Fatal Limitations

In the past decade or so there has been much debate in the public sphere of the impact of downsizing the British armed forces and how short-term savings can have perilous long-term consequences for such institutions. Such thinking is obviously not new, and there have been times in the past where such considerations have likewise raised their heads. I have recently been reading Winston S. Churchill’s ‘The Gathering Storm’, early in which he discusses the impact of downsizing the German military under the terms of the Versailles peace accords. I will quote him at length below, as I feel his observations most aptly describe the damage a large-scale enforced reduction can have upon a military institution’s ability to rapidly reform and face new threats.

“It is a prodigious task to make an army embodying the whole manhood of a mighty nation. The victorious Allies had at Mr. Lloyd George’s suggestion limited the German army to a hundred thousand men, and conscription was forbidden. This force, therefore, became the nucleus and the crucible out of which an army of millions of men was if possible to be reformed. The hundred thousand men were a hundred thousand leaders. Once the decision to expand was taken, the privates could become sergeants, the sergeants officers. None the less, Mr. Lloyd George’s plan for preventing the re-creation of the German army was not ill-conceived. No foreign inspection could in times of peace control the quality of the hundred thousand men allowed to Germany. But the issue did not turn on this. Three or four millions of trained soldiers were needed merely to hold the German frontiers. To make a nation-wide army which could compare with, still more surpass, the French Army required not only the preparation of the leaders and the revival of the old regiments and formations, but the national compulsory service of each annual quota of men reaching the military age … Without universal national service the bones of the skeleton could never be clothed with flesh and sinew.”

Churchill is here alluding to the need for institutional depth as well as quality; for a military to be an effective force it needs large pools of manpower to draw upon as such trained soldiers are of far more utility even than the most advanced technology. A military can be equipped rapidly, especially in the modern age, but without experienced soldiers such technology is useless – the various failures of the Iraqi army in containing the rise of ISIS present a pertinent example of this; despite commanding a hugely powerful force of American weapons and vehicles many of their soldiers simply fled after first contact with the enemy.
In Churchill’s example, the German army could only retain a small pool of experienced soldiers. These men could form the nucleus of a new military expansion but such an expansion was hampered by their inability to allow large-scale basic training of conscripts. As he goes on to explain, the inability to build up a large reserve denied the Germans the backbone their army would need to fight in any form of war.

“There was, therefore, no possibility of Germany creating an army which could face the French Army until conscription had been applied for several years. Here was a line which could not be transgressed without an obvious, flagrant breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Every kind of concealed, ingenious, elaborate preparation could be made beforehand, but the moment must come where the Rubicon would have to be crossed and the conquerors defied. Mr Lloyd George’s principle was thus sound. Had it been enforced with authority and prudence, there could have been no new forging of the German war machine. The class called up for each year, however well schooled beforehand, would also have to remain for at least two years in the regimental or other units, and it was only after this period of training that the reserves, without which no modern army is possible, could be gradually formed and accumulated. France, though her manhood had been depleted in a horrible degree by the previous war, had nevertheless maintained a regular uninterrupted routine of training annual quotas and of passing the trained soldiers into a reserve which comprised the whole fighting man-power of the nation. For fifteen years Germany was not allowed to build up a similar reserve. In all these years the German Army might nourish and cherish its military spirit and tradition, but it could not possibly even dream of entering the lists against the long-established, unbroken development of the armed, trained, organised man-power which flowed and gathered naturally from the French military system.”

Such observations have clear echoes in the modern debate and serve to highlight that no matter the strength of the frontline fighting force, its robustness is sorely limited without a large pool of reserves.  Equally, without a regular flow of new recruits a force can lose its essential vitality and capacity to expand; the cap placed on the German military by its denial of both reserves and conscription ensured that it was a rump force; highly skilled but incapable of protracted operations as each battle casualty it might have suffered could not be replaced – there were no replacements available.
In our modern world, limitations such as this are often referred to as hollowing out – the German people of the 1920s could still see the shadows of their great military past in the cap badges and regimental colours, but these were little more than a facade – without the men to wear the badges these institutions had little tactical use. The reduction in the number of soldiers is always accompanied by an equal reduction in skills available; certain capabilities will be lost as generals have to prioritise where to place the scant numbers of men available to them; post-Treaty Germany lost its entire air force (admittedly by Allied design) and many other specialised units and had to prioritise simply having enough soldiers to keep its borders guarded.
By interrupting the cycle of training and tradition, whole centuries of accumulated wisdom can be lost; as one regiment dies out or is amalgamated its operational methods die with it, and such losses are almost impossible to replace. In our modern world it is wise to remember that it is not so simple to rebuild a military tradition as to simply thrust weapons into young men’s hands and call them soldiers.

Churchill goes on to describe the impact of the Treaty of Versailles on the German Army’s officer corps, which was mandated to reduced from thirty-four thousand men to a mere four thousand. It’s effective survival was largely a result of the work of General von Seeckt, who ensured that whilst the treaty was followed openly there were large numbers of trained officers retained working in concert within various hollow governmental departments.

“Rabenau [Seeckt’s biographer] makes an illuminating comment:

Without Seeckt there would today [in 1940] be no General Staff in the German sense, for which generations are required and which cannot be achieved in a day, however gifted or industrious officers may be. Continuity of conception is imperative to safeguard leadership in the nervous trials of reality. Knowledge or capacity in individuals is not enough. In war the organically developed capacity of a majority is necessary, and for this decades are needed. … In a small hundred-thousand army, if the generals were not also to be small, it was imperative to create a great theoretical framework. To this end large-scale practical exercises or war games were introduced … not so much to train the General Staff, but rather to create a class of higher commanders.

These would be capable of thinking in full-scale military terms.
Seeckt insisted that false doctrines, springing from personal experience of the Great War, should be avoided. All the lessons of that war were thoroughly and systematically studied. New principles of training and instructional courses of all kinds were introduced. All the existing manuals were rewritten, not for the hundred-thousand army, but for the armed might of the German Reich.”

The stunning successes of the German Army in the early years of the Second World War are testimony to the efficacy of Seeckt’s methods; he recognised that the core of a successful fighting force is the ability of its officers and men to act decisively in combat through a readiness for any eventuality. Despite the crippling downsizing imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, Seeckt ensured that a capable institution could be rapidly rebuilt, even accounting for the necessarily lower quality of fighting men that would be available as a result of the lack of a trained reserve.
If a military is to resist being hollowed out, it must ensure that the men left available to it are of the highest quality, particularly those in leadership positions. Vital skills must be not only preserved, but nurtured and grown in new recruits.
The lessons of the post-Great War German Army should thus be seen twofold; firstly, for military to be effective it must be able to take a punch as well as deliver one – it is not enough to possess a strong frontline force, it must be bolstered by trained reserves in order to be credible. Secondly; a force must retain its traditions and experience, particularly at higher levels, in order to remain effective. Skilled commanders, operating within an environment that encourages excellence, are the cornerstone of an effective fighting force and preserving such traditions is a vital step to retaining the ability of an armed force to fight.

 

 

Armed Forces Day 2017

Today is the day in which the citizens of the United Kingdom are free to express their gratitude for all that our armed services provide for our nation.

The primary goal of the forces is of course defence; from patrolling our shipping lanes and isolated territories, to interdicting threats overseas, to their preparation to defend our very homes to the end the armed forces are there to keep British citizens and our allies safe. 
Beyond the realms of direct action the services also forward our nations interests indirectly; the army in particular conducts many training missions with our allies, showing commitment and reassurance to friendly states the world over. The deployment of ships or aircraft also show a powerful symbol of willingness to act; by their mere presence can our services deter military conlict.

As a tool of the state, the armed services can also provide aid to the most needy; the Royal Navy have conducted many disaster relief efforts, whilst military doctors provide much needed expertise to countries stricken by famine or disease. Even at home we can see the services in action; in flooding relief to the recent deployment of Operation Temperer in which the army assisted the police in the face of terrorism.

Within the institutions that provide these vital works may be seen skills and traditions that have been passed on through centuries of service personnel, and it should be a point of pride that our protectors also represent some of the older pillars of our society.

By their dedication and willingness to serve do the military help our society and our friends, they are deserving of respect, support, and praise and I am glad to see how widely this day has been marked.

Money well spent?

In august 2016 the French football player Paul Pogba was transferred to Manchester United for over £89 million, a sum so high that even FIFA have been forced to investigate. The spiralling salaries in football have long been a subject of some rebuke, but seeing this particular figure seems to have really brought the subject home for a lot of people.

Football has become a big business, and in such high demand markets money often becomes of little object. Given the vested advertising and commercial interests costs will naturally escalate, but with how much money is also extracted from fans through high ticket prices and merchandise costs, a sour taste is likely present in many mouths.

In recent years the Chinese market has also expanded, seeing comparatively mediocre players being snapped up for eye-watering sums; with Carlos Tevez being signed on to a contract in which he is paid £1 per second (£615,000 per week). Such a surge in offered rates can only push up player fees more.

This piece is not intended to denigrate footballers, there is naturally a high level of training and personal discipline required to play the sport at a high level, but more to bring attention to the immense business behind the sport. I suspect there are few within the audience who now believe that the wages offered are truly comparable with the demands of playing the game. The wages offered are now more comparable to the prices paid by big manufacturers for advanced machinery or rare resources than a fair representation of pay deserved for a job that carries little personal risk.

When I saw the price of the Pogba transfer, my first instinct was to check the MoD website, and calculate a comparison between the bounty offered to him just to move to his new position, and the wage that a naval rating could expect. By my initial calculation, on the base salary of a fully trained junior rating, the sum offered to Pogba for his transfer could provide a year’s wage for 4944 sailors.

Such a gulf in pay is quite shocking, and I elected to look a little further into military applications for this sum of money. Regrettably, I could not find the costs of training a new recruit; I was hoping to calculate how many badly-needed sailors could be brought into the Navy for the cost of signing one Premier League footballer but at this stage such an appraisal seems not to be.

Regardless of the exact number, it is evident that the huge sums spent on footballers are in a totally different league to the money available for recruitment into Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. As a private commercial enterprise, premiership football is run by private interests who can afford to sustain such expenditure, but seeing how costs have run away is shocking when compared to the badly-stretched military forces who are struggling to finance the materiel they need to defend our nation. I am aware of a campaign some years back that suggested that the salaries should be switched; this is a ridiculous notion, and not one I feel the Treasury would be happy to support, but it’s tagline is still catchy: “incomparable risks, incomparable salaries”.

On strategic depth and the need to take a blow

As militaries have developed since the end of the Second World War, they have generally displayed a tendency to shrink in size and increase in value, resembling less the forces of the levee en masse championed by Napoleon than the elite forces of the pre-Napoleonic European aristocracy; dazzling equipped and perfectly drilled, but capable of only fighting one or two battles per campaign.

The genie that the French revolution unleashed was that of enormous forces that could not only take a punch, but withstand a fusillade of attacks and keep fighting; it was this ability of state armies to persist in the field that was to lead to the carnage of the Great War. The resilience of the opposing armies was yet to be fully appreciated, leading to attritional warfare until tactics could mature.

The manoeuvre tactics that broke the trench deadlock and were to mature in the Second World War demonstrated that the great powers had learned how to truly maximise the advantages of their forces, and enabled warfighting to an extent never before seen. Central to the successes of the campaigns in this war was the ability of armies and nations to recover from setbacks; the retreat from Dunkirk, the see-sawing of North Africa, and the initial rout of the Red Army were all turned into victory through the resilience of the combatants.

As armed forces have contracted – a process that has accelerated alarmingly since the fall of the Soviet Union – their ability to sustain losses has likewise atrophied. The Continental European armies of today may field equipment far in advance of anything their commanders of a century ago could imagine, but their capacity for sustained combat is crippled by a lack of personnel; the Belgian army of 1914 (whose surprising resistance to the German invasion so galvanised the Entente, given its comparatively small size) numbered something in the region of 220,000 men, today the entire Belgian military consists of around 25,000 personnel.

This piece is not intended to embody Stalin’s famous quip of quantity having a quality all of its own, sheer volume in military terms is not an end in itself and this reality was evidenced by the far more numerous forces of Germany in 1914 being so drastically blooded by the Belgians. However, success in war is most often bought with blood; Belgium was indeed badly beaten by the German ability to continue in spite of such losses, and the Germans in turn were defeated by the means of the Entente to outlast them in both attritional warfare and the large manoeuvre battles of 1918.

Commanders in every war have known the value of staying power; appreciating the advantages of the nation in arms Napoleon famously announced to the Austrian Klemens von Metternich: “You cannot stop me, I can spend 30,000 men a month”, knowing that his opponent could not hope to face so resilient a force. Such callousness doubtless appears distasteful to a modern reader used to low intensity conflicts such as the Gulf Wars, in which the loss of one Western soldier is presented as a national tragedy, but in wars of national survival the ability to face crushing losses and continue is a priceless capability.

The cashing in of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War saw many European nations slash military budgets to an eye watering degree, dropping many front-line and reserve units and relegating many capabilities to mere rump units or entirely scrapping them. Further rounds of cuts have seen more progressive downsizing, covered by a mantra of improved training making up in skill what is lacked in mass, but such reasoning defies logic.

Try as they might, no military force can be in two places at once, and both machines and men must rest, recuperate, and repair. Even in an ideal campaign where losses were virtually negligible, forces must be rotated to keep them fresh, but this cannot be achieved without adequate personnel. The general rule for shipping is that ‘two equals one’ – whereby two ships must be possessed to keep one on station (as the other is rested and repaired), the same may be said for soldiers: the average British soldier in the Great War only spent one week in four on the front-line in order to spare his nerves, modern deployments could hardly offer such considerations.

When losses begin to be factored in the picture becomes bleak; against a competent opponent even the most elite forces would begin to take casualties. The steady trickle of losses to IEDs and ambushes in the Middle East in recent years would become a flood in the face of a peer opponent, and there are few Western forces that could sustain a campaign beyond a few weeks; this is symptomatic of decades spent failing to invest in munition stockpiles, vehicular reserves, and a pool of skilled manpower with which to replace combat losses.

It is unfortunate that many once mighty institutions have been reduced to mere glass cannon; defence spending across Europe has reached a crippling low, and even within the framework of NATO many European nations would struggle to deploy a brigade, let alone an army. The Cold War peace dividend has been cashed in, and many nations have found that all it has bought is a fragile defence infrastructure that could no longer deploy forces into asymmetric warfare, let alone face a peer opponent.

As tensions escalate in the face of sabre rattling from both Russia and North Korea the possibility of Western forces facing a major conflict becomes more real, making this issue more pressing than it has been since the fall of the USSR. Whilst the nuclear deterrents in NATO are championed as being a flawless shield against any aggression, the actions of states such as Iran and North Korea have easily demonstrated that the last resort cannot also be the first response; conventional forces must also present a viable threat in order to support policy.

Aside from the need for a large front-line force, complete with reserves, a military must also be supported by a robust logistical backing. The logistics chain must have the same resilience and capacity to absorb losses as the front-line; support forces such as tankers present a potent target to a skilled opponent, and overreliance on a few prized units would make them a major Achilles Heel for any force – advanced warships and fighters are only as versatile as the large and cumbersome craft which keep them moving. Over-centralisation of logistics and materiel are likewise a false economy; there are certainly efficiency savings to be made by avoiding duplication, but placing every strategic egg into one basket could well court disaster; whether by design or accident, a military campaign could be quashed at its outset if the entire munition stockpile were to be destroyed.

In peacetime it is easy to forget the confusion and unexpected disasters that can ensue in war, but such thinking should not be allowed to permeate military planning; several decades of peace have allowed many Western militaries to turn their focus to low-intensity conflicts, and structure themselves accordingly. Such planning has, however, justified the formulation of military forces so small and tokenistic as to no longer even present a speed bump to a more organised foe. Without the depth to suffer losses and setbacks, many of these forces could be swiftly brushed aside or rendered entirely combat ineffective by a single surprise blow. With the mounting tensions in the world many Western governments would be well advised to bite the financial bullet and begin a major re-investment in their military manpower.

Combat robotics

After reading this article http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/its-not-terminator-putins-robot-10240379 I couldn’t help but write down a few thoughts on combat robotic systems.

There is no denying that advances in robotics technology has utterly revolutionised warfare in the past decade, from the means of moving munitions aboard a ship, to clearing mines, to delivering precision munition strikes automated systems have enabled a rapidity and flexibility of military action never before imagined. Despite the utility of these systems, however, the ethics and legality of war have never been more open for debate – as human being are ever increasingly cut from the loop of deadly decision making our ability to control the wars we initiate may be incrementally decreased.

Combat drone systems may currently rely on human operators, but as the technology progresses it will be increasingly constrained by the processing power of the human brain – robotic swarms and nanite systems are already being researched that will necessarily require an automated decision making process in order to operate, and from this stage it is only a small step to allowing for a fully automated robot able to make its own decisions on whether to kill.

This may sound like the hysterical protestations of a digital luddite, but it should be remembered how much of the science fiction of the past has become science fact today; people are accustomed to the idea of ‘killer robots’ in films they watch, but seemingly unable to grasp that such technologies are already under development. A prevalent argument is that these dangerous technologies are “still a long way off” and that therefore it is not worth considering potential ramifications just yet, however drone technology already exists and is as yet unfettered by a codified international law; it is better to prepare for the worst now than only begin to plan when things are too far gone to halt.

There is an interesting area of debate surrounding the possibility of deciding whether certain avenues of research should simply not be explored, and I believe that combat robotics should near the top of this list, alongside biological weaponry and certain designs of nuclear weapon that were thankfully discontinued during the Cold War.

Whilst I fully advocate the use of battlefield drones as a vital asset in modern warfare, completing the three-D missions (those which are dull, dirty, and dangerous) to a superb standard, a human being should always be in the loop in terms of their control. There may be certain modest gains to be made from allowing machines the autonomy to decide for themselves when to act, but – at risk of entering into an argumental cliche – this begins a slippery slope whose abyssal bottoms should well remain unplumbed. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655, we should remember, was a result of an automated system telling its human crew that it had spotted a target; such mistakes will invariably occur when human judgement is not involved. The consequences of automated defence systems may run far greater, and the most terrifying example of a malfunction I have listed below. So long as wars are fought for human goals, the participants should also be human; it is not simply that the idea of machines deciding who should live or die is distasteful, but that the inevitable consequence of them being granted such power would be too appalling for the mind to truly comprehend.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Soviet_nuclear_false_alarm_incident

Further thoughts on international aid

I recently wrote a piece on here detailing my thoughts on the need to improve the means by which the United Kingdom delivers aid internationally, and recent events seem to be necessitating a drastic overhaul of our approach to crises.

The United Nations recently announced that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, with more than 20 million people in Central Africa and Yemen facing famine and in dire need of support, but this has received far too little attention. When I saw this announced on the BBC, it received but a passing mention, with significantly more air time being granted to allegations of sexism in the British cycling team.

The general lack of focus on military and international affairs in the news is something a pet peeve of mine, and I will refrain from plunging down that rabbit hole here, but I believe that this presents one of the greatest obstacles to decisive action. When coverage of crises such as these is limited to a few clips in the news, the public reaction will likewise be limited, and without pressure from the public democratic governments will be less inclined to make the effort necessary to avert the crisis.

It was telling that in the latest budget announcement, no mention was made of either military spending or foreign aid; in a time of such international unrest and with such a disaster is unfolding it is surprising that the Chancellor should be so quiet, but amidst the furor over National Insurance there has been effectively no scrutiny of what remained unsaid.

Whilst it is unfortunate that the government has, as yet, made no real statement towards addressing the crisis that is unfolding, it is easy to understand why. The regions that have been affected are in a state of turmoil, and any aid programme would require a significant deployment of resources and personnel that are currently lacking. With the British military as stretched as it is, they would be hard pressed to make a significant contribution alone – such a situation would require the aid of the U.N.

Such action should be a united effort, with 20 million lives at stake across four nations the world as a whole should be taking action, but a crisis of this scale should prompt the U.K. to take a look at the tools at our disposal to act in the event of crisis. As I wrote in my last piece, our International Aid budget is sadly hampered by the bureaucratic strings attached to its utility, and it often fails to translate into meaningful action.

The need for dedicated hospital and relief ships was the central point of the previous article, but there is no need to end the process of reevaluating the aid budget with the purchase of platforms. It would be to Britain’s credit to use the budget to fund the creation of a full-time aid organisation; rather than rely on the badly stretched military and volunteer forces, the creation of a permanent force of aid workers would allow for a rapid and decisive response to crises that emerged. By having an asset such as this Britain would be put at the spearhead of many badly needed relief efforts and be a useful asset to the United Nations.

Such a force would not need to be enormous, if one were to compare – Doctors without Borders currently employ some 30,000 with a budget of approximately £616,000, by contrast the British foreign aid budget for 2015 was £12.2 billion. If some of that money were invested in personnel and equipment, a sizable organisation could be funded whilst still allowing large volumes of capital to be left available for the resources needed to support their operation. Rather than relying on local infrastructure, a well funded force of relief workers could be deployed and ensure that aid could be delivered exactly where it was needed.

Naturally, the creation of such a force would be a lengthy process with high initial outlay for training and equipping, but the long-term advantage it would present in terms of employment, value for money in terms of the aid budget, and diplomatic capital would make such a scheme a huge investment for Britain and afford a better chance to help those in need across the globe.

This effort is unlikely to be made, however, without public pressure. These matters will never be addressed if they are not discussed, and we run the risk of the aid budget remaining as little more than a token lip-service to good will. As an internationally minded country the United Kingdom has an obligation to provide assistance to the most vulnerable, and if the government is sincere in its commitment to providing foreign aid then they should be pressed to ensure that the money devoted to it is used to its fullest potential.

[EDIT] Since writing this piece both the British government and people have pledged a huge sum in support of the crisis in question, to their enormous credit, and coverage of events has intensified. Nonetheless, the means of delivery still appear lacking in this observer’ mind. A structured, centrally supplied and directed body with personnel and vehicular resources would be a major asset and allow the next crisis to be met before it hit breaking point. 

On Arms Control

Arms limitation has been a hope of many states and leaders in the modern world, and indeed it may be seen that efforts at controlling the impact of war have largely mirrored the ability of war to impact upon society at large.

Within the Middle Ages the Catholic Church attempted to control not only the spread of war amongst Christians, but the tools with which it was fought; the use of crossbows, for example, was proscribed by the Church. The power of the crossbow and the ease of its use presented a destabilising threat to the societal order of the day and the Church, as the assumed international guardians of society, were alarmed by its potential. Despite the ban in 1139, the crossbow was too powerful a weapon to be ignored and was widely adopted across Europe for use against both heathens and Christians in the wars of the age.

As enlightenment spread in the centuries to follow, weapons control remained rather low on the agenda of most states, but the development of ever more powerful infantry weapons saw some interesting efforts to limit the destructive potential of war. The Puckle Gun, designed in 1718, saw an interesting effort to vary the brutality of its use depending on the beliefs of its target: the gun was to fire regular ammunition against Christians, but square shot for use against Muslim Turks – the potential for appalling damage presented by such ammunition seeming improper to use in civilised circles.

The limited wars of the late Renaissance and Age of Empire have been described as one of the greatest accomplishments of civilisation – by keeping war as a genteel game, with little impact on civilians, the horror of conflict was naturally diminished. When Louis XIV, in many ways the embodiment of this era, was offered the secrets of chemical weapons by an Italian chemist he not only refused but paid the man a pension for the rest of his life on condition that he never release the information. The enlightened despot could ironically be argued to have done much to contain the horrors of war through approaching conflict as a noble enterprise. This era of civilised militarism was shattered by the French Revolution, the ‘nation in arms’ that evolved in France had brought war onto a new scale; with armies of hundreds of thousands that could rely on the support of millions. The defeat of Napoleon was unable to put this genie back into its bottle, for whilst the crown heads of Europe may have hoped for a return to the past the new ways of war had been unleashed – and those who failed to grasp them would be doomed in future conflict.

In 1899 Tsar Nicholas the Second invited world leaders to join him in The Hague to discuss the commencement of a unified effort to curtail the huge expenditure on weapons across the globe. In the 84 years since the fall of Napoleon there had been a period of uneasy peace, but Europe was embroiled in an arms race that many could already see would end in a more apocalyptic war than any could yet imagine. The Hague Conference was spoken of as a means to avert disaster, ye for all the talk of progress it would be easy to interpret the Tsars actions as shrewd pragmatism; despite its impressive size and resources, Russia was a technological backwater – and the Tsar did not have the means to compete on an even footing with his European rivals; a halt in military development would have served Russia well.

Regardless of motivation, however, the Tsar’s proposals would have done much to prevent developing technologies and many of his prohibitions were indeed ratified. The use of unnecessarily destructive bullets, for example, saw the banning of such munitions as the Dum Dum bullet developed in India for the British. There had been hopes for greater control; such as the prevention of aerial weapons and the development of new propellants, but therein lay the problem: all proposals were voluntary. This was to foreshadow further issues; the ban on unnecessarily cruel bullets was not signed by the United States, whilst at the talks in 1907 British efforts at naval limitations were ignored by Germany, who was rapidly expanding her fleet in a direct provocation to Britain. The efforts of the Tsar may have been no more than an effort to defend his people, but did present a concerted effort to see warfare brought back under some semblance of control.

The Great War of 1914-1919 put efforts at arms control to the test, and revealed their true fragility. Constraints on the use of noxious gases, the bombing of undefended towns, and the shooting of prisoners were all universally disregarded (the last unofficially by all powers, but universally evident), and the unprecedented brutality of the war shocked all involved. The Vatican made particular efforts to curtail the slaughter and argued for both peace and a reduction in arms. The pope’s prescient arguments that the brutality of the weapons and the efforts at territorial gain would both lead to future conflict fell on deaf ears, and the war raged on to the point of exhaustion.

The experience of the Great War shocked much of Europe into greater efforts at arms control; the League of Nations was founded to arbitrate international disputes, and presented a greater sincerity in its efforts than the Hague Conventions might have done. In addition, efforts at arms control continued – the Washington Naval treaty presents the greatest example; as it banned the creation of large warships. It would become apparent, however, that these efforts had a fatal flaw – as with the Hague Conferences no thought was given to the enforcement of measures. Flagrant violations of the treaties were met with words, not action, as well-intentioned states refused to risk the lives of their citizens to combat those who held their efforts in low regard and indeed even persisted in hampering their own means of self defence by following treaty guidelines even as their neighbours rearmed. The disastrous consequences of a failure to take immediate action were writ in the blood of the victims of the next world war.

The irony of each effort at arms control is that it is worthless without powerful military support – this is a paradox that even in the modern world we have yet to surmount. The United Nations demands consensus before action can be taken, and its most decisive action – the Korean War – was only possible as a result of a convenient Soviet abstention. It is easy to blame failures to control the spread of arms on the lack of means of enforcement, but there is a further element of control that receives less attention but is perhaps the more prescient concern – whether or not any of the states involved truly want to reduce their arms.

The moral arguments of the 12th century church of the evils of the crossbow are echoed in the efforts to ban gas and chemical weapons almost 800 years later, and were to ultimately have the same negligible effect on warring nations. When a kingdom found itself in a war for survival, it was only natural to use every weapon available – a military would be failing its people if it refused to use every means at its disposal for victory.

In this idea may be found the greatest barrier to arms control; would a state be willing to face destruction rather than take action to defend itself? This dilemma is easy to face in peacetime, but rather more difficult in war – the only example of such an action being taken that I am aware of is Hitler’s refusal to allow the use of Nazi Germany’s battlefield chemical weapons at the end of the Second World War, for reasons known only to himself the release of these ‘Weapons of Despair’ was never permitted.

The imminent threat of a large-scale war prompted the Hague Conventions, and the shock of the World Wars led to much effort to prevent future conflict in their aftermath, but in the wars themselves, the rules were different. The Vatican, as a neutral state, could well afford to demand peace, but the combatant states were trapped in a life-or-death struggle and bent every fibre of their beings to the annihilation of their enemies in order to attain victory. Efforts to prevent the use of weapons could well be seen as a cunning ploy for a weaker state to hamstring their enemy, and the hopes of good-will at a negotiating table presented a far less attractive means of gaining peace than the obliteration of threatening armies.

In the hot blood of total war, all weapons may be seen as necessary, even those that would assure the deaths of millions. In this is the greatest obstacle to arms control, and one that may yet be insurmountable; rational discussion of the morality of weapons is a luxury only afforded to those in times of peace. When the threat of near-instantaneous obliteration appeared to states after the Second World War, any hopes at learning from that conflict were set aside as states rushed to develop their means to defend themselves.

The Cold War represented this all-too-human trait in microcosm; weapons were developed in every theatre to give even the most infinitesimal of advantage in a war that would have lasted less than a week if developed. Central to planning in most instances was the use of gas, nerve agents, and nuclear weapons of every size. For each of the potential belligerents the possible war was one in which every life of the nation was at risk – so every tool was seen as necessary. The eventual thaw saw weapons such as cluster bombs and mines be banned internationally, to universal acclaim, but it is worthy of note that such a ban was only seen as acceptable once these weapons were no longer necessary tools of national survival.

War between major powers has only been prevented in the last 72 years by the spread of the most powerful weapons mankind has ever developed – the use of nuclear weapons has been debated endlessly since their initial deployment, and threatened on more occasions than might have been prudent. Nonetheless, these weapons have effectively deterred any major conflict and for that we may be grateful. The nuclear arsenals of the major powers contributed to a longer period of arms build-up than had ever been seen before, but in so doing they also ensured that in this instance the posturing would not spill over into war. The nuclear arms race was also to provide the peace enforcement that previous efforts at arms control lacked; the weapons that nuclear states relied upon as a means to defend themselves in case of attack also prevented the chance of such an attack to begin with, and by deterring large-scale war also removed the necessity for the development of the weapons of large-scale war. In the paradoxical fashion of human development, it took the creation and proliferation of the most apocalyptic weapons in human history to finally allow for concrete efforts to enforce arms control.