14 September 2020

The centre must reassert control over our underpowered armed forces

By Jonathon Kitson

Under the shadow of Covid-19, Britain’s Ministry of Defence, armed forces, and overall foreign policy have all quietly reached a crunch point.

The MoD is broke, saddled with an unaffordable Equipment Plan. The gap between planned expenditure and funds available over the next decade is anywhere from £5 billion to £20 billion.

The Army, meanwhile, has shrunk to the size of a capacity crowd at one of the country’s larger football stadiums. It is crippled by the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Russia and China have spent prodigiously and often intelligently, upgrading their forces, Britain is stuck with obsolete equipment intended for the type of wars it no longer wishes to fight. Ham-fisted cuts have removed much of the capability to rapidly deploy even the sub-standard kit the army has.

The Royal Navy is overstretched and burdened with aircraft carriers it cannot independently support and protect. Thanks to a recruitment crisis, it cannot fully man the few remaining frigates and destroyers it has available to carry out its standing tasks.

The Royal Air Force is the least damaged of the three, just so long as a high-intensity war doesn’t expose its lack of mass and shortages of key missiles.

At the core of the problem is the unsettling reality that no one is quite sure what Britain is for on the global stage. Everyone agrees that the Blairite dream of liberal interventionism died a death somewhere between Basra Airport and Camp Bastion, yet it remains very unclear what comes next.

To lift the strategic fog, last year Boris Johnson announced an ‘Integrated Review’ of foreign policy, defence, and national security. Its publication has been delayed by the same coronavirus that has killed off any chance of a significant funding uplift for the military. Instead, prioritisation is now the order of the day.

The rise of Russia

The Russian threat to Nato ought to be the starting point for all European defence policy-making, just as the Chinese threat to US control over the Pacific is coming to dominate America’s national security discourse. The wars in Georgia (2008) Ukraine (2014) and Syria have all served notice of Russia’s willingness to use force and its rapidly-improving capacity to do so effectively. Nato, the alliance that guarantees the UK and Europe’s security, is viewed in Moscow as an existential threat. Presented with an opportunity, Russian policymakers could well seize a chance to conduct a limited war designed to test and ultimately break Nato’s mutual security pact.

In 1998, the time of the last major British defence review, it seemed the Russian threat was gone for good. Since then, a key plank of Vladimir Putin’s leadership has been reforming and modernising Russia’s once creaking military, which has benefited from funding of $159 billion a year (purchasing power parity adjusted).

Reliance on conscripts has decreased. Readiness has improved across the board. Obsolete Soviet-era equipment has been upgraded or replaced. Russian air defence systems can now credibly nullify NATO airpower, while on the ground Russian brigades have their European counterparts outgunned and outranged. At sea, hyper-stealthy diesel-powered submarines threaten to devastate Nato surface ships, while modernised Russian frigates and corvettes are stacked with anti-ship and ground-strike missiles.

Russia’s return to military pre-eminence should not be surprising, as this represents no more than the return to the status quo. The post-Soviet chaos that did so much damage to Russia’s institutions should be viewed as the historical exception, not the norm, and there is no good reason to think that Russia’s relations with the West will improve under any plausible successor to Putin. From the war in Crimea, Russia elites will have learned that successful military adventurism can be an enormous boost to domestic popularity, while the consequent economic isolation is manageable.

What should modernisation look like?

Once Russia is clearly understood as the problem, solutions to some of Britain’s military modernisation dilemmas become clearer. On the modern battlefield, artillery is often the decisive factor, as Russia showed in Ukraine, and Turkey recently illustrated in spectacular fashion at Idlib. Sensors of unprecedented fidelity and quantity allow for far more precise artillery targeting, rendering ineffective traditional methods of camouflage. Yet here, in this most vital aspect of war, the British Army is hopelessly outmatched. Its entire artillery collection now compares rather unfavourably to the fires available to a single Russian motor rifle brigade.

Without artillery modernisation, no British force could hope to compete in a war against a serious enemy. Furthermore, the Army is in desperate need of vastly improved electronic warfare and short-range air defence capabilities, to hide its vehicles from enemy sensors. To pay for this, there will have to be severe cuts to beloved infantry regiments, many of which lack the necessary artillery, tanks, logistics, and medical support. The future is a smaller but more potent force, with the potential to grow once the bulk of the modernisation effort is completed.

Russian military doctrine stresses the importance of the quick win, since a long war favours Nato. The British Army may have to move itself across Europe in a very short timeframe to prevent a fait accompli. A snap exercise would reveal that we could not do this today even at brigade level. No British Prime Minister should accept any assurances from Army leadership until they divert funds towards rebuilding the Army’s capability to move itself swiftly by road and rail, and demonstrate that division-level movement of men and material can be done in a few days.

At sea, the Russian threat demands a return to anti-submarine warfare and the GIUK gap. This will end the Navy’s dreams of “carrier enabled power projection”, but it was already struggling to put together a credible carrier battle group. One of Britain’s two floating airports should be sold, while still new, and the other operated part-time. The oldest five of the Type 23 frigates, which lack modern sonar, should be retired.

If necessary, the Type 31 general purpose frigate project should be cancelled and the money diverted to building up Britain’s submarine fleet. The global market can supply modern conventionally powered submarines with lithium-iron battery technology for 30-50% of the cost of a frigate or a nuclear-powered attack submarine. Crewing requirements are much lower and the boats are much harder to detect, especially in coastal waters.

The UK already boasts some very valuable anti-submarine assets in the form of its Maritime Patrol Aircraft, and if policymakers accept that Britain does not have the funds for full-spectrum capabilities, we should aim to build on our existing strengths. In the air, our strength is the nascent F-35 fleet, one of very few aircraft capable of operating within the reach of Russia’s air defence systems. Every effort should be made to acquire something close to 100 airframes, even if this has to be paid for by selling or scrapping some of the less capable Eurofighter Typhoons currently in service. The RAF’s over-ambitious plans for a British-built Typhoon replacement (“Tempest”) should be killed off and the programme reoriented towards the production of an unmanned combat air vehicle – an innovative but much cheaper end result.

One might well ask, at this point, how the armed forces got themselves into this awful state. Austerity is not the sole cause. Stable political and military leadership has been absent: there have been ten Defence Secretaries since 2005, and turnover in senior military posts is also unacceptably rapid.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and successive Service Chiefs have striven to exploit the absence of clear political leadership to build their own mini-empire as best they can in the few years they have in post. No one, in the current system, has an incentive to care about long-term affordability and coherent force structure. It is time for the centre to reassert control. War has become too expensive to be left to the generals.

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Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.