UK Defense Spending and Force Modernization Priorities

By Robbin Laird

The UK is in the throes of a major defense modernization.

And like the United States, beginning a process of change is one thing, but funding the modernization process through to getting maximum effect is another.

The UK faces financial challenges associated with Brexit and an uncertain domestic political environment.

As part of dealing with domestic challenges, the UK government recently announced increased spending on national health.

It is not unique to the UK that increased domestic spending and foreign policy challenges can cut into needed defense modernization investments.

But the UK is shaping an approach to change built around the new carrier and a new combat aircraft, both of which are driving significant change in how the forces will be shaped.

And associated with these two changes, as well as others, such as the coming of the P-8 are seeing significant infrastructure spending increases as well. And it is all too tempting to pay for infrastructure by reducing new asset buys or delaying modernization.

The current Minister of Defence has promised a major look at the defense spending challenge and is proposing increased defense spending.

The launch of the new look at defense was launched earlier this year.

According to the Ministry of Defence:

After a long period of relative peace, threats are increasing again.

So we have arrived at a profound moment in our history.

A crossroads where the choice before us as a nation is simple.

To sit back and let events overtake us.

Or step forward.

Seizing the moment, as we leave the European Union, to shape our vision for a bolder, more prosperous Britain.

A Britain proud of its past and confident of its future.

A Britain ready to reassert its right to do global good in a dangerous and unpredictable world.

A Britain able to protect our security and prosperity at home and abroad.

After all, our Armed Forces are the face of Global Britain, enhancing our international reputation, epitomising everything that is great about our nation.

We talk about soft power and we must acknowledge the amazing work of the Foreign Office and DFID, but also of business and organisations like the British Council, in promoting Britain’s values around the world.

Our Armed Forces work with them delivering aid in the wake of Hurricane Irma minesweeping in the Gulf and bringing medical support to fight Ebola in West Africa.

But let’s be clear soft power only works because hard power stands behind it.

And that’s what our Armed Forces deliver and why they are so important to our future.

That’s why this is our moment to retain our competitive advantage and invest in hard power capabilities

Of course, there are no easy choices and challenges to shaping a way ahead.

But is clear that the coming of the carrier as well as the F-35 are driving a wedge in a legacy approach and shaping a new way forward.

Either that wedge forward can be leveraged or will be undercut by a failure to shape the support for the platforms, training and enablers needed to make a strategic shift.

As Group Captain Ian Townsend noted with regard to the rebuilding of RAF Marham:

Group Captain Townsend noted that he was traveling to France shortly and to view the Maginot Line alongside a group of RAF senior leaders.

The point of this was to focus on getting the right warfighting strategy to go with the right technology to deal with 21stcentury adversaries.

“The French built the Maginot Line and the Germans built a force which simply operated around that capability.

“The French had a concept of warfare in 1940 that did not meet the reality of the war they had to fight.

“In the past two decades our airpower has been dominant.

“But we do not want to introduce the F-35 as a replacement aircraft operating within the constraints of the legacy system.

“We need a multi-domain capability to ensure that our adversaries do not simply work around a classic airpower template.

“The challenge is to exploit the F-35 as a lever for broader multi-domain combat innovations.

“What we need to make sure is that people don’t use multi-domain to go around our combat air advantage but rather to evolve our combat air advantage and make it a core part of our own cutting edge multi-domain capability.

“What we need to be thinking about is F-35 being able to work with any system within a multi-layered combat operation, whether it’s airborne, maritime or land-based.”

Similarly, the Royal Navy is working its way forward to not simply introduce a new carrier but to shape a way ahead with regard to a maritime task force.

The carrier is shaping a shift from the current concepts of operations for the Royal Navy to a new one as well.

Currently, the key focus is upon targeted deployment built around a single ship to an area of interest.

With the carrier, a maritime task force is being built which will go together to an area of interest. This change alone requires significant change as the shipyards will now have to manage the return of the task force and the maintenance cycle task-force driven as opposed to a cycle of dealing with single ships combing back from a targeted deployment.

The current goal is to have the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed on its maiden operational deployment in 2021.

With the carrier, the UK will be able to deploy a mobile force capable of supporting a broader sustained reach for the UK forces.

As Colonel Phil Kelly, Royal Marines, COMUKCSG Strike Commander, noted that with the threat to land air bases, it was important to have a sea base to operate from as well, either as an alternative or complement to land bases.

“The carriers will be the most protected air base which we will have. And we can move that base globally to affect the area of interest important to us.

“For example, with regard to Northern Europe, we could range up and down the coastlines in the area and hold at risk adversary forces.

“I think we can send a powerful message to any adversary.”

A recent report of the House of Commons Defence Committee, for which I was an advisor when the late Bruce George was Chairman of the Committee, has recently provided an overview of what needs to be prioritized in a defense spending plus up.

House of Commons Report

The coming of the UK carrier is a significant driver for change and the Committee would like to see new maritime capabilities added to enhance the role of the carrier in the period ahead.

The Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) is a defence policy review which was removed from the wider and cost-neutral National Security Capability Review (NSCR) and placed under the control of the Ministry of Defence. This provides an opportunity for the Government to realign the size and structure of the Armed Forces with the scale and range of intensifying threats that face the United Kingdom.

It also gives the Government the chance to confront the necessity of providing the level of finance required to strengthen the Armed Forces on a sustainable basis. In doing so, the Government must break out of the pattern, observable in past reviews, of strategic direction being lost because the conclusions of the review are inadequately funded and ultimately unsustainable—leading to the entire process being re-opened and revised.

This cannot be achieved if a review is underfunded or reliant on seeking spurious ‘savings’ and elusive ‘efficiencies’ to make ends meet. A firm and sustainable settlement is required to achieve strategic and financial stability.

In this preliminary report ahead of the MDP reaching its conclusions, we make a number of observations on capability and force structure, recruitment and retention, international partnerships, business and commercial practices and defence expenditure that we would expect to be explored in the course of the MDP.

This is a ‘broad brush’ exercise based both on the evidence we have received and on the conclusions of reports produced by us and our predecessor Committee since November 2015.

With regard to the maritime domain, the Committee report highlighted the following:

The most serious maritime issue which has been recognised by Ministers, and in the evidence we have taken, is the need for greater anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capacity. The Defence Secretary has described how Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic has increased tenfold in recent years.

The outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff has recognised the threat this poses to the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic and to vital undersea communication cables.

The UK lies close to the main transit routes that the Russian submarine force can use to project power into the Atlantic from its bases in the Arctic and High North, a region that is seeing increasing military activity.

Hostile submarine operations also have the potential to endanger the security of the nuclear deterrent.

ASW is a complex and resource-intensive exercise, and the world-leading capability which the UK maintained in the Cold War has been substantially reduced.

Many of those who submitted written evidence argued that the Royal Navy’s numbers of attack submarines and ASW frigates were far too low. This problem has been compounded by the late arrival into service and low availability of the highly capable Astute class, which has caused a temporary reduction in the number of attack submarines. Particular concern was expressed about the probability that the forthcoming class of Type 31e frigates may have only minimal ASW capability.

As the Royal Navy is currently finding in mine clearance capability, the use of unmanned systems or manned-unmanned teaming may be the future of ASW.

With the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers shortly coming into service, generation of a carrier group will become a priority task for the Royal Navy. In 2017 the Public Accounts Committee was told that a sovereign carrier group at the ‘maximum level’ of deployment would require two air defence destroyers and two ASW frigates, along with an attack submarine and attached support shipping.

Generating such a force for any length of time is likely to put considerable strain on the Royal Navy, given the current size of the Fleet. The carriers are likely to be operating within larger allied groups in the future, but we disagree with the National Security Adviser that we should proceed on the basis this is inevitable.

Operating aircraft carriers without the sovereign ability to protect them is complacent at best and potentially dangerous at worst. The UK should be able to sustain this capacity without recourse to other states.

And in addition to highlighting the need to enhance the survival and capability of the UK’s mobile air base, namely, the Queen Elizabeth carriers, the committee also highlights the need for enhanced active defense for UK land bases as well.

The UK has no substantial missile defence capability. The 2015 SDSR recognised the threat from state and non-state actors acquiring increasingly sophisticated missile technology. Commitments were made to invest in a ground-based ballistic missile defence (BMD) radar system to enhance NATO’s BMD Network, and to investigate the potential of Type 45 destroyers taking on a BMD role.

Answers to written questions have indicated that these capabilities are still in their early developmental stages. The Department should make clear in the MDP its proposed way forward on BMD, including on both radars and potential interceptors, whether in a UK or combined NATO context. In addition, the Department should consider how it will address the need for point defence—including against cruise missiles—at key installations in the UK, not least the principal RAF airbases.

The Committee highlighted the importance of the formulation of a new Air Combat Strategy and provided a sense of where they saw that report perhaps ending up.

The ability of aircraft to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defence systems must be addressed. The RAF’s principal anti-radar suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) weapon, designed to target and neutralise enemy air defence systems, was abandoned in 2013.

The advanced capability of the F-35 may compensate for this, but the safety of the non-stealth aircraft also still in service—such as Typhoon—must also be considered…..

The Combat Air Strategy is a valuable opportunity to consider how UK design, development and manufacturing expertise in combat air, from programmes such as Tornado and Typhoon, can continue to contribute to future combat air capability.

It is also an opportunity to reduce the reliance on off-the-shelf purchases from overseas when domestic or collaborative alternatives are available.

And the UK as with the United States and other allies is facing a significant challenge with the strategic shift from a primary focus on counter-insurgency operations.

The Armed Forces have inevitably been shaped by the nature of operations which the UK has entered into over the past 20 years—largely land-based expeditionary operations, in pursuit of counter-insurgency and stabilisation, with minimal challenge in the maritime and air domains and minimal direct risk to the homeland.

The strategic environment has changed for the worse, and this defence review must reflect this. The UK needs to be in a position to deter and challenge peer adversaries equipped with a full range of modern military technologies who seek to use them in ways that confuse our traditional conceptions of warfare. The likelihood of operating in contested environments across all five domains—maritime, land, air, cyber and space should be reflected in this force structure.

Whilst old threats have reappeared and new ones have arisen, recent ones have not disappeared. The uncertainty of the future mandates a properly balanced force structure, capable of continuing the fight against terror and extremism, containing and deterring state-based adversaries, and sustaining the range of international commitments that support our strategic interests.

A UK Air Combat Strategy: Context and Options for the Way Ahead