The condition of the UK military is now a major political and security issue. If UK governments are unwilling to fund the full-spectrum military they claim to want, Ian Keddie argues, ‘least-worst options’ must be considered. He contends that favouring UK air and sea capacity, at the expense of the army, may be the most prudent option at this time.


The UK’s defence spend has rarely been under greater scrutiny. The debate around the country’s national security landscape has become more complicated than any recent time. Even the casual observer would find it hard to ignore the abundance of foreboding headlines surrounding the UK’s armed forces.

Trouble has been brewing for a long time, with rumours of potential cuts to a number of branches of the armed forces. However, the subject really grabbed public attention when Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon resigned amidst allegations of sexual harassment at the beginning of November. The surprise appointment of Gavin Williamson as Fallon’s replacement coincided with increasing reports that a gap in defence spending will fail to be filled, and that further defence cuts will be required to keep the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) budget in the black.

GROWING DISCONTENT

Speculation that a number of defence assets are on the chopping block in order to fill the MOD’s budget gap grew through the second half of 2017. A report from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, released on 17 December 2017, expressed a lack of confidence that the MOD would be able to meet efficiency targets set out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The report said that, ‘We seriously doubt the MoD’s ability to generate the efficiencies required to deliver the equipment plan’, and explained that the ambitious £14.4 billion savings target might prove insufficient: “even if all the efficiencies are realised, there will be little room for manoeuvre, in the absence of sufficient financial “headroom” and contingency funding.’

The report found that only £4.6 billion of the required £14.4 billion savings had been made so far and Defence Committee Chairman, Julian Lewis, expressed scepticism that further savings could be found. He declared that “it is extremely doubtful that the MOD can generate even more efficiencies from within its already stretched budget…This will inevitably lead either to a reduction in the numbers of ships, aircraft and vehicles, or to even greater delays in their acquisition.”

A public battle is brewing in the Conservative Party over the issue, especially since Gavin Williamson seems keen to make his mark as the freshly minted Defence Secretary, and the youngest member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet. The £20 billion funding shortfall in the MOD budget has developed through a combination of factors, including the cost of foreign currency procurements since the fall in the value of the pound. Threats to key equipment and personnel numbers are likely to lead any story on UK defence spending – particularly headlines that suggest a cut in number of soldiers, major warships, or equipment – but there are many hard decisions to be made in a time of new strategic threats.

ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGES 

A recent investigation by the Daily Telegraph revealed that the Royal Navy had no major warships (frigates or destroyers) deployed beyond home waters, a situation the newspaper described as ‘unprecedented’. The report blamed limited numbers of ships and a strained budget, saying that the revelation ‘raised concerns over Britain’s ability to project power internationally’. The Telegraph’s claims echo concerns voiced by a number of ex service chiefs who gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee in November and said that the UK’s armed forces were “at breaking point”.


The Telegraph’s claims echo concerns voiced by a number of ex service chiefs who gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee in November and said that the UK’s armed forces were “at breaking point”.

A national security capability review was announced in July 2017 in order to assess the implementation and requirements of the 2015 SDSR. The review is being led by the National Security Adviser, Mark Sedwill, and is expected to be published early 2018 after a delay to account for the appointment of the new Defence Secretary. By reassessing the 2015 SDSR (a review which was itself a reaffirmation of sweeping changes implemented in 2010 during Prime Minister David Cameron’s first term), the government has confirmed the view that Britain’s place in the world has changed significantly in a short space of time. Brexit, Trump, Russia, technology developments, and various other global trends have combined to produce a strategic picture which differs markedly from that of 2010, or even 2015.


British troops supporting the UN mission in South Sudan (May 2017). Troop numbers are a key consideration at this point. Image: UNMISS.

By implementing a capability review, the government is signalling that it recognises changes to the strategic situation and is prepared to reassess the country’s requirements. This in itself should be seen as a positive sign but there is little to suggest that the MOD will get the reprieve that its chiefs are calling for. Defence Secretary Williamson is likely to be in for a stiff fight, whatever the result of Sedwill’s review, and it is likely that the Defence Secretary will be fighting a rearguard action in order to limit damages to the military.


By implementing a capability review, the government is signalling that it recognises changes to the strategic situation and is prepared to reassess the country’s requirements.

Julian Lewis has signalled his approval of the Defence Secretary’s early exploits, saying he had “got off to a good start”, but adding: “he has got to fight his corner for defence. I only hope he stands firm”. Lord General David Richards, a former chief of the defence staff, has told the Financial Times that an increase to the MOD’s budget was the only way to secure the UK’s current defence capabilities, stating: “British military ambitions in the post-Brexit era can only be achieved by putting more money into defence and this is a matter of political choice. Those who think they can achieve this from efficiencies are deluding themselves”.

The debate over defence spending seeks to maintain current capability and see delivery of equipment already under procurement as part of the £178 billion defence equipment plan. However, the slump in the pound, and challenges in meeting efficiency savings, make it seem that the MOD is attempting the impossible. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for Gavin Williamson’s position. The classic British approach to military spending can seem oxymoronic at the best of times: ‘don’t spend anything more than absolutely necessary but don’t dare touch the symbolic equipment of each branch (ships, tanks, or jets)’. However, the UK government’s current engagement in a costly divorce process with the European Union may mean that there is no spare cash whatsoever for the defence budget.

The most positive outcome of any decision on the MOD’s budget will probably lead to a modest short-term increase. But this would be unlikely to arrest a steady progression of salami-slicing military equipment and personnel. A less positive outcome could see cuts to high-profile capabilities.

STARK OPTIONS

Media reports have indicated that Mark Sedwill, the National Security Advisor, was considering moving the capital cost of the UK’s nuclear deterrent out of the MOD’s core budget. Procurement of a future class of Trident-carrying submarines is underway to replace the Vanguard-class currently in service. The MOD’s budget, currently around £36 billion, is unlikely to see a rise unless Sedwill’s capability review becomes a more significant strategic review.

However, moving the cost of Trident could help ease some of the MOD’s spending pressures. The replacement Trident-capable submarines, to be called the Dreadnought-class, are budgeted to cost £31 billion, with an additional £10 billion set aside for any cost rises.


The current debate reinvigorates questions about the financial demands of the Trident system. Image: Ian Arthur, Defence Images [CC BY-SA 2.0]

With little hope of any budget increase, it seems likely that Gavin Williamson will aim to protect highly visible capabilities by delaying or reducing ongoing procurement projects. Kicking the can down the road on expensive equipment purchases can’t solve the MOD’s problems in the long run though, and could actually result in higher costs overall.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Tobias Ellwood, has already threatened to resign, should the Army be reduced in size any further.

Possibilities reportedly under consideration include a reduction in the number of Ajax armoured vehicles, a delay in upgrades to main battle tanks, selling off the amphibious landing ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, and cutting 1,000 Royal Marines. The most drastic rumour which has circulated would see the number of full-time soldiers cut by 12,000, leaving a total of just 70,000.

Yet it should be remembered that severe cuts could risk a backlash from within the Conservative Party. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Tobias Ellwood, has already threatened to resign, should the Army be reduced in size any further. His views have been supported by other prominent MPs.

REAPPRAISING THREATS AND COMMITMENTS 

The way ahead seems unclear. A cash-strapped government has little room for manoeuvre, even if there was an appetite for increasing the MOD’s budget. If the Prime Minister is serious about reviewing what the country’s requirements are – as she outlined when visiting UK troops in Iraq in November – then a frank and honest assessment of the threat environment must be undertaken. An appropriate response could use Sedwill’s review as an opportunity to reconsider the UK’s requirements, its commitments to NATO and other organisations, and what actually constitutes ‘defence’ in a changing world.


The UK’s desire to retain full-spectrum military capability seems unsustainable in the current climate – certainly at the current levels of spending.

A shifting threat environment that includes new and emerging technologies, such as cyber warfare, has long been recognised. Indeed, this was highlighted in the 2015 SDSR. The defence review also illuminates the exercise in double-think that defence planners have to carry out when assessing a global picture: disruptive actions from rival powers will be increasingly harder to distinguish from non-state actors, and vice versa, as offensive cyber capabilities proliferate whilst, simultaneously, the resurgence of state-based threats continue to show the relevance of conventional military power. There is an increasingly complex landscape to plan for.

The UK’s desire to retain full-spectrum military capability seems unsustainable in the current climate – certainly at the current levels of spending. But consideration might be given to current spending commitments that overlap with those of the MOD. For example, the National Cyber Strategy, launched in 2016, detailed a plan for the MOD to partner with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to implement the National Offensive Cyber Programme. Burden-sharing in this way ensures – at the very least – increased efficiency.


By investing DfID funding into a hospital ship, the Royal Navy would enhance its conventional capability, and could more effectively respond to humanitarian crises or other disasters.

There are other opportunities to embrace pragmatic solutions. When the military is mobilised to handle a humanitarian disaster, the operational costs are often covered by the Department for International Development (DfID). However, this arrangement ignores that most military hardware is not primarily designed for disaster relief. There are good arguments to be made that DfID’s £13 billion budget could contribute even further to the MOD.

For example, the Royal Navy lacks a dedicated hospital ship, operating a casualty reception vessel instead. A dedicated medical vessel is a popular tool among other international forces. By investing DfID funding into a hospital ship, the Navy would enhance its conventional capability, and could more effectively respond to humanitarian crises or other disasters. Carefully considering the secondary roles that conventional military hardware can play could lead to reduced costs for the MOD, and facilitate a better UK response to large disasters in the future.

THE NATO FACTOR

The UK remains one of NATO’s major contributors and one of the few countries to meet the alliance’s 2 percent minimum defence spend. But NATO is built upon cooperation and reliance; it never depends upon one nation to entirely fulfil its operational needs. Battlegroups in the Baltics are multinational and air policing is rotational. The alliance asks for small pieces of support from all its members, with the intention that they all make a proportional contribution.

NATO has also traditionally depended on specialised forces. During the Cold War, the UK’s geographic position made the Royal Navy highly specialised in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) whilst the RAF played a major role intercepting Soviet aircraft testing the alliance’s airspace. By devolving responsibilities and roles to specific NATO countries, all involved in the alliance can contribute meaningfully but can also relax the imperative to invest in a full spectrum of military equipment.

These principles may rest somewhat uncomfortably with countries that are wary of handing over sovereignty to a shared military pool. But such arrangements work and they can greatly improve efficiencies. For example, Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) was established in 2008 and provides cargo aircraft to be shared among 12 smaller NATO and allied nations, allowing them to collectively own three large C-17 aeroplanes that would otherwise be unaffordable. This is a key alliance benefit.

PRIORITISE AIR AND SEA CAPABILITY

Historically, the UK’s role as a land power has always been limited to times of need. From the end of the Cold War, operations in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq gave the Army primacy in military operations – but also in the public’s mind. However, if cuts have to be made, then the UK’s enviable geographic position should surely dictate where: our focus should be on bolstering the UK’s air and naval forces.


As greatly unpopular as it would be, the UK must reconsider the role of the Army in the 21st century.

As greatly unpopular as it would be, the UK must reconsider the role of the Army in the 21st century. Whilst it’s extremely difficult to imagine large cuts to Army numbers, a strategic review should consider it a serious option if the MOD hopes to rein in spending while maintaining, or even growing, the UK’s global reach. Publicly ‘selling’ cuts to the Army – alongside a package that improves domestic security forces and police, increases special forces, and bolsters RN and RAF numbers – could be an attractive option. Whether it is politically possible is unclear: few would risk the headlines and public outcry over further cuts to a beloved institution.

A failure to consider the country’s strategic position alongside any necessary spending reduction will result in bad choices for the armed forces, and decrease effectiveness across the board. By implementing a realistic assessment of what is required of ‘Global Britain’ – considering both its obligations and its allies – the MOD can receive the funding it needs rather than the funding it is assigned.


Ian Keddie is a Toronto-based journalist who specialises in defence, international relations, and technology. He creates original articles and analysis on emerging naval and aerospace technology, as well as global military capabilities. Ian was previously the Editor of Jane’s Unmanned Maritime Systems and he served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Contact him at: ianjkeddie@gmail.com Find him on Twitter at: @IanJKeddie


Feature image: British troops deployed to Estonia as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence. April 2017. Image: Estonian Defence Forces/MoD.