UK

Defence Has 'Really Tough Decisions To Make' In 2021

This year will see the UK take presidency over the G7, benefit from extra defence funding and discover the Integrated Review's findings.

2021 is underway, but what will the new year bring for the UK’s military?

After almost a year helping to support the UK's coronavirus response, Armed Forces personnel look set to remain busy assisting in the fight against COVID-19.

With coronavirus testing centres continuing to run into the new year, the military has been called in to help with quick turnaround testing in schools as well as assisting regional testing efforts across the UK.

And, with two new COVID-19 vaccines now approved for rollout across the UK, 2021 could see servicemen and women supporting civilian authorities for the foreseeable future.

Professor Michael Clarke, former Director-General at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said COVID has shown how the military can "mesh in" with civilian organisations.

"There’s been a realisation in Westminster and Whitehall that this is much better left to the local authorities who know their area and are really quite good," he said.

"The military need to be able to work with localism, which I think will be the theme of resilience in 2021 and 2022."

While the glocal economy has taken a hit and despite the pandemic, UK defence will benefit from an extra £16.5bn from the Treasury over the next four years, which could secure Britain as NATO's leading European military spender.

HMS Queen Elizabeth returns to Portsmouth with tugs 151020 CREDIT BFBS 3
HMS Queen Elizabeth's inaugural deployment to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and East Asia region is expected this year.

The funding will go towards the Royal Navy’s Type 31 programme continuing, with money also set aside for the Future Combat Air System.

However, with a budget black hole to fill, some difficult choices could be on the horizon.

A £1 billion savings plan is already in motion, with Royal Navy reservists off work until April and HMS Prince of Wales’ trials scaled back to waters close to the UK, instead of the US, in order to save money.

And Prof Clarke said we are still waiting to find out which older military capabilities will have to be retired.

"One thinks... about numbers of armoured vehicles, one thinks about... long-range airlift for the Air Force, one thinks about some elements of the helicopter force," he said.

"There are rumours about all of these things."

But with the UK taking the presidency of the G7 this year, China likely to overtake America as an economic superpower and Russia continuing to develop its military prowess, Britain's international presence post-Brexit will be a priority.

US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to bring changes to the White House, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Government will be looking for ways to keep America and other NATO allies close.

British personnel have been in Africa in a training role (Picture: MOD).

Prof Clarke said Britain has a "potentially very important role to play" in trying to lead a reinvigoration of NATO’s military strategy and forces.

"But if it looks as if we’re turning away from NATO, the message that will send to our allies will not be that they will therefore take up the slack," he added.

"They’ll just become more indifferent - they’ll become fatalistic."

There are already plans for more forward deployments - aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, is set to embark on her inaugural deployment to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and East Asia region.

Additionally, UK personnel on the UN peace mission in Mali will continue their work to promote stabilisation in Africa’s Sahel region.

In a world post-Brexit, expanding British influence could become a key catchphrase.

"MOD, central building, the main office, will actually have some really tough decisions to make during the year," Prof Clarke said.

Those decisions will come via the Integrated Review, a reorientation of Britain’s position in the world and the blueprint for the military’s future.