This week’s announcement by the Prime Minister of an additional ‘£16.5bn’ for defence spending over the next four-five years is a welcome development for the Ministry of Defence, coming in the wake of financial uncertainty regarding the Chancellor’s delayed autumn spending review, where defence was viewed dimly by number ten.
In the end, the combined political weight of the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and the former Downing Street special adviser Dominic Cummings was enough to ensure that this financial uplift represents the largest investment into the British armed forces in 30 years, setting the scene for a UK defence strategy in a post-Brexit age.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Robert Clark, a Postgrad Researcher and British Army veteran. Robert can be found on Twitter at @RobertClark87.
Correctly identified as an additional £7.3bn spent annually on defence by 2024-25 in real terms, this is £6.5bn over manifesto pledges, representing a 4.2% growth per year above inflation. By 2024-25, defence spending will nudge the £50bn mark. This is a powerful statement of intent from the UK government, and a show of force from the Prime Minster highlighting his strategy for UK defence over this next government.
Those immediately standing to gain from this announcement are the Royal Navy, and with them, UK shipyards and manufacturing. In addition, the RAF will receive funding for the new space command, with additional investment for drone technology and the UK-led Tempest programme; the sixth generation fighter yet. Further announcements were a national cyber force, and an artificial intelligence (AI) agency.
Though this announcement precedes the delayed Integrated Review, now slotted for early 2021, deductions can plainly be made from this new ‘pre-Review’ strategy. It focuses on two separate components for UK defence; the return of naval supremacy and the forward-deployed Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group in 2021, and the arrival of a truly digital defence age.
Whilst the hype surrounding the announced £16.5bn can more accurately be characterised as an additional £7.3bn spent annually by 2025, there was much media speculation that this would go towards ‘extravagant’ programmes; predominantly the new space command, AI programmes and cyber systems. This is simply not true. The National Cyber Force will cost £1.9bn over the four-five year period, and the new space command will cost £400mn.
The vast majority of the remaining £14bn will go towards plugging the £13bn blackhole in various procurement programmes, renewing the Trident independent nuclear deterrent, and re-investing into the men and women who make up defence, including free child-care cover for primary school aged children of military families.
This manifesto pledge by the government acknowledges that people are at the centre of defence, and that often the men and women of the UK armed forces do not work normal Monday to Friday, nine to five jobs, and that often the family unit is the first to suffer across military families.
It is important to keep these figures in perspective; already, there has been much surprise in the media that defence has been allocated this investment during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where services are thinly stretched across the board. The ‘£16.5bn’ over four-five years in fact represents a mere fraction of the £200bn that the government have spent on fighting the pandemic since March alone, including on furlough schemes and local and national lockdowns. In addition, the government quite rightly spends £170bn on the NHS annually.
However, in order for the military to evolve and invest into these new battle-winning capabilities and technologies, the so-called sunrise capabilities, then the sunset capabilities must also be addressed.
In a broad stroke, this involves the future roles for heavy armour, long-rumoured to be facing significant cuts in the upcoming review, and also to conventional (infantry) troop numbers. Though there remain no suggestions for any redundancies, recruitment will merely reduce in order to bring the troop numbers down, if that is what is decided.
Reducing the overall manning levels across the military would have significant adverse effects however, as current deployments are already reducing the planning times for the next ops cycles, in addition to the military becoming even more forward deployed going into 2021 and beyond.
In this new digital defence age, where global pandemics, civil wars, migratory processes, and natural disasters all show no regard for artificial borders, the British armed forces must adapt, and adapt quickly, to this new globalised era where great state rivalry is the defining geopolitical characteristic.
A revisionist Russia is actively engaged in using sub-threshold means to destabilise NATO partners across Europe, utilising cyber attacks and sophisticated disinformation campaigns, including against the UK.
Further to the east, an embolden China is seeking to export its deeply authoritarian governance structure across the developing world and within international organisations, whilst militarising the South and East China Seas, dominating the world’s most crucial shipping lanes, and clamping down on human rights across Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong – breaking the Sino-British Joint Declaration in the process.
With Russia maintaining a particularly active cyber capability, and China investing heavily into next-generation technologies including hypersonic missiles, AI and enhanced biology, this announcement of extra funding for UK defence is not only timely, but also highly appropriate given the threat posed to UK interests across the globe.
In a testament to the Prime Minister’s renewed focus on re-establishing naval supremacy, the Royal Navy are set to acquire eight new Type 26 and five Type 31, in addition to new Type 32 frigates, the building of which will safeguard thousands of manufacturing jobs and create thousands more across BAE Systems’ yards on the River Clyde.
In the meantime, the naval Carrier Strike Group, led by the flagship behemoth HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and accompanied by US, Canadian and Australian personnel and equipment, is set to sail East of Suez in 2021. Charting the Indian Ocean and on to South East Asia, the UK’s global partners and allies will be reassured that London has indeed re-prioritised defence, flying the flag for a truly Global Britain.