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RUSI book launch: “Wars in Peace: British Military Operations since 1991”

June 4, 2014

Summary:  A RUSI study of British Military Operations since 1991 gives a strategic scorecard of 6 wins out of 10.  A better understanding of geo-politics and an attention (and adherence) to the longer-term and strategic implications of actions was needed.  It is tricky to orientate from strategic defence to offensive. More complex forms of warfare and protracted conflicts make it hard to sustain capabilities, focus and mission. 

RUSI talk mil ops since 1991Background

I attended the RUSI book launch of “Wars in Peace: British Military Operations since 1991″ at RUSI in central London on 27th May and took some notes.

The book is intended to consider:

“…the impact if British military operations on domestic security; the legacies of UK interventions and their strategic outcomes; the link between public and elite opinion on intervention; the financial costs of and industrial contribution to operations; the conduct of British strategy; and the UK’s alliances and alignments”,

according to its back cover. I have not yet read the book itself. The twelve sections, including introduction to conclusions had a total of eleven separate authors.
The talk was on the record. Two of the chapter writers – Michael Clarke and Malcolm Chalmers – were speaking.

Malcolm Chalmers
2014 feels like it is at the end of a distinct era of British military intervention and this book attempts to look at the ten distinct operations (Iraq and Afghanistan accounting for two distinct military operations each) undertaken by the British military over this period:

o Northern Ireland, 1991 – 2008
o Iraq/First Gulf War, 1991 – 2003
o Bosnia/Croatia, 1993 – 2002
o Kosovo, 1999 – 2004
o Sierra Leone, 2000
o Macedonia, 2001
o Afghanistan, 2001 – 2005
o Afghanistan, 2006 – 2012
o Iraq/Second Gulf War, 2003 – 2009
o Libya, 2011

After many years of “strategic defence” – ie retreat of empire – this was a time of strategic initiative. And there were, by the judgement of RUSI, some successes – the conclusion suggests that perhaps six out of the 10 operations could be judged as successes, with the two clearest victories being the First Gulf War in 1991 and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Bosnia and Sierra Leone were also successes. The least successful were the Second Gulf War and the latter part of the Afghanistan involvement – “over-reached”.  More recently, the House of Commons debate on Syria showed perhaps increasing weariness for military intervention even though there might be a need to help stabilise weak (or weakening) states – the shadow of Russia loomed over Syria and Ukraine. UKIP and EU protest votes – what will be the geopolitical consequences be of EU break-up? Are we seeing a return to a Europe of nation states and Great Power rivalries – UN becoming toothless?

Michael Clarke
Clarke wrote about the British/American alignment – they collaborated in 9 out of 11 operations. The UK was in awe of the RMA – Revolution in Military Affairs – and there was strategic confusion of how to use its armed forces. The six domains of warfare (Tim comment – I think this means: land, sea, air, underwater, space, cyberspace) were integrating and it was becoming less plausible for the UK to have its own piece of battle space in which to operate alongside the US.
US to be less focused on Europe? (Asia rebalancing). Where does this leave UK – stick with US or be more active in European context (eg collaborate with the French)? Is it now automatic (Chamberlain/Eden argument) for UK to stick with the US?

Q and A, subsequent discussion
Jonathon Eyal, also a contributor to the book, spoke up from the audience:
He suggested that the RUSI study debunked the idea that the British public had been “hoodwinked” into approving the 1991 – 2014 conflicts. Generally the public supported government positions. Conversely, there was also no evidence (Eyall was citing opinion polling) that the public had pushed the governments into wars – the “something must be done” mantra.  Problems arose over explaining the military mission intentions to the public, but, by and large, strong narratives and broad objectives seemed to satisfy the majority.

• A comment from a BBC correspondent suggested that in future there was a need for a clearer analysis of Britain’s strategic position.
• Other issues touched upon – whether UK can really claim “operational sovereignty” any more – can it really operate independently. Anglo-French relations have not really developed.
• Has there been a “collapse” in British capabilities in the aftermath of the 2010 SDSR? A reaction against “entangling operations”
• Ukraine and Russia – Russia never “went away”. EU leaders guilty of not considering geo-politics sufficiently.
• Some more detailed “audits” were needed – why Germany so quickly recognised Croatia and why the Helmand governor was removed.

Tim thoughts:
It wasn’t exactly a sparky presentation or debate. The general sense was that a better understanding of geo-politics and an attention (and adherence) to the longer-term and strategic implications of actions was needed and it is tricky to orientate from strategic defence to offensive. More complex forms of warfare and protracted conflicts make it hard to sustain capabilities, focus and mission. Nothing controversial there I guess, but I have a nagging feeling that hindsight is making this analysis (and the implied solutions) too easy. It seems hard to make generalisations about such a diverse range of conflicts so I will be interested to see how the book deals with this – there seems to be a need to categorise the conflicts as a “win or lose” strategic scorecard. I’ll withhold further comment until I have ploughed through the book. I have the feeling that this might be the correct phrase to employ but that might only be because I have just finished Anna Politkovskaya’s pretty shocking indictment of the Russia army in Chechnya, “Dirty War” and am nearing the end of Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, “Hitch-22”, both highly readable, albeit in very different ways…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2014 10:58 pm

    Thank you for this post. I couldn’t attend the RUSI event as I wanted so it’s good to hear how it went. Have also been considering buying the book so it’s interesting to hear what some of the authors had to say.

  2. June 5, 2014 11:18 pm

    Thanks, glad it was of some use. As I said, the debate didn’t really catch light and I came over from Sweden for it! But I’m probably being a little unfair and need to reserve judgement before I get into the book first. I’ll let you know. Tim

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