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UK Defence – Under Even More Pressure For Cuts? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







Leaving the COVID-19 crisis aside, the question that I am perhaps most frequently asked is without doubt where I believe we currently are in defence and particularly, in relation to the proposed (currently on hold) Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development? A few thoughts follow but I am not prepared to speculate in respect of detail. I have though included two recent RUSI publications, one linked to an earlier larger paper by Professor Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett that should also be read in context.   

Announced in February this year, the proposed review had been planned to be a definition of Government ambition for the UK’s future role in the world, where we want to be in the world together with our long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy.

Designed as a follow on to a one-year spending review of all government departments, the result of which is expected to be formally announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Autumn, even before the impact of COVID-19 on the UK economy, the general consensus amongst defence specialists is that spending on defence will once again be seriously challenged. Suffice to say then that when the main Defence, Security and Foreign Policy review finally emerges towards the end of this year or early in 2021, we should brace ourselves for a change in attitude and approach to defence spending, one that is likely to see a range of cuts on a scale not seen since SDSR 2010.

Having promised to increase spending on health and with a verbal commitment by the Prime Minister that the impact of additional COVID-19 public expenditure would not lead to a new period of austerity there would appear to be few if any other options that would allow the Treasury to close the gap between falling government income and raised public spending except raising of taxes. The latter is a given but with defence spending all too often seen by politicians as an area that is always good for cuts, we can be pretty certain that with whole review process seemingly being led by the PM’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings, not only can we expect serious cuts in defence spending but also, removal of remaining sacred cows.

To an extent and given the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, timing of the review process could not be better. Most economists are forecasting a decline in UK GDP meaning that if that is what does occur the ability of the UK to keep its commitment of spending 2% of GDP on defence has been made all the easier. Interpreted, that could signal that a cut of between 5% to 8% in defence spending would still keep total spending above 2% of GDP.   

Although I have my own personal views, as has been my practice in respect of defence commentary for many years, it is not for me to speculate here on what specific legacy programmes I might believe will face the chop as a result of the review process. I am however, always happy to discuss and provide personal views to those who request.

My hope is that we will not see the type of salami slicing approach that we witnessed in SDSR 2010 and which brought morale of the armed forces to a new low.

I have no wish to reinvent the wheel and having huge respect for those that I know who work within the Royal United Services Institute I have included below a couple of recent RUSI commentaries – the first under the title of “The UK’s Integrated Review: A Return to the Phoney War” published earlier this month and written by Air Commodore (Ret’d) Andrew Curtis OBE, a former RAF logistics officer, Associate Fellow of RUSI now supporting its defence management research.

The second RUSI publication which should be read in conjunction with the larger RUSI publication @Defence and the Integrated Review: A Testing Time (see link at end) repeated here under the title “Deferring Judgement – Whither the UK’s Integrated Review of Defence? was published as a RUSI commentary and written jointly by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director General of RUSI  and Will Jessett CBE, Senior Associate Fellow and currently Senior Associate at SC Strategy, recently retired from the MOD after 33 years and having been involved in the several past reviews of defence and security.

“The UK’s Integrated Review: Return to the Phoney War” – by Air Commodore Andrew Curtiss

The delay to the Integrated Review provides the Ministry of Defence the ideal opportunity to develop and improve its contribution.

Even though Boris Johnson has called a temporary halt to the Integrated Review, that will not stop the myriad stakeholders within government manoeuvring to secure a favourable outcome from whatever finally emerges.

The jockeying for position, which has been evident in the opening stages of all recent defence reviews, was dubbed the ‘phoney war’ by Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman.


In normal times, the prime minister’s announcement of the Integrated Review’s remit on 26 February 2020 would have marked the end of this ‘phoney war’ interlude. Indeed, work on policy formulation did commence under the direction of Alex Ellis – the newly appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for the Integrated Review – immediately thereafter. However, the coronavirus pandemic intervened to scupper the plans. On 16 March, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, called on the government to postpone the Integrated Review, and, on 9 April, Mr Ellis confirmed that the prime minister had directed that work on the review should be formally paused across Whitehall.

Quite rightly, the government’s key focus in the weeks ahead will continue to be on managing the coronavirus crisis, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. Furthermore, as Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett pointed out in a recent RUSI commentary, the lasting consequences of the pandemic could require a significant rethink of the resourcing and conclusions of the Integrated Review. As a result, the Integrated Review once more slipped into the ‘phoney war’ phase.

On the face of it, this may be seen as a backward step. During this lull all those who want to influence the review mobilise their apologists, such as retired officers, civil servants, politicians and academics to lobby on behalf of their respective favourites. That said, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should see this return to the ‘phoney war’ stage as an opportunity, rather than a threat. If used correctly, this additional time could leave it far better placed to deal with the difficulties that a coronavirus-influenced review will inevitably bring. There are three ways in which the MoD can improve its position for when the Integrated Review resumes: predict, prioritise, and prepare.


The MoD has struggled to adapt and update its current force structure to meet the new, Joint Force 2025 (JF25) requirements within the ten-year timeline that followed the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2015. The fundamental problem is the headmark for JF25 was programmatic, not conceptual. That is to say, it created a task organisation for the new joint force but provided no direction on how the force elements contained therein should actually fight. As a result, over and above the components of JF25 listed in the document, SDSR 2015 provided no clear direction for defence planners to assist them in developing the JF25 capabilities to ensure that they would actually be capable of operating against current and future threats.

Since the last SDSR, the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre has published a Future Force Concept and is currently developing a new Integrated Operating Concept. Moreover, in his annual RUSI Lecture in December 2019, General Sir Nicholas Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, confirmed that the integration of all five domains – space, cyber and information, maritime, land and air – would ‘change the way we fight’. This view was supported by Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, in his 2019 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture where he posited that ‘the new operating domains of space and cyberspace offer new opportunities to probe, test, shape, disorientate and ultimately unravel our adversaries’. The conceptual work appears almost complete, but the MoD still needs formally to record it in doctrine and ensure it is positioned in the vanguard of its contribution to the Integrated Review.


Having confirmed its conceptual headmark, the MoD must agree, and then abide by, its associated priorities for military capability. However, at this point, it should be recognised that no review starts with a blank sheet of paper – instead, the existing force structure will always have to be taken into account. This is a considerable constraint, as fielded military capability may not be the most appropriate to support the new concept’s aims and objectives. Nevertheless, a simple set of priorities, signed up to by all three services, would direct investment in both current and future capabilities, and equally as importantly, confirm where to disinvest, in order to generate the headroom within the defence budget that will surely be required to fund tomorrow’s ‘sunrise’ capabilities.

Crucially, this prioritisation must be matched by more focused direction from the government on the ranking and detail of risks within the National Security Strategy (NSS). At present, the risk matrix, derived from the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) is far too wide-ranging. As David Blagden from the University of Exeter pointed out to the House of Commons Defence Committee: ‘the NSRA … creates very broad categories so it is hard to think what might not actually fall within these [tier one] categories if we defined it in the right way’. If almost any eventuality could reasonably find a home in one of the six tier one risks of the NSS, they offer defence planners very little guidance on how to prioritise military capability.


The way the MoD can improve its position is to prepare, and prepare thoroughly. A considerable number of options are generated during the policy formulation phase of a review, and all of them have to be evaluated and costed. Time is always short and capability managers delivery teams and industry often have difficulty producing suitable evidence to support decision-making. To mitigate this, a pragmatic assessment of likely options should be undertaken now, to allow supporting information and appropriate costings to be gathered in advance. This preparation would not only ensure all of the probable bases are covered, but would also provide an element of flexibility to deal with the inevitable curve balls that the MoD will encounter during the policy formulation phase.

A formal announcement on revised timings for the Integrated Review is expected shortly, but it is likely to remain aligned with government plans for the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). The CSR will be significantly influenced by the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis, which is unlikely to be good news for the defence budget. In its manifesto, the Conservative government promised to ‘exceed the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence and increase the budget by at least zero point five per cent above inflation every year of the new Parliament’.

In 2019, the UK’s NATO contribution was approximately £46.9 billion, or 2.1% of GDP. However, if GDP for 2020 falls by 13%, as predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government could cut the defence budget by more than £6 billion per annum and still remain within its manifesto pledge.

That may be a worst-case scenario, but it is certain to focus the minds of senior officials within the MoD. By way of mitigation, they should act swiftly to use the additional time that the return to the ‘phoney war’ has given them. They could do worse than predict how defence will fight in the future, prioritise the military capability needed to do so, and prepare the evidence to justify its procurement and sustainment. 

(The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution)

Deferring Judgement – Whither the UK’s Integrated Review and Defence? – Written by Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett

The coronavirus pandemic could lead to new judgements on the UK’s spending priorities on defence and security.

When the government announced in the Queen’s Speech in December that it planned ‘the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’,  it could not have known that the country would be locked down 12 weeks later, dealing with a major health crisis.

Managing the coronavirus pandemic will rightly be the government’s key focus in the weeks and months ahead. It will absorb almost all of Whitehall’s policy and planning capacity. The lasting consequences of the pandemic remain highly unpredictable, but are likely to include new judgements on public spending priorities (in the UK and elsewhere), altered geopolitical alignments between major powers, exacerbated developmental challenges in countries worst hit by the crisis and (potentially) a further strengthening of nationalist political forces. When the dust settles, these new trends could require a significant rethink of the resourcing and conclusions of the Integrated Review.

For these reasons, the government should agree to delay the conclusion of the review until 2021. Work should continue on key foreign and defence policy issues, some of which could be settled to provide the foundations for further work. But current defence plans and programmes should be rolled forward, as part of a one-year Spending Round. The most plausible scenario for the defence budget remains that the extra £1.9 billion allocated to the MoD for 2020/21 in the 2019 Spending Round will be incorporated into the Comprehensive Spending Review baseline, and that a further 0.5% real increase per annum will be added. 

The review, when it comes, should be based on a new foreign policy, which we suggest should encapsulate in a new ‘doctrine’ of enlightened national interest. Under such an approach, the first priority for the armed forces should be the defence of the UK homeland and its immediate neighbourhood. The review should, therefore, rethink the criteria used to make decisions on whether to intervene militarily in crises overseas, learning lessons from the strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The shape of expeditionary forces should now be determined primarily through the need to work closely with NATO allies in defence of Europe and its immediate neighbourhood.

The review should be informed by updated assessments of the nature of the threats posed by Russia and China, and by a reappraisal of the UK’s primary alliance relationships. These point towards a reshaping of the balance of the forward defence programme, and a reshaping of the MoD’s integrated operational concept, towards the capabilities that are most important for responding to ‘grey area’ threats. Particular attention should be given to preparing for circumstances where the US believes that its national interests are not sufficiently engaged to justify its own military involvement, but where a coalition of European states (including the UK) believe that they have more at stake. The MoD will also need to address the affordability challenge – the imbalance between available budget and spending plans – that has recurred every year since the SDSR 2015. 

The Joint Force 2030 that should be a major outcome of the review should be markedly different from the current Joint Force 2025 plan. In order to create the headroom to accelerate required modernisation, the MoD will need to dis-invest in ‘sunset capabilities. It should also optimise its ground forces (the British Army and Royal Marines) for responding rapidly to hybrid and limited threats across Europe’s periphery, drawing down those forces that are designed primarily for holding a segment of NATO’s fully mobilised front line. This could allow substantial savings in personnel costs and related investments, releasing significant resources for modernisation elsewhere.

This reorientation would need careful handling with Allies. Despite the emphasis placed on new technology by its Allied Command Transformation (ACT), and the targets set by NATO’s Readiness Initiative, the Alliance’s main force goals are still dominated by traditional measures of military power. It will be especially important for the UK to make the case for modernisation with its Allies in the US, Germany, France, Poland and the Joint Expeditionary Force countries. But it would be worth it. The UK’s continuing commitment to the 2% GDP spending target on defence – and its good track record on modernising its forces – can help to create the space for a mature conversation about the need for sustainable burden-sharing between European Allies, as well as between Europe and the US. This will be even more important if key European countries, acting in concert, are expected to take more of a leading role in responding to crises in their own neighbourhood.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution

For a development of the arguments of this Commentary, see Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett, Defence and the Integrated Review: A Testing Time – 


CHW (London – 19th May 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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