As the Secretary of State for Defence outlined some of the main principles of the much-anticipated UK 2021 Defence Review on Monday 22nd March – entitled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ – one of the most substantial takeaways from Ben Wallace’s speech was the clear direction that the UK government intends to take in terms of heavily augmenting and modernizing technological investments over classic hard power and troop size.
According to the Defence Review, £23 billion has been set aside for funding in various technological areas such as investing in a new National Cyber Force, Autonomous weapons Systems (AWS), and Space Capabilities. Directed in part by the Defence Science and Technology Strategy 2020, the UK government will contribute at least £6.6 billion towards Research and Development activities over the next four years. This increased spending on technological platforms and innovation comes at the expense of the UK’s troop size, which will see a reduction of the UK’s Full Time Trade Trained strength from 76, 000 to 72, 500 by 2025.
Ben Wallace has advanced the Defence Review as one that is both realistic and an ‘honest assessment’ of the current state of the UK Armed Forces. The proposed changes that the document outlines are thus supposedly based on practical and achievable directives that provides the UK government with ‘credible ambitions’.
Although the Defence Review is a welcome and necessary revival for the UK’s Armed forces, two points, however, could be raised to question the practicality of the Review itself. The first is that which concerns the point surrounding the UK’s shift in defense posture to a more ‘active and present’ global stance. This repositioning occurs in light of how the warfighting landscape has evolved in recent years, whereby distinct periods of war and peace have been replaced by blurred conflict lines, harder to distinguish adversaries and a higher degree of low intensity warfare.
One of the ways in which the UK seeks to achieve this includes adopting a more engaging and assertive presence in order to pre-empt threats and strengthen allies and partnerships. This can be seen more practically through the establishment of the new ‘Ranger Regiment’ that will globally undertake expeditionary tasks in high-threat and exceptionally complex environments, as well as a new Security Force Assistance Brigade to assist partner nations with capacity building and conflict deterrence.
Victoria Bosomworth, Associate Aerospace and Defense Analyst at GlobalData comments: “In a move that is expected to witness a shift in strategy from the use of the military ‘as a last resort’, this tactic is set to assist in dealing with hybrid threats that operate both below and above the armed conflict threshold. The question remains, however, is how exactly the UK manages to achieve such a tall order and adopt the proactive and more aggressive stance it desires while simultaneously decreasing the number of already slimmed-down battle-ready troops and making cuts to aircrafts, tanks, minehunters and other conventional equipment.
“While some may argue that platforms such as the next-generation Future Combat Air System, use of Protector Drones and development of the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) would act as a force multiplier in terms of the UK’s presence, limiting boots on the ground could potentially be detrimental in situations operating below the threshold of armed conflict. This is particularly concerning given that Russia has been named as a primary threat in the Review, a country which specializes in the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ or ‘limited action strategy’. While undoubtedly technological modernization is required to match the growing sophistication of next-generation platforms fielded by adversaries, further decreasing troop size and conventional force when realistically the number of operational battle-ready soldiers has been suggested to be far less, needs to be considered carefully particularly in a post-Brexit environment.”
The second point that was initially raised in response to Ben Wallace’s speech was made by John Healey, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, who pointed out the glaring omission of any mention of the COVID-19 threat. He argued that other countries have been much further ahead in terms of their training and planning regarding civil-military threats, that which the latest Defence Review seems to neglect.
Bosomworth continues: “COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented threat to the UK that has seen over 120 000 deaths as of March 2021, numerous lockdowns and severe economic consequences. The ongoing pandemic has required significant input from the military who have played an active role in the UK’s COVID-19 response in terms of logistics, testing, hospital support, and the nationwide vaccination effort. Aside from highlighting the UK Defence’s contribution to the national COVID-19 response, there is little in the review to suggest a strategy going forward to deal with potential future pandemics, aside from a vague commitment to strengthening capabilities to counter CBRN threats.”
While the Defense Review itself is well positioned as a realistic and encouragingly forward-thinking renewal of Britain’s Armed Forces, the reduction in troops and conventional force as well as the failure to acknowledge and plan for potential threats from a future global pandemic may prove detrimental to the very assertive stance that it sets out to achieve.