Looking Ahead – Part 1 (Challenges)

There really is no point discussing Strike without looking at the wider political, defence and industrial picture.

At a very high level, the tasks for the UK Armed Forces are described in the SDSR and NSS but worth summarising here in a bullet point form, if unconventionally in a home and away list.


  • Defence of the UK and overseas territories such as Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands
  • Public duties and ceremonial tasks
  • UK civil resilience support
  • Counter terrorism
  • Offshore infrastructure and fisheries protection
  • Contributions to the defence of the critical national infrastructure (cyber etc.)


  • Collective defence of Europe and Canada/USA as part of NATO treaty obligations and a common interest
  • Commonwealth and Five Powers defence cooperation
  • Support to regional allies in the Middle East and Africa in the counter terrorism and transnational crime role
  • Defence engagement and capacity building
  • Supporting the USA to further joint interests

In order to meet these, the UK maintains a braid range of defence capabilities from Trident to Royal Engineer well drillers with all points between. The last bullet point may be a little controversial but the UK/USA defence relationship is of strategic importance to the UK and often in the same places our interests align, so we might as well just be open about it.

The UK finds itself in a complex defence environment with multiple commitments and a rising tide of ever more complex challenges.

The threat from Russia is often overstated but it is not a fantasy either and the best means of protecting conflict is to eliminate both the perception and the reality of weakness. For the UK, this means making a commitment to our eastern European allies. But, it does not mean we have to face down Russia on our own either, and on balance, it would not be unreasonable to expect those nations closer to the threat to place greater emphasis on this than us. European defence and deterrence also means Norway and the high north.

That is two difficult challenges to the North and East, the simple fact that Russia presents both a conventional threat but also an unconventional threat, as Ukraine knows full well.

We cannot predict the future direction of Islamist terrorism in Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East but it seems likely that northern Africa will be the next region to suffer even more than it is currently. This will not only increase the direct threat but as a secondary effect, migration into Europe will increase and therefore, more insecurity. The ‘Arc of Instability’ from Somalia to Morocco will be of increasing concern. The UK is already engaged to varying degrees in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other locations across the area, in addition to providing ongoing support for France, who has a more formal operation across the area, Bharkane.

Instability and terrorism in Africa cannot be ignored, despite the political aversion to enduring stability and counter terrorism operations. It also represents a wholly different set of challenges to that of collective defence in eastern and northern Europe.

To summarise, the UK faces complex defence challenges to the North, East and South.

Further afield, the UK also has significant interests in the Middle East, South Asia and to a lesser extent, the Far East and Pacific. Finally, the South Atlantic and other overseas territories.

Some of these require further exploration.

The North

It impossible to resist the temptation to say ‘winter is coming’ but the North needs to be on the UK’s defence radar.

Many of the issues are the same as during the Cold War, the potential for Russia to invade Norway and use the country as a staging post from which to attack the UK, interdict shipping and prevent US reinforcements reaching Europe, whilst providing the the outer bastion defence area for their nuclear ballistic missile submarines. There was a focus on the destruction or occupation of Norwegian airfields in order to either prevent NATO anti-submarine missions being flown or mount offensive air operations against NATO.

Some things are different, the economic potential of the Arctic is now much greater for example and the S-400 can now be used to deny air operations in Norway from Russian territory.

It should be noted that Norway has not had an armed conflict with Russia for over a thousand years but after the comparative calm of the post Cold War period, Georgia and Ukraine changed Norway’s view of Russia entirely. Norway has traditionally been quite friendly with Russia, historic and cultural links are good, and it maintains a careful balance of cooperation, friendliness and preparedness. As part of this balancing act, Norway did not allow the permanent basing of NATO forces so rapid reinforcement plans were at the centre of the Cold War strategy.

Whilst this avoidance of being provocative remains, recently, the preparedness element of that strategy has manifested itself in increasing defence spending, improved cyber capabilities, plans for new aircraft, submarines and land forces. Missile defence cooperation with NATO, modernisation of the Globus-2 radar station at Vardø and Aegis systems on-board the Nansen class frigates are also key. The purchase of the F-35A, together with Denmark’s F-35A’s will also create a powerful air defence capability.

With both the UK and Norway planned P-8 purchases and the potential of the UK, Norway and Denmark operating the F-35, the defence of the North is looking much stronger than even a few years ago.

In the land domain, Norway is currently upgrading their CV90 fleet, modernising other vehicles and considering options for heavier forces, a good summary can be found here. Despite these improvements, land forces have received much less priority than air and sea, as befitting the limitations of terrain and other factors.

Trident Juncture 2018, a large scale NATO exercise, is scheduled to be in Norway. Norway’s defence strategy remains broadly the same as during the Cold War, do as much as possible whilst holding out for NATO. Part of that NATO response was the joint UK/NL amphibious landing force but this is at a much smaller scale.

The East

Much has been written about Russian Maskirovka, the application of ambiguity and the means to counter it, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Georgia and continued efforts to modernise its forces. From S-400 to the T-14, Russia still has the capacity to show it is capable of developing effective weapons. Their continued ability to mobilise and execute large scale exercises is also concerning.

The Russian economy is not in rude health and its fundamental are not good either, largely extractive, it relies on energy prices on an open market. This does not mean that all of a sudden the Russian people will clamour for less defence spending, the West tends to under-estimate the hardship the Russian people will endure and the resilience of its current leadership.

There are already lots of efforts to reduce Baltic and other Eastern European states dependence on Russian energy supplies but this infrastructure will be subject to Russian disruption, either virtual or physical.

Ukraine is an interesting challenge for the West, balancing the desire for de-escalation with the desire to secure Ukraine’s sovereignty is not easy. The UK has provided a combination of equipment and training and also benefited from Ukraine intelligence and operational analysis, the latter, invaluable, especially in reminding NATO of just how effective Russian artillery is.

What is certain is that despite its many problems, Ukraine is becoming a stronger state. The Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Finland are becoming defensively stronger, spending is increasing, new systems are being purchased and readiness improving.

Each one of those states have different political and industrial factors that shape how external assistance can be rendered. Whilst Finland might be tentatively exploring greater co-operation with NATO, Latvia/Estonia/Lithuania are happy to host multi-national battlegroups. The UK has approximately 800 personnel in Estonia based at Tapa and in support of a US force in Poland. RAF Typhoons will also join the NATO Southern Air Policing mission in Romania

The small geographic depth of the Baltic States and the potential mismatch of force makes conventional defence very difficult but we should also understand that a conventional armoured thrust into NATO nations might be less likely than ambiguous conflict and non-conventional coercion.

The South

Corruption, water scarcity, religious extremism, transnational crime, piracy, migration exploitation, conflict minerals, great power shenanigans, human trafficking, illegal fishing, poor governance and poaching, Africa has it all.

The ‘Arc of Instability’ stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean and contributes to security threats to Europe.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Mourabitoun and Boko Haram are all active, and all creating mayhem and conflict. Boko Haram, as one example, killed 11,000 people in 2015, the scale is staggering. The French intervention in Mali came as a result of attacks by no less than five separate Islamist groups. The military response has been principally led by France, the US and in Libya, Italy (fairly low key) but the UK has provided significant logistics and intelligence support and African nations play a major role.

The spillover from the conflict in Libya has only exacerbated the situation, various alliances are forming and cooperation between these groups increasing. Meanwhile, rivalry between Al Qaeda and ISIS may well find a home in northern Africa, more so than it is already, as success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria continues.

The potential for continuing and escalating conflict in Africa is enormous and this only means one thing for Europe; more migration across the Mediterranean, more terrorism and more insecurity.

It cannot be ignored.

Other Challenges

Apart from the big geopolitical and security challenges to the North, East and South, the UK armed forces, and specifically the British Army, also faces more prosaic challenges.

US Interoperability; One of the cornerstones of the UK approach to defence has been a desire to maintain enough parity with the US in qualitative terms to enable use to seamlessly operate with them. Nothing at all wrong with this, but can we afford to in every area, or should the UK select only certain areas in which this is achievable, back to the thinness of jam question?

Contemporary Operating Environment; We have seen the proliferation and rise in lethality of modern ATGW’s and other weapons. China, Russia, and other weapon manufacturing nations are releasing increasingly sophisticated weapons into global markets. The likelihood of the British Army facing any enemy without a modern ATGW is low. Cyber and information operations, signals intelligence, advanced air defence systems and precision weapons complicate the operating environment.

The Division; Like the RN’s Carrier Strike or RAF’s objective to achieve control of the air, the British Army measures its prestige and position against others in the ability to field a combined arms armoured division. If the measure of blue water navy is the ability to maintain a fast jet capable carrier, a ‘proper’ army must have a division. This also connects with the US interoperability issue but I suspect they would prefer a self-sustaining and hard as woodpeckers lips brigade than a division of borrowers.

Technology on the Cusp; There are a number of technologies that may significantly change the defence environment, directed energy, active protection systems, hybrid power, compact autoloaders, rail guns, robotics and autonomy.

Unknowns; the biggest ‘other’ is the unknown. Despite all of the above crystal ball gazing the simple reality is that many of the recent conflicts the UK armed forces have been involved with unpredicted to a greater or lesser extent. This does create a presentational problem, almost any capability at any scale could be justified on the basis of ‘well you never know’ but practicalities mean we need more.

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