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Defence Command Paper 2023: An evolving British force posture?

After the publication of the 2023 Defence Command Paper (DCP), the Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts to explain how the document affects Britain’s evolving force posture

Ed Arnold, Royal United Services Institute

The 2023 DCP deliberately chose not to change British force structures, and the central aspiration of forming a credible warfighting Division by 2030 as a significant contribution to NATO remains extant.

However, the United Kingdom’s (UK) force posture was refined. The persistent ‘engagement’ of the 2021 DCP has been upgraded to ‘presence’ to support a ‘campaigning approach’ which is to be backed up by a specific budget and organisation to better join up all of Britain’s national levers. It was unclear on how this would provide additional value to UK defence, or how this approach is substantively different to what Britain had already been doing, for example in Afghanistan.

Like the 2021 Integrated Review and 2021 DCP, the UK is further prioritising the Euro-Atlantic with a commitment ‘to develop a force that is optimised to war-fight in the Euro-Atlantic and in defence of our homeland’ which is what British allies really wanted to hear. As part of this the UK has doubled down on its specific prioritisation of northern Europe as the ‘regional area of greatest importance to our homeland defence’ and committed to lead a command-and-control structure that best brings in Finland and Sweden to the alliance to underpin defence and deterrence in the region.

Basil Germond, University of Lancaster

The 2023 DCP stresses the key strategic objective of ‘preserving an open and stable international order’. Indeed, the global supply chain is crucial to the UK’s resilience but also to the armed forces’ capacity to perform their defence function in a ‘contested world’. This prioritisation is reassuring when one knows that the security and prosperity of Britain strongly depends on the stability of the global maritime order. 

In line with the Integrated Review Refresh, the 2023 DCP suggests ways to generate strategic effects in a time of limited financial resources and technological acceleration. In particular, a strong emphasis is put on generating critical mass and stronger effects by cooperating with (like-minded) partners; public-private partnerships are seen as key to defence innovation (e.g., to offer efficient cyber defence solutions), although it is acknowledged that further efforts are needed to generate ‘a shared sense of national endeavour’; and the ability to ‘get there first’ has become not just a question of increasing projection capabilities, but the capacity to swiftly enact the full spectrum of defence tools, including for deterrence, reassurance, or intelligence purposes.

In sum, the 2023 DCP recognises the importance of a stable (maritime) order and a secure global supply chain. As such, it does not disappoint. With an impending global leadership challenge, the ability of the UK (within a coalition of like-minded states and in close collaboration with the private sector) to enact seapower will be instrumental in delivering the strategic objectives set up in the document.

Euan Graham, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

The sections of the 2023 DCP that deal with the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ strike a confident note, claiming that the UK has ‘more than delivered’ on the goals set out in the Integrated Review of 2021. In 2023, this is a fair and accurate assessment, based on the UK’s current mix of expeditionary and forward deployments, expanded defence diplomacy network and advanced technology partnerships, led by AUKUS and the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP). 

There is now a credible foundation for the UK’s ‘persistent presence’ across the region to continue, with a commitment to deploy more amphibious and carrier groups, in 2023 and 2025 respectively, and a forward-based submarine bound for Australia later this decade, as the UK’s operational down-payment on the AUKUS submarine joint venture. If there were lingering doubts that the war against Ukraine might cause the UK to scale back in its Indo-Pacific outreach, the clear global emphasis in the 2023 DCP should dispel these, although it yields no new details on resourcing.

While the 2023 DCP reaffirms the UK’s diplomatic aim to engage the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a ‘P5 power and a major security player’, Beijing is called out for the pace and scale of both its conventional and nuclear build-up. The PRC’s inclusion in the nuclear deterrence section of the document is a notable change from the 2021 version, which had nothing to say about the PRC’s nuclear arsenal. Previously, Whitehall appeared reluctant to countenance a deterrence relationship with Beijing that potentially extends into the nuclear realm. Yet as threat perceptions of the PRC have continued to harden since 2021, that lacuna in Britain’s deterrence posture was no longer sustainable, and it is significant that the PRC has now been tacitly acknowledged as part of the rationale for modernising the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Anisa Heritage, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst*

The 2023 DCP affirms the wide-ranging and complex challenges of the contemporary security environment that were outlined in the Integrated Review Refresh. With Euro-Atlantic security, Ukraine, and NATO prioritised, the 2023 DCP has also reaffirmed commitments made in previous documents to a growing British role in the Indo-Pacific. This role sits under the new ‘Campaigning’ umbrella which is said to involve all levers of defence and wider government in sustaining the UK’s persistent presence. 

The 2023 DCP leaves the detail of these specific campaigning endeavours for the armed forces to thrash out. Having delivered on its commitments to the ‘tilt’, the 2023 DCP now speaks of sustaining a regional presence through ‘pulsed deployments’ of equipment and people. With no details released on force posture or numbers, the paper seems keen not to over-promise or under-deliver on UK armed forces engagement in the Indo-Pacific beyond capacity-building and participation in regional exercises, as well as to existing commitments including Five Eyes, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, AUKUS and GCAP. 

The 2023 DCP also steers clear of connecting Britain’s Indo-Pacific presence with the UK’s approach to the PRC. As with the Integrated Review Refresh, the 2023 DCP takes a relatively ambiguous line on UK-PRC relations – trying to balance the PRC’s attempts to ‘rewrite the international order’ alongside the vague claim that UK-PRC relations, or the PRC’s impact on international order, are not ‘set on a predetermined course’.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

It would have been easy for the UK to learn all the wrong lessons from Russia’s war against Ukraine. Britain does not require the same force posture as continental allies such as Poland and Finland, or even Germany and France. Rightly, these countries have realised that they need to beef up their terrestrial defence forces. Poland will have the largest armoured forces in Europe by 2030.

Britain, an insular state located off the coast of the European mainland, armed with a potent nuclear deterrent, does not need to do the same.

While 2023 DCP might lack the radicalism of the Australian Government’s recent Defence Strategic Review, it favours a more focused approach. Far from attempting to ‘hide behind the armies of other NATO contributors’, the document sets the British Armed Forces up to deter hostile states more effectively through the threat of punishment – both conventional and nuclear – and through the posture of denial.

In keeping with the Integrated Review Refresh, it therefore concludes that the UK’s strategic advantage comes from its science and technological superiority, its extended nuclear forces, its ability to provide high-end platforms to ‘enable’ broader coalitions of allies and partners, and its military logistical reach. Together, this posture will be critical to manifest a permanent presence in the Euro-Atlantic and a ‘pulsed’ presence in the Indo-Pacific – essential to deny opponents geopolitical success.

Emma Salisbury, Council on Geostrategy

The 2023 DCP’s focus is on innovation and technology, quite rightly in an age where technological advantage on the battlefield is so crucial. The industry portion of the paper is particularly interesting as it speaks of a ‘new alliance’ between the defence world and industry that will seek to develop ‘long-term strategic alignment’ in order to foster a diverse and resilient industrial base that can effectively respond to the military’s needs.

These plans appear to be intended to address some of the big problems in defence acquisitions: poor long-term signalling, inadequate capacity resilience, and an overly bureaucratic procurement process. If these plans can materialise, many other free and open nations could learn from this kind of proactive and long-term engagement with industry.

The big ‘if’ – with a general election looming and the prospect of an incoming Labour government performing yet another defence review – is whether there is enough time to embed these changes. However, if the plans in the 2023 DCP can be given the chance to manifest, they have the potential to bolster the British Armed Forces for the future and create a defence industrial base that can stand the test of time.

*Authors write exclusively in a personal capacity.

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