Conventional Deterrence: The Theory (1/3)

First published: 5th May 2011 | Dr. Alexander Clarke

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Executive Summary

This report is a development on the works of Ambassador James Cable, Admiral Jackie Fisher and many others before them. Britain is a nation with worldwide commitments but even more so, worldwide interests. War is bad for trade and weakness is bad for economies such as ours that are dependent upon trade. Sometimes even the oldest allies cannot or will not help – this is especially true when they think you will not be able to reciprocate. This report therefore considers whether there is a way of giving Britain enough strength, capability and presence, without pouring money out of it, and without becoming totally dependent upon other nations or the will and whim of whichever regime is in control of them. It concludes that there is a way, that if enough ships of the sizes and capabilities described and required was constructed Britain would become as independent diplomatically as it had ever been. Furthermore, it would be capable of having its presence felt in very non-threatening way while being strong enough to deter most aggressors.



1.0. Introduction

2.0. Deterrence is cheap, when compared to war

3.0. Defence of Interests

4.0. How do the existing forces/dispositions of Britain match up to this?

5.0. What changes to Britain’s forces would need to be done to implement this?

6.0. Conclusion: should Britain do this?


Further Reading


1.0 Introduction

“The grim fact is that we prepare for war like precocious giants and for peace like retarded pygmies”
Lester Pearson[1], Toronto 1955

In these times of “peace” the nation’s defence and security budgets are still being cut. Even when we are fighting a major regional conflict as well as dealing with; piracy on the East Coast of Africa; international terrorism – the world over; drug smuggling in the Caribbean; people smuggling in the Mediterranean; threats to our own territorial sovereignty & energy security in the Falklands and the ongoing rumble of unrest and violence still present within Northern Ireland. Britain is a nation that has global links and global trade – the vast majority of which goes by sea. Yet we expend over £200million every year basing a large proportion of the Army in Germany to ‘deter communist Russia and the Warsaw Pact’, a threat which no longer exists; in fact, most of its members are now members of or candidate members for NATO – our main alliance. In their time such measures were, perhaps, a necessary deterrent. The questions this reports seeks to answer are what measures of conventional deterrence will be required for the foreseeable future, and why is deterrence so important?


2.0 Deterrence is cheap, when compared to war

In 1972, Britain had to spend millions of £s and send 10s of 1,000s of troops to fight a war in Belize, or British Honduras as it was then called, against its neighbour, Guatemala. Guatemala was a highly unstable nation at the time, so much so it makes the modern Mexican troubles with drug cartels look peaceful. This nation had a well-trained force of soldiery, which quickly overran the local defences, and the very small British tripwire force.

A similar situation arose in 1977, when the Argentine Government of Jorge Redondo invaded the Falkland Islands. This was a time of greater military strength in Argentina when they had even more military personnel and their equipment was far newer than in 1982; it served to unite the country behind an unpopular military dictatorship (which itself had deposed the unpopular civilian government of Isabel Peron). Upon invasion they immediately started executing the male and deporting the female residents of the Islands (some of the pregnant women disappeared to special camps where they never saw their babies).The response had to be massive and was equivalent to 3 brigades, along with both HMS Ark Royal (IV) and HMS Hermes and a huge task group centred on these powerful, veteran assets.

The fictitious events related in the previous paragraph were, fortunately, not allowed to occur! In 1972, at the word of the then Prime Minster, Edward Heath, HMS Ark Royal (IV) darted across the North Atlantic; and whilst it is true that some Army and RAF regiment reinforcements were rushed to the theatre, unfortunately political as well as logistic problems prevented their timely arrival. However, it was the over-flight by 2 Buccaneer Strike Bombers launched at long range from Ark Royal (IV) that persuaded the Guatemalan Junta that they were out-matched and they backed down before carrying out their invasion. In 1977, Prime Minister Callaghan responded to Argentine aggression by dispatching a small naval task force with a Nuclear Attack Submarine (SSN) to the Falklands and ordered major exercises to take place to prepare the fleet, with HMS Ark Royal (IV) being prominently involved, for war – Redondo realised that he would not have an easy fight and was in a better position than Galtieri was in 1982 to back down, so he took it. But in 1982 there was no more HMS Ark Royal, (IV), the all dominating strike carrier, and there was possibly going to be no more amphibious ships or specialist commandos…so Galtieri calculated on Britain having neither the capability nor the will to respond – after all Britain, lead by its accountants, was making itself weaker by the day.

These earlier incidents are just two wars that never happened. One never took place at all. The second was revisited when our government was ill prepared, because it had fooled itself into believing that it was safe, that the world was predictable, and that it would always have 5, even 10 years, to prepare itself – when in fact as these examples show it has often had mere days if not hours to react and be effective.

There are 4 conditions that need to be met for effective preparation and deterrence to be achieved:

• Overt Strength and Capability – an operationally ready strike carrier, an amphibious expeditionary force, an SSN or two, some support vessels, and an armoured brigade. All of these represent the capability to take back whatever may have been threatened or even lost. Such forces represent the ability of the British government to react.

• Intelligence – to provide warning in order to enable the government to judge the situation correctly. Some situations require an SSN to be sent, some an escort, some will require a full Carrier Battle Group.

• Pre-emption/Reaction – the sending of a small number of forces to act as both a trip-wire, an initial theatre reinforcement and also as a token of what could also come, will in many cases have the desired effect and produce recalculation in the minds of ’the opposition’…although the latter is dependent upon what capability they understand could be sent.

• Scalability – in order to be effective, the deterrent force has to be able to be increased as the level of threat increases…if our government is not capable of go to the next level, then all the opponent needs to do to win is to raise the stakes. If the government is then the opponent will have to consider their course action more carefully.

There is a common thread to such deterrent force and that is its maritime orientation. While on the High Seas naval power, sea power, has complete diplomatic freedom – it can usually go wherever and whenever the government wants. There is no risk of a nation denying us access to the open oceans of the world due to internal or external political pressures. They cannot and they cannot be forced to. They may rightly, however, claim control of their territorial waters close to their shores. Significantly, sea power is inherently scalable and flexible: for a government seeking a conventional deterrence capability then the navy is the ‘wherever, whenever and whatever’ option. The fact that the navy brings its own special expeditionary land and air forces along with it is a geostrategic bonus that no government should ever forget or take for granted.


3.0 Defence of Interests

‘Our defence policy should also be designed to help protect, wherever possible, our own and more general Western interests over a wider area, including those outside the NATO area’
The Times, October 1980

It could be said that the United Kingdom is a nation that suffers from a sort of diplomatic schizophrenia. Both personalities are ‘present’ in our political leaders. The first personality is like that of a grandmother; the age of empire is over and now the UK must retreat, go into the nursing home and play scrabble. The second is that of a retired father who is a member of the neighbourhood watch – a desire to protect those in need of help, whether to bring food and succour or to deal with oppression. Curiously both personalities, both groups of leaders, often forget the reality of the young adult: a nation dependent upon the sea for 95% of its trade in volume and 77% in value; a nation dependent on overseas sources for its energy and raw materials; a nation with allies and dependencies. This young adult is still bursting with innovation and capability. When they are threatened they realise that persuasion rather than violent action is preferred but sometimes force or at least the threat of force is necessary. The problem is how to balance these three options in the real world. This paper suggests that the right balance can only be achieved from a position of strength and with the ability to deter.

One solution would be a strategy based around a robust maritime operational capability; it satisfies the ‘grandmother’ as the money stays within the home economy, fostering industry and technology within Britain; it satisfies the ‘retired father’, as ships can easily be grouped together in multi-national task groups to allow for ‘neighbourhood watch’ style operations; it satisfies ‘the young adult’ as it has the ability to operate independently and demonstrate power, as well as real capability, wherever it is needed in the world. That capability is the most important requirement as, inevitably, military operations will necessarily be worldwide. No one knows whom the next war could be against; it could be total war with Iran; it could be strikes against Libya; it could be stabilisation in Bolivia. It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty. This means that British military capability cannot afford to be tied down to either one particular continent or one particular conflict. It also means that the ability to deter conflicts has to be similarly wide ranging. Whilst this report focuses on conventional deterrence, the strategic deterrent is also something which has to be fully functional…just slapping a yellow and black sticker on any old missile or piece of kit does not make it a deterrent. In fact it becomes the exact opposite as it suggests weakness of mind as well as self-belief.


4.0 How do the existing forces/disposition of Britain match up to this?

To a large extent our national military inventory of weapons systems continues to reflect Cold War requirements; and whilst that is a statement that has been used to deride the Queen Elizabeths, the latter represent the precise opposite of Cold War procurement – aircraft carriers by their very definition and purpose are not limited to ‘a single scenario or a single geographical area’. The latter are the true attributes of Cold War procurement (although it is also worthwhile noting that just because something is a ‘Cold War relic’ does not necessarily make it dispensable). The Eurofighter Typhoon is a specific case of Cold War Procurement and whilst the author of this report would argue that not so many are needed as originally planned they would acknowledge that there is still a case to be made for the continued Air Defence of the UK for which they are designed[2].

Some propositions now being put forward are still Cold War based and proponents would appear to have little credibility: e.g. the claim that Germany is the Army’s ‘Carrier’ in Europe, and that it is the training ‘hub’ of the Army for which, in order to utilise it properly, both the 1st Armoured and 3rd Armoured divisions plus many supporting units must be based there. Such military deployment is not in accord with current expeditionary force policy and fails to contribute to the flexibility and economy that Britain so desperately needs. The US Army manages to train in Europe quite successfully by basing a division load of equipment at one base and flying the personnel across when they need to train. With direct rail links now possible from the UK, a reduction to one base with equipment for 1 armoured division (the personnel to all reside in Britain), would in the author’s view allow for all necessary training to take place and all possible contingencies in Eastern Europe to be met with appropriate speed. Surely this is more sensible than the current system of maintaining a third of the total Army strength with all the requisite schools and attendant civilian support in Germany; propping up the German economy with a constant flow of British £s?
There are of course other bases worldwide, which drain Britain economically and tie the government (and by extension) the British people to the whim, will and actions of foreign governments. Unlike the Queen Elizabeth’s these bases are static so can only be used to impact events within their immediate area, and can be denied to British forces by just a single word; or a bomb targeted by aid of ‘Googlemap’.


5.0 What changes to Britain’s forces would need to be done to implement this?

Whilst the changes proposed are expanded further successor documents in this sub-series, it is important that they are also considered within this report. The changes that must be made to the British Forces to ensure both maximal Conventional Deterrence and real capability (which the former must rest upon in order to be a viable commodity), are really centred on 4 policies:

1. Shifting the basing emphasis: current British forces are still pursuing a Cold War/Continental strategy of large land bases, such as have been repeatedly constructed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These bases then need to be defended, especially the airfields, sucking up a lot of combat power yet not providing that much protection due to their static nature. Furthermore they are also very expensive to build and once the war is over, all the money has been wasted as they are no longer necessary or useful and cannot be relocated. Shifting the policy to a Sea Based emphasis would follow the example of the Americans in Afghanistan, where they provide the vast majority of the air support for all allied forces from their Aircraft Carriers. These are of course bases which do not tie up British ground troops to protect them. It is simple logic that if the forces were not so operationally ‘tied’ by needing to protect the crucial supporting systems (from threats such as two men with a pick-up pickup-truck mounted mortar, the favoured hit and run system of insurgencies) then more forces could be employed on the mission.

2. Increasing information related action: Britain needs to have enough forces that it can ‘deploy’ when they are needed and in key theatres a flexible permanent presence should be maintained. However, considering the previous point, it would be advantageous, in terms of diplomacy from the prospect of bases tying Britain to a nation no matter what its government does and being at the mercy of that government’s whim, to again make those forces ‘sea based’. A class of Task Group/Presence escort vessels would therefore need to be procured in adequate numbers, to provide the visible proof of Britain’s Maritime Forces Reach.

3. Pancaking[3]: reducing the layers of command and bureaucracy within the parts of the British forces which due to Cold War requirements developed a system well attuned to static basing, rather than rapid redeployment. This would be a highly visible commitment to maximising force flexibility and therefore a statement of intent and thus a deterrent.

4. Shifting Structural Emphasis: by this it is meant that Britain maintains its forces in very static positions, however whilst some forces can be made more flexible by ‘pancaking’ others will need to be reorganised and reformed to reflect a more modular approach – with each unit being both a self-contained whole and functioning cog able to be attached to any machine that needs it.

To put all this in action would require a government of supreme will and conviction; however such a system if employed would have the benefit of freeing that government and future governments to pursue the diplomatic and strategic interests of Britain with a highly independent, adaptable and most of all capable hand.


6.0 Conclusion: should Britain do it?

“Diplomacy is about surviving till the next century – politics is about surviving till Friday afternoon”
Yes Prime Minister vol.1 (1986)

This paper attempts to be as straight forward as possible, so here is the simple answer; yes, it makes sense. Britain has never been a nation of mass armies except in times of dire need, when she has expanded her small but highly professional forces to the size required for the crisis at hand.

Further, on a diplomatic front, America, Britain’s Dependencies, the Commonwealth and Europe would welcome such a renewal of Britain’s forces. Europe would have a nation within it that would be truly able to make its presence felt where it’s needed. The Americans would have an ally that could integrate with their forces when combat came[4]; or operate solo on another front should that be required. For the commonwealth and Britain’s many dependencies strewn far and wide around the globe it would signal the she as a nation was now determined to live up to the demands of her history, her heritage and her honour…as well as, most importantly for Britain, her own interests.

The options put forward may appear perhaps somewhat radical, but nothing could be more conservative, from Britain’s point of view[5]. It is after all returning to what Britain has always been good at, flexible application of precise force, precise presence or even precise words backed up by the capability whenever and wherever her government decides that they need it.

The way put forward in this paper and the others of the Phoenix Think Tank[6] is the cost effective way, sensible way and mature way. Barring the periods of the Central Front of the Cold War, the Continental Strategy of William of Orange and the early Hanoverian Kings, it was the British way. The world is no longer bipolar, as it was in the Cold War. It is in fact fast returning to a multi-polar international community. Multi-polar, means vastly more complex (and consequently a greater requirement for self-dependency), and therefore requires multi-faceted or rather multi-facing armed forces of capability to be available where and when they are needed. Most importantly though these forces are not where the Government, does not want them to be; ultimately the trouble and therefore the weakness with relying upon land bases.



[1] Lester Pearson was a Prime Minister of Canada during the late 1930s. He was not speaking of Canada alone, but of the British Empire/Commonwealth and its Dependencies – and he would have been just as right today.

[2] This is a topic which is examined in great depth in the second paper in this sub-series…Building for Deterrence

[3] Pancaking means the reduction or removal of management tiers within an organisation, making it as ‘flat’ as possible, this is done with the aim to make communication between top and bottom as quick as possible so as to improve flexibility.

[4] This really would be the case if the air group recommendations of The Queen Elizabeth Class Carrier: Options for the Fixed Wing Air Group ( were adopted

[5] The skills of sea basing as are shown in another paper in the series Naval Aviation: A Historical Perspective (


Recommended Reading

Cable, James. Britain’s Naval Future. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Clapp, Michael, and Ewen Southby-Tailyour. Amphibious Assault Falklands, The Battle of San Carlos Water. London: Orion Books, 1997.

Clarke, Alexander. “Marching from the Sea: Is Sea Basing the Future for Medium Powers to deploy/supply forces for the purpose of Humanitarian Intervention?” Masters Dissertation. Kingston: Kingston University, 29 September 2009.

Corbett, Julian S. England in the Seven Years War. Vol. I. II vols. London: Elibron Classics, 2005.a.

Larken, Jeremy, Michael Clapp, Alexander Clarke, and Julian Thompson. The Framework for an objective comprehensive Strategic Defence Review. Think Tank, London: Operational Command Training Organisation Ltd – ‘Sense in Defence’, 2010.

Southby-Tailyour, Ewen. HMS FEARLESS; The Mighty Lion. Barnesly: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2006.

Thompson, Julian. 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands. London: Pen & Sword Military, 2007.

Vaux, Nick. March to the South Atlantic. London: Buchan & Enright, 1987.

Ward Sharkey. Sea Harrier over the Falklands.

White, Roland. Phoenix Squadron: HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s last top guns and the untold story of their most dramatic mission. London: Bantam Press, 2009.

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