The UK Government is currently (September 2020) working on the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that will set out a plan of action for the next several years. I don’t claim any great insight or special knowledge, neither do I have a deep understanding of strategy or foreign policy theory. This is just a personal opinion of the direction I think it should take, no more, no less.
Before the publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, there are well-established rituals to be observed. First, everyone agrees it is the most significant for a long time, certainly more so than the last one. With that out of the way, discussions about the UK’s place in the world, obligations and the scale of our global ambition commence. An isolationist v globalist outlook debate ensues and knowledgeable people will lament the lack of a well-articulated Grand Strategy, always.
The discussion then tends towards threats, all the latest theories and buzzwords are wheeled out by academics, think tank analysts, senior officers and politicians. It is only in the terminal phase that things get heated, compliant journalists are used by opportunistic ‘senior figures’ to indulge in leaking speculative stories about cuts. Like ferrets in a sack, a public fight starts, someone usually pronounces the death of the tank, that carriers are white elephants and the future is weaponising internet-connected toasters with a Twitter account, in space, and then someone else goes and reminds us all that we are an island, you know.
When it is all over and the results are published, it will be a handful of eye-catching initiatives to take attention from the massive salami-slicing exercise across defence that it will be. Everyone declares victory and we look forward to watching it implemented/implode over the next four years until the next one, which will also be the most important in a long time.
Generally, it is predictable, but can this one be any different, I hope so, we have good people doing great work, and they deserve recognition.
Setting the scene for the Integrated Review
The UK has an always evolving machinery for defining national security policy, indeed, the fact that this is the first Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is demonstrative of that journey.
In a Written Statement to Parliament, Boris Johnson set out its objectives
The Government has set in train the biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War. We need to grasp the opportunities of the next decade and deliver upon the Government’s priorities. This is a defining moment in how the UK relates to the rest of the world and we want to take this unique opportunity to reassess our priorities and our approach to delivering them.
It was delayed by COVID-19 and will have to include the short, medium and long term impact of the pandemic into account.
The objectives are;
i) Define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.
ii) Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, examining how we work more effectively with our allies.
iii) Determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face.
iv) Identify the necessary reforms to Government systems and structures to achieve these goals.
v) Outline a clear approach to implementation over the next decade and set out how we will evaluate delivery of our aims
With a clear commitment to maintaining 2% of GDP on defence, 0.7% GNI on international development and maintaining the nuclear deterrent, it is not as wide-ranging as it could be. Fundamental questions of the desirability of the Dreadnaught submarine programme or the balance of spending between defence and overseas development are, as the saying goes, off the table.
An accompanying media release expanded the nature and objectives of the integrated review. Although this paper, authored by Catrina P Thomson and David Blagden is from 2018 (read it in that context), it also provides a very detailed overview of the process.
The stage is set and the rules are understood.
The UK’s Place in the World
Make no mistake, Great Britain is great, the clue is in the name, after all, anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously uneducated, or French.
Let’s just remind ourselves why…
We gave the world democracy, common law, the Bailey Bridge, tanks, gravity, English, Led Zeppelin, fair play, queuing, the backhoe loader, metal bridges, modern economics, the industrial revolution and Hollywood villains. The Beatles, Morris Dancing, penicillin, HP sauce, Top Gear, the World Wide Web (you’re welcome), the Spice Girls, Carry On and Simon Cowell. Tea drinking, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, the BBC, the mini (car, skirt, roundabout and chocolate egg), football, Marmite, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, ping pong, pubs, tea, sharp suits, Chobham armour and the Spitfire.
We stood against the Nazis for years, invented the railway, sarcasm, MRI scanners, the screw propeller and a proper breakfast, been on the right side of the Napoleonic, First, Second and Cold War and gave the world steam power, Wallace and Gromit, the Dyson, Doctor Who, television, telephones, text messaging, GMT, electric motors, firearms, the Land Rover, lawnmowers, sewage systems, the thermos flask, the jet engine, carbon fibre, the flushing toilet and polyester, pencils, radar and the Bank of France (haha, look it up).
The fighter aircraft, battleship, aircraft carrier, stun grenades, torpedo, sonar, electromagnetism, bicycles, the best designed electrical plug and socket in the world, underwater knife fighters, chemical fertiliser, graphene, Venn diagrams, fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, the armoured vehicle boiling vessel, Paralympic Games, independent air forces (yep, sorry about that one) the equal sign, chicken tikka masala, the Harrier Jump Jet, Raspberry Pi, Christmas cards, can openers, and the Great British Bake Off.
The correct method of holding an umbrella.
Did I mention tea, oh, and colonising the entire universe?
On the flip side, Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar Massacre, Mau Mau uprising and various others reveal a much darker side, some even as recent as the way we have treated Afghan interpreters and Commonwealth soldiers. Like all colonial powers, and indeed, all modern powers, there are things the country has done that should temper any jingoism and my light-hearted look above.
However, in general, without the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the world would be a poorer place in every regard.
Underpinning the integrated review are two questions…
What type of power are we?
A casual web search will reveal a vast amount of papers and articles that argue about the definitions and which one fits the UK. It is confusing, and not helpful in framing a debate because we can simultaneously be a mix of many of them and everyone will still be arguing the definitions in the year 2147. With Trident, we could functionally destroy any nation on earth, if that isn’t global power I don’t know what is, but could we act unilaterally and globally at scale to prevail over a conventional threat at anything but small scale, nope?
Throwing another definition into the mix, I would suggest the best way to classify the UK place in the world is we are an important nation, with the following (among many others) going for us.
- A large and modern economy, trading with nations of all continents
- Education and research sectors
- Permanent member of the United Nations Security Council
- Nuclear arsenal with global reach
- Wide range of global relationships and alliances
- Leading member of various international organisations
- Major donor of overseas development assistance funds
- Soft power ‘superpower’ derived from everything from the British Council to DFiD
- Hugely respected and capable intelligence services
- Global financial centre in the City of London
- Ability to project limited hard power at distance and with a full range of capabilities
We wield considerable influence, contribute to the betterment of many, and people beyond our shores are interested in how we act.
We utilise these advantages to further the objective of ensuring the existence of the UK itself, and the safety, freedom, prosperity and happiness of its people.
Does the UK have a specific role?
Nothing elicits a wailing and gnashing of teeth by policymakers, politicians and security commenters, quite like this simple question. Should we even have a role-based foreign policy, or be more led by pragmatic interests and objectives?
The role-based foreign policy imposes obligations, it means we are expected to do certain things and act in certain ways at certain times, even if we are reluctant to do so. These obligations influence decision making on capabilities and a willingness to act, and result in a bill to pay in the broadest terms of blood and treasure. Having a more pragmatic foreign policy that focuses on national objectives and interests may be more difficult to realise in a multipolar world.
Hopefully, the integrated review will answer these questions.
The World Around Us and the World In Front of Us
Threats and trends inform any defence and security strategy, they always have, and may help to inform the role v realpolitik questions raised above.
Where once we hoped that China’s rise would be benign, we now see the reality, it isn’t pleasant. Aggressive actions in the South China Sea, belligerence in their periphery, coercion of the Chinese diaspora, and illegal fishing, intellectual property theft and human rights abuses on an industrial scale. Russian also acts aggressively in its periphery, shows scant regard for global norms and continues to develop a full range of conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Both have shown a willingness to act at distance, and adeptness at harnessing multiple defence and non-defence levers to achieve their goals. Both are also gaining qualitative advantages in areas that the West used to take for granted, testing them in foreign theatres and proliferating to other nations. It would be easy to overestimate the threat from both, the breathless manner in which the media reports on a Russian Navy ship coming down the North Sea or uncritical manner in which the Chinese DF-21 missile is described being two such examples, but neither should we under-estimate them.
Widespread mistrust in media and governments (much of it well earned), tech companies that struggle to maintain an unbiased outlook combined with overt media bias (on both sides) that is driving political polarization, identity conflict and tribalism. Politics is becoming all-consuming as centrism collapses. Increasing immigration and scandals such as the huge scale child exploitation will only exacerbate this polarisation.
Upward transfers of wealth and growing inequality across the Western world will create more political instability, with ‘globalisation’ now seen as a net negative by many. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the relative fragility of modern Western society; supply chains, response capabilities and societal resilience, or the lack of it, is a serious threat.
Food and water scarcity will continue to generate instability and global security challenges for the foreseeable future. Whether you believe Anthropogenic Global Warming or not is irrelevant, the climate is changing. This will have a range of effects, some more than others, some direct and indirect, but none of them can be ignored.
Pandemic, did anyone mention pandemic?
Transnational Crime and Terrorism
Terrorism hasn’t gone away and isn’t likely to for the foreseeable future, whether that is from Islamists or dissident Republicans, the far left or the far right, or some future group that has yet to form. Erosion of norms regarding the use of chemical weapons will inevitably spill into terrorist organisations, and the weaponising drones or just old fashioned truck bombs will continue to pose an evolving threat. The dividing lines between state and organisation crime will continue to blur, and the sophisticated way in which our institutions and laws can be used against us will continue to pick away at our vulnerable underbelly.
Rules-Based Institutions or You scratch my back and we can go from there
Malcolm Chalmers at RUSI continues to make the point that there isn’t a single rules-based system, but many. Read more here, this is a very good paper, well worth reading. He also expands on this in later work, explaining that the increasingly transactional nature of international relations and willingness of others to ignore rules we expect them to abide by (Turkey or Qatar for example) will require the UK to adopt a more realistic view of these global institutions and the limits of ‘our influence’. The certainty and comfort blanket of the legitimacy of these organisations is taking a battering from nations who increasingly pay only lip service to them and this represents a threat to the UK.
Evolving the UK’s Defence and Security Principles
Six principles for change…
PRINCIPLE ONE; be much more cautious about overseas interventions, they cost a fortune that could be better spent on other things and rarely have the desired effect anyway
My view is that with the world becoming more transactional and the general unpicking of rules-based institutions’ legitimacy, the UK should adopt a more realpolitik view of objectives and interests, being more selective where we act and what we support.
PRINCIPLE TWO; higher prioritisation for domestic security challenges, accepting some of them may have an international and collaborative dimension.
Is Libya a better place or lesser threat to the UK for Operation ELLAMY? The UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan cost over £30billion in defence costs alone, are we better for it? The proposed UK Tidal Lagoon Programme is estimated to cost £50billion but would be generating electricity for 120 years. Installing high-speed fibre optic cable into every single building in the UK is estimated at about £30billion but would generate huge benefits.
The country has plenty of other challenges besides security and defence, I want more money for education and research, I want effective flood defences, fibre optic broadband and decent transport infrastructure, social care and homelessness sorted; all these things and many more make justified demands on the public purse. Every single Pound we spend on defence and security represents an opportunity cost elsewhere and if we are being blunt, the evidence for overseas interventions actually achieving their objectives are scant. I often wonder if many of our overseas deployments are a result of the ‘fear of missing out’ and the weight of responsibility.
Security threats closer to home should be treated as a priority; societal resilience, border control, cybersecurity education and defence, counter-radicalisation, disinformation and terror, policing and justice, making supply chains less dependent on China, and increasing financial crime regulation, especially the distorting effects of money laundering and political influence. None of these is a simple challenge, and they are all overdue for an increase in funding in relative terms.
PRINCIPLE THREE; Steady at the tiller with alliances. The UK should contribute as much as we can within our capabilities to the range of existing and new alliances we are part of, recognising that the balance of that contribution might change over time and the nature of it be context and geography sensitive.
Alliances remain the best way of achieving collective security. Alliances are also subject to change, internal conflict and none have a God-given right to exist or continue. NATO has been the bedrock of our security for decades but may well not have a future if the USA continues to look to the Pacific and Turkey continues its dalliance with Russia. The EU, well, who knows what the future holds, sunny uplands or doom and gloom prediction are ten a penny. Maintaining a broad set of alliances and agreements is essential, we should have no problem with ending our membership if it no longer meets our needs or joining new ones where it does.
PRINCIPLE FOUR; The UK should reject the binary choice between European defence and a more Global posture presented by many. Capability, capacity, location and skin in the game all matter to our allies, but candour and humility about constraints will be needed and shared opportunities pursued with vigour. Force design should ensure maximum flexibility, providing decision-makers with a range of options to allow them to move the focus over time without reconfiguration
Whilst national defence of the UK and overseas territories is the obvious first priority, defence in depth helps us to avoid fighting on our doorstep. All domains of conflict have a proximity aspect (even cyber and information), but some have more than others, geography still matters. A common theme in defence and security discourse is the need to choose between European defence against Russia and a more global outlook, especially as the world’s economic centre of gravity moves to the Asia-Pacific region.
We should avoid this false choice and ensure that the range of tools at our disposal have applicability across as many situations and as wide geography as possible. There may be geography-specific solutions we can adopt, and in some cases, we might flex more to one or the other, but the wholesale concentration in one area to the expense of the other should be rejected. Candour with our global allies about these limitations will be needed. Beyond physical presence we can share intelligence, research, training and expertise, purchase equipment from each other where it makes sense, support each other in the various international organisations we are members of, and make sure we can trade with each other fairly. I would also welcome their perspectives, insights and expertise into our own defence, each of these allies has a deep well of their own to draw from, arrangements and benefits must be reciprocal, and we should approach any such arrangements with humility.
PRINCIPLE FIVE; whilst there are some specific areas where it makes sense for defence to develop and maintain a modest cyber and information operations capability, it should concentrate on prevailing on the battlefield.
The problem with seeing everything as war is that everything becomes war, and the increasing militarisation of the security discourse inevitably leads to an erosion of actual military capacity because budgets are always finite. A lot of this discussion is driven by the prevailing view that we are in uniquely complex and challenging times, but are we really? Barney at The Warrant Officers Blog regularly challenges this, and that the pursuit of novelty, instead of focusing on the basics, do defence more harm than good.
It is hard to disagree with that, we have seen the promise of many revolutions in military affairs and shiny new concepts falter, ultimately providing nothing but project failure and huge amounts of wasted money. Grey zone warfare and the boundaries between a state of war and peace are subject to much discussion, with most of it asserting that it is a new thing, yet NATO and Warsaw Pact countries never went to war, but active aggression and violence using proxies was an almost constant feature of the Cold War, as was disinformation, propaganda and espionage, what has changed are the tools.
There is a fear that defence might become irrelevant or lose influence and prestige if it does not chase the latest trend, but as with the choice between European or a global focus, this is a false choice that should be rejected.
PRINCIPLE SIX; The UK should cease to have in law a requirement to spend 0.7% of GDP on ODA and worry less about complying with OECD definitions. Instead, DFiD should have a much greater focus on conflict reduction and disaster response, even if we do choose to keep its actual budget at 0.7% of GDP.
The entirely sound objective of the joint MoD. FCO and DFiD Building Security Overseas Strategy is to prevent the need for a conventional response. If the MoD is to focus more on conventional warfare, it is logical that the FCO and DFiD take a greater role in this strategy. With the recent move of the Department for International Development to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is clear that DFiD will now have closer alignment to national objectives rather than poverty reduction and sustainable development in the abstract.
DFiD is now an effective and well-run organisation with a globally strong reputation for effectiveness but whilst I support the concept of using national resources for overseas development assistance, pegging spending at 0.7% of GDP, unlike any other government spending, is not in tune with the national opinion or provides the government with flexibility in hard economic times. The Government should repeal the relevant legislation and given the need to be selective about rules-based institutions and increasing transactionalism, the UK should also worry less about percentages of GDP what the official OECD definition of ODA is. Many will baulk at the very notion of this, but what use is being well regarded and virtuous with empty pockets and threats elsewhere?
Although the principle of disaster avoidance being preferable to disaster response is well-founded, DFiD should rely less on defence for this aspect of its operations and devote more of budget to response activities.
A Way Forward
The terms of reference for the Integrated Review made clear that 2% and 0.7% were untouchable, but in the aftermath of COVID-19 I think they are back in play. The UK has experienced a significant reduction in GDP, recently went over £2 Trillion in national debt and this alone costs £50 Billion per year to service. The political notion that we can carry on spending significant sums on overseas development or military operations overseas without either a reduction or a sharp re-focusing is for the birds.
Equally, if you had read this far only to wait for me to put in a claim on that 0.7% or suggest 3% of GDP on defence, afraid I am going to disappoint, apologies in advance.
Frankly, it would be easy to do either, and I would join the panoply commenters out there that do just that, but deep down, we all know it isn’t happening, to proceed on the basis that it is, is being part of the same conspiracy of blind optimism and belief in defence exceptionalism that has got us into such a mess.
To summarise the principles;
- We adopt a more realpolitik view the international rules-based organisations, keep our noses out a bit more, and mind our own defence, doing a bit less with a bit less
- Focusing on security issues closer to home and other national priorities will need funding, this should come from a smaller DFiD budget and arguably, pegging the MoD’s budget at stable or slightly smaller, even if this drops below 2% of GDP
- DFiD receives a smaller settlement and focuses what it does have on a more direct alignment with UK interests, developing security overseas as part of a conflict reduction strategy and disaster response
- The MoD focuses on the basics but reject any notion of binary choices in one area or the other, recognising both the geography of near threats and the geopolitical reality of the shift in world economic centre of gravity
In this second part of the article, a personal view of one possible way forward based on these broad principles.
Becoming Financially Credible
Despite my cynicism in the preface, some past defence reviews have been better than others. The 1981 Nott Review was ruthlessly analytical and logical and yet was soon consigned to the dustbin by Argentina invading the Falkland Islands. The 1998 SDR was widely praised for its clarity and coherence, yet also fell apart because on 9/11 and subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Dr David Houghton describes in this excellent analysis of UK defence review failure, ‘events dear boy’ tend to be the biggest source of failure. The MoD cannot control ‘event’, but it can maintain a flexible force design that at least has a good chance of absorbing uncertainty. This also means defence must stop with constantly chasing the latest new shiny thing, less change, not more.
After ‘events’, the next most significant source of failure is simply one of finance, the ever-present elephant in the room, especially if in trying to match ends to means, you control neither. Making this worse though is the prevailing view that defence is different from all other forms of public spending. More money is needed because reasons, ergo, more money will be found, and let’s ignore that £3.7 Billion spent on maritime patrol aircraft we have recently turned into razor blades. Many really do believe in defence exceptionalism, that the MoD should not only have first dibs on the public purse, it should also take as much as it thinks it needs.
The graph below should dispel that myth.
The MoD, therefore, has three factors that conspire against it delivering the plans embedded in any defence and security review; events, over which it has no control, a defence community at large that despite all the evidence believes in defence exceptionalism, also over which it has no control, and finally, managing its own budget effectively, over which it has total control.
Many have looked at this, the UK has been engaged with defence finance, risk and programme management transformation for decades, and yet despite tangible improvements, the problem largely persists. Becoming financially credible in the eyes of the public and wider government should be one of the MoD’s top priorities.
Every year we are treated the spectacle of defence budget black holes and the regular kicking the MoD gets from the Public Accounts and Defence Committees, the National Audit Office, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and sundry others reinforce the widely held view that the MoD cannot be trusted to act sensibly with its considerable budget. A harsh view but one that has some truth, especially as we read articles that describe how the Royal Navy has beggared itself for the glory of carrier strike, the RAF are hooked on buying US aircraft that it can’t refuel in the air and the Army cannot buy anything with wheels or tracks that aren’t a multi-decade omnishambles. Many major projects exceed their agreed budgets, sometimes significantly. In time-honoured fashion, project overspends are absorbed inside ‘in year budgets’ and other programmes slowed or ceased, very often the defence estate and other softer areas. As is well known, spinning plates to meet agreed yearly budgets generally makes things worse over time.
This may well be a gross oversimplification but one gets the impression that when service chiefs and ministers agree on a force structure and equipment plan it is more than the available budget. There then follows a number of iterations where trade-offs and contingencies agreed but also an element of future efficiency savings included. Those efficiency savings seem to be banked to their fullest extent because when they inevitably fail to materialise and/or something else happens that uses the contingency, the whole force design has to be revisited, at great expense and disruption.
A recent evidence session for the Defence Select Committee was quite illuminating in this regard, with Stephen Lovegrove (MoD Permanent Secretary), Cat Little (MoD Director General Finance) and Lieutenant General Mark Poffley OB (MoD Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Capability). The MP, Ruth Smeeth asked a question about the budget and cash forecasting, Cat Little responded;
A year in advance the rule of thumb is that you should drive to be within 1% accurate. In the past, we have been outside that parameter, and of course, there are some lessons learned about why that is the case. If I was going to put it down to a couple of things, one is that we are overly optimistic in how much money we think we are actually able to commit, contract and spend within a financial period, and the second is that, with the over-programming that Stephen described, we need a much more evidence-based approach to each of our programmes and how we set an over-programming assumption as we enter each financial period.
We have to break this cycle, not only does it result in poor value for money it damages the MoD precious reputation. The MoD has many decades of experience in thinking money is not a strategic constraint, we need to get over the simple fact that we get the defence we can afford. Finance is self-evidently a tough nut to crack, smart people have been chipping away at this coalface for decades and yet we still have senior service personnel and civil servants admitting in public that the MoD is too optimistic about a) the money it will get and b) the costs of programmes. What drives this is the desire to get a drum-tight prediction for inputs and inputs on an annual basis, and despite all the evidence, the continual belief that new tools and processes will lead the MoD to the promised land.
It is ridiculous to think that a few paragraphs are going to solve this most intractable of problems but it seems to me that the MoD should admit failure and work from an assumption that any estimates of income should be reduced and cost profiles, likewise, i.e. larger contingency space in spend and income predictions. Having a large buffer means there is more room for in-year change without the destructive impacts of spiralling plate spinning we see regularly now. This may well need Treasury rules on recycling unspent budgets into future years to avoid negative incentives. It also means that the available amounts for programmes are lower and yes, this means less money is notionally available in any given year to be programmed.
Of course, there are other suggestions; decoupling programmes from GDP and based on an agreed 10-year spending profile (Australia), the programme spends enshrined in law (France), contingency funds outside of the main defence budget with approved milestone payment release, external programme management, portfolio approaches like the successful Complex Weapons and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance arrangements and the new Government-wide system for project approvals are all worth exploring. All these are sticking plasters though, the simple reality is that cost control and forecasting need to improve, but maybe a sticking plaster is the best we can hope for at the minute.
This sticking plaster is greater contingency allowances in budget forecasts, it means accepting programmes will cost more at their approval and accepting the implications of this on the agreed forward build, but the worse case is overrun is more easily absorbed without disruption, and best case, there is an in-year surplus we get to decide what to spend it on (more on this later)
Reduce Mass to Generate Funds
In the section above, I suggest that financial credibility is a top priority and that in parallel with continuing efforts to transform and be less optimistic about the money it will receive, the MoD should give itself more room for manoeuvre by accepting significantly larger contingencies. This effectively means inflicting on itself a significant financial haircut. There are also numerous gaps to be filled, and they will need money to do so. And yet I have just suggested the MoD nobble itself by accepting larger programme contingencies.
The only way forward is to generate significant savings, generally, this is done by cutting programmes, personnel (and welfare), support or infrastructure/estate. This is the same trade-off we have repeatedly made over the years, it is hardly a new approach, but we have to dig deep again. Standing commitments, discretionary activities, presence and active operations also need to be reviewed. Doing less with less means just that.
Although we can tinker around the edges to shift money from one pot to the other, reducing in size is the only realistic option that creates enough money for meaningful change. There is absolutely no joy in saying this because reducing personnel numbers means making them redundant, and in no way should be viewed lightly. But if it creates a sustainable career and family life for those remain, instead of just continually asking them to do more and more with less and less then it is something that has to be considered, sadly.
Standing RN/RFA deployments to the Caribbean should cease and the standing commitments in the Middle East should also be dramatically reduced, especially the Gulf area. The Specialist Infantry role should cease and the Army Reserve reduced. Maintaining two aircraft carriers in service and purchasing additional frigates should be reviewed, as should the number of F-35’s and various training areas, especially Canada for the British Army. Don’t focus on these too much as individual cuts, for now, I just want to show that we should look seriously at a number of options that reduce in year costs and pressure on the personnel left after reductions. Not all would generate immediate savings due to the nature of multi-year spending on programmes and there would also be costs to absorb in reducing cost.
Many will recoil in horror at this suggestion, and to repeat, there is no joy in saying it, but we are fundamentally kidding ourselves and fooling no one else by maintaining current mass with the widening holes in capability and unremitting pressure on personnel and their families. I really don’t know the actual numbers that would generate sufficient savings to enable both increased programme contingency and force transformation, but one can imagine they would be in the tens of thousands, perhaps more.
DFiD Reform – Closer Alignment with UK Security and Prosperity
The arguments about ODA and DFiD tends to be dominated by extremes, and many defence commenters also view DFiD with covetous eyes, conjuring up all manner of ‘dual-use’ wheezes as a means of easing pressure on the defence budget. The simple reality is DFiD is an invaluable vehicle for ensuring the UK’s security and prosperity and its budget is not a piñata for defence. However, if the MoD is to focus on a more narrow set of objectives and do less with less, a number of activities will need to be moved to a reformed DFiD. We might also signal that with a change of name, suggestions on a postcard! Instead of aid, we need to appreciate that every penny we spend must align with our joint objectives, it should be a partnership, not a handout.
Conflict prevention is a simple concept that at its core seeks to make the UK safer by providing help to unstable nations such that they can help themselves to stabilise. Getting in early, de-escalating early-stage conflict and supporting overseas development efforts are all seen, quite rightly, as effective means of preventing wider and much more expensive conflict. Simply put, the poorest places are mired in conflict, without conflict reduction there can be no poverty reduction.
The Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for International Development (DFID) and MOD strategy for conflict prevention. BSOS also outlines three main mutually-supporting pillars of the Government’s stability strategy; early warning, crisis prevention and response, and upstream conflict prevention. A significant percentage of UK ODA is already spent on fragile and conflict-affected states, fulfilling the long term aspiration of a whole of Government approach to national security.
Capacity Building, nestled inside Security Sector Reform, can create sustainable stability but if the two are done in isolation, they are likely to fail. Where this integration occurs, it must be sustained over a period of time and include not only training and assisting but genuine capability development that includes export finance and equipment and support from the UK and local industry.
Disaster relief operations (JDP 3-52) guides planning and conducting military support to humanitarian relief efforts overseas. UN guidelines, commonly known as the Oslo Guidelines state that civilian assets are to be preferred over the military when providing humanitarian assistance. In many cases, there are no practical alternatives, but we should develop a civilian disaster response capability.
As part of its reform agenda, DFiD should establish an organisation that can conduct a wider range of disaster response, stability assistance and building security capacity overseas activities. This organisation should make use of contractors, civil servants and military personnel on secondment but it should also form a national structure to employ civilians and personnel that have recently left the services and those that wish to be involved on a reserve basis. Using the existing Army Reserve national footprint, some of the same facilities and even people who wish to ‘rebadge’, volunteers could play a significant role. Many Army Reservists might find this activity to be equally challenging and interesting, and where it makes sense, use their civilian skills as well.
This new organisation should take a leading role in;
Conflict reduction; Conflict drivers (poaching, smuggling and illegal fishing), demining and the removal of the explosive remnants of war, maritime and littoral security, infrastructure development such as ports and airfields, and technical and medical education.
Emergency Response; Rapid medical response and disaster relief using organic capabilities and personnel
Security Sector and Sectoral Reform; Policing and security education, sectoral reform and good governance. A deployable police force not dissimilar to the European Gendarmerie Force, to include forensics and aviation, under a civilian chain of command. This provides a much lower barrier to deployment that a military force and a more appropriate response in many situations.
For the Caribbean British Overseas Territories, some have suggested a permanent presence like that of the Dutch support ship HNLMS Pelikaan but there is an alternative. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force have recently completed their ‘Sandy Bottom’ project which has delivered a number of patrol vessels, a large RORO craft, containerised disaster relief equipment and significant port facility. As an alternative to responding and regular deployments by RN/RFA vessels, the UK could fund an expansion of Sandy Bottom to include hurricane hardened relief supplies storage, improved command and communications facilities and another RORO vessel to create a sustainable regional capability, possibly basing further south. This is just one example, other locations with better proximity to suitable airports may well be more suited but the concept would remain, work with regional civil resilience organisations.
Force Design for Credibility, Flexibility and Sustainability
There is no way to avoid it, the proposals above mean a smaller force, but we can still make it effective, relevant, credible and above all, sustainable over time.
A few thoughts on doing just that…
People first must mean just that
Society changes, people change, but an indisputable and enduring fact is that capability rests on people. Civilian and uniformed personnel in defence and their families are the backbone of capability. All the equipment in the world are useless unless we have committed and engaged personnel that are not taken advantage of or abused, see a career and vocation, not a job, and have partners that allow them to serve the nation without being disadvantaged because of it.
Realistic training, a sense of being valued, good remuneration, partner employment options, a lack of petty regulation, not being persecuted by the legal profession, being treated like adults, not being subject to short term trawls for role filling, decent accommodation and food, and basic administrative systems that work all contribute to the objective of making people want to join, and perhaps more importantly, stay.
There are many proposals by various service families federations, charities and independent commenters on how we can improve service life (and in that I include the civil servants on which we rely absolutely) and life after leaving, we are not short of them. Senior officers and ministers understand these problems, even if they might not experience all of them, but the simple fact is we don’t apply enough of a priority.
The MP Mark Francois has recently released a report called Stick or Twist on the subject of retention, now I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea but he concludes the report with a good paragraph that neatly sums it up;
Defence will have to take some difficult balance of investment decisions in order to spend more money on Armed Forces personnel and their families and less on shiny new equipment – because if not, within several years, there are unlikely to be sufficient qualified and experienced personnel in Defence to operate the highly expensive kit in the first place.
Whilst much great work has happened and continues to do so, simply put, we should spend a greater proportion of the defence budget on people, even if it reduces the budget available for other things.
Don’t be a burden
The UK should not be a burden on its allies for its own defence, or when engaged on operations.
This can be somewhat a narrow definition and the force mix is not neatly boxed off into home and away capabilities but I think we collectively understand what this means. The UK should continue to maintain a minimum effective and credible nuclear deterrent, which means four submarines. Yes, it is eye wateringly expensive and consumes a significant amount of the MoD’s budget but there will be many industrial, UK economy and political benefits. The deterrent also includes various supporting capabilities such as anti-submarine (surface and sub-surface), mine countermeasures and maritime security. Air defence, counter-terrorism support, EOD, MCM, defence intelligence/counterintelligence, cyber defence and other UK centric defence tasks remain a constant, as do their underlying enablers like satellite communications and increasing potential for other satellite capabilities as part of the UK’s emergent space strategy.
UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) at RAF Boulmer and a number of remote radar heads, Typhoon, ASRAAM/Meteor and Voyager create a very strong air defence and QRA capability. Although many commenters have suggested a smaller aircraft might have opened up a wider set of opportunities I think the UK purchase of the E-7A Wedgetail makes a lot of sense, it cements a strong defence industrial relationship with Australia (T26, Boxer etc.) and Boeing, closes a significant UK air defence gap with a system that (despite its shaky start) has provided the RAAF with a decade of solid service. There is one snag, Australia intends to replace its Wedgetail aircraft from 2035 as part of their AIR7002 programme. Ours will likely be in service beyond that but there is no reason the UK and Australia could not cooperate in this area.
If there is to be a post BREXIT increase in the demand for fisheries protection resources and with an increasing amount of critical energy infrastructure offshore and submarine cables, there is an argument for more resources in this area, but again, difficult questions whether this is a defence responsibility must be asked and answered, I veer towards more civilianisation for this aspect of security.
It is somewhat fashionable to dismiss Argentine threats to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. Other British Overseas Territories have enduring strategic value and their defence should also be taken seriously. As the Falkland Islands economy grows the local government has committed to funding more of their own defence. Relationships with Argentina may be improving and HMG should continue to encourage this further but also consider options for greater self-reliance in matters of defence, perhaps starting with an expansion of the Falklands Island Government Air Service (FIGAS) to include Search and Rescue, an expansion of the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) onto a more permanent basis or the replacement of the Royal Navy Falkland Islands Patrol Vessel with a locally flagged and operated vessel. Four RAF Typhoons, FIDF, the forthcoming Rapier replacement and the Roulement Infantry Company (RIC) still provide a powerful and appropriate deterrence.
The path to ballistic missile defence capability depends on what kind of ballistic missile we are talking about. 2015 SDSR made a number of supportive statements on ballistic missile defence and the Royal Navy has been involved in a number of research and collaborative programmes over the years, building up a solid body of experience on which to expand the already hugely impressive Sea Viper system. The UK should continue to invest in the next steps for Sea Viper’s capability against short and medium-range ballistic missiles including purchasing ASTER 30 Block 1NT (new Technology).
The result of this is the UK will remain a ‘tough nut’, a story of continuity more than anything new and shiny.
The second part of avoiding being a burden is when deployed on operations, we must be self-contained and sustainable, even if the scale is modest. We should be able to easily slot into multinational forces but the UK should work to get rid of the ‘borrowers’ reputation. If we deploy, we deploy without having to beg, borrow and steal to do so. This means a greater priority for enablers. There is no point to having any equipment if we cannot adequately deploy, support and recover it, none, none whatsoever. This makes even a small force credible.
Flexibility and focus
A Flexible and balanced Force is our best bet against unpredictability, this might be an unfashionable view with everyone and his dog confident that the future will be as they predict, see Nott Review and 98 SDR for further details. Force design must therefore enable flexible responses, a bit of everything, even at a reduced scale is not an altogether bad hedge against the future, it retains skillsets and allows expansion should it be needed from a point of something, not nothing. This means we should not get rid of tanks, or delete MCM vessels on the promise of technical jam tomorrow.
For the UK, conflict areas could equally be the high north, eastern Europe, northern Africa, the South Atlantic or even the Pacific, it could be open countryside or dense urban, the open water or littoral, or even space. Every single capability has to have broad applicability to as many potential operational areas and scenarios as possible. The joint F-35B force could deploy quickly to Norway to reinforce the Royal Norwegian Air Force using a road base in response to a Russian incursion, or, it could stay on HMS Queen Elizabeth whilst supporting the US Navy in a joint operation in the Gulf to provide reassurance to regional allies in the face of belligerence from Iran. This is an inherently flexible capability.
The Baltic states are members of an alliance we are a founding member of, they face a very real threat in close proximity that could manifest itself in everything from low-level cyber-attacks to infiltration by those little green men to a high intensity combined arms assault. What is most likely and how are we best placed to help our allies deter aggressing from their vodka loving neighbour? We can help them to help themselves by sharing training, gifting equipment and offering intelligence. Sensible stuff, but is it really enough. There might be a capability development angle by helping them establish a Baltic State air force with surplus Tranche 1 Typhoons or supplementing their MCM vessels or special-forces with a ‘total defence’ model. Again, sensible stuff that is a step up from collective training and intelligence sharing but does this deter Russian and demonstrate burden-sharing? Or, we could park an armoured force there, with a promise of more to come via a Strike Brigade and a load of Brimstone armed Typhoons.
Now that is a message.
Which leads me yet again to the conclusion that the UK should avoid skewing spending priorities to one area or the other. Ah, but we can’t afford everything, yes, that is true and would be doubly true if we adopted my proposal for larger contingency in programmes in spending more on people. The levers we have are support costs, mass, and range of tasks. Tasks would be reduced by DFiD taking a greater role in building stability overseas, not chasing zeitgeist capabilities like cyber and information ops, but there are other opportunities.
Public duties, defence music, display and ceremonial tasks remain an important part of national life and taken together, their contribution to defence diplomacy and the UK economy is significant. The general rule that ‘costs lie where they fall’ for Government expenditure still applies so getting Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the Royal Household or the Mayor of London to stump up the money is a non-starter. Whether it is training horse and rider, actually providing the Queen’s Guard, making horseshoes or keeping the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in the air, the MoD is on the hook for it. However, there should be no stone left unturned in looking and means of reducing the cost of delivery. There is something to be said for the Queen’s guard comprising wholly serving infantry but no one outside of defence actually cares about this. Neither do they care that farriers are soldiers either, or RM flautists or BBMF mechanics for that matter. This is not a proposal to diminish the role of public duties, it is to make it cheaper. The MoD should establish an arms-length body that is solely responsible for public duties, defence music and other similar tasks. Instead of being solely regular personnel, it should be manned by a mixture of regular, reserve, FTRS, civilians and former serving personnel that see this as a viable means of
I would also not be averse to looking serious at tri-service initial training for Officers and OR’s, merging capabilities that are duplicated across the services into genuinely joint organisations, equipment support and policing come to mind. The point here is not to fight over the details but to understand that if we are to focus and maintain a force that is genuinely flexible across a range of scenarios and geographies, we have to fight for every last penny of saving, regardless of the sacred cows that might need culling.
Deterrence by demonstration
As the budget for live fire and large exercises has become increasingly under pressure, and greater use of simulation to drive down costs, there has been somewhat of a reduction in the visible deterrent effect of deploying combat forces. As part of the smaller but credible force design agenda, the UK should do two things;
First, budget for an increase in munitions and more deployment exercises at scale. These are a significant cost but they generate experience and underpin continual improvement. These exercises should generally be tri-service and conducted in areas where people are looking.
Second, employ an external professional advertising agency to record and turn the activity into a full range of media for consumption by friends and foes alike. In my example above, having a flight of Typhoon’s destroy a set of moving targets that look suspiciously like T-72’s with a full barrage of Brimstone, together with fifty or so Javelins being fired and Aster missiles destroying an inbound group of anti-ship missiles, at the same time as an Astute submarine sinks an old warship somewhere else, is a massive demonstration of resolve and capability.
This might seem showy and wasteful, and maybe the examples are not brilliant, but like cricketers ‘sledging’ each other in the dressing room, there has to be an element of swagger to build a reputation for being as hard as woodpecker lips with an attitude as bad as a honey badger.
Technology and industry
UK research and defence industry is a strategic asset, it needs to be carefully nurtured and directed. As we leave the EU, there might be scope for greater state aid and this might simplify procurement rules, regardless of that, the UK should continue to support its research base. The MoD also invested time, money and energy into following the same vision of deterrence by technology superiority, creating the Defence Innovation initiative and ensuring a fixed percentage of its budget is spent on basic research into new technologies. It also has an excellent range of initiatives to support innovation within the services in collaboration with industry, especially SME’s, more of this.
This from Paul Mason is an interesting read, he makes some good points, reinforcing my view that defence and security should where possible, be a multi-party endeavour with broad consensus on the big questions, and I would certainly encourage a more apolitical approach to defence and security. Using a multi-party approach for defence research and industry would be an excellent way of generating a more consensus view of security and defence that can be sustained over multiple parliaments.
The first offset strategy was about countering Warsaw Pact forces with nuclear weapons, the second centred on precision munitions, stealth and all-encompassing ISTAR pulled together into the AirLand Battle concept. Much has been written about the Third Offset Strategy. Established in 2012, the Strategic Capabilities Office defined a strategy of using advanced technology to deter conflict with peer adversaries by demonstrating clear overmatch across multiple domains. But it is not just about hardware, as eye-catching as hypervelocity rail guns, artificial intelligence, lasers and exoskeletons are, it included objectives like greater use of modular and open system architecture, rapid acquisition of commercial technology and working closely with industry. It is likely that the gap between US and allied forces in pure technology terms will widen and create a significant interoperability challenge, for the British armed forces, retaining a reasonable level of interoperability with allies, especially the USA, is a core objective.
Part of our research and defence industry strategy should include how the UK will keep up, what investment priorities we have, where we can exploit rapidly changing commercial technology and align with US industry.
We are already well established and the range of new initiatives being proposed is encouraging, despite the promise though, let’s not forget the basics either.
What about the ORBAT’s and Frigate Numbers – A Summary
Am reluctant to advance an idea for specific cuts or force design, inevitably, they would become the focus of discussion rather than the broad direction outlined above. Flowing from a more realistic appraisal of national interests I would propose that defence needs to focus of doing a smaller number of things and ODA become more aligned with national interests, regardless of whether the budgets for both remain stable or slightly smaller.
In many ways, this is a conservative proposal, and certainly, there is a lot of fudge in there, I have avoided any wild swings to one theory or the other, making big bets on technology or favouring one service over the other.
If I was pressed, I could certainly see a future Royal Navy with only one carrier in service and fewer surface combatants, reducing singleton deployments and with a smaller Royal Marines force more focused on maritime security and littoral operations. The RAF should reduce the F-35B purchase and concentrate on Tempest/UCAV and space. Sentinel and C-130 would be withdrawn, and perhaps Protector curtailed. The Army is arguably the one service with the poorest track record of programme stability and one with the most scope for change. A small armoured force of approximately one hundred upgraded CR2 could be joined with a recast Ajax programme, allowing Warrior and FV432 to finally be withdrawn. A larger medium-weight force, on Boxer and MRV-P, would then constitute the bulk of the Army’s fighting force, with Tier 2 SF and an airmobile brigade completing the mix.
These are just thinking out aloud, the final force mix would need spring from having the mother of all spreadsheets, figures none of us in the public can have. What I want to do is open up the possibility of looking at taking a hit in numbers of pretty much everything, across the board, but making the resultant force more credible and stable over time, something we are arguably in denial about right now (stand fast the outrage bus, am talking in generalities).
As much as we all might like, we can’t just turn the tables over and start with a clean sheet. There are programmes in place, contracts running, people in roles and their kids in schools. Every change we make has to be carefully considered, and pragmatic. We all might understand the sunk costs fallacy but we are not in charge of making decisions, getting them through parliament and selling them to the nation at large. For any change proposal, we have to acknowledge there might be some element of equipment and industry-leading strategy, being ruthless with the swish of a pen is not the same as actually doing it. We should also consider where there is existing strength, exploiting and building on it to generate outsize capability as a quick win.
To close, I fully appreciate that this is a proposal probably at odds with every other ISDR article you are likely to read, but apart from relying on the efficiency of magic beans and an increasingly unlikely improvement in the MoD’s budgetary outlook, is there any other alternative to facing reality?
Comments are open.
Let me know of any good ISDR articles and I will put them below