OVER the last ten years anyone who has attended talks held by leading Defence officials will have repeatedly heard phrases such as ‘hybrid warfare’, ‘grey zone conflict’ and ‘sub-threshold competition’, referring to a spectrum of hostile activities which fall short of conventional conflict.
The voguish view that we live in a new age in which the character of conflict has materially changed is repeated in military academies, taught on NCO cadres and repeated by aspirational officers.
The problem isn’t that sub-threshold competition doesn’t exist. It clearly does and Russia has engaged in it expertly, but, as I wrote in the summer of 2020, we must choose to engage in the grey zone in addition to, not at the expense of, conventional capabilities.
What has been damaging is the increasingly dominant idea that the goal of our enemies is to win without going to war.
The narrative of conflict being confined to the grey zone has provided a politically convenient excuse for trimming down costly manpower and not investing in expensive new hardware.
In the most recent Integrated Review our already overstretched, undermanned armed forces have been pruned to within an inch of their life. The 82,000 regular soldiers that the British Army targeted in Army 2020 is now being reduced to just 72,500 (nearly 20,000 less than the capacity of Wembley Stadium).
Of these troops, only a modest proportion – around 35 per cent – are combat arm soldiers and of those a surprising proportion, some 20 to 25 per cent, will be injured or non-deployable at any one time. In short, we are heading for an army which could have fewer than 20,000 fighting troops.
This would be an army in name only, barely constituting a defence force. There is a well-known military aphorism, sometimes attributed to Joseph Stalin, that ‘quantity has a quality of its own’. This is equally true when it comes to deterrence.
The generals keep telling us that in a modern world we need a smaller, more ‘lethal, agile and lean army’. Let us hope that such politically cynical soundbites are never put to the test against China or Russia.
Ultimately, the problem with our politically convenient theories is that sooner or later they will collide with hard steel. At the time of writing, 180,000-plus Russian troops have just begun an invasion of Ukraine; suddenly the grey zone doesn’t look quite so grey.
The stark fact is that the British Army can field one fighting division, which consists of up to 12 battlegroups. Currently Russia is invading Ukraine with, on some estimates, 100 battlegroups. Europe has nothing to match this. From a deterrence perspective, Europe’s leaders are shamefully culpable for Russia’s boldness. While Russia was training its battle-hardened Spetsnaz for an invasion, the British Army was advertising for snowflakes.
Too many senior military leaders have been complicit by prioritising their own careers and nodding along with the Whitehall consensus, while budgets have been slashed and personnel struggle to do more with less.
The tragedy we are witnessing in Ukraine must wake us up; it must serve as an alarm call. We no longer have the luxury of telling ourselves comfortable lies, while dismantling the fighting heart of our armed forces.
We must also challenge the divisive ideologies that have free rein in our institutions and actively seek to undermine patriotism and a healthy pride in our history and values, without which there can be no fighting spirit.
For decades our leaders have made the calculation that American military might will safeguard us. If we still lived in a world of unchallenged American hegemony, this cynical calculation may have been correct, but that era has passed.
The Americans do indeed continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on cutting-edge military hardware and have the best part of 1.5million active-duty military personnel. However, with an ever-growing threat from China and ample evidence of Sino-Russian co-operation, America can no longer shoulder the defence of Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
Repeated warnings and war games show that Russia is capable of bulldozing through Nato forces and taking the Baltics in 36 to 60 hours. These warnings have seemingly not woken European leaders from their dogmatic slumber.
German and French politicians sniggered and rolled their eyes as Donald Trump told them that Europe must contribute its fair share to its own security. The Germans have spent decades living under the aegis of American power, funded by American taxpayers, while looking down their nose at Americans for their lack of healthcare and other centralised services.
Former Chancellor Angela Merkel inexplicably allowed Germany to become highly reliant on Russian energy, treading a dangerous path which prioritised the German economy above any security consideration. Well, the gamble has not paid off and Europe’s energy dependency has emboldened Putin.
The nations of Europe need to start investing in their own protection; the fact that the European Union has persistently tried to undermine the sovereignty and responsibilities of nation-states has been particularly damaging in this respect.
If we don’t take seriously the sovereign responsibility of nations to protect their own citizens, then like the emperor with no clothes, all our comforting ideas will ultimately leave us denuded and humiliated. Let us hope the tragedy of Ukraine will be a wake-up call for the West.