Our most devastating weapon is agility

Our services must get smarter to cope with today’s threats. Their ability to adapt and maintain their high professionalism and dedication in a range of roles and with a variety of technologies is key to playing to British strengths.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times

It is said that British military personnel always follow their officers, if only out of curiosity. At the moment their curiosity might also be classed as morbid as they wonder where their commanders want to take them. They all know that big change is coming. A crucial defence review is only months away.

The armed forces are already doing more operations, and for longer, than was envisaged in the last defence review, in 1998. The forward defence plan is unaffordable within current spending plans, there will be a big squeeze on the public finances from 2011 and we are committed to a difficult war in Afghanistan that will get more expensive before it gets any cheaper. The fighting troops know something will have to give. Defence can expect to be cut by anything up to 15% - perhaps more - in the next four years and the military is likely to take a 20% or so cut in combat units.

No wonder the service chiefs are setting out visions of what they think Britain's military power should be used for. If they don't say it now, they never will. Once the election is called, they will be unable to speak on big issues in public, and the defence review immediately after the election will extend their purdah well into next year. The troops could be forgiven for thinking that this is the start of a bare-knuckle fight between the services for ever-shrinking resources. But that's a bit simplistic.

Britain still spends a hefty £38 billion on defence and - with a military machine about one-tenth the size of that in the US - remains the most militarily capable of all Washington's partners. There is no argument that Britain remains the foremost military power among the European members of the NATO alliance. Britain's military has been a great deal smaller than this many times in its modern history.

But our forces will have to change and current thinking in the defence establishment is trying to lay the groundwork for that in the absence of an agreed political view about global security and how Britain should try to adjust to it. So far, defence planners seem to agree that Britain's forces will have to be far more 'agile'. They will have to be more capable of working with a broad range of allies to help keep the country secure.

The philosopher's stone of modern defence planning is to be able to produce forces that, chameleon-like, can adapt to their immediate environment rapidly and, if necessary, change themselves fundamentally within a few years. There is no reason in principle why British armed forces should not be able to do this; they are in a much better position than their European counterparts.

But the trade-offs are severe. Big-ticket equipment programmes for state-of-the-art tank fleets, jets, ships and submarines not only soak up a lot of defence cash, but tend to drive the structure of the rest of the force. They lock the military into being very good in some roles and madly improvising in others. But then some high-tech weapons are near-impossible to do without while others derive from industrial skills that we regard as "strategic" - lose them and we will never get them back; all take time to develop and will stay in service longer than anything in the civil sector.

Nevertheless, the principles for such a transition are clear enough. Investment in the new technologies of command and control, communication and surveillance, of seeing and interpreting the operational space clearly and getting the right forces to where they are needed, should take precedence over investment in weapons platforms. Smart command is more important than smart weapons in almost any military operation.

At the other end of the scale, the skills and training of the personnel - the soldiers, the sailors, the airmen and women - are also critical to 'transformative' forces. Their ability to adapt and maintain their high professionalism and dedication in a range of roles and with a variety of technologies is key to playing to British strengths. The challenge is to produce military units that can master the integration of systems, make the most of civil technologies and restructure their own organisations flexibly, as occasion demands.

Not least, 'transformative' armed forces should be backed up by excellent intelligence. All military commanders want good tactical intelligence to give them the greatest advantage. A bigger national challenge is to invest in better strategic intelligence to detect shifts in Britain's security environment in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. Raw information is not intelligence. The intelligence picture must be expertly interpreted and then acted upon. The most transformative military in the world cannot rescue a defence policy that is not politically sensitive to its own neighbourhood.

The picture is not one of inexorable decline in Britain's defence. In meeting the insecurities of the Twenty-first century, there is also a one-off opportunity to get it right.


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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