Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written evidence from the Henry Jackson Society

The author is President of the Henry Jackson Society and Professor of the History of European International Relations, University of Cambridge. He thanks Dr Rowan Allport of the Henry Jackson Society for his help in preparing and drafting this report on behalf of the Society. The Henry Jackson Society is a cross-partisan, British think-tank which seeks to pursue, protect and

promote the principles of free and democratic societies. It focuses on Foreign and Defence policy, a remit under which it publishes research and promotes policy debate.

1. This document generally follows the headings set out in the announcement of 17 July 2013.

The legitimacy of intervention

2 It is widely imagined that until recently, the world’s politics followed a ‘Westphalian’ model sanctifying state sovereignty. In fact, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 specifically sanctioned outside intervention to keep the peace in Germany, and interventions in the internal affairs of other states have been routine, historically speaking.

3 Great Britain has a particularly long tradition of such interventions, most particularly with regard to the abolition of the international slave trade and slavery in Africa.

4 It is therefore imperative for parliamentarians to stop thinking of humanitarian intervention as an exception and to start understanding it as a fundamental part of the western political tradition.

5 The claim of the United Nations Security Council to act as the sole authorising body for intervention in the affairs of sovereign states needs to be seen in this broader context. It was, in any case, set aside during the Kosovo conflict, when the Council was paralysed by the attitude of Russia and China. The Report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (2000) described the resulting intervention as (technically) ‘illegal but legitimate’.

6 In this spirit, we should recognise that while Security Council approval is desirable, all interventions that make us and the peoples we are trying to help safer at an acceptable cost, are legitimate.

Implications of Treaty and other international obligations

7 Current formal UK defence obligations reside around mutual self-defence treaties. These obligations can embrace intervention, but it is not a conventional expectation of mutual defence agreements.

8 Intervention in its most well-known form is therefore more likely to fall under the far more informal concept of ‘international obligations’. Ever since the disaster in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and the failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the international community has sought to establish a framework to prevent a disaster of such a scale re-occurring. This culminated in the United Nations 2005 ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine.

9 Unfortunately, the decision regarding the use of force under R2P resides with the UN Security Council, and as such any action can be vetoed by one of the Permanent Five members. Moreover, whilst R2P does impose a moral obligation to use force if both necessary and authorised, it does not make intervention a legal requirement.

10 More important than R2P, is the general obligation imposed by our membership of western international society, where the promotion of democracy and the prevention of grave human rights abuses have been widely accepted, if not always practised, norms for some time. These obligations are particularly binding on Great Britain, given her status as a permanent member of the Security Council and thus presumptively as a leading guarantor of global justice and stability.

Discretionary and non-discretionary interventions

11 We cannot intervene everywhere, at once, and nor should we do so. British interventions will therefore be selective.

12 Interventions need to be paid for through blood and treasure, and they involve significant opportunity costs, not least in terms of political attention spans and appetite for fresh interventions. As the examples of Iraq and Syria show, failure or perceived failure in one case can seriously undermine the will and capacity to intervene in another theatre.

13 This means that the UK must be cautious about discretionary interventions. The operations in Sierra Leone, for example, advanced the national interest in the broadest sense by supporting the better side in a civil war, but they were not directed against a serious short or long term threat to British security.

14 That said, many human rights abusers also constitute a clear strategic risk. States that oppress their own populations, or fail to protect them, can also threaten us in four ways. Firstly, states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, engage in straightforward territorial aggression. Secondly, states such as Saudi Arabia export their internal tensions in the form of terrorism or religious extremism. Thirdly, states like Slobodan Milosevic’s rump Yugoslavia and its Bosnian Serb ally undermine collective security by engaging in ethnic cleansing. Finally, states like Afghanistan (pre-2001) are too weak to prevent terrorist groups from using their territory as a base from which to launch operations against the west.

15 Against this background, we may be able to determine the time and place of our interventions, but they are not discretionary in any meaningful sense of the word.

Relationship between deterrence, conflict prevention, containment and intervention: what should intervention be used for

16 Interventions can be reactive, for example the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing sponsored by Milosevic. They can be preventive, as in the case of the Libyan intervention designed to forestall an imminent massacre of the rebels and their families in Benghazi. There are also pre-emptive interventions designed to anticipate the emergence of a humanitarian crisis in some point in the future.

17 Finally, interventions can be implied. During the early stages of the Kosovo War, for example, the Yugoslav security forces showed comparative restraint in order to avoid a Bosnia-style NATO intervention (‘A village a day keeps NATO away’). Likewise, in Syria, the Assad regime was initially concerned to avoid bringing on an intervention of the kind it had just seen in Libya.

18 There are no hard and fast criteria to determine which interventions Britain should undertake and which she should pass up. The decision will always rest on a combination of feasibility, credibility and the extent to which a humanitarian crisis is likely to develop into a strategic one.

The nature of future interventions

19 Future interventions should be designed to protect and promote the universal values of human rights and democracy necessary to guarantee Britain’s security over the long-term, focusing particularly on crisis likely to become a strategic threat.

20 Few of the military interventions conducted by Her Majesty’s Government over the past twenty years were foreseeable a decade or so before they happened: Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) were all strategically unexpected. It is therefore extremely hard to predict where and when future interventions will be required.

21 The proposed intervention in Syria was aimed at resolving an escalating humanitarian crisis, enforcing the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and weakening or even hastening the removal of a brutal dictatorship. It is likely that we will soon have to revisit the problem.

22 Our hesitation in Syria has allowed Assad to kill civilians indiscriminately. As in Bosnia, the failure to intervene in timely fashion has also eroded the multi-ethnic centre ground, fundamentally changing the character of the conflict. This has made subsequent intervention both more necessary and more fraught.

23 The Syrian crisis is a symptom of three wider and related threats to our interests: Iranian ambitions, the lack of political freedom in the Middle East, and the Shia-Sunni religious divide. This means that conflicts, with their attendant humanitarian connotations, are likely to erupt (or continue) not only in Syria and nearby Lebanon, but also in the Shiite provinces of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Iranian province of Khuzestan with its Ahwazi Arab majority population. The Syrian crisis also inflames the ‘Kurdish Question’, with severe implications for Turkey and Iraq.

Preparation and readiness of UK armed forces for intervention, and her ability to act without allies

24 Britain has the capacity to intervene on a substantial scale, but its ability to do so at arm’s length is limited.

25 Thanks to her ability to project conventional military might overseas, the United Kingdom is still arguably the third most powerful state in the world. Moreover, as a consequence of the withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom will soon be in a better position to launch a new intervention than at any point in the past ten years or so. For the rest of this year and throughout 2014, however, assets will remain fixed due to the Afghanistan commitment, limiting our ability to intervene elsewhere.

26 That said, UK ability to act from a ‘cold start’ is still very limited. The only army formation available for immediate high-speed deployment in an intervention scenario is the ‘Airborne Task Force’ (ATF) component of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Formed from one of the brigade’s two ‘battlegroups’ (an infantry battalion plus appropriate artillery, logistical, engineering and armoured support – up to 1,600 personnel in the case of the ATF), this unit is at ‘high readiness’ to deploy immediately. The entire brigade (which includes a number of Apache attack helicopter squadrons) is designed to be deployable within three months.

27 Under current plans, it is intended that the army will in future possess three armoured infantry brigades for use in interventions beyond the abilities of light airborne forces. In peacetime, one of these armoured infantry brigades is designated as being at high readiness, and will provide a single very high readiness battlegroup - a ‘Lead Armoured Task Force’ - prepared for immediate deployment. However, the inherent difficulty of moving a large number of armoured vehicles will limit the speed at which this force can reach its destination. The remainder of the high readiness brigade is designed to be deployable within three months. In the event of the British Army embarking on an enduring stabilisation operation, these three brigades would combine with two deployable (with notice) infantry brigades to provide the five brigades necessary to maintain one brigade in theatre at any one time.

28 Given sufficient notice, it is planned that the army will be able to deploy up to three brigades for a limited period in order to stage a ‘division-level’ intervention.

29 The Royal Navy (RN) has a substantial capacity to support an intervention with two helicopter carriers, two Albion class landing platform/docks, six very advanced Type 45/Daring Class destroyers, thirteen Type 23/Duke class frigates, fifteen mine countermeasures vessels, seven attack submarines, and four Vanguard class ballistic missile (Trident) carrying submarines. These forces are supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which provides the RN with both logistical support (tankers, stores and repair ships) and additional amphibious landing capabilities (via the Bay and [contractor operated] Point class transport ships).

30 The RN is able to land and sustain a battlegroup-sized force of 1,800 Royal Marines. This is performed via the use of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG), a formation that is drawn from the fleet above and can typically comprises of one helicopter carrier, one Albion class LPD, two destroyers/frigates, two Bay class landing ships, one Point class ro-ro ferry, and two tanker/stores ships. A force such as this has the ability to ‘loiter’ in the general region in which an intervention is being considered, presenting political leaders with military options without inflaming the situation in a way that the deployment of land-based assets would.

31 Prior to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the RN had the theoretical ability to put the entire Royal Marine Commando brigade ashore simultaneously. However, now only one ‘Lead Commando Group’ is able to be landed at short notice. As with the army’s air assault brigade and high readiness armoured infantry brigade, the remainder of the Commando brigade requires longer notice to deploy, and as a result of cuts to amphibious shipping would likely have to either be flown into the combat zone and/or be transported using chartered civilian transport.

32 The lack of a serviceable aircraft carrier until 2020 is a huge problem as it limits the provision of air support to an intervening force. Another difficulty is that whilst there is no doubt as to the capability of the existing vessels, particularly the Daring-Class destroyers, their expense means that the Navy has few of them. The psychological advantage of a larger fleet is thus lost, as is flexibility in mounting multiple operations. Here the French, who have a larger number of less capable ships, may have the edge in conducting ‘lower end’ interventions.

33 Given the availability of suitable airfields in theatre, something that can by no means be guaranteed, the Royal Air Force (RAF) is potentially capable of providing extensive support to an intervening force sourced from four (soon to be five) front line Typhoon fighter/strike squadrons, [1] five (soon to be three) front line Tornado strike squadrons, three Chinook helicopter squadrons, two Merlin helicopter squadrons (to be transferred the Royal Navy in 2016), two Puma Helicopter squadrons, one C-17 transport squadron, three Hercules transport squadrons, two tanker/transport squadrons, two Reaper drone squadrons, plus a broad selection of surveillance and support assets. However, it must be borne in mind that only a limited portion (perhaps a third to one half) of these force elements can be forward deployed at any one time due to training and equipment maintenance requirements, together with the need to sustain other military commitments such as the air defence of the UK.

34 Great Britain also has an important ‘stand-off’ capacity - the ability to engage targets on the ground at effectively zero (immediate) risk to aircrew or ships’ companies. The RAF has the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which is air-launched from the Tornado strike aircraft (and, possibly in the future, also from the Typhoon), carries a penetrator warhead, and has a range of over 150 miles, placing the launch aircraft beyond the reach of any air defence missile system likely to be possessed by an opponent. Each Tornado typically carries two of these weapons. The second ‘zero-risk’ system the RAF possesses is the Reaper drone which can carry a variety of laser-guided bombs and missiles. It is highly vulnerable, however, to both enemy aircraft and high-altitude air-defence missiles.

35 The lack of a functioning aircraft carrier currently limits the meaningful stand-off capacity of the RN to the firing of submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles (range 1000 miles, warhead 1000lb). Only the seven attack submarines of the RN are currently capable of carrying them. Indeed, of the one hundred and twelve or so missiles fired at Libya on the opening night of the NATO intervention, it is reported that only two were RN-launched. During the recent ‘intervention-that-never-was’ in Syria, it is unlikely that the RN would have fired more than five or six missiles.

36 Many of these restrictions in the RN’s abilities will be resolved in 2020 with the regeneration of the RN’s aircraft carrier capability. Currently, the RN is limited only to helicopter carriers, and the only land-attack capability they possess is the handful of army Apache helicopters they can host. However, the fragility of such helicopters in the face of enemy air defences makes their use risky, which explains the conservative manner in with they were deployed in Libya.

37 All this means that, while the UK is capable of launching substantial intervention and stabilisation operations, the UK’s ability to deter and intervene at arm’s length is currently limited.

How does the UK incorporate lessons learned

38 We should avoid a rigid approach to ‘learning lessons’, despite the procedures now in place for doing so in principal departments of government. These generally tend to reflect the last experience, rather than providing a useful guide to future interventions.

39 This means that we cannot ‘train’ policy-makers to deal with interventions. It is only possible to educate them, or for them to educate themselves through the study of past operations in all their complexity. One way of doing this would be by sending decision-makers from relevant government departments such as DfID and FCO as well as the Services on a relevant Masters course at a leading university.


40 The assumption that military intervention is a last resort needs to be re-examined. The failure to intervene at an early stage can make a subsequent intervention both more imperative and more complicated.

41 Despite cuts, Britain’s armed forces remain capable of substantial military interventions, given sufficient notice. There is a case, however, for re-examining the trade-off between quality and quantity so as to enable a larger number of ‘lower-end’ interventions. There is also an urgency about improving the immediate ‘stand-off’ capability of the Armed Services, in order to react to the unexpected.

42 After every intervention we have tended to say ‘never again’ and then done it again. It is therefore time to accept that intervention is part of our intellectual, cultural, political and strategic framework, and always has been. It is what we do and who we are.

October 2013

[1] RAF fighter and strike squadrons are usually around 12 aircraft strong

Prepared 28th November 2013