Requiring Perfect Alignment: The UK’s 2021 Defence Command Paper

BANNER IMAGE: A British Army Warrior infantry fighting vehicle in the snow at a base near Tapa in Estonia. Courtesy of NATO

The Defence Command Paper places some big gambles on the UK military's future.

The UK government’s recent Integrated Review paper was full of considered and deliberate language, and – unusually – devoid of the hyperbole and faddish tone of previous documents. By contrast, the narrative around the Defence Command Paper has used the language and imagery of gambling (bets and markers). This is not the well-considered and prudent taxonomy of a threat-based defence review designed to meet the financial realities, as was promised by the Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace last year. Still, the Defence paper is consistent with its predecessors as an exercise that is shaped more by finance than threat perceptions.

As a strategy, it is more closely related to President Dwight D Eisenhower’s New Look military strategy than anything else. This doctrine of greater nuclear reliance alongside more forward deployed units was designed to scale back the military by cutting away as much conventional capability as possible. It did not survive the reality of Cold War competition with the USSR.

The 2021 Defence Command Paper outlines the military’s role in achieving the Integrated Review’s ambitions, but stops short of detailing the cuts required to fund it. It marks a real change in the positioning of the UK’s armed forces, ending the era in which they could realistically describe themselves as ‘Tier One’, ‘First in Class’ or ‘Full Spectrum’. 

Like the Integrated Operating Concept, released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2020, the new document describes its perception of the international security environment and identifies military solutions that were valuable and viable in 2016, two years after General Sir Richard Barrons tried (and failed) to get political and military leaders to adapt to warfare in the Information Age. While the latest MoD policy paper evangelises cyber, space and AI as panaceas for future warfare, the conduct and behaviours of warfare have moved on.

The Ways and Means

There are valid debates regarding this UK government review as a whole: the efficacy of making the military technologically dependent just as adversaries are excelling at denying the information, data and connectivity space; the concerns over increasing commitments without prioritisation; or whether the UK is even capable of fulfilling the integrated prophecy. Aside from those concerns, it is perhaps instructive to highlight three areas that emerge from the Defence Command Paper that all hinge around the ability of the responsible department and the military to implement and deliver it.

First, the paper seems to value those military capabilities that can be utilised more frequently over those that have not been used recently. So, if you can work in the ‘grey zone’ or ‘sub-threshold’, you have a guaranteed future (despite – as highlighted by the Minister of the Armed Forces – activity in those roles being best suited to non-military actors). If you have a proven role in higher intensity, enduring missions (the long campaigns for which mass is essential but that is hoped will not occur again), your future does not look that rosy. This idea of selling the UK contingency capability to get ‘active’ in dispersed constabulary operations today might well be viewed in retrospect as a false economy.

Second, the internal financial transformations heralded in the paper must become embedded across the MoD and Front Line Commands, specifically those related to financial management. And that will not be easy. Philip Hammond also put the MoD’s financial books in order with a balanced budget in 2012, yet just five years later the department had once again run up more than £20 billion in deficit forecast. The capability holidays associated with those cuts – then it was maritime patrol aircraft, the Harrier Force, aircraft carriers, full brigade amphibious strike capability, frigate and destroyer numbers, among others – have had to be repurchased at inflated costs, or still remain aspirational but with little chance of ever being revived. One would sympathise with those who cannot believe that lasting change in MoD and military behaviour will result from a single White Paper edict. The evidence would support their scepticism since none of the Chiefs nor project Senior Responsible Officers (for each capability) have ever paid the price for failure.

Third, the success of these reforms and changes in the armed forces’ capabilities, doctrine and concepts of operation will be determined not by the MoD process, but by whether allies, partners and adversaries abide by the prescriptions of how the future will look through British eyes.

The neutering of various capabilities across the force design may confuse some NATO Allies: a smaller armoured capability will not meet the previous UK commitment to NATO, while a straight replacement with a carrier strike group is not a worthy or desirable swap in their eyes – and for good reason. An army formation that makes Russia stand up and take notice has impact; another carrier strike group occasionally deployed in the Pacific will not have the same impact on China, nor will it exert the same level of coercive control on Russia.

Neither is it clear whether the partners with whom the new Ranger formations will interact really want the UK to be doing this task. The UK might have a high appetite to engage with those potential partners, but fomenting revolution and insurgencies requires willing partners on the ground.

And, of course, the UK has been regularly disappointed by adversaries who have not chosen to compete, challenge, or fight us in the way it wants them to. Whether in Iraq, the Balkans, Syria or the High North, Western military forces regularly appear shocked when enemies do not conform to expectations. What if future adversaries move from the grey zone and challenge in long wars, with conventional capability and mass on the UK’s doorstep? With no regular, enduring capability to meet them, the UK will have to depend on the stopping power of water once again. The UK’s allies will not have such luxuries.

What is important is that for the Defence Command Paper to be successful, all three of these factors – and a myriad of others – must match the assumptions and align perfectly over a 10–15 year time frame. Thus, there is considerable risk associated with the gamble that the MoD is embarking on. While the odds are long on many of the bets being placed, the likelihood that they all come to pass perfectly is astronomical.

The reality is that even if all the bets, presumptions and assumptions come to pass, and a good amount of luck comes into play, the UK will emerge in 2031 fit for some of the tasks it does now, but not all of them. Nothing more. And if just one of these factors is wrong, an assumption is overturned, a technology fails to deliver perfectly or events move out of synchronisation, then the UK will be significantly weaker and more vulnerable than it is today.

This review has become personal for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who will both leave the MoD and the military before all of the changes come to pass. They are bequeathing the MoD a military (and specifically a British Army) reduced in size and capability to pay for the sunny uplands a decade or more in the future.

The great new military being promised will not just depend on the alignment of these multiple variables and factors, but also on delivering the detail that will sit behind them – populating the databases that enable the AI, cyber and virtual environments. Beyond the headlines of digital backbones, the reality is that such brittle structures can be snapped and become redundant. The MoD has a poor history of following through on details in the implementation and delivery of major programmes of change. 

There is a considerable danger that all the Defence Command Paper’s rhetoric has been said before. Whether future leaders deliver the promised ‘jam’ of tomorrow, or agree that this paper constituted prudent decision-making, will determine the legacy of this government.

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


Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

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