The latest U.K. defense review document – the Defence Command Paper titled “Defence in a Competitive Age” – was released to the public on March 22, to much commentary. Thoughts and analysis largely ranged from lukewarm to bad, with many questioning (better yet highlighting) the loss of capabilities and mass across the armed forces – the British Army being cited as a particular victim.
The latest document follows the release of the Conservative government’s long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy a week earlier, and is designed to align with and support the views and priorities of that strategic document.
The objective of Global Britain is to use the full spectrum of our abilities, now amplified by record spending on both defence and science, to engage with and help the rest of the world.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 16, 2021
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stated that the goal of the Defence Command Paper is to turn “hollow forces into credible ones” and shift from a large-footprint, conventional force to one on the cutting edge of “information-age speed, readiness and relevance” – a boldly stated ambition to achieve a target previously aspired to under the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
In his forward to the defense review, Wallace underlined that the Defence Command Paper is “an honest assessment” of what the military can and will do going forward. He followed by noting, “We will ensure Defence is threat-focused, modernized, and financially sustainable, ready to confront future challenges and seize new opportunities for Global Britain. We will, for the first time in decades, match genuine money to credible ambitions.” (Note: editor’s emphasis)
Certainly the latest defense review arrives with a very real underpinning of financial commitment, already outlined back in November by Prime Minister Boris Johnson under a four-year funding deal amounting to an extra GBP16.5 billion ($22.8 billion). Johnson’s additional financial pledge – a sharp break from the expected financial squeeze facing the MoD as the U.K. struggles with the economic fallout stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic – amounts to the largest such spending boost for the British armed forces since the end of the Cold War.
Coupled with the amount pledged in the Conservative Party manifesto commitment (0.5 percent above inflation for each fiscal year in government through at least 2024, if not further), the additional GBP16.5 billion amounts to an overall cash increase of GBP24.1 billion ($33 billion) over four years, compared to the GBP41.3 billion ($57 billion) currently earmarked under the 2020-2021 defense budget.
Thus the prospect of an infusion of extra cash provides hope that some ambitions outlined in the Defence Command Paper will be met accordingly.
Of course there is the offset to the additional cash, which is paying down the costs of prior commitments. The current balance on the 10-year equipment program ranges from an estimated high-end imbalance of GBP17.4 billion (per the National Audit Office) to GBP7.3 billion (per the figure cited by the Ministry of Defence). Some of the additional funding outlined by the government last November will go toward plugging this equipment program “black hole” deficit.
Areas of upcoming investment include research, experimentation and development in advanced technologies, with GBP6.6 billion ($9 billion) ring-fenced for this purpose. Much of this will go toward testing and evaluating future novel weapons (including swarming drones and directed-energy weapons), artificial intelligence (AI), synthetic-digital systems, and space-based systems.
Space represents a particular domain of emphasis in the latest review, with investments to include GBP5 billion ($7 billion) in the Skynet 6 program aimed at recapitalizing and enhancing Britain’s satellite communications capabilities. There will also be an additional allocation of GBP1.4 billion ($1.94 billion) that will go in part toward establishing a new space command and developing a new, U.K.-built intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellite constellation.
The paper notes the ever-evolving threat spectrum facing the United Kingdom, including the diminishing technical edge afforded British forces in the past versus the growth of maritime capabilities on the part of China (in terms of hulls, tonnage and strategic projection elements, including aircraft and helicopter carriers) and Russia (underwater proficiencies); long-range precision strike capabilities wielded by potential adversaries (again citing China and Russia); anti-satellite weapons; and cyberspace susceptibility.
But it is the juicier parts – the sections devoted to service branches and their future capabilities, and what will be invested in and what will be extracted from the current structure – that elicit the most attention.
The following are some of the highlights in terms of each service branch.
The Royal Navy
As a key symbol of the lofty “Global Britain” aims of the Integrated Review, the Royal Navy will this year deploy a carrier force led by HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside an allied task group to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and then to the Indo-Pacific.
The Defence Command Paper notes the future integrated Royal Navy force will feature both planned aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales), replete with F-35 jump-jets; all seven planned Astute-class attack submarines; and an improved amphibious reach and capability underlined by a Future Commando Force and a converted Bay-class support ship re-roled into a “lethal littoral strike capability” under a GBP50 million ($69 million) program.
The #IntegratedReview focuses on how the navy is investing in the latest weaponry and harnessing the latest technologies to counter future threats and promote UK interests.
— Royal Navy (@RoyalNavy) March 25, 2021
The Royal Navy remains on tap to receive its planned Type 26 frigates, alongside future Type 31 and Type 32 frigates (although the latter will not begin to arrive before 2030). However, it will lose two of its older Type 23 warships early, thus driving down the number of surface combatants to 17 in total until the arrival of the newer classes of ships, starting with the lead Type 26 frigate HMS Glasgow, due in 2027.
Meanwhile, the Type 45 air-warfare destroyer fleet will undergo an upgrade prior to 2030, while the concept and assessment phase for its successor – the nascent Type 83 – will kick-start before the end of the decade.
The Navy will also receive a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance vessel intended to protect critical undersea national infrastructure.
On the chopping block is the mine countermeasures fleet, which will be replaced by a future unmanned minehunting capability to be developed in partnership with France.
Also in question is whether the first batch of River-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) will survive, as the paper only notes the Batch 2 (Forth-class) OPVs in the Navy’s Integrated Force Structure 2030. Thus, the Batch 1 River-class OPVs appear likely to be mothballed in the near future to save costs and allow for personnel to be shifted elsewhere.
The Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force section of the report presents arguably as many questions as it answers.
Combat air capacity forms the tip of the RAF spear, and the paper states that the service will grow in this regard as the Typhoon fleet reaches a full seven squadrons (as sought under the 2015 SDSR) and the F-35 Lightning II force increases beyond the current commitment to 48 aircraft.
Yet the Typhoon fleet will not reach seven squadrons by adding more numbers, but instead will be generated by creating efficiencies from the existing fleet, which will fall to 131 fighters once the older Tranche 1 models are retired by 2025 as outlined in the paper. While the remaining Typhoons will have their capability upgraded through spiral developments such as integration of the SPEAR (Selected Precision Effects At Range) Cap 3 precision-guided standoff weapon, the capacity will definitely not “grow,” but shrink.
Meanwhile, a final F-35 inventory figure is left unstated beyond a vague commitment to “increasing the size” of the fleet. With greater emphasis and financial commitment being placed on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) next-generation fighter project (more commonly referred to as “Tempest”), including GBP2 billion ($2.74 billion) over the 2021-2024 period, it stands to reason that the original British goal of acquiring 138 F-35s will ultimately be cut in half.
Vital to the protection of the UK, more than £2bn will invested over the next four years to develop our next generation combat air system, boosting a sector which already supports 46,000 jobs across the country.
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 24, 2021
Slated for early retirement are the aforementioned Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons and the 1980s-legacy Hawk T1 trainers, both of which will be withdrawn in 2025. The BAE 146 transport fleet also gets the axe, with retirement set for 2022.
More eye-opening is the decision to retire the entire C-130 Hercules transport fleet in 2023, removing the airlift capability utilized by the Special Forces. Though removing the C-130s from service had been considered as far back as the 2010 SDSR (when seemingly every key asset was slated for the chopping block), the government announced in September 2016 that it would invest GBP350 million to retain the 14 C-130Js in service through 2035. That former plan now appears too costly under the efficiencies being sought by the MoD to make its equipment plans more affordable.
In place of the C-130s will be the A400M “Atlas” airlifters, of which the U.K. has 22 – and which have yet to be cleared for all the mission duties undertaken by the Hercules fleet (such as parachuting).
Also of note is that the order to replace the Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) fleet with five Boeing Wedgetail E-7 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft will now be reduced to just three platforms. This, on top of the scrapping of the Sentinel R1 intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft, will leave the RAF with just three Wedgetails, and General Atomics Protector RG Mk1 medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) UAVs to cover vital AEW missions.
Of the three major service branches, the British Army faced the greatest scrutiny during the planning stages of the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper. Rumors abounded about cuts to manpower and equipment.
Now with the unveiling of both documents, the wait is over, and the British Army is certainly the service confronting the most change.
For starters, the total force strength will shrink from its current 82,000-strong footprint to just 72,500 soldiers by 2030. This will reduce the Army to its smallest size in 300 years.
The MoD brushes this obvious concern aside in the paper by stressing the reorganized force will be “more agile, integrated, lethal and expeditionary” and “more effectively matched to current and future threats.” One of the cornerstones of the future force plans involves creating a new Ranger Regiment in August 2021 from the amalgamation of four existing battalions and investing over GPB120 million ($165 million) in equipping it to tackle operations in complex, high-threat environments.
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 26, 2021
The paper points to GBP3 billion ($4.1 billion) in fresh investment toward Army equipment atop the GBP20 billion ($27.4 billion) in already-planned funding.
This immediately raises the logical question of how wisely this money will be spent given the lousy track record of the MoD and service branches in bringing aspirational projects to bear (see in particular the Army’s utterly disastrous FRES program).
In terms of capabilities investment, the Army will be bolstered by improved firepower. This is most certainly a welcome development, as the Royal Artillery’s current inventory of artillery is aging at a time when NATO seeks to improve artillery fires capabilities on a member-by-member basis. Its systems – most of which were delivered in the 1990s or earlier (such as the L118 Light Gun that dates back to the 1970s) – are nearing the end of their service lives.
The MoD plans to invest GBP250 million ($343 million) across 10 years in a Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) for long-range firepower. Meanwhile, the Army is investing over GBP800 million ($1.1 billion) on an automated Mobile Fires Platform that will provide greater mobility and improved close support artillery systems.
Also on tap is investment in ground-based air defense aimed at delivering the Army survivable and digitally connected platforms with short-range capability, plus a new deployable medium-range capability.
For countering the gains in the electronic warfare domain demonstrated by Russia in the Donbass region of Ukraine, the British Army will receive an investment of over GBP200 million ($274 million) across 10 years toward enhanced EW and signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability.
On the armor front, the paper provides some answers regarding legacy programs while raising questions concerning others.
The first platform of note relates to the Army’s Challenger main battle tank (MBT) fleet, which after many rumors of its impending demise will in fact remain part of the future 2030 Integrated Force. The fleet will be smaller but more lethal, with GBP1.3 billion ($1.78 billion) to be invested in upgrading 148 of the current 227 Challenger II MBTs to Challenger III configuration. The remaining 79 tanks will be mothballed.
Least surprising among the cuts in armed forces capabilities is the announcement that the upgrade program for the fleet of British Army MCV-80 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) will be canceled and the entire inventory binned.
To try and patch this over, the MoD notes that it will bring forward the delivery timeline for the Army’s incoming fleet of Boxer 8×8 wheeled multirole armored vehicles tapped by the MoD in April 2018 to fill the Army’s Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (MIV) requirement.
However, there is no mention as to whether or not a future order for additional Boxers will be placed, nor any mention of a potential replacement for the Warrior. As the Warriors are tracked and the Boxer wheeled, it appears the MoD anticipates future conflicts and peacekeeping/security scenarios occurring in urban environments.
Regarding helicopter transport capability, the paper notes that the RAF will retire the nine oldest of its CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift fleet. Investment will instead be placed, along with the U.S., in a newer extended-range variant of the Chinook.
Meanwhile, the roughly 20 Puma medium transport helicopters will be retired, with investment made in a replacement starting in the mid-2020s under the “New Medium Helicopter” project.
Finally, the fleet of Army Air Corps AH-64 Apache attack helicopters will receive an upgrade to latest capability standard by 2025.
Also rumored to be set for the chopping block – though not noted in the Defence Command Paper – is the Army’s fleet of Bell 212 utility helicopters, the RAF”s Bell 412EP (“Griffin HAR2” in RAF parlance) utility helicopters, and the Special Forces’ Airbus AS365N3 Dauphin utility helicopters.
On the surface, this latest defense review comes across as aspirational while remaining conspicuously vague in terms of specific numbers and capability timelines.
The MoD seeks to fulfill its role in meeting the ambitions of the government’s Integrated Review, and indeed, the Defence Command Paper speaks of renewed commitment in the Asia-Pacific theater and a wider presence globally.
The goal to increase the number of defense attaché networks across the world by a third is smart use of money for return on investment and certainly a move to be welcomed. The commitment to growing and bolstering security links with allies and like-minded partners worldwide also corresponds to the Global Britain aims of the government.
Additionally, a renewed emphasis on building and sustaining a vibrant local defense industrial base is certain to be welcomed across the political spectrum. The MoD is careful in the paper to say that competition will remain important in order to achieve value for money, but in light of the realities brought to bear by the COVID-19 pandemic, the British government – like governments worldwide – is being forced to recognize that decades of offshoring production have left the nation vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.
In terms of the crucial area of capacity, it is hard to swallow the MoD argument that the British Army will continue to be able to meet future challenges, despite its claim that “Capability will be less defined by numbers of people and platforms than by information-centric technologies automation and a culture of innovation and experimentation.”
The cuts will leave the British armed forces roughly 70,000 troops below the personnel figure of their counterparts in France.
Why not retain the current force size and invest in network resiliency and innovation?
The answer is funding, which is what this and the previous pair of Strategic Defence and Security Reviews ultimately emphasized beneath the veneer of bureaucratic jargon.
The hard truth is that the shrinking of the Army and the loss of capabilities with no intention to fill gaps smack of a desire by Britain to never again involve itself in a sustained, high-intensity conflict abroad.
Instead, the goal appears to be to use the Army as a surgical strike component (fast in, fast out), or, on the other end of the spectrum, to assign it a peacekeeping role in constabulary operations.
British General Nick Carter defended the Defence Command Paper – particularly the section devoted to trimming the Army’s numbers – by stressing that the changes laid out in the document were “absolutely not” a cut to the armed services, a claim difficult to square when comparing the personnel numbers past and present.
Further, Carter added, the “focus should be less on size and shape and much more on the Army’s relevance.”
Defenders of the paper have argued that having fewer soldiers is less of a worry because the troops going forward will be better-trained and capable of handling multiple tasks well, rather than specializing in one task. Also, per the paper, more means of automation will be undertaken in order to spur efficiency and effectiveness.
This is indeed one positive outlook on the future troop numbers.
But what about a scenario – say an actual combat operation of any duration above the threshold of mild intensity – in which soldiers fall and there are none to backfill the loss and support the mission? This, no doubt, will be one of the many questions asked by the Pentagon of its British ally.
Then there are the capabilities, some of which the MoD was arguably correct in moving beyond.
But is the MoD suddenly more trustworthy and capable at managing its equipment program considering that its track record on procurement is a rather questionable one? The Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft program serves as just one such multibillion-pound disaster to be held up as an example of incompetency.
Will the retirements of some capabilities be backfilled, or are they merely fiscal attempts to try and bring the equipment plan deficit more into order and get ahead of the long-tail cost curve always looming over the horizon? Is the MoD capable of following through on future major programs to ensure they arrive on time and not above cost estimates?
How does a reduced armored capability reassure Britain’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe bordering Russia? Will the U.K. find itself in a gray zone confrontation in the South China Sea or in Georgia, or will its next major operation require actual combat mass?
Regarding those questions, the Defence Command Paper is cloudy rather than clear.
But one thing it does do, however unintentionally, is put to rest the long-held claim that the British armed forces represent a “Tier One” military. That arguably will not hold true in the future, if it does today.
To quote a famous maxim: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
Not according to the Defence Command Paper.