Ministry of Defence MOD main building Whitehall 220508 CREDIT CROWN COPYRIGHT.jpg
MOD main building, Whitehall (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Opinion

Lima Charlie: What challenges will the MOD face in 2023?

Ministry of Defence MOD main building Whitehall 220508 CREDIT CROWN COPYRIGHT.jpg
MOD main building, Whitehall (Picture: Crown Copyright).

For many years, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) has given a speech in December to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the analysis of the year gone by and predictions for the year ahead. 

In December 2022, the current CDS, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, gave a wide-ranging speech on how he felt the year had gone and what themes and trends were emerging that would be the drivers for defence activity in 2023. 

It was clear from this speech that 2022 was a very busy year and that things would only get busier. 

In years to come, 2022 will probably be seen as the year that marked the final collapse of the post-Cold War order, the return to a more binary 'East v West' approach to international politics and the reinvigoration of Nato as a credible military alliance. 

The unprovoked and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked global leaders and led to a surge in defence spending pledges across Nato while also seeing relations with Russia plummet to a new low. 

At the end of 2022, buoyed by training, equipment and munitions from Nato member states, Ukraine has been saved from defeat through extensive support from the West and is now preparing to take to the offensive once more to recapture lands occupied by Russia. 

Watch: Are Russian forces fixated on the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut?

While Europe struggles with a level of conflict unseen in decades and Nato takes steps to rejuvenate itself, the Indo-Pacific region is seeing a rise in tensions between an increasingly assertive Chinese state and other nervous neighbours. 

The constant sabre rattling and standoffs, particularly over Taiwan and parts of the South China Sea, continue to see tensions rise, while light skirmishes continue between Indian and Chinese troops stationed on the disputed mountain border regions between the two nations. 

There is a growing sense of challenge in the relationship between China and the US, who recognise each other as strategic competitors and who are both vying for influence with other nations to build very different visions of the future global order. 

Image ID 2HA1P2B Soldiers fire live ammunition during military training tournament in Beihai city, South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region 02122021 CREDIT Cynthia Lee/Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
Soldiers fire live ammunition during a military training tournament in Beihai city, South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Picture: Cynthia Lee / Alamy Stock Photo).

It remains to be seen whether China will usurp the US as the dominant global power or if the strength of liberal democracy will hold true. 

For the British Armed Forces, 2022 has been a very busy year marked by a return to near normality after the Covid-19 crisis years and a ramping up of commitments to Nato and Ukraine. 

The key operational focus of the year has been the work to counter Russia, ranging from supporting Ukrainian forces with training, logistics and other support to increased commitments to ground forces in Eastern Europe, enhanced air policing by the Royal Air Force and a rise in patrols to track and monitor Russian naval activity by the Royal Navy and RAF. 

More than 10,000 Ukrainian troops were trained in the UK before returning to the battlefield to put their training into practice defending their homeland, while tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition from artillery shells to missiles have been gifted to help defeat the Russians. 

This year is likely to require more of the same effort, with plans in place to double the number of Ukrainians trained in the UK to some 20,000 people and yet more lethal and logistical support provided.

Ukrainian recruits taking part in shooting training in the UK 291222 CREDIT MOD
Ukrainian recruits pictured taking part in shooting training in the UK (Picture: MOD).

The UK should rightly be proud of its role as a leading power in responding to the Russian invasion and helping Ukraine to defend itself against attack. 

There is likely to be more focus on support to Nato too, with continued exercises and deployments to help strengthen ground troops deployed in Eastern Europe (the Baltic States, for example) to help defend against attack should Russia be foolish enough to try invading a Nato member state. 

This ground commitment will be backed up by renewed exercises with air forces and maritime deployments – for example, there is likely to be a regular Royal Navy presence in the Baltic and the Med throughout the year. 

Allied to this effort will be working to help improve the links with Sweden and Finland as they come to join Nato in 2023 helping expand the alliance and improving its overall security. 

Image ID 2J78B7F Flags of Sweden, Finland and NATO 07052022 CREDIT Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
The flags of Sweden, Finland and Nato (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo).

The UK has a long history of working in Arctic operations with Norway and it is likely there will be expanded exercises and deployments working with Swedish and Finnish forces to both help ensure they meet Nato standards and also improve operational relationships. 

The UK is likely to be at the forefront of efforts to help welcome both states into Nato and help take the military alliance (already close, particularly with Sweden, with whom UK industry has a stake in the Grippen fighter) to the next level. 

In addition, there are likely to be renewed global operations by UK forces, particularly through the deployment of a Carrier Strike Group (probably out to the Indo-Pacific region) and other exercises and operations. 

Paratroopers train for jungle warfare in Belize Credit Army 140419
Paratroopers train for jungle warfare in Belize, in April 2019 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

British forces will continue to be permanently based and operate from every continent on the planet, from jungle warfare training in Belize to the garrison in the Falkland Islands and the Royal Navy ice patrol ship, HMS Protector and her work in Antarctica, through to troops on exercise and deployed in Africa and the Middle East, as well as UK forces in Brunei. 

There will be thousands of British forces deployed globally working on a range of complex military operations, from humanitarian relief and counter drug smuggling in the West Indies to work with allies to protect the waters of the Arabian Gulf from illicit sea mines, or training African nations in how to counter poachers and protect endangered wildlife. 

British forces will remain some of the most globally focused of any nation, with a presence and reach almost without parallel. 

Royal Gurkha Rifles troops spot an elephant in the distance as they train Zambian rangers to combat poaching in the country DATE UNKNOWN 2020 CREDIT MOD
Royal Gurkha Rifles troops spot an elephant in the distance as they train Zambian rangers to combat poaching in the country (Picture: MOD).

With the year likely to be a busy one operationally, what is going to be happening in London and what are the main contentious challenges likely to be for the MOD? 

The big policy challenge for the year is going to be conducting another defence review, barely two years since the previous Integrated Review was launched, to take stock of what the UK needs to do on defence matters. 

The reason for this change, years earlier than expected, is twofold.

Firstly, the invasion of Ukraine has completely changed the international security situation, meaning previous plans and policies are less relevant. 

The second is that the challenging economic situation means the budget is not necessarily completely affordable anymore. 

The purpose of the review is to try to plot an affordable set of defence policies going forward that meet British needs. 

The big question the review will need to address is the extent to which UK interests and commitments to Nato need to take priority over other security goals. 

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Nato's headquarters in Brussels.

Previously, Nato was seen as important, but so too was the wider goal of operating globally and, in particular, increasingly in the Indo-Pacific region. 

With Europe now more unstable than it has been for decades and with Russian activity posing a real threat to the security of the continent, the UK has to decide how much it wants to support Nato. 

This is more than just a policy choice, it actually impacts a wide range of defence plans and decisions, ranging from investing more in some areas (particularly reequipping the British Army, investing more in stockpiles and logistics and exercises in Europe) and potentially spending less on global aspirations – in turn reducing wider UK deployments and operations. 

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia Richard Marles hold a joint press conference at BAE Systems in Barrow in Furness 310822 AUKUS CREDIT Crown Copyight
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia Richard Marles hold a joint press conference at BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness in August 2022 (Picture: Crown Copyight).

The review could potentially set a major change to UK policy, which for 30 years has been more focused on global operations at the expense of Nato and, in turn, help reiterate the UK's place as a leading player in Nato. 

At the same time though, ministers want to ensure that the UK is seen to play its part in a wider set of regional alliances like the AUKUS pact between the UK, Australia and the USA (which in turn could see the UK sharing nuclear propulsion and other highly advanced technology with Australia to help counter Chinese reach) and also longer-standing partnerships like the Five Powers Defence Agreement (FPDA), which commits the UK to work with Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia in the region. 

This calls for a very different set of equipment and capabilities, far more focused on maritime power and force projection, for example, aircraft carriers and submarines, than may be required for Nato.

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(Picture: Crown Copyright).

The problem is that there probably isn't quite enough budget available to do both, meaning ministers will face hard choices on what they want to do with the Armed Forces. 

Money is likely to be a perennial issue in 2023 with plans to grow the defence budget to 3% (or even 2.5%) of GDP probably abandoned forever. 

Instead, efforts are being made to live within financial means. 

The rise in inflation in the UK means that, unless urgent extra cash is given to the MOD, major projects are likely to become unaffordable and some may need cancelling. 

What is likely to happen is that the new defence review may cancel some projects as no longer needed and the Treasury may find some funds to ensure that the defence budget does not shrink in real terms. 

Given the challenging economic situation in the UK though, it is unlikely that much money will be available for real terms budget growth as some had hoped. 

Realistically the best that the MOD can hope for is that its budget does not shrink in real terms, preventing it from having to make major cuts just to stay financially afloat. 

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Service personnel covering during ambulance strikes in London, on 22 December 2022 (Picture: MOD).

Against this backdrop of financial challenges, the Armed Forces are also likely to find themselves heavily involved in supporting the Government in providing strike cover. 

Over Christmas, many military personnel were on duty to cover strikes by ambulance staff and Border Force, as well as helping to support operations in the channel to handle illegal immigrants crossing by boats. 

There is a long tradition of the military being used by the Government to provide emergency assistance during times of industrial unrest. 

This has grown in recent years and the military is now, arguably, seen as the Government's tool of choice for coping with industrial action. 

While in the short term this provides a vital means of preventing strikers from causing the nation to grind to a halt, in the medium term it can have a very challenging impact on the Armed Forces. 

There is not really any spare capacity in the system to provide this sort of cover, which is done 'at risk' by cancelling leave and taking people off their normal jobs to cover these sorts of emergency operations. 

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RAF personnel covered the tanker strikes in December 2022 (Picture: MOD).

While it can be done for a short time without too much of an impact, after a while it can reduce people's ability to be ready to do the job they've actually trained to do in the military. 

In the event of a military emergency, it could have a very damaging impact on the Armed Forces' ability to deploy and do their jobs as required. 

The wider risk is that military personnel may feel increasingly demoralised from doing strike cover work rather than 'real' military duties. 

If leave is regularly cancelled, or people are unable to attend essential promotion courses or do their actual job, they may become increasingly tempted to leave the military and find a new job elsewhere. 

One of the big challenges facing the MOD in the next year will be the retention of its highly skilled and trained workforce and trying to prevent people from leaving. 

The Armed Forces face something of a perfect storm as the combination of a lack of 'exciting' deployments like Op TELIC and HERRICK means many new recruits lack the ability to see action or earn medals and the reality of barrack life can, after a while, become quite boring. 

A mortar team from Ghurkha Reinforcement Company attached to 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) fires on insurgents outside Forward Operating Base Khar Nikar in Afghanistan 20.07.10 CREDIT Crown Copyright
A mortar team fires on insurgents outside Forward Operating Base Khar Nikar in Afghanistan, July 2010 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

When added to the disruption to family life caused by operations to support strike-breaking, rather than 'real' military work, and a perception that pay isn't keeping up with inflation, as well as the ongoing challenges faced by many military families in utterly substandard service accommodation, then the reasons for remaining become harder to find. 

In a world where external employers are paying highly competitive wages for people with niche skills, former military personnel are a highly employable commodity. 

Trying to convince them to stay in will be challenging and difficult. 

The Armed Forces will likely experience a retention crisis in 2023 as experienced personnel leave in higher numbers than expected. 

More widely, 2023 is likely to be a year when the Armed Forces see most of their effort focused on supporting Ukraine, both through Nato operations and national training. 

Helping ensure Ukraine defeats Russia is essential, but the challenge for the MOD will increasingly be to balance off providing further military support without exhausting UK stockpiles of ammunition and military equipment. 

There will come a point soon at which UK supplies may run short and it will take time for replacements to be produced by industry and become available for use.

Image ID 2K9DMM0 Battlefield near Kherson in Ukraine, after the Russian army has undergone a defeat, the Ukrainian offensive was a success and numerous Russian loss 211022 EXP 041123 CREDIT ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
A battlefield near Kherson in Ukraine in October 2022, after the Russian army suffered a defeat (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo).

Trying to balance off aid and support with contingency planning for UK national purposes may prove to be extremely challenging. 

Across the world, the UK is likely to try to spend the year focusing primarily on support to Ukraine, but with continued interest in a wide range of regional security issues. 

The Royal Navy is likely to be the most widely deployed service with operations ongoing across every continent and ocean, particularly with the forward-deployed River-class patrol ships. 

The RAF is likely to focus on global operations and, in particular, deepening relations with Japan as a result of the late 2022 decision to jointly develop the next generation of fighter aircraft together (and with Italy). 

Meanwhile, the British Army will continue to be ready to operate globally, in part through using its extensive series of bases and training facilities to have a force able to be sent to support operations across the globe. 

The only certain thing about 2023 is that it is likely to be a highly uncertain year. 

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A computer-generated image of Tempest, the next-generation fighter jet Britain is developing with Italy and Japan (Picture: BAE Systems).

UK forces will almost certainly end up deploying to, or participating in, at least one unforeseen operation that takes them to a new location or carrying out work they had never planned on doing. 

It will be a busy and challenging year delivering operationally while still ensuring the defence review is delivered as planned, as well as continuing to deliver the hugely complex pipeline of defence procurement activity to introduce the next generation of vehicles, ships and aircraft into service. 

In the background, the intelligence services, working closely with the Armed Forces where appropriate, will continue to carry out discreet and highly sensitive operations to enhance national security through clandestine and highly secret work. 

Whatever the challenges faced, the men and women of the Armed Forces (both regular and reservist) as well as the civil servants who support them, will do a magnificent job of tackling whatever challenge is thrown at them. 

In the context of a globally insecure world where conflict could emerge from a wide variety of areas and scenarios, the UK is well served by those who are committed to defending it from those who threaten it. 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today's Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing the military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.