It cannot have escaped many peoples notice that events in Syria are currently causing grave concern across the world. The alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians has caused an outbreak of revulsion which, based on what is being reported in the media, has potential to lead to attacks on Syria by some Western powers in order to send a clear message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated.
Humphrey does not wish to comment on the specifics of the crisis, nor the arguments in favour of, or against, such a course of action. There has been some outstanding comment by highly qualified commentators in this area, and it seems foolish to try and repeat that which has already been said. Instead, he wants to try and focus on a couple of points which don’t seem to have been picked up so far.
The Quiet Decline of the USN
This crisis has been dominated by impressive images of US warships firing cruise missiles, and maps showing large warships steaming menacingly in the Eastern Med. Publicly we know that four USN escorts are currently in the region, each armed with a significant quantity of missiles. What is so striking though is how this illustrates just how thinly stretched the USN is these days. Until the end of the Cold War, the Med was practically a British, then US lake. Dominated by naval bases, and home to large numbers of carriers, escorts and other vessels, any crisis would quickly have seen an almost overwhelming concentration of US firepower.
Today, the 6th Fleet has no permanently assigned escorts, and is instead reliant on other vessels transiting the area. At present it seems that three US vessels were in the area (although it is unclear I they were taken off other tasks) and one more has joined them. This is the totality of the US escort fleet in the Med (and quite possibly Europe as a whole). It is telling that there is no carrier deployed in the AOR, and that the next nearest escorts and Carrier are deployed in the Gulf. Although they could move, this would leave the Arabian Gulf without a carrier, and it is questionable whether any commander would be willing to see a CVN conduct a Suez transit right now, particularly if strikes against Syria are occurring. Partly this is a result of fewer ships, and also an impact of sequestration, where planned deployments were cancelled. The harsh reality though is that US naval power has been heavily emasculated – claims of the Med being a US lake are simply no longer true.
The worry is that this problem is only going to get worse with time; the USN faces a major challenge in keeping hull numbers up, and more importantly maintained to a reasonable level. The challenge of handling major budget cuts is that this sort of presence will inevitably be reduced. So, perhaps closer attention should be paid to how the US is meeting the response, as this is likely to be the sort of thing we’ll see in future – not overwhelming numbers of ships and aircraft, but a small number of escorts, taken off other tasks in order to do the job. One lesson is clear – the USN remains an immensely potent navy, but its ability to project the sort of power that the world is used to is perhaps far less than many realise.
The Role of the UK
One thing that fascinated the author has been the way that over the years it is almost a national sport to slag off the UK as being a nation which doesn’t matter, and which is in near terminal decline. This crisis has served as a useful reminder that for all the talk of how the UK is a declining power, the fact that the Prime Minister can talk with sufficient authority on the subject, due in part to the ability to project force in the region, helps serve as a reminder that the UK is perhaps more influential than it thinks.
It was telling watching the news broadcasts about the crisis and listening to the nations who were engaged with the US on this – the UK, Australia, Canada, France etc. It very much felt like a case of returning to the old wartime alliances – relying on nations who may be some distance from the crisis, but for whom the combination of reasonable military power, plus a political willingness to consider its use meant that these were nations worth talking too.It is telling too that many of the nations often cited as upcoming powers who really call the shots (think many EU nations or South American nations) have seemed to have had practically no effect at all on this situation. For all the talk of a change in the world order, it seems remarkable that the nations who will decide whether to act or not are by and large the Allied powers from WW2.
What does this mean though? Firstly, it demonstrates the value the UK can bring to the US of being able to offer advanced military capability, a substantial diplomatic presence, some residual but possibly useful real estate in the region, and a willingness to consider the use of force as a last resort. The author has touched before on the value of the UK in its wider diplomatic relations, and this is another good example of where the ‘package’ that the UK offers is a useful reminder that few other nations can muster similar combinations of hard and soft power, backed by a leader whose speeches will help set the global agenda. It is telling in that what is supposed to an age of shared sovereignty and greater multi-national co-operation, many large institutions like the EU or NATO are seemingly completely irrelevant in putting their views across. This crisis perhaps helps reinforce that baring a major change in the international system, the nation state, not the institution will remain the ultimate negotiating power.
A validation of the SDSR
What is perhaps most useful is that this crisis helps revalidate much of the underpinning assumptions about the SDSR. This review was attacked as a means of cutting UK force structures, but if you read it, it makes clear that it is as much about the ability to project force at distance and conduct short scale, highly focused operations as it is about reducing numbers.
What has been seen here is the value that comes from having the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) in the region, where the presence of a reasonable number of RN/RFA vessels provides significantly more options than would otherwise be the case. The ability to deploy some extremely capable vessels, able to work with their USN equivalents on an equal footing helps ensure the UK remains a relevant power – even if this does come at a cost of affordability versus numbers. Additionally the deployment helps provide a useful reminder of the value of naval power – it can loiter, with intent, and with the ability to escalate or de-escalate as required in a manner which cannot be achieved by land or airpower. However this crisis pans out, it is clear that this has been a useful validation of the RTFTG concept.
Similarly, it has also been a useful reminder of the value of ‘residual real estate’ in places like Cyprus, which are often dismissed as sleepy backwaters by some. The ability of the UK Government to have access to sovereign territory, capable of supporting air operations and providing a vital logistics bridge back home cannot be overestimated. The value of Cyprus in this volatile and difficult region is becoming ever more apparent.
So, perhaps one lesson is clear – the SDSR helped create the force structures we see today – it is perhaps worth considering that according to the media, only the UK and US have warships in the region, with the French still in harbour, and no other partners have joined them. While some rail against the current structure of the MOD, perhaps its worth considering that many of the much vaunted NATO powers, whose spread sheet ORBATS look so impressive, seem to have been thus far unable to provide a short notice response to support these efforts. Perhaps it is worth asking whether the restructuring of SDSR, painful as it was, was a necessary task in order to ensure that the UK could continue to play a senior role in global politics.
This situation remains volatile and fluid and it is far to early to predict what may, or may not happen. However, what is clear is that looking beyond the headlines, and some fascinating wider trends are becoming clear, which say a great deal about the balance of power and influence in the 21st century.