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General Election 2017: A Strategic Moment for Defence?

John Louth
Commentary, 2 June 2017
Defence Spending, Equipment and Acquisitions, UK Defence
The next UK government – of whatever political stripe – will face two crucial questions when it comes to defence and security – what do you intend to do with the military and, once you have decided, what is the criteria for deciding what capabilities you need?

Spending time with senior politicians from across the political spectrum since Prime Minister Theresa May called the election has made two things clear. First, despite the Manchester terrorist horror, defence – in the military sense and as a topic – will not feature much in this election.

Letters delivered to 10 Downing Street by respected former commanders and analysts raising sensible questions about Britain’s current and future defence budget are receiving little focus in the election debate.

Second, national security questions will be unpacked through raw emotions relating to domestic terrorism, discussions around immigration, border controls and economic prosperity. This will reinforce the sense that 2017 is the Brexit election.

In the background, unnoticed by many, the Cabinet Office has its intended Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) team in place, as does the MoD, and serious people know that serious issues for the UK defence enterprise need to be addressed in the short term.

The agenda for action can be conceptualised as follows, though these themes are glaring in their absence from the manifestos of the political parties contesting this election.

Strategic Purpose

It seems somewhat silly to consider the purpose of defence spending, given that defence of the homeland and honouring our alliance commitments were spelled out in SDSR 2015, but a broader understanding of any topic can quite often begin with a seemingly foolish question.

To defend the homeland and honour Britain’s commitments, we are configuring our military into the construct of Joint Force 2025, which is centred on a maritime expeditionary force comprised of two aircraft carriers with their F-35B Lightning II aircraft, an attack submarine force, maritime patrol aircraft and an Army configured into a highly mobile force with close to 600 high-tech Ajax vehicles and re-commissioned tanks.

It is designed to operate in Europe (principally by land) and to reach through the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region (mainly by sea) in partnership with our allies, principally NATO. Our ‘defence Pound’ will be spent on defending our borders miles from them, much as we were supposed to be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We have no missile defence system to protect us from hostile powers launching ever cheaper ballistic missiles and a doctrine today that looks like yesterday’s, albeit on a meaner scale.

A commitment to renewing the nuclear deterrence cannot distract from these strategic and functional questions for government – what do you intend to do with your military and, once you have decided, what is the criteria for deciding what capabilities you need? Only then should you consider how much you have to spend.

Do We Have the Technology?

We should never forget that, from the end of the Second World War, the Western military machine has depended principally on overmatch derived through the targeted application of science and technology to ensure power-projection over our adversaries.

Even then the West has not always been victorious; think Vietnam. Yet the First Gulf War in 1991 proved the overwhelming power of a military alliance that could deploy the latest in military, communications and surveillance technology on the battlefield.

People noticed, and potential adversaries have invested heavily in developing disruptive technologies and asymmetric warfare techniques to counter the scientific lead enjoyed by the West. Many of the advanced military platforms developed and procured at great expense in the West over the past three decades, which have secured military dominance wherever our governments have chosen to fight, are increasingly reaching the end of their service lives.

These trends, coupled with a resurgent Russia and the rise of the Chinese military and economic powerhouse, mean that the traditional, and crucial, technological advantage that NATO in particular relies on to ensure force overmatch is yesterday’s story.

Moreover, adoptive and adaptive technologies from non-defence sectors will continue to challenge our technology-rich military capabilities so that obsolescence and redundancy will stalk our land, sea and air systems to a degree and at a pace that is truly revolutionary.

Is government prepared for this scenario? Have commanders realised that the principal defence effort going forward will be the process of incorporating the latest technologies into operational platforms quickly and effectively?

The through-life portfolio management of complex technologies will be the focus of strategic defence management. Our next generation of military leaders will need skills and flexibility of thought that current defence training and development may not engender.

It Takes Skills

The emerging technologies described above will require the capturing of new skills for defence – those relating to nano-technologies, bio-physics, artificial intelligence and simulation. These will need coupling to engineering competencies and support services to complement the capabilities of the armed forces.

Much of these competencies will be sourced from, matured within and housed with the private sector, so government will have to act urgently to attract people possessing these skills if they are not to go elsewhere.

What critical skills has government identified? What strategic shortages exist and is government investing directly to mitigate these weaknesses? And which companies are government’s critical partners in defence and have they been offered long term contracts to secure their place on the pitch?

Defence Industrial Strategy

Defence is a public–private partnership, with much of the design, manufacturing, maintenance, storage and delivery capacity residing in the private sector. National armouries are FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 businesses.

An F-35 has millions of components and lines of code, as does a new armoured personnel carrier, tying it as a node to a complex battlefield network. Without the private sector there is no national defence – half of our defence budget is spent with commerce – yet the government seems reluctant to secure the future of many of these critical businesses.

Competition might drive price efficiency, but government sponsorship of core capabilities secures capacity, private sector investment and long-term programme certainty. A defence industrial strategy that secures the strategic – through single-source government patronage – while leaving the market to provide broader tactical consumables should be the focus of government.

This does not offer an easy route for business; a single-source, long-term contract should have at its heart significant private sector commitment to utilising its own research and development spending for the benefit of its government customer. We see this today where these contracts feature, such as the Astute programme.

So, at least for this analyst, these four themes are the golden streams of future defence capability and our security; it is a different narrative from the ones in the manifestos of all the major parties. I hope I am mistaken and the drafters of these manifestos know better.

Banner image: Prime Minister Theresa May visits the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire, Worcesters and Foresters, and Staffords) at their barracks at Bulford Camp near Salisbury. Will the armed forces get the equipment and skills they need after the general election? Courtesy of PA Images.

Author

John Louth
Director, Defence, Industries and Society

Professor John Louth is Senior Research Fellow and Director for Defence, Industries and Society at RUSI. 

He served as an officer... read more

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