Main Image Credit Courtesy of Robert Cutts/Flickr.
The debate has begun about the shape of the UK’s Armed Forces after the coronavirus pandemic.
RUSI’s recent Whitehall Report by Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett is a useful contribution to the public debate which should take place about the government’s Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy once the immediate crisis over coronavirus has subsided. There are points in the Whitehall Report with which to take issue, but there is also much with which it would be difficult to disagree. The importance of factoring China into our calculus, the emphasis on national resilience and the highlighting of cyber and other novel and disruptive technologies are prime examples.
The authors rightly identify Brexit and questions about US attitudes to the defence of Europe as major challenges for the review to address. Hybrid warfare, which is held up as the other major challenge, is obviously an important aspect of the operating environment, but the recommendation that the defence programme should be rebalanced to invest more in capabilities for responding to ‘grey area’ threats, while convincing at first sight, merits further probing. On the other hand, the report may underplay the challenge represented by the affordability of the defence programme. To assume that the recent injections of money into the defence budget will be ‘baked into the baseline’ could be over-optimistic, not least given the impact of coronavirus on public finances.
A Global Mission
The report’s treatment of the foreign policy baseline overstates the extent to which Prime Minister Tony Blair’s doctrine of the international community has remained in place virtually unchanged over the last 30 years. Arguably, it began to fray at the edges as soon as the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns started to get into difficulties. But it would be difficult to disagree with the report’s assertion that the UK needs to become more focused in its approach to pursuing national interests, although the concept of ‘enlightened national interest’ first appeared as a slogan in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Whether it follows, as the authors claim, that the UK needs to become more ‘transactional’ in its approach is questionable. Ensuring that NATO remains an effective collective defence alliance, unless and until there is some viable alternative, demands a principled rather than transactional approach to interaction with our allies.
The report is right to conclude that the UK should treat defence of the homeland and the immediate neighbourhood as its first defence priority. This may seem blindingly obvious, particularly in current circumstances, but when ‘Global Britain’ remains a fashionable term, it is a timely reminder that, without a secure home base, expeditions further afield need to be tightly constrained.
Consistent with this approach, the report prioritises robust air defence of the UK, strengthened coastal defences, protection of infrastructure and the capacity to provide support to the civil authorities in a national emergency. Anti-Submarine Warfare forces are also given a high priority, rightly so in view of the increased level of Russian activity in the North Atlantic, the need to protect the nuclear deterrent force and to enable reinforcement, if necessary, across the Atlantic.
The report is right to say there is a need to figure out how best to strengthen European allies’ capacity to deter and act in a crisis in which the US believes its interests are not sufficiently threatened to justify its military involvement. But it almost certainly understates the extent to which European allies, including the UK, may need to improve their collective defence capabilities if the NATO Alliance is to successfully deter aggression on its borders in future. The recommendation that the UK should optimise its ground forces to respond to hybrid and limited threats across Europe’s periphery hinges on the ability and willingness of other European allies to fill any consequent gap in NATO’s fully mobilised front line, and also on how the authors believe NATO should modernise its main force goals (something of a lacuna, given the strength of feeling they express about this).
Cutting or Pruning?
The authors argue that this change to the role of the Army would contribute to the phasing out of ‘sunset’ capabilities, which, according to the report, consist, in the main, of reduced holdings of armour, artillery and infantry capabilities which would not be available for deployment in time to respond to short-notice crises, as well as rationalisation of air transport and helicopter holdings. The report is right to make plain that it will be necessary to make cuts in some areas in order to pay for enhancements in others. The question is whether what is proposed would go far enough, particularly given the likely impact on the defence budget of a smaller economy and the need to pay back government debt. It is also unclear whether the Army reductions would be consistent with a continuing ability to field a division-sized land force as part of NATO’s collective capability for the defence of Europe – which, later in the report, the authors favour.
It is to be welcomed that the report opens a debate about the case for departing from efforts to sustain as broad a spectrum of defence capability as possible. Reviews of defence since the end of the Cold War have tended to reduce the size of the Armed Forces more or less evenly across the board. This has had the practical benefit of preserving the possibility of regenerating forces, given sufficient notice, and the political benefit of keeping the peace between the Services and being able to claim, somewhat disingenuously, that the UK retains a full spectrum of defence capabilities.
But this approach has had the effect of spreading the available resources increasingly thinly and raising the ratio of overhead to operational output. In the absence of a significant increase in the defence budget, which in present circumstances we can safely rule out, we have reached the point where this approach is no longer sustainable.
This raises questions of role specialisation and sharing of capabilities, which the 2018 Modernising Defence Programme touched on, though only fleetingly. There are many reasons, not least concerns about sovereignty and freedom of action, why this is an intensely difficult issue to grapple with, but, at some point NATO’s European allies will have to do so if they are to produce a more effective defence capability from the money they spend on defence. One area worth exploring is whether improvements to capabilities, such as integrated air and missile defence could be procured more cost effectively by pooling resources.
Bigger Cuts, But Where?
If I am right that the report almost certainly underestimates the cuts that would be required to pay for the enhancements that it envisages, some might expect me to offer my own prescription. I am going to resist this temptation because it would be premature to do so before there is a settled view on policy in the light of the ‘new normal’ after the current health crisis and an understanding of the likely resources available.
However, I offer five principles which should inform any such decisions:
- There should be an honest assessment of the relative contribution to national security of all the means at the country’s disposal.
- All elements of the future force should contribute coherently to the main mission in mind.
- With the exception of the nuclear deterrent, the capabilities we retain should have the widest possible utility.
- The future force should, as far as possible, not include elements which are disproportionately vulnerable.
- We should prioritise credibility of all the elements of the future force over the retention of the broadest possible spectrum of capability.
It is to be hoped that, on the back of this report, others will enter the debate and, taking a lead from the government’s Fusion Doctrine, broaden it to cover not only defence, but also the possible trade-offs between the full range of national security levers at the government’s disposal.
Tom McKane is a Distinguished Fellow of RUSI. From 2008–14, Tom was successively Director General for Strategy and Director General for Security Policy in the UK Ministry of Defence. In 2012, he was briefly the acting Permanent Secretary of the MoD.
The views expressed in this article are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.