Boris Johnson’s newly elected government has some big questions to answer about the country’s defence policy and global posture.
Despite Thursday’s election results, Prime Minister Boris Johnson leads a deeply divided UK whose identity and place in the world is far from clear. While the mantra of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ reflects the new administration’s immediate priority, broader national and international issues also need addressing. In this regard, it is helpful that the Prime Minister promised a major security and defence review.
The last full review, conducted in 2015, described an internationalist, outward-facing UK that was committed to the rules-based international order. It identified numerous threats, including terrorism and a resurgence in state-based competition and state-based threats. In 2017, the government launched a National Security Capability Review (NSCR), following the vote to leave the EU and amidst perceptions of a rapidly deteriorating global security situation. This broadly confirmed the findings of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and spawned a Modernising Defence Programme to consider the defence implications of a perceived acceleration in the pace of change.
While these reviews noted the deteriorating security situation, they did little to reset the UK’s strategic posture or force design, either in terms of ambition or resources. The MoD did benefit from in-year financial relief to allow it to balance its books, increasing the core budget by 9.6%, but this principally allowed it to plug holes in its near-term finances rather than increase capability.
During the election campaign, it became clear that an administration led by Prime Minister Johnson would free itself from the austerity politics of its predecessors. Commitments have been made to increasing the size of the police as well as the number of nurses and doctors. Defence was assured of the commitment to 2% of GDP and the 0.5% increase in the equipment budget from the 2015 review. And during the campaign’s defence debate, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace reiterated the policy of preserving regular military numbers, most particularly the size of the regular Army at 82,000.
The new review, which is trailed by the new Prime Minister as being ‘the deepest review of Britain's security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’, needs to address a number of fundamental questions about Britain as a state and its role in the world. The challenge will be to ensure a balance between ambition and resources. The tension between meeting NATO's 2% of GDP target and proper resource management will be heightened should Brexit have a negative effect on the British economy, even in the short to medium term.
With long equipment lead times, defence needs the planning clarity of a multi-year financial settlement and to be protected against real term cuts to the budget, even if the percentage of GDP spent on defence has to rise to sustain current levels of spending. However, even the current level of ambition is unaffordable, so if the ambition remains the same, defence spending needs to rise in real terms as well as a percentage of GDP. If the findings of the 2017 NSCR were correct and the security situation continues to deteriorate, then the problems the review needs to address are exacerbated.
The starting point for the review must be a rigorous assessment of the UK’s interests, including the degree to which, post-Brexit, the UK wishes to be a European or global actor. These will not be binary choices, but the relative emphasis of each needs to be understood because for defence it drives force structure: the more European security dominates, the greater the case for Army size and investment in recapitalising land equipment, while a more global Britain places greater emphasis on the rapid projection of UK forces, which tends to favour the maritime capabilities. The UK requires greater combat air mass under either scenario, although the scale of this will depend on the kinds and concurrency of combat envisaged, but the need for strategic lift is clearly reduced in a European setting. Likewise, the purchase of space infrastructure will have greater prominence if projection is to take place on a global stage.
Once that goal is defined, the means by which it can best be achieved can be explored. Does the UK wish to be a status quo power that seeks to arrest the erosion of the current (favourable) international system? Or an active power that shapes a new order, that may see a reduction in relative importance given the shift in power to Asia, but that secures a more favourable position than may otherwise be realised by opposing the inevitable evolution of the system? The current challenges to nuclear agreements such as the INF, NPT and the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran require a UK position – either to follow the US or adopt a national position.
A dispassionate analysis of the UK’s strengths and vulnerabilities is required; the argument that the UK is the leading soft power is beguiling, but what matters is how others see the UK, not how it wishes to see itself. The divisions in the UK, including over identity, inequality and Brexit, increase those vulnerabilities and are being exploited by adversaries. Understanding the relationships within the UK and with international partners will be crucial. The review must consider its level of unilateral ambition and the degree to which the UK is willing to partner with others and depend upon them, most notably the US, NATO and the EU.
The review in prospect suggests a greater emphasis on domestic security, which is vital given that the information, cyber and other non-military attacks the UK is subject to on a daily basis are blurring the boundaries between the domestic and international that has confused Western thinking about competition since 2014. The review needs to ensure the future relationship with the EU builds on the UK’s strengths in police and security and protects intelligence sharing, working with EUPOL and cross-border security issues such as illicit flows.
The review also needs to strengthen UK resilience to attacks, going beyond coordinated responses to include a more deliberate, long-term approach that considers the role of education in building cohesion and giving the population the facts to recognise when they are being manipulated – the Total Defence approach adopted in some of the Scandinavian countries is worth exploring.
In terms of the UK military, its force structure should flow from the tasks it is asked to perform. Conventional capabilities are important as they set the threshold below which adversaries seek to exploit vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but measuring military capability in terms of input (workforce numbers for examples) is unhelpful. A more meaningful way of describing what the military can do for the state needs to be found.
Delivering on the MoD mantra of ‘International by Design’ requires a greater understanding of the risk the UK is willing to take by relying on allies, and whether that means completely disinvesting from certain capabilities on the basis they will be provided by others, or continuing to invest in a full spectrum of capabilities, including high-end, and sacrificing quantity.
It is also time to review the way the MoD operates as an organisation, and challenging whether the delegated model introduced in 2011 (where responsibility for capability delivery has been delegated from MoD to front line commands) remains fit for purpose as it underpins thinking behind the current Defence Transformation programme. Without a functioning MoD organisation, working within its capacity, whatever a review decides will remain words on a page and not result in the changes that might be necessary.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences