Over the past few months, the UK Government has been conducting an Integrated Security and Defence Review, said to be the largest since the end of the Cold War. At its core, its aim is to modernise the armed forces. It comes at somewhat of a defining moment for the UK with the main components of its foreign policy shifting. Brexit means an end to EU membership and the ‘special relationship’ with the United States is under pressure. The review essentially aims to set out national security interests and the subsequent plans for promoting and defending them.
The reasons for a review like this are twofold; to evaluate Britain’s place in the world and to assess the capabilities of military hardware in dealing with and adapting to, emerging threats. There are challenges in the face of the review, political mandates often hinder real change and the ever-present budget issues are especially problematic now. Concerns have been raised over how future budgets will be affected as a result of economic pressures.
In an attempt to meet the drastically changing face of modern warfare, technology, automated warfare, cyber, space and Artificial Intelligence capabilities are at the forefront of this review. Reports that the Challenger II tanks are to be axed have been heavily refuted, but cuts are likely. Head of the Army, General Sir Mark Carlton Smith has stated the diminishing role of heavy armour in modern warfare. This is an unprecedented shift in military thinking, the importance and significance of which should not be underestimated. Personnel could also be taking a considerable hit, reducing troops by 20,000 is a possibility. Of course we will not know the full extent of the plan until the review is over later this year.
It is easy to think that a reduction in military hardware mentioned above would diminish the power, influence and international role of the UK. However this should not be the case, it is about adapting and shifting focus elsewhere onto capabilities that can combat emerging threats. Tanks and traditional soldiers play no role in cyber or information warfare. Cuts are necessary in order to injected the saved money into new capabilities.
Despite inevitable cuts to traditional military hardware, the UK’s international role is still fairly secure. It still has a nuclear deterrent and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Critics can rightly or wrongly make comments about firepower, but that does not take away from the leading diplomatic role the UK plays internationally. Its military capabilities do need to match its place on the international stage however.
That being said, Brexit and the economic downturn caused by the pandemic is putting a real strain on the UK’s ability to meet its 2% of GDP defence budget. This puts further pressure on its relationship with the US, who have quite rightly been stricter on NATO members spending 2% of GDP on their military budget. NATO and the UK are also struggling to address China and its strategic investments in Europe and the Middle East. As well as modernising the military, a focus on trade and prosperity to increase the UKs soft power is as important as ever.
Yet again, the Government have an unenviable task, with an outcome that could define the UK’s trajectory on the international stage for decades to come.