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Against all the odds, it appears that the UK secretary of state for defence, the chief of defence staff and the vice chief of defence staff have convinced the prime minister to secure a four-year financial settlement for the UK military. Given that all were pressing for a significant increase in funding against a poor departmental record of financial management, and had to battle alongside more public priorities of health, education and social care as well as the national financial demands of the coronavirus pandemic, their achievements should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is certainly possible that the military financial outcome of the UK’s long-running Integrated Review will be viewed as the most positive outcome for defence since Lord Robertson’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which until now many have viewed as the best of the post-Cold War era.
There is some irony in the comparison. The 1998 SDR has subsequently been criticised for the decoupling of ambition (policy) and resource (funding), since the policy decisions (and associated procurement plans outlined in the original document) were never funded. The latest announcement reverses this conundrum and has articulated what the government is willing to spend on defence, but not how, with what, or a plan to achieve the yet-to-be-issued policy. Neither has there been any announcement over what this means for other departments, including – critically – the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Overseas Aid budget.
In Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement outlining the 2020 financial settlement, as well as in media interviews with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, it appears that the new investments in defence are being pushed towards ‘new’ technologies and current challenges, while acknowledging that delivery of these capabilities still needs to be designed, recruited for and start to operate: a four-year endeavour. This should constitute a warning sign to observers. Technological presentism that prioritises ‘silver bullet’ military capabilities based on a thin-slice assessment of contemporary conflict could be a grave mistake. A deeper and longer assessment of the future character of warfare by domain is vital.
Of the three single services, only the British Army has consistently worked to develop a rigorous plan of how they will need to operate in the future, and with what. As a result, their future force design, and the forthcoming Army Operating Concept, will put them in a good place. There will be considerable work needed to bring the navy and air force into a similar position. In deciding how they will need to operate, and then with what equipment, as well as how their people need to be skilled, decisions will need to be made about how to keep up with adversaries across the spectrum of conflict.
Choices to sacrifice proven legacy capability in order to develop capacity in areas where adversaries already possess a decade-long advantage is certainly necessary. But there is some danger in pursuing an approach that sees cyber, space and artificial intelligence simply replace military equipment such as artillery, submarines and strike aircraft. Certainly cyber, space, data, electronic warfare, and information (which have been in development in other states for 25 years already) can add value, but cannot perform the same vital tasks. The lessons since 2008 from Georgia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, India, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh make this extremely clear.
The acknowledgment of a blended landscape of conflict, where the threat is as real at home from military forces as it is abroad, is also a welcome shift in narrative in the UK. Protection of the homeland (and Overseas Territories), together with the UK’s immediate neighbourhood, will become an increasingly important task as the speed, range and accuracy of long-range attack weapons increases, and as these weapons are increasingly democratised. The UK will need to start seriously considering how they protect the population at large, rather than just forces deployed to conflict areas.
Allies will certainly welcome the news of a British increase in defence spending. It might not have the same impact as announcements in Sweden and Australia, or the ambition of Poland, but it will go some way to overcoming the UK’s credibility issues within the NATO headquarters in Brussels. It will also be welcomed by the defence industry.
However, the UK government will want to retain some flexibility in where contracts are let, depending on the outcome of Brexit trade negotiations. Where partnered industrial endeavours are needed, the decision over who to associate with (European, US or Asia-Pacific-based industries) is likely to be more of a political decision than a military one.
Perhaps the most important facet of the announcement is on how competitors and potential adversaries will react. While the British Armed Forces continue to be a much-respected military with friends, the decades-long hollowing out of capabilities and reducing numbers mean they are not the dreaded foe they once were. Rebuilding that reputation with adversaries, not allies, will take some time, and will need to consist of actions rather than words.
None of that should undo the achievement of Wallace, Nick Carter and Tim Fraser. They should be congratulated in delivering on their long-held belief that defence needed more resource to perform better, and that they had the wherewithal to convince this prime minister when all before them had failed. This is a promising start: the armed forces now need to respond appropriately.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.