The British government's recent Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was remarkable for a host of reasons, controversial for a few, and absolutely portentous for industry. For more on that, I point towards my forthcoming analysis in the January issue of Technology and Armament International Review (available soon for about €6.50 through www.geostrategique.com). Space limitations prevented me from commenting on every implication of the SDSR, however, and at least one merits just a bit more exposition.
Force structure is becoming irrelevant.
That was the subject of my working paper "The End of Force Structure" back in May 2009 (available at www.slideshare.net/jhasik/the-end-of-force-structure). Therein, I argued that the effective, lower bounding constraint on the size of national military forces was no longer the needs of Cold War territorial defense, but the rotational requirements of expeditionary activities.
The United States, for example, has generally not since 1945 sent more than six divisions overseas for a campaign, yet maintains about thirteen divisions (ten Army and three Marine) in its land force structure—and rather a few more in the reserves and National Guard. The apparent excess is quite necessary to maintain a healthy rotation of troops through counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The SDSR laid bare this new calculus, which had already been adopted, implicitly or explicitly, in several other European capitals. The British Army and the Royal Marines will henceforth form up around seven brigades: the Parachute Brigade, the Commando Brigade, and five "multifunctional" brigades of armored infantry. The first two formations will serve as Britain's short-notice intervention force; the latter five will provide the armor needed for a big tank battle, as in 1991 or 2003. The UK's global military logistical capabilities are impressive, but they aren't enough to support more than two or three brigades overseas at a time. Rather—and the government made this clear in its report—the number five comes from the rotation rate. A counterinsurgency effort the size of that in Afghanistan today might call for not just a battalion, but a brigade, and keeping a brigade somewhere requires five or six or seven rotating out from Britain so that soldiering will keep the appearance of a compelling, but not thoroughly exhausting, profession.
There is one potentially dark underside to this simple math. What if the UK—or the US, or any other country—eschewed overseas counterinsurgency as unproductive, disinteresting, unaffordable, or just somebody else's problem? That is not to endorse said viewpoint, but there are more than a few in politics today who lean in that direction, including a raft of recent Republican congressmen of the Tea Party faction recently elected in the United States.
Just for consistency, consider what this approach would have meant to the SDSR. Britain's armed forces wouldn't need seven brigades, but three—perhaps just those parachutists, commandos, and a single formation of tank troops. A real emergency that needed more than a single division to venture overseas on a high-intensity campaign might rely on a hasty assembly of the Territorial Army. Note again, though, that Britain has not sent employed much more than a force of that size since 1945. Even retaking the Falklands required just two brigades.
There's a lesson as well for policy, and for industry's planning for it, in the United States. What's driving the high level of spending in the US military budget—a greater percentage of GDP than almost every other industrialized country—is not the looming specter of war with China. It's not lingering requirements for more than minimalist nuclear deterrence. It's counterinsurgency: the desire to be able to intervene more than briefly, and to follow the mission accomplished with the security of the final peace, wherever in the world Washington wants. That's a tall order, and an expensive one.