In more usual times, it’s easy to forget that the world is an inherently dangerous place.
Whether or not you subscribe to a realist view, recent events like President Trump’s sabre rattling on Chinese culpability for the coronavirus pandemic, the exchange of fire between US and Iranian forces at the start of the year, and controversy around China’s relationship with Hong Kong make it clear that not only are these not usual times any more, they are far from safe times.
Which is why reports in recent weeks that the Government has restarted it’s long trailed Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development (IR) – delayed by the public health emergency – is welcome news. Whilst we would normally expect to see a Defence and Security Review every 5 or so years, this year is far from business as usual, with the IR seeking a more complete assessment of Britain’s place in the world. Nonetheless, the IR is likely to report later this year, and will lay the groundwork for the next half a decade of UK defence policy.
It is very easy for voters to ignore defence. Compared to the areas of the economy that will hit people hard – cuts to healthcare, social spending, culture and taxation, defence has offered a soft target for cuts for successive Governments ever since the Berlin Wall came down. Afghanistan and Iraq (and the numerous small interventions aside them) have stretched our Armed Forces to their limit and provided a generation with a distant war to fill the headlines and casualty lists, but it’s easy to forget that actual manpower commitments overseas have not exceeded a Division (~10,000 men) since the earliest days of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Whilst such numbers sound large and every casualty remains a tragedy, the level of funding required and the scale of threat faced pale into comparison to the Cold War, or the Second World War prior. Defence has offered a goldmine of “efficiency” spending for years to politicians and HM Treasury with little impact on poll numbers or economic output – but the seam may have finally run dry.
The impact on much of the world economy by a global pandemic, previously seen as a substantial threat by most sensible Governments but actually expected by very few, and the prospect of increased international competition for sparse resources, raises the prospect of renewed danger to our interests at home and abroad. When the narrative of a resource wars was last mooted, most forecasters declared water to be the commodity that would be of concern. No-one could have predicted that in 2020 the real danger would be in the shortage of vital PPE or in the prospect of limited vaccine supplies swept up by sponsoring Governments.
This time round, the Review really matters. The Government must reconcile the very real strategic threats that it is facing (and accurately identify them amidst a sea of competing developments) and somehow balance the need to maintain a strategic defence capability (embodied by the Royal Navy), against the ability to project power in support of our geopolitical allies against wider structural threats (largely embodied by the British Army and the RAF). It must do all of this against a backdrop of the prospect of major cuts to offset the crippling effect of coronavirus, and guard against the classic mistake of planning to fight the last war. The last few years have made clear that theatres of war that barely existed five years ago – like cyber – are the new frontlines not just in conventional warfare but in the ever-changing world of security and intelligence.
So, bearing this in mind, what can we expect of the Armed Forces in the IR?
- Cyber uplift – The British Army has always prided itself on pursuing the mantra of quality over quantity (whether or not that’s an accurate description is another matter). No more so is this achievable in the world of cyber warfare, where the military and it’s civilian partners have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with 6 Division re-established to supervise a number of specialist asymmetric capabilities outside of the usual force projection formations. This is the area that the military, with support from intelligence partners (including the relatively young, innovative National Cyber Security Centre – hosted by GCHQ) can really develop a capability that will enhance the capabilities of allies who may be able to fund boots on the ground, but not the tech they really need to counter cyber-attacks on vital infrastructure, or electoral subversion. Combined with the reports that Dominic Cummings is heavily involved in the review, and with his perchance for futurology, it would be very surprising to not see at least an uplift in cyber capability, if not even a strategic restructuring of other capabilities around it.
- Drones – Drones are another area of now ubiquitous tech that was in it’s infancy in 2015. The RAF already possess a substantial drone-based capability but expect to see further funding for R&D to explore other ways to utilise our advantage in the other Services.
- Emerging Tech – Offensive Cyber and drones are the well-known tip of a whole iceberg of emerging technologies with the potential to transform the way we wage war. AI is one such area that offers massive potential as an efficiency mechanism – with the potential to replicate and replace human decision making and delivery of functions in high-pressure situations (such as target acquisition), and scientists continue to explore the defence applications of everything from human-focussed robotics (like exoskeletons) to 3D printing (for battlefield medicine). The potential is huge, and expect an enhanced resource for R&D to go beyond developing known capabilities and work on engineering new ones.
- Navy – Quality or Quantity? The political desire to build two aircraft carriers has left the Royal Navy without enough escorts to protect them – effectively creating a scenario where in a real confrontation, they could deploy one Queen Elizabeth class carrier and escort group alone at the expense of most of their ongoing commitments. It’s an unsustainable situation, and the Navy desperately needs to find a way to increase the number of ships it has at it’s disposal. We already know that our 16 Type 23 Frigates will be replaced variably by 5 full size Type 31 and 8 cheaper Type 26 frigates – this number will likely be maintained at the very least. A radical rationalisation would see one of the aircraft carriers scrapped in favour of an enhanced escort fleet – but the political heat that world bring may not be a price the Government is willing to pay.
- Royal Marines and Infantry cuts – However, with spending comes the need to make cuts. The Royal Marines are a popular source of speculation given that their identity as a separate, self-sustaining command within the Royal Navy rather than the Army adds significant cost for merely cultural, rather than capability reasons. Given the reduced need to storm beaches (or in the case of the Parachute Regiment’s, drop into contested warzones), we could potentially see a reduction in expensive, specialist infantry capabilities in order to protect the quantity needed to deliver basic warfighting operations.
- Cavalry cuts – The British Army has not fired a round from a Challenger II tank in anger since Iraq. In an era where air and cyber capability is outstripping the need for heavy ground based manoeuvre forces, the Army’s remaining heavy cavalry are a soft (albeit malnourished) target. Many traditional heavy cavalry regiments have already been merged or transitioned to lighter manoeuvre platforms. Expect more of the same.
- Support cuts – No doubt that the second support lines of all three Services will suffer further cuts to sustain upgrades to and consolidation of frontline capabilities. The Army has managed to be rather innovative over the last few years in consolidating it’s engineering and logistical capabilities to support more modular formations with better integration of Reserves. More of the same will be necessary across the board if any breathing room is to be generated for the necessary uplifts, and mitigate the need to disestablish capabilities altogether
- Procurement – The bloat of defence procurement is also a regular target for political anger – with notorious mishaps like the mothballing of serviceable Chinooks while soldiers were killed by roadside IEDs haunting any discussion of improvements to the most complicated acquisition and supply process in Whitehall. Much like Cumming’s desire to streamline the Civil Service, attempts to streamline defence procurement are a common goal and an uncommon outcome. However, the Government has already made commitments in the Budget to establish a UK “DARPA” modelled on the US’s defence innovation centre, and with the Defence Science and Technology Labs (DSTL) increasingly well-regarded, an attempt to streamline the system, not by gutting it but by rationalising it may now finally be within reach. Historically, attempts to tackle procurement issues have been hampered by the inescapable reality that in war, needs cannot always be foreseen, as soon as you refine one area, another “Urgent Operational Requirement” will emerge that undoes all your work. For the first time, the UK is not engaged in any major ground operations during a Review, offering an opportunity that previous Reviews have lacked: a real time pause in on the persistent operational demands that may finally offer a breaking point – both logistically and politically.
- Recruitment and Manpower – The attempt to cut the Regular Army and replace it contemporaneously with Reserves has been a failure – with recruitment numbers lagging and retention rates in a peacetime military declining. Not only do the Armed Forces now suffer from a lack of specialist expertise, but also now suffer a lack of core troops that deliver the “bread and butter” of warfighting. Much has been made of Dominic Cumming’s call for “misfits and weirdos” – but in tempting those who may overwise overlook a military career into the Services this may finally land as a realistic policy intention. Innovation, and not saturation (with successive big budget advertising campaigns having failed to enhance recruitment numbers), will be key here – including potential flexibility in joining terms. For many of those our Armed Forces now need – computer scientists, digital and language specialists – a inflexible contract tying them to the colours is unappealing. It’s likely we’ll see more on new ways to attract and retain talent, including potential flexibility in contractual and medical guidelines.
The IR, like those Reviews that came before, will be a tug-of-war between the MOD, No10, HM Treasury, the Service Commands, our Security and Intelligence Services, the defence industry and those MPs with personal and constituency interests. It will happen largely behind closed doors – and the result will influence the course of defence policy over years – not days. Nonetheless, it matters more than ever that Government is able to walk the thin tightrope between its first duty – defending the realm – and it’s natural priority – protecting the economy. The implications of getting of wrong are more dangerous now then they have been for a generation.