AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Tory MPs, Downing Street and the Treasury are ready to clash over plans to cut the army to 60,000. Who will win out?

21 Jul

In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”.  The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks.  It got ten.

The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours.  “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.

If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.

The background is well known.  Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending.  “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.

Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong.  He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.

A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”.  This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.

There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army.  It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.

But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake.  It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.

The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed.  How can it possibly make sense?  “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.

“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many.  If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get.  For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.

The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted.  Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced.  On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500.  In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.

“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said.  “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”.  So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said.  “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”

The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground.  That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.

Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them.  Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists.  No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army.  Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.

Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament.  For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle.  Then there is the legislature itself.  There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.

Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially.  There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.

The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through.  Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now.  No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.

The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people.  This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it.  If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.

The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies.  Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.

Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive.  They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.

It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged.  Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.