A Short Indulgence

 

I’ve just got back from a short trip away to London, and whilst I’ve been working on a couple of posts to put up on here, today’s offering is a little wander down a path that is rather close to my heart; that of architecture.

Many buildings erected today are not built to last, it seems, and are constructed with little regard to grace. The steel and glass edifices that dot the landscapes of major cities certainly can catch the eye, but one can hardly expect them to stand as a testament to the creativity of our species.

When one contrasts the buildings of today to those of the past, the contrast is striking – the view from the old naval college at Greenwich is a perfect example of this.

I know I cannot really expect to stand, Canute-like, in the face of a tide of technical progress and scream of the unparalleled virtues of the architectural grandiosity of the past but I would hope that in certain circles a glimmer of the aesthetic respect that one can see in more classical buildings could be retained.

When new buildings are commissioned by the Government, for example, I believe they should be constructed with an eye to the future, but an appreciation of the past upon which they are built. It is the duty of government to build for the future, not just the present, and architecture should reflect this. Classical buildings give a sense of permanence which simply does not appear in steel and glass.

Whilst there is a general will amongst modern governmental projects to present an appearance of looking to the future, their choices of buildings (Ipswich or Stafford Borough Council offices being a couple of examples that spring to mind) instead do more to reflect architectural trends and restraints of their moment of conception.

Of course local governments and that of the nation face budgetary constraints, and it would cost more to build more aesthetic structures, but such constructions would be an investment. The brutalist structures of the 60s have already run their life and face demolition, and the lifespan of even modern constructions cannot be measured in centuries.

Classical government buildings, such as the neoclassical offices of Whitehall and the central office of Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, look as beautiful today as when they were first constructed and I am of the opinion that the commissioning of new buildings should have as strong an eye to posterity as appears to have been demonstrated when these were first constructed.

When creating something; one should have an eye not only to the present but to the future, and this should ring particularly true for those in government. By creating structures that retain a beauty beyond their immediate purpose there is a real investment in the nation’s future, whilst also demonstrating an intention that the creation itself is worthy of enduring, as well as the transitory forces that move through it.

 

An in-depth analysis of one victim of architectural faddism: http://manchesterhistory.net/manchester/gone/crescents.html

Hospital Ships and the RFA

In recent years, with the rapid reduction in the number of surface vessels available to the Royal Navy, increasing pressure has fallen upon the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to pick up the slack and fulfil various missions across the globe that would otherwise have been completed by a warship. Despite this increased requirement, however, funding has not been brought up to match and the RFA has been at least as stretched as the RN in its operations despite the skill of its personnel.

Many of the RFA’s new taskings are, naturally, of a less military nature; with migrant patrols and disaster relief appearing high in the order and the ships deployed are acting admirably as symbols of British resolve to meet various crises.

Good will alone, however, will not be enough to sustain Britain’s commitment to taking action in the face of disaster and as more ships are retired the ability to continue these missions will suffer. The RFA has already lost several capabilities, such as at-sea repair, without the provision of any replacement and whilst several fine new ships have been brought in hull numbers continue to decline.

In a time of tight budgets it is understandable that funding should be directed towards the RN surface fleet, but it would be dangerous to suggest that the RN could operate alone without the logistical support provided by the RFA.

Thus, it could be argued that the funding for certain RFA elements could be treated differently; acting as they are as tools of British foreign policy in support of disaster riven areas there is a strong argument that funding for certain ships could be provided from the newly-protected Foreign Aid Budget.

The Foreign Aid Budget has become something of a controversial outlet for government spending; since it gained a protected status there have been numerous allegations of mishandling, and the loss of much of the money spent to bureaucracy at home and corruption abroad. One way to ensure that the money was sent to the right people would be to use it to directly supply aid, rather than to do so through third parties.

Britain can currently deploy one ship, RFA Argus, in a medical support role and as the ship is armed she cannot be classed as a hospital ship. Building a dedicated hospital ship would grant the UK a far fuller capacity to respond to international crises, and be a strong demonstration of our intention to do good on the world stage.

A dedicated hospital ship would free up other naval elements for military taskings, grant a greater capacity for action in the face of emergencies, and also provide useful training for medical staff. It would also ensure that aid was properly delivered to those who needed it, and would essentially be an investment in Foreign Aid spending for the long-term results it could deliver.

This line of thinking need not stop with hospital ships; Royal Navy and RFA ships are often called to disaster relief missions; helping to repair damage done by hurricanes, landslides, and other natural disasters. Building a couple of ships equipped with the machinery and supplies needed to quickly respond to such events would also be an asset, and once again allow such tasks to be conducted by dedicated elements and free-up existing craft for their usual duties. RFA shipping tasked with the heavy machinery needed to clear up disaster sites would also be useful for supporting land-based operations by the Royal Marines, and setting up new operational areas.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary are often the forgotten force in the British military, but it would be folly to forget the importance of such logistical craft, particularly as the reliance placed upon them for patrol duties increases. By using vital support ships to fill support positions, such as using RFA Mounts Bay to counter smuggling, the number of ships readily available to face a military crisis is reduced and the Navy would be harder-pressed to act swiftly. The creation of dedicated ships to meet civilian crises would be a vital asset both to the military and to the world; as disasters of any kind could be better met by the appropriate tool.

Naturally, Save the Royal Navy have published a fine piece on this:http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-case-for-building-a-british-hospital-ship/

ThinkDefence has also written this extended piece on adapting ships for non combat use by the armed forces: http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/a-ship-that-still-isnt-a-frigate/initial-considerations/

The Responsibility to act

The United Kingdom has a long and proud military history, but one trend that persists and presents a source of immense frustration to the student is that of the unpreparedness for war. From the Second World War to the Falklands, successive governments have found themselves surprised by the start of a conflict and have to scrabble together forces to act. In fairness to those leaders of the past, the British military has proven itself capable of facing the task in the end, but in this modern world we can no longer rely on the luxury of time to build up strength after the outbreak of war in order to assure eventual victory.

Military spending has been on a perpetual downturn since the end of the Second World War, and has only deteriorated further since the collapse of the Soviet Union . Recent government efforts to maintain and expand upon the 2% standard do show willing, but the creative accounting that has been used in order to merely reach the minimum requirement for NATO membership should be a cause for some discomfort for those leading a nation with such a legacy of military success.

The glaring deficiencies in our defence infrastructure, from the lack of maritime patrol aircraft to dangerous manpower shortages, leave the nation extremely vulnerable. In an age that is becoming increasingly uncertain, in which Britain’s very position in the world is in flux, it would be irresponsible not to leave the nation better protected. The lack of ships available to provide escort duties during the recent Russian movements past our shores provide one example of this, and arguments have been put forwards to support a greater expansion of Royal Navy hulls than has been outlined in the National Shipbuilding Strategy. One such argument suggests a means by which fleet numbers can be boosted simply by retaining rather than scrapping perfectly serviceable vessels, a measure that would seem extremely prudent in the current climate.

http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-case-for-a-21st-century-royal-navy-home-fleet/

Lest it be thought that this is mere doom-saying; a recent report by the National Audit Office has suggested that the MoD’s plans for modernising its equipment may face a crippling financial shortfall, with dangerous consequences both for the nation, and the unfortunate service personnel who may have to face combat situations with outdated equipment.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4165930/MoD-needs-extra-5-6billion-warns-spending-watchdog.html#ixzz4X24r2QeF

There are some who would argue that in the face of these deficiencies it might be prudent to simply withdraw, abandon our global commitments, and resort to a more isolationist stance. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the failed intervention in Libya there can be seen the appearance of Britain’s own ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, in which any suggestion of the deployment of force is met with horror, but this approach wrongly correlates all military intervention with the disastrous consequences of a lack of planning.

Britain, has often proven remarkably able to intervene successfully to prevent the most awful of atrocities and provide aid where it is most desperately needed. The interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone both saved countless lives to the credit of the intervening forces; the establishment of clear missions and objectives were vital to meeting this end.

There is a certain responsibility that falls upon the shoulders of powerful nations to use their ability to act to do good; numerous examples may be found of where a failure or unwillingness to act has led to appalling consequences. The U.S. And U.N. failure to act effectively in Somalia presents one example – the international forces initially attempted to curtail the atrocious suffering of the people, but restrictive rules of engagement and a lack of general support saw the U.S. withdraw their forces after deciding that the conflict was no longer worth the loss of any American lives. As a consequence, the war is still ongoing after over a decade. The more recent heel-dragging over whether the West should re-commit forces to oppose the rise of Islamic State in nations that had been so disastrously torn up by earlier Western meddling also allowed for the meteoric rise of that most dangerous of groups, with consequences that are now all too clear.

The past few years have seen perceptions of military action change drastically, but the focus on the consequences of failure has seen the possibility for good be largely forgotten. The lack of support for military action has likewise seen radical cuts to defence expenditure go largely unchallenged. The efficacy of defence should not be defined by expenditure alone, but it should noted that for all the current rhetoric of maintaining NATO standards, expenditure under the current government as a percentage of GDP is still lower than under New Labour.

The current budget is allowing for modest expansions and a restoration of lost abilities, but there must be foresight in expenditure so that our ability to act may be maximised. The first priority must be self-defence, as this represents the primary responsibility of every government, but planning must be proactive to allow for the creation of a military that may be effectively deployed anywhere in the world to counter a developing crisis with speed. Furthermore, and of greater difficulty to secure, there must be the will to act at every level – interventions, even successful ones, will be expensive in terms of capital and lives, but the shame of a failure to act will run far deeper and the political consequences will be far heavier.

With all the turmoil in the Middle East, declining European influence and willingness to support their military assets, and a United States now threatening a new era of isolationism, Britain has an even greater responsibility to lead the way in terms of maintaining global stability. Military force is by no means the only way to do so, and indeed its deployment should be a last resort, but we have a duty to ensure that the means remain available should they be required. Let us not return to the days of an early unpreparedness for war, instead we should advocate peace at every turn, but be resolute and prepared to use the tools that our fortunate position in the world have granted us to ensure the safety of others.

For further reading on this topic I would recommend anyone to read this paper by the murdered MP Jo Cox, who recognised the need and duty of our nation to act in the face of atrocity.

https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Intervention-01-17_v8.pdf

On bias

I have recently succumbed, once again, to the curse of the history student – a fascination with the World Wars. This is an unsurprising affliction; the greatest conflicts (or conflict, if you follow Foch’s prescient comment) in human history captivate the mind in a way that no others can. I am not writing here on the wars themselves, however, rather the way they are recorded.

Having studied history to a higher level I have been repeatedly taught the value of objectivity, and need for it in professional work. This is a school of thought that I myself have had trouble coming to terms with; bias is natural, after all, and I am a personal fan of the classical histories of Greece and Rome in which the author aspires to teach lessons rather than dryly recite facts. Nonetheless, I have always tried to keep my pieces relatively neutral.

This school of thought (ironically developed largely in the post-war world) seems, however, not to apply to Nazi Germany. It has struck me profoundly in my recent readings how otherwise reputable and reserved historians will go out of their way to shower pieces on the Second World War with fervent moral condemnation in ways that one otherwise scarcely sees in academic work.

It would be expected at this point for me to say that this judgement is totally justified, and add in a few words such as ‘evil’, ‘horrific’, ‘immoral’ etc but to do so would be to undermine the point – modern academic historical work is intended to avoid such blatant bias and the use of such terms is inappropriate for anyone aspiring to academic publication.

The fact that this bias exists is understandable, and when reading for personal interest rather than research it does not disturb me, (in fact I prefer to see an opinionated author) but I find it odd that such virulent condemnation can be so supported in one field of academia but prohibited in all others. This trend will pass in time, presumably when the last generation of academics whose parents served in the wars pass on, and it will be interesting to see how much time will pass before some less prejudicial revisionist pieces arise.

As a historian I will be interested to see what pieces arise in the post-living memory world, but I can’t help but wonder whether we would be better to retain our emotional outlook on history; if only because it makes for more interesting reading.

Direct Democracy and Military Policy

I recently listened to episode 312 of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, in which he discusses the current political and social climate of the world with renowned science historian James Burke. This was an excellent show, and well worth a listen, and Mr Burke makes some fascinating predictions about the future of the world, particularly in the realms of democracy and human interaction.

http://www.dancarlin.com/common-sense-home-landing-page/

However, one observation he made that Dan Carlin likewise picked up on, was his predictions of a future ruled by direct (or mechanically assisted) democracy. Mr Burke seemed to view democracy as a naturally positive force, and maintained a healthy reliance on an inherent goodness of the human character, but his arguments for a form of government in which majority will is always followed presented to me a nightmarish view of the future in which state policy would be decided upon whim and in which expert opinion or experience would be equated exactly as much say as someone with no interest in the subject at hand.

The Athenian model of direct democracy, to my knowledge the only time such a policy was actually attempted in global history, led to a fractious and indecisive foreign policy at a time of great uncertainty across the Hellespont. The disastrous invasion of Sicily resulted directly from military policy being decided in an open forum, in which powers of oration were of greater import than logistical experience.

It is the field of military and diplomatic affairs that should most deter any hopes for a fully direct system of democratic rule; the Athenian voters were all subject to military service, and yet their decision making process throughout their history of democracy was fraught by atrocious choices. In our modern world, in which military affairs receive comparatively little attention, the voting public could not be expected to enjoy any greater success in deciding a sensible policy than could the Athenians.

The powers of demagoguery, so rife in their effects in ancient Greece, would likewise hold influence. It appears a sad truth that many experts lack the powers of oratory so praised among famous statesmen like Churchill, and as such their more intelligent advice would likewise be lost in a public forum to those better endowed in the aspect of leading a crowd. The personal friendship between George Bush and Tony Blair provides a fine example of how inter-personal relationships can lead to disastrous military decisions. The powers of Yellow Journalism have also been known to provoke confrontation or even all-out war, most notably in the case of the Spanish-American War.

The fickleness of the crowd need not only be governed by would-be leaders or fear-mongers;the emotional response to a crisis could also lead to abrupt and ill-conceived action. One need only look to the emotive response to the attacks of September the 11th, 2001, to see how a population can be driven to arms against another state even without concrete evidence. The more recent response to the Migrant Crisis has also shown how public opinion, fueled by a media obsessed with human suffering, can lead to demands placed on political figures to be turned on their head overnight. This trend is playing out currently with public attitudes towards Syria; whilst the public and Parliament had been loudly and publicly opposing further intervention in the Middle East, pictures and stories from Aleppo have completely inverted this trend, and MPs such as Caroline Lucas who opposed the military budget have since called for military action.

When emotion is allowed to guide state policy, rationality can be seen to be discarded in short order – in matters of warfare it is vital that strategy, tactics, and all the minutiae that make up a modern military apparatus, be left to professionals. Direct democracy could only lead to disaster on the battlefield; political meddling in military affairs has led to countless defeats from Ancient Rome (the undermining of Fabiuss war-winning strategy), to the World Wars (virtually all nations suffered here) and this could only be exacerbated were decisions made without the mitigating separation of representatives.

Various catastrophic decisions occur around the world where politicians without military training are allowed to decide on doctrine, funding, or even upon whom war should be declared, and one could only expect the short-sighted cuts or see-sawing on policy to increase were every decision open to the public forum.

The model Mr Burke envisioned for his democratic future does have its merits; the democratic processes of the West have been under pressure in recent years, but I do not believe he presents the answer. The complex nature of issues faced by nations on the global stage renders them, to my mind, far beyond the reach of a simple popularity vote, whilst the existential dangers inherent in military decision making are too great to be left to inexpert choice.

 

An article detailing the dangers of ill-informed military decision making: https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/chilcot-and-a-very-british-history-of-dubious-military-decisions/

Thoughts on nuclear weaponry

I have written previously about the importance of nuclear deterrence, when supported by strong conventional forces, in maintaining security between states, but I have recently read an article that has led me to think further about this topic.

http://warontherocks.com/2016/12/the-nuclear-threat-environment-facing-the-trump-administration/

The author in this posits that an expansion in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be an asset in the quest to maintain the status quo with America’s strategic rivals, citing their own advancements as a key reason to do so. Whilst he argues that a strong nuclear arsenal provokes peace by allowing a country to feel secure, this line of thinking should not extend to counter-expansion in the face of this apparent source of security.

The nuclear arms race of the Cold War is daily becoming something studied in history, rather than discussed as recent memory, but to tie one’s sense of security to maintaining such devastating power would see a rapid return to such destabilising escalation. That such policies are being considered demonstrates all too clearly that veterans of the Cold War are retiring from positions of influence, leaving in their place those with no memory of the true dangers nuclear weapons could put states in if mis-handled.

The increased sabre-rattling from Russia is a major cause for concern, particularly Putin’s apparent willingness to use his nuclear arsenal if provoked. Such a situation, however, need not lead to an actual nuclear exchange. The greatest deterrent to use of nuclear force is the apparent willingness to reciprocate; NATO armaments could easily obliterate the Russian Federation, and demonstrating a willingness to do so (as both future President Trump, and PM Theresa May have publicly done) should be sufficient to give Putin pause for thought.

Maintaining a modern nuclear arsenal is vital – the deterrent capacity counts for nought if the missiles cannot be launched – but to suggest a hugely expanded arsenal at the expense of a significant portion of the defence budget would appear folly. Conventional forces remain the first line of deterrence, whilst nuclear forces need only maintain the power of an assured and devastating second strike. The British deterrent, who modernisation has just begun, are well maintained at this standard – the submarine launched Trident missiles retain enough power to knock out almost all the major cities of any nation or region, from a position of safety.

The author’s fixation on the offensive use of rival nuclear arsenals seems to belie the current strategic situation; Vladimir Putin is seeking to expand Russian influence, but as a buffer against an expanding, nuclear-equipped NATO. It is right to be alarmed at the actions of Russia’s de-facto tsar, but to see him as plotting a nuclear first strike seems a step too far. China, likewise, seeks to assume the mantle of regional superpower in Asia, and maintains its deterrent as a means to avert any excessive outside intervention in its efforts to dominate the region. Both states are a major cause for concern in the West, but both have been modernising their arsenals as a means to offset the enormous U.S. military advantage and secure breathing space to further domestic interests.

It is my supreme hope not to see a return to a form of international diplomacy in which atomic weapons are seen as the primary method by which to negotiate. If any legacy of the Cold War has most damaged nuclear security it was the SALT agreement against developing defensive arsenals; far better had more time and effort been invested in protective weapons than offensive. In this turbulent time I would hope that greater effort would go into creating defensive systems to offset a potential attack, than see a ramping up in expenditure on new delivery systems.

Developments in British military procurement

I recently had a bit of a ramble on here about procurement in Britain and the problems that have recently been faced, and it seems that I have not been the only one to have been concerned; a scathing independent review has been published by industrialist Sir John Parker in which the over-reliance of the HM Government on BAE systems has been brought under sharp scrutiny:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-38152228

Sir John has highlighted the rampant inefficiencies caused by sourcing all shipbuilding contracts through one enormous conglomerate upon which the government is entirely reliant, and suggests a variety of sensible solutions including a continuation of the modular construction process that proved so successful with the new supercarriers:

Report recommends Type 31 Frigate build should be spread around UK

I would hope that producing all future ships in such a sectional fashion would allow for easy adjustment of vessels to meet changing situations; this concept of modular design has already been championed for the Type 26 Frigates, and hopefully will enjoy enough success to be shared in many future ships.

The only major criticism I can foresee arising from this report is from the Clyde, from whence I imagine the primary line will be to bewail job losses. Regrettably, improvements in defence procurement may lead to losses of jobs at established sites but it must be remembered that the primary job of defence spending is not to sustain civilian jobs; it is to secure the defence of the nation.

The report by Sir John is set to inform the National Shipbuilding Strategy upon its publication next year, which could well prove to be an interesting time in the Royal Navy; as over three decades of reductions in ship numbers may finally be reversed.

The government’s own piece on the report: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/parker-review-blueprint-for-a-strong-naval-shipbuilding-sector

And a detailed analysis by Save the Royal Navy: http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-national-shipbuilding-strategy-report-a-roadmap-for-a-stronger-royal-navy/