Tough defense decisions face a new government that needs more money than the MOD budget

Does Britain need to maintain military forces permanently in the Indo-Pacific, or could it look to do things differently? PinstripedLine asks

There are difficult decisions to be made for the new government, made even more difficult by the wider challenges of retaining service personnel. Defense and security blogger @PinstripedLine examines the UK security challenges facing Sir Keir Starmer’s government.

After the 2024 general election, ministers have arrived and started presenting their plans to the government.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer has traveled to Washington DC to attend the NATO summit, bringing together the alliance’s leaders and marking an opportunity to set out his government’s vision for defense and security policy over the next five years.

He is also likely to confirm plans made as a manifesto commitment to launch a strategic defense review within the next few months and confirm the size and scope of Britain’s commitment to NATO, both politically and militarily.

More broadly, the new defense secretary, John Healey, during his first weekend in office visited Ukraine to send a signal of ongoing British support.

By announcing additional resources for the Ukrainian military, including additional Brimstone missiles and AS90 howitzers from British Army stocks, a clear message was sent to Russia that while the government has changed, British support for Ukraine has not changed.

But even if this will not change, what are the likely policy challenges to emerge in the strategic defense review?

Since 2010, British policy has been to conduct strategic defense reviews every five years, with one due in 2025 regardless of who won the election.

This review will need to address some very broad policy questions around where to prioritize and invest, versus scaling back or cutting capacity.

The core question for the review team will be where do the UK’s security priorities lie, and what combination of military, intelligence, diplomatic and other government capabilities are needed to meet this?

Logic would suggest that Britain’s priorities lie with NATO and European security, but how is this balanced with wider international security interests?

See: NATO Summit 2024 – what’s on the agenda?

For decades, Britain has sought to balance commitments to NATO and European security with a desire to play a wider global role, from disaster relief in the West Indies to warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The result of this policy has seen the UK maintain armed forces with broad capabilities, which can be deployed globally in varying numbers, either to operate independently or as part of an international force.

The result is that the UK today participates in operations and maintains a truly global defense footprint, with troops, aircraft and ships operating permanently from every continent.

In the reviews held since 2010, the UK had focused on trying to maintain armed forces broadly balanced, capable of global deployment rather than focusing too heavily on NATO or other institutions.

For the next review, given the rapidly changing security situation in Europe, work in Whitehall is likely to be built around examining whether the UK’s primary security objective is to strengthen European security, for example by expanding land and air defense presence on the continent, renewed focus on ASW operations in the Atlantic and increase stocks and logistics to help the UK become a major European player.

The benefits of this move would be to help send a clear signal to both Moscow and Washington about Britain’s commitment to Europe and strengthen Britain as the leading European NATO power, and help deter Russian aggression against other NATO members (particularly those the Baltic States), as well as helping to renew the UK’s relations in EU defense and security matters.

See: General Sir Roly Walker aims to make British Army ‘more special forces’

The alternative option is to continue the previous policy of so-called “Global Britain” and keep the structure of the armed forces much as it is.

This would likely see the UK continue to maintain troops, ships and aircraft globally, deploy on a variety of exercises and non-combat operations, and support wider multilateral organizations such as the Aukus Treaty and the Five Power Defense Agreement.

Both options present opportunities and challenges for decision makers.

It is about a decision about how the UK’s interests are best served in an incredibly complex world where threats are varied and rapidly changing.

The UK remains an influential and significant global power, with a strong diplomatic presence, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, highly capable armed forces and intelligence services with global reach and credibility, and also enjoys exceptionally close links with many other major military powers through NATO and the like alliances.

When added to the wider ‘soft’ factors of economic power, media influence and so on, Britain is a nation of great reach, influence and influence.

Few governments would be willing to sacrifice this influence unnecessarily.

Even so, Britain cannot be everywhere at once and as costs rise and budgets shrink, difficult decisions must be made about how best to protect British interests abroad.

Watch: UK, US and Australia SSN-Auku submarine deal explained

The challenge is to find an outcome that meets the objective of securing British interests and security but does so in an affordable way.

It is not yet clear whether defense spending will increase in the coming years to meet the target of spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, and it is not clear how affordable the current armed forces equipment program is.

The review will need to address the challenges of trying to work out national defense policy objectives and then determine whether the equipment needed to meet this is still affordable and aligned with wider security needs.

Is the equipment programme, as currently configured for a ‘Global Britain’ style defense policy, buying the right equipment to support a renewed emphasis on operations in Europe as part of NATO, and does it strike the right balance between investment in equipment or increasing spend on stocks of ammunition and stores to build resilience at the cost of numerical strength on the front line?

Already, the MOD has shown signs of focusing more attention and resources on rebuilding national stockpiles of munitions and ensuring the defense industry can deliver when needed.

Broader conversations may be needed around the right balance between mass and technology – what’s more important is whether it’s advanced but expensive, equipment that can work in all scenarios or a more basic kit.

One of the lessons learned from Ukraine is that mass still matters, from using very cheap drones as “tank killers” to counter the Russians bringing back many older tanks from storage for combat use, while the Royal Navy in Yemen uses expensive missiles to to shoot down cheap and technologically basic Houthi drones.

Watch: Britain takes lessons from Ukraine war to refresh defense thinking

There is no easy answer to this question – planners will need to figure out how to properly invest in the latest equipment that will enable the UK to engage with peer partners, play a leading military role, maintain defense and scientific industrial the base, help increase export opportunities for the industry, but also buy in sufficient mass and resilience as well.

They will also need to find the right balance between investing in future needs and ensuring the military is credible in the 2030s while asking hard questions about existing capabilities.

For example, the Army may look to invest more in some areas, such as expanding its cyber and information technology capabilities, but in the process merge or scrap other resources that are less likely to be used in future operations.

Serious debate is likely to take place about the ongoing relevance and credibility of the Parachute Regiment’s need to carry out air assault missions given the significantly reduced number of RAF transport aircraft available.

These are all difficult decisions to make, made even more difficult by the larger challenges of retaining service personnel.

With a lower number of recruits than forecast and data suggesting that people are leaving in greater numbers than expected for a variety of reasons, including pay and housing issues, what can be done to try to stabilize the numbers?

Watch: Ukraine conflict shows how cyber will be ‘very much a part’ of any future war, official says

There is no point in having a global defense policy if you don’t have enough people to credibly deliver it.

The challenge, however, is that solving these problems will probably require more money than is currently in the MOD budget, meaning tough decisions will be required about what not to buy or cut back elsewhere to make it affordable.

Overall policy makers will probably want to develop a review outcome that reinforces the existing strong bilateral relationship with the US, via both NATO and some form of visible commitment and presence to support Aukus (eg naval deployment and investment in scientific R&D) and bilateral relations with Japan, while investing more in NATO.

There will also be an ongoing need to maintain a presence in certain locations, such as the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar and some residual ability to ‘flag’ as well.

See: Why is Japan increasing its defense budget?

The challenge here is that Indo-Pacific operations, while excellent for building bilateral relations, are very far from home.

Does Britain need to maintain military forces permanently in this region, or could it look to do things differently?

This is the challenge facing the new government and its officials.

How do you define a vision for UK security interests for the next decade or more, and put in place the right balance of people, assets and equipment to deliver this, while ensuring it is affordable and sustainable?

What do you want to quit, what do you want to do differently and how do you use technology to your advantage, while maintaining enough mass to have reserves when needed?

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