The Disintegrating Review: where next for the UK?
The ‘Options for Change’ defence white paper of 1990 was designed to restructure the UK armed forces following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. This restructuring provided an opportunity for the UK and other Western governments to reap a peace dividend by turning ‘swords into ploughshares’ with defence spending cuts.
That real-term decline in defence spending has continued to this day in tandem with military capability.
Although the UK government has briefed that defence spending has gone up over the last five years, this increase has been swallowed by adding elements from the security and intelligence agencies and lumping them together with conventional defence spending as well as adding ‘defence inflation’ into the mix.
The road over the past 30 years has been marked with some major potholes, starting in Basra, passing through Helmand and culminating in Kabul. The former commander of Task Force Helmand, Brig Ed Butler, told the BBC in 2014 that the British Army was ‘under-prepared, under-resourced and most importantly, we did not have a clear and achievable strategy’ for deployment to Afghanistan.
This operational level failure had consequences for international relations. ‘I think the US has a better appreciation after the war in Afghanistan of the limits of British military power,’ said Bruce Riedel, an ex-advisor to former US President Barack Obama. ‘The idea of the UK having a global role really will have come to an end.’
Riedel’s comments paint an embarrassing picture of the UK’s eroded military capabilities.
In his foreword to the UK’s most recent Integrated Review (IR), published in March 2021, UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said that ‘the heart of this Defence Command Paper [is] a mission to seek out and understand future threats, and to invest in the capabilities to defeat them’.
Wallace rightly pointed out that there is a balance between ‘previously battle-winning but now outdated capabilities’ and ‘new technologies’. As a former infantry officer, Wallace knows that any combat appreciation starts with a threat assessment and he made the point that current and future threats were assessed, leading to a decision as to ‘which equipment and what resources are required to field them.’
The IR was published almost 12 months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 but although the UK had recognised Russia as a threat, the latter’s rather disjointed conduct of the war in Ukraine has surely presented some lessons to be learned and altered the MoD’s threat picture, the point being that threats continue to evolve and morph that force us into new ways of conducting operations.
Have the UK’s armed forces become so small that the options for mass and flexibility have been lost? In other words, resources have become so diminished that the armed forces simply do not have the bandwidth to respond to multiple types of threat.
British Army soldiers on a NATO exercise in Estonia. (Photo: NATO)
Despite the positive words contained in the ‘Defence Command Paper’ and its associated ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age and Defence’ and ‘Defence Security Industrial Strategy’ documents, reality tells a different story.
Published on 2 September, the ‘Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics’ (QSPS) from 1 April 2022 show some worrying trends. Firstly, the total number of UK armed forces’ service personnel has fallen by 1.3% since 1 April 2021, a trend that is likely to continue as 17.8% fewer people joined the regular armed forces compared to the previous year.
The reserves fare no better with 38.3% leaving compared to the previous 12 months and a 3.7% decline in recruitment.
The QSPS defines UK service personnel as all UK regular personnel, Gurkha troops, reserves and other personnel including the Military Provost Guard Service (MPGS) force.
As of 1 April 2022, there were 196,240 personnel, but the figure is inflated by the inclusion of non-operational units such as MPGS – numbering around 3,000 — and personnel that have only undertaken Phase One basic military training.
This sleight of hand when it comes to the MoD engaging with the public, and indeed the press, is now commonplace. For example, the RAF claims nine frontline Typhoon squadrons but one is the Operational Conversion Unit, another a Test & Evaluation squadron and a third is the joint UK/Qatar Emirati Air Force squadron.
With a fleet of 116 Typhoon FGR4 aircraft, that provides each squadron with nearly 13 aircraft. Why then, with only nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft, does it take two squadrons, numbers 120 and 201, to operate them? Why, in Cyprus, are the four Griffin helicopters operated by 84 Squadron, when historically, four aircraft are normally deployed as a flight?
Another indicator of the condition of the UK armed forces is the recent coverage of the RAF’s manipulation of its recruitment process to reach self-imposed diversity and inclusion goals for ethnic minorities and women, as reflected in its Project ASTRA initiative. This is set against the fact that it can take up to seven years to qualify a fast jet pilot to fly a frontline combat aircraft, and the travails surrounding the RAF’s Red Arrows display team.
Add to this the problem that HMS Prince of Wales, one of two RN aircraft carriers, had to return to port following engineering problems shortly after leaving Portsmouth for deployment to the US, and the ongoing failures with the British Army’s Ajax armoured combat vehicle in meeting design requirements, and the UK’s once famous and rightly cherished position as a premier warfighting nation has all but disappeared.
The problems surrounding the procurement of military equipment in the UK are not new, of course. In November 2021, to somewhat less of a fanfare than the launch of the ‘Integrated Defence and Security Review’, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts published its ‘Improving the Performance of Major Defence Equipment Contracts’ report.
The summary stated that ‘there have been numerous reviews of defence procurement over the past 35 years, which have provided the Department [the MoD] with opportunities to take stock and learn from experience. We are therefore extremely disappointed and frustrated by the continued poor track record of the Department and its suppliers—including significant net delays of 21 years across the programmes most recently examined by the National Audit Office—and by wastage of taxpayers’ money running into the billions’.
Pulling no punches, the report added that the MoD’s ‘system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money’. Perhaps worse still, the Committee accused the MoD of a lack of transparency and an ‘inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions’ and a failure ‘to learn from its mistakes’.
It will be interesting to follow the procurement process for the RAF’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH). With the starting pistol fired in May 2022 with the release of the RfI, this relatively simple procurement of up to 44 ‘off-the-shelf’ aircraft should be plain sailing.
In terms of training the situation is little better with programmes such as Gladiator, Project Vulcan and the Collective Training Transformation Programme also behind schedule. It’s easy to blame industry but the MoD is showing a lack of leadership, management and knowledge when it comes to procurement. Radical change is required.
The modern world is certainly complex and teeming with diverse and manifold threats as the ‘Integrated Defence and Security Review’ correctly highlighted, but by focusing on the exotic, the UK is failing to address the high-intensity kinetic operations such as those that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are taking place today in Ukraine.
Launched in August 2021, the MoD’s ‘Integrated Operating Concept’ highlights ‘sunrise’ capabilities such as AI, cyber, hypersonics, space, information warfare and UAVs before stating that its ‘sunset’ capabilities ‘could be used for a while in the emerging operating environment but will increasingly become too vulnerable or redundant in the Information Age’.
In essence, the UK is arguing that innovative technologies are more effective than pure numbers when it comes to defeating an enemy.
That assumption is a big one to bet the farm on. Bearing in mind the UK’s poor performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MoD’s inability to manage a procurement system and the RAF’s lack of leadership when it comes to training shortfalls, placing a hold on recruiting white males and disciplinary issues with the Red Arrows, the UK’s armed forces will continue to suffer recruitment and retention issues.
Perhaps the issue of the UK’s defence posture is exacerbated by short termism whereby the country’s outlook is limited by the five year parliamentary cycle? Over the past 18 years, the UK has had 10 Secretaries of State for Defence and six Prime Ministers. With each new leader comes a change in policy and strategic goals.
Forget defence, just consider the diametrically opposed views of Sunak and Truss over finance during the Conservative party’s recent leadership debates.
In defence, policies and plans are changed on a whim and this has serious consequences when it comes to planning force structures, procurement and training cycles.
These changes are apparent in the various Defence White Papers that have been published over the years, particularly ‘Options For Change’, SDSR 2010, SDSR 2015 and the current ‘Defence Command Paper’.
The UK still needs a long-term vision of its role in the world and its defence posture.
More from UK Integrated Review: still on the right path?
What do US policymakers make of UK strategic thinking in the wake of the Integrated Review, and how could subsequent events affect the transatlantic defence relationship?
The UK government appears determined to double defence spending by 2030, but it cannot simply wish away the sizeable economic obstacles in the way.
Lessons learned from the war in Ukraine have been putting in check decisions taken under Integrated Review.
While the Integrated Review was broadly correct in some of its assumptions, events in Ukraine have challenged the thinking behind cuts to UK capability.
The UK Integrated Review outlined how the UK plans to compensate for the loss of numbers with more advanced technologies, novel training solutions and the acceleration of digitisation across all forces. A year on, it is still unclear how the British Army will reach the desired sophistication and readiness levels.
Along with the British Army, the Royal Air Force has lost out on the Integrated Review and the UK MoD has taken risky bets. It is in need of an honest review and ministers should accept that wrong assumptions were made.