The West is Weak Where it Matters ...
...and some of the consequences are not obvious.
I’ve argued several times that it’s quite likely that Europe will soon find itself partially disarmed, politically isolated and economically vulnerable, and that barring some kind of supernatural intervention, those processes cannot be reversed. Here I want to go into more detail about what I think some of the consequences of the military and security weakness might be, as well as briefly extending the analysis to the United States. Some of the possible consequences might surprise you.
We are, I think, at a quite unique moment in world history: the West, collectively the largest single economic constellation in the world, has spent thirty years progressively reducing its capability to fight a conventional land/air war, and specialising in the extreme ends of conflict instead. In practice, this amounts to nuclear weapons and submarines and high-performance fighters and strike aircraft at one end, and counter-insurgency and force projection in a permissive environment at the other, with not a lot in between. As I’ll explain in a minute, this is not the first time that nations have radically reduced their forces or been obliged to, nor is it the first time that nations have found themselves with forces that are hopelessly ill-adapted to the tasks they may be asked to carry out, but this is actually the first time that entire capabilities have been given up on the assumption that they would never be needed, and now cannot be recreated again. That is to say, the existing conventional military capability of Europe and the United States today is ill-adapted to the current world situation, but it’s all there will be for the foreseeable future.
Paradoxically, this situation is not directly because countries have cut defence spending. Some have, but others, like the US, have continued to increase it. Yet it’s clear that gross defence expenditure has relatively little to do with real military capability, once you get beyond a certain minimum level of funding and force structures. Conversely, quite small, short-term, cost-savings in training time, recruitment or ammunition stocks may create problems which are subsequently extremely expensive and time-consuming to repair. Spending a lot of money on the wrong things gives you no advantage over spending slightly less money on the wrong things. The trick is to spend the money on the right things. The problem, of course, is that defence spending (and not just on equipment) is by definition so long term and so susceptible to change and political fashion, that it’s rare indeed to find yourself with the right weapons and force structures for the latest operation when you need them. So the situation the West has found itself in now is not conceptually unprecedented: it’s just difficult if not impossible to see a way out of, this time.
Now it’s important to stress that, in itself, the decision to move away from a concentration on forces for territorial defence was probably the right one to take thirty years ago. It was hard to see why it would ever be necessary to fight a major conventional land/air war again: the two Gulf Wars against Iraq were fought because they could be fought, not because they needed to be. Had that decision been linked to an intelligent political strategy for dealing with the debris of the Cold War, it would have been hard to criticise it. A pity then that it was linked instead to a political strategy of threatening and antagonising a large state which had decided to retain the capacity to fight large-scale land-air conflicts. But we are where we are.
Nations have always reduced their militaries after wars, and the French in 1814 and 1940, and the Germans in 1918 and 1945, are examples where a state was actually obliged to reduce its armed forces to almost, or absolutely, nothing. But even in those cases, armies were rebuilt within a few years, using former military personnel, inherited expertise and retained industrial capacity.That said, some reconstructions were easier than others: it proved simple enough to rebuild the German Army after 1933. The Air Force was more difficult, but could rely to some extent on the civil aircraft programme and the numerous shadow organisations that had tried to keep an air force capacity alive. The Navy was a much greater problem, organisationally and technologically, and it is striking how unsuccessful the ambitious German shipbuilding programme after 1933 actually was.
The situation the West finds itself in today is similar to that but worse. It’s not simply that the industrial capability to produce weapons in volume no longer exists; it’s also impossible to recreate it without divine intervention, and it’s also impossible, as things stand, to see the re-creation of the massive organisational, technological and support structures it would need. Some of these reasons just have to do with cost and complexity and time to manufacture. A few months ago, I noticed a crowd of people gathered around a vehicle stopped at the traffic lights, with a military escort. It was a Leclerc tank on a transporter, presumably being delivered to an operational unit. I realised why people were gawping at it. It was enormous A modern battle tank weighs 60-70 tonnes, and can’t move along a normal road without destroying it. Around two-thirds of the cost of such a tank is in electronics and systems, and it requires qualified people to operate it and even more qualified people to maintain it. A factory in a western country today might produce three or four of these behemoths a month. There would be no chance of keeping up with the kind of loss rates experienced in Ukraine in the event of a conflict.
But it’s not only, and perhaps not even mainly, about technological problems. The defence industries of western states have been reconfigured over the last few decades by the same swivel-eyed MBAs who have ruined everything else. State-owned arms factories have been sold off and closed down. Most basic research and nearly all development have been outsourced. Many national defence industries have just ceased to exist, taken over by international conglomerates with loyalties only to shareholders. A small but telling example: the next automatic weapon for the French military will be made in Germany, as the factory in France has now closed.
Thus, in spite of spending a collective fortune on defence capabilities, the West is only capable of operating successfully in a limited number of scenarios, and it is not obvious how this can change. We can list some of the principal ones. (Nuclear forces exist in a different conceptual category, and I’m not going to say any more about them here.) Western aircraft could successfully gain and hold air superiority against, say Russia or China, provided the enemy agreed to limit the engagements strictly to air-to-air combat out of the range of anti-aircraft missiles. Western submarines, surface ships and carriers could probably prevail against, say the Chinese Navy, provided the latter agreed to fight outside the range of land-based missiles. Reasonable amounts of force could be projected by sea and air into permissive environments where air superiority could be guaranteed. This could include combat operations with mechanised forces and artillery, provided that operations did not last for more than a few weeks. And peacekeeping missions could still be undertaken, though probably not on a large scale. There are, of course, very important differences and nuances among western nations, but all of them, at different levels, are trapped in a process of smaller and smaller forces with smaller and smaller numbers of increasingly expensive and sophisticated equipment which is more and more expensive to maintain, and impossible to replace once a conflict has begun. The latter point has political consequences that are often ignored: under what circumstances are you going to risk your entire fleet of perhaps 100 front-line combat aircraft in a war which could leave you disarmed in a few days, and unable to rebuild your forces in less than a decade?
These force structures today did not develop by accident: they reflected beliefs about the missions that military forces would be likely to undertake. Essentially, western forces have a lot of super-sophisticated capabilities, and a fair amount of low-intensity and counter-insurgency capabilities, but not a lot in between. But they cannot fight a major conventional land/air war, or even a limited one that goes on for more than a few weeks. They also face the twin problems of the widespread proliferation of relatively cheap and accurate cruise and ballistic missiles capable of overwhelming defences and destroying highly expensive and complex weapons systems on the one hand, and their own lack of investment in sustainability, on the other. There is nothing magical about the technology involved in the new missiles; it is just that the West saw no virtue in developing that technology itself. Likewise, the West saw no virtue in large and expensive stocks of ammunition. As a result, from now on, the West will simply not be able to rely on automatic air superiority in any serious conflict, nor will its navies be able to operate safely anywhere near an enemy coast, or within the range of air-launched stand-off missiles, nor will it be able to conduct sustained operations on land. .
To repeat, none of the above would necessarily have been a problem, provided the overall security policies of western nations had been consistent with these limitations. But they weren’t, and in essence they have provoked a situation where military problems are starting to arise to which the West has no adequate response.
Little of the above, I think, would be regarded as controversial, and much of it is well known. My purpose here is therefore to take this background, and ask what are the wider security and political consequences of the apparently irreparable mismatch between the security problems that are likely to arise, and the means available to deal with them. (And these problems go well beyond those directly arising from Ukraine.) Now of course some level of mismatch is inevitable, since you can be absolutely sure that the security problem that actually arises, will be the exact one you never thought of. Life is like that. But experienced and professional forces can still be repurposed. The British fought the Falklands War by cobbling together equipment and capabilities originally intended for completely different purposes: Vulcan nuclear bombers in a conventional role, Sea Harrier strike aircraft repurposed as fighters, naval guns, about to be phased out, used as floating artillery. But such improvisation required organisation and capabilities that no longer exist. A more typical example of mismatch is French Rafales operating over Mali. The sophistication of the aircraft is such that they can only be supported from France, and they need to be refuelled twice in order to attack a single target with a bomb or a missile. It’s been estimated that to kill a single jihadist in Mali costs around a million Euros. There is a limit to how long you can go on like that.
But bearing in mind that you will never have precisely the right force-mix, the West does seem ill-equipped at the moment to confront a lot of the likely security challenges of the immediate future. I’ll lay out some of them now, in traditional terms, and I will talk of “security” rather than just “military” challenges, because there is considerable fluidity between, for example, the military and a paramilitary police force.
Few people, in my experience, habitually consider the question “what are security forces for?” The most typical, if tautological, answer is “to provide security,” which usually leads to a pointless argument about what security is. But, very well, when you see policemen in the street, soldiers on TV or read about intelligence services, what do you think these people are actually trying to accomplish? Let’s concentrate on the military, since it’s perhaps the easiest case to understand. What are the military actually for?
Open a random political science textbook, and you will probably find some brief statement about fighting (and preferably winning) wars, or defending national territory and interests. If that were true, then most of the world’s militaries would be wasting their time, since they are too small to win wars or even defend their nation’s territory. And how exactly do the armed forces of New Zealand or Sri Lanka fit into such a scheme? The answer is obviously a bit more complex than that. Essentially, the primary role of the military is to underpin the foreign and domestic policies of a state with violence of the threat of violence. (We’ll touch briefly on some secondary roles in a moment.) They are, in other words, a tool of governments in circumstances where the threat, or the actual use, of force is required to achieve an objective. Obviously, these objectives can (and usually do) include national defence, but they are by no means limited to that.
The most important role of the military is to guarantee the monopoly of legitimate force by the government and the State. This, of course, is the formulation of Max Weber (though he didn’t invent the idea) in discussing what qualified an entity to be a State. It must, said Weber, be able to successfully claim the monopoly of legitimate force over a certain territory. Obviously, there will always be illegitimate uses of force, but the State, if it is to qualify as one, has to be able to create and enforce rules for maintaining that monopoly, and saying which use of force is legitimate and which is not.
Many so-called “states” cannot do this. The most obvious example is Lebanon, where there is a military force—Hezbollah—which is more powerful than the official military, and entirely outside the control of the government, as well as being strongly influenced by the government of a foreign country. And notoriously, in many parts of Africa the State and its military apparatus are only one player, and not necessarily the most powerful.
Beyond the technical apparatus of the State, there is also the nature of the political system itself. Liberal states take their own inherent virtue and right to exist so much for granted, that they are apt to forget that Liberal political systems have themselves often come to power at the point of a gun, and have often used violence to destroy groups with different conceptions of politics to their own: the bloody crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871 is the classic example. All security forces have the task of protecting the nature of the political regime of the country: not for nothing is the German domestic intelligence service, the BfV, the “Office for the Protection of the Constitution.” In other words, it exists to protect a particular political system from its opponents, including the comic-opera band which tried to overthrow it a few weeks ago and place Heinrich XIII in power.
The story of state-building and state destruction over hundreds of years is therefore largely the attempt to enforce a monopoly of legitimate violence from a central position and in the name of a given political system, and of the challenge to that monopoly from peripheral areas. But surely, we say, that’s all over now? At least in Europe, anyway? Well, it was the essential dynamic of the Wars of Dissolution in the Former Yugoslavia, and the Kosovo crisis, and fundamentally it explains why the Ukraine crisis has developed the way it has. And for that matter, the British government’s 25-year police and military struggle against the IRA was essentially a struggle to enforce its monopoly of legitimate violence in Northern Ireland. (It succeeded in the end, but there were times where parts of the Province were outside its effective control.) It would be unwise to assume that such problems will never occur again, especially in those parts of the EU where borders have migrated a great deal over the centuries. The real question is, how prepared are western security forces to cope with outbreaks of problems like that?
The answer seems to be, not very. As early as the 1970s, the British discovered that their Army, by then largely focused on NATO, had far too few troops suitable for counter-insurgency operations. After the confusion and panic of the early years, units had to be taken out of Germany, put through a three month training course, deployed for six months, and then untrained at the end to resume their usual duties. At its height, the commitment in Northern Ireland required around 20,000 troops: something which would be impossible today. During the crisis in Bosnia and its aftermath, most western troops sent to that country were hopelessly untrained and inexperienced in peacekeeping operations, and were often unemployable militarily. These tendencies have been reinforced since. Militaries, and even paramilitary forces, have increasingly tried to substitute technology for manpower, and there are some situations where you just can’t do that. The result is that most western states today would not be able to cope successfully with serious attempts to dispute the monopoly of legitimate violence.
A related problem is that of large-scale political violence, ideologically motivated, and intended to inflict mass casualties. In the past, such groups tended to be small and not very effective, and in general the police forces have been able to cope with them. This is proving less true with the growth of organised and well-funded extremist Islamic groups, whose members often have military training and experience of combat in different regions of the world. Unlike the rather incoherent Marxism of groups such as the Red Brigades, or the romantic nationalism of groups like ETA, these organisations have a sophisticated doctrine of Political Islam, first formulated in the 1920s, widely followed around the world, and generously financed by countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia as a way of spreading soft power. Such groups believe that the secular State itself is sinful and must be destroyed, since societies must be run according to the principles of the Koran, and that non-believers of all kinds, and Muslims who live in secular states, are sinners deserving death. According to the testimony of surviving members of the bands who carried out attacks in France in 2015-16, their targets included all “non-believers”, including children, and all institutions, including churches and schools. (Amedy Coulibaly was on his way to attack a Jewish school near Paris in January 2015, when he was stopped by a policewoman, whom he killed before fleeing.)
From a technical perspective, attempting to prevent such attacks is a nightmare. When everyone and everything is a potential target, the classic method of protecting high-value targets and VIPs is useless. Likewise, anything can be a weapon, from a lorry to a kitchen-knife, and targets can be chosen at random. As an indication, France has deployed 10,000 military personnel on patrols in major cities in recent years, more as a way of reassuring the population than anything else. Assuming that patrols of this kind last four hours, and that coverage is provided for sixteen hours a day, and that each group patrols twice, that means five thousand troops on the streets at any one time, which would be wildly inadequate, even if you knew what kind of attack to expect and when. As it is, the troops themselves have sometimes been attacked. Moreover, organising patrols like this is immensely wasteful of scarce resources , and takes highly-trained professionals away from other tasks.
These problems are coming together, to some extent, with the widespread diffusion of automatic weapons, and the spread of ethnic organised crime groups in the suburbs of major European cities. Together with the increasing hold of organised Islamic fundamentalism on the local communities, this has created a series of areas where governments no longer wish to send the security forces, because of the fear of violent confrontation, and where these groups exert an effective monopoly of violence themselves. Again, it’s not clear what current military or paramilitary capabilities would be of any real use in dealing with such situations, and there is the risk of other, non-state, actors intervening instead. (It’s worth adding that we are not talking about “civil war” here, which is a quite different issue)
So the existing force-structures of western states are going to have problems coping with the likely domestic security threats of the near future. Most western militaries are simply too small, too highly specialised and too technological to deal with situations where the basic tool of military force is required: large numbers of trained and disciplined personnel, able to provide and maintain a secure environment, and enforce the monopoly of legitimate violence. Paramilitary forces can only help to a certain extent. The potential political consequences of that failure could be enormous. The most basic political question, after all, is not Carl Schmitt’s infamous “who is my enemy?” but rather “who will protect me?” If modern states, themselves lacking capability, but also with security forces that are too small and poorly adapted, cannot protect the population, what then? Experience elsewhere suggests that, if the only people who can protect you are Islamic extremists and drug traffickers, you are pretty much obliged to give your loyalty to them, or if not, to some equally strong non-state force that opposes them.
In a perverse kind of way, the same issues of respect and capability also arise at the international level. I’ve already written several times about the parlous state of conventional western forces today, and the impossibility of restoring them to something like Cold War levels. Here, I just want to finish by talking about some of the less obvious political consequences of that weakness.
At its simplest, relative military effectiveness influences how you view your neighbours and how they view you. This can involve threats and fear, but it doesn’t have to. It means, for example, that the perception of what regional security problems are, and how to deal with them, is going to be disproportionately influenced by the concerns of more capable states. (Thus the influential position enjoyed by Nigeria in West Africa, for example). This isn’t necessarily from a crude measure of size of forces either: in the old NATO, the Netherlands probably had more influence than Turkey, though its forces were much smaller. Within international groupings—formal alliances or not—some states tend to lead and others to follow, depending on perceptions of experience and capability.
Internationally—in the UN for example—countries like Britain and France, together with Sweden, Canada, Australia, India, and a few others, were influential because they had capable militaries, effective government systems and, most importantly, experience of conducting operations away from home. So if you were the Secretary-General of the UN, and you were putting together a small group to look at the possibilities for a peace mission in Myanmar, who would you invite? The Argentinians? The Congolese? The Algerians? The Mexicans? You would invite some nations from the region, certainly, but you would mainly focus on capable nations with a proven track record. But in quite complex and subtle ways, patterns of influence, both at the practical and conceptual level, are changing. The current vision even of what security is, and how it should be pursued, is currently western-dominated. That will be much less the case in the future.
This decline in influence will also apply to the United States. Its most powerful and expensive weapons—nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, carrier battle groups, high performance air-superiority fighters — are either not usable, or simply not relevant, to most of the security problems of today. We do not know the precise numbers and effectiveness of Chinese land-based anti-shipping missiles for example, but it’s clear that sending US surface ships anywhere within their range is going to be too great a risk for any US government to take. And since the Chinese know this, the subtle nuances of power relations between the two countries are altered. Again, the US has found itself unable to actually influence the outcome of a major war in Europe, because it does not have the forces to intervene directly, and the weapons it has been able to send are too few and in many cases of the wrong kind. The Russians are obviously aware of this, but it is the kind of thing that other states notice as well, and then has consequences.
Finally, there is the question of the future relationship between weak European states in a continent where the US has ceased to be an important player. As I’ve pointed out before, NATO has continued as long as it has because it has all sorts of unacknowledged practical advantages for different nations, even if some of these advantages are actually mutually exclusive. But it’s not obvious that such a state of affairs will continue. No European nation, nor any reasonable coalition of them, is going to have the military power to match that of Russia, and the US has long been incapable of making up the difference. On the other hand, this is not the Cold War, where Soviet troops were stationed a few hundred kilometres from major western capitals. There will actually be nothing really to fight about, and no obvious place to do the fighting. What there will be is a relationship of dominance and inferiority such as Europe has never really known before, and the end of such shaky consensus as remains on what the military, and security forces in general, are actually for. I suspect, but it’s no more than that, that we are going to see a turning inward, as states try to deal with problems within their borders and on them. Ironically, the greatest protection against major conflicts may be the inability of most European states, these days, to conduct them. Weakness can also have its virtues.