Britain’s new defence review sets the armed forces, defence and security on a course shaped by the times – the era of Covid and after, Brexit and after, and old perils coming up in new forms , in the threat of cyber, chemical, biological and possibly even nuclear conflict. It is also set for the really big game changers – such as climate change, environmental degradation and population upheaval.
With refreshing candour, the defence secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons that Britain’s forces had been ‘hollowed out’ in the past, and they are now to be refashioned for new challenges, including recurring pandemic, and changing patterns of terrorism and violent extremism. Given the dramatic shifts of the times, it is not surprising that the new Command Paper on Defence released this week reads something like a work in progress. Some decisions cannot be taken, policies and practices have to be scrutinised and reshaped as circumstances, and threats, change.
The paper is presented in a highly coloured brochure – a format reminiscent of Club Med promos not so long ago. But look beyond the covers and the headlines, and there’s some pretty innovative and adroit thinking and planning. The paper speaks to the needs of the defence of the UK home territory, including the kind of support from soldiers we have seen during Covid, and how to head off threats abroad to UK interests, and friends and allies.
The offer to partners, especially in technical innovation, reaches far and wide – and includes allies in Europe as well as the Commonwealth and the Middle East. The promise of the defence industrial strategy is one of the strongest sections of the document.
It also spells out in a series of graphics the new prospects for the nations of the United Kingdom, especially in naval construction and bases to Scotland, and a new RAF super base at Lossiemouth. Wales is getting a boost for both Army and Navy bases as well as innovative defence industries.
The defence white paper complements last week’s Integrated Review – which served as the framing document for UK defence , security and foreign and development policy for the decade to come. Now we get how the money – an uplift of £24.5 billion over the next four years – will be spent on defence.
Apocalyptic headlines about what was in store, for the Army a cut of 10,000 soldiers for example, have not been filled. The Army fully trained strength is to go to about 72,500 – from just over 76,000: it was 82,000 more than a decade ago. The Army hasn’t been at full strength for decades, as Wallace pointed out to parliament. A trained strength means there will have to be around 75,000 at least, including those in training, sick or about to leave. The boost is that there is to be a reserve of 30,100 , which will be especially valuable for crises like Covid or a big outbreak of foot and mouth or similar animal pandemic. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter assures me that the reserves will be ‘properly funded and supported’ – which previous governments have often neglected.
The Army is to be used in smaller formations for a variety of operations on the edges of Europe, in Africa and the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific. Most eye catching has been the launch of four new Ranger battalions in a brigade, very much based on the US Rangers, the famed Green Berets. The battalions are bite-sized, at about 250 each, and will carry famous cap badges , the Scots Guards, the Lancs, the Rifles and the Princess of Wales’ regiment. Which is a piece of Blackadder-like cunning in branding. No regiment or badge is to be shut down – some are to be re-roled, and the two battalions of the Mercians are to be made into a new force for experiment and innovation in tactics, training and technology.
The Rangers will sit with a new Special Operations Brigade, though the three elite SAS, SBS and SF Support regiments will still operate as the top flight of special forces. The worry is that the new second tier special operations groups like the Rangers will be spread too thin to tackle the sudden and unexpected tasks and missions that come out of the blue. Two of these have just appeared in the past few days – the likely need to support a Commonwealth force to confront the worsening terrorist war in northern Mozambique, and the likelihood that Britain may be asked to contribute to a UN peace mission for Yemen.
The Army is to lose quite a slew of kit, from Warrior fighting vehicles to a number of tanks and artillery pieces. The RAF and Navy also face the same promise of getting rid of old expensive kit in the hope of something better in a few years. The Navy is to lose two frigates, bringing the complement of destroyers and frigates down to 17 – there were 60 on call at the time of the Falklands . But new ships are on the way – a comprehensive plan of shipbuilding is breathtakingly ambitious. Three new classes of frigate, Types 26, 31 and 32, are to be built over the next 15 to 20 years, and a brand new destroyer, the Type 83, is planned to serve until the 2080s.
With the Navy comes a strategy for flexible deployment of ships on an episodic basis – which means not always at the same time every year – to strategic hot spots . These might include the South China Sea, planned for a patrol this year by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the key choke points like the Red Sea, the straits of Bab al Mandeb , Hormuz and Malacca. At least ten major bases overseas are to be restored or upgraded including those in Germany, Oman, Brunei, Cyprus, the Falklands , Gibraltar and Kenya.
The RAF is to lose some 24 old Typhoon aircraft and the venerable Hawk T1 trainer. But it is involved in one of the most innovative programmes in the entire defence white paper, the Future Combat Air System, better known as Tempest, the programme led by Britain, Italy and Sweden for a 6th generation combat aircraft. It is to work forward form the latest innovative radar and cockpit technology in the latest Typhoon. But the RAF is no doubt that it will mostly be an unmanned communications and combat system – a super drone for the next generation.
The two new kids on the block for the services are the Space Force , due to be launched this April 1st, and the Cyber Force launched last April.. They are well thought out , and integrated into the other armed services. But the big challenge remains adequate funding and getting enough skilled recruits to meet the growing threat – especially from Russia and China.
Integration and flexible operations , working together in a spirit of collegiality the services find difficult , is the big message for Britain’s defence forces and agencies. There is plenty of opportunity for industry, too, in anything from providing a new medium helicopter – within three years – to new cyber, design and space satellite technology. It could be a bonanza for the sparkier SMEs.
The new defence programme, as with its strategic road map in last week’s Integrated Review, faces a credibility test in two directions. First, there is what foes, actual and potential, will make of it. As important is what the allies make of it. There are generous words to c;pse allies such as Germany, France, Italy and the Nordic group, the US of course and traditional allies of the Gulf and the Commonwealth, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India especially. They are being offered a renewed and innovative partnership.
The real measure of success of the new policy outlined in the two big papers this week and last, is whether those allies take up UK prospectus for a global alliance.