Preliminary Thoughts on Britain’s Upcoming Defense Review

The Royal Navy’s “Carrier Strike” capability will have cost over £20 billion to acquire, and will cost hundreds of million pounds more to operate each year, but it contributes more to Royal Navy prestige than to an effective defense of the United Kingdom. (RN photo)

PARIS --- In the lead-up to the defense and security review promised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the traditional skirmishing has already broken out between political parties, government departments and sundry lobby groups, as each tries to nudge decision-makers into making premature statements that could ring-fence their pet capability.

In recent weeks, there have been successive reports that the Royal Marines will be disbanded or substantially reduced; that there may not be enough money to pay for the next-generation nuclear deterrent, or most recently that the British Army might be forced to retire its Challenger tanks and Warrior infantry combat vehicles – both over 40 years old -- to free up cash for more urgent – or more futuristic - projects.

Past defense previous reviews were also preceded by rumors that the Gurkha Brigade would be disbanded, or that that Royal Air Force would have to give up its famous Red Arrows aerobatic team for the same reason: lack of cash.

These proved to be just trial balloons, and happily none came to pass, but because successive governments have refused to decisively act to prioritize defense investments, the Ministry of Defence ended up pushing a “bow wave” of unfunded financial commitments into the future. At last count, while this bow wave has mysteriously declined from its peak of £17 billion , it could still £13 billion “if all identified risks materialize,” according to the National Audit Office’s latest report on the MoD’s Equipment Plan 2019-2029.

When a government department faces a shortfall equivalent to about one-third of its annual budget, as is the case for MoD, it is clear that the situation cannot be allowed to continue. Past governments eluded the issue by pretending it didn’t exist, but with the successive shocks caused by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, it is clear the present government cannot.

As recently observed by The Times, “Doing everything but with less money is a guarantee of being militarily unprepared as hostile powers build their own capabilities.” Choices can no longer be put off.

Lessons from the past

History is a good pointer to the future, so a quick look back at Britain’s history can offer some interesting lessons for what is now required for its defense.

The defense of the Realm, now shrunk to just the British Isles and a few specks of land in various parts of the world, should, of course, be the most basic task of the Ministry of Defence. The British Isles have been invaded in the past, by Celts and then Danes, Angles and Vikings, and finally by the Normans, as prospective invaders Napoleon and Hitler were seen off before they were able to land on British soil.

The Danes, Angles and Vikings successfully invaded because the local population lacked effective defenses, while the Norman victory at Hastings was made possible first by the lack of a British fleet, and then, at least in part, because Harold’s forces were exhausted after being forced to dash from Stamford Bridge to Sussex to confront one attacker after having defeated the other.

Lesson One, then, is that the military need to be fast and mobile.

More recent historical episodes confirm the absolute and vital necessity of controlling home waters. The Danes and Vikings were able to land at will in Britain because there was no naval force to oppose them, while maintaining open shipping lanes from America (Battle of the Atlantic) and naval power (the Bismarck episode) allowed Britain to survive both World Wars. And the British Army survived the retreat to Dunkirk because the Royal Navy controlled the Channel, allowing its ships and the English yachting flotilla to evacuate the troops.

Lesson Two is thus the absolute need to control maritime approaches.

Another factor in Britain’s survival during World War Two was, of course, the Royal Air Force, which came into its own during that conflict. So, air superiority (i.e., the Battle of Britain), anti-ship warfare (to stop an invading fleet) and anti-submarine warfare (Battle of the Atlantic) are elementary and indispensable air capabilities for the defense of the Realm.

So, Lesson Three is the need for a strong and diversified air force.

But the United Kingdom does not exist in a vacuum, and has Allies on both sides of the Atlantic. And this points to where it can make to greatest contribution to NATO and mainland Europe, whose constituent nations remain close Allies despite Brexit.

Again, Britain’s most important mission in support of its Allies is the defense of the North Atlantic life-line to North America, as in both world wars, and the defense of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, where the biggest threat to Europe’s reinforcement would materialize.

These three historical lessons remain valid indicators of where the UK should invest its funds to obtain the most bang for its defense pounds. Spending those pounds “East of Aden,” where the UK now has far fewer vital interests than it did in the 1960s, when the phrase was coined, would not improve the defense of the Realm, on which this paper is focused. In the same vein, the defense implications of “Global Britain,” the current government’s latest catch-phrase, will also be ignored here.

It is within those constraints that we will now look at the military capabilities needed to defend the UK in greater, albeit still superficial, detail.

I. Army mobility and firepower.

Previous British governments decided to bring home the British Army of the Rhine because, as the Cold War first thawed and then disappeared, so did the need to maintain regiments of heavy armor and artillery to protect Northern Germany’s Fulda Gap.

While useful for stopping massive armor attacks, tanks have very limited strategic mobility, and need huge and expensive semi-trailers to move them about the country. This effectively rules tanks out for homeland defense of the Realm.

For less money, the British Army could buy 8x8 tank destroyers with the same main gun as Challenger 2, but lighter, faster, more modern and, most importantly, self-deployable. There will be no Kursk-like tank battles in Surrey or Yorkshire, where 60-tonne tanks would face invading heavy armor, so infantry armed with anti-tank missiles, and wheeled tank destroyers supported by self-propelled artillery, also on wheels, would be a far more effective and affordable option.

A sign of things to come?

All makers of tank destroyer also make infantry combat vehicle variants, capable of protecting the infantry and its missiles while moving them about the country or the battlefield at far higher speeds than any tracked IFV like Warrior or Ajax. And wheeled vehicles, even 8x8s, can use most British roads bridges without restrictions, while semi-trailers carrying tanks are limited to the far fewer itineraries which can bear their weight and, more precisely, their specific ground pressure.

The British Army has taken the first step in opting to buy the Boxer 8x8, an impressive vehicle, but stopped short of taking that decision to its logical conclusion and ditching tracks for wheels across all its combat vehicle fleet.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the UK would forego the capability of deploying tank formations in Europe or elsewhere. That may be regrettable from a historical perspective, but it is clear that the defense of the Continent from armor attack is the primary responsibility of Continental nations, with or without the United States, and that the UK’s contribution, in these times of budgetary constraints, would perforce be more symbolic than effective.

Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, for example, have retired most of their main battle tanks, artillery and IFVs and sometimes sold them overseas. If they are not worried enough to buy new heavy armor, why should the UK keep heavy armored units to reinforce them?

And if it still proved necessary to reinforce the Continent, the Army Air Corps’ Apache attack helicopters would be faster, more useful and more effective than Challenger tanks and Warrior IFVs.

II. Defending territorial waters and their approaches

History, from the Viking incursions to the Spanish Armada, has clearly demonstrated that the defense of the Realm depends, first and foremost, on the control of its territorial waters and their approaches. And, after Brexit, the UK alone will also have to protect its fisheries, to avoid a resurgence of disputes like the Cod Wars with Iceland.

This clearly points to the need for a large number of affordable offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and more capable frigates for anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare, with very expensive air-defense destroyers a useful but not indispensable adjunct as long as the frigates are armed with anti-air weapons of their own.

The same air-defense destroyers, however, would be needed to successfully protect the G-I-UK gap, and in case of war this would be the indispensable mission from both the UK and NATO points of view.

Two categories of frigate, like the Royal Navy’s high-end Type 26 and Type 31 low-end warships, are a sensible capability mix, especially as these ships would also be very useful in protecting ship convoys reinforcing Europe from North America.

Modern, multi-role frigates can also protect Britain’s sea lines of communication and shipping lines where they are threatened, as has long been the case with widespread piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa.

But there is clearly no operational need for aircraft carriers to defend the Realm. This is why building, equipping and manning two 70,000-tonne carriers is such an intolerable financial burden on the MoD budget.

In June, the NAO reported that the Ministry of Defence had spent £6.4 billion to build its two new aircraft carriers, £6 billion out of an approved £10.5 billion to acquire part of their fleet of F-35B fighters, up to £500 million for the Crowsnest airborne early warning helicopter, and £600 million for their three Tide-class logistic support ships. The total cost of the “Carrier Strike” package will thus exceed £18 billion.

These ships, fitted not with catapults but with ski-jumps in another monumental failure of judgement, in turn mandated the procurement of the only STOVL aircraft available, the horrifically expensive Lockheed Martin F-35B, but in numbers so low that HMS Queen Elizabeth will have to deploy with US Marine Corps F-35B to reinforce the single squadron that the Royal Air Force will be able to deploy.

Furthermore, the fact that HMS Queen Elizabeth will deploy to the Far East on her first operational deployment next year shows that she was built for a mission that has nothing to do with the defense of the Realm, and everything to do with maintaining whatever prestige Royal Navy chiefs want to salvage from a history that has seen the world’s greatest maritime force gradually decline to as few as a dozen frigates, if recent reports in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere are to be believed.

Another point is that the two new carriers need about 1,400 crew to operate, sufficient to man eight to ten frigates, at a time when the Royal Navy is facing a severe manpower shortfall.

Submarines are an indispensable component of any modern navy, but it is not clear that Britain needs a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines rather than the smaller, quieter and considerably cheaper diesel-electric boats operated by Norway, Sweden, Germany and Italy, among others. In hindsight, the decision to decommission and sell the Victoria-class SSKs and replace them with far more prestigious nuclear-powered SSNs appears seriously misguided: again, it seems that operational requirements were superseded by notions of naval prestige.

These are symbolic gestures that Britain can no longer afford. In fact, it could be argued that MoD’s determination to continue drinking champagne on a beer budget is what created the multi-billion pound financial “bow wave” in the first place, which now threatens to swamp if not sink its long-term equipment plans.

III. Maritime air power

Protecting the G-I-UK gap as well as Britain’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone also clearly requires a maritime air patrol capability, and the embarrassing episodes when MoD was forced to call in Allied patrol aircraft to track unidentified submarines sailing in its home waters because it had prematurely retired its Nimrod MR3s cannot be allowed to continue.

The Ministry of Defence decided the solution to the maritime patrol gap was Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon. This is no doubt a fine aircraft, even though the version the RAF have bought inexplicably lacks the magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) capability wisely ordered by India on its own P-8s, but they are far too capable – and far too expensive – to use on most maritime patrol missions.

These mostly focus on surveillance and monitoring of maritime traffic in territorial waters and the EEZ, for which turboprops like the Italian Navy’s ATR-72MP converted regional transports or the French Navy’s Falcon converted business jets are cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate and almost as effective.

In military procurement, the rule of thumb is that top 10% of capability costs almost as much as the other 90% to develop and acquire, so dropping down a notch would generate broadly comparable capabilities at a fraction of the price.

Interestingly, the Italian Air Force’s ATR-72MPs can be armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, can also carry out electronic intelligence, coastal patrol, Search And Rescue and border security in addition to anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-ship warfare. Had the Royal Air Force operated such aircraft, it would have been spared the embarrassment of having to send A400M transports to detect illegal immigrants crossing the Channel over the summer.

IV. Air Force

If the Royal Navy won the Battle of the Atlantic in WWI, the Royal Air Force saved the Realm by winning the Battle of Britain, and the conjunction of air and naval assets is what will protect it again in future.

The main role of the RAF is air defense, and its fleet of Eurofighters is well suited for this mission, as indeed for the defense of the G-I-UK gap -- and this is why Typhoon squadrons are based at Lossiemouth in Scotland as well as Coningsby in Lincolnshire. And the RAF’s Airbus MRTT tankers, E-3 AWACS and their E-7 successors are major force multipliers.

Realistically, however, the G-I-UK gap should be the RAF’s main focus, since to reach British air space hostile aircraft would need to have crossed the airspace of several NATO member nations which, just as realistically, would have shot it down before it reached Britain.

However, there are glaring gaps in Britain’s air defense, of which the lack of ground-based, medium-range air-defense missiles is the most glaring. One possible solution would be to station the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers, which are armed with the Aster 30 missile, around the country, but this could only be a temporary fix or reinforcement.

Buying Patriot, THAAD or ground-launched Asters would be an expensive but necessary advance for Britain’s air defense – and much more effective than spending countless billions to buy and operate F-35 aircraft, whose principal capability is “stealthy” ground and, sometime in future, maritime strike.

Transport aircraft is another key capability for moving assets throughout the country, and here the RAF’s existing assets – 14 C-130J Hercules, 22 A400Ms and over 60 Chinook helicopters - are well-suited to the mission. It could be argued that the C-17 fleet could more usefully be replaced by more Hercules or by smaller transport aircraft for many domestic missions, but large and capable transport aircraft always come in handy.

V. Recruitment and manning

From all the above it is clear that the Royal Navy needs more hulls, that the Royal Air Force needs ground-based air-defense and more maritime patrol capabilities than the eight P-8As on order, and that the British Army needs wheeled tank destroyers, artillery and infantry combat vehicles more than it needs Challenger 2, Warrior and Ajax.

By necessity, this superficial overview is focused on capability rather than costs, but in general terms the new equipment discussed above can be assumed to cost less to buy, and certainly less to operate, than the kit it would replace.

This leads us to manning, the Achilles’ Heel of British defense.

Today’s British Army and Royal Navy cannot recruit all the people they need to operate effectively, despite having lowered physical requirements, actively pursued “diversity” to expand the eligible recruitment pool, and allowed women to serve in close combat roles since 2018.

As of April 1, 2020, “all branches of the UK Armed Forces were below the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review target for 2020,” according to a House of Commons briefing paper published on August 4. “The full-time trained strength of the UK Armed Forces was 132,451 which is a shortfall of 11,749 (8%). The Army had the largest proportional shortfall (10%) and the Royal Navy/Royal Marines the smallest (5%).”

This manning shortfall has been developing for decades, and the Commons paper notes that between 2000 and 2020, manning inflow has been higher than outflow for only five years, inevitably leading to shortfalls that no measure has so far been able to mitigate.

One factor is that young Britons don’t accept that they could be shipped overseas to die in another Afghanistan or Iraq, in pursuit of unclear and possibly illegal political goals that past governments have often lied about, the Blair government’s insistence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction being a case in point.

A second problem is pay and accommodation - respectively too low and of unacceptably poor quality – that most often compare unfavorably with what’s available in the civilian world. Costly but poor recruitment campaigns are an aggravating factor.


While the imminent defense review is likely to define strategic goals, and the investment in cash and industry required to attain them, Britain’s crucial defense problem will remain manpower.

Nothing is possible, and nothing will be, until and unless the forces are able to recruit and retain quality personnel.

This means raising pay and improving accommodation and benefits to levels at least comparable to those in Civvy Street, since a secure retirement is no longer enough to attract young people to military careers.

Only when, and if, solutions are found to reliably fix the recruitment shortfall can a meaningful discussion begin of British long-term defense strategy and capabilities.


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