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What next for Defence?

Waiting for Admiral Radakin to speak at his first RUSI Annual Chief of the Defence Staff lecture, I couldn’t help but reflect that it has been a tough year for Defence.  Perhaps every year is tough and this is just a truism we tell ourselves to defend a lack of progress.  I wondered, however, what approach the new Defence Chief would take. 

Delivering a high profile lecture like this is a challenging prospect.  Especially one week into a new job.  The Admiral had to set out a credible vision for Defence under his supervision.  The context is challenging.  Failure in Afghanistan.  The Atherton Report made clear that the way Defence treats women is unacceptable.  Defence also appears to be incapable of buying stuff.  Radakin changed the focus of Defence with a single statement: The state is back.

The state is back

Chief of the Defence Staff, 2021


The Royal Navy was the undisputed “winner” of the Integrated Review having embraced (and more importantly communicated) its ability to help deliver the Government’s ‘Global Britain’ strategy.  Admiral Radakin’s subsequent appointment as the first dark blue CDS for nearly 20 years marks 2021 out as a renaissance year for the Royal Navy. 

Op FORTIS has been a resounding strategic success and has put the RN back in the elite group of navies with a carrier strike capability.  AUKUS has proven something of a coup by simultaneously strengthening Britain’s international partnerships in the Pacific and garnering an economic windfall.  New crewing models have improved availability of ships. There have been tentative steps towards more forward presence with Batch 2 patrol vessels deployed in the Pacific. 

HMS Kent, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the JS Ise, a Hyūga-class helicopter destroyer on Op FORTIS. Photo:MOD.

With the nuclear deterrent and National Shipbuilding Strategy very much on the Prime Minister’s radar, RN favour (or at least, relevance) looks set to continue into 2022.

Not all is rosy.  The Fleet Solid Support Contract progresses at glacial pace with the competition and design stage finally approved in September.  These ships are fundamental to ensuring the carriers have enough “teeth” available to stay in any future fight for more than a PR mission.  Elsewhere belts keep tightening. RFA Argus, Britain’s sole Primary Casualty Reception Vessel and helicopter training ship is for sale.  As is HMS Scott with its deep ocean survey capability.  The Mine Counter Measure Vessel force, for so long the envy of the US Navy, is being retired early.  There is still nothing to replace Harpoon as a ship-to-ship missile capability.  The Future Commando Force concept remains just that: an idea on paper. Taken as a whole, it is hard to tally these shortfalls with the urge across Defence for more ‘lethality’. 

Automation, tech, and radical transformation were hallmarks of Admiral Radkin’s tenure as First Sea Lord.  He may well be right. The Prime Minister certainly believes it is time to make waves across what he believes to be a very set-in-its-ways and frustrating Department.  The then First Sea Lord has clearly shown that he is prepared to take risks to balance the future.  As CDS, the Army and the Royal Air Force should probably stand by for similar treatment.  

The Army 

2021 has been difficult.  Soldiers watched the events in Afghanistan, a country that has shaped two generations, in disbelief.  20 years of soldiering was undermined in a matter of weeks whilst ‘country bois’ bribed and murdered their way into Kabul.  It’s not too early to call it a defeat, no matter how successful the Army may have been.  It is a defeat that must be engaged with in 2022; and there are few signs that it is happening yet.  

Away from operations, behaviours have to change.  A number of senior officers have been moved from command positions for failure in leadership.  A General and a senior officer are in prison for fraud.  Those individuals who have failed the Army did not develop their behaviours overnight.  The Army’s release of Habit of Excellence was a typical example of poor timing and arguably hubris.  As our review said, is there really much evidence that such a habit exists?  Maybe the Army should rebrand itself as ‘average with pockets of excellence’?  

An Ajax. Photo: MOD

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Army, and one that the new CDS must grasp, is exactly what the Army is going to fight with.  The deep uncertainty over Ajax and the prolonged delivery of Boxer are all significant issues with the equipment programme.  The Future Soldier programme looks good on paper.  But will it be resourced and funded? Credibly used?  And will the Army finally be able to equip female soldiers with body armour that fits? These are problems that have taken too long to engage with. 

But, for that negativity not everything is bad.  Those involved in the evacuation of Kabul, from the paratroopers on the shield wall to the logisticians supporting the airlift showed that the Army delivers.  The Army continues to deploy soldiers around the world including to Mali, Estonia, Poland, and Ukraine.  There has been a continued flow of thought into the Wavell Room.  From Brigaders to bombardiers, we’re still getting new and exciting ideas to publish every week.  The Army is very much alive and ready for these challenges.

Space and Air

Space has had a couple of ‘big bang’ moments of its own this year.  On 27 July the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force used its orbital bombardment system to deploy a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).  The second event was a successful Anti-Satellite Test launch by Russia.  The missile destroyed a satellite that had been in orbit since 1982 and released over 1500 pieces of space debris in the process.  These events should worry the Air and Space community more than they publicly appear to. 

The big ‘hello’ for the RAF took place on 1 April when UK Space Command was formed.  A joint command where suitably qualified personnel from all three Services can wear a ‘Space Operator’ brevet and get an ally badge. 

The relationship between military and commercial space operators continues to deepen.  The ultimate fusion of this took place on 13 October when Admiral James T Kirk (Ret’d), aka William Shatner, ventured into space courtesy of an Amazon delivery.  The commercial colonisation of space intensifies (with commercial appearing 27 times in the UK Space Strategy).  To date, SpaceX has deployed almost 2000 Starlink low earth orbit satellites and will re-commence its launch programme at the start of 2022.  Arguably Western space forces are already behind.  

Sentinal R1 aircraft. Photo: MOD.

2021 saw several goodbyes for the RAF.  Perhaps the greatest loss was felt to the ISTAR fleet with the final flights of the E3D AWACS and the Sentinel R1.  Both early retirements stretch the term ‘capability holiday’ to its limit.  Especially considering that three, and not five, E7 Wedgetails will replace them.  Next year, it will be the turn of the C130J to sashay away. 

From an operational perspective, RAF aircraft deployed on Op SHADER continued to support Iraqi Security Forces and saw the first combat operations carried out by F35s from 617 Squadron.

 The RAF announced its aim of becoming a carbon net balanced by 2040. Reliance on the commercial sector is key to achieving this. The advanced air mobility market is already well developed and the US Military’s Agility Prime Programme aims to field E-VTOL aircraft by 2023.  This ambition should keep the RAF ahead.  Or at least tunning with the pack.

At home, RAF personnel were deployed on Op RESCRIPT (COVID response) and the Air Mobility Force (AMF) delivered vaccines to Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and Antarctica on behalf of the FDCO.  The AMF was called upon to provide the airlift for Kabul.  C130, A400, and C17 aircraft evacuated over 15,000 people with one C17 carrying over 430 passengers.  A truly magnificent performance from across the force.  As has been pointed out, air mobility is air power.  

Notwithstanding a successful 2021, the RAF’s paradox is that by keeping pace with American air power, it will have to field increasingly expensive equipment in relatively small numbers (the UK has currently committed to buying fewer F35s than the Finnish Air Force).  What does the new CDS do? 

So what?

The defence budget will increase by £16B.  The money is there.  The thinking exists.  The real question: What does the nation want from Defence?  It seems clear to the Wavell Room that each service has its own vision.  Defence’s concepts seem clear.  But does it fit together?  You could dismiss these problems as ‘challenging’ and the remit of Admirals, Generals, and Air Marshals.  But that is not true.  

You have ideas.  We want to hear them.  In 2022, the Wavell Room will continue to expand its reach and join fresh thinkers with decision makers across Defence.  Your ideas matter.  Don’t underestimate just how much impact you can have.  So get writing, then get in touch.   

James Athow-Frost

James is an Officer in the Parachute Regiment and Co-Founder of the Wavell Room.

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