Robot Line Dancing and Defence Spending.


Robots can line dance and cheap mini drones can do air displays, so either can be weaponised to overwhelm conventional weapon systems. Mass use of cheap automated fire units, and much else, are game changing military technologies. They are already happening.  Yet, defence procurement is stuck in the past, presided over by vested interests buying to fulfill outdated concepts. Vague assertions of Russia as an enemy are not enough to justify the budget. UK may well need to spend more on Defence but MOD cannot be left to to decide national priorities by defining the threat. Government needs to Govern! 

Recent Secretary of State for Defence advocacy for more defence spending is no more than a politician doing his allotted job, but the subsequent media analysis of UK Defence needs is confused. National security policy cannot be defined by spending advocates.  It is also hard to give weight to any advocate from MOD given the mess the department has collectively made of the budget. The failure is not one person’s fault but service tribalism is a big part of the malfunction. There is a clear case for telling MOD what to do, not asking it. The budget problems are systemic and much bigger than one service, one defence secretary or one drop in the pound.

The first systemic problem is not new but is getting much worse. Technology development cycles are much faster than the defence procurement cycles. Concept to end-of-life for a weapons system is at least 30 years, so very expensive systems are often obsolete before they arrive. Military chiefs claim to acknowledge this but then buy ships and refurbish tanks, which were suitable when they were thought of but at best symbolic by the time they are delivered.

Mini-drones are a case in point. Commanders in Iraq expressed surprise that ISIS had weaponised very cheap commercial mini-drones and used them to attack coalition forces. Watch Youtube for massed synchronised robot line dancing displays, or on stage air displays by multiple drones. Ironically, the robots are executing very similar drills, in nice straight lines, that soldiers do in preliminary training…..prior to battle! The images are a clear, published, warning that mass drone or robot attacks are already possible. Commanders should not be surprised. Mass mini drone attacks would make any dismounted infantry task near impossible and fixed artillery and much else MOD is buying, useless. At sea, a mini drone was illegally landed on one of the new aircraft carriers. Corbyn was right to ask whether Trident submarines are detectable by massed-drone underwater surveillance.  If Trident is detectable then it is not able to guarantee a return nuclear strike and is a colossal waste of money. Weaponised mini drones are just one example of technology that would revolutionise the land and naval battle space and yet there is little sign of a change to existing procurement plans.

Furthermore, it is now possible to see pretty much everything on the battlefield all the time. Once an equipment is seen a competent enemy will be able to destroy it. The days of a hidden armoured reserve for a counter attack have passed. This, also, should have profound effects on procurement, but will it?

It is likely that MOD need to procure lighter equipment which is faster to produce and with a shorter life time. Once MOD accepts this then it will be possible to take a more needs-based approach to procurement in which MOD procures what it needs at a given time, as opposed to things MOD would like ‘because the future is uncertain’; mini-drone counter measures or armoured land rovers versus aircraft carriers.

The second problem at MOD is the default assumption of Russia as the main enemy. Once wired into Whitehall thinking it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and it may be it is too late for this to be changed.  Of course, MOD finds a main enemy that is close by, a convenient means to drive and simplify political, financial and military planning assumptions.  However, the threat analysis of Russia on which this is based is unconvincing.  Generalised citations of Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine and lists of Russian military capability, do not amount to a definition of UK national interest or the threat to it. The puzzling murder and attempted murder of Russian citizens on UK soil is clearly unacceptable but of themselves do not make the case for buying more outdated heavy weapons.

At the end of WW2 the Kremlin determined that never again would Russia be invaded from the west. This was and remains Russia’s core security concern, maybe even paranoia. It informs their thinking on all defence matters. They also resent being treated as “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons”, as they were once called. Russia is relatively weak economically, irrationally fearful and proud, all factors which suggest a thoughtful approach.  Looked at from the Russian point of view, the expansion of NATO to the Baltic states, let alone Ukraine, is a security disaster and dents national pride. This view will not pass with Putin. (After Thought: A point recently well made by Gen Houghton in early July)

Ukraine was always an ethno-linguistic mosaic; a Balkans near the heart of Russia. Crimea is very Russian and has a prominent place in Russian national identity since it resisted Hilter in WW2, which Ukraine on the whole did not. However, geographically Crimea borders Ukraine which governed it until it was handed over to the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic by Khrushchev in 1953/4 as part of his leadership bid. When the USSR broke up in 1991 and Ukraine was formed as a country, Crimea was shared. This was an arrangement Russia did not much like, but abided by. Then in 2014, the elected government of Ukraine was overthrown by the street to the delight of most of Europe. The new Ukrainian government, which Russia regarded as illegal, made noises about ending the sharing arrangement in place in Crimea. The Russians did not wait to discuss matters and invaded Crimea. Later its proxies invaded western Ukraine which is an even greater ethnolinguistic puzzle. As I said, a mess and not one I have many constructive suggestions for resolving, but almost certainly better to manage the mess than delude ourselves we can solve it. I can see no logic, derived from UK national interest, for why the UK would take a side in this fight. Certainly, none has been presented beyond the fact it is Russia on the other side. I discount the highly neo-colonial mindset of ‘exporting democracy’ as a justification, in Ukraine’s case completely. See above! As a principle it is selectively applied, the UK is not very good at it and it is certainly not a military task.

For better or worse the Baltic nations are in NATO.  The UK, alone, has in effect escalated the comfort NATO membership could bring to the Baltics, by sending token heavy armoured forces there to deter the Russians. In short, UK policy driven from MOD is to militarily confront the Russians, at least in part to justify a force structure that suits the historic preferences of MOD. An analysis which focused on UK national interest would surely not include protecting the Baltic states. Such analysis would also note that it is the Russians who have done much heavy lifting against ISIS, albeit clumsily, and that UK prospered just fine when the Baltics were actually in the Soviet Union.  The Baltics could have the same Partner for Peace status as Georgia and the NATO border could firmly include Poland but no more. There are choices.  A brief reading of history would suggest caution not adventurism. But alas it is too late for this to change.

Maybe I am wrong about all this but tax payers should be offended by the bald assertion that Russia is UK’s default enemy. At the very least those who want to spend billions on countering this threat, need to argue exactly which of Russia’s behaviours justifies the spending. Surely not the attack in Salisbury. There is zero prospect of a Russian invasion of western Europe and no logic, let alone political support, for a war with Russia in the Baltics. Thus, the scenario which justifies a large chunk of UK Defence spending on heavy anti Russia capability is hard to find. NATO is certainly happy with its new expanded role but that does not mean UK has to shape its forces accordingly. Other NATO members do not.

The third confusion in MOD is what level of international security risk mitigation UK is prepared to fund. There are many and confusing choices. The Defence Planning Assumptions are pretty clear on what force is to be ready to deploy, at what size and for how long.  It is reasonable for the Service Chiefs to use their expertise to argue for resources to meet this capability.  If there is a shortfall then there needs to be more money or an agreement there is less capability.  Properly used this is a perfectly good decision making system. Once this force is ready, then, as Defence Planning Assumptions allow, it may indeed be used for nationally elective tasks such as Sierra Leone, Syria, Iraq etc. But what happens is that MOD and its officers, excited by the prospect of relevance, take on tasks beyond the remit of Defence Planning Assumptions. For example, it deploys to Helmand before leaving Basra which was clear breach of Defence Planning Assumptions. Each service and capability vie to participate which then over stretches the troops and leads to claims for extra resources.  The deployments are rarely imposed on MOD, they are thought of by MOD eager to prove their value. You cannot blame soldiers for wanting to soldier, but overall the process is a systemic failure of good government.

In the context of Defence Planning Assumptions the BBC headline that UK could struggle to counter a Russian offensive is specious and irrelevant. Clearly, the British Army could not match a Russian offensive alone, never thought it could and the DPA do not ask it to. In short, the governance process is failing with respect to Defence and is being replaced by advocacy.

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