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What might 2021 bring the British military?

With hindsight, 2020 was not a good year for those spending the weeks before Christmas making year ahead predictions. Covid-19 was only identified officially by China on New Year’s Eve, while the killing of Iran’s General Quassem Suleimani on January 3 took Western military operations into uncharted territory from the start.

The pandemic meant no one in the UK military – or the wider world – had anything approaching the year that they expected. Deployments changed, exercises cancelled, job rotations delayed and changed, career paths altered. And, of course, everyone spent far too much time on Zoom and MS Teams.

Still, if being proven wrong was a reason not to make predictions, no one would ever try. In that spirit, therefore, here are areas where interesting things may happen in 2021:

  1. The Integrated Review – lots of money, lots of cuts – or both? 

Every Strategic Defence and Security Review is described as the one that will bring systemic change and sustainability to Defence – and in many ways the Integrated Review now delayed from 2020 was more ambitious yet. What was supposed to find Britain’s ambition and place in a shifting global system, however, arguably found itself overtaken by events before it even started – and must now catch up.

In November, the Prime Minister announced an additional £16.5 billion for defence over a four-year period, the biggest increase since the Cold War, with particular pledges on shipbuilding, cyber and space capabilities. Good news for fans of Type 26, 31 and planned Type 32 frigates, potentially much less for the army’s planned purchase of Boxer and Ajax armoured vehicles or upgrades to Warrior and Challenger 2 – the Defence Secretary has warned of “tough choices” to come.

What it means for ordinary service personnel is even less clear – except for members of the Royal Naval Reserve, who reportedly face being told simply not to turn up at all for much of 2021 as their contribution to balancing the books.

  1. Russia and China in the spotlight – with deployments to match

As CDS made clear in his Christmas RUSI speech – delivered, like much else this year, remotely – HMG believes great power politics is back. That means countering this Russia and China, both seen having tried to take advantage of the pandemic to further shift the world towards authoritarian interests.

The confrontation with these “authoritarian rivals” (rather than “enemies”, to quote CDS) ranges from decisions over Huawei and 5G to the global competition between rival national vaccines and international summits like the G7 and G20. Expect more military-focused conversations about “winning in the grey zone”.

What that means will vary from very unsexy “capacity building” to high profile, relatively short notice events like September’s JOINT ENDEAVOUR, the dropping of more than 200 UK paratroopers for exercise in Ukraine not far from Russian territory.

Two deployments may grab particular attention. The first will be Defender 2021, a major US-led multinational NATO demonstration of commitment to Europe replacing a similar major exercise scaled back this year in the early weeks of the pandemic (“sneezed off”, as Russia’s government outlets described it). The second will be the first major operational deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the carrier strike group, reportedly heading to Asia and its maritime disputes.

Also expect more support to nervous allies, from China-facing Australia to the nervous nations along Russia’s border regions – Sweden increased its defence budget by 40% in December on worries over Russia, but others have less cash.

  1. A newly engaged America – but a still fragmenting world

Providing the current incumbent can be persuaded to genuinely leave the White House, 2021 may see a very different United States on the global stage. Already, President-elect Biden has appointed a number of key Obama-era figures, bringing relief to many of America’s allies even as it worries Whitehall a little over Brexit.

In much of the world, of course, America never really went away – the Pentagon has done what it could to showcase robust support for European allies throughout the Trump presidency, while US forces in Asia have also become ever more assertive. The Middle East, however, may be a very different matter – and whatever Washington might choose, the world seems to be getting more complex.

The past year has given us numerous examples of what that means – such as the deadly border confrontation this summer between India and China. It’s also been visible in the hugely complex, shifting dynamics around NATO member Turkey, which has moved both closer to Russia this year through buying S-400 air defences while fighting proxy wars with Moscow in Libya and facing off over Armenia-Azerbaijan.

A pre-Christmas rocket attack by Tehran-backed militia on the US embassy in Baghdad – and the muscular posturing by Washington that followed – are also a reminder that the risks of conflict with Iran have not gone away.

All this complexity has implications for UK operations, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa. Conversely, however, it may also leave the UK public and political and defence leaders caring even less about any individual theatre.

  1. Peacekeeping in Mali – with little peace to keep

One area where UK defence has decided to undertake something new is Mali, and the opening weeks of 2021 should give a good indication of how that operation will shake out. Some 300 UK troops arrived in theatre in December, shortly emerging from quarantine to join the UN force MINUSMA.

Their mission – long-range reconnaissance and ISR – is potentially risky. Mali is the U.N.’s deadliest current peacekeeping mission, Islamist militant groups are becoming bolder every week and the domestic politics of Mali are complex following a coup. The UK deployment has been criticised for unclear aims – and it remains far from clear how much activity ministers and commanders will allow them to undertake.

  1. Covid response, culture and career questions

In the short-term, Covid isn’t over – and that means more military commitment to the response, including vaccine rollout, not to mention whatever other crises require effort through the winter. For individuals and their units, that means even more than usual will be uncertain when they return from Christmas leave.

For some capabilities and maybe even cap badges, the Integrated Review makes even surviving 2021 far from a foregone conclusion. Even in “growth” areas like cyber and information operations, skilled personnel sign off every year, frustrated by being unable to remain – or promote – because career tracks do not yet exist. Midcareer entry and more flexible career structures have been discussed for years, but it is unclear if they will genuinely move closer in the next 12 months.

In the short term, Covid-related economic worries may ease the worst of the recruitment and retention challenges seen in recent years. But that won’t last forever.

Already, some negative news is clearly coming down the pipeline. Awkward stories in the first half of the year may include ongoing questions over HMS Prince of Wales’s leakalleged war crimes by UK special forces and the first court-martial of a major general in living memory over potential fiddling of school fees.

As the pandemic eases, the military may have to work harder than ever to protect and define its “image”, address sometimes toxic cultures, deliver opportunity and keep the people on which – even more than its equipment – UK security depends.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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