Schrödinger’s Defence Policy

In a written question HL 456, Lord James of Blackheath sought answers from the Ministry of Defence concerning EU Defence Policy. His question in full was:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether any agreements have been made with the EU about British participation in (1) the establishment of a European Defence Union, (2) any military command and control procedures, (3) the future of Five Eyes, (4) the procurement of military equipment from an EU-wide organisation, and (5) the transfer of nuclear technology licensed to the UK by the United States; if so, what are the details of any such agreements; and whether any such agreements are separate to any agreements relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.

The wide-ranging nature of this question is striking. It shows that not even a member of the House of Lords is presently able to discern the nature of Government policy concerning European Defence sufficiently to focus on precise areas. This is a question seeking to reveal the broad sweep and intention of that policy. Why is such a question needed? The answer is revealed in our discussions with senior officers, both serving and retired. Their opinions are all over the map. What is clear is that no one actually knows what the policy is.

Let us briefly review the political background to this uncertainty:

As we prepare for Brexit, I want to build a bold, new security partnership with the EU. A partnership that reflects our shared history, promotes our common values, and maintains a secure and prosperous Europe.

(Published 28 September 2017 by The Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street and The Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP)

So the arrangement, as announced in 2017, was "bold and new", not "strong and stable".

This summit highlights the crucial importance of the European countries working together to protect our shared values and ideals. The U.K. may be leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe, and we are unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security.

The summit here today is all about taking stock and about looking ahead to see how we can tackle the shared challenges together both in security and development. We must be opened-eyed about the actions of hostile states like Russia who threatens the potential growth of the Eastern Neighbourhood and who try to tear our collective strength apart.

(Prime Minister Theresa May at the Eastern Partnership Summit, November 27, 2017)

Thus, the arrangement under Theresa May's administration was also "unconditional" and relied on "collective strength".

By the time Boris Johnson had become Prime Minister and had installed Ben Wallace as his Defence Secretary, a more hesitant note was apparent. The Times reported an interview with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in which he stated that:

Britain must prepare to fight wars without America.

Ben Wallace was also highly uncertain regarding the status of the United Kingdom and Her Majesty's Armed Forces with respect to European Defence Union when questioned at a fringe event at last year's Conservative Party Conference. As reported by the UK Column, he considered:

It is a sort of lawyers' debate.

However, he did concede:

There are really important questions in all of that.

In summary, our Defence Secretary sees uncertainty and doubt, but few answers. For a "more assertive" analysis, we must go to Europe, where Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, laid out the EU viewpoint at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday:

But to be more assertive in the world, we must step up in some fields.

She went on to emphasise: 

the importance of a stable neighbourhood [from] Ukraine to the shores of the Mediterranean, from the Western Balkans to the Sahel.

And the need for:

Credible military capabilities.

Looking at the revised Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, we get little clarity. This declaration is not legally binding but will set the direction of the future relationship negotiations, which are expected to begin once the UK has formally left the EU. It includes:

  • The possibility of collaboration on relevant European Defence Agency programmes, and some European Defence Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation projects.
  • A vague suggestion that UK industry will collaborate with EU partners in capability development where appropriate.

Confused? You will be. For next week's episode of your favourite military soap opera will be starring Donald Trump's re-election campaign and the UK Government's "deepest defence and security review since the Cold War".

From senior sources on both sides of the Atlantic, we are hearing that the Trump election campaign will bring to the fore "the NATO Question". How exactly this will be phrased remains to be seen, but knowing The Donald, it will get to the heart of the matter. Perhaps something like "Why are we paying all of this money to be members of an obsolete alliance"?. However it is couched, the question will seriously consider the future of NATO for the first time in 70 years. The hiding place favoured by virtually all of our politicians and senior civil servants when questioned about European Military Union will shortly be much less secure.

This question has, of course, been simmering for years. In his November 2007 evidence to the Defence Committee, Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry stated:

I think an alliance formed around the concept of collective self-defence against an overwhelming external threat is entirely different to an alliance, held together by all sorts of other motives, which can no longer necessarily see something homogeneous in front of it.

And what of the defence review? A recent RUSI article provided good questions, but few answers. The next review likely will set off from the point where SDSR 2015 finished. And what was the nature of the 2015 review? It is summarised in this extract:

Our Defence policy and planning will, in future, be more international by design: we have always worked with allies and partners but we will increase this engagement to deliver our national security goals: in new combined formations, including the UK-led multilateral Joint Expeditionary Force, the bilateral UK/France Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, and NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which we will lead in 2017; through capability collaboration with key allies; by investing more heavily in international security institutions; and by an ambitious programme of additional Defence Engagement.

Is it really possible to have a national defence that is "international by design"?

We must also inquire further into how much leeway the British Government will have to express the nation's cardinal values with the funds available. Who is in control of the British capital and operational budgets for defence? The previous defence reviews, SDSR 2010 and SDSR 2015, were scandalously not fully funded; since this shortfall has not yet been addressed, another defence review will make little sense and certainly will not resolve any of the outstanding problems. Rather, the forthcoming review will surely facilitate more bad national decisions allowing the nation to slip deeper into European Defence Union.

So what, then, is the policy of the Government? Under Theresa May, there was no doubt: we were signed up to European Defence Union, lock, stock and Her Majesty's two smoking barrels. Now, although the "unconditional commitment" remains, the calls for bold, new, collective defence arrangements to secure the Ukraine against marauding Russian T-90s seem to have vanished. We are told that our sovereignty is secure, but every reason given seems to crumble when examined. Most recently, the assurance that "The EU are nowhere near command and control" was shown to be false. There seems to be a vague impression of neither and both applying. Some sort of half-in, half-out zone of uncertainty. It is Schrödinger’s defence policy. 

To explain this reference, we first turn to the definition provided by

Erwin Schrödinger was born in Vienna on August 12, 1887 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. He is best known for his work regarding quantum theory, particularly about his thought experiment involving a cat in order to explain the flawed interpretation of quantum superposition.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics essentially states that an object in a physical system can simultaneously exist in all possible configurations, but observing the system forces the system to collapse and forces the object into just one of those possible states. Schrödinger disagreed with this interpretation.

So what does this have to do with cats? Schrödinger wanted people to imagine that a cat, poison, a Geiger counter, radioactive material, and a hammer were inside of a sealed container. The amount of radioactive material was minuscule enough that it only had a 50/50 shot of being detected over the course of an hour. If the Geiger counter detected radiation, the hammer would smash the poison, killing the cat. Until someone opened the container and observed the system, it was impossible to predict if the cat’s outcome (sic). Thus, until the system collapsed into one configuration, the cat would exist in some superposition zombie state of being both alive and dead.

Of course, Schrödinger claimed, that was ridiculous. Quantum superposition could not work with large objects such as cats, because it is impossible for an organism to be simultaneously alive and dead. Thus, he reasoned that the Copenhagen Interpretation must be inherently flawed. While many people incorrectly assume Schrödinger supported the premise behind the thought experiment, he really didn’t. His entire point was that it was impossible.

On one level, this analogy points to a dangerous uncertainty in the ideas driving national defence. The result is a capability and asset disposition that makes no sense as a national force. Here, the Schrödinger model can assist our understanding. While the policy box remains shut, the British defence cat is neither alive (with a national force that maximises our ability to act independently) nor dead (such as would be the case were a Crown minister to sign an unambiguous accession to European Defence Union), but swishing its tail in dozy limbo.

Only once the box is reopened will it become apparent whether the cat has perished and reincarnated as a component commanded from Brussels. And the box will only be opened in a time of crisis, when the nation will be forced to live with the consequences of whichever state we discover. Is this why defence was put in the box in the first place, on short rations and with needed investments and capital assets already diverted away from it?

But, "No man can serve two masters," as Ann Widdecombe recently reminded us; our armed forces cannot serve the nation and also form a dependent part of an overseas Defence Union. And it is on this deeper level that the insight that Schrödinger brought to his scientific field also applies to UK defence policy: namely that the present position is nonsensical and merely reveals the flaw in the conception of the entire edifice. 

Until this reality is confronted, we will have no defence policy, just an interesting thought experiment that shows the absurdity possible in the educated mind.