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Robert Fox

The Case for Defence

VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock.com

In 2020, the challenges to our security are manifold and multiplying

Europe is in a fragile state, and can, and should, do more for its own defence, according to President Emmanuel Macron of France. The alliance that has ensured peace for 70 years, Nato, is no longer quite fit for purpose, the French president seemed to say in a lengthy interview with the Economist magazine at the beginning of November 2019. “What we are currently experiencing,” Macron said, “is the brain-death of Nato. You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision making between the United States and its allies.”

Specifically, he was referring to the debacle following the infamous phone call on 6th October between Presidents Trump and Erdogan. Trump said he would pull the thin screen of US forces from the north east Syrian border. Erdogan took this as a green light for his plans for Turkey to invade Syria to thump the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey would then carve out a buffer zone inside Syria in which to dump large numbers of the 3.6 million refugees now camped inside Turkey.

This seemingly local affair has huge ramifications for the defence of Europe, and the viability of the world’s most durable military alliance – and its most potent, if measured in collective firepower alone. Neither the US nor Turkey saw fit to inform or even consult their Nato allies before their short-sighted deal over northern Syria. British, French and Canadian allies had forces in the area working with the US contingent, and to their command.

One of the more exotic areas of non-obvious warfare, as the jargon now calls it, are the possibilities of weaponising genetic modification. It might soon be possible to target, say, all redheads, or dark-eyed Celts.

In Macron’s mind, and not only his, the attitude of the presidents of the two biggest troop contributors of the Nato alliance, America and Turkey, raises serious doubts about how much they would follow its founding bond. Article five of the Atlantic treaty states that if one ally is attacked, the other 28 are bound to come to its help. Trump has indicated that America might not adhere to this in the case of aggression in Europe – because that is Europe’s business, and anyway the 27 European allies don’t spend enough on their own defence, and rely too much on America.

Now Erdogan’s Turkey seems to be taking the same approach – picking its own fights and alliances at will, including arrangements with Putin’s Russia. Macron himself has hinted that France might not support the Article five principle in all cases.

He wants European defence to be conducted primarily by the new European Defence Union, pointing clearly for it to be an eventual replacement for Nato altogether.

This has produced a row with Germany and Poland, who have been outspoken in rejecting Macon’s French-driven project for European foreign and defence policy. Chancellor Merkel, and her successor as leader of the CDU and current defence minister of Germany Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, have said they want to strengthen European defence by supporting Nato. Any EU defence organisation must work with Nato and not replace it.

At the alliance’s 70th anniversary summit in London, the agenda focused on retooling article five to cover the new dimensions of warfare, especially cyber and space. It looked at new applications for membership and common assets such as the need to update the fleet of alliance AWACS surveillance aircraft.

Simmering in the background from the London meeting were issues about the future viability of the alliance, the semi-detached membership of the USA and Turkey, relations with Russia and China, and the informal wars and skirmishes in and around Europe and beyond. The essence of war and conflict is unchanging, but the way war and peace are managed are altering at an alarming rate. The deep tensions and disagreements in Nato provide a vital lens through which to frame the fundamental issues of security and defence from the local to the regional in continental in Europe, and beyond.

The Nato allies are now in an arms race with China and Russia, whose on-off approach to confrontation and cooperation make them the prime ‘frenemies’ of the West. All five nuclear powers that make up the core permanent membership of the UN Security Council are in the process of upgrading their nuclear weaponry – and at great expense.

In addition there is the challenge of new technologies, tactics and techniques – from the militarisation of space, already well under way, to technologies of particle beam, nano and quantum, and biological warfare. One of the more exotic areas of non-obvious warfare, as the jargon now calls it, are the possibilities of weaponising genetic modification. It might soon be possible to target, say, all redheads, or dark-eyed Celts.

Surveillance and information, the battleground of trolls, bots and fake news are now a constant catch-up game for the European allies.

Nato members are being urged to raise their expenditure on defence to two per cent of GDP. Surprisingly few actually spend at this level, despite agreeing to do so at their last major summit in the UK back in 2014, as Donald Trump never ceases to tell the world. Angela Merkel thinks it will be another decade before Germany can afford to meet the two per cent target. Reaching that target will make Germany the third military power in the world – and totally dominant in any future EU European Defence Union, such as that envisaged by Macron.

Assuming the new expenditure levels are achieved, what would the money be spent on? The UK just about finds two per cent of GDP for its defence budget, though this includes military pensions and welfare compensation payments. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, it is faced with huge challenges in defence and foreign policy – and many of these are shared with other medium military powers like France or Japan. Some are crucial and unique. The UK intends to continue to deploy a submarine strategic nuclear force and deploy two operational fleet aircraft carriers. It also intends to contribute to forward security and reassurance forces to its eastern European and Baltic allies, as well as contributing to the European Rapid Intervention Force – with which it will continue after Brexit.

Britain cannot afford all it wants to do, explains Professor Mike Clarke of RUSI and King’s College London in his new book Tipping Point. By about 2024, he says, the UK and many of its allies will reach a moment of “peak heavy metal” when most of current equipment schedules for army, navy and air force will be complete. Replacements will be required but because of the rapidly changing face of warfare, new solutions will be needed for new threats. The UK alone now needs to double or triple its defence and security research and development budget of just under €2 billion a year.

The conduct and methodologies of battle are changing too. New militias can be more potent than the reluctant soldiers of national armies. From the Donbas to Yemen, Libya and the sub-Sahara we are seeing novel militia wars – a 21st century version of the old bandit wars. Syria and Iraq have seen the “Hezbollah-fication,” as I would put it, of conflict. These militias are part nationalist informal army, part political movement and part sophisticated criminal network trafficking in arms, drugs and, most profitably of all, humans.

Bloomberg / Getty Images

Alongside the militias, bands of mercenaries – or private military contractors, PMCs, are active in conflicts across the world. Vladimir Putin’s confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin has sent contract soldiers from his Wagner company to Syria, and they are now backing the insurgent forces of Khalifa Haftar in Libya. Soldiers for hire, heirs to the Condottieri of renaissance Italy, in the form of foreign legions are an obvious way that European armies can make up for the manpower shortages in their volunteer armies. The UK has been quietly expanding its recruitment of Gurkha soldiers, hired from Nepal – after nearly closing down the Gurkha regiment altogether a few years back.

The effectiveness of militias in Syria has given commanders of professional Nato forces working alongside them pause for thought. The Kurdish peoples militia, YPG, has been rated one of the most effective guerrilla corps in the world by the defence analysts Jane’s International. Relying on light weaponry, highly disciplined sniper squads, manoeuvrability, and ground control targeting for allied air forces, they have held off, and defeated, superior Islamic State forces. The all-women’s brigades of the YPJ nearly took the IS stronghold of Raqqa in the summer of 2017 singlehanded, according to one British Army chief.

Trump, as his allies have learned to their cost, doesn’t do alliances or treaties. He just does deals, one-offs like the property magnate he is. He is constant in his inconstancy.

The YPG have been expert at what is known as ‘sub-sophisticated’ warfare – where weapons and tactics operate below the ‘threshold of sophistication’ of the weapons systems and tactical culture of their enemies. The IS forces were also expert at this – holding up American backed and trained forces outside Mosul in 2017 for months by the use of mass attack by cheap drones and ingenious tunnelling lines of supply and communication.

This aspect is worth stressing because it is not just confined to south west Asia, Yemen and Africa. The new guerrillas will use a mix of ultra-modern and sub-sophisticated means in ragged confrontations around the borders of Europe. Mobile phones, false information by bots and trolls, will be employed alongside cheap hardware store drones and remote bombs in pipes and drains costing under 20 dollars apiece.

In September, a drone and cruise missile attack knocked out about a third of Saudi Aramco’s oil pumping capacity in a few minutes in Saudi Arabia. The missiles got through almost completely undetected and certainly undeterred. US Patriot counter missile batteries were in the vicinity but were not effective. The mixed drone-cruise salvo got under the radar, in every sense. The attack was almost certainly devised by Iranian military and launched from ungoverned space in the Iraq desert. It was crude in its weaponry, brilliantly cunning, and the very essence of sub-sophisticated warfare.

Putin’s Russia poses one of the biggest current and continuous challenges to European defence and security. After the successful non-obvious warfare campaign to seize Crimea in 2014, aggressive disruption tactics are being pursued on Nato’s eastern borders, in the Baltic, and across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean - where Russia is pursuing ‘area access denial,’ or AAD. Fighting continues in the Donbas region. By deployment of shore based missiles, it has defanged the navies of Ukraine and the Nato allies Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

The greatest challenge from Russia is the burgeoning nuclear arms race. Both presidents Putin and Trump abandoned the intermediate nuclear force treaty of 1987, one of the most effective of its kind, with hardly a backward thought. It had managed to control theatre nuclear weapons for nearly 30 years. Now both Washington and Moscow are developing new medium range systems and warheads – which America wants stationed in Europe. Add to this the ongoing altercations about Nato’s upgraded anti-ballistic missile system, Moscow seems unprepared for any serious negotiations. It is now feared, with strong evidence, that Trump and Putin will not seek to renew the strategic nuclear weapons treaty due to run out in 2021.

Emmanuel Macron has urged greater understanding and engagement with Russia. In this Macron has a point.

The drift from engagement to confrontation since 1989 has been a big failure by all European allies. Nato-Russia cordiality received body blows from the Ossetia-Georgia war in 2008, and the Crimea-Ukraine crisis of 2014, which brought the imposition of sanctions. To seek an opening of European Nato and the EU to Russia in the terms outlined by Emmanuel Macron is to search for a unicorn. Given the pathology of Putin’s Russia in its soft and hard warfare tactics, the Nato and EU allies of eastern Europe, the Visegrad group nations and the Baltics, are just not prepared to take the risk.

Quite why this has come about is brilliantly explained in The Light that Failed: A Reckoning by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Published in the autumn of 2019, it is the outstanding essay on the European geopolitical landscape of our day. According to the authors, Putin’s clique sees the eastern Europeans joining up Nato and the EU as a betrayal. And with it, team Moscow depicts the triumphalist capitalist liberalism of western Europe post-1989 as a hypocritical deception. Moscow is nostalgic for a regenerated 21st century Warsaw pact, it seems, though no one dares mentions this too publicly.

The guiding principle and tactics are disruption, which have become a strategy and end in themselves. Russia cannot afford outright conquest - it just wants to mess with the heads of its actual and potential foes.

Curiously, disruption is also the favourite modus operandi of Nato’s senior political leader, Donald Trump. Trump, as his allies have learned to their cost, doesn’t do alliances or treaties.

He just does deals, one-offs like the property magnate he is. Trump is constant in his inconstancy - save for a solid record when it comes to the consistent protection of the reputation and standing of his fellow disrupter Vladimir Putin.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Disruption is also a favoured technique of Xi Jinping’s China in approaching the nations of the West. In a way, Beijing has turned Clausewitz’s most famous dictum on its head by employing commercial intrusion and disruption as war and conquest by other means. For Europe, China is a strategic challenge, impossible to overmatch in its own competitive terms. “China has been some time a nation with a powerful European presence and most European countries have taken a long time to realise this,” says Lucio Caracciolo founder of the Limes think tank and review in Rome. The One Belt One Road project brings China directly into Europe, and with the acquisition of real estate assets like the port of Trieste, physically so. It is part of a grand neo-mercantilist project. For European allies the strong presence of China in the sectors software, cyber technology and communications, may mark a point of no return.

For America, there is an additional physical and military aspect to China’s current challenge – and it will affect the US relationship to Nato. Leading sinologists like Isabel Hilton of China Dialogue see ominous signs of a looming naval confrontation over Taiwan and the South China Sea. “Xi Jinping would like to see Taiwan returned to China before he steps down,” she told Monocle radio recently. The strategic aim is to exclude the American naval presence from the China Sea region altogether.

The essence of successful defence and security in Europe, and almost anywhere else, is a blending of the old in the new. The European defence initiative advocated by Emmanuel Macron can succeed only by working with Nato and not against it. In his gallic vision of a non-Atlantic Europe he is pursuing the path of such diverse French radicals as Charles de Gaulle and Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber in his 1967 anti-US tract Le Défi Americain.

But that path leads into a cul-de-sac.

The European defence organisation has just launched a further 13 development projects, ranging from cyber to security training, bringing to 47 the programmes under the EU’s PESCO permanent cooperation structure. The European defence fund has allocated €13 billion for research and development over the next three to five years. But the overall funding of European defence, including expected increases in national defence budgets, is nowhere deep enough to allow a European Defence Union to rival, let alone supplant, Nato.

Defence in its truest and most humane sense requires social cohesion and cooperation. This means working together through volunteer groups, at the basic community level, as well as between nations and alliances.

In the discussion of the future defence and security landscape, in the trade of alphabet soups of acronyms and strategic concepts by government committees, think tanks, and security councils one crucial aspect is often underestimated or overlooked. This is the human dimension. How we defend ourselves and our communities, depends on the participation and trust of we the people. This is brought out in Goliath: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars And What We Need to Do About It by Sean McFate. This penetrating and wildly eccentric study suggests that we are all in danger of over engineering our strategic and defence thinking. Too much trust is placed in machines, platforms and geekery. In the end it is the foot soldiers, the PBI (poor bloody infantry), the defence groups, first responders, comforters, coastguards and rescuers that have to do the business.

Our security and military services and their colleagues in formations like the Italian Civil Protection – world leaders in earthquake rescue – will be called on to do increasingly different and demanding tasks in the rapidly changing physical and social landscape. Western European militaries and ancillaries will need to recruit more. They will have to consider foreign legion soldiers on contract, and in many cases in Europe reconsider conscription for a broad range of public services. The challenges of rapid and dramatic environmental and climate change may present new stresses and security challenges. Distressed communities will need rescue and help from flood, possibly disease, and disruption. The prospect of catastrophic collapse of whole communities – the plight of the population of Gaza is a prime example – is both possible and likely.

Defence in its truest and most humane sense requires social cohesion and cooperation. This means working together through volunteer groups, at the basic community level, as well as between nations and alliances. For all the high abstraction of new strategic thinking, defence is about the maintenance of peace and harmony, and it will always have a human face.