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The new Defence Command Paper needs a maritime ‘tilt’

The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (IRR) confirmed the United Kingdom (UK), having delivered on the Integrated Review’s ambition to ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, will establish the region as a ‘permanent pillar of the UK’s international policy’. But the IRR also recommitted the UK to a leading position in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to address the Russian threat. The British Armed Forces will receive £11 billion in new investment to 2025, but inflation and the accelerating race in military technology will swallow most of it up. Absent more resources, the only solution is more efficiency. Due for publication before the summer, the new Defence Command Paper will have to square this circle. The only way to achieve Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security objectives is a conceptual and material shift – not across geography, as with the last ‘tilt’ – but across domains. 

Threats reach the British Isles by sea, by air, and through cyberspace; the same means by which UK society and economy are connected to the wider world (including the Indo-Pacific), making these the priority domains for defence and security. The current balance of investment in the land domain is a historical anomaly overdue for revision. A postwar power vacuum in continental Europe, the occupation of Germany, and the threat from the Soviet Union justified a British continental commitment with heavy armour at its core. But with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact long gone, Russia is nothing like the threat it was. The problems Putin’s army has had crossing even a fifth of Ukraine’s territory demonstrate how far it is from reaching Berlin, let alone Calais. 

Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia continue to invest in advanced weapons systems designed to hold at risk underwater infrastructure and freedom of navigation on which British security directly depends. Despite some re-balancing (cyber and aerospace received new investment, most notably with the long-term commitment to the Future Combat Air System partnership with Japan and Italy), the Royal Navy remains disproportionately underpowered. With all due respect to the history and geostrategic logic of the last century, the UK should now tilt heavily towards re-investment in the maritime domain.

Some objections to this proposal of a domain tilt are rooted in sentimental or institutional attachments to land power, but other status quo arguments merit more serious consideration.

The most obvious is that Britain has to respond to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by renewing its continental commitment. Evidently, tanks remain part of contemporary land warfare, even in Europe. Still, that does not mean heavy armour remains a vital component of the British order of battle. On the contrary, Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-align UK national defence to capitalise on the country’s geopolitical strengths and shore up its weaknesses. While Britain has sent 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, the UK and Ukraine would be better served if His Majesty’s (HM) Government sent the whole Challenger 2 fleet. In the hands of the Ukrainian Army, a couple of hundred Challenger 2s could do much more good against Russia than they ever could wearing themselves out in exercises on Salisbury Plain. 

But there is more at stake than Ukraine’s freedom. As per the Integrated Review in 2021 and IRR, Britain’s primary strategic concern is the defence of the Euro-Atlantic area. But this does not equate to a UK obligation to underwrite the security of NATO with a large land force with heavy armour at its core. Other allies are better positioned – by virtue of their own national priority domains – to fulfil that mission. Poland, the outer bulwark of the alliance, has the most extensive military modernisation programme in Europe underway; by the early 2030s, it should be able to field more tanks than Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium combined. The entry of NATO’s newest member Finland just added around 200 Leopard 2 tanks to NATO’s arsenal. And Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, has recently promised a military modernisation programme of some €100 billion (£88 billion). A continental country fully endowed with significant economic and industrial potential, Germany is well suited to complement Polish efforts with its own. HM Government should add its voice to other allies, hold Chancellor Scholz to his word and press Berlin to rebuild the Bundeswehr. 

While Poland, Finland and Germany – continental land powers – are better suited to provide the requisite forces needed to deter threats to NATO’s eastern flank, the UK, an island nation off the northwestern coast of Europe and central to the Euro-Atlantic world, should convert its NATO contribution into a form that corresponds to its seapower character. It is often forgotten that NATO is, first and foremost, a maritime alliance based on the need for secure transit across the North Atlantic. Its front lines with Russia are not just along the eastern flank; they are as much (or more) in the North Atlantic and its peripheral waters, including the Black, Baltic, and Mediterranean seas, as well as along the undersea cables and pipelines that branch out beneath the waters surrounding the British Isles. These are points of growing vulnerability compared to the land front; if an opponent cut them, notwithstanding disruption to finance and other industries, it would be more challenging for Canada, the UK and the United States (US) to transfer military resources from North America and the British Isles to the European continent.

Proponents of ‘Global Britain’ have been derided (sometimes most sharply by advocates of a continental land focus) for pretending that British strategic policy could afford to be everything, everywhere, all at once. The observation that the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ would undermine the credibility of its commitment to field an armoured division to NATO was justified. At the same time, it had to be admitted that the British Army could no longer meet this pledge anyway because ‘Years of cuts to logistics and stockpiles, and the failure to deliver on equipment programmes, has left 3 UK Division a hollow proposition.’ The choice facing defence planners today is between expending more resources to restore a promise made to a past strategic requirement, or allowing the land commitment to wither away naturally (better yet, pass it on to better-suited allies), and investing in something more relevant for the future. 

Given the ceiling on new resources, it would be illogical for the UK to go against its maritime nature and duplicate the efforts of land power allies. Instead, HM Government should take inspiration from the US Marine Corps; last year, it decided to give up its tanks entirely as part of its adaptation to likely scenarios of combat in the 21st century. The US Marine Corps shares an expeditionary character in common with the contemporary needs of the British state. 

Britain’s primary strategic concern is the defence of the Euro-Atlantic area. But this does not equate to a UK obligation to underwrite the security of NATO with a large land force with heavy armour at its core. Other allies are better positioned — by virtue of their own national priority domains — to fulfil that mission.

As Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has explained, the tenets of the traditional British way of warfare are an orientation to expeditionary rather than continental power, gaining advantage through the indirect application of force, with and through allies and partners, and not from mass but through disproportionate effect. The punchline of Radakin’s list – ‘not shying away from our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power with global responsibilities and the sixth largest economy in the world’ – underlines the priority of the UK’s orientation to the maritime domain, which still offers the most reliable shield and medium for a relatively small island nation to maintain a nuclear deterrent with second strike credibility.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have provided the geopolitical context for the upcoming Defence Command Paper to be ruthless and bold in isolating the areas where defence has to up its game to succeed and allocating material and human resources to maintain excellent standards in priority domains. Alignment of investments with natural incentives (i.e. domain priority) is a superior principle for organising the NATO division of labour than historical attachments or acceptance of free-riding by land power allies, many of which have anyway become much more robust in their priority (land) domain than the UK could ever afford to. 

The better solution (which also supports the principle that Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security is indivisible), would be to orientate Britain’s NATO contribution onto the maritime and aerospace domains, where strategic advantage aligns with national security incentives. A strong navy might not be able to be everything, everywhere all at once, but it can be decisive where the UK needs it most.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

Embedded image credit: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2023

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