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UK defence faces facts, but not everyone will be happy

The ‘refreshed’ Defence Command Paper (2023 DCP) departs from the norm by disregarding the ‘what’ of defence (ships, tanks, jets etc.) to concentrate on the ‘how’ questions; specifically, how to respond to ‘a more contested and volatile world’ in order to ‘protect the nation and help it prosper.’ The scope for answering this question is narrowed by two assumptions; that decisions since 2021 remain broadly valid, and the level of available resources is unlikely to change. Even the increase to spending 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence remains an aspiration, not a given. For those who accept these assumptions, the 2023 DCP approach of looking at how to get the most out of what is available should seem reasonable.

There is an alternative view that the current situation (Russian aggression, the China challenge, American rebalancing to Asia) demands a large scale force, including a good quantity of soldiers and tanks, to secure Britain a leading role in the defence of Europe on land, as well as modernising its capabilities in the maritime and air domains, while maintaining the nuclear deterrent. As General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff (CGS), put it a year ago, ‘it would be perverse if the CGS was advocating reducing the size of the Army as a land war rages in Europe’. In this year’s speech on land warfare he added:

For UK deterrence to succeed, we need credible armed forces that are balanced across all of the domains. Those who believe that our geography allows us to minimise investment on land or that we can simply hide behind the armies of other NATO contributors are simply wrong.

This is the logic driving calls for 3% or more of GDP to be spent on defence. Those holding these opinions are unlikely to be satisfied with the 2023 DCP. 

Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed, in a briefing on the day of the DCP’s publication, that he is sticking to the decision to shrink the British Army from 82,000 to 73,000 troops by 2025. He pointed out it is no good having a lot of soldiers the country will not pay to equip: ‘If it’s going to be a battle group, are you going to buy 300 armoured vehicles or am I just going to give them a pitchfork? I mean, that’s the choice.’ 

By making that choice for quality over quantity, Wallace addresses the central challenge for the defence establishment of a relatively small island nation with a legacy of strong defence institutions and global interests, which also faces a less stable local environment: the need to prioritise and focus imposed by inflexible economic and social constraints. The answer emerges from the 2023 DCP only when it is read in context with the broader debate alongside patterns of resource allocation. It boils down to adjusting to a force design which is smaller, but (as a pithy tweet from the United Kingdom’s (UK) Strategic Command put it) ‘more ready, more lethal, and more integrated’. 

It is becoming hard to deny that one dimension of this adjustment is what an earlier commentary in these pages called a ‘domain tilt’ away from land. In an article for The Times entitled ‘We’re not hiding behind Nato allies, Ben Wallace insists’, the Defence Secretary observed ‘If you go to some of the Baltic states, it’s nearly all land, very little air and very little sea. They’re very land-focused because that’s what they’re facing, right? But we are an island and expeditionary.’ 

In addition to the scale trade-off and the domain tilt, there is a wager on the value of technology and of leveraging the wider national defence community including citizens, scientists, and industry leaders.

The domain tilt may not be a part of the official message, but reading comments like this alongside decisions on the allocation of resources for defence suggests it is more and more the real policy. This is evident in the treatment of the emblem of the heavy land-force lobby: tanks. Shortly before the release of the 2023 DCP, the degree of hollowing out in this area was revealed in an uncomfortably confrontational session in which Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of Defence Staff, faced questions on readiness from the Commons Defence Committee. Committee members, frustrated that Radakin declined to confirm the number of British Challenger 2 tanks ready to ‘fight tonight’, disclosed that their own on-site visits revealed the number was a mere 40 out of the total 227. It is now clear that 148 of these will be upgraded to Challenger 3. As for the remaining 79, one hopes they will promptly be given to Ukraine.

Ironically, the belated recognition that once again Russia has to be deterred is what forced the choice to abandon a large force on paper for one that has less mass, but is more readily usable. One problem for those advocating mass to achieve deterrence is that qualities like readiness and sustainment – critical for making deterrence credible – have also proved unaffordable for a large-scale UK force. The new approach will not be universally welcomed but it is more honest about this political fact. As a matter of priority the military needs to keep its excellent people, replenish and augment ammunition stocks, and continue to modernise. Unless it can achieve such basic ‘housekeeping’ it ought not be expected to reach for larger tasks. 

The fate of Ukraine is a reminder of the cost of failed deterrence. Yet the 2023 DCP justifies the UK trade-off on scale in part by lauding the success of a smaller but more innovative (and more internationally supported) Ukrainian force over a larger but isolated and badly organised Russian opponent. The ministerial forward prefigures what it treats as Britain’s sources of strategic advantage in the claim that now the Ukrainians ‘…are proving the way for warfare in the 2020s – whole of nation, internationally partnered, innovative, digitised and operating with tempo, precision and range.’ 

Likewise for the UK, in addition to the scale trade-off and the domain tilt, there is a wager on the value of technology and of leveraging the wider national defence community including citizens, scientists, and industry leaders. A ‘New Alliance’ relationship with industry including capability partnerships, i.e., AUKUS and the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), and arms exports is another ‘key source’ of the UK’s strategic advantage, as is bringing the force closer to the country through the reserves and the educational and research community. Outreach to that community via the Secretary of State’s Office of Net Assessment and Challenge for consultations on drafting the DCP suggests this is being taken seriously.

As for the lesson of being ‘internationally partnered’, the 2023 DCP says UK forces will be ‘allied by design, national by exception.’ When it comes to force structure, this is also a way to acknowledge that the UK does not have to have to bring everything because it can rely on allies filling critical gaps to compose a fully capable division. The commitment to NATO is geographically focused on the North Atlantic, High North and Baltic Sea region, via the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and the Northern Group, but a commitment to supporting the strengthening of NATO relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific is mentioned as well. 

NATO aside, the closest partners are identified as the United States, France, and the European allies in the JEF, but also the Atlantic-Pacific partnerships such as the Five Eyes, AUKUS and the GCAP. The G7 might have fitted the same category, given the evolution of its role over the last few years as a global framework for aligning core members with partners like South Korea, India and Australia. The inclusion of a section on economic statecraft is another indication of attempts to integrate defence planning within larger – though still loose – strategic alliances. 

For all its good points, the 2023 DCP’s reader cannot shake the suspicion of a touch of sleight of hand in the presentation of its logic. All credit to Ukraine and the timeless value of studying developments in warfare, but when the lessons identified just happen to justify a destination that seems determined by other factors, it can feel like making a virtue of a necessity. The suggestion that ‘mass’ can be achieved by innovative systems and cunning, for instance, is likely to be dismissed as smoke and mirrors.

While there is less obscuring business jargon than often appears in such policy documents, this DCP would still have benefited from a harsher edit. Descriptions in some areas like the Global Response Force are jarringly short on detail. But at the higher level it gets across a sense of realism and clear direction that could go a long way to getting past the delusions and repairing the vulnerabilities that were allowed to accumulate for far too long. That is an achievement, but with the long term trends in view, it can only be seen as a kind of ‘phase one’ on the way to a defence concept fit to match the daunting period ahead.

According to the 2023 DCP ‘China poses an enduring and epoch-defining global challenge to British interests – including Defence interests – through its increasingly assertive and coercive behaviour as it seeks to rewrite the international order that has provided stability and prosperity for generations.’ Under the AUKUS arrangements, the Royal Navy will soon add nuclear powered attack submarines to its forces deployed in the Indo-Pacific. Assuming the implications of the 2023 ‘good housekeeping’ DCP will have been digested by then, its successor will need to move on to even tougher questions, such as ‘how does the UK intend to deter China?’

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.

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