The Platform


England has left Europe, but the dust has not settled yet, as many experts are still figuring out what the aftermath will be. One of the main areas of uncertainty will be England’s strategic setting and ties with allies. While England has broken political ties with the European Union, it will remain a vital military asset for European partners, if it refurbishes its military projection capacity – a characteristic it was once known for, but which has waned over the past decades.

England, the U.S., and NATO

NATO groups 30 countries, 21 of which are European nations. But, within this alliance, not all member countries are equal. In fact, some contribute little more than making their territory available for potential operations. Some other members, however, are keen to develop their military capabilities, to put them in common with other member countries. England, for one, is part of the latter group. In the military exercises which NATO organizes on a regular basis, British troops are among the most regular and committed attendees.

NATO is not so much a military force, as much as it is a political one containing a military force. It would be untruthful to say that NATO is only a diplomatic shell: the Atlantic Alliance packs serious firepower. But this firepower comes mainly from France and England. Germany has comparable capacities but only on paper, as its military activity is virtually non-existent. And while France has managed to maintain its expeditionary capacities, England is struggling to reunite with its own.

The lost art of expeditionary armies

Due to decades of military budget shrinking, and to a relative rarity of overseas military activity, England is a pale shadow of its former self when it comes to projecting large military forces across the globe to hot zones. During the glory days of the British Empire, the English perfected their skills in military projection, and were second to none when it came to deploying far and fast. Alas, decades of home defence and relative peace have changed that.

The United Kingdom underwent two major strategic phases in the 20th century. The first half was concentrated imperial defence, which meant being able to move troops swiftly and efficiently, so as to quash revolts in their colonies. But from 1950 to 1990, the British army was mostly an army of sentries, bunkered down to defend their island in case the Soviet threat became real. As a result, equipment, which no longer needed to be nimble, became increasingly bulky, both in their design and in their transportability.

British soldiers during a deployment to Afghanistan. (Sean Clee)

The AS90 standard artillery gun within the Royal Army perfectly illustrates how England can no longer strike across the globe, as it once could. Although the technology behind the firepower is still relevant, the track-mounted AS90 is far too heavy to be airlifted. Not only will their deployment therefore take weeks or months, but the support they provide troops with will have many holes, as any mountainous areas (such as Afghanistan) are off-limits to such heavy vehicles. France, in comparison, now uses artillery cannons which are not only more effective in terms of firepower, but also mounted on wheel-based chassis, which can be airlifted and provide far better mobility.

The need to go simpler, faster, and lighter

Heavy armour on tracks was the suitable solution for the last century, but is no longer. Armies around the world are adapting to modern battlefields by opting for wheel-based vehicles, known to be more manoeuvrable, cheaper, and just as high-performing as their tracked counterparts. Modern-day battlefields oppose armies to small, nimble enemy units, making it necessary to increase mobility and speed.

Weapons and Warfare explains that “Wheeled vehicles are much faster than tracked vehicles, and able to travel for protracted distances using existing road systems without interruption. For example, an 8×8 vehicle can drive at 60 mph on a road for many hundreds of miles without stopping. Tracked vehicles are not suited to traveling long distances. The wear on the track system is too high, and the vehicles begin to suffer breakdowns en-route. Engines overheat and the vehicles must be stopped periodically to cool down.”

England’s current artillery units are from the Cold War era, and unable to comply with the requirements of modern warfare. For one, their weight and girth bar them from air transport: deployment will therefore necessarily take place via land or sea transport, thus making many areas off-limits. Wheel-based armoured vehicles were once considered the lesser version of combat vehicles, but recent developments have shown how well they perform in – and are adapted to – contemporary missions.

The most recent wheeled howitzers are able to reach unprecedented ranges, levels of accuracy, and fire high-tech ammunition such as low-risk insensitive munitions, rocket-assisted shells, Bonus and Excalibur shells. Their deployments in recent operations yielded outstanding results. The French were the modern innovators in this field, by taking a chance on truck-chassis howitzers, with the Caesar howitzer, and deploying them in Afghanistan and Mali. Both times, despite completely different geographic and strategic settings, the Caesar prevailed.

Brexit or no Brexit, Europe can hardly survive without England

Three European countries harbour armies large enough to form a force to be reckoned with, on a global scale: England, France, and Germany. Similar in size and funding, they differ fundamentally in nature and capacity. Germany’s Bundeswehr has no deterring power whatsoever: its equipment is far too bulky to be deployed anywhere quickly and is ill-adapted to many areas in the world. Additionally, Berlin is notorious for its timid international deployments.

This leaves only France and England in Europe, with only France as an EU member capable of defending common interests across the globe. The EU cannot accept having only one military force within its union, as it would amount to a massive power imbalance in its midst. Mick Krever writes: “The British military stands out in the European Union for its size and capability. Within NATO, only the United States spends more on its military. And the UK also stands out for its willingness to use military power abroad. While Germany is widely seen as the EU’s leader, economically and politically, its history means it is very reticent to exercise that power by force abroad.”

EU-member or not, it is in all parties’ interest to find common grounds in defence and security. England will still need to find valuable military partners in Europe, and vice-versa. But because most European or British interests are likely to be defended far away from the homelands, the UK urgently needs to become a global power, once again, and break its shackles.

Benjamin Anderson is a retired civil servant and former policy officer for the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of The Republic of South Africa.