The United Kingdom currently maintains, in principle, the capability to delivery military effect on a global basis either independently or more regularly as part of a coalition. The ability to do so is in question, given the ongoing experience in the Afghanistan theatre, but there is currently the infrastructure in place to do so.
The question of ‘’can the UK continue to aspire to a leading military role in the world’’ depends on several factors:
Can we continue to provide the resources to field adequate military forces?
Can we maintain the broad range of capabilities required to operate independently when required?
Do we retain enough credibility to operate as a military force and be seen as leaders in the field?
Should we aspire to this?
It is first useful to address the question of whether we should aspire to retain this global influence. Our more recent experience has been the delivery of a small scale military effort, such as Operation Palliser, independently, but anything beyond that has been in partnership with other allies, either as part of NATO or other agreements.
Our ability to operate independently in the current climate depends on having permission to do so within the international community. Our small scale activities would not require this permission in most cases, although some may be very diplomatically sensitive, but medium scale upwards cannot exist in isolation and would include an international dimension. As members of the United Nations we are required to adhere to their principles, and as members of the European Union we are expected to work in concert with European Partners. The framework governing the former is well established, and whilst the latter is continuing to develop it would be politically and diplomatically damaging to act in a manner contrary to the opinions of our partners. It would seem likely that any future military operations must have at least the agreement of these, and other, relationships.
However any agreement to act in accordance with the prevailing view must be made with a recognition of the impact on our sovereign interests. There has to be some point at which the United Kingdom is prepared to walk away from these partnerships if the relationship is clearly damaging. These are strongly influenced by our bilateral relationships within these groups, most significantly in our relationship with the United States, and how these might influence the prevailing view. We position ourselves as a voice of authority in the UN, and we are deeply engaged within the EU as both a major funding contributor and a provider of significant numbers of staff to the machinery of European government. In both these cases acting in contravention of the prevailing view would be damaging to our interests, both diplomatically and economically. We would undermine our position within the UN and potentially find the economic benefits of EU membership seriously undermined. It seems unlikely that our interests would be served by undertaking independent action without agreement.
So we are unlikely to want to act independently at the medium scale, however as a leading member of NATO, the UN, and the EU we would be engaged in any military activities undertaken on behalf of one of these alliances. In this case would our interests be best served by taking a leading role, or by providing supporting capabilities under the direction of others. Our position in NATO, the UN and the EU is supported by our ability to lead significant military effort and it would not be in our diplomatic and political interests to take a subordinate role. It is more effective to lead, than allow our resources to be led by others.
From a moral perspective it is also reasonable to assert that by leading and influencing allied military efforts we are better able to ensure that these remain in accordance with our established foreign policy. It is possible to withdraw resources should direction not be in accordance with our wishes however it appears better to drive forward direction, in support of our preferences, than to trust this to others and be faced with extricating ourselves later.
An alternative view would be that it is in our best interests to disengage from military efforts in the world and instead focus on securing the UK and our interests. I do not see this as a viable argument, our economic interests are deeply enmeshed with other states, and we rely on others for energy security, food security and for the trade and commerce that allows us to grow as a nation. A retrenchment into UK security would be damaging politically, diplomatically and economically.
I would take the view that we are unlikely to have to act independently but we are likely to be militarily engaged with our partners, and we should aspire to leading and driving forward that military effort.
Can we aspire to this?
Moving on to the questions of whether we can, or not.
Our current economic position, from a national perspective, is weak. There is a need for significant savings to be made in government expenditure, and defence cannot be immune from that. Retaining the military capabilities that permit us to take leading roles in alliance forces is expensive, the capital costs are high and the operating costs are also high. Personnel are skilled and as a result are expensive to identify, recruit, train and retain. However the defence budget is in the mid-range of government expenditure, savings that we make are dwarfed by spending elsewhere in the public sector. While our defence budget is high in relation to our international partners it is still a fairly small component of national expenditure, roughly the same as our debt interest payments.
Making best use of the funding available requires us to consider the balance between quantity and capability. We could spend our money on high volume, lower cost capabilities or on low volume higher cost capabilities. However making the decision to move from the current system of high cost, lower volumes, towards a lower cost higher volume posture dilutes the niche capabilities that allow us to take a leading role. An example would be a decision to move away from advanced, high capability destroyers such as the Type 45 towards a corvette force more suited to coastal security. There is an argument that more platforms of the corvette type would allow us to maintain a greater presence and be more suited to the constabulary and security tasks that our current fleet is engaged in, however the much more capable T45 is still capable of carrying out these tasks and still being able to take on much more advanced tasks such as the protection of a high value target on a sea lane of communication. Personnel experienced in the T45 are also better prepared to take a leading role in an allied task group, being more adaptable and having a wider range of training.
We still need to balance capacity and capability, and the high technology, high capability fleet cannot provide the same numbers of either platforms or people. While we may have the best people to lead allied military activities we may not have enough of them to do so. So there is an argument for a rebalancing of the force structure to allow us to grow greater numbers of suitable personnel, whilst also giving the best of these the opportunities to develop the advanced warfighting skills needed for allied leadership; a corvette, destroyer mixed force.
Another point to consider, if we are unlikely to operate independently, would be whether we then wish to retain a broad spectrum of military capabilities or become reliant on an international partner for some elements. Our leading position is well supported by our expertise in niche areas of military capability; intelligence collection, special-forces operations, environmental sciences such as hydrography and geo-spatial intelligence. It could be argued that we should focus on these and rely on others for more commoditised services, such as strategic lift.
Our niche capabilities do not exist in isolation, they build on the more commoditised military activities that we undertake. Reducing capabilities in order to focus on the niche would instead undermine these, and would reduce our ability to undertake independent small scale operations.
To take on these positions of leadership we must also have credibility as a fighting force, we need to have credible and recognisable successes, and we need to demonstrate that we learn from our failure. Credibility also needs both capacity and capability. Credibility depends on the political will to provide clear direction and objectives, the people, equipment and logistics to deliver those objectives and the ability to clearly articulate their achievement. We are weak in this area at the moment, there is a lack of political clarity around the desired objectives of our current commitments and we are failing to communicate our successes.
To take on a leading military role in the world therefore, the UK is required to have the political will to do so, the political and military credibility to provide the people for that and the military infrastructure to support their placement in the allied command structure.
So the UK should aspire to have a leading military role in the world. It is in our interests politically and diplomatically to do so, we demonstrate our support to our alliances by doing so and we have the opportunity to influence our international partners, either in their delivery of capability or in their own approach to the practice of warfare.
To take on this position of military leadership within the international community we have to invest appropriately in our armed forces. At the moment we have a credible and capable set of military forces that have the capacity to support our aspirations, however our ability to continue to do this in future is in question.
We have two significant risks to our ability to claim credibility in the future. The first is the investment in defence. If we allow the loss of capabilities then we will lose our ability to take on a leadership role in the international military community. The second risk is our vulnerability to the lack of political will and clarity around our current objectives. Our ability to articulate our achievements is challenged by this lack of clarity, and an inability to do so undermines our arguments for investment. While we can take this on now and in the immediate future, there is a risk that disinvesting in key capabilities will undermine our ability to take this on in future.