For Want of a Nail: British Defence Policy in 2030

Britain must spend more, and more wisely, in order to have any hope of clinging to a role on the world stage

Alfie Shaw in SIR Trinity term 2015

The period since 2000 has seen the most rapid physical and moral disarmament in the UK since the 1930s. If Britain is to maintain her position in the turbulent global order, this cannot continue. British defence policy has been characterised by underinvestment, antiquated doctrine, and disastrous procurement decision-making. Operational success and failure must be redefined, strategy and doctrine updated, and procurement practices improved. This article will illustrate how defence policy has been deficient, frame it in terms of a wider foreign affairs strategy, and explain how this vision can become a reality.

The branches of the defence trinity famously conceptualized by Carl von Clausewitz were the state, the people, and the military. The past fifteen years has seen a decline in public willingness to support, and in state willingness to fund, overseas deployments; this, coupled with the proliferation of a ‘garrison state’ frame of mind, whereby Britain can isolate herself from foreign affairs, has led to the decline of Britain’s military capabilities.

Over the course of recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, successive governments have recognized a rise in casualty weariness amongst the public that hinders operational effectiveness. This sensitivity to the human cost of war has led to moral disarmament, in the form of a decline in public support for defence spending and for overseas engagements. Meanwhile, an isolationist frame of mind has spread throughout government and amongst the public, reducing the perceived necessity to spend on defence. This phenomenon has come at the very time that governments have adopted an ideological commitment to a smaller state and fiscal conservatism, meaning that the Ministry of Defence has become a preferred target for cuts, resulting in a process of rapid physical disarmament.

An isolationist frame of mind has spread throughout government and amongst the public

Inverting Clausewitz, politics has had to become war by other means. Between 2010 and 2015, defence spending declined by 14% in real terms; since 2007, troop numbers have declined by 19%, and are forecast to have slumped 27% by 2020.  The Royal Navy’s stock has declined by 50% to only 18 warships, and one need look no further than the current air campaign in Iraq to see the decline in Britain’s air power: whereas Britain now fields only eight fighting aircraft, she deployed over 140 in 1991. This must change if Britain is to maintain her position as middle power in the global order.

Britain’s primary source of security is the maintenance of a rules-based world order. This means defending the integrity of sovereign states and maintaining stability wherever possible, employing multilateral institutions and alliances to do so. This strategy cannot be achieved through isolationism.

There are two viable ways to achieve this aim, and both demand effective defence policy. The first is to revive the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which has long been the guarantor of the security of global order and will remain so for the near future. It has lapsed as a result of British moral and physical disarmament: America now looks to Germany as its diplomatic partner in Europe, and to France as its primary military ally. Britain, by contrast, has been relegated to an intelligence and security partner.  This is no surprise: France has recently shown greater willingness to engage overseas than has Britain, while Germany has greater influence in the European Union. The second is to strengthen ties with multilateral institutions, primarily NATO and the UN, in order to ensure that the rules-based world order is maintained, and that Britain maintains the ability to influence multilateral policy for its best interests. Both of these courses of action require increased, and more effective, defence engagement, which in turn requires a revision of British defence policy.

British defence policy must recognise that the perception of success and failure is often, in non-existential conflicts, more important than the military reality of victory and defeat. Commanders should engage with the narrative as reported by the media when forming strategy. This should be achieved through integrated action: broad-spectrum warfare involving the militarisation of the media, where the desired effect on the broad ‘audience’ (including, but not limited to, the enemy) is the aim, and it is achieved with minimal risk of loss. Commanders may no longer consider only the operational theatre: battles are not now won and lost merely in the war zone, but in the media, on the home front, and in multilateral institutions.

Britain must spend more – and more smartly   

Strategy must reflect the fact that success is not achieved solely on the basis of an army’s independent ability to defeat a foe in conventional full-spectrum warfare. Readiness can amount to engagement, and defence policy should reflect this. Britain should pursue a strategy of persistent engagement: deploying troops in small numbers, or even as individual attachés, during peacetime, so that insight, understanding and interoperability are developed, maintained, and communicated.  The success of the French intervention in Mali, for example, may be attributed largely to persistent engagement and cultural intelligence.

The maintenance of a rules-based world order may be achieved by the communication of deterrence to potential disruptors of that order, which, in turn, requires military exercises. Since 2013, Russia has launched nine large-scale military exercises, in which the average number of troops involved was 82,000, and the maximum was 160,000. By contrast, the largest NATO exercise involved 6,000 troops. Britain currently only exercises at divisional level on a paper basis, fostering international doubt that Britain could feasibly field a divisional force. Future defence strategy must aim to communicate viable deterrence in order to increase the perceived cost of challenging the established world order.

Despite the need for greater engagement and more active military exercises, policy need not aim to maintain a full spectrum independent fighting capability; rather, it should be geared towards interoperability and international coalitions, without abrogating key decision-making responsibility. In practical terms, this means avoiding expensive vanity projects such as aircraft carriers and maintaining only those resources that represent a viable capability against conceivable opponents. Defence procurement practices should reflect this.

Britain’s primary source of security is the maintenance of a rules-based world order

The question of quality in defence procurement is one that has led to catastrophic spending errors. Britain sold 72 Harrier fighter jets to the USA for $180m in 2011 in anticipation of the delivery of a fleet of stealth F35 Joint Strike Fighters the next year. None came, and the cost exploded: today, Britain has yet to receive a single fighter, and the cost of each aircraft has risen from £33m to £87m, not far shy of the cost of all 72 Harriers. These aircraft are simply too advanced and expensive for the role that Britain requires, which is extremely unlikely to be dogfighting a superpower with stealth fighter capability. Britain must recognize that her place in the world is not that of a superpower, but of a middle-rank power, and must adopt defence procurement practices to suit.

Britain is a middle-rank power with a declining influence on the global stage, a result of perilously low defence spending over the last fifteen years and reluctance on the part of the British people and governments to accept a greater role for the country in the word. Britain must spend more, and more smartly, on defence in order to punch at her weight on the world stage; she must revive old alliances and maintain those she has, and she must engage overseas in times of peace as in times of war, refusing to turn her back on the world if she is to maintain what is left of her global influence.