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Should Britain’s force posture change?

As the next Defence Command Paper approaches, the Council on Geostrategy asks five strategic experts how the United Kingdom’s (UK) force posture should change.

Robert Clark, Civitas

Regenerate the British Army for industrial warfare

The British Armed Forces now find themselves operating in a highly contested strategic environment, one characterised by ‘systemic competition’, the proliferation of technology, and the impacts of globalisation and climate change.

While the British Army’s ongoing force modernisation is underway, ‘Future Soldier’ correctly sought to address imbalances with many ways in which defence operates, particularly surrounding defence culture and the integration of advanced technologies. DCP2021 and the British Army’s subsequent ‘Future Soldier’ outlined how capabilities, rather than troop numbers, are of primary importance in confronting the defence and security challenges facing the UK.

However, as industrialised land warfare has returned once more to Europe, some of the assumptions which underpinned the Defence Command Paper of 2021 (DCP2021) need to be reappraised. Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown just how central a role armoured infantry, artillery, and main battle tanks have in determining terrestrial warfare. Continuing to cut personnel by 9,000 soldiers, in addition to upgrading only two thirds of the Challenger 2 main battle tank platforms, would significantly raise into question the ability to deploy an armoured warfighting brigade – much less a division.

Historically this has been the cornerstone of the conventional British security promise to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the defence of Europe. If His Majesty’s (HM) Government wishes to continue an aspirational persistent global presence to respond to emerging threats, then it would be prudent to reconsider the cuts announced in DCP2021.

Anisa Heritage, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst*

Deepen existing commitments

I do not foresee change to the British force posture. Rather, I envisage a deepening of existing commitments, especially in the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ went a long way in recognising the importance of the region to global security and the UK’s commitment to deepening its regional diplomatic, trade and security engagement. Since DCP2021, the UK has acceded to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement and become an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ‘Dialogue Partner’. AUKUS signifies a further step towards a widening role for the UK in the Indo-Pacific, highlighting the HM Government’s readiness to deepen innovative collaboration with long-standing allies. 

The Global Air Combat Programme (GCAP), a strategic partnership between the UK, Japan and Italy, emphasises the connection between European and Indo-Pacific partners in developing new technologies for mutual benefit. While the Euro-Atlantic remains the key priority to British defence, the return of systemic competition has put the open international order under significant pressure, with enemies and rivals ready to exploit vulnerabilities in liberal democracies, particularly in the technology and cyber domains.

The divide between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres has further blurred since DCP2021. Consequently, the UK should continue to work alongside both Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific allies and partners using a spectrum of diplomatic, economic and military tools to support resilience and capacity-building, and to develop technical innovation.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Leverage terrestrial allies to defend Europe

DCP2021 began to re-purpose the British Armed Forces for an era of ‘intensifying geopolitical competition’. They would take up a greater ‘forward presence’ with engagement, dissuasion and deterrence at their heart. But with the threat from Russia, there was still a need for armour, artillery and the ability to deploy a brigade or even a division in support of NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack.

Counterintuitively, Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine shows that the UK no longer needs to be able to field a heavy division. The terrestrial threat from Russia has been significantly reduced by Ukraine, just as key NATO allies are stepping up. Poland, fast generating the most powerful land force in Europe, is on course to acquire over 1,000 modern tanks – and will eventually operate more than the UK, France and Germany combined.

However, the Russian threat at sea and in the air has not subsided, nor has the ‘epoch-defining systemic challenge’ of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both are growing stronger. Under these circumstances, HM Government should prioritise the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, as well as offensive cyber and information capabilities.

Meanwhile, the UK ought to leverage its terrestrial allies and partners – especially Poland, Germany and France – to provide the land forces needed to defend Europe. This will divide labour within NATO more effectively and compels allies to do more.

Kevin Rowlands, Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre*

Build-up British ‘suasion’ capacities

Command Papers both set out policy and explain how it will be delivered. Or that is the theory. The DCP now under construction will set the scene for how the armed forces go about their business until at least the next defence review, assumed to be two years away after the next general election regardless of whichever party takes power. Of course, the new DCP is being written in response to publication of the Integrated Review Refresh (IRR) and so, in most respects, the policy is already known. For example, there is more continuity than change. Force postures will probably remain broadly consistent with what is already planned.

But is that right? The IRR talks of shaping the international environment, deterring, defending and competing across all domains, addressing resilience vulnerabilities, and generating strategic advantage. These are, or should be, apolitical visions; but how are they achieved militarily? They are achieved through a resilient independent nuclear deterrent, by securing the homeland including our offshore critical infrastructure, by reinforcing the UK’s commitment to NATO and maintaining a stable Euro-Atlantic and High North, and by exercising what Edward Luttwak, an American strategist, called ‘suasion’ with a visible, credible, deterrent presence alongside partners with shared interests around the globe, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. 

There may be tweaks around the edges to be made with tools and capabilities but until grand strategy changes the current naval and military posture is broadly right; evolution rather than revolution seems the order of the day.

Bryden Spurling, RAND Europe

Integrate with like-minded allies and partners

The DCP2021’s ‘forward engagement’ posture is good policy. It gives the UK more opportunity to shape the strategic environment proactively, rather than simply reacting to challenges when they occur. The UK’s network of bases, facilities and partnerships supports this, giving it global reach with a relatively light footprint.

But pursuing it effectively will become harder over time. The security challenges are growing, it is more expensive to maintain credible capability to deal with them, and resources are finite.

There needs to be a firm focus on where among the UK’s many interests its military capability can make the most difference. And more of a willingness to cut specific activity and investment that does not contribute to those, so resources are not spread too thinly. No organisation finds this easy to do, but those choices must be confronted.

Britain’s superpower in this regard is its network of like-minded allies and partners, well accustomed to working together. There is no other grouping like it on the world stage.

There are as-yet unexplored opportunities for those partners to pool respective capability and ideas on issues that all countries are finding difficult – like concurrency pressure – so that the collective whole is more than the sum of the parts. This could be a deliberate line of effort for future British defence diplomacy.

*Authors write exclusively in a personal capacity.

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