The Road Not Traveled on Defense
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.