Autumn 2021 Editorial
So that went well in the last quarter… both good and much less so.On the upside, it is a hugely welcome departure from what was becoming a worrying trend, that Adm Sir Tony Radakin (an NR member since 1988) has been elevated to the top of Defence as the next UK Chief of Defence Staff from 30 November 2021. In the almost the same breath it is equally welcome to see VAdm Sir Ben Key (an NR member since 1986) also to be promoted and move from his current appointment as Chief of Joint Operations to be the next First Sea Lord.On the downside, there is the fallout from recent events the new CDS and 1SL both will have to grapple with: an ignominious retreat of an Alliance (consequent of failure of statecraft and proper analysis of intelligence) from Afghanistan, a rapidly dawning realisation for the UK that being globally orientated post-Brexit is not an option but a necessity, and shock at the behaviour of a close ally – who prides herself as a robust and shrewd commercial rival to the UK – whose outbursts in response to the AUKUS agreement are worrying. Yet more ‘Christmas presents’ for Russia and China, and others who point to the weakness of the Western system? Well perhaps not entirely. China’s petard has been somewhat hoisted. Their headlong drive to expand their maritime presence and attempts to dominate the maritime in north and southeast Asia, at eye watering growth rates, was inevitably going to result in some sort of reaction. And AUKUS, certainly when it comes to development of RAN SSN capability timelines, would seem rather restrained in immediate operational impact as opposed to its undoubted instant geo-political significance.With hindsight, perhaps this new club could have handled its public launch more sensitively, especially amongst Allies. As a consequence, on the back of the West’s flight from Afghanistan, there must be delight in some autocratic quarters, as France now seemingly seeks revenge – for the temerity of the idea of AUKUS that didn’t include them – by undermining any prospects for an Australia-EU trade pact. And in petulantly describing the UK as something of a sideshow in all of this just demeans French standing. The bottom line was ballooning costs of the Shortfin Barracuda/Attack-class SSK project, along with changed requirement requiring greater sustained operational reach from Australia, meant implementation of a contract break point a hard but almost inevitable call. And it is not as if it wasn’t heralded; Adm Peter Briggs’ article in May 2019 (NR107/2) being one such example.And all this distracts from the really big elephant in the room – Climate Change. Or rather now a consensus in world opinion that the data regarding the health of the planet is pushing us towards extremes that will, in the near-term, undermine human health, wealth and happiness if we do not now address this elephant. Some will argue there is an even larger elephant centred on exponential population growth (the cause) that ultimately drives the climate emergency (the symptom). Some will continue to disagree with either or both imperatives, but there is now an undeniable momentum making such contra views increasingly untenable. From a UK policy perspective (Net1 Zero 2050), the train has left the station and we, in Defence, better be on board. So given its current import in the global
narrative (especially with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow shortly after this edition of the journal is published) the NR convened webinars in September and October to consider the impact of Climate Change on navies from a future capability, regulatory and operational perspective. A précis of that discussion is captured in this edition of the journal.
So, if that is the context of the quarter, what might we have learnt in the last few extraordinary months? Perhaps I might proffer, below, some of the more obvious lessons and observations demanding our attention. Interpretation of our intelligence would seem clouded by wishful thinking and hubris. Shifting blame onto our allies for failings (especially the Afghans) in our decision to react was shameful. As an aside, perhaps similar hubris and wishful thinking might also be apportioned to the French with respect to their doomed submarine contract – the writing on the wall was ignored. The US is tired of a Europe (including, to some extent, the UK) that talks much butdoes little to live up to its obligations at a time when America’s self-interests are clearly in the Indo-Pacific region. The last three US administrations have made that clear. Perhaps that pivot east was crudely accentuated by President Trump’s ‘negotiation’ of the Doha agreement, which pulled the rug from under the Afghans in favour of the Taliban and that
left President Biden in a no-win situation (withdraw or re-engage in a long war that he had long campaigned against). But it was the failure in statecraft, through the unilateral and peremptory way the US went about leaving Afghanistan, that magnified the blow to US Allies. Again, could most of this shock be a result of Allies not reading the writing on the wall and continuing to unreasonably expect the US to always ‘take the weight’? Following Brexit, the UK now finds itself on the global stage having to establish its niche outside of any large bloc. Hitherto assumed friendships have become more transactional relationships – certainly when it comes to Europe. And even the US, despite positive portends such as AUKUS, would not seem minded to provide the UK with an easy ride unless it truly earns such assistance. And in that defence, security and intelligence are still obvious areas we can substantively contribute. But that will only count if we build to become a credible ‘medium power’ (as RAdm Richard Hill – former distinguished NR editor – termed it in his too often overlooked 1986 book Martme Strategy or Medium Powers (ISBN 0-87021-905-7)). Surely the UK must recognise, given its lopsided close relationship with the US
and our over-reliance on this last Western superpower, it has even more to lose than others, if it is not careful, from a still alive and kicking ‘America First’ policy. The UK’s defence relationship with Europe, and the EU’s growing desire (driven in no small part by French views on the ‘European project’) for defence autonomy beyond NATO, are issues that can no longer be side-lined by the UK; especially as the UK can no longer influence from within the EU camp. This year’s UK Integrated Review emphasised global maritime (that does not just mean navy). Perhaps the maritime should, therefore, be the emphasis of future interaction with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy? NATO Allies are suffering from a deficit of mutual trust following Afghanistan. Urgent repairs are needed. In particular, better understanding is needed of what is meant by Alliance consensus and compact (and watertight assurances that implies), and, critically, what is meant by strategic patience. The message sent to potential opponents has become confused, suggesting diminishing resolve when it comes to collective defence. Additionally, such perceived weakness is compounded by other chronic concerns such as (to name but two)
unresolved enmity between Greece and Turkey or a Turkey now reorientating eastwards having been repeatedly rebuffed in its application for EU membership. A mountain of cans that surely can no longer be kicked down the road?
Regrettably, honour would now seem a commodity in short supply. The moral component of fighting powers empowered by credible leadership – credibility that is built on a willingness to not just wield authority but take responsibility for, and act honourably as a result of, failures as well as success. I point no fingers, but surely it is reasonable to ask who takes responsibility for the rout of Afghanistan where we effectively enabled the failure of democracy in favour of an untrustworthy and increasingly politically fragmented theocracy? Too many have, and too much has, been destroyed on the Afghan anvil in forging a nascent democracy, and too many still suffer from the consequence of our
engagement, to let this pass.
Finally, Terrorism. Extreme fundamentalism of all types has been emboldened by the perceived failure of the West to persevere in Afghanistan – to show the strategic patiencenecessary to defeat fanatics and promote democracy. Resurgence of this global scourge
must now be expected as the principal threat to life (where the likes of China and Russiamight be considered more threats to our way of life). I make no apology for the bluntness of these thoughts, nor for the unusual length of this Editorial. We find ourselves in deeply challenging times. Many consider 9/11 to be the watershed that determined the direction of travel of the start of the 21st Century. I would opine that 31st August this year, on the back of Brexit and Covid–19, marksmore of an existential tipping point for the UK requiring our most urgent attention. I end on an up-note. You might be surprised by the front cover to this journal – is yourEditor pandering to populism? No! The aim is to highlight the value of the handful of honorary officers the Naval Service has appointed. Later in this journal you will find a fuller description of that true utility to the Naval Service.
Quotes of the Quarter
“Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals
T E Lawrence ‘The Evolution of a Revolt’ in The Army Quarterly and Defence Journal October 1920
“Then why do you want to know? Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose