Defence dilemma: finding a role will be harder than finding the money

British and Omani Challenger tanks. Photo by UK Ministry of Defence. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Welcome to the 25 per cent increase in defence spending, announced by the Prime Minister, for whom the penny has just dropped that we live in dangerous times.

First of all, let us make some (possibly rash) assumptions.

Let us assume that the percentage increase will not be cancelled by a reduction in GDP, which would mean that the net sum of money ends up no greater than at present.

Let us also assume that it will be delivered, even though the commitment was made in the certain knowledge that delivery is a matter for the next government. (On the upside, there should be no VIP lane of Conservative donors, eager and willing to soak up and recycle public funds.)

So, what should we spend it on?

Traditionally, defence capability has been constructed to deal with a specific threat and the general consensus at present is that the greatest threat is Putin’s Russia. We have been here before. Throughout the Cold War, the United Kingdom, as part of NATO, retained four divisions, forward based in Germany, forming the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR). Royal Air Force Germany (RAF(G)) operated a significant part of its strike capability from four German airfields. We also operated government owned Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs), which were there to produce explosives and ammunition (amongst other things), with substantial spare capacity to enable surge production.

But then peace broke out, the Wall came down and we drew down our commitments in Germany. Many defence capabilities were hollowed out as there was no obvious need, and the military oriented itself towards expeditionary warfare. Ammunition production moved towards ‘Just in Time’, rather than ‘Just in Case’, the ordnance factories were sold off and in some cases are now housing estates. The wars in former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan followed with a new emphasis on counter insurgency expertise and light, mobile forces.

It now looks as though we have come full circle, with the major threat being a land war in northwest Europe, against a heavily armoured adversary, intent on invading westwards. Déjà vu all over again.

Do we simply reinvent BAOR and RAF(G)? That would certainly enable us to spend the money! But times have changed, and the first requirement would be to raise the manpower – improving recruiting and retention of personnel. I will come back to that.

The geography of Europe has changed. Whereas once the frontline was the inner German border, it now runs along the eastern edge of Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. NATO has established an ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ – essentially multinational battlegroups (of which that in Estonia is led by the UK), to provide a ‘tripwire’ presence, to demonstrate that aggression against one is aggression against all.

The relocation of the border also means that the very capable Polish army and smaller contingents from other former members of the Warsaw Pact are now integrated into NATO. At first sight, it would not seem particularly useful if we were simply to revert to the old cold war models.

Image created by Sariyr. Public domain

The reality is now that UK army numbers are relatively small – certainly useful to establish a ‘tripwire’ presence, as in Estonia, but for substantial numbers we will need, as we always did, to rely on our European allies. That will raise questions about why any British contingent, as a relatively small player, continues to need unique equipment with its own unique logistic support? To pick just one example, we plan to convert 148 Challenger 3s from existing vehicles for British tank regiments, whereas across Europe, German built, late model, Leopard 2 tanks are a de facto standard.

Yet if the UK were to adopt a German tank, it would result in the further run down of our ability to design and build heavy armoured vehicles – and just imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail!

Although numbers matter, so does a wider range of capabilities. Drones are now a pervasive feature of the battlefield in Ukraine and require some operator skill sets that have not been traditionally seen in the armed forces. To counter drones you need anti-aircraft systems, or ways to jam their command signals by electronic warfare or, the latest silver bullet, lasers. The new Space Command will also need some different kinds of skills. In short, we shall need to recruit a higher proportion of technologically qualified personnel – and retain them. That means not only paying them a competitive rate but also providing adequate housing and family support (and looking after them afterwards).

If it is unrealistic to rebuild an army to the size seen in the Cold War, would we do better to specialise? By all means, keep the army that we have, but invest in growing the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force? Traditionally, the UK was the unsinkable aircraft carrier that provided a bridgehead for re-supply of Europe from the US. A major task of the RAF was (and is) air defence of the UK, but is that defence still best conducted by manned aircraft, if attack is more likely to come from drones or missiles?

Similarly, for the Royal Navy, a key role was the protection of sea lanes, but it is not obvious that two aircraft carriers are of immediate use for that task. On balance, they may detract from investment and manning in the rest of the fleet. Would we be better off selling them to the US Marine Corps?

The big strategic question however is how we might deal with an isolationist United States. Donald Trump, and a significant part of the Republican Party seem ready to walk away from a longstanding role underpinning European security, yet much of our nuclear and intelligence capability relies on the US. Should we, therefore, be hedging our bets by forging stronger links with our European allies? If we are to spend more money on the nuclear deterrent, can we count on the US or should we cooperate more closely with France?

To ensure resilience, what are the industries that we need to protect – and by ‘we’ do we mean UK, Europe or NATO? For some time, it has been the case that very little of the defence industry is purely nationally based. But in the event of a major war, is it the heavy engineering skills that we need – or the ability to innovate with system engineering and electronics? How do we afford that ‘Just in Case’ capability and the stockpiles of munitions that have very finite shelf lives?

Finally, it could be argued that Putin’s greatest success has been to undermine western security from within, rather than attacking it militarily from without. It is a conundrum that the far right has been willing to promote Putin’s cause, that we have the City of London awash with Russian money, and we have a former US President with questions to answer about Russian involvement in his election campaigns. Perhaps we should be thinking about security as much as defence?

Sunak’s successor must do far more than just find the cash. The real question is whether we base our security on the goodwill of Uncle Sam when there are strong indications that Uncle Sam could not care less? Do we have to come to terms with the reality that we are a mid-sized European power, whose security is ultimately dependent on that of our immediate neighbours?