Military strategy is the pointy end of grand strategy, which itself is the aggregation of all the instruments of national power assembled in a design to fit the state’s requirements at any given time. The process of designing grand strategy is conventionally, but not invariably, led by politics and takes its greatest risks when politics and the military instrument get out of whack. Britain briefly had an air military strategy, between the fall of France in 1940 and D-Day in 1944, but for the rest of the modern era, the debate has been about whether a maritime (implying global) or land (implying Eurocentric) flavoured military strategy has best fitted the nation’s needs.
From the back end of the 18th century, British military strategy virtually defined itself. An island nation, dependent upon trade, leery of continental complications and with colonial possessions to service and protect, naturally favoured a powerful navy and a small-war army, designed to fight Pathans or Zulus rather than Hapsburgs or Hohenzollerns. This process reached its apotheosis in the Napoleonic Wars in what became celebrated as the British Way in Warfare: a strategy of calculated limited liability that secured the home base with maritime power, paid others to do the fighting and dying and made a large(ish)-scale intervention only at the moment critique at Waterloo, where the allied army had more European than British soldiers and the final outcome was only secured by the timely arrival of the Prussians.
As a result, Wellington became the lion of the season at the subsequent Congress of Vienna, Britain prospered and its military strategy continued in its fat and happy maritime-led certitude. But a warning marker had already been placed. The annihilating victory at Trafalgar secured Nelson’s place in history and retains its totemic significance for today’s Royal Navy, but it served simply to confirm the existing terms of strategic engagement. It took Waterloo to change them.
We need not be detained by the geopolitics of the rest of the 19th century: suffice to say that by 1904 a restless German Empire had alarmed the British and French governments sufficiently for them to find an accommodation in the Entente Cordiale. In what was still a dialogue dominated by maritime considerations, the French fleet concentrated in the Mediterranean and the Royal Navy assumed responsibility for northern European waters, including the French Channel coast. It was not until 1906 that what were euphemistically called “conversations” began between the British and French armies. These proceeded in a leisurely manner until, from 1910 onwards, the galvanising presence of Brigadier (later Field Marshal) Henry Wilson began to force the pace.
Wilson was both admired and reviled in his lifetime. Brought up by a succession of French governesses, he was a lifelong Francophile and fluent French speaker. He was also an avid opportunist who began to see the glittering prize of primacy for the British Army within national military strategy. In the complex equation of mobilisation timetables, railway capacity and Franco-German military doctrines and plans, Wilson picked a path that concluded that the timely deployment of a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the French left flank could be decisive in a war with Germany. Lacking nothing in audacity, he implied that the fate of France lay in the hands of the British Army, a claim that would be tested at the epochal meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) on the 23rd of August 1911.
While Henry Wilson was assiduously marshalling his arguments, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord and custodian of the assumption of maritime strategic primacy, was enjoying the grouse season. (The two men were not related.) Complacency and hubris were no defence against Henry Wilson’s advocacy of the army’s case and the committee (including the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) was persuaded, commissioning a detailed plan for the BEF’s deployment to France. The CID never discussed strategic options again before the outbreak of war. When the crisis came in August 1914, while the Liberal government made the final decision to commit to war, just like the Germans (the Schlieffen Plan) and the French (Plan 17), it had only one available option and military strategy came perilously close to leading politics.
Let’s fast forward again. Past the “Never Again” mood of 1918, past Henry Wilson’s assassination by the IRA in 1922, past a Second World War and past British accession to two institutions (NATO and what later became the EU) which firmly rooted our strategic calculus in continental Europe. Unlike the maritime monopoly of the 19th century, the 20th century was characterised by military strategic spread-betting, which included substantial land and air forces with a singular, and latterly residential, focus on the European continent.
In the 21st century, to use Tony Blair’s words, the global kaleidoscope has shifted again, twice. First, through the Wars of 9/11 and, second, into the period of great power competition we are living through now. The Government’s most recent response to this passage of events and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a 2023 Refresh of the 2021 Integrated Security Review.
The document appears clear about its priorities: The UK’s overriding priority remains the Euro-Atlantic. How could it be otherwise when there is a land war on the European continent? Well, maybe it could. Europe is undoubtedly a more dangerous place simply because Russia is at war and possesses nuclear weapons. But, with Finland already in NATO and with Sweden’s accession imminent, the Alliance has gained two highly capable partners, the Baltic Sea has become a NATO lake and the Alliance’s northern border has moved hundreds of kilometres east. Meanwhile, Poland is rearming with alacrity and Ukraine might become a NATO accession candidate when the current unpleasantness is over. In sum: smart move Vlad — at a stroke you have changed the terms of strategic engagement in Europe, to Russia’s significant disadvantage.
But, with an eye to China, the Refresh hedges its bets: the UK will also prioritise the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, it goes further: security of the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked. It therefore seems that current grand strategic policy is to be everywhere, all of the time. This is a lofty but rather vanilla ambition and runs the risk that, in trying to cover all bases, we end up covering none. It is also of little assistance to the authors of military strategy, whose critical task is to make choices about the capabilities, force structures and doctrines to best serve grand strategy.
And what do those force structures look like at the moment? The Royal Navy has a surface flotilla built around the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers that, given modern missile and drone technology, will not flourish in confined waters, but may have a role in, say, the interdiction of Chinese sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, land warfare is trying to make up its mind whether the future is about small, autonomous highly networked groups directing remote fires, or more traditional all-arms groupings conducting high tempo ground manoeuvre. Confusingly, Ukraine provides evidence that supports both views and the British Army, with its recent emphasis on Special(ist) Forces, seems to be trying to cover both options, probably inadequately.
So where does all that leave us? The United Kingdom has quit the EU, has acceded to the Comprehensive & Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and become a founder member of the AUKUS alliance. Kemi Badenoch, the Trade Secretary, is commuting between Delhi and Seoul in search of trade deals to give form to Global Britain. The western Pacific is fast becoming the global centre of strategic gravity and, while a land war is still being fought in Europe, the continent’s longer-term security might be more settled. Our armed forces more closely resemble their 19th than their 20th century designs, can make no Wilsonian claims to be decisively significant in any theatre and are guided by a grand strategy that seeks ubiquity rather than clarity.
Taken together, we seem to be approaching one of those centennial moments where definitive choice can no longer be avoided. A return to the enduring verities of a maritime military strategy could also be seen as the final, consummating act of Brexit. Equally, a declaratory commitment to continental Europe might comfort Remainers, as sectarian politics can always intrude on what should be the dispassionate process of formulating grand strategy. The debate will not, as in 1911, be resolved in a single summer’s afternoon; but it needs to start, right now.
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