“Defence of the Realm is the First Duty of Government” This is the acknowledged purpose of all United Kingdom (UK) governments. But The Government has failed to articulate a consistent “GRAND STRATEGY” – The CRUCIAL MISSING LINK – Thus putting the Defence of the realm at real risk. The overwhelming majority of the United Kingdom’s population supports a fundamental belief in democracy that allows freedom of speech for all under the rule of law. A “Grand Strategy” will reflect these values and provide the “head-mark” for realistic policies.
Since February 2022 these values, the resolve of NATO and the UN and the veracity of HMG have been sorely tested by the uneven response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continuing Chinese threats in the East. The question of where UK stands Strategically and whether the Government and Opposition have a meeting of minds on this issue is moot. Sadly this lack of Strategic coherence has been the case since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – and the time for a review of UK Nuclear/Conventional Strategy is NOW!
No Strategy – Incoherent Equipment – Too Few People
No grand strategy
In the absence of any Grand Strategy to tell the public where and how the United Kingdom (UK) can prosper, defend her interests and contribute to international affairs, lack of integration has made it impossible for individual ministries to set out coherent plans/policies that give confidence that the government has a plan, is “doing the right thing”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) whose role should be to ensure the best line up of equipment and personnel to ensure that the nation is free to trade and be defended against direct threats. Instead the MOD is secretive and has not changed structures and cultures that were appropriate in the middle of last century.
In these days of austerity, these roles can only be carried out through alliances and the proper integration of our necessarily limited resources with allies. The Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA) – secret since SDSR 2015 - purport to define how this is to be achieved. However, are these secret assumptions matched by existing and planned resources to enable us to counter the threats facing UK? These concepts are complex and often interlinked but, for the armed forces, require a greater focus on Hard Power in support of Soft Power. Disastrously, the latter has become all too ready to supplant the former in the minds of politicians and the higher reaches of the Defence Staff.
Since the end of the “Cold War”, funding of the armed forces has been pillaged in an asymmetric way to allow public money to be spent on politically high profile departments, not least an un-reformed NHS. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan introduced an aberration in defence strategy which swung the emphasis away from an historic maritime strategy to that of a continental one which has never been either credible or successful for the United Kingdom. Strikingly, with more being spent on debt reduction each year than defence the government still affords large sums to be spent on aid to countries that support big defence and space programmes.
To manage all three services within a reducing budget over some decades, the operational effectiveness of the Royal Navy (RN), the Royal Air Force (RAF) and British Army have suffered dramatically.
The Royal Navy has come through a period of ‘home waters basing’ and is now undertaking more overseas deployments that are nearer to where HMG have decided influence is needed. Alas the fleet ORBAT is too small in all areas of warfare and liable to breakdown with the consequent reorganisation and negative affect on seafarers.
With over 90% of energy and raw materials imported by sea, the means of ensuring free trade through sea control should be the vital element in our defence structure. That successive governments have neglected to maintain the UK’s capability in this regard can be seen in the severely reduced operational effectiveness of our ships both in their equipment fits and, most importantly, their numbers. Forsaking true “carrier strike” and allowing surface escorts and submarine numbers to reduce dramatically (from a safe 47, 35+12 in 1998 to a notional 26,19+6 today) means that vital tasks must be removed or gapped. All three services are now stretched to the limit and this means that morale and the retention of key people are suffering badly.
The net effect of Future Force 2025 (FF2025) on the RAF is to emasculate its ability to deploy fast jets overseas in the air defence, interdiction and ground support roles and to reduce FF2025 reaction times and reach other than in small unit formation. The buy of 9 Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft is inadequate as is the purchase of only 3 AEW replacements for 6 AWACS which have already been retired. From an RAF perspective FF2025 only allows government expeditionary aspirations to be achieved in very limited circumstances. Which is a tight call on RAF resources if cover for NATO and any Carrier deployments in support of UK's role East of Suez are to be operated simultaneously.
With the total number of combat ready assets and personnel available to it the RAF will be hard pushed to deploy 2 dozen fast jets. And/or enough supporting air transport with air to air refuelling support to move a single army brigade with all its impedimenta overseas on a medium intensity war fighting operation.
Too few people
Which brings us to the shape and size of the Army post Afghanistan.
For the British Army the defence planning assumptions are a major headache. At 72,000 (even with 30,000 reserves) they are too small to be able to maintain standing commitments and to field much more than a brigade on an enduring war fighting or counter-insurgency operation whilst meeting the Chief of the General Staff’s ‘harmony guidelines’. Conversely, the army's heavier AFVs will be too large to be safely transported, protected and sustained on non-permissive expeditionary operations by the RAF., they will need to deploy by road/rail/sea.
Therefore, this constitutes a significant flaw in the DPA in that should a multi- brigade sized operation be initiated it could only happen at the expense of ongoing operation and the time frame to assemble, train and deploy could take up to 6 months for the MBT and AFV forces and their sustainment chain.
The Army’s role seems to be caught between two schools of thought: as a hard power nucleus around which to defend national security and to build a greater force in times of national emergency or as an adjunct to British Soft Power and conflict prevention mainly in response to tasking by the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office. However, expeditionary warfare is complex and resource intensive. It requires all UK forces to be trained and ready to operate in unfamiliar environments often from bare base facilities against a foe that is on home ground. Therefore, the force protection and enablers required must not only be available at the highest readiness and in sufficient numbers and quality to ensure success at a distance from the home base but, supported and defended along the lines of communication.
The war in Ukraine is a warning for HMG that an absolute essential defence enhancement must be a viable integrated anti-missile AD system with hypersonic missile defence at its heart.
On a continuity of service note. That the Armed Forces generally retire at 55 with a pension after 30 years training and expertise is surprising to other professions. E.G. CDS is 57 while many people at the pinnacle of the professions outside the MOD can be at least 19 years older.
This highlights the incoherence in a national security strategy that speaks of a UK world wide role without clearly defining through an articulated strategic narrative how, where, why and when this is to exercised. Not least in a nuclear deterrence context which has traditionally been a mix of nuclear weapons for last resort and coherent and capable conventional forces that extend the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
DefenceSynergia formed to research and address these deficiencies directly with our elected representatives, and a public debate about structures, terms of service and an honest examination about capability and resilience is well overdue.
Are our Taxes currently providing the best defence for the
How can we know when the DPA is secret and HMG will not articulate its Strategic Intent?