The British Government has published its 'Integrated Review', a thorough assessment of the security challenges facing the UK and how best to tackle them. The paper has set out a comprehensive series of threats, hurdles, and issues and put forward proposals on what needs to be done as a result.
The most immediate outcome has been the publication of a MOD paper, which sets out how the armed forces will be restructured to better meet these challenges. The paper has proposed some significant changes, including reductions in equipment and troops, and investment in other areas like cyber and space.
But why has this been necessary? What has the Integrated Review proposed, and why did the MOD feel it necessary to change its force structures so significantly as a result?
The Integrated Review's critical thinking is that the UK faces three distinct foreign policy challenges that the military can help with. Firstly, there is a need to support NATO and help secure European security against external threats, such as Russia.
The paper is clear that Russia poses a significant threat to the UK and its allies, primarily due to the Russian Government's actions and its willingness to take aggressive acts, such as the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2019. This makes it hard to maintain a normal relationship with the Russians until they act more responsibly.
This means that the UK will need to work to counter Russian activity, both through diplomatic means and by investing in strong Armed Forces capable of deterring an attack on NATO. The Russians possess particularly capable submarines and ground forces, meaning that the UK will need to think about how best to tackle these threats.
More widely, the Government has identified that it wants to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region, taking a more active part in regional issues and building more significant trade links. The challenge identified is what to do about China, which poses both threats and opportunities.
On the one hand, China is a nation that is increasingly assertive in its approach to foreign and security policy and whose interests are often at odds with the UK's traditional allies like Australia and Japan. Over the last few years, the significant growth in the Chinese military has seen them rapidly become one of the most powerful armed forces on the planet.
But China also represents a significant trading opportunity, with massive untapped markets that could offer substantial rewards for UK industry and exporters. The challenge is trying to navigate this tricky balance, simultaneously standing up for Western values while also trying to make the most of the economic opportunities.
Finally, the review also identified that the UK has significant interests worldwide where it is vital to secure peace and stability. These regions are often complex and subject to various security challenges or instability.
Left unchecked, this could result in the rise of threats that could, in time, pose a direct challenge to the security of the UK, ranging from terrorism or piracy, or other risks.
These threats are not confined to the physical space either, and the review identified a growing risk in space, in the cyber domain, and from the rise of emerging technology that could in time pose a direct threat.
When brought together, the review sets the scene for the UK acting in three distinct ways – supporting NATO and other major organisations to enhance European security, increasing the UK's commitment to the Indo-Pacific region (a so-called 'tilt') and continuing to focus on the broader regional security threats posed in smaller states or different operational areas.
Much of this will be handled by non-military assets. For example, both diplomatic efforts will be vital to building UK influence and persuading other countries to work with us. Work to strengthen multilateral organisations will also be necessary, ensuring that trade regulations or governance around issues like the Internet remain in line with western thinking.
More widely, the aid budget's work will be vital in helping to solve the very long-term security issues out there by focusing on small scale interventions to increase stability, reduce the likelihood of conflict, and help spark economic growth. In a targeted and effective way, aid provision will be central to helping enhance security in the medium term in many areas, particularly in unstable or failing states.
It is essential to think of the strategy as a whole of government effort, bringing together all the many different civil service and military parts to find as many ways as possible to strengthen security. It is not just about the Armed Forces and military power, but they play a central role in delivering this strategy.
With that in mind, what does this review mean for the Armed Forces, and how will the MOD change as a result of it?
In broad terms, the review has identified a series of challenges that will require the MOD to fundamentally change how it equips the Armed Forces and the areas where it operates. This is going to need both modernisation and the removal of older capabilities from service as a result.
There are two main reasons for getting rid of older equipment. Firstly, as the threat changes, it can become harder for legacy equipment to remain credible. For example, older armoured vehicles without up-to-date weapons and sensors are increasingly vulnerable to drones and other threats.
Keeping them in service without expensive upgrades is not ideal because the equipment will not keep pace with the threats it is likely to face. This leaves the MOD with two main choices – it can either choose to invest money to upgrade it or take it out of service a bit earlier than planned and use the money saved to invest in better equipment to tackle these threats.
The second reason to take older equipment out of service is that it frees up both people and money to bring newer equipment into service. The MOD budget is overstretched. Running older equipment that may need refits or life extension projects takes money away from buying more modern equipment ahead of time to better handle future threats.
For example, the British Army looks likely to cancel the planned upgrade for the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle and instead take it out of service in a few years.
The Warrior is nearly 40 years old, and while capable, is increasingly limited in how it can keep up with modern combat forces. As a result of the review, the new plan is to replace it with increased numbers of the Boxer vehicle, a more advanced replacement.
The money saved increases the ability to upgrade other platforms too. For example, the Royal Navy is scrapping some ships but using the savings made to help fund further upgrades in other areas – by buying new anti-ship missiles.
Another outcome from the Integrated Review is that it identified several areas where the MOD needs to improve its capabilities due to the changing threats. For example, there is a growing interest in making more use of space and the cyber domain. Many of the UK's threats in the next few years will be in these new areas, requiring a lot of different ways of operating- for example, new satellites and very advanced cyber defences.
This sort of threat is challenging as it is not like a traditional military threat that we are used to. An advanced cyberattack could come from all manner of countries and other actors like terrorists or hackers and do enormous damage, like disrupting power supplies or economic data like payment systems.
This is the sort of threat that conventional military power like tanks or aircraft is almost powerless to guard against but poses a significant challenge to our security and way of life.
The result is that the MOD wants to change how it will structure the armed forces and instead set out a vision for the next 10 years to see changes to make them better able to react to the likely threats. This vision for 2030 is a long-term process. Still, it involves stepping back from older, less relevant equipment and bringing new technology to bear to keep the military as relevant as possible.
This will mean difficult changes, over the next few years some equipment will leave service.
The Army will lose some tanks and all its Warrior vehicles, while its total strength will drop to about 72,000. Simultaneously, there will be new drones and other advanced technology arriving to improve situational awareness, while improved weapons like loitering munitions and better artillery will also be brought into service.
The Royal Navy will pay off two older frigates over the next couple of years, and in due course, the Minehunter fleet (comprising two classes of ships, the Hunt and Sandown class) will be replaced by autonomous drones. There will be significant investment in new ship types, including a new multi-role ocean surveillance ship designed to tackle threats to undersea cables (a key Russian target of interest) and new escort ships like the Type 32 frigate.
The plan is to grow the Royal Navy to about 24 escorts within the next 10 years, up from 19 today, while also looking at ways to enhance its maritime strike ability. There is likely to be a fundamental shift in how the Royal Marines are employed, stepping away from the traditional 'beach landing' role and instead focusing on striking at distance and conducting covert raids.
The Royal Air Force will, on paper, seem hard hit, losing the E3 Sentry fleet of AEW aircraft and the Tranche 1 Typhoon fighter, as well as earlier versions of the Hawk and the C130J force. But, a lot of these represent a slight bringing forward of planned retirements rather than additional cuts.
For example, the Hawk is going out of service in 2025 rather than 2030. The Tranche 1 Typhoon was due for retirement previously and extended to last longer than initially planned.
In their place, the RAF will focus on improving its ability to operate in space and using drones – for example, bringing in the Protector un-crewed aircraft to operate with missiles. There will be a real focus on moving away from crewed aircraft towards making far better use of other systems like drones, reducing crew risk.
There is a theme of consolidation and trying to do similar tasks but with fewer fleets of aircraft. Several transport helicopter fleets will be taken out of service as planned over the next few years but replaced with probably just one design, the goal being to reduce costs and complexity. This will also make for significant savings, as you only need one supply chain, one training pipeline and decreasing numbers of specialist support staff for each type of aircraft. This type of consolidation can save a lot of money.
Another theme is that of investment in the defence industry.
There is a recognition that the UK needs to retain a national ability to manufacture and support the Armed Forces' equipment and that without proper investment, this could be lost. There are long term plans in the review to develop capabilities like shipbuilding and support to the UK aerospace industry through the development of the new Tempest aircraft.
Overall, over the next 10 years, the British Armed Forces plan to stay roughly the same size but take some older legacy equipment out of service. The replacements and new capabilities arriving will be different, there is no doubt about that. For instance, there will be much more focus on technology, much of which may not be a physical military asset like a jet or tank, but which will be equally crucial to maintaining security.
The military will continue to operate around the world, even with these changes. The review is clear that the UK has global aspirations and plans to maintain a presence on practically every continent on the planet. The theme is very much that the UK wants to focus on operating abroad, at all military operations levels.
At one end of the scale, there is a continued desire to lead major military operations and a commitment to provide a Divisional Headquarters and supporting enablers to allow the UK to command ground operations. This helps reinforce the commitment to NATO, and the British Army presence in Eastern Europe will likely remain, helping deter Russian aggression to NATO members.
There will be increased numbers of defence attaches, training teams and other tools for international engagement. There will also be improved investment in places like Cyprus and Singapore to help enhance UK military facilities in these countries.
There will likewise be a rise in permanently deployed Royal Navy ships in locations like the Far East. At the same time, the Royal Marines will put two Littoral Strike Groups (LSGs) to sea to help provide a raiding capability if required. The Army and RAF will also deploy globally, using both training and other exercises to help build international links.
The result will be a globally focused military. Using modern, up-to-date equipment and capabilities, the British armed forces will work as an integrated part of the broader UK strategy to deliver a highly influential presence worldwide.
The armed forces will be both busy and in demand. By investing in new areas, the UK will be one of a few countries able to offer the combination of modern military equipment, 5th generation jets, strike carriers and offensive cyber operations while being able to deploy at Divisional size abroad and nuclear power too.
Very few other countries will have this range and scale of capability, and it will ensure that the UK remains one of the world’s most capable and influential military powers.
The Integrated Review outcome ensures the UK remains a major power.
The USA and other nations will be keen to work with the UK for the long haul, as it is one of the few countries able to deploy and use its Armed Forces on a large scale anywhere in the world.
While some older platforms' loss will inevitably be sad, the outcome from this review will be a positive one for the British armed forces.
They can look to the future with significant confidence that they will be well-armed and equipped to face whatever challenges the world of 2030 can throw at them.