The Weakness of ‘People’ in Deterrence
Investing in people is a worthy cause in itself. But it plays a diminished role in deterrence.
It is rare to hear a speech on defence given by a senior British officer or minister that does not contain a variation on the mantra of ‘our greatest advantage is our people’. This is often followed by assertions that the best way to improve military capability is to give our serving personnel the best possible working conditions, opportunities, training, flexibility and empowerment in their jobs.
These are laudable goals, and there are many reasons for policymakers to focus on them. There is a moral imperative to treat serving personnel well in return for the sacrifices they make and the hard work they give. In the military, as in most professions, well-trained, happy and motivated people are also likely to perform better than those who are overworked and undervalued. All three branches of the armed services are also facing serious and widely publicised recruitment and retention issues, especially in key trades like engineering. Thus, improving conditions for serving personnel is a crucial part of ensuring the UK retains high-quality armed forces, able to credibly perform in the myriad of contingencies which defence planning guidelines require. In speeches and documents specifically discussing defence reform and modernisation efforts, therefore, stressing the value of our people and the need to treat them well and empower them is a positive thing.
However, the mantra of ‘our people are our greatest advantage’ is not only used in the context of how to better manage and modernise the armed forces. It is also regularly cited by British (and other NATO) officers and politicians as central to our ability to deter potential state opponents – Russia, in particular – from any use of armed force. The broad line of argument contends that if we can empower the best people and unleash their full potential, then adversaries will be discouraged from engaging in conflict. As a result, Russia – among other states – would be deterred by the qualitative edge of our personnel.
In many areas of modern warfare, it is irrefutable that providing superior training and empowering personnel in the field can confer major tactical advantages. Where forces are comparatively well matched, such an edge could be decisive in a meeting engagement. However, there is a problem with the regularised emphasis in public messaging on how central ‘our people’ are and how much we value them.
The Soviet Union earned a formidable reputation as a warfighting nation during the 20th century. Though now much reduced in scale and capabilities, fighting Russia on the battlefield is a concept which carries a fear factor only partly explained by the heavy artillery and tanks which characterise many of its operations. Much like North Korea, Russia manages to generate a level of military deterrence through intimidation which is disproportionate to the actual balance of power when viewed through most metrics. A large part of this is down to one simple factor – both countries demonstrably do not value their serving personnel and are perfectly willing to see them suffer and take heavy losses in pursuit of national objectives.
During the conflict in Ukraine, Russian soldiers were regularly killed by their own artillery fire, and casualties were high during large operations such as the retaking of Donetsk Airport and the strategically important town of Debaltseve. These casualties were repatriated in unmarked trucks, with families being paid off or intimidated into keeping quiet to minimise public awareness. With poor pay and living conditions, rampant hazing, other forms of abuse and practices such as forced professionalisation of conscripts and blocking units to try and curb desertion, the Russian Ground Forces have a reputation for treating their personnel badly.
However distasteful these practices may be, in deterrence terms, they are a strength rather than a weakness. If an enemy is willing to have their own personnel killed and suffer in large numbers, then they are unlikely to show any restraint towards opponents. They are also less likely to be susceptible to deterrence by punishment. For both Russia and North Korea, scant regard for the lives of their personnel makes threats of military action more credible, and the prospect of fighting against them even more unnerving.
Conversely, every time a NATO officer or politician chooses to emphasise how much they value and depend on their people in uniform, they tacitly signal that they would likely be deterred by the prospect of those same people being killed or made to suffer. Deterrence requires a credible will to fight as a national political entity, as well as having credible forces to fight with. Fighting a modern war against a peer or even near-peer state would involve casualty rates not seen for several generations, due to the power and precision of modern weaponry coupled with highly capable sensors in all domains.
Ultimately, deterrence is an effect created in the mind of an adversary, not one’s own population, armed forces or leaders. Successful military deterrence against Russia requires concentrating on the military capabilities feared by Russia, and convincing them we are prepared to use them if necessary. Everything we know about the Putin regime and the Russian military lends itself to the conclusion that they fear NATO’s deployable and survivable precision firepower from air, land and sea backed by huge economic and industrial potential.
By contrast, our attitude to our people is not something they fear. Western aversion to casualties – precisely because we do value our people – is a weakness when viewed through an adversary’s eyes. This is even truer when, as might be drily observed is too often the case in the UK, emphasis on our people is stated in response to serious questions about inadequate combat mass and modern equipment. People may be the military’s greatest asset, but emphasising their value over and above firepower, force modernisation and deployability harms deterrence in the eyes of those who would wish the Alliance harm.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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