How will the developments outlined in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, presented on 16 March 2021, and the Defence Command Paper published on 22 March affect the UK’s military presence and level of activity in the north-eastern corner of Europe and specifically in Estonia?
The announced investment programmes that will see many capable platforms such as the Eurofighter Typhoon modernised and the acquisition of additional frigates and F-35 multirole combat aircraft support a narrative that Britain’s armed forces will become more capable than ever.
In his foreword to the defence command paper, defence secretary Ben Wallace noted that “previous reviews have been over-ambitious and under-funded, leaving forces that were overstretched and under-equipped”. That is indeed clear and any government that inherits such forces and decides to address the problem faces the risk of being accused of doing too little too late.
The UK has global interests and ambitions, but the main question is whether London can mobilise the necessary resources to turn words into action. As a US defence-policy official stated a couple of years ago at a meeting of NATO defence policy directors: “two percent of GDP will not be enough for nations with global aspirations”. This level of defence spending will inevitably require any investments to be made at the expense of other important capabilities that will have to be sacrificed.
In practical terms, investments in cyberspace, emerging technologies, data, space and nuclear will have to be funded through cuts in more traditional capabilities, including land forces and, more specifically, the elements that represent heavy forces: main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. The number of tanks will decrease significantly and all Warrior infantry fighting vehicles appear to be phased out without being replaced by modern equivalents.
The then UK prime minister was among the heads of state and government who committed themselves at the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to deliver “heavier and more high-end forces and capabilities, as well as more forces at higher readiness”. This should be read as meaning NATO Allies need to retain the expeditionary capabilities that were required to fight the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh while also developing forces and capabilities required to deter and, if necessary, defend against Russian aggression. In case Russia seizes parts of the Baltic states and/or Poland, NATO should possess the necessary conventional capabilities to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states.
As a military alliance, NATO is dominated by the US and it is therefore a must that the European Allies make an effort to improve burden sharing. Yes, US forces and capabilities would be vital in any collective defence scenario affecting Europe. Cutting British armoured formations needed for collective defence will not improve optics vis-à-vis the US and raises the question among front-line states whether the UK will be more capable of reinforcing them or, if necessary, engaging in a high-intensity conventional conflict to defeat Russian occupying forces.
Better Quality Means Capable Forces
If one cannot afford to fill hollow structures with trained personnel and modern equipment, axing them and focusing available resources on increasing the quality, including readiness, of the remaining forces is the only way forward. Thus, the decisions appear to make sense given the resources allocated. However, the ambitious narrative of a Global Britain does not seem to be backed with the necessary resources and therefore risks diluting the UK’s contribution to the security of its geographically closer NATO Allies and European partners.
Today’s security environment does not necessarily imply that more forces are needed, but they should be more capable. Increasing quality while at the same time reducing quantity does not make the UK armed forces more capable or better suited to face future threats.
Retiring the Tranche 1 Typhoons by 2025 without committing to replace them on a one-to-one ratio suggests that the number of fighter aircraft may decrease in the future. This may eventually reduce the UK’s ability to contribute to the Baltic Air Policing mission and would send unfortunate signals to Moscow.
On the other hand, a deployable medium-range ground-based air-defence capability would, once operational, without doubt be useful to support the eFP battlegroup.
The decision to increase the cap on UK nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 has both positive and negative consequences. The positive side is that it signals to both allies and adversaries that the UK will retain and develop its nuclear deterrent. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, it is a healthy and useful reminder to Europeans that we cannot take our security for granted and that deterrence is vital.
The backside of increasing the number of nuclear warheads is the alternative cost of the conventional capabilities that, as a consequence, are now deemed unaffordable. It appears that the approach of the UK government has been to spend more resources on operating below the threshold of open conflict and on nuclear capabilities than on the (land) forces needed to prevail in a high-end conventional conflict. The question is how successful this approach will be vis-à-vis Moscow, which in the past has demonstrated a high degree of risk-taking.
The integrated review should be seen against the background of the UK having recently left the EU and “blessed with a global network of friends and partners, and with the opportunity to forge new and deeper relationships”, to quote prime minister Johnson’s foreword to the document. Witnessing how the UK is about to replace the EU with a more global perspective, and especially the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, is not necessarily reassuring for the Baltic states.
From a Baltic perspective one would have wished for more focus on the security and defence of Europe and more emphasis on forces of sufficient quality and quantity to contribute to collective defence operations there. Given London’s current willingness to resource national defence, the defence command paper and the investments it outlines are a small step towards a more modern force. Now the question is whether this government will manage to actually implement the decisions and launch the programmes, as promised.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).