Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from Commodore Steven Jermy RN


Events, and Her Majesty’s Government’s actions in Libya suggest that the UK has still not recovered its ability to think and act strategically in pursuit of the national interest. Although, at the time of writing, the campaign appears to have taken a more positive turn, this may be temporary, and very possibly more to do with good luck than with good strategy. Luck—good and bad—very often plays an important role in operations and war, and we should naturally be prepared to ride good luck. But equally, we should also work to understand how to improve our strategy-making and, thus, our overall strategic performance.


1. I, Commodore Steven Jermy RN, am a recently retired naval officer, with a particular interest in strategy. My service career spanned carrier aviation, ship command and high level staff appointments and I served: at the operational level in carrier aviation, including flying from HMS INVINCIBLE in the Falklands War and commanding the Fleet Air Arm; at the strategic level, including as Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of Defence Staff and as Strategy Director in the British Embassy in Afghanistan.

2. Since retiring, I have published the book Strategy for Action: Using Force wisely in the 21st Century, which seeks to improve the way in which strategy is made and, thus, the way force is used in pursuit of the national interest.

3. I judge that, whilst recent progress in Libya seems positive, there are likely to be difficult months ahead and, more importantly for the Select Committee, key lessons to be learned, based on our experience to date.

4. The lessons are apparent in six inter-related areas: first, our ability to analyse the political context; second, our ability to identify and pursue a coherent political objective, calculated in relation to the national interest; third, our ability to create and execute strategy to deliver an identified political objective; fourth, our understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of air, rather than land, support to indigenous forces; fifth, the costs and consequences of being unable to deploy fast jets from British aircraft carriers; sixth, the consequences of the lack of a higher level British foreign policy or grand strategy and institutional competency in Whitehall in strategic-thinking and strategy-making. The campaign’s strategic narrative provides a useful backdrop for the analysis.


5. Following peaceful protests on 15 February 2011, the Libyan Army and Police were forced from Benghazi by 18 February, and the National Transitional Council formed on 27 February. At around this time, the British Prime Minister proposed the imposition of a no-fly zone, to prevent the use of Gaddafi’s forces against Libyan civilians. On 17 March, the UN Security Council authorised UNSCR 1973, the two key elements of which were the imposition of a no-fly zone and the authorisation of “all necessary means”, other than a “foreign occupation force”, to protect civilian and civilian-populated areas.

6. On 19 March, French forces, later joined by aircraft of most coalition partners, began operations against Libyan ground forces in the Benghazi areas and, more broadly, against the Libyan air-defence system. Although operating under the authority of UNSCR 1973, the coalition’s air targeting policy suggested an intent that went beyond the mandate, with regime change appearing to be the tacit but unstated political objective. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary made clear in public statements that the British would wish to see Gaddafi gone. This aggressive interpretation of the UNSCR 1973 inevitably put pressure on the coalition, with public concerns voiced by a number of key coalition members and other important international powers, not least China and Russia.

7. Meanwhile, the progress of the campaign in May and June 2011 was to-and-fro, unsurprisingly given that, despite the advantage of air power, the rebels were, initially, not armed and organized as a fighting force. With the assistance of “advisors” including, according to some sources, coalition Special Forces, rebel forces were able to operate more effectively, and in particular more consistently secure their gains. The rebels’ successful invasion of Tripoli, and critically, the rising up of local people, in August led to Gaddafi’s withdrawal, and the rump of the regime forces fighting a rearguard campaign in the remaining regime strongholds.

Understanding the Political Context

8. It is not clear, based on the evidence of the Government’s actions, that the political analysis of the situation in Libya, prior to the West’s intervention, was not sufficiently comprehensive, nor contained the insights, to support the planning of a properly scoped operation.

9. What such an analysis ought first to have shown was that the situation in Libya was quite different to, for example, that in the early days of the Afghanistan intervention; and that this would, in turn, have implications for the utility of air power.

10. In Afghanistan, there was a simmering civil war, prior to the intervention, between two reasonably evenly-matched opponents—the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. And thus, when air power, properly directed by Western Special Forces, was used to support the Northern Alliance, the results were quick and decisive.

11. Whereas in Libya, the uprising was at its very earliest stage, with a significant imbalance between the opponents—Gaddafi’s security forces and the rebels—in military capability. Given the lack of an obvious military entity to give the uprising early power, it was reasonably foreseeable that the uprising would take time to gain military capability and, thus, success. And, by deduction, it was similarly foreseeable that the intervention was likely to be of extended duration. And yet the Government in particular and the Coalition in general, on the evidence of both statements and actions, appeared surprised, and then concerned, by the length of time needed to defeat Gaddafi’s forces.

12. This weakness in political analysis appears to being playing into the Government’s understanding of the current context, post the defeat of Gaddafi’s security forces. The Government’s statements and actions give the strong impression of the National Transitional Council (NTC) as a coherent regime in waiting—as evidenced by Britain’s, and other’s, international recognition of the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government.

13. Whereas informal reporting and, latterly, the unwillingness of rebel forces and local defenders to give up arms suggests that the NTC has, as yet, uncertain legitimacy and fragmentary power, as demonstrated by its inability, at the time of writing, to extend its writ into Tripoli.

14. Furthermore, the second significant difference, between the Afghanistan and Libyan campaigns, is the absence of Western troops on the ground. The consequence of this, and the NTC’s limited ability to impose its will, is that, notwithstanding a very significant investment of Western military resource, we have precious little—if indeed any—control over how events will now pan out.

15. In the long view, this is probably not a bad thing, in that responsibility for Libya’s future will rest ultimately with Libyans. But in the short term, there needs to be some government recognition—and explanation to the British public—of this lack of control. And there also probably needs to be some thought given to government policy, based on the different scenarios that could play out in Libya.

16. An optimistic scenario is of a general increase in stability, widespread acceptance of the NTC as it gains legitimacy, and measured progress toward some form of political system that results in representative government, acceptable to the general population. But two pessimistic scenarios are equally plausible.

17. In the first, the weakness of the NTC’s power and an unwillingness for armed groups to accede to its writ, leads to a sustained period of insecurity which could include, for example, significant revenge killings of: former Gaddafi forces; Gaddafi-aligned tribes; Sub-Saharan Africans. The British Government would need to consider its position in the event of a request, by people attacked under such a scenario, for the use of British air power, against rebel forces, to “stop slaughter.”

18. In the second, Islamic extremists gain an upper hand. This could because they are able, in the same way as the Taliban, to deliver local security when the NTC cannot. Or it could be as a result of a democratic process.

19. In either scenario, the victory would look pyrrhic, at best, but might also lead to increasing threat to British interests, at least in the short term.

Identifying the Political Objective

20. The British Government, and the French, appears to have fallen into the same trap as the Blair administration did in Iraq, in that its military actions suggest that it has pursued a political objective of regime change, which is rather different to UN authorised objective of protecting civilians (or, as routinely stated by the Prime Minister, “stopping slaughter”). The remarks of the Foreign Secretary have, at times, come perilously close to admitting this point.

21. Of course, the apparent success of the rebels against Gaddafi’s forces allows for some post hoc justification of this approach. Be that as it may, long time political and strategic costs may result.

22. First, key non-Western countries—particularly China and Russia—who are uncomfortable with the idea of interference by the international community in internal activities of sovereign states may, in the future, be less willing to sanction UNSCRs argued for genuine humanitarian reasons.

23. Second, the West in general, and Britain and France in particular, are now open to the charge of political hypocrisy, should we choose not to intervene to “stop slaughter” in the future. We have been saved from this prospect in Syria, so far, thanks to the Syrian people’s desire for no external assistance. But were, for example, Bahraini or Yemeni uprisings to seek our support, or the Syrian people change their minds, we could find ourselves in a difficult political position.

24. The much more fundamental problem, for Britain at least, is the lack of a compelling argument to say why, and to what degree, the pursuit of either the stated or tacit political objectives are in the British national interest.

25. This is important because, without an understanding of how the political objective contributes to the national interest, it is difficult to decide what price we should be prepared to pay—in blood and treasure—in its pursuit. And without an understanding of the blood and treasure—ie the resources—we are prepared to deploy and expend, it is difficult, if not impossible, to shape the right strategy to offer the best chances of delivering success.

Lack of a Coherent Strategy

26. An early lack of military strategy was evident from an examination of Government and Coalition statements, all of which focused on the creation of a no-fly zone—note that a no-fly zone is a term of military doctrine, not a strategy.

27. The imposition of such a zone requires that just two things be achieved: first, a condition of Coalition air superiority over opposing air forces; second, the neutralisation of enemy air defences, so as to enable one’s own aircraft to fly over the zone without interference. A no-fly zone does not, however, require the destruction of enemy ground forces.

28. Of course, UNSCR 1973 also authorises the use of “all necessary means”—ie armed force—to protect civilians. In the case of Libya, this provides a reasonable, albeit not wholly watertight, argument to support the use of force to protect civilians from the impact of offensive operations by Gaddafi’s forces against, for example, rebel-held areas.

29. However, the use of NATO air power to support offensive operations by rebel forces against those of Gaddafi falls outside UNSCR 1973’s authority, and thus do not appear to comply with international law. This, too, is further evidence of a lack of strategy in that had a coherent strategy been shaped early, then a key consideration in that shaping would have been that force be used within the framework of authority provided by UNSCR.

30. The lack of strategy in military operations reduces the likelihood of success and increases the chances of error.

31. There are a number of related risks, of which three are germane. First, political and military decisions must be made on the hoof ie “muddling through”—with a heightened chance that they will be wrong. Second, there will be no strategic framework against which to measure progress. Third, military personnel will necessarily be strategically rudderless, which increases the pressure on commanders and may also undermine morale, as personnel sense the lack of overall strategic direction.

Air Support to Indigenous Forces

32. It is classically the case that air power is an important, but nevertheless supporting, arm in civil wars such as that in Libya. This is simply because air power cannot be used to seize and hold ground. Success in such operations will, rather, depend critically on the capacities of the opposing ground forces.

33. Furthermore, the successful use of air power to support land forces in turn depends critically on effective air-land integration, classically and contemporarily provided by Forward Air Controllers (FACs) working for land force commanders. The skill sets of FACs will not be available within a rebel army. It follows that, if air power is to be used successfully to support indigenous forces, then as a minimum professional FACs, with adequate force protection, will need to be on the ground, and provision needs to be made for this within UNSCRs.

34. Furthermore, whilst air power has significant utility during war-fighting operations, this utility drops sharply in post-conflict operations. So far, the International Coalition’s main contribution to, investment in, and opportunity to exert control over, the campaign has been through the use of air power, and this thus reinforces the point that, with the end of war-fighting operations, then so too ends the Coalition’s opportunity to substantively shape the course of events.

35. The key lesson is that this consideration needs to be borne in mind at the outset of any campaign where air forces, rather than land forces, are used as the primary instrument of intervention of British or Western power. If we choose this approach, we should do so in the knowledge that, once operations are complete, then whatever military and civil investment we may have made, we will have little if any strategic control over, but may nevertheless bear substantial responsibility for, the eventual outcome, whether good or bad.

Carrier versus Land Based Air

36. Of the major NATO nations engaged in the operation—the US, Britain, France, and Italy—only Britain did not deploy aircraft carriers. Britain’s inability so to do was a direct and immediate consequence of the SDSR decision to pay off HMS ARK ROYAL and the GR9 Harriers. This, in turn, constrained our freedom of action in three ways.

37. First, unlike the US, France and Italy, Britain had, necessarily, to ask for permission to use local airfields—in this case, Italian—in order to participate, sustainably, in the campaign. It is often stated, by over enthusiastic air power advocates, that the UK has Access, Basing and Overflight (ABO) rights around the world and that, for this reason, aircraft carriers are not essential for the deployment of air power. Whereas the legal reality is that there are only two generic locations in the world from where Britain has the right to operate military aircraft: first, British sovereign territory; second, Royal Navy warships operating in international waters.

38. In all other locations in the world, we must seek the permission of the base nation and our ability, thus, to operate British military aircraft from non-sovereign land bases is always subject to the political agreement, decision and, ultimately, whim of the basing nation, acting in its national interests.

39. The Libyan experience thus underlines the good sense of the Government’s decision to continue with the purchase of the two new aircraft carriers. But it also unequivocally exposes the risk that we will bear between now and the recovery of the aircraft carrier capability, which, under current plans, will not be meaningful until 2023, and very possibly later.

40. These strategic risks are not trivial. For example, for the first time in over 100 years, Britain will be unable to mount operations of the scale and nature of the Falklands War of 1982 or the Sierra Leone intervention of 1998. And we will remain in this position for well over a decade.

41. Second, even where ABO agreement has been secured, if the air bases are at distance from the area of operations, then costs of maintaining aircraft on station, for example to enforce a no-fly zone or maintain a combat air patrol, can increase very significantly. The increased costs are multi-faceted, but include airframe hours, which are a major cost driver as well as transit fuel and the additional costs of supporting tanker aircraft.

42. There is also an operational price in that more aircraft will be needed to provide airpower at distance, the corollary being that the same amount of aircraft operating from distance will be unable to provide the same effective combat power as those operating close by.

43. Third, distance may also mean that it is impossible to deploy some key capabilities. Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) is a case in point in that the CSAR cover for British aircrew operating over Libya was—and could only have been—provided from NATO carriers operating in international waters in the Gulf of Sirte.

Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy

44. The final—and perhaps most important—lesson is to do with the absence of an overarching foreign policy or, in its harder-edged form, grand strategy, with which to address the Arab Spring and the broader issue of extremist Islam in the Maghreb and Middle East.

45. This lack manifests itself in the Libyan operation, most obviously in our continuing inability to distinguish between those crises that, because they occur in key strategic areas, bear critically on the British national interest, and those that do not. It seems clear, for example, that events in the Maghreb, whether or not they may be morally reprehensible, will bear less critically on Britain’s national interest than those in the Gulf or Suez.

46. And yet, whilst already heavily engaged in Afghanistan, Britain elected to engage in Libya and use most of its remaining military contingency, thus loosing its ability, at a time of unusual historical volatility, to act in these critical strategic areas.

47. This is perhaps because of the lack any coherent regional policy or grand strategy against which to balance the advantages of intervening in Libya against the disadvantages of critically prejudicing our ability to act elsewhere, in more important strategic areas. This looks to be further evidence of a worry, already explored by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) in 2010, of the inability of Westminster and Whitehall—especially Whitehall—to think and act strategically, and suggests the PASC’s recommendations have yet to be acted upon. This is the most serious of all the concerns illustrated during the Libyan operation, and merits the closest scrutiny by the House of Commons Defence Committee.

9 September 2011

Prepared 7th February 2012