Tuesday 19 October 2004

Decision time on the Special Relationship

Tomorrow, I will be giving a presentation in London with the above title, subtitled: "How military technology is forcing Britain to choose between the EU and the US." Much of the text is based on material already published on this Blog, but this is my first attempt to put it all together. It will need refining, so comments would be appreciated from those willing to read what is rather a long piece.

At a time when, according to the headlines, Britain and the USA have never seemed so close – with the Black Watch on stand-by to go to Baghdad in support of US forces – it seems rather odd to argue that the special relationship between the UK and America is under enormous stress. But that is my thesis. In this presentation, I will argue that the relationship is, in fact, at the point of fracture.

The core of that thesis rests on several points but central to it is my definition of the "special relationship". This, in my view, is one forged during the Second World War and tempered throughout the Cold War, to the extent that it rests on our military alliance with the US and is underpinned by close military co-operation between the two countries.

That co-operation is most evident to the expert eye. The separate forces, for instance, share so much of the same tactical doctrines that they are virtually inseparable – the similarities being evident in the very equipment both armies use.The different main battle tanks of the British and US armies – the Challenger and the Abrams – are essentially the same in performance and capability. The British FV432 APC is but a copy of the US M113; the Bradley and Warrior MICVs are virtually identical, and the current tactical thinking, embodied in the FRES and FCS concepts, about which I will have more to say shortly, stem from the same minds. The equipment is defined by the purpose, the purpose is defined by the thinking and the thinking is the same.

The Royal Marines train alongside the US Marines, the SBS train alongside the Seals, the SAS alongside the US Special Forces, RAF pilots alongside USAF pilots. Ditto Navy personnel, where cross-postings on nuclear submarines are an essential part of the manning rostas.

Both forces have an active programme of exchange postings, so that a US-badged aircraft could just as easily have a British as an American pilot. We share equipment, intelligence and, at a strategic level, work as one. The early warning system in Fylingdales is part of the US network of global early warning radars, the AWACs system is an integral part of the US system – and uses US equipment. US fighters based in Britain form an integral part of the British air defence system.

In fact, when the Tornado MRCA project was delayed – the fruits of a European co-operative venture – and the RAF ended up flying combat aircraft with concrete ballast in their noses instead of working radar sets, apart from a few squadrons of Vietnam era F-4 Phantoms, the only effective air defence in the UK was the USAF F-15 fighter wing flying out of Lakenheath.

Thus far, then, the thesis stands, that the "special relationship" is underpinned by military co-operation, and this has translated into firm, joint commitments, most recently in Bosnia, in Afghanistan and in both Iraqi wars.

Now, there is an essential element here, which permits and indeed fosters this co-operation and makes a military alliance work. that boils down to one word: "interoperability". The forces must be able to operate together at a technical level.

At a pedestrian, but nonetheless important level, tanker nozzles must be able to fit the apertures of all the vehicles and aircraft they are going to refuel, irrespective of which force operates them. Fuel specifications must be the same, ammunition must be standardised so that it can be used in the weapons of the different armies, and so on.

Much of this technical harmonisation has been achieved through the aegis of NATO, the "NATO standard" having dominated military logistic planning for over four decades. By and large, the programme has been successful.

However, things are about to change. In fact, we are on the threshold of a military revolution which, in its own way, is as profound as the move from the musket to the rifle, or the horse to the tank, where technology is about to dominate the battlefield. The problem is which technology, built by whom, and whether different technologies are sufficiently compatible to allow functional interoperability.

This brings me to the heart of my argument, but I must first explain something of the military background which has brought us to the current situation.

That story essentially starts with the Second World War and the development of Blitzkrieg, the deployment of massed formations of tanks operating independently as armoured divisions, backed by air support which acted as forward artillery.

The Blitzkreig concept survived the war and became the dominant mode of conducting warfare, but with an increasing level of integration with infantry formations and self-propelled artillery. Integral infantry formations were, in fact, again pioneered by the Germans, with their Panzergrenadiers, riding Hanomag (SdKfz-251) armoured half-tracks, alongside the tanks, as early as 1939 in the Polish campaign.

The Allies came late to using armoured personnel carriers, the first significant deployment being in "Totalize" during the battle for Caen in August 1944, when "defrocked priests" – M7s (105mm howitzers mounted on M4 Sherman chassis, with the guns removed to enable troop transport) - were used to great effect.

But it was not until after the war that the concept of APCs really arrived, in both Soviet forces and in what then became NATO forces. The USSR first used what amounted to an armoured lorry, in the BTR 152, replaced by the eight-wheeled BTR 60, while the US forces adopted the tracked M113 and the British the very similar FV432.

However, although these armoured vehicles operated alongside main battle tanks, their essential role was of the "battlefield taxi", conveying troops to the battlefield where they fought dismounted. Not until the late 1960s did the Soviets introduce the BMP 1, first seen by the West in 1967, which embodied a turret mounted anti-tank weapon and rifle ports, which turned the humble APC into a fighting vehicle in its own right. Thus, the Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle (or MICV) concept was born. This was copied by the West Germans, in the Marder and then by the US with its M2 Bradley and by the British with the Warrior, allowing the infantry to fight mounted, alongside the tanks.

However, heavy armoured divisions, now in their final form, were already obsolescent, challenged by the development of increasingly efficient, hand-held anti-tank weapons, such as the RPG-7, and the light-weight anti-tank missiles such as the Sagger, which caused great slaughter of Israeli armour during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Nevertheless, the dinosaur of the heavy armoured division survives to this day, and these formations provided the backbone of the armed forces, even in the second Iraqi War. But things were already changing and this is what is creating the problem.

Basically, the strategic emphasis has now shifted from envisaging conventional battles with massed armour, operating from fixed bases, to expeditionary warfare, fought anywhere in the world, often at short notice, independently of established bases. Crucially, the emphasis is on "rapid reaction", which requires speed of deployment feasible only with air mobility. The heavy tank and the MICV are not suited for this type of warfare.

In their place comes the light, wheeled armoured vehicle, the general weight limit being under 20 tons, allowing transport by the military transport workhorse, the C130. However, threats are as great as ever, if not greater, so the challenge was to provide the degree of protection needed, without the weight. The answer is technology or, to be more specific, technology-generated intelligence, which would allow early detection and recognition of threats, with a stand-off weapons capability which could neutralise those threats before they came close enough to do any damage.

That is the Future Combat System (or FCS) concept, a $110 billion project, currently underway for the US Army, mirrored by a similar but less ambitious project for the British Army, called the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES).

Simple though the concept might be, execution is extraordinarily complex, requiring cutting-edge technology to be brought to the battlefield. The idea plays out at several levels.

Firstly, the combat area should be dominated by multiple sensors, providing real-time intelligence on all significant threats. Secondly, that information should be distributed not just to command level but to all combat formations, right down to squad level, giving what is called in the trade, "exceptional situational awareness". Thirdly, that system should be meshed into the command and control apparatus, allowing decisions to be made on accurate, fresh data. Fourthly, this should be linked to long-range "smart" weapons systems, to provide targeting and guidance information, and post-strike data. Finally, all of this is linked to an advanced logistics system which ensures that the right supplies are in the right place, at the right time.

Without going into too much detail about the hardware, the surveillance system alone ranges from satellites, to airborne surveillance platforms – both manned and unmanned – themselves equipped with sophisticated radars, infra-red sensors, high definition video cameras and other devices – to ground-based mobile radars, infra-red sensors, remote, and air delivered vibration detectors, as well as the "mark 1 eyeball".

The key to making all this work, over and above the technology behind the equipment, is "networking". The whole combat formation is linked by a vast computer system - the US system alone requiring 32 million lines of computer code to ensure functionality – analogous to the internet, so much so that the shorthand for the system is the "tactical internet".

Therein lies the seeds of destruction of the special relationship. Even between different US manufacturers producing components of the same system, technical interoperability is such a major problem that industry competitors are forming joint committees to iron out the difficulties. Between different nations, producing their own versions of the system, interoperability problems multiply. Only with the utmost co-operation, backed by political will to make that happen, can ensure that such sophisticated networks, produced by different nations, are able to talk to each other.

Crucially, that political will is not there and co-operation between the US and the UK is breaking down. What started the rot was the realisation by the US that technology released to its trusted ally, the UK, was being passed on to its EU industrial partners, and thence ending up in the hands of potential enemies, such as China – a problem known as "leakage". The concern has intensified with the adoption by the EU of China as a partner in the Galileo satellite positioning system (an essential component of any network), rivalling the US "Navstar" GPS system.

Gradually, for entirely sound reasons, the US has been withholding sensitive technology from the UK to the extent that even though we are development partners in the Joint Strike Fighter project, it is currently refusing to release the source codes for the avionics systems. More recently, Congress refused to authorise a "waiver" from the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) which would have facilitated the flow of technology to the UK. Then, within the last day or so, a senior US general warned that if the EU lifted its arms embargo on China, technology transfers would all but dry up.

On the other side, within the last week, the UK government has decided to award the contract for its fleet of support vehicles to a German manufacturer, in preference to a choice of two US-led consortiums. The significance of this is that the trucks come equipped with an electronic logistics network, which will subsequently have to mesh with the combat network that will drive FRES. Already, therefore, the UK is making decisions which drive it towards further European co-operation. With the US progressively withholding access to its technology, the technological divide is growing between European and US interests, as each develop their own rival systems.

The situation is thus rapidly coming to a head. If the UK continues down the line of closer co-operation closer with its EU partners, it will also risk complete exclusion from US technology. And with the growing complexity of systems, and the complete strategic and tactical reliance on them, the day will come when forces equipped with European-manufactured equipment will be unable to communicate, much less "network" with US equipment. Forces from the different nations will, therefore, be unable to operate alongside each other in a high threat environment, which means that the Iraqi situation, where British and US forces are fighting together, could no longer be repeated.

Thus, we are in a strange situation. Technology is now driving the politics, conditioning and constraining political choices, and dictating whether or not we can form military alliances. As we move further towards technological co-operation with our EU partners, and if the US continues to withhold its technology, the divide will grow to the point where the special relationship will end. At the moment, the situation is possibly recoverable - but not for much longer. Choices must be made and Britain can no longer fulfil its traditional – or assumed – role of providing a bridge between Europe and America. It is going to have to choose between the two.