Balance of Power Change: UK to Downsize Army, Rely on Others

December 17, 2011  

It is worth reviewing the lecture by David Richards to the Royal United Services Institute for an inkling about the changing balance of power.

On the one hand, the top British General  claimed that Britain would remain more powerful than its European allies, but he could only envy the Afghan army in terms of men under arms.

Richards was lecturing on the impact of the economic crisis on the defense establishment. Richards claimed that one could count on circumstances similar to Libya that obviated the need for ground troops.

On the other hand, the West is finding it harder to maintain large armies, he said. In Britain the armed forced faces cuts but these cuts are necessary. “The country’s main effort must be the economy. No country can defend itself if bankrupt.”

Precisely at a time when the United States is diverting it its attention to the Asia-Pacific region and downgrading its commitment to Europe, it is necessary to think of creative ways of making the limited resources stretch, he continued.

The main solution, according to Richards, is to rely on allies particularly in the area. “We will increasingly operate alongside local, more culturally acceptable forces,” he said. “The British army’s role in building these partnerships in advance of combined operations or pre-emptively will be crucial.”

Richards claimed that Arab and African allies provided good results at surprisingly little cost. This was proven in Libya:” Integrating the Qataris, Emiratis and Jordanians into the operation was also vital. Without them and their defence chiefs’ leadership, especially the huge understanding they brought to the campaign, it is unlikely that the NTC’s [the anti-Qadaffi National Transition Council] militias could have successfully acted as the land element without which the right outcome would have been impossible.”

Richards of course is deferential to NATO and at a time of friction between Paris and London over economic issues, he praises the partnership with the French.

What Richards is saying is that the unilateral option is increasingly giving way to coalition warfare and Britain is in that sense going back to its historic diplomacy of getting others to fight its land wars. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain could provide economic strength and naval supremacy.

Reliance upon others poses problems. When you can take unilateral action, the initiative is yours.  When you rely on Turks and Qataris, they have to see the advantage for themselves.

Richards admits the contradiction in the following passage: “Do we have the confidence to rely on others for complete capabilities? This will be an acid test. Progress in NATO’s Smart Defence initiative will be an early indicator. To succeed, we need to design mechanisms that oblige other nations to provide what is vital in a crisis, and it won’t be easy.”

Richards would like a more flexible procurement process, complaining that nations get locked into weapons programs that are not appropriate to current tasks. For Richards the emphasis is Istar [intelligence, surveillance. target acquisition and reconnaissance] and cyber capabilities.

While the army downsizes, it needs better educated manpower to meet its challenges. Perhaps in depressed economies, the military can keep some of the best and the brightest. When things pick up, the army will have to offer commensurate rewards to retain the educated manpower and the generals will get bigger budgets again.

The takeaway is that Europe will be unable to provide help in a major conventional land war. If Iran goes nuclear and the idea is to deter Iran, this will require an increase in conventional forces in the same manner that the United States retained sizable forces in Europe.

Britain will become more involved in its alliances with Arab states and this can be expected to color her policy in the region.

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