Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
At the start of 2018, I wrote an editorial for my newsletter, Defence Analysis. Being one’s own boss is good, as you can indulge yourself with puns, or seeing if you can get song titles into articles about defence and the like. But despite such self-indulgence, I had had an epiphany, a real light bulb moment about UK defence, defence budgets, planning, and outputs, and it suited a song title, in this case, Meatloaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”. This “equation” as I call it, maps incredibly well to the defence planning/output of the UK -but it does actually map across pretty much every other MoD/Service.
The equation is simple:
“A Defence Ministry, or an individual Service has three choices for the shape of its future forces, but can only have two of these. The choices are: scale, global reach, capability.”
Scale is force size: say a large division, a large carrier group plus an amphibious warfare group, or a large air wing (50-60+, heavily weighted towards fighters/fighter-bombers) of combat aircraft.
Global reach is as it looks: it would be the ability to deploy and sustain forces near-indefinitely (almost) anywhere in the World.
Capability is whether your forces are high-tech, equipment-centric, capable of fighting at the highest level of peer-on-peer, or near-peer level, or whether they are more shaped towards counter-insurgency.
The problem was that in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Services in effect told the politicians and the Treasury that on the forecast budget, they could afford to do high scale, global, high capability warfighting. The Army, apparently, was told by the US Army that if it couldn’t operate at the division level, on a global-type basis, then it would lose relevance to the Americans; the Royal Navy was, apparently, told that if it couldn’t do serious carrier operations for three carrier stations globally, then it would lose importance and relevance with/for the US Navy; and the Royal Air Force …. – you get the picture. And this belief has continued into the 2021 Integrated Review and the Defence Command White Paper, as does the belief that the UK will somehow be ostracised if it doesn’t try to cover every base.
But as any sentient being knows, with ongoing budget black holes (please: if everything is so bright, why is there stagnation inside MoD procurement?), this pledge/promise was, and is simply unachievable – and under any reasonable projection of GDP and spending, won’t be raised either. That has to be said right now. But the “equation” explains why the UK is in the hole it is in, and the same questions will get the UK out, at the “expense” of being realistic about ambition.
Those who argue “just” for a rise in the defence budget would say, “Look at the Cold War: the UK spent 4%, 5%, 6% of GDP – that’s what we need to aim for! Then we will get the forces that we really need.” This is possibly true – except that it ignores the facts of history. Let us go back to the 1970s and 1980s to truly understand what a defence budget double the proportion spent today actually got the UK ….
A small diversion that helps explain what happened around the time of the 1960s-70s. Prior to the “Withdrawal from East of Suez” in 1971, the UK did, indeed, have a global footprint. Many reading this will never necessarily have cause to know that aside from brigade deployments in places such as Cyprus, there were similar deployments in Aden/Yemen, Oman, Singapore, Hong Kong, with battalion-sized bases in half a dozen or more areas. The RAF had, or had access to airbases across the globe, and the same for the Royal Navy (worth recalling that soon after marriage, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip lived in Malta, a major RN base at the time). But these forces were, basically, low tech. The basic kit of an infantryman was pretty much what it had been in 1945; RN escorts were not that much different from their 1945 equivalents, and many were the same ships! And even if a Hawker Hunter was an advance on a Spitfire, it was still closing to use guns/cannon.
But the mid-1960s-early-1970s saw a military technology revolution. It might be a stretch to call it “The Electronics Revolution”, bearing in mind what has come over the past two decades, but it was its start. The data for ships’ costs sees old-generation gun escorts starting to be replaced by missile-armed ones, and the costs rise dramatically. The same equation – there is not a single date where everything changes, but roughly a 10-12-year period where this occurs – is seen in land and air equipment. While early-model Centurion tanks were analogous in cost to a Comet, Chieftain saw a cost rise in an order of magnitude, the same with fighters.
So what? Well, one can bring together the withdrawal from East of Suez, and this rise in the cost of equipment. Whether it was understood as explicitly as this at the time can be questioned. But the reason for the Withdrawal was primarily due to the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, and it was obvious that to counter this, getting suntans in Aden was not the answer – the Forces had to go high-tech (at a high cost), while losing global reach. It is incredibly difficult not to see how the “military technology revolution” maps onto the Withdrawal from East of Suez.
As a result, the UK’s military ambitions and shape were simple: the Army and RAF would have a near-complete focus on North West Europe, the RN would be primarily focussed on the North Atlantic. However, for the time, the UK’s forces were actually a) quite large for the population of the country (and there was no conscription), b) and were shaped to conduct enduring operations in the case of World War Three (assuming things didn’t go nuclear too quickly), in a way matched by few other members of NATO. In effect, the UK had selected two out of the three aims/ambitions: the country had chosen scale and capability over reach.
“But what about the Falklands?”, the cry will come! “We deployed a division 6,000-miles away, and won!” True – in so far as it goes. First, the scale was quite small: 20,000+ soldiers, sailors, and airmen might look large today, but this was about 7-8% of the total UK defence manpower at the time. Second, it was, to be honest, a bit of a “come-as-you-are-party”, done on a shoestring, fraught with danger. Thirdly, it only succeeded because there was a navy with enough residual capability to project the forces. As one small exception to Defence Analysis’s “two out of three” rule: although the other Services were NW Europe-focussed, the RN still had a partial global role – think the Armilla Patrol as one example in the early-mid-1980s. Fourthly, it was not an enduring operation: forces left theatre rapidly after victory. Fifthly, compared to what could have happened in Europe, it was pretty low tech across the piece.
A few other examples about the UK’s ambition in the 1970s and 1980s: even the Royal Marines did not have a complete set of cold weather kit when it was mobilised for the Falklands, and neither the Paras nor the Guards/Ghurkhas had much/any cold weather gear – the planning/ambition was for a small brigade, that’s it. 1990, and guess how much desert camo the UK held? Enough for a battlegroup. Even by 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, even with Exercise Saif Sareea 18-months prior, the UK did not have enough desert camo for the force deployed. Reach, operating at any scale outside of NW Europe? Not required, not necessary.
And for those who will say that 2003 invasion of Iraq shows that the UK could do high tech/intensity, large scale, global operations, consider: the deployment was in a benign environment, timelines were over many months, rather than weeks, and the drawdown after the break-in battle was rapid, as the UK could neither sustain, nor afford it, nor had planned for operations on that scale. 2003 in Iraq shows, actually, yet again that this type of operations – global, large scale, with a high intensity force – was not part of the UK’s defence planning and posture, as, possibly sub-consciously, people knew it was neither possible, nor affordable.
This analysis, I believe, shows the “explanation” element of the equation, and I feel that it does show what the “Art Of The Possible” is/was in the 1970s and 1980s. Equally, it provides a template against which a 4-6% of GDP spend on defence “got”. By-the-way, for those who say that the actual cash spent in those times doesn’t compare with the equivalent today: equipment cost, on a like-for-like basis, less than half what it does today, pay for personnel were far lower, on a like-for-like basis than those of today.
So, now let us look at the issue of how the “equation” can be used to get the UK out of the defence morass that is in today. So, some guidance as to how this equation can help UK (and other nations’) defence planners today ….
The UK could go back to the 1970s/1980s, and have high-tech, large(ish) forces (although the days of an Army of 160,000 are gone, long gone) – just not globally deployable, meaning that they are tied to Europe and the North Atlantic. Or, the future forces could be high tech, globally-deployable, but not at a large scale – swap brigade for division, maybe a handful of battlegroups, squadron for air wing, one small surface task force, certainly not two, and maybe even not as “strong” as these levels. Or, the future forces could be globally-deployable, in some scale, but not with enduring capacity, especially not at the highest intensity end – call them large-scale counter-insurgency or intervention forces.
More specifically, as an MoD can only have two out of three, what if the UK MoD is to have the infamous Indo-Pacific Tilt? But if that’s “reach”, what gives from the other two? Well, either the UK will have a good number of OPVs – of no use in a shooting war, unless as a decoy for an Asian Navy’s anti-ship missiles, or the RN would be able to deploy and sustain a single FF/DD, at a time when mass is understood to be important. All of this against the backdrop of Ukraine, and what this tells us about defence…
Which do you want? To repeat, put simply, the UK cannot, and will not be able to afford to choose three out of three capabilities – and the past decade and more just proves this. Even were you to reach 5% of GDP, pursuing upgrades to all three capabilities, simultaneously, is unaffordable – unless you have an economy the size of the United States, and can spend hundreds and hundreds of billions. And the evidence of the Cold War is that it wasn’t affordable then. Actually, even the US military have to balance their budget between capabilities: they are unable to follow simultaneous modernisation across all Services. And if they can’t do it…
To be fair, the RN could have an Indo-Pacific tilt, and could be high-tech, but what would give is the mass? And if Russia is as much of a threat as the MoD/RN is talking up, then show-boating in the Pacific is of no use for the nation.
And one might note that the RAF is waking up to the fact that in fighter terms, it could well be smaller than the Spanish and/or German air forces quite soon. If it is to get mass back – and I would agree that a far from well-managed Typhoon force hovering around 100 is not enough – well, modern fighters are expensive, so what gives? Reach.
The Army is likely to have to consider a permanent tasking of a full battlegroup to Estonia (as opposed to a battlegroup minus), as well as another in/around Poland. Actually, if Germany and France can now talk about permanently (for the time being) committed brigades to East Europe, the pressure on the UK to do the same will rise. In which case, for the best reasons, the Army becomes committed (in military terms, “fixed”) to Europe. If it is to be high-tech, global reach gets pruned.
So, Ministers, Admirals, Generals, Air Marshals, sit down, and work out your choice of two capabilities, for that is all you will get. Anyone trying to say that they have to have all three will be asked to leave the room and given a sheet of paper onto which they can write their resignation letter. You pretended last time that you could get everything within budget – and that is why the country is in such a defence pickle.
Francis Tusa is a defence journalist of over 20 years' experience. Starting at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, covering both Middle East defence and European defence topics, he branched out as a freelance writer on a wide range of defence and security matters. He has written for the Guardian, Times, Financial Times, Middle East Economic Digest, as well as for specialist defence publications including Defense News .