Difficult choices will have to be made on existing equipment commitments and future priorities in order to balance the books. Rather than face up to new challenges, the retrospective response at MoD has simply been to maintain capability across a broad spectrum of programmes and just allow equipment service dates to slip. This usually adds cost rather than saves money.
The new National Security Capabilities Review might do well to engage the public in thinking about its role in protecting the UK in contrast to the traditional approach. Usually the Service Chiefs prefer to think about fighting foreign wars and conventional defence (against Russia, China etc.) rather than adjust priority to the new forms of attack,
A new generation of traditional capabilities is planned to be brought into service, including advanced armoured fighting vehicles, frigates, fast jets and maritime patrol aircraft. The costs of some of these have been negatively affected by changes in the sterling–dollar exchange rate. And the capital and in-service costs of the Carrrier programme for example, will eat into the budget for the next 40 years or so. The question has to be asked: is all this machinery now necessary?
What is absent is any meaningful conversation around our participation as a senior contributor to NATO; a realisation that there are emerging threats at home (especially from Cyber attack) and a focus on what UK is good at: namely, Special Forces capability and some parts of expeditionary warfare.
Over the past decades, the UK armed forces have largely been involved in counterinsurgency and related counter-piracy and counter-proliferation operations. Our activities overseas could be said to be behind some of the rise in risk from home-grown attacks, and states like Russia have raised the stakes of the Cyber warfare game.
Apart from the temporary deployment of armed personnel on UK city streets to protect key facilities under Operation Temperer, the criminalisation of domestic terrorism means this is largely distanced from the military effort. Similarly effort in support of cyber protection, which is best achieved by combining military, security and civilian resources, has been largely ignored.
Abroad, UK defence needs to focus on capabilities that are increasingly expeditionary in nature. Whether that is to contribute to international efforts to counter terrorism in Africa, the greater Middle East and elsewhere or to participate in deterrent efforts in Europe alongside NATO allies. At home, it needs to understand and react to the fragility of our communications.
It needs to ask serious questions about whether we continue to maintain capability from Trident to Typhoon. There can be no sacred cows when it comes to costly military hardware and their efficacy.
In her Mansion House speech in November 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May reflected on Russia’s and others’ challenge to the UK. She noted the way in which the information age had provided opportunities for those who wished to destabilise the UK to do so remotely whether through interfering in political processes or indeed threatening critical national infrastructure through malicious activity in cyberspace.
This was also reflected in a later speech at RUSI by Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach.
Elsewhere in Europe, states such as Sweden and Denmark are rediscovering the necessity and benefits of an integrated approach to defence with a focus on flexibility and strengthening of combined military and civilian effort.
There needs to be much more creative ways of thinking about how necessary capabilities are organised and delivered, recognising that we fight wars with Allies and need to complement our resources rather than duplicate them.
Learning lessons from others and preventing attacks on our way of life and economy at home should be the new priorities.