A new defence doctrine for Labour

Keep Trident. End expeditionary warfare

In this essay and video I’ve tried to outline what a radical left Labour government in the UK should do about defence and national security.

What should Labour do?

1. Vote for renewal of a Trident-capable force of four submarines, while retaining the right move from CASD to a CASD-capable submarine force, subject to parliamentary approval. At the same time, if the Scottish government votes to scrap Trident, Labour should advocate the removal of the base from Faslane to a base in England.

2. Faced with a vote “in principle” on CASD Labour should move an amendment: “Britain should keep its CASD capability while the right to vary the posture of the deterrent depending on threat levels, as identified in a Nuclear Posture Review to be conducted by parliament every three years.” That should examine every option, from removing the weapons, to keeping the submarines in base, to a far more specific and public rules of engagement, as per the US Nuclear Posture Review.

3. Scrap the naval base in Bahrain

4. Scrap the doctrine of “enhanced global reach” with an expeditionary force designed for out-of-Europe operations.

5. Adopt a defence doctrine which precludes expeditionary warfare outside of NATO commitments in Europe.

6. Repurpose Joint Force 2025 around Britain’s NATO mission in Europe.

7. Push for a new NATO Strategic Concept designed to de-escalate tensions with Russia; stabilise Eastern Europe; enhance ballistic missile defence, and allocate new, permanent non-aggressive deployments to NATO forces in Europe

8. Fully participate in the EU’s common defence and security policy

9. Renew the democratic insitutions for defence and security strategy, embedding the legitimacy of defence and security forces deeper into society thorugh enhanced democratic control and scrutiny.

10. Expand domestic anti-terror capabilities, with advance legal and operational permissions for UK armed forces to deploy in case of a Paris-style marauding attack. New democratic controls on intelligence and surveillance agencies.

Why we need a new approach

Whatever the military usefulness of Trident it has become a strategic weapon for two forces in British politics: the Conservatives, who will use the issue to attack Corbyn as “unfit to rule”; and the Blairite rump currently casting around for any issue to stir up grievance against an increasingly effective Labour leadership.

Labour cannot un-invent its unilateralist wing, and it must listen to those who took to the streets calling for it to scrap Trident. Having listened, it must offer them something more important: a Labour party ready to rule; a government ready to break the cycle of failed expeditionary wars; which can fight terrorism effectively and stabilise NATO’s relationship with Russia in Europe.

To do this Labour needs more than just a position on Trident. It needs a defence doctrine.

Since 1956 British politicians have, traditionally, avoided “strategy”. After the Suez fiasco and the subsequent withdrawal from “East of Suez” commitments, the Cold War allowed military doctrine to remain largely bipartisan. Then Tony Blair evolved a de facto strategy of “humanitarian intervention” — beginning in the Balkans and leading to Britain’s participation in both the Iraq War (2003–11) and the Afghan War (2006–14).

The experience of military stalemate, withdrawal, disorder, a compromised human rights record and the politicised use of intelligence has led to a substantial fall in popular consent for military action of any kind. This in itself constitutes a threat to national security, which cannot be remedied by military parades but by a new defence doctrine coherent with what the UK population wants.

Its principles should be:

  • a nuclear deterrent whose posture can change in response to global circumstances, and whose specific terms of use are made clear to adversaries and allies alike;
  • a conventional force designed around Britain’s NATO mission in Europe, to deter potential Russian aggression and to facilitate the major powers of Western Europe taking charge of stabilising the region, rather than having to jump to the demands of immature democracies of Eastern Europe.
  • an enhanced anti-terror capability pre-authorised to operate on British soil in the face of a Mumbai-style attack, and whose surveillance and intelligence operations come under increased democratic scrutiny.

This would involve a clear break with Conservative defence policy, as set out in the SDSR2015. Since May 2015 the UK government has begun to make large-scale new commitments on defence and security, not matched to any identifiable threat or mission. In addition, much of the spending commitments contained in the defence review are is not clearly costed and the projects are being carried out “at risk” by the MoD — ie at risk of creating another defence black hole.

Cameron has committed to a major new military base in Bahrain, reversing the post-1956 doctrine; he wants to renew the nuclear deterrent with an “in principle” vote about Continuous At Sea Deterrence, completely separately from any threat assessment. He wants the UK to seek exemptions from international human rights and the laws of war. With the Joint Force 2025 concept the government proposes a significantly enlarged expeditionary force of ground troops, two aircraft carriers and expanded a significantly expanded force of strike and transport aircraft.

In the enture process, nobody seems to have asked what all this is for: but when you build a naval base in a Gulf despotism halfway round the world, and double the size of your invasion force, the subtext is pretty clear.

Cameron wants a military that will operate globally, through beyond-Europe expeditionary warfare for which there is no current consent, and which stands at odds with the growing Russian threat to European security.

Labour should reject this.

It should commit to scrapping the Bahrain naval base. It should tailor the force structure being planned for 2025 towards the evolving new NATO mission in Europe, contributing to any forward defence forces, at sea or on land, but basing the majority of our forces here. And it should maintain the nuclear deterrent.

However, voting to replace the submarines that carry Trident does not commit you to the doctrine of “continuous at sea deterrence”. Nor should it commit you to maintaining the traditional policy of “keep them guessing” about how and when UK nuclear weapons might be used.

When President Obama came to power he commissioned a nuclear posture review, which ended by spelling out fairly precisely the conditions under which America would, and would not, use its nukes. Countries signed up to the non-proliferation treaty, and not in breach of it, would not be subject to first use. This, it should be noted, was a unilateral change in America’s nuclear doctrine.

Labour should commit to its own review, once in power. But it should set out the limits of that review in advance. In deference to the strong minority that wants complete nuclear disarmament, both within the party and within the country, it should pledge never to scrap nuclear weapons without a referendum.

It should, in addition, pledge that in all eventualities Britain will remain CASD-capable. That means that, even if a Labour government were to de-escalate the way the deterrent is deployed, either by keeping the submarines in base, or disarming them, it would — in the interests of bipartisanship — always keep them ready to go back to their original mission, should the situation change, or should a government committed to full CASD return.

Two sets of people will be enraged if Labour adopts the policy outlined above: the purblind nuclear militarists of the right and the pacifist and anti-imperialist left. It would be good for Jeremy Corbyn to disabuse both of them at once.

Corbyn’s rise has attracted back into the Labour Party people who think, on principle, there should be no military action at all; others who believe that commitment to national defence is a betrayal of proletarian internationalism; others who think the sun shines out of Vladimir Putin’s posterior. These are all perfectly defensible positions to hold: it’s just that it’s unwise to try and govern Britain as a capitalist state if you hold them.

When faced with the possibility of forming the first left government in modern history, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras not only faced down the anti-militarists and pro-Putinites in his own party but persuaded them to formally end the party’s historic opposition to NATO.

The logic was clear: a true radical left government is such a huge departure from the neoliberal consensus that it must focus on one thing — the economic transformation of the country. Unlike in Britain, all the military coup threats Tsipras faced were implicit (the senior British general who briefed the Times about a coup if Corbyn comes to power remains, mysteriously, uninvestigated).

But the problem was the same: a government prepared to make significant inroads into the power and wealth of the elite needs to demonstrate it can safeguard national security.

As for the expeditionary diehards, in the Conservative party and the military, this is where a coherent Labour defence doctrine stands a chance not simply of damage limitation but of ensuring electability.

Committing to build an invasion force, for a country or region as yet unspecified, is one of the most stupid things Cameron and his military advisers could have done.

There is no stomach for expeditionary warfare among Democrats in America; given the state of the Republican Party it’s unlikely Britain could legally take part in any of the wars they fantasise about. The list of countries we could invade on our own, with four armoured and mechanised brigades, is small. Plus, as we saw in Libya and Syria, there is no consent for this kind of expeditionary warfare among the population.

And all the expeditionary wars failed. The countries they were aimed at are in ruins at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives and hundreds of British military casualties.

The fragmenting global order may pose challenges that lead to political divisions in the UK, sharp differences when it comes to war, surveillance, disarmament etc. Precisely because of that, Labour should attempt to make the formulation of policy, the design of force structures and the commissioning of technology as democratic as possible.

The SDSR2015 was a mess because it mixed up ideological commitments to market forces, and to supporting a bunch of torturing obscurantists in the Gulf, with a technical analysis of the threats to Britain and the force required to meet them.

Corbyn’s Labour should embrace NATO projects to build a missile defence capability in Europe. Vladimir Putin won’t like the progressive neutralisation of his nuclear arsenal by such new technologies, but anti-missile missiles kill far fewer people than nuclear warheads, and they might do what neither unilateralism nor the fake multliateralism of the Labour Cold Warriors has achieved: actually trigger a disarmament process, into which any future UK government would have to put its deterrent and its nuclear posture.

For now though, the doctrine that could unite Labour, burying Trident as Tsipras buried the NATO issue is: keep the subs; allow the deployment, targeting and conditions of use to be subject to triennial parliamentary review; include the nuclear deterrent in the 2% of GDP NATO commitment; take what’s left of the money and build a conventional force designed to defend Britain in Europe, not despots in the Gulf.

*** Tell me what you think. I’m trying to start a debate here, or rather open out the debate that’s going on prior to Labour’s defence review.