13 October 2017

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman spoke at the IfG about the challenges facing governments preparing for future wars. He argued that only way to be prepared is to be ready for the unexpected. Chris McNulty highlights the key points.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman

Warfare is inherently difficult to predict

There is no better time to talk about the future of war. In his new book The Future of War: A History, Professor Freedman evaluates the difficulty in predicting future wars, and calls for scrutiny of those who claim to have a quick fix.

Freedman says the persistent fallacy in war planning is the belief that there is a “clever way to do it”. Although there are continuities in the conduct of war, conflicts often take an unanticipated course. At the IfG, he told the audience that the mistakes of the past will be repeated, and that successful planning for future wars must be flexible and capable of dealing with the unexpected. This flexibility in planning must also be applied to alliance systems, specifically NATO and the transatlantic alliance.

NATO has played a significant role in the long-term stability of Europe, but its current structure is not perceived to be equally beneficial for all of member states; just ask the current occupant of the Oval Office. Freedman says Donald Trump might be a problem for NATO, but he represents a widely-held view in the US that American spending contributions are disproportionate to the benefits of NATO membership.

Freedman also highlights recent German hesitance to meet the NATO commitment of 2% of GDP of defence spending. As Trump questions the viability of the NATO status quo, its other members must question their assumptions about the alliance.

The US might no longer hold our hand

This is especially pertinent for the UK, which has relied on US diplomatic, military, and intelligence support since the Second World War (the Suez and Skybolt crises notwithstanding).

Questions about UK-US relations, in Freedman’s estimation, strengthen the case for Trident. An independent nuclear deterrent makes the UK a much more attractive ally, especially as North Korea builds more sophisticated nuclear missiles and Russia flexes its muscles in Eastern Europe. As the US turns inward and questions its international strategic commitments, the UK Government must reinforce its relationships with other allies.

Other European states will be equally concerned about a US retreat, and the Government’s recent Future Partnership Paper on foreign policy, defence and development correctly concludes that common threats mean continued co-operation is in both British and European interests. Although there are other complex areas of contention in the Brexit negotiations that could prevent a security treaty being agreed, the Government is right to unconditionally support future defence co-operation with Europe after it leaves the EU.

Locked in to Big Lizzie

The decision to order multi-billion-pound aircraft carriers was taken after the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, published at a time when an aircraft carrier was likely to be deployed in war without the threat of anti-ship weaponry. By the time these aircrafts will be deployable, however, it is likely to be against an enemy with a more sophisticated weapons systems. This vulnerability will mean that the UK’s aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) will require almost a third of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet to serve as their escort.

In a changing geostrategic world, flexibility is key for the Ministry of Defence. The department must preserve its operational flexibility and be aware of the risks involved in getting locked into large weapons platforms that take time to procure and are in service for decades.

The Government is aware of the changing landscape

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review acknowledged the weakening of the rules-based international order, as well as the ever-changing nature of threats facing the country.

The growing role of non-state actors and terrorist groups, technological developments in the prosecution of cyber warfare against critical national infrastructure and government institutions, and the resurgence of state-based threats – namely from Russia and North Korea – are on the Government’s radar.

The defence review encouraged flexibility, but it is not clear that with several large weapons systems, including the aircraft carriers to support and a constrained budget, this can be realised in practice. We must prioritise flexibility in our future planning, or we risk repeating the mistakes that litter the history of warfare.


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