Top Military Officer Identifies UK Mistakes and Makes Powerful Case for Strong Defense

General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the UK Defense Staff. April 4, 2013[F]or 25 years the United Kingdom, together with much of the Western world and most of our NATO Allies, has been investing less in our capacity to conduct serious war fighting.

But, I would offer the view that this course of action has been a mistaken one. I say this because it derives from an assumption that defence is fundamentally about operations; an assumption which defence has somewhat carelessly fuelled over recent years. Such an assumption I believe is wrong. defence has always been built on a paradox: our business is primarily about avoiding war rather than fighting it.

Classically there are 2 reasons why countries have armed forces: to project power and to deter potential adversaries. We have spent the last 2 decades doing lots of the former and have rather obscured the importance of the latter.

The United Kingdom is a remarkable place. Bluntly put it comprises of a small, relatively overcrowded set of islands in a rather inhospitable part of the planet. Its weather is challenging, its natural resources heavily depleted and its empire long gone. And yet it remains one of the world’s largest economies and still enjoys a remarkably high geo-political status. It is also an enviable place to live. But why is this so?

The fundamental reason is that the UK derives significant benefit from the international rules based order that has developed since 1945 and was reinforced after 1989. The UK and its NATO allies have held themselves and others to the post-World War 2 convention that state boundaries should not be changed by force. Our prosperity has grown on the back of free trade, the import of cheap consumer goods and, increasingly, the provision of financial services. The City of London is a global force.

The fundamental importance to the United Kingdom of the post 1945 international rules based order should be a starting point for any strategic review of our defence and security. But, worryingly, there has been something of a presumption that such an order is a free good, one that sustains itself as a result of the collective self interest of countries, companies and individuals, assisted by vigorous diplomacy.

But this cannot be true. As history tells us any system of order is subject to stresses and strains that threaten to tear it apart. What has sustained the current international rules based order is power, principally US power, but also that of NATO….

No country can sustain global security on its own, so collective security remains an essential feature of how global security is sustained. That is why NATO remains at the heart of UK defence. But certain countries are expected to do more than others. The United Kingdom is one such country because we have so much to benefit in terms of security and prosperity from the retention of the rules based international order and our place within it.

The United Kingdom also retains considerable ambition. We see it as our natural role in the world to lead rather than follow events; to shape the world in which we live not be shaped by it. Few people in this country can recognise the mentality of a government that does not want to retain our ambition as a nation. It is one of the things that defines us. So in terms of resources 2% of GDP is an appropriate national contribution. defence’s job is to ensure the money we are given is efficiently spent and on the right things….

[I]n the SDSR debate, we will offer 3 key roles on which defence capability should be employed.

The first is a mixture of protection and deterrence. This is the physical protection of our islands, our people, our overseas territories, our skies, our home waters, our critical national infrastructure and our sources of energy. It extends to the defence of space and cyberspace. It extends, largely in alliance with others, to the deterrence of those revisionist countries who would threaten us and our allies. And it definitely extends to protection against terrorism both at home and abroad.

The second role is about actively contributing to stability and is a mixture of our ability to understand and shape the global security environment. This will generally be done in concert with other government departments and agencies. It involves a whole range of activities which include intelligence gathering, capacity building and conflict prevention. The mechanisms employed to do this are regional strategies and defence engagement.

And the third role, and the one which pre-occupies so much of the NSC’s time, is the effective response to crisis. This, I sense, is one of the most difficult to get right, because, first of all, it takes imagination to understand what might go wrong. And through such understanding have organisational and capability responses to act when they do go wrong.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in the world in which we live, crisis response is insufficient. Rather, the full-spectrum response, to which our Prime Minister refers, needs to include the persistent, pro-active, strategic management of all the instruments and levers of national power. And this approach needs to be applied as much to revisionist states as it does to extremist terrorism. We do not live in an era of periodic campaigning, but in one of persistent and thoughtfully managed engagement….

[O]ur extension in service of additional Tornado and an unwavering commitment to JSF build-up is, absolutely, the right thing to be doing in order to preserve combat jet mass. The future size and mix of the Fast Jet force must be one of several capability decisions considered in the SDSR.But, to me, the availability of Fast Jet capacity is not the air domain’s only or most critical issue. And it is far easier to build coalitions of air power than it is to build un-constrained coalitions of ground forces.

Most critical is the contribution that air power can make is to enabling the joint force, providing strategic projection for special forces, and, most vitally of all, delivering a more persistent surveillance and intelligence gathering capability and doing so in more places at the same time including in the maritime domain.

Excerpts from speech by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the UK Defense Staff, at RUSI air power conference, July 15, 2015.

Image: General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the UK Defense Staff. April 4, 2013 (photo: UK Ministry of Defense)