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UK Defence – Signs of Resilience Building But Coming from A Low Base, Caution Still Advised By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.









The Integrated Review of Foreign, Defence, Development and Security Policy was intended to be published as a single report covering all aspects of the above and intended strategy for each.

Unsurprisingly, events outside of the Governments control got in the way and yesterday the Prime Minister announced what I would describe as being a broad outline of positives that will be included in the final ‘Integrated Review’ future strategy document, most of which relate to intended investment in equipment based defence capability along with that relating to the intention to create a National Cyber Force, Space Command and Artificial Intelligence Agency.

Having now agreed a multi-year budget settlement for defence, the Government has also confirmed that in order to pay for the space, intelligence and other related technology requirements without further delay that the Treasury has now agreed to provide an additional boost to the defence budget equating to £16.5 billion spread over the next four years.

It is important to stress that what the Government announced yesterday Is not only a single part of the wider Integrated Review [the full conclusions will now be published sometime in the New Year] but also, what we may term as the good news for defence. Yesterday’s announcement by the Government gave little away in terms of actual detail but it did at least confirm that numbers of planned Type 26 Frigates for the Royal Navy would remain at eight, that the number of Type 31 Frigates stays at five.

The Prime Minster also confirmed development of a Type 32 next generation frigate – all of which are I believe, intended to bring what is now called the ‘escort fleet’ up to an eventual fleet of 24 vessels from the current level of 19 (the latter figure includes one or maybe both the oldest Type 23 frigates and which, although still commissioned (at least one of these vessels is very unlikely to see further service in the Royal Navy) just as we also know that one of the six Type 45 Destroyers, all of which are earmarked for improved propulsion systems, is laid up and effectively unmanned.

As previously confirmed, the Royal Navy will also receive three new UK built support vessels although it would appear that an eventual Type 45 development replacement may have been quietly parked. 

Clearly it would be crass stupidity on my part to criticise any of the above decisions relating to the intended creation of a National Cyber Force, Space Command, Artificial Intelligence Agency or the planned increase in Royal Navy capital ships. The news, such as it has so far been, is very welcome and it shows that we are belatedly getting the message of the urgency of need to invest in digital based intelligence and security technologies along with space defence. But, as I alluded earlier, it is in respect of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army, what has not been said rather than what has that concerns me most.

For instance, there is no mention of investment on a much needed new fleet of Mine clearance vessels, no mention of increasing Royal Navy manpower levels (I do however accept that there has been some improvement seen over the past two years) and the still serious shortage of engineers and other senior qualified armaments officers and personnel.

Perhaps most worryingly of all to me is that there has as yet been no mention of eventual planned replacements for the two amphibious support vessels – HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark [note that Bulwark is currently being maintained in extended readiness whilst also moving through what appears to be a deliberately slow planned maintenance period – all of which leads me to suspect that this may be in relation to a planned sale of the vessel to a third party government.

And then there is the lack of replacement for the already sold HMS Ocean. At least one thing seems clear though – there are no changes to the planned number of eight Astute class submarine or indeed, to the planned four ‘Dreadnought’ class submarines that will eventually replace the four Vanguard class SSBN‘s that 365 days a year continue to provide the vital Continuous At Sea Deterrence capability for the UK. 

I had, following my commentary the previous day (UK Defence  – Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts) made a deliberate decision not to write on the subject of the PM’s defence statement yesterday. Rather, I felt it was better to study, listen, weigh and consider. During the day I was involved in three separate meetings with senior people involved in the IR process, all of which were very useful.

In respect of what the Government did announce yesterday, whilst I commend them for the intentions in relation to Royal Navy frigates and for having removed justifiable concerns of the UK naval shipbuilding industry, particularly in Scotland of course, it is to me a great shame other companies engaged in manufacturing Land Equipment or in major refurbishment and modernisation of very important army fighting and personnel vehicles appear to be once again being left sitting on the edge awaiting Government intentions.

Being forced to wait until what is likely to be well into the new year before decisions relating to Warrior upgrade numbers and those of Ajax are confirmed. I hope that I am proved wrong but view any further MOD delay as being unacceptable.

While the consensus view is that the Royal Navy has come out of the first piece of IR very well, we should, from a military standpoint and in the light of some of my comments above, take care not to get too carried away. There is, after all, still a very big black hole in the defence budget apparently – one that although has likely been helped by pushing programmes back, will also of necessity increased the overall cost.

It would be wrong of me to ignore one other aspect of Royal Navy capability that is in too short supply. Bottom line is that the Royal Navy needs more Merlin EH101 rotary capability just as it also does that of Wildcat.

The additional £1.5 billion that is intended to be put into military research is extremely welcome. This will include Future Combat Air Systems as a whole, including ongoing modernisation of Typhoon but importantly also, this part of the announcement should in my view be seen as another important sign that the Government remains very firmly behind Tempest. 

Independent Defence Economists are sadly in very short supply these days and I do not profess to be anything close to the qualities of those that remain such as Professor Keith Hayward or Professor Keith Hartley at the Centre for Defence Economics University. I have both supported and crossed swords with both over the past thirty years just as I also have with various friends at RUSI and Chatham House. But I was slightly left scratching my head yesterday when I received a call asking me to confirm whether the manifesto commitment of an annual 0.5% uplift for defence was included in the figures given by government or not. My initial conclusion was that this would disappear or that it was within the calculation but subsequently I received another call pointing me toward the first sentence on the MoD website pertaining to the announcement and which suggest that – combined with the manifesto commitment of a 0.5% uplift, the total increase for defence could be an even more substantial £24.1 billion!

In similar vein, I might add that the suggestion that defence spending will rise to 2.2% of GDP has little or no merit particularly that with GDP falling like a stone it might even look like 3% or even 4% by the end of the year!

Finally, as I made plain on Wednesday, part of the funding for increased defence and no doubt, other aspects for foreign policy ambition, security and development, is very likely to have come from either suspending or cutting overseas aid. I make no comment on that possibility here. Neither should anyone be under any illusion that when the bells and whistles of this first announcement relating to the Integrated Review process have been put away, there are bound to be a number of substantial planned cuts that the Government is not prepared to announce yet. So, good news day yesterday and good news for the long term, UK sovereign capability and skills. But the bad news will have to wait for what they used to call ‘a good day to bury bad news’

HMG and PM’s IR Based Strategy Announcement for Defence:   

The Prime Ministers Announcement to The House of Commons yesterday was promised as being the largest military investment in 30 years – the biggest programme of investment in British Defence since the end of the Cold War. Below FYI is the statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday morning:

The biggest programme of investment in British defence since the end of the Cold War was announced to the House of Commons on Thursday] 19th November 2020 by the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson.

In the speech to the House of Commons he set out a £16.5 billion increase above the manifesto commitment over four years that will protect our citizens, help us build back better from coronavirus by creating thousands of new jobs and demonstrate to our allies they can always count on the UK.

Our defence forces are operating in a rapidly changing world. This spending increase recognises the need for them to undertake a generational modernisation programme in order to defend the UK, our allies and the world’s most vulnerable people.

Since the Cold War the threat from our adversaries has been evolving. Our traditional defence and deterrence capabilities remain vital, and our Armed Forces work every day to prevent terror reaching the UK’s shores. But our enemies are also operating in increasingly sophisticated ways, including in cyberspace, to further their own interests.

Rather than being confined to some distant battlefield, those that seek to do harm to our people can reach them through the mobile phones in their pockets or the computers in their homes. To protect our citizens, UK Defence therefore needs to operate at all times with leading, cutting-edge technology.

Our Armed Forces are also working in a broader range of areas than ever before to protect the most vulnerable people in the UK and around the world. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK over 20,000 personnel have been made available to deliver PPE, run testing sites and ensure those in the most remote areas can receive the medical care they need.

Defence has also been on the front line responding to every major international humanitarian disaster of the last decade. In the last year alone HMS Enterprise has come to the aid of Lebanon following the explosion in the Port of Beirut, RFA Argus and Army personnel have delivered disaster relief to Central American countries ravaged by Hurricane Eta, and the RAF has transported vital medical supplies to communities struggling against coronavirus in West Africa and the UK’s Overseas Territories.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said:

I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first.

The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies. To achieve this, we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.

This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our Armed Forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life.

The £16.5 billion extra in the Ministry of Defence’s budget over the next four years is the amount over and above the manifesto commitment. The Government has already pledged to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation for every year of this parliament. On existing forecasts, this is an overall cash increase of £24.1 billion over four years compared to last year’s budget.

It will also cement the UK’s position as the largest defence spender in Europe and the second largest in NATO.

The commitment will allow the Government to invest in cutting-edge technology, positioning the UK as a global leader in domains such as cyber and space and addressing weaknesses in our defence arsenal that cannot be allowed to continue. To support these advancements the Prime Minister will also announce a new agency dedicated to Artificial Intelligence, the creation of a National Cyber Force to protect our people from harm and a new ‘Space Command’, capable of launching our first rocket in 2022.

This will be underpinned by a record investment of at least £1.5 billion extra and £5.8 billion total on military research and development and a commitment to invest further in the Future Combat Air System. This reverses the systematic decline in this crucial area in the last thirty years, creating new advances which surmount the old limits of logistics and go beyond military use with a vast number of civilian applications such as autonomous vehicles and aviation.

These projects are expected to create up to 10,000 thousand jobs annually across the UK. These will reflect the expertise and ingenuity of British people both inside and outside our Armed Forces, harnessing the UK’s skills in construction and science and reinvigorating those industries in the coming decades.

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said:

This is excellent news for Defence, and provides us with the financial certainty we need to modernise, plan for the future and adapt to the threats we face. It demonstrates the Prime Minister’s recognition of how important Defence is to our resilience and to the reputation of the United Kingdom.

This settlement secures UK jobs and livelihoods, allows us to invest in our fantastic shipyards and aerospace industry, spreading prosperity to every corner of the UK.

Next year represents a huge opportunity for this country, and Defence will be at the forefront of creating the jobs and business opportunities that will help us build back from the pandemic.

Over the next few months, I will set out in more detail our ambitious agenda for Defence.

Today’s announcements mark the first outcomes from the Integrated Review of the UK’s foreign, defence, development and security policy. The full conclusions of the Integrated Review will be announced in the new year.

CHW (London – 20th November 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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