Is British defence policy and posture still fit for purpose? [Op-Ed]


Image: UK MOD

Much discussion has taken place between commentators, industry experts, politicians and news organisations alike surrounding Britain’s defence policy and posture. However the time has come to assess whether the resources match the objectives.

With ambitious foreign policy expectations, comes increased pressure on defence policy and the means to project power. To many commentators, the notion of the UK being a ‘Tier 1’ power is fading fast. Why? Namely because of a lack of planning, readiness and – most importantly – funding. Successive governments must take the blame for a lack of provision for the Armed Forces, and moreover, immediately review the UK’s capabilities vis-à-vis Defence.

Keep it simple

Brexit, Syria and the wider Middle East represent opportunities for the UK to get its defence situation in order. Britain, despite numerous industrial and international partnerships, will have to inevitably cough up more hard cash for its defence capability so as to match the UK’s foreign policy ambitions. The UK has lived off its reputation of being a key player in this environment, but crunch time is fast approaching. Too much penny pinching is harming the UK’s long term ability to project force and that cannot be acceptable politically. At the same time, it is becoming evident from a foreign policy objective that the UK does not have the clout it once did.

What happened?

The UK’s defence capabilities have been eroded substantially this past decade or more, with manpower reductions which have greatly reduced operational capabilities. Moreover, hardware has in a lot of instances being sold off, scrapped and not appropriately replaced. When one looks at UK armour capabilities, we see that there is often no viable or immediate replacement for the likes of Challenger 2, Warrior, Scimitar, to name but a few vehicle types. We see the same with the Royal Navy and the inability to replace the full capabilities or scale of their fleets, including the Type 22, Type 23, Type 42, and so on. The RAF has similarly seen vast squadrons of Tornado, Jaguar, Nimrod, Canberra and others discarded with flawed or absent replacement strategies.

What is the UK’s posture?

Difficult to determine, according to most commentators, as it is suggested by some that the fact the UK struggled to field 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, a similar requirement in the near future – say, in Syria, for example –  would raise questions over whether the UK is able to deploy in sufficient numbers and strength to have an impact. The United Kingdom National Defence Association thinks the answer would be ‘No’. 

Without substantial investment in capital and resource departments, the UKNDA believes the UK’s Armed Forces would not be able to mount any credible intervention as it stands. In fact some have suggested that doing so may actually be more dangerous than useful.

What to do?

The UKNDA has long campaigned for the Armed Forces. As an organisation, it also believes that defence spending should be increased as a percentage of GDP. Some commentators have suggested a figure of 3%, and some a more moderate 2.5%. Others believe we should keep in line with the Americans and lead other NATO members by example. Either way the Prime Minister of the UK is the one who has to decide where to spend the UK’s hard-earned cash. But to deny the MoD and defence more funds at a time of great uncertainty is tantamount to neglect at best – and at worst, poor leadership.

Is there anything left in the tank?

Unfortunately not. The UK’s Armed Forces have been told they face a decade of cuts and funding shortfalls, and that our debt interest repayment now exceeds defence spending in its entirety. To some commentators this is causing serious concern in the Defence community, particularly as the mantra of ‘do more with less’ was first muted back with the ‘Options for Change’ restructuring in the mid-1990s. This policy direction represents a clear and present threat to the UK’s defence posture. Moreover, it undermines any attempts to improve relations with nations around the world in foreign policy terms as the UK, according to some, is now being perceived as ‘weak’.

Is the equipment fit for purpose?

Yes and no. If we consider that the Middle East is in a total mess and that – in all likelihood, should a UN resolution be approved, authorising peace keepers and intervention – the UK could be called upon to assist our friends and allies in the region. There is a clear requirement for further investment into air-conditioned vehicles, new armoured vehicles, transport and attack helicopters, all appropriate for desert warfare, and these are required prior to any operation. One of the main criticisms of previous campaigns is that new equipment took far too long to get into theatre, let alone for troops to practice with in the first instance.

What should our politicians do?

Seriously re-assess the UK’s defence needs and requirements, then match funding accordingly and start by planning and anticipating future interventions, where required by the UN. All too often the UK has been caught at the last minute with little opportunity to prepare, train and adapt. Let us hope that our politicians will take the opportunity with Brexit to launch a new SDSR specifically taking into consideration the concerns above.


It is my view that the UK’s defence policy and posture are not fit for purpose in 2017. However, there is the opportunity to review and improve that situation, should the government choose.

That said, time is fast running out for the UK to undertake this change and cost-cutting for the sake of saving money elsewhere for the Treasury is no longer acceptable.

Martin Cakebread is a representative of UKNDA. He is also an experienced political strategy consultant and researcher.

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