‘The Third World War’: History and its effect on Defence Policy

I’ve just finished reading a quite remarkable book by General Sir John Hackett (he of Arnhem fame, who commanded by Grandad’s Parachute Brigade there). Known as the finest Soldier-Scholar of his age, and with a wealth of degrees to his name, Hackett put part of his retirement to imagining the circumstances, strategy and tactics of a Third Word war in the mid-1980’s world. Not only did this far-sighted book look at military, but also social and geopolitical factors. Also, Hackett showed a rare intelligence and fair-mindedness when commenting on Air Force and Naval issues.

Whilst it is ever so slightly in the realms of ‘what-if’ – something of a bane for historians – it is a very educated ‘what-if’. But something that was fairly concrete, was British Defence Policy from around 1947-ish until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone knew that the main threat emanated from Soviet Russia and the Warsaw pact, and the only discourse among the armed forces and politicians was about how exactly to face up to this threat. Certainly, there were disagreements – such as the RAF altering maps to support its claim that it could provide air cover for the Navy anywhere in the world – but on the whole, the arguments were about the how, not the what.

It also harks back to a time when British Defence policy had a firm anchor – ie, the Cold War. The Government was under no illusions as to the major commitments facing the British armed forces – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact as the likely opponents, with a large army based in Northern Germany, an anti-submarine based Navy, and a constant nuclear deterrent. Lesser commitments included Northern Ireland and defence of an ever-decreasing number of possessions abroad. But, largely, these commitments were known, and planned for accordingly.

Since the collapse of communism, defence policy has, to an extent, been in a vacuum. And given that the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland has effectively wound down since the Good Friday agreement, defence policy has been at even more of a loose end. British Forces have been involved in conflicts – principally in intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building – in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leonne, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The British Army in particular has built up quite an experience base of wars-among-the-people, originating in Northern Ireland. Indeed, others – such as the US – have often wondered if the UK has ‘gone soft’ when it comes to traditional warfighting.

Its an often quoted phrase that armed forces plan to fight the last war. This might be over-exaggerating things – in some cases, such as in the Second World War, officers like Monty were at pains to fight their wars to avoid the errors of their predecessors in the Great War. But in the same sense, the last conflict does inevitably have a huge bearing, in one way or another, on the planning for the next one. It could also be said, that in a strategic vacuum where no threat is perceived, then senior officers are liable to plan for the kind of war that they would like to fight – witness the British Army after 1918 going back to its Imperial policing roots, or the modern RAF with its Cold War-like stance over fighter jets.

So, where do we find ourselves now? In the short to medium future, it would be hard to argue that the UK faces the threat of a state-on-state war. The large countries that might pose a threat in the long-term – China and Russia, for example – might produce bluff and bluster with the west occasionally, but this is a long way from all-out war. The over-riding threats do seem to be asymetric – in terms of extremist terrorists, or perhaps in terms of failed states that might implode and require intervention – Yemen, or possibly even Pakistan for example.

And, in the present economic climate, where funding is likely to be tight for the forseable future, it will be impossible to be completely prepared for any eventuality – the funds simply do not allow it. It is a case of priorities, and – in a world where it is hard to assess threats and priorities – the most prudent course of action would seem to be to retain a capability to adapt at short to medium notice as threats emerge. But, also, it is fair to ask ourselves, are we holding onto capabilities and assets simply because we’re not sure what to do with them, or because they would have been useful in the last war?

The example of the pre-war mechanisation of the Cavalry is a case in point. The First World War should have made it clear to all and sundry that the tank was going to be a force in wars of the future. Yet after 1918 the Cavalry clung onto their horses well into the 1930’s – largely for sentimental reasons, or through a fear of change itself. Therefore the British Army of 1939 found itself far behind Nazi Germany when it came to armoured warfare. There were undoubtedly officers in the Army who would gladly have kept their horses, and would have seen British soldiers galloping off to war against the Panzers. Britain only formed its Airborne Forces in 1940 – long after Russia, Germany, or indeed Poland – because the Army as a whole looked on special forces as ‘not cricket’.

Are – and I am asking myself the question here, as much as anyone else – main battle tanks and fast fighter jets relics of the Cold War, much as the horse was a relic of Nineteenth Century British Army? Its perhaps not a perfect comparison – after all, I would not advocate completely scrapping all Challengers or Eurofighters – but maybe retaining a core element, expandable in times of crisis, would be more sensible? These are the kind of tough but searching questions that should be asked.

I guess the lesson from history is, you never have the luxury of picking what war you get to fight, nor of picking exactly how you want to fight it – unless you start it, of course. But when threats are not apparent, you should leave yourself able to respond as quickly as possible. And you do this by not over-commiting yourself in any one direction.

But to do that, we would need politicians who firstly won’t let the Treasury hold them hostage, and secondly, senior officers who can think holistically about UK Defence rather than their own service and their own places in the history books…



Filed under Army, cold war, defence, Navy, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

18 responses to “‘The Third World War’: History and its effect on Defence Policy

  1. Mike Burleson

    James, I read this book when it was first printed way back in the late 1970s, in junior high. It fascinated me no end the buildup of forces, but seem to rely on what I considered at the time, much wishful thinking:

    There would be a major rebuilding of Western armed forces.

    The Soviet Union would eventually collapse internally without a full scale nuclear exchange.

    Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened in the 80s, proving General Hackett the future war prophet with few peers.

  2. James Daly

    Hackett was indeed right about the outcome of the Cold War – albeit, thanks to the 80’s arms race, the Soviet Union ran out of steam rather than imploded, but the end result was the same.

    I think it goes to show, a firm grasp of history can give a good perspective on the future.

    We could do with someone with Hackett’s intelligence at the top right now…

  3. Mike Burleson

    “a firm grasp of history can give a good perspective on the future.”

    There is the crux of all my ideas on future warfare! No crystal ball required!

  4. The key lesson of history is that many past events were unpredictable, therefore future ones will be too.

  5. Mike Burleson

    “many past events were unpredictable, therefore future ones will be too.”

    I disagree with that, which the military uses to explain why they must be strong everywhere. I think you can predict with a reasonable certainty what the next war will be like. Usually this involves observing the last few years of a previous conflict, and garnering the correct lessons.

    For instance, the Germans rightly predicted that tanks and airpower would dominate the next war after their defeat in WW 1. In contrast the Western allies were more conservative, and though they possessed many tanks, they refused to let go of the infantry dominated tactics of the previous fight, along with its defensive and cautious lessons of the trenches.

    In other words, the signs almost always point to what the next conflict will be like, as General Hackett, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, William Mitchell, and others proved in their day. The trick is, being astute enough to see through the fog and war and getting it right.

  6. James Daly

    I think you always have to account for unpredictability. I guess you do this by not over-committing yourself in any one direction, and are able to respond to any eventuality. Of course this comes at the expense of preparedness, but you can’t prepare in detail for a scenario that hasn’t transpired yet.

    The Duke of Wellington to the Earl of Uxbridge before Waterloo – ‘As Napoleon has not informed me of his plans, I cannot inform you of mine’.

  7. Mike Burleson

    “I think you always have to account for unpredictability.”

    To an extent this is true. Another great historical writer Geoffrey Perret wrote in his book on the US Army in WW 2 “Theres a Wat to be Won”, how General Marshall before the war would test his officers by their response to surprise attacks, specifically how they would manage in chaos. Note also that the Germans relied mainly on chaos and propaganda for many of its victories. During times as in the Desert, when the allies would stand their ground, also the Russian eventually mastered this and the US in the West, the enemy tactics were less successful. The vaunted German juggernaut seemed less invincible.

    There are other examples such as Grant at Shiloh and Monty at Alamein, their ability to respond in a crisis. From this I see a couple things that must be absolutely predictable even in uncertainty: your equipment and your leadership training, and the latter is more important than the first.

  8. James Daly

    I think theres a lot of sense in that Mike. There are some things that shine out in any military scenario – good reliable equipment, and especially good training.

    Something I’ve always found interesting is the impact that Northern Ireland has had on the British Army. It was very much a Corporal’s War – it was fought, in the main, in 4 man units on patrol, and called for an unparalelled level of initiative and leadership on a tactical level. This was a good tonic for an Army that historically was based on a rigid command structure. I think this legacy has been good for the Army, especially in counter-insurgency wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The Blitzkreig scenario you mention Mike is similar to the ‘Napoleonic Blitzkrieg’ – Napoleon made success out of sending vast phalanxes against unsteady troops, but came unstuck against the Iron Duke and his thin red line at Waterloo.

    During the Second World War – as we’ve quite rightly substantiated – the British Army was caught on the back foot. Disaster at Dunkirk resulted in much soul-searching and the devising of a new approach to fighting, taking account of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Army’s rank and file (largely conscript) and the chronic shortage of manpower.

  9. Mike Burleson

    Napoleon is a good example as is Frederick the Great. Nelson and other British admirals could take advantage of its superior reputation against weaker foes like the Spanish later on in the Age of Sail. Cunningham used this successfully against the Italians in the Med, even though the latter often possessed newer and faster ships, which conceivably gave them the tactical edge.

  10. James Daly

    The offensive spirit in the RN from Quiberon Bay on to Taranto was quite remarkable. Which brings me onto another point – the Royal Navy is under a lot of pressure at present, and still has questions hanging over it after the Iran-hijacking incident, and the kidnapping of British citizens in the Indian Ocean last year. Has it lost its sharp edge? Does it need to find itself again? More rhetorical questions… I think its more accurate to say that the Army’s experience in low-intensity operations has given it an advantage, whereas the Navy is still learning the ropes when it comes to dealing with pirates and ribs and the like.

  11. Mike Burleson

    The Navy’s experience with Iran, and then later the British couple who were hijacked: this has some over at my own blog bemoaning the end of the Royal Navy, but I don’t see this at all. It is a wake-up call no doubt, and as you point out, the army has learned “in your face” low intensity combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy hasn’t been so tested and as in my own country, they seem somewhat resistant to the notion, thinking stand-off weapons, long range airpower can handle most if not all problems of seapower.

    As with the boots on the ground, it all comes down to the sailor and what will he do. If his training is right, he can manage most circumstances, including the times the enemy surprises him with a new tactic or weapon.

    The French in the Ardennes 1940 had good men, good equipment, sizable numbers. Their leadership failed, as did their confidence, and they allowed Hitler to be loosed on the World. The same thing happened in 1944 to Americans, where they were initially surprised, and outnumbered, but they regrouped at Bastogne, held their ground, saved the world.

    Lesson here, its more about the men and the training. The British have great soldiers and sailors, and their impact on world events has always been in excess of their numbers and despite lacking the best equipment. They just need someone to tell them that and often.

  12. James Daly

    At Navy Days recently the impression I got was that the Royal Navy’s manpower situation is better than it has been for many a year – the recruiters are in a position of being able to pick the best applicants, and many of the junior seamen now have got degrees. The Captain of HMS Westminster told me that none of his crew of c.200 have applied to leave the Navy, which is unheard of. He certainly seemed very happy with the calibre of his crew.

    One would hope that the two aforementioned incidents have made the RN take a bit of a look at itself, in terms of small-boat operations etc, but it still seems that without a definite scenario to peg its hat on its in a bit of a vacuum on a broader level.

  13. The incident with a boarding party being caprured was NOT combat, we are not and were not at war with Iran. There has been a huge amount of lesons learnt, training improved, procedures changed, and lots more.

    But….. It still wsn’t combat, it was a constabulary operation.

    Likewise anti piracy operations. Despite all the protestations of the press, the RFA (ie not a warship) involved could not have done anytthing without killing the hostages.

    The Navy largest problem is public misunderstanding, not helped by the ill informed rubbish produced by third rate hacks like Max Hastings. Things are more complex in the real world than they are in TV programmes.

    Elsewhere, I wrote ….

    What the Royal Navy needs (both for PR and to strengthen ethos, morale and fighting spirit) is an engagement. Would the media and public pay attention though? Did the Navy get enough publicity for the very real role RN helicopters played in dealing with Saddam’s Navy in 1991 (and 2003 to a smaller extent)? More generally how much publicity was there about the attempted break out of Iraq vessels during the 2003 invasion that was prevented by the presence of coalition warships? Or the NGS role performed by frigates? There are of course other actions and incidents, like HMS GLOUCESTER’s shooting down of the Iraq Silkworm missile in February 1991, the contributions of the Sea Harrier and other CVS borne aircraft to operations in Bosnia (on which note, a Sea Harrier nearly got a kill over Bosnia – would this have made a difference to the axing of the mighty Sea Jet?), the contribution of frigates, destroyers, and submarines to enforcing the arms embargo in the Adriatic, the harassment (and threat of attack) by Yugoslav aircraft, naval vessels, and land based missiles. All things that demand adequate sensors and weapons.

    Various terrorist groups have used, or tried, all sorts of methods to attack maritime targets. All sorts of surface craft can be used as explosive laden suicide platforms or as platforms for rockets and other weapons, all sorts of aircraft have been used or considered as suicide platforms or to drop makeshift bombs. The Latin American drugs cartels use mini submarines and semi submersible vessels for narcotics trafficking, and the Tamil Tigers attempted to build their own submarines. All sorts of land based weapons have been used, most significantly anti ship missiles by Hezbollah.

    A terrorist flying an aircraft full of explosives is not a MiG, but personally I’d prefer a fighter to shoot him down, or (at sea) a ship with an appropriate missile system. What if terrorists acquired not only SAMs and anti armour weapons, but anti ship missile, as Hezbollah has already demonstrated. What about a dhow packed with explosives heading towards the Iraqi oil platforms or a ship full of NATO supplies, heading for a Pakistani port? The way to deal with this sort of attack is for an escorting warship to sink it with gunfire (or Sea Skua), or an on call strike aircraft to take it out.

    Talk of future proxy wars is interesting. What if our forces are fighting someone like the Taliban, but a regime sympathetic to them provides reece and intelligence from accidental (sic) overflights, and we have no fighters to keep them out? What if they decide to lay mines off of the port we’re using? Entirely plausible, and deniable. They might use a submarine, or perhaps an innocent looking merchant vessel. These are just two examples, there are others.

    The public needs to be told that naval and air capabilities are not simply for the future, they are being used now.

  14. James Daly

    I’ve rapidly gained an impression that the Royal Navy’s publicity branch is either non-existant or frankly amateur. The service is frequently misunderstood, its side of any story is never put well enough, and its taking a mauling in the media as of late. Even down to things like Navy Days, more effort needs to go into engaging with the public at large.

    Most people ‘in the know’ are well aware of the importance of joined-up defence policy, yet the public at large do not. Therefore there will not be any kind of outcry if the Government gut the RN and RAF in the Defence Review. Its not even as if they need to spin (like the RAF has done on numerous occasions), they just need to tell the truth.

    Having read most of Max Hasting’s books, and he’s not really a historian imo, more a tory-journo.

  15. I agree. Why isn’t there a UK version of this Canadian video?

  16. James Daly

    Thats a brilliant video. The Royal Navy’s youtube presence seems to consist of AB Bloggs telling us what he’s had for dinner or how big his bunk is. What I dont understand is how the RN PR went into overdrive with great effect during the Falklands. Yet now the RN will moan about how the public is ‘seablind’, without doing anything to try and change it.

    I remember reading in General Sir Mike Jackson’s memoirs, how the three services used to have a two star officer (Rear-Admiral, Major General, AVM) in charge of handling media/PR. Geoff Hoon, whilst Defence Secretary, became convinved that the single service media officers were briefing against the Government and had them disbanded, to be replaced by a tri-service department.

  17. Did you watch the second and third parts too? The second part goes into more detail regarding interdiction but particularly the escorting of seaborne logistics – an enduring role. Yet, the RN seems unable to inform the public.


  18. James Daly

    I’ve just had a look at the videos section on the RN website, and it really is weak. Even on youtube, to find anything substantial about the Royal Navy in action you have to dig back to the Falklands – footage of Sea Harriers taking off from Hermes and Invincible are still the most enduring image 30 years on.

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