August, not April, is the cruelest month.
In the 20th century, two world wars were started. America’s long and tragic engagement in Vietnam and Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated incursion into Kuwait were conceived in August.
If this August’s events — from Afghanistan and the Middle East to economic roller coasters, riots in Britain and hurricanes in America — are indicative of things to come, nations will have to buckle up for even rougher rides ahead, rides that will affect the security and economic well-being of possibly billions of people.
Among this turmoil, opportunity lurks, perhaps hidden. As Churchill brooded after losing the July 1945 election, if this is a blessing in disguise, it is indeed well-disguised.
That said, Britain can seize the moment. But to do so, an intellectual or indeed a brains-based approach to action is needed.
Brains-based means that having drained our bank accounts and financial coffers, we must think our way clear of problems as the traditional solution of buying our way out of trouble won’t work.
Defense and national security are ideal places to begin this brains-based thinking process. A few facts and realities are important. The Conservative government isn’t enamored of the military or the need for lots of it despite the foray into Libya. The so-called special relationship with the United States doesn’t hold the same attraction for Prime Minister David Cameron as it did for Tony Blair or for that matter Margaret Thatcher.
Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama are, at best, distant soul mates unlike the Blair-Clinton-Bush triangle and of course the infatuation between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And the U.K. Ministry of Defense has already been given its marching orders through the Strategic Defense and Security Review and most importantly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budgetary allocations. In fairness, the Defense Ministry fared better than most other departments given the magnitude of the cuts.
At the same time, NATO is undergoing its own military decompression. War-weariness in Afghanistan hasn’t been helped by the Libyan campaign, filled with grave uncertainty about what happens next and what the unpredictable and probably unstable Moammar Gadhafi may or may not do.
And, as with virtually every other Western state, Britain faces economic austerity possibly on steroids; a government hard-pressed to keep pace with the huge number of seemingly intractable problems and issues it faces; and the realization that military force alone is not sufficient to assure success as we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan and stand to learn in Libya.
How then might Britannia create an opportunity and how might a brains-based approach work?
The U.K. military will be substantially reduced in size and capability, giving up major assets such as aircraft carriers for a decade and anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The downsized military will only be able to deploy a force of 7,000-8,000 troops for an extended period. Obviously, the biggest danger is loss of personnel and the level of morale essential to maintaining a highly capable, professional fighting force.
A brains-based strategy resting on three pillars can resolve the hard choices forced by budget realities.
The first pillar is to maintain, even in a partial or even a “virtual” state, the capacity and skills to operate at all levels of the conflict spectrum from conventional war to train and assist missions that enable others to provide for their own security.
Mission specialization is part of this pillar. Here, the United Kingdom will maintain specific capability. What it foregoes will be compensated for by other means including closer interaction with allies drawing on their capabilities and fundamental changes in education and training to stress knowledge and learning so that some modicum of competence can be retained across most military mission areas and military personnel incentivized by this intellectual stimulation.
Second is the equivalent of a “10-year rule” in which it is assumed that it will take sufficient time for a new adversary to reveal itself. During this period, sharpening skills for analysis and assessment in foreign areas are crucial.
Last, is the ability to reconstitute forces by keeping at least tepid rebuilding capacity in place.
Tabletop war games and advanced computer simulations can help retain basic levels of competence and experience even among fewer forces. For example, U.K. air crews can operate on U.S. aircraft carriers and in anti-submarine warfare squadrons to keep needed skill sets in small numbers. And other innovative means of compensating for fewer forces can be invented.
Clearly, the Munich flag will fly over “10-year rules” and reconstitution. But this is 2011 not 1938 when there was no NATO or the large aggregate military capability including nuclear weapons in the hands of friends and allies.
Times are tough. But brains count. Britannia can show the way if it wishes.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.