The Alphen Group Geopolitics, Strategy and Innovation

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TAG Virtual Conference: Zeitenwende – An Era of Change?

September 13th, 2022

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

“We (Germans) have to pay for solidarity”.

The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine led the German political class, people and armed forces to begin a change of mind-set over the role of Germany in European defence and the utility and purpose of force, but it will be a long process. Change is by no means assured due to a profound lack of understanding about deterrence in Germany, the tendency to equate more institutions with increased fighting power, and the huge cost of improving the readiness of the Bundeswehr. However, Germany has abandoned its belief that reliance on Russian energy would lead to convergence between German and Russian values and policies with the mantra of ‘wandel durch handel’ (change through trade) and the belief that mercantilism is grand strategy little more than self-serving strategic fraudulence. Berlin’s belief that energy could be securely sourced from Russia, production out-sourced to China, and debt ‘out-sourced’ to other Eurozone states lies in tatters.

The immediate consequences are the decisions to abandon Nordstream 2, the provision of weapons to Ukraine, and the rebuilding of the Bundeswehr. The latter decision has three main elements: the establishment of a ‘Special Budget’ ostensibly to help invest in a future force, an increase the defence budget to 2% GDP, which if realised would afford Germans an increase in the defence budget from the current $47bn to $75bn, and the decision to procure F-35s and a range of advanced drones.  

Smoke and mirrors? Much of the increase to the defence budget comes from the national contingency fund and is thus temporary and could fall going forward, whilst in the absence of a clear military strategy much of the ‘Special Budget’ has been consumed by short-term fixes to “fill all the holes in the yard”. It is also far too small to correct the decades-long hollowing out of the Bundeswehr, particularly under Chancellor Merkel. There are also profound splits in both the governing coalition and opposition over the extent to which Germany should re-invest in its armed forces, with the biggest block seemingly Chancellor Schölz.

The role of allies will be vital in compelling Germany to really “break an era”, particularly the US. Germany is already well “behind the curve” in its efforts to reach 2%. Germany is also beginning to face hard political choices over cost and consequences. Scholz’s August 2022 Prague Speech highlighted strains in the defence-strategic relationship with France is under strain, particularly over the Future Combat Air System and air defence. The NATO Strategic Concept and the Madrid Summit again seem more important to Berlin than the EU Strategic Compass and its promise to afford the Union a “full spectrum force”. The relationship with Poland is not at all easy given Warsaw’s claim for €1.3 trillion of war reparations and the Poles may well claim some of the proposed expenditure as reparations-in-kind. The design of the German future force will also need to be driven by high-end interoperability with US forces. The re-orientation of the Bundeswehr back from expeditionary crisis management to bulwark of land deterrence in NATO’s expanding north and north-eastern Europe will inevitably push Berlin closer to Washington and London. The minimum military test of Zeitenwende will be the creation by 2030 of at least three fully-equipped and agile combat-ready Bundeswehr divisions.

A new National Security Strategy will probably be launched at the 2023 Munich Security Conference which will suggest the depth and extent of the Zeitenwende, including its relationship with China. Germany can no longer hide in the plain sight of history if it fails to follow through with Zeitenwende and Berlin can no longer imply an equivalency between China, Russia and the United States. Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Zeitenwende is defence expenditure. For much of the last twenty to thirty years the Bundeswehr has been a ‘Potemkin force’, more appearance than strength as the political class has transferred the responsibility for, and the risk of, making Germany military missions work onto their young men and women in uniform. As such, German defence policy has been a monumental waste of German taxpayer’s money as well a form of free-riding on the tax-payers of allies, most notably the United States. 

The more impeccably democratic, Atlanticist, European Germany spends on defence the greater the value for money that will be afforded to its taxpayers and the more equitable the sharing of burdens with its over-stretched allies and partners. For that reason, and because for the first time since the end of the Cold War Germans feel threatened, Zeitenwende’s three principal drivers are likely to endure. First, the settled German political settlement on defence has been profoundly disrupted by Russia. Second, the renewed and consequent focus on what Germany must do to defend itself is sharp. Third, self-criticism over why and how Germany failed/refused to understand Russia’s drift towards war is deep. It is hard to see how Berlin can turn the clock back as A.E. Houseman once wrote, “The past is another country. They do things differently there”.

Julian Lindley-French is the Chair of The Alphen Group

What Can Allies Expect of Germany? 

“Those Allies who expect Germany to pull its weight in the security and defence of Europe will be disappointed”.

December 14th, 2021.  Decisions taken by the new German government will have profound implications for Europe’s security and defence and the wider transatlantic relationship.  Last week, The Alphen Group, which I have the honour to chair, discussed what Allies can expect of Germany.  The note of that meeting is below. 

It is too early to tell what Allies can expect of Germany with formation of the new government, although it is clear that whilst the tone and emphasis of German foreign and security policy might shift marginally, the essential tenets will remain by and large the same. The election produced no mandate for major reform of the core tenets of German foreign, security and defence policy, but some important reforms are at least intended, such as to the defence procurement system. While a National Security Strategy is foreseen, no Defence White Paper is planned. 

For the Government to endure the SPD needs the support of its junior partners. Therefore, much of the coming debate will be about whether the Coalition Compact sets the direction of travel of German policy or the SPD. These tensions will persist as the coalition will be transactional with little ‘love between the three parties’ with a constant “tug of war between idealists and realists”.  Equally, the coalition compact is more forward leaning on foreign and security policy than some expected with an “emphatic Atlanticism”.  However, whilst the compact reflects the Greens and FDP influence it is likely the SPD that will try to dictate policy, with foreign policy made in the Bundeskanzleramt. 

The language on Russia and China is tougher than that of the Merkel administration, but the new administration will also seek to de-escalate tensions in and over Ukraine and the passage on US-German relations is less “cheerful” than four years ago. There is as yet no decision over the future of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline in spite of “huge pressure” to scrap it. There are also profound contradictions in German energy policy and energy security as Berlin grapples with meeting carbon commitments whilst maintaining energy supplies without becoming overly reliant on Putin’s Russia.  It could well be that “Germany will not cope without Russian gas”. 

There is a strong commitment to what the compact calls European “strategic sovereignty”, although it is markedly not referred to in the chapter on defence. To the new foreign minister “European sovereignty” is “not primarily a military question, but rather an economic and technological one”. There is also no mention of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the Maritime Airborne Weapons System (MAWS), or the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) programmes, which might point to the ongoing problems in Franco-German defence co-operation. Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) are only mentioned in passing under arms control. President Macron will devote the French presidency of the EU to work for a “fully sovereign Europe free to shape its external choices and destiny”, which might at first instance appear in line with German policy. However, the nature and cost of Macron’s ambitions will likely lead to clashes with Berlin, especially if en Marche! loses its majority in the Assemblée Nationale next May. German efforts to promote both a national/German and a European legislation to limit arms exports could be a source of particular contention with France and Berlin shows little appetite to support Paris in the Sahel. In fact, the first directive the new Defence Minister issued was to prepare an “exit plan” for Mali.

In the coalition compact there is strong support for NATO, a commitment to fulfil Alliance planning goals and meet spending targets (2% by the back door?), replace the Tornado dual-capable aircraft (DCA), equip the Bundeswehr with armed drones, and modernise procurement practices. However, Germany’s continued commitment to nuclear-sharing came at the expense of being observer at the conference of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has already gone public to de-emphasise and question the nuclear-sharing commitment.   There is little evidence that resolving the chronic lack of readiness from which the Bundeswehr suffers will be a priority.  This is partly because “Germany still dreams of being a big Switzerland” and there remains a profound lack of understanding amongst Germans about the role of military power in international relations.  It will be interesting to see how the government will link the tough language on Russia, China and defending international order and the rule of law with the use of military power, both in Europe and its neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific.  

Looking to the future, and even if voting patterns suggest younger Germans tend to  be more Realist than their forebears, Germany still needs to overcome its tendency to look inwards.  Germans do not feel threatened militarily which undermines solidarity with other Europeans who do. That begs a big question for the Allies: how best to bring Germany forward on defence.  Do Allies push Germany or simply leave it to Germans to decide for themselves. Clearly, it will take more time and both push and pull.  

Julian Lindley-French

TAG V-Conference: Are NATO and Turkey Compatible? October 7th, 2021 

“We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them”

The question is to a significant extent moot because whilst Turkey can be a difficult member of NATO, it is also indispensable and there is no mechanism for expelling Ankara. However, the retreat from the secular Kemalist constitution, the Islamisation of society, and the Ottomanisation of Turkey’s foreign and security policy under an increasingly autocratic President Erdogan sits uncomfortably with NATO’s mission to defend liberty and democracy. Turkish policy has become particularly repressive since the failed July 2016 coup attempt with many officers and academics under arrest, press freedoms severely curtailed, education increasingly politicised, and the constitution amended to give Erdogan more powers.

Turkey’s foreign policy has also become increasingly aggressive. Not only has Ankara moved closer (but not close) to Russia with its acquisition of the S400 air defence system and other weapons systems, it has also become increasingly aggressive towards Greece and Cyprus, particularly in the Aegean Sea.  Turkey has also harassed French oil exploration in the Aegean and become increasingly active in Libya and the Zohr gas field off the Egyptian coast.  Turkey also refuses to recognise the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and in support of its “Blue Homeland” policy is making exaggerated maritime claims in the Black Sea. 

Equally, the strategic location and weight of Turkey means some form of accommodation must be sought. The Allies must also recognise that Erdogan has some grounds for his mistrust of the West.  For many years the EU held out the promise of eventual Turkish membership when there was little or no prospect.  Washington also mismanaged aspects of its relationship with Turkey. The result is that little further pressure can be exerted on Turkey without also damaging NATO with the added danger that if Ankara becomes a permanent spoiler it could paralyse the Alliance.  Such a ‘brain-dead’ NATO would likely lead to coalitions emerging within an increasingly de-institutionalised Alliance. Whilst such coalitions could offer opportunities to better manage Erdogan it would also likely lead to further frictions within an already fractious NATO. 

The dilemma for the West is essentially one of values versus interests.  For the moment NATO has no alternative but to deal with President Erdogan.  Whilst Turkey is indispensable to NATO Ankara also needs the West because of the dire state of its economy, the conflict in Syria and instability on most of its borders.  Specifically, the need to keep Turkey onside without betraying the Kurds will prove very difficult.  There is no easy solution and given recent shifts in Western policy in both Syria and Afghanistan the Kurds have every right to fear they will be abandoned in favour of Turkey.  

Going forward NATO’s major powers need to discuss how to deal with Erdogan and better handle him personally by “at least talking to the guy”.  They will also need to play a long game and make some distinction between Erdogan and wider trends in Turkish policy.  Options? The NATO Strategic Concept could include language on the Black Sea, the Balkans, Georgia and Ukraine that is seen as constructive by Ankara. The EU has an important role to play by possibly further extending the customs union with Turkey and enabling a strengthened political role for so-called Third Countries that support CSDP operations. Turkey has the second largest army in the world and many EU-led operations will likely be close to Turkey. 

Turkey is an incompatible but indispensable member of NATO.  Therefore, just as Turkey’s membership of the Alliance will remain at best ambiguous, the Allies will also need to “play with ambiguity” when dealing with Ankara.  What if Turkey left NATO? Given Ankara’s recent tilt towards the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Turkey could become a strategic competitor of the West, particularly in the Middle East. Therefore, incompatibility or not it is better that Turkey remains a difficult member of the Alliance, rather than an aggressive competitor power outside. 

Julian Lindley-French

The Alphen Group V-Conference: The Geopolitics of the Arctic, May 19th, 2021

The West must seek institutional solutions to conflict in the Arctic, but also raise the cost of illegitimate unilateral action”.

High North, Low Politics?

What should the West do about an insecure Arctic? The Arctic is where geopolitics, geo-economics and climate change meet with profound security implications for North Americans and Europeans.  The ‘settled’ sovereignty of the Arctic is increasingly contested by Russia which not only possesses more than 50% of landmass (and legitimate interests therein) surrounding the Arctic Sea, but is seeking to expand its jurisdiction from 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) to 650 km.  Moscow’s strategic aim is to both expand Russia’s military footprint in the Arctic and to extend Russia’s ‘bastion’ defence far out into the Atlantic. If successful this would have profound implications for NATO defence and deterrence, and enable Moscow to control much of the $30 trillion in mineral riches believed to lie below the sea bed. Global warming could also open up a Northern Sea Passage that would shorten sea-lines of communication between East Asia and Europe by some 3000 km. It could also provide additional leverage for Russia and especially China over any collective, US led, effort against global warming.

The West’s response to such change has been slow.  Norway has worked for many years to increase NATO’s focus on the North Atlantic, including calling for a strengthened Allied presence in the Arctic to highlight the importance of the maritime dimension to transatlantic reinforcements during an emergency. However, most NATO members have little understanding of the Arctic or its strategic importance, whilst those that do have resisted NATO’s involvement. The five NATO Arctic States have traditionally seen the region as a locus for low politics rather than high politics.  For Denmark, the sovereign integrity of the Kingdom and its relationship with Greenland and the Faroe Islands has been a priority. For Canada, the status of its indigenous peoples was also deemed more important.  It had also been hoped that the Arctic Council would mitigate conflict and promote co-operation in the region, which to an extent it has.  However, the Arctic Council has no mandate to discuss military matters and Russia has withdrawn from fora that were established to promote peaceful mil-mil dialogue.  Although the US is now showing some interest in the region its response has also been slow with much of its effort is focused on Alaska, although the Biden administration plans to increase the number of military exercises and port calls in the European Arctic. 

A Frozen Conflict

In spite of the geopolitical competition evident in the Arctic it is still open to question whether sufficient unity of purpose exists between the Allies and partners. This lack of a coherent ‘we’ is further complicated by the US, Canada and Norway being members of NATO but not the EU, whilst Finland and Sweden are members of the EU but not NATO. Much will depend on the nature of Russia’s assertiveness, the extent to which China acts on its declaration that it is a ‘Near Arctic State’, and the degree to which Beijing and Moscow collaborate to exclude the West from the Arctic for geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. 

Game changer? Unlike in the past technology is now sufficiently advanced to enable such competition with two distinct world views now competing for influence over the Arctic – Western multilateralism against the Machtpolitik of Russia and China.  If the latter succeeds and, for example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is eclipsed, a precedent would have been established with potentially profound consequences.  There are striking similarities between Russia’s behaviour in the Arctic and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.  Climate Change is also acting as an accelerant for such competition.  

Speak softly but…

If the West is to engage to effect in a changing Arctic it will need first to collectively understand the scale and scope of the challenge it faces and then establish a hierarchy of interests which distinguish between the existential and the desired.  NATO?  It has become more engaged in the Arctic since 2014 and Russia’s seizure of Crimea, but now the Alliance must become far more involved.  At the very least the West must collectively seek to strengthen co-operation in non-military areas, but at the same time ensure the price for all and any unilateral military action in the region will be high. 

Julian Lindley-French

The Alphen Group V-Conference: ”Future Tech, Future Battlespace “

April 26, 2021

The discussion started from the proposition that the Alliance was at serious risk of being technically outcompeted by potential adversaries. And disturbing differences in capabilities between allies called its future coherence into question. Some remained obstinately analogue, through available budgets and political choices. Others, especially, the US, were increasingly preoccupied with expensive and demanding digitally enabled technologies such as cyber, AI, exquisite Fifth-Generation platforms, and precision weapons, driven by the prospect of confrontation with an unprecedentedly capable China. Without significant and widespread innovation and modernisation, the Alliance could historically be judged to be maintaining analogue pre-dreadnought capabilities while hostile rivals were researching and designing digital Dreadnoughts. We could therefore well be leaving ourselves open, through complacency and economic short-sightedness, to devastating Future Shock. At the very least, leading Allied nations had to continue technical competition for national and overall Western credibility. But the familiar but increasingly complex dilemma was reconciling expensive technical sophistication while retaining sufficient mass of forces.

And the alternative perspective could not be ignored: technology was not in itself militarily decisive, as World War II, Vietnam-and now, Afghanistan-had shown. Competitive advantages were constantly copied, eroded, or evaded by low-tech solutions, often simply by moving into rough, forested or urban terrain and digging in. Intense protracted conventional combat would remain a serious possibility, requiring determined boots on the ground prepared for grinding close combat against “rustic” enemies with AK-47s and no heavy weapons. The latest Ukrainian border crisis had been a stark reminder of the permanent relevance of threateningly deployable conventional hard power. To counter that, Allied numbers would continue to matter, and the possibility of strategic surprise could never be eliminated, even by perfect surveillance, as in chess. While technology certainly provided force multipliers, if remaining units and personnel numbers were hollowed out to become “a two-horse circus”, the diminished resultant force structure would be predictably fragile in any sustained high intensity conflict. (This is a criticism already levelled at the U.K.’s 2021 Integrated Review with its significant reductions in manpower alongside a proudly declared shift towards high-tech platforms and capabilities.) There was a general risk of doctrinal capture by “technological millenarians”, or “asymmetrical dreamers” whose seductive, industrially promoted, promises could turn NATO into a collection of clever, casualty averse, “pussycats”.

How was the dilemma to be managed? NATO had evolved a common War Fighting Capstone Concept but no effective shared methodology for guiding and coordinating investment choices. There could be no one single optimum trade-off between numbers and capabilities in every field. There was already an observable drift towards the Westphalianisation of force structures. The list of strategic tasks continued to expand, against a shrinking roster of nations able to undertake them alone. Interoperability was becoming harder to maintain, and future technological coherence might be as important, and difficult, as political cohesion.

Solutions and mitigating factors therefore urgently needed to be better understood. It was possible that the US technical lead had been exaggerated in some areas and that the larger European countries were already themselves planning to invest to fill gaps revealed from open sources. And capability imbalances could also be minimised by alliance planning, and partners with whatever level of capability should be found useful roles. Poorer and less technically capable Allies could, for example, take on responsibilities for combating the new threat mix of disinformation, corruption, and funding of proxies, so damagingly evident in Ukraine. This could be part of an overdue collective effort to cope with the future “battlespace” rather than simply the battlefield. Most of the vocabulary and capability for the new threat picture might not be military at all.

But there was a minimum essential, technically demanding, and expensive, military list. Every ally needed to maintain forces with appropriate readiness, professional competence, and situational awareness, contributing to and relying on a Common Operating Picture, and providing appropriate inputs for intelligence fusion. (Effectiveness here could depend upon national geopolitical position, experience and awareness as much as sophisticated remote sensors: dock police in Baltic harbours might, for example, detect indicators missed by satellites.) Assured communications formed a vital part of the list: secure tactical frequency-hopping radios were essential for advanced command and control. Logistical compatibility, cyber security and host nation protection of critical transport infrastructure were all also indispensable components.

In major individual procurement decisions, it would be vital to minimise vulnerabilities from single point dependence upon suppliers and production facilities, or from restricted ranges of sensor or positioning systems. More fundamentally, the Alliance should try to enhance its underlying rate of technical innovation: partly by better liaison with universities, working round anti-military academic institutions, and through better liaison between US/NATO and the EU, which would be playing a greater role in defence relevant R&D. But the real bottlenecks would probably lie in available funding rather than brainpower.

Diplomacy and arms control options would also remain possibilities to mitigate technical threats and surprises and limit competitive expenditures. It would be politically advantageous to pursue them and strategically desirable to succeed, but increasingly difficult to expect reliable negotiated outcomes in intangible realms such as cyber or AI. 

Overall, Alliance management of the demands and divisive affordability of new technologies was an ineluctable, decades-old problem. Judgements about it would inevitably differ. But there were genuine reasons to fear it had taken on greater urgency. Technology itself was accelerating, multiplied by the potential of machine learning, and adversaries revealed they were responding. Gaps and solutions would need to be repeatedly reanalysed and incrementally addressed at the national and Alliance level. There would be no simple, lasting or cheap solutions. But this challenge was too fundamental to allow vulnerabilities to grow through complacency or inattention.

Paul Schulte

April 2021

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