British Conventional Defence Policy in NATO 1979-1989

Kenton White Methodological Approach21813746

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British Defence Policy within NATO, 1979 – 1989

Did Britain’s conventional contribution match its obligation?

My research is an analysis of British conventional defence policy within NATO between 1979 and 1989. This research will critically review the plans in place for mobilising, transporting, supplying and reinforcing units in Europe, as well as the plans for Home and Civil defence of the UK. The research will cover the crisis, transition to war and war plans of NATO and the British Government. The plans will be compared with the commitment Britain made to NATO, and the real-world ability of Britain’s Government to fulfil those commitments. Britain, through its defence policy and membership of NATO, committed to provide troops, weapons, equipment, supplies, services, transport/storage and infrastructure facilities in the event of war in Europe. The research will be conducted using material from NATO, the National Archives and other Governmental departments, as well as interviews with personnel who served during the period. Using case-studies (exercises [CRUSADER, WINTEX, etc.] as well as mobilisation for actual combat [Falklands War, Gulf War 1991]), this research will uncover any link between the aim of defence policy and the ability to implement that policy. These case-studies sometimes expose fundamental problems in the armed forces operations. This disparity in planning and execution has a direct implication for understanding current and future defence policy and planning.

Amongst the methodologies considered for this PhD were Case Studies, Small-N, Critical Discourse Analysis and those drawn from historical understanding. There is also a strong case to be made for use of the economics-based Alliance Theory[1] to explain some of the policies adopted by Britain during the period. However, this research is not attempting to validate a theory; rather it is intended to answer the question set in the title of the PhD. The question is posed in this way because the nature of the investigation and research does not require the researcher to posit a theory. It would be possible to theorise that, “Britain was not capable of fulfilling its obligations to NATO between 1979 and 1989” but in the researcher’s opinion this angle of questioning is biased. It would be possible to frame an argument thus, “Why was Britain unable to fulfil its military obligation to NATO?” but the current research does not enable that question to be confirmed as plausible so far. The answer to the original question may indeed find that Britain was unable to fulfil some or all of its obligations.

The purpose of this research is not only to establish if Britain could have fulfilled its obligations, but to look at the ways in which other pressures shaped the defence policy, changing the question of defence policy from, “What do we need?” to, “How little can we get away with?” This has direct, and possibly contentious, implications for modern defence planning in a political, economic and military environment which does not have the apparent stability and predictability of the Cold War. This research is not intended to be comparative; that is it does not compare Britain’s NATO commitment with that of other NATO members. This means that broad comparative methodologies such as Small-N comparison aren’t relevant. Small-N relies to a large extent on Mill’s methods of agreement and difference[2], but since the N in this research is 1, it is impossible to compare with another event. Also, the objective of the research is not to infer or discover an overall causality, but to identify capability and intent. There will be instances of cause and effect within the research, such as NATO force proposals causing the stated requirement from the MOD, but these are individual instances within the overall scope of the research question. The objective is not specifically the research of these causal links. Small-N seeks to identify what are the causes of a particular event, whereas I seek to understand if a goal could have been or was fulfilled. It is extremely difficult in some circumstances to define whether a particular commitment could have been fulfilled, for example, “…the defence of the United Kingdom base and its immediate approaches …”[3], as this is ill-defined. The research seeks to identify aspects of the defence policy which are more clearly definable. As part of the above example, Britain promised to provide, in the event of war, a certain number of ships and aeroplanes equipped to search for and attack WTO[4] ships and aeroplanes in and around the British Isles. NATO produced “Force Proposals” on a regular basis which defines exactly what is required and by when. These documents, and the supporting British Government documents, define what the commitment was, in quantitative and qualitative terms. It is then possible, using Defence Ministry documents, to compare the capabilities and numbers of available ships and aeroplanes against the NATO Force Proposals.

The research relies on several case studies; two of actual mobilisation for war[5], and several exercises that tested the plans put in place for war in Europe. With regard to the two actual mobilisations, there are no theories regarding the ability of a country to mobilise, nor are there any theories which deal with the reaction to unexpected conflicts breaking out. The intention is to investigate the case-study subjects and evaluate which of the NATO plans for activation and mobilisation had been used (if any) and which had not. An assessment is then to be made of why some had been used and others not, and, for those used, whether they were met. If there was a success or failure to meet a particular planned mobilisation time or supply level, the reason for that outcome will be investigated. For these plans the analysis will need to be carried out to see if there is a correlation between the type of service/equipment plan and its success or failure.

For example, if it is found that Britain was unable to fulfil a substantial number of its NATO obligations, the intention is not then to theorise that the other NATO nations could not fulfil their obligations. The intention is to identify the aspects of NATO planning which establish the force levels, identify the political and military decisions that appear to respond to and satisfy those levels, and then to see what, if any, connection exists between the two. The research is not then intended to be used to criticise, support or demonise any particular political or military viewpoint. The intention is to establish a framework by which, with historical understanding, the ramifications of budget setting and political policy can be seen to act upon Britain’s military’s ability to work either alone or in alliance with other countries to achieve an objective.

Selection of the case by the dependent variable is seen as poor methodology design. But this relates to case-studies when used in a comparative fashion, and when attempting to establish the validity of a theory[6]. As mentioned above, this research is attempting to answer a question, rather than establish a new paradigm, and so the selection of the case studies is dictated by the time period, rather than by any conscious decision by the researcher.

During the period, NATO states were provided with a common opponent in the WTO, one which represented a power that individual states alone could not counter. A large amount of the research material investigated so far assumes this bi-polarity, but only a few documents seek to identify, and to confirm or deny, its existence. Discourse analysis seeks to define the body of language that the research material originates from, and to discover the rationale, patterns of usage and concepts at work[7]. “ … a discourse is more than the sum of the utterances composing it …”[8] This assumption of a discourse by the authors is expected, as they are professional military officers or politicians, and hence have an established set of references from which they need to work. But this common structure is broader than the focus of this research, being specific to the NATO obligations. It will be useful, as part of the research, to identify the assumptions and specific areas of discourse used in the documents. We must be careful, however, to clearly identify the aspects of ‘Cold War’ discourse that are in play. The Cold War of Europe was different in many aspects, including the language used to describe it, from that of Asia. This research seeks to limit the discourse to the ‘East-West European’ confrontation. Discourse analysis may well provide insights into the patterns of thinking and assumptions made by the participants. Foucault refers to discourses as systems of thoughts composed of concepts and attitudes, based on power relationships[9]. With a long view of history, the attitudes and beliefs develop together with the subjects and words, and they are interconnected, rather than one caused by the other. Defining the ‘horizon of meaning’[10] and ‘truths’ will necessitate a definition of these for several situations; one for the general public; another for politicians; another for the military; another for business and commerce; and probably most importantly, the perceived ‘enemy’. This may provide us with several inter-related and overlapping, but different, discourses. Carr proposed the idea that one’s own views are promoted by being veiled as in the interests of all.[11] He proposed a realist view of state and power, and the national self-interest represented.[12] This, given the time period of the research, may be a more accurate description of the ‘discourse’.

Reading these documents as ‘performances’ can be useful in some cases, but generally the research so far has shown that the majority of documents seek to downplay ‘performance’. The authors tend to focus on, what are to them, the facts of a particular situation. A large number of these documents were never intended to be seen by the general public, and their content is sometimes disturbing. Had they been written with an eye to future publication, the likelihood is the content would be different, as can be seen in those few items which are “polished” for public consumption. With both the original and public versions, we can see that harsh details are left out, and more general conclusions adopted. In the raw originals, difficult decisions affecting millions of people are taken. It is these raw originals which make up the vast majority of the research material for the study. Although we can never completely ignore the fact that some writers will be less analytical than others, we can use the large number of documents in cross-referencing and evaluating any particular writer’s view of a situation.

Alliance Theory is a comparative analysis of two or more countries within an alliance, but the structure of the analysis can be used to establish levels of defence spending in the alliance within a standardised framework. Although this research is not directly comparative, it is useful to understand, at least in outline, the spending patterns of other NATO members, and the research will provide specific isolated instances of comparison to establish baseline measures. NATO Alliance Theory tells us that in military alliances, larger countries will have a disproportionate share of the costs of defence to the smaller countries, and uses a methodology which measures such variables as GDP, defence spending and population size[13]. Benefits deriving from the common defence are also analysed in terms of “good” provided to the populations involved. This can be employment, national and local income from arms sales and foreign investment, or spin-offs from military production that find their way into consumer products. Included in the analysis is an evaluation of the convergence of purpose in an alliance, which is proposed to have direct effect on the sharing of burdens within the alliance (the stronger the convergence, the greater the disproportion of burden sharing.)

There are several areas of investigation that must be included in this research to make it valid. Not only will the capability of the military be investigated, but the political will to make unpopular and financially costly decisions, and the overall effect of policy within collective defence. The methodology planned for this research is an amalgam. It will use a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research, dealing with a range of subjects from the number of NATO small-arms ammunition rounds kept in War reserve for the front line troops to use in case of war, to the ability of the British Government to mobilise sufficient transport to move 300,000 US and Canadian reinforcements and their associated equipment from ports and airports around the country to the European Continent. A large part of the analysis will involve the reviewing of financial and material contributions to NATO, set against the force proposals. This information will be obtained from British Government and MOD papers. Financial data must be analysed with a solid baseline which takes into account inflation, foreign exchange and varying unit costs. The research will analyse particular aspects of defence policy that can be quantified directly, for example the provision of naval vessels committed to NATO’s Eastern Atlantic command in the event of a war, and compare the actual available naval vessels and their capabilities. Such comparisons can be applied to a variety of circumstances from tanks to hospital beds to ammunition reserves. The data will also analyse the cost of Home/Civil Defence as part of the Defence budget, and allow a conclusion to be drawn as to whether this fulfilled any NATO obligation, for example Key Point Defence[14], or whether it provided a positive benefit to Britain (as defined within Alliance Theory). The exercises mentioned as case studies will be analysed using counterfactual conditions taken directly from MOD exercises of the period which best reflect the perceived threat. The military, political and social awareness of the demands of the BAOR and Home/Civil Defence will be assessed here. Using an historically informed appreciation of the broader events of the time, the qualitative and quantitative findings mentioned above can be brought together to comprehensively answer the research aims.

It is axiomatic that research such as this cannot be undertaken without a long view of the history of British defence and foreign policy. Britain had, for the previous 200 or more years, focussed much of her foreign and military policy on maintaining a balance of power in continental Europe. This allowed her to focus on Imperial expansion, and latterly on securing trade-routes and supply. Membership of NATO, and the efforts put into that membership must be seen in context, otherwise certain events and policies will be misunderstood. King, Keohane and Verba state that, “All good research can be understood … to derive from the same underlying logic of inference.” [15] There is no one methodology that fits the research being undertaken, as it does not aim to prove or support a theory. Rather it seeks to understand and answer a fundamental question that is still relevant today, namely can the defence policy fulfil its aims? Alliance theory can aid in an analysis of the quantitative data, providing an assessment of the benefits to Britain of its NATO role, and the costs associated with it.

The fact that one methodology does not fit the research does not mean that aspects of that methodology cannot be used. A criticism that may be levelled at this research is that it doesn’t have a recognised methodology, in the way that Small-N or Discourse analysis is recognised. However, the final methodology must be designed with rigour in mind, such that it answers any criticisms of structure and coherence within the framework of the required research.

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