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.

29 COMMENTS

  1. ” depend on what emerges from the wreckage of the Brexit process.”
    Yet another remoaner
    For gods have pride and confidence in your own country
    We will flourish outside the EU
    Its people like you that will be needed to make this country great again so stop moaning and get on board

    • The process is a car crash. I’m a Leave voter. I’m also a firm Tory. I believe we can flourish issue of the EU but the Government has not shined during the withdrawal negotiations. The thing has been a car crash because of a complete lack of vision, decision and drive. For me ‘the wreckage’ rings as fairly accurate.

    • No matter what your opinions are on Brexit, the author merely refers to the process not Brexit itself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could defend the manner in which May and the Tories have gone about things. It’s a shambles, whichever way you voted surely you can see that?

      • Barry White ‘We will flourish outside the EU’ ….are you Jonathan Cainer’s replacement. How the bloody hell do you know that. Fact is, you don’t!

        • No i dont
          And neither do you
          Are you certain that we will not flourish outside the EU
          You dont have anymore idea as to what will happen than i do
          Except if you believe all the scare stories that are portraid
          I supposed you believed all the scare stories about what would happen if we voted out
          Well the vote was out and since then we seemed to have done pretty well
          But we will never know if we dont give it a go

  2. if we had governments who took defence seriously instead of using it as a piggy bank then maybe our defence maybe in a better position than it is now,but cuts to all 3 branches means less equipment less manpower,money wasted using over inflated private firms for catering/recruitment etc,then we have the mod paying money out in solicitors to try and protect ex service personnel being witch hunted from Northern Ireland,Gulf and Afghan which the government could quite easily put a stop to but won,t,new equipment when asked for is massively over priced because MP,s have shares in the companies getting defence contracts.war pensions paid out of the mod budget along with trident so no wonder defence is in a mess and it will get worse before it,s gets better,my Commanding officer predicted all of this after options for change first came in after the wall came down.

  3. The current budget might be adequate if there was proper planning and strategic direction. Regardless though there is little point in arguing for more assets unless the personnel issues are resolved. Recruitment and retention need to be at the forefront of any decisions on funding. Only then can we start to look at increasing our resources in certain areas, frigates for example.

    We also need to make the most of what we have, properly arm our assets across the spectrum and we improve their effectiveness without necessarily increasing numbers. Albeit that we could certainly do with a bigger navy to support Global Britain.

    • Ironically recruitment might improve after Brexit; if a lot of the car manufacturers and other companies pull out of the UK then there will be a lot of people losing their jobs, the younger ones could potentially see the forces as an escape from the prospect of long term unemploynent.

      Sods law that if the economy shrinks as result of Brexit, defence could then be looking at more applicants but not enough spaces for all of them.

      • Why do you think they might pull out
        Surely we make parts for their cars
        And in all honesty the just in time trade will kick in after a few weeks when everyone realises that no one can afford to lose trade

        • They’re likely to pull out as if there is no deal, as it looks like, then they would have to pay tariffs on every car exported from the UK to mainland Europe. Far cheaper in the long run to relocate somewhere on the continent.

          That’s the issue faced with a multitude of companies in the face of a no deal Brexit.

  4. We definitely have to increase funding for our country’s depleted defence, especially with the renewed threat of Russia and China. Even the President of the U.S.A. is saying European countries have to spend more on their own defence in future. With Brexit on the horizon we also have to be able to exert our country’s influence around the globe. We need more submarines (5 diesel electric?), 2 more Type 26, 2 more Type 45 and 2 more River class O.P.V.s. We also have to increase pay, advertisement, etc. to make up our shortfall in personnel.

    • I agree ‘re more defence funding but not on diesel subs. 3 more Astutes would be fine, along with increasing the surface escort fleet from 19 to 25, and an increase in F35bs (as well as speeding up their delivery!)

    • That’s retarded. And here’s why:

      1) It’s an “I’m alright, jack” policy. If the UK, US et al had remained “neutral” as you put it then no one would have intervened in 1991 to expel Iraq from Kuwait when Saddam invaded? No one, it would still be under Iraqi control.

      Imagine if us and France hadn’t intervened when Hitler invaded Poland.

      According to your purported neutrality, any time one country attacked another, the rest of the world should just shrug it’s collective shoulders and say “not our fight.”

      2) Does your list of international treaties and organisations that may oblige us to go to war include the UN? As we’ve acted in their behalf many times.

      3) Removing any capacity to strike beyond your own borders makes you vulnerable. You have to wait for your enemy to attack you first, which is dangerous.

      4) The Same power projection that took our navy and army to war across the world also enables us to project humanitarian support across the world. Remove all blue water and long range transport capacities, which would be part of your “neutrality ” would also remove our ability to assist countries facing famine and natural disasters.

      Your “neutrality” is the policy equivalent of a 6 year old naively asking “why cant everyone just play nice?”

      • Then why do battle hardened military veterans support this campaign? Would you accuse them of behaving like 6 year olds, mmm?

        • I am a veteran and vehemently do not support this campaign. Please, do not use me or my brethren as valid authority to extol the supposed virtues of this ridiculous campaign.
          In full agreement with what Steve R has stated above. History inevitably repeats itself no matter what best intentions are put in place. Appeasement simply does not work, you have to stand up to bullies, then kick them in the slats to make sure they’ve got the message. Otherwise they will keep pushing and you just keep redrawing the line in the sand. At some point even those with LMF have to make a stand.
          The best policy for defence is a multiple layered armed services that has the capacity to strike any place, any where and at any time. This implies that if you mess with us, we have the wherewithal to not only hit you back but also take the initiative at our discretion.

          • Please visit the Veterans For Peace website where their is support and a direct link to the neutrality campaign website.

            Veterans in growing numbers support VFP and neutrality, real vetrans from the various branches of the military.

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

          • Please visit the Veterans For Peace website where there is support and a direct link to the neutrality campaign website.

            Veterans in growing numbers support VFP and neutrality, real veterans from the various branches of the military.

            You can see the military veterans for peace parading with their blue tops in the videos and much more besides. These are experienced men and women who have seen war and the misdeeds made in our name and who are bravely standing up and speaking out. I understand the Chair is former SAS.

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

        • Battle hardened veterans? About 50 or so vets on that website, and many have done less than
          5 or so years service. So what about the more numerous battle hardened veterans who don’t support a stupid concept of UK neutrality, some of whom post on this site? As normal your troll like comments just pick and choose a direction your little kind wants to go, and you cherry pick information to suit your trolling.

        • And FYI this website vfp, has very little support by veterans, and yes those too are “real” veterans. That website is laughable but I see it is new tool to assist you to troll and froth.

          • Hard to accept the hard facts that more and more veterans are waking up to the fact that they have been misled. I see several members of VFP have over 10 years service. I see that many have discarded their medals. Good to see so many real veterans parading at the Cenotaph with their white poppies. There is no glory in what you support. Here’s to peace and neutrality!

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

          • You make me laugh son, are the real veterans ones who’s thought process you can use to justify your trolling? Don’t other vets opinions count? The thing is i respect their reasoning more than yours, as they have at least served their time, while civvis like you just pontificate, froth and cry. And the amusing things is, us veterans know more about the subject of war and violence than you, and most veterans, having experienced conflict dont actually agree with it.

            You are pretty sad, but then again I’m a bit sad as well replying to your silliness and trolling. Still, you are entertaining that’s for sure.

          • I’m not your son. Indeed, I am probably older than you. You know nothing about me. Here’s to those real veterans who are campaigning for a change.

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

          • Calm yourself TH son, your sounding rattled. Like I said previously, you are owned every time you respond. As a troll you need you work a little harder son.

          • I’m not your son. Indeed, I am probably older than you. You know nothing about me. Here’s to those real veterans who are campaigning for a change.

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

          • Neither your son nor ‘owned’ (whatever that means – I am not aware of the phrase in this context). Indeed, I am probably older than you. You know nothing about me. Here’s to those real veterans who are campaigning for a change.

            VFP website: vfpuk.org

            Linked site: vfpuk.org/articles/suggestions-on-neutrality

  5. This for me is a key issue that underlines the Government’s paucity of strategic thinking:

    ‘ the idea that the UK is spearheading efforts [to enhance the forward deployment posture in Poland and Baltic Republics] 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’.

    We face serious and dangerous Russian efforts to expand their territorial dominion on NATO’s eastern border. They are clearly prepared to use every form of coercion, dodgy stratagem and downright military force to undermine neighbouring democracies, in order to grab territory. They have already got away with seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, snatched from Georgia, with Crimea and the Donetsk, snatched from the Ukraine, with continued illegal occupation of east Moldova, with virulent propaganda, cyber, financial and political attacks on Estonia and Latvia and an attempt to bump-off the Montenegrin President in a bid to halt Montenegro joining NATO.

    We saw this pattern of territoriai annexation back in the 1930s and learned the hard way that you have to draw a line in the sand sooner rather than later. NATO is doing so, by at least establishing small, tripwire forces in the Baltic Republics, Poland and Romania/Bulgaria. This is not a time to be withdrawing our last army brigade from Germany, it sends out completely the wrong signals to Putin and his merry men.

    Rather, we should be forward-basing it in Poland and inviting Germany and Benelux to match our commitment in a forward NATO division, well placed geographically and in firepower to dominate the Suwalki gap and thus ensure passage for NATO reinforcements to the Baltic Republics.

    It is easy for politicians to say well, we can always return to eastern Europe if the need arises, lets save the cost of basing in the meantime. The reality is that, if Russia is emboldened by NATO’s timid forward posture to make a move, it would be very costly for ground forces to fight their way back to eastern Poland under a barrage of missiles.

    It is far more prudent to leave the brigade there, it is embarrassing us pulling out while the US army is pushing troops in.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here