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Britain should be more Italy?

The recently released British defense policy paper known as the Integrated Review, and the accompanying Defense Command Paper, predictably touched off a firestorm of controversy among UK defense watchers.  The Integrated Review has some strong points, and it makes particular sense when viewed in the context of Great Britain’s historic military policy.  One can even go so far as to describe it as neo-Victorian or perhaps neo-Edwardian because of its emphasis on maritime strategy and trade, its aspiration for a global British presence, and its reliance on an undersized yet highly proficient expeditionary army.  This is a different world, however, and there is a different model available that British readers are not going to like but need to take seriously: Italy.  There are pros and cons to both models, but the comparison is useful for articulating the choice before Britain.

The controversy surrounding the Integrated Review has centered on three issues: The United Kingdom’s bet on high technology to supercharge its military; a continuation of the trend toward reducing the British Army in size while increasing its overseas commitments; and, lastly, a determination to shift the country’s strategic focus to the “Indo-Pacific Theater” and help out with America’s effort to balance China.  This is largely by means of a slightly increased Royal Navy fleet and the deployment of two carrier battle groups built around Britain’s spiffy new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, not to mention the equally new gold-plated F-35Bs that fly off of them.  All the while, the Integrated Review insists that Britain remains committed to the “Euro-Atlantic” and NATO, which translates into being able to generate and sustain forces of use against Russia.

The cover of the Integrated Review.

The large bet in high tech matters insofar as the exorbitant cost encourages trading quantity for quality at a time when many observers are already concerned that the United Kingdom’s military has crossed the line and become too small to do the jobs asked of it.  The British Army, which desperately needs several classes of new vehicles, will not be getting many of them, and the army workforce is set to shrink to 73,000, a size not seen since the 17th century.  The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy’s bet on the F-35 means there won’t be a lot of them (some suspect the total number won’t surpass 90 and might end up half that number).  Those they are buying they have to share, and Britain is buying only F-35Bs, the vertical takeoff and landing variant, which are necessary for the new carriers but not necessarily the first choice for the RAF.  Meanwhile, the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon force will shrink.  As for the Royal Navy, it is acquiring more top-drawer vessels, but it will scarcely have enough ships to be as present across the globe as the Integrated Review says it should while also patrolling nearby waters AND providing its new carriers with appropriately sized escort fleets.  To further complicate the picture, the real-world military utility of much of the technology the British are acquiring has yet to be proven.

The latter two issues causing controversy directly relate to the perceived mismatch between military means and the ambitions articulated by the Integrated Review: The shrinking army is to be more expeditionary and spend more time deployed overseas doing more kinds of things, while still somehow retaining the wherewithal to make a useful contribution to a big high-end land war in defense of NATO.  The Royal Navy will come off relatively better size-wise but not in light of the global mission assigned to it while at the same time meeting NATO-related requirements closer to home.  The same is true of the RAF.

The Integrated Review makes sense in light of the historical British military policy of investing heavily on naval power to promote global trade and protect sea lines of communication, while maintaining a relatively small expeditionary land force.  The Integrated Review reads as if its authors had been reading Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) and Julian Corbett (1854-1922), the great Victorian theorists of sea power.  Indeed, for all the talk of science and technology the real charm of the Integrated Review is in its traditional pre-World War II focus on global trade and sea power, and especially the Royal Navy’s insistence on acquiring two huge capital ships, the new carriers.  The modern HMS Queen Elizabeth, incidentally, is named for HMS Queen Elizabeth, a battleship commissioned in 1914 at the height of the Mahan-inspired race by Great Powers to build massive dreadnoughts designed for decisive fleet actions.  (That behemoth was named, of course, for a certain Elizabeth Tudor, icon of English might.)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the forward to the Integrated Review described the carrier’s planned 2021 mission to the Indo-Pacific as intended to “demonstrate our interoperability with allies and partners – in particular the United States – and our ability to project cutting-edge military power in support of NATO and international maritime security.” “Her deployment,” he added, “will also help the Government to deepen our diplomatic and prosperity links with allies and partners worldwide.” In this light, the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth makes the most sense as a piece of neo-Edwardian theater akin to the “Great White Fleet” President Theodore Roosevelt sent on a world tour in 1907-1909 to broadcast America’s arrival as a world power.  Mahan would approve.  In contrast, it makes no sense at all to send HMS Queen Elizabeth to fight against anyone that stood a chance of sinking her.  Her value is as a symbol and not as a warship to be sent in harm’s way.  Of course, for less risky missions like bombarding ISIS she’ll be very useful, although ironically the capabilities of the Queen Elizabeth class, their F-35s, and their escort fleets, are overkill for that purpose.

MHS Queen Elizabeth and escort group on WESTLAND 19. UK MOD, OGL v1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

To argue that the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are essentially gigantic floating symbols built for semiotic warfare rather than fleet action is not to dismiss their value, nor is it a rejection of traditional British views of sea power.  Indeed, a smaller-than-desired Royal Navy can achieve a lot despite lacking the mass to win the next Jutland.  That other great Victorian naval thinker, Corbett, in fact disagreed with Mahan about the importance of big decisive battles.  He thought of sea power more in terms of performing all the myriad tasks navies perform without attempting to control the oceans or confronting one another directly.  In this regard, the Integrated Review is not unreasonable provided British leaders are realistic about the limits of what their fleet can do, and they don’t let the sparkle on the Royal Navy’s newest additions go to their head.

Meanwhile, the British Army itself is being recast in traditional terms.  The massive Cold War British Army of the Rhine was an exception that proves the rule that Britain is best served by a small but highly professional and expeditionary force useful for putting out bushfires or small but effective sea-borne interventions.  This was the norm before 1945. Now, once more, per the Integrated Review, Britain’s ever scarcer yet ever more skilled troops will fly the flag, pitch-in with small-scale operations and do a lot of security force assistance.  Yes, the Integrated Review insists, the Army will remain committed to NATO missions and deterring/fighting Russians, but that assertion is hard to square with the Review’s neo-Victorian orientation, and the British Army’s neo-Victorian (neo-Cromwellian?) scale.

Even back in Victoria’s day, Britain struggled with the tension between the need to be everywhere present militarily -which translated into dispersion- and the need to concentrate efforts.  The difference between then and now, however, was the safety inherent in Britain’s island status.  The British Army never had to be large enough to take on a peer threat.  Even after the destruction of Britain’s professional army in Belgium in 1914 forced the UK to mobilize a large industrial-scale army to fight Germans, the British could let the French do proportionately more of the ground fighting while the Royal Navy and British merchant shipping blockaded the Germans and kept resources flowing.  The strategy succeeded.  The Royal Navy kept the German Navy bottled up; there was zero threat of invasion.  Only after World War II did Britain invest in a large standing army that it kept forward deployed in Germany.  The Cold War policy was based on time and distance, both of which would be lacking acutely in the case of a Soviet offensive.  That still applies today.

The ‘original’ HMS Queen Elizabeth

Another important difference between the days when the original HMS Queen Elizabeth was the pride of the fleet and today is that back then the Royal Navy sought to maintain British hegemony over the high seas.  Since the 1940s that role has been upheld by the U.S. Navy.  This suggests that Britannia need not rule all the waves and dominate the oceans à la Mahan; it might focus instead on commanding some of the waves.

What if Britain were to aim lower and walk away from the Victorian model?  Its military might look more or less the same, but the policy behind it would ask less of that military and arguably translate into a better alignment of Britain’s desired ends with the means the country is willing to give itself to achieve them.  British defense policy would end up looking a lot like Italy’s.

Lest anyone balk at the comparison, let us get a few things out of the way.

Yes, the United Kingdom spends roughly twice as much money on defense as Italy, but it does not have twice the military.  Far from it.  The Italian Army is larger than Great Britain’s (roughly 95,000 compared to 75,000), while its navy and air force are roughly the same size.

In some ways the UK military’s major systems are more advanced than the Italians’.  For example, the Italian navy has eight attack submarines to the UK’s seven.  However, the Royal Navy submarines are larger and nuclear powered giving them a far greater range while the Italian boats are smaller diesels.  Obviously, the British subs cost a lot more.  The Italians soon will have a second aircraft carrier (Trieste) or possibly a third depending on how one defines “carrier” (the other two are the Cavour and the Garibaldi).  However, the new HMS Queen Elizabeth class ships are twice the size of the largest Italian vessel.  On the other hand, the Italian carriers double as amphibious assault ships

Italian diesel submarine. Photo by Diego Quevedo Carmona

As for the armies, neither is in great shape.  Although the Italian Army, if anything, is ahead of the British technologically speaking with its modern Freccia infantry fighting vehicle and Centauro II tank destroyer.  The Centauro II basically is a Freccia with a main gun big enough to make U.S. Army Strykers and really any infantry fighting vehicle feel inadequate.  Italy’s new vehicles, moreover, have the latest networked warfare technology: They reportedy are capable of collaborative warfare and have “slew-to-cue” capabilities. The British are scrambling to get caught up.  The Italians’ achilles heel is the poor readiness levels of the Italian Army’s vehicles and the small numbers of the newer vehicles.  They spent too little money and redirected much of what they did spend on expeditionary operations abroad, most notably in Afghanistan.  As a result, Italy’s heavier units arguably are hollow.  Only now are the Italians trying to make up for the difference and restore their capabilities especially with regard to so-called high intensity warfare against peer threats.  Not unlike the British.  The Italians, for example, are working on modernizing their long-neglected Ariete tanks.  The British will also modernise the Challenger II.  Both will end up with roughly the same number of tanks, a number below 200.  If and when the Italian Army gets the funds it wants to modernize its tanks and buy all the Freccias (etc) that it wants, it will have capabilities comparable to the British Army while also having the capacity to do more things at once, or make a larger contribution to a major brawl.

An Italian Freccia.  www.esercito.difesa.it, CC BY 2.5  via Wikimedia Commons

A bigger difference can be found in the two nation’s strategic orientations and corresponding military policy.  The Integrated Review, while insisting on the UK’s dedication to the “Euro-Atlantic” and NATO, is at pains to avoid talking about the European Union.  It paints an ambitious picture of a ‘Global Britain’ focused primarily on the “Indo-Pacific.”  It is as if Brexit is the driving force behind the return to a Victorian military policy and the final nail in the coffin containing the UK’s deceased post-war prioritization of defending Western Europe.  In contrast, comparable recent Italian military policy and strategy documents, foremost among them the Italian Ministry of Defense’s Documento Programmatico Pluriennale Della Difesa Per Il Triennio 2020-2022 (DPP), published in 2020, have markedly more modest ambitions.

Contemporary Italian defense policy documents describe a tension between needing an agile force ready for anything and one capable of upholding NATO requirements.  Amongst this is the need to contribute to the Alliance’s conventional deterrence against Russia or other potential peer threats.  This is no different from the Integrated Review.  The difference, however, is that the Italians conceive of their area of operations much more narrowly: The focus is on NATO’s “southern flank,” on the Mediterranean (sometimes defined broadly as stretching from the Sea of Arabia to the Gulf of Guinea), the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel.  Meanwhile, there are few illusions about how urgently the Italian military has to make up for having swung the pendulum too far in the direction of low-intensity expeditionary operations.  In effect, the Italians, with a military roughly equal to Britain’s, are asking less of that military while aligning it more closely with strategic objectives.  This implies less dispersion. It also means the Italians are more prepared to back up their commitment to restore their conventional warfare capabilities, at least in the sense that doing so is more consistent with the overall vision they have of the Italian Army’s future.  It should be added that the Italian documents also speak of investing in high technology, multi-domain operations, cyber, space, and artificial intelligence, like the British.  The Italians, however, are not as focused on them and they do not seem to be counting as much on technology to substitute for quantity.

Italian military policy is focused on Europe and, in particular, areas south of Europe.  There’s no whiff of Mahan.  The DPP evinces no pretension toward playing a major global role.  For the British, more used to being a global player and having a military capable of supporting that role, the Italian approach may be profoundly unsatisfying.  The problem is that the British are only willing to pay for an Italian-sized military.



Michael Shurkin

Michael Shurkin is a former senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.  He is currently an independent security analyst.

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