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The UK government must provide unambiguous political guidance as it undertakes the most significant appraisal of the country’s defence posture since the start of this century.
Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, which are run every five years, try to coordinate how the military and security agencies adapt to meet emerging threats. Not all reviews are equal, however, and the 2020 Integrated Review, coming on the heels of Brexit, must make a number of hard choices that are likely to determine the trajectory of the UK’s defence capabilities for a generation.
The Changing Landscape
The security outlook is concerning. The rise of China, Russian revanchism, an increasingly militarily-capable Iran and a US which is more picky about the security challenges it undertakes and the alliances it wishes to uphold have brought about a return of great power competition. The end of a unipolar world order makes the risk of state-on-state war a reality. At the same time, population growth, economic stagnation, disruption caused by climate change and the hollowing out of the state as the primary actor are spreading instability and conflict that drives terrorism, disrupts trade and often leads to foreign intervention. For the UK, seeking to expand its trade and security partnerships, involvement in these conflicts may prove difficult to avoid.
Being able to meet such a diverse array of threats is a challenge. Left to their own devices, Whitehall departments and services will fight to preserve their existing mission sets and structures. This ensures stability in the short term. However, given budgetary constraints, it also means that resources will be stretched thin, forces will be overcommitted and capabilities will continue on a prolonged course of managed decline. Avoiding that trajectory requires clear, ruthless and strategic prioritisation of a kind that the civil service is not empowered to carry out. Effective strategy requires a coherent vision, and such a vision demands political leadership.
Questions and Choices
The first critical question concerns the UK’s foremost security priorities. Security and trade partnerships are closely intertwined. If Global Britain – the government’s vision for a post-Brexit UK – means diversifying our economic partnerships, it will be necessary to build meaningful security ties as well.
Small training teams delivering military training and assistance as part of defence diplomacy are all very well, but if the UK wishes to be the country to turn to in crises, then it becomes necessary to be able to quickly deploy larger force packages. Conversely, if the UK’s economic future is – first and foremost – in Europe, then being a framework country in European defence is essential, demanding the preservation of forces equipped and trained to undertake high-intensity warfighting. Historically, the UK has maintained forces to operate in Europe and further afield. Today, the reduction in the size of the force means it can do one or the other credibly, and therein lies the tradeoff.
The Royal Air Force maintains an excellent balance of aircraft for the suppression of enemy air defences, and would make a highly credible contribution to NATO’s warfighting capabilities in the eastern part of the continent. But the force would need to prioritise appropriate training, including low-level flying. Moreover, the importance of the stealth capabilities of F35s to that fight would fix them to that mission. The training burden would reduce the availability of aircraft for close air support missions abroad.
For land forces, the true bottlenecks are the enablers. If the UK means to project power internationally, its vehicles need to be deployable by air and sea. That imposes weight restrictions. If they are going to lack air support, they also need more firepower. Those vehicles, and the logistics to sustain them, are likely unaffordable while modernising heavy armour. Moreover, there is barely sufficient logistical capability to sustain heavy forces in Europe. If the Army wants to keep its heavy armour, then it will only be projecting small forces further afield.
Whatever takes second place on the priority list will need to be covered by allies, and there the UK must again make hard choices. It has the ability to function as a framework country – providing command and control, reconnaissance and sustainment capabilities for allies – but if it does so, it commits those capabilities to that alliance. If, for instance, it properly resources being the leading country in the Joint Expeditionary Force, then it will be reliant on France and the US to move and support UK missions elsewhere, and will consequently only be able to undertake expeditionary activity where its interests overlap with those allies.
A fundamental question, therefore, is where does the UK gain the most by being able to act alone, and what would it have to give up to be able to do so? Where are we prepared to accept risk?
Exploring All Options
Risk appetite is a critical question that fundamentally alters planning. To what extent is the UK prepared to invest in unproven capabilities? If artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are the answer, then the UK needs to fully explore their potential. Lethal autonomy would need to be on the table. If these platforms are the future, we need to fully examine where and how they provide the greatest utility.
Alternatively, if the UK is to double down on its longstanding tradition of using small, highly trained forces to project disproportionate levels of power, then those units need the permissions to take risks. We cannot demand they act creatively, unconventionally and effectively while trying to second guess their every decision from the Permanent Joint Headquarters.
Of course, letting commanders in the field take risks also risks their getting things wrong. How prepared are we to take casualties? It is vitally important to understand our risk appetite if we are to make an accurate assessment of what our troops can be expected to achieve.
Defence analysts can debate whether the UK should keep its heavy armour or whether a two-carrier fleet is viable. The correct answer ultimately depends on the task that has been set, the ends sought and the permissions offered. The civil service can produce credible options, but to do so it needs clarity on four questions:
- What is the priority mission?
- Where can we depend on our allies, and for what?
- What risks are we prepared to take?
- Where must we be able to operate alone?
Unless the government is prepared to provide clear guidance on these questions, the Integrated Review will miss a crucial opportunity to place the UK’s future defence capabilities on a coherent and credible footing.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare