Conventional Defence

Robert Neild

  • A Policy for Peace by Field-Marshal Lord Carver
    Faber, 123 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 571 11969 7
  • The Third World War: The Untold Story by General Sir John Hackett
    Sidgwick, 256 pp, £9.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 283 98449 X
  • Six Armies in Normandy by John Keegan
    Cape, 395 pp, £8.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 01541 9

It is hard these days to open the newspapers without seeing a reference to the notion that Nato should improve its conventional defences. One day General Rogers, the Supreme Commander of Nato, is saying it, the next day it is Mary Kaldor, an advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, par excellence a ‘peacenik’. Strange bedfellows. Why this convergence on conventional defence? And where is it likely to lead us?

The first question is not too hard to answer. Most people who reject nuclear weapons are not pacifists, and many of the leaders of the anti-Bomb movement have emphasised their support for conventional defence. There has been discussion in and around the peace movements of different methods of conventional defence, such as the use of militias or the use of dispersed professional commandos armed with the latest gadgets. A British unofficial Commission on Alternative Defence is due to report soon.

Among the military there have been recurrent demands for more conventional forces ever since Nato was formed. The argument has been that Nato’s inferiority in conventional forces (which is disputed by some experts) means that it has to rely, dangerously, on early resort to nuclear weapons to check an invasion by Warsaw Pact conventional forces. Faced by the current wave of political opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles and Pershing II’s, what could make more sense than for the military to bid for more conventional forces? Politically, it means embracing the peace movement where there is common ground. Strategically, a stronger balance of conventional forces can be reckoned to help offset any loss to the planned balance of nuclear forces which the peace movement may cause.

So far so good. The military can be applauded for reacting sensibly to political demands. But there are two problems. One is that we may end up with more conventional forces and more nuclear weapons. The other is that if Nato strengthens its conventional forces, the Warsaw Pact may do likewise. We could then end up with a more intense conventional arms race, in addition to whatever is happening to the nuclear arms race.

The chances of getting a curtailment of Nato’s nuclear forces, if its conventional forces are improved, are hard to assess. A progressive withdrawal of battlefield nuclear weapons, which some people see as most urgent, would appear to be a step that should be taken unilaterally and might be undertaken out of enlightened self-interest by the military. But one cannot rely on that. And there is always a risk that these weapons may come to be regarded as bargaining chips, not to be moved until some progress is made in the negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear weapons, where America and Russia are now deadlocked, having each put down proposals obviously unacceptable to the other and publicised them so vigorously that they look insincere.

The risk of provoking a conventional arms race is a very different matter. It depends upon problems of strategy and weapons technology which seem scarcely to have been examined. If Nato’s conventional forces could be strengthened only by giving them a strong offensive capability, a conventional arms race would be likely. For by adding to your offensive capability you will frighten your enemy and cause him to react by arming in pursuit of balance. The crucial question, therefore, is: could Nato increase the defensive capability of its forces without increasing their offensive capability? For example, could it achieve this aim by increasing its anti-tank weapons while limiting or reducing its tank forces? What would be the net cost or saving of such a change? The answers depend on the relative price of the coming generation of tanks and anti-tank weapons, their relative efficiency for stopping the enemy and for driving him out, and other factors. According to a good many experts, the present trend of technology looks rather favourable to the defence.

If the defensive strength of Nato forces could be increased without increasing their offensive strength, it might be possible, not just to avoid an acceleration of the arms race, but to begin slowing it down. For a shift to conventional forces with a manifestly defensive capability may reassure your enemy. In time, it may even persuade him to follow your example and go for defensive forces himself. In that case, a reciprocal diminution of forces levels may occur.

This idea, which owes a lot to Professor Anders Boserup of Denmark, is important, but it has scarcely caught on yet. Meanwhile, the current spate of books on military matters mostly follows rather well-trodden tracks.

In his new little book A Policy for Peace Field-Marshal Lord Carver, an ex-Chief of Defence Staff, has the courage to tell us, as he has told the House of Lords and other audiences, that he does not believe that nuclear war, once started, could be limited. He therefore deplores Nato’s present reliance on early use of nuclear weapons and believes that conventional forces should be improved – in Britain’s case, by refraining from diverting money to the purchase of Trident. As for nuclear weapons, he believes that there are far too many in the world, but that the super-powers must keep a reasonable number for mutual deterrence. He proposes that the number of nuclear weapons should be reduced by negotiating agreements to get rid of certain systems, such as artillery and some kinds of aircraft. He seems to believe, optimistically, that this kind of negotiation, unlike others, would not end up in deadlock.

The greater part of the book is devoted to the Field-Marshal’s view of how the world came to be so dangerously overloaded with nuclear weapons. This is attributed to errors of military doctrine which led to the practice of total war, the policy of attacking ‘nerve centres’ and the pursuit of nuclear superiority. It is delivered in a brisk style and relies heavily on quotations from strategists, starting with Clausewitz.

You are left feeling that this book, like many of those thrown into the current debate on the Bomb, was written in rather a hurry. But it is a useful contribution all the same. Its weakness is that it does not offer a coherent long-run policy. The author, like many others, seems to be reaching for a Garden of Eden, which has never existed, where the two sides have a limited but equal number of nuclear weapons and time stands still.

General Hackett has produced a revised version of his whizz-bang airport book, The Third World War: The Untold Story. It is adorned with the curious subtitle, ‘A New Book’, which no one would think of adding if it was wholly true. It is really rather tedious to read, being weighed down with future histories of many different parts of the world, some of which have been falsified already.

The General has claimed that his aim in this book is to make the case for more Nato conventional forces in order to deter the Russians. But since in it he has to start a war for entertainment purposes, he unmakes the case: Nato improves its conventional defences, but the Russians, for far-fetched reasons, nevertheless attack in 1985. The way he ends the war is frivolous too: one city on each side is attacked by nuclear weapons, implying that nuclear war will be limited; the war then stops because of a coup in which Communism and the Soviet state melt like a snowflake.

John Keegan’s book Six Armies in Normandy is of a very different kind. In his earlier book, The Face of Battle, he managed to bring to life in an astonishing way the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. Now he has applied the same approach to the Normandy landings, taking in turn the experience of the different national armies in particular battles – the Americans’ airborne landings, the Canadians’ beach assault, and then the Scots, English, Germans, Poles and Free French in subsequent battles. Despite the fact that these battles were so recent, that they are so richly documented and that the period is still remembered by many of us – indeed John Keegan by way of introduction offers us an extended memoir of his wartime childhood – he gets away with it remarkably well. He provides an historian’s picture – or set of sketches – of events that have scarcely yet passed into history. There is perspective and order in them. And they are eminently readable, possessing at times the quality of long New Yorker articles at their best.

Many episodes and the character of the different armies stick in the mind, and so do many points relevant to discussion of defence today: what a muddle war is; how out-dated the weapons of 1945 now seem and how suspect must be the strategies that went with them. Old points perhaps, but it is good to be reminded of them in such a concrete way. This is the book that the thoughtful person will read and give to his son.