We need a few million more of these guys. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

July 13, 2020   7 mins

The Government’s long-anticipated Strategic Defence and Security Review, or SDSR, comes at a pivotal time for the UK.  Our political relationships with our closest allies, in Europe and with the United States, are fraying, and the global system of rapidly evolving great power competition presents challenges we do not yet fully understand and are ill-prepared to meet.

“Attempts over the past four years to articulate a coherent, post-Brexit foreign policy,” the thinktank RUSI cautions,have largely been unsatisfactory,” and the Government’s grand-sounding but content-free Global Britain rhetoric does “not provide sufficient guidance for those charged with determining how to prioritise the use of scarce national resources.”

With our foreign policy establishment “at a loss about what to do next,” the SDSR is tasked with reshaping the Armed Forces to support a grand strategy in flux, and defend us from this newly dangerous world. It is unfortunate, then, that previous SDSRs, focussed on incorporating the hard-won lessons of the near past, have had a poor record of predicting the challenges of the near future. 

The 2010 SDSR assumed that the future of conflict would be interventions within failed states rather than against powerful adversaries, and cut the Army’s numbers drastically, only to see Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine prove that war between states remained a serious threat even on our own continent.

The 2015 SDSR arrested cuts to the Army’s capabilities to meet the new  Russian challenge, and placed greater focus on a terrorist threat made newly-salient by the rise of the Islamic State, yet it also explicitly aimed to “build a deeper partnership with China, working more closely together to address global challenges,” an assumption that now looks dangerously naive. The challenge for this year’s SDSR will be how to prepare our armed forces to defend Britain’s interests in an era of multipolar competition, where COVID has simultaneously heightened the risk of great power confrontation and ravaged the domestic tax base on which our defence budget depends.  

In this context, the details published in the Times of the proposed cuts to the armed forces the SDSR is expected to unveil are alarming. According to the leaks, the Army will lose a quarter of its personnel, shrinking from its current size of 74,000 down to 55,000 soldiers; the Royal Marines will lose their capacity to deploy as an amphibious brigade, losing their landing craft, artillery and engineering assets; and the RAF will lose its Hercules transport planes, diminishing its strategic airlift capacity, as well as its fleet of Puma helicopters.

Instead, the UK will commit a greater share of the defence budget to managing threats to cyber-security and in space, essentially leapfrogging the known and rapidly increasing risks of war between states to face the nebulous hybrid threats of the future. 

Of course, alarming leaks like this are a traditional feature of defence reviews, designed to either make the actual cuts seem less disastrous when revealed, or, as part of the internecine warfare within Whitehall, to make the political pressure on the MOD so great that planned cuts are quietly reversed. We can expect and hope, then, that the actual cuts will be less severe than the early leaks make them seem, and it’s reassuring that the defence secretary Ben Wallace has come out with a strong denial that the Army in particular will face such a brutal pruning.

The crucial question from which all these decisions spring is one of grand strategy: what are our armed forces actually for? How will they be deployed, against which threats, and to what ends? Looking at our newly unstable world, the most pressing threats are of a great power conflict with China in the Pacific, of a need to defend NATO’s eastern frontiers in the Baltic against actual or threatened Russian encroachment, and of a need to intervene in failing states in Europe’s “near abroad” of the Middle East and North Africa.

At the heart of the problem, as recent analysis argues, is the question of whether “post-Brexit, the UK wishes to be a European or global actor… the more European security dominates, the greater the case for Army size and investment in recapitalising land equipment, while a more global Britain places greater emphasis on the rapid projection of UK forces, which tends to favour the maritime capabilities.”

But with the limited budget at our disposal meaning we are unable to adequately prepare for all these threats simultaneously, we are left to either gamble the nation’s security on which will be the most likely, or spread our bets evenly to meet all these challenges with insufficient resources, guaranteeing failure from the start. 

Of the three likely conflict scenarios facing us — a land confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe, a naval one with China in the Pacific and stabilisation operations in the greater Middle East — the first two are beyond our current capacity to sustain, and the third has been a disaster almost every time we have attempted it. Even the significant armoured forces we deployed in Germany throughout the Cold War would have had a lifespan of days in the event of war, and we have long lost the ability to assemble such a force, let alone sustain it in the field.

The extravagantly expensive new aircraft carriers that have soaked up so much of our defence budgets were sold as enhancing Britain’s global reach and standing, but seeing them sent to the bottom of the South China Sea in the first hours of a major conflict would have the opposite effect. The prospect of stabilisation missions in failing states have long since lost whatever savour they once held for British politicians seeking glory on the world stage. Of the options available to us, then, none of them are enviable with our current capabilities.

A recent RUSI paper on the forthcoming SDSR is instructive on the debates within the foreign policy establishment on how we should plan for the future. Regarding intervention in failed states, it notes with brutal frankness that the SDSR should start “with an honest examination of the lessons that need to be learnt from the failure of recent interventions. The track record of recent discretionary state-building interventions has been so poor, and so consistent, that it no longer makes sense to use the possibility of future such operations (such as those in Basra and Helmand for the UK) as planning assumptions for force design.” 

Regarding the Pacific theatre, where China’s sudden assertiveness has rudely awoken British politicians from their Global Britain dreams, the RUSI paper notes that “the UK should operate on the assumption that it would only deploy forces on significant operations in these regions in a supporting role to the US, and then only with a small part of the UK’s available force.” Instead, it argues, “the UK’s expeditionary capabilities should be optimised for their contribution to NATO forces for the defence of Europe,” leaving the role of garrisoning NATO’s eastern borders to our European allies, particularly a Germany that has long shirked its defence responsibilities.

Instead of amassing our dwindling armoured forces on the plains of Eastern Europe , Britain should “optimise its ground forces (British Army and Royal Marines) for responding rapidly against a wide range of hybrid and limited threats across Europe’s periphery.” 

The strategy proposed here is that our area of focus should be “the defence of the UK homeland and its immediate neighbourhood” on Europe’s outer borders, working alongside NATO allies, but only in pursuit of limited goals, providing strategic capabilities our European partners lack, but leaving them with the responsibility of supplying the critical mass of troops we can no longer field.

Yet cutting the Royal Marines’ capacity to deploy by sea or the Army’s ability to deploy by RAF Hercules would seem to be the exact opposite of planning for limited interventions even in our near abroad. Focussed on the expensive big-ticket purchases that allow us to project air power on a global stage in support of our American patron, we may be distractedly cutting our ability to defend ourselves from the threats closer to home with which the US, distracted by China and by its own domestic instability, may have limited interest in engaging. 

Indeed, given our total strategic dependence on the United States, it’s worth following American discussions on how they see the role of their allies in future wars. To this end, a fascinating recent paper from West Point’s Modern War Institute ought to give our planners pause for thought. It argues that, given China’s inbuilt advantage in a Pacific war, and the extreme vulnerability of US carrier fleets, let alone those of weaker allies like ourselves, to withstand Chinese missile barrages,“the United States has little use of mid-sized nations that pay a premium for expeditionary, high-tech capabilities” — a succinct description of the UK’s current defence posture — but should “encourage its allies to build forces that can withstand war in their area instead.”

This plan to rebalance America’s assets to cope with the stresses of a multipolar world explicitly cites the British Empire’s policy of complementing naval hegemony through alliances with European powers willing to take up the unwanted burden of land warfare, and tallies well with the developing consensus in British think tanks that we should do much the same on a far smaller scale. 

Yet even this is only a stopgap solution. As for the pivot to a low-cost, high-tech future, the hope that investing in technology can fill the gap between our growing needs and our dwindling resources must be seen for the wishful thinking it is.

The rebalancing of our armed forces to focus on the hybrid threats of cyber-warfare, allegedly Dominic Cummings’ pet project, threatens to make an undoubtedly necessary additional capability our main effort, and RUSI is right to warn that “pretending that future war will be bloodless, limited to creating virtual or cyber casualties, makes the carnage of real war more likely,” and that ultimately, “the use of hard power to inflict pain on an adversary in pursuit of national political objectives remains at the heart of a state’s power.”

While Cummings’ drive to reform the MoD’s grotesquely mismanaged procurement strategy is urgently necessary, there is, unfortunately for the government, no other way out of addressing the strategic threats facing us over the coming decades than taxing voters more and spending more money on defence, whatever the political costs in doing so. Doing more with less was shortsighted even when the times were good, and with the international situation deteriorating so rapidly, underinvestment is a luxury we can no longer afford.

The risk of major conventional warfare between states is greater than it has been in any of our lifetimes, and Britain needs to maintain the ability to deploy hard power quickly enough and with sufficient threat of force behind it to deter our adversaries from escalating threats to a level we are unable to match.

Given that “the UK’s relationship with the US is now less reliable than at any time over the last half-century,” it is in our interest to maintain our ability to defend ourselves from as many of the rapidly accumulating risks on our own doorstep as possible, while rebuilding alliances with our estranged European partners and enhancing military ties with likeminded powers further afield.

In the meantime, our defence aspirations should be focused on the regional threats we still — just — retain the capacity to manage, leaving the more ambitious global challenges to our American patron. For too long, there has been a striking mismatch between the government’s “global Britain” aspirations and the more homely reality of our capabilities, and we are perhaps fortunate that by accelerating global trends that may otherwise have taken decades to play out, COVID has helped reveal our meagre hand before we have committed ourselves to playing it. 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.