Building a Force for the Future: The UK Needs Depth not Breadth

The former US Defense Secretary has expressed concerns about the UK’s ability to provide full spectrum defence capabilities. Yet, the UK has not had a full spectrum capability for a number of years. It is actually a more worrying lack of depth, not breadth of capabilities that concerns most British defence officials today.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Robert Gates expressed concern that the US would no longer be able to rely on the UK to provide full spectrum capability in operations in the future. Specific concern was raised over the lack of an operational aircraft carrier and discussions over whether or not the UK wanted to retain its nuclear capability through the Trident programme. While his concern is valid, it is not the high end capabilities that need investment but rather a more pragmatic approach to the building of the UK’s future forces that will ensure the necessary breadth and depth of capability that befits our armed forces.

Ironically, it is precisely because the UK has invested in its relationship with the US and looked to retain high end or ‘exquisite’ capability on a par with its American cousin that has driven the nation’s armed forces to be ‘hollowed out’. Interdependence with the US means the UK already has holes in its ‘full spectrum’ capability in areas such as Ground Based Air Defence and Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence, Space-based Earth Observation satellites and Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Indeed David Cameron in 2011 admitted as much when he remarked that the UK retained a ‘pretty full spectrum capability’.[1]

It is unfortunate that the Ministry of Defence’s official response was the standard line that the ‘UK is the eighth largest economy and has the fourth largest defence budget’. As the armed forces continue to shrink both in terms of personnel and platforms, it has left some wondering why we are spending so much with so little to show for it? In his RUSI lecture last month, the Chief of the Defence Staff  stressed the need to step away from ‘exquisite technologies’ that were used to bolster the UK’s national industrial base. While he is correct in the first part of his statement – that a focus on high end capability at the expense of mass is a decision that the armed forces will live to regret – a healthy relationship with the industrial base is necessary for a number of reasons.

In 2010, the government prioritised the economic crisis that faced many countries in the Western world and implemented an 8% defence cut; recapitalised the equipment programme to take out a £38bn deficit in the forward plan and incorporated the running costs of the Trident programme into the MoD’s budget. This effectively took out around 25% off the MoD’s budget. It was both right and necessary given the national debt at the time.

The coalition government also recognised the continuing need to modernise the Armed forces. Its policy was to make painful cuts in the short term but to build in a programme of new platforms and capabilities that would see a stronger, if leaner, defence force emerge in 2020. There was a priority on high end capabilities – a submarine replacement programme for Trident, commitment to the F-35 programme and the carrier programme that came with it. However, this ‘Future Force 2020’ was predicated on a rise in the defence budget after 2015, and the Chancellor has made it clear that further cuts are needed if the government is to make a serious impact on the national deficit.

The MoD has recognised that it has backed itself into a corner and is therefore in danger of losing critical mass in a race to retain superior capabilities. The Royal Navy, which is particularly dependent on ‘jam tomorrow’ is causing concern to senior officials in the MoD as both the numbers of platforms (the Royal Navy now has less than half the vessels it has in 1990) and personnel are at critically low levels. The investment in carrier capability and highly expensive destroyers and submarines over the last ten years has substantially reduced the numbers of platforms that the navy can physically deploy. The Royal Air Force too has seen its combat air fleet slashed from twenty-seven squadrons to six in a similar period and with costs of the Joint Strike Fighter at around £80m a piece, it will take some time before all 136 are in service. Meanwhile, the RAF will lose 112 combat aircraft at the end of the decade when the Tornado GR4 goes out of service.

Necessity Being the Mother of Invention

Relative to the UK, France has both greater force numbers and a broader set of capabilities. The UK is also much more dependent on the US industrial base than France, which has looked to ensure national sovereignty is retained to the greatest extent possible. Whether or not France can continue to afford such a policy is questionable but the fact is that their current situation is very much a legacy of being outside NATO for over forty years. Similarly, Sweden and Finland can deploy an impressive range of national capabilities for countries with relatively small defence budgets.

In order to achieve both breadth and depth, France has also deliberately chosen to sacrifice capability and has also focused on developing platforms that it would be able to export. The French Air Force, for example, has deliberately not opted for fifth generation combat aircraft in order to retain greater numbers of aircraft. In Sweden, where neutrality was a matter of national survivability during the Cold War, a similarly pragmatic approach has been adopted. The Swedish Air Chief made it clear at a conference on European Air Power [2] that they had adopted strict control over requirements when developing their own national Combat Air and  ISTAR platforms, which have both had export successes. Sweden’s Visby Corvette with its innovative composite hull is another example of innovation at relatively low cost.

Both countries have demonstrated that smaller budgets do not require a reduction in ambition but if a broad range of capabilities are to be maintained, the UK has to rethink its approach to requirements.  British industry too must play its part if platforms are to be affordable and it goes without saying that exportability must be part of the design, something that the MoD is now trying to achieve through the Type 26 programme. Buying everything off the shelf (from the US) may be an attractive proposition in the short term but it does not sit well with the government’s prosperity agenda in the long term and the Ministry of Defence’s needs to be incentivised financially if it is to make decisions on platforms and personnel that will support exports.

Fundamentally, the UK needs to accept that the best way it can support the US in the long term is not to try to keep up with the US in the short term. And US officials also need to recognise the importance of depth as well as breadth.


[2] Major General Micael Byden, presentation to ‘European Air Power: Challenges & Opportunities’ conference, July 2013


Elizabeth Quintana

Associate Fellow

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