Feature – Muddling Through With British Defence Won’t Cut It

Soldiers March at Dawn. Ministry of Defence, UK.

British defence is in trouble and the world is watching. In this era of cost-cutting, budgetary overruns, Cabinet discord, and divisive departmental politics there is growing disparity between what we ask of our Armed Forces and the resources we give them to defend Britain and its Overseas Territories. The cracks are opening and widening. Gaps are becoming more and more visible. 

The United States is anxious, as too are senior members of the British military. General Sir Nick Carter recently announced at the Royal United Services Institute that the British Army’s ability to respond to threats “will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries.” In a rare turn of events, the speech was approved by newly appointed Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson MP, and comes in response to growing speculation of potential further cuts to defence. 

The speech is nearly a year on from when the National Audit Office warned that the MoD ‘Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026’ may no longer be economically viable. Conclusions that were reinforced by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee report in December 2017 which highlighted “serious doubts” about the viability of the same programme. As budgetary pressures grow ever stronger, and potential further cuts loom large, the time is ripe for a holistic reassessment of Britain’s military footprint. 

Overstretched military footprints are an old problem. Paul Kennedy identified the challenges of ‘imperial overstretch’ in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It was the final section of this book that was on the waning power of the United States that drew the most attention. In this section, Kennedy described the concept of ‘imperial overstretch’ as Washington facing up to “the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously”. The parallels between this depiction of the US’ military commitments and the state of affairs of Britain’s current global military footprint are troubling. 

According to a House of Commons Library report on the key issues of 2017, “British Forces are currently involved in more than 30 operations in over 20 countries, protecting Britain and its interests and promoting security in key regions of the world”. How many of these countries would be easily nameable?

Most could likely identify the ongoing coalition operation in Syria. Some may hesitate to guess that there are still presences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps a few may identify British defence forces along NATO’s eastern front as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence. Yet how many more of these 30 operations roll off the tongue? 

Places The UK Military is Currently Deployed. Ministry of Defence, UK

Britain has currently deployed 350 military personnel in South Sudan, 160 in the Caribbean and the government also committed to deploying up to 100 troops to Somalia. This is not to question the merits of humanitarian aid, but to question the role of military personnel being used as part of these operations when there are more pressing strategic needs. 

These figures may not appear high in the context of a military with over 190,000 service personnel. However, personnel are the most expensive part of defence spending. In 2017 they made up 27.3% of the defence budget and accounted for roughly £9.6 billion. It is thus crucial to ensure that when such a significant proportion of resources are devoted to troop wages and overheads that those troops are being deployed in the right places. Every wastage stopped frees up resources to be strategically reallocated. 

This is not to suggest that Britain should not be involved in Africa, but rather that it should be more strategically minded when doing so. For example, reallocating these troops to lend further support to the Nigerian government in their counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram would be a good start. This would help to reinforce the ongoing crucial strategic partnership with Nigeria and the wider British fight against terrorism. 

We like to think of ourselves as strong, influential and global, and don’t just take my word for it: the British government uses the exact same three words in their 2015 National Security Strategy. Three traits that suggest that Britain should be involved in overseas operations where their interests are concerned, but it is what constitutes these ‘interests’ that remains contentious.

The argument in favour of having mini-deployments all over the globe, as in the current British policy, is that they have a disproportionately positive impact. That by spreading forces thinly we achieve various smaller diplomatic, influence and image-based victories in a variety of places which cumulatively amounts to a greater effect. 

Such logic is spurious, however. This is quite simply not the case. Experience shows us that overstretched forces are less than the sum of their parts. Secondly, even if these mini-deployments did have a disproportionate impact, they are not worth the dilution of Britain’s principal commitments. In a world of extremely limited resources, especially for defence, prioritisation of interests is key to ensuring effective outcomes. Prioritising Britain’s key strategic interests over the peripheral ones will ensure maximising the effectiveness of these limited means. 

An example of one such peripheral interest is the two jungle training environments for the British Army: one in Belize and one in Brunei. These have their merits as they build fitness, morale and prepare troops to fight in jungle environments. Yet, how many states against whom Britain would have the interest to act militarily are in the jungle? 

The resource problem is less pronounced in the case of Brunei as the Sultan pays for the troops while they are deployed, but the act of sending troops to these bases does still drain government resources. More worryingly, these troops are still being sent to train in an environment that it is extremely unlikely that they will ever need to fight in. 

Another example of a questionable allocation of military resources is the British deployment of 261 troops to monitor the UN buffer zone in Cyprus. They are monitoring a conflict that ended 44 years ago. There are a total of 833 contingent troops stationed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission and Britain’s contribution is only 4 less than the top contributor of troops in terms of numbers: Argentina. One might think that perhaps this is because Cyprus is in Europe and it should thus be predominately a European problem. Yet Britain is the only European contributor of forces at all, save for 2 troops contributed on behalf of Ukraine. There are of course merits to being a loyal participant in UN peacekeeping operations, but can that not be achieved by allocating a deployment similar to that of Ukraine? 

Guard tower monitoring the UN buffer zone in Cyprus. 

In the European context, as the Russian threat to NATO becomes more and more immediate there will be greater pressure to bolster the defence of the alliance. One might think that the 1,100 troops currently deployed as part of that NATO Enhanced Forward Presence sounds sufficient, but to do so would be to seriously underestimate the severity of the Russian threat.

NATO’s estimate for the number of troops that participated in the latest Russian ‘ZAPAD’ military exercise was 60,000-70,000. As General Sir Nick Carter recently pointed out in his speech at the Royal United Services Institute: Russia’s “conventional military posture gives them a calculable military advantage”. To put it bluntly, the Russian threat is more immediate a national security concern than those underpinning the aforementioned mini-deployments. It is geographically closer and threatens not just a vague assortment of British interests, but the very survival of Britain as a nation-state. 

When the RAND corporation conducted war games in 2014 “across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga is 60 hours”. To put that in perspective, Pskov in Russia is near both the Estonian and Latvian borders: to travel from Pskov to Riga via public transport takes roughly 14 hours. This is only a quarter of the time it would apparently take the Russian military. 

It is not just NATO that could be bolstered by the more efficient redistribution of these personnel. The 80 currently deployed in the South Mediterranean could be boosted by this additional manpower to support ongoing EU operations to counter illegal people trafficking. As the Syrian civil war enters its next phase and the spillover into Iraq creates greater tension, the British troops providing training and equipment to Iraqi Security Forces have a vital role in securing regional stability. They too could benefit from additional resources. 

When there is a noticeable gap between funding and resources there are of course two ways to close the gap: either you increase funding or you reduce commitments. Yet to suggest that the British government will be able to allocate more resources to the military at a time when Brexit dominates the political landscape, the NHS is in a funding crisis and the Ministry of Defence continues to deal with the mounting costs of the aircraft carriers, is fanciful. Budgetary pressures are simply too strong. Commitments will have to give. 

With limited budgets and a stretched global footprint, it is time to seriously reassess the allocation of resources across the British military. If we don’t then the Armed Forces are, as Paul Kennedy said, “likely to overstrain themselves, like an old man attempting to work beyond his natural strength.” The time for public debate is now, because the status quo of muddling through is quite simply no longer good enough.

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