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Rethinking British Military Policy

The debate prompted by the “refresh” of the 2022 United Kingdom Integrated Review is striking for the strong sense of déjà-vu it engenders.  None of the principal issues at the heart of the debate are new.  For centuries British defence policy has hinged on the same basic questions:

  1.     Does the UK best defend its interests by focusing on Europe or the rest of the globe?
  2.     What can the UK do to promote the security of its continental European allies?
  3.     What purpose would a ground force on the European continent serve?
  4.     How should the UK balance the need to invest in defence with its need to invest in its own economy?

Post-1945, two more questions have become relevant:

  1.     To what extent can the UK rely on the United States to defend it and Europe?
  2.     What is the value of nuclear deterrence compared to conventional capabilities?

The policy swings that have marked British policy have resulted, to a large extent, from disagreement about the answers to these questions.  Thus, in the immediate post-war years, the British Government eschewed committing land forces to defend Europe because such a policy did not work well in 1914 and 1940.  Then, the policy was to retain a robust presence in the Middle East where, it was thought, Britain could contribute more to defending European and British interests than sustaining a significant presence on the European continent.  Roughly a decade later, the UK reversed this by committing several divisions on the Rhine.  The Falklands War made British policy-makers rediscover expeditionary capabilities and the need to be able to do things other than NATO-specific missions, causing the UK to reassess once again what kind of military it needed. 

Some things have changed

Of course, some things have changed.  The UK’s estimation of the strategic importance of the Middle East has waned significantly; there is much less commitment to having a presence “East of Suez,” and, most importantly, there is no more Empire to defend.  Nonetheless, there remains a consensus regarding some things.  The country’s security depends on that of Europe; it cannot afford to maintain a major land force on the European continent; and its economy depends on overseas trade.  Finally, even if Great Britain only retains a handful of minor possessions “East of Suez,” China’s rise gives the Indo-Pacific, and its sea lanes, has undeniable strategic significance.  So where does that leave British military policy?

China, a dragon with clay feet?
China, a dragon with clay feet?

Both the 2022 Integrated Review (IR 2022) and its 2023 “refresh” attempt to balance Britain’s European interests and the Indo-Pacific.  The gist of the IR 2022, and perhaps more precisely the associated Command Paper, is that Britain must maintain its nuclear deterrence, notwithstanding the large portion of the defence budget it consumes.  British land forces, though necessarily small, need to be flexible and more or less capable of anything.  The British Government never knows when they might be needed, where, or to do what.  In other words, rather than designing a force for a specific purpose, Britain imagines a force designed without defining its purpose.  That complicates planning, even about things like what kinds of vehicles it needs and with what capabilities.  Although the war in Ukraine has begged questions about the utility of a small army given the need for mass, the 2023 “refresh” has no answer.  Perhaps because a mass army is out of the question, politically speaking, at least.  It might help the debate if we address the questions above directly.

Does the UK best defend its interests by focusing on Europe or the rest of the globe?

Regrettably, the answer appears to be “both.” As it always has been.

What can the UK do to promote the security of its continental European allies?

This, perhaps, is the most interesting question.  The thinking that led to the British Army on the Rhine was informed by the conviction that Western Europe would struggle to defend itself against the Soviets and that a large British military presence would bolster France and keep the Americans committed.  Of course, the belief then was that the purpose of ground forces was to hold the line long enough for politicians to respond before any war went nuclear.  Some things have changed.  Russia is a threat.  But it is not the threat that the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact represented.  Moreover, today, Poland is on a trajectory to be a major land power, plus Finland and Sweden are on-side and committed to spending a lot of money.  France has its limitations (mass) but boasts a top-tier military.  Germany?  It is hard to say how serious Germany is about getting the Bundeswehr into shape.  But the point is that the threat is diminished while European capabilities have grown in relative terms. Therefore, the argument for a British military large enough to keep divisions on the Rhine while conducting “out of area” operations has become less compelling.

What purpose would a ground force on the European continent serve?

British divisions would always be welcome.  However, their necessity is not clear and it is not realistic for Britain to maintain a large force alongside the other capabilities required.  At most, one is back to the model of the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, which was useful, to be sure, but arguably not decisive.  The Force contributed to the Allied victory while leaving the bulk of the responsibility on the Western Front on French shoulders.  Meanwhile, the Royal Navy kept the Imperial Navy largely bottled up, which was essential for Britain and France’s economy and made it possible for the Americans to deploy and sustain enormous forces.  The Royal Navy also enabled Britain and its allies to conduct “out of area” operations in other theatres.  Whether these operations contributed to victory can be debated, but at the very least, the Royal Navy allowed Britain to manoeuvre globally. 

How should the UK balance the need to invest in defence with its need to invest in its own economy?

This is difficult to answer. The Integrated Review is right to emphasise the need to invest in the British economy’s strengths, especially now that BREXIT arguably puts some of the economy at risk.  Also, a declining British economy means less resources for defence spending.  It used to be true that defence spending helped the British economy because of the industrial jobs it created and the extent to which it fuelled technological innovation.  Now that the industrial base has withered, the UK is obliged to buy more of its arms abroad and it is less true.  In any case, defence spending must remain within the limits policymakers define.

To what extent can the UK rely on the United States to defend it and Europe?

Some bad news: Britons, like all Europeans, must consider that the US commitment to defending Europe is not a given.  There is rising isolationism on the American political right, with some questioning President Joe Biden’s support for Ukraine.  Over the next few years, this may damage the cohesion of NATO and America’s commitment.  French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for greater European autonomy are valid and they apply equally to the UK.  This means Europeans have no choice but to spend more on defence.  And yes, Britain would do well to buy European-made equipment, if not British kit.

What is the value of nuclear deterrence compared to conventional capabilities?

It has become clear that nuclear weapons do not preclude the possibility even of large conventional wars.  Perhaps we will never see another total war in Europe sustained through full mobilisation.  But wars large and destructive enough to break the West’s highly capable but small militaries and devastate their economies now appear plausible.  This by no means suggests abandoning nuclear capabilities.  Not having nuclear weapons means one can be blackmailed by countries that have them.  There is no putting that genie back in its bottle.  The other risk associated with letting conventional capabilities wither is that it makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely. 

This Trident Submarine is a Nuclear powered vessel contributing to NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Credit: MOD

The above suggests that the Integrated Review “refresh” remains roughly on the right track.  Britain needs a strong navy and air force.  It needs a “go anywhere, do anything” military, suggesting it abstain from tailoring its forces for one specific mission, such as fighting Russia on the European continent.  That is Poland’s vocation.  It should also be the Germans’.  Britain should focus on how to help its continental allies by means other than deploying large ground forces.  One way, an echo of the UK’s former emphasis on the Middle East, would be to contribute to the fight on Russia’s flanks, i.e. the Arctic and the Baltic coast.  Investments in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are more likely to be decisive than large ground formations. The Navy has the advantage of being useful in the Indo-Pacific. 

Another way is helping to keep frontline countries supplied, as Britain has been doing for Ukraine.  This raises another challenge that may be more crucial than how many tanks the British Army has: industrial capacity.  The problem is less the number of tanks or any other item in the UK’s inventory but rather its ability to make more while furnishing allies.  Recent new orders for NLAWs are encouraging but only represent a start.  Perhaps investing in surplus industrial capacity, which is costly, is a more sensible approach than investing in inventory.

Michael Shurkin
 | Website

Michael Shurkin is a former senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.  He is currently an independent security analyst.

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