It would be accurate to say that December’s publication of the UK’s Modernising Defence Programme paper – or ‘Mobilising, Modernising and Transforming Defence: A Report on the MDP’, to give it its full title – did not live up to the expectations raised when it was first announced in January 2018.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Dr Rowan Allport, a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC’s Security and Defence team. A full profile can be found at the end of this article.
“A missed opportunity” was the view of one analyst, with another commentator stating that the review’s acronym actually stood for “Mediocre, Distracting and Pointless”. The latter claim goes too far: many of the drier elements of the document outline crucial groundwork for future activity.
It must also be kept in mind that the MDP is not a full SDSR, and comes before the new MoD funding settlement is decided upon next year. Yet these caveats do little to alleviate the urgent challenges confronting UK defence as it faces up to a shift in Britain’s global position and an (at best) £7 billion budget deficit over the next decade.
To the credit of the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and his immediate predecessor, the retrospective the MDP offers on actions taken since the 2015 NSS and SDSR does highlight some real accomplishments. These include progress in delivering the planned Joint Force 2025 50,000-strong expeditionary capability consisting of a carrier-centred maritime task group, a three-brigade army division, an air group and Special Forces. Prominent reference is also made to the Treasury’s recent allocation of an extra £1.8 billion of funding for the MoD, which has at the very least bought some breathing room to devise a fully costed plan. Fundamentally, however, most of this information was already known – which makes parts of the MDP look closer to a greatest hits catalogue than a proverbial album of new material. Most notably, decisions on speculated capability cuts have been deferred to a later date.
This being said, there are also some interesting – if not headline-grabbing – programmes that are outlined for the coming period. A focus on improving readiness and munitions and spare parts stockpiling, all vital for sustained high-intensity operations, is a central feature of the report’s ‘Mobilise’ segment.
Plans within the ‘Modernise’ component of the paper for innovation in cutting-edge technology through a new Transformation Fund and enhancing joint operations across air, sea, land, space and cyberspace offer clues for the future force development trajectory. Nevertheless, as is often the case with such MoD papers, details are lacking. Similarly, the stated intent to ‘Transform’ the way the MoD does business is familiar to all defence review veterans – although the formation of a permanent Net Assessment Unit to study military capabilities and competition, the creation of a Defence Policy Board to bring external experts into the policy process, and plans for the further development of Joint Forces Command, must all be welcomed. Destructive proposals for additional MoD civil service cuts also seem likely to be scrapped, and the MDP paper provides a more clearly defined set of National Security Objectives than were previously available.
The threat assessment section builds on the work of the earlier National Security Capability Review, noting Russia and the acquisition of advanced capabilities by non-state actors as pressing concerns.
The core areas in which the MDP paper fails to deliver include key elements of strategy and the overlapping problem of funding. How Britain is postured to address defence issues old and new is becoming an increasingly urgent matter. Like the US, the UK is pivoting back towards prioritising state-based threats. The return of the Russian challenge has focused some minds on Eastern and Northern Europe.
However, there has also been an attempt to push towards a wider ‘Global Britain’ foreign, defence and trade posture in the wake of the vote to leave the EU. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive positions, but do require choices to be made.
As the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, asked in his recent Christmas lecture, “is our ambition to be globally deployable or global?” – i.e. does the UK want to simply retain a potential to deploy anywhere in the world, or make operating worldwide at scale the routine stance? At present, the absence of focus runs the risk of spreading resources so widely that they lack either credibility or operational effectiveness.
Despite Brexit, Britain has sought to emphasise its commitment to Europe’s security. As the MDP references, there has been a tangible effort to place the UK at the forefront of NATO’s new defence posture – most notably by having the British Army supporting the alliance’s Enhanced Forward Presence force in Estonia and Poland.
But regardless of this, the idea that the UK is spearheading efforts is somewhat undermined by the ongoing withdrawal of Britain’s military forces from Germany. Despite calls for the pullback to be halted, and a decision to retain some facilities, the final British Army brigade will depart in 2019 – an embarrassing spectacle given the ongoing US build-up in the region.
The recently announced Defence Arctic Strategy and the full operationalisation of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force are both signs that Britain may seek to make an additional contribution to NATO’s northern flank, but details are so far sparse.
Much has been made of the UK’s attempt to redefine itself as Global Britain, with defence policy playing a significant role. The MDP report makes references to key regions such as the Pacific and the Middle East, but with few details. What initiatives are listed have been in train for several years. The 2015 defence review, published at a time when departing the EU was almost unthinkable, contained an entire section on increasing global influence. Many of these plans – including the opening of a new UK base in Bahrain, development of the relationship with Japan and a positive but robust approach to China – are now coming to fruition, but they were not intended to be part of a masterplan for life after breaking with Brussels.
The half-formed musings the Defence Secretary aired at the close of 2018 regarding setting up bases in the Caribbean and the Far East are, at best, the very beginning of a conversation on a future direction.
Attempts to enhance the UK’s defence engagement are generally beneficial, but calls from some quarters to adopt a more definitively global approach risks diluting Britain’s efforts. Proposals to deploy the new carriers to the Pacific are a case in point. Suffering from chronic personnel shortages and with an overstretched fleet of ships, the Royal Navy will find it challenging to field even a single carrier task group.
If that formation were on the other side of the world, it would take several weeks to return to NATO waters to support a response to a crisis – potentially a major issue given the weakness of most northern European navies and the limited US maritime presence in the area. Similarly, the British Army’s manpower and equipment deficiencies would make having to respond to a threat from Russia while operating outside of Europe at significant scale a perilous endeavour. General Carter alluded to the challenge of having to switch from one task to another last month, stating that “we seem no longer to be able to hold forces purely at readiness – now it’s much more about the notice to recommit forces that are already committed”.
As frustrating as such disconnects are, most would be possible to solve or mitigate with adequate resources. That the MDP has been unable to settle this matter is understandable given that it falls outside of the normal funding cycle. However, early optimistic talk of increasing defence spending has already given way to prioritising additional health service funding and concerns over wider economic headwinds. Whilst there is still some reason to be hopeful about the MoD’s settlement in this year’s government-wide review given the very real threats the UK faces, much will depend on what emerges from the wreckage of the Brexit process.
The current structural and posture issues of the UK Armed Forces are now only likely to be settled as part of a probable NSS/SDSR 2020. But whatever the claims that waiting for the dust to settle on current international events before moving forward is beneficial, it would seem over-optimistic to think that clarity on the relevant issues will arrive anytime soon. The conclusion of the MDP report refers to the requirement to sustain momentum to realise long-term goals.
Deciding what those goals need to be would be a good start.
|About the author – Dr Rowan Allport
Dr Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC’s Security and Defence team. He holds a PhD in Politics and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York. Rowan’s primary areas of interest lie in UK and US defence policy, and security and conflict issues in and around the NATO region. His publication credits include articles and commentary in The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. Rowan is also the author of Human Security Centre’s recent Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank report.