24 October 2014

Looking forward to 2018?

It seems that the centenary of Armistice Day (11/11/1918) might be marked with a bang. Rory Stewart MP asked the following about the next SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review, due in 2015) at Defence Oral Questions in the UK House of Commons on 20 October:
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new SDSR acknowledges that Russia has radically changed the situation, first by creating a war in Europe and secondly by ensuring that NATO is undermined, and will it plan for what appear to be Russian planning assumptions for a major war in 2018-19? 
Michael Fallon: My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is right. The 2010 review did not predict the scale of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the recent NATO summit at Newport reinforced the need for NATO members to maintain the level of their spending and to ensure a properly rapid reaction force that can be an effective deterrent to Russian aggression in future.
Noting, as Fallon did, that Rory Stewart is chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, one might well ask where his notion about the Russian planning assumptions came from. Among the Defence Committee’s many activities, one recent inquiry seems particularly relevant: Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two: NATO, the Report being published in July. Unfortunately, searching for terms relating to “planning assumptions” or “2018” or “2019” in the Report or the six supporting publications containing the oral evidence to the Committee provides nothing specific, although there is much discussion of Russian intentions in the Ukraine and towards the Baltic states. On 18 June 2014 the Committee took oral evidence from Lord Stirrup, former Chief of the Defence Staff, which included this exchange:
Bob Stewart*: One of the big problems, of course, is the Russians are spending 4.7% on their defence, which is well over twice our spending in the West. This is going to cause us enormous problems, because they are really equipping very fast indeed, aren’t they? 
Q98 Lord Stirrup: They are, and this is a very long, complex subject, which we can perhaps discuss another time, but I do not think the disparity is quite what it would appear to be from the numbers, for a variety of reasons.
which doesn’t give any substance to Rory Stewart’s question on 20 October. For the same inquiry the Committee received 17 pieces of written evidence. Many of these did not mention Russia at all, others only in passing. However, two statements are relevant. Firstly from a retired Major General from one of the Baltic states, Karlis Neretnieks:
… Russia’s capabilities to fight a conventional war are increasing rapidly. It will probably never reach US capabilities, especially not when it comes to military technology. … The massive ongoing armaments program in Russia combined with earlier and ongoing cuts in European defence budgets has led to a situation where Europe rapidly is losing its technological edge. But also, which probably is more serious, Europe is lagging behind Russia when it comes to the ability to mount large scale military operations, having concentrated on “peace operations” for the last ten to fifteen years. Operational art (not to be confused with tactics) is to a large extent forgotten among today’s commanders and their staffs. Russia on the other hand has put very much effort in to relearn how to conduct operations at an operational level (if it ever was forgotten). …(page 4)
Secondly, from Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI):
… Europe certainly does not need a return to the vast arsenals of tanks or standing armies. But it does need to discard previous assessments of Russian capabilities. Gone are the days when Russian troops were demoralised, disorganised and badly-supplied: the operation in Crimea was accomplished by elite Russian units which were welltrained, well-fed and very well equipped with the latest communication systems. And Russia’s military modernisation is set to continue: by 2015, the country plans to spend US$100 billion on its armed forces yearly. For decades, Western military planners – as well as European finance ministers – have argued that quality is better than quantity. That is still the case although, as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once reputedly put it, “quantity has a quality all of its own”, and that is starting to apply to NATO capabilities as well …
Both of which support the sense of Rory Stewart’s view, if not the substance. In September, he was interviewed by Jay Elwes for Prospect magazine “on the urgent need to bolster our defence capabilities”. The report concentrated on ISIL and Afghanistan although there is a reference to “the military adventurism of Vladimir Putin”. So the origins of Stewart’s question are still a mystery, although some of the parliamentary sketch writers seemed to be amused it. John Crace in the Guardian:
… Rory Stewart, the Mick Jagger of the Commons, with the hair of an 18-year old and the face of a corpse, exclusively revealed that Russia was planning a major war in 2018 or 2019. He didn’t say who the Russians would be fighting, though, or even if the Russians knew about it, but if it’s in Ukraine we can all rest easy as Fallon had that situation fully under control.
And Patrick Kidd in The Times (£):
It’s called the Ministry of Defence because its ministers spend so much time sitting on it. Michael Fallon,at his first questions since being made secretary for de-fence, proved to be a safe pair of hands, adept at avoiding saying anything controversial or that may be seen as a commitment, even when Rory Stewart told him that we would be at war with Russia by 2018. Keep calm and carry on.
I wonder if we’ll be hearing any more.

* Conservative MP for Beckenham and member of the Defence Select Committee.

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