Bob Stewart with soldiers at the Coalition Air Base, Iraq in 2007





Colonel Bob Stewart DSO MP



As a politician whose principal focus is Defence the biggest question I face is what do we have armed forces for and what should they be like in future? 


NATO forces in Afghanistan are to withdraw from a combat role by the end of this year with the transition to Afghan security control. This re-deployment away from active combat coupled with the increasing pressure on Defence budgets because of the financial crisis, suggests to me that reassessments of defence priorities and armed-forces structures is likely to occur throughout Western countries.   


We in the UK are already going through a very painful re-assessment involving a reduction in our Army by one fifth of Regular troops with similar reductions in the Navy and Air Force.  But we are not alone – even the mighty US Armed Forces are being severely cut. 




People like me ‘fought’ the Cold War and we did so under the auspices of the North Atlantic Alliance.  For the vast majority of time since its formation in 1949 NATO had a very clear purpose.  This was somewhat tactlessly but succinctly put by General Lord Ismay, its first Secretary General, as: “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”   


Of course the third strand of that strapline changed rapidly as the Soviet Union demonstrated that it intended to stay firmly entrenched in Eastern Europe and West German participation in NATO became vital.  However, the Warsaw Pact, formed in 1955, in its turn, can be seen as a reaction to NATO’s formation and the rehabilitation of West Germany because the Alliance couldn’t work without it being a member.   


NATO’s central tenet has always been collective security; since the treaty was formally signed on 4th April 1949.  Like the motto of the Three Musketeers NATO was ‘all for one and one for all’.   An attack on one member was deemed to be an attack on everyone.


When I was a staff officer in Military Operations 1 in the UK MOD over 85% of the British Defence Budget was spent on the Alliance.  Like most of my fellow graduates from RMA Sandhurst in the sixties, I was trained to fight on the North German Plain – using both conventional and then later nuclear weapons as a part of the NATO plan to defend Western Europe.  Chillingly we referred to possible conflict there as the Third World War! 


But all that quickly tumbled down with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The Warsaw Pact disintegrated with the break-up of the old Soviet Union.  Now almost all NATO’s former military rivals have joined the organisation.   It’s amazing that Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia. Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia are now NATO members and NATO’s influence through its Partnership for Peace and Contact programme stretches to Afghanistan, right the way across the World. Mongolia, Japan, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have contacts and exchange ideas with NATO.  For their part Australia and New Zealand are officially linked too via the AUSCANNZUKUS ‘Five Eyes’ grouping.  It may come as a surprise to some but  even a small part of South America, French Guiana, is a fully protected by NATO’s guarantee as an overseas department of France.


But is NATO really what it once was? Does it really still have point? I wonder if Poland would really declare war on Brazil if it tried to takeover French Guiana.  Really with only the United States and UK (for the moment) spending + 2% of GDP on Defence is NATO a shadow of its former self?  Is it, as one French Defence strategist recently suggested …”an alliance of the unable and unwilling”?  




What about Russia today?  So now, with the Warsaw Pact dead is Russia still a military threat?  Twenty years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, did anyone think that Russia would re-emerge as quickly and powerfully as it has in such a relatively short time?  In February 2013 President Putin ordered his military leaders to make urgent improvements to the armed forces and stated that Russia must thwart attempts by the West to tip the balance of power.  He stated that “Geopolitical dynamics call for a quick and considered response ... Russia's armed forces must move on to a new level of capabilities in the next three to five years."


President Putin, the former KGB spy, has said that moves that threatened Russia's geopolitical position included the eastward expansion of Russia's former Cold War foe NATO – true - and U.S. deployment of an anti-missile shield in Europe – also true.


Following a decade of military spending cuts after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has been the driving force behind plans to spend an extra three quarters of a billion dollars by 2020 upgrading weapons and equipment.  In real terms the Russian defence budget is being increased by about 53% up to 2015. 


There are about 1,040,000 active Russian troops with about 20 million in the Reserves (largely ex-conscripts).  But significant military reforms will cut the number of active troops.  Russia still relies on conscription despite promising to turn its armed forces fully professional.  Incredibly the top Russian Military Prosecutor has declared that about one fifth of the Russian military budget is stolen or embezzled.


It is clear that massive moves are underfoot to stop fraud and reform Russia’s old fashioned ground forces.  The same is true throughout its armed forces.  For example Russian Navy vessels are being replaced at speed and the Navy has been undergoing transformation for the last 8 years.  Forty five per cent of its ships will be replaced before 2015.  In fact 25% of the new military spend is being used to get new vessels and the First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced as long ago as 2007 that Russia was building as many vessels as in Soviet times.  


But note this.  Russian military strategy envisages fighting any inter-state war with nuclear weapons.  It still very much believes in flexible response and tactical nuclear weapon usage in any all-out conflict. 


Of course Russia is not a threat - at the moment.  But we must remember that all threat calculations combine potential enemy capabilities and intentions. As we all know ‘Threat’ is defined as the ‘Enemy’s Capabilities’ multiplied by his ‘Intentions’.  Russia is again building up the capability of its military forces – and rapidly too.  Such capabilities take time and sometimes a long time to develop.  It is also true that Russia does not envisage war with the West.  So Russia’s intentions may be relatively benign at the moment.  But nonetheless Russia – backed by money from its vast energy resources – is building up its armed forces.  Currently Russia has no intention to attack Western states but it is rapidly regaining its capability to do so.  And whilst capabilities take time to build, intentions can change as rapidly as politics.




On 14 March 2013 China’s new leader Xi Jinping consolidated his power by assuming the Presidency.  As such he is leader of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.  Worryingly his speeches since have definite military themes.  He has talked about the requirement for China to be able to “fight and win wars” and the People’s Liberation Army is undergoing a makeover.


At their annual parliamentary meeting in March 2013 Chinese leaders announced a 10.7% increase in the military budget which, of course, contrasts sharply with the Obama Administration’s sequestration and vicious cuts to the American armed Forces budget. 


It is clear that China aims to develop its strategic nuclear forces.  China has more than 3,000 miles of underground reinforced tunnels for its fixed and mobile strategic weapons.  Best estimates at the moment suggest that China may have 850 nuclear warheads ready to launch.  With the United States aiming to reduce its capacity to 1,000 or fewer it is clear that China is approaching strategic parity with the United States and Russia.


It is equally clear that China is putting massive efforts into building up globally deployable military forces too.  Through the acquisition of anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to target American aircraft carriers, advanced aircraft capable of hitting U.S. and allied bases around the region, and large numbers of modern submarines, Beijing has clearly signalled its intention to subvert the balance of power that has anchored peace in Asia for six decades.  By so doing it will directly challenge American strategic superiority in the region.




The cyber threat is huge and is operating against us now. The House of Commons Defence Committee produced a report on this recently: “The cyber threat is, like some other emerging threats, one which has the capacity to evolve with almost unimaginable speed and with serious consequences for the nation's security. The Government needs to put in place - as it has not yet done - mechanisms, people, education, skills, thinking and policies which take into account both the opportunities and the vulnerabilities which cyber presents. It is time the Government approached this subject with vigour.”


Acts of aggression or malice in cyberspace differ from those in other domains. Cyberspace is regarded as an asymmetric domain; even adversaries of limited means can pose a significant threat to military capabilities. Attribution of attacks is difficult, time-consuming and sometimes impossible, as is discerning motives (some security breaches may owe as much to intellectual curiosity as intent to do harm).


The greatest threat of electronic attack continues to be posed by State actors and, of those, Russia and China are suspected of carrying out the majority of attacks but other smaller countries run very effective attacks too.  Such states include North Korea, Iran and even Syria.   Targets are in Government as well as in industry.


The main purpose of such attacks is espionage and the acquisition of information; however, there is a concern that this capability could be turned towards disruption activities - for example, interrupting supply of utility services or indeed disrupting things like air traffic control.


The threat from cyber-attacks has exponentially increased enormously since the year 2000. In that year there were 740 million people with cell phones but now there are well over 6.4 billion owners of them. Then 5% of the World's population was on the Internet but now it is more like 34 per cent.


On 23 April 2013 the US Stock Market dropped 1% ($136.5 billion) in a matter of seconds because of a false tweet posted on AP's Twitter Account. The false tweet came from Syria. In 1998 it would have taken 16.5 days to transmit all the data in the Library of Congress but today it could be done in 0.00008 seconds. The biggest cyber threats come from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.




In February 2012 the US President announced that he had a new strategy; summed up it implied no more wars and concentration on Asia. One hundred thousand troops - Army and Marines - were to be cut.  Sequestration and its effects are simply cutting the US Defence Budget by $50billion a year (out of $550billion). 


Chief of Staff of the US Army Gen. Raymond T Odierno addressed the media in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room on 15 May 2012. Odierno discussed future changes in the structure and size of the Army; 490,000 by 2017.  He said: “The thing I worry about is that in everybody's declaration that there's going to be no more ground wars, we need no more ground forces, that we're going to make the Army too small...I see nothing on the horizon yet that tells me that we don't need ground forces."


Russia is not considered a great threat but China could well be in due course. China wants to dominate the Pacific.  Here’s the problem for the Americans; going to war with China would be like going to war with your bank! In Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa there is great instability but the United States cannot resolve these problems. Israel can take care of itself - with military equipment support from the United States but without relying on US Forces.


The United States has invested hugely in the Military since 2001 and it has increased its real military power in real terms by two thirds.  He said that the United States now had enough strategic agility without having to be permanently ensconced in a region. The United States now has the ability to intervene where it is required when required - going in with sufficient strength and force to do the job.




Lord Palmerston stated in the Commons in 1848: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies.  Our interests are eternal and perpetual”  In truth national interests are always sovereign.  Winston Churchill was well aware of the overwhelming influence of national self-interest.  Famously he declared on Soviet Foreign policy that it was ..”a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma, and the key is Russian nationalism


As Professor Julian Lindley-French said to the House of Commons Defence Committee on 23 April this year:  “Having sufficient power that allies and partners will want to work with us is absolutely crucial.”  I think a medium-sized power like the UK must retain sufficient capability to be able to attract others to work with it in coalition if that be necessary.  There is now recognition that the United States cannot do things alone. However some states in NATO are definitely not pulling their weight. Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the United States that there is no such thing as a quick fix anymore.



Many idealists suggest that the West should contribute and support a United Nations Military Force which could operate direct to UN Headquarters in New York when deployed.  Speaking as someone who commanded the British UN deployment in Bosnia during 1992 – 93 I think this idea is bonkers.  I will simply suggest a couple of reasons why it will not work.


Firstly, for any UN Force to deploy and operate it would need a Security Council Mandate for action and that implies all five permanent members agreeing it.  I don’t think this has ever happened and if it did that mandate would be so watered down it would make effective operations impossible.


Secondly, I fail to see what a state contributing, either money or forces to a United Nations force over which it has no control, would gain.  If the United Nations force was truly to report exclusively to the organisation a state would feel it is being taxed without representation.  As I recall such a protest was instrumental in starting the American revolution against Britain in the late 18th Century!


In truth, in the future, I see no alternative to the current system whereby the United Nations calls on its members to provide contributing troops to United Nations operations.  I think, at the very least, there will remain some form of national command and control over component parts of United Nations forces.   


In modern parlance supposedly classic warfare between states is classified at symmetric warfare.  So two or more states with similar military power and resources stop negotiating and let their armed forces do the talking for them.  It is an extension of politics by other means in the classic Clausewitzian definition.  At its most basic it could be a military contest between two gladiators.  You bring out your champion and I mine.  They batter each other until one yields or dies.  It’s like a boxing match between two boxers of equal weight and age.


On the other hand modern use now describes what I used to call guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism as asymmetric conflicts.  Essentially these can be violent conflicts between a formal military and an informal, less equipped and supported, undermanned but resilient opponent.  Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare, the weaker combatants attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in quantity or quality.  These strategies may not necessarily be militarized either. 




So is inter-state warfare now a thing of the past.  Yes it seems to be less likely than it was in the past – especially between nuclear weapon equipped states who could easily threaten the total destruction of their opponent.  But it is far too soon to announce the death of state on state warfare.  Much as we would like to believe such stupidities are over we know it would be daft to think so. 


Thankfully and from a Western point of view the vast majority of current military operations occur at the asymmetric level.  Not only is such warfare cheaper in terms of lives and treasure but it is also bearable.  It looks to be the most likely and continuous operational requirement our militaries will face.




The problem as well as the main lesson of history is that we will always be surprised and the future is never as we would predict it.  When I was commissioned from Sandhurst – expecting to do my operational duties abroad as my father had – I was amazed, a few months later, to be deployed with my rifle loaded on the streets of my own country in Northern Ireland.  In July 1992, commanding an armoured infantry battalion in Germany, I would never have dreamed that a month later I would be taking 300 armoured vehicles into the Balkans.


May I quote the words of the Late Michael Quinlan which were given in evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee:  “In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected.  What we expect, we plan and provide for; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter, what we deter does not happen.  What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it. Because we did not expect it.”


So how should the fact that we will always be surprised assist politicians like myself  in planning the form of future armed forces?  Actually recognition that inevitably we will be doing military tasks for which we were somewhat unprepared is the first step.  The next step is to ensure that we have sufficient flexibility, versatility and sustainability in our armed forces to recover and deal with shocks as quickly as possible. Finally we must ensure that we do not put all our eggs in one basket.  We need to plan armed forces which cover as many envisaged eventualities as is possible.



We all know here that the first duty of a government is defence of the state – at whatever cost.  But this may not be the case any longer.  Western public opinion is simply not prepared to spend ever increasing amounts of money on   Defence. The last really large war, the Second World War, is now the best part of a lifetime ago.  Never in modern history has there been such a gap between major wars in Europe.  Maybe this peace is directly attributable to nuclear stalemate and maybe not.  Who can tell?  But its results are clear.  Our publics are increasingly reluctant to divert funds from things like hospitals and school to sustain military forces – just in case.


In my view our future armed forces will be designed to have 3 principal capabilities:


·        Homeland Defence.  The capability to defend the homeland on or near it.  We can no longer afford to keep large standing armies. We will have to make do with smaller, more agile and more highly trained forces.

·        Government Support.  The capability to support for the Government at home in emergencies. Such emergencies might include keeping order to military aid to civil communities in natural disasters and might here include cyber security of the nation.

·        Expeditionary Warfare.  The capability to take part in limited (by time) expeditionary warfare.  The requirement to maintain deployable armed forces is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The places into which these forces are deployed might not, however, resemble the theatres of operations of recent decades.




Clearly future Western armed forces will have less mass than in the past and almost every activity will be gauged against its cost – probably on operations as well as in training.  The happy days are gone – probably forever.


Most definitely every state will opt to have Special Forces of some description.  They cost 1.7% of the American Defence Budget and have a very healthy bang to buck ratio.


Last year China conducted what it called its first ‘digital technology exercise in Inner Mongolia.  It admits it did so using military cyber forces and it was employing them on the exercise right the way across the military spectrum of activity.  Hacking can be more deadly than a gun!


In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, joint operations have increasingly been enabled by advanced Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.  Including mid- and low-tier unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the accompanying command-and-control networks that integrate these and their output into force structures, these capabilities have developed beyond recognition since the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted the Western intervention in Afghanistan.


Will it still be possible to 'lose' a ballistic missile submarine in the depths of the ocean? The answer is yes – probably for thirty more years or so.  Nuclear Deterrence is thus best achieved that way.  But there remain considerable worries.   Deterrence works well when what you are defending against is a ballistic missile fired from another state.  But how do you defend against a nuclear bomb put aboard a container ship, sailed around the world and detonated in somewhere like Hull?  But against who or what do you retaliate?


Clearly Western armies will be much smaller than they have been in the past.  The British are reducing their Regular troops to 82,000 which is about as small as they have been since the 17th Century.  It is clear too that they will depend increasingly on reinforcement from reserves. Only the most professionally intensive of tasks will be exclusively manned by Regular forces.  But, whatever people say, there is still no way to better way to hold ground than by having boots on the ground.  Some have suggested that the day of armoured vehicles is over but the development of the Russian T-99 and Chinese Type 99A1 suggest that this view is hardly universal.


In future the Royal Navy will have less than 25,000 sailors (not including the Royal Marines).  The two new British carriers will be more than just assets but also a magnet for influence.  The British plus the French are the only Western nations that can lead coalitions.  A key trend in maritime procurements is the rapid development of submarine fleets. States with existing fleets are developing the capabilities of their vessels while a number of states, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, are fielding submarines in their inventories for the first time.  Submarines offer the ability to project power at range and with stealth. They are the most expensive type of naval vessel, tonne for tonne, but are affordable for an increasing number of states. Most states opt for conventionally powered submarines, but even the list of countries operating nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) is expanding: India commissioned its first SSN in more than 20 years in April 2012, while Brazil is developing an SSN capability.


In the air there will be fewer and fewer aircraft flown by human beings but pilots will certainly not be obsolete.  Obviously it is safer to send a drone rather than a human being on operations.




Future armed forces must still be designed to deter state on state conflict.  Their possession remains an insurance policy – to deter against the possibility. The last course of action any developed state would want to take is to engage in some form of symmetric war against an opponent similarly manned, equipped and armed.   It would be madness.  For example technology and future weaponry will ensure at least one missile ‘gets through’ to take out, say one or both of Britain’s aircraft carriers.  Sufficient all-out war ground, air and naval forces will be required for such deterrence. 


War between equal states is not dead but, in my view, it is less likely than it has ever been.  Yet it is still a possibility – and most definitely our armed forces will be fighting somewhere again, who knows where, but they will and we had better keep them as up to the mark as possible.


I fully support the need to replace our Trident submarines with four boats.  I believe we have it right to establish at least one fully functioning and operational aircraft carrier fitted with F35b aircraft and with the capability of becoming an offshore base for troops and supporting helicopters able to position somewhere in the World if we need it.  I think the Army is now too small – with 82,000 Regulars and 30,000 Reserve Army personnel on standby – but we have to live with it.  Finally on the RAF, I believe it is imperative that we obtain a Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability once more and as quickly as possible.  Finally on bases abroad, we must keep Cyprus – the most strategically placed military location we have at the moment.