Is there a Case For UK Defence Cuts?

Is There A Case for Defence Cuts?

There are multiple media reports this weekend talking about what may, or may not, emerge in the Integrated Review (IR), due to be published on 15 March. The general view seems to be that cuts lie ahead for the armed forces, along with modernisation.

Naturally this has caused concerns in many areas, people do not instinctively like defence cuts, or want to see military equipment taken out of service ahead of its planned lifespan. But right now though, we don’t know what will, or will not, happen as part of the IR. Anything circulating is a leak or outright speculation or some valiant last ditch effort to protect vested interests.

It is certain that there will be changes to equipment levels, and it seems likely that some kit will be taken out of service. But at the risk of stating the obvious, nothing is certain until it is officially announced — prior to this point it is all speculation, guesses and rumours.

The bigger question that needs to be asked, and which perhaps people focus less on is ‘what is the benefit of these cuts and why do them’? In other words, rather than focus on the short term picture of equipment leaving service, what is the longer term goal and prize of making significant structural changes to the armed forces?

The point of an exercise like the Integrated Review is to understand how the world has changed, and how the UK needs to take steps to remain safe and secure. It is clear that over the last few years we have seen an acceleration of various themes, including significant advances in cyber warfare, the growth of AI, data and emerging technology as a way of fundamentally changing our lives.

We’ve also seen various changes to the global order, with some powers rising, others falling and a variety of global issues and disputes continuing. Throughout it all we’ve seen an increase in the importance of international engagement, diplomatic alliance building and working jointly to resolve issues. Looking ahead the next 10 years are likely to continue to exacerbate this change, particularly in the field of military operations.

The challenge when working out how to respond to these threats is judging the most likely force structure needed to counter them. Historically, like most countries, the UK has relied on ‘heavy’ equipment like tanks, fighter jets and major warships. This was the environment where most operations occurred, and where it was possible to engage with and defeat your enemy.

But in the last 20 years, this dominance has been challenged by the growth of areas like cyber, enabling states to carry out espionage and offensive cyber operations against others, or through the increased use of space and the information domain to try to conduct operations. Increasingly we see operations short of war occurring that require a far lower cost of entry than maintaining an armoured division or carrier group, and which can be devastatingly effective if successful.

This trend is likely to accelerate in the years to come, seeing new technology emerge that could fundamentally change how military operations are conducted enter service. The prize on offer is better capability that can operate more effectively than previous generations of equipment and do things previously not thought possible.

This is a prize worth trying to secure — but it takes time, money and effort to deliver this and that isn’t always easy to do within the confines of the current force structure. For example, running equipment on means paying support costs, assigning personnel, and continuing to spend money on something that may be increasingly less relevant.

In those circumstances, a decision to disinvest now, stepping back from keeping a legacy unit going frees up cash, people and resources that can instead be assigned to helping bring new equipment into service.

The best way to look at these decisions is to view them through the prism of a 10–15 year lifespan. While it may sound depressing now to hear that elderly equipment may leave service a little sooner than planned, it is also important to look more long term. We are on the verge of significant change, and we can either ride this through and gain a significant qualitative edge on our peers, and continue to bring real leverage to our partners and friends, or we can choose to not embrace this, and end up with increasingly less relevant equipment and reduced influence.

Over the next decade or so, as new equipment emerges, and new ways of operating, the UK has a chance to take a genuine lead in taking this forward. This will reinforce the nation as a leading science power, able to embrace new technology and find ways to use it on military operations. From that perspective, a period of short term reductions, that give the headroom and freedom to create the longer term conditions for success is essential.

This fits into a wider challenge of trying to balance off the relative importance of the military in our future national security space. While many people may respond to the news that (as seems likely) the British Army will be reduced with a ‘well we can’t defend ourselves and technically as its under 100k strong we no longer have an army anymore’ , or other such nonsense, the better question is perhaps ‘what threats are emerging that the Army cannot help us defend against’?

In those circumstances we see that there is a wide range of changing threats, that sit outside the traditional area of military operations — for example the cyber domain. In those circumstances, there is a very strong argument for the idea of reducing spending on certain niche military capabilities that are less likely to be used, in order to bolster spending on countering threats that could be used against UK citizens daily.

What we need to understand is as the threat changes, where do the spending priorities lie, and are the armed forces as important as they used to be to solve this? A good reason for doing the Integrated Review is to take stock on these threats, and work out who is best placed to fix them — in many cases small investments in law enforcement, cyber capability, intelligence services and so on could have a much bigger impact on long term national security than continuing one or two major equipment projects.

The challenge too is to work out what role internationally the armed forces play — for decades the assumption has been that the British armed forces will operate in coalition with others, and provide a leading role inside that coalition. The goal has essentially been to be a ‘day one partner of choice’ — in other words the UK military contribution is able to take part on the first day of any high intensity conflict alongside the US and other peers, as a fully integrated partner, and not held back as a possible liability.

To keep this coveted position means investing in technology now to ensure that when it hits widespread use, the UK is ahead of the game and able to operate with the US and other partners. A failure to invest, and a failure to keep up means ceding this position and losing influence — to that end cutting older capabilities now to ensure that the UK remains fit to fight makes a lot of sense.

It also bolsters credibility on a wider diplomatic scale — its much easier to build an alliance with nations if you offer to turn up with relevant equipment able to match the likely threat and also enhance the capabilities of the force. This sits far more comfortably with other nations than the offer of older equipment less able to deploy, less able to fight and survive and which in turn puts their own assets and troops at risk. To that end, investing in future technology makes a great deal of sense to keep the military able to enhance our diplomatic leverage.

There will be dismay at the loss of capabilities in the IR — it is always sad to see equipment taken out of service. But it is worth remembering that whatever package is agreed, is agreed for good reasons. Decisions will be taken based on an understanding not just of the costs of the force now, but also in the future, and what material state assets are in, and what likely further costs are coming up.

Decisions to not replace other capabilities may be taken due to analysis on what missions are likely to no longer be required, or where reduced troop levels mean other requirements are reduced. The whole point is that these packages are drawn up using a lot of analysis and effort to be as coherent as possible and ensure that the future military structures make sense for the tasks that the nation requires of it.

A final thought is that for all the talk of reductions, there are almost certainly going to be enhancements or changes too that ensure capabilities are met in different ways. It would be unwise to assume that just because something is leaving service means that the UK will no longer do something, it could just be that it will be done differently in future.

The future nature of conflict will be very different, and the UK (like all nations) has to make difficult decisions about how it wants to operate and fight. It faces a binary choice — either invest in new technology at the expense of short term cuts, and remain a leading global military power, or alternatively retain similar force structures at the expense of modernisation and find itself left behind by others and likely outmatched on the battlefield.

There is without doubt a case for intelligent defence cuts, provided they are done in a coherent and structured way. The prize is enormous but costly, but it is a price worth paying if the UK is serious about remaining a top tier military power.

Originally Posted at



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