The United Kingdom’s ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’

The United Kingdom’s ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’

British defence planners have outlined a once-in-a-generation pivot in military posture.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The British military is set to undergo significant changes to its force structure, personnel and resourcing after a sweeping review of its capabilities that aims to tackle emerging threats in the information space.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The military is shifting its focus from the traditional boots-on-the-ground approach to hi-tech drones and cyber capabilities.
– The UK defence secretary has described the cuts as “mass mobilisation to information age speed” but members of the opposition have emphasised the security threats of downsizing.
– The UK will be better equipped to defend against emerging threats but will also be more vulnerable to traditional, kinetic weapons systems.

On March 22, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) officially released its new review titled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’. In addition to outlining key doctrinal principles and planned changes to the military’s force structure, the defence review also consigns an additional £24 billion to defence spending over the next four years. However, the promise of increased spending was accompanied by plans to cut back on personnel and the abandonment of some capabilities altogether. Amidst criticism that the cuts would limit the UK’s ability to project power and aid its allies, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace espoused that eschewing the “shield of sentimentality” with regards to these older systems was a necessary step to protect lives in the future.

As far as capabilities are concerned, the MoD has committed to the acquisition of 48 F-35B fighter jets as well as increased investment in cyber/electronic warfare and upgrades to some of its aging platforms like the Challenger tank. There is also a strong focus on expanding and enhancing existing special forces capabilities via the introduction of a new ‘Rangers’ regiment. Beyond outlining new capabilities, the review also details Westminster’s strategic thinking and the rationale behind the changes by highlighting the growing threats it perceives in Russia and China.

GEARING UP FOR THE ‘GREYZONE’

Photo: Ministry of Defence/Facebook

The defence review came hot on the heels of another important policy document: an integrated review of security, defence, foreign and development policy titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. The framing of the defence review within this wider policy context is significant. It signals that Westminster still sees itself as a global power with the ability to effect change in the international community.

Looking at the review and the commentary surrounding its release, the ‘competitive age’ referenced in the title is clearly a nod to the rebalancing of power between the US-led international order and China. The intent to contest Chinese revisionism was further confirmed by the head of the army, who stated that there would be a special focus on operations in East Africa — a region where Beijing has been expanding its presence in recent years. However, the review isn’t only about China. The explicit references to contesting adversaries in the ‘greyzone’ — the operational space between war and peace — also denote an intention to check the Kremlin’s influence by beating Russia at its own game.

Taking a closer look at the capabilities themselves says a lot about what British defence planners are worried about in this ‘competitive age’. The addition of the 48 F-35Bs is strong evidence that the MoD sees a capability gap between British air power and that of Russia and China — and that it sees this kind of airpower as a threat to its interests. In the ‘competitive age’, these fifth-generation platforms are clearly the new benchmark for first-rate militaries and the UK’s decision to beef up its fleet is a signal that it intends to contest this space now and in the future.

Conversely, the downgrading and downsizing of more ‘traditional’ capabilities like armoured fighting vehicles and troop numbers indicate that Westminster is increasingly wary of new and inexpensive systems like the explosives-rigged drones seen in conflicts in Syria and the Caucasus. These systems have shown an asymmetrical capability to level the playing field, particularly during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, where Azerbaijani drones destroyed Armenian tanks, artillery and air defences.

Instead, the focus on special forces and cyber capabilities suggests that the MoD expects the Kremlin to engage in similar greyzone tactics to those seen in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. This preference for more covert, high-tech capabilities is strongly suggestive that the MoD expects to be engaged in more low-intensity conflicts than high-intensity ones.

Another key consideration evident in Westminster’s strategic reappraisal is Washington’s recent policy shift. The focus on competition and force projection appears to be reflective of current US foreign policy and the Biden administration’s push to check the Kremlin’s influence and re-engage with US allies. In the global ‘competitive age’, Westminster is trying to demonstrate both its worth as a friend and its strength as a foe. To this point, the influx of funding would bring the UK’s total defence spend to £188 billion — or 2.2% of GDP — exceeding the NATO standard of 2%.

THE COSTS OF COMPETITION IN THE INFORMATION AGE

Looking into the future, there is the question about whether the UK can actually afford the investments laid out in the review. According to the Bank of England, the nation is facing the largest economic downturn in three centuries after the uncertainty of Brexit and successive pandemic-related lockdowns. Considering such an outcome, it would be reasonable to expect that government spending would be negatively affected. However, with an outstanding national debt of £1.8 trillion — 84.6% GDP — an additional £24 billion outlay looks relatively insignificant. This, coupled with record-low interest rates and the propensity of modern central banks to simply print more money while inflation remains low, it seems quite likely that Westminster will be able to follow through on its spending promises for the immediate future.

Assuming that MoD gets the funds it needs to pursue its new policy direction, there are other costs to consider. The cuts to personnel and traditional platforms will not only leave the UK more vulnerable to conventional threats, but some analysts have also highlighted the risk of fraying relations across the Atlantic. According to Howard Wheeldon, the Pentagon will likely be dissatisfied with the cuts to British troop numbers and the commensurate reduction in Westminster’s ground-based credibility. However, the reallocation of funds towards high-tech, information-based systems that allow for greater interoperability and coordination with allies like the US will offset some of these drawbacks. Furthermore, the shift in focus towards information and greyzone type capabilities have the potential to render traditional means of warfare obsolete by preventing strategic competition from escalating into high-intensity conflicts in the first place. If developing threats can be dealt with by the application of low-level force in conjunction with political operations, there may be little need to deploy infantry, airpower and armoured fighting vehicles. That being said, there is always the threat of an adversary being able to deploy superior, non-informationised, conventional means that are largely invulnerable to cyber-based capabilities. This is no small threat either, especially considering the advantages in sheer numbers enjoyed by the Russian and Chinese militaries.

Taking all of this into account, it seems that the UK is rolling the dice on its novel capabilities being able to effectively prevent the kind of mass conflict to which it is leaving itself more vulnerable.