Murphy's Law: Britain Weaponizes Innovation


May 5, 2021: In the 1990s European nations expected to save a lot of money by reducing defense spending. After all the major threat to Europe, the Soviet armed forces had quickly evaporated after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. For the last two decades, threats have been returning and only Britain and France maintained enough forces to deal with the new threats. The Americans were eager to get out of Europe. After 2014, when Russia declared the Cold War on again, Europe looked to Britain and France, and the largely departed Americans for some reassurance. Britain has been reorganizing its military and have come up some impressive ideas. This has been a British specialty during the 20 th Century. Britain came up with innovations like infantry mortars, tanks, commandoes and landing craft designs that made D-Day and the American amphibious war in the Pacific possible. There was much more and the innovations continued until the present.

Currently Britain has proposed a defense review that sounded impressive, but are they really going to walk the talk? Commissioned last year, the ‘2020 Integrated Review of Foreign Policy, Defense, Security and Development’ reported to Parliament in March. Back in November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson surprised most by revealing that the review would usher in a period of growth. This was on the back of an election promise in 2019 that his Conservative Party would protect the armed forces. Yet everyone had been expecting cuts. In truth, it’s a mixed bag. There are to be significant investments in cyber and space capabilities and there is a broader commitment to boost research in innovative and smart technologies. There is new money, with an overall increase (about 15 percent) in expenditure of $32 billion over the next four years. This itself represents a departure from most post war ‘reviews’, which have been all about cost cutting. These occur every ten years or so and the one for 2010 reduced budgets by 7.5 percent However, the butter is being spread very thinly here and there will be serious reductions in Britain’s conventional capabilities.

The upgrade to the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) fleet has been axed for example, and the Army’s manpower is to be reduced from 82,000 to 72,500. Actual current strength is only 76,500 anyway, due to recruitment difficulties. The Royal Airforce will lose its fleet of C130 Hercules transports in 2023, twelve years earlier than had been planned. Early retirement also beckons for 24 Typhoon fighters. The Royal Navy has been spared any headline cuts at this stage which is just as well, as the fleet barely has sufficient escorts to protect its much-vaunted 5th generation carriers, only one of which can be deployed at a time. Specific new capabilities will include ‘at least’ 48 F35B fighters, although the original program called for 138. Somehow, these need to cater for the navy’s needs, as well as those of the RAF (Royal Air Force). Development of the new Tempest fighter, to be fully integrated with swarm and unmanned technologies, will proceed. The idea is for low numbers of extremely high-tech manned aircraft, supported by unmanned drones, coordinated and self-managed through swarm software. But the Tempest has not yet been built, let alone flown. As a result, this project is at least a decade away from delivery.

Controversially, the United Kingdom (UK) is to raise its potential nuclear stockpile by 80 warheads, to a maximum of 260. With good reason, this last measure is shrouded in secrecy, and the word ‘potential’ should perhaps be emphasized here. It is a ceiling. This kind of ambiguity runs throughout the review and subsequent government announcements. There is discussion of force structures, but little detail on numbers. Nonetheless, the strategic themes which underpin the review are extremely ambitious. ‘Persistent engagement’ will mean more forward basing in places such as Kenya and Bahrain, the increased use of the military attaché network and even naval patrols in the South China Sea. Geographically and technically, the plan is for full spectrum capability.

What will it deliver? For the Army, certainly some re-organization. The loss of the Warrior track-based IFV’s might imply an increase in procurement of the German Boxer vehicles, which are wheel-based. Only 148 Challenger tanks are to be upgraded, reducing the Main Battle Tank inventory by 34 percent. That means the ability to deploy heavy formations will be constrained. The Army’s brigades are to be re-designed in order to provide more varied functionality and a new Ranger Brigade is to be created this year. The Army will be smaller, less able to deploy heavy units, but with increased cyber and smart capabilities and a more adaptable structure. The Airforce will lose some fast jets and a lot of transport capability, but there will be increased investment in unmanned technologies and the promise of a new fighter. The Navy might gain a different (tactical?) nuclear remit and will be expected to operate more globally. Finally, there will be a Space Command, to build capability in the fifth operational domain (joining cyber, air, sea and land). All of this is to be more closely integrated and will be able to draw on a more imaginative and broader research program. We will see.

There is a strong sense here of a tradeoff between traditional kinetic (bombs and bullets) capabilities and ‘smarter’ ones, notwithstanding the extra funds committed. Also, of faith being vested in future solutions, as yet unproven. The Review assumes Britain’s undoubted research strengths will give it a marked edge - but not right now. That is quite an assumption in any case, with rival states investing in research and non-state actors often able to access new technologies with surprising ease. Indeed, unmanned drones would be an example. Some of this does not really align with the strategic risk assessment that underpins the plan, which name checks real and immediate threats, notably Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The idea that the emergence of a new threat means that a more traditional threat will recede is obviously irrational. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t.

The unpalatable truth might be that Britain and her allies need real strength in all areas, but that a power of Britain’s size cannot be expected to deliver adequately everywhere. This review suggests Britain is aiming for more reach, geographically, technologically and across all five domains - but with less bang. As ever, ambition is in danger of outstripping capability. The Falklands War was triggered when Britain talked the talk about defending the islands but then announced more cuts to the navy. Allies, notably the United States, have worried for years that Britain risks falling below the critical mass necessary to provide genuine military support, rather than the totemic version. Jack of all trades, master of none? - - Andrew Mulholland




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