Putting the UK Defence Command Paper Refresh into Context


Practice makes perfect: a soldier fires a vehicle-mounted grenade machine gun during Exercise Wessex Storm in April 2023. Image: Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0


Three former senior officials at the UK Ministry of Defence, who were closely involved in previous defence and security reviews, assess the recently published Defence Command Paper Refresh. They provide an assessment and offer some thoughts for those who will be planning and leading the next major review in 2025 about preparatory work that could be done in the year ahead.

We offered some initial commentary on the Integrated Review Refresh (IRR) in March. This piece does not try to apply to the Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCPR) the five ‘tests’ of the analytical framework for assessing the main post-Cold War reviews which we proposed in our December 2020 report. Instead, it briefly assesses the policy ideas and approaches in the DCPR and makes suggestions for how the Department could sharpen its thinking and approach ahead of the next major review, likely due after the next general election.

Overall Assessment

We offer three headline assessments of the DCPR.

First, because of the fiscal constraints under which it was produced, the DCPR centres on policy ideas and approaches rather than on new capabilities. The white paper contains a large number of policy ideas. But, as the chapter-by-chapter analysis below indicates, very few of them are new. We suggest that those who will be planning and leading the next major review would benefit from familiarising themselves with what has gone before, including the 2010 and 2015 white papers (and previous ones) and the defence green paper in early 2010. The DCPR arguably – even if not deliberately – serves a similar function to that green paper, setting out a broad menu of issues that will need to be considered again in the next major review.

Second, the DCPR sets out a series of worthy high-level goals but is very light on detail and contains no clear sense of prioritisation. The original Integrated Review, Defence Command Paper (DCP) and Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) were crammed with commitments – anecdotally, they added up to more than 250 in total. The DCPR contains dozens more. We suggest that those leading the next major review should consider carefully how to prioritise the key outcomes relating to force structure, capabilities and policy and planning approaches. It would be much more useful to select a dozen or so major targets and to build robust implementation and monitoring functions to ensure that these key outcomes are being delivered effectively.

Third, we observe that, despite the rhetoric, the ‘Integrated Review’ has hardly lived up to its billing. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was the first attempt to conduct an integrated defence and wider national security review, and even then produced two back-to-back white papers. The 2015 SDSR produced a single, integrated white paper. The 2021 exercise produced three separate white papers. In all cases, these major reviews were followed by minor ones only a few years later, as with this year’s ‘refreshes’. Those designing the process for the 2025 reviews should consider in advance which of these models they would prefer.

The MoD’s Strategic Approach

The new purpose for Defence proposed by the DCPR – ‘to protect the nation, and to help it prosper’ – is clear. And the six ‘design principles’ that will inform the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) approach – threat-led, adaptable, Allied by design, integrated, innovative and digitised – look sensible, although none are new.

The inverted structure of the body of the DCPR – with chapters on the key elements of the ‘Defence Enterprise’ in Part 1 and on the more traditional policy fare of white papers in Part 2 – suits the limited ambition of this document, but would not work so well for a full-scale review.

Part 1 – Securing and Maintaining Strategic Advantage

The DCPR can be applauded for literally putting people first, in Chapter 1. It challenges the notion that headcount is the appropriate measure of the ‘size’ of the UK’s armed forces and their capability – a notion that takes little account of the mechanisation of warfare and the latter-day profusion of uncrewed and lightly-crewed systems.

The chapter commits to ‘taking forward’ the recommendations of the recent Haythornthwaite Review on the terms and conditions of military service. Many of these – for example, ‘zig zag or portfolio careers’ – are not new. The key test will be how quickly the MoD implements them.

Another major theme is skills, with a particular focus on enhancing digital skills. It is good to see the Defence Academy put at the forefront of this – and the commitment to working closely across government and with industry and academia. But the paper gives little sense of how Defence collectively and the Defence Academy in particular will drive through the skills agenda with the energy and pace required.

MoD civil servants will be disappointed by the single – and largely boilerplate – paragraph on the vital contribution of ‘our Civil Servants’. The next review should not treat the MoD’s civil service workforce as an afterthought.

Chapter 2 follows several earlier reviews in emphasising the MoD’s intention to modernise and transform defence through science, innovation and technology. The MoD says it will increase its investment in advanced research and development and align its Science & Technology (S&T) programmes with the five critical technologies identified by the National S&T Council: Artificial Intelligence, Engineering Biology, Future Telecommunications, Semiconductors and Quantum Technologies. The MoD also plans to develop its capabilities in robotics, human augmentation, directed energy weapons and advanced materials.

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Improving operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness has featured in every major post-Cold War defence review. Unless a markedly different approach is taken this time, it is difficult to see how there will be decisive change

Building on lessons learned from how the Ukrainian armed forces have operated, these steps aim to accelerate the speed of operational decision-making, contribute to increased productivity in the force and improve lethality. Pound for pound, investment in these technologies collectively has the potential to increase the battlefield capability of the UK armed forces to a much greater extent than any increase in personnel numbers, although it will likely require significant re-rolling and upskilling of current personnel and the recruitment of new personnel with the skills required to operate such technologies.

Sensible too is the move away from a platform-centric approach in favour of focusing on the military effects that are required, along with autonomy, digital and data-centric capabilities. It remains to be seen whether the MoD will reduce its investment in major platforms and how it will prioritise the development of these promising ideas to the extent required to really move the dial on the technology-led modernisation of the armed forces.

Chapter 3 covers plans to improve the Department’s performance in the acquisition of defence capabilities. Like other Western defence departments, the MoD has grappled with this challenge for decades with limited success.

The document declares that ‘….we must buy simpler platforms more quickly and design into them the capacity to upgrade at speed…’ and ‘[we] must force ourselves to accept solutions that are good enough…’ Amen – but how is this to be achieved? Open-systems architecture, spiral development, more emphasis on exportability, encouraging project leaders to remain in post for longer, and greater attention to front-end planning are all laudable, but they are not new ideas.

So, what is new? The stress on timely delivery over perfection may not be, but it is described with greater conviction (and aligns with one of the conclusions of the recent Australian Defence Strategic Review). It would be good to hear a ringing endorsement from industry. Setting a maximum five-year commitment for acquisition programmes (three years for digital) is new, but it is not clear how this will be enabled or enforced. And, how will a thematic (as opposed to domain-centric) approach to capability development contribute to the improvements sought, and how will this work in practice? Further detail and clearer plans will be required to measure progress towards achieving these goals.

In his annual RUSI lecture in December 2022, the Chief of the Defence Staff foreshadowed a major drive to increase the productivity of the armed forces through greater levels of lethality and readiness. We had expected to see more detail in the DCPR, but Chapter 4 does not provide this clarity. Improving operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness has featured in every major post-Cold War defence review. Unless a markedly different approach is taken this time, it is difficult to see how the DCPR will deliver decisive change.

We are encouraged to see that work is now underway to review the current Defence Operating Model. In our view, the recommendations of the 2011 Levene report on Defence Reform were applied in a one-sided manner. The delegation of financial authority to the Commands was not accompanied by the strengthening of the corporate framework and the Centre of the Department which Levene had envisaged – resulting in an erosion of financial discipline and a model which is ill-suited to making the defence-wide adjustments that the contemporary strategic context requires.

Part 2 – Operational Ambition

In relation to the debate over UK defence and security policy during the seven years since the Brexit referendum, perhaps the most significant phrase in the DCPR is: ‘… we will develop a force that is optimised to warfight in the Euro-Atlantic and in defence of our homeland’. Such clarity is overdue and very welcome – as is the focus on deterrence in Chapter 5. This paper follows the IRR in speaking of ‘An Integrated Approach to Deterrence and Defence’; why both documents could not have used the simpler US formula of ‘Integrated Deterrence’ is a mystery. While the paper updates the reader on the Defence strands of deterrence, it does not adequately fill the gap we identified in the IRR: it says little about the integration of defence and civil capabilities to enhance deterrence.

On nuclear, the DCPR notes that ‘we have… committed to a once-in-two-generations programme of modernisation of our nuclear forces’ – a decision taken many years ago which sustains the concept of nuclear deterrence we have had since the late 1990s. Like the IRR, it says little about the fundamental changes in the global strategic balance since then, not least the dramatic growth in China’s nuclear capabilities.

The opening message of Chapter 6 is that the MoD will ‘evolve’ the previous DCP’s concept of ‘persistent engagement’ to a ‘global campaigning approach’. We expressed some scepticism about the former in our commentary at the time – and the DCPR does not entirely still our doubts. In principle, a ‘campaigning approach’ makes sense. But it is hard to see how Defence will ‘double the effect that we seek to achieve in the world’ by 2030. The specific commitment to create a ‘Global Response Force’ does not appear much different from the Joint Rapid Reaction Force announced in the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 and updated in most of the major reviews since then.

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While it may be true that the security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions is indivisible, it is important that all concerned have a shared understanding of the limits of the military commitment

The intention to continue to grow the Global Defence Network is welcome. The chapter also records the decision (taken since the previous DCP) to transfer leadership of the Network to Strategic Command – but does not explain how this will make a difference in practice.

The measures to increase defence exports are sensible, although few are new. UK defence exports appear to have grown significantly during the international turbulence since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine. But some of the longer-term trends may be less favourable, including the increasing demand from key customer states for higher levels of indigenous development and production. A more penetrating examination of this area will be required in the next review.

Chapter 7 covers international relationships. One of the UK’s strengths, in contrast to its adversaries, is its extensive array of alliances and partnerships. Bringing this subject to life without descending into a long list of friendly states around the globe is a familiar editorial and diplomatic challenge. The most striking features are the resurfacing of the EU and the space given to the Five Eyes and other Indo-Pacific partners.

We applaud the renewed acknowledgement of the importance of the EU to UK security: ‘The UK will use the new momentum in the relationship to develop forms of direct cooperation, as we already intend to do through the PESCO project on military mobility’. A key task will be to ensure that the UK is not frozen out of EU capability cooperation programmes which would benefit UK Defence in the round, including the defence industry.

While it may be true in one sense that the security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions is indivisible, it will be important that all concerned have a shared understanding of the limits of the military commitment. The DCPR manages to tread this fine line, including by apparently stepping back from the somewhat bolder language in the March 2023 AUKUS statement on the deployment of submarines to Western Australia. Continuing to tread this line successfully in the future will be testing.

The language on Strategic Resilience in Chapter 8 is the clearest sign yet that the MoD has fully absorbed its importance in an era of great power confrontation. We welcome the commitment to work with other government departments to implement the government’s 2022 Resilience Strategy. This will be a huge undertaking, made more challenging by the state of the economy and the public finances. The skills and capabilities of the UK’s armed forces are widely acknowledged. But the MoD will need to strike a balance between playing its full part and recognising where the lead falls to other departments.

The emphasis placed on the Reserves is striking. Finding a way to make service in the Voluntary Reserves more attractive, particularly to young people of all backgrounds, should be a priority. The MoD should expand on its plans to turn the ex-regular reserve forces into a ‘Strategic Reserve’. We have always found it odd that so little use is made of ex-regular forces for defence purposes, even though adequate incentives and the cooperation of civilian employers would be a prerequisite.

Another area where the MoD will need to elaborate publicly on its plans is the commitment to introducing an integrated air and missile defence system. Questions include how the maximum benefit will be secured from close engagement with NATO’s system, and how it will improve the dispersibility of UK forces for self-protection, given the substantial contraction in the number of airbases and other defence sites in recent decades. We wonder whether the MoD really has the bandwidth to engage effectively in the range of resilience-related activities mentioned in this chapter.

Conclusion

There has been relatively little commentary on the DCPR, likely because of the timing of its publication, but also due to its modest content. The MoD did not expect to have to update the 2021 DCP so quickly – although the history of defence planning suggests this was likely. As this article has brought out, the DCPR contains a range of worthy ideas but sparse detail on how these will be delivered, so leaves many questions unanswered. There will be important decisions on force structure, capabilities and planning approaches to be made in the 2025 review. Whether that review leads to the acceleration of plans to further modernise the UK’s armed forces and wider defence capabilities will depend on whether the incoming government decides to make further significant investment in defence. No doubt preparatory work is underway in the MoD to make the case for doing so.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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WRITTEN BY

Will Jessett CBE

Senior Associate Fellow

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Tom McKane

Distinguished Fellow

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Peter Watkins

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