As the next Defence Command Paper approaches, the Council on Geostrategy asks eight strategic experts what it should contain and the main areas it should focus on.
Ed Arnold, Royal United Services Institute
Reassure allies and remind adversaries of Britain’s strengths
In times of war, defence policy provides the ultimate reassurance. In this context, the next Defence Command Paper needs to go much further than the Integrated Review ‘refresh’ (IRR) and provide reassurance to allies and partners on the United Kingdom’s (UK) defence contribution to its primary strategic arenas of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. It must also send a strong signal to potential adversaries of the strength of the British Armed Forces, following accusations that they have been hollowed out. Credibility matters in the eyes of allies and adversaries alike.
For the primary theatre of the Euro-Atlantic, three areas are particularly important from an allied perspective. First, how long will it take for Britain to scale its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) battlegroup in Estonia to a brigade, and what would that brigade look like? Second, when will a UK sovereign and modernised warfighting division be ready to not only deploy, but to fight, in support of NATO allies in the Euro-Atlantic – a target that Britain consistently asks to be measured against but with the timescales always shifting into the future. And finally, what will the additional £6 billion, announced in the budget after the IRR, be allocated to?
James Black and Ruth Harris, RAND Europe
Focus on areas of asymmetric strength
As the next Defence Command Paper approaches, British defence faces an inflection point. The IRR – hastened by Russia’s war against Ukraine, economic crisis, and tensions with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – speaks to the mounting external pressures on the Ministry of Defence. Growing ‘demand’ is exacerbated by complex and long standing issues with ‘supply’. These include the cumulative impact of years of cuts in both the military and industrial base; entrenched barriers to innovation and rapid acquisition; and ongoing but incomplete reforms to bring a defence enterprise designed for the industrial era into the information age.
To square this circle, defence should prioritise – ruthlessly now – and be clear-eyed about the trade-offs and risks. Here, the IRR offers welcome recognition of the need to focus on areas of asymmetric strength, rather than trying to be everything, everywhere, all at once. The Defence Command Paper ought to translate this into hard-nosed choices to balance investment – and be resolute in the face of backlash.
This means clarifying the ‘unique value proposition’ of UK defence. What future role will it play in state power? Where should defence lead and others do more, e.g., to address the urgent need to better protect the UK and bolster national resilience? How can the relationship with industry and wider society be revitalised, even mobilising both onto a war footing? And how to maximise the UK’s contributions to groupings such as NATO, the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and AUKUS so that it can best harness their benefits? Crucially, to resource all of this, what will defence no longer be or do?
Painful, yes – but the Ministry of Defence should grasp the nettle to keep pace with a fast-changing strategic environment and the myriad complex threats facing the UK.
Chris Brannigan, Council on Geostrategy
Reinvigorate Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear expertise
The reinvigoration of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) expertise at all levels of the defence establishment should be central to the next Defence Command Paper. This extraordinarily important defence task has been shuffled between services, scaled up and down the priority list and in recent times been treated as a niche capability. In the four main pillars, the ‘ways’, set out in the IRR, CBRN expertise and practice are easily identifiable in supporting the core strands of each. Whilst the reinvestment in the UK’s defence nuclear enterprise is welcome, the proportionate attention and resourcing of Britain’s chemical, biological and radiological components is less evident.
The upcoming Biological Security Strategy provides some reassurance of attention, yet whilst the focus is concentrated on our leading science and technology advancement in Artificial Intelligence, semiconductors, quantum technologies and future telecommunications, it is in the area of engineering biology that the UK’s globally significant life sciences sector has a critical role in establishing defence as an international lead. In past conflict, including the decades long Cold War, Britain’s CBRN wide and frequently practiced expertise was a vitally essential piece of our deterrent portfolio. It requires action, clarity and focus.
John Hemmings, Council on Geostrategy and Rory Copinger-Symes (Retd.), former British Liaison to INDOPACOM
Prioritise the Euro-Atlantic without neglecting the Indo-Pacific
The next Defence Command Paper must prioritise the Euro-Atlantic NATO area of responsibility, while still acknowledging and protecting the Indo-Pacific sea lanes vitally important to the prosperity and security of Europe. Therefore, the UK’s defence posture must reckon with an immediate theatre-wide land threat in Russia, and a long-term naval threat in the PRC, a great power across most metrics.
The British Ministry of Defense’s greatest gift to the Indo-Pacific is that of integration. Already highly integrated with US forces and intelligence through NATO and the Five Eyes, the UK has reach and relationships throughout the region. On the heels of the highly integrated Carrier Strike Group 2021 and the Indo-Pacific deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, France and Britain have already agreed a plan to coordinate future carrier group deployments to the region. Such coordination could be a harbinger for integration of French, Dutch, and other European maritime forces into an Indo-Pacific squadron.
The AUKUS agreement also provides a framework for future Royal Navy submarine deployments to the Indo-Pacific, including the establishment of a trilateral submarine task force. Such forces might also combine with those of Japan, with whom the UK has a growing security relationship and a trilateral maritime agreement (including the United States (US)). Finally, Britain could replicate its expeditionary forces model (i.e. with France and Northern Europe) across the Indo-Pacific, allowing partner nations to come together and coordinate.
James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy
Boost the nation’s strategic advantage: strengthen the Royal Navy
Like the Integrated Review, the IRR seeks to secure national strategic advantage. In no other space has Britain secured strategic advantage so effectively than the sea. It protects the British Isles from hostile forces by forming a natural moat. Equally, by way of history or design, the UK has sovereign territories or naval facilities adjacent to many of the world’s ‘strategic chokepoints’, including the Northern Gap, the Suez Canal, and the straits of Hormuz, Magellan and Malacca.
By funding a heavy navy, the UK has worked in symbiosis with its geography. Naval power is also highly manoeuvrable and can be directed against distant opponents; it is a diplomatic as well as military instrument.
The one thing Britain should never relinquish is its ability to deny others access to the sea. Geopolitics is intensifying. Though Russia has suffered significant setbacks in Ukraine, these have primarily affected the Russian Army, not the Russian Navy. Equally, the PRC is modernising and enlarging the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to say nothing of the Chinese maritime militia. The PLAN has a massive naval buildup programme underway; every year, it completes a fleet of new submarines, carriers, destroyers, frigates and auxiliary vessels.
The next Defence Command Paper should focus on further developing British naval power, particularly nuclear-powered attack submarines armed with long-throw cruise missiles. The UK should continue to maximise its strategic advantage by working with its maritime geography.
Emma Salisbury, University of London
NATO is the key
While the world has changed a great deal since the last Defence Command Paper and Integrated Review, the most consequential event in that period has been Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. The UK must continue to stand with its NATO allies and partner nations to support Ukraine – not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because Russia would be unlikely to stop if it seized control of Ukraine.
The IRR recognises the growing threat from Russia, and the importance of NATO in confronting it. Given the US’ logical focus on the competition with the PRC, the European members of the alliance will need to be ready to hold the fort against Russia should tensions in the Indo-Pacific escalate into conflict. The Defence Command Paper will be an important step in fleshing out what this means for the British Armed Forces.
The paper should contain detailed commitments on how Britain will work even more closely with its NATO allies – on burden-sharing, interoperability, common problem-solving, and continually tighter links between national forces – and recognise the vital need to ensure the smooth accession of Sweden and Finland.
The UK has a strong and valuable position at the heart of NATO. The Defence Command Paper should ensure this is reinforced.
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