Britain’s degrading defence power

  • The UK is an important military presence, providing a disproportionate portion of Europe’s defence capability
  • The defence secretary’s plans to become more ‘global’ in its military ambitions may not be backed up by cash
  • This comes after a decade in which defence has been left on the back-burner – but threats to the liberal world order have not been dying down

By Lawrence Freedman

It is fair to say that Gavin Williamson has not had a good press. The UK defence secretary is widely seen as being lightweight and with ambition beyond his capabilities. His occasional Churchillian rhetoric strains credibility, perhaps because it is delivered in a Yorkshire accent (as a fellow northerner, I have some sympathy with him here).

During the first year of his tenure the news was rarely good: continuing failures to meet recruitment targets. The Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), a strategic review intended to provide some focus and direction to policy, was delayed by six months. Britain was also said to be heading for a much reduced international position – no longer deserving to be described as a so-called “Tier One” military power.

For a country whose self-esteem rides on the quality and reputation of its armed forces this would be a heavy blow. Britain and France, Europe’s two nuclear powers, are the cornerstones of the continent’s ability to defend itself. Falling behind France would be awkward in the context of Brexit and challenge the country’s claim to be capable of playing a global role.

When the MDP eventually appeared last December it was dismissed as underwhelming, a short document made to look longer with big pictures and a full-page graphic. Williamson got some extra money for the Treasury to tide the department over the short term, much of which was needed for the Trident nuclear programme. But longer-term budgetary issues were not addressed – merely postponed until a broader government spending review due later in 2019.

British troops in Warriors during the Iraq war

There was no major boosts to core capabilities, even in areas where modernisation was most needed, for example the British Army’s Warrior Fighting Vehicle. No new measures were announced to meet the continuing recruitment crisis. Yet there were also no new cuts and that has enabled Williamson to put the MDP behind him and begin to speak more expansively about how defence fits into Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy, and in particular how it might validate claims of a “global Britain”. Britain’s military capabilities are being offered as the principal means by which the country can continue to present itself as a great power, mindful of its international responsibilities, even while leaving the European Union.

In a speech to the Royal United Service Institute in February Williamson spoke of a “new Global Great Game” being “played on a global playing field” and how as a result Britain must be prepared to “compete for our interests and our values far, far from home”. As a global presence is bound to be largely maritime this provides a role for the aircraft carriers.

Two “Littoral Strike Groups”, with new ships capable of carrying marines and projecting force on land, will be created, one East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific region and one West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic. This will require a network of overseas bases and access to ports. He also appeared ready to contemplate active humanitarian interventions and address the challenge of the “grey zone”, below the threshold of conventional conflict, where cyber and information campaigns may be waged. There is now more emphasis to be placed for the future on robotic and autonomous systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Royal Marines on exercise come ashore

The Ministry of Defence is using the language of a “Global Britain” to develop a case for a more ambitious defence strategy. This in turn will serve as the basis for a high bid for cash from the Treasury – although whether it will be successful is another matter. Otherwise Williamson will end up relying on “efficiency savings” and streamlined decision-making on big equipment programmes as promised in the MDP.

Defence Minister Gavin Williamson

Such promises have become routine for defence secretaries but delivery tends to be disappointing. Enough has been spent to prevent conspicuous and drastic cutbacks but no more, and there is still no reason to suppose that defence spending is going to rise significantly, given the many competing demands on public expenditure. One risk in Williamson’s approach, therefore, is that by raising the level of ambition without resources being raised to a corresponding degree his aspirations will have to be scaled back to an embarrassing degree.

Another and more immediate risk is that this approach is leading the UK into spats with the other major powers for which it is ill-prepared. Williamson has pointed to a more hostile environment, marked by “aggressive state competition”. After listening to his denunciations of Russian efforts at intimidation and coercion at the recent Munich Security Conference, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described him as “Minister of War”.

Russian servicemen: relations with the UK are at a new low

Britain’s leadership of a NATO battle group in Estonia and the Salisbury poisonings had already sent UK-Russian relations to a new low. More serious for Williamson was the report that China was sufficiently unhappy at the new tone to cancel a visit by Chancellor Philip Hammond in protest at Williamson’s readiness to send warships to the Pacific. The overall UK relationship with China is more equivocal than before but at a time when trade matters so much it is not one that the government wants to jeopardise.

The third and most difficult issue is whether this talk of becoming a prominent global actor really resonates with the British public. Despite Williamson’s claim that Brexit provides an opportunity to redefine the country’s role, he has not proposed anything that could not have been done without Brexit.

The current stance does represent a shift from quite recent strategic judgements that there was little that Britain could do of any value away from Europe and the Middle East; a slogan of “Global Britain” is preferable to one of “Britain First”. Nonetheless the idea that Britain will be “the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership” seems not only cringeworthy but also odd when many of our natural allies believe that the country has, hopefully temporarily, taken leave of it senses.

Williamson wants it to be known that Britain still “makes a difference”, “stands tall” has not turned its back on the world, is not “in retreat” and can be relied upon to “act when required”. Whether that is true or not will depend on the nature of any crises faced and what sort of response is available at the time. There is at any rate very little that can be done unilaterally, so much will depend on the quality of alliance, especially if engaging in operations in the Pacific. Yet this is also a time of great uncertainties surrounding American policy.

HMS Astute, Britain's nuclear-powered submarine

In the early 1990s the government used to boast that the country was “punching above its weight”. This can sound quite clever until you get into a real fight, and someone punches you back.

How Britain got here – a brief history of UK defence

Over this past decade, defence policy has been neglected as the British government coped with the aftermath of the 2007–08 financial crisis and more recently the challenges of Brexit

In 2010 the coalition government found itself with an ambitious but underfunded defence programme, with priorities shaped by contractual commitments as much as foreign policy priorities. It was obliged to acquire the two high-quality but hugely expensive Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers with barely enough funds for the F-35 Lightning aircraft to fly from them.

With the F-35s, the UK was buying into the most advanced US aircraft programme, but one much criticised for the cost and complexity of individual aircraft. Sticking with these commitments required cut-backs and delays elsewhere in the programme.

The hope then appeared to be that after a busy decade largely spent in Iraq and Afghanistan the international situation would calm down so that the UK would have some breathing space to rebuild its capabilities while making its contribution to restoring the nation’s finances. The accompanying national security review lacked any sense of urgency, other than recognising that cyber warfare might need some attention.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 challenged the idea that this would be a quiet decade. The US pressed Europeans to take seriously a target of 2 per cent of GDP for defence expenditure. As the host of the September 2014 Cardiff summit, Prime Minister David Cameron was obliged to embrace the target. But he appeared to be relying as much on an accounting sleight of hand as extra money.

The funding gap between the declared programme and the available resources was still measured in billions of pounds and could only be managed by postponing the introduction of new equipment and cutting numbers. Although a National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 painted a bleaker picture of the international environment than its predecessor of 2010, it set what would once have been considered an extremely modest goal for its core military capability – in addition to a maritime task force with a carrier at its centre, a land division of three brigades backed by an air group. Army strength has been cut by about a quarter, from 110,000 in 2010 to around 83,000 in 2018.

Defence got sidelined as political life came to be dominated by two referendums. It was touched on during the debate on Scottish independence because the nuclear strike force is based in Faslane and was threatened with eviction. During the Brexit debate the main issue was the supposed plans being hatched in Brussels for a European army. But the immediate consequence of the vote to leave the EU was the subsequent devaluation of the pound. This aggravated the funding gap. It was not a good time to be buying expensive kit from the US.

Williamson did not inherit a healthy defence sector.

The author is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, a member of the Chilcot Inquiry panel into the conduct of the war in Iraq and author of  The Future of War: A History

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All Photographs by Getty Images