Unending battle

The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world

General Sir Rupert Smith <em>Allen Lane,

The United States is spending more than $500bn this year on its mili-tary capability. European nations, including Britain, invest another $150bn in their armies, navies and air forces. Despite all this, the military is stretched thinly across the globe, and at home there is a great sense of insecurity. General Sir Rupert Smith, in a very personal assessment, tries to explain from a historical perspective why it is all going wrong. As he writes: "Since the end of the cold war force has been used time and time again, yet failed to achieve the result expected."

And he should know: between 1990 and 2001 Smith commanded successively an armoured division in the first Gulf war, UN forces in Bosnia, British forces in Northern Ireland and, finally, was made deputy supreme allied commander Europe, with both Nato and EU command responsibilities. His basic thesis is that we no longer fight "industrial wars", or wars of survival between states. Instead we are engaged in conflicts and confrontations, or "wars amongst the people", which require a very different set of methods and strategic objectives. Neither decision-makers nor the public, however, have properly realised this; both are stuck in a time warp. And so we describe our current security problems in the language of old warfare, and structure our forces and strategy to fight campaigns that happened long ago.

Smith argues that the objectives in modern conflicts are very different from the clear victories that either side hoped to achieve in the past. The best that we can hope for are "conditions favourable to a desired outcome". We rarely fight on the formal battlefield, and conflicts may be unending. We preserve our forces rather than risk them for strategic advantage. The weapons and structures of old-style industrial warfare have to be adapted to new tasks for which they are not designed. The participants are a complex mix of non-state and multinational players.

According to Smith, Whitehall's structures reinforce the problem. Of the ministries of foreign affairs and defence, he writes: "Their very being, and therefore world vision, is predicated on industrial war." This leads to difficulties in gathering intelligence, formulating the right objectives, limiting risks, co-ordinating effort and, perhaps most importantly, maintaining the will to succeed. Early in the book, Smith produces a somewhat arguable formula for measuring capability in terms of means, ways and will. However, as he shows using the example of Somalia in 1993, a weak warlord can defeat the mighty US - if the latter lacks the will to continue. Often insurgents have more capability because their will is stronger - in which case our industrial war-fighting means are of little relevance.

Inevitably the reader will look for solutions to our current problems in Iraq. Smith is not defeatist, and argues that military force can still be used effectively. But for it to be useful, there must be a clearly understood desired outcome, which all participants can work towards. For this reader, the lack of such clarity has been the flaw of Iraq policy throughout, as objectives have changed to suit the changing political agenda. If security thinking does not change, there are more disasters ahead.

Tim Garden, a former air marshal, is the Lib Dem defence spokesman in the Lords