The House of Lords published an outstanding report into the role of soft power and the UK at the end of March, which set out the value of so-called ‘soft power’ and how the UK could make better use of its resources and influence at a time when it is more vital than ever to do so. Humphrey has long been a proponent of the value and importance of ‘soft power’, the so-called intangibles of international diplomacy, ranging from the value of a Royal Visit through to the discrete whispering of an international development advisor to make changes which save lives.
Sadly, in many defence fora it is fashionable to mock soft power as something which is seen as a substitute for what really matters, namely long ORBATS listing every imaginable piece of military equipment going, usually accompanied by extensive wishlisting for ‘fantasy fleets’. To the author though, this approach is less about having effect and influence and more about feeling good about one’s own military superiority.
One of the long standing trends on this site is the comments which continue to make out that the UK is a nation in near terminal decline, with ever decreasing levels of influence due primarily to its smaller armed forces. To Humphrey this argument is dangerous for it only considers the UKs standing as a power based on possession of capability and not actually whether that capability is of any value of use. It is all very well saying that in 1990 the UK could field three armoured divisions in Germany, but what difference did they make to the UKs wider international standing?
Arguably much of what makes the UK an influential nation on the global stage is little to do with specific items of equipment or units in an ORBAT. When you speak to foreign military officers about what sort of things they would look for in a defence relationship, it is far more about the intangibles – the access to training courses ranging from officer training through to advanced staff courses, or the allocation of places on training courses to develop skills and training. It is about the allocation of loan or exchange officers to provide UK expertise and guidance – for instance the presence of UK military missions around the world are hugely coveted by their host nations, and sorely missed when removed.
When considering the sort of defence relationship that matters, one has to remember that the overwhelming majority of countries in the world do not have the ability to deploy overseas in any real depth or capability. Most armed forces are confined to their local area, with perhaps a token ability to send a small force for UN missions or peace keeping. When considering a defence relationship, they want to work with nations who can offer experience, training, access to capabilities which they may not otherwise see or afford, and who can enhance their defence capability. There are wider considerations about provision of equipment and capability (e.g. either new build or through disposals) and whether working with that nation would enhance their own security position. More broadly, considerations will also be built around whether enhancing a defence relationship would bolster the diplomatic relationship and wider relationship (e.g. getting close to the UK may in turn enable the country to help try and influence policy positions to the UK which could in turn influence other partners to whom they would otherwise have no traction).
When you consider the sort of offer that the UK can make, it is a compelling one built around centuries of tradition, access to high quality training, a capable military able to operate across most military roles and a strong record of operational success. There is huge interest across the globe in access to UK training and opportunities – one only has to look at the constant clamour for places on UK Officer training courses to realise how popular it is. Arguably the UK is perceived, along with the US and possibly France, as offering the ‘gold standard’ of defence training through the quality of its people and the quality of the training delivered.
|Tradition - soft power or wasted resource?|
Overseas too, the UK is able to use relatively limited assets to enjoy significantly more influence than one might suspect. For instance, a well-placed Defence attaché, or a defence training visit – which can be as innocuous as sending a small training team to improve leadership training or bolster a military band can often have a surprisingly large effect. A ship visit can often pay dividends in access for senior officials who come for tours or cocktail parties and end up able to meet with Ambassadors, industry and decision makers and help push the case for UK interests, influence and investment. The visit by the Red Arrows to the Middle East in autumn 2013 was front page news across the region, and enabled the UK to have a golden opportunity to push its interests on a range of matters. In other words, the cachet of the UK defence brand is often as much about access to the people or the occasional presence as it is about maintaining large numbers of armoured brigades or fast jets.
This is perhaps the curious challenge of identifying what matters in Defence when it comes to capability. On the one hand there is a natural desire to maintain high end warfighting capability, but most of the influence that the UK gets from its military is in fact far more down to the judicious use of personnel, training and visits than it is about a theoretical ORBAT. In a world where the bulk of UK deployments overseas are rarely above Company size in terms of manpower (e.g. training in Africa or a ship deployment to the south Atlantic or an RAF exercise in the UAE) , the possession of large capable forces is perhaps not hugely relevant. It may be the case that the UK only has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, but when most nations cannot deploy their armoured forces at any distance anyway, does this really matter when considering the impact on our influence?
In fact it could be argued that what really matters for UK influence are two very separate drivers. Firstly a need to maintain the soft power enablers like international defence training, access to courses, provision of exchange officers and so on. This sort of investment is more than ample to help support the bulk of defence relationships and makes a strong impact on UK influence overseas. For instance the presence of an exercising company group could send a positive message on the UK relationship with that nation, bolstering the local security capability and reducing need for western deployments in the region and in turn improving the bilateral relationship which sees further investment from that nation in the UK. There is often a range of second and third order benefits from a small deployment which typify the importance of soft power – you don’t need to deploy very much, but what you do deploy will be of value beyond its size.
Additionally there is arguably a need to maintain a cutting edge ‘high capability’ military force capable of working at the very high end of military operations. In other words investing in expensive capabilities like aircraft carriers, cyber defence, and modern fighter aircraft and so on. This is to ensure that the UK is able to send a message to potential coalition partners that it is serious about providing support to operations, and that it can work at the most intense level of operations. This is as much about reassurance (e.g. deployments, exercises and the occasional operation) to partner nations to show that despite the reports, the UK remains an exceptionally capable military power.
|Hard Power or irrelevant for influence purposes?|
But the challenge is in the middle – what Humphrey would perhaps call ‘muddy power’. It is one thing to invest in training, and high quality exercises where military skills are tested (e.g. JOINT WARRIOR or FOST), and it is equally important to support the very high end niche skills and capabilities that matter too (arguably Special Forces, Amphibious Forces, certain intelligence capabilities and Fast Jets), but what to do with the remainder? Does it really matter if the UK only has a small number of tanks and 82,000 soldiers? The majority of them will not be deployed, and the cost of conducting large scale overseas exercises is so vast that its unlikely that you would ever see many large scale exercises occurring in future. If as noted that there is no direct military existential threat to the UK, and if most nations themselves cannot deploy their military capability at any real distance, the question must surely be, what value is there in sustaining a large force which is held at readiness, but which does not provide unique capabilities to our allies, and which is unlikely to work regularly in large numbers with overseas partners.
This is the curious issue – the UK derives immense influence from its armed forces, but it is rarely derived through calculations based on the size of the forces or the units which comprise them. In a world where presence is everything, is it better to focus on sending smaller units overseas who can work with other nations through defence engagement and build relationships and real capability, or is it better to have a larger military held at home but which cannot easily work with other nations.
In a similar vein, is it better to have a small number of very capable destroyers able to work at the high end of the influence scale, or is it better to invest in a much larger number of very simple platforms which do not have any real military value in a shooting war, but do allow a sustained UK presence in areas which may otherwise never see a White Ensign?
There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Arguably at present the decision to focus on the high end and expensive assets is the right one. Allied nations want to improve their own capability and come to the UK to learn from our experiences, and understand how to use equipment to its full potential. A gentle move down the capability spectrum in order to improve numbers may help UK presence, but may reduce the desire of others to work with the UK – for instance, is it better to have two or three OPVs permanently in the Far East where they can work at a routine but low level with foreign navies, or is it better to do a biennial deployment of a T45 destroyer which other navies will be immensely keen to work with and see? Both help secure UK influence, and both help in their own way, but each comes at cost .
So, in an age where the UK is constantly told it is a power in decline, it is curious that the demand for access to UK courses and capability remains as great as ever. The Armed Forces remain a hugely influential tool for the UK Government, but is arguably far less about their overall numbers than the discrete presence or access to training. Meeting the ever more challenging balance between affording sufficient military force to defend UK interests at home, secure UK influence overseas and justifying maintenance of a large military which may not deploy in large numbers is going to prove ever more problematic. The sort of large military that many wish to see would probably not able to deploy to secure the influence that is currently achieved by a smaller military which may have less units and platforms, but where working with them is seen as hugely desirable by many foreign partners.
Striking the balance, getting value from the ever more expensive and ever smaller hard power in order to achieve ever greater soft power effects with defence engagement is likely to be the future balancing act facing HMG. It won’t be easy, and the only certainty is that to achieve the balance required to get it right the outcome will please no one and cause many more headlines about how the UK no longer matters as a military power at a time when nations are queuing up to work with, and learn from the UK. A very British outcome indeed!