First Honorable Mention International Navies Essay Contest
Since the late 18th century, Britain has embraced a maritime strategy built around decisive fleet engagements. But today's strategic environment demands new approaches, and joint, expeditionary warfare—here, Royal Marine amphibious forces—is the appropriate response.
Since 1989, conventional wisdom has been that we are living in a new strategic environment. Indeed, we have seen the end of the bipolar world system and the emergence of its successor—multipolar or unipolar, according to taste. Where this assertion is misleading, however, is in its tendency to associate this change with the preceding 40 years and the requirement to protect Western European territorial integrity through the NATO Alliance. Events since 1989 mark a more fundamental shift: for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, Britain has the opportunity to create a grand strategy that is not entirely predetermined by the need for territorial defense.
Since the late 18th century, Britain has fought three wars of national survival; created, consolidated, and lost an empire; and joined a system of collective security in response to a major external threat. Taken overall, this period is unified by a requirement to defend territory—the homeland, colonial possessions, or an Alliance border—against the prospect of external aggression or internal unrest. In turn, our force structures have mirrored this requirement and evolved from the small cadre-based Army and powerful Navy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, through the forward basing of garrisons, linked and sustained by sea power, to secure the Empire, to the differing degrees of continental commitment in this century.
Although we continue to have responsibilities for residual dependent territories and retain clearly defined roles in NATO, the collapse of the Soviet Union marks a watershed: for the foreseeable future, we face a negligible strategic threat, with the opportunity to choose our alliance systems, force structures, and commitment to operations.
Characteristics of the New Strategic Environment
One legacy of the last 40 years is a paucity of debate concerning grand strategic objectives, which remained virtually unchanged between 1949 and 1989. Therefore, the first and most important requirement of the new strategic environment is a definition of grand strategic objectives, which rarely are detailed beyond the aphorism “punching above our weight.” There are a number of military strategic factors that will inform the process:
Deterrence/Compellence. There is likely to be a change of emphasis from deterrence to compellence—or from “inducing inaction” to “making somebody perform.”1 The main reason for this shift is the move away from the threat of general war, with an explicit linkage to nuclear attack, toward local or regional operations. While the contingent threat was general war, it was prudent to base military strategy on deterrence, and an elaborate regulatory mechanism grew up to guarantee that clear signals could be exchanged between the two sides. In more limited conflict, recourse to military force has greater utility because it has fewer risks and is more likely to achieve its aims, as the Gulf War and Haiti testify. Deterrence should not be abandoned—it still will function in both general and local senses; however, limited conflict offers greater scope for compellence as an instrument of policy.
Levels of War. In general terms, the larger the conflict the more hierarchal the levels of war. In a global conflict, there are clear differences between grand and military strategic, operational, and tactical levels. In more limited conflict, single engagements may be decisive, and so local tactical factors become matters of military strategic significance (for example, U.S. casualties in Somalia). We should recognize that the clear delineation we have tried to create may not be entirely appropriate for a future characterized by smaller operations that could be as much humanitarian as military.
Time and Space. “Operational space defines the combat zone, political space that which must be protected, and logistic space links the two.”2 Using these definitions, when operational and political space overlap (as was the case in the forward defense of western Germany) the state or alliance is vulnerable to attack and requires forces that are at high readiness and deployed as far forward within the operational space as possible. This has temporal implications; when logistic time (that required to prepare for war and sustain operations3) is limited, we are required to maintain high levels of forward-based war stocks and cannot afford a military strategic doctrine underwritten by regeneration or reconstitution.
Condensed operational space, the coincidence of operational and political space, and limited logistic time characterized NATO’s military condition during the Cold War. It also typified British circumstances in both world wars and, to a lesser extent, the forward defense of empire. The absence of a strategic threat now inverts these relationships and implies a separation of operational and political space and the creation of greater logistic space and time. This in turn implies operations that are expeditionary in nature (exploiting greater logistic space), conducted by forces that are not forward deployed (exploiting greater logistic time) and of which only an element is held at high readiness.
Tight/Loose Political System. Military confrontation invariably is reflected by clearly defined political structures: the Central Powers and the Entente Cordiale; the Axis and the Allied nations; the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Even short of war, a general condition of confrontation has an impact on political arrangements. Thus, a central tenet of NATO policy has been “an attack against one is an attack against all.” Absent a single and unifying threat, political structures proliferate and become more diffuse and less binding.
In national terms, Britain is faced with the need to reconcile treaty obligations to Europe with historical and trade links across the Atlantic and to the Commonwealth. At the same time, NATO seeks to define the exact nature of the European pillar of the Alliance. NATO also will remain available for peace-support operations as an agent of the United Nations or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Britain may feel obligated to contribute in future as we currently are doing in Bosnia. Yet underlying this institutional architecture is the acknowledgment that “we shall probably have to say no more often than yes.”4
Means and Ends. Strategic theory is concerned with the relationship between military means and political ends. The conventional relationship is that military means are subordinate to and derivative of political ends. In times of clear strategic definition, this rule is relatively easy to observe. As we continue to refine the audit of our military tasks, however, we will need to make investment decisions that will prefigure our force structure. The result is the admission of “capability-based forces” into the defense lexicon. This is an admirable attempt to reconcile force structures with military tasks, which in turn should derive from political ends, but the development of these forces is a hedge against the diversity of those political ends. As a result of the more opaque strategic conditions we now face, we are creating ubiquitous forces tasked with discharging tasks across all defense roles. The danger in this is that our focus shifts from political ends toward military means and so corrupts the relationship between the two elements of strategy. This danger can only be addressed by a definition of grand strategic objectives that will inform all aspects of national security policy.
The Value of Traditional Strategies
Since at least the first Elizabethan Age, Britain has conducted a national debate on the relative merits of a maritime or continental strategy. This debate has taken place against a backdrop of endemic conflict within the European continent and the occasional requirement to insert ground forces into a theater of operations or preposition them short of war. Overall, we have tended to observe a maritime strategy in times of peace and limited warfare and an adaptive continental strategy in times of regional or global conflict—adaptive in the sense that we frequently paid surrogates to conduct it on our behalf or we undertook a continental campaign only after the prolonged attrition, primarily by blockade, provided by maritime operations.
In the first decade of this century. Britain undertook a masterly redefinition of grand strategy, from which the entente system, the concentration of the Fleet in northern waters, and the systemic reforms of defense all stemmed. Yet, at the same time, we allowed institutional prejudice to lead to the planning of separate sea and land campaigns, which only was resolved by the intervention of the Committee of Imperial Defence in August 1911.5 The decision that flowed from this—to accept a role for a small British Army in the defense of France—was one of the defining events of our military strategic history, containing as it did the concomitant acceptance of an unlimited liability in continental warfare. This led to the apotheosis of British continental strategy, when in 1918—for the only time in our military history—a British Army was responsible for the defeat of the main enemy in the main theater of war in a major conflict.6 The maintenance until 1994 of an army in Germany is the legacy of this decision.
For a brief period the possibility of a third autonomous strategy intruded into the debate. The extravagant claims of Guilio Douhet and Billy Mitchell offered air strategy (or bombardment strategy) as a means of war-decisive engagement. The conduct of large-scale air bombardment in World War II did not meet the expectations of its proponents or the public; however, the final act of the war seemed, by the magnitude of its violence, to rehabilitate these claims. Yet almost immediately after their first use, nuclear weapons were circumscribed by the development of a doctrine of non-use in support of a diplomacy of dissuasion, from which the theology of deterrence has since developed. Subsequently, air power generally has been seen as an important adjunct to the traditional strategies, rather than as an independent solution.
Nowhere is the break with the strategic conditions of the past 200 years more clear than in the obsolescence and sterility of this continuing debate. An unreconstructed maritime strategy was possible, and perhaps necessary, for a nation capable of independent action in international affairs and with the security of trade and empire to guarantee. It is far less appropriate for a member of a series of related collective security systems with a requirement for coherent and internally balanced forces.
In addition, with a negligible strategic threat to the territorial integrity of Western Europe, the maintenance of forces in Germany is expedient rather than vital; owing more to established practice, housing, and training areas than to operational predisposition. If required for operations under national, NATO, or ad hoc alliance auspices, these forces will be required to deploy from their current bases, as operations in Bosnia and the Gulf testify. The move to the theater of operations almost invariably will be attended, supported, and sustained by maritime operations providing secure sea lines of communication, local sea control, and direct support to—or conduct of an element of—the land campaign.
Thus, we are moving away from a traditional and adversarial debate between contrasting strategic views and toward a national and alliance military strategy based upon co-equal and interdependent maritime, land, and air elements.
Since the late 18th century, we have employed a national maritime doctrine that has sought to use the strategic leverage of sea power to create the circumstances for victory in protracted war fighting. Both world wars illustrate this role, and World War II shows that even a continental hegemony is susceptible to defeat in this way. This approach has emphasized regional or global sea control, facilitated by decisive fleet engagement. It was appropriate to the strategic conditions it served, and its manifest success in global conflict is a matter of record.
Its continuing relevance, however, must be tested against new strategic conditions, the first of which is that sea control in anything other than a local sense is now unlikely to be contested. This has provoked a doctrinal response— initially from the U.S. Navy but now also reflected in Royal Navy force structures—that shifts the focus away from open-ocean operations and toward the projection of force in the littorals. This implies the conduct of joint, expeditionary operations in extended logistic space. It also implies a move away from a strategic enabling function for maritime operations and toward an enabling role at the operational level of war, though these definitions may become blurred. This role will be characterized by operations that are likely to be confined to a single theater and with an increasing emphasis on operational maneuver from the sea in support of land operations. This shift is of the same historic proportions as the change within the strategic environment, and it is in complete sympathy with it.
It is clear that we are in a new strategic environment, but the full extent of the change seldom is recognized. The new environment is characterized by factors that will reshape our force structures and the nature of our operations, but a prerequisite for this process is the definition of grand strategic objectives, which alone can grant coherence to military strategy.
Even without sharp grand strategic definition, it is clear that the habitual British military strategic debate is increasingly irrelevant and that to continue to advocate a unitary solution suggests a measure of hubris and a failure to appreciate the scale and nature of strategic change. We are in an environment that demands new approaches, and joint, expeditionary warfare is the appropriate response. U.S. strategic thought has set the pace, but British force structures are developing in this direction; a development that we must sustain and consolidate if we are to meet the challenges of the new environment.
1 Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 100-103.
2 Lawrence Freedman, Strategic Defence in the Nuclear Age, Kings College monograph, London, 1987, pp. 90-92.
4 Douglas Hurd, Chatham House speech, January 1993.
5 See Samuel Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy (Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 193. “[T]he CID meeting of August 23 placed an imprimatur upon continental involvement.”
6 John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Antimyths of War, 1861- 1945 (London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1980), p. 170.
Colonel Fry is Commander, 45 Commando Group, Royal Marines.