On autonomous systems

Today I read this article: https://news.usni.org/2017/09/18/u-s-navy-research-chief-urges-caution-british-admirals-begin-dash-autonomy in which the research chief of the US Navy proffered a gentle rebuke to the Royal Navy for their headlong pursuit of increased autonomy.

With Royal Navy manpower at extraordinarily low levels in the current climate it is unsurprising that autonomous systems are being forwarded as a necessity. As tools to complete missions of a 3-D brief (i.e. Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous) they are indeed a great asset, but caution must be observed when introducing machines with a capacity for independent decision making in a combat environment.

The prevailing thought is that greater autonomy of systems will provide an edge to the fighting force, but little thought is being given to the profound implications of taking human beings out of the decision making loop. The US caution in the above piece was, after all, more for matters of combat security rather than the deeper dangers attached to combat robotics, and thus whilst pertinent has somewhat missed the point.

As combat technology advances, the time for decision making in combat is growing ever shorter, and machines are already adopting greater responsibility for threat identification and prosecution than humans. The shooting down of Iran Flight 655 was an example of how a machine making strategic decisions (it identified the plane as hostile) could lead to confusion and accidental killing (the crew trusted the systems more than their own judgement and, under a time constraint, opened fire rather than take the time to verify.)

By placing more responsibility in the hands of machines, potentially fatal decisions will be taken outside of human consideration. It is all well and good to argue that the eventual trigger should always be pulled by a person, but when that person’s time frame for consideration is reduced to fractions of seconds, what is the point?

For many years in the West, the prevailing thought has been that combat technology must advance, and military forces must keep up with that pace of change. In once sense this is unarguably true – failure to develop measures to counter new weapons will result in avoidable deaths. But how little time is taken to consider what avenues should be explored, and what dangers could lurk within the Pandora’s Box of progress? Increased reliance on computers at the expect of human actors could well carry many profound implications that could lead to needless deaths.

The dangers of machines being able to make life-or-death decisions have been explored ad nauseam through both academic and fictional works, but what of the more mundane thoughts? The recent issues with Type 45 destroyers have highlighted a particularly simple problem – ships can lose power. If an advanced warship loses power, many of its most important combat systems go offline. If such a vessel were entirely dependent on autonomous systems for defence, attack, and monitoring, its crew would be completely vulnerable in the case of loss of power. Were an enemy able to weaponise a means of producing a power loss, it would be a critical advantage against even the most advanced weapons.

In the headlong rush for the most advanced technology, reliability can often be forgotten. Every great disaster in cyberspace (such as the NHS ransomware attack) gains immediate attention, and is followed by statements that such things could never happen to military systems, but such certainty is misplaced. War is a field in which the unexpected always (indeed, must) happen and should not be fought based on the assumption that one’s defences are impregnable. Ultimately, autonomous systems will find their place in the defence of the nation, but they should always be seen as an auxiliary tool. If the armed forces are to remain credible and capable of facing every eventuality, they must be able to operate entirely independently of their robotic assistants.


The Gathering Storm

I have recently finished reading Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, and the resonance his writings sustain in the modern world is striking. Writing as he does of the years between the World Wars, a resounding theme is that of disarmament and the perils such a policy can bring upon a nation. In the following peace, I will be highlighting sections of Churchill’s historical narrative from Hitler’s accession to power and will attempt to show how the dangers highlighted in these writings are just as applicable to the modern world as they were in describing the cataclysm that he saw approaching.

[a.n. The following piece does contain multiple references to political parties which still exist in one form or another in Britain today. I would have preferred to remove them but their prevalence is too extensive to do so without making the narrative difficult to follow. The disastrous events which transpired were a result of a unilateral failure to appreciate military and diplomatic facts, for which all political parties in the nation at the time must be held accountable, and the lessons to be learned here are applicable across the political spectrum.]

The section I have selected to open covers the British governmental policy soon after German rearmament became overtly obvious to all in Europe, and how the hard-earned advantages possessed by the victorious powers of the Great War were squandered. This especially serves to highlight how a well-intentioned desire for peace could actually exacerbate future conflict, when pursued without consideration of the character of other nations or the realities of inter-state relations.

While [rearmament was] taking place in Germany, the MacDonald-Baldwin Government felt bound to enforce for some time the severe reductions and restrictions which the financial crisis had imposed upon our already modest armaments, and steadfastly closed their eyes and ears to the disquieting symptoms in Europe. In vehement efforts to procure a disarmament of the victors equal to that which had been enforced upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles, Mr. MacDonald and his Conservative and Liberal colleagues pressed a series of proposals forward in the League of Nations and through every other channel that was open. The French […] clung tenaciously to the French Army as the centre and prop of the life of France and of all her alliances. This attitude earned them rebukes both in Britain and in the United States. The opinions of the press and the public were in no way founded upon reality; but the adverse tide was strong.

When in May, 1932, the virtues of disarmament were extolled in the House of Commons by all parties, the Foreign Secretary opened a new line in the classification of weapons which should be allowed or discouraged.” [p.71]

In this speech the Foreign Secretary outlined a ways in which weapons might be classified as offensive or defensive, a distinction which Mr Churchill believed to be somewhat ludicrous given the capacity of any weapon to be used in battle. In his opposing speech, Churchill concluded with his fears as to the current military situation in Europe created by the British obsession with disarmament:

I should very much regret to see any approximation in military strength between Germany and France. Those who speak of that as though it were right, or even a question of fair dealing, altogether underrate the gravity of the European situation. I would say to those who would like to see Germany and France on an equal footing in armaments: “Do you wish for war?” For my part, I warnestly hope that no such approximation will take place during my lifetime or that of my children. […] I am sure that the thesis that [Germany] should be placed in an equal military position with France is one which, if it ever emerged in fact, would bring us within practical distance of almost measureless calamity.

The British air estimates of March, 1933, revealed a total lack of comprehension alike by the Government and the Opposition, Labour and Liberal, of what was going on. I had to say (March 14, 1933)

I regretted to hear the Under-Secretary say that we were only the fifth air power, and that the ten-year programme was suspended for another year. I was sorry to hear him boast that the Air Ministry had not laid down a single new unit this year. All these ideas are being increasingly stultified by the march of events, and we should be well advised to concentrate upon our air defences with greater vigour.” [p.72-3]

In these passages it is apparent that the government had become so compelled by their desire for peace in the continent that they were unwilling to face up to the fact that other nations might not share their admirable convictions. The coming war, whilst by no means inevitable, could well have been curtailed by firmness and determination on the part of the victorious allies. Even if the British government had continued to refuse in an expansion of attacking arms, their pride in neglecting to even modernise the defensive capacities of the British Isles is startling. The foundation of deterrence is determination; were the British government of these years militarily determined to preserve the hard-earned peace it could well have been upheld. But attempts to assure peace through a pacifist example were dangerously counter-productive.

Churchill continues to detail how events unfolded before the eyes of the wider world:

All this while the United States remained intensely preoccupied with its own vehement internal affairs and economic problems. Europe and far-off Japan watched with steady gaze the rise of German warlike power. Disquietude was increasingly expressed in Scandinavian countries and the states of the “Little Entente” in the Balkan countries. Deep anxiety ruled in France, where a large amount of knowledge of Hitler’s activities and of German preparations had come to hand. There was, I was told, a catalogue of breaches of the Treaties of immense and formidable gravity; but when I asked my French friends why this matter was not raised in the League of Nations, and Germany invited, or even ultimately summoned, to explain her action and state precisely what she was doing, I was answered that the British government would deprecate such an alarming step. Thus, while Mr MacDonald, with Mr. Baldwin’s full authority, preached disarmament to the French, and practiced it upon the British, the German might grew by leaps and bounds, and the time for overt action approached.

In justice to the Conservative Party it must be mentioned that at each of the conferences of the National Union of Conservative Associations from 1932 onwards, resolutions proposed by such worthies as Lord Lloyd and Sir Henry Croft in favour of an immediate strengthening of our armaments to meet the growing danger from abroad were carried almost unanimously. But the parliamentary control by the Government Whips in the House of Commons was at this time so effective, and the three parties in the Government, as well as the Labour opposition, so sunk in lethargy and blindness, that the warnings of the followers in the country were as ineffective as were the signs of the times and the evidence of the Secret Service. This was one of those awful periods which recur in our history, when the noble British nations seems to fall from its high estate, loses all trace of sense or purpose, and appears to cower from the menace of foreign peril, frothing pious platitudes while foemen forge their arms.

In this dark time the basest sentiments received acceptance or passed unchallenged by the respectable leaders of the political parties. In 1933 the students of the Oxford Union, under the inspiration of a Mr. Joad, passed their ever-shameful resolution, “That this House refuses to fight for King and Country.” it was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.” [p. 84-5]

The notion of international prestige has fallen out of favour in much modern analysis of current affairs, yet this passage aptly demonstrates the impact the perception nations hold of one another can have upon their decision making process. By demonstrating an unwillingness to take action, the British made themselves appear weak and easy to circumvent, provoking their enemies to take bolder action at just the time the government were making efforts to further undermine any British ability to retaliate. The failure of multi-national bodies to support international agreements likewise devalued the institutions and further incited the more aggressive states into taking greater action. The habit of expecting peace to continue, and failing to appreciate that threats may arise at any time has recurred since Churchill’s time, most recently in the 1990s; in which the British military cashed in a ‘peace dividend’ with the fall of the Soviet Union and saw the nation’s defensive abilities heavily curtailed once again. What is more alarming in Churchill’s example of this trend is the accompanying pressure that Britain placed upon France to equally weaken herself; if a nation such as Britain is to withdraw from an active role in world affairs this is destabilising enough, but that she was to attempt to drag a powerful ally down with her demonstrates a terrifying blinker over the course of world affairs. The danger this was to place the world in is now apparent, and should serve as a warning to any that would attempt to promote peace through damaging the capacity of one’s allies to act in self defence.

The utter collapse of British assertiveness in international affairs was to have its first overt consequences in Asia, as Churchill describes:

In September, 1931, on a pretext of local disorders, the Japanese occupied Mukden and the zone of the Manchurian railway. In January, 1932, they demanded the dissolution of all Chinese associations of an anti-Japanese character. The Chinese government refused, and on January28, the Japanese landed to the north of the International Concession at Shanghai. The Chinese resisted with spirit, and, although without airplanes or anti-tank guns or any of the modern weapons, maintained their resistance for more than a month. […] Early in 1932, the Japanese created the puppet state of Manchukuo. A year later, the Chinese province of Jehol was annexed to it, and in March, 1933, Japanese troops penetrating deeply into defenceless regions, had reached the Great Wall of China. This aggressive action corresponds to the growth of Japanese power on the Far East and her new naval position on the oceans.

From the first shot the outrage committed upon China aroused the strongest hostility in the United States. But the policy of isolation cut both ways. Had the United States been a member of the League of Nations, she could undoubtedly have led the Assembly into collective action against Japan, of which the United States would have been the principal mandatory. The British Government on their part showed no desire to act with the United States alone; nor did they wish to be drawn into antagonism with Japan further than their obligations under the League of Nations charter required. There was a rueful feeling in some British circles at the loss of the Japanese Alliance and the consequential weakening of the British position with all its long-established interests in the Far East.[the alliance had been broken at American insistence in 1921, despite the consistent support and respect Japan had showed to the British. Churchill argues that this did much to provoke Japanese imperialism, as they viewed the breaking of the alliance as a spurning of Japan by the West] His Majesty’s Government could hardly be blamed if, in their grave financial and growing European embarrassments, they did not seek a prominent role at the side of the United States in the Far East without any hope of corresponding American support in Europe.

China, however, was a member of the League, and although she had not paid her subscription to that body, she appealed to it for what was no more than justice. On September 30, 1931, the League called on Japan to remove her troops from Manchuria. In December, a Commission was appointed to conduct an inquiry on the spot. The League of Nations entrusted the chairmanship of the Commission to the Earl of Lytton […] The Report, which was unanimous, was a remarkable document, and forms the basis of any serious study of the conflict between China and Japan. The whole background of the Manchurian affair was carefully presented. The conclusions drawn were plain: Manchukuo was the artificial creation of the Japanese General Staff, and the wishes of the population had played no part in the formation of this puppet state. Lord Lytton and his colleagues in their Report not only analysed the situation, but put forward concrete proposals for an international solution. These were for the declaration of an autonomous Manchuria. It would still remain part of China, under the aegis of the League, and there would be a comprehensive treaty between China and Japoan regulating their interests in Manchuria. The fact that the League could not follow up these proposals in no way detracts from the value of the Lytton Report. […] In February, 1933, the League of Nations declared that the state of Manchukuo could not be recognised. Although no sanctions were imposed upon Japan, nor any other action taken, Japan, on March 27, 1933, withdrew from the League of Nations. Germany and Japan had been on opposite sides in the war; they now looked towards each other in a different mood. The moral authority of the League was shown to be devoid of any physical support at a time when its activity and strength were most needed.” [p. 87-8]

The neglect paid to the Far East in these years has done much to cloud future friendly relations; China was left to a cruel fate by a Western world too absorbed in petty politics and a lofty idealism. The consequences of this neglect may still be felt today, China’s fall to communism was in no small part influenced by her abandonment in this era and the League of Nations proven to be a body and voice without a hand. Churchill concludes his analysis of this sorry affair in words that need little further explanation:

We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history the conduct, not only of the British National and mainly Conservative Government, but of the Labour-Socialist and Liberal Parties, both in and out of office, during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation, obvious lack of intellectual vigour in both leaders of the Coalition Government, marked ignorance of Europe and aversion of its problems in Mr. Baldwin, the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality, the failure and worse than failure of Mr. Lloyd George, the erstwhile great wartime leader, to address himself to the continuity of his work, the whole supported by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament: all these constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free of wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.” [p. 89]

We would do well to take heed. ****

The terrible consequences of an unwillingness to support brave actions with words had been brutally laid bare in this moment; Britain in this era was desperate for peace to be preserved, but was utterly hampered by an erroneous belief that peace could only continue if no nation was willing to take military action, even in the face of the use of force. The lack of political backbone and unwillingness to face the uncomfortable reality in which the nation found herself was a blessing to the more aggressive nations of the world, and one which has recurred with regrettable consequences on numerous occasions in numerous locations since. The need for determination in deterrence should be made only too clear by the example of China; with her military credibility undermined through both the avowed policy of her government and public demonstrations by her people, Britain was in no place to make demands of a nation interested more in action than negotiation, and was made shamefully culpable in the atrocities to come.

Churchill continues:

By the autumn of 1933, it was plain that neither by precept nor still less by example would the British effort for disarmament succeed. The pacifism of the Labour and Liberal Parties was not affected even by the grave event of the German withdrawal from the League of Nations. Both continued in the name of peace to urge British disarmament, and anyone who differed was called “warmonger” and “scaremonger.” It appeared that their feeling was endorsed by the people, who, of course, did not understand what was unfolding. At a by-election which occurred in East Fulham in October 25, a wave of pacifist emotion increased the Socialist vote by nearly nine thousand, and the Conservative vote fell by over ten thousand. The successful candidate, Mr Wilmot, said after the poll that “British people demand… that the British Government shall give a lead to the whole world by initiating immediately a policy of general disarmament.” And Mr. Lansbury, then leader of the Labour Party, said that all nations must “disarm to the level of Germany as a preliminary to total disarmament.” This election left a deep impression upon Mr. Baldwin, and he referred to it in a remarkable speech three years later. In November came the Reichstag election, at which no candidates except those endorsed by Hitler were tolerated, and the Nazis obtained ninety-five percent of the votes polled.

It would be wrong in judging the policy of the British Government not to remember the passionate desire for peace which animated the uninformed, misinformed majority of the British people, and seemed to threaten with political extinction any party or politician who dared to take any other line. This, of course, is no excuse for political leaders who fall short of their duty. It is much better for parties or politicians to be turned out of office than to imperil the life of the nation.” [p.111-2]

This turn of events reveals how public sentiment can cloud political leadership even in the face of genuine fact; such was the public will for disarmament that their elected representatives were willing to ignore their responsibility to assure the safety of their constituents and encourage the general policy of undermining British defence. The condemnation of those who would advocate against the group ideal is a regrettably prevalent theme in all nations, but a particularly dangerous one to emerge when the majority view is led by a misguided idealism detached from the realities of the time.

The European situation continued to worsen, as the British Government refused to permit the spending necessary to allow the British air forces to even maintain parity with the rapidly expanding Luftwaffe (an expansion expressly prohibited by the Versailles Treaty) and instead encouraged greater disarmament in the states surrounding the now overtly militaristic Germany. In a speech delivered to Parliament, Churchill had recourse to state :

The Opposition are very free-spoken, as most of us are in this country, on the conduct of the German Nazi Government. No one has been more severe in criticism than the Labour Party or that section of the Liberal Party which I see opposite. And their great newspapers, now united in the common cause, have been the most forward in the severity of their strictures. But these criticisms are fiercely resented by the powerful men who have Germany in their hands. So that we are to disarm our friends, we are to have no allies, we are to affront powerful nations, and we are to neglect our own defences entirely. This is a miserable and perilous situation. Indeed, the position to which they seek to reduce us by the course which they have pursued […] is one of terrible jeopardy” [p.117]

It is easy to criticise from afar, but far harder to actually take a stand against that to which you are opposed. It is evident that the lessons of the Manchurian Crisis had still to be digested in this period, despite the obvious display of Western impotence shown to the world by their failure to affect any action against Japanese devastation of northern China. Likewise, as Churchill warned, these criticisms were further alienating Britain and undermining her diplomatic abilities in concert with the calamitous weakening of her armed forces. Condemnation of foreign action in Parliament without the requisite strength to take action serves no other purpose than currying domestic favour; the slighted party will have less inclination to enter into diplomatic discussion in the future, whilst hurling insults will do nothing to actually address the perceived ill.

These previous an subsequent segments show how short term political gain can greatly impact the long term capacity of a nation to take action; the political parties of the era were entirely possessed by a desire to reflect the peaceful hopes of their constituents, even in the face of facts pointing to impending danger. Their near-sighted hopes of clinging to office were to have dire consequences, however, as their unwillingness to tell people uncomfortable truths led to a campaign of virtue signalling that was to cripple the British defence infrastructure as she became led by a Parliament that was singularly incapable of comprehending the danger which stalked closer with each passing day. It would be well to remember in the modern world the fact that these individuals were unwilling to entertain; that peace has never in the course of human history proven to be lasting.

During a debate upon air parity, Churchill writes:

..when on July 20, 1934, the Government brought forward some belated and inadequate proposals for strengthening the Royal Air Force by forty-one squadrons or about 820 machines only to be completed in five years, the Labour Party, supported by the Liberals, moved a vote of censure upon them in the House of Commons. The motion regretted that

His Majesty’s Government should enter upon a policy of rearmament neither necessitated by any new commitment nor calculated to add to the security of the nation, but certain to jeopardise the prospects of international disarmament and to encourage a revival of dangerous and wasteful competition in preparation for war

In support of this complete refusal by the Opposition to take any measures to strengthen our air power, Mr. Attlee, speaking in their name, said: “we deny the need for increased air armaments .. we deny the proposition that an increased British air force will make for the peace of the world, and we reject altogether the claim to parity.” The Liberal Party supported this censure motion, although they would have preferred their own, which ran as follows:

That this House views with grave concern the tendency among the nations of the world to resume the competitive race of armaments which has always proved a precursor of war; it will not approve any expansion of our own armaments unless it is clear that the Disarmament Conference has failed and unless a definite case is established; and these conditions not being present as regards the proposed additional expenditure of £20,000,000 upon air armaments, the House declines its assent.

In his speech the Liberal leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, said: “what is the case in regard to Germany? Nothing we have so far seen or heard would suggest that our present air force is not adequate to meet any peril at the present time from this quarter.”

When we remember that this was the language used after careful deliberation by the responsible heads of parties, the danger of our country becomes apparent. This was the formative time when by extreme exertions we could have preserved the air strength on which our independence of action was founded. If Great Britain and France had each maintained quantitative parity with Germany, they would together have been double as strong, and Hitler’s career of violence might have been nipped in the bud without the loss of a single life. Thereafter it was too late.”


It was soon made clear that the assurances received by Parliament that the Germans were not within reach of air parity in the near future were utterly false, and Stanley Baldwin was forced to bring to the house the fact that the German air force was not only of equal size to the British, but was growing with each passing day, he was forced to confess this to the House and made the remarkable confession:

responsibility is not that of any single minister; it is the responsibility of the Government as a whole, and we are all responsible, we are all to blame”

Yet whilst this statement was laudable, the response was not.

The Labour and Liberal Oppositions, having nine months earlier moved or supported a vote of censure even upon the modest steps the Government had taken were ineffectual and undecided. They were looking forward to an election against “Tory Armaments.” […] and they did not attempt to adapt their speeches to this outstanding episode. Mr. Attlee said:

As a party we do not stand for unilateral disarmament… We stand for collective security through the League of Nations. We reject the use of force as an instrument of policy. We stand for the reduction of armaments and pooled security… We have stated that this country must be prepared to make its contribution to collective security. Our policy is not one of seeking security through rearmament, but through disarmament. Our aim is the reduction of armaments, and then the complete abolition of all national armaments and the creation of an international police force under the League.

What was to happen if this spacious policy could not be immediately achieved or till it was achieved, he did not say. He complained that the White Paper on Defence justified increases in the Navy {a.n. A Royal Navy already crippled by arbitrary restrictions on tonnage of warships that most nations except Britain were already ignoring} by references to the United States, and increases in our air forces by references to the air forces of Russia, Japan, and the United States. “All that was old-fashioned talk and right outside the collective system.” He recognised that the fact of German rearmament had become dominating, but “The measure of the counterweight to any particular armed forces is not the forces of this country or of France, but the combined force of all loyal Powers in the League of Nations. An aggressor must be made to realise that if he challenges the world, he will be met by the co-ordinated forces of the world, not by a number of disjointed national forces.” The only way was to concentrate all air power in the hands of the League, which must be united an become a reality. Meanwhile, he and his party voted against the measure proposed.

For the Liberals, Sir Archibald Sinclair asked the Government to summon

a fresh economic conference, and to bring Germany not only within the political comity of nations, but also into active co-operation with ourselves in all the works of civilisation and in raising the standard of life of both peoples … Let the Government table detailed and definite proposals for the abolition of military air forces and the control of civil aviation. If the proposals are resisted, let the responsibility be cleared and properly fixed.

Nevertheless [he said], while disarmament ought vigorously to be pursued as a chief objective of the government, a situation in which a great country not a member of the League of Nations possesses the most powerful army and perhaps the most powerful air force in Western Europe … cannot be allowed to endure […] The Liberal Party would feel bound to support measures of national defence when clear proof was afforded of their necessity … I cannot therefore agree that to increase our national armaments is necessarily inconsistent with our obligations under the collective peace system.

[…] Nothing in the speeches of the Opposition leaders was in the slightest degree related to the emergency in which they admitted we stood, or to the far graver facts which we now know lay behind it.” [p.123-5]

This has been taken slightly out of sequence, but serves to demonstrate the consequences of the outlook detailed by the previous sections. Such was the desire for peace in parliament, that they willingly constrained the capacity of the nation to not only make war but to even defend itself. Whilst the hopes for collective security are understandable given the freshness of the Great War in the national memory, the multiple failures of the League of Nations and the lack of support and interest given it by major nations such as the United States should have been a clear indication that Britain should have made ready to protect herself even as she pursued her peaceful designs through diplomatic means. The view that providing adequate forces for defence could be construed as a precursor to war should prove a clear falsehood; a strong defence provides a far stronger deterrent to war than stern diplomatic words without substance, and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and Belgium should eloquently describe the form of peace that can be assured against aggressive neighbours through disarming oneself. The terrible consequences of this misguided pacifism were to reverberate through the years ahead, as a failure to maintain military capabilities in the here and now will take years, if not decades, to rectify – it is far easier to maintain a capability than rebuild it. The immediate consequence of the British and French governments failing to adequately support their air forces were felt in the Battle of France, when Hitler’s invading armies swept the neglected allied forces before them; despite having similar sized armies and a superiority in tanks and guns, the German air forces were totally dominant; deploying over five and a half thousand planes compared to fewer than three thousand British and French. 2,233 allied aircraft were lost in the campaign, compared to 1,236 German.


The issue of German air parity with Britain, in grotesque violation of the Versailles Treaty, was discussed at the Stresa Conference in 1935, between Britain, France, and Italy, wherein Churchill reports:

There was general agreement that open violation of solemn treaties, for the making of which millions of men had died, could not be borne. But the British representatives made it clear at the outset that they would not consider the possibility of sanctions in the event of treaty violations. This naturally confined the Conference to the region of words. A resolution was passed unanimously to the effect that “unilateral” – by which they meant one sided – breaches of treaties could not be accepted, and the Executive Council of the League of Nations was invited to pronounce upon the situation disclosed […] The final declaration [a.n. By Mussolini] was as follows:

The three powers, the object of whose policy is the collective maintenance of peace within the framework of the League of Nations, find themselves in complete agreement in opposing, by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe, and will act in close and cordial collaboration for this purpose.

The Italian Dictator in his speech had stressed the words “peace of Europe”, and paused after “Europe” in a noticeable manner. This emphasis on Europe at once struck the attention of the British Foreign Office representatives. They pricked up their ears and well understood that, while Mussolini would work with France and Britain to prevent Germany from re-arming, he reserved for himself any excursion in Africa against Abyssinia on which he might later resolve. Should this issue be raised or not? Discussions were held that night among the Foreign Office officials. Everyone was so anxious for Mussolini’s support in dealing with Germany that it was felt undesirable at that moment to warn him off Abyssinia, which would obviously have very much annoyed him. Therefore, the question was not raised; it passed by default, and Mussolini felt, and in a sense had reason to feel, that the Allies had acquiesced in his statement and would give him a free hand against Abyssinia. The French remained mute on the point, and the Conference separated.

In due course, on April 15/17, the Council of the League of Nations examined the alleged breach of the Treaty of Versailles committed by Germany in decreeing universal compulsory military service. The following Powers were represented on the Council: The Argentine Republic, Australia, Great Britain, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and the U.S.S.R. All the Powers voted for the principle that treaties should not be broken by “unilateral” action, and referred the issue to the Plenary Assembly of the League. […] In all, nineteen countries formally protested. But how vain was all their voting without the readiness of any single Power or any group of Powers to contemplate the use of force, even in the last resort!” [133-4]

Due to the weakness imposed upon Britain by Parliament’s refusal to allow the military to be properly equipped, the nation’s only means of response to the worsening international situation was the above shameful facade. Aggressive actions were met only by words which were impossible to support, especially with an attitude of pacifism so prevalent that any use of force was seen as anathema, even to prevent an outright war. Mussolini had clearly appreciated the weakness of the League, and used his position as a stronger nation to strong-arm the democracies into silence over his planned endeavours in Africa.

When these endeavours were undertaken, the shock and outrage that they engendered finally managed to shake the mood of unquestioning pacifism that had racked the United Kingdom and yet, as Churchill reveals, even the public outpouring of disgust at the Italian attack on Abyssinia, encouraged as it was by the frailty of the League of Nations, was insufficient to promote action.

Bloodshed in Abysinnia, hatred of Fascism, the invocation of Sanctions by the League, produced a convulsion within the British Labour Party. Trade-unionists, among whom Mr. Ernest Bevin was outstanding, were by no means pacifist by temperament. A strong desire to fight the Italian Dictator, to enforce sanctions of a decisive character, and to use the British Fleet, if need be, surged through the sturdy wage-earners. Rough and harsh words were spoken at excited meetings. […] Many members of the parliamentary Labour Party shared the trade-unionist mood. In a far wider sphere, all the leaders of the League of Nations found themselves bound to the cause of the League. […] Here were principles for which lifelong humanitarians were ready to die, and if to die, also to kill.

[…] But this national awakening was not in accord with Mr. Baldwin’s outlook or intentions.[…] The Prime Minister had declared that sanctions meant war; secondly, he was resolved there must be no war; and thirdly, he decided upon sanctions. It was evidently impossible to reconcile these three conditions. Under the guidance of Britain and the pressures of Laval, the League of Nations Committee, charged with devising sanctions, kept clear of any that would provoke war. A large number of commodities, some of which were war materials, were prohibited from entering Italy, and an imposing schedule was drawn up. But oil, without which the campaign in Abyssinia could not have been maintained, continued to enter freely, because it was understood that to stop it meant war. [a.n. Ian Kershaw, in To Hell and Back, notes that whilst oil imports were still free to enter Italy, foie gras imports were stopped. A clear indication of the feeble power of the League to influence world events.] Here the attitude of the United States, not a member of the League of Nations and the world’s main oil supplier, though benevolent, was uncertain. Moreover, to stop it to Italy involved also stopping it to Germany. The export of Aluminium into Italy was strictly forbidden; but aluminium was almost the only metal that Italy produced in quantities beyond her own needs. […] Thus, the measures passed with so great a parade were not real sanctions to paralyse the aggressor,, but merely such half-hearted sanctions as the aggressor would tolerate, because in fact, though onerous, they stimulated the Italian war spirit. The League of Nations, therefore, proceeded to the rescue of Abyssinia on the basis that nothing must be done to hamper the invading armies. These facts were not known to the British public at the time of the election. They earnestly supported the policy of bringing the sanctions, and believed this was a sure way of bringing the Italian assault upon Abyssinia to an end.

Still less did His Majesty’s Government contemplate the use of the Fleet. […] The British Fleet which was lying at Alexandria had by now been reinforced. It could by a gesture have turned back Italian transports from the Suez Canal, and would as a consequence have had to offer battle to the Italian Navy. We were told it was not capable of meeting such an antagonist. […] It transpired, however, that the Admiral commanding resented the suggestion attributed to him that he was not strong enough to fight a fleet action. It would seem that before taking their first decision to oppose Italian aggression, His Majesty’s Government should carefully have examined ways and means and also made up their minds.

There is no doubt on our present knowledge that a bold decision would have cut the Italian communications with Ethiopia, and that we should have been successful in any naval battle which might have followed. I was never in favour of isolated action by Great Britain, but having gone so far it was a grievous deed to recoil. Moreover, Mussolini would never have dared to come to grips with a resolute British Government. Nearly the whole of the world was against him, and he would have had to risk his regime upon a single-handed war with Britain, in which a fleet action in the Mediterranean would be the early and decisive test. How could Italy have fought this war? Apart from a limited advantage in modern light cruisers, her navy was a but a fourth the size of the British. Her numerous conscript army, which was vaunted in millions, could not come into action. Her air power was in quantity and quality far below even our modest establishments. She would instantly have been blockaded. The Italian armies in Abyssinia would have famished for supplies and ammunition. Germany could as yet give no effective help. If ever there was an opportunity of striking a decisive blow in a generous cause with the minimum of risk, it was here and now, The fact that the nerve of the British Government was not equal to the occasion can be excused only by their sincere love of peace. Actually it played a part in leading to an infinitely more terrible war. Mussolini’s bluff succeeded, and an important spectator drew far-reaching conclusions from the fact. Hitler had long resolved on war for German aggrandisement. He now formed a view of Great Britain’s degeneracy which was only to be changed too late for peace and too late for him. In Japan, also, there were pensive spectators. [p.174-7]

The feeble sanctions brought against Fascist Italy when she also chose to take advantage of the paralysing indecision of the League of Nations likewise shows how a failure to back up rhetoric with credible military force allows more daring states to assert their will. Mussolini’s gamble could have been quashed by Britain alone, yet she did nothing and allowed the extraordinarily brutal Italian campaign continue. By failing to prevent this action of one League member upon another, Britain and France shattered all international respect for the League. The failure of NATO to protect Crimea shows a modern example of how a protracted period of military neglect and lack of public support for military action can allow such events to still occur. Churchill’s chilling conclusion to this episode should resonate uncomfortably to the modern reader; a love of peace can very readily blinker short-sighted political thought, and encourage conditions in which far greater bloodshed than might otherwise occur can be invoked.

Once Abyssinia was conquered, the impact of Italian operations became clear:

The collapse of Abyssinian resistance and the annexation of the whole country by Italy produced unhelpful effects in German public opinions. Even those elements which did not approve of Mussolini’s policy or action admired the swift, efficient, and ruthless manner in which, as it seemed, the campaign had been conducted. The general view was that Great Britain had emerged thoroughly weakened. She had earned the undying hatred of Italy; she had wrecked the Stresa Front once and for all; and her loss of prestige in the world contrasted agreeably with the growing strength and repute of the new Germany. “I am impressed,” wrote one of our representatives in Bavaria, “by the note of contempt in references to Great Britain in many quarters … it is to be feared that Germany’s attitude in the negotiations for a settlement in Western Europe and for a more general settlement of European and extra-European questions will be found to have stiffened.”

[…] His Majesty’s Government had imprudently advanced to champion a great world cause. They had led fifty nations forward with much brave language. Confronted with brute facts Mr. Baldwin had recoiled. Their policy had for a long time been designed to give satisfaction to powerful elements of opinion at home rather than seek the realities of the European situation. By estranging Italy they had upset the whole balance of Europe and gained nothing for Abyssinia. They had led the League of Nations into an utter fiasco, most damaging if not fatally injurious to its effective life as an institution. [p . 186-7]

The impact of the international appearance of weakness caused by a failure to oppose aggression is here made clear; it was the failure to protect Manchuria and Abyssinia that were to show Hitler that his designs could well be put in to practice without fear of serious opposition. Had France and Britain taken an assertive line with Italy and maintained their capacity to intervene, especially under the aegis of the League, German expansion could have been curtailed before it began. Even as Hitler began his conquests, multiple opportunities still presented themselves to prevent a Second World War, yet the vacillation of the democracies continued. No matter how well-intentioned, it was this failure to consider the use of arms that was to sow the seeds of a conflict that was to claim over 50 million lives.


Having made their bed of the policies of appeasement, the Western Allies continued to lie in it. Over the next four years the League watched, paralysed, as Germany massively expanded her borders at the expense of her neighbours and constructed armed forces of a technical and numerical superiority far in advance of the democracies. As her military expanded, her position of increasing strength allowed Hitler’s Germany to overawe and consume her smaller neighbours and overtly prepare for war. Each act of domination was met by feeble complaints from the impotent League, and mute acceptance by the democracies who had by now set a standard that any overt opposition would be seen as a declaration of war. When a red line was finally drawn by Britain and France, it was far too late to hope that Hitler would be cowed, and from a position in which the genuine guarantee of the use of force could no longer serve as an active deterrent. As Churchill summarises:

In this sad tale of wrong judgements formed by well-meaning and capable people we now reach our climax. That we should all have come to this pass makes those responsible, however honourable their motives, blameworthy before history. Look back and see what we had successively accepted or thrown away: a Germany disarmed by solemn treaty; a Germany re-armed in violation of a solemn treaty; air superiority or even air parity cast away; the Rhineland forcibly occupied and the Siegfried line built or building; the Berlin-Rome Axis established; Austria devoured and digested by the Reich; Czechoslovakia deserted and ruined by the Munich Pact; its fortress line in German hands; its mighty arsenal of Skoda henceforward making munitions for German armies; President Roosevelt’s efforts to stabilise or bring to a head the European situation by the intervention of the United States waved aside with one hand [a.n. In January of 1938 Roosevelt had offered to intervene directly to calm matters, but Chamberlain had bluntly rebuffed him before signing the Munich Pact], and Soviet Russia’s willingness to join the Western Powers and go all lengths to save Czechoslovakia ignored on the other [a.n. The Soviets had likewise been rebuffed by a British government seemingly incapable of understanding that Germany was planing war and that allies would be needed. This decision directly drove the Soviets into signing the infamous non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany]; the services of thirty-five Czech divisions against the still unripened German Army cast away, when Great Britain could herself only supply two to strengthen the front in France – all gone with the wind.

And now, when every one of these aids and advantages has been squandered and thrown away, Great Britain advances, leading France by the hand, to guarantee the integrity of Poland. […] There was sense in fighting for Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the German Army could scarcely put half a dozen trained divisions on the Western Front, when the French with nearly sixty or seventy divisions could most certainly have rolled forward across the Rhine or into the Ruhr. But this had been judged unreasonable, rash, below the level of modern intellectual thought and morality. Yet now at last the two Western Democracies declared themselves ready to stake their lives upon the territorial integrity of Poland. History, which we are told is mainly the record of the crimes, follies, and miseries of mankind, may be scoured and ransacked to find a parallel to this sudden and complete reversal of five or six years’ policy of easy-going placatory appeasement, and its transformation almost overnight into a readiness to accept an obviously imminent war on far worse conditions and on the greatest scale.” [346-7]

This catalogue of failures should serve to highlight how short-sighted idealism reaps its rewards in inter-state relations; when war was preventable, it was seen as uncouth to even contemplate, by the time it became unavoidable, it was too late to prepare.

The greatest folly of British policy in this period was the callous insistence that France follow her lead in disarming, and supporting a resurgent German military. The prevalent assumption was that by allowing Germany to reassert herself, there would be less resentment. The logic of Versailles (that a weak Germany could not present a threat) was forgotten in the hope that a strong Germany would not want to present a threat. The British government happily destroyed their arms and encouraged France to do the same, whilst making no effort to ensure that Germany followed suit. By so doing, Britain not only removed the bulwark of the French army from the path of German militarism, but even removed the means of preventing the process of German rearmament as there was no force to impose it. As the main powers of the League of Nations, Britain and France together were the driving force behind the world order envisioned in the creation of the League, yet their unwillingness to take any action in support of these ideals saw both the ideas and the League fatally weakened as the rise of the dictators across Europe presented an alternative future of strength. Attempting to encourage disarmament through example left Britain and France friendless and weak, trailing behind the assertive policies of the Italian and German states.

The most profound example of how this danger should be remembered in the modern world is in the realms of nuclear weapons: If a nation is desirous of leading others to disarm, they would be unwise to throw away their own weapons first. As in Churchill’s example of aircraft production, a defence capacity central to national defence should not be allowed to wither, as if neglected, it will take time to rebuild. A nuclear arsenal in particular is incredibly difficult to assemble, and indeed to be seen to be doing so would be seen as a direct threat to foreign powers and could provoke a first strike. By attempting to lead by example, a nation that discards its weapons will only achieve a greater instability; the allies of that nation would find themselves less secure and would cling more closely to their weapons, whilst their opponents would feel more confident and willing to assert themselves as they would face less incentive to disarm. This is without the dangers that would be faced by the disarming nation; as Britain and France discovered in 1940, weakening oneself only provides encouragement to more aggressive neighbours. In the modern world, only one nation has ever disposed of her nuclear weapons in the hopes that such power would not be needed to deter attack; Ukraine. Nuclear weapons, above all other weapons, preserve peace between great powers through the continued threat of use and their reckless disposal without a mutual agreement will do no more than threaten the security of the nation.

It is the greatest mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace you will have disarmament.” [p.102]

The lesson of the sorry tale told by Churchill of the almost entirely preventable escalation of tensions that were to spawn the cataclysm of the Second World War may essentially be boiled down to the lesson that “all the is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” The hopes for peace in Europe were sincere, but clouded by the naive belief that arms themselves were to blame for conflict, rather than warlike desires. This mistaken belief, clung to in the face of mounting danger and supported by electorates bereft of facts, was in no small part to blame for the catastrophe that was to soon engulf mankind. The possession of adequate armaments, and the determination to use them, could well have curtailed the ambitions of the fascist leaders whilst they were still nascent and spared Europe and the world the atrocities that were to ensue. We would do well today to remember that aggressive nations cannot always be deterred by words, nor national security ensured through hope and good intentions.

Naval gazing

“The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy” – Edward Grey

Writing as he did at the peak of British influence, Viscount Grey’s statement may seem a little peculiar when viewed through the modern lense of power projection theory – the British Army, deployed as it has been in various campaigns both conventional and counter-insurgency sine the end of the Second World War, has long held the limelight as the paramount tool of serving Britain’s interests, but this is not necessarily a permanent state of being.

Britain, as an island nation, has long enjoyed the advantage of not needing to maintain a strong army. Unlike her continental neighbours, Britain effectively had no hostile neighbours with whom she shared a land border for several centuries, and even now is only bordered by one neutral country. Lacking any immediate threats, much funding could be diverted to naval power projection and commercial development; an asset which played no small part in securing Britain’s domination of the global scene until the early Twentieth Century.

It would be wise to remember our history when considering our future; the Army is an extremely useful tool in the national arsenal, its troops are of an extraordinarily high standard and it enjoys capabilities shared only by the very top echelon of world fighting forces. In recent years the Army has conducted its campaigns to a very high standard, and provides vital training expertise to bolster the quality of allied forces. For all these advantages, however, successive rounds of cuts since 1991 have seen the Army reduced to a size (oft quoted in the media) roughly comparable to the pre-Napoleonic era.

In modern fighting forces, number of bodies is not the sole measure of quality; indeed, the British Army of 1914 was the smallest in Europe and yet man-for-man perhaps the most powerful. The well-trained British volunteers reaped a fearsome toll on the German invaders of the West, but ultimately required a huge influx of manpower before it could stand on its own two feet. The losses suffered by the British and Imperial armies throughout the Great War were a consequence of being deployed to fight a conflict that they were ultimately not intended to fight; as Grey appreciated, Britain’s power rested upon her ability to control the seas, and it was natural that any military strategy should be an extension of this control.

The key to effective utilisation of sea power against a potential adversary is a strong amphibious capability, which even in the modern world Britain still possesses (although a replacement to HMS Ocean is of paramount importance in retaining this); the means to rapidly transfer troops and equipment ashore allows for a decisive blow to swiftly be struck against a foe, and whilst 40% of the world’s population live within 100KM of the coastline a strong amphibious capacity grants a nation a disproportionate edge. Currently, British amphibious capacity largely lies with the Royal Marines; an elite force ostensibly listed as a part of the Royal Navy. This small force is a vital link in our defence capabilities, yet recently suffered a further down-sizing in manpower.

With the small size of forces available, it would be wise to continue to consider how best to employ them in order to maximise impact. The British Army is currently moving towards a ‘strike brigade’ concept, in which it intends to rapidly deploy a brigade size force into the field at short notice, in order to effect a rapid response to a crisis. This concept is, however, currently largely dependent on air power. This detachment between land and sea, however, estranges the two at a time when inter-service cooperation is of vital importance to ensuring national security.

With a Royal Navy capable of deploying and sustaining a strike force on land, it makes sense to encourage a greater degree of inter-operability with the Army; a modest expansion in transport and amphibious assault craft could see the strike brigade integrated with the Navy and able to be deployed at very short order to a variety of potential conflict zones. There would naturally be some reticence in the Army to see their principal attack force brought into operational integration with the Navy, but such a move would have the potential to both reduce inter-service rivalry and improve efficiency.

The size of the Army precludes it assuming the primary role of national power projection, but if a combined-arms approach were embraced its power and flexibility would be fundamentally increased in either combat or humanitarian operations especially as it would be deployed in concert with the force most responsible for our continued prosperity.

That the Royal Navy still, despite the turmoil of the past century, retains its role as the linchpin of national security should be beyond doubt; as a nation dependent upon global trade for survival a powerful fleet is a necessity, whilst protection and support for our overseas possessions and manifold allies can only be afforded via a powerful sea presence. Recent investment in the new aircraft carriers heralds something of a resurgence in support for the Royal Navy, but a greater expansion, supported by a doctrinal appreciation of a truly naval outlook, would pay dividends on Britain’s future capacity to remain a major player on the world stage. With a strong fleet, and a larger ground force ready to be deployed via such a fleet, rapid deployment of force across the world would allow Britain to (in words so beloved in recent years) punch well above her weight internationally and enjoy the manifold returns in prestige and relations that would accompany such presence.

Excepting a fundamental doctrinal change, such a development being unlikely in the immediate future given the upheaval within the Army caused by the adoption of the Strike Brigade concept and the general rediscovery of capabilities lost in 2010, a change in outlook alone could well be sufficient to achieve a development in operations.

A revival of the maritime outlook of the nation, including an appreciation that our interests are best served at sea, could well encourage such a shift. The Army can naturally operate in areas beyond the ready reach of naval forces, and must be ready to do so if the need should arise, but when planning for the future we would be wise to remember the costs of lengthy ground operations and consider how a naval outlook might better serve Britain once more. 


Another article on this matter, highlighting the importance of amphibious capability: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/absolutely-nothing-will-taylor/

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.

[NEW EDIT: OCTOBER 2017] In the past few weeks the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary have been deployed to the Caribbean on an enormous aid mission after several devastating hurricanes. In the immediate aftermath came the scandalous (and scandalously under-reported) realisation that the much-acclaimed Foreign Aid budget would not be allowed to be spent to cover the relief effort. Whilst under current regulations aid may be spent to support states like India (which has an active space programme and nuclear arsenal), the funds were not permitted to be spent on the British Virgin Islands (a British Overseas Territory for whose wellbeing the UK is directly responsible, and which suffered damage to 80% of its buildings in the hurricane). If this revelation is not proof that a drastic re-think in how the Foreign Aid Budget is employed, I am not sure what is.

The Perils of Peace

The end of the Cold War in the late 20th Century brought with it a supposed ‘peace dividend’; without the omnipresent threat of atomic annihilation or a Soviet annexation of Western Europe it was supposed that NATO countries could relax and demobilise many of the forces that had been deployed to counter the Eastern menace.

A steady decline in defence spending across the Western world followed for the subsequent two and a half decades, with budgets being repeatedly slashed to allow for greater domestic expenditure and short-term savings, but the cost of such narrow-sighted outlooks on national defence is far greater than many appreciate.

The Cold War necessitated a degree of military understanding within national government; with nuclear war only a few misjudged comments or provocations away one needed to appreciate the awesome power available to modern states, but this perspective has declined as the threat retreated.

Within Britain, there is a disappointing trend of immediate demobilisation and expectation of lasting peace at the end of a conflict; from the Nine Year’s War to the Great War peace has been met by an immediate reduction in military forces with little regard for the future. The Cold War, coming as it did as an evolution of the Second World War, in fact presents the only instance I can think of of British military expenditure continuing apace to maintain the peace that stemmed from the last conflict.

This perpetual habit of expecting peace to last has been proven time and again to be fallacious, and is a consequence of political attitudes towards the military being based upon profound misconceptions – the most strident being that assumption that capability cuts will be easy to replace.

The 2010 SDSR is perhaps one of the greatest calamities faced by the British military; in which vital capabilities such as fixed-wing carrier aviation and maritime patrol aircraft were removed with no replacement in the immediate future, and is emblematic of the lack of understanding that has accompanied defence policy so profoundly in the post-Cold War world.

When Nimrod and the Harrier fleet were withdrawn from service, some noises were made that replacements would be found when money could be scraped together to pay for them, but little appreciation was shown for how much more such a move would cost. When a capability is removed from the military, and its personnel removed, far more than the mere vehicle is lost. Without continuous training and practice, the service itself will lose the ability to fulfill that role, and will have to train again from scratch. For example, British personnel have been fortunate enough to be able to train for carrier operations embedded within allied fleets, but even with such invaluable experience the relatively few positions available for such training means that when the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers take to the sea there will be far fewer crews with carrier experience available than we could otherwise have enjoyed.

The immediate loss in skill that accompanies short-sighted removals of capability are also accompanied by a less tangible but more far-reaching loss; that of tradition. Britain was the first nation to operate a dedicated aircraft carrier – and carrier operations continued uninterrupted in the Royal Navy until 2010, when all fixed-wing operations were ceased. In the 7 years since, the Royal Navy has been stripped of a tradition that dated almost a century. The disbandment of proud Army regiments carries an equal and powerful emotive loss, and whilst units and abilities may be restored, their removal from duty still presents a void that cannot quite be filled.

A reliance on reserves has accompanied efforts to ‘streamline’ (read: ‘downsize’) the British military, replacing many full-time personnel with part-time volunteers. Whilst the reserves do enjoy extensive training and are required to meet the same stringent standards as regular personnel, a part-time serviceman can never be expected to bring the same level of expertise as a regular, nor replace the experience lost by the removal of a professional. Reserves also take far longer to mobilise – being drawn in from Civvie Street and trained up for the mission at hand takes time, and reserves will not be immediately available in the face of a crisis. The cost benefit of a larger reserve force is obvious, but in times of a crisis frontline regiments will be left with personnel shortfalls as the reserves that have been promised to fill gaps in their formations are still being amassed and trained.

A failure to invest in new equipment will also be accompanied by a collapse in the defence industry in the nation; without large orders the ability to domestically produce such complex machines as warships, tanks, or heavy artillery will be lost. Without the industry to support them, the ability to produce spare parts for those vehicles already in service will likewise be lost, leaving the military in an even greater logistical bind. As the defence industry of a country stagnates, skilled workers will be left without work and may also migrate – further compounding the skill loss and exponentially increasing the difficulty of reversing the trend when the need arises. By failing to invest in defence, governments run the real risk of fundamentally undermining the ability of their nation to not only defend itself actively, but also to retain the capacity to defend itself in the future.

The costs of the ‘Peace Dividend’ that appeared at the end of the Cold War were extensive, particularly as it appears that the world has become less stable. Military forces are in fact seeing at least as much active duty as they were when they were sustained to face the threat of the USSR, but are being expected to do so with a fraction of the economic, political, or public support. Without the danger of an existential threat, there is little public conception of the need for defence, and successive round of cuts have been passed with little to no opposition nor appreciation of the immediate and future dangers that can accompany it.

Even as the British military budget has been promised to be increased, the true cost of the spectre of peace is still not fully appreciated. The Royal Navy has resorted to appealing to sailors dismissed in 2010 to return to the colours to make up for a crippling lack of experienced personnel, whilst the Army faces further cuts in manpower. By failing to take into account the loss of experience and ability that accompanied every cut, the government of today is being forced to reap what those at the end of the Cold War had sown. Two decades of peace were accompanied by an assumption that the military of the future would have little role to play, and it is only now that the true magnitude of the hole such thinking ripped in our ability to defend ourselves that the fallacy of planning for peace is becoming apparent.



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.


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.


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.