How the United Kingdom Can Confront Its Limited Capabilities
Budgeting for the future is always easier when you imagine a future that fits your budget. This, at least, was Britain’s approach when it drafted its global trends report in 2018. Now, several years into that imagined future, the limitations of such wishful thinking are becoming ever more clear. Rather than realistically confront its budget limitations, the British government remains committed to planning for an unrealistic scenario in which it can cut spending and reduce its conventional forces without sacrificing global military power. This approach not only calls into question the reliability of Britain’s future military capabilities but also reveals a critical flaw in the country’s strategic planning process.
Rather than propagating a vision of the future that does little more than preserve the United Kingdom’s national pride, there is a need to acknowledge the drawbacks that come with reduced conventional forces. To accomplish this, there is a need to insulate future planning from wider brand building and marketing exercises, and ensure these efforts focus on understanding challenges rather than endorsing pre-existing decisions. Moving forward, future planners should aggressively contest attempts to reframe capability cuts as changes in force structure. This will help ensure that the Britain’s decision makers are well aware of its growing battlefield limitations.
Like any government that aims to develop capabilities to meet future challenges, the United Kingdom requires a reasonably detailed and accurate understanding of the challenges it is likely to face. The U.K. Ministry of Defence sets out its vision of the future in its 2018 publication, the Global Strategic Trends report. This document speculates that the physical dimension of warfare may soon be eclipsed by the cognitive and moral dimensions of conflict. It additionally defines the future battlefield in a manner that emphasizes the need for the armed forces to adapt. Accordingly, the most recent integrated review stresses the additional funding that defense is likely to receive over the coming years, with the increasing spending designed to reverse the neglect of the past and invest heavily in research and new capabilities. For example, the report outlines cyberspace as particularly central. The construction of a National Cyber Centre, for example, serves as an indication that the United Kingdom believes offensive cyber operations represent an effective, more economical alternative to the use of conventional force. Concurrent investments in space further emphasize that the United Kingdom imagines fighting future wars with different tools. Not surprisingly, these are the aspects of warfare that are shown as increasingly significant in the United Kingdom’s imagined future operating environment.
The Global Strategic Trends report acknowledges, of course, that the United Kingdom may need to occasionally fight more conventional battles. Consistent with this recognition, the 2021 integrated review recommends the United Kingdom also allocate significant funds to the Royal Navy, as well as securing the aspects of British industry needed to support the fleet. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom appears to be banking rather heavily on fighting future conflicts with a small force backed up by cutting edge technology. Planners have attempted to rationalize the necessary cuts, for instance justifying reductions in workforce and equipment with reference to the importance of adapting to the increasingly technological nature of war. Even though the United Kingdom acknowledges it will not be able to maintain sufficient conventional forces to deter all potential threats, the Global Strategic Trends survey concludes that furthering integration with other nations and using new approaches to the battlefield and operations can help address this shortfall.
Why exactly has the United Kingdom soured on more conventional capabilities in favor of investing in new domains like space and cyber? For one thing, it is unlikely to be able to afford both. The capabilities emphasized in the planned force structure have additional benefits that make them appealing to a cash strapped nation, including lower overheads and possible ancillary benefits for the United Kingdom’s economy. Producing a conventional force capable of global action, if not entirely outside of the United Kingdom’s increasingly constrained budget, would entail significant sacrifices elsewhere.
This is of course nothing new: Economic realities always dictate the scale and nature of any nation’s military. The worrying trend here is the role that future planning plays in justifying these decisions and obscuring the real impact of cuts. The conclusions reached in relation to the future operating environment seem intended to cover up the United Kingdom’s financial constraints, rather than actively challenge decision-makers to adapt to future trends. The perceived need to market the armed forces as internationally capable risks deceiving the United Kingdom into thinking that it is adequately prepared. The problem is that Britain’s allies and adversaries are unlikely to be deceived. An earnest and open discussion on the future could have a negative impact on all kinds of things — morale, recruitment, and reputation not least among them. But it is still better than self-deception.
In imagining a future the United Kingdom can afford, the Global Trends Survey has engaged in two forms of wishful thinking. First, it downplays the costs of the new technologies it anticipates. Then it exaggerates their likely strategic impact.
Even where the documents envisions modest increases in funding, questions about affordability have been raised. This is a problem, given that reorienting the U.K. armed forces to meet the emergent domains of warfighting identified by Global Strategic Trends will certainly be a capital-intensive process. The 24 billion British pounds ($32.8 billion) increase quoted in the defense spending review may perhaps be closer to a more modest 7 billion pound increase by 2024–2025. Even without the Defense Ministry’s creative accounting, the hit to the U.K. economy following COVID and rising inflation may result in this proposed increase rapidly dissolving in real terms. There is then the question as to whether the spending commitment will do anything to address the neglect in previous years.
There is also the risk that the government’s expenditures will not bring the benefits it anticipates. Not only does the United Kingdom have a poor record of bringing new technology and equipment into service, but much of the funds allocated for research into new capabilities are highly speculative investments. The United Kingdom will likely face Chinese dominance in some emergent areas of warfare. this means that investment in information and cyber technologies, though vital, means spending money in domains where potential adversaries are particularly strong. Moreover, while the U.K. defense establishment considers spending in these areas to be cost effective, adversaries are also aware of this and will invest accordingly.
The extent to which these new capabilities can offset the loss of concrete and established capabilities is also uncertain. As many pieces of older equipment age out of service, a clear schedule for replacements is often difficult to determine. The United Kingdom may keenly feel these losses, given that it may see its forces deployed more frequently and for longer periods. There is even space to question many of the more tangible assets the United Kingdom is going to maintain. On paper, the Royal Navy was a significant winner in the latest integrated review, with its future capabilities slated for a substantial boost. Though these plans have led some to suggest Britain is seeking to rebuild its imperial glory, the reality of the situation may be somewhat different. A recent Defence Committee report concluded that delays and persistent neglect limit the real offensive capability of the United Kingdom’s vessels. What’s more, the vision of the army described in the 2021 Future Soldier Guide involves the loss of around 20 percent of the country’s infantry forces. Based in these changes, the United Kingdom would struggle to commit a real force to even the limited “wars of choice” it anticipates.
When planning is condensed into systematic processes, executed by professional bodies, there is always the risk of government or military decision-makers co-opting the process for their own purposes. It is all too easy to contrive a vision of the future that can justify any force structure. Too much proximity between future planners and the government can cause doctrine to devolve into a marketing exercise. To succeed, the United Kingdom should insulate the futures process from other priorities and ensure that the process is not used purely to rationalize reductions to capability or spending.
Moving forward, future planners should engage more honestly with the types of problems the United Kingdom will struggle to confront with its limited conventional capabilities. While it is beyond the scope of this article to construct an alternative vision of the future of the same scale and detail as the one set forth in U.K. doctrine, it is possible to indicate some possibilities that would seriously challenge the United Kingdom’s proposed force structure. The future holds many exciting possibilities, but the U.K. armed forces may still have to operate in the same manner as they have in the past. This could present an insurmountable challenge given the proposed changes to U.K. force structure, especially if the United Kingdom does not in fact continue to enjoy a technological edge. The same technologies the United Kingdom alleges will offset its declining troop numbers will also be used by its adversaries in the future. It is important to acknowledge that should the United Kingdom’s future soldiers face adversaries with comparable equipment and training, then it may well be numbers that carry the day. Moreover, there has been little discussion of how a smaller, more technologically capable force would react to the requirement to conduct multiple concurrent operations, or the capacity for such a force to overcome losses or disasters. Setbacks of this nature are foreseeable, yet there is little indication that the United Kingdom can address these problems with its reduced physical presence.
Ultimately, were the United Kingdom to envision a more hostile and threatening future, this would reveal the negative repercussions of failing to invest in more established warfighting domains. Facing up this future might initially force the United Kingdom to confront its declining capacity. But this experience need not be entirely negative. The United Kingdom will certainly struggle to maintain a reasonably sized conventional military, and even if it invests in the cyber and space domains, it is unlikely to match the spending of both adversaries and allies alike. Acknowledging the true scale of the challenge could lead the United Kingdom to seek out more creative routes forward. Rather than replicating the course that other, more capable nations are taking on a smaller scale, engaging with the limitations that the United Kingdom is facing could spur the nation to find new options for offsetting its weaknesses.
There are, of course, no ideal solutions when faced with a problem of this nature, but acknowledging it is a crucial first step. One route might see the United Kingdom take a more reactive approach, orientating its limited resources around its adversaries’ weaknesses as they emerge. Another controversial solution could be to specialize in a single domain of warfighting, rather than try and keep up across the entire spectrum of both established and emergent domains. Whatever path the United Kingdom chooses, accepting the uncomfortable truth about its limited capabilities will be far more productive in the long run.
Chris Morris is a lecturer in professional military education for the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. All views expressed do not necessarily represent those of his institution.