A new report confirms that anti-war mobilisations have had a deep impact on military strategy writes Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Boris Johnson meeting military chiefs at 10 Downing Street

There is a sense of crisis at the heart of the defence establishment. A new report by two leading British historians published by Rand and written in the run up to this year’s Strategic Defence Review shines some fascinating light on the perceived problems and the solutions under discussion.

Hew Strachan and Ruth Harris, authors of The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain, start from one central problem. Their worry is that British people have lost confidence in military intervention – ‘the widespread perception exists that the British public doubts the utility of force’- and that this threatens the armed forces with an ‘existential crisis’.

They cite a number of reasons for this which point to serious strategic difficulties for British foreign policy.

The first is that the sense of a threat of immediate war in Britain appears to have ‘diminished almost to vanishing point’. Some might see this as something to celebrate, but for Strahan and Harris, it is a problem. Areas of threat still exist they contend, including of course the Middle East, Central Asia and the western Pacific, but they are too distant to register as dangers to the British people.

The second issue is related. As the Afghanistan and Iraq wars dragged on over the last two decades and British casualties mounted, ‘successive prime ministers struggled to relate their objectives directly to national needs.’ Anti-war sentiment, expressed in mass demonstrations even before the Iraq War, became dominant as the wars progressed.

The argument that fighting in the Middle East and Central Asia would make Britain more secure against terrorism just was not convincing. The fact that British strategy was so clearly hitched to that of the US did not help:

‘The result was that members of the British public lost faith in US foreign policy and it has yet to recover it; that mistrust was sustained even after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and was renewed with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.’

To make matters worse, Strachan and Harris point to the fact that unlike many other militaries, the British armed forces have lost contact with the wider population. Falling numbers have reduced the immediate family contact typical of states with national service and the geographical footprint of military bases is increasingly localised.

People Power

One of the interesting things about the report is that it confirms that the anti-war mood and mobilisations have had a deep impact on military strategy. ‘The government’ they argue, ‘hesitates to deploy armed force, not least because it believes the public is averse to it doing so’. The result is:

‘Current thinking has moved against ‘boots on the ground’ in favour of airpower, both manned and unmanned, and from ‘hearts and minds’ in wars among the people to the targeted killing of insurgents.’

This, once again, is a problem for Strachan and Harris, for a number of reasons. They worry that drone attacks can be seen as extra-judicial killings that are inappropriate for democracies and possibly illegal under international law. They are concerned too that the connected policy of using proxy forces risks forfeiting political control over the eventual outcomes, as Libya has made abundantly clear. Just as serious, proxies are often actors who lack independent capacity and may have to be propped up by the British government, leading to potentially compromising situations.

Finally, the drone, special forces and proxy combination creates problems at home. Precisely because it is driven by a desire to pursue unpopular wars under the radar, it reinforces the secrecy surrounding military operations and therefore fails to address public scepticism about the use of violence abroad. At the same time it raises fundamental questions for the standing army, ‘If the armed forces which are of true utility are confined to air assets (both manned and unmanned) and to special forces, what are the rest for?’

The Peace Problem

This points to the central strategic concern for the authors and for the Ministry of Defence. They want to get back to a situation in which Britain can deploy force openly and proudly in foreign fields. This is what the Tory rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’ is about. Brexit makes this a stronger imperative by threatening Britain’s role as a bridgehead between the US and the EU and bringing into question Britain’s strategic value.

The US’s increasing focus on China – the ‘pivot to the East’ – also puts a premium on the ability to dispatch significant force around the world. That is why the last Strategic Defence Review in 2015 committed to an increase in military spending and a new rapid deployment ‘Joint Force’ of  50,000 troops featuring ‘new and enhanced capabilities for delivering against a broader mission set in a range of challenging operational contexts.’

The authors suggest a variety of ways of dealing with the ‘problem’ of an increasingly non-militaristic society. The first is to improve communications, to promote wider discussion of military matters in society and to allow military personnel more freedom in the media.

The second is to encourage the armed forces to play a wider role in domestic society by promoting their importance in ensuring a ‘resilient’ society. The report argues that some of this has been tried with some success, pointing to the  armed forces’ role in the 2012 Olympics, in counter-terrorism and in flood relief, all ‘specifically designed to reconnect the armed forces and the people’.

The authors’ view is that the threat of terrorism, of cyberattacks and even of pandemics provide opportunities for the armed forces to prove their contemporary value and relevance and to become more embedded in civilian life:

‘Military deployments under the Civil Contingencies Act both familiarise the public with the armed forces, who can otherwise seem remote, and enhance an awareness of resilience as an aspect of domestic security.’

In particular:

‘The reality of a pandemic has now provided a real illustration of the importance of public engagement in what is a national security issue, as well as a crisis for public health…it confirms – given its origins in China and its global transmission – the irrelevance of any distinction between ‘home’ and ‘away’.’

Finally, they suggest starting a national debate about forms of national service that could help to renew respect for the military and channel people into careers in the armed forces.

The report admits that all of these plans would be very difficult to pull off given public opinion, the resources available, the challenges of Brexit and the focus on ‘Global Britain’. There is concern that generals are close to despair at being asked to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources. The report also argues there is a good chance that public doubt about the use of force will prove permanent. Such are the difficulties facing a declining former colonial power desperate to stay in the game.

Don’t doubt however that as the new Strategic Defence Review approaches efforts will be made both to increase Britain’s ability to project lethal force globally and to rehabilitate the military at home. The report quotes Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Carter summing up the military’s position by saying that the ‘next war to which the government commits Britain must be a success.’

We should take heart that the anti-war movement has done so much to limit our rulers’ ability to fight open foreign wars, but we need to redouble our efforts to break their war addiction once and for all.

27 Aug 2020 by Chris Nineham

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