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Talent in a Competitive Age – Searching for a Solution

Paul O'Neill
RUSI Defence Systems, 26 March 2021
Martial Power Programme, Military Sciences, UK Integrated Review 2021
While the changing character of war is writ large in the Defence Command Paper, its enduring nature is not; war remains a human endeavour. In a competitive age, Defence’s preparedness to win the war for talent remains uncertain.

As usual with such reviews, the Defence Command Paper repeats the mantra that people give the UK its edge, but equipment considerations dominate its pages. With similar mercantilist overtones to the Integrated Review, equipment and technology are the stars, while people are relegated to the chorus line. 

The emphasis on equipment capabilities and operating concepts reflects the ‘modernise, mobilise and transform’ agenda of the Modernising Defence Programme. The welcome boost to its budget in the Spending Review 2020 also focused on equipment: the overwhelming majority of funding was allocated to capital departmental expenditure limits (CDEL) rather than resource departmental expenditure limits (RDEL), the area from which people costs are met. While people costs represent a significant part of the Defence budget, the UK’s small size means it spends the second lowest proportion on people in NATO. Moreover, Defence cannot use its generous CDEL settlement to offset fiscal pressures on its resource expenditure, even though these will be exacerbated by higher people costs from the Command Paper’s commitment to persistent engagement, as well as a higher-skilled workforce. 

New technologies are important – perhaps even as important and decisive as the Command Paper suggests – while improving the ability to use data will help integrate and enhance the effects that a smaller force can achieve. However, if Defence is to succeed in its gamble that it has time to transform before it is called on to mass for or sustain a conflict, greater consideration is needed of the people issues, and more detailed plans might have been expected.

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Paul O’Neill
Senior Research Fellow

Paul O’Neill is a Senior Research Fellow in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute. His research interests cover... read more

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