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The New UK Defence Paper has mixed implications for the US

March 31, 2021

By Dr Rowan Allport – Deputy Director

Last week saw the publication of the UK’s Defense Command Paper, Defence in a Competitive Age, which is designed to provide an outline of British defence policy until 2030. The report has been greeted with a mixed reception at best – a stark contrast to the extremely well-received wider Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR) which was released on 16 March. As expected, following last year’s surprise decision to increase UK defence spending by some £16.5 billion over the next four years (taking overall outlay to 2.2% of GDP), the report was more ambitious than might have been forecast last summer, with key capabilities preserved and new investments announced. While focused on providing substance to the government’s overarching ‘Global Britain’ agenda, the decision to prioritise defence spending at a time when almost all other areas of UK government are facing more post-COVID austerity also sought to woo the Biden administration with a demonstration of Britain’s commitment to a US-friendly agenda.

Like the IR, the top-line priorities reflect a hybrid of Bidenesque and Trumpian language. The declaration that “We must actively champion those shared values of liberty, justice and tolerance that have given billions of souls the world over the chance of a better life, and do so through our actions, not just our words” and that “In this more competitive age a ‘Global Britain’ has no choice but to step up, ready to take on the challenges and shape the opportunities of the years ahead, alongside our allies and friends” are in the liberal internationalist tone of the current White House. However, the “fundamental national interests” identified by the IR and the defence paper – sovereignty, security and prosperity – echo the focus of the last US administration and the language of Brexit.

As expected, the bedrock of the planned reforms is the Integrated Operating Concept (IOC), with a focus on persistent competition and increasingly dynamic and complex forms of conflict which extend across a broad-spectrum requiring a cross-government approach. The rapid evolution of technology, move away from industrial-age warfare and the pervasiveness of information – billed as a shift from “mass mobilisation to information age speed” – are recognised as key elements of the changing character of war. This and the requirement to integrate the ‘five domains’ – air, land, sea, space and cyber – permeate the paper. Critical organisational shifts including the establishment of organisations which mirror established US initiatives, including the National Cyber Force, Space Command and Centre on Artificial Intelligence which will seek to ensure that the UK stays on the front foot. The creation of a force with a ‘digital backbone’ will better facilitate both cross-domain operations and cooperation with allies such as the US.

However, the command paper also has significant flaws. Conceptually, it represents a conscious decision to ‘gap’ aspects of the UK’s higher-end warfighting capabilities – often in the form of ‘sunsetting’ key systems and elements of mass – out to at least the end of the decade: firstly because of a failure to invest earlier, secondly for reasons of cost, thirdly for reasons of procurement timelines, and fourthly because much of the technology it is envisaged will become critical for the 2030s is not yet mature enough to ‘sunrise’ new capabilities. This is a modernisation issue – colloquially referred to as the ‘Terrible 20s’ – which the US is also facing, albeit in a less extreme form.

On the granular level, the document lacks critical details on threat rankings, what the armed forces would be expected to do and on what scale, forces structure and strengths, and equipment procurement, leaving a document packed with buzzwords and sloganeering, but with many questions unanswered. The requirement for cuts was foreshadowed, but not all were outlined – although more details began leaking a few days after the paper was published. Even normally upbeat observers have been left disillusioned, with one stating that such was the degree of corporate language, elements of it “sound like Daleks debating at a management consultant conference”. Nevertheless, it is still possible to identify key takeaways from the US perspective.

Staying close to home

Probably the most important outcome from Washington’s standpoint regards the UK’s position relative to Great Power competition. While China is billed as “by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”, the defence paper continues the IR’s theme of pledging to push back against Beijing’s influence, while still finding common ground on issues including climate change and economic relations. Such fence-sitting has met concern from members of the ruling Conservative Party, who wish for a tougher line.

Nevertheless, the reluctance of the UK to engage in confrontation with China may have some benefits with regards to the US security burden in Europe. While much noise is made regarding a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific – with the forthcoming deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth (accompanied by the destroyer USS The Sullivans and the F-35Bs of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211) being heavily promoted – the key UK focus remains on the Euro-Atlantic. With the assertion that “Russia continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security”, the document states that “NATO, and our ability to contribute to it a high-end warfighting force useable against a peer opponent, will remain central to our policy”, and that a carrier strike group is being made “permanently available to NATO, an embodiment of our unwavering commitment to the defence and deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic area”. The commitment to the northern European Joint Expeditionary Force is also highlighted. It is clear that despite a desire to justify its political turn away from Europe, Britain will not be forsaking its regional commitments.

Similarly, decisions to sustain older Trafalgar-class submarines until their remaining Astute-class successors’ enter service, limit older frigate retirements until their replacements – including the ASW-orientated Type 26 – come online (although frigate numbers will still bottom out at nine in the mid-2020) and construct a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance vessel to support the protection of critical underwater infrastructure point to a focus on NATO maritime support requirements – particularly along the northern flank where high-performance Russian submarines present a credible threat. The decision to take forward the build of three solid stores ships – at least one of which will be attached to the on-call carrier strike group – is less geographically defined, but will also allow for the sustaining of UK and allied ships on NATO taskings from the Arctic Circle to the Eastern Mediterranean.

On land, the retention of the British Army’s tank capability together with plans to upgrade 148 vehicles (a cut from the current 227), investment in medium-range air defence and electronic warfare capabilities, additional money for enhancing current Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) with extended range munitions and new 155mm artillery all point towards Russia’s ground forces being the Army’s primary ‘high end’ concern. The already in-progress Boxer APC and AJAX armoured vehicle programmes will continue forward.

Questionable decisions and questions unanswered

The decision to cut the British Army back from an authorized strength of 82,000 to 72,500 has been a major source of controversy at home and abroad. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, told the BBC such cuts would generate “huge concern” in Washington. Such worries are justified. Ambitious plans to be able to field a full division announced in 2015 – already drastically scaled back – have now likely been fatally undermined. The UK’s deployable division will now likely have only two heavy brigade combat team (BCT). Procurement decisions such as the cancellation of the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) upgrade – and hence the elimination of the Army’s entire IFV force – also point to an increasingly flimsy capability.

News of the formation of a new division of Russian Ground Forces in Kaliningrad only underlines the threat faced. While the paper commits to sustaining the UK’s deployment in Estonia and Poland as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence and invest in storage facilities in Germany to “increase the readiness of land forces for deployment in Europe”, it seems likely that the UK has fallen below a critical level of mass on land. Further details, including how the planned two light brigades and the ‘deep strike’ BCT fit into plans, are due before the end of the year.

While the Army has taken a significant hit, the RAF has been on the receiving end of some of the most controversial decisions of the review – several of which will undermine its role in both Europe and the wider world. From a US perspective, the pledge to take the procurement of F-35B aircraft beyond the 48 already committed to is welcome. However, the suspicion that this decision has been deferred to the next defence review – not due until 2025 at the earliest – leads to the possibility that further purchases will be sacrificed on the altar of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) – most clearly embodied by the Tempest programme. This project has been granted some £2 billion in funding over the next four years.

Other questionable decisions involving the RAF include the cutting of 24 Typhoon flight aircraft, and the move to reduce procurement of E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft from five to three – the latter leaving little more than a symbolic capability. With the current E-3D Sentry now leaving service in 2021, the RAF will have no AEW&C until the E-7 arrives in 2024. Given both the older Typhoon and the Wedgetail’s role in air defence, the critical need to defend the northern approaches to the UK as part of both homeland defence and the wider NATO effort will be undermined. There is also little sign of an attempt to address the glaring lack of ground-based air defences in the UK – a major deficit given both Russia’s increasing possession of stand-off conventional precision-guided weapons such as the ship and submarine-launched 3M14T Kalibr and air-launched Kh-101 land-attack cruise missiles. The planned relocation of the UK’s AEW&C aircraft from RAF Waddington to RAF Lossiemouth will leave much of the UK fighter, as well as the entire anti-submarine warfare (in the form of RAF Poseidon MRA1) and AEW&C force at a single airbase. That the US will be required to plug the wartime gap with its already thinly spread Patriot batteries will not go unnoticed.

Given the increased focus on forward deployments and Special Forces, the retirement of the C-130J also has little logic beyond saving money. It is additionally ironic given that France and Germany are currently bringing the K/C-130J into service to facilitate tasks for which the A-400M – billed as taking over the Hercules’ role in the RAF – is unsuited. A cynic might advise forward-thinking executives at Lockheed Martin to ready a pitch for selling a batch of MC-130Js to the RAF in the coming years.

More upbeat news for the RAF was, however, to be found in longer-term procurement. The decision to move forward with purchasing sixteen Protector RG Mk1 uncrewed combat vehicles for the RAF marks a cut in previous plans for at least twenty, but given the vulnerability of large, unstealthily drones to even basic air defence systems, this is likely a sensible compromise. The replacement of the older element of the RAF’s Chinook force with the latest Special Forces model is also promising, as is the plan to replace the ageing Puma HC2 helicopter.

A question mark remains over how the current mine countermeasure vessels will be replaced and along what timeline. At present, the Royal Navy possesses eleven Hunt and Sandown-class vessels, of which four are forward-based in the Persian Gulf. It is now known that these will not be directly replaced, but instead be substituted for autonomous clearing equipment. When this will occur, how the equipment will be deployed (perhaps from a ‘mother ship’) and the transition timeline – and whether there will be a ‘capability holiday’ – is still opaque. Given that the US currently has a constrained mine countermeasure capability, the latter point will be particularly critical.

A new nuclear opacity

The single most controversial measure contained in the IR was the decision to increase the ceiling of the UK nuclear warhead stockpile from the planned level of no more than 180 by the mid-2020s to a ceiling of 260. This was a reversal of a 2010 pledge. The number of operational warheads, and the number of Trident D5 missiles and warheads deployed on each submarine will also no longer be declared. Although not an area of detailed focus for the Defence Command Paper, it is inseparable from the central set of policy decisions.

The reasoning behind the warhead increase is opaque. While the UK Defence Secretary claimed a few days after the IR was published that advances in Russian anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology as part of the motivation, this came across as an explanation decided on after the fact. Some have claimed that the increase in warhead numbers is due to the future transition between warhead models. The UK has been lobbying the US to advance its W93 programme to build new weapons for the US Navy’s Trident missiles. It is expected that the next generation of British nuclear warhead will be based on the same design – including the new Mk7 aeroshell. Such close collaboration is well-established under the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defense Agreement and later deals to purchase Polaris and then Trident missiles. However, given the controversy this decision has created with regards to the UK’s commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the fact that no such reasoning was articulated to mitigate this make the explanation unlikely. Russia has already signalled that it wants UK nuclear weapons to feature in any future agreements to cut warhead numbers, an issue that will create a headache in Washington.

In truth, the reasoning is likely to be multi-layered. ABM technology will play a role, as Moscow – whose command centres and bunkers would likely be Trident’s primary target were the UK ever to fire its missiles in the most challenging of circumstances: an independent strike against Russia – will in future not only be protected by a dedicated ABM system, but also by multi-role aerospace defence missiles such as the S-500. The UK has faced dealing with Moscow’s defences before. During the 1970s, the British rejected a proposal to procure US Poseidon missiles, and with it the option of overwhelming the USSR’s missile defences with warhead numbers. Instead, the Chevaline system remodelled the ‘front end’ of the Polaris missile, removing one of the three warheads on each Polaris missile, adding a Penetration Aid Carrier with a set of decoys to draw off intercepting missiles, and hardening the remaining two warheads’ re-entry vehicles against interceptor attack. While Trident missiles have their own decoy system as standard, it may be that any additional warheads will seek to further overwhelm defences and advance the chances of a successful strike.

The other factor is likely to be a desire to improve resilience more broadly. While the current four ageing Vanguard-class SSBNs have been suffering from poor availability, the currently in-production Dreadnought-class may present a credible option for having more than one submarine on patrol at a time, hence a requirement for additional warheads. The sub-strategic role of the UK’s Trident missiles – a feature the US has recently adopted with the introduction of the low-yield W76-2 warhead – may also make having more than one launch platform available a desirable option. Improvements in hostile anti-submarine warfare capabilities may mean that SSBNs are no longer as immune from detection as is currently the case, further bolstering the case for additional resilience.

However, the simplest explanation is that it is a bluff designed to cause uncertainty for any hostile power. The UK cannot manufacture nuclear warheads quickly, so even a real shift in stockpile levels would take time. Taking it one step further and maintaining nuclear warhead levels at their present level would be straightforward. Related to the bluff hypothesis is that it may be seen as desirable to draw attention to the UK’s deterrent, and give the impression that it is something that is considered ‘usable’ rather than simply an anachronism gathering dust on a shelf. The reasoning behind this is that, as a result of the (at least temporary) reduction in the UK’s conventional warfighting capability, there are fewer rungs on the escalation ladder. Making Trident more credible may serve to improve perceptions of Britain’s limited options.

A gamble on presence and engagement

A key theme of the Defence Command Paper appears to be the sacrificing of high-end warfighting capability in exchange for a more forward-based persistent engagement and – where necessary – small-scale, short-duration ‘strategic raiding’. Essentially, there is a desire to leverage ‘grey zone’ tactics and allies and proxies to prevent situations spiralling into all-out conflict. This may be manageable for counterterrorism and other types of less ambitious intervention. However, for obvious reasons, this is a major gamble against a more capable opponent and perversely may provide an incentive for the UK’s enemies to escalate a given situation to a point beyond which the UK is equipped to handle. The question of ‘what follows?’ if and when such a presence proves inadequate is likely to become a theme of the 2020s.

Nevertheless, this persistent engagement provides some bright spots with the UK’s ground forces. The formation of a Security Assistance Brigade, mirroring the similar US formations, will consolidate earlier efforts to build allied capabilities. The creation of a Ranger Regiment within a new Special Forces brigade will be at the heart of a more forward posture which will see UK forces accompany state and non-state allies in combating key threats. Both should help to capitalise on the already deep relationship between UK and US training and Special Forces units. It should also help support the US in managing lower-tier threats outside of the Indo-Pacific.

Additionally, overseas UK bases such as those in Cyprus and Oman will see additional investment and, as already noted, the British Army’s presence in Estonia and Poland will be maintained. An enlarged 16 Air Assault Brigade will join with a combat aviation brigade to form a Global Response Force for worldwide rapid reaction tasking.

Naval forces have also benefited from the new emphasis on presence and engagement. Two Littoral Response Groups (LRGs) will be formed – the first in 2021 in the Euro-Atlantic region and the second in 2023 in the Indo-Pacific. These units will be chiefly used to deploy Royal Marine detachments in the form of the Future Commando Force and Special Forces. Initially, they will be based around a modified Bay-class landing ship and an Albion-class landing platform dock, before being replaced by Multi-Role Support Ships (which are illustrated as looking similar to the US Special Forces ship MV Ocean Trader).

Offshore patrol vessels will also be deployed to Gibraltar, the Falklands, the Caribbean and the Asia Pacific, with plans to replace some of them with Type 31 frigates later this decade, and Type 32s joining them in the 2030s. An overall increase in the UK’s frigate and destroyer force to 24 by the mid-2030s should ensure a substantial presence capability. Ultimately, it will be these ships and the LRGs, not the infrequent appearance of aircraft carriers, which will provide the British presence in regions such as the South China Sea and the main point of interaction with allies such as those within the Five Powers Defence Agreement.

To infinity – and beyond…

Both cyber and space receive a prominent billing within the paper. The nature of both realms means that details are sparse – and indeed, some have argued that this serves to help mask capability cuts. As well as the establishment of the National Cyber Force, with the MoD working in concert with GCHQ and the SIS, the UK will continue to seek defensive and offensive advantage against both state and non-state cyber actors and seek to establish codes of behaviour in the cyber realm. An offensive capability will be made available to NATO. Resilience against cyber attack will be improved, and every effort will be made to ensure that cyber is fully integrated with the other four domains.

However, it is perhaps in the space realm that the developments are of greatest note. Space Command will coordinate efforts to utilise space as a theatre of operations and counter disruption to space-based assets. The UK’s satellite communication network will receive investment in the form of the Skynet 6 programme, and Britain will develop an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellite constellation. A National Space Operations Centre will be established to facilitate situational awareness in space. A domestic launch capability is also planned for 2023.

Naturally, UK efforts in neither the cyber realm nor space will be able to match those of the US. However, British success would serve to reduce the burden on Washington’s forces, and by default provide a greater level of resilience to the West in general. Recent Russian cyber success against the US has demonstrated that no system is infallible, and additional centres of decision making and action will prove helpful given the multitude of challenges.


The critical US concern over UK forces will undoubtedly be their ability to bring mass to warfighting. Moreover, key qualitative capabilities, including ground-based air defences adequate for the protection of the homeland and deployed forces are not in the plans outlined so far. There is also no substantial movement in the missile defence realm.

However, for all of the issues the UK’s plans suffer, they also face many challenges in common with the US. The post-Cold War ‘investment holiday’ in state-on-state warfare capabilities has left shortfalls on both sides of the Atlantic, and critical questions remain to be resolved about to what extent emerging technology and operations in the grey zone can genuinely take the place of traditional ‘heavy metal’ systems. How these are answered in the context of wider world events is unlikely to be clear until the 2030s, by which point many of the critical events that will shape the remainder of the 21st Century – be they in the Indo-Pacific, Europe or the Middle East – may have already occurred with results not necessarily to the advantage of the West.

Image: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence V3.0

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.