watch for potential threats like Iran and China without wearing out our giants ships and the huge crews needed to operate them.
  • The Air Force needs to be tied closer to the army, and needs more planes too, only of the close support type. This is how we won the war against the Germans by the way, over the objections of the Bomber Mafia who thought they could win wars alone. Today its the Fighter Mafia thats the problem.
  • Finally, we need more troops. Boots on the ground are indispensable for COIN or conventional combat. If you study closely the battles of Iraq and ongoing in the Afghan, there is no “either, or” but a little of both. Some times the insurgents stand and fight. Sometimes they hit and run. We need to plan now for Hybrid conflicts and lots of infantry is the safest way to go.

How do we get there? Not claiming to have all the answers, I do know that more money is not the solution. At least in America, we have been awash in funds for decades and are continually regressing, falling behind in replacing vital numbers, and like the Brits say “overstretched”. I see the numbers of ships, planes, and men it took to win the Cold War. Now we are in a new war and we are told we can’t build back numbers, that we must settle, and comfort ourselves by saying we can do more with less.

I know we can rebuild ship numbers if we buy more smaller ships, more useful in today’s wars (And by today I mean THIS CENTURY, not just the past decade!). I know we can rebuild our over-worked and aging airpower if we buy cheap close support planes and UAVs. We might even increase the numbers of troops we need dramatically, not just the 10,000 or so mentioned above, but by tens and hundreds of thousands. Not sure how we get there, (perhaps depending more on reserve forces than ever before?). I only see the need and feel confident the same people who defeated fascism and communism, will defeat  Islamic Fundamentalism and can find a satisfactory solution to our current defense woes.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2010 4:53 pm

    “O’h very well just for you Allan Mallinson is a ‘Retired Brigadier’ though for myself I have never understood the need for these people to keep their service titles after they have left the armed forces.
    Self indulgence perhaps,seems a little sad to me.”

    Oh no sorry! I have had the misfortune to deal with several retired senior army officers who forget that they are very much RETIRED (or ex!) And still think others should jump when they speak and ignore their own many, many short comings.

    FYI the rule of thumb for still using your rank in civilian life is colonel or captain (naval) and above…….

  2. James Daly permalink
    January 15, 2010 4:14 pm

    British Armed forces figures briefing against each other, trying to outdo each other? well, there must be general election and defence review coming up! Its really quite sad the lengths former officers seem to want to go to to protect ‘their’ service. I used to be critical of joint-service thinking, seeing it as a cost-cutting exercise, but I think a more ‘uk defence’ outlook would be helpful. Mind you, it is down to the Government playing ‘divide and conquer’ with the armed forces.

  3. Michael permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:27 am

    X,
    O’h very well just for you Allan Mallinson is a ‘Retired Brigadier’ though for myself I have never understood the need for these people to keep their service titles after they have left the armed forces.
    Self indulgence perhaps,seems a little sad to me.
    I once knew a ‘Retired’ army major who every now and then would put on his full dress uniform and strut around his garden,no doubt trying to recreate his past.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 14, 2010 8:04 pm

    Michael-That Times report was an opinion piece, not so much a report. I recall the warnings the UK posters about some of the bias in the news there, so I am careful now about doing “breaking news”!

    Also concerning the new carrier contracts, I am sorry for the nation, because I know where this is headed. they still have no planes for certain even if the giant decks get built. Also, I am extremely patient having followed the demise of the supercarrier ongoing for 3-4 decades now. It won’t happen overnight. I just watch the budget numbers and wait.

  5. Jed permalink
    January 14, 2010 8:03 pm

    I don’t know the gentleman, but he comes across as a bit of an idiot really:

    “The Iranian hostages affair in 2007 and the recent hesitancy in coming to grips with piracy shows just how far that glorious service has slipped” –

    what a load of rubbish – politicians and ROE responsible for hostage taking, and there was no way on earth that the RFA could have intervened in the piracy affair, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence who has actually read what happened would understand. No credibility at all in those statements even if he is correct about the lack of ‘frigates’.

    As for: “But instead the Eurofighter, a ruinously expensive air-superiority fighter, is being subtly rebranded as a “fighter-bomber” — that’s like putting a roof-rack on a Ferrari and calling it a family car. This is no way to deliver fire support to ground troops.”

    More ‘ground pounder’ propaganda – did the F16 light weight air-to-air fighter mature into a useful multi-role aircraft -your damn right it did ! F15E anybody ? F18’s ???

    And finally: “The Army, bearing the brunt of Iraq and Afghanistan, has to its credit been refocusing itself. Everything not related to current operations has rightly been put on hold.” – this is just not true at all, a new armoured Recce vehicle is being procured, finally (!) and that will be useful in Afghanistan for sure, but its not a UOR procurement. As for the Army refocusing itself, apparently the staff level were spectularily unwilling / unable to learn lessons and adapt as fast as the U.S. Army did in Iraq – instead they kept rotating senior officers through Basra at a pace too rapid for them to make any real changes, while running out all the old crap about our “expertise, born on the streets of Belfast”.

    So while some of his points are valid and relevant, he comes of transparently as what he is, a soldier who wants to whine about the lack of defence spending in general, but mistakenly vents his spleen on the RN and the RAF – I D I O T !

  6. Michael permalink
    January 14, 2010 2:57 pm

    Mike,
    Sorry but I just couldn’t resist this last little gem of news.
    ‘Today 14th Jan 2010 Quentin Davies, Minister for defence equipment and support said.
    We have just placed the latest contracts for the aircraft carriers with orders totaling a further £333m, This news should reassure those who doubt this governments commitment to the programme. etc etc.
    Hope this doesn’t cause to much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Burleson household.

  7. January 14, 2010 2:55 pm

    Yes Allan Mallinson is an ex-brigadier; though most who have rose to that heady rank would dispute the “ex.”

    Piracy is a side show. Robust ROE are the answer and a willingness to take and inflict casualties. It is a people problem, not a tech’ problem

    As weapons become more intelligent the need for an independent air arm (that has had far too much influence on post war defence policy) becomes less and less.

    As for the army, well the rather hackneyed “lions lead donkeys” springs to mind. The army is ham strung by too much political correctness at the top and to much external political interference.

  8. Michael permalink
    January 14, 2010 2:35 pm

    Mike,
    Although the Times is supposedly one of the U.K.s more serious newspapers it has recently published some wildly inacurate claims in regards to the armed forces,as you yourself should be well aware.
    I think that your obsession with replacing capital ships with dozens of corvettes etc is blinding you to the obvious.
    Allan Mallinson is an Ex Brigadier in the British Army and now author of numerous books on army history.
    Don’t you think that he may be slightly biased on the matter of defence, the above article says it all really,according to him both the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce have got it all wrong and should completely rethink there strategies.
    The Army on the other hand is the only service that has ‘refocused itself’ and is doing the right thing.
    I would suggest that this article is not a credible source from which to base your thinking on.

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