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The 2023 Defence Command Paper: Washington’s view

As key allies, alignment between the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) on the broad-brush strokes of defence and security policy is ideal. While they do not need to mirror one another, when they echo, both allies are better able to achieve their respective geostrategic objectives. With that in mind, the recently released British 2023 ‘Defence Command Paper’ (DCP) should be welcomed in Washington. American policymakers will likely have some concerns about the UK’s force posture and orientation. But this is more a reflection of Washington’s understanding of the UK’s position in the international order and less the 2023 DCP’s articulation of Britain’s evolving armed forces.

The 2023 DCP and its predecessor documents such as the Integrated Review Refresh (IRR) of 2023 and the DCP of 2021, which are best read together, should leave Washington with little question as to the direction of London’s foreign and defence policy. The language around Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains the same as in the IRR, and Washington should welcome this threat perception. Russia is stated to be ‘the greatest threat to European security’ and the PRC as ‘pos[ing] an enduring and epoch-defining global challenge to British interests’. This is language markedly similar to that used by Joe Biden, the American President, in his State of the Union Address on the PRC and previous comments on Russia.

The 2023 DCP goes some way in adapting to preliminary lessons drawn from the ongoing war against Ukraine whilst simultaneously balancing domestic political interests and financial pressures. It is deeply forward-looking, placing increased emphasis on consolidating the UK and the Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) global leadership in terms of science and technology – themes found throughout the IRR. Washington’s bureaucratic and acquisition reformers will be encouraged by the MoD’s focus on altering its acquisition policy to make it faster as well as more agile. If successful, this would see the UK field a more advanced, more capable, and more lethal force. 

Russia’s war against Ukraine has provided evidence for trends that had previously been purely academic considerations about the changing character of war. Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, recently said: ‘One of the lessons of Ukraine is the need to bring together as [many] sensors as possible…and then delivering lethal effect.’ Prior to the 2023 DCP’s release, Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, stressed to attendees of the London Defence Conference the importance of integrating unmanned systems and leveraging technology in lieu of mass. His goal of fielding 10,000 drones across the services by 2030 is ambitious and will require a change in the way the MoD purchases systems, something recognised by His Majesty’s (HM) Government in the 2023 DCP through its desire to forge a ‘new alliance’ with industry. 

Washington is, however, at times short-termist in its focus and attention. While the 2023 DCP’s reforms, if successful, would lead to a more effective British ally, the US is first and foremost concerned about the UK’s role in European security today. What Washington is looking for and needs most immediately is a Britain with armed forces able to maintain current support for Ukraine, and bolster NATO’s ongoing transformation. The 2023 DCP’s allocation of some £2.5 billion for stockpile redevelopment is a welcome, if lagging, recognition of the requirements of high-intensity conventional warfare. 

An American over-fixation on personnel numbers and some of the limits of the UK’s military power may cause policymakers to miss the value of the document and London’s strategic ambitions.

The worry about the size of the British Army is almost certainly also a concern within Washington defence circles. The decision to uphold the manning numbers of 76,000 troops in 2023 DCP will raise questions amongst American policymakers about the UK’s ability to present and deploy forces on the European continent and elsewhere. For the Pentagon, mass and numbers still matter. While the 2023 DCP is right that embracing technological change is critical to future success, it hews perhaps too closely for Pentagon officials to jettisoning mass as a virtue, stating ‘our mass comes not just from the ships, tanks and planes in our inventory but from the innovative systems we wrap around them and the cunning of those that operate them.’ 

While the British Army has maintained an impressively high operational tempo and performed admirably with fewer troops, the maintenance of these already undermanned forces may make it operationally unsustainable. At some point the force may find itself lacking the necessary personnel to support sustained deployments, training may suffer, and troops may experience burnout, placing greater challenges on recruiting. Wallace is not wrong that merely raising personnel levels without commensurate funding – some £5 billion to return to previous troop levels – will leave under-equipped and under-armed soldiers, but it remains to be seen whether the outlined calibration is fit for purpose.

The 2023 DCP states:

Our adversaries must have no doubts about our ability and willingness to fight, and to win. Our ability to deter is therefore dependent on balanced and credible capabilities – across sea, land, air, space and cyberspace – and a clearly communicated willingness to use them in the place and at a time of our choosing. 

This is, in practice, a sensible articulation of the totality of military power, not just personnel numbers or tanks. Yet, in Washington’s calculus, those quantitative figures often weigh more than their qualitative counterparts. However, in reality, a smaller force could well be a more effective and capable (and desirable) force. As shown in Ukraine, British trainers are having an outsized impact on the battlefield, as are UK weapons platforms and intelligence. 

The generation of a more bespoke, enabling force comes at a time when NATO is expanding and transforming and when European allies such as Poland and Germany are rearming. At the recent NATO Summit in Vilnius, allies approved ‘the most comprehensive defence plans since the end of the Cold War’. The process of aligning national resources against those plans is an opportunity for the UK (and the US) to discuss what the future force structure of the alliance could look like. Doing so would lead to a better integrated and more effective force, and see Britain maximise the efficacy of its contribution to European security. 

Looking to the Indo-Pacific, the 2023 DCP is clear on Britain’s sustained focus on the region and emphasis on sea power, but also the leveraging of the UK’s total geostrategic posture, not just its coercive assets. This has been a source of misunderstanding from Washington’s perspective in the past. A narrow view of the UK’s Indo-Pacific power almost certainly informed the comments of Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, that Britain would be ‘more helpful in other parts of the world’, while the US focused on the Indo-Pacific. Nonetheless, having the ability to generate and field credible forces will be of particular importance to the UK in the Indo-Pacific. Here, the AUKUS agreement will certainly support London’s ambitions in the region.

The 2023 DCP is a document focused on the future that will be read by a US that is almost exclusively focused on the present, and which views defence developments through a very narrow lens. While the focus on ensuring Ukraine is victorious and buttressing NATO will be welcomed in Washington, an American over-fixation on personnel numbers and some of the limits of the UK’s military power may cause policymakers to miss the value of the document and London’s strategic ambitions. This short-term focus may well blind Washington to the ongoing transformation of one of its closest allies into a robust, forward-leaning, technologically-enabled fighting force.

Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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