The UK’s Modernising Defence Programme: Are Alternative Approaches Possible?

Main Image Credit The statue of Horatio Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in London’s Charing Cross. The mavericks of British military history, such as Nelson, give the UK its reputation for fostering innovation from across the force structure. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia.

If boldness, cunning and guile are the hallmarks of successful British military contributions that have allowed the UK Armed Forces to develop a reputation for excellence, then these might be the facets that need investment in the MDP, not simply new equipment.

When businesses conduct strategy reviews, the usual starting point is a SWOT analysis; one of the outputs of such an examination is to overcome gaps and weaknesses in their own business models. And from official public statements made regarding the British Ministry of Defence’s Modernising Defence Programme – (MDP), widely accepted as a national defence review by any other name – this also appears to be the approach being adopted for the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces.

The major questions being posed by the MDP deal with how shortfalls in capability might be overcome within strict financial constraints. This might indeed appear to be a sensible approach that would doubtlessly focus on new areas of investment, research and development, and genuine efficiencies that could deliver current capability cheaper.

Such an approach is not new for Britain’s MoD; it has underpinned British defence reviews since 1998, with the possible exception of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review that focused on affordability instead of the ability to fight.

SWOTs are also used in personal career development, but with a different output;  instead of seeking to develop a broad portfolio of skills and competencies by overcoming personal weaknesses (through training and professional development), many coaches advocate an approach that ignores weaknesses and builds on strengths instead – making the individual outstanding in some, but not all, areas.

This would be an interesting approach for a financially constrained department that is being forced to address very real and potent threats, such as Russian undersea operations and belligerent behaviour in Europe, rather than simply maintain a broad range of military capabilities in every area for discretionary combat operations. The result is currently an Armed Forces that is too small in any one area to be convincing (for Allies or adversaries).

For the MoD to develop excellence in certain areas would of course require a shift in the current concept of operations, away from a full-spectrum force capable of global operations to something focused on delivering a credible and decisive contribution on the battlefield – thus fulfilling clear ambitions for deterrence. Given the current financial constraints, such a course of action breaks with the force design of Joint Force 2025 that has little bits of everything, but insufficiently funded to excel or to defeat an adversary.

The alternate approach aimed at building on strengths could see a focus on areas that actually delivered decisive factors to combat operations, filled capability gaps in the NATO Alliance structures, and developed a more coherent and logical force design. Arguably, such a force would be better-placed to deliver on the two key outputs of the UK Armed Forces: deterrence against adversaries and influence with key Allies.

Adopting a revised concept of force design would be challenging because of the depth of historical emotions, the sunk investments into certain platforms, along with preconceived ideas of what makes the UK Armed Forces special. The orthodox view might therefore be a priority list that invests more into special forces, carrier strike, fifth generation air power, precision strike and rapidly deployable, agile and capable infantry formations. All matched with a research and development programme that funds work on cyber, artificial intelligence and autonomy, in order to maintain parity with the technological innovations of other states.

An alternative view might prioritise very different things that sought to build on strengths. Historically, one might view British forces to have derived their greatest and most consistent combat advantage from people; it has been rare that superior equipment or mass (the size of force) fielded by the UK forces have provided the decisive element for victory on the battlefield, nor in gaining influence and leverage in Allies.

However, while modern British military thinking acknowledges the importance of ‘people’ in delivering a competitive edge, the belief appears to be that it is commanders and leaders who constitute this. Historically, this has not necessarily been the case. Innovations in fighting have come from across the force structure and still today there is no shortage of ideas and innovations being raised from the ranks of the three services.  The UK has historically had an edge over others because the people it brought to the fight were able to think and act in unorthodox, unconventional and disruptive ways. From Victor Jones to Ian Flemming, Horatio Nelson to T E Lawrence, previous performances by British military personnel have rewritten the playbook in many perspectives. Not merely followers – but not necessarily leaders either – key Allies want people who can break rules, cross boundaries and act where others are restricted from doing so.

An approach that refocuses on the individual, on education rather than training, and allows for failure as a learning experience would require a culture change across the UK Armed Forces. But such an approach would also allow a different procurement plan. Equipment would no longer have to be the best in small numbers; it might consist of satisfactory equipment, good-enough platforms, but in sufficient quantities that allow British soldiers, sailors and aviators to win.

Two excellent examples from the Second World War of British ideas that were both disruptive and impactful are Operation Fortitude and Operation Mincemeat. More recent operations in Afghanistan demonstrate that these skills have not been lost but are embedded deep within the British military’s DNA: local Afghans considered British forces to be ‘powerful, clever and cunning

If boldness, cunning and guile are the hallmarks of successful British military contributions that have allowed the UK Armed Forces to develop a reputation for excellence, then these might be the facets that need investment in the MDP, not simply new equipment.

Then again, making such a radical shift would entail significant political difficulties for any government bold enough to face this reality. And breaking with a 20-year plan that emphasises platforms and technology as good – and as a result delivers jobs, tax revenues and potentially overseas sales – would expend considerable political capital and needs a compelling narrative.

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


Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content