2020 Vision: The Year Past and the Year Ahead for UK Defence

 In UK, Defense, Uncategorized

By Nicholas Drummond

This arti­cle looks at UK Defence high­lights of the past year and key topics that the new Government will need to address next year. Looking ahead, 2020 will be espe­cial­ly impor­tant because a new Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) is planned. This will set an agenda not only for the next 12 months, but the next five years. 


Overall, 2019 has been an aver­age year for Defence, not a stel­lar one. At its begin­ning, many of us hoped that Brexit would be sorted by 31 March, paving the way for Parliament to focus on other areas of Government, includ­ing Defence, lead­ing to an uplift in the budget. This is some­thing that many com­men­ta­tors believed was nec­es­sary, not to address a grow­ing number of threats, but simply to meet the exist­ing com­mit­ments decid­ed upon by the 2010 and 2015 SDSRs. On the thresh­old of 2020, we are still in the same posi­tion as were this time last year, albeit with a new Prime Minister. Defence has received a modest uplift, although this was only to meet the short­fall caused by award­ing ser­vice per­son­nel a pay rise and address­ing issues relat­ed to the new Dreadnought-Class of nuclear mis­sile sub­marines.

Screenshot 2019-12-26 at 17.43.37

One con­sis­tent theme of 2019 was that the world has become more dan­ger­ous and volatile. Despite warn­ings from the Armed Forces’ senior lead­er­ship, there has been little polit­i­cal acknowl­edge­ment of the increased risks we face, nor any kind of response to address defi­cien­cies within our armed forces. Worse still, the need for the Government to build a war chest to pay for Brexit means that the Defence budget may again be raided. So, by way of intro­duc­tion, the year in review was unin­spir­ing but the out­look for the year ahead seems no better, if not bleak­er.

The 2020 Challenge – Restoring what was lost in 2010

When deep cuts were made in 2010, those of us who worked in Defence were hor­ri­fied by their sever­i­ty. It was mil­i­tary illit­er­a­cy on a grand scale.

We believed that the many reduc­tions had to be a tem­po­rary mea­sure, not a new norm. This was because the 2010 SDSR was a deficit-cut­ting exer­cise designed to bal­ance the budget, not an objec­tive assess­ment of the resources needed to counter exis­ten­tial threats. A decade later, the UK’s armed forces are still strug­gling to work within a dimin­ished resource enve­lope. The Armed Forces are not asking for to go beyond what we had before, but simply for the resources to do prop­er­ly what has already been agreed. If we could recov­er lost ground to revert to the pre-2010 struc­ture, this would be a mas­sive win. 

The prospect of turn­ing back the clock to pre-2010 is extreme­ly unlike­ly. The Government’s pre-emp­tive crit­i­cism of the armed forces’s man­age­ment of cur­rent resources is an indi­ca­tion that it may cut fur­ther rather than re-grow, at least in the short-term. Wishing to avoid being too pes­simistic, the most likely 2020 sce­nario seems a delay of fur­ther invest­ment, rather than fur­ther cuts. Why give the Navy money for more war­ships when it can’t crew the ones it already has? Why acquire more combat air­craft for the RAF when it can’t train enough pilots to fly exist­ing air­craft? It’s the same story for the Army want­i­ng more armoured vehi­cles when over­all strength is still well below the head­count cap of 82,000. Delay may be a nec­es­sary evil in the short-term, but it cannot be cred­i­ble a five-year strate­gic plan. 

The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, recent­ly said that Britain needs to “cut its cloth accord­ing to its ambi­tion.” This lit­er­al­ly means that the armed forces need to be resourced in-line with their key roles, which no one would dis­agree with. What he actu­al­ly meant was that our defence ambi­tions must match our budget. The real­i­ty is that any country’s defence budget must bal­ance the need to counter the most likely and dan­ger­ous threats with what it can afford. For Britain, like Germany, France and our other European neigh­bours, It’s a bal­anc­ing act. It’s like decid­ing what level of car insur­ance you want: fully com­pre­hen­sive or just third-party, fire and theft.

The need for a new UK “Grand Strategy”

No cred­i­ble Strategic Defence & Security Review can be devel­oped with­out first analysing the under­ly­ing geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and using this as a basis to iden­ti­fy our ongo­ing Defence needs and pri­or­i­ties. To devel­op a Grand Strategy we need to answer four simple ques­tions:

  1. What are the most likely and seri­ous threats we face?
  2. How should we struc­ture and resource the armed forces to respond to the above threats in terms of roles, tasks, size, organ­i­sa­tion and capa­bil­i­ties?
  3. How do we bal­ance our most crit­i­cal Defence needs and pri­or­i­ties with what is real­is­tic and afford­able?
  4. How do the above ele­ments trans­late into per­son­nel, equip­ment, train­ing and sus­tain­ment require­ments?

These ques­tions go straight to Ben Wallace’s com­ments about “cut­ting our cloth accord­ing to our ambi­tion.” 

While there are sev­er­al over-arch­ing pri­or­i­ties, such as the nuclear deter­rent, pro­tect­ing UK air space, and anti-sub­ma­rine capa­bil­i­ties to pro­tect UK waters, we fulfil a number of less vital com­mit­ments that suck-up finite resources. These include having over­seas bases that expand our spheres of influ­ence, but have no direct ben­e­fit. There are also the sacred cows such as mil­i­tary bands and public duties. If we cannot afford to do every­thing, then we need to pri­ori­tise the most essen­tial tasks. Would it makes sense to pri­ori­tise the Navy and Royal Air Force and have only a token Army? The prob­lem is that when you lose a capa­bil­i­ty, it invari­ably takes years to rebuild it. So, before we start cut­ting the budget fur­ther or increas­ing it, the 2020 SDSR must be rooted in a cred­i­ble defence strat­e­gy, not a polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic jug­gling act that only serves other Government inter­ests. 

An afford­able strat­e­gy versus a cred­i­ble strat­e­gy

What is afford­abil­i­ty anyway? Some people would argue that we already spend too much on Defence. I would counter that we spend much more on the NHS and other public ser­vices. We spend what we do on Health, not because it is afford­able or unaf­ford­able, but because it is what the elec­torate demands. It is the price of being elect­ed. In con­trast, the lim­it­ed dis­cus­sion about Defence during the 2019 General Election cam­paign sug­gests that there are few votes in it, so the Government is oblig­ed only to spend what it feels is nec­es­sary. It can defend any budget it sets on grounds of afford­abil­i­ty, but let’s be clear, afford­abil­i­ty is an arbi­trary con­cept. The only way to gen­er­ate a larger budget is to make Defence a higher polit­i­cal pri­or­i­ty. If the UK had a viable oppo­si­tion party, this might happen. Instead this role falls upon Defence com­men­ta­tors to pro­vide an objec­tive analy­sis of the global envi­ron­ment and what is needed to counter poten­tial chal­lenges. In the mean­time, the sig­nif­i­cant Commons major­i­ty achieved by Boris Johnson to accom­plish Brexit means he can do almost what it likes across other areas of Government. 

So are we spend­ing enough? 

America has been unequiv­o­cal in stat­ing that the increased number of threats means that all NATO mem­bers must honour the 2% of GDP com­mit­ment to defence spend­ing. Very few EU nations are actu­al­ly doing this. With China an increased threat in Asia and Donald Trump an unknown quan­ti­ty, we cannot auto­mat­i­cal­ly assume that the USA will come to our aid this side of the pond. Europe needs to be able to stand alone. Britain is already spend­ing 2% of GDP on defence, but with­out America is this enough? The require­ment to spend more may apply to our neigh­bours more than to us, but, ulti­mate­ly, defence isn’t about spend­ing a random per­cent­age of GDP, it is what you actu­al­ly get for the money spent. The Netherlands, for exam­ple, spent US$ 10.5 bil­lion in 2018. This does not buy much in terms of high-end capa­bil­i­ties. With America’s defence pri­or­i­ties increas­ing­ly focused in Asia, respon­si­bil­i­ty falls on Britain to play a bigger role in Europe. 

The glass is half full, not half empty

So far, Britain is doing an excel­lent job. It has among the most potent and effec­tive defence forces of any nation. The glass is def­i­nite­ly half full, not half empty. Our emerg­ing mix of capa­bil­i­ties recog­nis­es that we can best pro­tect UK inter­ests by deploy­ing expe­di­tionary forces to meet threats at dis­tance rather than wait­ing for them to turn-up on our doorstep. The way in which we’re imple­ment­ing this vision across Land, Sea and Air domains is an exam­ple for our European neigh­bours. We’re also moving into the Cyber and Information Domains to devel­op strate­gies to engage poten­tial adver­saries below the thresh­old. Our inno­va­tion shows our European neigh­bours, to whom we remain total­ly com­mit­ted, that inde­pen­dent of EU mem­ber­ship, we can still be a reli­able part­ner and ally. Being pre­pared to con­tribute to Europe’s safety and secu­ri­ty can only help to build bridges post-Brexit. There’s a good reason to do this and this is because our own secu­ri­ty is indi­vis­i­ble with that of our European neigh­bours.

Despite the cur­rent level of UK defence expen­di­ture, we still have a number of notable gaps that need to be addressed. In par­tic­u­lar, the British Army needs renew­al so that it is effec­tive across mul­ti­ple deploy­ment types and not just across tra­di­tion­al Cold War 2.0 sce­nar­ios. The Army needs to invest fur­ther in cyber, elec­tron­ic war­fare and “grey zone” capa­bil­i­ties. It must also acquire C4I sys­tems that improve how it com­mu­ni­cates secure­ly and reli­ably over dis­tance. We need to devel­op AI, autonomous under­wa­ter and ground sys­tems and aerial drones. But, before doing these things, it also needs to get the basics right. We must invest in “hard power” that enables us to phys­i­cal­ly destroy an enemy’s capac­i­ty to wage war. This means equip­ment which pro­vides an appro­pri­ate mix of fire­pow­er, pro­tec­tion and mobil­i­ty. We need new artillery sys­tems, better pro­tect­ed mobil­i­ty, and a force that is flex­i­ble across mul­ti­ple deploy­ment types. In fact, the prob­lem isn’t that we have no plans to do these things, but that the money to imple­ment them (the much vaunt­ed £184 bil­lion Equipment Plan) has been made avail­able so slowly.

Behind Government blus­ter com­plain­ing that the MoD is inef­fi­cient and waste­ful, we have to hope that Ben Wallace and his team realise that Defence needs more money to reverse the damage done in 2010, even if the Government cannot fund it now. For 2020, the Government’s strat­e­gy appears to be focused around making the MoD leaner, more effi­cient and more account­able. This means anoth­er year of not much hap­pen­ing beyond pre-exist­ing plans. In par­tic­u­lar, there is no scope to lift head­count caps. And this is the key to get­ting UK Armed Forces back on track. 

The Highlights of 2019

The last 12 months have seen work con­tin­ue on the four new Dreadnought nuclear mis­sile sub­marines. A fix is being imple­ment­ed for the Type 45 destroyer’s propul­sion system. Type 26 Frigate work has begun (albeit at a glacial pace). And, the Type 31 Light Frigate has been approved for pro­duc­tion. The sixth and sev­enth Astute Class attack sub­marines have been delayed by causes that have not been explained, but all seven boats are expect­ed to be deliv­ered by 2026. Overall, the Navy is in good shape and get­ting better. 

00ea8a8ebbfc819f7ec891524038a81fDreadnought-Class SSBN (Image: Bae Systems)

Although we enjoyed the glo­ri­ous sight of two 65,000 tonne car­ri­ers in Portsmouth, these ships have been sin­gled-out as exam­ples of excess. Plenty has been writ­ten on this topic, but the bottom line is that we need car­ri­er strike to pro­tect the Atlantic fleet, as well as to project power over­seas, and, in case we need to sup­port the deploy­ment of land forces by sea. The extra cost was due to delays to the pro­gramme, not because the ships them­selves were ruinous­ly expen­sive. Indeed, com­pared to the US Navy’s new Ford Class super car­ri­ers, at $14 bil­lion each, the British car­ri­ers at £6.5 bil­lion for two seem like a bar­gain.  

By the time you read this, our 20th F‑35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter should have been deliv­ered. The first P‑8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft has arrived and, after a 10-year “capa­bil­i­ty hol­i­day,” we will short­ly be back in the busi­ness of hunt­ing sub­marines using fixed wing air­craft. It’s also been a good year for the A400M Atlas. A gear­box fix has been devel­oped for the engine and this will dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve fleet avail­abil­i­ty. The A400M can also now drop sticks of para­troop­ers as well as air-drop cargo. With almost double the pay­load of the C‑130 Hercules, the A400M is steadi­ly posi­tion­ing itself as a vital strate­gic tool. 

After 20 years of wait­ing, the Army has final­ly signed a deal to pur­chase a medium wheeled armour capa­bil­i­ty in Boxer. This will trans­form the Army and make it expe­di­tionary in a way it never has been before. With tracked armour, there has been no deci­sion on Challenger 2 LEP or Warrior CSP. Many voices within both the MoD and the Army sug­gest that nei­ther pro­gramme is now suf­fi­cient given an increased number of threats. The Army is con­sid­er­ing a pro­pos­al by Bae Systems / Rheinmetall (RBSL) to fit a new turret to Challenger 2 with a 120 mm smooth­bore. A second ini­tia­tive, the Heavy Armour Automotive Improvement Programme (HAAIP), will add a new power pack to improve mobil­i­ty. The worry is that the number of changes to Challenger 2 are so sig­nif­i­cant that the LEP has become a new tank pro­gramme. The risks and costs asso­ci­at­ed with such a com­plex series of upgrades could delay the revised MBT’s entry into ser­vice with­out guar­an­tee­ing a suc­cess­ful out­come. The same is true for Warrior. 

Delivery of the new Ajax recon­nais­sance vehi­cle family has also been very slow. Rumours abound of cracked hulls and broken sus­pen­sions, because the chas­sis cannot sup­port the extra weight of armour added to the plat­form. GDLS will need to have a better 2020. The Multi-Role Protected Vehicle Programme (MRVP) con­tin­ues, but still no deci­sion has been made con­cern­ing Package 1 and Package 2 pre­ferred options. 

Infrastructure mod­erni­sa­tion has been an issue ever since we decid­ed to bring the Army home from Germany. Not only do we need to update exist­ing facil­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly accom­mo­da­tion, we must also build new bar­racks to house return­ing  units. Refurbished infra­struc­ture require­ments apply to all three ser­vices. Training facil­i­ties are impor­tant too. Indoor syn­thet­ic train­ing and sim­u­la­tion sys­tems have the poten­tial to save money while increas­ing the skills of per­son­nel who use them. If the Army is acquir­ing lots of shiny new vehi­cles, it will also need garage space and ser­vic­ing bays to store and main­tain them. The basing plan is a less vis­i­ble activ­i­ty, but progress has been made during the year across the prop­er­ty port­fo­lio. Newly refur­bished facil­i­ties have a pos­i­tive impact on morale and this direct­ly affects reten­tion. 

Interestingly, we are seeing the Navy move to a model where all war­ships will have mul­ti­ple crews (nuclear mis­sile sub­marines already have this) enabling ves­sels to spend more time deployed at sea. The oper­a­tional readi­ness cycle, where­by we have one unit deployed / on high readi­ness, one unit work­ing-up; and a third unit rest­ing and refit­ting after a deploy­ment, works very well. But, it is some­thing that relies on ade­quate head­count to make it work prop­er­ly. This ini­tia­tive is also impor­tant it will do much to enhance lifestyle, anoth­er lever of reten­tion.

Recruitment has improved in 2019, espe­cial­ly for the Army. Although reten­tion has slipped some­what, the out­flow is run­ning at 6.8%, which, accord­ing to the Army is close to its his­tor­i­cal norm of 6.4%, a figure main­tained since the “Options for Change” SDSR in 1990. Above all, the CGS, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has made improv­ing the Army’s offer a pri­or­i­ty for 2019 and we have already start­ed to see efforts made under his lead­er­ship bear fruit.  

1992961252_Screenshot2019-07-14at10_36_24.jpg.de4c98e25bb644b7323fa035d641cf52First RAF P‑8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (Image: UK Ministry of Defence)

The need to lift the head­count cap

A deploy­able divi­sion requires around 35,000 sol­diers. With a head­count cap of 82,000, the Army should in theory be able to gen­er­ate two deploy­able divi­sions or six brigades, plus a Special Forces group. A major bar­ri­er to force gen­er­a­tion is that so many many Combat Support (CS) and Combat Service Support (CSS) assets were axed in 2010. Restoring Army total head­count to 90,000−100,000, would allow us to com­fort­ably deploy two divi­sions. This is not prof­li­gate or ambi­tious, but some­thing that many nations with small­er bud­gets accom­plish with ease, despite spend­ing less over­all. It was also some­thing we planned to do in 1998, a time when we were not involved in any major con­flict and did not face the same number of threats we do today. 

The Royal Navy needs more per­son­nel too. Increasing total head­count from 29,000 to 35,000 would make a big dif­fer­ence to crew­ing sur­face com­bat­ants. The RAF would also ben­e­fit from a sim­i­lar increase in per­son­nel num­bers. 

Beyond equip­ment plans already in place, what else do we need to acquire? It would do much to enhance the Royal Navy if the Type 31 pur­chase could be extend­ed to 8 or 10 ships. Additionally, 3 – 4 low-cost diesel elec­tric sub­marines, like the German 212 AIP boats, would make-up for only having 7 Astute boats. 

Given the cost of the F‑35B, it isn’t clear whether the UK will acquire the full total of 138 air­craft envis­aged when the pro­gramme began. If we only pur­chase 100 and only have 160 Typhoon FGR4s, this raises the ques­tion of whether the UK has suf­fi­cient combat air­craft to pro­tect UK skies against a con­cert­ed attack. If the F‑35B isn’t viable in terms of cost, then we must look at an alter­na­tive. 

It would be help­ful if the Army could acquire 1,800 Boxer 8×8 vehi­cles instead of 523 as this would enable us to retire the ancient FV432. It may also need to recon­sid­er its MBT and IFV plans. 

Apart from the above ini­tia­tives, which would add £20-£30 bil­lion to equip­ment plan over 10 years, UK Armed Forces don’t need to go on an equip­ment spend­ing spree. The big issue is per­son­nel. 

The ques­tion of reserve forces also needs to be addressed. Relying on part-time per­son­nel to field read­i­ly deploy­able front­line units doesn’t work. We must re-think this. The Army Reserve should be re-con­fig­ured so that it allows the the Army to grow rapid­ly in time of nation­al emer­gency. Historically, this is what it always exist­ed to do. 

If much of what I describe sounds famil­iar, it is because so little has changed over the last decade. The Armed Forces have exist­ed in a cash-starved state of sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion. In 2010, we cut the Armed Forces for non-strate­gic rea­sons. Perhaps the global finan­cial crisis jus­ti­fied this, but Brexit does not. 

If the 2020 SDSR results in a robust defence strat­e­gy that achieves uni­ver­sal buy-in among senior lead­ers, it will be a suc­cess. If it is only a cost-cut­ting exer­cise that bears no rela­tion to poten­tial threats, it will be a dismal fail­ure. If a revised strat­e­gy is right and defines a cred­i­ble long-term vision, it won’t matter that we cannot afford to do every­thing imme­di­ate­ly. 

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