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

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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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