The war baby grows up

Modern Strategy - The Politics of British Defence 1979-98
February 18, 2000

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden was formerly commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies, and has been involved in defence planning, both inside and outside government, for many years.

A decade after the end of the cold war, the development of new strategic thinking is beginning to mature. Few predicted the number and frequency of military operations that would be undertaken by western nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Gulf war of 1991 accustomed our publics to the new form of warfare. Acting on behalf of the United Nations to preserve international law, the United States could lead a coalition of nations to restore Kuwait's sovereignty. That this could be achieved with so few casualties to the participating armed forces was also a novelty. A prolonged air campaign with precision weapons became the new doctrine. Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo have encouraged this approach to warfare among the US and, to a lesser extent, its European allies. The unsuitability of such tactics in solving conflicts in Africa has meant that the West has been less willing to commit forces.

Colin Gray defines the modern strategy of his title as "the theory and practice of the use, and threat of use, of organised force for political purposes in the twentieth century". He claims that there is a unity to all strategic experience across history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes. He rejoices in being a neoclassical realist who knows that it will always be impossible to improve the nature, other than temporarily, of world politics.

This profoundly pessimistic view of the future does not make him despair, as he sees good strategic thinking as essential if things are not to be even worse. Thus the three major wars of the century (the first and second world wars and the cold war) are part of an irregular cycle that will continue into this new century.

Yet there could have been different, and arguably much less agreeable, outcomes to these major conflicts. Nor do the astonishing changes in the technology of warfare cause Gray any problems with continuity of strategy. The century saw the move from two-dimensional warfare on land and sea to the exploitation of the air, the ocean and space. Communications moved from signal flags and the telegraph to virtually instantaneous broadband digital data relayed by satellites. Nuclear weapons dominated, and indeed initiated, much of the strategic thinking of the past 55 years.

Gray brings more than academic theorising to his arguments. He spent 20 years in the US, and for part of that time was a much-respected US government adviser dealing with many of the issues that he covers in this book. He catalogues the changes in the tools of warfare, and is rightly sceptical of the advocates of the latest technological silver bullet that claims to provide a universal winning solution. He seeks to show that von Clausewitz's writing on war 200 years ago remains the authoritative perspective for today. Not everyone will agree. The wider security concerns of an interdependent world may not respond to the military levers of the past. In any event, the increasing value put on human life, including that of its soldiers, by the developed world is making Clausewitzian strategy more difficult to follow. Gray believes that strategic performance, either in defence planning or in war, will be harmed if policy is vague, ephemeral or too constraining upon military activity.

It is to the defence planning and policy of the United Kingdom over the past 20 years that Lawrence Freedman addresses himself. Clausewitz does not even make it into his index. Doubtless Gray would point this out as an indication of the lack of strategic thinking underpinning successive British defence policy approaches. Freedman's book is not a single developed history, but rather a collection of related essays that he wrote throughout the period. While this allows the reader to judge how prescient, or otherwise, he may have been, it inevitably means that there is some repetition and less historical perspective than the title suggests. Rightly he focuses on the practical politics of British defence policy through the Thatcher, Major and Blair years, when resources and commitments have been the overwhelming factors rather than grand strategy.

While Margaret Thatcher was seen as a strong defence advocate, she pressed hard on her ministry of defence, which she saw as wasteful and inefficient. She may be remembered for her strength over the Falkland Islands, but it was her wish for John Nott to conduct his radical defence review just a few months earlier. John Major also started his period in office with a war, this time in the Gulf. Even as the troops were deploying to fight, so the officials in London were planning the disbandments to follow Tom King's defence review. This pattern of defence review followed by a new major military operation continued with the Blair government, who would claim that Kosovo was exactly the sort of operation that they had in mind when they conducted the strategic defence review of 1998.

Despite the pragmatic nature of British defence policy, the operational results have been astonishingly good. The policy has at various times been all too vague, ephemeral and constraining upon military activity, yet the strategic performance has been reasonably effective despite Gray's warnings. Perhaps Kosovo and East Timor, which are too recent for analysis in either volume, are the most appropriate pointers to the future. A humanitarian war stretches the strategic thinking of the past and inevitably means great constraints on military action. For Britain, the limitations of its military power became evident in Kosovo and spurred greater enthusiasm for making European defence work. As Freedman says: "It may be premature to suggest that Britain has identified the optimum force structure required for the emerging strategic environment."

It is fascinating to read the work of two of Britain's leading defence academics, who are writing about events on which their policy advice has often been sought. Gray's is an excellent and necessary textbook for the international relations student, while Freedman's will be an enjoyable read for those more interested in the machinations of Whitehall.

Modern Strategy

Author - Colin S. Gray
ISBN - 0 19 828030 0 and 878251 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £17.99
Pages - 412

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